They rode in silence, at least for the most part.
It was a small victory, at least so far as Xena was concerned, that she had convinced Draco to make it a two-handed affair, to bypass his usual contingent of warriors and underlings and make it all about the two of them, the ruthless, opportunistic Draco and the bloodthirsty half-crazed Callisto joining forces to let the world know that they were a united front, that together they could destroy anything that stood in their way. From his perspective, she supposed it was some kind of great sweeping gesture; from hers, it was the only way to give Amphipolis a fighting chance.
Draco’s horses were rather like his attitude, oversized and prone to reach beyond their limits. They rode the poor beasts hard and fast, and went far too long between breaks. The part of Xena that missed Argo felt sorry for the steed sweating and straining beneath her; no doubt the poor beast wanted only a moment or two to catch its breath, but of course Draco would not be seen showing mercy even to his horses; every time they flagged even a little he would lash their sides and shout until they regained their footing, as ruthless against them as he was against his enemies. Xena, for her part, treated her horse with as much tenderness as she could get away with and not blow her cover, all the while waiting for the moment she would take that whip and turn it against him.
The opportunity never arose. Draco was too focused, too obsessed with seeing his plan through, and he did not drop his guard for even a second. They made good time, tearing across the countryside with the force and fervour of a full army but none of the weight, terrifying or tearing up anyone or anything that stumbled into their path. Draco rode like a man in the throes of possession, and it was all Xena could do to keep up with him at all. In truth, she probably should have anticipated this; once he got a plan into his head, he would not rest until he saw it through, and damn the consequences to Tartarus. In her own body, she had seen it more times than she could count, watching again and again as he got so swept up by his overblown ideals that they almost suffocated him.
She would take great pleasure in making sure they finished the job this time.
On the rare occasion he allowed them a break — keeping his eyes on her at all times, of course — Xena let her thoughts wander to Amphipolis, let herself imagine what would be waiting for them when they arrived. She could only hope that Gabrielle, as she so often did, had gotten distracted somewhere along the road, that she had been waylaid by Joxer or Princess Diana or any one of a dozen other unwanted visitors. She could only pray, fruitless and futile though it was, that she at least would be far away from all of this.
Of course, she knew better than to really expect such a thing, and she would never place her trust in hopes and prayers. Gabrielle might be wilful and stubborn, but she wasn’t stupid; she might not always do what Xena told her, but she always did what she thought was best. Xena had seen the way she was flagging, the little bitten-off groans and sucked-in breaths that she thought she was so good at hiding, the way she stumbled and tripped over her own feet, the way she limped and lost her footing when she thought Xena wasn’t watching. She had seen the pain turning her face pale, and she knew that for all her stubbornness she would understand how important it was to rest and recuperate, to get herself to a place where she could recover in peace.
Better, then, to hope for something else, to hope that Gabrielle’s paranoia would for once work in her favour. It wasn’t so hard to picture her pacing and worrying, unable to silence her doubts and her fears, and though it went against everything in her still Xena found herself wishing that just this once Gabrielle would give in to them, the parts of her that still not-so-secretly believed Xena truly had become Callisto. If Gabrielle was prepared for the worst, maybe she could convince the village to prepare themselves as well.
It was a nice hope, though she never lost sight of how unlikely it was. Not even in her wildest imaginings could she have anticipated that it might be close to the truth.
The sight that greeted them as they approached stole her breath for all the right reasons. The glint of sunlight off steel, the ring of villagers’ voices raised high in defiance and fury, the atmosphere charged and tense even from a distance.
“Gabrielle…” she whispered, before she could stop herself.
Draco, of course, was not nearly so pleased. He brought his horse to a stop, yanking on the reins so violently that the poor creature all but shrieked its protest, and gestured for Xena to do the same.
She obeyed, albeit rather more gently, and turned to look at him. His face was a storm cloud, dark and threatening thunder, and Xena had to work very hard to get Callisto’s expression to twist into something appropriate for a warlord bent on blood; as relieved as she was, she had to make her face scream with the same impotent rage as Draco’s.
“They’re waiting for us!” Draco snarled, voice rising effortlessly over the snorting of their horses. “How could they have known?”
Xena bit down on a smirk. “Apparently, your reputation precedes you,” she said, keeping her voice even. “Or, more likely, mine precedes me.”
It was probably closer to the truth than he would ever know, but of course he didn’t want to hear it.
“Don’t get clever with me, Callisto!” The words were a roar; if Amphipolis wasn’t already lying in wait for him, they’d certainly be aware of him now. “This gods-damned hole of a village was supposed to be ripe for the picking! How could they possibly have known we were coming?”
It was a fair enough question, Xena supposed, though she was frankly too relieved to care too much about the little details. Either Gabrielle was involved, far smarter than anyone gave her credit for, or else the villagers themselves were still on high alert after Callisto and her little army ran them through a few days earlier.
