“What does it feel like?”
It was a stupid question; Gabrielle knew that almost before she’d even gotten it out. It was insensitive and cruel and stupid, and she desperately wished that she could take it back.
Xena didn’t say anything. Of course she didn’t; that would be too kind. Instead, she spent the next ten seconds staring at her like she’d grown an extra head or something. Her mouth was half-open, brows crinkling in an expression that should have been far more familiar than it was in the moment; it was a patented Xena-scowl, the one that said ‘for someone who claims to have a way with words, you really seem to enjoy putting your foot in your mouth’, and she wore it approximately two thousand times a day. Under normal circumstances Gabrielle would have shrugged it off, laughing and probably blushing a little, but naturally this was about as far from normal circumstances as anything could be.
The look itself was familiar, but it wasn’t Xena’s face wearing it. It was Callisto’s face, twisted and terrible, and that made it terrifying.
Gabrielle turned her own face away. She couldn’t help it. Her breath was catching in her throat, a seizure starting in her chest, and she had to squeeze her eyes shut because the sun was still too low and not yet bright enough to blind her like she wanted it to. She felt like she needed to hide. Inexplicably, horribly, she wanted to run away and hide from the woman she loved.
She tried to focus on other things instead, to think about the world around her, the familiar warmth of a new day. There was a fire burning high between them and the smell of breakfast cooking over it, but the whole thing felt so hollow and futile that it didn’t really help her to forget anything. Neither she nor Xena were cold or particularly hungry; the food, if not the fire, would probably end up going to waste, and the feint at routine didn’t help either of them forget where they were or what had happened. Callisto’s body was still sitting right there on the other side of the stupid fire, her face half in shadow and her dark, dangerous eyes lit up by the flames; it was impossible for Gabrielle to see them and not be chilled down to her soul.
That was cruel too, for both of them. Cruel and new, and painful beyond words. Xena was her best friend, her best possibly-more-than-friend at this point; she was the most important person in Gabrielle’s life, but Gabrielle couldn’t stand the sight of her now, couldn’t even look her in the eye when she asked those stupid, insensitive questions.
She wanted to. She wanted to be brave and warrior-stoic and unfeeling, to straighten her spine and square her shoulders and be miraculously all right with the whole situation, but she wasn’t and she couldn’t pretend to be. The wounds Callisto had cut into her were still too raw, festering deep inside, and she didn’t know how to ignore them. She wasn’t strong like Xena, wasn’t heartless like Callisto; she was just the sidekick, the one caught in the middle, left to suffer every time they clashed, and she wasn’t made to deal with things like this.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, ashamed of herself for so much more than the question. “I shouldn’t have asked. I shouldn’t… I…” She sighed. “I’m sorry.”
Xena sighed too, a deep, heavy Xena-sigh. She sounded almost as tired as Gabrielle felt, and as miserable too, though of course she wore both those things better than Gabrielle ever could. Like everything else, she made it seem almost easy.
“It’s all right,” she said, and Gabrielle tried not to tremble as Callisto’s lips twisted the words into their opposite. “You can ask. If you like.”
That was a strange way of putting it, though knowing Xena it was probably on purpose; she had a way with words too, in her own way, and she was very good at making her points without stating them outright. There was nothing about this situation that either one of them liked, and Gabrielle knew her too well to believe for a second that that wasn’t at the front of her mind when she said the word out loud. She was probably goading her, trying to get a reaction; it was the closest she would ever get to saying ‘tell me how you really feel’.
Of course, Gabrielle didn’t need to tell her. Not really. They both knew that Xena understood, whether she heard the words or not. She always did, and she never judged. She wouldn’t look askance or sigh or shake her head if Gabrielle said out loud what they both knew she was thinking, if she swallowed her pride and blurted out ‘I can’t deal with you like this’ or ‘I can’t stand the sight of your soul in her eyes’. Xena wouldn’t be angry with her for feeling that way, wouldn’t be upset or offended or any of those things that a lesser person — a person like Gabrielle — might be. She would just smile, touch her hand or her face, and say ‘I know’.
Gabrielle would never tell her that she couldn’t deal with that either. Xena’s smile on Callisto’s lips, Callisto’s skittering spider’s hands mimicking Xena’s touch… even just the thought of it made her want to scream.
So she ignored the word, the invitation, all of it. She just shook her head and said, “No.”
Xena’s shoulders slumped. Whether it was disappointment or relief, Gabrielle couldn’t say, but she supposed it didn’t matter. “Are you—”
“Yes. It was a stupid question, and I shouldn’t have asked. Besides, what good would it do?”
“It’s always good to know what we’re dealing with, Gabrielle.” She sounded so patient, so Xena. If she closed her eyes, Gabrielle could almost imagine that she really was herself, that it was only the early morning wind making voice sound so strange. “You know there’s no such thing as a stupid question.”
