The water was cold, but at least it was deep.
Gabrielle sat in the cast-iron tub, huddled and shivering and scrubbing at her face. She felt like she was back in the river again, still surrounded by smoke and death and horror, like all those things had burrowed into her skin, into her blood, into all the places she couldn’t reach, like the only way to get them out was to scrub herself to the bone.
She could still hear the fire roaring in her ears as she fled the fortress, could still feel the dirt and the mud tangling in her hair when she fell to the ground, could still smell the corpse-stink on her skin, could still see his rotting face just inches from her own. They were far away from that place now, not just in space but in time as well, and she knew that they were safe, that it was all behind her now, but still somehow when she closed her eyes her senses lied and screamed that she would never be clean.
She knew this feeling very well. Travelling with Xena had made her an open target, ripe for the pickings by anyone who wanted leverage against the warrior princess; things went wrong for her more often than not, and she’d found herself kicked around or knocked unconscious or taken hostage or used as bait more times than she could count over the last year or so. It had become almost commonplace to find herself dealing with this sort of feeling, the shivers and the uneasy churning that took days to wear off after an altercation cut a little too close. On a good day she was a pawn to be used, on a bad one she was a nuisance to be disposed of; either way she knew how to deal with it. After all, she’d endured far worse than this from far meaner people than Draco.
Like Callisto, for example. A day or two in a cell with a dead man was like a stroll through the Elysian Fields next to the things Callisto had done, not just to Gabrielle herself but to so many others as well. The thought made her blood run cold, made her skin prickle with goosebumps, made that unclean feeling surge up inside of her again, so much worse than when she was imagining smoke and flames and the smell of corpses. It made her furious, made her frightened, made her feel so many things that she couldn’t reconcile, and she ducked her head under the water’s surface, held it down until her lungs felt ready to burst, the pain burning against her injured ribs.
She surfaced gasping, choking, and started scrubbing all over again, clawing at the skin on her face until her hands started to shake, until all the strength bled out of her and she could breathe again. She slumped forwards when she couldn’t hold herself upright any more, let her arms hand limp over the edge of the bath, and tried as hard as she could not to think.
She stayed there for a long while, dripping water all over the wooden floor, and when she finally found the strength to lift her head again, she found herself staring straight into Callisto’s eyes.
Naturally, she almost jumped out of her skin, yelping and scrambling back as far as the little iron bathtub would let her. “By the gods, Xena! Didn’t your mother ever teach you to knock?”
Xena smiled, and the illusion of Callisto flickered and faded. Gabrielle wondered if this meant she was starting to get used to this, if the panic draining out of her meant she was getting better at recognising her Xena behind those eyes, at catching the moments when she was completely herself, when that awful face transformed so completely that it seemed almost to become Xena’s own again, glowing and beautiful and hers. She would have to learn how to relish those moments, she supposed, if she wanted a chance at surviving the less pleasant ones.
“Sorry,” Xena said.
She didn’t even bother to look sheepish, much less actually regretful, but then again, she rarely ever did. Once, a few weeks after they started travelling together, she rolled over in her sleep and gave Gabrielle a bloody nose; a year later, Gabrielle was still waiting for an apology for that. All she got at the time was a laugh and a shrug and ‘don’t tilt your head back’. As unwelcome as it was right now, the lack of compassion was definitely nothing new.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. It was a wet, gasping sound, like her lungs in their momentary panic had forgotten that they weren’t still underwater. “Did you want something?” she sputtered. “Or did you just come up here to make sure I wasn’t drowning myself again?”
“Both,” Xena said, quite calmly, then shook her head. “Actually, I came here to thank you.”
“For what?” Gabrielle asked, genuinely perplexed.
Xena stared at the floor, as though trying to summon her courage; it was a rare sight, and all the more so in Callisto’s body, and Gabrielle took comfort in it. “My mother doesn’t hate me. Whether she understands why I did what I did, I don’t know, but she doesn’t hate me for it.” She sighed, then shrugged. “The rest of the village won’t be so easy to talk around, but they’re not the ones that matter. She is.”
Gabrielle shrugged too, sinking her shoulders a little deeper in the water. She would deny to her dying day that it had anything to do with modesty, but the goosebumps pricking her skin now were not a product of the temperature.
“I didn’t do anything,” she said. “Nothing that would have made a difference, anyway. Cyrene loves you, Xena. She loves you like all mothers love their daughters, unconditionally and completely. She’d forgive you a lot worse if she had to.” A shadow passed across Xena’s face at that, and Gabrielle winced at her lack of tact; from what she knew of their relationship, Cyrene had already done exactly that. “Well, I guess you know that, huh?”
“I do, yes,” Xena said, and sighed. “But that’s not important. Whether you said anything to her or not, you still made things smoother between us.”
“I did?” Gabrielle frowned. “How did I do that?”
