It was another day or so before Xena let them move on.
Gabrielle did not approve. If she’d had it her way, they would have left the stupid forest as soon as they caught their breath and they would have been warm and cozy in Cyrene’s tavern long before now. But no. Xena knew better, of course, and she insisted on waiting, playing the ‘you’re injured’ card with her usual condescension every time Gabrielle even opened her mouth. Understandable though her concerns were, and though Gabrielle knew that she was in no condition to argue, still she found it frustrating how once again her own opinions went unheard. It didn’t matter how many times she said she was fine; Xena always informed her that she wasn’t.
(She was right, of course, but Gabrielle failed to see how that was the least bit relevant to anything.)
They slept on opposite sides of the fire. More accurately, Gabrielle slept on one side of the fire, while Xena sat on the other and pretended to sleep while secretly keeping watch. She thought that Gabrielle didn’t notice the way her eyes cracked open every now and then, the way she never truly relaxed, the way she held every inch of her body in readiness for some imagined attack. She thought that Gabrielle was too exhausted to notice any of those things, or to understand why she was doing them, but she wasn’t. The body might have belonged to Callisto, but that didn’t mean Gabrielle was less attuned to the person inside.
She must have slept a little, at least, because she never seemed particularly tired. Even when the sun was high the next day, even when the time crept on, still she seemed as awake and alert as if she’d slept like a rock through the whole night. That was no real surprise, Gabrielle supposed; she knew well enough by now that Xena had long since mastered the art of sleeping with one eye open. It was a skill Gabrielle rather envied, if she was honest; for her own part, it usually took an army to rouse her when she was sleeping, and sometimes more than one.
Not that she slept that deeply now. She slept a lot, mainly because Xena made her sleep a lot, but only as deeply as her dreams let her, and she woke gasping and crying more times than she could count. At one point, midway through the night, she made the mistake of pointing out that the constant jolting and jerking awake were far more unkind to her injuries than any amount of walking would have been; Xena, unwilling to yield even an inch, glared at her for a full hour and refused to look away until Gabrielle rolled over and went back to sleep.
Still, stubborn though she was, Xena couldn’t quite hide the way Callisto’s jaw whitened every time Gabrielle woke whimpering and disoriented. She made a show of not caring, of chiding her for moving around too much or just pretending to have slept through the whole thing, but Gabrielle was not as stupid as she liked to believe, and she saw through all of those things. Xena was kind, keeping her promise to keep her distance, but it was clearly killing her slowly and Gabrielle felt awful about it.
She’d never admit it, of course, but Gabrielle had a sneaking suspicion that was one of the biggest reasons why she agreed to break camp and leave for Amphipolis as soon as she did. She was clearly very angry about it, and Gabrielle knew that the decision came hard because she couched it in really terrible lies to protect her dignity.
“Draco will be coming for us soon,” she said, as though she thought for a second that Gabrielle would buy that. “He’s resourceful. It won’t take him long to recoup his losses and start scouting the area.”
“Do you think so?” Gabrielle blurted out, not even stopping to think that she should be playing along. “I mean, wouldn’t he be better off, I don’t know, trying to find a new fortress or something?”
Xena shot her the same glare she gave every time Gabrielle dared to offer an opinion about her own health. It was sharp like Callisto’s glares always were, but something in it was unmistakably Xena; if she looked hard enough, really stared at her face, Gabrielle flattered herself that she could almost tell the difference now, that she could just about see the places where Xena’s presence had made Callisto’s features tighter and more warrior-like, a little less crazy and a little more stoic.
“I know Draco,” Xena snapped, as though that were the truth of it, as though Gabrielle couldn’t figure out that she really meant ‘I don’t want to spend another night listening to you scream in your sleep’.
Gabrielle thought about pushing further, winning this argument even if she couldn’t win the other one, but she didn’t. It would have been entirely too easy to push this silly little issue into a point of pride, the kind they had so often, when things got heated and explosive over someone’s word choice or someone else’s method of cooking dinner. Most days, it was a good way of venting their frustrations, of getting out all the niggling little irritations that came with spending every waking minute in each other’s company; now, however, their problems ran too deep, and she knew that it wouldn’t help in the long run.
Besides, in a strange sort of way, there was a kind of sweetness to the lie; Xena wasn’t often the kind to get self-conscious or embarrassed, and certainly not to the point where she would fabricate such a parchment-thin excuse to sustain her dignity. It was such a rare thing, and Gabrielle would feel bad if she ruined it. Not that Xena would have offered her the same courtesy, of course… but one of them had to be the bigger person, didn’t they?
“Fine,” she said, and let her raised eyebrow make it quite clear that she wasn’t fooled.
