The following companion pieces make reference to several episodes related to the “rift” in Season Three and Alti’s vision in Season Four.  They imagine “in the moment” responses of Xena and Gabrielle to strains on their relationship as depicted in MATERNAL INSTINCTS, CRUSADER and IDES OF MARCH. Originally intended as impressionistic reviews (tweaked in March 2008), they ended up initiating me into fanfic barding, a habit I cannot seem to kick.  Hmmm. Seems I got hooked near the onset of the new millennium. Yeah, let’s blame it on that.. –  IQ    





By IseQween

February 2000


One: Xena

I had such hope when we got to the Centaur village. It felt wonderful to hold my son again, even though I couldn't allow myself to become too attached to him. As I told Kaliepus, I hadn't come to claim Solan. I simply wanted to help the Centaurs and Amazons forge a treaty that would ensure my child an even brighter future than he had already with his adopted family. Gabrielle was with me, closer than I thought we'd been since Brittania and Chin. I was wrong. What happened at the Centaur village was so far from anything I'd imagined in her, in myself, that I could scream again just thinking about it.

We'd been there only a short while when a chill went down my spine. The damage done to those totems and dead Centaurs seemed like Callisto's work, but it couldn't be. Gabrielle and I had watched my nemesis plunge along with Velasca into that lava pit. Then Gabrielle brought that child in to warn me about some bad lady who knew my “little secret” and would take it to the grave. My heart froze. It was Callisto, and somehow she knew about Solan. I wanted to ask the child what else she knew, but she'd already disappeared. I had a bad feeling about that too.

Still, I had hope we could protect Solan. I say "we" because, as far as he knew, he was motherless and I was just a good friend. I'd had to rely on the kindness of strangers to care for him as I couldn't. I restrained myself in the shadows when Kaliepus grabbed Solan and scolded him for being careless. I owed my son's life to that honorable Centaur and former enemy who'd agreed to raise Solan. So I asked his permission to talk to my child and tried to explain to Solan why Kaliepus - why we - seemed so overprotective. "When you are a parent and your child is in danger, that is one of the scariest feelings in all the world," I told him. I said it meant you loved that child very much.

It wasn't until Gabrielle and I first encountered Callisto, then discovered the dying Kaliepus, that I began to be truly afraid. Not only had Solan lost the one parent he'd ever known, but I knew Callisto had help. An enemy in our midst I couldn't identify. I felt so conflicted when Solan said everyone who ever loved him had died and he asked, "Is it me?" No! I answered emphatically and came so close to telling him who I was. But I still felt he was better off with the Centaurs. Then he said what every mother wants to hear – that he preferred living with me, someone he knew and cared about. "Take me with you," he pleaded. "Don't leave me." I looked longingly at the child I had abandoned and decided to claim him as mine at last. I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. I told him to get packed, that there was a lot for us to talk about on the road. I rushed off with renewed vigor to rid the village of Callisto, anticipating the moment I'd let my son know me as his mother.

Next thing I knew, Gabrielle was telling me the child, "Fela," had brought another message from Callisto, saying the deranged demi-goddess meant to kill all the children. I couldn't quite understand why Gabrielle seemed so confident about this child, who seemed to come out of nowhere and have a special pipeline to the woman who meant to destroy us. I demanded to know what made Gabrielle think we could trust Fela. As usual, Gabrielle asked what made me think we couldn't. I'd always known we were different when it came to believing in people. I can't chance the possibility someone will do harm. She can't chance the possibility they might not. With my son's life hanging in the balance, there was no question what side I'd fall on this time.

I tried to reason with Gabrielle, to get her to see that, innocent or not, Fela might be an integral part of Callisto's plan. Suddenly my partner becomes more defensive and resentful than I've ever seen her. "That is not true!" she yells at me. "You were always so quick to blame her. She is not evil. She is not!" I wonder what's gotten into her. Then it dawns on me. "The child is Hope?" I ask in disbelief and cold horror, knowing the answer, even though that demon too is supposed to be dead.

I hear Gabrielle saying something about lying, about how my being a mother should help me understand why she had to save Hope. I am a mother. And a warrior. Whatever Gabrielle wants me to hear doesn't matter nearly as much as focusing on some way to stop the monster my rage and Gabrielle's innocence spawned. Which I'd helped bring into the world and at first protected. Which Gabrielle had named "Hope" because I'd told her she would have hope again.

Hope's young, I consider out loud to myself; maybe it's not too late. Poison might still kill her. "Poison?!" my partner screams. "Xena, she is my child!" Gods! Hasn't Gabrielle been paying any attention at all? "She is not a child!" I remind her for what seems like the umpteenth time. "She is a body, a vessel for evil. That is all!" I realize now how much I took Gabrielle for granted - her word, her loyalty, her commonsense and respect for my judgment. It never occurred to me she would continue to carry such strong faith and feelings for Hope. Now my shortsightedness had come back to prey on me. This woman before me wasn't my partner anymore. She was a lioness protecting the cub I meant to kill.

"You are wrong!" she spits at me again. "Hope is the victim in all this!" She glares at me as though I am the heartless hunter, which I guess I am. And then she nearly fells me with words that pierce my heart - that she'd sent Hope to Kaliepus' hut to be safe from Callisto, exactly as I had done with Solan. I feel sick. I want to scream at her for risking my son's life on the chance Hope was good after all, but I can't dwell on that now. I tear out to Kaliepus' hut, carrying with me the thought that Gabrielle and I could never be farther apart than we were then. Oh, was I wrong. Again.

I'd seen Lyceus fall mortally wounded. Watched Marcus die twice, once by my hand. Felt Gabrielle's heart stop beating, until I breathed and pounded the life back into her. But nothing I'd witnessed in my gore-filled life, no one I ever loved and lost had hardened my mother's heart against the emotions tearing around inside me at the sight of my son slumped against that altar. "Solan?" I call softly, still clinging to my hope, even as I pull his limp body into my arms and check futilely for signs of life.

I hear her at the door, intruding upon this precious moment when Solan is the only person I want near me. "Get out," I say, trying to control myself and this moment. She calls me again. This time I snarl, "Go!" to the friend I'd kept so close to my heart, who abandoned me when I needed her most and now dares to be with me when she is the last person I want to see. She leaves me in my grief.

I turn back to Solan, begging him to stay with me as we both wished he could. I caress him, hug him, finally tell him his mother is here after all. But I am too little, too late. Words fail, tears fall uselessly. Something primal in me uncoils, forces my mouth open and tears out screaming what sounds like "no" over and over again. When it's all out, it seems to have taken my insides with it. I am raw. As though someone took a butcher knife to my heart, cleaved my soul apart and stole the half that was everything I'd come to believe in. I'd let myself chance bright possibilities, only to have them scraped away by the very hand that had opened me to them. What's left are the lifeless bodies I rock as if they are merely asleep.

