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Wicked Eyes And Wicked Hearts

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***

“What does it feel like?”

It was a stupid question; Gabrielle knew that almost before she’d even gotten it out. It was insensitive and cruel and stupid, and she desperately wished that she could take it back.

Xena didn’t say anything. Of course she didn’t; that would be too kind. Instead, she spent the next ten seconds staring at her like she’d grown an extra head or something. Her mouth was half-open, brows crinkling in an expression that should have been far more familiar than it was in the moment; it was a patented Xena-scowl, the one that said ‘for someone who claims to have a way with words, you really seem to enjoy putting your foot in your mouth’, and she wore it approximately two thousand times a day. Under normal circumstances Gabrielle would have shrugged it off, laughing and probably blushing a little, but naturally this was about as far from normal circumstances as anything could be.

The look itself was familiar, but it wasn’t Xena’s face wearing it. It was Callisto’s face, twisted and terrible, and that made it terrifying.

Gabrielle turned her own face away. She couldn’t help it. Her breath was catching in her throat, a seizure starting in her chest, and she had to squeeze her eyes shut because the sun was still too low and not yet bright enough to blind her like she wanted it to. She felt like she needed to hide. Inexplicably, horribly, she wanted to run away and hide from the woman she loved.

She tried to focus on other things instead, to think about the world around her, the familiar warmth of a new day. There was a fire burning high between them and the smell of breakfast cooking over it, but the whole thing felt so hollow and futile that it didn’t really help her to forget anything. Neither she nor Xena were cold or particularly hungry; the food, if not the fire, would probably end up going to waste, and the feint at routine didn’t help either of them forget where they were or what had happened. Callisto’s body was still sitting right there on the other side of the stupid fire, her face half in shadow and her dark, dangerous eyes lit up by the flames; it was impossible for Gabrielle to see them and not be chilled down to her soul.

That was cruel too, for both of them. Cruel and new, and painful beyond words. Xena was her best friend, her best possibly-more-than-friend at this point; she was the most important person in Gabrielle’s life, but Gabrielle couldn’t stand the sight of her now, couldn’t even look her in the eye when she asked those stupid, insensitive questions.

She wanted to. She wanted to be brave and warrior-stoic and unfeeling, to straighten her spine and square her shoulders and be miraculously all right with the whole situation, but she wasn’t and she couldn’t pretend to be. The wounds Callisto had cut into her were still too raw, festering deep inside, and she didn’t know how to ignore them. She wasn’t strong like Xena, wasn’t heartless like Callisto; she was just the sidekick, the one caught in the middle, left to suffer every time they clashed, and she wasn’t made to deal with things like this.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, ashamed of herself for so much more than the question. “I shouldn’t have asked. I shouldn’t… I…” She sighed. “I’m sorry.”

Xena sighed too, a deep, heavy Xena-sigh. She sounded almost as tired as Gabrielle felt, and as miserable too, though of course she wore both those things better than Gabrielle ever could. Like everything else, she made it seem almost easy.

“It’s all right,” she said, and Gabrielle tried not to tremble as Callisto’s lips twisted the words into their opposite. “You can ask. If you like.”

That was a strange way of putting it, though knowing Xena it was probably on purpose; she had a way with words too, in her own way, and she was very good at making her points without stating them outright. There was nothing about this situation that either one of them liked, and Gabrielle knew her too well to believe for a second that that wasn’t at the front of her mind when she said the word out loud. She was probably goading her, trying to get a reaction; it was the closest she would ever get to saying ‘tell me how you really feel’.

Of course, Gabrielle didn’t need to tell her. Not really. They both knew that Xena understood, whether she heard the words or not. She always did, and she never judged. She wouldn’t look askance or sigh or shake her head if Gabrielle said out loud what they both knew she was thinking, if she swallowed her pride and blurted out ‘I can’t deal with you like this’ or ‘I can’t stand the sight of your soul in her eyes’. Xena wouldn’t be angry with her for feeling that way, wouldn’t be upset or offended or any of those things that a lesser person — a person like Gabrielle — might be. She would just smile, touch her hand or her face, and say ‘I know’.

Gabrielle would never tell her that she couldn’t deal with that either. Xena’s smile on Callisto’s lips, Callisto’s skittering spider’s hands mimicking Xena’s touch… even just the thought of it made her want to scream.

So she ignored the word, the invitation, all of it. She just shook her head and said, “No.”

Xena’s shoulders slumped. Whether it was disappointment or relief, Gabrielle couldn’t say, but she supposed it didn’t matter. “Are you—”

“Yes. It was a stupid question, and I shouldn’t have asked. Besides, what good would it do?”

“It’s always good to know what we’re dealing with, Gabrielle.” She sounded so patient, so Xena. If she closed her eyes, Gabrielle could almost imagine that she really was herself, that it was only the early morning wind making voice sound so strange. “You know there’s no such thing as a stupid question.”

“Only stupid answers, right?” She didn’t close her eyes, didn’t let herself imagine, but she wanted to. Even if it only lasted a second or two, she wanted to. “It doesn’t matter. Stupid or not, I guess I didn’t really want to hear it anyway.”

Xena sighed. It made Callisto sound raspy and hoarse. “You’ll have to hear it eventu…” she started, then cut herself off with another sigh, as though she couldn’t bring herself to break Gabrielle’s heart with the truth. “Never mind. You’re right, of course. We should both take some time to figure this out first. We can talk about it tomorrow, or the next day.” She wet her lips; Gabrielle watched the curve of Callisto’s tongue and shuddered. “It’s not like it’s going anywhere.”

“I wish it would.”

Just like the question, she blurted it out without thinking, and just like before she regretted it almost instantly. Xena sucked in her breath, sharp and sudden, and Gabrielle didn’t need to look at Callisto’s face to know that the words had struck a critical blow.

“Yeah, well.” She sounded bitter, almost defeated. For a moment, Gabrielle hated herself because she found that she almost preferred it that way. Callisto never sounded like that, even when she knew that she had lost; only Xena would let someone else see that kind of weakness in her. “I’m afraid wishing won’t get us anywhere. We either accept things the way they are, or…”

She didn’t finish. She didn’t need to; Gabrielle knew where this was going. ‘If you don’t want to come with me…’ she said earlier, and Gabrielle saw those same words taking shape on her tongue all over again, as unnatural now as they were back then. It was strange; for all her madness, Callisto’s voice was so much sweeter than Xena’s, so much softer and purer when turned to compassion like this. The sentiment wasn’t hers, could never be hers, but the voice was and it made the ache in Xena’s heart sound gentler than her own ever had.

Gabrielle didn’t want to think about that. She couldn’t bear it, couldn’t let herself wonder what sort of a woman Callisto might have been if the Fates had set her on her a different path, or if they’d set Xena on one. She couldn’t afford to question, to imagine the lives either one of them might have lived if some tiny piece of the world had been just a little different.

It made her ache in a place deeper than her heart to hear Callisto’s voice turned to softness like this. For perhaps the first time she realised that her voice, like the rest of her, was not made for madness or violence; it was a bard’s voice, a poet’s. It was, in truth, the kind of voice that Gabrielle might almost have wanted for herself. She had never noticed it before — who could have, when every word Callisto ever said was hateful and spiteful and cruel? — but she heard it now. The same voice that had said such terrible things, that had made the world so ugly, was made into something new and beautiful by Xena’s words.

