Xena’s obsession with Alti’s fourth-season vision of Gabrielle’s death severely tests the soulmates’ bond during CRUSADER, PAST IMPERFECT and PARADISE FOUND.
WORTH THE PAIN
"You meant to leave me, didn’t you?"
Xena forced her hand to continue brushing Argo, grateful Gabrielle couldn’t 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. Didn’t think you’d miss me with all those goodies you had your eye on."
Gabrielle stared thoughtfully at her partner’s back. "Glad to hear you’re okay." She let out a long breath and absently monitored the soup she’d been stirring. "You know that’s not what I’m talking about."
"Oh?" Xena prayed Gabrielle wouldn’t push for once. They were still too raw. At least, she was. She swatted Argo’s flank and watched the Palomino head toward a stream nearby. "Don’t 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 Dahak’s pit? If I recall correctly, I on the other hand drank blood, babysat Amazons and battled Alti to get that ‘somebody’ back. I seem to be here with her having this chat." Xena began laying out their bedrolls. "Unless maybe my brains are scrambled and I’m 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 wasn’t all that anxious to know what was going on in the warrior’s head lately, preferring to focus on Xena’s 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 Alti’s inadvertently giving her hope in a vision of the future that showed Gabrielle alive. She’d played down the trials of her experience, declaring it couldn’t possibly compare to what Gabrielle had been through with Dahak.
Gabrielle admitted to herself she did feel she’d lost her center. Birthing a demon daughter, who then produced a monster, could have that effect. Especially on someone who’d dreamed of putting a stop to - rather than spawning - such evil. Xena’d said they had each other to help them find their way. She’d been very solicitous - making sure Gabrielle was all right, encouraging her to hold fast to her ideals, pledging to be more supportive.
And yet …. She detected an urgency to her partner’s attention - a … 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. "You’ve boiled the life out of whatever it is by now."
Gabrielle looked blankly at her soup. "Oh. Uh, yeah, it’s ready." She spooned a portion into Xena’s bowl. "What was that you said about some people reflecting on things too much?" She held out the bowl, not releasing it until she’d captured Xena’s eyes. "Guess you’re stuck with one."
"Nothing wrong with that." The warrior dropped to the ground and concentrated on her soup. "Long as you’re not me."
Gabrielle started to respond, but instead sampled her soup. "Mm, could use a little more …." 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 naďve new friend’s judgment. The warrior ate as though she didn’t have a care in the world, but with the mechanical movements of someone lost far away.
Whatever the issue, Najara must’ve brought it to the surface. Gabrielle couldn’t 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 wouldn’t have occurred to her until now. Fear.
It dawned on her maybe Xena wasn’t 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 Xena’s 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 didn’t answer my question." She knelt to sprinkle some herbs in the pot. "About leaving me with Najara. Were you or weren’t you?"
Xena’s head bowed. "Gabrielle …. I …. You seemed so much happier …."
"Happier?! Compared to what?"
Xena peered up. "You can’t deny she got to you. All her talk about hospices and swans."
"What’s new about that? So you and I don’t exactly share those interests. Surely it’s no reason to -."
"It’s done now, all right? I came back. Can’t we just - ."
"We’ve tried that." Gabrielle brought her bowl with her and sat across from Xena. "It’s not working for me. Or for you either, from what I see."
"I don’t think talking’s gonna fix this. My trip to the Land of the Dead …. There’s 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 we’d do it together, Xena. That’s how we’ve made it so far. I stopped trying to leave a long time ago." She put her hand up at Xena’s attempt to speak. "Don’t you dare throw Hope in my face. That’s 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. I’m beat," she admitted, removing her bracers. "We need to get up early, ahead of that army moving toward Actus."
"It’s that vision Alti showed me." Xena’s jaw tightened. "I just can’t …. Give me another night, before saying it out loud. Okay?"
Gabrielle’s eyes softened. Her partner’s slumped posture said enough for the moment. "Okay. In the morning." She picked up Xena’s 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?"
"Let’s just say you shouldn’t’ve 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 Xena’s mind.