Ephiny knocks and sticks her head in. I tell her to go away too. She says they need my help. As though Amazons and Centaurs mean anything to me now. She persists. "I said, get – " I start to yell, then realize it is her son Xenon standing there, frightened by what he sees. He is only a child, like the one I hold, except he still has a chance. I gave him his first one, when I had to cut him from his mother's womb. I gently lay down the child of my own womb, the one I couldn't help, who no longer needs me. I shroud him and what might have been. Assume my mantle as a warrior to face what is. I discover I am not as empty as I thought. The darkness remains. And the rage. I let them fill the space recently inhabited by the other half of my soul. I forge them into a shield and weapon to save someone else's child, as I avenge the death of my own.

I lead the attack against Callisto, impervious to the words she believes will make me suffer more than I already have or weaker than when I held my son's corpse. She is so far from hurting me - just a thing, like Hope, that must be destroyed. I follow her into the cave where she has seen the children go to hide. I tell her it all ends here with me. She thinks I will let it go because she's discovered my pain wasn't worth to her what she'd thought it would be. "It's not that simple," I answer. "I won't let it be."

I put everything I was and am into knocking her into the oblivion she doesn't deserve. She throws her bolts at me, which I dodge, and they crumple the pillars supporting the stone above us. I smile that smile. I will use her own powers to defeat her. She says I plan to trap us both. Maybe at one point she is right. Once I have her pinned beneath me, I tell her that, unlike her, I intend to go on living with my pain. I escape.

Ephiny and the children are outside, safe. She nods her thanks. I give her a small smile in return, of apology and acknowledgement. There's just one more loose end I must tie. I find Gabrielle and see she has tied it herself. She looks at me, perhaps expecting something. An apology maybe, or an acknowledgement. Why? Because she finally did what should have been done a long time ago, regardless of how it came to be or who had to do it? Before it was too little and far too late? I leave her alone with her kill.

I stand in front of the funeral pyres, watching my soul go up in smoke. I am alone, though I know Gabrielle is there too, a short distance away. The small rivulet of water running through the mud between us might as well be an ocean. She tries to tell me she is sorry, but she's gone too far. I don't want to hear anyway. She's too good with words. She taught me the meaning of so many nice words, only to make a lie of them.

I know she didn't mean for Solan to die. I know believing in Hope came as naturally to her as doubting Hope came to me. I know the difficulty of trying to serve two masters. I know all about guilt and being sorry. About lies. You'd think I'd be more understanding. But I also know none of that is good enough to bring back the dead. How can I forgive her role in all this when it would also mean facing my own? It would be too much. All I have left is the bitterness and rage I started with. If I let that go, where else will I get the courage I need to go on living, to be less of a coward than Callisto?

I dismiss Gabrielle from my life with words of cruel recrimination. She says, "I love you, Xena" in return. I am gratified she at least still has such words, whether she believes in them or not. I may not be the good person we tried to make of me, but I am human. She walks away. I feel the absence I told myself was there when I learned she betrayed me. I knew losing my child that way would be hard to overcome, but somehow I didn't realize until then what it would be like to lose her too.

Tears stream down my face. My lips tremble and part as though something else wants to come out. Maybe a whispered echo of her parting words. But I am afraid. Afraid of her, of myself, and no longer confident I can do the impossible. She's gotten too far away. I am too raw to scream again. I cover my mouth and walk in the opposite direction. As far from that smoke, from her, from those blackened possibilities as I can get. So far maybe I won't ever have to worry anymore whether we should bring ourselves back together again.


Two: Gabrielle

I don't think I'll ever forget her scream. It broke my heart. Rent my soul in two and shredded the half that was me. Gods forgive me, as much as I hated to hear that scream, I envied it too. All I had was silence. Smothering, deafening silence. No comforting words, no dirges, not even recognition that something I had lost might be worth crying over. You don't think I wanted to scream too? To let out the awful pain and guilt from what I had caused? The shame that I couldn't protect my child from herself and her own mother? The horror that everything I had ever worked for was now so far from what I had ever imagined?

I envied Xena the child she could - despite everything - take for granted. His goodness, his happiness in a loving home.  This chance she had to touch him, play with him, safeguard his security. And yet, when we entered the Centaur village, she focused on the treaty, as though the opportunity to be reunited with Solan was secondary. Maybe it was to her, but not to me. I loved him for himself - because and in spite of the fact that he reminded me of my own child. The one nobody knew about, except my best friend. Who'd helped bring my daughter into existence, even protected her at first, then tried to kill her and hasn't spoken of her since.

My heart twisted when Solan dropped from the trees into Xena's arms. It twisted again when Kaliepus said the children had been invited because the treaty would mean a legacy of peace and hope. Hope. That's what I'd named my child. It all came crashing down on me when I ran into Ephiny, who at least noticed my pain when I saw her with Solan and her son Xenon. He was named in honor of the hero who had saved him as she had so many other children, except mine. I confessed to Ephiny I had gotten into a bad situation in Brittania, that I had given birth to a child. I didn't say the father was evil incarnate or that I'd set my daughter adrift in a river to avoid Xena's sword. I simply lied and said the child had died. "Don't blame yourself for her death," Ephiny consoled, assuming my daughter had passed over in her sleep. Another twist in my heart.

I felt some joy when I told Ephiny I named my daughter Hope because I'd wanted to believe, despite everything, this child would be worth it. At the time, I still believed that. I smiled when I saw Xenon's toy, recalling Xena had given me a similar wooden lamb as a Solstice gift, and that I had given it to Hope. It felt good to share that moment of remembrance and normalcy with Ephiny, as though I too were one of the parents there to ensure a better life for our children. Perhaps that's why it didn't seem so strange to have that frightened child, "Fela," sneak into my room, why I needed to reassure her I wouldn't hurt her or let anyone else hurt her either. Maybe I was thinking I could protect her as I couldn't my own daughter.

I took Fela to Xena so my partner could hear what the girl knew. The message she brought was that the "bad lady" knew Xena's “little secret” and was going to take it to the grave. Xena and I both shuddered when she realized immediately that Callisto had somehow returned and knew about Solan. I was even more convinced I should keep Fela close, but she had disappeared. It wasn't until I bumped into her later that I realized how right I was. She dropped a wooden lamb she said she carried with her when she'd been found as an infant floating in a basket. I was stunned. I couldn't believe my prayers had been answered. I had a mission to complete with Xena, so I told the girl to wait in my quarters where I'd know she was safe. "I don't know why you'd care," she said bitterly. I cradled her for the first time since she was a baby, anticipating the moment she'd know her mother's love.