“Only stupid answers, right?” She didn’t close her eyes, didn’t let herself imagine, but she wanted to. Even if it only lasted a second or two, she wanted to. “It doesn’t matter. Stupid or not, I guess I didn’t really want to hear it anyway.”
Xena sighed. It made Callisto sound raspy and hoarse. “You’ll have to hear it eventu…” she started, then cut herself off with another sigh, as though she couldn’t bring herself to break Gabrielle’s heart with the truth. “Never mind. You’re right, of course. We should both take some time to figure this out first. We can talk about it tomorrow, or the next day.” She wet her lips; Gabrielle watched the curve of Callisto’s tongue and shuddered. “It’s not like it’s going anywhere.”
“I wish it would.”
Just like the question, she blurted it out without thinking, and just like before she regretted it almost instantly. Xena sucked in her breath, sharp and sudden, and Gabrielle didn’t need to look at Callisto’s face to know that the words had struck a critical blow.
“Yeah, well.” She sounded bitter, almost defeated. For a moment, Gabrielle hated herself because she found that she almost preferred it that way. Callisto never sounded like that, even when she knew that she had lost; only Xena would let someone else see that kind of weakness in her. “I’m afraid wishing won’t get us anywhere. We either accept things the way they are, or…”
She didn’t finish. She didn’t need to; Gabrielle knew where this was going. ‘If you don’t want to come with me…’ she said earlier, and Gabrielle saw those same words taking shape on her tongue all over again, as unnatural now as they were back then. It was strange; for all her madness, Callisto’s voice was so much sweeter than Xena’s, so much softer and purer when turned to compassion like this. The sentiment wasn’t hers, could never be hers, but the voice was and it made the ache in Xena’s heart sound gentler than her own ever had.
Gabrielle didn’t want to think about that. She couldn’t bear it, couldn’t let herself wonder what sort of a woman Callisto might have been if the Fates had set her on her a different path, or if they’d set Xena on one. She couldn’t afford to question, to imagine the lives either one of them might have lived if some tiny piece of the world had been just a little different.
It made her ache in a place deeper than her heart to hear Callisto’s voice turned to softness like this. For perhaps the first time she realised that her voice, like the rest of her, was not made for madness or violence; it was a bard’s voice, a poet’s. It was, in truth, the kind of voice that Gabrielle might almost have wanted for herself. She had never noticed it before — who could have, when every word Callisto ever said was hateful and spiteful and cruel? — but she heard it now. The same voice that had said such terrible things, that had made the world so ugly, was made into something new and beautiful by Xena’s words.
It made her sad, but it also gave her a fresh sort of hope. If Xena said or did enough beautiful things while she was stuck like this, if she let enough of her soft soul shine through Callisto’s hard eyes, if she poured enough of her heart into Callisto’s voice and hands, maybe Gabrielle could take something new from the body that had brought her so much pain. It was too late to redeem the soul, the tortured creature that used to live there, but maybe it wasn’t too late to see the body put to good use, to find something precious inside that broken, damaged frame. If anyone could make that happen, it was Xena; if anyone could find it, it was Gabrielle.
“You’re not her.” It felt like too much, saying it out loud, like digging her nails into an open wound. “I know that. I mean, obviously I know it. It’s just… it’s uncomfortable to look at you, you know? After what she did… who she was… it’s not easy.” She sighed, wished that she could be better, that she could be like Xena would be. “I’ll get there. I will. I’ll… I’ll accept it. You. Her. This. I mean, I have accepted. I do. Sort of. I’m here, anyway. I’m with you. I am, and I…”
“I know.” She closed her eyes for a moment. It made things easier, though not by much. “I know it’s you in there, Xena. I do know that. Callisto would never… I mean, she doesn’t…” She doesn’t sound like that. She would never say the things you do. I never knew her voice could sound so sweet until it was yours. “I just… I just need some time. Is that all right?”
Saying it made her feel weak; asking made her feel even weaker. It made her feel stupid again, and smaller than she’d felt in many years. She hated knowing that Xena would have found it easier to adjust if their positions had been reversed, if it was sweet little Gabrielle wearing the body of her sadistic nemesis. Xena hated Callisto more than anyone, or almost anyone, but it wasn’t like this for her. Xena could look past anything, could cut through any situation and find the truth hiding underneath; sometimes, it seemed like she didn’t even need to try. If things had gone the other way, she would find Gabrielle behind Callisto’s eyes as easily as if she hadn’t transformed at all. She wouldn’t need any time.