The real truth of it was that Draco was probably a hundred leagues away by now. He might be the kind to hold grudges when he could afford it, but he was a practical man at heart, and he wouldn’t let his people go homeless. Callisto would be at the bottom of his priorities list for a while, at least until he’d found a new base of operations, and by then… well, with any luck, Xena would have her own body back. Assuming he even bothered to go after her at all, he’d have a hard time finding a woman who was already dead, and Xena would probably take a kind of vindictive pleasure in rubbing his face in it the next time she met him with her own face.
Thinking about it made Gabrielle feel very good inside. It reignited the fire in her chest, the place that she’d shunted to the side while everything was happening, helped her to remember what was important, the hope and faith that had kept her going, the certainty even in the face of Xena’s doubt that she would be herself again one day soon.
Xena set a slow pace as they set out, probably for Gabrielle’s benefit, and though she wasn’t exactly thrilled about it, Gabrielle allowed it. The rugged little staff did its job well enough, supporting her weight without buckling at all, and though she still couldn’t quite look Xena in the eye with any measure of comfort still Gabrielle appreciated the gift more than she could say. That was her Xena. No doubt about it, that was the woman who loved her.
As the day wore on, Xena grew more and more over-protective, even more than she usually was when Gabrielle was hurt. It seemed like every five seconds she was asking if Gabrielle wanted to rest, if she was tired or hungry or in pain, if she was breathing all right, if she thought she could endure another hour’s walking.
Gabrielle told her that she was fine. Once, twice, a hundred times, and not once did she point out that she felt more healthy limping along and leaning on a staff than she ever had lying flat on her back. The pain was so much more tolerable when she was allowed to fight it on her own terms, when she was in control of how badly she hurt and for how long. She hated being horizontal, hated having to lie still and do nothing, suffering anyway but without any way to distract herself. She got restless very easily, always uncomfortable and uneasy when she was lying down, and she didn’t want Xena to know that Callisto’s eyes staring at her over a crackling fire was the very worst part of her nightmares.
They didn’t speak much beyond that. Gabrielle was lost in her own head, struggling through everything that had happened, everything she’d seen and experienced and heard about, everything that Xena said wasn’t important. ‘I would have done exactly the same thing if I’d been in my own body,’ she said, but she didn’t seem to understand why that wasn’t helpful at all.
Gabrielle had never met the old Xena, the one that everyone talked about; she had never seen the warrior princess at her worst, had never seen that manic Callisto smile on Xena’s own face. Xena’s smile, the only one she’d ever seen, made her feel safe and loved and warm; it was a beautiful thing, and it had her heart. Callisto’s smile was the evil one; hers were the hands that had done terrible things. It was that simple. It didn’t matter that Xena believed things would have been the same if she’d had her own body; Gabrielle knew that they wouldn’t have. She knew, no matter what Xena thought, that the world recognised the woman she had become. The world knew that she was good, even if she herself still couldn’t believe it.
It was Callisto’s face that had brought them here. It was Callisto’s sinister smile, her evil eyes and her twisted spider’s hands. It was everything that Gabrielle hated, everything that made her stomach turn and her heart stop, everything that made her dreams hurt worse than her body. It was Callisto, doing the same thing she always did, hurting people wherever she went, and if Xena couldn’t see that, if she couldn’t accept it… well, then, she was blind and stupid and just plain wrong. That was all there was to it.
The sun was already down when they made camp for the night. Xena occupied herself by making a fire, and Gabrielle made a vain feint at finding a patch of ground that was neither wet with dew nor hard as a rock. It wasn’t exactly a productive search, and she gave up with a pout and a sigh.
She’d never really given much thought to the blankets and bedrolls and other such things that they lugged around with them, all the heavy camp-making things that Argo carried so effortlessly. It was always just something that happened, something Xena worried about and Gabrielle took for granted; now that they’d been without them for a couple of nights, though, she couldn’t help acknowledging the difference they made to her life.
Her bones hurt. Not just the ones that were bruised or broken or battered, but all of them, even the ones she wasn’t entirely sure were really bones in the first place. They were roughened from lying on the ground for so long, chilled from exposure to the cold, and were just plain miserable. Those bones belonged to a naïve little girl from Poteidaia with sensitive skin that didn’t take kindly to endless grass-stains, and that naïve little girl would have given her right arm for a blanket right about now.
“I never thought I’d say this,” she muttered, watching sullenly as Xena tossed a handful of twigs on the fire. “But I really miss Argo.”
Xena didn’t look at her. That was a kindness, really; Callisto’s eyes were always at their most terrifying when framed by flame. It sent Gabrielle back to that raw, hate-filled day after Perdicus’s death, to her ill-advised attempt to run Callisto through as she slept, to the look on Callisto’s face when she caught her in the act, to later when she tied her up and made a sacrifice out of her. Gabrielle was so angry then, so full up on hate and pain and grief, and the only thing she could think as Callisto’s men lit that fire under her was at least when this is over it won’t hurt any more.
It did hurt, though. Xena saved her and killed Callisto, but the pain didn’t end. Here she was all over again, with a fire searing her skin and Callisto’s eyes glowing like embers on the other side.
