Xenaís obsession with Altiís fourth-season vision of Gabrielleís death severely tests the soulmatesí bond during CRUSADER, PAST IMPERFECT and PARADISE FOUND.
WORTH THE PAIN
"You meant to leave me, didnít you?"
Xena forced her hand to continue brushing Argo, grateful Gabrielle couldnít see her face. It was getting harder and harder to pretend. "What? At the market this morning?" She threw a smile over her shoulder. "You fussed about maybe my brains being scrambled. From my little run-in with Najara? I found a healer. Checked out fine. Didnít think youíd miss me with all those goodies you had your eye on."
Gabrielle stared thoughtfully at her partnerís back. "Glad to hear youíre okay." She let out a long breath and absently monitored the soup sheíd been stirring. "You know thatís not what Iím talking about."
"Oh?" Xena prayed Gabrielle wouldnít push for once. They were still too raw. At least, she was. She swatted Argoís flank and watched the Palomino head toward a stream nearby. "Donít forget your curfew, missy!" she called out playfully. She inspected the saddle before walking closer to their fire, crouching next to her bag and putting the brush away. Only then did she glance at Gabrielle with a mischievous grin.
"You confusing me with somebody else? Maybe somebody who took a dive into Dahakís pit? If I recall correctly, I on the other hand drank blood, babysat Amazons and battled Alti to get that ësomebodyí back. I seem to be here with her having this chat." Xena began laying out their bedrolls. "Unless maybe my brains are scrambled and Iím hallucinating the wrong green-eyed blonde." She sauntered over to sniff the contents of the cooking pot. "In which case this tasty smelling supper might not be so good for my health."
Gabrielle allowed a small smile. In truth, she wasnít all that anxious to know what was going on in the warriorís head lately, preferring to focus on Xenaís heroic demonstration of her commitment to staying together. Her partner had given the usual clipped, business-as-usual account of her journey to the Amazon Land of the Dead, her joy at Altiís inadvertently giving her hope in a vision of the future that showed Gabrielle alive. Sheíd played down the trials of her experience, declaring it couldnít possibly compare to what Gabrielle had been through with Dahak.
Gabrielle admitted to herself she did feel sheíd lost her center. Birthing a demon daughter, who then produced a monster, could have that effect. Especially on someone whoíd dreamed of putting a stop to - rather than spawning - such evil. Xenaíd said they had each other to help them find their way. Sheíd been very solicitous - making sure Gabrielle was all right, encouraging her to hold fast to her ideals, pledging to be more supportive.
And yet Ö. She detected an urgency to her partnerís attention - a Ö desperation even - that puzzled her. Occasions Xena regressed to their earlier days - overprotective, musing about whether their life was good for Gabrielle, being tight-lipped about the nightmares apparently haunting the warrior again.
"Hey! Whatcha got in there? A boot?"
Xena gestured toward the pot. "Youíve boiled the life out of whatever it is by now."
Gabrielle looked blankly at her soup. "Oh. Uh, yeah, itís ready." She spooned a portion into Xenaís bowl. "What was that you said about some people reflecting on things too much?" She held out the bowl, not releasing it until sheíd captured Xenaís eyes. "Guess youíre stuck with one."
"Nothing wrong with that." The warrior dropped to the ground and concentrated on her soup. "Long as youíre not me."
Gabrielle started to respond, but instead sampled her soup. "Mm, could use a little more Ö." She got up, ostensibly to retrieve their herb pouch. She used the ruse to observe her companion, like Xena used to do when she worried about her naïve new friendís judgment. The warrior ate as though she didnít have a care in the world, but with the mechanical movements of someone lost far away.
Whatever the issue, Najara mustíve brought it to the surface. Gabrielle couldnít remember seeing Xena like that before. Not just the beating she took, stunning as it was. The distractedness and lowered guard that preceded. The brittle, bitter resolve that followed. Questioning glances, resigned shrugs, teasing comments tinged with unaccountable tension which, in hindsight, made Gabrielle suspect what wouldnít have occurred to her until now. Fear.
