Gabrielle walked down the street to her dorm room, hands in her pockets and head down against the wind. Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed one of the huge banners that hung down from the archway of the Stratis University stadium. “LET’S GO GLADIATORS” it proclaimed in large capital letters, and Gabrielle decided definitively that she’d never go to a football game; crowds and raucous noise just weren’t her thing, and a big, intimidating mascot like a gladiator made her even more wary of sporting events. She was close enough to see her dorm now, and she focused on it instead of the huge building behind her. What she didn’t notice was the group of football players that had emerged from the archway, and had trained their sights on her.
Agile for men of their size, they increased their pace until they had nearly caught up with her, then finally one of them loosed a cry, “hey, baby! What are you doing tonight?”
She winced, fighting the urges to run or turn around. Just act normal, she told herself, they’ll go away. Her plan immediately displayed signs of failure when the three men quickened their paces.
“Hey, I’m talking to you!” A different one shouted, “you don’t have to be so rude!”
Gabrielle’s heart raced and she started walking faster, fear creeping into her mind.
“Slow down, beautiful, I’m just trying to talk to you!” The snickers of the jocks, now in hot pursuit, made it clear that that was not at all their intention. Her flight response foiled, she decided it was time to fight.
She stopped dead in her tracks and whirled around to face them. “Leave me alone!” she growled, scowling but trembling with fear, hoping she sounded tougher than she felt. Any hope she had of fighting them off disappeared when she finally saw her pursuers: They all stood at at least six feet tall, a massive advantage compared to her five foot four inches. As if that weren’t enough, they were all enormously muscular- clearly members of the football team.
They surrounded her, reeking of sweat and whatever cologne they had tried to use to cover it. Sneering at her, the largest of them stepping forward towards her. “You know, I’ll forgive you for walking away- gave me more time to... appreciate your beauty.” He smirked at the other two players, “if you know what I mean.”
Her blood boiled with rage as the men chuckled but any actions were stilled by fear; she didn’t know what they had in mind and was certain that whatever it was, there was nothing she could do about it.
“Don’t look so nervous”, the seemingly more extroverted one said, “we don’t want to hurt you.” He looked her up and down. “But by the looks of you this might hurt. Tell me, sweetheart: have you ever had a big-”.
His words were cut off as something slammed into his face out of nowhere, making his nose bleed and his eyes water.
“Shit, man!” his goons yelled, “what the fuck was that?” Gabrielle flinched, dazed but wondering the same thing, and looked at the object at her feet: a soccer ball.
She looked over her shoulder in the direction from which the ball had come, and she saw a woman sprinting headlong towards her. Within seconds she was by her side and Gabrielle got a closer look.
She was tall, very tall, like an Amazon of ancient myth, and her skin was tan, as if she spent all her time in the sun. Her dark hair cascaded down her back, straight-across bangs covering her forehead, and in a gold-coloured tank top and shorts, her well-muscled arms and legs were exposed. Her powerful stance made Gabrielle feel incredibly small, and she instinctively shuffled behind the strange woman who seemed poised to protect her. She was a striking figure, emphasized by her pale blue eyes, directed coldly at the three football players.
“What the hell, lady?” the tallest player cried, shocked.
As she spoke, her words were slow and deliberate, as if she were disguising an accent, as well as coated with irony. “I’m terribly sorry. I was just practicing my shot on the pitch down there.” She jerked her head to the left without breaking eye contact. “You know how windy it’s been lately. I overshot and the wind just carried it even further up. How unfortunate it was for you to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Gabrielle was almost certain that her words had nothing to do with the jock’s position in the parking lot.
The men stared at the woman, trying to disguise the fear in their eyes.
She continued, “you all seem rather tense. Did I interrupt something?” Looking directly at Gabrielle, she said in the same manner, “are they giving you any trouble?”
“No!” The man with the bloodied nose interjected, “no trouble at all!” She turned her steely gaze back towards him,”I hoped not. You’d better go on to wherever you’re supposed to be. This won’t happen again.”
The men, shaking their heads, dashed off, walking quickly and not looking back. The woman smirked then turned to look at Gabrielle, her once-frightening stare now turned warm. “Are you alright?” she asked, putting a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. She nodded, still in shock, and handed the woman her soccer ball in an almost robotic fashion.
“Thank you,” she smiled, taking it and tucking it under one arm, “where do you live? I can walk you home if you like?” Gabrielle pointed at her dorm and nodded.
“That’s not far at all,” the woman said brightly, and she began walking. Gabrielle’s thoughts raced wildly around in her mind, and she took a moment to look at the soccer pitch to confirm what she had suspected: there was no goal on the side of the field parallel to the parking lot. The shot had taken tremendous power and aim, and was 100 percent deliberate.
