Xena told her to take it easy, but of course Gabrielle did no such thing.
There was something almost reassuring in all that coddling, though she was loathe to admit it; it wasn’t comforting, at least not exactly, but at the very least all that silly ‘can you breathe all right?’ and ‘where does it hurt?’ left no doubt in her mind that it really was Xena behind that dreadful face. Xena cared; Callisto wouldn’t.
It wouldn’t make a difference whether Gabrielle wanted her to touch her or not; the real Callisto would press her thumbs into the darkest bruises she could find just to see if she could make her scream. Xena was the one who worried, the one who bit her lip to keep from reaching out, who cracked her knuckles when she thought Gabrielle wasn’t looking, who did everything she could to keep from making her uncomfortable. Xena was the one who loved her, and as cloying as all the coddling was, at least it felt like love.
It helped her to breathe a little easier, and that helped them both. She’d noticed the way Xena reacted to her breathing, of course, but she didn’t have the heart to tell her that it wasn’t the pain in her ribs or her stomach, that it was the flash of Callisto’s teeth and the twisting of her fingers.
Though she knew that Xena would chide her for it, Gabrielle was out of bed the instant she was left alone.
There was no mirror in the run-down little tavern room, so she couldn’t check her appearance and see how justified Xena’s exaggerated concern really was. In truth, she rather suspected that was for the best; since they’d started travelling together, Gabrielle had been exposed to more violence than she could ever have imagined, but it still didn’t come easy to her, and she wouldn’t have thanked herself for looking in the mirror if her reflection looked anything like she felt.
She paced a little, then stooped to pick up her staff. Bending over hurt, but holding the staff made her feel better. It settled in her palms, as comfortable and familiar as always, a reminder of who she was, an Amazon who might one day be strong and brave enough to deserve that title.
She took a deep breath, then made a couple of experimental thrusts and jabs, testing her muscles and her limits. It hurt a great deal, but she didn’t care and she didn’t stop; as long as she was still conscious, it was a victory.
Besides, the room wasn’t exactly big enough for a training session, so she couldn’t over-exert herself even if she tried. Still, it made her feel better to hold the staff, and to use it, as though she could pretend by arming herself that she really was capable of putting up a fight.
Xena was a bigger influence than she gave herself credit for, she thought sadly, and certainly a bigger than one she wanted to be. Gabrielle closed her eyes, channelled the warrior she wished she was, the warrior she saw in Xena, and gave the staff a mighty swing, an overhead arc that found its mark on the unsuspecting mattress.
The contact was satisfying, knocking some of the stuffing out of the bed. Gabrielle smiled, and swung again.
It was strange, how comfortable she felt with a weapon in her hand now. For so long, she had shied away from confrontation, from even the hint of conflict, no matter how justified; even now, she preferred to sit down and talk things through before pulling out her staff. Since she’d started watching Xena, though, observing the trance-like tranquility she seemed to find with her sword or chakram in hand, she had learned the art of not being too still when something was troubling her.
Xena’s relationship with her violent past was complicated, Gabrielle knew, and she would not be happy to realise just how deep her influence ran, but unwanted or not it did help. It calmed her, helped her to believe that she was more than the sidekick, more than some tag-along little girl just waiting to be kidnapped or killed or both.
Callisto had made her feel worthless so many times; taking a beating now had made that feeling surge up again. The bruises still hurt, the blood was dry but painful, and knowing that the moment had passed did little to shake its echo from her mind. She felt pathetic, like a child playing dress-up as a warrior, who still needed someone else to step in to rescue her every time things got a little bit sticky. Time and time again, she had learned that the only way back up from a feeling like that was to take back the power she’d lost, to reclaim her body and her spirit and remind herself that she could be more, that today was not the only day.
So that was what she did. Swing, step, sweep, slam, then three steps back to start again. Again and again and again, until her body was screaming its protests and even the pain made her feel alive.
Xena, when she returned, was predictably unimpressed. “That doesn’t look like taking it easy…”
She knew better than to step in and force Gabrielle back into bed, but she made no secret of her disapproval, leaning against the doorframe and shaking her head like an exasperated mother as Gabrielle slammed the staff down on the bed again, and then again.
“Your point?” she grunted.
Xena thinned her lips, clearly biting down on the urge to chasten her. “No point,” she said coolly. “What did the bed do to upset you, anyway?”
Gabrielle gave it one last shattering blow, then stepped back, sweating and very shaky. “Gave me nightmares.”
“I don’t think you can blame the bed for that,” Xena quipped gently, and folded her arms. “Now lie back down and take it easy before I take that thing away and toss it out the window.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
Gabrielle sulked but did as she was told. Her whole body ached as she let the staff clatter to the floor, a pulse of pain that lanced through her as she leaned back on the pillow; she hadn’t let it get to her when she was practicing, but lying prone on a stupid bed with Callisto’s eyes on her undid all that hard work and plunged her straight back into the worthless, helpless feeling she’d been struggling against. The pain was so much more unbearable when she felt like that.
