“What in Hades’ name were you thinking?”
Draco didn’t laugh, though it was pretty obvious that he wanted to; if Xena were to hazard a guess, it was only the pressure of her elbow against his throat that stopped him. Laughing wasn’t easy, after all, when your breath was all but cut off.
She had him pinned up against the wall, driven half-blind by righteous fury; given her precarious position here, she normally wouldn’t even dream of such a thing, but after what she’d just seen all the common sense in the known world wouldn’t have been enough to make her back off. Let him see through her charade, she thought, if that was what it took to get Gabrielle out of that gods-forsaken cell. Let him tell every warlord in Greece who she was if that was what it took to do right by the only person in the world who meant anything.
“I have…” He coughed, a horrible choked-off noise that vibrated unpleasantly against her arm. Xena eased her grip ever so slightly, just enough that he could get the words out without suffocating but not so much that it wouldn’t hurt like the bastard he was. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You know perfectly well what I’m talking about!” she roared. “Locking her up with that… that thing.”
Draco mustered a smile, though she could tell that it was pained. “I thought she’d appreciate the…” He choked, almost losing his voice entirely when she squeezed his throat again. “…company.”
“Don’t get cute with me, Draco.” It came out as more of a challenge than she expected, focusing on the anger instead of the disgust, the parts of her that wanted to tear him limb from limb instead of the parts that just wanted to turn around and run back to Gabrielle’s side. “What, pray tell, were you hoping to accomplish by traumatising her like that?”
Draco coughed again, finally summoning the strength to shove her away. “Watch yourself,” he snapped, massaging his throat. “You’re a guest in my home. A word to one of my men, and you and the girl will wake up with your throats slit.” The reminder stung, though it was somewhat beside the point just now. “And besides, I thought you of all people would applaud my creativity. Don’t you want the little brat to fear you?”
“That’s between me and her,” Xena said. “It’s none of your business what I want from her.”
“She’s my prisoner now,” he reminded her pointedly. “Until you fulfil your side of our bargain, that makes her my business. Unless you’d care to forfeit your head after all…”
Xena snarled again, giving up on the intimidation act and settling instead for punching him in his pretty face. “If you do anything like that again, I will rip your lungs out.”
“You can try.” He touched the side of his face, tracing the print of her knuckles, and mustered another hoarse chuckle. “Say what you like, Callisto. I think you’re soft for that girl.”
“Like I said,” Xena muttered, “that’s between her and me.”
She turned away, rather more for her own sake than for his. She needed to catch her breath and her composure, needed to try and rein in her tender feelings, the parts of her that were still back in that cell with Gabrielle, the parts of her that couldn’t stop seeing her face no matter what she did or where she went. She had to control herself; the way Draco was looking at her, as though he could read all her tender feelings despite her best efforts, was unforgivable, and she could not afford it.
Still, it was hard. It tore at her, knowing what Gabrielle was going through, knowing that she had to go through it alone, knowing — worst of all — that it was her doing, that she was responsible for so much of her present pain. This was everything Gabrielle was afraid of, all those awful nightmares brought to life, and there was nothing she could do to escape them. Xena had tried so hard to protect her from this, to keep her safe and far away, but her best intentions had landed them both here instead: her in the company of a ruthless warlord and Gabrielle trapped in a cell with the very thing that broke her. Xena knew how frightened she was of seeing Callisto take hold of her, of being forced to watch as her best friend became her worst enemy, and here she was now, all but convinced that it had finally happened and unable to turn away from the not-so-living proof.
It was all her fault, Xena thought wretchedly, but she couldn’t afford to be angry about it. She couldn’t afford to feel anything at all; if she did, it would be the end for them both. Draco’s threats weren’t idle, she knew, no more than her own were. If he thought for even a second that she might turn on him, he would do whatever it took to get the upper hand. He would have his men surround her in a heartbeat, but far worse was what he would do to Gabrielle if he suspected she was a weak point. He would kill her without even a second thought, just because he knew that it would hurt ‘Callisto’.
She wouldn’t let that happen. As Xena or Callisto, it didn’t matter any more; she would not give him a chance to take advantage of her, and she definitely wouldn’t give him a chance to take advantage of Gabrielle. She would tear down this whole fortress with her bare hands before she let either of those things happen, and she didn’t care one bit if it landed her in Tartarus; an eternity swapping stories with the real Callisto was preferable to this. Perhaps, in a twisted way, it would be for the best. She’d always been a sucker for poetic justice.
It took longer than it should have for her to compose herself, and longer even than that to turn around and face Draco again, to find his smirking face and not beat it to a bloody pulp.