I rushed off to be a decoy for Callisto while Solan was being hidden away. My heart chilled when I heard her tell Xena she'd come to meet the precious flesh of Xena's flesh, bone of her bone, blood of her blood. I didn't like the smug way Callisto said she couldn't be in two places at once. Neither did Xena, who already suspected someone was helping Callisto. When we found Kaliepus mortally wounded, I had to wonder if maybe I should pay more attention to that seed of doubt my partner had tried to plant in my heart about Hope. Now I rushed off to find my own child, disturbed for a couple of reasons that she wasn't in my quarters where she was supposed to be.

When Hope finally came in, distraught, she said Callisto was forcing her to use this mysterious "power" she had to move things. Despite my concerns about this, I embraced her anyway. And when she sobbed that Callisto had accused her of being evil, I said it was a lie, that she was not evil. I put my hand under her chin, raised it so she could see a mother's confidence in my eyes when I told her to never believe that. "My mother thought so," she cried. "She tried to drown me. She wanted me dead." Gods, this was not how I wanted her to know me. I told her I had no choice.  It was either the basket or watch her be killed. "I loved you," I said, hoping she'd someday understand that leaving or hurting Xena was also not a choice I could have made.

"You loved me?" she said in wonder, smiling through her tears. Yes, I said, pulling her to me, so relieved I could tell her at last how much I'd wanted her to survive. She admitted it was she who had freed Callisto and warned Callisto intended to kill all the children. She was afraid of Callisto and even more afraid of my telling Xena. She said Xena hated her. No, I assured her, neglecting to mention Xena thought her dead. "Xena just doesn't understand. Now she will see what I've known all along - that you can fight your dark side." Like Xena. I said I would take her to the safest place there was. "The safest place?" she asked. I studied her a moment, wanting desperately to see I was right. "I promise," I told her. Now both our children would be safe.

It was when I told Xena of Callisto's new threat that I realized the depth of my partner's fear. "What makes you think we can trust this child?" she demanded. "What makes you think that we can't?" I responded angrily. There. That was the crux of our difference. Each of us had to believe as we did to be who we were. Xena could imagine this child as a pawn or worse. But this time I knew who the child was and Xena didn't. "That is not true!" I shouted. "You were always so quick to blame her. She is not evil. She is not!" It dawned on Xena we were talking about my daughter. Hope.

I thought maybe now Xena would understand. I apologized for lying, appealed to her own instincts as a mother to appreciate why I had to save Hope, practically begged her to hear the silent scream I'd been holding all this time. She wasn't listening now either. Too busy devising ways to kill my daughter. "She's still young," Xena was saying to herself; maybe it wasn't too late and poison would do the trick. Poison?! Did she have any idea what she was saying or who I was? "Xena, she is my child!" I finally screamed. But all Xena saw - all she would ever see - was a thing, "a vessel for evil." "You're wrong," I repeated and told her Hope was the victim in all this, that I'd sent her to Kaliepus' hut to be safe. The look Xena gave me as she tore out to find Hope said we could never be farther apart than we were then. I was wrong.

Gods, please don't let me be wrong about Hope, I prayed as I reached the hut moments later, only to see Xena cradling Solan, caressing his lifeless fingers. No, not this. It can't be. I call to her, torn between my own emotions and the desire to comfort her. I sense her walling herself in. She can barely speak to me, let alone look at me. "Get out," she says in a controlled voice. I try again. "Go!" she snarls. I feel sick. I leave her alone in her grief. Then I hear her scream. It is the sound of a wounded animal, but filled with human consciousness of regret, guilt and betrayal. I could scream like that too, except I don't have the right. Her innocent child is dead. My child, the presumed murderer, wasn't. Yet.

I knew what I had to do and how to do it. I suppose I should thank Xena for that. It's hard enough plotting to murder your offspring, without having to worry about motive or method. I wish I could claim I'd lost touch with reality.  I'm afraid the opposite is more true. I am calm, deliberate as I prepare the poison for Hope, just as my partner had suggested. My daughter comes running to me, saying she is frightened. I hold her as I would a leper, but she is still mine. I dutifully stroke her hair and ask what she has done, like any mother who suspects her child of some great crime. I hear her say what any mother in that situation would want to hear - that it was a case of mistaken identity. The boy was already dead when Hope found him! Of course! Callisto killed him!

I pull her head to my chest, wanting so much to believe her. I think I do. Then she slips and refers to the dead child as "Solan." Even in my grief and joy, I feel that seed of doubt take root. It stills the hand stroking her hair. I ask how she knows the boy's name. She says I told her. I know it is a lie. I cling to my Hope a little longer, knowing she is about to die. Partly it's to fool her, partly it's because she'll take with her that innocent part of me I'd hoped to bequeath her. I had claimed both as my responsibility, and this seems the last chance I'll have to hold onto either of them.

When it is done, I caress her lifeless fingers and lift the poison to my own lips. My reverence for life had already cost three lives - four, if you count Perdicus. What was one more? I was empty of all that mattered to me. Except maybe seeing Xena again. I'd almost gotten her killed in Chin, if losing Solan this way didn't finish the job. Still, she's lived with her pain all these years. I could at least try to do the same. I pour the poison onto the ground. I hear someone. It's Xena. She sees what I have done, but the cold, unforgiving set to her face tells me I was too little, too late. I look away. I don't know what I expected. She leaves me alone with my kill.

I stand in front of the funeral pyres, seeing my best friend, her child, my child, my hope all go up in smoke with only a tearing of the eyes to mark their passing. I doubt anyone outside of Xena and myself knows the whole truth. But we don't console each other. We are beside and only a short distance from one another as usual, yet the small rivulet of water running through the mud between us might as well be an ocean. She has yet to even acknowledge my presence, let alone my pain. I face her again, this time saying out loud I'm sorry I didn't listen to her, that these fires would not be burning if I had. She condemns me with hostility and finality that surprise me. I knew losing our children would be hard to overcome, but somehow I had not until this moment accepted we could also lose each other.

It's ironic the motherhood we shared couldn't bring us closer. We both conceived children we didn't plan, who turned out different than we would have thought, whom we couldn't claim or protect, whose greatest enemy proved to be the one person we trusted most. I suppose that's not the kind of bond you'd want to share. Certainly I couldn't honor her need to wipe out the possibility of evil when it came to her child, and she can't forgive me my need to believe in the possibility of good when it came to mine. Hope didn't create that schism between us. She simply let our different ways of loving our own child blind us to the point where Xena and I just fell in.