“Of course it’s all right,” Xena said, though Gabrielle couldn’t help noticing the way she had to swallow down another sigh. “And, well, the good news is, we’ve got all the time in the world. So…”
“Don’t say that!” It came out harsh, like a lash against a wall. She didn’t know why it meant so much to her, why it mattered so much that they not give in, that Xena not surrender herself to this, but it did. It mattered so, so much. “You don’t know that for sure. It might not… it might not be, you know, permanent. It might… there might be… you might… you can’t… you…”
“Don’t!” She had to shout, had to make it angry, or she’d start crying, and she would not start crying in front of Callisto’s face. “Xena, please. I know it’s important to you that I accept it… that I accept you like this. I know that, and I do. Accept you. Like… like this. But don’t tell me there’s no way out. Don’t tell me there’s no chance. Don’t tell me that we can’t… that you… that I’ll never see your…” She clenched her fists, breathing hard; she felt like she was drowning, lungs ready to burst. “I need to hope. I can’t do anything else, but I need to do that. All right? I need to hope.”
“All right.” It was Xena’s smile, Xena’s warmth crinkling the corners of Callisto’s eyes, Xena’s light shining out of that twisted face. It terrified her. “You do that, then. Hope. For both of us.”
Gabrielle nodded. She tried to smile back, but her lips trembled and her heart stopped when she met Callisto’s eyes. That awful, drowning-like feeling surged higher, threatened to break her, and she had to turn away. She didn’t want to, didn’t want to prove herself a coward, but she couldn’t bear it. At least not right now.
This afternoon, maybe this evening, she’d try again. She would force herself to look Callisto — Xena in the eye, maybe even hold her gaze for a few seconds. Tomorrow, she’d try for a few more, then more the day after, until finally she could look at her for a full minute, then two, then three. Longer and longer, until she could hold a whole conversation without feeling the hurt and the hate squeezing her heart to dust, without feeling her stomach clench and her fingers twist into fists at her sides.
Xena watched her. She was worried, Gabrielle could tell, but she looked so much like Callisto that it felt more like staring, like she was trying to figure her out, searching for her weaknesses, the soft spots she could expose and hurt.
“Do you have to say it like that?” It came out like an accusation, like it was Xena’s fault that her voice wasn’t her own, like it was her fault that Gabrielle’s name sounded so wrong on Callisto’s tongue. It was unfair, she knew, and fought to control herself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you like that. It’s just… do you have to?”
“Would you rather I call you something else?” Xena asked. From anyone else, it might have sounded sarcastic, but even in Callisto’s body Xena was the most honest person Gabrielle had ever met. Not open, exactly, but she never said anything she didn’t truly mean. She was being sincere, “If it’ll make it easier to adjust, I can call you something different, something she’s never said. We can find a name. We—”
“No. It’s fine.” It wasn’t, of course; they both knew that, but Gabrielle couldn’t bring herself to make any more demands, couldn’t bear the thought of making Xena feel even worse than she already did. “It’s just… you don’t really sound anything like her, but then you sound so much like her. It’s hard. It’s so hard.” She swallowed. “It makes my heart hurt.”
“I know,” Xena said, ever so softly. “It makes mine hurt too.”
That helped, rather more than Gabrielle wanted to admit. That she wasn’t the only one hurting from this, that she wasn’t alone in feeling helpless and wounded and ripped open, that she wasn’t the only one struggling to make sense of all the contradictions that flooded her soul every time she looked at her best friend and found her worst enemy. Xena was struggling too, and that meant it was something big enough to struggle with. Xena never struggled, never hurt or felt helpless against anything unless it was big.
Gabrielle was the one who struggled, the one who felt helpless and small and stupid. She was the one who faltered and floundered and fell over, the one who couldn’t handle things that Xena coasted through without even blinking. Xena was always so calm, so composed, so unfathomably strong. She was so much of everything that Gabrielle could never be; Gabrielle often felt like a liability when they stumbled into something she couldn’t deal with, when Xena laughed and shrugged and didn’t even blink. It happened all the time, it seemed, and she was never, ever good enough.
It helped, so much, that Xena felt it this time, as well. It helped that for once Gabrielle wasn’t the only one who couldn’t deal with something. It helped her to think of all this as a real thing, a real problem, a worthy one; it made it tangible, made it real. It helped her to close her eyes and picture it as something solid, a big, heavy box that the two of them could carry together.
“Is it bad?” she asked, and this time she didn’t want to take the question back. She wanted to hear the answer, wanted to feel it resonate inside of her. “Having her so close, I mean, and so much a part of you. It’s like you’re here but you’re not. Or, well, that’s what it looks like. Does it feel that way?”
Xena shook her head. “No,” she said. “I know who I am. This body might have once belonged to Callisto, but there’s nothing left of her inside it now. The real Callisto, the one that made this body what you see… she’s dead, rotting in Tartarus for eternity, like she deserves. I’m the one who’s in here now, and I haven’t changed. Oh, I’m a little shorter, and my arms aren’t as strong, but my soul is still my own. I don’t know much, but I know that.”
“That’s good,” Gabrielle murmured, and wished that it was enough.