“Forget the girl,” she said, and wished that she could do the same. “Amphipolis is out. You got another plan lying about, feel free to share it. Or did you just want to sit around and play word games until we’re both old and grey?”
“Tempting,” Draco said without a hint of irony. “But no. We find another village, take it instead. Forget the girl, like you said, and forget Xena.”
“Smartest thing you’ve said in days,” Xena muttered, and didn’t care that she sounded nothing like the real Callisto.
Thankfully for her, Draco had never been the kind of man to share his spotlight. He was the exactly same way when they were together, always locking himself away to work through this or that grand scheme, building his precious strategies out of some stupid pipe dream or another. Xena had quickly learned to just sit back and let him do what he wanted, to nod and smile when he looked at her but otherwise keep her mouth shut. It was more effort to argue with him than to just work out her own secret contingencies for when his inevitably failed.
That was certainly true now; contingency or not, she had her own planning to do, and this time it had nothing to do with sacking villages. She sat in silence with her feet up on one of his tables, following him with her eyes as he paced the length of the room; he was agitated, she could tell, but he kept an even pace just the same, and the rhythm of his footsteps helped her to stay present.
She watched him, trying in vain not to think too hard about Gabrielle stuck there in that cell with that decaying corpse, the remains of a man who had beaten her, killed by the woman she thought she could trust. Every second that Xena wasted out here with Draco was another second that Gabrielle had to suffer alone in that awful place, seconds upon seconds with only Xena’s darkest deed for company.
It was too much. A part of her wanted to take Draco by the collar, shake him and say, ‘I don’t care what you want from me! I don’t care about your plans! I’ll do anything you want, anything you say if you’ll just let her go right now.’ She wanted to give up the feint at dignity, give up the moral high ground she’d worked so hard to cultivate here, all the places inside herself that Gabrielle had touched, all the ways she’d taught her to find a peaceable solution to every problem. She didn’t care about doing things right any more; she’d raze a dozen villages to the ground and not look back if that was what it took to get Draco off her back and Gabrielle out of that cell. She would become a warlord again without hesitation, and not regret it for a second.
The thought stung. Like always, thinking of Gabrielle was a double-edged sword, in one moment fuelling her desperation and driving her to do unimaginable things, and in the very next extinguishing it completely. She would do anything to get her out of there, would do anything to make this right, but when she closed her eyes and tried to conjure up the horror and the fear in Gabrielle’s eyes, all she could see was the accusation and the betrayal, the wounded, broken look as she turned away and said ‘you should go’.
She couldn’t forget the way she blanched, all the colour draining out of her face and leaving only the bruises and the pain, that awful moment when she realised that Draco was right, that her faith, her hope had been misplaced all along. Xena couldn’t forget how it felt to see her like that, the ache that surged up in her chest; she had wanted more than anything in the world to reach through the bars, to hold her close until she stopped trembling, but she knew then, as she knew now, that it would have only made things worse. Gabrielle couldn’t bear to look at her after what she had did… but here she was all over again, planning to do the very same thing.
It tore her apart, the thought of putting that look back on her face, of making her go pale again, making her sick with the horror of it, of forcing Gabrielle to carry any more of the deeds that Xena had always thought were hers alone. She would do anything in the world to save her, anything to protect her, but what good would it do if she destroyed her in the process? She could blame Draco and his sordid sense of humour for the cell, the corpse, the nightmare that Gabrielle was going through in there, but who could she blame if she got her out only to list all the people she’d slaughtered to do it?
She couldn’t do things her way. She had to be the new Xena, the one who wasn’t comfortable with herself, who was hobbled and useless in Callisto’s body; weak as it made her, exposed as that weakness was, now more than ever she had to be Gabrielle’s Xena, the one who wore her own skin and listened to all of the sweet, beautiful things Gabrielle said about her, the one who could almost, almost believe that one day she might deserve them. For both of their sakes, she had to prove that that Xena could survive even in Callisto’s body. For all that it killed her to sit idly by, she had to do this Gabrielle’s way.
So, yes, she sat in silence. Yes, she watched without a word, and kept her thoughts to herself. Yes, she counted out Draco’s footsteps as he paced, and yes, she made her own plans too. While he stomped around the room muttering and pondering and laying out his stupid maps, Xena looked around and made her own. He mapped out the surrounding farmland and she mapped out his little stronghold. She might not have much at her disposal out here, but she was inspired now, driven in a way she hadn’t been before by the visions in her head of Gabrielle, huddled and shivering, losing herself piece by piece back in that gods-forsaken cell, waiting and praying for a sign that it really was her Xena inside Callisto’s body, that there was still some shred of the woman she loved.
Xena would prove that there was. For both their sakes, she would—
“Are you even listening to me?”
She didn’t even bother to look up. “Not really, no.”