“Oh, just by being you.” The look on her face made it obvious that it wasn’t nearly so simple, and Gabrielle was just about to demand a better explanation when, incredibly, Xena offered one of her own. “You’re a good change of subject, that’s all.”
For a moment, Gabrielle didn’t understand. Then she did, and her stomach turned. “You talked about me?”
“Yeah.” Xena frowned a little. “Do you mind?”
She didn’t mean it as an accusation, Gabrielle could tell, but it came out like one anyway, harsh and just a little too defensive, the way Xena often got when she knew she’d made a bad decision but couldn’t take it back. For a second or two, Gabrielle wanted to get out of the bath, go to her, and take her in her arms, tell her that of course she didn’t mind, maybe even ask what in the world had possessed her to even question it.
Xena was an expert in keeping her features hidden when she wanted to, and she did that now, using the room’s shadows to her advantage like she always did when she was feeling self-conscious or uncomfortable. Still, Gabrielle didn’t need to see her face, or Callisto’s, to know that she was ashamed, that she thought there was something secretive, maybe even two-faced, in speaking about someone before coming and speaking to them. Gabrielle didn’t feel that way at all, though, and she hated to think of Xena worrying that she did.
She didn’t get out of the bath, though, and she definitely didn’t take Xena into her arms. She already felt far too exposed, and she was definitely not ready for that just yet.
“You’re asking my permission to talk about me?” she asked instead, and let the absurdity of the question make her point for her.
“Of course not,” Xena mumbled, seemingly oblivious to the flush creeping up the back of her neck. Callisto’s hair was impossibly fair, and it wasn’t nearly as effective as Xena’s own at hiding the skin underneath. “That would be ridiculous.”
Gabrielle couldn’t help herself; she smiled. “Yes, it would.”
Xena bristled. She didn’t like being on the receiving end of someone else’s snark. “I was just informing you. That’s all. It seemed like the polite thing to do.”
It should have been easy enough for Gabrielle to keep smiling, but it wasn’t. Nothing had changed, at least nothing that she could see, but all of a sudden her chest felt like it was too tight for her body; her breath was coming in quick, shallow gasps, like she was panicking, but she didn’t know why. The urge to dive back under the water resurfaced too, so powerful that she had to cling to the edges of the tub or risk giving in to it.
“Right,” she managed, confused by her own reaction. “Well, now I’m informed. Was that all you wanted, or…?”
“Yes.” Xena flinched, then cursed under her breath. “I mean, no. I mean…”
She was breathing hard too, like this was somehow just as intimidating for her as it was for Gabrielle, even fully clothed and standing tall as she was. Gabrielle couldn’t remember the last time Xena let her see her like this, exposed and open and so willing to show the parts of her that felt out of her depth. It helped her to slow her own breathing, come back from the brink of that unwitting panic.
“It’s all right,” she said, a wan feint at calming them both.
Xena gritted her teeth, then nodded. “I can come back later,” she offered. “If you’re busy.”
“Do I look busy?” It was a stupid answer, yes, but then it was also a pretty stupid question.
“I don’t…” She sighed, then shook her head. “Getting clean seemed very important to you. I wouldn’t want to intrude.” Like you did last time, Gabrielle thought, surprising herself with how bitter the memory tasted. “I can wait outside until you’re done, if you want?”
Gabrielle did want that, very much, but she didn’t know how to say it. She’d never been the kind of person who would make those sorts of demands, and it was even harder with Xena than it was with anyone else. Even like this, fully dressed where Gabrielle was naked, towering over her in Callisto’s body, still it didn’t come easily to her to shake her head and say ‘yes, please leave me alone’. Just like in the tavern, what felt like a lifetime ago now, she was more afraid of losing Xena than of enduring Callisto.
Besides, she had a feeling she knew what Xena wanted to talk about, and she knew that waiting wouldn’t make it any easier. There would never be a good time for this or any other conversation, not while Xena looked like she did. If their encounter with the bandits on the road had taught her anything, it was that this was as much on her own shoulders as it was on Xena’s. Honestly, she should have figured that out long before now, but it had always been such an impossible idea, that weak little Gabrielle would ever be strong enough to carry a part of Xena on her shoulders.
This was definitely on hers, though, almost more than it was on Xena’s. Xena could only give her space and patience to a point; eventually, Gabrielle would have to take it upon herself to try as well, to look into the eyes of the woman she so hated and find the woman she loved, to realise that this was the way things were, that wishing wouldn’t change it, that she too would have to accept it and move on. Xena couldn’t carry it all on her own, and Gabrielle couldn’t hide behind her hope forever. That was what little girls did, and wasn’t she so, so tired of being called that?
No time like the present, she thought, and swallowed.
“It’s all right.” Her voice was trembling but she didn’t try to steady it. She would not lie to Xena. “I don’t think I’ll ever be as clean as I want to be.”
Xena flashed what she must have thought was a reassuring smile. It was terrifying. “A little dirt never did anyone any harm.”