It made her sad, but it also gave her a fresh sort of hope. If Xena said or did enough beautiful things while she was stuck like this, if she let enough of her soft soul shine through Callisto’s hard eyes, if she poured enough of her heart into Callisto’s voice and hands, maybe Gabrielle could take something new from the body that had brought her so much pain. It was too late to redeem the soul, the tortured creature that used to live there, but maybe it wasn’t too late to see the body put to good use, to find something precious inside that broken, damaged frame. If anyone could make that happen, it was Xena; if anyone could find it, it was Gabrielle.

“You’re not her.” It felt like too much, saying it out loud, like digging her nails into an open wound. “I know that. I mean, obviously I know it. It’s just… it’s uncomfortable to look at you, you know? After what she did… who she was… it’s not easy.” She sighed, wished that she could be better, that she could be like Xena would be. “I’ll get there. I will. I’ll… I’ll accept it. You. Her. This. I mean, I have accepted. I do. Sort of. I’m here, anyway. I’m with you. I am, and I…”

“Gabrielle.”

“I know.” She closed her eyes for a moment. It made things easier, though not by much. “I know it’s you in there, Xena. I do know that. Callisto would never… I mean, she doesn’t…” She doesn’t sound like that. She would never say the things you do. I never knew her voice could sound so sweet until it was yours. “I just… I just need some time. Is that all right?”

Saying it made her feel weak; asking made her feel even weaker. It made her feel stupid again, and smaller than she’d felt in many years. She hated knowing that Xena would have found it easier to adjust if their positions had been reversed, if it was sweet little Gabrielle wearing the body of her sadistic nemesis. Xena hated Callisto more than anyone, or almost anyone, but it wasn’t like this for her. Xena could look past anything, could cut through any situation and find the truth hiding underneath; sometimes, it seemed like she didn’t even need to try. If things had gone the other way, she would find Gabrielle behind Callisto’s eyes as easily as if she hadn’t transformed at all. She wouldn’t need any time.

“Of course it’s all right,” Xena said, though Gabrielle couldn’t help noticing the way she had to swallow down another sigh. “And, well, the good news is, we’ve got all the time in the world. So…”

“Don’t say that!” It came out harsh, like a lash against a wall. She didn’t know why it meant so much to her, why it mattered so much that they not give in, that Xena not surrender herself to this, but it did. It mattered so, so much. “You don’t know that for sure. It might not… it might not be, you know, permanent. It might… there might be… you might… you can’t… you…”

“Gabrielle.”

“Don’t!” She had to shout, had to make it angry, or she’d start crying, and she would not start crying in front of Callisto’s face. “Xena, please. I know it’s important to you that I accept it… that I accept you like this. I know that, and I do. Accept you. Like… like this. But don’t tell me there’s no way out. Don’t tell me there’s no chance. Don’t tell me that we can’t… that you… that I’ll never see your…” She clenched her fists, breathing hard; she felt like she was drowning, lungs ready to burst. “I need to hope. I can’t do anything else, but I need to do that. All right? I need to hope.”

“All right.” It was Xena’s smile, Xena’s warmth crinkling the corners of Callisto’s eyes, Xena’s light shining out of that twisted face. It terrified her. “You do that, then. Hope. For both of us.”

Gabrielle nodded. She tried to smile back, but her lips trembled and her heart stopped when she met Callisto’s eyes. That awful, drowning-like feeling surged higher, threatened to break her, and she had to turn away. She didn’t want to, didn’t want to prove herself a coward, but she couldn’t bear it. At least not right now.

This afternoon, maybe this evening, she’d try again. She would force herself to look Callisto — Xena in the eye, maybe even hold her gaze for a few seconds. Tomorrow, she’d try for a few more, then more the day after, until finally she could look at her for a full minute, then two, then three. Longer and longer, until she could hold a whole conversation without feeling the hurt and the hate squeezing her heart to dust, without feeling her stomach clench and her fingers twist into fists at her sides.

Xena watched her. She was worried, Gabrielle could tell, but she looked so much like Callisto that it felt more like staring, like she was trying to figure her out, searching for her weaknesses, the soft spots she could expose and hurt.

“Gabrielle?”

“Do you have to say it like that?” It came out like an accusation, like it was Xena’s fault that her voice wasn’t her own, like it was her fault that Gabrielle’s name sounded so wrong on Callisto’s tongue. It was unfair, she knew, and fought to control herself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you like that. It’s just… do you have to?”

“Would you rather I call you something else?” Xena asked. From anyone else, it might have sounded sarcastic, but even in Callisto’s body Xena was the most honest person Gabrielle had ever met. Not open, exactly, but she never said anything she didn’t truly mean. She was being sincere, “If it’ll make it easier to adjust, I can call you something different, something she’s never said. We can find a name. We—”

“No. It’s fine.” It wasn’t, of course; they both knew that, but Gabrielle couldn’t bring herself to make any more demands, couldn’t bear the thought of making Xena feel even worse than she already did. “It’s just… you don’t really sound anything like her, but then you sound so much like her. It’s hard. It’s so hard.” She swallowed. “It makes my heart hurt.”

“I know,” Xena said, ever so softly. “It makes mine hurt too.”

That helped, rather more than Gabrielle wanted to admit. That she wasn’t the only one hurting from this, that she wasn’t alone in feeling helpless and wounded and ripped open, that she wasn’t the only one struggling to make sense of all the contradictions that flooded her soul every time she looked at her best friend and found her worst enemy. Xena was struggling too, and that meant it was something big enough to struggle with. Xena never struggled, never hurt or felt helpless against anything unless it was big.

Gabrielle was the one who struggled, the one who felt helpless and small and stupid. She was the one who faltered and floundered and fell over, the one who couldn’t handle things that Xena coasted through without even blinking. Xena was always so calm, so composed, so unfathomably strong. She was so much of everything that Gabrielle could never be; Gabrielle often felt like a liability when they stumbled into something she couldn’t deal with, when Xena laughed and shrugged and didn’t even blink. It happened all the time, it seemed, and she was never, ever good enough.

It helped, so much, that Xena felt it this time, as well. It helped that for once Gabrielle wasn’t the only one who couldn’t deal with something. It helped her to think of all this as a real thing, a real problem, a worthy one; it made it tangible, made it real. It helped her to close her eyes and picture it as something solid, a big, heavy box that the two of them could carry together.

“Is it bad?” she asked, and this time she didn’t want to take the question back. She wanted to hear the answer, wanted to feel it resonate inside of her. “Having her so close, I mean, and so much a part of you. It’s like you’re here but you’re not. Or, well, that’s what it looks like. Does it feel that way?”

Xena shook her head. “No,” she said. “I know who I am. This body might have once belonged to Callisto, but there’s nothing left of her inside it now. The real Callisto, the one that made this body what you see… she’s dead, rotting in Tartarus for eternity, like she deserves. I’m the one who’s in here now, and I haven’t changed. Oh, I’m a little shorter, and my arms aren’t as strong, but my soul is still my own. I don’t know much, but I know that.”

“That’s good,” Gabrielle murmured, and wished that it was enough.

“It is,” Xena agreed, very quietly. “But you…”

This time, she was the one who turned away. The flames from the fire danced in Callisto’s eyes, and Gabrielle had to swallow very hard as that awful feeling surged up in her again. Anger, hatred, and the kind of fear she couldn’t temper; it threatened to swallow her, threatened to shatter her. She hated Callisto for what she’d done, hated her for what she’d taken away; she would never forgive her for Perdicus, would never stop hating her for that, but she was afraid of her as well, and she hated herself so much more than Callisto for that.

