Hubris of Champions
by Xena's Little Bitch
Disclaimers, Apologies, and Thanks: I don't own the characters,
I just love writing about them. I also don't own the rights to the lyrics quoted
from 'The Bitter Suite,' or that speech. Apologies to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. for
the title. And thanks to some ex-guards for the feedback.
The Relationship: Xena and Gabrielle are in love but express their feelings in a physical way only the slightest bit in this story; I imagine it might not be capable of breaking any laws, but you never know.
Description: This story takes place after 'Motherhood,' and is an examination of certain events and themes from the fifth season.
Didja like it? Miladyco@aol.com
Hubris Of Champions
by Xena's Little Bitch
'Who are you to even think you can know the difference between good and evil?'--from 'The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc'
It's been three days since Ares brought me back to life and I haven't seen Xena since the first day. Tonight it's warm and clear as I sit by the campfire pretending to read the scrolls we salvaged from the decimated inn, but I'm really watching Gabrielle prepare dinner. She seems too focused on the vegetables she's cutting, and she is too quiet. She looks so sad and so beautiful. The fire light flatters her. Everything does. I find myself just staring at her arms and I imagine how beautiful my mother must think she is.
'You're beautiful,' I say. Perhaps that will get a response.
'Oh please,' she says, looking up at me, 'Your mother's beautiful. I'm just a village girl with muscles.'
'No,' I insist, 'Xena is beautiful because she is beautiful. You're beautiful because you're you.'
She blushes. 'I'm no more beautiful inside than anyone else. I used to let people think I was. I let them convince me that I was somehow pure, my morals unquestionable. I'm not perfect. I have motives you wouldn't believe."
Lucky me to hit a nerve so easily tonight! Perhaps I can get a real conversation going. This is not the chatty bard from the tales. She fascinates me.
"I know you're not perfect, Gabrielle. You're just not perfect in a very appealing way."
"I guess you haven't gotten to any of the scrolls where I do terrible things yet, have you?" She pauses and laughs derisively shaking her head as if to clear it, 'Then again, you must remember how I killed you just a couple of days ago. That should be enough to make you understand it's more than imperfection."
"Circumstance. Destiny. Fate. Coercion," I say vaguely.
"Let's drink to that," she says, pouring wine and toasting.
"To chance," I say. It's the first time I've toasted to anything but the Empire in as long as I can remember.
Gabrielle cocks her head almost imperceptibly as she adds the vegetables to the stew.
"What is it?"
"How can you tell? I didn't hear anything."
"I can sense her. I think it's her scent but I'm not sure."
"Really? What's she doing?"
"Sometimes when she gets really angry, when she's blaming herself for things, she likes to be alone."
"Has she been nearby a lot?"
"Most of the time she's close enough to hear if we screamed. I kind of think of it like she's locked herself in her bedroom and won't open the door. We just have a unique sort of home."
"Why do you think she needs to be alone?" I know she doesn't want to talk about it. I can tell she is being patient with me, that she's answering these questions because I'm her child asking. If I were someone else I think she'd be taking my head off. Now there's an unfortunate choice of metaphor!
"Because she doesn't want me, us, to see her that way. She's too angry to communicate politely. She's afraid of what she might do."
"You think she thinks she'd hurt you?"
"She's afraid she would and when she's like this she doesn't trust herself. And she's trying to figure out what's wrong...She's proud."
"But you're more the kind who likes to talk it out."
"Yeah," says Gabrielle, smiling as if remembering something; she looks years younger, "Yeah, I'm the communicator."
"So what's up?" It's a gamble.
Gabrielle looks at me with a smile that says, "Oh, you didn't." and I smile back.
"Chatty bard," I say.
"They used to call me the annoying blonde."
We laugh and the stew is ready. It's very good, especially for the conditions, and I tell her. This is the first time I can remember ever hearing her laugh, but that I don't say.
"What do you think she's so upset about?"
Gabrielle pours more wine and leans back against a log.
"You know how when you're waging a war, you need to be focused on the strategy, the fight, the goal. How you have to put everything you have into it if you expect to win?"
"Of course. Ares taught me well. You can let no doubt into your heart, you must be fierce and unyielding. If there is even one tiny measure of uncertainty, one moment of second-guessing, that can be your downfall."