She scowled up at the ceiling, latched on to the first subject she could think of to distract herself. “Is it all clear? Any chance of getting ambushed in our sleep? Because, as you just saw, I am ready for a remat—”
“No,” Xena said, and Gabrielle couldn’t quite tell whether she was answering the question or forbidding her from joining any potential fight. She moved gracefully, picked up Gabrielle’s discarded staff and set it gently against the nearest wall. “I don’t think we need to worry about another attack tonight. But we’re going to have to deal with this sooner or later.”
“Later,” Gabrielle said, as though she had any place deciding these things. “Much later. When you’re you again.”
Xena grunted, but didn’t argue. Gabrielle recognised the sound, though; even with Callisto’s voice, she couldn’t conceal that sense of superiority, that way of saying ‘I’m the hero, you’re the sidekick’ without actually having to say the words. On most days Gabrielle didn’t mind — she’d always been more comfortable standing a few steps behind — but today the self-righteousness irked her.
She was already feeling helpless, and Xena was supposed to be the one who made it better, not worse. It made her stomach hurt, a kind of seething that went much deeper than the bruises and all the rest, and she tried to sit up, tried to counter the point. Xena cut that off too, of course, with a sharp look that sent her flopping back onto the pillows as effectively as if she’d shoved her down by force.
“I said take it easy.” Her voice was sharp, like a warning or a threat. It made Gabrielle want to scream. “Whether you want to admit it or not, you still took a serious beating. Just because you want me to believe you’re feeling better doesn’t mean you’re in any condition to go stomping around and knocking the stuffing out of other people’s beds.”
Gabrielle sighed, but had to concede the point. Well, the ‘other people’s beds’ part, anyway. It wasn’t really hers to break, after all.
“Fine,” she grumbled. “But I can’t just lie here like an invalid, Xena. I want to do something.”
“I know you do,” Xena said. Her words sounded like a sigh as well. “And you will. But you have to take care of yourself first. For my sake, if not for your own. Call it part of our ‘no touching’ agreement, if it makes you feel better.”
“Fine,” Gabrielle huffed, rolling her eyes and trying not to think about how it made her feel queasy. “But at least let me keep the staff? You never know when trouble might—”
“That’s what I’m here for,” Xena said, a little sharper than she needed to.
Gabrielle didn’t tell her that that was really not helpful, that she didn’t want to be the silly little sidekick who needed to hide behind the big bad warrior every time something bad happened. She just went back to glaring up at the ceiling, waiting for Xena to give up this overprotective nonsense, to realise that she really was just fine, that beating or no beating she could take care of herself without help, and that it would be best for everyone involved if they just collected their things, hit the road, and left this place far behind.
Xena, to no-one’s surprise, did none of those things. Instead, perhaps just to be petty, she insisted that they stay the night.
True to her word, though, she did keep her distance. She stayed on the far side of the room, seated by the door to keep guard. Gabrielle could tell that she didn’t sleep very much, always watchful with one eye on the door and the other on Gabrielle; she dozed off now and then drifting in and out of a light, always-aware sort of half-sleep that couldn’t possibly have been restful. Gabrielle supposed that was a warrior thing, sleeping while staying alert at the same time. Maybe one day she would master that too, instead of her usual all-or-nothing state of ‘dead to the world’ or ‘maddening insomnia’.
Tonight, unsurprisingly, was an ‘insomnia’ night. She could still taste the revenants of her nightmare and was less than eager to revisit it, and in any case she wasn’t exactly comfortable in the first place. Her bones and body were unforgiving now that she was still, and every time she tried to roll over a firestorm of pain ignited across her ribs and left her biting down on a cry. Honestly, the only reason she stayed on the bed at all was because she knew that Xena would throw a sword at her head if she dared to move without permission.
It was just after dawn when a knock at the door jolted them both.
Xena was instantly on her guard, reaching reflexively for a chakram that wasn’t there. Gabrielle sat upright, rather too quickly for her battered body to handle; the pain flared like a warning, and she had to suck in a sharp breath to keep it from showing on her face. Thankfully, it seemed that Xena was for once distracted by more pressing matters, and she didn’t seem to notice at all. Gabrielle was exceptionally grateful for that.
“Who is it?” Xena barked at the door, an effortless imitation of Callisto at her most deranged. Gabrielle swallowed down her disgust.
“B… breakfast?” They both recognised the barkeep’s voice, and Gabrielle watched Xena’s shoulders as they relaxed just a little. “It, uh… it comes with the room, so I thought I might…”
That was all Xena needed to hear, and she silenced his yammering by yanking the door open and pushing herself up into his personal space. It wasn’t exactly tactful, but it silenced him as well as a blow, and had a similar effect on Gabrielle. She felt her stomach leap into her throat, deeply unsettled by how easily Xena threw herself into the role of Callisto, and far more by how perfect her performance always was.
Gabrielle closed her eyes. It was too early in the morning for this; she couldn’t endure it. “Xe— Callisto. Do you really have to—”
“Hush, now. The grown-ups are talking.”
There was a warning behind the exaggerated madness, something that sounded so close to the real Xena. Deep in her heart, Gabrielle knew that it was there, but it was so hard to cut through the echoes of Callisto and find it, so hard to look past the manic rise and fall of her voice and remember that her Xena was still in there, and that she was trying to communicate with her.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to say something — she wasn’t even really entirely sure what — but Xena shot her a look so quick and so sharp that the words died on her lips before she had a chance to figure them out. She leaned back on the bed, eyeing her staff and wondering if she could get to it before either of the others noticed, before Xena caught her eye and and shouted at her.
