She had no idea what she was waiting for, but of course that was nothing new. Sometimes she suspected that Xena secretly enjoyed keeping her in the dark like this, shrugging her off with a grin and a vague ‘I have a plan’ or ‘I’ll tell you more when the time is right’. This was far from the first time she’d done something like this, the hand-waving ‘be ready’ stuff, shrugging and winking and wandering away like Gabrielle was little more than decoration. ‘The walls have ears’ might work now, but next time…
Not that she should be thinking about that right now, she supposed. If things carried on the way they were going, who was to say there would even be a next time at all?
She closed her eyes, pressed her forehead against the bars. They were freezing cold, but so was she, shivering so hard she could barely think. She’d stopped trying to keep count of how long she’d been here, sharing space with the corpse, breathing in the decay and the death-stench; that would have been bad enough in itself, but since she found out who it was, what had happened, she was as haunted by her own thoughts as she was by the sight of the thing.
She’d always had an active imagination, but it was running itself ragged now, had been for what felt like a lifetime in this place, playing over and over again the thousand different ways it might have happened, all the thoughts that might have been going through Xena’s head as she did the deed. Neither one of them knew the first thing about the poor bastard in here, really, but Xena hadn’t stopped to wonder about it; she made herself his judge, jury, and executioner without even blinking.
It hurt to think about it. Her heart, her soul, every part of her that she’d given to Xena, every part of herself that she’d thought was safe in her hands. She ached in places that ran so much deeper than the bruises on her body, the taste of blood in her mouth, the silly surface things that would heal on their own with time and rest. It would take more than a few days in bed to heal from the things she felt in this place, and it would take more than a poultice to wash away the eternity she’d spent watching a young man’s flesh decay.
‘I can stand up just fine,’ she said to Xena, but she didn’t know any more if that was true. She was in pain, frozen right down to the bone and halfway sick from the stench of death and rot, the horror of sharing a cell with a dead man and the far worse horror of knowing that Xena was the one who had put him there. She was shaking from both of those things, the cold and the horror combined, and she felt broken in a way that she wasn’t sure would ever truly heal, pulled apart on the inside, in places that even the best poultices couldn’t reach.
She’d had nightmares almost exactly like this. Even before Callisto came along, even before Gabrielle had ever heard that name or seen her face, there were times when she when she woke in the middle of the night, choking and floundering and biting down to keep from crying; she would roll over, reach instinctively for Xena, but her hands would start shaking before she could touch her, her whole body wracked with visions of things she didn’t want to believe.
Gabrielle trusted Xena with her life and her heart, but even she wasn’t infallible. Everyone they met had a story or two about the warrior princess, the destroyer of nations, the terrible person that Xena used to be, and not even Gabrielle could travel by her side as long as she had without doubting. Not often, not even enough to call it ‘sometimes’, but it was there, and her dreams didn’t lie. Gabrielle had all the faith in the world that her Xena was not their Xena, but every now and then, when she watched her get swept up in the heat of battle, when her eyes grew shadowy and distant, when she lost herself to the pull of something more powerful than Gabrielle could ever be… well, there were moments when she couldn’t help feeling afraid.
Now, it was worse. Now, here, those nightmares — both kinds, the ones about Callisto and the ones about Xena — had become incredibly real. She couldn’t remember her Xena, the kind one, at all; she couldn’t recall her face, couldn’t recall her smile or her laugh or the way she used to touch her. All she could see now when she closed her eyes was that sinister smile, and all she could see when she opened them and looked around was death and blood and horror.
She gripped the bars until her knuckles turned white, until her fingers hurt. That kind of pain felt safer than the other kind somehow, like it was something she could control, something that was hers in this world of things that belonged to other people. She swallowed down the dread and the nausea, the cold that shook through her bones, braced against the other kind of pain, the one that was hers, the one that was Xena’s. She swallowed, stood slowly, and took a deep breath.
She smelled smoke.
Panic gripped her by the throat, a reflex so violent that it outstripped all the other things. The pain, the nausea, the cold, none of it could hold a candle to the sudden sense of terror that slammed into her like a fist to the stomach. She couldn’t explain it, and she certainly couldn’t control it; it tore through her, body and soul, silencing all the doubts and feelings, shutting off every part of her that wasn’t locked in on survival. She tried to breathe again, as shallow as she could with her ribs screaming; the smoke came thicker this time, and she nearly gagged.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, a voice reminded her that this was probably Xena’s plan. It brought a shred of comfort, but that sputtered out and died when she sucked in another breath and found that her lungs wouldn’t take it any more; it wasn’t easy to trust to Xena’s planning, or any other part of her, when she was locked up like an animal, helpless and at the mercy of whoever decided to stop and let her out, or helpless with no mercy at all if nobody did.