"Exactly. That's what the last year has been for us. I mean, the last year twenty five years ago."
"You can just say last year. I'll remember." I smile. She's going to talk to me. I can tell that if I play my cards right I can get her to talk for hours.
"Last year. Gods. In a way it does seem twenty five years ago sometimes. Anyway, that year was like a war. It was a war. Against foes so much stronger than we were that it seemed truly ridiculous even to consider attempting to fight them. But Xena does not accept defeat, even when it knocks her on her ass, so we were at war. We found, as the war wore on, that there was a route of sure escape. But of course we didn't take it. I don't think Xena has ever taken the easy way out in her entire life."
"What was it?"
"We went to Chin and found that not only did the influence of the Greek Gods appear to be non-existent there, but somehow in Chin Xena was able to access great powers. She could create shields out of the air around her, and she could turn things to stone with her mind. If we had stayed there, you could have grown up safe and the gods would probably still be around."
"You and Xena would probably be dead by now, though. You've got to explain..."
"You want a story, don't you? Let me make my point...which was... That's it! After the war is over, you think. And sometimes the things that have happened, the things you yourself have done, look very different now that you're not in the heat of battle, not defending your loved ones from certain death. So I think she is thinking about those things now. I know I am. I just don't have to withdraw quite so far into myself to do it."
"Not quite so far. So tell me more about Chin." I refill our glasses.
"Chin. There was a woman who your mother loved, they met many years ago when Xena was wild and slightly crazy, and Xena ended up betraying her. She was a great philosopher and a very powerful woman. They didn't see each other for years and eventually she died, making Xena her avenger, her spiritual heir. I believe her spirit is some kind of guardian of the land of Chin, and sometimes, when it is greatly threatened, her spirit calls to Xena to act for her and protect it. Twice her spirit has sent messengers who have died upon completing their missions to alert Xena of trouble in Chin. We're going to gloss over the first time, Eve. No questions asked; you can read about it in the Debt scrolls and the one called Forget Me Not. The second time, she was pregnant with you and a monk with no tongue died in my arms in order to tell Xena that the hawk and the dove had to be made one with the wisdom. Whatever, I figured; we do what Lao Ma wants even though she's dead, so we went to Chin."
Gabrielle drinks and I think she's really jealous of this Lao Ma. I note down the names of the scrolls in my head.
"It's a long story but she's got three children, one of whom is dead by this point, two of whom are evil. None of this really matters. It was about the black powder, this powerful explosive. Once it had been invented and then outlawed. No one was supposed to know the secret. But Lao Ma's evil daughter did and was using it. Xena figured the black powder would give too great an advantage to whatever army knew how to make it, so she decided to get rid of it, even though we discovered it was easy to figure out the recipe because Joxer was able to do it in only a few hours. Yet we pushed on. Chin was at stake, Lao Ma's non-evil daughter was in danger. So Xena figured out how to use the spiritual teachings to perform incredible physical feats. In the end, and it took forever to get there so you're lucky to be hearing this version, it was our rag-tag band up against an army of 100,000 men, lead by the two evil children both of whom were now dead and in one body."
"I only believe you because I know things like this have happened to you to before. What then?"
"Xena stopped the army by turning all the soldiers to stone."
"That sounds like magic. She just killed them all?"
"Yeah. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do."
"So you think that, for instance, now Xena is thinking about how she made the decision to kill all those people, and she's thinking maybe it wasn't the right thing to do?"
"Maybe," says Gabrielle, "but I think the question is bigger than that. The question is not whether killing all those people was the right thing to do, but whether or not Xena had any right to even consider making a decision like whether or not the black powder would be used. Five years ago, when we first started traveling together, things were clear. The slaves were to be freed. The kidnapped were to be rescued. Xena could do these things to help others and she did. But she was so powerful, so much more powerful than anyone else. She was smarter and faster and braver and more confident. And she had become kind. She had a strong moral code and she had my innocent love and my clear sense of right and wrong to help guide her. She was unstoppable. She was so beautiful, so much larger than life, and everything she did seemed so perfect, so right, so wise. It was as if she could fail at nothing, as if she were never wrong. In my heart, though I knew she was flawed and hurting, I thought she was as a goddess should be. Full of love and pain and an unquenchable thirst for more. I heard a song in a tavern once about her that went "Famed for prowess with a sword, who's as feared and as adored." That was how people saw her. As time went on it seemed natural that our fight for the greater good was on an ever and ever larger scale."