“It is,” Xena agreed, very quietly. “But you…”
This time, she was the one who turned away. The flames from the fire danced in Callisto’s eyes, and Gabrielle had to swallow very hard as that awful feeling surged up in her again. Anger, hatred, and the kind of fear she couldn’t temper; it threatened to swallow her, threatened to shatter her. She hated Callisto for what she’d done, hated her for what she’d taken away; she would never forgive her for Perdicus, would never stop hating her for that, but she was afraid of her as well, and she hated herself so much more than Callisto for that.
It was so hard, though. When Xena stared into the flames, lost in thought, lost inside herself, and Gabrielle caught the firelight in Callisto’s eyes, it was so hard not to remember the heat of a very different fire, the helplessness and horror of being tied to a stake and burned alive. It was so hard not to remember being a thousand feet off the ground, wriggling and flailing and helpless as Xena and Callisto fought on ladders what seemed like a thousand miles below. A knife at her throat in one moment, a sword to her chest in the next, flames and falling and Callisto’s skittering spider’s hands stroking down the side of her face… it made her feel sick with guilt, and sicker with terror.
She knew she should be thinking of Perdicus, that the anger and the hatred and the thirst for vengeance should be driving her above and beyond all else. Maybe if it did, she could fight it off more easily. But it wasn’t, and when she looked into Callisto’s eyes, even knowing that they were Xena’s, it was her own mortality, not Perdicus’s, that surged into the back of her throat and made her want to scream.
‘You…’ Xena said, and Gabrielle wished it wasn’t herself she was thinking of right now.
“What about me?” she asked, and hated herself.
Xena shook her head, as though shaking herself out of her own thoughts. “You’re what hurts, Gabrielle. The way you flinch, the way you won’t look at me, the way you still see her even when you’re trying so hard not to. You’re my heart, my soul, my strength… and you despise me.”
“I don’t despise you.” The word felt like an accusation, like the worst kind of crime. “It’s just… it’s hard.”
“It is hard,” Xena agreed. She sounded so distant, so thoughtful, as though she was speaking to herself so much more than Gabrielle. “It’s hard, yes. But it’s not the end of the world.”
“I know.” She wanted to believe it, she really did, but that was hard as well. “We’ve been through worse.”
“Much worse. And more often than either one of us can count.” Her voice broke. Gabrielle couldn’t tell which of them she was trying to convince. “You’ll tell me if there’s anything you need? If there’s anything I can do to make this easier?”
It was a lie, but it brought a touch of comfort to them both, and that was what mattered. Xena was so wracked with guilt and self-doubt, so desperate to know that her best friend still trusted her, that her soul and her strength wouldn’t run away, that they really could work through this thing together.
It was difficult to read her feelings on Callisto’s face, not least of all because Gabrielle still couldn’t bring herself to look at her for more than a second or two at a time, but she didn’t need to read the anxiety on the surface to know that it was there beneath, that the small part of Xena that allowed itself to feel fear was terrified that this would prove too much, that Gabrielle would be unable to cope, that she really would end up leaving.
That wasn’t going to happen. Not now, not ever. Gabrielle might never be able to fully let go of the things she felt when she looked up and saw Callisto’s face; she might never be able to give up the grief and the pain and the hate that seethed in her stomach when she thought of her, might never be able to temper the parts of her that were afraid, but she would cling to her hope, the quiet faith that this was not forever.
No matter the odds stacked against them, no matter how certain Xena was that this really was it, that they needed to make their peace with the facts and move on, Gabrielle would not do that. Until the day she died, even if it was still Callisto looking down and holding her hand, still she would hope. She would find something else, just like she always did. She would find a better way.
Leaving wasn’t an option. It never had been, and it never would be. It broke her heart that Xena still couldn’t believe that.
And there it was, just as she knew it would be: the hesitation, the insecurity. It didn’t matter to Xena that she now wore the face of a crazed murderer; in her mind, that had been her face for years now. Gabrielle was the only one who had ever thought differently, and that was what frightened her. More than anything, she was so, so afraid that the one person who had always seen her as something better would no longer be able to.
Gabrielle swallowed her own feelings. “I promise,” she said. “If there’s anything you can do, or anything I need, or… anything… I promise I’ll let you know.”
Callisto’s face relaxed as Xena smiled. “Good girl,” she said, and Gabrielle did not tell her that those words in that voice made her feel sick.
Breakfast, to nobody’s surprise, was a failed affair. Gabrielle wasn’t hungry, and she could tell that Xena wasn’t either, and what little appetite either one of them might have found was quickly smothered by the inedible food.
Xena had caught the thing an hour or so earlier, a rabbit or something like one, and neither of them had been paying much attention while it cooked; now, it sat miserably in front of them, blackened and unrecognisable. The meat, if it could be called that, was tough and overcooked, and Gabrielle couldn’t have gotten her teeth into it even if she’d wanted to. Under the circumstances, the lack of focus was more than understandable, but it was enough to make Gabrielle wish that Xena had let them stay in Amphipolis with Cyrene and her culinary talents.