It was so hard, though. When Xena stared into the flames, lost in thought, lost inside herself, and Gabrielle caught the firelight in Callisto’s eyes, it was so hard not to remember the heat of a very different fire, the helplessness and horror of being tied to a stake and burned alive. It was so hard not to remember being a thousand feet off the ground, wriggling and flailing and helpless as Xena and Callisto fought on ladders what seemed like a thousand miles below. A knife at her throat in one moment, a sword to her chest in the next, flames and falling and Callisto’s skittering spider’s hands stroking down the side of her face… it made her feel sick with guilt, and sicker with terror.

She knew she should be thinking of Perdicus, that the anger and the hatred and the thirst for vengeance should be driving her above and beyond all else. Maybe if it did, she could fight it off more easily. But it wasn’t, and when she looked into Callisto’s eyes, even knowing that they were Xena’s, it was her own mortality, not Perdicus’s, that surged into the back of her throat and made her want to scream.

‘You…’ Xena said, and Gabrielle wished it wasn’t herself she was thinking of right now.

“What about me?” she asked, and hated herself.

Xena shook her head, as though shaking herself out of her own thoughts. “You’re what hurts, Gabrielle. The way you flinch, the way you won’t look at me, the way you still see her even when you’re trying so hard not to. You’re my heart, my soul, my strength… and you despise me.”

“I don’t despise you.” The word felt like an accusation, like the worst kind of crime. “It’s just… it’s hard.”

“It is hard,” Xena agreed. She sounded so distant, so thoughtful, as though she was speaking to herself so much more than Gabrielle. “It’s hard, yes. But it’s not the end of the world.”

“I know.” She wanted to believe it, she really did, but that was hard as well. “We’ve been through worse.”

“Much worse. And more often than either one of us can count.” Her voice broke. Gabrielle couldn’t tell which of them she was trying to convince. “You’ll tell me if there’s anything you need? If there’s anything I can do to make this easier?”

“Of course.”

It was a lie, but it brought a touch of comfort to them both, and that was what mattered. Xena was so wracked with guilt and self-doubt, so desperate to know that her best friend still trusted her, that her soul and her strength wouldn’t run away, that they really could work through this thing together.

It was difficult to read her feelings on Callisto’s face, not least of all because Gabrielle still couldn’t bring herself to look at her for more than a second or two at a time, but she didn’t need to read the anxiety on the surface to know that it was there beneath, that the small part of Xena that allowed itself to feel fear was terrified that this would prove too much, that Gabrielle would be unable to cope, that she really would end up leaving.

That wasn’t going to happen. Not now, not ever. Gabrielle might never be able to fully let go of the things she felt when she looked up and saw Callisto’s face; she might never be able to give up the grief and the pain and the hate that seethed in her stomach when she thought of her, might never be able to temper the parts of her that were afraid, but she would cling to her hope, the quiet faith that this was not forever.

No matter the odds stacked against them, no matter how certain Xena was that this really was it, that they needed to make their peace with the facts and move on, Gabrielle would not do that. Until the day she died, even if it was still Callisto looking down and holding her hand, still she would hope. She would find something else, just like she always did. She would find a better way.

Leaving wasn’t an option. It never had been, and it never would be. It broke her heart that Xena still couldn’t believe that.

“Gabrielle…”

And there it was, just as she knew it would be: the hesitation, the insecurity. It didn’t matter to Xena that she now wore the face of a crazed murderer; in her mind, that had been her face for years now. Gabrielle was the only one who had ever thought differently, and that was what frightened her. More than anything, she was so, so afraid that the one person who had always seen her as something better would no longer be able to.

Gabrielle swallowed her own feelings. “I promise,” she said. “If there’s anything you can do, or anything I need, or… anything… I promise I’ll let you know.”

Callisto’s face relaxed as Xena smiled. “Good girl,” she said, and Gabrielle did not tell her that those words in that voice made her feel sick.

Breakfast, to nobody’s surprise, was a failed affair. Gabrielle wasn’t hungry, and she could tell that Xena wasn’t either, and what little appetite either one of them might have found was quickly smothered by the inedible food.

Xena had caught the thing an hour or so earlier, a rabbit or something like one, and neither of them had been paying much attention while it cooked; now, it sat miserably in front of them, blackened and unrecognisable. The meat, if it could be called that, was tough and overcooked, and Gabrielle couldn’t have gotten her teeth into it even if she’d wanted to. Under the circumstances, the lack of focus was more than understandable, but it was enough to make Gabrielle wish that Xena had let them stay in Amphipolis with Cyrene and her culinary talents.

Apparently determined to prove that she wouldn’t be bested by a badly-cooked meal, Xena ate like a warrior. She tore at the meat with her teeth, swallowing like she didn’t even taste it at all. Maybe she didn’t, or else maybe she’d just trained herself not to care too much; either way she got through it without the least effort, making it look easy.

Gabrielle was not so gifted in the art of barbarism, and didn’t even bother to try. She just stared down at the fire, let her eyes lose their focus, and willed herself not to think back, not to remember the look on Xena’s face when she skinned the poor animal, firelight gleaming off the blade and her eyes; she had been so focused she looked almost crazy, so much like Callisto, and Gabrielle had been so frightened.

Now, even eating like an animal as she was, Xena looked more like herself, but that didn’t make it any easier to keep from remembering, to keep from thinking about those moments and running the scenario through in her head. A momentary loss of temper, a knife or her sword or chakram in her hands, and what if?

She knew that it was Xena in there, her Xena, the real Xena. She really, truly did. But still, in those moments when she was focused or distant or just plain lost, still the question wormed itself unbidden into Gabrielle’s head. What if?

“Gabrielle.”

She turned away from the fire, away from Xena. She let her see her back, the tightness of her shoulders and the space between them where a blade could fit so neatly.

“That,” she muttered, letting the word shape itself into a pout. “You wanted to know what you can do to make it less hard? You can stop saying that.”

Xena snorted. “I will, when you stop acting like a petulant child.” She was trying to sound stern, a feint at their usual light-hearted banter; it worked, probably in some part because Gabrielle wasn’t looking at her this time. It was easier not to be affected by what she couldn’t see. “Eat your breakfast.”

“You burned my breakfast.”

Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle gritted her teeth, willed herself not to turn back. She wanted to scowl, to cross her arms and sulk and do all the things she usually did when they argued over silly little nothings like this; she wanted to make it comfortable and familiar, to make it like it used to be, but she knew that it would all be undone if she turned back. It would all fall apart, go up in smoke just like her breakfast if she found those eyes again, if she found that face, those hands, those eyes, if she let herself remember exactly whose voice was gritting out her name like that. It was easier to pretend, to close her eyes and imagine something that wasn’t true, and she didn’t care if that made her weak or stupid. She would not ruin an almost-normal moment by striving for something too real.

“I’m not hungry,” she said.

Xena blew out a noisy, frustrated breath. “I understand that,” she said. “The gods know, it’s not exactly appetising. But we’ve got a long day ahead of us and you need to keep your strength up. This body isn’t as strong as mine, or as tall. I won’t be able to carry you if you faint from malnourishment.”

“Sure you will,” Gabrielle quipped. “Test your limits. See what you’re capable of. You’ll never know unless you try.”

