It wasn’t a long way to Amphipolis, but it felt like one.
Gabrielle was still unsteady, aching all over and more than a little wobbly on her feet, but she refused to give in and mount Argo. Xena might not be around to see her fail, but Argo was, and Gabrielle knew that she would tell her everything the instant they were reunited. She probably wouldn’t even bother to say ‘hello’, or whatever passed for one in horse-speak; she’d just toss her head and do that self-satisfied snort thing she loved so much, and just like that Xena would know the whole story. Whatever the pain, however many times she stumbled, Gabrielle wouldn’t give the smug little mare the satisfaction.
(Of course, it had nothing to do with the fact that Argo was still recovering too, and it definitely had nothing to do with the fact that Gabrielle didn’t want to hurt her. Definitely not.)
She did lean against her a few times, though, letting her weight settle across Argo’s uninjured side in the too-frequent moments when her own pain drove her to dizziness. It cut at her pride, though not nearly as much as riding would have, though she took some small comfort from the fact that Argo limited her complaints to the occasional derisive whinny; she was the most expressive horse Gabrielle had ever met, and the fact that she didn’t rear back or jerk away spoke volumes.
Without Xena around, Argo slipped a little too naturally into the role of leader. She was the one who insisted, again and again, that they stop to rest, planting her hooves and refusing to budge until Gabrielle sat down. Given the choice, Gabrielle would have kept right on going without a break; she would have pushed both of their bodies past their limits in her haste to get to Amphipolis, but of course she wasn’t the one calling the shots. Even with Xena a dozen leagues away, she was still just the sidekick.
The first time Argo made them stop, Gabrielle just rolled her eyes and said “You worry too much.”
Argo snorted, but she didn’t deny it.
The second time it happened, Gabrielle felt her patience start to fray. Hands on her hips, she glared at the stubborn little beast and snapped “You’re worse than Xena.”
Argo nickered at that, like she was was laughing at her, then nudged Gabrielle’s shoulder with her nose as if to say ‘stop whining and go get something to eat’.
Gabrielle did, but just because she was hungry anyway. She would never, ever admit that in her best friend’s absence she let herself get bossed around by a damned horse.
Besides, it didn’t matter if it was Argo’s idea: eating well was just the sensible thing to do. She had to keep her strength up if she wanted to get to Amphipolis in good time, and all the more so when neither one of them were in full health. They hadn’t been on their own for more than a few hours at most, and already she was starting to flag; it wasn’t fair to keep leaning on Argo like she was, but if this kept up she might not have much of a choice.
Her sides and back hurt terribly, a world of unrelenting pain that started deep between her ribs and swelled outwards in ever widening circles, pulsing like a heartbeat in all directions. She had a headache, too, bad enough that she wouldn’t wish it on her worst enemy; she couldn’t remember losing consciousness back when it happened, but right now she might almost consider paying someone to knock her out. She wanted a real roof, a proper meal, and clean water to drink. She wanted… gods, she just wanted to not have to do this any more.
Argo made for surprisingly good company. Whether it was her own injuries pulling at her, or just a well-concealed compassionate streak, she stayed close by Gabrielle’s side; she stood next to her when they rested, even when the best grass was elsewhere, and when they moved on she was always careful to keep within reach. It wasn’t really a substitute for Xena, but Gabrielle was grateful for it just the same.
Gabrielle pushed them harder than Argo would have liked, and even when she yielded she never let them stop for very long. A few minutes here, another few there, just long enough that Argo stopped sulking and acquiesced to get moving again.
Well-meaning though they were, the rest-stops didn’t really help; in truth, it just made things worse, though Gabrielle supposed she should have foreseen that; the constant sitting down and getting back up again tugged and tore a little more each time, straining muscles that were already tender and battered.
It wasn’t just pride that made her put her foot down in the end; if she sat down one more time, she was fairly sure she would never get up again. So, after perhaps the fourth or fifth time they stopped, she looked the stupid horse right in the eye and said “Enough.”
Argo, of course, put it down to her stubbornness and made a show of being thoroughly unimpressed. The response was so much like Xena that Gabrielle would have laughed out loud if she thought she could spare the breath. Argo, just like Xena, didn’t see the pain or the strain, only Gabrielle’s trademark wilfulness, and just like Xena she wasn’t shy about letting Gabrielle know just how much it annoyed her. Argo wasn’t as good at it as Xena was, though; she didn’t have a voice, and she couldn’t really express herself, at least not beyond those annoying horse noises she made. It was a far, far cry from the easy back-and-forth banter that she usually shared with Xena, and Gabrielle felt it much deeper than she thought she would.
“You’re just like her, you know,” she grumbled when they’d been back on the road for an hour or so.
The pain had settled into a rhythmic throb, a pulse that surged in time with her footsteps, and she could feel her temper growing thinner and thinner. For all their disagreements, a horse with no voice made an easy target for venting her frustration, though Argo seemed rather more flattered than offended by the comparison to Xena, tossing her head and giving the most self-satisfied whinny Gabrielle had ever heard.