Upon arriving at the door to her dorm, she opened it and stepped into the room, but before she could close it, the woman asked, “what’s your name?”
She looked up to meet the woman’s eyes, which seemed brighter now that she wasn’t angry.
“Gabrielle,” she responded, “what’s yours?”
Smiling, the woman held out her hand, “my name is Xena.” Gabrielle took it, a strange sensation fluttering in her stomach.
“If you ever need me, just ask. I’m always around.” Gabrielle nodded, shutting the door. She exhaled and then tried to process what had just happened to her, but to no avail. She was only able to entertain one thought, and she did so over and over, speaking it in her mind: Xena.
The door clicked shut and Xena closed her eyes slowly, then reopened them, resetting her mind. She turned and walked down the hall of the dorms, feeling nostalgic as she passed bulletin boards covered with flyers announcing upcoming events as well as a handwritten sign on notebook paper: “DO NOT THROW MARSHMALLOWS FROM BALCONIES”. She chuckled internally at the oddly specific warning, certain that a fantastic story had made the signage necessary. It had been over a year since she had lived in a dorm, and she found herself missing the strange comradeship she had felt with those who had lived on her hall.
Descending the steps, she thought about her new acquaintance- although somehow she didn’t seem very new. She felt as if they’d met before, or she’d seen her in passing. No, it was something more than that- perhaps she knew her when she was very young.
“Gabrielle,” she whispered aloud, pondering why she seemed so familiar. Deciding upon an odd spell of déja vu, she dismissed the thought. Her blood suddenly boiled when she recalled the circumstances of their meeting. Those three meatheads were constantly harassing freshmen. She was confident they’d get what was coming to them soon enough though- and if they didn’t, she wasn’t afraid to dish out a little karmic justice herself.
Xena had been watching the road ever since Gabrielle had appeared. She had sensed danger- just that feeling she got when something bad was about to happen. The soccer ball to the face was the only thing she could think to do from such a great distance. Her skin heated up and her pace inadvertently quickened when she thought of what might have happened if she hadn’t been nearby.
Those men are scum, she thought furiously, they don’t even deserve to be called men.
The wind picked up and rubbed uncomfortably against her skin, making her shiver. Maybe it was a bad call not to bring a jacket.
“Hey there, princess!” A voice called from across the street, “need a ride?”
Xena rolled her eyes, irritated. She’d recognise that voice anywhere, and no matter where she heard it, she wished she hadn’t. Aaron.
“Don’t call me princess!” she snapped, glaring in the direction of the unwelcome call, “if you can fathom the concept, I don’t need your help. I don’t even want you around!”
Aaron sat in his car, a black mustang with silver flames painted on the side- one of the tackiest vehicles Xena had ever seen. His hair was long, dark, and thick, slicked back with god-knows-how-much hair product. His new accessory appeared to be a goatee, the sort you’d expect from a high school gym teacher, making his jaw seem unnaturally square.
“Oh, come on!” he whined, feigning innocence, “who wouldn’t want this around?” He stuck his arm out the window and flexed, his muscles rippling, exposed by his sleeveless shirt.
Xena’s lip curled in disgust,”anyone who’s ever actually spoken to you. Now beat it! Don’t you have a football game to get to or something?”
“You remembered,” he smirked.
She returned his confident stare,“only because I had to beat up on some of your gallant Gladiator brothers for harassment before they packed up and left. Better guard your wide receiver extra well- wouldn’t want his ego to get any more bruised.”
Aaron’s steady gaze faltered and he scowled, flustered, and sped off, revving his engine loudly.
Pleased with herself, Xena mounted her own vehicle, a motorcycle she’d fixed up herself and lovingly nicknamed Argo. She sped off towards her own apartment, and as she raced down the road, she let her mind wander.
Without trying to, she found herself thinking of Gabrielle again, her small stature, long blonde hair, and bright greenish-blue eyes. She had a good face- a kind face- the sort of face that beamed out love and empathy. After a full drive’s reflection, Xena ultimately determined that Gabrielle must be the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen.
Gabrielle sat down in the enormous lecture hall, equipped to fit two hundred people. However, only about seventy of the two hundred seats were occupied, and she had chosen a spot near the front- an action she regretted considering that the closest person to her was ten seats away and the next closest person to the front was two rows back.
The professor entered, loudly announcing “welcome to English Literature 101! Today we’ll be discussing the importance of setting in a piece of literature. Now, can anybody tell me…?”
He talked for two hours, only stopping to call on a student with an answer to a question. That student was often Gabrielle, who (although she was far too humble to admit it) was very smart, and particularly gifted in English and Literature classes.
