THE BETWEEN THE LINES SERIES
(or what happened between the episodes)
For Disclaimers, see "Looking for Trouble"
2.20 The Path Taken
(post "The Price")
X: "I let my fear and hatred blind me to everything."
G: "Sometimes the past can do that. Xena, if I had been through what you've been through--"
X: "No. No. You understand hatred, but you have never given into it. You don't know how much I love-- that."
G: "Can anyone stop them?"
X: "Yeah. It won't be warriors. It'll be someone like you. I just hope that wherever the Horde is from, they have a Gabrielle."
-- The Price
It's a cold, clear night, with a thousand stars overhead. With each breath, white wispy fog is released on the air, drifting up and away on a light wind that chills my exposed skin and ruffles the dead underbrush around us. Our fire snaps and crackles, glowing with a warm, orange blaze that lights up the clearing we're camped in.
I've got my leathers across my lap, scrubbing at dark red stains that cling stubbornly along the seams. No matter how much soap and oil I use, I can't seem to get them out. With each pass of my cleaning rag, I can see the faces of the Horde I killed -- the fear in their eyes right before my blade slit their throats. In the end they proved to be men, humans, with a code they live by, just like me. All warriors, all fighting the good fight, all trying to protect the land we stood on.
I close my eyes in an attempt to will the images away, only to see another more disturbing image -- the horror on Gabrielle's face, her green eyes staring at me as if she didn't know me. She sits across the fire from me now, wrapped up in her furs, writing in her scrolls. The gods only know what she must be writing about. The monster she now realizes she travels with? The monster that asked her to choose who lives and who dies? The one who asked her to watch injured men die of hunger, long before they succumbed to the blood loss and infection of their wounds.
It was so, so easy. Spurred by memories I thought long dead -- the screams of dying men I once knew. Men who trusted me to lead them to safety and instead found death at the hands of the Horde. That's all it took for me to become the person I always knew lived not too far under the surface of the one I struggle each day to become.
Now we both know the truth. The new Xena was a fraud. It's the old one who showed her true colors in that fortress. I ate up the accolades of the men and relished calling them mine. And they were mine. I saw it in their eyes. Xena the Warrior Princess gave hope to the hopeless, but at what price?
I asked the one I hold most precious to sell her soul for me. All but asked her to take the lives of the injured men she took it upon herself to care for. Gabrielle walked into the pits of Tartarus and did what only she can do -- brought healing and compassion to men who had given all they could in an almost lost cause. All gave some, but some gave all, and the ones who gave all, I dishonored their sacrifice by snatching the food from their mouths and withholding water from their dying lips.
I was so busy living by my own warrior's code, I forgot one very important thing. Gabrielle also has a code, and while I may not understand it, I've always respected it, up until today. Hers is a simple code, really -- in every situation, she does her best to love and care for the people she encounters. If she finds someone injured, she tends to their wounds. If she finds someone hungry, she gives them food, even if it means she goes without. If she finds someone in despair, she tells them stories full of hope and courage.
With a simple, heartless command, I asked her to walk away from her code. I asked her to think like a warrior. No, I asked her to be a warrior. I forced her to make decisions someone with her kind heart should never be asked to make. If I wasn't damned to Tartarus before, I am now. For all I did, I might as well have put a sword in her hand and had her kill those wounded men.
I scrub harder at the stains and my rag slips, flying across the campsite and landing in the dirt near the fire. "Dammit!" I fling my leathers to the ground and bury my face in my hands, scrubbing at my eyes before I rake my fingers back through my hair. Face covered, I close my eyes, feeling the waves of anger roll over me, loathing the person I am.
I hear the slight whoosh of air as she stands, then the light crunch of booted feet as she steps over and retrieves first my cleaning rag and then my leathers. Then she warms the space next to me, taking a seat on the log beside me. "Can I help you with this?" She dips the rag into the bucket of water at my feet, rinsing it clean, then she pours some oil on it and works up a lather with the soap.