Gabrielle.” There was no smile in her voice now. It was every bit the Callisto they both hated, and that shattered the illusion as sure as anything. “Eat your breakfast.”

Finally, and despite her better judgement, Gabrielle did turn back. She wanted to see Callisto now. She wanted to look into that face she hated, wanted to get angry. She hated being told what to do, even at the best of times; it was bad enough when it was the real Xena, when she was clucking and coddling and treating her like a kid, but neither one of them were ready to revisit that just now. She turned around, and she glared.

There she was, just like before. Xena, inside Callisto’s body, mouth twisted and teeth sharp, and the sight of her sitting there, eyes too dark and hair too light, drove a lance of rage straight through Gabrielle’s chest. It burned, searing like the fire between them, so potent that it almost blinded her. She lurched to her feet, nearly losing her balance in her rush to get away, to put some space between them before she put her fist through Callisto’s — Xena’s face.

“I said I’m not hungry.” She wasn’t smiling now either, but at least she wasn’t afraid this time. The anger was safer; it made her feel like she was in control. “I’m not going to faint if I skip one meal. I can take care of myself.”

She turned away again, scuffing the dirt with her boots to keep the urges at bay, lashing out at harmless inanimate things so that she wouldn’t lash out at Xena instead.

It was harder than she would ever admit to rein in the anger once she let it ignite, harder than she would ever admit not to lose herself in it completely, not to become intoxicated by how much simpler it was, how much safer than the fear. It surprised her, but of course Xena knew and of course she understood.

She stood up as well, as graceful and perfect in Callisto’s body as she ever was in her own. She was wise enough to keep her distance — no doubt she had seen this kind of anger more times than she could count, on people far more intimidating than Gabrielle — but Gabrielle didn’t need to look at her to know that she was thrown, perhaps even upset, in a way she seldom allowed to show. And why wouldn’t she be? They both knew this was out of character, and they both knew why.

“You’re right,” Xena said at last. Gabrielle didn’t look back, but she let herself relax ever so slightly. “I wasn’t trying to coddle you. It’s just that… well, things are delicate right now. I wouldn’t want to…”

“You wouldn’t want to find yourself in a bind because of me,” Gabrielle said flatly.

“That’s not what I said.” She sounded annoyed, perhaps a little hurt that the woman she loved so much would think so little of her; she knew why, of course, and understood that Gabrielle wasn’t really seeing her at all, but it still seemed to cut that her best friend would find the worst in her. “I know you can hold your own, and I know you can take care of yourself. It’s this body that I don’t trust.”

“Why not?” Gabrielle asked, before she could stop herself. “It’s still you inside, isn’t it?”

Perhaps Xena sensed that she needed the reassurance, that she wanted to hear the words spoken even if she already knew the truth in them. “Of course. But I’m not familiar with it yet. Callisto is… she’s not as tall as I am, or as strong, or as sturdy. Her body has limitations, weaknesses that I have to adapt to. I need to learn what this body is capable of, and what it’s not, and that’s going to take some time. If anything were to happen to you now, while I’m still figuring things out…”

“It won’t.” Gabrielle grimaced, willed herself to be patient. “Xena, we’re talking about one skipped meal, not a free-for-all with blood-sucking banshees. Nothing is going to happen.”

She tried to smile, but it wouldn’t come. Still, Xena seemed to appreciate the gesture; she breathed in deeply, a heavy sort of sound like a sigh in reverse, like she was trying to figure out the best way to express herself so that someone like Gabrielle might understand where she was coming from. Gabrielle wanted to tell her not to bother, to stop wasting her breath, but she didn’t have the heart. She hated feeling this way almost as much as Xena hated seeing it.

“All right,” Xena said after another long moment, letting the words out with her breath. “You don’t have to eat if you don’t want to.”

Thanks for the permission, Gabrielle thought, but she didn’t say it out loud. She didn’t trust herself not to lose control if she did.

“You go ahead and finish,” she said instead, and drove back the unexpected flight of temper. She didn’t want to go back to being afraid, but she didn’t want Xena looking at her like that any more either. “I’ll go and get Argo ready.”

Xena cleared her throat, no doubt to try and conceal her surprise. “Argo?” she echoed, like she’d never heard the name before.

“You heard me,” Gabrielle said, sharp like a warning.

“I did…” Xena murmured, as though she still couldn’t believe it. She didn’t add ‘you two don’t exactly get along’, or ask why the sudden interest, but Gabrielle could tell that she wanted to. Instead, uncharacteristically diplomatic, she said, “All right. But be gentle with her.”

“She’s a horse. I think I can handle a horse.”

“Gabrielle.” The name was a warning, and it sparked a fresh flash of fear in Gabrielle’s chest. “She’s been through a lot too. She’s confused and upset, not to mention injured. After what Callisto did to her…” She trailed off for a moment or two, choking up until Callisto’s voice was all but drowned out by the threat of sudden, unexpected tears. “Look, just try to play nice, all right? That’s all I ask.”

“I will if she will,” Gabrielle muttered, and stalked off before Callisto’s voice had a chance to reassert itself and chide her.

She found Argo tethered to a tree a short way away; it was a good distance, she thought, far enough to offer a little privacy but close enough that there was no risk of either one of them getting ambushed without the other hearing. Xena was nothing if not over-protective of her beloved horse, and probably with good reason; there were no small number of minor warlords out there who weren’t above horse-napping if they thought it would give them a bit of leverage over the famed warrior princess.

(Sometimes, Gabrielle almost wished that someone would try it, just so she could get a little peace and quiet from all that gods-forsaken neighing.)

It wasn’t that she and Argo didn’t get along. At least, not really. Honestly, the heart and bones of it was almost the exact opposite: fact was, they had too much in common. They were too busy vying for Xena’s affection to ever be friends, but both loved her too much to be real enemies either. It was a sort of purgatory, an in-between animosity that turned every moment between them into a kind of competition; Argo whined and sulked every time Gabrielle got a little too close to Xena, and Gabrielle essentially did the same thing when the situation was reversed. It wasn’t her most mature relationship, admittedly, but then again it wasn’t exactly easy to take the moral high ground against a horse.

This morning, though, Argo’s company was a blessing. At the very least, the tension between them was a familiar one, an awkward dance so old they both knew all of the steps backwards. Whatever might have changed between her and Xena, or between Xena and Argo, this at least remained forever the same. Argo wasn’t exactly the most expressive beast Gabrielle had ever met, but she could have sworn she saw her little eyes flash when she approached, and there was nothing subtle in the way she tramped the ground and snorted her aggravation.

‘Why you?’ she demanded in that wordless horsey way of hers.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “Because Xena likes her breakfast more than either one of us.”

Argo, unsurprisingly, did not approve one bit. She reared up, then tossed her head as if to say ‘You displease me, tiny yellow-maned creature! Away with you and your not-so-tiny but equally yellow-maned companion, and do not return until you have the one true Xena!’

On another day, a normal one, Gabrielle would have taken that personally, and responded in kind; the blasted horse was always on her best behaviour when Xena was around, and always on her worst when she wasn’t. Today, though, she knew better. Argo’s attitude, rather like Gabrielle’s own, was a cover for other feelings, less pleasant ones. Just like her, Argo seemed to prefer anger to the alternative. Even horses hated being afraid, she supposed.

