Pairings: Xena/Gabrielle, Xena/Lao Ma
Disclaimers: The principal characters are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended, and no financial profit is anticipated.
This story is part of the "Everything-but-the-Kitchen-Sink" series, which
is an alternate timeline for both series. The first Xena/Gabrielle
story branches off after the events in "The Debt." In this timeline,
Hope has conveniently vanished and Solan is still living with the Centaurs.
The stories in the series take place in the following order:
"Never Let me Down Again."
" . . . But We're Not the Same."
"How Long Till my Soul Gets It Right?"
"This Must Be the Place."
"The Dark Side of my Soul."
"Idylls of the Conqueror"
Summary: While Gabrielle sleeps, Xena has a conversation with the spirit of Lao Ma.
Notes: This story is my attempt at something resembling stream-of-consciousness; it was fun, but I think James Joyce and Virginia Woolf had a better handle on the technique than I do. :-) I am indebted to Dana Cory's "The Love of Lao Ma" and Elaine Sutherland's "Lao Ma's Kiss" for some of the inspiration for this story.
How Long Till
My Soul Gets It Right?
Copyright (c) 1998
Gabrielle says the dead hear our thoughts. I hope you can hear me now, Lao Ma. There's so much that is so hard for me to talk about--with anyone. For so long, I tried not to think about you. I knew you'd be ashamed of me. I made so many mistakes, caused so much harm. I know there's no final forgiveness, no final atonement for me. All I can do is even out the balance as much as I can. I don't know why it took me so long to learn the lessons you tried to teach me, to discover what you saw in me. But I'm trying now.
I thought I was doing the right thing when I went back to Chin. I thought that was what you wanted me to do. Was it? Gabrielle was so sure it was wrong that she tried to stop me, nearly getting me killed in the process. You couldn't kill him yourself, I know that. But was that what you wanted me to do? I owe you so much; I only hope I did what you wanted. I know I created him even more fully than you did. I'm good at that, Lao Ma--creating monsters. There's this girl, Callisto. My army burned her village--her mother and sister died. And she becameme.
I sometimes wonder if I really wanted to make her. If I saw I would change, turn my life around, but couldn't relinquish my old self. Trying to hurt me, she actually did me a favor--a favor I'll feel forever guilty about. She killed a young man Gabrielle had just married. And she gave Gabrielle back to me. Maybe that was how she wanted to hurt me--to force me to face my own guilt. I would have never harmed Perdicus, but I certainly wished him gone. And now my creation is immortal, more powerful than I am. She's safely out of the way now, but I have no doubt that she'll be back.
When I got your message, it was a chance for some kind of redemption. A chance to fix some of the damage I'd caused. I hope it was what you wanted. I wanted to see you, to show you how I'd changed. Did you help me with the knives? Was that your power augmenting mine? Were you with me? I wanted to tell you how I'd turned my life around. I wanted to kneel before you and beg forgiveness for all the damage I caused in your kingdom.
Kneel before you. No one else ever inspired that kind of reverence in me.The light that shone out from you dazzled me. I hope you know that it did pierce my darkness even though it took me so long to realize it. When your lips first touched mine, breathing into me, I felt a peace my life had never allowed me. I fought it of course. Peace and Xena didn't go together. It was a more frightening feeling than being at war. Your stillness intimidated me. And that coil of power that could send me flying across the room with just a gesture on your part. How you tried to teach me with stillness, and how I pushed and pushed you to use force. The only thing I understood.
But you loved me anyway. You gave me my legs back, so they hummed with strength and power. You showed me acts of love that weren't just the greedy taking I was used to--a quick grind leading to release. You taught me how to please you and how to surrender control. I was so impatient. I burned for you. But you were patience itself. You touched me everywhere, bringing every nerve alive, your fingertips like feathers. You tamed me into patience with your fingers and lips and tongue. You coaxed my sensations out of me slowly, like an unwinding spiral or spool of thread, and then you opened me up, and I dissolved into a bliss I'd never imagined possible.
Without your teaching I could have never learned to love this girl beside me. And I wouldn't have been ready to learn the lessons she's taught me. But before I met her I had another teacher. When I returned to Greece after leaving you, I put you as far in the back of my mind as I could. Lao Ma, I was stupid and stubborn and still angry, 'Xena, Destroyer of Nations.' Only power and conquest could fill the raging hole inside me. And then I met the right person at the right time.
I don't know if you would have heard of Hercules, so far away in Chin. He is the greatest hero of our time, with the purest heart. I wanted to kill him--I'm sure you're not surprised. Then I would have had my way unimpeded. I lured his best friend into turning against him, but I lost that particular battle. Then one of my own lieutenants disobeyed me, murdering women and children. I saved an infant, and for that I was drummed out of my own army. The gauntlet should have killed me, but I think you were with me then. I know I felt . . . something, some impulse, some strength that seemed to come from outside me that let me get up and walk away.
Hercules wanted my help in fighting my former lieutenant, Darphus. I was so confused, I didn't know what to do. I still wanted the triumph of killing Hercules, but fortunately I was careless, and I lost another battle. Or, hard as it is to admit, maybe he bested me, pure and simple. I refused to help him though. He infuriated me. The best fighter in the world, and he took his abilities so lightly. They were his tools in a good cause, not a measure of his self-worth. I'm still proud of my abilities; I can't help being vain about them. I like showing them off. Not Hercules. He has a calm center and a gentleness that reminded me of nothing so much as you. When he defeated me and spared my life, there was such a quiet competence and good-heartedness about him, I felt a shame I hadn't felt since I was with you. Not that he doesn't get angry if he needs to. He directed plenty of it at me at first. I was "that bitch" who had betrayed his friend and killed innocents. He would have never stopped fighting me if that was what was necessary. But he showed me another way, instead.