As it turned out, she probably could have; Xena was utterly focused on the barkeep and his tiny little breakfast tray, unusually so, and she didn’t pay Gabrielle a moment’s more attention than she absolutely needed to. She used Callisto’s lean body like a weapon, filling the whole doorway somehow, shifting and moving and expertly blocking the poor man from getting into the room. Gabrielle thought about asking what he’d done that was so offensive, what she had against a free breakfast, but she knew better than to interrupt Xena — or Callisto — when she was working. Even at her most idealistic, she was not that stupid.
They talked for just a few seconds more, and then without warning everything went horribly wrong.
Xena moved impossibly fast. In one instant she was leaning against the doorframe, eyes like twin fires as she stoked Callisto’s madness, and in the very next the fire ignited her whole body. In less than a heartbeat she really was Callisto brought back to life, ruthless and violent and utterly beyond reason; she threw the barkeep up against the wall seemingly for no reason at all, and when she flashed that awful grin Gabrielle’s stomach lurched because it really did look like she was enjoying it.
The breakfast tray clattered forgotten to the floor, and Gabrielle choked on a horrified breath, nightmares flooding her field of vision as Xena drew Callisto’s sword and pressed it to the helpless barkeep’s throat.
“No!” The word was out before she could stop it, before she could think, before she could do anything more than lose herself to the panic and the visions and the certainty that this was so very wrong. “No, Xe—”
She leaned right in, using every inch of Callisto’s height to hover over the trembling barkeep, and the heavy curtain of her hair obscured her face almost completely. Gabrielle couldn’t find her eyes any more even if she could have stomached the sight of them; she couldn’t track the lines of her mouth or her jaw, couldn’t search for any trace of the woman she prayed was still in there somewhere. She could only watch, slack-jawed and beyond terrified, as Xena dragged the edge of Callisto’s blade down the line of his throat, down past his collarbones, down until the point of it rested over his heart.
“I…” he stammered. “I don’t… I’m not…”
“You too, little man.”
It was Callisto’s voice, not just in the words but in the way she said them. There was no trace of Xena left in there at all, none of the emphatic lowness, or the familiar inflections she’d been using to help Gabrielle tell the difference. There was nothing, not even a ghost of the woman Gabrielle thought she knew. Either Xena was a phenomenal performer, or—
No. Don’t think like that. You can’t. Xena’s still in there. She is, okay? She has to be.
It was so hard to believe that right now, though. Even if it really was still Xena, she seemed to delight so much in playing the part, in twisting her body and her hands the way Callisto did, in shaping her voice into that manic, deranged sing-song that Callisto used to such devastating effect. She seemed to come alive in the role, and that made it seem like so much more than a show. Gabrielle wanted to step in and stop her, stop all of this, but she couldn’t move at all. One half of her was blind with rage, choking on hatred for the woman who had killed her husband; the other half was terrified, frightened against her will of this woman who had tried to kill her so many times. She couldn’t move; how could she, when she couldn’t even breathe?
It’s Xena, she told herself, over and over and ever more desperate. It’s her, it’s Xena, it has to be, it has to be…
“Little man,” Xena said again, and Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t need to see the scene play out to know what was happening; she could hear the slide of sword-steel against bare skin, the threat turned into a very real promise if this didn’t turn out the way she wanted. “Thought you could pull one over on me, eh?”
“No… I… it wasn’t… I didn’t…” The helplessness in his voice was unbearable, but far worse was the helplessness in her own traitorous body, limbs paralysed and heart pounding. She had to help him, had to stop Callisto, had to stop Xena. She had to. “You’ve got the wrong fella. I’m just a… a…”
“—a rat,” Xena finished, effortlessly unhinged. “A filthy, worthless rat. That’s what you are. Now give me one good reason not to skin you like one.”
He didn’t say anything. He probably couldn’t. Fear had that effect, Gabrielle knew, so busy choking on her own, the acid-tasting terror and the certainty that Xena — Callisto would turn around and skin her too if she said so much as a word. She couldn’t give in to it, though, not when someone else’s life hung in the balance. She had to fight it off, had to choke it down even if it was the death of her. She had to move.
The anger was more important than the fear. It didn’t matter if she gave in to the hatred, if she found herself with a dagger in her hand again, with a blade pressed to Xena’s neck; none of that mattered so long as she kept that poor man alive. Xena — the real Xena, if anything was left of her — would never forgive her if she just sat there and let this happen.
“Don’t!” She willed her body into action, leaping off the bed in a haze of pain and rage, forcing her fingers to stop shaking for long enough to reach for her staff. “Xena… Callisto… whoever you are… stop!”
“You stay out of this!” Xena snarled, whirling around to face her.
Her face was terrifying, but Gabrielle would not let it deter her. She couldn’t. She crossed the room in maybe two steps, throwing herself between them for want of anything else to do, and it hurt so much worse than the tugging bruises when she swung her staff against the woman she loved.
Xena deflected her effortlessly, slapping the staff away with an open palm then yanking it out of Gabrielle’s hands. She didn’t even break a sweat.