Xena was almost a little disappointed that Draco didn’t know about that, that he would never know the irony in finding Amphipolis braced to stand against a false Callisto mere days after surviving the real one.
“Does it matter?” she asked, taking far more pleasure than she should in grinding him down. “I told you this was a fool’s errand, didn’t I? The two of us against all of them… I say we turn around and take—”
“Oh, I’ll bet you do.” He spat it out, like poison. “You’re just itching for an excuse to turn tail and run, aren’t you? You’d love to go crawling back home just so you can say ‘I told you so’.”
“Please,” Xena snorted. “I don’t need us to retreat to say that. If you’d listened to me in the first place, we’d be cleaning up in some no-name no-town leagues from here, safe and sound and rich as kings. If you’d listened to me, you would have your precious reputation back and I wouldn’t have to keep sharpening my sword on your mercenaries. We’d both be happy.” Frankly, given how the present situation was playing out, she was happy enough for the both of them, relief that her people were too clever to be taken unawares mingling with smugness at the look on Draco’s face, but of course he didn’t need to know about that. “Now, it’s not to late to—”
“No!” Draco shouted, cutting her off before she could finish. Xena sighed; she should have known better than to expect him to take a defeat graciously before it had a chance to devolve into a humiliation. “No. I didn’t come all this way to be chased away by a bunch of pitchfork-waving bumpkins. I came here to raze Xena’s village to the ground, and by the gods, that’s what I’m— that’s what what we are going to do!”
“It’s suicide,” Xena snapped. She didn’t care that she didn’t sound like Callisto at all, that Callisto would have embraced the chance to die setting Xena’s home on fire. All she cared about was getting Draco out of here before he did something stupid. “You can do what you want, you posturing buffoon, but I won’t let you take me down with you.”
“Oh, yes, you will,” Draco said, and raised his whip.
For about a quarter of a second, Xena thought that he was going to attack her; it wasn’t beyond him to use violence to make his point, and they were close enough that it wouldn’t have been difficult for him to bring the stupid thing down on her head, or else wave it around in an attempt to frighten or startle her into doing what he said. Of course, he had to know that it was absurd — in its own way, it was even more suicidal than going up against a whole village all on his own — but still for one breathless split-second she was utterly convinced that he would try it anyway, blinded as he was by his desperation.
Not that blinded, apparently. For all his fire and vitriol, it seemed that he was still much smarter than she ever gave him credit for, and it seemed that he had no intention of taking a swing at her.
The lash came down, yes, but he was aiming at her horse, not her face, a vicious blow that shocked the exhausted creature into a gallop and took the decision out of Xena’s hands without another word.
They tore up the ground, storming towards the village bounds at dizzying speed. Xena couldn’t do much more than hold on, struggling in vain to get her panicked and pain-stricken horse back under some kind of control, and what little part of her wasn’t occupied with that was distracted by Draco’s furious war shouts. He had the whip in the air again, but this time it wasn’t the horses he was aiming at. It was absurd, yet she could see it in his eyes, clearer than the sun: he really believed they could cut through the entire population as easily as they could tear up the grass beneath their horses’ hooves.
It took a great deal of effort for Xena to calm her horse, dragging it to a stop maybe fifty paces away from the wall of angry villagers. Now was definitely not the time for any one of them to lose their heads, and Xena wouldn’t allow the poor animal to meet a sticky end just because its master was a hot-headed fool who didn’t think with his brain.
She caught her breath with some difficulty, scanning the line of people and trying not to look too proud. They were well-prepared, or as close to it as she could have hoped for, waving old swords and gripping new shields, and though she couldn’t afford to let the feeling show on her face still she felt her heart swell at the sight of so many familiar faces, friends and honorary family members, people she had grown up with, people who had loved her and then hated her and then finally, gradually, achingly learned to love her again…
…and right at the front of the line, standing shoulder-to-shoulder to face the threat with clear eyes and strong backs, her mother and her Gabrielle.
If her life had not depended on playing Callisto to perfection in front of Draco, Xena might have let herself shed a tear.
Not that it would have mattered if she had; Draco, again outreaching her expectations, was as quick as she was to see their faces, and with characteristic shrewdness he jumped to his own conclusions, rounding on Xena without a moment’s hesitation.
There was an ugliness in the way he faced her now, the villagers and their wall of defence all but forgotten in the cloud of rage and betrayal. Xena recognised it well, the blind, reckless temper that had been the downfall of their relationship so long ago. It felt like a lifetime, another world and another version of herself, another pair of hate-crossed lovers clashing in all the wrong ways. She could barely even remember who she was back then, the kind of woman who would find a man like Draco attractive, and she did not bother to hide her disgust when he looked at her now, a world and a lifetime later.
“You,” he seethed.