He and his friend went to fight Darphus, and I fought with myself. I had wanted to disturb that serentity of his, just as I tried to disturb yours. When you took me under your wing, did you know I'd be such a slow learner? That I'd destroy all your plans for peace? That I'd go on to kill and kill and kill? But I felt as though you were with me again. Suddenly I knew with utter conviction that I had to help Hercules fight Darphus . . . and that I had to let him into my heart. He doesn't have your subtlety, of course, but there was something about him that drew me and soothed me and let me finally see what you wanted to teach me all those years ago.
And I hurt him too. I was so grateful to him for showing me the way and giving me a chance. For seeing inside me as you did and recognizing the good I'd be able to do. We had a terrible battle ahead. I can see you smile as I tell you this--you always found my lusts a matter of amusement--but he has the nicest arms and the sweetest smile. So different from Borias and the other men I used and was used by. Hercules' strength and his gentleness were irresistable to me, and I wanted the comfort of those arms. I could never love a man the way I loved you and the way I love this girl beside me, Gabrielle, but when he and I touched, we caught fire. A slow simmering fire that turned my rage to ashes and set me free. He tasted like nectar, and I wanted to drink in his sweetness and just keep some of it for myself to help me on my journey.
But I hurt him. He told me later that he had feelings for me he'd never had for anyone but his late wife. He would have sacrificed his own life to keep me alive. Me! There's an ache in his eyes when he looks at me, and I want to alleviate it, but I can't. He was the beginning of this journey, but he wasn't meant to be my companion it. There's an ache, but there's a smile too. I hope I gave him something in return for what he gave me, something worthwhile, although it couldn't last. I do love him, but not in the way he loves me. I feel gratitude, and a deep friendship, and, yes, lust. I have so little self-discipline, Lao Ma. I'm sure you're not surprised. I love this girl beside me with all my heart and soul, but I still want to sink my teeth into that man. Fortunately I'm better now at controlling my impulses than my desires.
I found my true companion soon after I left Hercules. I was going to give up fighting. I buried my sword and my chakram, but something stopped me from burying them too deep. Did you send Gabrielle to me too? I saved her from a warlord, Draco, who would have sold her into slavery. She insisted on coming with me, wanting to escape marriage and village life. At first, I found her irritating. She never stopped talking except to eat and sleep. And she was such a child--desperate to prove herself to me and making foolish mistakes in the process. But her heart was so pure, her instincts so right. She grew on me, and I grew to love her.
It's terrifying, Lao Ma. I need Gabrielle. I'm not strong enough to continue on my chosen path alone. I needed Hercules to show me the way, and I need Gabrielle to keep me on it. Some days I still wake up full of rage and want to throw it all away--do what the war god Ares wants and rule the world, bending everyone to my will. That would be so much easier than the path I'm on now. And Gabrielle inspires me; I would do anything to avoid letting her down.
I'm so afraid of casting my shadow over her pure spirit. She's already changed so much--grown in so many ways. But she's learning more and more about who I am. Since my return to Chin, she's had to face that my past self will always be with us. I don't want to hurt her. I don't want to darken her spirit. I should have urged her to follow her own path a long time ago--there's so much she could do without me. But I'm a coward, Lao Ma. I can't face each day without her. Ares is still fighting for my soul, and without Gabrielle, I don't think I have the strength to resist him.
People look up to me now as some sort of hero, a protector of the weak. But there are those who don't trust me, who remember the way I was. Even my mother will never entirely be able to relax around me. I don't deserve to be looked up to. I couldn't show my feelings to Gabrielle until I knew that she really knew what she was getting into. She had to get past that hero-worship she began with. Now she knows so much more about me; she knows I'll never think the same way she does. She knows my dark side better and better. But she still loves me. I want to accept that gift more than I want anything else. But I still fear I may damage her, overwhelm her, devour her, destroy her. Battles are so simple; I know exactly what to do and how to do it. I can't help enjoying it--I know I'm in control. But love? How do I know what's right? How do I know I'm not causing more harm than good?
"Yes, Xena. I can only stay a few moments, but I couldn't leave your questions unanswered. I wish I could have spared you your return to my land, but you were the only one I could trust, the only one I knew I could rely on. My biggest weakness--my son. I knew what had to be done, but I couldn't do it myself. Oh, little one, I am sorry that what I asked of you came between you and your Gabrielle. But she's stronger than you know, Xena. Accept what she has to offer you and give her all of yourself that you can. And that man, Hercules--do not shut him out of your life either. There will come a time when you will need his help. He is part of your destiny too.
"Xena, you're anything but a coward. You've accomplished so much. Your greatness will never come easy; you will always have to fight your darkness. I know now that you will never let go of your desire and your rage--perhaps they are part of your strength. But you have severe tests of that strength awaiting you. Be humble enough to accept the love and support of those who love you. For you, perhaps, that is a greater act of courage than any battle.
"Oh Xena, don't kneel. Stand tall and let me admire my warrior princess. Don't you know I'm proud of you?"
to XWP and HTLJ