Gabrielle hated depending on other people to save her. Even in her most embarrassing moments, she prided herself on being resourceful, on using her wits or her words or whatever happened to be lying around to at least put up a halfway decent fight. Xena had once told her, pride shining in her eyes, that she could talk her way out of anything, and Gabrielle had taken that to heart; it was so rare that Xena looked at her like that, so she reasoned it must be the truth. She could, if Xena believed it, and she would, and in all the time they’d been travelling together only Callisto had ever made her doubt that; only she had ever left her without the words that were her only weapons.
It was as though time slowed to a crawl. She could smell the smoke, could feel the air grow thick and hot, could hear the hiss and crackle of flames from further down the corridor; she knowing that they were inching closer, but she couldn’t move. She could only think, could only stare in wordless disbelief, could only try to breathe and try not to panic. She had seen enough fires in her life to recognise the signs of one about to go wild, and she hadn’t realised what real, soul-shaking terror was until she found herself here right now, stuck in a locked cell, trapped and aware of what was coming, feeling the world ignite around her and knowing that she could not escape.
She couldn’t run. She could see the flames licking their way along the floor, inching towards her. She could feel the smoke in her throat, could feel it stifle and smother and suffocate. It was everywhere at once, and she was trapped. She couldn’t run, couldn’t move. Closer and closer, and she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, couldn’t—
Xena, she realised, and the name repeated itself over and over in her slowly-boiling brain, endless and impossible. She had to keep it close, had to keep her close. She had to wrap those things around herself, the name and the woman who held it, the woman who would never let her die; she had to hold them like they were something precious. She had to take them into herself, into the place where she couldn’t breathe; if she didn’t, there would be nothing left but what she saw, the wall of flame and a shroud of smoke and Callisto storming through it like a god reborn, her body and her eyes and the fire reflected behind them like twin pyres for a funeral. She had to keep Xena’s name at the front of her mind, had to keep saying it, even just to herself. She had to believe that those horrible burning eyes were the true liars, that what she saw was the deception and what she felt was real.
“Xena…” She didn’t care that she wasn’t allowed to say it, didn’t care that it would give them away. The world was on fire, and she was the only one who cared which name she cried. She had to make it real. “Xena!”
“I’m here!” Xena didn’t care, she could tell. She was past the point of worrying about who saw what when they looked at her, if they could even see her at all through the fire and the smoke; Gabrielle could feel the desperation pouring off her in waves, hot as the flames, could see the moment possessing her, a different kind of heat from battle-lust but just as searing. “I told you I’d get you out of here! I told you, didn’t I? I told you!”
Her sword was in her hand. Gabrielle hadn’t seen her draw it, but she supposed she must have done. Her hands were definitely empty as she’d approached, Callisto’s spider-long fingers stretching out like something supernatural; now, those fingers were balled into fists, tight and strong and Xena-like around the hilt of her sword. Every part of her was Xena-like, or so it seemed through the haze of smoke and flame, her eyes impossible to pierce through the reflection of the fire and her jaw clenched and white in a way that looked very unnatural on that sinister, sadistic face.
“Xena…” she whispered again. She couldn’t cry, not with the smoke in her eyes and her lungs and her throat, not with the flames rising up from every direction, not with Callisto’s eyes in front of her. She couldn’t cry, couldn’t even choke on the tears, but she had to say it, had to keep saying it. It had to be true, it had to be real, it had to be— “Xena!”
Xena ignored her, probably to save her own breath. She was coughing too, raw and rough, and Gabrielle couldn’t help thinking it was a kind of blessing in disguise that she could scarcely even recognise Callisto’s voice through the choking and the desperation. She watched, clinging to the bars of the cell as if they were the only thing holding her upright, watching through streaming eyes as Xena came at her, sword held high. Hazy and stupid, probably starved for air, she could only marvel at how this was what it took for her to meet those awful eyes, that now, with both their lives on the line, for the first time she could hold her gaze and not flinch.
Xena didn’t even notice. Her hands twitched just a little, tightening over the hilt of her sword, and then she was bringing it down, slamming it against the lock on the cell, over and over, again and again, relentless and never faltering. It seemed to take a lifetime, though it couldn’t have been more than a moment or two, and then it was all happening at once, the lock weakening under two different kinds of pressure, the heat making it bend and the force making it break; Xena must have seen it, must have felt it, but still she kept hammering, over and over, until her knuckles seemed almost bruised, until her fingers were slick with sweat, until the lock fell to the ground and the door swung open and…
…and then the world was spinning, the smoke searing in her eyes, the heat scrambling inside of her head, and the sword was gone somehow, back on Xena’s back like magic or a miracle, like Xena herself, here in one moment and gone in the next. Gabrielle scarcely had time to think about that, giddy and air-starved, before those sweat-slick hands were locked around her arm, yanking her out of the cell, taking her away, getting her out of here just like Xena said she would, just like she promised, just like…
“Come on!” Her voice was like nothing Gabrielle had ever heard, neither Xena’s nor Callisto’s. Gabrielle tried to say her name again, to remind them both of where and what and who they were, but all that came out was a violent smoke-filled cough and a scream when the pain split through her ribs like a cataclysm. “You said you could stand, now do it! Run!”