This time when he cracked his whip he really was aiming for her head. Xena caught it effortlessly, of course; she let the lash wrap itself around her wrist, then pulled hard enough to haul him down to the ground. For all of its visible weaknesses, it seemed that Callisto’s body had more strength for tricks like this than Xena gave it credit for; given the number of times they had clashed, the number of times that Callisto had brought her to a stalemate in spite of her smaller frame, it probably shouldn’t have surprised her as much as it did to feel the whip go taut as Draco fell from his horse, and it definitely shouldn’t have surprised her when her own feet hit the ground with grace and precision.
“What are you whining about now?” she demanded.
“You planned this!” he roared, not seeming to care at all that he sounded like a raging madman. He righted himself quickly, whirling to face the crowd and jabbing a finger straight at Gabrielle. “You and that girl!”
Xena hissed, as though offended. “What does Xena’s little pet have to do with this?”
Draco raised the whip again, a threat that fell short when Xena lifted up a finger. “Don’t play dumb with me, Callisto. You’ve been seen together, you and that little brat. You’re in league with her, aren’t you?”
Xena didn’t need to ask who he meant by ‘her’. “You’re crazy.”
He let the whip clatter to the ground, favouring his fists instead, and lashed out hard at her face. Xena let the blow find its mark, because she knew that Callisto would have relished the violence of it.
“Oh no you don’t,” he snarled. “Spouting all that nonsense about tearing Xena down, stripping away everything she held dear. ‘She’s mine now,’ you said… and damned fool that I was, I believed you.”
“You should believe me,” Xena said, though she knew it would fall on deaf ears.
“Damned fool,” he muttered again, as though he hadn’t heard her at all. “Everyone knows how much you hate her. Everyone knows you’d do anything to hurt her. And here you are, wandering around with her little plaything. And here she is, against all the odds, defending this pestilent little village from an attack she couldn’t possibly have known about unless you told her!”
“You are crazy,” Xena said, and forced herself to laugh. It wasn’t easy; Callisto’s throat made the sound raspy and rough, and her own feelings cut through the feigned mirth like a knife edge. “You haven’t let me out of your sight. Do you think I keep messenger birds up my sleeve?”
That was as far as either of them got. The villagers, understandably not content to stand around and wait for them to finish bickering, took matters into their own hands, charging at them as one and closing what distance remained in a matter of seconds. Their approach gave the illusion of something greater than it was, the vision of an army rather than the ‘pitchfork-waving bumpkins’ Draco had imagined; they rushed in a seething mass, a storm of steel and strength, running at the two of them as though their lives depended on it. Which, so far as they knew, they did.
Xena’s reflexes took her reactions out of her hands. In her heart and her head she knew that these people were her friends and family, that she was one of them and that she had come here to defend them; she knew that beyond all doubt, of course, but at the same time she had been a warrior for almost as long as she could remember, honing her instincts and her skills for moments exactly like this, for the clang and clash of swords and shields, for marching on helpless villages and cutting through armies like butter. Her heart told her to fall back, but her body acted almost of its own accord; before she even realised she was doing it, she had drawn her sword and was poised to defend herself.
It was chaos, as these things so often were. Draco was a blur of violence and resentment; driven half-mad by his wounded pride, he ran at the villagers like a man possessed, charging at anyone he could reach, hacking and slashing with his sword and lashing out with fists and feet, slamming any part of him he could use into any part of anyone close enough to receive it. Had she been more in control of her own body, perhaps Xena would have used her instincts to turn against him and turn the tide in her favour, to cut through the charade of teamwork and take him out for good.
She should have, and perhaps in hindsight she would later kick herself for not grabbing the opportunity when it was there, but in the blur of madness and violence and singing steel she was a slave to her instincts; they were keener and sharper than her common sense, and even at her most peaceable she had never been able to bite down on her sense of self-preservation.
Besides, her own friends and family forced her hand; whatever her intentions might have been, they were coming at her as well as him. Perhaps they knew who she was, perhaps they understood that this was a ruse on her part, but seemingly just as her own body bowed to its survival instincts, so too did theirs, and they launched themselves with no restraint at anyone who looked like a threat. They came at Draco, at her, even at the horses… and gods preserve her, Xena swung out at them in turn.
These people were her friends, her family. This place was her home, and here she was swinging Callisto’s sword and hearing Callisto’s war-cries wrenching out of her throat; here she was, pledged to defend these people, to make sure they would not have to defend themselves against her, and it was as though she had never changed at all. She didn’t aim to kill, or even to really injure, but at the same time, as hard as she tried, she could not stay her hand.