"What's it like to be in love like that?"
"What?" Gabrielle asks, confused.
"I've just never been in love. Sometimes I wonder what it's like."
"Oh. Well, what I've been describing is more like worship. The way I love her, well, it's more complicated than that. There are days when I feel like I am so in love with her my heart will burst with the strain of not expressing it, and then there are days when I think I must be insane to even entertain the thought of the two of us together like that. So that's what being in love is like; crazy-making."
Gabrielle's attention is again caught by something I can't sense. She looks out into the dark forest surrounding our campsite.
"Is it Xena?"
"Yeah. I think she's close enough to hear and I don't want to be talking about this like this. Okay?"
"Yeah, it's okay. Wanna go to bed?"
I set my bedroll next to hers, closer to the fire. She is the one who will protect us if we need protection during the night. It is strange enough to be older than this woman I think of as a mother, who thinks of me as her child suddenly full grown. Like the legend of Athena's birth, a woman sprung straight from Zeus' head. And stranger still, this way of non-violence that seems so right to me now, puts her in danger, when I know I am at least her equal in battle. Sleep comes to me quickly, but I imagine less so to her.
I dream of storms and messengers, black cats, lightning bolts and dead trees. All kinds of signs. None of them clear to me. I did not fear them but I wake up breathless. The morning is hot and I can hear the grunting noises of Gabrielle's work out from the other side of the clearing. When I read the older scrolls I can't believe this is the same person. The love I feel for her is so strong it seems too strong sometimes. It's almost like part of me is in love with her for Xena, like it is so much a part of her that I inherited it like my height. Or maybe I just see that thing that apparently people have always seen in her and thought was goodness and purity. Maybe I am the only one who sees it for what it is: strength.
We go bathing before breakfast.
"Stop staring at me!" says Gabrielle, laughing as she takes off her orange shorts.
"I'm sorry. Your body is just beautiful. That's all. Nothing personal." Promise. No matter what.
"Gods!" She dives into the water and I follow.
We wash ourselves slowly and I casually ask, "Do you know who that woman was, the one who touched Xena's stomach and made me?"
Gabrielle looks at me curiously. "You don't know?"
"No, I don't. Just that she was golden and magnificent, like an angel."
"Like an angel," repeats Gabrielle, shaking her head, "She was an angel, Eve, you're right about that. Right after her stint in hell. I'll tell you the rest over breakfast."
I say it on purpose and get a short splash-fight for my trouble. I hope Xena would be proud to see how I'm cheering her up and making her share her feelings.
Gabrielle makes breakfast and begins the story quietly.
"Once upon a time there was a young girl. She lived in a village. One day a warlord came and burnt the village to the ground, killing the girl's family and leaving her alone. She vowed to take vengeance on the warlord. She studied for years and became a great fighter. But her focus on revenge and only revenge twisted her heart and her mind until she was quite crazed. Finally she was ready and caught up with her enemy. But by this time her enemy had reformed, was no longer the cruel warlord but a hero on a quest for redemption."
"Are you telling me that that woman was Callisto?" I am incredulous. Gabrielle nods. "The woman Xena killed, who worked for Ares and for Hera and for Dahok--she was the angel who sired me?"
"Yes. Have some more tea," she says, "Did Ares tell you about her?"
"Yeah, it was part of my warrior education. To know the strengths and weaknesses of the greatest warriors who had come before me would enable me to avoid their failings."
"What did he tell you her failings were?"
"She was too single-minded, it made it easy for people to use her because all her cards were out on the table, they knew what she wanted and that she was willing to do anything to get it. And she was crazy, but according to Ares that was less of a problem."
"What did he say about Xena?"
"That you were her weakness. You made her soft and you took her focus away. Before you, she was perfect. After you, she was always torn. You wanna know what he said about you?"