“I guess not.” She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and tried. “Xena, I’m sorry. I’ve been… I’ve been seeing Callisto every time I look at you, and I think I’ve been letting my feelings cloud my judgement. You said that you know yourself, and I should have listened to you. I should have trusted you. I should have… I should have found faith like your mother did, or looked harder, or… or something. I… gods, Xena, I should have at least tried.”
“No.” Xena’s voice was a sigh, deep and low and full of regret. “No, I should have tried. I shouldn’t have assumed that I knew what you were going through. I should have asked how you felt instead of running my mouth trying to explain who I was and why I did what I did. I should have…” She took a deep breath, bracing herself, and it gave Gabrielle more strength than she expected to see her struggling with this as well. “I should’ve been the one to find faith, Gabrielle, not you. I should have trusted that it would take more than Callisto’s face to make you hate me.”
Gabrielle sank a little deeper in the water, fought off the urge to hide. Her chest was burning again, panic like the brutal breathlessness that came after holding her head under the surface.
“I don’t hate you,” she whispered. “I could never hate you. Not even if I wanted to.” She swallowed a sigh of her own, reminded herself to be honest no matter how much it hurt. “I know you think I don’t understand what you’ve done, what your life was like before you met me. I know you think I have this… this silly, idealistic vision of who you are, like that other Xena never even existed, but that’s not what it’s like.”
“Are you sure?” Xena asked, as though she couldn’t help herself.
“Yes, I’m sure.” She tried to meet her eye, let Xena catch the fire in hers, see the truth in them, but the panic overwhelmed her before she got the chance, and she found herself having to turn her face away. “That old Xena, the one you’re so ashamed of… I’ve heard all about her. I know what she was, and I know what she did. I know that a lot of good people would probably still be alive if she never existed, including Callisto’s family. I know that Callisto wouldn’t be who she is if you weren’t who you were first. I know all of that, Xena. I knew it long before Ares ever put you into her body.”
Xena was staring at her. Gabrielle didn’t need to meet her gaze to feel the heat of it. “Gabrielle…”
“I know you,” Gabrielle said, cutting her off before either one of them could break. “If I couldn’t hate you before, what makes you think I could hate you now?”
In a flash, Xena was right there, kneeling beside the tub as though driven forwards by some irrepressible force. Gabrielle wanted to crawl away from her, to retreat, but where could she go when she was stuck in a bathtub and Xena was right there next to her, leaning in close, touching her, and Xena’s iron strength was not enough to hide the fact that those were Callisto’s spider fingers locking around her wrist.
“Mother was right,” she breathed, quieter even than a whisper. “You’re not angry with me.”
“Of course not.” Gabrielle’s throat was tight; the words were a squeak, and when she found the courage to look up she saw that Callisto’s face was a paroxysm of grief.
“You’re afraid of me.”
Gabrielle flinched, and of course that confirmed everything Xena said. She didn’t need to say anything at all, but still she felt like she had to try. She couldn’t let Xena think she felt that way about her, not when she herself was already so frightened of the monster she used to be. She had to know that Gabrielle didn’t see her that way, that what she felt about Callisto had nothing to do with Xena, nothing to do with them, that they were removed and apart from all of that, that they were more than she would ever be.
“Not of you.” She spoke very slowly, very clearly. “Of her. I know the difference, Xena.”
“Do you?” Xena asked. Gabrielle could tell, even without looking at her, that it meant the world to her. “It’s all right if you don’t. You know I understand. You know I—”
“I know you want to,” Gabrielle said quietly. Her voice was close to breaking, and she masked it by splashing her face with water. “I know you think you do. I know you…” She shook her head. “I know you, Xena. And I know that you’re afraid too. You’re afraid of being feared again. Like you used to be.”
“No,” Xena said, voice ringing clear. “I don’t care how many no-name idiots run for their lives at the sight of me. Bandits or mercenaries, warlords or peasants or farmers… they’re right to fear me, and after everything I’ve done they’d be stupid not to. But you…” She leaned in just a little, let her forehead rest against Gabrielle’s forearm; a part of Gabrielle wanted to pull back, but she didn’t. “Oh, Gabrielle, I was so wrong. When you looked at me like that, like you looked at Callisto… I thought you were so angry. I thought you were channelling your hatred. I thought…”
“I was,” Gabrielle admitted. She closed her eyes again, tightly this time. It was the only way she could get through this. “I think I was, anyway. In a way. But it’s not… it’s not always so simple, you know? I love you, Xena. I love you so much, but Callisto…”
Xena shook her head. “Gabrielle.”
“You’re still in her body,” Gabrielle went on, ignoring her because she had to. If she stopped now, even for a second, she would never find the courage to start again. “Her eyes, Xena. Her face, her hands, her body… it’s all I can see. I know it’s you inside, but it’s the outside that hurts. The things she did, the things she threatened to do, the things she…” She ducked down under the water for a long moment, waited for her lungs to start burning once more, and when she surfaced again it was safer to focus on the sting of water in her eyes than the hurt elsewhere. “Her body sickens me. I hate her so much it scares me sometimes. But it’s still you on the inside, and I could never, ever hate you.” She shook her head, dug her fingers into her temples, breathed hard. “So you tell me what’s left.”