“That’s not what I mean,” Gabrielle muttered. “I mean you’re like the worst parts of her. Not the talented parts, or the parts that mean well, or do good for good people and put the pinch on bad ones. If you were like that, we’d be all right. But you’re just the parts of her that won’t get off my back. You’re the parts that think I’m stupid and that I can’t take care of myself. Well, you’re wrong, and so is she.”
Argo nickered her indignation; Gabrielle couldn’t tell whether she was more affronted for her own sake or for Xena’s, but either way she wasn’t happy. She butted Gabrielle in the shoulder, a rough jolt with the side of her head that knocked her off-balance for a moment. Gabrielle stumbled, floundered to get her feet back under her, and by the time she turned around to confront her Argo was already looking in the other direction, head held high and shoulders pushed back as if to say ‘who, me?’
“Don’t play innocent,” Gabrielle scolded. “I know you did that on purpose. You think you can get away with it because Xena isn’t around to say ‘play nice’? You know I’ll tell her when she comes back.”
Argo snorted at that, like a kind of challenge. It took more restraint than Gabrielle would ever admit to keep from rising to the bait, elbowing the silly horse right back and turning it into a proper competition. On another day with no Xena around to temper them, she might have done it, but neither one of them were in peak health right now and she didn’t want to hurt Argo over something as petty as this. Tempting as it was right now.
So, instead, she settled for rolling her eyes and sulking for the next leg of the journey. It wasn’t exactly fulfilling, but at least it didn’t make either of them start bleeding again. It did make the headache intensify, though, and being distracted made her stumble again, losing her footing and almost falling completely. This time, she couldn’t blame anyone but herself, and when she righted herself and turned around Argo was watching her with a very different expression. Her eyes were much wider now, like Xena’s got sometimes when she was worried but didn’t want to hurt Gabrielle’s delicate pride by saying so. Not that it helped; just like with Xena, the look itself was almost worse than the worry would have been.
“Shut up,” she snapped, as though it really was Argo’s fault again. “And stop horsing around. It’ll be getting dark in a few hours, and we need to be in Amphipolis by then.” Argo made a curious, cynical sort of sound, and Gabrielle glared. “Because I said so, that’s why.”
If she didn’t know better, she’d swear she heard the horse sigh.
Still, though, annoyed as she obviously was, she seemed to get the message. She stopped demanding that they rest every five minutes, and stopped trying to antagonise Gabrielle at every step; it wasn’t much, and no doubt it came more from concern than any real concession, but Gabrielle took what meagre victory she could. Argo was still the same bratty mare she’d always been, but at the very least she deferred to Gabrielle’s authority this time. Gabrielle, for her part, returned the overture by keeping an eye on Argo’s injured side, counting the beats between her breaths, and making sure that the only one she was really pushing too hard was herself.
The sun was very low in the sky when Amphipolis appeared on the horizon. Gabrielle was beyond exhausted by that point, leaning heavily on her staff and tripping almost more than she was upright, but the sight of the village gave her a kind of second wind, lit her up on the inside like one of Zeus’s lightning bolts, and if it wasn’t for Argo lagging behind at a stubborn slow walk she might have tried to break into a run.
It was only when they arrived and her legs almost gave out completely that she realised the rush wasn’t real. The relief overwhelmed the surge of adrenaline as she staggered into the village bounds, and as soon as she realised that she was here, that she’d made it, that she didn’t have to walk any more, every ounce of strength bled out of her body, sputtering and dying; it felt like someone had thrown cold water over a burning torch somewhere deep inside her body, like something had been extinguished and was too wet to ever reignite.
Perhaps sensing some of that, Argo bowed her head, moving in close so that Gabrielle could rest for a moment against her neck. Too exhausted to be indignant, Gabrielle did so; she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and tried as hard as she could not to fall.
“Don’t you dare,” she said to Argo, depthlessly grateful that Xena wasn’t here to see it. “Don’t you dare say ‘I told you so’.”
Argo snorted at that, then promptly pulled away, as though she couldn’t figure out whether to be amused or disgusted. Bracing on her staff, Gabrielle took another couple of breaths. The pain rattled in her chest, a stabbing like a blade every time she breathed in, and she might have let out a little moan if she didn’t know the horse would judge her for it.
It took more strength than she would ever admit to pull herself together, summon up the strength to take Argo to the stables. They got some odd looks from the villagers, a lot of confusion and probably no small measure of concern; it was always a troubling sign when Xena’s sidekick was seen wandering around and the warrior herself was nowhere to be found, and that was never more true than in her home village. Gabrielle wanted to tell them that everything was all right, try and explain the situation, but her tongue was too clumsy in her mouth and her teeth were chattering.
If the stable boy recognised her, he didn’t say so, though he certainly wasn’t shy about showering affection all over Argo. He must have had a sense for animals, because he went straight for her wounded side without anyone needing to point it out; there was a smile on his face as he looked her over, and when he spoke it was to the horse and not the woman holding her.
“Good girl,” he crooned, and Argo tossed her head, utterly won over, as usual, by the show of affection. Gabrielle halfway wanted to kick them both. “Look at you, healing so very well. Someone’s been taking good care of you…”
“Can she stay here?” Gabrielle blurted out, interrupting. Her voice sounded strange to her own ears, hazy and slurred, and her tongue felt nearly as heavy as her head. “I need to… that is, I’m supposed to go and visit Cyrene, and I don’t think she has room for a horse in her kitchen.”