She did. Half-blind, half-aware, and probably more than halfway dead, she did.
Bent double to shield her face from the flames and her throat from the smoke, she ran, guided only by Xena’s hand on her arm, Xena’s voice in her ears, and the occasional brain-rattling thunk when she stumbled into a wall or a brazier.
Everything was hot. Too hot to breathe, too hot to think, too hot and too intense and too much of too many things. She wanted to stop and rest, needed to fall to her knees and fill her lungs, but she had seen fires like this before, and she knew that doing it now would kill her as surely as any weapon or any warlord; if she stopped now, the only thing that would fill her lungs would be poison. That knowledge coupled with Xena’s voice to keep her running, to keep her going even as her brain flooded with heat and noise, even as her body lost its strength, even as the pain surged up to swallow her.
She couldn’t focus on any of those things. She couldn’t listen to her body now any more than she could have let herself listen to it back in Amphipolis, any more than she could have stayed in bed when she knew that the village and its people needed her to stand beside them. She couldn’t afford to think of herself at all, could only drive herself onwards and pray that she would find solid ground before she found an early grave.
She did. Somehow, by some gods-blessed miracle, she did. They fell together, her and Xena, toppling out through a door or a window or some other hole in the wall; who cared what it was so long as it led to safety and clean air?
Gabrielle couldn’t see, couldn’t bring herself to look up and figure out where she was. Her legs fell out from underneath her the instant she felt the cool air on her skin, the instant her heat-scrambled brain realised that it was real and pure and clean, that she could open up her lungs without dying. She tried, as helpless as a newborn, but she was still choking, and she still couldn’t draw a breath. Her face hit the dirt, earth and grass and water filling her mouth and nose, but she still couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t understand what was wrong, why it wasn’t working, and if it wasn’t for Xena dragging her away she might have let herself suffocate just to spare herself the suffering.
She didn’t, though, because Xena was there, because she was dragging her away, because she would not leave her there, because she would not let her die, because she would die herself before she would break her promise.
Gabrielle was halfway to the grave already, but there was still enough left of her to feel the pain; that hardly seemed fair, but there it was, burning through both their bodies, her arms almost pulled out of their sockets, her breathing ragged and knife-sharp in her chest, Callisto’s muscles straining from the exertion, strength and power it didn’t possess pushed to the limit by a woman used having twice as much of both.
Slowly but surely, she dragged them both clear of the heat and the smoke and the noise, and it was only when Gabrielle felt Xena’s grip start to shake that she found her own strength again, digging down deep inside herself to do what she said she could. Xena couldn’t carry her forever, not when she was struggling to breathe too, and Gabrielle had promised that she could stand up on her own, that she could stand and run and be strong. She had to be. Now more than ever, she had to be Xena’s strength; neither of them could afford the weakness.
It felt like a lifetime, crawling through the grass with the heat beating at their backs, a lifetime of choking down air and heaving up smoke, of gasping and gagging, of coughing themselves sick just to keep breathing, of breaking their bodies down to keep themselves alive. It felt like a lifetime before it ended, and as soon as it did it felt like it had all happened in less than a second.
Xena was breathless too. Somehow, that made her feel better.
They took a long while to recover, both of them gasping and choking by turns, clearing the smoke from their lungs and their eyes. Gabrielle was face-first on the ground again, sobbing without shame as the pain rent her sides, her chest, her back, and when she finally lifted her head to look at Xena she found her already sitting upright. She was leaning back on her arms, watching the smoke rise up to the sky with an odd look on her face. Gabrielle’s vision was still blurred around the edges; she couldn’t tell whether it was remorse or satisfaction. She wondered if perhaps she didn’t want to know.
Her voice was still weak, shaking with more than just the smoke still burning her throat, but it must have held more power than she thought, because it touched something primal inside Xena, something she couldn’t seem to control.
Gabrielle didn’t know what it was, or why it affected Xena so potently, whether it was the adrenaline of the moment or simply the sound of her name whispered in something other than fear, but whatever it was it came on her like a wave, and before either of them knew what was happening, she had all but thrown herself on top of Gabrielle, locking her arms around her neck and hugging the life out of her.
“Gabrielle! Oh, Gabrielle…” Strangled by tears, muffled in Gabrielle’s hair, the name lodged in Callisto’s throat like a prayer turned to pleading.
It touched something in Gabrielle as well, the sound of her name choked out like that, the sound of those tears in that voice. She could feel the relief pouring out from Xena, the desperation, the need to hold her close, to prove to herself that she was alive, that they both were, that it was over and they were safe. All of those things, beautiful, understandable things radiating out of Xena in waves, but all Gabrielle could feel was irrepressible, blinding panic.