“Look,” she said, and didn’t bother trying to fight back. “I’m not happy about it either. But she is Xena. So…”

Argo nickered again, and this time there was no mistaking the confusion in her eyes, or the frustration. Gabrielle’s heart ached for her. On some level, she must understand that the not-so-tiny yellow-maned human was her one true Xena, must have felt that weird soul-bond thing of theirs resonate when she looked at her, but she could not comprehend how or why or what had happened to make it this way. She understood that this was how things were now, but that was as far as her little horse-brain could take her.

It made Gabrielle’s heart ache for her. As intelligent as Argo was by animal standards, she was still ultimately a horse, and this sort of thing was so far beyond her it might as well have been… well, another species. Which it was. Kind of.

To tell the truth, it was pretty far beyond Gabrielle as well, but at least she had the luxury of articulation at her disposal. She could ask questions, get answers, process and understand them; she could do so many things that Argo could not, and it broke her heart to see the poor beast so upset.

For all their animosity, for all that she knew Argo was just a silly horse, still she found that a part of her wanted to try and explain, wanted to try and connect with Argo and help her to make some sense of the chaos she’d been thrown into. Argo was no friend to her, but she was a friend to Xena, and she deserved to understand at least some part of what had happened to her. She deserved to make peace, if she could, with the fact that her Xena, her human soulmate, had been fundamentally changed, perhaps for good.

It wouldn’t do any good. She knew that. But she had to try.

“Look,” she said, very slowly and very carefully. “It’s complicated, okay? It’s complicated and stupid and awful, and it should never have happened at all, but it did, and we can’t change it. That woman out there is Xena. You don’t have to like it, but you can’t change it. It doesn’t matter that she looks like someone else. It doesn’t matter that she looks like the worst person in the world. She’s Xena. Your Xena. My Xena. She’s our Xena. Do you understand me?”

Argo just stared at her. Gabrielle supposed she couldn’t blame her for that; it wasn’t like she believed it herself, after all. Small wonder that she couldn’t convince the silly horse when she couldn’t even convince herself. She wanted to wrap those words around herself, so much more than Argo; she wanted to burn them on her heart, onto her soul, onto every part of her that Xena had ever touched, so that she could reach in and pull them out when she needed them, when Callisto’s eyes flashed or her lips twitched, when it was more than she could do to fight back the visions of Perdicus, of his blood on the same hands that Xena used to touch her shoulder.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said again, more for her own sake than Argo’s. “It doesn’t matter that she looks like the woman who killed Perdicus, who tried to kill me. It doesn’t matter that she looks like your worst enemy… like our worst enemy. She’s not her. She’s not Callisto, she’s Xena. She’s Xena, she’s Xena, she’s Xena! And if you can’t handle that… if you… if you can’t…”

She trailed off, choking on something that tasted like acid and burned like a sob.

Argo whinnied, a low sound that might have been a whimper if she were human and capable of that kind of feeling. She wasn’t tramping at the ground any more; she just stood there, staring balefully at Gabrielle as though she heard and understood every word, as though she could possibly comprehend even the tiniest part of it. Just like Gabrielle, the anger had bled out of her completely, leaving behind something that looking heart-wrenchingly like grief.

Gabrielle swallowed hard, tried again. “She needs us.”

Argo probably know that part on her own, but Gabrielle found that it helped a little to remind herself as well, and helped a little more to pretend that the snort and nicker that followed was her way of saying ‘I know, tiny yellow-maned creature. I know.’

Gabrielle swallowed hard, maybe four or five times, until she could force the tears back down. “She needs us to be strong,” she said. “She needs us to remember who she is. Who else is going to? If she forgets, who else is going to remind her?”

It wasn’t until she said the words that she realised she’d been afraid of that at all, but as soon as the words were out there was nothing she could do to fight the feeling back. It rose up like panic, like a scream, and for a moment it overpowered her completely.

What if? she thought again, inexplicably terrified. What if, what if, what if?

She knew the sort of person Xena used to be, of course. She knew about the warlord who had terrified half of Greece, the warrior princess whose name struck fear into any heart. She knew that she was violent and vicious, hungry for terrible things and thirsty for worse ones; when her Xena spoke about the old one, the one Gabrielle had never met and hopefully never would, she made her sound just like Callisto. She made her sound so ruthless, so bloodthirsty, the kind of person who didn’t care how many lives she took or destroyed or both.

Gabrielle had spent a long time trying very hard not to think about that, the similarities between what she’d seen in Callisto and what she’d heard about Xena. She’d spent a long, long time forcing herself not to wonder if Callisto truly was as irredeemable as her broken heart said she was, if there really was no trace of a softer soul left in that haunting, harmful body. If Xena could be redeemed…

She couldn’t pretend to understand how things worked down in Tartarus, how it could possibly come to pass that a madwoman with a penchant for bloodlust could end up in the body of a slowly-reforming warlord and vice-versa. She didn’t know how it worked, and frankly she didn’t want to, but still a part of her couldn’t help wondering if perhaps that was a part of it. Not just Xena’s guilt or Callisto’s cleverness, not just the things Xena had done to Callisto or the things Callisto had done to Xena in return, but all the rest of it, all the ways that neither one of them wanted to admit they were alike. It didn’t take someone of Gabrielle’s creative talent to see the poetry there, the painful, brutal irony.

It wouldn’t take much to send Xena back to that dark, dangerous place. Gabrielle didn’t want to admit that, but she couldn’t very well deny it either, and especially not right now. She’d seen the fire light up in Xena’s eyes on the battlefield, the thrill and the thrall pulsing in her veins in the middle of a good fight; it would only take the faintest echo of Callisto’s madness to drive her back to that old version of herself, to twist her heart until it hardened again, until she became the power-starved warlord she used to be. If there was even just the faintest shadow of Callisto still inside her body, if even a fragment of that twisted soul still remained inside…

It turned Gabrielle’s stomach to think of it, made her grateful that she didn’t eat breakfast. It wasn’t so far beyond the realm of imagination, was it? No more so than the two of them switching bodies in the first place. No more so than the countless impossible things they saw on a daily basis out here. Next to everything that she and Xena had seen and done and become together in the last year or so, it seemed horrifyingly possible.

“She needs us,” she choked out again, scarcely above a whisper now.

Argo made a low snorting sound, like she understood more than Gabrielle gave her credit for, and leaned in to nuzzle her nose against the crook of her neck. It was a sweet gesture, or as close to one as a horse was capable of; on a different day Gabrielle might have let herself see the funny side to all of this. Here she was, angry and frightened and so completely lost, and the only one in the whole wide world who understood how she felt was a horse who hated her.

Xena was right, though: Argo was hurting as well. She had been wounded, almost mortally, by a woman who looked just like her owner, her human soulmate. Little wonder that she was skittish after something like that. Little wonder that she couldn’t trust so easily, that she was as wary as Gabrielle of anyone who claimed to be Xena in any given moment. It was hard for them both, and Argo’s pain resonated so deeply with Gabrielle’s own; she wanted so badly to see the funny side, the stupidity and the irony and all the rest of it. She wanted so badly to laugh at herself for bonding with the same stupid horse who had trampled on her feet on more than one occasion, seemingly just for fun. She wanted to, yes, but in her heart she knew that it was not funny at all. Not for either of them.