Draco’s tantrum was as predictable as it was short-lived. He slammed his fist down onto the table, cursing her name and invoking as many gods as he could think of, then let the moment sputter out and die as though it never happened at all. That was typical of him, and when she did finally look up, she found him shaking his head and staring at her as though he couldn’t figure out whether to be amused or infuriated by her attitude.
“I should’ve just taken your head when I had the chance, shouldn’t I?” It was his idea of a joke, Xena knew, but she scowled at him just the same. “Oh, don’t start pouting. I said ‘should’. We’re allies now, and you should know that I’m a man of my word.”
Xena did know that. Callisto, on the other hand…
“So you keep saying,” she said, playing up her own bitter mood to add to Callisto’s unique flavour. “All this nonsense you keep spouting about ‘honour’ and ‘integrity’. More like weakness and stupidity, if you ask me. Wasting half the day poking at maps and making plans, and for what? It’s boring.”
“Ah, yes.” He rolled his eyes, though he was starting to look more amused than angry. “Your way’s so much better, isn’t it? Just set everything on fire and hope for the best.”
The point was so accurate, so utterly perfect that Xena burst out laughing. Draco stared at her for a moment, then shook his head again and turned away; finally, he seemed to be realising that there was no sense in even trying to understand Callisto’s brand of humour. Took him long enough, Xena thought with a last little chuckle; for herself, she’d given up on that a long time ago.
Still, his words stuck with her long after she drowned them out, a spark of something in her chest, like the first faint flicker of an idea. Maybe there was something to be learned from Callisto’s methods after all…
“Sneer all you want,” she said after a moment, as much to cover the sudden racing of her thoughts as to counter his quip. “But you can’t deny it’s more effective than sitting around weeping over your precious Xena.”
“From what I’ve heard, that’s far more your speciality than mine.”
Xena rolled her eyes, but didn’t deny it. “Look,” she snapped. “You can sit around making plans until one or both of us dies of boredom or old age, or you can stick a pin in a random spot then burn it to the ground. I know which one I’m in favour of.”
“So do I.” Draco snorted, but there was a thin smile on his face just the same, as though he couldn’t deny the idea had its appeal. “But it’s not really my style. We’re warlords, not barbarians.”
“Same difference,” Xena muttered, neatly coupling Callisto’s immaturity with her own learned wisdom. “Do you want me under your feet for the rest of your life, or would you rather just get this nonsense over with so we can go our separate ways and never have to see each other again?”
Draco chuckled. “That, I’m definitely in favour of.”
“Good. So stick a pin in the stupid map already, and show me where you keep the torches.” The word struck a chord inside of her, lit up that little half-formed thought and turned it into something tangible, something she could work with. “Let’s get this thing finished.”
Draco gave the map a last cursory look, then put it to one side and looked up at her. “You’re awfully eager all of a sudden.”
That was true enough, though of course Xena couldn’t tell him why. Her head was spinning with ideas, slowly taking shape into something solid and dangerous, and she wanted nothing more than to turn around and leave him here with his silly map and his silly plans, and start turning her own into something real. She could feel the straw crackling under her feet, could see the mud, cold and dry, caking the walls, and for the first time since she got here she found herself thinking, really and truly thinking, what would Callisto do?
Of course, now that she’d heard the words spoken aloud, she felt foolish for not having thought of it sooner.
“You say ‘eager’,” she said, keeping her tone cool and breezy. “I say ‘bored with your endless prattling’.”
Draco gave her an odd look, as though sensing that her thoughts were elsewhere, then shrugged and turned back to his map. “Or else you’ve finally got the right kind of motivation,” he said with a cruel smile. “Amazing what a little incentive can do, isn’t it?”
He was certainly right about that, and Xena didn’t bother to pretend otherwise. “Don’t get too cocky,” she said instead, and showed off Callisto’s teeth. “I’m just sick to death of the sight of you.”
“That makes two of us,” Draco shot back, then jabbed a finger at a point on the map. “Here, then. No more than an hour on horseback. You, me, maybe half a dozen of my men, and enough burning oil to light up Mount Olympus.”
Xena let the corners of her lips lift into a grin. She thought about challenging him again, just to see how far she could push, but why risk straining things further?. Besides, even if Draco was willing to leave things to chance again — not very likely after Amphipolis — it didn’t much matter anyway; given an hour or two to herself while he made his overblown preparations, and she would find a far more Callisto-appropriate use for those torches.
“Fine by me,” she said, playing up her indifference. “You figure out the details, Plan Guy, and I’ll bring the style.”
“You’d better bring more than that,” he snapped, predictably aggravated by her nonchalance.
