The following fills the gap between Xena’s emergence from the dungeon in the Sixth Season's WHO’S GURKHAN? and her agreement at the palace pool that Gabrielle can seek revenge, concluding with Xena’s statement, “Don’t thank me, just be ready.”
JUST BE READY
Rarely did they retire to such opulence. The high ceilinged rooms were a palette of vibrant colors, the floors an ocean of plumply lush pillows. Bright metallic accents shone like the sun over languorously attractive women dressed to please. The richness of it all could drown or blind the uninitiated - even those experienced with the darkness possible underneath.
Gabrielle shuddered at the soiled white garment that framed the bruises painting her soulmate's skin. The purple eyelid swollen shut and etched with blood. The raven hair falling limply around a mottled face. This was not what she had pictured when she'd sought vengeance against the man who'd killed her parents and kidnapped her niece. She'd imagined Gurkhan dead, perhaps one of her sais gleaming in his chest, nothing more. Not what would come before or after - certainly not luxuriating in exotic splendor with a black-and-blue Xena lying in her lap.
"How’re you doing?" she asked quietly.
Xena's lips curved slightly. "Less kinks in my back."
"Well, that's something," Gabrielle lightly acknowledged her friend's attempt at humor. "I'm still angry, you know," she added a few moments later, stroking Xena's arm. "At him. With you." She watched Xena's good eye slowly open. Gabrielle smiled. "Don't think I'll go easy on you, just because you've been battered nearly to death."
Xena let her eye close. "Yeah, split lip."
"Split lip. Hurts to talk."
Gabrielle chuckled, giving Xena's arm a gentle squeeze. "You're shameless. You'd use anything to get out of explaining yourself."
Xena grinned and nodded slightly.
"Someone should be here shortly to treat you," Gabrielle said, patting Xena’s shoulder. "It seems the usual healer doesn't have much experience making a damaged harem wife look presentable again." Gabrielle swallowed. "They all died first."
Xena opened her eye. She lifted a finger to stroke Gabrielle's cheek. "Sorry," she murmured, valiantly trying to keep her eye from closing.
"Shhh." Gabrielle bent to kiss Xena's forehead. "Rest your lip." She glanced at the lavishly adorned women conversing a discreet distance away. "I'm the one who should be sorry," she sighed. "It's so confusing. I don't think I've ever felt this angry. I had to do something. A man like that didn't deserve to live! It was my responsibility to save Sarah, and this time--"
Gabrielle caught herself. She looked down at Xena and was relieved to see the warrior had dozed off. Smiling sadly, she continued quietly, "And this time I didn't feel so helpless. I knew you would be with me on this, even if you didn't like what I wanted to do. Was that so wrong? Was it so wrong if for once I got to avenge someone? Save someone I felt responsible for?"
Gabrielle noted the chatter in the background had quieted. She raised her head to see several pairs of eyes turn quickly away, guiltily appreciative her harem sisters had been taught not to ask too many questions. They'd been curious, naturally, at her sudden show of concern for the woman who'd tackled her as she'd danced for Gurkhan. Gabrielle simply said they'd known each other back home, that "Sophia" was like a big sister and probably wanted to protect her less experienced friend from becoming too popular with Gurkhan. The wives had frowned - still not understanding why the newcomers would risk taking up for each other -- but seemed moved by this rare display of compassion in the elaborately concealed snake pit they'd fallen into.
Gabrielle relaxed against the cushions, becoming lost again in her thoughts, holding on to the one constant in her life - the soulmate who, like the scene she found herself in, was a study in contrasts, surprises and deceptive beauty. She chuckled humorlessly, realizing some said the same about her.
"Can't you hear? I said to move away, so I can see what I've got here."
Gabrielle was startled by hands roughly nudging her shoulder. She looked up to see a tall, thin man glowering at her. He carried a healer's bag. She lowered Xena to the cushions and crawled a short distance away, but not before observing Xena's eye open briefly.
The man began examining his patient, who lay motionless. "What a mess. I can see why I was called in." He shook his head and began extracting various salves from his bag. "What's the point of having something beautiful, if you're going to throw it against a wall and break it?" he mumbled, as if to himself.
Gabrielle flinched as the healer unceremoniously removed the rags Xena's harem outfit had become. She knew Xena wouldn't be concerned about her nakedness, but marveled how the warrior let Gurkhan's men put their hands on her without even a twitch.
"You," he said, nodding in Gabrielle's direction. "What did she do to deserve this?"
Gabrielle was silent, not sure how to respond.
"What? Are you mute too?"
"Nnno," Gabrielle stammered. "She … she attacked …one of the wives."
The man snorted. "She did, did she? Cat fight like that shouldn't have warranted this kind of punishment. Must've been someone special to Gurkhan."
"No, not to Gurkhan," Gabrielle muttered under her breath.
"What did you say?"
"I said, I don't know, sir. I'm new."
