Herculean Instincts:
An Alternative to "Bitter Suite"

By atara

Copyright (c) 1998

First of all, this story contains spoilers for "Maternal Instincts," big ones. I haven't seen "Bitter Suite" as of the date of writing this, but from what I've heard, some stuff happens that strikes me as way out of character, at least out of *my* reading of Xena's character. I've been fairly obsessive about this, and I had to write my own version of the aftermath to "Maternal Instincts." It's rated PG-13. It is *not* in the same continuity as any of my other Xena stories. The characters are the
property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures, and I'll admit I'm temporarily appropriating them to do what I consider necessary repair work. The gray blur comes from Toni Morrison's _Sula_, adapted here for my purposes. I wish I'd thought of it myself.


After the funeral of Solan and Hope, Xena walked away, away from her son, away from Gabrielle, shaking with a raging grief and a cold fury. She leapt onto Argo, urging him to a gallop, until she had to allow him to slow on a winding mountain trail. She went to a retreat that Gabrielle wouldn't
know about, a small cave near a meadow and stream, where Argo could graze and drink. She knew the horse wouldn't wander off.

She spent the night sitting, her back against the cave wall, staring straight ahead of her. Her chest ached, as if a knot inside it was growing into a huge and tangled ball. She thought of those few moments with Solan, of the way he looked up to her and smiled with admiration. They had made a
genuine connection, and now he was gone. Occasionally, the image of Gabrielle's face came to her, looking up stricken from the body of Hope, but Xena shook off that image angrily. She envisioned herself raining down slaps on Gabrielle's face, punishing her relentlessly for her stupidity.

After a while, her grief overwhelmed her, along with a mounting panic at the thought that Solan was no longer in the world. She was battered with great, wrenching sobs that left her gasping for breath. Wracked with hysterical energy and a devouring ache in her chest, she flung her chakram
at the opposite wall of the cave. It richocheted madly about the cave, until she instinctively caught it, and flung it again, all the while with tears pouring from her eyes.

After what seemed like hours of agony, she fell asleep. She woke up in the middle of morning, drowsily rolling over and reaching for a comfortable presence beside her, when suddenly memory ripped open a hole in her chest and smashed an iron-heavy weight into the opening. She sat up in a
panic--Solan was gone, gone forever. She'd never see him again, never see him grow up. She began crying again, although her eyes already ached from the night before, and her head pounded. At the periphery of her vision, there hung a kind of blur, seemingly tugging at her attention, as though she'd forgotten something, but it eluded her, when she turned her head, her sight blurry with tears. It didn't enter her conscious mind that her separation from Gabrielle was contributing to her sense of panic, that waking up without her closest companion was devastating her almost as much
as her grief for her son.

Through an effort of will, she finally calmed herself enough to check on Argo and hunt for something to eat. She took Argo for a long pounding ride, but it did nothing to dissipate the ache in her chest. She sobbed much of the night, and each morning she awoke the same way. A moment of
blissful forgetfulness, and the crushing weight of memory's return. And always that gray blur hovering just out of sight. Sometimes she imagined scenarios with her son, teaching him things, watching him grow, sharing a laugh. Sometimes she imagined pouring forth all her anger on Gabrielle, wanting to see her hurt as much as she did. It didn't occur to her that Gabrielle might be already feeling the same or worse. As far as Xena was concerned, it was all Gabrielle's fault for allowing that demon-spawn Hope to live. She was able to feel a sliver of pity for Callisto; she couldn't help feeling responsible for creating Callisto as she was. But Gabrielle should have listened to her, should have trusted her. Gabrielle--the same person who had betrayed her to Ming Tien and nearly gotten her executed by the tyrant.

Days passed with rides on Argo, long walks, the occasional hunt of a meal, and an endless well of rage and grief, one that occasionally ebbed, but inevitably overflowed again. She sometimes puzzled over that nagging blur at the edge of her vision, but it remained an enigma. One morning, she heard footsteps approaching the cave. When they paused at the entrance, she flung her chakram, yelling, "GO AWAY!" To her surprise, Hercules walked in, holding the chakram he had neatly caught with his superior reflexes.