Apparently determined to prove that she wouldn’t be bested by a badly-cooked meal, Xena ate like a warrior. She tore at the meat with her teeth, swallowing like she didn’t even taste it at all. Maybe she didn’t, or else maybe she’d just trained herself not to care too much; either way she got through it without the least effort, making it look easy.
Gabrielle was not so gifted in the art of barbarism, and didn’t even bother to try. She just stared down at the fire, let her eyes lose their focus, and willed herself not to think back, not to remember the look on Xena’s face when she skinned the poor animal, firelight gleaming off the blade and her eyes; she had been so focused she looked almost crazy, so much like Callisto, and Gabrielle had been so frightened.
Now, even eating like an animal as she was, Xena looked more like herself, but that didn’t make it any easier to keep from remembering, to keep from thinking about those moments and running the scenario through in her head. A momentary loss of temper, a knife or her sword or chakram in her hands, and what if?
She knew that it was Xena in there, her Xena, the real Xena. She really, truly did. But still, in those moments when she was focused or distant or just plain lost, still the question wormed itself unbidden into Gabrielle’s head. What if?
She turned away from the fire, away from Xena. She let her see her back, the tightness of her shoulders and the space between them where a blade could fit so neatly.
“That,” she muttered, letting the word shape itself into a pout. “You wanted to know what you can do to make it less hard? You can stop saying that.”
Xena snorted. “I will, when you stop acting like a petulant child.” She was trying to sound stern, a feint at their usual light-hearted banter; it worked, probably in some part because Gabrielle wasn’t looking at her this time. It was easier not to be affected by what she couldn’t see. “Eat your breakfast.”
“You burned my breakfast.”
Gabrielle gritted her teeth, willed herself not to turn back. She wanted to scowl, to cross her arms and sulk and do all the things she usually did when they argued over silly little nothings like this; she wanted to make it comfortable and familiar, to make it like it used to be, but she knew that it would all be undone if she turned back. It would all fall apart, go up in smoke just like her breakfast if she found those eyes again, if she found that face, those hands, those eyes, if she let herself remember exactly whose voice was gritting out her name like that. It was easier to pretend, to close her eyes and imagine something that wasn’t true, and she didn’t care if that made her weak or stupid. She would not ruin an almost-normal moment by striving for something too real.
“I’m not hungry,” she said.
Xena blew out a noisy, frustrated breath. “I understand that,” she said. “The gods know, it’s not exactly appetising. But we’ve got a long day ahead of us and you need to keep your strength up. This body isn’t as strong as mine, or as tall. I won’t be able to carry you if you faint from malnourishment.”
“Sure you will,” Gabrielle quipped. “Test your limits. See what you’re capable of. You’ll never know unless you try.”
“Gabrielle.” There was no smile in her voice now. It was every bit the Callisto they both hated, and that shattered the illusion as sure as anything. “Eat your breakfast.”
Finally, and despite her better judgement, Gabrielle did turn back. She wanted to see Callisto now. She wanted to look into that face she hated, wanted to get angry. She hated being told what to do, even at the best of times; it was bad enough when it was the real Xena, when she was clucking and coddling and treating her like a kid, but neither one of them were ready to revisit that just now. She turned around, and she glared.
There she was, just like before. Xena, inside Callisto’s body, mouth twisted and teeth sharp, and the sight of her sitting there, eyes too dark and hair too light, drove a lance of rage straight through Gabrielle’s chest. It burned, searing like the fire between them, so potent that it almost blinded her. She lurched to her feet, nearly losing her balance in her rush to get away, to put some space between them before she put her fist through Callisto’s — Xena’s face.
“I said I’m not hungry.” She wasn’t smiling now either, but at least she wasn’t afraid this time. The anger was safer; it made her feel like she was in control. “I’m not going to faint if I skip one meal. I can take care of myself.”
She turned away again, scuffing the dirt with her boots to keep the urges at bay, lashing out at harmless inanimate things so that she wouldn’t lash out at Xena instead.
It was harder than she would ever admit to rein in the anger once she let it ignite, harder than she would ever admit not to lose herself in it completely, not to become intoxicated by how much simpler it was, how much safer than the fear. It surprised her, but of course Xena knew and of course she understood.
She stood up as well, as graceful and perfect in Callisto’s body as she ever was in her own. She was wise enough to keep her distance — no doubt she had seen this kind of anger more times than she could count, on people far more intimidating than Gabrielle — but Gabrielle didn’t need to look at her to know that she was thrown, perhaps even upset, in a way she seldom allowed to show. And why wouldn’t she be? They both knew this was out of character, and they both knew why.
“You’re right,” Xena said at last. Gabrielle didn’t look back, but she let herself relax ever so slightly. “I wasn’t trying to coddle you. It’s just that… well, things are delicate right now. I wouldn’t want to…”
“You wouldn’t want to find yourself in a bind because of me,” Gabrielle said flatly.