Oh, I will, Xena thought, but didn’t say so. Instead, she swept to her feet, making a spectacle of stretching out Callisto’s long limbs. It was comforting to see that his tastes hadn’t changed much since they last clashed swords, and she couldn’t deny relishing the heat in his eyes as he watched her move.
“If that’s all…” she said. “A girl needs her beauty rest. Wake me when you’re done playing with your… map.”
Draco hunched moodily over the thing, clearly insulted on its behalf. “Count on it,” he muttered, and didn’t bother telling her to stay where she was. “Try not to get into any trouble.”
“Who, little ol’ me?” Xena grinned again, playing up the exaggerated sweetness that Callisto used so well. Draco, who did not know her as well as Xena did, wasn’t clever enough to understand that it was a threat. “Perish the thought.”
She did stay out of trouble, though not because he told her to. She had work to do, things to figure out, and she didn’t want to be noticed before she was ready. She could hear Callisto’s voice in her ears, manic and giggling, exactly like Draco had said; she was so obsessed with burning the world and its people to the ground, with doing exactly what Xena had done to her all those years ago. It was right there in front of her, and wasn’t it just painfully ironic that the only path Xena could see out of this was the one Callisto would have chosen for herself? And how much more so that, for perhaps the first time in either of their lives, Callisto’s solution was the least bloody?
She should have thought of it sooner. All this time playing Callisto, getting under her skin and into her voice, she had been so careful to never let herself venture inside her head.
Too careful, it seemed. Xena — the old Xena, the one that Draco knew so well — would have jumped at the chance to raze a village or two, to make a point by making a funeral pyre, but Callisto didn’t care for that at all. Even if Draco had convinced her to march on Amphipolis instead of killing him outright, waving Xena’s name like a banner as he did, after what happened there she would never have let him make a second attempt. As soon as they returned, defeated and humiliated, she would have turned on him without even blinking. She would have burned this fortress to the ground the instant they set foot inside, calling it penance for the wasted chance and the waste of time.
Xena wasn’t usually one to indulge such brash and petty flights of temper herself… but given the situation, she would make an exception.
It was easy enough to look innocuous, wandering around seemingly without direction with a bored look on her face. It fooled Draco well enough, convinced him that she was just impatient and restless, and of course none of his men paid her any more attention now than they ever had before. She caught a handful of them milling about here and there — even those few were more than she expected, frankly — and for the most part they were content to just stay out of her way. No doubt it was enough that she wasn’t locked up or in chains or bleeding out onto the floor, and so long as she didn’t attempt anything stupid they acted as though she wasn’t there at all. Small surprise there, she thought with some amusement; Draco was hardly known for recruiting big thinkers.
In any case, Xena was good at this. She knew how to act meek in any body, and for once Callisto’s made the task even easier; she was wiry and feline where Xena was strong and solid, and only those familiar with her work would believe her capable of harming more than a fly. If she’d tried this in her own body, pacing back and forth, crouching to study a particular point on the wall or patch of straw on the ground, no doubt she would look more than a little bit suspicious; in Callisto’s body, she just looked… well, like Callisto. Everything Callisto did seemed suspicious, and that meant nothing actually was.
She took her time, finding the least conspicuous spots, the places where the mud was driest or the straw was thickest, the places she could work without drawing attention to herself. She measured out every detail with absolute precision, all the while feeding on what she had learned from her experience with Callisto. It was unnerving in a way, not least of all because there was a part of her that found it more than a little exhilarating, that thrilled in searching for weak spots and chinks in other people’s armour. It was the same part of her that had come alive when she first arrived here, when she and Draco had locked horns and matched wits, the part of her that hadn’t even realised she had missed this part of her old life.
It was a dangerous feeling to fall into, but right now it was the only thing she had, and it was much kinder than the alternative. Surely, even now, Gabrielle would understand that. Surely.
She let Draco do most of her dirty work for her. He took to the idea of fire like a horse to water, and Xena only had to nod and smile as he set to work organising his men and his weapons, preparing the oil and the torches, getting everything set up for their departure. He was the one who said ‘we leave at first light’, and who was Xena to argue when that gave her exactly the time-frame she wanted? Let him think that the way her face lit up was just Callisto being Callisto; the woman was a famed pyromaniac, after all. Why would he assume anything deeper when the obvious answer was right in front of him?
Then again, he’d always had that problem, a burden that always seemed to fall on men and women of honour. Xena had seen it happen to Gabrielle as well, more times than she could count. People with honest hearts and kind souls always saw the best in others, even when it was undeserved; it was so natural for them to just assume that everyone else felt as they did, that treachery was something only the cruel and calloused did, that nobody would be so heartless as to backstab someone who had treated them with respect. Xena had defeated Draco the same way last year, the last time he thought to march on Amphipolis, turning that good man’s honour against him in a challenge she knew he couldn’t win; she would use it against him now as well, hitting him in the one place he believed was safe: his home, his hearth, and, crucially, his honour.