It dawned on her maybe Xena wasnít the only one being overly solicitous. She too had been acting sometimes as if she were still the little girl from Poteidaia, reluctant to question the indomitable Warrior Princess. The cloud she could almost see hanging over Xenaís head suggested one of them better focus on the present - imperfect as it might be. Nodding to herself, she walked back to the fire.
"You didnít answer my question." She knelt to sprinkle some herbs in the pot. "About leaving me with Najara. Were you or werenít you?"
Xenaís head bowed. "Gabrielle Ö. I Ö. You seemed so much happier Ö."
"Happier?! Compared to what?"
Xena peered up. "You canít deny she got to you with her talk about hospices and swans."
"Whatís new about that? So you and I donít exactly share those interests. Surely itís no reason to -."
"Itís done now, all right? I came back. Canít we just - ."
"Weíve tried that." Gabrielle brought her bowl with her and sat across from Xena. "Itís not working for me. Or for you either, from what I see."
"I donít think talkingís gonna fix this. My trip to the Land of the Dead Ö. Thereís parts of my past I have to work out on my own."
"No!" Gabrielle set her bowl on the ground with enough force to slosh soup out and startle the warrior. "You said weíd do it together, Xena. Thatís how weíve made it so far. I stopped trying to leave a long time ago." She put her hand up at Xenaís attempt to speak. "Donít you dare throw Hope in my face. Thatís different, and you know it. I want some answers. You gonna ride off on me again? If I show any curiosity about the next weirdo who comes along?"
Xena put her bowl down. "Guess you were right about the herbs." Her mouth quirked in a half-hearted smile. She sighed. "All right. In the morning. Iím beat," she admitted, removing her bracers. "We need to get up early, ahead of that army moving toward Actus."
"Itís that vision Alti showed me." Xenaís jaw tightened. "I just canít Ö. Give me another night, before saying it out loud. Okay?"
Gabrielleís eyes softened. Her partnerís slumped posture said enough for the moment. "Okay. In the morning." She picked up Xenaís bowl and refreshed her soup. "Should be better now," she said, returning the bowl. "Got my secret potion in it."
"Yeah? Will it grow hair on my back?"
"Letís just say you shouldnítíve left home without it. Helps ward off skinny zealots intent on beating the tar out of you."
"Ah. Knew there was some reason to keep you around." Xena resumed eating, but her thoughts returned to Najara. Somehow the zealot had perceived a scene from the vision replaying in Xenaís mind.
"Itís a great curse to have seen oneís own death. Does it - ."
"Yes. It includes Gabrielle."
"Does she know?"
"Thatís fortunate for her."
Gritting her teeth, Xena forced her attention back to the spoon in her hand, to the present, imperfect as it was. She watched Gabrielle finish her soup before completing other tasks in their camp routine. The warrior appreciated the quiet normalcy, Gabrielleís understanding of her need for it. She wished it could last forever, knowing it would end quicker if she went to sleep. Not just because of that nightmare vision. Tomorrow might be the day Gabrielle finally realized being with certain Warrior Princess wasnít worth the pain.
"Are you sure I was dying? Xena, gods know I have been tied to a cross before. You helped me then. What makes you think this vision is different?"
"It was so real Ö. The way you looked Ö. The mountain in the background Ö. Itís true, or could be."
"Well, Iím not going to believe it. Itís almost dawn. Címon. Better get moving, if weíre going to warn the people of Actus about that army."
"No sense in us both going. Stay here. Catch up on some rest. Iíll go to Actus."
"No you wonít. The threat of a battle does not mean Iím going to end up like your vision! Xena, youíre expecting Medusa behind every tree. Y-y-you canít look left, you canít look right, you just -."
"All right! Weíre not staying long. Actus has its own army. Once we warn them, weíre outta there."
"Thatís fine. This conversation is over, right?"
Xena continued saddling Argo, relieved Gabrielle had responded so calmly to the vision foretelling her death, guiltily glad for an excuse to avoid another image not yet revealed.
"Gods forbid Iíd ever bring that subject up again."