I gaze at her even after she has wordlessly dismissed me, partly because I hope this isn't the end, partly because this may be my last chance to see her. To tell her I love her, which I do. She says nothing, and I see now I no longer exist for her. But words have always been important to me. I helped teach this woman of action the meaning of love, of trust and faith. I walk away from her gratified she can at least grieve as a warrior, able to avenge and express her pain in her own way, using it to save the other children. She has her anger and honor to keep her going. I know I'm not a bad person, but I am human. I envy her for still having what she did when we first met. Me? I feel stripped of who I was, of what I taught her and then made into a lie.

For the first time since I can remember, I am afraid. Afraid of her, of believing in the impossible. Afraid to run back and throw my arms around her and persuade her love is enough. I meant the last words I spoke to her. I guess I do still have those. Words. I'd rather be like her and scream, except there's no body to mourn, just the shell of a bad thing destroyed with an unfortunate piece of me inside. What right do I have to scream – to memorialize a loss best forgotten, to release the anguish I brought down upon us, to convince myself I am still worth living even though I'm no longer sure that's true? I am so far from that now, from Xena, from myself, and getting farther away with each step. So far I'm afraid it won't matter anymore if we can't bring ourselves back together again.






By IseQween

January 1, 2000


One: Gabrielle

I walk beside and a little behind. Watching her back as usual, but needing a bit of distance today to study her better. I don't have to see her face. I've ridden pressed against her often enough to know that how she sits Argo will tell me so much more than the stoic mask she wears to put me off this brightly lit afternoon.

I can tell she's in pain. She let Najara get past her defenses, and though she's trying hard to pretend otherwise, the blows hurt her to the very core. It's not the physical bruising that concerns me. That will heal quickly as always. It's the curious set and slump of her shoulders, as though she's determined and defeated at the same time. Could it be resignation? Acceptance that she's stuck with me, no matter how much she fears my being with her? That, despite how promising some other companion seems for me, she herself winds up being the lesser of evils? Acceptance of the anguish that comes with my being her shadow as well as her light?

Amazing how close two people can be, yet so far. Not just from each other, but within themselves. Talk about intimate strangers. Like Najara. Gods, that woman could fight! Reminded me of Xena when she burst out of nowhere into my life. Of course, Xena didn't knock me down and try to skewer me … well, at least not at our first meeting and for no apparent reason. I lay under the stranger's upraised sword transfixed, watching her transform from rage to sorrow and humility. I think I understood instinctively she was listening to some higher voice, struggling to hear what was true despite appearances to the contrary. Kind of like I did those times I tried to save or destroy Hope. Maybe that's partly why Najara reminded me of myself too. Anyway, she asked for forgiveness, and I gave it. She said her attack on us was an honest mistake. Don't I know.

I was pleasantly surprised when Xena looked to me, deferring her habitual reservation to my own natural openness, in accepting the crusader's invitation to travel with her. Admittedly, my partner has been a bundle of surprises since I came back from Dahok's pit. She's like a mother hawk, smothering me in her watch one minute, nudging me from her nest the next. Poor thing. So eager for me to fly to my own light, so afraid she'll blot it out if she hovers too near, or that someone else will if she doesn't.

It's hard to explain, but I felt so free with Najara. Like I could really breathe again. She stopped to smell the roses, listen to babbling brooks, gaze at swans -- just because they were there to enjoy. She saved people -- defending not just their bodies, but their souls, their hopes, the joy in their lives. She had visions of places where even the most damaged could live without violence or hate, sanctuaries from the evils Xena and I intentionally made our world. When Najara smilingly asked me to ride with her to Kouta Lake, it felt so natural to reach for that strange arm, settle in against that strange back, fly across the meadow on that strange horse, and alight to unburden my darkest secrets in this stranger's ear.

Amazing. Even Xena said so. True, she probably meant the crusader's prowess, which, I hate to say, did seem pretty close to Xena's. But I wasn't referring to the protection Najara promised, but to the liberation. Not from Xena, but from our shadows. To bask in and absorb the Light that gave Najara so much certainty, so much peace, such unencumbered purpose. Was it delusional to give myself up so willingly to this stranger in the hopes -- possibly on the pretext -- of finding myself? I'd done that with Xena…had that faith. I didn't really think about it back then either, nor, to be honest, did I care. I had to give it a chance, which meant giving it my all -- no defenses to hold it at bay, no reservations to shred what I let in, no blinders to keep me from discovering it in someone else. I can't seem to help that. It's what I do. It's who I am, even when that person often seems like a stranger to me now.

That's the "me" Xena knows and loves most. She grumbles, but we both know she doesn't find that me nearly as uncomfortable to live with as I sometimes do. I believe she gave me so much space with Najara (how much space I didn't know until later) because she wanted me to be more comfortable in my own skin. She's never minded defending both of us -- takes it as part of her job. She's had a much harder time coming to grips with my being a fighter too. That's what I thought I saw in Najara: a warrior of the heart, of the spirit, of the soul. Whose Light somehow transcended the gore of loving to fight or fighting for love. It's why I took part in that initiation of hers. Sure, I saw myself joining a community of sorts, but not to replace Xena. I thought about the hospice, just as I often imagine a lot of things I wish I could do. I guess I yearned for more than simply freeing people from their chains, then leaving them in our dust.

I was so happy when Xena returned from capturing Marat. I started to run to her and tell her how light I felt, to share with her my newfound hopes. I was taken aback when she marched in bristling in full warrior mode, this time the hawk circling its prey. A stranger from the woman of the last few days who rarely opened her wings to others, yet just last night entrusted me to Najara's care. I was sure her accusations were another honest mistake, that Najara and I could help her understand. But, no, this turned out to be the Xena I should have known better, the one Najara had said I should listen to.

Even then, the person I heard was Najara. Acknowledging she judged who deserved to die, that it was okay if she accidentally killed innocents in the process. Just as quickly as I had embraced her Light, I felt it flickering out. I welcomed Xena's gruff command to leave with her. Then my insides froze as Najara said no, I belonged to her now. Xena might tolerate trusting those slavers to Najara's mercy, but I knew she would die before leaving me to that fate. The two of them were so evenly matched. I couldn't breathe until Najara sailed into a crumpled heap beneath a pile of goods and I saw Xena throw down those sticks to turn her back on the kill.

It should have ended there, with no one having to die. But Najara burst out screaming like a woman possessed, oblivious to fairness or decency. I watched stunned as she attacked her unarmed foe, hitting Xena when she was down, beating her senseless with a vengeance to make Ares proud. I imagined briefly that defeating Xena would be enough. But no! The zealot grabbed her sword, shouted something about smiting the darkness, and I realized she meant to kill Xena! Suddenly I was moving, knowing I would die before I let that happen.