Xena must have realised that by now, or else Gabrielle was not as subtle as she thought she was, because the more time they spent together in moments like this, the more carefully she kept her eyes hidden in the shadows.
“I’m sure Argo misses you too,” she murmured, studying the ground between her knees as though it held all the secrets of the universe. “You’ve been good with her. Ever since…”
She trailed off, sucked in her breath as though her bones were broken too. She was still nursing her own hurts, it seemed, and the sight of her so affected made Gabrielle ache in her chest. Even in that body, she hated to see Xena in pain, hated the reminder that Callisto had tormented them both, that Xena was no more immune to her cruelties than Gabrielle, that being stoic didn’t mean she was untouchable.
Gabrielle wore her heart on her sleeve, kept her feelings close to the surface, but Xena never did. If she had, maybe she would have made peace with her guilt before Ares and Callisto had used it against her, but of course there was little point in dwelling on that now. Xena tried not to let things affect her, not until she was forced to, and it spoke volumes about her pain that she was letting it show now. Gabrielle knew that what Callisto had done to Argo had cut her very deeply, perhaps more so even than Gabrielle herself.
“Well, you know,” she mumbled, almost shyly. She wanted to comfort them both, but her tongue was uncharacteristically clumsy. “She may be a stupid horse but she’s your stupid horse. No-one else gets to hurt her.”
“I’m sure she appreciates that,” Xena said with a wry chuckle. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed the two of you getting all chummy together.”
Gabrielle flushed, thinking of the intimacies and doubts that she shared with Argo before all this business with Draco started. She remembered feeling almost comforted by the silly horse, the flicker of solace she got from imagining that Argo shared her feelings, from imagining that someone did. Looking back now, things were so much simpler then, so much more straightforward than she could ever have foreseen; funny, how she suddenly found herself missing Argo and her strange kind of company, wishing that she was still around so that she could have someone to talk to. It made her feel guilty, ashamed that Xena wasn’t enough. She should be enough; she always was before.
It also made her feel very, very alone.
“I wouldn’t say ‘chummy’, exactly,” she heard herself say, more for Xena’s sake than her own. “But she… she’s good to talk to, I guess. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Xena said, very quietly.
I am sorry, Gabrielle thought. I’m sorry you’re not enough. I’m sorry I’m not better. I’m sorry I’d sooner talk to a stupid horse than the woman I love.
Aloud, she just said “Argo understands.”
Xena didn’t react visibly, but Gabrielle could tell just the same that she was deeply affected. She wondered if she wanted to say, ‘I understand too,’ or if she realised that she couldn’t. She was blessed with being too close to the problem, so close that she couldn’t see it at all; she could forget the face she wore until she passed her reflection, could forget that her body wasn’t her own until she was faced with its weaknesses. She didn’t have to look at the face of her enemy like Gabrielle did, didn’t have to smell the wrongness on herself like Argo did. She couldn’t understand, not truly, but she could accept that the two creatures she loved most in the world had finally found a shred of common ground to unite them.
“She’s good at that,” she said lightly. “And so are you. The two of you would make a pretty good match if you’d just stop being so wilful and hard-headed.”
“She’s wilful,” Gabrielle grumbled.
Xena laughed, entirely too cheerful for the situation. “And you’re hard-headed.”
Gabrielle refused to dignify that with a response. “I hope they’re treating her well in Amphipolis,” she said instead, and didn’t miss the twinkle in Xena’s eye.
“They will be,” she assured her. “My mother will make sure she’s well taken care of. And your staff too, probably. She knows how much that thing means to you.”
Gabrielle blinked, somewhat thrown by that. She hadn’t realised Cyrene knew much about her at all, much less her feelings for a stick of wood. “She does?”
Xena flushed, as though she’d let out some kind of secret. It would have been a strange look even on her own face, but on Callisto’s it was so absurd it looked almost comical. Xena’s features were strong and hard, but Callisto’s were soft, almost child-like in the moments when she pouted; the blush made her look younger than her years, and oddly innocent, something like the eager young woman she might have become if her life had taken a different turn. It made Gabrielle feel ill, kind of cold all over, like the start of a fever or the end of one; she couldn’t explain it, the anxiety she felt when she looked at Xena’s soul behind Callisto’s eyes and saw something so completely different to either one of them.
“Of course she does.” The words came out like a secret too, as though she’d accidentally let Gabrielle into a part of herself that she hadn’t intended for her to see. “But that doesn’t really matter now, does it? It’s getting late, and you should get some rest.”