Xena swallowed, a shadow through Gabrielle’s water-blurred vision. “Fear,” she whispered, as though she truly understood, for the first time, what the word meant.
“It’s easier,” Gabrielle confessed, feeling lost and very small. “It’s easier to be afraid of what you might become than hate what you are.”
When her vision finally cleared enough to get a good look at Xena’s face, she found that Callisto’s eyes were dark with tears; it moved her to blink back some of her own, a splash of salt that brought a very different pain to the bathwater stinging in her eyes. A part of her wanted to reach out, to touch Xena like Xena had tried so many times to touch her, but even now it was too much. Talking about it, hearing the words spoken aloud, ‘fear’ and ‘afraid’ and all those things that rang so true, made them feel so much realer, so much truer; here, naked and shivering and exposing her soul as well as her body, she was more frightened than she could put into words. She wanted to comfort Xena, but still all she saw was Callisto.
“It doesn’t matter what I say, does it?” Xena asked, after a few long moments. Her voice was much lower than Callisto’s now, almost lower even than her own.
Gabrielle blinked. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I can’t help you.” She sighed, so deep and so broken that Gabrielle wondered if she felt lost as well, if the helplessness was killing her too. “I could tell you a thousand times that I know who I am, that I’m as comfortable with myself in this skin as I ever was in my own, that Callisto and I are nothing alike… but what difference would it make when you know all of that already?” She bowed her head, hiding her face behind Callisto’s tangled blonde hair. “So what else is there? If you already know everything I want to say, if it doesn’t change what you’re feeling, what am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to help you through this if you—”
“You’re not,” Gabrielle said, stronger than she expected from herself; biting back the fear, she reached out, taking one of Callisto’s spider’s hands in both of her own. “Xena, I know you think I’m still that innocent little girl who followed you home from Poteidaia, but I’m not. You don’t need to hold my hand through everything. Sometimes you won’t be able to. Sometimes I’m just going to have to figure out how to heal all on my own. And sometimes… Xena, sometimes you just can’t help. That’s just how the way is.”
“I don’t accept that,” Xena snapped. This time, she was the one who pulled away, ripping her hands free as though Gabrielle had set them on fire. “Not with this. This isn’t just about you, Gabrielle. It’s about us.”
“I know that,” Gabrielle said. “By the gods, Xena, don’t you think it’s killing me too? Don’t you think I want to be able to look at you? Don’t you think I miss your touch?”
Xena swallowed hard. She still wouldn’t look at her, still kept her face in the shadows, and that said it all. Xena never let Gabrielle see her like this, vulnerable and anxious, and it struck her far harder than she could have anticipated. Gabrielle never really thought about the other side of their relationship; it was all so straightforward from her perspective. Xena was the hero, the mighty warrior, and Gabrielle the tag-along sidekick, the little girl from Poteidaia who was only really there to get in trouble and make Xena look better. Gabrielle was the one who felt, the one who loved, the one who grew and changed and became something new under Xena’s guidance and care. Xena was already perfect in her eyes; what could a silly little girl ever hope to teach her?
She still didn’t know, not really, but she saw it now in Xena’s eyes — in Callisto’s eyes, burning bright with all the things Xena never let shine from her own. You make me strong, she was saying, without words. You make me brave, you make me kind, you make me good. You make me so many things I never thought I could be… and when you look at me and see a monster, it’s like you’re finally seeing me for what I really am. Don’t you know how frightening that is? Don’t you know that I’m just as scared as you?
She didn’t say any of those things aloud, though Gabrielle hadn’t really expected her to. It was too much for them both, but for Xena especially. Gabrielle was the one naked and shivering, the one whispering her fears and her feelings, but Xena was the one who was paralysed, the one who couldn’t give voice to things like this. Gabrielle knew that, and she had accepted it a long time ago. It was one of the reasons why they fit together so perfectly; there were so many things that Xena couldn’t say, but Gabrielle was so good at hearing them just the same. She knew Xena’s heart as intimately as her own; she didn’t need Xena counting out its beats to know that they were there.
“I love you,” Xena whispered.
Gabrielle bowed her head. “I love you,” she said. “Never doubt that, Xena. Never. It’s just… I can’t turn away from the things she makes me feel. I want to, so badly, but I can’t.”
“It’s not fair.” She wrung her hands. “We beat her. Again and again, Xena, we beat her. But when I look at you and all I see is her, it feels like she’s the one who won.”
Xena swept to her feet, effortlessly graceful even in Callisto’s lanky body. “She hasn’t won,” she said. “Not yet.”