She knew, and she took some comfort in knowing, that whatever struggles she made would prove futile in the end, that for all their combined talents she and Draco were woefully outmatched; they might have the martial prowess, the strength and the skill to back it up, but Amphipolis had numbers on its side, and Xena had learned too many times the danger of underestimating that advantage. She knew that the village was safe no matter what Draco tried, but she could not hold herself back and she could not stop herself from taking pleasure in the flash of sunlight off steel, the cling and clamour of a battle, whatever the parties involved and however inevitable the outcome.
The villagers’ cries rent the air, mixing with hers and Draco’s. A blacksmith hit the ground with a resounding thud, sprinkling the grass with blood from a cut at his head; Xena spared him less than a glance, moving on without hesitation because at least he was alive. If he was smart and kept his head down, he would stay that way; Draco never bothered to clean up his messes. A farmhand followed, taken down in a tackle; he landed hard, the breath knocked right out of him, and Xena didn’t stop to make sure he was all right because breathless meant that he was still breathing.
She lost count of their numbers, lost count of which deeds were Draco’s and which were hers; she lost track of him, of the villagers, of everything except the noise and the chaos and the scent of blood, everything, everyone, until—
—until, with a shout and flip, she found herself face-to-face with Gabrielle.
For a moment, the whole world faded out to black, spiralling in on itself until there was nothing but her face, the face she loved so much. It stopped Xena in her tracks, left her wide-eyed and struck dumb. That was nothing new; even across a simple campfire, as silent and peaceful as the setting sun, Gabrielle could do that to her. A look or a smile, and Xena would feel the whole world stop. Now, in the heat of battle, with swords and shouts echoing all around them, the sight of her left Xena as breathless as the poor farmhand.
It never failed to astonish her, the way they always found their way back to each other, the way they always ended up face to face just like this, no matter how far they travelled or how long they were apart. The circumstances never seemed to matter, and neither did their plans; it didn’t matter what they did or what they thought or what happened to either one of them in their time apart, still somehow it always came back to this.
Gabrielle’s mouth was open, halfway to shaping Xena’s name, though she knew better than to say it out loud. She didn’t say ‘Callisto’ either, though Xena could tell that she wanted to. It unsettled her, brought her back to herself in a way that all the bloodshed in the world never could; the terror behind her eyes was startling, striking, and it made Xena want to drop everything, forget Amphipolis and Draco and everything else. It made her want to drop her sword, drop the fighting, let her own mother run her through if that was what it took to get Gabrielle into her arms.
She wanted to — more than anything in the world she wanted to hold her close and never let her go, come what may — but she didn’t. Gabrielle didn’t give her the chance.
She was was deathly pale, using her staff almost more as a crutch than a weapon, but still she found the strength inside of her to raise it up high, to take a swing and catch Xena in the side, to remind her without words, with nothing but the shaking, shuddering strength that Xena had long since learned not to take for granted, that she wasn’t here for a blissful reunion, that Xena was on Draco’s side and Gabrielle was here to defend Amphipolis.
“I knew it,” she cried, gasping as she swung the staff again. “I knew you’d come! I knew you’d—”
Xena caught the staff with her off-hand, and it was a testament to how completely the sight of her face had broken through to the woman behind the warrior, that she didn’t even try for a counterattack. Had it been anyone else, she knew that she would have done, instincts overpowering her self-control, but not even a lifetime of bloodlust could make her raise a hand against Gabrielle. She called her name again, lower and more urgent, but Gabrielle didn’t stop at all.
“I saw you! You and him and… and this. I knew it… I…”
She didn’t bother to finish; leaving the staff all but forgotten in the dirt, she lashed out instead with her fists. There was no strength at all in the blows, and no discipline either; Xena was struck far more by the way she wavered and wobbled than by the assault itself. Whether she was genuinely attacking her or just putting on a show for Draco’s, it was impossible to say, because she didn’t have enough in her to make a real try of it even if she wanted to. Not that it mattered, really; Xena didn’t need to know her motivations to know that she had no place out here.
“Gabrielle!” Each syllable came in the space between a swing or a block or a parry, the sound vibrating with the impact in her chest. “You can hardly stand. You shouldn’t be out here. You shouldn’t be—”
“Someone has to be!” Gabrielle shouted. She swung again, using her whole body, and Xena turned her momentum back against her, watching with a grimace as Gabrielle lost her footing and fell back into the dirt. “Someone has to protect this place from you!” She was on the brink of tears, Xena realised, and the guilt struck a blow far more devastating than anything Gabrielle’s shaking fists could manage. “You said you wouldn’t do this! You swore that you wouldn’t become—”
That was Draco, finishing the accusation on Gabrielle’s behalf without even realising he was doing it. He came at them like a battering ram, storming through the clamour and the noise, shaking off villagers from every direction, and before Xena had a chance to react at all he had already leaped into the space between them, grabbing Gabrielle by the neck and holding tight.
“Get your hands off her!” She could barely hear her own voice through the chaos, but she didn’t care. Nothing else mattered, not even Amphipolis. “I told you, the girl is mine!”