The stable boy stared at her for a very long moment, head cocked to the side as though he was trying to figure out what in the world she was talking about.
“Sure,” he said, when he was satisfied that she wasn’t completely crazy. “I mean, uh, that’s kind of what we’re here for, and…” He trailed off, brow creasing into a frown, as though noticing the bruises all over her for the first time. “Are you all right, miss? You don’t look so…”
Gabrielle scowled, cutting him off mid-thought. It wasn’t really his fault, but she didn’t much care about that; the question grated against her nerves like it always did, and it made her think of Xena.
“I’m fine,” she said, though she didn’t feel fine at all. She felt tired and dizzy, and her body hurt.
“All right…” He was speaking very slowly now, like he thought she was simple; well, she supposed ‘simple’ was better than ‘sidekick’, so she took it without protest. “Well, uh… Cyrene should be in the tavern, if you need her. I’ll set up a stall for your horse, and…”
“Thank you.” Gabrielle winced at the sound of her voice, still so high and wrong, then turned back to Argo. “You’d better behave yourself. If Xena was here, she’d tell you to be on your very best behaviour for her friends, so you… you do that.”
Argo straightened up a little, head held high as if to say ‘well, of course I will; I’m a perfect angel, aren’t I?’. No doubt she was showing off for her new best friend, and Gabrielle would have rolled her eyes if she didn’t think it would make her sick.
Blessedly, she did find Cyrene in the tavern. The place was modestly crowded, as it always seemed to be, and Cyrene was behind the bar, pouring drinks and chatting with customers, flitting around like it was no effort at all; Gabrielle felt her exhaustion amplify just by watching her.
With all the grace of a falling centaur, Gabrielle weaved her way between tables and chairs and people. It wasn’t easy; her feet had all but given up on working at all by this point, and she had to fight to keep from tripping over them on more than one occasion. No-one noticed her until she did actually fall, slipping on something wet on the floor, and the next thing she knew she’d gone staggering straight into Cyrene’s back.
Cyrene, naturally, didn’t even bat an eyelid at being shoved around by what she must have assumed was another drunk patron. She turned automatically, nudging Gabrielle backwards with a broad shoulder and yanking the staff out of her hands.
“No weapons,” she said, voice as firm as her grip. “We’re a tavern, not a…”
“…stable?” Gabrielle managed, the only word she could think of in her dazed state.
Senseless as it was, the word had the desired effect: Cyrene recognised her in a flash, and her sternness softened into a warm grin. “Gabrielle!”
Gabrielle tried to smile back, but her face felt frozen and awkward. “Hello…”
She swayed on her feet, and Cyrene dropped the staff in her haste to steady her. “By the gods, girl! You look like you just crawled out of the grave! What happened?” She whirled around, still holding Gabrielle by the shoulders, as though searching for Xena. “And where’s my daughter?”
“It’s a long story,” Gabrielle mumbled. “Could I have my staff back, please? It was kind of keeping me upright.”
Cyrene shook her head, more disbelief than outright refusal, and stepped back with her arms spread wide. She probably meant to embrace her, offer a welcoming hug or something like that, but Gabrielle didn’t have the strength to take it that way. She had just enough left in her to recognise the gesture for what it was, and then she was spent, falling headlong into Cyrene’s arms before she had a chance to realise that it was probably rather rude.
No doubt used to this sort of behaviour from her customers, Cyrene didn’t even miss a beat. She sighed, mostly sympathy with just a trace of frustration, and caught her seemingly without thinking.
“All right, then,” she said, gentle but firm, as though this was just another day, nothing out of the ordinary at all. “Let’s get you somewhere you can lie down, hm?”
Gabrielle barely managed a nod. She heard Cyrene shouting at someone over her shoulder, telling them to keep the drinks flowing and the patrons happy until she got back, and then she was sweeping Gabrielle out of the bar and up the stairs, all but holding her upright as she went.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, reeling against the jostling motion, queasy and in a lot of pain. She tried to speak, to offer a much-needed ‘thank you’, but edging delirium as she was all that came out was “So that’s where Xena gets her strength…”
Cyrene huffed a polite laugh and guided her into the nearest bedroom. It was modest, a bed and a stool and a cast-iron bath-tub all crammed into a small space, but it was better than the usual fare of rocks and grass and blankets that hadn’t seen a good wash in three weeks. Without waiting for an invitation, Gabrielle dropped her battered body down onto the bed and sat there in a state of dazed awe. She hadn’t realised how much it had taken out of her to stay on her feet, and now that she was off them it was tempting almost beyond words to just fall back and drift off to sleep.
“All right… there you go…”
Cyrene, unlike her daughter, had a phenomenal talent for masking her impatience. She must have been terribly worried about her absent daughter, but when Gabrielle looked up into her face she could almost believe that it wouldn’t matter if she took the rest of the week just to find her voice. Maybe she really did look that dreadful, or maybe Cyrene better understood the value of playing nice instead of making demands all the time. Either way, though she must have been half-mad with worry she waited as if they had all the time in the world while Gabrielle slowly came back to herself.