“We have to be strong,” Gabrielle said when she finally pulled away. Her neck was cold where Argo’s nose had pressed. “For Xena’s sake. All right? We can’t let it get to us. We can’t let it…” She closed her eyes as the words broke, let herself pretend that it was Argo who had interrupted and not her own heartache. “I know. Believe me, I know. But it’s for Xena. You can be strong for Xena, right? You can be… you can…”

She trailed off again, shook her head and tried to shake the feeling out as well. How could she possibly expect Argo to hear her out, to draw strength from her words, when she didn’t even believe herself? Not even a stupid horse was that stupid.

Argo nickered again, a soft sound like a sigh, like the sound Xena made when Gabrielle refused breakfast, like the sound she made approximately four hundred times a day when Gabrielle did something wilful or just plain idiotic. Exasperated, aggravated, but with just a hint of fondness. Xena always let Gabrielle see that side of her, the side that cared even as it rolled its eyes, but Argo never did. Not even once. Gabrielle hadn’t earned her affection; it was always for Xena alone, or had been until just now.

Funny, she thought, how a disgusted noise from a stupid horse could bring such comfort. Not so funny, how they both knew she did not deserve it.

“Come on, now!” she snapped, feeling her heart start to crack. “You’re supposed to be her noble steed! Her heroic charger! Her… horsey soulmate?” Argo snorted, derision and approval in near-equal measure, and Gabrielle nodded. “Well, then. That should be that, shouldn’t it? I mean, what kind of soulmate can’t accept her like this? What kind of soulmate can’t look past… can’t move on… can’t…” Argo gave her shoulder a gentle nudge, a strange kind of encouragement, and Gabrielle buried her face in her mane to hide her tears. “What kind of useless, pathetic…”

Gabrielle!”

Xena. She was calling from the campfire, loud and impatient, no doubt eager to get on the road and wondering what was taking so long. Argo flinched, tangibly confused by the unfamiliar voice even as some deep, primal part of her recognised it as her human’s.

Gabrielle flinched as well, but for very different reasons.

“Yeah,” she sighed, an answer to her own question. “Exactly.”

*

Chapter Text

*

They set out in awkward silence.

Gabrielle was uncharacteristically distant, and Argo was moody and sullen. Xena thought about trying to break through to one or the other, tugging a little too hard on Argo’s reins or goading Gabrielle into an argument, anything to break the ice; she knew better than to push, though, and bit back the urge before she could act on it.

There was still so much for all three of them to process, and it didn’t help at all that a life like theirs didn’t lend itself to privacy. They were always together, either on the road or huddled around a campfire, and it wasn’t so easy out here as in a village to slip away from some quiet, solitary reflection. Companionable silence was as close as any one of them ever got to really being alone with their thoughts, and though she longed to reach out, to try and mend the rift she could feel starting to form, Xena could tell that patience was the surer course.

She didn’t ride. Argo was recovering well, but she was still weak from her injuries and Xena didn’t want to risk putting undue pressure on her. Besides, she hadn’t missed the way Argo flinched away from Callisto’s body, the way her nickering took on an anxious edge when she looked at her; she knew who she was dealing with, recognised her lifelong companion even in this unwelcome shape, but just like Gabrielle she needed time to adjust. Hurt all over, Argo needed to heal emotionally as well as physically, and as her friend Xena had to respect that. She would just have to trust that Argo would let her know when the time was right to hop back into the saddle.

They gave her a wide berth, Argo and Gabrielle both, but they stayed unexpectedly close to each other. It gave Xena an small measure of comfort, even as it left her feeling isolated; too often it was Argo and Gabrielle avoiding each other or playing stupid little power games, causing trouble while Xena got stuck playing peacekeeper; now, however, it was as though they had finally found something they shared, as though this ordeal had bonded them in a whole new way. It wasn’t much, but if the two of them could find some shred of common ground in their mutual inability to cope, then Xena was happy for them.

It was touching, the way they walked together, comforting each other without ever needing to say a word, perhaps without even really realising they were doing it. When Gabrielle got lost inside her head, Argo would nudge her shoulder with her nose, bring her back to herself with a snort and a whinny; likewise, when Argo’s feet caught or her wounds made her stumble, Gabrielle’s hand would drift up to rest on her flank, or else she would lean in with her whole body, humming some gentle made-up tune to soothe them both. After everything the two of them been through of late, it warmed Xena’s heart to watch them.

“You two look close,” she observed after a while, just as the silence was close to its breaking point. “Should I be worried?”

Gabrielle’s fingers twitched against Argo’s hide. She covered quickly, flushing and yanking her hand back as though she genuinely thought that Xena wouldn’t notice every last detail. It was adorable, if somewhat naïve.

“Don’t be silly,” she mumbled, taking a sudden deep fascination with the ground. “I’m just being nice because she’s hurt, that’s all. As soon as she’s all better, it’ll be business as usual. You’ll see.”

“I should hope so,” Xena said. It was difficult to attempt levity when Gabrielle wouldn’t even look at her, but she made the feint just the same, for both their sakes. She had to cling to the illusion, however fragile, that things really were as they always had been. “She and I have been through a lot together, you know. I’d hate for you to come along and turn her against me.”

Gabrielle paled, swallowed hard. “Don’t be silly,” she said again, softer this time.

The look on her face made Xena frown. It took all of her warrior’s restraint to keep from reaching out. “You know I was joking, right?”

“Uh…” Gabrielle’s voice was a squeak. “I mean, of course I know that! Who wouldn’t, right?”

Xena sighed. “Gabrielle, I want you and Argo to get along. I’ve told you that a thousand times.” That was true enough, though she rather suspected it wasn’t the point at play here. “If me looking like Callisto is what it takes for the two of you to find a little common ground, then I’m thrilled that something good could come out of it.”

“Really?”

Xena hated the distress in Gabrielle’s voice, hated that hers was the source of it. On another day, a normal one, this would all go without saying, she knew, yet here they were batting it about as though it were a discussion worth having, as though Xena’s whole world had changed just because her face had.

It made her angry, frustrated with herself. She wished that she had better control over Callisto’s lungs, better control over her mouth and her throat; she wished that she could be better at all of this already, or at least good enough to twist that too-familiar voice into something that didn’t cut quite so deeply. It had been a very, very long time since she’d felt quite so impotent, since she hadn’t been able to make the point she wanted in the way she wanted to, and she hated it.

“Really,” she said, trying pitch her voice uncomfortably low. It didn’t help much; no matter how hard she tried, she still sounded like Callisto.

Gabrielle didn’t say anything. She just closed her eyes for a moment or two, breathing slowly, then hugged Argo’s neck. The sight of her made Xena ache, wishing again that she could make this easier somehow, some what that didn’t involve keeping her mouth shut and her face in shadow.

She had already offered Gabrielle a way out, a chance to leave her company and carry on alone, but she’d known even before the words were out that Gabrielle would never accept that; she was stubborn, sometimes infuriatingly so, but far stronger than her stubbornness was her loyalty. She would send her own soul to Tartarus in a heartbeat before she would leave Xena to face this alone. Xena could not comprehend it; of everyone in the known world she couldn’t think of a single soul who deserved Gabrielle’s loyalty, or her friendship, less.

They kept moving as best they could, though for the most part it was an uphill struggle. None of them were in any mood to try and make the time pass more quickly, and the rising tension weighed heavily on them all.