“I don’t need—”
“Oh, don’t start that again.” It was chiding, but good-natured. “I’d like to cover as much ground as possible tomorrow. Maybe even reach Amphipolis before nightfall, if we push ourselves.” She trailed off, then cut a cautious glance at Gabrielle, as though remembering for the first time that she was still hurt. Gabrielle ducked her head, annoyed by the attention and unduly affected by Callisto’s dark eyes. “If you’re up for it, I mean. We don’t have to—”
“I’m up for it,” Gabrielle said quickly, and squeezed Xena’s makeshift staff between her palms. Her body pulsed, but the pain wasn’t as bad as it had been, better for the constant gentle exercise. “I don’t need you to worry about me, Xena. I’ve told you—”
“—‘I’m fine’. Yes, yes, you have, about a thousand times by this point. But I’m not going to stop worrying just because you tell me to. Not when…” She didn’t say, ‘not when it’s all my fault’, but Gabrielle heard it just the same, and she didn’t know whether to feel validated or guilty. “Well, anyway. There’s no sense in arguing about it tonight, is there? Get some rest. Try not to toss and turn too much.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“Of course it’s not.” Her smile was so tender. Gabrielle’s heart seized so hard that she thought it might break. “I’ll wake you at first light.”
Gabrielle swallowed hard. She hadn’t expected that, and she didn’t relish the idea one bit. The thought of being shaken awake by Callisto’s spider hands left her almost paralysed with panic, but even as it soured her stomach she couldn’t bring herself to complain; Xena was clever that way, turning it into something so mundane, so simple and so practical. ‘I’ll wake you in the morning, so we can get going’, she was saying, and how was Gabrielle supposed to argue with that? It would just make her seem petty.
Besides, she couldn’t exactly say with any conviction that she could wake herself. A year or more spent travelling together had taught them both that that was almost never true; even on a good night — perhaps especially on a good night — Gabrielle was harder to wake than the rocks themselves. Xena wasn’t making a point with this, she knew; she just wanted them awake and out on the road some time before the sun struck noon. That it did make a point, and a painful one, was just a convenient little side-effect.
Gabrielle sighed, leaning back until she was lying flat. The grass was wet, the ground unpleasantly hard, but the stars were starting to come out and counting them helped to distract her.
“Fine,” she muttered. “But I expect breakfast.”
She didn’t look at Xena, but she could hear her shuffling about, getting ready to lie down herself, and the smile in Callisto’s voice was inescapable when she laughed and said “You got it.”
As always, Gabrielle was dreaming almost before she’d even closed her eyes.
There were three different Callistos this time, all of them looking at her with the same burning eyes and the same sharp smiles. They taunted her, mocked her, laughed at her, reached out and touched her with those same spider’s hands, and their voices rose in perfect unison so they all sounded the same too. They pointed their fingers, dared her to figure out which one of them was which, who was Xena, who was the real Callisto, and who was the innocent young woman she might have become if the two had never met. Gabrielle didn’t know the answer; she couldn’t tell one from another, and when she woke to Xena shaking her shoulder, what felt like a lifetime later, it wasn’t fear that made her shrink and shudder and sob but shame.
She didn’t say anything about it, of course, and Xena didn’t ask. Perhaps she assumed she wouldn’t get an answer, or else she was afraid that she would. Either way, they ate breakfast in silence and set out in the same way.
The morning passed much like the previous day. Gabrielle was stumbling and clumsy, sucking in her breath when her body protested, and Xena jumped on every little noise she made as though it were a portent of imminent death. On a good day, the concern might have been sweet, might have made Gabrielle feel appreciated and loved in a way that she she still struggled with sometimes, but today she was tired and cranky and in pain, and the unsolicited attention only served to set her teeth on edge. It made her feel like she was on display, like every breath she took was being measured and judged, and of course that just made her stumble all the more.
“Gabrielle?” It was maybe the fourth time she’d said it in less than an hour, Callisto’s voice ringing high with Xena’s worry. The sound of it made Gabrielle want to scream. “Are you all right? Do you need to rest?”
Gabrielle bit down on the less-than-polite response she wanted to give, forced herself to sound at least vaguely civil. “Yes, I’m all right. No, I don’t need to rest.”
It was all but automatic at this point, and of course Xena didn’t believe her for a second. “Are you sure?”
“I said it, didn’t I?”
For someone renowned for her powers of perception, Xena was almost impossibly useless when it came to picking up on tone of voice. Whether that was a universal issue or just a blind spot where Gabrielle was involved, she had no idea, but by this point she frankly didn’t care. She clenched her jaw, gripped the makeshift staff until her knuckles whitened and the wood groaned, but she might as well have been spitting into the rain for all that Xena noticed.
“It’s close to lunchtime anyway,” she was saying, utterly oblivious. “We could—”
“I said no, Xena.”
There was a crack in her voice now, sharp as lightning, and not even Xena could ignore it this time. She stopped in her tracks, turning to look at her. She didn’t flinch, because she never flinched, because it was unbecoming of a warrior princess to look weak, but still she seemed almost wounded, spine almost unnaturally straight and eyes wide, as though Gabrielle had raised a weapon and not just her voice.