I threw my body over Xena, sensing even then I'd have to use my heart to save her, and that anything less than the truth would not be good enough. "Xena's dark side frightens me. I know I need to move on," I said, as much for myself as because that's what Najara needed to hear. She valued my soul more than either my corpse or Xena's, so I held it out to her once again, this time for my partner's sake. My heart ached at leaving Xena on the ground like that, with only my quickly fading touch to say goodbye. But the warrior in me warned anything more would weaken what little position I had.

It's so strange to believe you've done what's right and at the same time wonder how everything could be so wrong. The most precious person to me in all the world possibly lay dying as her best friend ran off with a mad woman. A stranger who, beneath those soft pastels, seemed so much like Xena, yet wielded a sword in defense of visions so much like my own. But the more Najara prattled on in that cave, the more unlike us she became. Maybe the voices in our heads are wrong sometimes, do hurt and occasionally drive us nuts too. But they are our voices; we take responsibility for what they compel us to do. Najara's "higher powers" absolved her mistakes. No wonder she dreams untroubled by blood or betrayal.

I was numb. Stuck with Najara and she with me, though I doubt either of us would ever affect each other as much as Xena and I did in our first glance. I had no idea what I'd do next, couldn't even bring myself to wonder if I'd ever see Xena again. Xena?! No, it couldn't be. Yes! Calling my name, standing right in front of me as if it's business as usual. Looking around for strategic advantages. Brushing off my legitimate inquiries about her condition with some joke about her teeth. Gods, I love this woman! Let's go, I urge, wanting nothing more than to leave this insanity behind. "No!" she says, squeezing my hand a bit too forcefully, looking a little possessed herself. Najara is too dangerous and must be stopped. She strides purposefully past me as though I'm not there. Kneels before a chasm, tosses a boulder down to gauge just how much pain Najara will suffer when she's thrown to her death.

This is the Xena I fear and must move past. The one I let tie me up as bait over yet another gaping hole. The one who is only half pretending to be on the brink herself. Whom I hear revealing dark truths to fool Najara, just as I did. Who relishes every blow, smirking evilly when Najara finally hangs by her fingernails to the chasm's edge. Whose foot slowly crushes the hand that keeps the crusader from plunging to her death. Still, I have faith. "Xena, don't kill her." I hold my breath, believing with all my heart she'll let the voice she protects with all her heart save her once again. And she does.

We handed Najara over to the local authorities. We survived the bittersweet catharsis she provoked, and I am gratified we moved on from our darkest fears this day. But confessing them to a stranger isn't exactly the same as speaking of them to each other. We have yet to do that. We travel alone in our thoughts. Still, I walk beside her, a little behind, realizing now more than ever she needs me at her back. We are partners who would die for each other. Friends who forgive honest mistakes. Hearts separated by fear the same joy and pain binding us together will also be our undoing. Intimate strangers. One seemingly resigned to being so close, yet so far. The other clinging to her faith that somehow she'll find a better way to bridge the distance between them.


Two - Xena

She walks beside me, but a little behind. I can feel her eyes on my back. Probably just as well. Looks like I need her there, as she had to save me again today. Twice. Every now and then I can hear her muttering to herself, using this little space between us to process how she feels about what we just left behind. Okay, and to study me. Gods only know what she's thinking. I'm glad she can't see my face, not that it would reveal much more than the few words I've spoken. I know she'd like me to talk to her. I just can't right now.

What words could possibly expresses what I'm feeling? "I want to hack every zealot and Roman out there into little pieces, then ride like the wind with you in front of me, leaning on me as lightly as you did Najara, find some quiet sanctuary, lie there listening to a babbling brook and each other's dreams, absolutely certain no danger lurks in me or in all this beauty that could hurt us as soon as we close our eyes." Yeah, that would work. She'd have me committed along with Najara. As she should. So I ride wrapped tightly in my resignation, accepting I may actually be the lesser of evils threatening Gabrielle, even though having her with me may destroy her.

Funny how two people can be so close, yet so far. Intimate strangers. Like Callisto. Like Najara. When she came thundering over that hill in her mask, striking Gabrielle, knocking me down with those fancy warrior moves, she could have been any one of the three of us. Like Callisto, showing she was as good as me. Better, when she stopped herself from killing Gabrielle and asked to be forgiven. I had reservations (big surprise), but I could tell my partner was intrigued. It was good to see that twinkling in her eyes, that openness and enthusiasm again. They've become even more precious to me in their rarity since we've died trying to kill or save one another.

Gabrielle deserves so much more than what she has with me. That whole mess with Hope took a lot from both of us. And Alti, cursing me with that nightmare in a dream. I saw Gabrielle alive in the future and felt joy surge through me at the prospect of getting her back. But once I had her in my arms, I couldn't stop picturing … Romans … nails … her hands…. Ohhhh. And me, helpless to stop it. One minute I want to hold her for dear life till the breath leaves us both. The next, I feel like the Destroyer -- me, her "grandson" -- my spikes piercing her flesh with every hug. Either way, my embrace means death. How close should I be to save her? How far? I don't think I've ever been so confused.

So, yeah, if Gabrielle forgave Najara's attack as "an honest mistake," then I would too. If she wanted to travel awhile with the crusader, that's what we'd do. I think I would have agreed to anything that brought the light to her eyes. I know, it's not like me to be so trusting. Actually, I wasn't. Who were these Jinn Najara took orders from? How could she be so like me in her military skills, surveillance and strategy, yet share Gabrielle's more exalted vision of the greater good, her passion for enjoying the little things the rest of us trample over or use without thought? She seemed too good to be true, but like my partner says, sometimes you just gotta have faith.

Oh, I still tested Najara, all right. I made sure her "army" wasn't attacking some innocent villagers. They weren't. She somersaulted next to me in that barn, armorless in her soft and light costume, growling and slashing like a mirror image of me. A one-woman army. I left to help outside. And to keep an eye on my partner. I know she can take care of herself (and me) now, but it's a hard habit to break. Sure enough, an archer was aiming right at her. "Gabrielle!" I shouted in warning, throwing myself over to intercept the arrow, finding my hand close around air because Najara had already caught the shaft.

"Amazing," Gabrielle said later. "Yeah, amazing," I agreed. She'd been so quiet as we walked through the woods with the crusaders. It was clear Najara had given her a lot to contemplate. Me too. An idea I didn't much like began rattling around in my head. Suddenly some geese flew over us. Najara and Gabrielle exclaimed in delight. Next thing I know, the crusader has reached her arm down to Gabrielle, not as a gruff command because of danger or efficiency, but to invite her to enjoy the beauty around them. It took months for me to get my friend comfortable climbing aboard Argo. Yet smiling with no hesitation, she mounts a strange horse and puts her arm around this stranger's waist as though that’s what she was born to do. They look expectantly at me. I'm not into watching birds I tell them, adding to myself, "Just Gabrielle, who seems as far from me now as those geese."