“Xena!” It didn’t help this time. With Callisto’s body all over hers, Callisto’s face buried in her hair, Callisto’s arms wrapped around her, it didn’t matter. She could call her ‘Xena’ a thousand times, but it wasn’t enough; Callisto was too close, and she couldn’t find anything else. “Xena, stop! Xena, get off!”
She didn’t. She didn’t even seem to hear her at all, so caught up in her own relief; for a long, nightmarish moment she just held her closer, tighter, harder, pulled her in until there was no air between them at all, until Gabrielle could scarcely breathe through the weight of it. She held her and held her and held her, pressing her back into the ground hard enough that the bruises ignited like a different kind of fire, a far worse kind. Gabrielle bit down on another sob, but still Xena held her, still she whispered her name over and over until it lost all meaning, until it was all Gabrielle knew, her own name and Callisto’s skinny body pressing into the pain.
She had no idea where she found the strength to kick her off. Her whole self was spent in every imaginable way, physically and emotionally and everything in between, but somewhere deep inside her there must have been some little spark of survival still glowing, some tiny piece of her that refused to die like this, pinned beneath Callisto. It didn’t matter that the joy was Xena’s; those horrible hands would not be the last thing she ever knew.
There was real violence in her when she did kick free, a blow to the sternum that left Xena gasping probably more from the shock than the impact itself. She fell backwards, wide-eyed and struck dumb, and for a long moment she couldn’t seem to say anything at all.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to apologise, but she couldn’t make the words; she was shaking, frightened almost more by this than she had been by the certainty of burning alive in a cell with a corpse. Strange, how she still couldn’t control herself, how her instincts still lashed out before she could step back and remember that it was Xena, that it was really Xena.
Xena, for her part, was still staring at her. In some part of her she must know, must realise what it felt like to be so smothered, and so soon after almost dying. She must understand how Gabrielle felt, being halfway suffocated by the body she hated, even if it wasn’t really Callisto inside; she’d been inside her for long enough that she must surely understand that it wasn’t so simple for Gabrielle, that after what she went through in Draco’s fortress it was more complicated than ever. She must know all of those things, but still the look on her face as she tumbled back was devastatingly close to betrayal.
“Gabrielle…” She didn’t sound nearly so relieved now. “I…”
“I know,” Gabrielle said. Her throat hurt, almost more than her chest, and it took a great deal of effort to keep from choking again. “I know, Xena, I know. But…”
“Yeah.” Xena sighed, almost coughing herself. “Yeah, I’m sorry. I should’ve thought. I was just…”
Gabrielle dragged her aching body upright, or as close to it as she was capable of, and hugged herself, forearms pressing down on the places where she was bruised, the places Callisto’s body had smothered a moment ago. She was shivering, she realised, as though from a distance. She could still feel the heat, the flames so hot and so close that she could feel the skin cracking, but apparently the cold had found her again, seeping into her bones and shaking through her limbs. She felt feverish, hot and cold all at once, even as she knew that this was normal, that it was just the shock and the adrenaline bleeding out of her, that everything would be all right in a little while. She knew that, just as surely as Xena knew why she’d kicked her, but just as Xena still looked upset, still Gabrielle was shivering.
“I’m sorry,” she managed; it sounded very weak next to the way Xena had said it. “I’m sorry, Xena. I…”
“It’s okay,” Xena said, sitting on her hands to keep from reaching for her again. “It’s all right. Breathe.”
I can’t, Gabrielle thought, but she forced herself to try, to hold herself until the shaking stopped, to say “I’m sorry,” over and over until it was all she could feel, until it swept in and swept the rest away.
She closed her eyes, and saw flames in Callisto’s eyes. She took a deep breath, and smelled death and decay, the stench of a man Xena had killed. She tried to move, and her whole body almost fell apart, bruises and battered bones pushed far beyond their breaking point to defend a village that should never have been targeted at all. Everything she did, some part of her felt ready to shatter, tainted and twisted and terrible. She felt like she’d spent a lifetime drowning in filth, like she would never be clean again.
With an obvious effort, Xena dragged herself to her feet. “We need to put some distance between us and that place,” she said, practical just like always. “Do you think you can manage it?”
Gabrielle wanted so desperately to shake her head. I hurt, she thought. I hurt all over because of you, because of the things you did, or almost did, or didn’t do. I hurt so much…
She wanted to say all of that, to finally let Xena see the parts of her that were in pain, the parts that couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do anything. She wanted Xena to know that she couldn’t stand, that she was exhausted down to her soul, that her body was broken and her bones felt like they were too. If only for a moment, she wanted Xena to see it all, to know how deep the hurt ran. For just a moment, for just a second, she wanted Xena to see how weak her weakness was.
She didn’t, though. Now was not the time for such things, and in any case she doubted she had the strength to make it count.
“I don’t know,” she said instead, and sighed because that hurt too.