Had the situation been a little less fraught, a little less urgent, Gabrielle might almost be embarrassed; as it was, she felt her legs go weak, head spinning as the fear surged up in her again, stronger this time and irrepressible. It slammed into her chest like a fist or a boot, clashing queasily with the rage and the hatred and all the rest of it, and of course her body betrayed her again. She froze, seizing up from head to toe, the urge to run locked up with the need to stand her ground and fight.
Xena didn’t hit her, but in Gabrielle’s foggy brain it felt like a near thing. She opened her mouth to say that she wasn’t stupid, that Xena was the one who had lost herself, who had done the very thing she swore she wouldn’t, who had given in to everything Callisto was. Weaponless, beaten and broken and completely helpless, she opened her mouth to fight with the one thing she had left, the one thing that even Callisto couldn’t take away, her words—
—but they died on her lips when she saw the dagger in the barkeep’s hand.
“Wha…” And there it was, the truth of it as clear as day, and if Xena hadn’t caught her by the shoulder, she would have fallen under the weight of it. “…oh.”
Xena held her for a moment. Just a moment, no more, as though giving her a breath to let it all sink in, and then she was shoving her back. It was enough, though, and when she pushed her Gabrielle could feel her warrior’s control, the way she squeezed just tight enough to make her point but never hard enough to hurt. Still, the shock and the motion left her off-balance in more ways than one, and despite Xena’s best efforts to rein herself in Gabrielle hit the floor with a thud and a groan.
She sat there, dazed, watching through half-lidded eyes as Xena turned back to the barkeep and picked up exactly where she left off.
“I’m still waiting,” she cooed, cupping his face as though the interruption never happened. “Give me a reason not to cut you open.”
“You have to understand…” He squirmed against the edge of Callisto’s sword; Gabrielle watched it nick the skin, little pinpricks of blood welling up along the point of steel. She knows what she’s doing, she thought, tasting acid in her mouth. She’s in control. She knows what she’s doing. “We’re not exactly big on visitors round here… a man has to eat…”
“So do we,” Xena said coldly.
No doubt worried that he’d end up impaling himself if he kept squirming like that, she pulled back and sheathed the stupid sword. Gabrielle almost choked on the effort of holding her relief in check, but Xena wasn’t done yet. Falling back on more familiar methods, she gripped him by the throat with one hand, taking his wrist in the other and twisting until the pain made him yell and drop the knife.
“What are you—”
“Ah-ah-ah. I’m asking the questions now.” She twisted a little harder; Gabrielle’s stomach gave a sharp lurch, anticipating the snapping of bone. “Was it Draco’s men? What did they pay you to piss away your morals?”
He actually laughed at that. It wasn’t a cruel kind of laughter, or even particularly mocking, but rather the manic, halfway delirious laugh of someone caught in a corner. He laughed like it was the only thing he had left, like he would split apart at the seams if he didn’t.
“You’re the last person I’d expect to spout lectures about morality, Callisto.” He tried so hard to sneer as he said it, but just like his laughter it came out fearful and half-feral. “Left to your own devices, who’s to say you won’t burn this whole place to the ground just because you feel like it?”
“Tempting,” Xena said, without a trace of irony. Gabrielle shuddered, and so did the barkeep. “Might still do it, if you don’t stop floundering and answer my question.”
His body went slack, all the laughter and the feigned courage bleeding out of him like he was throwing himself on her mercy. That would have been a dangerous and stupid move if he’d been dealing with the real Callisto, though Gabrielle supposed the real Callisto would have never let him get this far in the first place. If she was in a generous mood, he would have been dead before he pulled the knife; if she was in a bad one, he wouldn’t have even had time to knock on the door. Either way, he had no idea how lucky he was that he’d found Xena instead, however good an actress she was in the moment.
“Draco.” He tried to spit the name, make one last show of bravado, but it came out like a stammer instead. “Big-head warlords, swaggering about like they own half the known world. He thinks hanging Callisto’s head in his trophy room will get his reputation back. I say it’s wishful thinking… but like I told your little girl last night, if you’ve got the money…”
Xena was frowning, still focused on Draco. “His reputation?” she echoed, as though she’d never heard the word before.
“Don’t act so surprised. That’s all that matters to you people, isn’t it?” Xena gave his wrist another warning twist, and he grunted. “Look, all I know is he’s got his underthings in a tangle because Xena humiliated him last year. Probably figures, if he can take out someone better that’ll prove he’s still got some kick left in him. Win back his place in the Ruthless Warlord Hall Of Infamy or whatever it is.”
Xena choked on her outrage, and Gabrielle almost laughed. She couldn’t very well come out and say that Callisto was absolutely not ‘someone better’, but it was painfully obvious she wanted to. She had to settle for smirking, acting like she was flattered by the claim instead of offended, and had the situation been even just a little different it would have been hilarious.
“Well,” she said, visibly struggling not to grit her teeth. “I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised. Draco’s always been a posturing imbecile.”
She cocked her head to the side, lips quirking exactly like Callisto’s did when she was sizing up her prey, readying herself to pounce or worse. Gabrielle had felt the heat of that look herself, too many times to count; it haunted her most terrifying nightmares, and her most hateful thoughts. She would recognise it anywhere, and even knowing as she did now that it really was her Xena in there it still made her blood run cold.