“Thank you,” Gabrielle managed at last, when she trusted herself to speak without slurring.
Cyrene smiled. “You’re quite welcome. Take it easy, now.”
Gabrielle grunted, and tried to shake her head. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” she said, though in her present state she doubted she would have fooled anyone. “I just… we’ve been on the road for a long time… and I’m not exactly at my best just now anyway… and…”
“I’ll say. You look like you picked a fight with a barn door.”
She sounded almost derisive for a moment, making a little ‘tsk’ sound low in her throat, as if to say ‘this is what happens when you run around with my daughter’. It made Gabrielle sad and hopeful at the same time; she knew that Xena’s relationship with her mother hadn’t always been as comfortable as it was now, though she hadn’t dared to ask either one of them about it. The past didn’t matter nearly as much as the present, she knew, and the important part was that they cared very deeply about each other. Cyrene understood Xena’s new path; she knew that her daughter was trying very hard, that she was turning her life around and working to atone for the things she did, and though she was still a little guarded around her sometimes, Gabrielle knew that she was proud.
She closed her eyes for a moment, collected herself, and tried to focus. “It’s not so bad. We just… we’ve been having some trouble with some, uh, unsavoury types lately. You know, Xena looks like…” Her voice cracked; it was nothing to do with the pain, and judging by the look on her face Cyrene could tell the difference. “Well, uh… some not-so-good people think she’s Callisto. And you know… you know what Xena’s like. She doesn’t want anyone to think she’s weak, so she’s trying to keep it all under wraps… so…”
Cyrene sighed, exaggeratedly weary. Apparently, this was not the first time she’d had to deal with this sort of bullheadedness. “That’s my daughter.”
“Yeah. I mean, it’s okay. It’s… we’re…” She swallowed hard, fighting down another hitch in her breath, and rushed on before Cyrene could press her. “Xena’s fine. Really. She just… she wanted to try and cut off the problem at the source… like she does… you know, rushing into things head-first, like…”
She mimicked a bull’s horns, demonstrated Xena’s attitude as best she could while on the brink of passing out; Cyrene chuckled, and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Easy, Gabrielle.”
“Yeah.” It hurt to breathe. It hurt to think. “Anyway… uh, I think she was… I think she was worried I wouldn’t like the things she might have to do in Callisto’s body. So she sent me here to keep me out of the way. You know… like she does…”
She trailed off, feeling suddenly very vulnerable, but apparently she’d given enough that Cyrene didn’t press her for more just yet.
Neither one of them said anything for a long time. If Cyrene had any idea of the pain and grief that Callisto had caused Xena and Gabrielle, both together and separately, she didn’t mention it. She sat there for a long moment, looking deeply thoughtful, as though thinking back on her own experiences, that harrowing moment when the woman she thought was her daughter turned out to be someone else entirely. Gabrielle wondered how it felt, whether she was angry or horrified or worried or… or frightened, like she herself was when she faced the same thing.
She wanted to ask about that — ‘were you afraid? did she paralyse you like she does me? do you have nightmares about her?’ — but she didn’t. She couldn’t bear to hear Cyrene say that she hadn’t felt any of those things, that Gabrielle was the only one who was so weak.
“All right,” Cyrene said after a moment, as though coming back to herself. “As long as she’s safe, that’ll have to be good enough.”
“She is safe,” Gabrielle said, and wished she could keep her voice steady. “I mean, I’m sure she’s… well, as safe as she ever is. Which isn’t saying much, I guess.”
“Not really, no.” She sighed, as though she was long accustomed to this — knowing Xena, she probably was — then promptly rolled up her sleeves as if to put the whole issue behind her. “All right, then. Lie back and let me take a look at you.”
Gabrielle blinked at the abrupt change of tack. “Don’t you want to hear the full story?” she blurted out, and only realised after she’d offered that she wasn’t sure she would be able to give it. “I mean, it’s not much, but you—”
“You said my daughter’s safe,” Cyrene said. “I believe you. And in any case, what could I do about it if she wasn’t? Xena is gods-only-know where, and I’m here.” She smiled, though it wasn’t quite as warm as before. “And so are you. Now, believe me, I’ll worry about my daughter in due course, but she’s not the one sprawling half dead on my bed.”
“I’m not half dead,” Gabrielle muttered, though her body begged to differ. “It’s just a few bruises.”
Cyrene rolled her eyes, exactly like Xena would have. “Of course it is.”
Gabrielle sighed, but she did as she was told. She was too exhausted and in far too much pain to put up much of a fight anyway, and if she was completely honest with herself it was something of a relief to finally give in to someone like this, to let herself be touched. She had wanted so desperately to do it with Xena, to close her eyes and let her look her over; she had wanted to put herself into her hands, her injuries and her body and all of her, just like she used to do. She wanted it so badly that it hurt almost more than the physical pain, but she couldn’t fight back the part of her that only saw Callisto.
Even now, the memory was enough to make her tremble. Xena, so impotent and so angry at her own impotence, but that anger was so frightening when her eyes were brown instead of blue. Even now, faced only with Xena’s mother, knowing that Xena and Callisto’s body were far away from here, still it was so much harder than it should have been to lean back and lay herself open like that. She did it, of course, but it was a struggle.