"That's hardly the way to greet an old friend," said Hercules gently.

"I'm sorry," snapped Xena, "but I just want to be alone."

"I know," said Hercules, "and I'm sorry about intruding. I heard about what happened, and I wanted to pay my respects. I'm so, so sorry, Xena."

Xena nodded. Hercules noted that her hair was matted, and her eyes were rimmed with red. She had lost weight, and there was a hollow, glazed look in her blue eyes. "I've been there, Xena," continued Hercules. "Maybe I can help."

Xena was too exhausted to argue, and the prospect of someone who understood had its appeal. She moved over slightly, indicating that Hercules should sit down. "Have you been eating?" he asked, concerned.

"Yes, mother!" she snapped.

Hercules sighed slightly, but refrained from commenting. He sat down next to Xena and put a hand on her shoulder, saying quietly, "I truly am sorry. I know it hurts more than anything."

A sob escaped her throat, and tears welled up in her eyes. Hercules put an arm around her, and she gratefully curled into his shoulder, crying hard. He held her tightly, not saying anything, just stroking her hair, while she grasped at his warm, comforting strength like a lifeline. She hadn't
realized how much her isolation had been tearing at her, in addition to her grief.

"I . . . hardly . . . knew . . . him, Hercules. But . . .there was a bond between us. He . . . never knew that I . . . was his . . . mother, but . . . I felt the connection," she wailed.

Hercules gave her time to cry, offered her a skin full of water for a drink, then softly said, "Why don't you tell me about him?" Xena talked about her son, and about the racking pain that wouldn't stop, and Hercules nodded quietly and sympathetically, holding her hand tightly in his own.

"How did you find me?" she finally asked.

"Don't you remember?" asked Hercules, a quick flash of hurt passing across his eyes. "You told me about this place, where you went to be alone and away from your army. I figured out from your description where it was, after I went to Amphipolus and you weren't there."

"Thank you, Hercules," said Xena with a slight smile. "You're a good friend. I need one, right now. I didn't realize how alone I felt here, and I have no one . . ." She broke off, as the grayish blur hovered closer.

"Xena, you do have someone," Hercules began cautiously.

"*Don't* even start defending Gabrielle!" snapped Xena. "Her name makes me choke. That little fool is the reason my son is dead!"

"Wait a minute, slow down!" said Hercules.

"I *don't* want to hear it! If you're going to talk about *her* you can just leave."

"You need me, right now, and I'm not going anywhere," insisted Hercules, his tone still gentle.

"We'll see about that!" yelled Xena, leaping to her feet. "Now get out of here before I hurt you!"

Hercules stood up, but shook his head. Furious, Xena gave him a hard push. He staggered slightly, but held his ground. She began battering at him furiously with her fists and feet. He dodged as best he could, occasionally lifting an arm to ward off a particularly furious blow. She leapt in the air, trying to strike his chest with both feet and propel him out of the cave. He sidestepped, then reached out to help Xena regain her balance. She punched him in the stomach, did a flip backward, and drew her sword. As she rushed him, Hercules rolled, coming up behind her. He
grabbed both of her arms and said, "Xena, it's not me you're mad at."

She wrenched free, but sheathed her sword. He held out his hands in a gesture of invitation, and her anger spent, and she stepped forward into his embrace. He held her as she wept, saying, "I'm sorry, Hercules. I'm sorry. I've got so much anger inside me it hurts--inside me--all the time."

"I know," he said soothingly. "After . . . I lost my family, I trashed our entire house--tore down the walls. I nearly killed Iolaus with by throwing a rock at him. I know how it feels."

"How do you live with it?" gasped Xena, sliding down the wall to a sitting position. "How do you get past the pain? I mean, my past constantly haunts me, and it hurts, but I can do good things. I can atone. But with this, I feel so helpless."