Draco looked like a man who had taken leave of his senses. His eyes were on fire, his face a wash of blood, and the fury that shook through his body was enough to make almost anyone think twice about getting too close. He looked just about ready to run her through with his sword, or else make her wish that he had.
“Plans change,” he snarled, spitting blood. He raised a fist, but didn’t bring it down. Xena wondered if it was uncertainty that stilled his hand, if perhaps he didn’t really know which of the two of them he wanted to strike. “The two of you cheated me out of what was mine. Now it’s my turn to do the same.”
“That’s not—” Xena started, but that was as far as she got.
“Yeah!” Gabrielle, it seemed, had found some deep, well-hidden reserve of inner strength; her eyes flashed with breathtaking defiance, as bright and as dangerous as Draco’s as she looked him right in the face without blinking. “Yeah, that’s right! You got beaten by Xena’s little sidekick! How does that make you feel, you son of a—”
Draco backhanded her. Xena had to bite down on the inside of her cheek to keep from crying out in sympathy… or better yet, strangling him right on the spot.
“You’ll find out how it feels soon enough,” he snapped, then spun back to Xena. He didn’t bother playing nice this time, clearly sensing the power he had over her for as long as Gabrielle was in his hands, and there was a wordless threat in the way he gripped her arm. “We retreat, Callisto. Now.”
“That was my idea!” she shouted, desperate to get his attention away from Gabrielle. “Now you decide to listen to me?”
“No.” There was a warning in his voice, and Xena didn’t need to say anything to know where it had come from, to understand exactly what had changed about the situation, what had changed his mind. “Now I’ve found a better bargaining chip.”
He drove the point home by giving Gabrielle a quick, forceful shake. What little colour she still had left drained out of her, and she bit down on her lip to keep from crying out. Xena’s heart convulsed, pain shot through with guilt that this was all her fault, and she tried to wrestle her out of Draco’s arms but Callisto’s strength failed Xena’s intentions. He had no problem shoving her aside with his free hand, and the fire still flashing behind his eyes took on a fresh, new intensity.
He didn’t need to push her any further, and they both knew it. He couldn’t possibly know that the woman standing in front of him was Xena, that it was her little sidekick he was manhandling; no doubt he just assumed Gabrielle was one more trophy that the Xena-obsessed Callisto wanted to reclaim for herself. Still, he knew he had a prize that she was not willing to give up, and he knew that was more than enough. Amphipolis could burn itself to the ground for all he cared now; all he wanted was to hurt the woman he thought had betrayed him.
Xena’s heart was in pieces. It was a relief, albeit a tainted one, to leave Amphipolis behind, to retreat from this futile, hopeless battle with no lives lost, but the cost was a terrible one. It rent her soul asunder, the sight of Gabrielle in Draco’s unyielding grip, kicking and struggling and trying so hard to be strong and brave even as the physical pain painted itself in blood and bruises all over her face. Draco must have realised that she was in no condition to put up a fight, but that didn’t stop him holding her as tight as he would a dangerous foe; Xena wondered which one of them he was really trying to hurt, whether he realised what the sight was doing to her. Knowing him, he surely did.
They mounted their horses, pelted by stones and arrows from the furious villagers, and Xena turned back to face them as they rode away.
It was the least she could do, to look in the eye the people she had put through so much needless torment, and it broke her heart almost as deeply as the sound of Gabrielle’s groans when she caught a glimpse of her mother’s face, the anguish and anger coloured by tangible relief. She wondered if Cyrene knew that this was all an act, if Gabrielle had pressed the importance of keeping up appearances while she was in Callisto’s body, or if she believed in what her eyes were telling her. Would she turn on her daughter again now like she did after Cortese? Would she understand now, in a way she hadn’t back then? Time would tell, she supposed, but still it took a great deal of effort to push the thought out of her mind.
Keenly aware of his advantage, Draco set the pace. He kept Gabrielle in front of him, one arm locked tight around her waist as he yanked on the horse’s reins, and Xena had no choice but to push her own steed to its limits in a bid at keeping up.
She wanted to steal a moment, get close enough to Gabrielle that she could whisper ‘I’m sorry’ into her ear, close enough that she could say anything; damn Draco to Tartarus, she just wanted a moment with the woman she loved. The opportunity never arose, though, and she knew him well enough to realise that it was on purpose, that he wouldn’t give either one of them so much as a heartbeat together until he’d gotten to the bottom of this.
They took a break after a couple of hours because Draco’s horse was starting to flag, its gallop dropping to a half-lame canter. Wilful and arrogant though he was, even he couldn’t ignore the harm in letting his horses keel over from exhaustion, and so for their sakes far more than their human riders he acquiesced to a brief if grudging rest-stop.