Xena nodded, jaw tight, as though she’d been expecting that. “I can’t carry you,” she said, still apologetic. “Not in this body. I would if I could, but…”
“No.” It came out like a plea, though she’d meant it as a reassurance. “No, I… I wouldn’t want you to. You’ve carried enough for one day.” It tasted bitter, like a lie laced with just enough truth to poison. “And anyway, I’m not… that is, I don’t…”
But how could she say that she didn’t want Xena to touch her?
Xena studied her for a moment, and Gabrielle was sure she saw Callisto’s dark eyes darken even more. She looked so sober, as though she was hurting too, as though she had heard the truth but was too afraid to admit it, too afraid to confront the fact that Gabrielle still couldn’t stand her right now. It was hard for both of them, Gabrielle knew, and she hated herself for being the one to make it hard for Xena. That wasn’t her place here; it never was, and she’d sworn to herself that it never would be.
“Okay,” Xena said after a moment, the word a sigh. “Just as far as you can, then, all right? Just until we find somewhere we can hide out while you recover. One more push. You think you can manage that?”
Gabrielle gritted her teeth and dragged herself up onto her feet. Her body ached, but she didn’t immediately collapse, and her breathing came a little easier once she was upright and steady. Good enough, she thought, and nodded.
Xena watched her for a long moment, eyes narrowed, as though she was trying to figure out how much of this was bravado. Not enough to stop her, apparently, or else their need was greater than her compassion, because after a moment or two she returned the nod with one of her own, and stretched out an arm.
“Lean on me if you have to,” she said. She kept a respectful distance this time, though, and there was a kind of sorrow in her voice as she said it, like she knew how much easier it was said than done. “Don’t stand on ceremony if you’re in pain.”
“I won’t,” Gabrielle promised, a lie borne of the same kind of necessity as Xena’s nod.
True to her word, Xena didn’t take them very far. A couple of hundred steps, maybe, limping and stumbling the whole way, and that brought them deep enough into the nearby forest that they could hide out of sight. Deep enough, too, that they could use the trees for shelter, find water and food, and stay under cover for a while. It didn’t seem like much to Gabrielle, but it was enough to satisfy Xena, at least for the time being.
They would have to get moving again before long, she warned, obviously concerned about Draco and his men coming after them, but this would suffice for now. They were safe and sheltered, protected from the elements and with enough dark corners to hide from prying eyes if it came down to that. It was enough.
“Best we can hope for, anyway,” she added, almost as an afterthought; Gabrielle recognised the ever-present pessimist kicking in, her warrior’s instincts pointing out all the niggling things that meant it wasn’t ideal. “It’s a good enough spot to take a break, anyway, and it’ll buy you some time to recuperate. Sound good?”
Gabrielle opened her mouth to say ‘yes’, and promptly collapsed.
She didn’t feel the impact at all when she hit the ground, but she felt the air shift as Xena moved to crouch over her, felt the tension surge to fill the space between their limbs. She wanted to flinch away, to crawl off into some quiet little corner, some solitary place where she could be on her own, but she didn’t have the strength. Weak as she was, she couldn’t even lift her head or find it in her to say ‘leave me alone’.
Xena would be gentle, of course. She would never willingly hurt her, no matter what tensions there were between them, and in any case she didn’t have much strength left in her either. Gabrielle knew all of that, but still she couldn’t shake the image burned into her mind, herself lying helpless and prone while Callisto crouched over her, leaving marks on her skin with those twisted spider’s fingers, piercing her soul with those awful dark eyes. She couldn’t shake it, and she couldn’t stop shaking.
“Oh, Gabrielle.” There it was again, her name like it fit in that murderer’s mouth. Gabrielle shuddered, and felt those hands on her back. “Lie still, all right? Let me take a look.”
Gabrielle tried to pull away, but she still wasn’t strong enough. She felt like cattle at some nameless Athenian market, like something less than human, poked and prodded and examined by someone who didn’t see her at all. Xena would never look at her in such a calloused way, of course, but it was hard not to feel exposed and uncomfortable when she was pressed against the ground, and though she knew that Xena was doing this because she cared, because she was worried, still, as ever, it wasn’t Xena’s hands prodding at her but Callisto’s. Xena always seemed to forget that there was a difference, but Gabrielle never could.
“I’m fine,” she mumbled with dirt in her mouth.
“Of course you are,” Xena chided, with a kind of smiling sarcasm that could only come from her; if she closed her eyes and pretended really, really hard Gabrielle could almost imagine that it was real.
“I am,” she huffed. “If I could just get through a minute or two without a fight, I’d be as good as new. It’s just that people keep sneaking up behind me and hitting me in places that don’t like getting hit.”
“That’s true enough, I suppose.” She didn’t bother to hide the regret, didn’t bother to pretend that it wasn’t killing her too, and Callisto’s hands grew unfathomably soft where they pressed against her sides and her back. “No more of it, though. I promise. From now on, Gabrielle, I swear…”
She couldn’t seem to finish, though. She did her best to hide the choke, the bitten-off sound of her grief and her remorse, but Gabrielle heard it anyway, just as Xena always seemed to know what she really meant when she said ‘I’m fine’.