"It sounds trite," said Hercules apologetically, "but time does alleviate the pain. It never goes away, but it stops hurting so ferociously. You get to the point where you can enjoy some of your memories; it doesn't hurt all the time. But sometimes you turn around, and you want to share
something you saw or did with that person, and then you remember . . . And the pain all comes back, but it fades again."

"I can't believe I'll ever feel better," whispered Xena.

"I know. But one thing that will help is having someone to talk to, not struggling with this alone."

Xena shook her head, trying to get the gray blur out of her line of sight. It hovered there, like a nagging conviction that you've forgotten something very important that had to be done, but can't remember what it is. "Please don't bring up Gabrielle. I'll never forgive her."

"Xena," said Hercules. "Gabrielle did not kill your son."

"It's her fault that demon-child survived. She lied to me!"

"Did you really believe her when she told you she had killed the baby?" asked Hercules gently. "You know how hard that would be for her--you must know how hard it had to have been when she poisoned Hope. And can you honestly say you never lied to her about *anything*?"

"I don't know!" cried Xena miserably, not wanting to admit the slightest chink in the wall of guilt she'd attributed to Gabrielle.

"She's suffering, too--badly, really badly," said Hercules.

"Good! she can't suffer enough, as far as I'm concerned!

"Xena," he said reproachfully, "just think about this for a minute. As a parent, what if you had learned that Solan was tainted in some way, that he was a killer . . . or tyrant. Would you be able to kill him?"

Xena's eyes went wide. She thought about Lao Ma, her serene demeanor only breaking in the presence of her son. She thought about Ming Tien's mockery of the woman who could not kill her own son, even to protect herself from execution, even after uncontrovertible evidence that her son
was a ruthless tyrant, a murderer of innocents. And Gabrielle had done this thing--killed a being she thought of as her child, her baby. "Oh Gods . . ." whispered Xena. The gray blur in her peripheral vision suddenly winked out of existence, as the realization that she had been missing
Gabrielle rushed over her.

"You see?" said Hercules. "You and Gabrielle need each other--now more than ever."

"But . . ." said Xena, trying to gather her anger at Gabrielle around her again.

"Xena. Gabrielle made a mistake. She wan't trying to hurt you--or Solan--or anyone. She couldn't even kill Callisto when she had a chance. What you asked of her was something impossible for her--until she realized that there was no other choice. Until she realized that Hope had hurt *you*. She cared about Solan too. She made a huge mistake, and she did lie to you, but she had reasons for that."

"She should have trusted me," declared Xena.

"Sometimes things can come between even the closest friends," said Hercules with a wry smile, and Xena felt a pang about the way she had once tried to drive a wedge between him and Iolaus. "And sometimes when people are trying to do the right thing, they do the worst thing possible."

Xena nodded--Hercules' arguments were beginning to sink in.

"Sometimes, nothing makes any sense to me," continued Hercules. "Why do the gods have so much influence on our lives? Why do we have to put up with the shit they deal out? And when you left, after we defeated Darphus, it was one of those things that didn't make sense. I kept hoping you'd be back. But when I saw you with Gabrielle, I knew that that *did* make sense; you were good for each other, you belonged together. Life has put a huge wedge between you two, but one thing I'm sure of, is that if you let Callisto and Hope keep you apart, then you've let the bad guys win. And that's wrong."

Hercules' simple words found a niche in Xena's heart. "I'm still angry with her."

"Yes, and you will be for a while. It will be hard at first to be with her. It'll be hard for her too. Do you have any idea of the guilt she feels? But you already know, Xena, that the important things don't come easy."

Xena nodded wearily. "Where is she?"

"With Ephiny. Ephiny told me what happened."

"I'll go to her now." Hercules stood up and held a hand out to Xena. He walked her to Argo, and she gave him a long, hard hug. "I'm sorry I hurt you," she murmured.

Hercules smiled his usual self-deprecating smile. "That's OK. I'm a big boy. I just don't want to see you hurting yourself."

Xena put a hand on his shoulder, saying, "Thank you, friend," leapt onto Argo's back and rode toward the Amazon village, wondering what she would say, where she could start.

The End

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