Xena dismounted carefully, hating that she couldn’t risk showing compassion to her overworked horse. The poor thing was clearly struggling greatly, and her instincts were screaming to treat him with kindness; it was even harder with her mind still reeling with visions of Argo lying on the ground, cut open and bleeding herself out, but of course Callisto had never shown kindness to any living thing in her life and Xena couldn’t risk the exposure. Now more than ever, she could not afford to push the limits of her performance. She did not want to know what Draco would do to Gabrielle if he found out that Xena was the one who had double-crossed him, and she did not trust herself to defeat him before he got the chance to hurt her or worse.
He didn’t take his eyes off her, even as he hauled Gabrielle down from his horse. Free from its burden, the exhausted animal snorted its gratitude and stumbled away to find some food and shade. Gabrielle didn’t speak, but Xena recognised the look in her eyes, and she knew that it was a question of practicality and not fear; no doubt she was worried about saying something to upset whatever delicate balance Xena had struck with her former flame, and had decided that keeping her mouth shut was the safest option for all involved.
It was a sensible decision, though of course Xena couldn’t say so. Instead, she mustered a scowl, Callisto-crazy, and said to Draco, “For every scratch you put on her, I’ll give you two.”
“Touching,” Draco deadpanned, and tilted Gabrielle’s chin up to study her. She sucked in a breath, pain and defiance in equal measure, but still didn’t say anything. “So what is it, then? Xena won’t have you, so you steal her toy instead? Close your eyes and pretend it’s the real thing?”
Xena gritted her teeth. “What I do with her is none of your business.”
Draco huffed a crude laugh, and let go of Gabrielle’s face. “Well, whatever it is, it’s a waste of time. This… she’s just a slip of a girl. Probably still has her maidenhead.” Gabrielle choked on her breath, no doubt stung by uninvited memories of her wedding night, her dead husband; Xena turned her face away so she wouldn’t have to see Callisto when she remembered his death. Draco, oblivious, plowed straight on. “Now, Xena, on the other hand? Suffice it to say she’s—”
“—too much for you to handle,” Xena finished, angry on Gabrielle’s behalf far more than her own. “But go ahead, keep telling yourself that you were any kind of a match for her.”
“Shut up.” It was the first time Gabrielle had spoken since Amphipolis. Her voice was shaking, almost harder than her body. “Both of you. Shut up.”
Draco cuffed her, a sickening blow to the side of the head. “I don’t know what sort of talk-back nonsense Callisto’s been letting you get away with—”
Xena punched him in the fact, cutting off the threat before he could finish it. It hurt more than it should have, certainly more than it did the last time she had any reason to sock him like that. She shook out her fist, hating the fact that Callisto’s arm was weaker than her own, that Draco hardly even flinched, shaking off the blow like it was nothing at all.
Had she been in her own body, she knew perfectly well that he would have been reeling or spitting teeth or worse, that a knock like this would have been all she needed to get the upper hand; she would have capitalised on the moment, beaten him senseless and taken off with Gabrielle before he even had a chance to figure out what had happened.
Xena’s talents lay in exactly this, catching an enemy off-guard and knocking him around; Callisto’s lay in her craftiness, her manipulations and her swordplay. Stuck in her body, Xena could no more out-punch a goliath like Draco than she could out-argue the side of a barn. Still, the crunch of bone against bone and the outrage on Draco’s face were immensely satisfying, even if they felt weak compared to her usual. It wasn’t enough, not even close, but at least it was something.
Gabrielle was shaking her head. She looked a little dizzy, though whether that was from the blow she’d just taken or the one she’d been forced to watch, Xena couldn’t tell.
“Will you stop that?” she snapped. “I can take care of myself.”
She was talking to Xena, not to Callisto, pushing past the façade and the performance to remind her that she was every bit as durable as Xena, that she could take a hit or two and still come out all right, that she didn’t need Xena to blow her cover on her behalf every time she got a little battered. It was the only way she had right now of saying ’I know you can’t protect me, and that’s all right.’
“It’s cute that you think so,” Draco said, cutting in before Xena had the chance to reply; he turned, then, and glared at her instead. “And it’s doubly cute that you think you get any say in this. I don’t know what game you’re playing, Callisto, but you won’t be playing me again. Mark my words, I will find out how the two of you managed to pull off this little trick, and when I do I will personally deposit both of your corpses on Xena’s doorstep.”
“Colourful,” Xena said tartly. “But you’re wasting your breath. Like I told you before, I couldn’t possibly have given away your stupid plan, even if I wanted to. And even if I could, why would I? I was complicit, in case you’ve forgotten, and unlike you I’m not in the habit of embarrassing myself.” That was true enough, at least from Callisto, and Draco acknowledged the point with a sober, sullen scowl. “Besides, didn’t I warn you? Didn’t I tell you that it was a stupid idea? Why in Hades’s name would I try to talk you out of it if I wanted you to come out and get your ass kicked?”