They had agreed to a partnership. In Draco’s mind, that meant they were bound allies, and whatever suspicions he might have about her feelings for Gabrielle, he didn’t think for a moment that she would betray him for her sake. He was, of course, critically wrong.
Xena would do whatever it took to get Gabrielle back. She would have marched on a village for her, killed far less deserving men than the corpse who shared her cell. She would have bloodied her hands and not even thought twice about it. And yes, without even a moment’s hesitation, she would — and did — change the rules and think like Callisto. Without a moment’s hesitation, she would burn this place to the ground, and Draco with it if he didn’t have a back door or an exit plan. Better him than some nameless village; better to think like Callisto and burn one man’s home than follow her own instincts and burn down a hundred more.
Visiting Gabrielle was the hard part, the part that she knew could break her. A disapproving look, a tremor in her hands or in her voice, and Xena would be undone. That was why she made it her last stop.
She waited until nightfall, until the whole place was dark and mostly silent. If anyone ever asked, she would say it was to minimise the chance of being interrupted; in truth, she needed the darkness to shadow her face, and Gabrielle’s bruises. If she saw them, even for a moment…
Well, it didn’t bear thinking about.
Gabrielle hadn’t moved at all since Xena last stopped by to check on her. She was gripping the bars of her cell like they were the only thing keeping her upright, forehead pressed against the steel and eyes squeezed tightly shut. She didn’t look well at all, though Xena could hardly blame her for that; if she’d been forced to spend the best part of a day locked in a cell with a corpse, she probably wouldn’t be at her best either, and she had spent far more time milling among the dead than Gabrielle. Understandable, then, but still the sight of her like that, so angry and frightened and pale, was a blow to her heart.
“Hey,” she whispered, keeping her voice low. “Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle didn’t open her eyes. “Callisto.”
It was deliberate, the way she said that name, and there was something in her voice that Xena had never heard before, at least not from her. The last person who had said her name like that, so full of bitterness and betrayal, so lost and so broken, was Callisto herself. It upset her far more than she expected it to, and she wondered if Gabrielle even realised how much she herself sounded like the very thing she thought she saw in Xena. She supposed it didn’t matter; pain was pain, no matter whose voice it had, and Xena had been responsible for far too much of it lately.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, as kindly as she could.
Gabrielle tried to laugh. It came out hoarse and very dry; Xena wondered how long it had been since she’d had anything to drink. “Oh, you know…” She glanced back at the corpse, and swallowed very hard. “Pleasant company, at least?”
Xena ignored the sarcasm, but it wasn’t so easy to ignore the way Gabrielle still couldn’t seem to look at her. “You’re shaking.”
That was true enough, and it made her ache, but it had nothing to do with the way she leaned in, to study her, closer and closer until their faces were all but touching. Convenient though the moment was, and as much as some hidden part of her sang at the almost-contact, it was just an excuse to get in close enough to whisper, to position herself in such a way that shielded both of their faces from prying eyes. One could never be too careful in a place like this, and Xena had no intention of letting herself be overheard.
Gabrielle seemed to realise that, because she didn’t pull away. She still tensed, though, just like she always did when Xena got too close in this body. She wondered if the moment would have been different if she’d been in her own, if Gabrielle would have let herself forget what had happened here and taken a touch of comfort from the forced intimacy. Honestly, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know; in a way, perhaps it was kinder to blame Callisto for the way Gabrielle flinched and squeezed her eyes shut. Better than accepting the truth that it was all on Xena.
“What are you doing?” Gabrielle asked, voice barely a breath.
Xena grimaced, pressed her nose against the curve of Gabrielle’s ear. “I have a plan,” she whispered, as softly as she could. “I’m going to get us both out of here.”
Gabrielle sighed, but didn’t pull away. “I see,” she whispered back. Her voice was flat, hollow, as though she was seeing a complete stranger, neither Xena nor Callisto. In its own way, Xena thought, that was almost worse. “How many people are going to die this time?”
“None, if they’re smart. If they’re not…”
She cut herself off too quickly, letting the silence say what she couldn’t — ‘if they’re not, that’s hardly my fault’ — and tried not to let the look on Gabrielle’s face cut too deep. She couldn’t afford to apologise. There would be time enough later to wash this place and these deeds off herself, time enough later to look back and wonder if Draco and his men had been smart enough to get out while they could. For now, though, she had to be practical, and if that meant channelling Callisto’s callouses as well as her obsessions, then so be it.