Cyrene’s hands were big, sure and strong but feather-gentle; they were nothing like Xena’s or Callisto’s. Xena’s hands were big as well, but as far from gentle as anything could be; even her tenderest touches came with a kind of desperation, and there was a ferocity even in the way she tried to be soft. She held on so tightly — to everything, yes, but to Gabrielle most of all — as though afraid of what would happen if she let go for even a moment. It was breathtaking, and, even in her own body, a little frightening.
Callisto, in this as in so many things, was almost exactly the opposite. Her hands were far from big, and far from strong. They were delicate, long spider’s fingers that tickled where Xena’s would have taken; in its own way, it was so much worse. Xena touched her like she couldn’t bear to lose her; Callisto touched her like she couldn’t quite figure out what she wanted to do with her. In one moment she would grab Gabrielle’s jaw so fiercely that she felt like it would break, and in the very next she would caress her cheek or her wrist or trail her fingers through her hair with such excruciating gentleness that Gabrielle feared for so much more than her life.
Cyrene’s touches were something else entirely, something apart from either of those things; she was patient and slow in a way that Xena was not, strong and steady like Callisto could never be. Hers was a mother’s touch, a mother’s calloused fingers and worn-down palms, the skin roughened and patched by hard work and too much compassion, and it was so far removed from either one of them that Gabrielle felt ashamed because they were all she could think of.
She closed her eyes, sucked in her breath through her teeth, resenting the way the sound made Cyrene’s hands still over her sides. She thought that it was the pain, Gabrielle could tell, thought that she was hurting her with her patient steadiness, but she wasn’t. Gabrielle hated the feeling that surged in her, the helplessness rising up again, and with it the shame of realising that Xena’s mother, just like Xena herself, seemed to believe that she was just a weak little girl who could not endure a little pain.
Compassionate even in this, Cyrene didn’t mention it aloud. She didn’t say anything at all; she just sighed again, the kind of soft, sad sound that Xena often made when Gabrielle got herself into trouble, the kind she heard with her eyes closed when Xena dabbed at cuts and scrapes and bruises, when she bathed her in a spring or stitched up raw new wounds. Empathy, if it had a name, and Gabrielle wanted to take it for what it was — a mark that these beautiful, strong women cared about her — but all she felt was angry and ashamed.
After a long moment, Cyrene resumed her ministrations. She spread her fingers along Gabrielle’s ribs, palms flat against her abdomen, studying her by instinct and insight. Gabrielle counted the cracks in the ceiling and felt her heart burning wet behind her eyes.
Cyrene sighed when she pulled away, tangibly upset. “Xena let you walk around like that?”
Gabrielle shrugged. Her shoulders were nearly as sore as the rest of her, the burnt-out ache of muscles that had all but forgotten how to relax. “There was no point. It wasn’t that bad.” she said. “And besides, it’s not like we had much of a choice. You see, the last village we stayed in—”
“That’s no excuse,” Cyrene snapped, cutting her off with a piercing look. “Xena should have known better. Did she even bother to look you over at all?”
Gabrielle flushed, embarrassed. The answer was a resounding ‘no’, of course, but she couldn’t very well say that it was her fault, not Xena’s, that she was the one who had refused, who had told Xena to leave her alone, who had begged her not to put Callisto’s hands on her. She couldn’t very well tell Cyrene that she was afraid of her daughter now, that the hands in her nightmares belonged to Xena now.
It wasn’t fair, and she couldn’t break a mother’s heart by saying it. Cyrene loved Xena, no matter what she did or whose body she was in. Gabrielle wanted so desperately to say that the same was true for herself, too look Xena’s mother in the eye and say ‘I will love your daughter to the ends of the world’… but she could not lie. At least for now, the love she felt, that ends-of-the-world passion, was strangled by hurt and hate and fear, by the memories of things she knew that Xena would never do, by reflexes and gut reactions and panic. There were no conditions, no provisos to a mother’s love; Cyrene couldn’t possibly understand.
“It’s… complicated,” Gabrielle managed after a moment; her voice was weak too, no doubt giving her away, but she tried just the same, because lying was less cruel than the truth. “We were in a hurry, you see… and there wasn’t really time to… that is, we couldn’t…”
Cyrene was frowning more deeply now, as though she was Gabrielle’s mother as well, or else an extension of Xena. It reminded Gabrielle of being on the road, talking to Argo and catching Xena’s impatience in the way she stomped her hooves, or her crankiness when she tossed her head, echoes of all the subtle ways they’d influenced each other over the years. She saw the same thing now in Cyrene, the fondness when she shook her head, the soft crinkling at the corners of her eyes when she saw through Gabrielle’s bad lying, the way she shook her head and tousled her hair. And, yes, maybe a little of the way she looked at her too, like she was something incompetent, a girl who couldn’t take care of herself.
“Gabrielle.” She sounded exasperated, albeit in a kind way. “I know my daughter.”
“And I know my Xena.” She’d blurted it out before she could stop herself, and all of a sudden the room was very, very hot. “I mean, Xena. I mean, she’s not… that is, we… I… she…” She groaned, tried again. “I know her too.”
