[Note: The following is a fictional account of Gabrielle's and Xena's possible thoughts during the "Crusader." It would help to have seen this ep to understand what's happening.]
SO CLOSE, SO FAR: REFLECTIONS ON "CRUSADER"
January 1, 2000
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 with 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 that 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 reservedness 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 and hate, sanctuaries from the evils that 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 that then, 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 that she judged who deserved to die, that it was OK 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, that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 very 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 and 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 that 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 that 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 that she needs me at her back. We are partners who would die for each other. Friends who forgive honest mistakes. Hearts separated by the fear that 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. OK, 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 that 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 maneuvers, 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, then 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 is 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 that 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 that 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 that wasn't me. Not even close. And even if it could be me, the picture 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 the 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 that 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, that you have to 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 blood lust 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 that she seemed OK and to brush off her attempts to slow me down, to get me to go. Uh 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 I was. 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 that what she prized so much would actually be an unnecessary weight, 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 troubles.
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 into 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 OK 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 it, but Najara dented my confidence right 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.
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