“I see,” Gabrielle mumbled, almost inaudible.
“It’s the best I can do,” Xena told her. “And it’s better than the alternative. Trust me on that.”
Gabrielle flinched again, eyes widening with something like panic. Xena had seen her frightened before, of course, but never when she looked at her. Even when she thought she was Callisto, when the real Callisto had force-fed her so many lies and so much hatred that she’d put a knife to Xena’s neck, still it wasn’t fear in her eyes when they met. Anger, yes. Hatred, doubt, pain, all of those things, of course, but never the kind of fear that she wore now. Never the kind of fear that said ‘if I wasn’t locked up I’d be running from you’.
“I don’t know if I can.” It was a whisper, not like Xena’s to keep her voice down but because it was all she had the strength for. “Trust you, I mean. After… after…”
“I mean… I know you’re still in there. I know you’re… I know you’re still you. But I look at you, and then I look back at him, and I…” Her shoulders heaved for a moment, as though someone had thrown a heavy weight across them, and Xena didn’t need to follow her gaze to know that she was looking at the corpse again. “I don’t know if I can. In here, at least. I’m sorry.”
“I understand that.” She did. That was the painful part. “But we don’t have much time.”
“We never do, do we?”
“Gabrielle.” She leaned in again, dropped her voice even lower and letting it get sharper; she hated the way it made her sound, ruthless and spiteful, but experience had taught her that sometimes sharpness was the only way to get through to Gabrielle in moments of urgency. “Either I do this now, or you’re stuck in here until Draco and I burn down someone else’s village. Which would you prefer?”
She could feel Gabrielle shaking against her, limbs like ice. “Honestly,” she said, ever so softly, “I’d prefer it if you just got out now. On your own, if you have to. Anything but… anything but this.”
She didn’t need to explain what she meant by ‘this’; Xena could tell that she was still looking at the gods-damned corpse, and that told her everything she needed to know. “Gabrielle, I…”
“I know. You’d never do that, would you? You’d never save yourself while I was stuck in here.” She sighed, so heavily that her whole body tensed. “It’s like you said: it doesn’t matter who or where you are, I’m always your weakness.”
“You are.” There was no sense in denying it, after all. “But you’re my strength too. You can’t have one without the other.”
“I’d like to try,” Gabrielle sighed, and swallowed like a spasm. “Being weak is kind of a burden.”
“It can be,” Xena conceded gently. “But not always.” She breathed out, nose brushing the curve of Gabrielle’s jaw, and though she knew that Gabrielle would never have allowed it if she thought she had a choice, still a part of her relished the closeness. “For now, though, I need you to be strong. I need to know that you’ll be able to stand up on your own when the time comes.”
Gabrielle stiffened, and Xena recognised her trademark hyper-defensiveness. Xena had won countless battles and lost almost as many, but Gabrielle was still too young and too innocent to have won very much of anything; to her, every little stumble was a personal insult, the world rising up to tell her that she would never be good enough. That wasn’t true, of course, but Gabrielle hadn’t experienced enough to realise it. Xena had only asked her if she was strong enough, but what she heard was ‘I know you’re not’.
“I’m not an invalid,” she said, as though that was an answer.
Xena closed her eyes for a moment, weighing the part of her that wanted to offer some comfort against the part of her that knew they were on a schedule, that knew she couldn’t afford to get sidetracked by softer feelings. Gabrielle’s face always seemed to bring out that side of her, the side she never really thought she had, but right now it was an enemy in disguise, and she could not indulge it.
“I didn’t say you were,” she said instead. “I just said that I’m going to need you to stand on your own. Once we’re out of here, I’ll take care of you properly.” Gabrielle shifted again, mouth already open with another protestation, but this time Xena didn’t give her the chance to voice it. “No. This isn’t a discussion. We get out of here, and I will take care of you. No arguments, no playing it tough, not any more. That’s how it’s going to be.”
“Sure.” She sounded sullen, but not quite as much as Xena expected. “Assuming you actually get us out of here in the first place, right?” Her smile was uncharacteristically cold. “Your plans aren’t exactly fool-proof when you don’t run them by me first. It’s a miracle you’re even still alive, really, after some of the stupid things you’ve done.”
Xena had to crack a smile at that. It wasn’t enough, a vain crack at their usual light-hearted banter, but at least it was something. She could work with it. “You’re one to talk.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not the one making stupid plans, am I?”
“Oh, no.” She couldn’t help herself; time was of the essence; she knew that, of course, but she couldn’t bring herself to give this up. It was too rare, too precious. “Amphipolis was a brilliant one, wasn’t it?”
“That was your plan,” Gabrielle snapped, and just like that the moment was gone.