"He said you were the best because you had control. He said your strength in battle was surprise--no one expected you to be half as good as you were, so you could get in close and--zang! Your perceived weakness was your strength and there's no better weapon than the least expected one."
"You really paid attention to him."
"He was my hero for a long time. I thought there was nothing that he didn't know. He never told me how Callisto became a god."
She says she'll tell me on the road and we pack up camp. Callisto. I just take it in and wait to hear more. We're on a wide, flat road for a change, as Gabrielle begins her story.
"I sing the short version of the story of how the warrior queen Callisto became a god. Three years ago, or twenty-eight, the legendary Xena died. As she was Xena and all, she was given the opportunity to return to this life, which she took. The opportunity had been a quest that lead to ambrosia, with a renegade Amazon bent on vengeance on our trail. Of course we prevailed, but somehow she ended up getting her hands on some ambrosia and becoming a god."
"What was her name and why was she after you?"
"Velaska. She had wanted to be the queen of the Amazons, my Amazons, and she wasn't the right woman for the job."
"Read Hooves and Harlots and The Quest. This is the short version, remember? The perfect size for weary travelers," she says, stopping to rub her foot.
"I'm sorry. Please continue."
"Okay...Velaska was a god now and wanted to kill me because I chose to take my rightful role. Xena was alive again but we were no match for her powers. Xena decided we needed the help of an immortal and Callisto was immortal and imprisoned nearby, so Xena made a deal with her and we defeated Velaska, and Callisto managed to eat some of the ambrosia. We trapped them in lava. Callisto got out later, but that's another story."
"You created gods."
Gabrielle trips on a root and says she guesses that's true.
"And then you destroyed them."
"Well, we thought we did, anyway."
"So you're saying that to save your own lives you took the chance of making two evil goddesses, and you lost."
"Well, we're alive. And if Callisto hadn't become a goddess, chances are we would never have had you."
"Gabrielle, I killed thousands of people. I know you care about me, but the death of so many innocents is never justifiable."
It's quiet for a moment.
"She even killed the horses," whispers Gabrielle.
"She imagined that everyone wearing the symbol of the green
dragon would turn to stone. The soldiers were on horses that bore the standard
of the dead Emperor."
"Why didn't you let the other gods deal with Callisto and Velaska?"
"I don't think it occurred to us. Xena was the hero, the strong one, the one who fixed everything for everyone. She would fix this too. The Xena you know, the one who weeps and prays? This is not the Xena I have known. The Xena I have known would not say "Pass the water" if her hair was on fire."
I laugh. "Can we stop and fish for lunch?" I ask.
She looks at me, and she seems calmer than she has in days. She tilts her head to the side and nods, smiling, "Yeah."
I wouldn't have suggested it if we weren't near a river, so we walked down a steep incline to the riverbank, creating makeshift fishing poles as we go.
By now I can tell from Gabrielle's subtle signals when Xena is near, and I keep quiet about it.
"We were traveling near Thessaly," she says out of
nowhere as she casts her line, "and we wandered into the edge of a terrible
war that had become a slaughter. And with luck so amazing I still can't fathom
it, we found our friend Ephiny alone in the woods on the verge of giving birth,
her husband killed for sport by soldiers. We stood there in the forest, outraged
yet again by the casual cruelties of the world, and then she said it, "I'm
going to find a safe place for Ephiny to have her baby, and then I'm gonna stop
Gabrielle pauses for effect and to recast. Sometimes I feel like there are so many stories about my mother that it will be impossible to ever hear them all.
"She found a safe place and delivered Ephiny's baby, and she stopped the war."
"And she brought me back from the dead."
"You mean she got you killed?"
"No, I got myself killed. She brought me back."
"You're wrong!" Xena's voice rings out from somewhere in the woods, "I got you killed and you brought yourself back!"
"Come out here and say that to my face!Ó Gabrielle yells into the forest. Our fishing poles are forgotten now in the mud.
"Admit I'm right!" Yells Xena.
"Isn't it more to the point that you stopped the war?" I yell.
