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Two battle-weary women sat before the camp fire that was peaking it's way into a full blaze. They had successfully fought the small army of the minor warlord Kievston, and were now resting tired muscles after feasting on a full meal of roasted quail and potatoes and carrots-a gift from the townspeople that were slated for Kievston's next attack...the one that never materialized.
"Carrots!" exclaimed the reddish blonde haired girl as she eased back onto her elbows, gazing at the hypnotic flickers of warm light before her. "Do you realize how long it's been since we've eaten a carrot?"
"Mmmm," replied the dark haired, leather-clad warrior princess sitting next to her on the large blanket. "No. How long?" she asked while covering a large yawn with her hand.
"Well," stammered the red blonde, "I don't know exactly how long, but it's been a while, and they tasted great! Forgot how much I love carrots."
"Yup," replied the princess sleepily. "Kick a warlord's butt, regress his army, eat a few carrots...it's been a full day."
The women smiled, sharing a companionable silence as they watched the blue, yellow and orange flames dance over dark pieces of cedar and pine.
"Hey," said the warrior finally, glancing at her friend, "you fought very well today. Your skills are really improving. I'm impressed."
"Thanks," replied the girl as a proud smile crept over her lips. "I'm feeling more and more comfortable with my staff, but, I must admit, I wouldn't mind if I took a break from it for a few days. There were some times where it got pretty intense today."
The smile dropped from her lips as a sharp, burning pain in her side reminded her of the battle-wound she had endured as the day's "trophy" from the fight.
"Gabrielle," Xena said, turning from the fire to focus on the girl. "Did you get hurt today?"
"Ah, well ya know, just a few cuts and bruises here and there, nothing major," Gabrielle said, trying to stifle the burning pain that was now jetting up and down the left side of her ribcage.
Xena wasn't buying it. She trained her most determined gaze on the girl and waited for her to fess up to her wounds. "I'm fine, Xena," she said emphatically but was starting to squirm under the warrior's stare.
"C'mon Gabrielle," the larger, older woman said, narrowing her eyes at the red-haired girl.
"What is that you are the worst liar in the known world. I can tell by your body language that it's something beyond the usual cuts and bruises. Now you've got about ten seconds to tell me where you hurt."
"And if I don't?" Gabrielle asked in a tone of mocked bravery.
"Then you'll have a whole new pain to describe to me, won't you?"
"Oh." Gabrielle answered flatly. Then gulped. "Okay, okay. It's my ribs," she said while placing a hand up to her side. "I took a pretty hard hit from some soldier that was hiding in the brush. Before I saw him he'd hit me from behind with his club," Gabrielle paused and looked up at worried blue eyes. "Hey, they're probably just bruised-"
"Or broken," Xena interjected. "Let me have a look," she said, moving closer to Gabrielle on the blanket.
Gabrielle began to open her mouth to protest, but thought better of it, instead lying back for her friend's examination.
Xena placed cool hands on the girl's ribcage and began to slowly, gently, poke, prod and manipulate bones with her fingers.
"Where does it hurt?"
"Mostly-ow-right there, and -ow, there. Kinda the whole area really."
Xena loosened Gabrielle's top and moved her fingers up the left side of the bard's ribcage. Pain shot around the girl's midsection as she touched her.
"You've fractured at least three ribs," Xena stated. "I can tell by the way the bones move. There's also a lot of swelling along your side and across your back too. He cracked you pretty good, eh?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle admitted. "But I took care of him," she didn't hesitate to add. "He may have cracked my ribs, but he ended up with my staff against his noggin."
"Took him out," Xena smiled, impressed that her friend could, not only fight well, but fight well through pain. "Good. But this injury will take you out for a while as well," she said, completing her exam and re-adjusting her young patient's top for her. "We'll need to get some cold compresses on you to reduce that swelling. After that it'll be a matter of you not moving around too much and giving those bones time to heal."
"Not moving around too much? What exactly does that mean? Can't you just wrap my ribs and we can do what we usually do-"
"No Gabrielle. People do wrap broken ribs sometimes, but it's really not a good idea. It inhibits your breathing and that keeps the bones from healing. Plus, it could lead into pneumonia, and you don't want that."
"Yeah, but Xena I can still travel and-"
"Not for a couple of days you can't," Xena said, cutting her protesting friend off again. "We've been running into a lot of fights lately and I don't want to take any chances. With broken bones, you're not at full capacity. That could be dangerous for both of us."
Gabrielle slumped over on her blanket. She knew the warrior liked to keep up her frenetic trademark travel pace and Gabrielle's injury would slow her down. Not that she hadn't slowed down before when one of them was hurt. She was a competent healer and understood the value of rest when necessary. However, broken ribs were not a concussion, open wound or raging fever. It was important to her that Xena knew she was tough and could keep up with her. Besides, the girl feared if she slowed her down too much, Xena may decide to return her to Poteideia to recover. And, even though they had been companions for many months, a nagging, recurrent phobia of the warrior abandoning her persisted.