“A double-bluff,” Draco said, though he didn’t sound so confident any more.
“A waste of time,” Xena countered easily. “I told you we should find some other no-name town to pillage. You’re the one who insisted on Amphipolis.”
“Shut up,” Draco snapped, as mature as ever, and rounded on Gabrielle again, one fist raised in a sober warning. “Talk, then, maidenhead. If Callisto didn’t tell you, how did you know we were coming for you?”
Gabrielle looked down at the ground, feigning bashfulness. Xena had a sneaking suspicion it was rather more a feint at avoiding her eye than hiding from Draco’s, and she wasn’t really sure how to feel about that. She had hoped that Gabrielle would see her now, with the battle and the village far behind them, that distance and hindsight would make this a little easier for her, but she recognised the same reticence now that she saw back in the tavern.
She knew without having to try that if she moved to close the space between them Gabrielle would be the one to convince Draco that they really were dealing with Callisto. She would flinch away, suck in a breath and say ‘don’t touch me’ just like she did back then, and Draco would believe without hesitation that Xena truly was the woman who had hurt her so badly. Gabrielle might be Xena’s weakness, but it seemed that Xena was the weak link in this, and it had been a very long time since she’d had to deal with being that.
“I don’t know,” Gabrielle said at long last, speaking to Draco and not looking at Xena at all. Her voice was very raw, hoarse like someone recovering from a bad cold. “I… I guess you could say I had a hunch. Lucky guess. Call it what you like.”
“Mhm. I don’t believe in lucky guesses, and I definitely don’t believe in hunches. Not when you and Callisto were spotted together scarcely a day before.” He glanced back at Xena, as though expecting to intimidate a better answer out of her. Good luck with that, Xena thought, and glared until he looked away again. “No,” he went on after a moment. “Something’s going on here, and one of you will tell me what.”
“You’re being melodramatic,” Xena told him, more to draw the attention back to herself than anything else. “And paranoid. Like I keep telling you, she’s a toy. Xena’s toy, and a chatty little prize for me. She’s just a pretty little trinket to carry around and keep my bed warm and make the warrior princess suffer a little bit. You can’t really be so stupid that you’d think there’s anything more to it than that. The girl has ideals above her station; she thinks she knows more than she does. Xena thinks it’s cute. I just think it’s a fun way of messing with gullible idiots’ heads.”
Draco drew his sword, turned it to the side so that the sunlight caught the sharpened edge. He studied it for a long moment, but didn’t turn it on either one of them. Xena couldn’t tell whether he was trying to frighten Gabrielle or trying to make a point to ‘Callisto’; either way, he wasn’t very successful. Gabrielle was a year past the point of being threatened by a warlord with a sharp sword, and had Xena truly been Callisto she would have cut his head from his body long before now.
“You keep saying that,” he muttered, keeping his attention on both of them at the same time. “But do you really expect me to believe it’s a coincidence that she showed up in the very same village we came here to sack? Do you really expect me to believe it’s a coincidence that Xena’s beloved plaything was one step ahead of us, anticipating our every move, just a day after being seen in your company?”
Xena shrugged, mustering a bitter, careless chuckle. “It would hardly be the first kooky ‘coincidence’ this one’s had a part in.”
“Right,” Gabrielle said, letting slip a hint of her trademark excitability. Xena cut her a glance, a wordless warning to cut back, but of course she ignored her completely. “You have no idea. The stories I could tell…”
“No-one wants to hear them,” Xena snapped, twisting her voice into Callisto’s high timbre to cut her off completely. “You’re not helping your case here, little girl. Best if you just keep that pretty little mouth shut.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Gabrielle shot back.
It surprised Xena more than she’d care to admit, not just the edge to her voice, but the fact that she would attempt a riposte in the first place. That wasn’t her Gabrielle, and it made her uncomfortable, but she knew that she couldn’t afford to dwell on it. Not now. Draco was staring at them both, eyes darting between them as though he realised that he was missing something pivotal but couldn’t figure out what, and though she knew he couldn’t possibly get to the truth of it himself, even with the evidence right in front of him, still it made her heart seize with the kind of panic she would never have felt in her own body.
She couldn’t afford to see her Gabrielle now, couldn’t afford to think of her in the terms that came so naturally to them both. Callisto didn’t know the young woman from Poteidaia, the woman that Xena loved so deeply, and the Xena wearing Callisto’s skin couldn’t afford to look for her walking, talking conscience in the angry, broken little thing that Draco had captured from Amphipolis. If she saw her Gabrielle now, they would both be lost; she would become Xena completely, and even an ego-driven warlord like Draco couldn’t fail to notice that.