"And stupid, for befriending this woman. She's obviously trouble." He signaled the guards to help him turn Xena on her stomach. He whistled at the numerous blows she'd taken on her back. "And tough, not like the usual ones. Don't know how she made it or why Gurkhan didn't finish the job." He snorted again. "Maybe he saw something special in this one too."
"Yes," said Gabrielle, "maybe he did."
The healer finished his ministrations, during which Xena allowed only a couple of small groans. "Well, I've done all I can for now," he said, beckoning the guards to turn Xena to her back. "We'll leave her here to recover." He reached in his bag. "Since you're so concerned about her, you can save me a few trips." He handed her some ointment and other assorted vials, instructing her on their use.
Gabrielle took the remedies. "Thank you." She lowered her eyes. "Sir."
"Don't thank me. I'm holding you responsible for her recovery."
Gabrielle did her best not to smile. She could've sworn she saw Xena's mouth twitch. "I'll do my best. I want to be a good wife."
"I suggest you teach that other one how to be one too, if she knows what's good for her."
"Yes, sir." Gabrielle kept her eyes averted until the healer and guards were gone. She tucked the sheet around Xena that the man had left behind. "You can stop pretending now," she said as she sat cross-legged next to her friend.
Xena smirked. She reached out a hand from under the sheet, which Gabrielle took in her own. "His hands were cold."
"He seemed to know what he was doing. Feel any better?"
"Yeah. Hurts less. Still a little tired."
"Must be getting old. Technically, you are nearly 60 winters, you know."
Xena chuckled. "Why I have you."
Gabrielle smiled and squeezed Xena's hand. "Cradle robber. Now, rest, old girl, so your body can do its magic."
Xena gingerly stretched. She winked her good eye before closing it again. "You're all I need," she said, squeezing Gabrielle's hand, before drifting off to sleep.
Gabrielle resumed pondering the chain of events that had led them to this position in Gurkhan's North African palace. She wasn't sure how much time had passed when she saw Xena stirring.
"I'm back," Xena yawned. "Almost good as new." She wriggled around a bit, getting herself more comfortable. "Now, go on with what you were saying."
Gabrielle blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Before I had my nap. The first time."
Gabrielle let out a breath. "Oh. Um, it wasn't anything."
"Please?" Xena took a deep breath. " I need to know how you are."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I see age hasn't affected your selective hearing or memory." She propped her elbow on her leg and rested her chin in her hand. "I was just saying how confusing this all is. It's okay for you to shoulder your responsibilities, to do whatever's necessary to make things right. But when I do that, something always goes wrong. No," she continued, as she saw Xena's mouth working, "let me finish. I'll tell you when I want your lip."
Xena chuckled. "Yes'm. No sympathy for the sick and elderly, eh?"
"Not when it's you." Gabrielle sighed. "Xena, I don't like feeling helpless, any more than you do, especially since I haven't been that way for a long time now. I don't need another mother, just like you don't need a little sister. We're supposed to be partners. I shared my plan with you, but you sneaked off and left me out of yours. Worse, you tried to take my anger, my responsibility, my risk all on your shoulders. Surely you didn't think I'd wait around twiddling my thumbs?"
Gabrielle paused, as one of the younger wives approached. The girl wordlessly offered her some finger food, then rejoined her companions, who nodded their approval. Gabrielle smiled her thanks and set the platter next to her. She turned back to see her soulmate quickly wipe the wry grin off her face in preparation for more sensitive chatting. Gabrielle gave her a look. "Yes, fortunately one of us knows how to make friends. Comes in handy sometimes." She pushed the contents of the platter around, not particularly eager to relive the past few days.
"Xena, do you have any idea how I felt, learning you'd been dragged off like that? Hearing the guards laugh about how much fun they were having with the ‘tough’ one? I was torn between hurt and anger because you tried to take it all from me, between love and anger because you were taking it all for me." Gabrielle regarded the arched doorway that had led nowhere in her frantic attempts to find Xena. "I told myself you'd make it. Then one day passed, and another." She put her head in her hands. "Gods. The waiting. It should've been me there. I wanted to bear it with you, tried to be with you in my thoughts, but--"
"You were there."
Gabrielle looked at her friend, puzzled. "Xena, what are you talking about?"
"I saw you." Xena swallowed. "When I needed you most."
"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle pushed the platter of food away and lay on her side next to Xena. "Tell me," she commanded quietly.
Xena shifted. "It's not what you think. I've had worse."
Gabrielle considered Xena in the silence that followed. "You were afraid. But not of dying? Xena, please, tell me."
Xena clenched and unclenched her jaw. She opened her eye and saw Gabrielle was not going to give in. She sighed. "I was afraid I'd let myself die." She grimaced knowingly at the stunned expression on Gabrielle's face. "My instinct is to fight, to defend myself. Before you, I didn't worry if I went too far, maybe got myself killed. But even then, I never left myself open, my hands just hanging at my sides." She shivered slightly as she felt herself once again lying defeated on the cold dungeon floor.