Blessedly, she didn’t have to see it for long. A moment’s contemplation, a sordid little smile, and Xena lashed out with her elbow, a quick, sharp blow that knocked the poor bastard unconscious in a second. It was brutal, and Gabrielle couldn’t help thinking unnecessary, but given the alternative she had no choice but to accept it. Better than bloodshed, she told herself, and tried to keep breathing.
As soon as she was done, Xena was back inside the room, door slammed shut behind her. She stormed past Gabrielle, crossing over to the bed, and began rummaging through their belongings. “Gather your things,” she said, voice as tight as a whip. “We’re leaving.”
That was an order, and one that Gabrielle would have to be stupid to ignore. Still, though, she hesitated. It wasn’t just the situation that had Xena on edge, she could tell; it was Gabrielle’s place in it specifically, the way she’d panicked and leaped to the wrong conclusion, the way she’d assumed the worst without so much as a moment’s hesitation. That had to sting, and she felt terrible for it.
“Don’t.” It cut like a blade, hearing her own plea turned back on her, reforged into a command on Callisto’s lips. “I mean it, Gabrielle: not now.”
“No.” She sounded furious, but it was a Xena kind of fury, the controlled exasperation that Gabrielle knew so well, and though her voice rose like Callisto’s it sounded nothing like her now. “We’re clearly not safe in this viper’s nest, and I really don’t want to stick around and wait for yet another unwanted altercation. Now, for once in your life, do as I say and gather your things.”
“I will.” She sighed, and still didn’t move. “I will. It’s just, I’m… I’m sorry.”
“All right. Okay. Sure. Gathering my things.”
Keeping a safe distance, as much out of lingering fear as shame, she followed Xena’s lead in mostly silence. Xena moved with her usual efficiency, collecting up their meagre possessions and stomping back to the door without even pausing for breath. She looked like a woman possessed, intense and wild even when she wasn’t playing Callisto, and that made Gabrielle less inclined than usual to try and bridge the gap between them. Better to do as Xena said, at least for now, until they were clear of this place and her face went back to something palatable.
The barkeep was still unconscious when they swept past him; no doubt by the time he woke from his impromptu nap they would be be halfway to the next unfriendly welcome and the next not-at-all-metaphorical kick in the head. Good for him, Gabrielle supposed sadly, though not so good for her; her body was still reeling, still close to broken after its beating, and she was more upset by what just happened than she’d care to admit. She felt raw, and walking was unjustly difficult.
They collected Argo from the stables. She seemed a little stronger now, steadier for having spent some time with clean hay and a roof over her head. Whatever ill fortune this village had brought Xena and Gabrielle, it had at least treated poor Argo with dignity; given that she was by far the most wounded of them all, Gabrielle could not deny that it was for the best. It lightened Xena’s heart to see her steed so much improved, and that rose all their spirits.
Still, though, she didn’t ride, and she didn’t suggest that Gabrielle climb up either. Whether it was out of concern for the horse or simply knowing that Gabrielle would refuse any offered hospitality at this point, either way she didn’t waste time on it. She walked close by Argo’s side, keeping a tight grip on her reins and reaching down every now and then to pet her flank or mane. It was as though the horse’s presence was enough to remind her of who she was. At least Argo could be trusted to still have faith in her.
Gabrielle, as best she could, kept her mouth shut. She wanted to apologise again, wanted to say something, but she didn’t, and not just because she knew that Xena would shut her down again. It boiled inside her, the need to explain her perspective, to get all that emotion out in the open before it could fester and putrefy, but it took so much strength just to keep putting one foot in front of the other and every time she thought about opening her mouth she found herself too breathless to try.
Their progress was slow, for all three of their sakes. Xena was paranoid and anxious, pausing every few minutes to look around and make sure that they weren’t being followed; she kept half an eye on Argo and Gabrielle, spreading her worry evenly between them, and the rest went on their surroundings. Gabrielle watched the line of her shoulders, tense and tight and constantly on the alert; it had been a long, long time since she’d seen her quite as intense as this. The altercation with the barkeep had clearly rattled her, and coupled with Gabrielle’s run-in with the trio of mercenaries it was little wonder that she saw every tree as a potential assailant.
For her part, Gabrielle was having a harder time than she would ever admit. Her whole body hurt, even the places where she wasn’t bruised, but she didn’t trust herself to complain. She was shaking all over, teeth chattering, and if she had doubted before that something was broken inside her, there was no doubt in her now. Xena must have noticed her discomfort, but she didn’t comment on it. She must have realised that the second she opened her mouth Gabrielle would change the subject and started running her mouth with those gods-forsaken apologies.
They were a couple of leagues away when they finally stopped to take a break. Xena was very clever about it; she insisted that it was for Argo’s sake, that she didn’t want to overwork the poor old girl while she was still in such a delicate state… but even as she said it, her eyes never left Gabrielle.
She didn’t bother to build a fire, simply sat herself down on the grass with her legs stretched out in front of her. Gabrielle stayed standing, wringing her hands in front of her and summoning what little courage she had left.