Unfortunately "that subject" had a life of its own, conceived years ago in Xenaís unholy alliance with Alti. The ensuing battle in Actus reminded her of a time sheíd eagerly employed the same cruel tactics someone was using against them now. "How do I defeat myself?" she wondered as images from the past, present and future threatened to collide.
"If I hadda won back then, if this man wins now, then my vision of your death might come true."
"Xena, I donít believe in your vision! I canít afford to! Now, either I prove you wrong, and we go on from here, or I prove you right, and we die. But either way, I will not continue like this."
True to her words, Gabrielle refused to be pushed out of harmís way. Seemed more determined than ever to be her own person, with the right to her own choices, to finding her own path at Xenaís side. Or die trying. True to her belief, they survived to thwart the mystery "man" behind the attack - in fact, yet another woman whoíd patterned herself after Altiís envisioned Destroyer of Nations.
"Satrinaís army sure broke up quickly."
"She promised them a destiny she couldnít fulfill."
"Funny thing about destiny. You canít ignore it. Canít rely on it. Alti promised you one, didnít she?"
"I was to become the Destroyer of Nations. Itís funny how I used to look forward to those promises of hers. And every one of them ended in tragedy. Maybe thatís why I fear this prophecy so much."
"A prophecy? Xena, no one said anything about a prophecy. Maybe itís a warning, a sign. A guide? The truth is, you donít know. Like Alti didnít know, because she didnít know you."
Xena wished she could agree. Promises aside, the witchís curses sure hit home. Solan. Her son lived without his parentís love, just as Alti predicted. Now these visions. Enveloping her in doubt and indecision. Clouding her instincts with the clarity of Gabrielle dying at her side. Gabrielle might worry too if sheíd seen the visions involving Caesar and Pompey play out, of Najara knocking the Warrior Princess senseless.
Xena shivered. She rotated her shoulders, stiff from resting too long against a tree in the cool night air. Rose, added wood to their fire and lay down propped on an elbow. Gabrielle slept peacefully, her own confidence unshaken. A blessing in so many ways. Her courage to stand against unseen danger Xena believed real. Strength without which the warrior might have lost more of herself to Alti's vision. Faith that had won this day - a hollow victory in Xena's eyes, as the source of Gabrielle's certainty was the warrior herself. She rolled to her back. A tear slid down her cheek. If only she could stop imagining the pain of Gabrielle's certainty shattering when a stake drove through.
"Gabrielle, Iím all for your spiritual quest, and India is a fine place to go. But remind me why we decided to take the scenic route?"
"Come on, local legend says that these mountains are a holy place."
"Riiiight," Xena muttered to herself at the conclusion of that particular adventure. It had begun with a bandit slashing her thigh and gone downhill from there - to a "paradise" created by the mind of yet another whacko. Once again Gabrielle had sought answers in the company of a stranger spouting words about self-discovery and inner peace.
Xena now sat propped against a boulder in the cave theyíd been returned to after Aidenís fake oasis vanished. She examined with mixed emotions the stitches in her leg. Their reappearance proved Aiden no longer controlled the environment or its inhabitants. They also reminded her how his illusions had nearly caused her to do something stupid to avoid another set of images - Altiís. Gabrielle had caught her dwelling on them before theyíd tumbled into Aidenís world.
"Was it that vision again? Xena, would you just forget that? You always say we control our own destiny, right?"
Problem was, Xena had trouble sensing where her role left off and someone elseís took over. Could no longer gauge her direct responsibility for horrors that might lie ahead. She shuddered, recalling the twist her mind had given Altiís vision - her own hand wielding the hammer that nailed Gabrielle to a cross. Still felt vestiges of darkness sheíd called upon to combat the power Aiden drew from Gabrielleís purity. "I talk about your darkness like itís some sort of disease," Gabrielle had teased afterwards. "But without it, neither one of us would be here." Xena shook her head. Good or bad, either way, she could get Gabrielle killed.