Cyrene swallowed back a knowing smile. “I’m sure you do,” she said, a little more gently. “So, then, if I’d tried to tell you that we’d been travelling together, that I had gotten hurt and she hadn’t even bothered to look me over…”
Gabrielle sighed. “…I probably wouldn’t believe you either.”
She didn’t volunteer anything more than that, though, and Cyrene didn’t push her. She just studied her face for a long beat, as though trying to read between the lines and the bruises, trying to piece together all the terrible things that Gabrielle was not yet ready to confess. It made the blush on her neck fade away, turned her skin pale and made the injuries stand out even more starkly against the curve of her jaw and cheek; it probably made her look small and young, so much like the innocent little village girl that everyone still saw when they looked at her, the image of the life in Poteidaia that she could never fully shake off. It made her want to cry.
After a long, tense moment, Cyrene shrugged and leaned back. She wasn’t satisfied, Gabrielle could tell, but she seemed content for the time being to focus on the more immediate task. “Well, I’m sure you both had your reasons,” she murmured, not even trying to sound like she believed it. “Now, roll over; I need to check your back.”
Rolling over hurt, but stretching out on her front hurt more. Gabrielle had to bite down on her tongue to keep from crying out and letting Cyrene see just how deep the pain ran. Cyrene wasn’t Xena, Gabrielle knew, but still a part of her couldn’t help seeing her in the same light; she was Xena’s mother, after all, and Gabrielle knew how hard Xena tried to make her proud. Gabrielle barely knew the woman, had only met her a handful of times, and yet still she found herself wanting to do the same. She wanted to be good enough, wanted to be the kind of person that Xena’s mother would welcome into her arms, maybe one day into her family. It meant more to her than perhaps it should, and it made her shoulders shake.
“I’m going to be stuck here for a while, aren’t I?” she asked, and wished that her voice could sound a little stronger.
“At least,” Cyrene clucked. “And when I see that daughter of mine, I’m going to have a good long talk with her about it. Letting you run around in that state… I’ve half a mind to—”
“Please don’t.” She blurted it out, like always, without thinking, and like always she hated herself for it. “It wasn’t Xena’s fault, Cyrene. It was mine.” The confession came hard, and she didn’t try to hide it. “Xena wanted to look me over. She tried so hard, but I wouldn’t… I couldn’t…”
She trailed off, shaking her head and shaking all over. Honestly, she was fairly sure Cyrene had figured all of this out already, but she had to say it just the same. She couldn’t let Xena, the strongest woman she’d ever met, take the fall for her stupid weaknesses. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her face into the pillow, as though she could somehow make this moment hurt less if she didn’t have to look her in the eye. It didn’t help, of course; the world turned to black around her, and all she could see was Xena’s smile and Callisto’s spidery hands.
Cyrene breathed out, like a sigh but somehow deeper, and flattened her palms against Gabrielle’s skin. It hurt.
“Xena told me about her,” she said, scarcely above a whisper.
“Callisto?” Gabrielle asked, somewhat unnecessarily. She didn’t need to turn around to see Cyrene nod; the shifting of her hand against her back said it all. Gabrielle buried her face a little deeper into the pillow, deep enough that she hoped it might suffocate her and put her out of her misery. “It’s not as bad as it…”
“Fine. All right, okay, yes. It is bad. It’s awful, it’s horrible, it’s…” This time, she didn’t even try to hide the way her voice broke. “It’s a mess. It’s an awful, horrible, stupid mess.”
“So is your body,” Cyrene pointed out coolly. If she had any strength left, Gabrielle might have laughed; she was beginning to see where Xena got her gallows humour. “And your face, come to that.” She didn’t say, ‘silly girl’, but Gabrielle heard it just the same, and for once she couldn’t argue. “You’ll be ‘stuck here’, as you so eloquently put it, for as long as I say. Are we clear?”
The willing obedience seemed to soften something in Cyrene, or else connect with the maternal place in her heart. With a daughter like Xena, Gabrielle supposed she didn’t get to hear that kind of thing very often. The thought ignited something inside her, a feeling of grief and love that tugged at her chest, and she turned her head just enough to seek out Cyrene’s face.
She was smiling, warm but also sort of tragic; Gabrielle had seen the same look a few times in her sister’s eyes back home in Poteidaia, when she thought Gabrielle wasn’t looking, and she had seen it in Xena a few times since they started travelling together. It was an odd look, like they were seeing things in her that she didn’t know about, secret tragedies that she hadn’t endured yet or suffering that she could no longer remember. Strange, how people could call her a little girl in one moment and then in the very next look at her as though she had lived through so much. She wished they could find some kind of middle ground, a place between too little and too much.
“I’ll be back in a little while,” Cyrene said. Her voice was very different now, and her touch made Gabrielle’s skin feel like it was on fire. “I’m going to mix up a poultice or two for those injuries. You should rest for a while. Get some sleep if you can.”
It was strangely pointed, the way she said that. ‘If you can,’ as if she knew, though Gabrielle hadn’t said a word, all of the awful things that haunted her dreams now.