“No. Stop.” She threw the staff down, willed her body not to let her down now, prayed that she could hold herself upright for just long enough to make her point. “I’ll tell you if I’m not all right. I’ll tell you if I need to rest. For the love of any god you’d care to name, stop asking.”
Xena stared at the staff for a long moment, then looked back at Gabrielle. Her mouth was hanging open, like she was slowly but surely figuring out that she’d stepped over a line and was desperately scrambling for the right kind of apology or the wrong kind of excuse. She looked contrite and affronted at the same time, and the expression became something almost absurd on Callisto’s usually-cutting features. Gabrielle found an odd kind of comfort in seeing that awful face twisted into something so utterly unlike her, in seeing Xena try to transform someone else’s face into a mirror of her own.
“Gabrielle…” She said it softer this time, but before she had a chance to finish the strange expression fell off her face completely, replaced by something that Gabrielle would recognise in anyone. Her shoulders stiffened, right hand flying to the sword on her back, propelled by a lifetime of battle instincts, and all Gabrielle could think was here we go again, in the heartbeat before Xena hissed “Quiet!”
For a fraction of a second, Gabrielle thought about accusing her of trying to dodge the issue. It was far too convenient, and she wasn’t above saying so… but she’d been working on her own instincts over the last year or so, and she could tell a false alarm from a genuine one. Xena might be the type to make bad excuses, might even employ a dirty trick or two to keep Gabrielle distracted, but Gabrielle flattered herself that she knew the difference between dodging-the-issue-Xena and ready-for-action-Xena. This was definitely the latter.
She felt her own shoulders start to tighten up too, connected with Xena even now in the midst of what was about to become an argument. It was amazing, how easily that could still happen, how it didn’t matter what they’d been through or what they were feeling in a moment like this because their instincts always took over. She was so familiar with Xena’s body language that she didn’t even stop to think about the body she was in, or, indeed, the state of her own.
In a flash she’d stooped to pick up her fallen staff, already pushing the pain to the back of her mind and bracing for an attack. “What is it?”
Xena ignored the question, shoving past as though she’d all but forgotten that Gabrielle was there at all. With her sword flashing in one hand and the other balled into a fist, she looked nothing short of terrifying as she broke into a run. Gabrielle had to scramble to keep up, still leaning a little too heavily on the staff to carry her weight.
Paying attention now, she could hear the sounds of voices raised to a shout just over the crest of a nearby hill. Xena was already well on her way, quiet but intense, and Gabrielle scurried along at her heels; by her own admission, it was rather more the curiosity driving her on than any deluded assumption that she could be of help to anyone in her present state.
The scene that greeted them was a very familiar one. A trio of rough-looking bandits flanked a terrified older couple in the middle of the road; they were closing in like a pack of animals, surrounding the unsuspecting travellers from all sides in a vicious display that Xena and Gabrielle had seen played out more times than either of them could count.
It was far too common on long, winding roads like this one, out of the way places with leagues stretched out between the nearest villages and little chance of a kind-hearted passer-by. Travellers were easy pickings, unaware of the dangers of these roads and usually loaded down with dinars for their long journeys; Gabrielle had watched Xena save dozens of groups like this.
Still, though it was definitely not unusual, she found her heart leaping into her mouth, fear churning in her stomach in a way that she didn’t quite make sense. Xena was already closing in on the scene, sword raised high and a battle cry already taking shape on her tongue. It was a wild sound, half-crazed and much more of Callisto than Xena; for just a second or two, Gabrielle’s vision went completely white, halfway blind with panic and horror and a thousand visions of what Callisto would do to those people.
Please don’t kill them, she thought, breaking into a broken, limping run. Whatever they did, whatever they were going to do, please don’t kill them. For my sake, Xena, please. Please don’t kill them, please don’t kill them…
It was achingly familiar; briefly, Gabrielle found herself thrown back, not to Draco’s fortress and the cell she shared with that faceless rotting corpse, but to the village, the tavern, the ambush that had left her like this, bruised and battered and beaten. She remembered being dizzy, brutalised, in so much pain that she couldn’t even stand up, but through all of that the only thing that stood out clearly was the terror that Xena had killed. It was days later now, and so much had happened that she almost couldn’t keep it straight in her head, but still she felt that same sense of overpowering dread surge up to the surface, acid in her throat and saliva in her mouth, a punch to the stomach that floored her just as effectively as a fist or a boot.
She stumbled, lost her footing, and for a heartbeat that seemed to last forever all she could see was mud and grass.
When her vision cleared, she squinted up through the haze and found Xena already there on the scene. She charged between the bandits and their victims like one of Zeus’s lightning bolts, planting her feet in the ground and lunging forwards with her sword. It was a practiced swing, effortless and easy; one of the bandits was within reach, a stocky young man with a leering sort of face, and he dodged back with a quickness that belied his frame. Gabrielle watched, open-mouthed and helpless as his eyes went wide, face draining to parchment white when he caught sight of Callisto’s cruel, calculating smile.