"You shouldn't have to do that." I look over, watching as she scrubs at the stains with sure, firm strokes of her hand.
"I don't mind." She looks over at me and smiles. "I wasn't getting much done with my writing anyway."
"I guess war is a difficult thing to write about," I mumble, then reach down, tugging at my boot laces and loosening them, preparing to remove them later.
"That's true," she answers softly. "No matter how many battles we fight, it
doesn't seem to get any easier. You'd
think I'd get used to it, but I don't."
"Good." I tuck my hands between my knees. "I hope you never do."
"Did you?" She holds my leathers up in the light, the stains on one side now gone. "Get used to it?"
"After a while, yes. To do what I chose to do, I had to make myself hard." I swallow, watching as she flips the garment over, and patiently begins working on the other side. "You saw me. Saw what I became. One heartbeat and I reverted back. I never wanted you to see that part of me."
"Xena, I've seen that part of you before." She pauses long enough to touch my leg, and I look over at her. "You're a warrior. I've known that from the day we met. How many battles have I watched you fight now? Alongside the Amazons. Twice. With David and his people. At Troy. So many others. In Thessaly. Okay, in Thessaly you didn't fight, but you did organize those people and made the tough decisions. Every time we have to fight, you end up leading the people -- it's who you are. That's what you did this time, too. Made the decisions no one else could."
"No. No, this time was different." I reach across, stilling her arm. "I became an animal, Gabrielle. I became the Destroyer of Nations. It was like I was back, ten years ago, fighting the Horde all over again, knowing it was hopeless."
"I didn't see an animal, although for a very short while, I did see a stranger," she gently corrects me, and her words sting to the bottom of my soul. "You know what was different this time?" I shake my head. "This time you were afraid and unsure of yourself. I've never seen you like that before. Xena, it was -- it was like you didn't know what to do. And you didn't understand the people you were fighting. Always before you were sure of yourself. Even that time with Talmadeus, when you thought you were going to die, you still knew exactly what to do -- enough to be able to tell me and Salmoneus what to do, even as you lay dying on that barn floor."
"That's true. I didn't understand them." I glance over at her, feeling the shame burning my cheeks. "But until you went out with that waterskin, I didn't even try. All I wanted to do was hunt down every last member of the Horde and kill them. It took you to make me see another way." I look down.
"You're incredibly intelligent, Xena." She holds the leathers up again, then spreads them across her lap and begins working on another stain. "You would've figured out their code, eventually."
"No. All I wanted to do was kill them. Worse, I asked you to become like me." I look over at her. "I'm so sorry."
"Hmmm." She purses her lips inward and continues with her cleaning. "You didn't put me on the wall. I was almost afraid you would." I look over and open my mouth to protest, and she lightly touches a finger to my lips. "You didn't. But what you did ask me to do was hard, Xena."
"What I asked you to do was give up your humanity," I gasp. My chest is tight and I fear the grief of what I've done will consume me.
"It was war," she answers me with quiet resolution. "And we were going to die without reinforcements, am I right?" I nod uncertainly. "And the longer we could feed the able-bodied men, the better chance we had of surviving until we got help?" I nod again.
"I learned something in that storage room, Xena." She holds up the leathers again, the stains all gone now. "All clean." She lays them across the log next to her to dry. "That Horde man, and you, and all those men on the wall -- giving up your humanity -- that's the price of war. The price of watching people die. It's the price you sometimes have to pay in order to survive."
"It's a price someone like you should never have to pay." I reach across and stroke her cheek, then run my fingers back through her hair.
"I didn't like what you asked me to do, that's true." She smiles sadly. "But even when I don't understand you, Xena, I've learned to trust your instincts. Without them I'd be dead by now."
"Without them you'd be safely in Potadeia, married to Perdicus and raising babies." I drop my hand and look away, only to feel a firm hand prodding my chin, forcing me to look at her.