Argo had it worst of all. She tired quickly and often, drained by the constant tug of movement on her injury, and of course Xena didn’t have the heart to watch her suffer. A part of her wanted to ignore it, to push through like she would have done if she’d been the one injured, but her heart wouldn’t allow it when it was someone she loved. Argo, poor girl, had been through too much suffering already, and as desperately as Xena wanted to distance herself from Amphipolis, from her friends and her mother, from all the people she’d put in danger for the thousandth time, still it was more than she could do to power through in stoic silence while Argo’s breathing grew ever more laboured.

It was still some time short of midday when she gave in to the pleas of her heart and insisted that they take a break.

“For Argo’s sake,” she said, and Gabrielle made no protest.

Xena rather suspected that her sudden agreeableness had rather less to do with wanting to play nice and rather more to do with the fact that arguing would mean having to look at Xena’s face. She still didn’t seem ready to do that, and it bothered Xena more than she’d admit that she would almost have preferred the argument to the acquiescence. As it was, Gabrielle just sat herself down on the grass, stared at the horizon, and did not say a word.

Argo, for her part, was deeply grateful, though of course she didn’t say anything either. In her own way she was as distant and evasive as Gabrielle, but Xena had always been better at reading horses than people and she knew Argo better than any person in the world. She recognised the relief in her old friend’s face as though it were her own; it poured off her in waves as she found a shady spot under a tree and ducked her head to graze.

Xena stood there alone for a moment and watched them, Argo with her head bowed and Gabrielle with her eyes on the sky. She could scarcely believe how far away she felt from them both. There couldn’t have been more than ten paces’ worth of space in any direction, but it felt like half the world.

She had never felt so completely helpless. It was funny, in a tragic sort of way, that someone who had razed villages and led armies to their deaths could be so torn apart by guilt now, perhaps the first time in her life that she hadn’t really done anything wrong. This wasn’t her doing; it was fate and the intervention of a smug god, too much guilt in exactly the wrong moment and a vengeance-mad nemesis who had always known when to capitalise on her weaknesses. Xena knew that the fault lay with Callisto and Ares, not with her — she’d been forced to make peace with her part in it long before now — but still, she felt so responsible for what she saw, the strain lining Argo’s face and the way Gabrielle couldn’t seem to stop blinking, that she might as well have been the one behind the whole gods-forsaken affair.

She left Argo alone in a clearing, gave the old girl some peace and solitude, then returned to Gabrielle. She didn’t ask for permission or wait for an invitation, simply sat herself down next to her and waited to be welcomed or rejected. It didn’t matter that she was careful to leave a foot or so of space between them; it wasn’t enough, and it didn’t stop Gabrielle from tensing. Her whole body went tight as a garrotte, and Xena felt her own respond in kind.

“Xena.”

The name was a rasp, hoarse and ragged. Xena wondered which of them she was trying to reassure by saying it out loud, whether she wanted Xena to know that she did recognise her, even now in Callisto’s skin, or simply remind herself that yes, this awful woman really was the Xena she knew and loved, that she was safe in her company whether she felt that way or not. Either way, Xena supposed, it made no difference; she did not push her away and that was all she could hope for.

“Hey.” She mustered a smile. “Hungry yet?”

Gabrielle glanced up for about half a second. She forced a laugh, or a weak imitation of one, then turned back to the horizon. “That depends,” she muttered. “If I say yes, will you say ‘I told you so’?”

Xena didn’t laugh. She wanted to, but she suspected that the sound coming from Callisto’s throat would only make Gabrielle storm off again, or maybe try to punch her. She played it safe instead, schooling her face into a parody of severity, a look so exaggeratedly serious that it couldn’t possibly have come from anyone other than her. It was a different kind of humour, but one she hoped Gabrielle would recognise, and appreciate.

“Absolutely,” she said, hoping against hope for a return to their usual back-and-forth. “I told you to eat your breakfast, didn’t I? But no. Like always, you had to insist that you know better.”

“I do know better,” Gabrielle snapped. Xena caught a flicker of familiarity in her face, a fraction of a heartbeat where she almost forgot herself, and almost forgot Callisto as well; it was gone in a heartbeat, though, too fast to really warm either one of them. “And you’re still coddling.”

“Just making conversation,” Xena shot back. “How else can I get you to talk to me, huh?”

Against her better judgement, she bumped Gabrielle’s arm with Callisto’s bony shoulder. Gabrielle flinched, inching back to widen the space between them, and Xena wanted to kick herself. She prided herself on her endurance, her willingness to get through anything without so much as blinking, but if she had to go the rest of her life without touching the woman she loved it would end her as surely as any blade, as ruthless as any army.

Gabrielle took a moment to compose herself; Xena hated that she needed one. “Sorry,” she mumbled after a beat or two. “I know I’ve not been good at that. Talking, I mean. To you. I…”

“You’re doing just fine,” Xena said. It was hard to sound sincere with Callisto’s voice, but the words were her own and she could only hope that Gabrielle would look beyond the surface as she so often did and find the truth beneath. “No-one expects you to make peace with this overnight, Gabrielle. I certainly don’t, and you shouldn’t either. And you know, you’re still free to go if you need to. You know that I’ll understand. If it ever gets too heavy, too…”

“It’s not.”

Xena shook her head. “If it does.” She’d said it before, of course, but she needed to say it again. It felt important. “You know I’ll understand,” she said again. “Seeing her face when you look at me, hearing her voice when I talk to you… being with me when I’m like this… if it’s ever too much for you…”

“It won’t be.”

It was only when her voice didn’t break that Xena realised she had expected it to. Instead, it came out the opposite; Gabrielle’s voice was stronger than it had been in a very long while, as sure and steady as anything Xena had ever heard. If the look on her face was anything to go by, the intensity surprised them both.

“Gabrielle…”

“It won’t be.” She shook her head, summoned the courage to look Xena in the eye; it only lasted a second, perhaps even less, but it was enough. “You need me. Me and Argo, both of us. You need us to keep you… to help you… to make sure you don’t…” Her voice hitched, but she steadied it with an obvious force of will, drove herself on like a woman possessed. “You need us, Xena, and we’re not going to turn away from you. Not her. Not me. Not ever.”

Her eyes were watering when she finally let herself breathe, but that too was enough. Just like she always did when Gabrielle poured out her heart and stopped herself midway, Xena understood. She twisted Callisto’s fingers, clenched and unclenched her fists in time with her heartbeat; it made Gabrielle uncomfortable, she could tell, but it was the only way she could keep herself from reaching out and touching her.

“You’re a good friend, Gabrielle,” she said.

Gabrielle shook her head. “No, I’m not. A good friend wouldn’t have to remind themselves to be a good friend. A good friend wouldn’t hesitate, wouldn’t feel sick just from looking you in the eye. A good friend would be able to see see through Callisto’s face, or her hands or her…” Her voice broke, and she had to swallow very hard before she could continue. “A good friend would see you, no matter what you looked like.”

“I don’t think it’s that simple,” Xena said.

“Well, you’re wrong.” She closed her eyes for a moment, shoulders shaking. “A good friend is the last thing I am.”

Xena found that she needed to take a moment as well, a deep breath and a long moment with her eyes closed. She wasn’t prepared for the rush of feelings, the desperate need to touch her and the agony of knowing that she couldn’t. It hurt more than she could ever have imagined, not being able to offer the only kind of comfort she knew, the one thing that had always come so easily to them both.

“You underestimate yourself,” she said gently. “You’re the only friend I need.”

Gabrielle laughed, shaken and watery. “What about Argo?”