"Xena," the bard said softly.
"Yeah?" Xena had moved over to the fire and was stoking its contents with a large stick.
"It doesn't really hurt that bad, you know, and I-"
"Gabrielle," Xena, once again, interjected.
"Yes?" the girl answered, meekly looking up to meet the warrior's stern gaze.
"You're going to stay put for a while. End of discussion. I'm going down to the stream to soak some rags for cold compresses. I'll bring some water up to steep you a medicinal tea that'll ease the pain. And don't look at me that way, because I know you're in pain."
Before Gabrielle could respond, Xena stood and scurried off in the direction of the stream just south of their campfire. 'Fine,' the girl murmured to herself. 'I just hope that means she'll stay put with me,' she thought. Xena had seemed agitated and uncomfortable in this territory and had kept them steadily moving through it. She wasn't sure if the warrior's agitation came from bad memories of the land, or from no memories of it. Xena often got agitated while traveling through unknown areas. Although, it seemed to Gabrielle, that they found themselves in more trouble when they visited areas Xena had traveled before, than when they went to places where people did not know her. Her reputation did not follow.
Either way, Gabrielle knew she wouldn't want to stay here long.
When Xena returned to the campsite, Gabrielle was absorbed in her ponderings. "Hey," she said, slightly startling her companion.
"Oh, hey," Gabrielle said as she took the cold, water-soaked rags Xena was offering.
"Go ahead and lie back," the tall, raven-haired warrior instructed as she helped her young patient place the cold compresses in the appropriate places along her injured ribs. "You've got some bruising starting along your back. These will help keep the swelling down."
"Thanks, Xena," the bard said softly as the warrior rummaged through her medicine bag, looking for the healing herbs she'd need to make a tea for Gabrielle.
After a few minutes the water was boiling, and Xena placed the leaves and the hot water in a tin cup to steep. When it had cooled enough for Gabrielle to drink, she walked back over to the girl and handed her the cup.
"This won't taste great, but it'll help. Here."
Gabrielle sat up on her blanket and took the proffered cup. She placed it to her lips and took a small swallow. Instantly her face contorted into a large grimace. "Xena...it's...horrible," she stammered.
The warrior smiled and muffled a chuckle. "I know. But that's what you get for getting your ribs cracked. Now drink it. It'll help, trust me."
"Yeah, yeah, trust you, you're a warrior princess, I know, I've heard it all before," the young bard rolled her eyes teasingly and then stared down at the horrid healing herb drink in her hands. "Uucchh."
Xena reached a hand down and tousled the red-blonde hair. "Just drink it, Gabrielle," she said as she stood and walked over to brush and feed Argo.
When she returned, Gabrielle had finished almost all of the tea and was dozing softly on the blanket. The cold compresses had slipped down from their place around her ribcage. Xena let the girl sleep as she cleaned up their cooking gear and readied herself for bed. She then quietly took the compresses that had slid off the bard's body, and went to the steam one more time to re-soak them. Gabrielle did not stir. The 'horrible' tea had done its work and Xena surmised that the girl would be out for the night.
With springwater- cold, wet compresses in hand, Xena knelt by Gabrielle's side and placed the rags along the girl's injured ribcage. With the feel of the cold wetness against her skin, Gabrielle's eyes flew open as she sharply sucked in a gasp of air.
"Eewww, that's cold!" she pronounced, starting to sit up.
"No, no," commanded Xena while placing a firm hand on the girl's shoulder, pushing her back down. "Lie back, don't move too much yet. You've already been up too much as it is, Gabrielle. You really should've told me you were injured before, you know. If I don't know you're hurting, I can't help," she said with a hint of anger, a touch of hurt in her voice. When Gabrielle was on her back again, Xena looked her squarely in the eyes. "Why didn't you tell me you were hurt Gabrielle?"
"I, well, I don't..know.." she trailed off, lowering her eyes from the warrior's.
"Gabrielle," the warrior stated, gently but firmly grabbing the bard's chin and drawing her gaze back up to meet her own.
"I didn't think it was that bad, really, and, I don't know, I wasn't bleeding or anything, and I didn't want to complain or slow us down, or make you think I was a wimp and couldn't handle it because I can, and I really think I could travel tomorrow if I just rest and keep the cold compress-"
"Gabrielle," the warrior said sharply, cutting off the girl's ramblings. Gabrielle stopped talking suddenly and looked up to meet Xena's icy blue eyes.