She kept her eyes shut, kept her face pressed to the ground. It helped her to bring Xena’s face to the front of her mind when she didn’t have to see Callisto’s, when she could focus on conjuring up the woman who loved her and not the woman who tormented her. It was easy to try and forget that the hands were Callisto’s because the touch was so loving and honest, so much like all the beautiful ways Xena had touched her before, a thousand little moments just like this, just the two of them. It was easy to try, easy to pretend, easy to wish that she had the courage to turn around and face the thing that frightened her, to let her feelings be all the armour she needed.
“Xena…” she heard herself breathe, testing the faith on her tongue and wishing it was stronger.
“I’m here.” Her voice was thick, more from emotion than any lingering smoke. “Lesson learned, all right? We do things your way from now on.”
Gabrielle swallowed. “Xena.”
“I mean it. No more pretending to be someone I’m not. If Draco or someone else tries to take advantage of me in this body, so be it. Better than letting them take advantage of you again.” She leaned in, a moment of what should have been intimacy, but with Callisto’s lean figure it felt more like suffocation; for a breathless heartbeat Gabrielle was right back there in that cell, watching the flames lick towards her, choking on smoke and waiting to die. “I won’t let my cowardice blind me again, Gabrielle. I won’t let my weakness hurt you.”
“I thought I was your weakness,” Gabrielle managed.
The word tasted sour, but it made Xena laugh. It might have been worth it, Gabrielle thought, if her faith was just a little stronger, if she wasn’t her own weakness as well as Xena’s.
“Don’t get clever,” Xena said with forced wryness. “You know what I mean.”
“I know.” Gabrielle sighed and shifted under her hands. She felt like she’d been tied down, like a slave or a prisoner, and she didn’t want to talk until she was free. “Can we… can you just focus on what you’re doing? Please?”
Xena nodded, pulled back ever so slightly, and went back to her prodding. “All right,” she said with a sigh. “You should’ve let me treat you properly when it happened. It would’ve saved you a great deal of pain.”
“I don’t think so,” Gabrielle said, more to herself than to Xena. “You wouldn’t have let me walk to Amphipolis if you’d known. You would have squirrelled me away some place out of the way, somewhere you thought was safe. You would’ve made sure I was hidden, far away from everyone and everything… and when Draco talked you into taking Amphipolis, I wouldn’t have been there to warn them.” She swallowed hard. It stung to think about Cyrene, about her boundless faith and how easily she put it in someone she barely knew; it stung, because her own still had so far to go. “We would have lost everything, Xena, all for the want of a little pain.”
Xena chuckled, wry but heavy, like she was acknowledging the point even as she resisted it. “A little pain?”
“Don’t split hairs,” Gabrielle snapped, with no authority at all. “A little pain, a lot of pain, what does it matter? The point is, no matter how much I’m in, we prevented a great deal more.”
Xena bent over her again, pressing in so close that Gabrielle almost stopped breathing. Callisto’s body was covering hers completely now, leaving her with little room to move or think or react, and it made her heart seize until she was sure it would stop.
It was nothing they hadn’t done before, the contact and the tenderness, the way Xena leaned in to cup her chin, to tilt her face upwards until their eyes met, but the combination of Callisto’s body and Gabrielle’s own helpless position made it feel like something worse than sinister. Try as she did, she couldn’t wash from her mind all the times Callisto had done exactly this, held her down, made her helpless, frightened her and forced her to look into her eyes. Xena was doing it out of love, she knew, but she was so used to enduring this for different reasons, and she wanted so desperately to scream.
“It’s not good enough,” Xena was saying, but Gabrielle barely heard her at all.
“It’s fine,” she mumbled again, distant and hazy. “It’s fine, it’s good, it’s…” But her voice broke, and her resolve shattered with it. “Xena, please.”
It was a long moment before Xena even realised what she was doing. It had come so naturally to her as soon as she got her hands on Gabrielle’s skin, as soon as she fell into the old familiar role of protector and guardian, to forget everything that had gone before, everything that had come between them, that was still between them. She didn’t realise what was going on until Gabrielle said it a second time, ‘please’ with a kind of desperate panic that left her trembling and humiliated. Only then did Xena realise what was wrong, looking down at their bodies as though in a kind of slow-motion water bubble and seeing that she was hovering over her, that they were less than a breath apart, that Gabrielle was uncomfortable and trying to break away.
“Oh.” Her eyes were cloudy when she pulled away, as though she was trying a little too hard to convince herself that this wasn’t what it seemed. “I’m sorry, I… did I hurt you?”