Gabrielle watched her move in silence. She halfway expected that Xena would let the moment die there, just turn and walk out the door, leaving her alone with her pain and her regret, and it startled her to realise that she didn’t want that. Things still weren’t right between them, at least not truly, but they were so much closer now than they had been just minutes before, and she couldn’t bear to see that broken.
Neither could Xena, apparently, because she didn’t do any of those things. She didn’t walk out the door, didn’t leave Gabrielle alone, didn’t let the moment die.
She turned around, and began to undress.
Gabrielle stared at her for a long, slack-jawed moment, then scrambled to find her voice. “Xena?”
The name was a squeak, and it made Xena chuckle. “Hm?”
“What…” Another squeak, this one practically incoherent, so Gabrielle cleared her throat and tried again. “What are you doing?”
Xena kept her back turned, but Gabrielle saw the line of her shoulders and she could see that there was no tension there. “Taking my clothes off.”
“I can see that. But why?”
Xena bent to loosen Callisto’s boots. “I feel like taking a bath.”
Gabrielle opened and closed her mouth maybe half a dozen times before she trusted herself to actually speak. “I’m sorry, what?”
Xena didn’t answer her right away, and she didn’t turn back until she’d finished undressing. That was more for effect than anything else, Gabrielle knew, and it worked unexpectedly well. She’d never seen Callisto’s body like this before, exposed and naked and bare before her, and the sight of it stole her breath completely.
She’d seen Xena like this countless times by now, of course, but it felt intimate and intimidating to see Callisto’s body in the same state even knowing that it was Xena on the inside. It felt strange, like a kind of slithering inside her stomach, discomfort mixing with a kind of courage, as though for the first time Callisto’s body and her own really were equal, both stripped down and laid bare. She didn’t really know why it affected her so deeply, but it did, and it stole what little breath she had left.
Xena seemed to see that, because she smiled. “You heard me,” she said. “You’re not the only one who wants to get clean.”
“But I… that is… Xena, I…”
“Yeah, yeah. You’ve used up all the hot water.” Actually, that was about as far from what she was trying to say as anything could be, but of course Xena probably knew that already. “It doesn’t matter. A cold bath’s better than no bath, right?”
“I guess…” She shook her head. “I mean, that’s not…”
“Uh huh. Scoot forward a little, will you?”
Gabrielle didn’t move. She wasn’t sure she could. “I don’t understand,” she managed, weak and pitiful. “You want to… that is, now? I thought we were… I mean… is this really the right…”
Xena’s smile softened, losing a little of its forced humour. It was tender now, the kind of smile that she often wore, the kind that Callisto never did. It turned her face into something completely new, something youthful and sweet, and that combined with the nudity to make her the opposite of intimidating. It made Gabrielle’s heart twitch, made her stomach turn over and over until she was almost dizzy under the weight of so many strange feelings. She had no idea what Xena was trying to do, but she was definitely doing something.
“Gabrielle.” The name was like an anchor pulling her downwards, holding her steady as she swayed. “Do you trust me?”
“Of course.” It wasn’t really a lie, but weak as she was in the moment it didn’t exactly taste like the truth either. “You know I do.”
“Good.” The smile fell from her face, but the tenderness remained. “Then scoot forward and give me some room.”
Gabrielle swallowed, closed her eyes, and did as she was told.
She kept her eyes shut, trepidation bearing down on her like a solid weight, panic surging like acid into the back of her mouth as she felt Xena slide into the tub behind her. She gripped the edges until the metal dug into her fingers and her palms, until she could use the bite of it to ground her, distract her from the water sloshing around them, the press of Xena’s skin — no, Callisto’s skin — against hers. She tried to breathe, but her lungs started burning again, as though she’d just come up after an hour under the water.
Callisto’s body felt different. Her size, her shape, even her skin. Gabrielle knew Xena’s skin like she knew her own, knew all the places it was calloused and scarred, all the places it had caught the sun and all the places that had never seen it. She’d committed every inch of Xena’s body to memory, held it locked inside of her like something precious, something hers and hers alone. They’d done this countless times together, her and Xena, sharing space and skin and water all the time; bathing together like this was practically second nature by now, but all of a sudden it felt like something wholly new. It set every nerve alight and left her more sensitive than she’d ever been in her life.
“It’s all right,” Xena whispered, Callisto’s lips achingly close to her ear. “It’s only me.”
“Is it?” Gabrielle’s voice was a squeak again, almost a whimper.
“Yeah.” She kept her voice low, drawing out the word almost to its breaking point, as though every syllable was worth a million dinars. “Remember that, all right? It’s me.”
“Xena,” Gabrielle breathed, letting the name wash down the acid panic. “Xena.”
“That’s right. That’s good.”
Gabrielle nodded, swallowed, but still didn’t open her eyes. “I don’t… is this supposed to prove something?”
“I’m not sure yet.” She shifted a little, probably shrugging, and sloshed water over the side of the tub. “Honestly, I’m just sort of making it up as I go along.”