She hated it, more than she could say, that dreaming had become such a horror. The Fates had been so cruel to her lately, in so many ways, but this was a crueller trick than most. After Perdicus died and she stopped dreaming, she had spent so many nights awake, aching and longing and wishing that they’d come back to her, so certain that it would bring her some measure of peace if only she could dream again, if only she could bend her grief into stories. The emptiness was a kind of torture, a pain that only a dreamer and a storyteller could truly understand, but now they had returned so much changed that she almost wished they’d stayed gone.
It was terrible, after so long in the dark and silence, to be afraid of the very thing she craved, but here she was feeling exactly that. A few beautiful visions still came to her once in a while, moments of clarity so bright and garish that they blinded her, but the rest were nightmares, horrors upon horrors, a vibrant, churning mass of colour and sound, of blood-soaked blades and Perdicus’s screams, of dark eyes and spider’s hands and Xena, no, Xena…
She gripped the sheets between her fingers, tried to ground herself in what was here and real, in the fact that she was far, far away from both Xena and Callisto, that neither of them would be anywhere near her for a good long while. She was here in Amphipolis and she was alone, safe and sound in Cyrene’s tavern, hidden out of sight from all the things that frightened her. There were no mercenaries out here, no posturing warlords or double-crossing barkeeps, and there was no sign of Callisto’s body either. She could sleep. She was warm and safe, and she could sleep.
Besides, she didn’t have much choice in the matter. Even without Cyrene’s gentle nudging, Gabrielle rather doubted she would be able to stay awake on her own anyway. The bed was uncomfortable, but it was softer than the ground, and after a full day of tripping and stumbling over her own feet, of insisting that she was fine, that it wasn’t that bad, that she didn’t need Argo to carry her… after a full day of pain and stubbornness and yet more pain, it was all she could do not to lose consciousness right then and there, all she could do not to sob with the relief of finally, finally, being in a real bed.
Cyrene eased her over onto her side, helping her to settle as comfortably as she could, and pulling a moth-eaten blanket up over her shoulders. Gabrielle wondered how long it had been since she’d taken care of someone like this, since she’d been allowed to coddle and cluck over someone who needed her without meeting resistance or argument. It was more than a little unusual for Gabrielle herself, as well; she hated this kind of thing from Xena, hated being treated like the sidekick, the little girl who couldn’t take care of herself. She hated it so much… but here and now, with someone who truly was a mother — who was Xena’s mother — it seemed to come almost as naturally as being back home with her real family.
“Thank you,” she whispered, and closed her eyes.
Sleep came easily enough, but the dreaming was just as hard as it was the last time. Being warm and safe couldn’t shield her from the nightmares, no more than being stubborn could keep the pain and the exhaustion at bay forever. Her body was too tired to keep itself awake, and her mind was too worn down to even try and drive the dreams away.
She dreamed of Xena, and of Callisto. She always dreamed of them both, it seemed; more and more, they were becoming interchangeable inside her head, and that frightened her almost more than the visions themselves.
In this one, Xena was hers, smiling and beautiful but so far away that Gabrielle almost couldn’t see her; her voice was a far-off echo, a whispering promise that she would always be with her, that she would always take care of her, protect her, that Gabrielle would always be safe so long as she was at her side. Xena, making promises she couldn’t keep from such a distance that she couldn’t see they were already broken. Gabrielle wanted to call out to her, wanted to crawl through the darkness until she found her, until she could touch her and hold her and see her, until she knew that she was real.
Xena was so far distant, but Callisto was as close as her own clothes. She was all over her, eyes dark and deadly and hands so delicate, feather-light touches across her face, her cheek, her jaw, fingertips dancing across her skin, and no matter where Gabrielle turned all she could see was that awful smile. She surrounded her, knelt over her with sharp knees squeezing her sides, digging in until the pain made Gabrielle scream. She turned away, or tried to, but even with her eyes squeezed shut she couldn’t hide from Callisto’s face, the light burning behind her eyes, glinting off the points of her teeth. Callisto was everywhere, and Xena was so far away…
She dreamed of Perdicus’s blood and Callisto’s sword, of holding them both in her hands. The blood was sticky and wet, the sword solid and impossibly sharp, and she couldn’t rid herself of either one. Callisto laughed in her ear, breath hot with threats and warnings; she was seductive in a way that Perdicus never was, and her hands were all over the parts of Gabrielle that he had treated with so much care, spiderwebs skittering across her skin, raising welts with just the faintest touch. And still Xena was too far away, and still she couldn’t do anything, and still she couldn’t see, and still she didn’t know, and still she she couldn’t understand why Gabrielle turned away to weep.
She dreamed of a thousand moments, some that were real and some that weren’t. At first she knew the difference, but the longer it went on, the more the moments bled into each other, the deeper they ran and the more they all felt true. Over and over and over, Callisto’s eyes and Callisto’s hands, Callisto’s face and her voice and her body; over and over and over, Gabrielle searched for Xena, strained to hear her whispering those words, the promises that she knew were worthless; over and over and over, she tried to see Xena, her Xena, but over and over and over all she could find was Callisto. Every time, Xena faded just a little further away; every time, she became a little bit smaller and a little bit softer, dissolving piece by piece until she was gone completely, until there was left at all, only Callisto.