I remember feeling a little sick. My insides churned. The idea in my head had gone from rattling to pounding. I felt like a little girl again -- left behind, alone, saddened by and envious of what I would miss, not quite good enough to deserve any better. But I am Xena, and even as a child I had to see things for myself. I followed them. Saw them laughing, heads together in intimate conversation, strolling serenely beside Kouta Lake. Heard enough to know my dearest companion could confide in this stranger what she couldn't tell me -- secrets from the deepest recesses of her heart that she feared would break mine. My heart did ache to hear we shared the same fears -- her doubts about being on "the right path," that following some of her own dreams would mean going our separate ways, that she didn't think she could get used to the killing regardless of how justified or inevitable.

Much as I may have wanted to, I couldn't blame Najara. She seemed genuinely surprised Gabrielle wasn't totally happy traveling with me or with the compromises we made fighting for the greater good. She merely pointed out what was true, what Gabrielle and I simply chose to bridge without looking down -- that we were on different paths. Najara offered what gave the crusader peace and purpose -- her Light. "I need something," Gabrielle responded wistfully. If she expressed more than that, I couldn't tell. It was enough to see her skipping off with her new friend. I wished it were me at her side, that she could find what she needed in my company. But it wasn't me. Not even close. And even if it could be me, the vision in my head of us together had Gabrielle nailed to a cross.

Najara was good in her way, I'll give her that. She was right about my not wanting to trust too soon and managed to win my confidence anyway. I found myself confessing to her too, about Alti’s vision, about how traveling with me wasn't always good for Gabrielle. About how I seemed to hurt her. That if she stayed with me she would die. Miss Supreme Warrior Princess, Queen's champion and sworn protector, master of the understatement. My many skills useless now, my mask crumbling in tears. My soul laid bare to convey the inestimable preciousness of the woman I wanted to entrust to this stranger. Yes, as Najara guessed, I had decided to leave Gabrielle there and ride off into the sunset. I was fairly confident she wouldn't follow me this time, not if Najara's predictions and promises were as good as they'd been so far.

Was it cowardly (not to mention delusional) to put my own hopes and promises in this stranger's hands? Was it fear of my own inadequacies, my own thorns, more than desire for my friend's happiness? Was I really protecting myself by letting Gabrielle go? I don't know, anymore than I know what drove me to surrender my control when I let her in the day we met. I know only I wanted to see her fulfilled and not be the cause of her death. Neither of those ends seemed possible if she stayed with me. Najara offered a security that had "something" better than mine. Whatever it was, it would encourage Gabrielle's natural inclination to the light, not pull her away from it in a constant tug of war with darkness.

For once I was willing to put my pride and defenses aside. If there was one thing I learned from my partner, it's that you have to open yourself to possibilities before you can see them, give them a chance if you want them to be real. I tried it my way first, and Najara passed with flying colors. My instincts still screamed no, but I decided to go with my heart. On faith. For Gabrielle. And hoped she'd understand.

Funny how you can do something good and feel so bad. Gods did it hurt to ride off that night with only a whisper to Gabrielle's sleeping form to say goodbye. I reverently closed the gates around where she would live forever within me. I focused on my mission to find Marat, not yet willing to consider what I'd do beyond that. You can't imagine what went through my head when he mistook me for Najara. A cold-blooded killer who denied the chance that her victims might be innocent or reformed? No! It couldn't be! I might as well have kept my faith to myself!

I high tailed it back, weapons ready, mask back on, in full warrior mode. I saw Gabrielle appeared well and happy. Good. I could concentrate on Najara. This was between the two of us. I asked her about Marat's accusations. She babbled in crusade-speak, but the truth came out. I told Gabrielle we were leaving, surprisingly surprised to hear Najara say no, she wasn't giving back the precious life I'd practically begged her to take off my hands. We drew our swords, fighting viciously until I kicked her into a pile of goods. I thought it was over, that maybe I'd avoided another of Alti's visions -- which I'd disregarded anyway -- of me lying vanquished on the floor. Hah! Maybe that's the one I should have paid attention to.

I threw down in disgust the poles I'd been using to fight with and turned to leave. Gabrielle would be relieved neither combatant had to kill or die, especially me. Suddenly Najara hurtled out at me like a woman possessed, catching me off-guard and weaponless, beating the crap out of me when I could still fight back, then as I writhed helplessly on the ground. I heard Gabrielle scream my name, and everything went black. When I came to, only the pain convinced me I was alive. I was sure Najara had meant to finish me off - I know the signs quite intimately - but Gabrielle's absence suggested she'd somehow paid the price for my head. Ah, Gabrielle. Your light, your voice got to Najara, just as they did to me. You are a weakness in our formidable capacity to do evil, the saving grace that makes any good in us stronger.

I looked in the mirror above the bar, for once pleased at what I saw: Dark Xena with Gabrielle as her secret weapon. An avenger of the crusader's innocent victims, of the hearts she'd made a mockery of and used against us. More bloodlust coursed through my veins than I'd allowed in a long while, but this time I had a good excuse. I felt liberated. Focused and free to do whatever it took. I followed the tracks to their hideaway, unleashing all that darkness Najara wanted so badly to fight and which I'd need to snuff out her light. I tore through her men in anticipation, no longer feeling any pain. I jogged into the cave barely noticing Gabrielle, except to see she seemed okay and to brush off her attempts to slow me down, to get me to go. Nuh uh. Najara was too dangerous a flame to leave burning, just as I was then.

I knew I was scaring my partner. We'd both hoped not to see this side of me again. Still, she accepted her role as bait, let me tie her up above that chasm, had faith I knew what I was doing. I did. I thrilled to see Najara come rushing in. Payback time, and I intended to enjoy every moment. Gabrielle's "plight" distracted the crusader as I knew it would. At first she wasn't convinced I was as evil as she'd said. So I taunted her, mocking what she held so dear. I said bitterly that Gabrielle was an ingrate who preferred Najara's zealotry to my dark side, that if I couldn't have her, nobody could. I told her what she prized so much would actually be a hindrance, a vulnerability for warriors like us.

"Be careful, she's snapped," my partner had warned Najara. I played it to the hilt -- not too difficult considering its closeness to the truth. I spoke the truth too -- a cruel and twisted version maybe -- but anything less wouldn't have been evil enough for Najara to buy. Frankly, I think I had to get some things off my chest anyway, as much as tell Najara what she needed to hear. I felt so betrayed by those images of Gabrielle and that whacko smiling together, now that I knew we'd both made such a huge, if honest, mistake. I was angry at myself, at Gabrielle, for giving this fraud such power over us, for letting her be the catalyst to exorcise demons we were afraid to let each other see. I'd let my guard down, allowed myself to hope and gotten kicked in the teeth for my trouble.