“No.” That much was true. Even in Callisto’s body, Xena’s self-control was beyond compare; no matter how badly she wanted the contact, the old familiar intimacy, she was still too disciplined to press down on any part of Gabrielle that looked like it might be broken. “No, it’s not that. It’s just… you… this… and I… I’m not…”
It was nonsense, random words spilled out one after the other as though she could will them into making sense, but still somehow that was enough for Xena. The clouds lifted from her eyes in a heartbeat, leaving them Callisto-dark and Xena-haunted.
“I see,” she said, like her heart was breaking.
Gabrielle swallowed a couple of times, struggling to breathe. Xena looked like she’d been run through with something sharper than a sword, something far more deadly, and for all her own feelings Gabrielle couldn’t bear to be the one to make her look that way. She knew that her own pain was valid, knew that it was her place, not Xena’s, to set boundaries, knew above all that Xena would love and respect her no matter what she asked her to do, but still she couldn’t bear to break her heart. Still, after everything Callisto’s body had done to her, after everything Xena had used that body to do to others… still, Gabrielle could not hurt her.
And so, she lied. “Not that.”
Xena’s mouth fell half-open, a wordless question shaping itself on Callisto’s lips, like she didn’t dare to hope. “What then?”
“It’s just…” Her whole body hurt, the emotional pain almost more visceral than the physical. “Xena, I… I was in that place for a long time.” It was a weak excuse, parchment-thin but convenient. “Hours, maybe days, I don’t know, but it felt like forever. Just… just me, stuck in that tiny cell with that… that thing… and the smell… and I don’t… I can’t…”
“I understand.” She didn’t, Gabrielle could tell, but she was trying so hard to believe she did.
Gabrielle let her. It was kinder than the truth. “I just… I need to bathe. I need to get that place off me, I need to… I need to get clean, Xena. Do you… do you understand what I mean?”
“Of course.” Xena was trying so hard to smile; in a way, it was almost more brutal than the heartbreak. “I understand completely. We’ll find a stream or something in a little while, all right? Get you all cleaned up.”
Gabrielle nodded, squeezed the dirt and grass between her fingers as Xena went back to her work as though the moment had never happened.
The excuse might have been a bad one, but it was true enough in itself, and the more Gabrielle let herself think about it the truer it became. She felt nauseous, shuddering every time she thought about it, every time she took a breath and smelled earth instead of decay. It was a hard thing to live with, but it was only now that she was out and free and safe that she realised there was far more horror in sharing a cell with a corpse than the fact that Xena was its executioner. She did need to be clean, she realised, and the intensity of the feeling startled her. She did need to get that horrible nightmare of place off her. She needed it more than air.
Neither of them spoke for a long while. Gabrielle wanted to say a lot, wanted to give voice to some tiny fragment of what she was feeling, but it was hard to tap into those rough emotions, the vulnerability and the hurt, when Xena was putting Callisto’s hands all over her, when she was pressing down on bruises, inflaming the kind of pain that made her cry out and drive her fists into the ground to keep from letting it show too much. She might not be leaning all over her any more, but she was still touching her, still right there, burning her fingerprints into her skin, and it was very hard for Gabrielle to let her guard down when her every instinct was screaming at her to run.
Besides, it was hard enough to talk when she was lying down, safe and resting for the first time in too many days, when she was still reeling from what felt like an endless stream of running and walking and fighting and gritting her teeth and bearing down and trying to ignore injuries that should never have happened in the first place. It was hard to do anything more than feel, now that she didn’t have to choke it all down, and in a sad sort of way the physicality of it was almost a relief after resisting it for so long. Better her body than her soul, anyway, and she knew far too well that it would take more to heal the latter than a quick once-over from Xena.
Xena didn’t break the silence either, though Gabrielle couldn’t tell whether that was a mark of respect for her feelings or simply that she was too focused on what she was doing. She did tap her on the arm when she was finished with her back, though, and told her to turn over in a voice so clinical that Gabrielle almost didn’t understand the request.
She did as she was told, obedient and meek. The grass was cold and wet against her back, and she squinted up at the sky, eyes half-shut because the sunlight gave her a headache. She didn’t feel quite so vulnerable when she wasn’t pressing her face into the dirt, and the new position made it harder than before to keep from crying out when Xena pressed down on her ribs and her sides, fingers like little hammers striking all the places that hurt the most.
“Do you have to be so rough?” Gabrielle asked, swatting blindly at Xena’s hands when she couldn’t take any more. “You said you were going to look, not touch.”
Xena chuckled, but it was strained. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that she wasn’t pleased with what she’d found. “It’s a figure of speech, Gabrielle,” she chided. “You know that.”
“Sure I do,” Gabrielle said. “But that doesn’t give you license to poke at me like I’m a half-cooked side of meat.”
Xena rolled her eyes, then pulled away completely. “Have it your way,” she muttered, and Gabrielle’s heart flooded with relief as cool air rushed in to replace those skittering spider’s hands. “I suppose we should just thank the gods that you’re still in one piece at all. With all that senseless running around and fighting you’ve been doing, it’s a miracle you haven’t punctured something.”