She dreamed. Endlessly, helplessly, desperately, she dreamed, and when she finally woke she couldn’t remember what Xena’s face looked like at all.
She must have slept for some time, because Cyrene was by her side again when she came around, watching over her with shadows behind her eyes.
“We’ll have to do something about that,” she murmured, almost to herself.
Gabrielle swallowed down her feelings, the hurt and the hate and the gut-rending fear left by her dream. She wanted to take a bath, to cleanse herself of the memories, to remind herself that they weren’t real and she was.
The question came out rusted and weak; she didn’t even really realise she’d asked it until Cyrene frowned, reaching out for her. She didn’t smile, didn’t seem able to, but she pushed Gabrielle’s hair back with unbearable tenderness, palm cool against her sweaty forehead. It was such a simple gesture, a mother’s compassion made manifest, but it made Gabrielle’s skin crawl, made her feel ashamed.
“You were thrashing around in your sleep,” Cyrene told her, voice low as though in prayer. “We’ll have to do something about it. You’ll never heal if you don’t stay still.”
“It’s not my fault,” Gabrielle said. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth, skin hot and prickling. “I have very vivid dreams.”
Cyrene chuckled, low and without humour. “I can see that. Now, lie back and let me—”
“No.” Gabrielle struggled to sit up. She felt very heavy, exhausted even though she had slept very deeply. “I’m all right, really. I’d rather sit up.”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“I know. But I can’t stay like this. I can’t…” She swallowed very hard. “Just for a few minutes. Please?”
Cyrene sighed, but didn’t try to stop her as she struggled into a semi-upright position. Her breath rattled in her chest as she moved, more painful than it should have been, but she ignored it. She was getting quite good at that.
“Cyrene.” She thought of Xena, tried to picture her, but all she could see were dark, hollow eyes and hands soaked in innocent blood. She could feel the panic bubbling inside her chest, like the seething, burning pain that came after eating too fast; she tried to hold it down, tried to keep it to herself, but it burst out of her before she had a chance to silence herself. “What if she never comes back?”
Cyrene knitted her brows. “What do you mean?” she asked, sounding afraid. “Are you telling me she might not be safe after all? Are you telling me there’s a chance she’ll…”
She trailed off, as though she couldn’t even think of it, much less say the words. Gabrielle felt awful for putting that thought into her head, and hastened to reassure her.
“No, no. Not like that. I don’t mean…” She took a deep breath, winced when it hurt. “It’s just… ever since it happened, this thing with Callisto, I’ve been trying to convince myself that it’s only temporary, that we’ll find a way to get her real body back soon, that everything will be back to normal. I’ve been… I’ve been holding on so tight to this… this hope… and I just… I don’t know what I’ll do if I’m wrong. If Xena’s right, if this really is her, forever… Cyrene, how are we supposed to just accept that?”
She trailed off, unable to finish. Cyrene studied her for a moment, then took a deep breath, holding it in just a heartbeat longer than she needed.
“I don’t know,” she said when she let it out. “But I do know this: Xena is my daughter, and I will love her no matter what or who she looks like. This Callisto that upsets you so much… whatever she’s done, Gabrielle, the deeds are hers. They’re not Xena’s, and we can’t hold her accountable for them.”
Gabrielle bowed her head, hid her face so that Cyrene wouldn’t see the shame in her eyes, the tremors in her lips. She felt sick, dizzy; it was hard to think clearly and put her feelings into words, but she had to try. Words were the only gift she had, the only thing that was all her own, the only talent she’d ever had. They were all she had left, her only true weapon, and she hated that she was too weak right now to even use them.
“I keep…” She licked her lips a couple of times; they were painfully dry, and so was her throat. “I keep dreaming about her. Both of them, I mean, in their own bodies. And it… I know it’s Callisto when I see her. I know when it’s not Xena, and I know when it is. Even when I’m dreaming I know the difference. But the real Xena… she keeps drifting further and further away, until she’s gone completely, and it’s like… it’s like she’s disappearing, like she’s…” She shut her eyes tight, drove back the tears and forced down a scream when Callisto’s face flooded her field of vision. “…like she’s leaving me with her.”
“She’s not,” Cyrene reminded her, somewhat needlessly. “You know she would never leave you with anyone she thought might hurt you, not while she’s got breath in her body. She cares about you… she loves you too much.”
“I know she does,” Gabrielle whispered. “And I don’t… I don’t understand why it’s so hard for me to see her, to recognise her and know her and… and…” Her whole body was shaking now, racked with pain and heartache, and Cyrene steadied her with a strong hand on her shoulder. “I’ve tried. I’ve tried so hard to put aside what I feel about Callisto, to look past it and find the Xena I know is in there. I’ve tried so hard… so hard…”
“…but I can’t.” She choked down a desperate, rattling breath and looked up at Cyrene with all the shame and guilt, all the terrible feelings she’d been struggling with, all those awful things that Xena could never see. “What’s wrong with me, Cyrene, that I can’t love her like this?”
Cyrene let go of her shoulder, and turned away with her whole body. Her hands were trembling ever so slightly as she reached for her poultice, and when she turned back her eyes were wet with grief.
“Only the gods can answer that,” she whispered, so much like Xena. “Now, please, lie back.”