No, pummeling Najara wasn't enough to make up for all that. I wanted to finish her off. Still, I smirked appreciatively when she caught herself on the lip of that chasm after I finally knocked her in. She'd earned herself a chance to glance over at Gabrielle and see how we fooled her like she did us. To peer down into the abyss that would swallow her and her forked tongues forever. To take one last glimpse up at this darkness she'd mistakenly believed herself woman enough to play with. I held her gaze a moment longer before crushing my boot slowly, painfully down on the hand that would send her to her Light. Then I heard a voice. "Xena, don't kill her." My head swiveled toward Gabrielle. I looked back at Najara. I knew I was okay when I made the choice so easily. Saved again. Might as well return the favor. I pulled the fool up, then punched her out.

Before we left her with the local authorities, I asked Najara if she'd told Gabrielle about Alti's vision. She said no, that would hurt Gabrielle, which is my job. I hate to agree with her, but she may be right. I'm doing too many weird things trying to bear this alone. I just feel too raw for any sensitive chats right now, so soon after our bittersweet catharsis. It pains me to admit, but Najara dented my confidence along with my jaw. I don't relish having Gabrielle study my beaten face. I straighten my shoulders for good measure. I content myself with riding beside and a little ahead, resigned to not quite knowing yet what's too close, too far. Hoping the intimate stranger I trust at my back will keep searching for a better way to bridge the distance between us.





By IseQween,

May 1999


One: Gabrielle

So close. My valiant warrior came so close. On her final mission, she really believed her best would be good enough. That's all I wanted, so for me, it was a dream come true.

You see, I never believed in Alti's vision, at least not the way she wanted. I guess I was supposed to see death and despair when she so unceremoniously shared whatever that was with me. She wanted my pain to hurt Xena, to cripple her in her way to fighting for good. I admit the witch came awfully close. But not close enough. My way is to see hope in the impossible, to have faith love is always there between the lines. I know that makes me seem childish and naïve, even though I've been to Tartarus and lived to tell of it. But, then, a lot of people don't know me very well. Alti sure didn't, nor did Ares, Caesar or Callisto. Which means they didn't know Xena as well as they thought either.

I believed in Xena. I knew she would come. Oh, it felt so wonderful to see her, barreling through those prison guards, flinging the barred door open, hugging me, breaking Eli's chains, vowing she wasn't going to let her worst nightmare be real. I knew then what I'd always believed - that when she believed in herself as I did, no power on earth could defeat her but herself. And I was right. It took all those supernatural forces of destruction - in small measure shaped and wielded by her own hand - to bring her to her knees.

I sensed Callisto before I saw her. The danger so close it sent chills down my spine. Before it broke Xena's. The look on my beloved friend's face told me she saw herself falling an eternity of inches short of her promise. She'd liberated Eli and his followers, yet all she saw was me. Me. So close to saving me -- us -- yet now helpless to protect the way of the one who would rather die than kill. It all came down to me: The girl who stood up to those slavers and inspired a lost warrior to unearth her weapons and fight by my side in a new way. The quick study who learned when to run, when to talk, when to pit the enemy against themselves. The Amazon queen who felt what it was like to kill. Like Xena said, everything would change.

I saw that guard with his sword poised above my fallen champion, and all I'd witnessed, sought and feared crystallized in that moment. Surprisingly, I found myself as clear as I'd ever been. My clothing was different from the peasant dress I had on when Xena and I first met, or the active wear I donned more suitable to my staff, but the instincts were the same. I wanted everything to change. To save Xena. She had come so close. It was up to me to take the baton now, to finish this race as a team. The spear would do. I picked it up surely. It felt right in my hands, and this time my aim would be true.

As to what happened after my throw hit home, it's all kind of a blur. I think I felt what I said I feared in Xena, but, truthfully, knew I had a wee bit of in myself. It sure was close enough that, at least from the outside, it would've been hard to tell the difference. I do remember seeing my partner struggle painfully but unsuccessfully to rise. Heard her crying out, "No!", just as I had done so many times when I was in her place. But I was so close to saving us, I couldn't - wouldn't - stop. And then I came back to myself - or at least what I'd imagined myself to be - once again stunned to see a bloody knife in my hand. I let it slip from my fingers. Everything had indeed changed. And Xena was alive.

I held her in my arms as though she were my world. I guess in many ways she was. I know I was hers. Still, I could tell when she came to she was afraid. She wasn't sure who held her. She wanted it to be me, to know I too was alive. But at what price? Would she see in my eyes the same darkness she'd called upon so often herself to save me? "Gabrielle?" she whispered tentatively, hopefully. I had to smile. For someone so determined and strong, she was such putty in my hands. I didn't want her to worry even a moment. I cupped her chin gently, turned it so she could look at me and know the love that held her. She rewarded me with one of those precious smiles, and though she told me not to cry, she knew my tears were clean, that they washed away any doubts that whatever had changed was all right. Or at least, close enough.

People think sadness fills those "sensitive chats" (as Xena liked to refer to them) you have when you're about to die. Okay, I suppose that's what I felt too, those other times when one or the other -- or both -- of us were in that situation. Maybe that's true when there's guilt, fear, uncertainty or a lot of other unresolved emotions or expectations. But those last few minutes between Xena and me were the most wondrously fulfilling of my life. It was as if all the time and space, all the sustenance, all the hopes we ever wanted or needed was right there. We knew all the good we had done and would be our legacy. We knew we had forged a bond between us enduring enough to resist everything in the universe that tears people apart. It really was like we were the world and all that mattered was we had made it together.

It's kinda funny how Xena always made me out to be the philosopher. How she indulged my need to search out all sorts of ways to find myself. But she is wiser in that way than people give her credit. Despite our differences, she said a long time ago I was her light, her way. I'm glad I had the chance to convince her she was mine too. And I ended up being the one to protect us, to cradle her spirit when she could be a warrior in body no more. But when she said, shyly, she wished she'd read my scrolls, I thought I'd already died and gone to the Elysian Fields. Gods, that woman can be so sweet sometimes! She'd battled demons and gods, toppled empires, leaped across oceans of trouble, yet what does she cherish most in our final hours? My words. My stories about who we were, what we did, what we meant to each other and our world.  My  version. Not what others said. Not even what she said. I accepted this honor with such profound gratitude and, yes, pride when I responded, "You would have liked them." And I believed her when she said, "I know."