"Gabrielle died, Eve!" she screams from the forest. I can tell by her voice that she's moving around so we don't spot her. "I risked her life and Ephiny's and Xenan's. It was my hubris! Don't you understand? Gabrielle didn't like war and so I had stop it. I knew I could stop it. That's all I thought about. Not about the risk! And I didn't learn my lesson! It is my enormous pride that has been my downfall. Don't listen to Gabrielle's lies any more. I am no hero!" I can hear as she takes to the trees, moving away so swiftly that she knows we'll never catch her.
"Guess you were right," I say, smiling at Gabrielle and picking up our fishing poles. Parts of me are shaking. I have never heard Xena speak like that before. So much pain.
"I'm not all that hungry anymore, Eve. Can we just keep moving?"
"Of course. Where are we going?" I've managed to avoid asking her this so far because she hasn't mentioned it and I'm afraid that she doesn't have an answer.
"We're heading towards Thrace to see who's still alive."
Their families. My families. They say I knew my grandmother
but I don't remember. The tone of her voice is so sad. I think she figures they're
dead. I'm not sure she really wants to know it for a fact.
We walk for hours in silence. The sun colors the sky orange and pink as we set up camp, and collect wood, and do all the things she usually does with Xena. I catch a rabbit and she makes stew. The stars are out by the time we eat.
"Do you know what we did this year? I mean, that year?"
"What?" Seems the safest answer.
"It didn't seem this way at the time. I mean, Eve, it really was like everything was unconnected. We didn't think about what we were doing, but the scope of our influence became truly immense. We decided, one way or another, who would or would not rule in Chin, Egypt, Rome, the Amazon Nation, and the Heavens themselves. It is shocking to me when I pause to think about it; we were given the opportunity to rule half the world that year. We were continuously presented with situations in which we were asked to or felt compelled or seemed destined to help, and we did. We made choices that were not ours to make. Yet somehow we were able to make them and they stuck."
"Wow," I say.
"Yeah, wow," she says,
"Why do you think that was?"
I can tell Xena is near. Gabrielle is tense but continues.
"So much had happened by then. We had won every battle we engaged in for years, though sometimes at enormous cost... When I first met her I thought she was invincible, and nothing has ever happened to change my mind."
The look on her face as she gazes into the fire tells me how deeply she still believes this.
"She's like magic to you, isn't she?"
Gabrielle looks at me curiously and crinkles her nose, "Yeah. Like magic. We got used to the adoration from people, the look they'd get in their eyes when they saw us fight or do some amazing feat. It was almost like being a god. And even when we died, we came back. Again and again. I remember the day I stood on the dock and Aphrodite came to me when I whistled for her. All Xena had to do was whisper his name and the god of war was by her side. These had become the facts of our life, so when Xena turned up pregnant without good reason, and then found out she was to bear a child that meant the end of the gods, well, it didn't seem as far-fetched or suspicious as it should have. We took it for granted now, almost, that the rules were different for us. Wherever we went we seemed to attract the attention of the most powerful foes."
At this point it is almost as if she is talking to Xena through me. These are things they should be saying to each other; they are the secret things you keep in the back of your mind and don't dare say to anyone.
"So you understand that when we heard the baby would bring about the end of the gods, we figured, somehow that makes sense, that our baby would have that power. But we didn't have time to think, we were suddenly at war. There was a baby to protect; our baby, and now, because of us, it was a pawn. Everything we did we did to protect you. We forgot the bigger picture. We forgot everything but to protect you at all costs. We forgot about the greater good, we forgot about each other. All we saw was you in danger."
"We were used!" Xena's voice comes out of the trees above and to our right.
"Tell me!" I yell to her.
"That god manipulated us for I don't know how long--maybe even as early as India! He knew I'd do whatever I had to to protect my baby. And I fell for it! I believed my baby was the most important thing in the world. I thought I was holy! Hear that, Gabrielle! Xena, Destroyer of Nations, holy! I bought the whole thing. Gods. How can you even stand to listen to my voice?"
"Come here and sit by the fire," Gabrielle says.
"It doesn't mean you're not still heroic, Xena," I call out, "Just because you made mistakes."