He wasn’t the one who said it, though. It was their de facto leader, the tallest of the three and the one with the biggest muscles. He didn’t look very big when he whimpered Callisto’s name, though, choking on the last syllable with a strange kind of awe, something that couldn’t quite decide whether it wanted to be terror or reverence. All three looked like they’d seen a ghost come to life, and not one of them seemed particularly eager to stick around and see how this ended.
Gabrielle dragged herself up to her knees, bracing with both hands in the dirt to keep herself steady. “Run!” she shrieked, almost feverish in her urgency. “Get away from her!”
They didn’t need telling twice. Whether it was the renowned homicidal maniac thrusting her sword that made the decision for them or the neither-renowned-nor-homicidal maniac screaming at them to run for their lives, Gabrielle couldn’t say, but either way they weren’t about to push their chances. In perfect sync and without even a moment’s hesitation, they turned tail and fled, tripping and falling over their own feet and each other in their haste to get away.
Gabrielle had never seen anything like it. Low-lives of that calibre were usually spoiling for a fight by the time she and Xena found them, and doubly so when it was the famed warrior princess who had swooped in to deny them their prize. Whether looking for a chance to be the big name who finally ended her, or else just to get a few licks in before they were inevitably humiliated, either way nine out of ten bandit gangs were more than happy to turn their attentions to Xena and her little sidekick.
Not this time, though. This time, damn their integrity to Tartarus, they couldn’t get away fast enough.
Gabrielle stared after them, mouth hanging open. She hadn’t expected Callisto’s reputation to precede her like that, hadn’t expected the response to be so immediate, or so extreme. She’d had no idea the sight of Callisto’s face would terrify more than just her.
Xena watched their retreat as well, still playing the role of Callisto to the hilt. She seemed to be enjoying it a little too much, honestly, whooping and swinging her sword at their backs. “I see you anywhere near here again, I’ll make boots out of your skins!” she shouted, and judging by the way they doubled their speed Gabrielle wasn’t the only one who believed her.
Even after the coast was clear, Xena didn’t look at her. She turned to the travellers instead, the poor quaking couple who still seemed a little confused by everything that had just happened. Little wonder there, Gabrielle supposed; one minute they were walking down the road, and the next they were surrounded by bandits and warlords and not-really-at-their-best village girls who couldn’t stay upright. It wasn’t exactly a typical day for decent honest folks, and they seemed almost as frightened as their attackers did a moment ago; Gabrielle wondered if perhaps they’d be running for the hills too if they thought for a second they had a chance of outrunning Callisto.
“They won’t be giving you any more trouble.” Xena told them, quite firmly. Her voice was about three octaves lower than it should have been, the way it got sometimes when Gabrielle was feeling especially vulnerable and Xena made a conscious effort to sound more like herself than Callisto. “Are either of you hurt?”
Neither of them said anything at all. No ‘get away from us, you monster!’ but no ‘thank you’ either. Gabrielle wanted to hug them both and tell them that it was all right, that ‘Callisto’ wasn’t really Callisto at all, that she was Xena and everyone was safe and everything would be just fine. She didn’t, though, because she knew too well how it felt to be smothered when she was feeling vulnerable. Instead, she just struggled back to her feet and shambled towards them like a corpse returning from the grave.
“It’s all right.” She spoke very slowly, and not just because she was breathless. “She’s not going to hurt you. She, uh… she’s just trying out the ‘good guy’ thing for a while. Just to see if it’ll stick. You know what these warlord types are like, always getting bored with the pillaging and the plundering and—”
Xena was glaring at her now, but she couldn’t quite stop her lips from quirking at the corners. Good enough, Gabrielle thought, and looked to the poor befuddled couple. They were staring at her, but still didn’t say anything. It might not have been the ice-breaker Gabrielle had hoped for, but at least they were willing to look at her; that was more than she could say for Xena, so she kept babbling, playing the ambassador all on her own because it was the least painful option for everyone involved.
“Um. Anyway. As I was saying… uh… hello.” It came out more like an interrogation than a greeting, so she mustered a weak little wave to make it a little more friendly. “We didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It… it’s all right.” It was the wife who finally found the courage to speak; the husband just continued to stare. “Thank you for your… ah, that is… forgive me, but is that…” She cleared her throat, and took a very long, very nervous step backwards; Gabrielle couldn’t help noticing the way Xena tried a little too hard not to grimace. “Is she really… her?”
Her voice broke on ‘her’, as though even the idea of Callisto’s name terrified her. Though she knew that now wasn’t the time to dwell on such things, Gabrielle couldn’t help thinking I know exactly how you feel.
“You could say that,” Xena muttered, before Gabrielle had the chance to answer for her. She sheathed her sword with an absent shrug, as though she’d all but forgotten she still had it out, as though she had no idea how intimidating it was. “But like my friend said, I’m not going to hurt you. These days I only go after idiots who deserve it.”