"First of all, you don't have to bleed to be hurt. Some of the worst injuries are internal and you can't see them on the outside. That's what pain is for. It tells you what's going on inside your body. It shows you what's wrong and what needs attention. It communicates to you, and then you are supposed to communicate that to me. That's part of being together, Gabrielle. You tell me where you hurt. Then, I can help. We help each other that way." Xena carefully pronounced each word, loud and clear, hoping that her young, and oftentimes overly sensitive companion would understand. The girl just looked at Xena, her tone too strong for Gabrielle to respond just yet.
"Secondly, you are not a wimp. You are strong, sometimes stronger than me even. I would never think otherwise of you. You're brave and you're tough and you're my best friend and I always want you by my side. So, damnit, you tell me when you're hurt! Don't ever hide that from me!" she finished with her hands wrapped tight around Gabrielle's shoulders, shaking the girl slightly for emphasis.
As Xena spoke, Gabrielle could see a fire burning in the usually blue, calm eyes. There was something there that told Gabrielle that she need not worry about Xena abandoning her. And when Xena called her her 'best friend,' and wanting her by her side, well, that pretty much clenched it, as far as Gabrielle was concerned.
"Xena, I'm sorry. I really am," the bard said to her friend who had finally released her grip on the girl's shoulders. "You're right, I shouldn't have tried to hide my injury. If the situation was reversed, I'd want to know if you were hurt, it's just that you're always so stoic about your injuries. I wanted you to know I can be stoic about mine too. And, well... I guess I didn't want you to leave me behind." Gabrielle said the last part so softly that the warrior almost didn't hear it. Almost.
The leather-clad woman sat next to the bard, gazing at the fire for a few moments before she took a deep breath, and responded to her friend. "Gabrielle, sometimes being stoic isn't the best thing to do. I've hidden my pain a long time because I had to. When I was leading my army, I couldn't show weakness to the men. I had to fight through the pain because we were conquerors. It's what our life demanded." The woman's gaze towards the fire was more beyond it than at it, as if looking through the flames to see the years she left behind her. Images of her past came in glimpses through the searing flickers of the firelight. Pride, tragedy, devastation, pain and, most of all, ultimate loneliness played out before her, the memories leaving nothing but an aching space in her heart. "No," she said softly, turning her gaze from the fire and the past to her friend sitting beside her. "No, Gabrielle, it's much, much better for you to, for us to let one another know when we are hurt. That way," she added, more for herself than the bard, more for her heart than any physical wound, "we can heal properly."
Gabrielle was quiet as Xena spoke. Marveling at, not only the emotion behind the warrior woman's words, but the number of the words she used at one time. It was unusual for her to go into much detail about anything, and when it came to her past or her feelings, she was especially mum. Gabrielle simply listened and inwardly smiled, relishing Xena's voice, taking in her words and tucking them away in her mind to replay them sometime in the future when the warrior had returned to her usual less expressive mood.
"Oh, and Gabrielle," Xena stated while turning to look directly at the bard. True, the warrior of few words was tired from talking, but there was just one more thing that needed to be said. "As for me 'leaving you behind,' there's not a chance in Hades of that happening. Now, or ever. 'Fraid you're stuck with me, kiddo."
And with that, Xena abruptly stood and walked away from the campsite, away-for the moment-from Gabrielle. Sharing her feelings always wore Xena out and she often needed to be alone for some time afterwards. Plus, she wanted to let Gabrielle ponder what she had said, hoping that the girl would realize how utterly important her life was to Xena. How much she wanted her healthy and happy, and with her. Not being the most affectionate person around (although, perhaps the most affectionate warrior in the land), Xena had trouble expressing how much her relationship with Gabrielle meant to her. She was, after all, a woman of few words. The actions of her life, however, had come to revolve around the young bard, and she only hoped the girl would use her perceptiveness to see that.
She hoped that the fact that she always placed her own body in front of Gabrielle's when a fight ensued showed the girl her affection. She hoped the way she always gave her the larger portion of their food, made sure she had both blankets on cold nights, and tended her wounds when she was hurt would reveal her love for the silly little bard whom she would gladly give her life for.
Perhaps that was why it hurt when Gabrielle would not tell Xena about her injury. True, broken ribs were not the most serious of wounds. They would heal and she would soon be up and about again. But, caring for the girl's infirmities was one of the most intimate ways Xena communicated her feelings. While it was the hardest thing in the world for the proud warrior to say 'yes, you're my best friend and I love you,' she could easily set the girl's bones, stitch her wounds, or place cold compresses on her bruises. Contusions and hemorrhages she could handle. Words and affection, well, that was considerably harder. She depended on Gabrielle to come through in that department and hoped that their different ways would balance them out in the long run.
Back at the campsite, Gabrielle simply smiled contentedly at the stars. A big, sloppy grin covered her face. The bard of many words suddenly had only two that came to mind, summed up her mood, her life. Happiness and Xena.
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