She pulled away completely, slumping back against the wall, as though all that beautiful strength had just bled out of her, eyes shut tight to block out the two bodies she hated so much, the dead one and the living as well.
Silently, furiously, Xena cursed herself for the mis-step. She hadn’t meant for it to come out the way it had, but as ever she’d lacked Gabrielle’s talent for speaking, for turning good intentions into a beautiful speech or a pitch-perfect riposte. Xena was clumsy, as uncomfortable with words as Gabrielle was with weapons, and apparently it was just as dangerous.
She only meant that it was foolish and headstrong for Gabrielle to try and fight in her condition, to stand back-to-back with a militia that could have taken care of itself perfectly well without her. She only meant that Gabrielle had been a fool to throw herself in harm’s way as blithely as she had, to set herself up as an easy target for a warlord with an eye for weaknesses to exploit. She only meant…
But of course, Gabrielle didn’t care what she meant. Even if she could have understood all of that, it didn’t make a difference to how she felt about it. Angry and upset and hurt as she was, all she knew was that the woman who looked and acted so much like her worst enemy was criticising her for standing up and defending the innocent. Xena could hardly blame her for being upset about that, though that didn’t make the apology any less awkward.
“Gabrielle.” She sighed. “I know how that must have sounded. I didn’t…”
“I can stand up just fine,” Gabrielle said; Xena pretended not to notice that her face was wet. “Is that all?”
“Callisto.” The name sounded hard, but Xena could tell that it came entirely too easily. It shouldn’t have, but it did, and that broke her heart. “I’d like to be by myself now.” She cracked her eyes open, and they were hard as well. “Unless there’s something else you want from me?”
The implication was needlessly cruel, not least of all because they both knew that Callisto and Xena were both very capable of such things, of taking advantage or simply taking what they wanted, of doing whatever they felt like without remorse. Xena liked to believe that she had put that soullessness behind her, but the same could not be said for Callisto. The way Gabrielle said it, unflinching and thoughtless, as though they really were one and the same, made Xena’s stomach turn. In its own way, it struck harder than the name.
“No,” she said sadly. “No, there’s nothing else. Just… be ready when I come for you, all right? Be ready, and…” She glanced at the corpse, rotted and stinking and so close to Gabrielle. It was the stuff of nightmares, even to a war-hardened soul like hers; to Gabrielle, it must be a thousand times worse. Xena wanted to reach in and pull it out through the bars, but of course she couldn’t. She could only turn away, tears stinging in her eyes, and finish, “…and be strong.”
She knew that Gabrielle would. She had never needed Xena to tell her that. Still, maybe hearing it would remind her that she cared.
If it did, she gave no sign of it, though Xena wasn’t really expecting one. Her eyes were closed again, her breathing shallow, and she didn’t even try to hide the fact that she was still shaking. Xena couldn’t tell whether it was the cold or her emotions or something else entirely; she wanted to lean in again, to study her skin and find out for sure, but she knew that Gabrielle would never forgive her if she tried to touch her again right now. It didn’t take a genius to see that she was uncomfortable, that the Xena she knew was a thousand leagues away from the woman she was seeing. No amount of whispering or compassion would change that, at least not while she was in there, and touching her now would just make it worse. That was the last thing in the world Xena wanted; far better to make herself suffer than be responsible for any more of Gabrielle’s. And so, aching down to her bones, she turned to leave.
“I’ll be back soon,” she said; against her will, Callisto’s voice twisted the promise into a threat. “Be ready.”
Gabrielle tried very hard to ignore her, to pretend that she’d blocked her out entirely, but Xena noted the way that her chin dipped ever so slightly, head almost bowing in the faintest ghost of a nod; even now, it seemed, she couldn’t help herself. She had to respond, had to react. Her body betrayed her heart, just as it always did, and the sight wrapped itself like a tourniquet around Xena’s own.
Out of sight, she took a moment to steady herself, to brace for what she had to do and wash down the taste of what she’d just seen. Then, with her head held high, her step strong and sure, she made her way to the armoury.
Draco was nothing if not obsessive in his organisation, and the armoury reflected that to a frankly disconcerting level. The torches were stacked and lined up in a neat row against one wall, the oil bottled and stacked with similar precision along the other. Everything was in perfect order just as he’d said it would be, in anticipation of the next day’s planned assault. Xena couldn’t help thinking it was adorable, if somewhat misguided, that he genuinely trusted a renowned pyromaniac like Callisto to run around unsupervised with so much potential fire at her fingertips, just waiting to be lit.