"Made mistakes?!?!?!" She screams. Gabrielle puts her head in her hands and stares at the ground. Now Xena's just letting it all out, "I consciously decided to make a man fall in love with me, knowing I would probably end up killing him; it was the strategy I chose from more than one option. I don't know if I can call that a mistake. Do you know what a hero is, Eve? A hero is someone who helps others. Someone who is willing to put themselves at risk to help strangers simply because it is the right thing to do. Someone who follows this code all the time! Anyone will fight when their loved ones are in danger, but a hero fights for anyone who needs fighting for. This god took that away from me by tricking me into fighting for him! And I didn't notice. All year I fought for my family and my friends--you were there Gabrielle--tell her--what strangers did we help?"
"Just Daphne," Gabrielle whispers.
"What?" Xena bellows.
"Like I said, I'm no hero. And do you know what--after all we did, we still lost the war! Aphrodite and Ares were the heroes! They were able to look past their blood ties and do the right thing. You'd both be dead if not for them. All I am is the person who got you killed."
It's now or never so I make my move. I've picked out her location and I'm up in the tree next to her in seconds. I grab her and knock her out of it, falling with her to the ground and landing on top of her. I hold her down as she glares at me.
"I'll let you up if you stay here with us a while."
"I don't make deals."
"Do you take requests? Will you please stay?"
"Fine," she says, pushing me off her. She sits directly across the fire from us and stares at the flames.
Gabrielle pours a cup of wine and carries it over to Xena, then sits down next to her on the ground. Her whole demeanor is different now that Xena is here. She's more gentle, and she's completely focused on her. I watch her stroke Xena's hand as she passes her the wine, and then she sits right next to her, so close they are touching.
"Remember when we used to fight giants?" Xena asks, drinking.
Gabrielle smiles and presses her head against Xena's shoulder, "Yeah, I remember. With mirrors and sling shots and flying parchment."
"And I had the gall to try to bring the power of Zeus to earth."
"It worked, as I recall."
They smile at each other and I can feel the tension leave all our bodies.
"Xena, do you remember the first time we found ambrosia?"
"Of course. Sumerian treasure."
"And remember how we talked about it, what you said when I asked you why you didn't want to take it?"
"Yes. I said I didn't want to be a god. I wanted to just be human."
"And isn't that all we have proven this year? That after everything, every heroic deed, every mistake, every battle, every twist and turn, we are only human? I know you like to focus on your warlord days, all the terrible things you did to people. But before that, Xena, before everything else, you were a hero. You didn't run or give in or cower in fear. You fought for what you believed in. That's still who I see when I look at you, that young girl who tried to save everybody. But Xena, no one can save everybody."
"I'm tired," whispers Xena, her voice a world of sadness, "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. For not being your hero...and for hurting you. You're right; all I saw was Eve. And even now I am selfish, because I regret hurting and disappointing you more than all the rest of my sins combined. There are just so many things I want to be because of you, and for you."
"I want us to live a simpler life, Gabrielle, with smaller choices. A life where at the end of the day I know where I stand."
"That's a wonderful idea, Xena. Let's go to bed," says Gabrielle tenderly. They lie down on her bedroll, the fact that I am here completely forgotten, as it should be. I may be purified or whatever, but I don't see myself moving out of ear shot yet.
I listen to the sounds of their bodies settling into each other, the leather creaking, sighs from them both that tell me they are holding each other now. I did this--they are lying in each other's arms because of me! My first good deed!
"You've got to take me with you," I hear Gabrielle whisper, "teach me everything you know. You can't leave me here in Poteidaia; I want to go with you. I've studied the stars, spoken with philosophers, and every few years my gift of prophecy kicks in--I could be very valuable to you. Take me with you. I want so much to be like you."
"And I wanna be like you," Xena whispers, her voice husky with emotion.
Five and twenty-five years later, even I can hear exactly what they're saying; after all that we have been through, my love, I feel about you exactly as I did the day we met. I hear more rustling around and then the unmistakable sound of kissing. Kissing, wow! Bonus points for Evie! Gabrielle moans and I turn over and wrap a shawl around my head to block my hearing.
I don't presume to know the difference between good and evil, but I've learned that love can heal, and seen it proved true today. Was it fate, the journey from Cirra to Hell to me? I may never know. Xena and Gabrielle are together; that's enough for me tonight.
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