“That’s comforting,” Gabrielle muttered.
Xena chuckled, but didn’t counter. “Look. You said you can’t look at me. I thought it might help a little if you didn’t have to.”
“You thought it might…” Her voice cracked again, a tremulous hitch that rippled like the water. “Xena, I don’t know if I’m ready for this level of intimacy with Callisto’s private parts. And this… this isn’t exactly calming.”
“It’s not supposed to be calming,” Xena said, though she sounded maddeningly calm herself. “And it’s not about Callisto’s private parts. Or mine, or yours, or… look, never mind. Just keep your eyes closed, all right?”
Gabrielle didn’t point out that she had every intention of doing that no matter what Xena said. Not being able to see made everything feel very strange, heightening and changing the sensations above and below the water, all the wet and dry places where Xena pressed up against her. They fit together as easily as they always did, limbs and bodies touching in most of the usual places; Xena used Callisto’s body exactly like her own, and with her eyes closed and her thoughts turned inward it was much easier for Gabrielle to let herself imagine that nothing had changed. She could almost believe, if she really put her mind to it, that if she found the courage to turn around she really would find her Xena, whole and healed and herself.
Almost. She knew the truth, though, and even with her eyes shut she wasn’t blind enough to lose sight of it. Every time she let it float away, it turned back and surged over her again, rocking her down to her bones. It made her body quake, made her breath come out in strangled, rattling gasps, made her want to dive back under the water and stay there.
Xena kept her close, whispered her own name over and over into her ear, and never needed to ask what was wrong. She held her close when she twitched and groaned, leaned in over her, hooked her legs loose around her hips and pressed her breasts tight against her shoulder blades, arms strong and steadying over her bruised torso. Sometimes, when Gabrielle’s breath grew slower again, she leaned in closer, stretched out Callisto’s long neck to rest her jaw against Gabrielle’s cheek.
Gabrielle had never been more aware of the differences between their two bodies than she was right now, locked together like the lovers they ought to be. She was frightened, breathless, and the water was so very cold.
“It’s me,” Xena murmured again, and her voice was still so low. Her arms were light around Gabrielle’s waist, holding her close without ever holding her down, and when Gabrielle finally found the courage to open her eyes, to look down and find those skittering spider’s hands, the water had distorted them beyond recognition. “It’s still me.”
Gabrielle nodded, swallowed a breath. “It’s you.” Hearing it in her own voice helped, if only a little. “It’s you, it’s you, it’s… Xena…”
“It’s me.” Again, and then again, as many times as it took for Gabrielle to stop shaking. “It’s me, Gabrielle. It’s me, and it’s you. It’s us, the same as we’ve always been.”
Not exactly the same, Gabrielle thought, but she didn’t say it.
She felt raw all over, vulnerable, like a wound cut down to the bone, healed just enough that it didn’t quite hurt any more but still felt open and hot. It was such a strange feeling, being here like this; the parts of her that had missed Xena’s touch clashed violently with the parts that wouldn’t let her forget that it wasn’t her body. It was Callisto’s breath, Callisto’s skin that caressed her own; it was Callisto’s arms around her waist, Callisto’s breasts pressing into her shoulders, Callisto’s legs slung over her hips, but the sensation didn’t end there any more.
Here, now, this… it was more intimate than knowing that the hands beneath the water belonged to her worst enemy. It was so much deeper than knowing what she’d find if she turned around to look at her. It burned hotter, because though the body was still Callisto’s the touch was unmistakably Xena’s. Gabrielle couldn’t forget what those hands once did, how much blood had soaked the skin, but nor could she forget the countless times that Xena had touched her just like this. The contact was frightening, yes, but the rhythm was achingly familiar; when her breath hitched, when her body shook or shivered, when she felt herself start to panic, it was Xena who held her close, Xena who rocked her like she knew she liked, Xena who soothed her with the words she knew would help. It was Xena, and it could never be anyone else.
“It’s me.” Again. Again. “It’s me, Gabrielle. It’s me.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle closed her eyes again. “Xena.” She tasted salt on her lips, strong and wet, and knew as if from a distance that she was crying. “Xena…”
“It’s me.” Xena was crying too. “I love you.”
Gabrielle thought of Cyrene. She remembered the look in her eyes after that terrible dream, the doubt and the way it melted into faith; she remembered how easily, how naturally she believed in her, even when she couldn’t bring herself to truly believe. Prophecy in dreams was more than she could accept, even from someone like Gabrielle, but she had looked into her eyes and that was enough. Gabrielle remembered the tenderness in her, touched by a kind of sorrow, the way she softened right through when she said ‘I only need to look at you…’
She remembered, too, the way that softness shifted, the way it became something else when Gabrielle swallowed down her fears to ask ‘what if you couldn’t look at me?’. She hadn’t needed to say Xena’s name, hadn’t needed to voice the feelings that were eating her alive; she hadn’t needed to say anything at all. Cyrene had heard it all, just as prophetic in her own way as Gabrielle’s dream.