That got the husband’s attention. “Like… like Xena does?”
The name was a tremor, and it made Gabrielle shiver, made her think of the days when Xena looked like herself, when people like this would recognise her and know immediately that they were safe without needing to hear it from someone else. Her stomach twisted at the thought, the fondness and nostalgia clashing inside of her with that ever-present sense of dread, the worry that moments like this would one day become the new normal, that she and Xena really would have to spend the rest of their lives explaining that they didn’t really want to kill everyone who looked at them funny.
Xena huffed, tossed Callisto’s hair. “Something like that,” she said, just as noncommittal as before. “Now, if you don’t need anything else from us…”
The dismissal was deliberate, and uncharacteristically harsh. Gabrielle could tell that she was going out of her way to get these poor people back on the road and out of their way before anyone else came along, or else before Gabrielle opened her mouth again and said something stupid. No doubt she was uncomfortable giving compassion in Callisto’s body as well, though that didn’t make it any less unpleasant for the two shell-shocked travellers.
They looked at each other, visibly uncomfortable. “N… no, not at all,” the wife mumbled, and elbowed the husband into grunting his agreement. “I mean, ah… thank you?”
It came out like a question, like they were asking permission to be grateful. It made Gabrielle feel very, very sad, and for all of their sakes she was the one who said “You’re welcome.”
They didn’t say anything else, and Gabrielle didn’t even look at Xena until they’d moved out of earshot. She watched them shuffle off down the road, moving as fast as they could while still keeping one eye over their shoulders; it was as if they were afraid that the evil Callisto would have second thoughts and run them down just for the fun of it. When she turned back to face Xena, catching the sunlight as it burned behind those dark eyes, Gabrielle found that once again she understood how they felt just a little too well.
“Did you really have to do that?” she managed when she and Xena were alone again. Her voice cracked a little, like it couldn’t decide whether to tether itself to anger or fear. In that, she thought, it was much like the rest of her. “I understand playing the part for warlords like Draco, Xena, but those poor people were scared to death of you!”
Xena didn’t look at her. “In case you didn’t notice,” she said, “the bandits were too.”
Her voice was very hard, almost clinical. She got that way quite often after a long, vicious battle, and Gabrielle caught its meaning easily; she always sounded that way she was trying to validate the pain she’d been forced to inflict, justify the lives she’d taken with the ones she’d saved. That was Xena’s voice, no trace of Callisto at all; the familiarity should have grounded Gabrielle, reminded her that this really was her Xena, but it didn’t. She just felt unanchored.
“That’s not the—”
“Yes, it is.” The hardness took on a sharp edge, like an unpleasant lesson. “It’s exactly the point. What I did back there kept us from having to shed any blood. Playing Callisto, being Callisto… those idiots ran for their lives instead of going after ours because her face scared them to death. They saw Callisto, and chose to avoid a fight rather than start one. We didn’t need to spill a single drop of blood, Gabrielle, not even one, and all because I had them convinced I was Callisto.”
Gabrielle opened her mouth, then shut it again. “I don’t…”
“I know you don’t.” She sighed, empathic and annoyed at the same time. “It’s not always about hate, Gabrielle. Not everyone feels the way you do.”
The way she said it made Gabrielle flush, ashamed and angry and about a million other things besides. She wanted to shout, to point out that her feelings were different, that she had very personal reasons for struggling with Callisto’s face, that Xena of all people should know that. She wanted to cry about it, make herself heard, feel something other than worthless for the first time since this started, but she didn’t. She couldn’t.
Xena was right too, though it pained her to think about it. She’d lost count of how many times they’d clashed with bandits like this, how many times they’d fought stupid little battles on the road between this village and that town; the roads were as perilous as the dark alleys behind a tavern, even on a good day, and they’d stopped more altercations than either one of them could number. In all that time, through all those fights and clashes and little miniature battles, Gabrielle couldn’t recall a single one that had ended quite as painlessly as this.
Xena was right when she pointed out that they hadn’t shed a single drop of blood this time, and though it made Gabrielle sick to her stomach to admit it, she knew that Xena was right as well when she said that Callisto’s face was the reason why.
Gabrielle had been right too, of course, just not in the way she’d thought. People did know the new Xena. They did know her Xena… and if the same cowardly bandits had run into her instead of ‘Callisto’, they would have played their chances on a fight for exactly that reason. Xena’s reputation preceded her — ‘she’s gone soft’ or ‘she’s one of the heroes now’ — and people knew that she preferred to talk now instead of fighting like she used to. To Gabrielle, that was a beautiful thing, but she knew that Xena still sometimes thought of it as a weakness, a sign that maybe she wasn’t on the best path after all. Gabrielle was the reason she stuck at it, the reason she fought off waves after waves of idiots who thought they’d take advantage of the softened warrior princess. Gabrielle was the one who reminded her that it was right, that it was good, that there was nothing soft in being kind.