Fact is, you’re always my weakness. She’d said as much to Gabrielle after her run-in with Draco’s goons. Beaten and bloody and shaken to her core, Gabrielle had looked so small and so desperately young; she always looked that way when she was in pain, and it always stole Xena’s breath.
She would have given anything to take her into her arms, take care of her, take away all of the hurt and the horror, make her feel better about herself. She would have given anything to be the Xena that Gabrielle knew, the woman she loved in turn, but she wasn’t. The Xena who wore Callisto’s face was a different person to the Xena who wore her own, and as badly as she wanted to believe that wasn’t true, those few fateful hours in Draco’s fortress had taught her otherwise.
Gabrielle was right when she said ‘I can take care of myself’. She was right to remind Xena that she could not protect her out here, that she had to keep her distance for as long as Draco was breathing down their necks. She had to keep who she was apart from who she had to be, had to keep herself separate from the name Xena, had to change the love she felt when she looked at Gabrielle into something vengeful and vicious, something that Callisto would feel when she looked at Xena’s precious plaything. She had to convince Draco that the disaster at Amphipolis really was just a kooky coincidence, that Gabrielle was not her friend at all, that she, Callisto, was only interested in her as someone else’s property.
“Look,” she said to Draco, appealing to his better reason. “The girl is harmless. A distraction at best, for both of us. Give her back to me and we’ll figure out some other way to salvage your manhoo— reputation.”
Draco laughed, making a point of ignoring the deliberate slip. “No,” he said. “I think I’ll keep hold of her for now. Call her ‘leverage’, if you like.” He glanced at Gabrielle. “How does it feel, being passed around like a side dish?”
Gabrielle swallowed thickly. Her eyes were shut tight and her breathing was very shallow. Xena dug her nails into her palms and answered on her behalf. “Leave her alone, Draco.”
He snorted, but didn’t argue. “For now,” he said, as much of a concession as Xena could hope for. “But she’s still mine. You’ll get her back when we’re done. When I know you’ve kept your word.”
Xena cursed internally, but refused to let it show on her face. She wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake him until his teeth rattled. She wanted to ask why, what was so damned important about a little girl who was too beaten to even try to fight back, but of course she already knew the answer. Whether it was Xena or Callisto in front of him, Draco could see the power Gabrielle held over her; he would be a fool to give it up for anything. His alliance with Callisto was tentative at best, and it had taken a serious blow after Amphipolis; for all his posturing and power games, he was not the idiot Xena wanted him to be, and he knew that he would need an ace in his pocket if he wanted to keep her down at heel.
Neither one of them might be in any position to defeat the other in single combat, much to Xena’s regret, but an alliance like this could only last so long before it exploded. With Gabrielle in his hand, Draco was making sure that the fuse was lit from his side and not from hers. From his perspective, unintentional though it might be, Gabrielle was too useful a pawn to give up now. From Xena’s perspective — Gabrielle’s best friend posing as her worst enemy to temper her own ex-lover — it was as surreal as a nightmare.
“You’ll regret this,” she said out loud.
Draco, of course, only shrugged. He didn’t even look at her at all, still fixated like a puppy on Gabrielle. Gabrielle was unimaginably brave, just as Xena knew that she would be; she didn't flinch when she met his gaze, and she didn’t so much as blink when he raised his fist again, a test without teeth to find her limit, to see how far he could push before she broke down.
Xena could have told him that it wouldn’t work; Gabrielle had stared down far more frightening men than Draco, had gone toe-to-toe with people who could snap her in half without a second thought, seemingly oblivious to the danger she was in. It was only much later that she ever let herself react to moments like this, that she looked to Xena to hold her through the tremors and the whimpers and the delayed reactions; in the heat of the moment she always stood as strong and steady as Xena herself. Her blithe, blind courage was one of the things that Xena loved most about her, and one of the things she found most frustrating; it was difficult not to be proud of her when she stood strong like that, but just as difficult to protect her when that was the last thing she wanted.
“Oh, I’m sure I will,” Draco said, a derisive response to Xena’s hollow threat. “What was it you said again? Two scratches on me for every one she takes?” He chuckled again, colder this time, and gripped Gabrielle by the chin. He was rough, but not brutal, turning her face in all directions to study the bruises blooming across the skin. “Looks like you have your work cut out for you.”
That was true, Xena thought sadly. She didn’t need to look at Gabrielle to know that she was a mess of pain, and she couldn’t risk it even if she’d wanted to. One good look at those bruises, that blood, the exhaustion in her eyes and the way she was shaking, and she would be destroyed. She could fight so many things, any warlord or army or god the Fates could throw at her, but she could never resist Gabrielle’s face.
So, instead, she looked at Draco’s, and let her hatred for the situation boil over to burn the man she used to love. She looked him right in the eyes and smiled just like Callisto, a threat and a promise and a warning all at once.
“I’m not the only one,” she said, but Draco was the one who laughed.