‘Then I would look elsewhere,’ she’d said, but Gabrielle hadn’t understood. Every inch of Xena was a part of Callisto. Where else was she supposed to look?
She didn’t understand back then, but she did now. And when she turned her head with her eyes still closed, she saw.
Her lips found the crook of Xena’s neck, the skin warm and mostly dry above the water. She leaned up, just as she always had to lean up when Xena was behind her, a scene they’d played out countless times before; Callisto wasn’t as tall as Xena, but she was closer to her height than Gabrielle’s, and it came more naturally than she expected it to, leaning up and finding the same places. She wouldn’t open her eyes, wouldn’t look, but she felt and she knew, and when Xena’s arms loosened just a little more around her waist, helpless and hopeful but ever mindful of her injuries, the hands that found her hips didn’t feel like spiders at all.
Gabrielle pressed her lips to Xena’s skin, salt-wet and slick. “I love you.”
Xena’s breath caught in her throat. Gabrielle could feel it all, the pulse in her neck hammering against her mouth and her heart pounding against her back.
“I love you,” Xena echoed, almost desperate. “I love you, Gabrielle. I…”
“I’ve missed you.” She wanted to open her eyes, to watch the skin flush under her breath, but she didn’t. The risk was too great. “I’ve missed having you like this.”
Xena nodded. The movement brought her head low enough that Gabrielle could tuck her own underneath it, could feel Callisto’s jaw curving over her temple. She turned her face to the side, and kissed her there as well. Xena, she thought. Xena, Xena, Xena.
“You have me,” Xena breathed, a promise that ran so much deeper than the points of contact, the press of wet lips on almost dry skin, the places where their bodies fit together.
Gabrielle reached for Xena’s hands underneath the water, grazed the knuckles with her palms. Breathless, gasping into the crook of Xena’s neck, she found Callisto’s long fingers, the ones that had given her so many nightmares. She didn’t flinch this time, didn’t push them away or cringe or cower, or do any of the things her nerves screamed for. She threaded her own between them, and held on as tight as she could.
Xena, she thought again, over and over, letting the name come in rhythm with her kisses. Xena, pressed to the edge of her jaw. Xena, trailed down the length of her throat. Xena, catching the curve between neck and shoulder. Xena, Xena, Xena, again and again until she almost imagined she could feel the skin transforming under her lips, until she could almost believe that it truly was Xena’s again, the way it ought to be. It awed her, how easy this became when she didn’t have to look, when she couldn’t see, when she had nothing but touch and taste to guide her, nothing but faith to define what it all meant.
They stayed like that for a long time, locked together, connected and reconnecting. Xena was pliant, leaning back against the edge of the tub and letting Gabrielle do what she liked; she didn’t say much, the occasional “I love you” or “it’s me” whispered into her ear or breathed against the top of her head, but it was enough. More than enough, it kept Gabrielle grounded, kept her awake and alive to the fact that this was still different, that it wasn’t truly the same, that there was still so much they needed to overcome. It kept her from going too far, kept her from making this more than either of them were ready for.
It was harder than she thought it would be, holding back and not getting carried away. Gabrielle breathed slowly, shallowly, and when she drew Callisto’s hands out of the water, kissed the fingers one by one with her eyes still closed, traced the lines from tip to knuckle, it felt like she was pulling apart all the hurt and the anger and the fear, and finding the love and the beauty she’d all but lost. It was like unravelling Callisto and putting Xena back together, reshaping with her lips and her hands all the things that her eyes had told her were something else, something wrong and twisted. It was stripping down everything she hated and finally, finally finding the woman she loved.
She said it, too. More times than either one of them could count, in time with her kisses and in harmony with her feelings. “Xena, Xena, Xena,” and “I love you, I love you, I love you.” She breathed the words across Callisto’s knuckles, over Callisto’s fingers, into Callisto’s skin, but it was Xena who trembled.
It was Xena who put an end to it, too, though Gabrielle could feel the reluctance in her. She didn’t want to end this any more than Gabrielle did, but she was always the practical one, always the one with the strength and self-awareness to pull back from something beautiful. It was late, or it would be soon, and they couldn’t stay in here forever.
They wanted to, though. Gabrielle would have given her soul to spend another minute connecting with Xena’s, and Xena was so gentle, so hesitant when she pulled back her hands, when she let them rest for a moment or two on Gabrielle’s shoulder, as though she too would give anything to make this last just a moment longer.
“Don’t open your eyes,” she said, sweet but very serious.