I'm not one to put a lot of stock in destiny like Xena is. If you can't change things, see more than what seems obvious, love the unlovable, have faith when all seems lost, then nothing is important to do. I believe in the impossible, and Xena does it. Well, close enough. But you know, even "nothing" has a positive side I hadn't recognized before. I used to berate myself for sitting around thinking of how to break the cycle of hate and violence - looking like "a bump on a log," as Amarice would probably put it. It went against my grain to stand around watching people get hurt. Deep down, I still felt kinda useless with my experiments in "nonviolence," even when I had some success with my powder puff and ropes.

But in our last and worst moments, I wasn't thinking about that. I believe I felt that emptiness of will or negativity, that nothingness Eli talked about achieving before being completely filled with love. I believe Xena felt it too. We even smiled as we watched each other die, each doing nothing but filling the other with the pure love that spilled over from ourselves. Eli wasn't kidding. It was the most powerful force I'd ever experienced. 

When it all comes down to it, guess I'd have to say I'm not so concerned anymore if simply loving is doing nothing. It sure as Hades got us to those crosses. Brought us so close even then we managed to hold together as one. So close. At least enough for eternity.


Two: Xena

So close.  I came this close to kicking that vision's butt. Actually believed I could. Even if I couldn't, I had to try. Only this time, head-on, focused, confident in my way as a warrior. Not running away from it or making me do something stupid. Ugh! Like leaving Gabrielle in the hands of some whacko.

Gabrielle. She never really believed in Alti's vision. If she ever thought about it, she didn't let it cripple her like it came so close to doing to me. Hah! In one sense, did. That bard is so stubborn sometimes, bless her.  All the while I'm agonizing over how my way will get her killed - letting myself get beat up and nearly sliced to death in the process - she's basically telling me she doesn't care what it meant. What will be will be. We can make it mean whatever we want it to. What counts is facing it together.

That was so hard for me to accept. Every time I saw the part of the vision where Gabrielle … where Gabrielle is … where they …. Let's just say I could see nothing good in the fact I knew I was tied up there too. Or that there were Romans involved. And probably Caesar. Figured I didn't focus more on me because I was so concerned for Gabrielle, so certain I’d be the cause of it, so determined not to let it happen at all. Like it had to me. Besides, it was my job to get hurt, to face death. Well, that was all true, but not entirely so. Why was I lying there anyway? Helpless. Doing nothing and smiling for all the world like that was okay. What could have made me surrender so willingly, so peacefully to such a fate - not so much for me, but for Gabrielle? That was my real terror. I'm not sure my partner understood that, because I didn't either until my own chakram hit me in the back.

My spine. My backbone. My pride. Callisto always did know where to hurt me most. I felt my world snap as my legs gave out, bringing me to my knees, pushing my face into the dirt. I tasted again what it was like to be weak, vulnerable, useless. Nothing. Like on those crosses. Sent shivers up my spine. Or what was left of it. Only this time I thought it wasn't just about me. This time I cared about me because somebody else did. I was a promise to Gabrielle - what I could do for good, what I'd said I'd be for her. I had come so close. Eli and his followers were free. With any luck, Brutus was taking care of Caesar. But as I fell, all I saw was Gabrielle. My precious Gabrielle. What good was close, when everything came down to her having to shoulder my promise?

I would have kicked myself if I could. I'd let my ego and single mindedness betray me again. I was wrong when I said I hadn't left Gabrielle this time. I did, with Eli and Amarice. Of course they weren't whackos or untrustworthy like the others. It seemed the right thing to do to honor both our ways. Still, I should've known better. Gabrielle did. She was wiser in that way than I gave her credit. She recognized what Ares and Caesar and Callisto - all those enemies of mine my arrogance convinced me I could keep from touching her - counted on. That no matter how far away Gabrielle and I might be from each other, we were still together. That it was easier to get to both of us if we were apart.

I fell to the earth drinking in the sight of the last person I wanted to see standing there. Close enough I could see what I was feeling reflected on her face. The horror. The disbelief. The love. And, for a brief second, the helplessness. "This is it." Then her gaze shifted, a little above and behind me. I had sensed the danger, but didn't take it in until, once again, I saw myself in her eyes. Not the broken me lying on the ground, but the strong dark one I'd struggled with, relied upon all my life. I could see her helplessness turn into resolve. She'd made her choice, and it wasn't the one I'd have gladly given my life to protect. A chill went through my heart. I felt it breaking, just like my worthless spine.

Everything was changing, and there was nothing I could do to change it back. Oh, I struggled to rise when she pleaded with me to get up. I would have done anything she asked of me, especially then. But we both knew this was one time I wasn't going to do the impossible, no matter how much she believed. So she chose to do it herself. To save me. To save us. However bad I imagined I’d feel on that cross, it was nothing compared to my anguish now. "No!", I cried out, as blood spurted again and again from her dream of a nonviolent way. She'd come so close! A little of me died with every stab, every kick and punch, even though - especially because - I knew they were all for me. Me!

When I came to, I knew it was she holding me. I could sense her even when I was blind. As much as I wanted to look at her, I was afraid. Afraid of what I might see in those eyes. I so loved that purity and faith, that belief in even me after all we'd been through, even though - with a little help from me - she'd been to Hades and back. I should've known better. "Gabrielle?" I whispered. She turned my head ever so gently so I could face her, kissed the worry from my brow, and the way she murmured, "Xena," was music to my ears. I sighed in such profound relief.

From then on, it was really just the two of us. Naturally, I still had a little guilt to get out. She washed it away in the tears I told her not to shed. Healed my wounded heart, straightened my spine with the words I cherished so and regretted not paying more attention to. She defined my world. If she said what had changed was all right, then it was all right with me too. Or close enough.

"Rest," she'd said. My eyes darted around a bit, the last sign of a body accustomed to being guarded, in control, doing something. Then I remembered that didn't matter anymore, even the fact I couldn't move if I tried. For once I listened to her as if my life depended on it. I did as she asked. And you know what? For the first time, I knew real peace. I refused it when Ares and Callisto tried to tempt me. Always said I'd never achieve it, didn't deserve it, had little use for it anyway as a warrior. Turned the little I'd had with Lao Ma into another weapon. Not until now did I know what it really meant.

It seemed so effortless, lying there with Gabrielle, empty of all my rage and will to harness it, doing nothing but filling myself with my partner's love. So full of love myself that it overflowed into her in turn. If this was what being vulnerable meant, if this was the surrender I saw in that vision, then I no longer feared the joy I'd seen on my face. And, finally, I understood why it beamed so often from hers.

All that promise? Gabrielle's right - I came close enough to rest now. With her wisdom, her courage and sacrifice, we'd kept the most important one: Staying together. Being together. So close all the forces in the universe couldn't pull us apart. So close I have to do nothing but keep on loving myself, as that will mean loving Gabrielle too. I believe even I can be close. At least enough for eternity.


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