“That’s not what I said.” She sounded annoyed, perhaps a little hurt that the woman she loved so much would think so little of her; she knew why, of course, and understood that Gabrielle wasn’t really seeing her at all, but it still seemed to cut that her best friend would find the worst in her. “I know you can hold your own, and I know you can take care of yourself. It’s this body that I don’t trust.”
“Why not?” Gabrielle asked, before she could stop herself. “It’s still you inside, isn’t it?”
Perhaps Xena sensed that she needed the reassurance, that she wanted to hear the words spoken even if she already knew the truth in them. “Of course. But I’m not familiar with it yet. Callisto is… she’s not as tall as I am, or as strong, or as sturdy. Her body has limitations, weaknesses that I have to adapt to. I need to learn what this body is capable of, and what it’s not, and that’s going to take some time. If anything were to happen to you now, while I’m still figuring things out…”
“It won’t.” Gabrielle grimaced, willed herself to be patient. “Xena, we’re talking about one skipped meal, not a free-for-all with blood-sucking banshees. Nothing is going to happen.”
She tried to smile, but it wouldn’t come. Still, Xena seemed to appreciate the gesture; she breathed in deeply, a heavy sort of sound like a sigh in reverse, like she was trying to figure out the best way to express herself so that someone like Gabrielle might understand where she was coming from. Gabrielle wanted to tell her not to bother, to stop wasting her breath, but she didn’t have the heart. She hated feeling this way almost as much as Xena hated seeing it.
“All right,” Xena said after another long moment, letting the words out with her breath. “You don’t have to eat if you don’t want to.”
Thanks for the permission, Gabrielle thought, but she didn’t say it out loud. She didn’t trust herself not to lose control if she did.
“You go ahead and finish,” she said instead, and drove back the unexpected flight of temper. She didn’t want to go back to being afraid, but she didn’t want Xena looking at her like that any more either. “I’ll go and get Argo ready.”
Xena cleared her throat, no doubt to try and conceal her surprise. “Argo?” she echoed, like she’d never heard the name before.
“You heard me,” Gabrielle said, sharp like a warning.
“I did…” Xena murmured, as though she still couldn’t believe it. She didn’t add ‘you two don’t exactly get along’, or ask why the sudden interest, but Gabrielle could tell that she wanted to. Instead, uncharacteristically diplomatic, she said, “All right. But be gentle with her.”
“She’s a horse. I think I can handle a horse.”
“Gabrielle.” The name was a warning, and it sparked a fresh flash of fear in Gabrielle’s chest. “She’s been through a lot too. She’s confused and upset, not to mention injured. After what Callisto did to her…” She trailed off for a moment or two, choking up until Callisto’s voice was all but drowned out by the threat of sudden, unexpected tears. “Look, just try to play nice, all right? That’s all I ask.”
“I will if she will,” Gabrielle muttered, and stalked off before Callisto’s voice had a chance to reassert itself and chide her.
She found Argo tethered to a tree a short way away; it was a good distance, she thought, far enough to offer a little privacy but close enough that there was no risk of either one of them getting ambushed without the other hearing. Xena was nothing if not over-protective of her beloved horse, and probably with good reason; there were no small number of minor warlords out there who weren’t above horse-napping if they thought it would give them a bit of leverage over the famed warrior princess.
(Sometimes, Gabrielle almost wished that someone would try it, just so she could get a little peace and quiet from all that gods-forsaken neighing.)
It wasn’t that she and Argo didn’t get along. At least, not really. Honestly, the heart and bones of it was almost the exact opposite: fact was, they had too much in common. They were too busy vying for Xena’s affection to ever be friends, but both loved her too much to be real enemies either. It was a sort of purgatory, an in-between animosity that turned every moment between them into a kind of competition; Argo whined and sulked every time Gabrielle got a little too close to Xena, and Gabrielle essentially did the same thing when the situation was reversed. It wasn’t her most mature relationship, admittedly, but then again it wasn’t exactly easy to take the moral high ground against a horse.
This morning, though, Argo’s company was a blessing. At the very least, the tension between them was a familiar one, an awkward dance so old they both knew all of the steps backwards. Whatever might have changed between her and Xena, or between Xena and Argo, this at least remained forever the same. Argo wasn’t exactly the most expressive beast Gabrielle had ever met, but she could have sworn she saw her little eyes flash when she approached, and there was nothing subtle in the way she tramped the ground and snorted her aggravation.
‘Why you?’ she demanded in that wordless horsey way of hers.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Because Xena likes her breakfast more than either one of us.”
Argo, unsurprisingly, did not approve one bit. She reared up, then tossed her head as if to say ‘You displease me, tiny yellow-maned creature! Away with you and your not-so-tiny but equally yellow-maned companion, and do not return until you have the one true Xena!’