"The bastards hurt me, but not enough that I couldn't at least try to take a couple of them out. But I couldn't - not if I wanted to find Gurkhan and Sarah. I never felt so…. Like I was already…."
Caught off guard, Xena searched Gabrielle’s face, finding only the compassion and regard she’d never believe she truly deserved. "Yeah," she admitted, her eye brimming with gratitude. "Then I saw you. You came to comfort me. When you disappeared …. There'd be more pain, yes, but my fear was that I wouldn't be strong enough to keep submitting, to willingly accept helplessness as an ally."
Xena stopped and took a deep breath. The expression on her face reminded Gabrielle of the time they'd come back from the dead and discovered they'd somehow survived Hell.
"There was a moment when I was at my lowest, no longer able to fight back if I wanted, on the edge between giving in to my injuries and willing myself to take more." Xena remembered her head hanging down, the blood beneath it mirroring the confidence she was losing as well. "You came to me again. You reminded me why I had to make it. You gave me the strength to convince Gurkhan I wanted only to be his."
"You became a slave for me," Gabrielle breathed. "I wanted to save Sarah from that, but instead let it happen to the proudest, most fearless warrior in the known world."
"No!" Xena eased herself up to rest on her arms. "I started this when I decided to take matters into my own hands. I would gladly be anything, endure anything to protect you. But I was wrong this time. Like you said, it was your anger, your family. I should've figured out a way to respect that." She reached over to stroke Gabrielle's cheek again. "Forgive me?"
Gabrielle took her partner's hand. "Yes, if you'll forgive me too."
"Done." Xena wearily sank into the cushions. Talking tired her quicker than single-handedly fighting off an army.
Gabrielle lay on her back and gazed at the ceiling. "Xena? I know I wasn't thinking straight this time, but I wish you'd learn to trust me more. I keep wondering what it'll take for me to prove myself."
Xena was silent a moment, struggling to focus her thoughts. "Gabrielle, it's not just about how I see you. It's about how I see myself too. The world needs your light. I need your light. I fight to keep it from going out however I can. If the day comes when you're not beside me or … or you choose to dim that light yourself … I'll still carry it as my own. Until then, I will always want to protect its source. That won't change, no matter how much I trust you."
Gabrielle frowned thoughtfully. "So, you're saying if I'm not around physically, I'll be there in your mind, like I was in that dungeon?"
"Yeah," Xena yawned. "Something like that."
"Interesting." Gabrielle reached over to the platter and picked out some figs. She munched as she opened one of the medicine vials. "Turn over. I'll put some of this ointment on you before you fall asleep."
Xena looked surprised, but let Gabrielle help roll her over. "We're through? You're going to let me have the last word on this?"
Gabrielle smiled. "I'm through talking. I guess I just have to accept you'll do what you feel you have to."
Gabrielle continued applying the ointment. "And?"
"I know you, Gabrielle. This was way too easy."
Gabrielle chuckled. "I see your lip is better." She slowly massaged Xena's shoulders and back.
"Mmmm. Feels good." Xena nuzzled more deeply into the softness beneath her. "Answer the question," she remembered to add drowsily.
"That’s it, relax." Gabrielle worked on Xena's arms. "And you'll just have to accept I'll do what I feel I have to. Okay, I'm going to do your legs now."
"Hmmm? Whatsat? And I'll just have to accept my legs now?"
Gabrielle smirked. "Uh huh."
"Good girl." Gabrielle felt her partner slipping further into dreamland. "I'll always be your protector too, Warrior Princess," she whispered in Xena's ear. "I must also be pretty tough, to make it through a skull thick as yours. Keep that in mind when your selective memory tries to forget."
"Ummhmm…. Thanks…. Love … you," Xena mumbled before finally succumbing to her partner’s healing touch.
Gabrielle raised her head and scanned the vivid reds, greens and golds surrounding them, the armed men guarding a wealth of priceless possessions that didn't belong there. The only thing missing was her picture of Gurkhan and Sarah. She still wasn’t sure how that would turn out. Instead, an image flitted across her mind of another time and place, of a young woman with certainty in her eyes and the words to paint visions of doves heralding blue-sky possibilities. She was convincing a world-weary warrior that hate wasn’t the answer to rage, begging her not to become a monster avenging harm to loved ones, believing such words to be true even when the self-questioning ex-warlord had responded with equal conviction, "That is so hard to do."
Sighing, she shook herself back to reality. She lifted the hands that had been tending Xena and turned them over. The palms were orange-tinged from the medicine. These same hands, skilled now in so many other ways she’d never dreamed, had some unfinished work to do. She wondered what colors might stain them when she was through, if she’d have light enough to tell the difference.
"Don't thank me," she said softly to her peacefully slumbering soulmate. "Just be ready."
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