"You okay?" Gabrielle wrung the water from her hair, having felt the need to cleanse herself of the dust from Aidenís handiwork. She pointed at the gash on Xenaís thigh. "Thread break?"
"Thread?" Xena blinked, unaware sheíd been stroking the mended red line. "Oh. Um, no, it held. Iím fine."
"Hmmm." Gabrielle walked behind Xena to massage the warriorís shoulders. "Hard to tell from these muscles. Almost like Aiden turned `em to stone."
"Mmmm," Xena murmured. "Feels good. Donít let anybody tell you youíve got hands like a sailorís."
Gabrielle chuckled. "If anybody should know, itíd be you." She gave Xena a quick hug before resuming her seat. "Better?"
Xena gazed down at her thigh. She felt spent. Not so much physically. Emotionally. As usual, Gabrielleís touch had taken away some of the weight sheíd felt might crush her. Relaxed her to the point her guard didnít seem that important, or that being more open might hurt worse than the effort to stay closed.
"I feel like this wound," she acknowledged softly, cupping her hands around it. "Raw. Healing. Trying to keep the blood in, infection out. Hoping nothingís Ö festering Ö underneath." She ran a finger across the stitches. "Youíre like this thread holding me together. If I move wrong, it could tear." She looked up. "I could lose it, my chance at healing right."
Gabrielle crossed her arms and studied the warrior. "Thereís something youíre not telling me."
"Xena, how many times do I have to Ö. If you canít accept my -."
"Iím in it too."
"I see myself. On a cross. Next to yours."
Gabrielle gasped. She crawled over and lay her hand on the warriorís injured leg. "Ohhhh, Xena. No wonder Ö. Gods, not again."
"Iím not afraid of dying, Gabrielle. And I do accept your right to choose Ö doing it with me. Because of me. Itís just Ö. I never thought Iíd watch it and be Ö." Xenaís voice caught. "And be so Ö helpless Ö to stop it."
"Xena, that doesnít mean - ."
"You said it yourself - Iíve come through before. You believe in me more than that vision."
"Yes, but - ."
"I believed too. In my ability to protect you. To try, even if I failed. Like with Hope." Xena snorted in self-disgust. "Who did I think I was? Zeus? Athena?" She drew her leg up, away from Gabrielleís hand. "I fooled myself in the beginning. Figured youíd see the danger soon enough - trailing me, ahead of me, inside me. That I could keep you safe until then. But you wouldnít see it. What my enemies foresaw." Xenaís lips curled in a sneer. "Najara was right."
Gabrielle sighed. "Not sure I want to know."
"I asked her if sheíd told you about the vision. She said no, she didnít want to hurt you. That was Ö. That was my job."
"And she knows so much about us how? The Jinn?"
"You werenít the only one she charmed." Xena held Gabrielleís eyes. "I confessed my fears about you being with me." She swallowed. "How I seemed to hurt you."
Gabrielle snorted softly. "Know what else I canít believe? Somebody so smart would listen to everybody sheís risked her life rescuing me from."
"Not just them, Gabrielle. You."
"Aidenís talk about ëreaching for the stillness, releasing the pain.í You said it helped you with your guilt about Hope, how free and clean you felt. You wanted me to give it a shot. Maybe let go of my dark side like he claimed he did." Xena sighed. "We both know thereís a snowballís chance in Tartarus of any ëstillnessí around me, of me getting rid of whatís in my blood.
"Xena, come on. You canít - ."
"It made sense, Gabrielle. Maybe I wouldnítíve paid attention before, but everything points to the same end. Getting out of your way. Releasing you from what you wonít or canít release yourself."
"Let me get this straight." Gabrielle cocked her head. "Youíll save me by going away, since otherwise I won ít save myself from you."
Xena frowned. "Thatís not the same as what Iím - ."
"Why? I asked before whatís so different about this. About that vision. Because itís not just me? Because youíre in it too? Mysteriously ëhelplessí to do anything like usual?" Gabrielle chuckled. "Iíve always known you had a double standard. This tops the cake."
Xena gaped at her soulmate, not sure if Gabrielle had a point or was going off the deep end.