On another day, a normal one, Gabrielle would have taken that personally, and responded in kind; the blasted horse was always on her best behaviour when Xena was around, and always on her worst when she wasn’t. Today, though, she knew better. Argo’s attitude, rather like Gabrielle’s own, was a cover for other feelings, less pleasant ones. Just like her, Argo seemed to prefer anger to the alternative. Even horses hated being afraid, she supposed.
“Look,” she said, and didn’t bother trying to fight back. “I’m not happy about it either. But she is Xena. So…”
Argo nickered again, and this time there was no mistaking the confusion in her eyes, or the frustration. Gabrielle’s heart ached for her. On some level, she must understand that the not-so-tiny yellow-maned human was her one true Xena, must have felt that weird soul-bond thing of theirs resonate when she looked at her, but she could not comprehend how or why or what had happened to make it this way. She understood that this was how things were now, but that was as far as her little horse-brain could take her.
It made Gabrielle’s heart ache for her. As intelligent as Argo was by animal standards, she was still ultimately a horse, and this sort of thing was so far beyond her it might as well have been… well, another species. Which it was. Kind of.
To tell the truth, it was pretty far beyond Gabrielle as well, but at least she had the luxury of articulation at her disposal. She could ask questions, get answers, process and understand them; she could do so many things that Argo could not, and it broke her heart to see the poor beast so upset.
For all their animosity, for all that she knew Argo was just a silly horse, still she found that a part of her wanted to try and explain, wanted to try and connect with Argo and help her to make some sense of the chaos she’d been thrown into. Argo was no friend to her, but she was a friend to Xena, and she deserved to understand at least some part of what had happened to her. She deserved to make peace, if she could, with the fact that her Xena, her human soulmate, had been fundamentally changed, perhaps for good.
It wouldn’t do any good. She knew that. But she had to try.
“Look,” she said, very slowly and very carefully. “It’s complicated, okay? It’s complicated and stupid and awful, and it should never have happened at all, but it did, and we can’t change it. That woman out there is Xena. You don’t have to like it, but you can’t change it. It doesn’t matter that she looks like someone else. It doesn’t matter that she looks like the worst person in the world. She’s Xena. Your Xena. My Xena. She’s our Xena. Do you understand me?”
Argo just stared at her. Gabrielle supposed she couldn’t blame her for that; it wasn’t like she believed it herself, after all. Small wonder that she couldn’t convince the silly horse when she couldn’t even convince herself. She wanted to wrap those words around herself, so much more than Argo; she wanted to burn them on her heart, onto her soul, onto every part of her that Xena had ever touched, so that she could reach in and pull them out when she needed them, when Callisto’s eyes flashed or her lips twitched, when it was more than she could do to fight back the visions of Perdicus, of his blood on the same hands that Xena used to touch her shoulder.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said again, more for her own sake than Argo’s. “It doesn’t matter that she looks like the woman who killed Perdicus, who tried to kill me. It doesn’t matter that she looks like your worst enemy… like our worst enemy. She’s not her. She’s not Callisto, she’s Xena. She’s Xena, she’s Xena, she’s Xena! And if you can’t handle that… if you… if you can’t…”
She trailed off, choking on something that tasted like acid and burned like a sob.
Argo whinnied, a low sound that might have been a whimper if she were human and capable of that kind of feeling. She wasn’t tramping at the ground any more; she just stood there, staring balefully at Gabrielle as though she heard and understood every word, as though she could possibly comprehend even the tiniest part of it. Just like Gabrielle, the anger had bled out of her completely, leaving behind something that looking heart-wrenchingly like grief.
Gabrielle swallowed hard, tried again. “She needs us.”
Argo probably know that part on her own, but Gabrielle found that it helped a little to remind herself as well, and helped a little more to pretend that the snort and nicker that followed was her way of saying ‘I know, tiny yellow-maned creature. I know.’
Gabrielle swallowed hard, maybe four or five times, until she could force the tears back down. “She needs us to be strong,” she said. “She needs us to remember who she is. Who else is going to? If she forgets, who else is going to remind her?”
It wasn’t until she said the words that she realised she’d been afraid of that at all, but as soon as the words were out there was nothing she could do to fight the feeling back. It rose up like panic, like a scream, and for a moment it overpowered her completely.
What if? she thought again, inexplicably terrified. What if, what if, what if?
She knew the sort of person Xena used to be, of course. She knew about the warlord who had terrified half of Greece, the warrior princess whose name struck fear into any heart. She knew that she was violent and vicious, hungry for terrible things and thirsty for worse ones; when her Xena spoke about the old one, the one Gabrielle had never met and hopefully never would, she made her sound just like Callisto. She made her sound so ruthless, so bloodthirsty, the kind of person who didn’t care how many lives she took or destroyed or both.