"Without them, I'd be a slave by now, or dead." She sighs heavily and looks into my eyes, her expression one of a person much older than I know her to be. "After Perdicus died, and after I realized I was in love with you, I made a choice to stay with you, but I don't just follow you, Xena, I consider you to be my responsibility. I guess that's silly, huh? Someone like me trying to take care of someone like you."
I pull her close and draw her head to me, kissing it. "It's the most amazing thing in my life." I kiss her cheek and then her lips, then pull back, studying her face. "But what price do you pay, sweetheart?" I brush my thumb against her skin. "How do I sit back and watch as you slowly sell your soul for me?"
She takes my hands between her own and ducks her head, kissing each of my palms. "My soul is in good hands." She squeezes mine for emphasis. "It's all a trade-off -- life is. True, I fight and I see violence and sometimes I have to make no-win choices. But Xena, I've gotten to see and do things most people can only dream of. I'm an Amazon Princess for the gods' sake. I rescued a baby. I've seen Athens and performed at the Academy. I helped a Mitoan general come to appreciate the ways of peace. I met Solon and I think I helped him love you. I helped you defeat an evil giant. I helped Senticles find his joy in life again. I've met kings and gods, princes and thieves, centaurs and Amazons. How many people ever get to see what I've seen and do what I do?" She searches my eyes. "Every morning I rise up and walk by your side down the road, and we face whatever the day may bring, and each evening when we build our fire and cook our dinner, I like to think that in my own little way, I've made a difference in the world."
It hits me then, and for the first time I dare to hope that Gabrielle really is exactly where she is supposed to be. I think of the young girl who stood against my village and saved my life. Who came back to me after I knocked her across a jail cell. Who stood by me as I gazed across Cirra and faced my shame. Who held my hand on a dark stormy night as I made a decision to take a stand against a friend. As I look at her, I am struck again by her beauty -- not what's on the outside, but what's inside, and the beautiful woman she has become. My friend, my support, my comfort, my playmate, and my lover, all in one package. I pull her to me. "I can't speak for the world, but every day you do make a difference in the life of one beat-up warrior."
She hugs me tightly and I feel her breath warm the side of my neck as she releases a long sigh. "That alone makes the life I'm living worth it. How many people can say that? That they've made a profound difference in one other life? You can say that, too, Xena." She kisses my cheek and hugs me some more. "That you've made a profound difference in one life -- mine." She pulls back and reaches over, picking up my leathers. "I think these are dry now." She reaches beneath the fur I'm wrapped in and gives a tug to the edge of the shift I'm wearing. "I know you like to sleep in these things when we're out here in the wild."
I take them and study them, soberly noting how thoroughly clean they are, as if the stains were never there. "Thanks." I take her hand and twine our fingers. "You shouldn't be having to clean up the blood I spilled."
She lifts my hand and kisses it. "It's part of taking care of you." She shrugs. "I clean up your wounds. Might as well help with your clothes if you need it. It's part of the path I've chosen to take."
She's shivering, even wrapped in the fur, and I stand and shrug into my leathers, then guide her over to our sleeping furs next to the fire. We snuggle beneath the warm pile of wraps and a bit more of my world is righted as she curls herself against me. I wrap an arm around her and hold her close, placing yet another kiss on her head. "You said your soul is in good hands."
"Uh-huh." She kisses my shoulder. "The very best hands of all."
"I think --" I pause, struggling for words. She's the bard and says things so much more eloquently than I ever could. "I think you are my soul." I tuck her head beneath my chin and circle her with both arms. "I love you, Gabrielle."
I hear her sniffle and I touch her eyelids, wiping away the moisture on her lashes. "I love you, too," she answers softly. "So much." She hugs me tightly and I return it in full, holding on as if my life depends on it. In so many ways, it does.
Next in the BTL series - Wings of Love (post "Lost Mariner")