"It’s a great curse to have seen one’s own death. Does it - ."
"Yes. It includes Gabrielle."
"Does she know?"
"That’s 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, Gabrielle’s 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 a certain Warrior Princess wasn’t 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 …. The way you looked …. The mountain in the background …. It’s true, or could be."
"Well, I’m not going to believe it. It’s almost dawn. C’mon. Better get moving, if we’re going to warn the people of Actus about that army."
"No sense in us both going. Stay here. Catch up on some rest. I’ll go to Actus."
"No you won’t. The threat of a battle does not mean I’m going to end up like your vision! Xena, you’re expecting Medusa behind every tree. Y-y-you can’t look left, you can’t look right, you just -."
"All right! We’re not staying long. Actus has its own army. Once we warn them, we’re outta there."
"That’s 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 I’d ever bring that subject up again."
Unfortunately "that subject" had a life of its own, conceived years ago in Xena’s unholy alliance with Alti. The ensuing battle in Actus reminded her of a time she’d 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 don’t believe in your vision! I can’t 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 harm’s way. Seemed more determined than ever to be her own person, with the right to her own choices, to finding her own path at Xena’s side. Or die trying. True to her belief, they survived to thwart the mystery "man" behind the attack - in fact, yet another woman who’d patterned herself after Alti’s envisioned Destroyer of Nations.
"Satrina’s army sure broke up quickly."
"She promised them a destiny she couldn’t fulfill."
"Funny thing about destiny. You can’t ignore it. Can’t rely on it. Alti promised you one, didn’t she?"
"I was to become the Destroyer of Nations. It’s funny how I used to look forward to those promises of hers. And every one of them ended in tragedy. Maybe that’s why I fear this prophecy so much."
"A prophecy? Xena, no one said anything about a prophecy. Maybe it’s a warning, a sign. A guide? The truth is, you don’t know. Like Alti didn’t know, because she didn’t know you."
Xena wished she could agree. Promises aside, the witch’s curses sure hit home. Solan. Her son lived without his parent’s 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 she’d 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.
Xena 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, I’m 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 they’d been returned to after Aiden’s 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 - Alti’s. Gabrielle had caught her dwelling on them before they’d tumbled into Aiden’s 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 else’s took over. Could no longer gauge her direct responsibility for horrors that might lie ahead. She shuddered, recalling the twist her mind had given Alti’s vision - her own hand wielding the hammer that nailed Gabrielle to a cross. Still felt vestiges of darkness she’d called upon to combat the power Aiden drew from Gabrielle’s purity. "I talk about your darkness like it’s 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 Aiden’s handiwork. She pointed at the gash on Xena’s thigh. "Thread break?"
"Thread?" Xena blinked, unaware she’d been stroking the mended red line. "Oh. Um, no, it held. I’m fine."
"Hmmm." Gabrielle walked behind Xena to massage the warrior’s shoulders. "Hard to tell from these muscles. Almost like Aiden turned `em to stone."
"Mmmm," Xena murmured. "Feels good. Don’t let anybody tell you you’ve got hands like a sailor’s."
Gabrielle chuckled. "If anybody should know, it’d 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, Gabrielle’s touch had taken away some of the weight she’d felt might crush her. Relaxed her to the point her guard didn’t 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 nothing’s … festering … underneath." She ran a finger across the stitches. "You’re 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. "There’s something you’re not telling me."
"Xena, how many times do I have to …. If you can’t accept my -."
"I’m in it too."
"I see myself. On a cross. Next to yours."
Gabrielle gasped. She crawled over and lay her hand on the warrior’s injured leg. "Ohhhh, Xena. No wonder …. Gods, not again."
"I’m not afraid of dying, Gabrielle. And I do accept your right to choose … doing it with me. Because of me. It’s just …. I never thought I’d watch it and be …." Xena’s voice caught. "And be so … helpless … to stop it."
"Xena, that doesn’t mean - ."