Gabrielle had spent a long time trying very hard not to think about that, the similarities between what she’d seen in Callisto and what she’d heard about Xena. She’d spent a long, long time forcing herself not to wonder if Callisto truly was as irredeemable as her broken heart said she was, if there really was no trace of a softer soul left in that haunting, harmful body. If Xena could be redeemed…
She couldn’t pretend to understand how things worked down in Tartarus, how it could possibly come to pass that a madwoman with a penchant for bloodlust could end up in the body of a slowly-reforming warlord and vice-versa. She didn’t know how it worked, and frankly she didn’t want to, but still a part of her couldn’t help wondering if perhaps that was a part of it. Not just Xena’s guilt or Callisto’s cleverness, not just the things Xena had done to Callisto or the things Callisto had done to Xena in return, but all the rest of it, all the ways that neither one of them wanted to admit they were alike. It didn’t take someone of Gabrielle’s creative talent to see the poetry there, the painful, brutal irony.
It wouldn’t take much to send Xena back to that dark, dangerous place. Gabrielle didn’t want to admit that, but she couldn’t very well deny it either, and especially not right now. She’d seen the fire light up in Xena’s eyes on the battlefield, the thrill and the thrall pulsing in her veins in the middle of a good fight; it would only take the faintest echo of Callisto’s madness to drive her back to that old version of herself, to twist her heart until it hardened again, until she became the power-starved warlord she used to be. If there was even just the faintest shadow of Callisto still inside her body, if even a fragment of that twisted soul still remained inside…
It turned Gabrielle’s stomach to think of it, made her grateful that she didn’t eat breakfast. It wasn’t so far beyond the realm of imagination, was it? No more so than the two of them switching bodies in the first place. No more so than the countless impossible things they saw on a daily basis out here. Next to everything that she and Xena had seen and done and become together in the last year or so, it seemed horrifyingly possible.
“She needs us,” she choked out again, scarcely above a whisper now.
Argo made a low snorting sound, like she understood more than Gabrielle gave her credit for, and leaned in to nuzzle her nose against the crook of her neck. It was a sweet gesture, or as close to one as a horse was capable of; on a different day Gabrielle might have let herself see the funny side to all of this. Here she was, angry and frightened and so completely lost, and the only one in the whole wide world who understood how she felt was a horse who hated her.
Xena was right, though: Argo was hurting as well. She had been wounded, almost mortally, by a woman who looked just like her owner, her human soulmate. Little wonder that she was skittish after something like that. Little wonder that she couldn’t trust so easily, that she was as wary as Gabrielle of anyone who claimed to be Xena in any given moment. It was hard for them both, and Argo’s pain resonated so deeply with Gabrielle’s own; she wanted so badly to see the funny side, the stupidity and the irony and all the rest of it. She wanted so badly to laugh at herself for bonding with the same stupid horse who had trampled on her feet on more than one occasion, seemingly just for fun. She wanted to, yes, but in her heart she knew that it was not funny at all. Not for either of them.
“We have to be strong,” Gabrielle said when she finally pulled away. Her neck was cold where Argo’s nose had pressed. “For Xena’s sake. All right? We can’t let it get to us. We can’t let it…” She closed her eyes as the words broke, let herself pretend that it was Argo who had interrupted and not her own heartache. “I know. Believe me, I know. But it’s for Xena. You can be strong for Xena, right? You can be… you can…”
She trailed off again, shook her head and tried to shake the feeling out as well. How could she possibly expect Argo to hear her out, to draw strength from her words, when she didn’t even believe herself? Not even a stupid horse was that stupid.
Argo nickered again, a soft sound like a sigh, like the sound Xena made when Gabrielle refused breakfast, like the sound she made approximately four hundred times a day when Gabrielle did something wilful or just plain idiotic. Exasperated, aggravated, but with just a hint of fondness. Xena always let Gabrielle see that side of her, the side that cared even as it rolled its eyes, but Argo never did. Not even once. Gabrielle hadn’t earned her affection; it was always for Xena alone, or had been until just now.
Funny, she thought, how a disgusted noise from a stupid horse could bring such comfort. Not so funny, how they both knew she did not deserve it.
“Come on, now!” she snapped, feeling her heart start to crack. “You’re supposed to be her noble steed! Her heroic charger! Her… horsey soulmate?” Argo snorted, derision and approval in near-equal measure, and Gabrielle nodded. “Well, then. That should be that, shouldn’t it? I mean, what kind of soulmate can’t accept her like this? What kind of soulmate can’t look past… can’t move on… can’t…” Argo gave her shoulder a gentle nudge, a strange kind of encouragement, and Gabrielle buried her face in her mane to hide her tears. “What kind of useless, pathetic…”
Xena. She was calling from the campfire, loud and impatient, no doubt eager to get on the road and wondering what was taking so long. Argo flinched, tangibly confused by the unfamiliar voice even as some deep, primal part of her recognised it as her human’s.
Gabrielle flinched as well, but for very different reasons.
“Yeah,” she sighed, an answer to her own question. “Exactly.”