At the end of class, she stood up and trudged out the door, yawning. She’d been up particularly late that night for reasons she couldn’t quite explain. It was just one of those restless evenings where she couldn’t quite get comfortable; something just felt off. Checking her watch, she realised that it was only nine o’clock in the morning and she had to find something to do with herself for the rest of the day.
I guess what I really should do is study, she thought to herself, but that’s not any way to spend an entire day. She stepped out into the hallway and turned towards the exit. I think I saw a bookshop on the way here. Maybe I can pop in and look for something interesting.She would have given her plans for the day more thought, but out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of long, dark hair. Her body seemed to be working on autopilot as her heart skipped a beat.
“Xena!” she exclaimed, reaching out and grabbing the tall athlete’s arm, almost on instinct. Xena jumped and turned her head to see who had pounced on her, looking confused. Gabrielle anxiously awaited her secondary reaction, praying internally for something positive.
“Oh, Gabrielle, it’s you,” Xena grinned warmly, turning the rest of her body to face her.
Gabrielle’s cheeks burned as she realized that she had no real reason for stealing her attention in the middle of the hall.
“I- uh, what I mean to say is…” Face to face with Xena’s intense blue eyes and striking features, Gabrielle suddenly felt intimidated and shy, characteristics that rarely entered the stage in her social interactions.
“I was just heading out to the bookstore,” Xena said, looking slightly confused, “I have some time to kill and maybe you’d-”
“You’ve got to take me with you!” Gabrielle cut her off.
Xena looked surprised but her facial expression soon returned to its usual neutral, collected state.
Ugh, that was awful! Xena’s gonna think I’m insane! “That sounded like an order,” Gabrielle sighed, embarrassed, “it wasn’t; I just… I was thinking of going anyway but I don’t have my own car and the bus is a little pricey to be riding it all the time but it’s a little too chilly to walk the whole way so I just-”
Xena held up her hand and chuckled, “what makes you think I have a car?”
Before she knew it, Gabrielle was standing in front of a silver-and-gold motorcycle as Xena adjusted her helmet.
“There we go, that should fit you now,” she smiled, making Gabrielle smile back. “Now, once I get on, you get on behind me and hold on tight, got it?”
“Got it.” I can’t believe I’m doing this, she thought to herself, I’ve just met this person yesterday and here I am getting ready to hop on the back of her motorcycle just because I-I…
As a matter of fact, she didn’t know why she trusted Xena so implicitly. Her feelings swam around so much inside her head that she couldn’t place them at all. How did she feel towards Xena? In a strange way, she wanted to be just like her; she seemed so strong and confident and independent. But there was something else there, something she couldn’t quite place yet.
She shivered through her sweater and tried to play it off as nothing, but within seconds Xena’s brown leather jacket was around her shoulders. “Oh no, Xena,” she protested, “you really don’t have to do this!”
“It’s alright,” Xena responded, “if you’re shivering now, you’ll really shiver once we get moving. I’ll be fine.” Gabrielle put her arms through the sleeves of the jacket. It was too big for her. She stared at the black t-shirt and jeans that were all Xena had left to keep her warm.
“Okay,” Xena sighed, mounting the motorcycle,”ready?” Gabrielle nodded and pressed against her, wrapping her arms around her waist. She heard the engine start and felt the bike start to vibrate, then they were off, speeding up the road to the store.
Xena’s heart beat fast as she drove. With Gabrielle’s arms around her waist she found it difficult to concentrate on the road. A thousand different ideas raced through her mind; being so close to Gabrielle felt so good.
I could pretend to miss a turn, she plotted internally, that would make this last longer. Guilt instantly stung her and she dismissed the idea, no, that would only be taking advantage of the situation. After all, I want her to trust me.
They rounded the final corner and Xena slowed to a stop, parallel parked on the side of the road between two SUV’s that took up so much space another car couldn’t have fit into the spot between them. The street was on the outskirts of the city, but the setup of small independent restaurants, stores, art galleries, and bookshops was the same as a more central location- and a third less expensive to live in. The bookstore that Xena intended to enter was across the street from the parking space she’d obtained by a stroke of sheer luck, and she dismounted the motorcycle to see if Gabrielle needed any help.
“How’re you holding up? Ride a little much for you?”
To her pleasure, Gabrielle grinned widely and chirped, “that was great! Not nearly as rough as I thought it’d be- but maybe you’re just a good driver.”
Grinning sheepishly, Xena expressed her relief that Gabrielle hadn’t been horribly uncomfortable the whole way there. She watched her unclip her helmet and set it on the motorcycle’s handlebars delicately, as if it wasn’t designed to take a beating. Amused, the corners of Xena’s lips turned up in a subtle smile not meant for anyone else to see.
“Okay,” Gabrielle said, her hands on her hips and her voice full of enthusiasm, “where are we going?”