Blessedly, the oil was neither heavy nor obtrusive. The bottles were made for transportation, small and light enough to carry on horseback, but in a quantity vast enough to fell half a city if the whim took them. Even if she failed in this, Xena doubted that Draco or his men would miss a bottle or two from such a heavy supply. As for the torches, stacked and ready to burn… well. If she was lucky she would only need one, and if she wasn’t she doubted it would matter one way or the other.
It wasn’t exactly delicate work, but she went about it carefully just the same, all too conscious that every breath ran the risk of discovery. Draco slept like a rock, she knew, because he always surrounded himself with people he trusted; they were the ones she was worried about. She hadn’t seen much of his so-called army since she’d arrived here, but she’d learned too many times the dangers in underestimating security in a place like this. Even without sentinels or watchmen, there was always some eager-minded underling looking for an opportunity to take initiative and make a name for himself. Xena had no qualms about knocking idiots unconscious if they got in her way, but she wanted to look Gabrielle in the eye when this was done and tell her that she kept it clean.
She spread the oil sparsely. Stealthy, subtly, and wholly Callisto, she stuck to the midnight shadows and only stopped when she was sure that she was all alone. A few drops here, a few there, only where she’d found the mud and the straw to be thickest, and never enough to be noticed or recognised except by the keenest eye. In a place like this, where even the floor was a fuse waiting to be lit, she wouldn’t need any help to make the flames spread; on the contrary, she did everything she could to make sure that it spread slowly. Draco was a better man than most in their line of work, and she had no real desire to hurt him, but she would not shy away from what she needed to do. She had faith in his survival instincts, trusted that he would find a way out of here before the place burned down, but there was no harm in helping him along if she could.
Gabrielle would, after all. And so Xena did.
She took a moment to compose herself when it was done, to catch her breath a little and convince herself that this truly was the cleanest way. Was it really one or the other? Burning down a fortress or burning down a village? Was there really no way out that didn’t involve loss of life or needless property damage? She wanted so much to be the reasonable, rational Xena that Gabrielle had fallen for that day in Poteidaia, the Xena who had stopped Draco in his tracks with words and a hastily-issued challenge, who had the physical prowess to do whatever she set her mind to and not even think about it. She wanted so much to be Gabrielle’s Xena through and through, the woman she had worked so hard to become, but there was not enough left of her in a body that came up short at every turn.
She couldn’t fight in Callisto’s body like she could in her own. She couldn’t even match Draco in single combat, much less defeat him and escape with Gabrielle in tow. In her own body, she would have been leagues from here long before it came down to this, but Callisto’s was forged in a different kind of fire and it fought with a different kind of fury. In time, she might master it; in time she would have to. She would become as formidable as Callisto as she ever was as Xena; given time and freedom and just a little discipline, she would transform Callisto’s name into a force for good just as she had transformed her her own, until no-one trembled to hear it at all. Not even Gabrielle.
In time, she would do all of that. But not now.
Now, she wasn’t ready. It was too soon, too early, and there was too much riding on her shoulders. She could only work with what she had, and her tools right now were woefully limited: cunning, cleverness, and fire. Just like all those years ago in Cirra, Callisto’s body would find itself surrounded by flames, and Xena had to take comfort in knowing that at least this time it wasn’t done out of cruelty. At least this time her intentions were pure and true, even if her actions were still the opposite. As Xena or as Callisto, it didn’t matter any more.
It didn’t matter, she told herself, breathing hard with the torch in her hand. What mattered was Gabrielle. Her strength, her weakness, her everything. She was hurt and frightened, stuck in a frozen cell with every one of her nightmares made flesh, and Xena could not allow that. Nothing else mattered; nothing else could matter. Draco, his men, his fortress, his idiotic plans… they were all irrelevant, and he had brought all of this on himself.
Xena let herself get angry, let herself feel the need for vengeance, for justice, for a violent end to a hateful situation. She let herself feel the worst things, the things Callisto would feel, let them overtake her completely so that there was no more room for doubt or hesitation.
Just as the rage overtook her as she slaughtered that bastard in that gods-forsaken cell, just as it overwhelmed her with visions of what he had done to Gabrielle, she let it overwhelm and overtake her again, not because she wanted it but because she needed it, because she could not afford to doubt. She let it feed her, and she fed it too, overwrought as she remembered the look on Gabrielle’s face when she found her there in that place, the desperation in her eyes as she looked up and whispered ‘you don’t… I mean, we don’t…’, and the gut-punch of betrayal when she realised that yes, Xena still did.
She did, yes, and she would. Here, again, she would. Because she had to. Because someone had to. Because she would do far more than this to protect Gabrielle from far less than that. And now, just like then, she would not regret it.
“May the gods forgive me,” she whispered to the walls, knowing that no-one would hear. “And may she forgive me too.”
She closed her eyes, held her breath, and lit the torch.