"You donít get it, do you?"
The warrior shook her head.
"Who cares what anybody else says? If youíre such a pain, itís my butt we need to worry about, right?"
"Well, yeah, youíre the one - ."
"Itís your ëjobí to hurt. The only one who lives with you from sun up to sun down. The main one you profess to care about."
"So, if for some reason - even the gods donít know why - I say youíre worth the pain, thatís what should count most, right? More than whatever pain youíre so obsessed about causing me?"
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "Apparently."
"Listen to me, Warrior Thick Skull." Gabrielle scooted closer and pulled Xenaís injured leg flat. "I like being your thread." She ran her finger along the wound. "It brings us as close as two people can be. After all weíve been through - everything that shouldíve torn us apart - what more could you do to make me break away?"
Eyes misting, Xena reached out to pull Gabrielle to her side. "Thank you," she murmured. "Truth is, donít know what Iíd do without you."
Gabrielle wrapped her arm around Xenaís waist. "Iím a thread. Just doing my job."
"Gods." Xena breathed deeply as though she hadnít taken air in a long time. "Iíll try to see it your way. Wonít be easy, but Iíll do my best."
"Thatís all I ask. The protection thing? Itís who you are, Xena, as much as the darkness underneath. And feeling helpless Ö." Gabrielle gave the warrior a big squeeze. "A lot to carry alone. Wish youíd told me sooner. At least now I know why youíve been so batty lately."
"Batty?! Well, sure, Iíve - ."
"Let yourself get locked up, beat up, sucked into visions, ëlightsí and delusions. Sounds batty to me. Iím lucky you didnít try pawning me off on Aiden."
"Um Ö." Xena ducked her head. "I started a note to you, but - ."
"Xeenaaa?!" Gabrielle swatted the warriorís midsection. "You didnít! Him too?"
"I saw myself Ö hurting you. He said it could bleed into reality if I stayed. I couldnít risk that."
Gabrielle scowled at her partner. "You know, I may sound batty too, but this new angle on your vision actually gives me some comfort."
"Comfort?! Me dying too?"
"Keep this up and maybe so. What I meant is, more than anything I feared being apart, if something happened to one of us." Gabrielle grinned. "As a thread, I felt we belonged tied together. Iíd begun worrying lately I might be asking too much. Now, if the vision comes true, I know itíll end as it should."
Xena snorted. "Oh yeah. Lots of comfort in that."
"You promised awhile back youíd never leave me."
Xena winced. "Uh, guess I havenít exactly - ."
"Not to worry. I realize now there was a disclaimer of sorts."
"Disclaimer? Whatíre - ."
"You said, ëEven in death.í Naturally I assumed ëin lifeí too. I see youíre a little shaky with that part. Iím not counting on it so much anymore."
Xenaís breath caught. "Gabrielle, theseíre unusual circumstances. If we -."
"Iím taking matters into my own hands." Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "Like someone else I know. Iím gonna follow you no matter what. Then I do want you to leave me alone - not try to stop me. Can you at least promise that?"
"Good, `cause Iíve got some ulterior motives."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle rested her head on Xenaís shoulder. "Iím really looking forward to going somewhere new - really new. Yes, some of Najaraís ideas appealed to me. I am seeking a path thatíll take me closer to my ideals, but not away from you. Iíd like to search out philosophies or ways to do that. Which, um, might rekindle your desire to run screaming into the night."
The warrior lay her head against Gabrielleís. "Following me around these years, you deserve your own quest for a change. Do us both good. Give me something else besides obsessing about that vision. The farther away from Romans the better." Xena snickered. "Of course, could mean you leave me this time around, maybe for a legit spiritual healer. Some holy man. Or priestess. A mystic secluded way atop -."
"You really are a pain."
The warrior smirked. "But worth it, right? You know - purpose for my ëthreadí and all?" She peered down at her silent companion. "Gabrielle? Thatís what you said, right?" Her brow rose. "Right?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes and snuggled into her soulmate, sharing this latest victory with a winning smile. Right. Definitely worth the pain.