“Lie down,” Xena snapped in the same stone-hard tone she’d used to say that they were leaving the village. “You need to rest as well.”
Gabrielle sighed, and did as she was told, if only because she knew that Xena wouldn’t listen to her until she did. “Xena.”
Xena cut her off with a wave of Callisto’s spidery hands. She seemed distracted, eyes shadowed and impossibly dark. Looking into them was the hardest thing in the world for Gabrielle; it was difficult to remember that Xena was still inside her when she looked at those dark eyes — worlds away from Xena’s vivid blue — and saw the soul of a monster. Callisto had no sense of personal space, and she knew exactly how to exploit that; it was there in the way she leaned forwards, the way she pressed herself against her victims, the way she touched them without permission and looked them straight in the eye without blinking. Gabrielle had been having nightmares about those eyes long before Callisto came back to kill her husband.
Right now, though, those eyes were Xena’s, and looking into them revealed so much pain that it stole Gabrielle’s breath. The real Callisto would never have allowed such a thing to show through, and she definitely would never have allowed Xena’s ‘irritating blonde’ companion to see it. It gave her a little courage, helped to keep the distance between the monster she saw and the woman she loved.
“You gonna let me take a look at those bruises?” Xena asked, cutting through her thoughts.
It was deliberately spontaneous, Gabrielle could tell, meant to throw her off-balance so that she would concede without thinking, but it didn’t work. She quirked a brow instead, feigning innocence, and mumbled “They’re fine.”
Of course, that just made Xena roll her eyes. “Don’t give me that,” she said. “Do you really think I haven’t noticed you stumbling this past half-hour?”
“I wasn’t stumbling,” Gabrielle shot back, entirely too quickly. “I was just trying to make Argo look good. She’s been through a lot, you know, and she’s got such a delicate little ego. I wanted to make her feel better about herself.”
“Of course you did.” Xena sighed. “Gabrielle, I really think—”
“No.” It hurt to swallow, hurt to breathe. “I’m fine, Xena. It hurts, yes, but I’m not about to keel over. I’m not dying, I’m just in pain.”
And right now, she added silently, I think I kind of want to be.
Xena huffed another sigh, but let the matter drop. Whether she respected Gabrielle’s decision or simply didn’t want to fight about it any more, Gabrielle didn’t know, but she didn’t much care either. She just wanted Xena to stop trying to touch her with those hands. She just wanted to stop seeing. She just wanted…
“Gabrielle.” The name came out strangely, almost like a plea. Gabrielle was just about to reach out and ask what was wrong when she blurted out, seemingly out of nowhere, “I want you to go back to Amphipolis.”
Gabrielle frowned. “What?”
“You heard me.”
There was an odd kind of strain in the way she said it, as though this ran deeper than she wanted to say. Gabrielle could sense trouble beneath the words, and it sat unpleasantly in her stomach.
“Is this because of what happened back in the tavern?” she asked, in a tiny voice. “Because if that’s what it is, you know I’ve been trying to apologise for the last—”
“It’s not about that,” Xena said.
She didn’t sound especially convinced, though, and Gabrielle could tell that she was still upset about it. She wasn’t looking at her, for a start, and that was definitely a bad sign; ever since this had happened, Gabrielle had been the one looking away, the one averting her eyes and hiding her face, doing whatever she could to keep from looking too closely into the abyss. Xena had been the one pressing her for contact, desperate to touch her or meet her gaze or do any one of the countless things they used to take for granted when she wore her own body. Gabrielle was always the one who couldn’t look at her.
Callisto’s face filled her with rage, yes, but far more than that — and more than she would ever admit to Xena — it filled her with fear. Every time she looked at her, her whole body seized up, panic rising like lava in a volcano, threatening to boil over and burn her from the inside. It was all she could do to hold it all inside, to keep from screaming or sobbing or running for her life.
She wouldn’t let Xena see that part, though. She let her see the anger and the hatred, the righteous fury of a woman who had been wronged, who had lost her husband to those horrible spider hands; she let Xena imagine that she understood her anguish, the trauma that painted itself as grief and rage, but that was only the surface of what she felt, nowhere near the horror and the fear that churned deeper inside her. Xena was a warrior; she couldn’t possibly understand what it was to feel so utterly helpless.
Xena never saw the things that shaped Gabrielle’s nightmares. She’d been there for Perdicus, had been there to see her almost burn, but she had missed the moments before and between and after, the ones that had shaped the fear long before Gabrielle had any reason to hate.
Xena wasn’t there for their first encounter; she’d missed the hours Gabrielle spent strung up in the heavens, suspended, used as a toy and twisted like a tool; she never saw the look on Joxer’s face when Callisto laughed and said ‘do her’. She wasn’t there after Perdicus, either; she never saw that fateful, slow-motion moment when Gabrielle held a sword to her sleeping chest but couldn’t drive it in, when Callisto awoke to tell her that she would die instead. She never saw any of the moments when Callisto held a knife to her throat or touched her face with her fingertips, any of the countless times she taunted or threatened or tortured her.
Xena never saw any of those things, and even if she had her warrior’s heart could not comprehend a world where hate and fear existed in the same place at the same time.