“Your mother gave me a poultice,” Gabrielle said, though she knew that wouldn’t help much.
“That’s not good enough, Gabrielle!” Her voice was sharp, almost shrill. “Do you have any idea—”
“Yes!” Had she been just a fraction stronger, she would have screamed it. “Yes, I do! By the gods, Xena, do you think I did all those things for fun? Do you think I’ve enjoyed being in this much pain?” Her voice cracked, but she didn’t care; this time the weakness made her sound stronger. “I did what I had to do, and I’d do it again without hesitation. A hundred times, or a thousand. Whatever it took, Xena, I would do it. Because your village and your people are more important than my stupid, stupid body.”
That landed hard. Xena flinched, clearly deeply affected, but Gabrielle couldn’t bring herself to care. It wasn’t so easy to be compassionate when she was in pain, when someone else was telling her that she was stupid for suffering when she should have been resting, that it was selfish to put other people’s lives above her own comfort. It wasn’t easy at all to be compassionate when the very person yelling her had just killed a man in cold blood and burned a fortress to the ground. She was angry and frustrated, and if she had been just a fraction stronger she would have taken Xena by the shoulders and shaken her until she understood.
You’re the reason I’ve been doing these things. You’re the reason I had to run around and fight and do senseless, stupid things when I should’ve been resting. You and your ‘I have to be Callisto or they’ll hurt you’, when we both knew that they’d hurt me anyway. You and your ‘I have to take on Draco by myself or he’ll hurt you’, and guess what happened anyway! You, you, you. Always trying to protect me, always so afraid that I’ll get hurt. Don’t you see that the harder you try to stop it, the easier it happens?
She didn’t need to say it out loud. Even if she could have summoned the strength, it wasn’t necessary. One look at Callisto’s face told her that Xena knew it all.
“I’m sorry,” she said, breathlessly soft. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have said…” She shook her head, and Gabrielle saw for the first time just how deep her own self-loathing really ran. “I just can’t stand the thought of losing you.”
“You won’t,” Gabrielle said, just as quiet and just as breathless. “It’s not bad, Xena. It’s not. If it was, I’d be dead already. Or unconscious at the very least.”
Xena made a bemused sound, a strangled sort of chuckle. “You should be.”
Gabrielle frowned. “Dead?”
“Unconscious.” Seemingly unable to help herself, she leaned in and flicked her on the forehead. It didn’t hurt at all, but the shock startled a little squeak out of her, a moment of almost levity before things got dark again. “You should be asleep, Gabrielle. Deeply and peacefully, and for at least a few hours.”
Gabrielle turned her face away, embarrassed and upset. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
“I know.” The guilt in her voice was almost more unbearable than the pain; she knew that she was responsible, that it was her fault Gabrielle had more nightmares than ever to worry about now. “I know, and I understand. But you’re exhausted, Gabrielle. You’re beyond exhausted. You’ve got nothing left, and—”
“I know that,” Gabrielle said. “You don’t need to tell me that.”
“I wasn’t. I was telling me.” She closed her eyes for a beat or two, as though in prayer. “Look. Just try, all right? Just for a little while, until you’ve got a bit of your strength back.” She leaned in slightly, as though to kiss her, but caught herself before she could do it. “Just try for an hour or two, okay? Then we’ll see about finding that stream.”
That piqued her interest. “Really?” she asked, voice tiny.
“It’s a promise.” Xena mustered a smile, and though it was shaky and wan, still Gabrielle had to turn her face away because it made her think of Callisto. “How’s that for an incentive, huh? A nice, clean stream for you to clean up in. You think that’ll make it a little easier?”
Gabrielle tried to laugh, but she didn’t trust her body, afraid that it would come out as a sob or a cough, or something worse. “You drive a hard bargain,” she said. “But you… Xena, you have to promise that you’ll stay back this time. Even if I have nightmares again. Promise me that you won’t come near until I’m awake.”
“You have my word,” Xena said, though she looked almost more tortured than Gabrielle felt. “Look, I know this is hard. It is for both of us. But what happened in that place…”
“Please, don’t.” She took a deep breath, willed herself to look Xena in the eye. “Not now. Not until the smell of that place is off me. Not until I can breathe without feeling like I’m going to be sick.”
“All right,” Xena said.
Gabrielle nodded her gratitude. She took a deep, steadying breath, remembering the sunken flesh, the rot and the decay, the hours of silence and horror and dread, the bars frozen against her skin, the cold seeping into her bones and made her shiver, the way the dead man’s lifeless lips seemed to shape Xena’s name, in one moment an accusation, in another a plea, and at last a warning.
“You can’t imagine what it was like,” she heard herself whisper, hushed and frightened. “You can’t imagine…”
This time, Xena was the one who turned her face away, sick and scared and stricken, as though she too was looking death in the eye and hearing her name.
“Believe me,” she said in a shaking whisper, “I can.”