Gabrielle didn’t need to ask why. She was as afraid as Xena was of what would happen when she caught sight of Callisto’s face again. They both knew that it was inevitable — she couldn’t very well wander around with her eyes closed for the rest of her life — but neither one of them were ready to give up just yet on the steps they’d taken in here, the breathlessness and the beauty and the love. There wouldn’t always be a convenient bathtub to save them and wash them clean, and they wouldn’t always have Cyrene waiting downstairs to offer her sage mother’s advice, but they had both learned in their own way to take what small victories they could, and it was an instinct alight in them both to draw this one out for as long as they could before it unravelled.
Gabrielle groped for the edge of the tub, desperate for something to ground her, something to brace against as Xena shifted and stretched behind her. She allowed them a final moment, a heartbeat or two to relish the closeness, then slowly climbed to her feet.
Water cascaded down over Gabrielle’s head, cold and deeply unpleasant. Even with her eyes closed, it stung in them, making her almost grateful that she didn’t want to see because she doubted she’d be able to now anyway. The irony made her chuckle a little, made her feel lighter than she had in days, and she said so aloud, blurting the thought out before it could run away from her, before her common sense had a chance to catch up and stop her from sharing a moment of silliness with Xena.
“I couldn’t see anything, anyway,” she griped, making a show of sounding put out and miserable. “Callisto’s body makes you clumsy.”
Xena snorted. “It’s because she’s so short,” she said, knowing that Gabrielle would be offended by that. Even next to Callisto, she was still a head shorter, and Xena knew that perfectly well. “It throws me off-balance.”
“Now you’re just making excuses,” Gabrielle said. “And bad ones, at that.”
“You think?” Her voice was playful enough, but much higher now that she was out of the tub. Without the added weight, it had slipped closer to Callisto’s, and it made Gabrielle itch under her skin. “Maybe next time we ought to put you in Joxer’s body and see how graceful you are.”
Gabrielle dove back down under the water for a few seconds, let her lungs start to burn and used the strain to compose herself. “That’s cheating,” she spluttered when she surfaced again. “I was never that graceful to begin with.”
“You underestimate yourself,” Xena said with touching fondness. Gabrielle didn’t need to open her eyes to know that she had watched her dive under, that she was staring at her now, no doubt with that look on her face, that sorrow-touched-with-affection look she got sometimes when she thought Gabrielle wouldn’t notice. “You’re always doing that.”
“And you’re always changing the subject.” Her throat felt very tight, though, and it was suddenly hard to breathe. She wanted Xena to get back into the tub, to slide in behind her. She wanted it to be less difficult to keep her eyes shut. “Xena…”
“Yeah, I know.” If she did, it didn’t stop her from changing it again. “Look. I’m going to head back downstairs, see if I can talk my mother into cooking us something already dead for dinner. How’s that sound?”
As always, Gabrielle’s senses lit up at the promise of food. Despite her better instincts, she found herself cracking her eyes open. Not fully, not even really halfway, just enough to get a hazy shadow of the room, to make out the shape of Callisto’s body but none of her features. She was lanky, all sharp edges and tight angles, skinny in all the places where Xena was muscular and long in all the places she was broad. She was so, so thin, and for just a moment or two Gabrielle couldn’t see anything scary in her at all.
Xena was pulling on her sword belt, adjusting all the straps and leathers and accessories like she did it every day, like the clothes came as naturally to her as everything else. Gabrielle found that she couldn’t look away, couldn’t stop watching the way she moved, slinky and slender where she used to be strong and solid. It made her tremble a bit, just like it always did, but somehow it didn’t feel the same.
Her vision was blurry, Callisto’s body a silhouette at best through half-closed eyes still stinging with bath water. It didn’t look real. It looked like another one of her dreams, the ones that stopped her heart in her chest and left her shaking and soaked through with sweat when she woke. It looked like a dream, but it wasn’t; Callisto’s body was real, but so was Xena’s soul, and for the first time Gabrielle realised that she did know the difference, that she could see the space between them after all.
“That sounds great,” she said, and they both knew she wasn’t talking about the food. “That sounds… really great.”
“All right, then.” Xena’s lips quirked into a grin, mischievous but still uncomfortably close to the real Callisto. Gabrielle slammed her eyes shut again before the hate and the fear had a chance to rise back up and take her, before she pushed this too far and broke it. “I guess I’ll leave you to your bath. Try to take it easy, though, all right?”
Gabrielle tried to laugh. “I think I can manage that.”
It didn’t sicken her when she said that this time. It didn’t make her think of the real Callisto any more, the way she would look at her when she had her by the neck or the throat, when she used her as bait or manipulated her or made her into something less than human. This time it just made her think of Xena, her Xena, and the way that she softened when Gabrielle did something to make her proud.
It didn’t sicken her either when Xena crossed back to her side, when she knelt and reached out to touch her without permission, when she squeezed her shoulder and kissed her forehead, when she held the contact for just a heartbeat too long.
For the first time, Gabrielle didn’t flinch. She didn’t say ‘don’t touch me’, didn’t shudder or pull away or wish for the moment to end.
She leaned into it, body and soul, and whispered “I love you, Xena.”