It was for Perdicus’s sake that Gabrielle hated Callisto, but it was for her own that she feared her.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted out, balling her fists in the dirt, yanking up little blades of grass. “I’m sorry I couldn’t trust you in the tavern. I’m sorry I thought you were… I’m sorry for everything. It won’t happen again, Xena, I swear it. Don’t send me away over one stupid mistake. You need me to keep you focused. You need me to ground you. You need me to… to…”
“I need you to rest, Gabrielle.” Xena’s eyes were on the horizon, squinting at the sun, as though blinding herself would somehow make this easier. “I need you and Argo to heal up.”
“We’re both fine,” Gabrielle argued. “Argo’s as good as new. Aren’t you girl?” Argo whinnied, a grudging ‘don’t put words into my mouth’ sort of sound, and Gabrielle quickly switched tack. “Well, she’s Argo. And me… Xena, you know I’m fine. A little sore, sure, but we’ve both had worse. You know that, right? You know—”
“I know that you’re in pain,” Xena interrupted sharply. “I know that you’re stumbling. I know that you’re trying to hide how serious it really is.” She sighed, shaking her head as though disappointed. “And, yes, I also know that you can’t trust me while I look like this.”
It wasn’t hard for Gabrielle to read between the lines, to hear ‘if I can’t trust you to be honest about your injuries, and you can’t trust me to be myself, what’s left for either one of us?’. It made her heart clench. “Xena…”
“No. All of those things are liabilities, Gabrielle. I can’t take care of you and pretend to be Callisto at the same time, and you can’t rest up and heal when we’re getting attacked at every turn. I can’t make mercenaries and warlords believe that I’m a psychopathic murderer if I’m constantly looking back over my shoulder to make sure you’re not getting yourself in trouble or getting your feelings hurt or—”
“It’s not like that,” Gabrielle cried, but her voice broke like a wave and gave her away. “You don’t have to keep an eye on me, Xena. I… I’ll do better next time, okay? I’ll keep my head down, and I’ll keep my mouth shut. I’ll—”
“Gabrielle.” Her voice was heavy, but not with anger. Gabrielle swallowed down her protestations and stared at her, tried to take some comfort in the way her jaw had gone pale, the way she was grinding Callisto’s teeth, the way it seemed like this was killing her as well. “It’s not just about you, all right? It’s not about what you can’t do, or what you’re not ready to face. It’s about me as well. It’s about…” She grimaced, as though bracing herself to reveal some deep, dark secret. “Gabrielle, I can’t afford any distractions right now.”
Gabrielle frowned, stung. “I’m a distraction?”
“Yes.” Her tone was harsh, but there was a softness behind it that said she was trying not to be. “For the moment, at least. The way you look at me, the way you don’t look at me… gods, Gabrielle, the way you look.” Gabrielle flushed, painfully aware of the colours blooming across her skin, and did not argue. “Listen. If I have to do what I need to do, I can’t afford to have you there. Do you understand?”
“What you need to do…” Gabrielle echoed dumbly. “What… what, exactly, are you going to do?”
Xena turned to face her. Callisto’s eyes were unexpectedly bright, lit up by the afterimage of sunlight, and Gabrielle forced herself to swallow the fear and look into them. Xena needed to know that she was by her side, that she wanted to stay that way; she needed to remember that the two of them had been through so much worse than this together and still come out all right in the end. She needed to know that they couldn’t solve their problems by giving up and walking away from them. Whatever it was, they had to face it together. They had to.
They stayed like that for a few long seconds, looking at each other as though fighting some wordless, weaponless war. For a moment, Gabrielle was sure that she saw Xena bring tears into Callisto’s eyes.
At long last, Xena looked away. “I’m going after Draco,” she said. “I’m going to put an end to this nonsense.”
Gabrielle tried to nod, but she was paralysed, frozen in place with her eyes on Xena’s. “I can help,” she managed weakly. “I can…”
“Maybe. But that’s not a risk I’m willing to take.”
She sighed, deep and heavy and overflowing with emotion, the kind that Gabrielle knew was still very alien to her, the kind that sat heavy in her chest and left her frustrated when she tried to put it into words that wouldn’t come. It was new to both of them, but sometimes in moments like this Gabrielle couldn’t help feeling like she was the experienced one and Xena the green young thing who didn’t know what she was doing. Sometimes it made her feel whole and beautiful; other times, like now, it made her feel like she wasn’t good enough.
“No.” Her voice cracked like a whip, and it took a visible force of will for her to soften it again. “Draco knows me, Gabrielle. He knows Xena, intimately. If I’m going to convince him that I’m Callisto, it has to be flawless. I can’t afford to be distracted or preoccupied. Not by you, not by Argo, not by anyone or anything. It needs to be just me and him, and I have to be willing to do whatever… whatever it takes. I don’t want you to be around for that.”
“This isn’t a discussion. I’ve made up my mind, and you’re not going to change it.” Still, she looked grudging, and that helped Gabrielle to feel just a little less rejected. “It’s safe in Amphipolis. They know who I am, and what happened. You won’t be attacked there, or caught unawares.” She forced a smile, though Gabrielle could tell it came hard. “You can stay with my mother. She’ll protect you.”