"You said it yourself - I’ve 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 Gabrielle’s hand. "I fooled myself in the beginning. Figured you’d see the danger soon enough - trailing me, ahead of me, inside me. That I could keep you safe until then. But you wouldn’t see it. What my enemies foresaw." Xena’s lips curled in a sneer. "Najara was right."
Gabrielle sighed. "Not sure I want to know."
"I asked her if she’d told you about the vision. She said no, she didn’t want to hurt you. That was …. That was my job."
"And she knows so much about us how? The Jinn?"
"You weren’t the only one she charmed." Xena held Gabrielle’s 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 can’t believe? Somebody so smart would listen to everybody she’s risked her life rescuing me from."
"Not just them, Gabrielle. You."
"Aiden’s talk about ‘reaching for the stillness, releasing the pain.’ 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 there’s a snowball’s chance in Tartarus of any ‘stillness’ around me. Of me getting rid of what’s in my blood.”
"Xena, come on. You can’t - ."
"It made sense, Gabrielle. Maybe I wouldn’t’ve paid attention before, but everything points to the same end. Getting out of your way. Releasing you from what you won’t or can’t let go yourself."
"Let me get this straight." Gabrielle cocked her head. "You’ll save me by going away, since otherwise I won ’t save myself from you."
Xena frowned. "That’s not the same as what I’m - ."
"Why? I asked before what’s so different about this. About that vision. Because it’s not just me? Because you’re in it too? Mysteriously ‘helpless’ to do anything like usual?" Gabrielle chuckled. "I’ve 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 don’t get it, do you?"
The warrior shook her head.
"Who cares what anybody else says? If you’re such a pain, it’s my butt we need to worry about, right?"
"Well, yeah, you’re the one - ."
"It’s your ‘job’ 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 don’t know why - I say you’re worth the pain, that’s what should count most, right? More than whatever pain you’re so obsessed about causing me?"
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "Evidently."
"Listen to me, Warrior Thick Skull." Gabrielle scooted closer and pulled Xena’s 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 we’ve been through - everything that should’ve 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, don’t know what I’d do without you."
Gabrielle wrapped her arm around Xena’s waist. "I’m a thread. Just doing my job."
"Gods." Xena breathed deeply as though she hadn’t taken air in a long time. "I’ll try to see it your way. Won’t be easy, but I’ll do my best."
"That’s all I ask. The protection thing? It’s who you are, Xena, as much as the darkness underneath. And feeling helpless …." Gabrielle gave the warrior a big squeeze. "A lot to carry alone. Wish you’d told me sooner. At least now I know why you’ve been so batty lately."
"Batty?! Well, sure, I’ve - ."
"Let yourself get locked up, beat up. Sucked into visions, ‘lights’ and delusions. Sounds batty to me. I’m lucky you didn’t try pawning me off on Aiden."
"Um …." Xena ducked her head. "I started a note to you, but - ."
"Xeenaaa?!" Gabrielle swatted the warrior’s midsection. "You didn’t! Him too?"
"I saw myself … hurting you. He said it could bleed into reality if I stayed. I couldn’t 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. I’d begun worrying lately I might be asking too much. Now, if the vision comes true, I know it’ll end as it should."
Xena snorted. "Oh yeah. Lots of comfort in that."
"You promised awhile back you’d never leave me."
Xena winced. "Uh, guess I haven’t exactly - ."
"Not to worry. I realize now there was a disclaimer of sorts."
"Disclaimer? What’re - ."
"You said, ‘Even in death.’ Naturally I assumed ‘in life’ too. I see you’re a little shaky with that part. I’m not counting on it so much anymore."
Xena’s breath caught. "Gabrielle, these’re unusual circumstances. If we -."
"I’m taking matters into my own hands." Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "Like someone else I know. I’m 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 I’ve got some ulterior motives."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle rested her head on Xena’s shoulder. "I’m really looking forward to going somewhere new - really new. Yes, some of Najara’s ideas appealed to me. I am seeking a path that’ll take me closer to my ideals, but not away from you. I’d 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 Gabrielle’s. "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 ‘thread’ and all?" She peered down at her silent companion. "Gabrielle? That’s 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.