Callisto never had the chance to learn those things. Whether she might have been redeemed, whether she could have been steered down Xena’s path too if she’d met someone like Gabrielle, there was no way of ever knowing, but in the end it didn’t matter; she was in Tartarus now, suffering for all eternity in the body of the woman she hated more than anyone else in the world. Any chance she might have had to become someone better, she’d squandered and thrown away; it was gone, and she would never get it back. There was no sense in dwelling on it, no use in wondering or worrying. Xena’s guilt had given Callisto the opening she needed to do this to her in the first place, and Gabrielle would die herself before she ever let that happen again.
It didn’t matter. It couldn’t matter. Callisto was dead, and so too were her deeds. Everything she did, everything she was, they were suffering in Tartarus along with her.
Xena was still alive. She might be in Callisto’s body, might even be stuck in there forever, but she was alive, and Callisto’s deeds were in her hands now. Gabrielle hadn’t really thought about it like that before; she’d been so preoccupied with worrying that Xena would become like Callisto that she hadn’t stopped to wonder if perhaps Callisto might become Xena instead. Not to Gabrielle herself, of course — she could never forget the things that face had done, the things those hands had done — but to the wider world, the countless others who trembled at her name. To them, perhaps. Callisto would be the next one to go soft.
Callisto’s face was like a sword, like a chakram, like any one of the thousand other weapons that Xena had been wielding for almost her whole life. Blades and whips and staves and clubs, terrible things designed for terrible purposes… Xena had used them all, had killed countless people with any given one of them, and it was only now, with Gabrielle’s help, that she was learning to use them in other ways. Slowly but surely, she was turning those terrible weapons to noble cause, using them as instruments for good, tools to aid and protect the very people she once hunted like animals, to threaten the bandits and warlords that her old self would have recruited or killed outright. Deadly though they were, they became something else in Xena’s hands and in Gabrielle’s care. The two of them made them something else, heroic instead of harmful.
Callisto’s face was one of them now. A weapon or a tool, or something in between. Whatever happened to it now, whatever deeds were done in Callisto’s name from now on… that was Xena’s choice. Xena would decide how the world saw Callisto, what that name meant. It was achingly fitting, for both of them.
Back at the fortress, with Draco breathing down her neck, Xena had used Callisto’s face as an excuse, let the name and the performance cushion the blow of her own cruel deed. Blinded by anger, by vengeance, by spite, she had killed a man in cold blood, and playing Callisto had given her a perfect excuse to call it necessity. Gabrielle hadn’t helped, she knew; she’d fed that feeling, practically begging Xena to absolve herself of responsibility, and it was only now that she understood it was exactly the same. Using Callisto’s face to excuse her own petty act of vengeance or using it to frighten a trio of thugs on the road into abandoning a fight without spilling even a drop of blood… it was up to Xena. The face hadn’t changed; it was only the soul that did.
She should have understood sooner. This was exactly what Xena had been trying to tell her, but in her blindness and her bias and her desperation Gabrielle had refused to accept it. She hadn’t wanted to look at Callisto and see Xena. She was too afraid of the things she felt when she touched the surface to let herself reach below. Just like the bandits and their victims, she was so afraid of the woman she saw, so afraid of the things that body had done, the terrible lessons it had taught her. She was so afraid, so angry, so full of so many things, and she hadn’t wanted to listen when Xena tried to speak. She hadn’t wanted to hear anything that might force her to look at Callisto and see something else. She hadn’t been ready to let go of the pain, the grief, the fear. She hadn’t been ready to look into those eyes and forgive them.
I’m sorry, she thought. To herself, to Xena, to Perdicus. Perhaps, in a sad sort of way, to Callisto as well. I understand now, and I’m sorry.
She didn’t say it, though. It was too raw, too close, and she still felt so broken. There was so much of the road still ahead of them, so much further to go before she could breathe freely again, before she could close her eyes and not be afraid. Later, maybe. When they were safe and sound back in Amphipolis with walls and floors and a ceiling, when she’d had time to think and feel it all through, when her body wasn’t on the brink of collapse and when her soul didn’t feel like it needed to be washed clean.
“We should get going,” she mumbled.
Xena studied her for a very long moment, tangling Callisto’s fingers around themselves to keep from reaching out and touching her. It was killing her, Gabrielle knew, the silence and the evasion and distance, the way she couldn’t talk things through even when she wanted to. Xena was so practical, her warrior’s instincts honed to the keenest point, but Gabrielle wasn’t like that. She wasn’t practical and she wasn’t a warrior, and she couldn’t do any of the things that came so naturally to Xena. Try as she might, Xena didn’t understand that, and when she turned to look at the horizon she looked as though she’d been struck a blow.
“Yeah,” she said, a sigh that broke Gabrielle’s heart. “I guess we should.”