“Your mother?” It came out like a whine, like a child being told it’s time for bed. She flushed, and scrambled to correct herself. “I mean… Cyrene is great, Xena, really. But I’m a warrior. Or, well, half of one, I guess. An Amazon, at least. And I can fight. You’ve seen me fight. You can’t… you can’t really think I need your mother to protect me!”
Xena rolled her eyes. “Fine. You can protect her.”
“That’s better…” Gabrielle mused, then caught herself. “Wait, no! That’s not better at all! Xena, you have to let me go with you. You need me to keep you grounded, to remind you who you are…”
“I know who I am,” Xena said, in less than a whisper.
She was too tactful to add ‘you’re the one who doesn’t’, but of course they both knew that was what she meant. Perhaps there was a grain of truth in that, though even Gabrielle couldn’t say for sure. All she knew was what she could see with her own eyes, and that changed from moment to moment. Callisto’s eyes were so very different in bright sunlight or the glow of a campfire, and different again from behind a black eye or in the haze of post-nightmare grogginess. It was never the same from one moment to the next, so how could she be sure which version was the right one?
Gabrielle had always prided herself on her empathy, on seeing the goodness in even the darkest souls, the things worth saving in even the cruellest people. She had always imagined that she understood Xena in a way nobody else ever had, or had taken the time to; theirs was a unique bond, and one that grew stronger with every day they spent together. She knew Xena’s heart, and flattered herself that she knew her soul as well. But Xena looked like Callisto now, and that made everything different.
She didn’t know Callisto, didn’t understand her at all. She couldn’t understand her, and every time she tried to rise above herself, to look through those eyes and those hands and that face, to find some sliver of salvation in that monster of a woman, some tiny shred of humanity that she could cling to and forgive… every time she tried, Callisto turned around and did something else, brought herself to a new level of brutality and spite. Gabrielle tried and tried, searched and searched, but if there was any trace of a heart or soul left in Callisto it was buried so deep that Gabrielle would never find it.
Callisto’s eyes burned. Her hands twitched. Her shoulders stiffened and tightened and moved. Her whole body was a study in all the things she’d done, all those tiny little intimacies that she forced down Gabrielle’s throat every time they were alone, the touches to her face, the knife at her neck, the words she whispered into her ear. Gabrielle couldn’t look her in the eye and not remember the madness dancing behind them, couldn’t let Xena touch her with those hands and not remember how they felt caressing her face and threatening her with death. She couldn’t. And that made it so hard, so close to impossible, to see Xena at all.
Maybe Xena was right; maybe she really was herself, as complete and pure as she ever was. But Gabrielle, who had always prided herself on her gift of sight, still could not see it.
“You’ll come back?” she heard herself whisper, a plea that shrouded her surrender. “When you’re finished with Draco? You’ll come to Amphipolis and find me? Take me back?”
Xena stared at her, mouth half-open, as though she couldn’t believe she would even ask. Gabrielle supposed that was fair; they had parted ways plenty of times before and always found their way back to each other in the end. There was no reason to think that this time would be any different, no reason to assume that it would be the last time. There was no reason for any of the things she was feeling. but Gabrielle found that hard to remember when Xena smiled and Callisto’s teeth flashed.
In a lot of ways, maybe Xena understood Gabrielle’s feelings better than she understood her own. Again and again she had asked ‘are you sure?’ or said ‘if you want to leave…’. Again and again she’d made it clear that Gabrielle’s peace of mind was her highest priority, that it was the only thing in the world that mattered to her, that she would suffer herself if that was what it took to keep Gabrielle whole and clean. She had said it so many times that it was all Gabrielle could hear any more. After all that, how could she not be afraid that Xena would take matters into her own hands, ride off into the sunset alone and convince herself it was best for them both?
Gabrielle’s hands shook, so she folded them in her lap until they stopped. She wanted to reach for her, even cling to her, but she couldn’t. So she asked the question again, and then again, because it felt less like weakness when her voice was the only thing shaking.
Xena mirrored her, clenching Callisto’s hands into fists as though she too wanted to reach out. The space between their bodies and their hands felt so wide, so vast, and so close to uncrossable.
“Of course I’ll come back for you,” she said.
“Are you sure?” Gabrielle whispered. “Because you said…”
“I know what I said.” It was a sigh, delicate and fragile, though Callisto’s tongue make it sharp. “But that’s your choice, not mine. If you want to leave, you’re free to. But if you want me, you’ll always have me.” She closed her eyes for just a moment, and Callisto’s whole face transformed; she always looked so young when her eyes were shut. “It doesn’t matter what my body looks like, Gabrielle: you’re a part of me. You’re the best part of me. I couldn’t abandon you, no more than I could cut off my own head and live to tell the tale.”
Gabrielle nodded, swallowing very hard. “You promise?”
Xena leaned in, close enough to touch her but respectful enough to hold back. Maybe she could see the panic still trembling through Gabrielle’s limbs, the part of her that was angry and afraid and too weak not to be, or else maybe she just didn’t want to shatter a precious, fragile moment by stepping beyond its bounds. Either way, she kept her hands at her sides. Gabrielle planted hers in the grass, ripping up little pieces and wishing that he breath would stop.
“I promise,” Xena said. “With all my heart.”