“Just across the street,” Xena responded, gesturing with a small head nod, “to that little place called Muses.”
The bookshop didn’t have a flashy storefront, just old brick with a small sign on the window that said “Muses” in fancy cursive and a flip sign on the door that informed passers-by that the store was open.
Walking across the street with Gabrielle in front of her, Xena couldn’t help but notice how small she looked wearing the big brown leather jacket. The sleeves were too long and the shoulders too broad, but it was somehow endearing. I almost don’t want her to take it off, Xena thought as they entered the store, triggering a small bell hanging above the door.
Full of purpose, Xena strode into the poetry section of the shop, glancing at Gabrielle as she wandered towards Fiction.
Rifling through the books on the one shelf set aside for poetry, Xena found what she was looking for. She flipped quickly through the pages and copied the poem she’d read so many times before, unsure of why it meant so much to her until now. She spent a long time flipping through the pages of the worn old book, whose words seemed to have entirely new meaning for her now.
Suddenly, Gabrielle appeared behind her, carrying about five books. “Whatcha looking at?” she piped, making Xena jump.
“Uh- nothing,” she stammered, shutting the book and blushing, “just needed to make sure I had my facts straight on something.”
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow; clearly she was making no attempts to hide her feelings of skepticism. It even came out in her voice as she snaked her neck around to look at the title of Xena’s book, “you had to fact-check something from the poetry of… Sappho? Wow, Xena,” she chuckled, “I thought you said this was for school?”
Gritting her teeth with embarrassment, Xena quickly retorted, “it is!”
“Seriously?” Gabrielle asked, “what’s your major?”
This was a question whose answer would almost certainly satisfy any skeptic. “I’m a double major, actually. Political Science and Classical Greek Language and Literature. We discuss Sappho fairly frequently when we talk about the great Greek poets.”
Gabrielle looked shocked, giving Xena a feeling of intense satisfaction. “Well, how about you?” she probed Gabrielle, “what’s your intended major?”
She watched the short blonde’s eyes light up as she eagerly answered, “Creative Writing. I just love telling stories. They make people so happy and you can teach so much through stories, probably more than you can through lectures. People just seem to get it when they connect to a story.”
Slightly confused, Xena asked “get what?”
“We can all relate to a story one way or another. We’re all the same- we’re… connected.”
Gabrielle just radiated joy as she spoke. Taken aback by the purity of joy in her eyes, Xena swore to herself that she would protect her, protect that joy that made Gabrielle so radiant. Snapping back to the present and realising that she should probably respond, Xena just laughed affectionately and put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders, “alright, Joseph Campbell,” she chuckled, “let’s go check out- that stack of books you’ve got is on me.”
When they got to the checkout line, the cashier gave them some bad news: “there’s a pretty rough storm coming,” she said, “won’t let up till about three tomorrow morning. Crazy wind, rain, lightning, thunder- the whole nine yards.”
“Oh no!” Gabrielle exclaimed, disappointed, “my dorm is so far and we don’t even have a car! Xena what should we-?”
Xena cut her off, staring straight ahead, “it’s alright.” She had hoped that she wouldn’t have had to disclose this information yet, but she finally admitted, “my apartment’s right upstairs. If I go park my bike in a garage quickly, you can stay with me… at least until the storm lets up.”
Once again, Gabrielle looked shocked. “Oh… Okay,” she stammered, seemingly nervous.
She’s wondering whether or not she can trust me, Xena read her expression instantly, and she can. Now I’ve just got to convince her.
“There’s a pull-out couch in the living room,” she offered, “you can sleep there.”
Gabrielle looked more comfortable and agreed almost immediately. Letting Gabrielle go into the apartment ahead of her, Xena put her motorcycle in a nearby parking garage and slipped into the apartment just before the onset of the storm.
She set up the living-room couch and made sure Gabrielle was settled in, then got ready for bed herself.
She slept easier than she had the night before, lulled by the sounds of the storm outside. Her slumber was only interrupted once, when Gabrielle entered her room in the middle of the night, seemingly on a whim, and whispered, “Xena! What was that poem you were reading? What did it say?”
Half-asleep, Xena breathed, “I can’t remember right now. Go back to bed; I’ll tell you in the morning.”
She had lied, but she had done it to protect Gabrielle. There wasn’t anything wrong with that, was there? The sound of her footsteps leaving the room and the creak of her weight settling on the couch ensured Xena that she couldn’t be overheard, and she recited the poem quietly to herself, at barely a whisper:
“There’s a moment when I look at you
And no speech is left in me
My tongue breaks
Then fire races under my skin
And I tremble
And grow pale
For I am dying of such love
Or so it seems to me"
Gabrielle didn’t need to know that. Not just yet.