“All right. You and Argo.” Xena watched Callisto’s knuckles whiten in her lap, wished that she could do as much with them as her own. “The two of you are the only friends I need.”

Gabrielle met her gaze, eyes bright with tears. “Xena…”

That was as far as she got.

Being trapped in Callisto’s body might come with its own challenges, but Xena’s senses were still her own, as keen and sharp as they ever were. She held up a hand, as quick as lightning, and Gabrielle fell instantly silent.

Whatever the difficulties between them, this wordless give-and-take remained untainted; it was a good thing, a point of necessity in moments like this, and Xena was relieved that it came as intuitively as ever.

She didn’t need to tell Gabrielle that they were about to be attacked; Gabrielle didn’t need to reply that she understood and was ready. They said it all without a word, just as they always had.

They moved like always in perfect harmony, climbing to their feet in silence, keeping time and matching their breathing. Natural, familiar, easy; it made Xena’s heart sing. Her sword was already in her hand when she stood, Gabrielle’s legs already set apart as she reached for her staff; they were both ready for action long before the shifting of the ground turned to a rustling in the bushes, long before the vague hum of something in the distance became footsteps, solid and tangible and very, very close. Some things never changed, Xena thought; thank the gods that this was one of them.

She took a moment — less than a moment, less than a heartbeat — to clear her thoughts, find her centre. Whatever complications existed between herself and Gabrielle, this was neither the time or the place to dwell on them. She needed to focus on the moment alone, needed to be alert and aware, completely attuned to herself in body and mind and soul. It had never been so crucial as it was right now, with unfamiliar limbs and untested limits. She couldn’t afford to wonder whether or not she might upset Gabrielle or spook Argo; she could only think of herself, and the enemy about to attack.

“Come on out,” she cooed, surprising herself by how easily she slipped into Callisto’s sick skin.

Gabrielle shuddered, of course; it was understandable, but Xena blocked it out, hardened her thoughts and her heart. She didn’t have the luxury of thinking, of worrying or questioning whether it was a good idea to play the role; there were half a dozen of them, clearly expecting Callisto, and that was precisely what they were going to get.

She struck first, of course, hard and fast and as focused as if they were going up against the entire Persian army. They weren’t — it was a band of mercenaries, cheap from the look of them and clearly not very talented — but she would sooner go too far than not far enough with her body working against her. Even farm animals could be a threat in large enough numbers, and she had learned too many times the price of pulling her punches.

There were seven or eight of them, but she had taken out two before they even had a chance to draw their weapons. A roundhouse to the first sent him careening into the second, and that was the end of it for both of them; their heads cracked together when they hit the ground, loud enough to startle one or two of the others, and Xena had to fight to keep a proud grin off her face as Gabrielle took advantage of the moment without hesitation. She leaped in like a firestorm, landed a bone-shaking blow with her staff, and that was a third one down as well.

It was comfortable; it was familiar. Xena prayed to the gods that it would stay that way.

It was for Gabrielle’s sake that she refrained from killing. Under normal circumstances she might plead her case, point out that the situation was ‘them or us’, might even even make a case for testing her limits in her new body. They had been in brawls and scraps like this a thousand times before, and Gabrielle had evolved far enough to recognise the difference between a necessary death in the midst of a fight and a mindless slaughter for its own sake. On another day, reckless and arrogant as these mercenary types were, Xena could easily make a hundred excuses for watering the grass with their blood and Gabrielle would mourn but understand. This time, however, she didn’t need to see her face to know that it would cross a line.

For all that her heart and her soul knew the truth, Gabrielle was still seeing Callisto. It didn’t matter what Xena did or said, how she behaved or how many times she tried to prove herself; the evidence was in her body, in her voice, in all the parts of her that reflected her worst enemy, the memories and the anger that turned Gabrielle’s eyes wet, that made her think of Perdicus and her own suffering, of all the ways Callisto had singled her out for hurt and heartache just to prove some vengeful point. Xena couldn’t change those things, couldn’t make her body her own again, but she could make sure that Gabrielle didn’t see any more blood on Callisto’s hands. For now, at least, she would restrain herself.

Two more of the bastards went down in the blink of an eye. The first was Gabrielle’s, a victim of her spinning staff, and the second found his nose gushing blood onto the hilt of Xena’s sword before he even knew what was happening. Xena rounded on the fifth, Gabrielle on the sixth, and it didn’t take a genius to know by that point that it was all over.

The last two were trembling, painfully aware by this point that they were outmatched and outwitted. Xena could see the wheels in their heads turning, trying to figure out the costs and the benefits of their available options: run away and live to see another battle, or else stick around to die or bleed with some shred of integrity. It was touching, she supposed, that they even cared.

The taller one stepped forward, sword shaking in his hands. Xena could see the heat in his eyes, and knew that he was dangerously close to picking the stupid option.

Thinking quickly, or as quickly as she could, she turned to Gabrielle. She closed her mind, willed herself not to think about her friend’s bleeding heart, the pain that she knew this would cause. Better to upset her for a moment if it would convince these fools to flee not fight, than tempt fate and inevitably end in bloodshed. She could see a way out, an easy one, and she would take it. Later, much later, when her voice was her own and her eyes were clear, Gabrielle would understand. It was for the best.

“What do you say?” she asked, letting the danger gleam in Callisto’s eyes and trying not see the anguish in Gabrielle’s. “Should we show these idiots mercy, or teach them a lesson?”

Gabrielle made a horrible gurgling noise deep in her throat. “Do you even need to ask?”

Xena blocked out the thickness in her voice, the tremors and the horror, all of it. She fixed eyes on the quivering sellsword, a sadistic smile on Callisto’s face, and threw herself into the role as best she could.

“Looks like it’s your lucky day,” she cooed. “My little friend thinks you deserve a second chance. You can thank her for your life.”

“Do you have to say it like that?” Gabrielle’s voice was shaking; she sounded like she wanted to be sick. “Do you have to sound so much like… like…”

“Quiet!” Callisto’s voice was rough, Xena’s authority absolute, and it silenced Gabrielle in a heartbeat; painful though it was, she couldn’t afford to be undermined here. She kept her eyes on the bastard in front of her, refused to let herself dwell on the hurt she was causing. “What do you want with us?”

She punctuated the question with a kick to the jaw. Callisto’s legs weren’t as strong as her own, and that helped her to control the violence. The kick landed hard enough to send the poor bastard sprawling, but not so hard as to break the bone; it was as much of a compromise as she could afford, and it was wholly for Gabrielle’s sake. Had she been alone out here, even in her own body… well, things might not be so clean.

Us,” the other one echoed, spitting the word like a curse. His eyes flicked to Gabrielle for about half a second, then to his fallen comrades. “You’re the one with the bounty on her head, Callisto.”

That was news to Xena, though he spat it out as though it went without saying. He said it all so carelessly, so cool and casual, as though she should have known about it long before he and his friends had attacked. In truth, perhaps she should have; it wasn’t exactly common knowledge that Callisto was back in action, but she wasn’t the type to do anything subtly. Word of her most recent run-in with Xena must have gotten around from what few survivors remained among Theodorus’s men. Hers was not exactly a face that could stay hidden for long, no matter who was wearing it.

Gabrielle, predictably, took offence at hearing that name pointed at her best friend. Her face flushed, shoulders shaking in another fit of temper; they were becoming increasingly common since Perdicus’s death, Xena noted sadly, and wished she could do more for that as well.

“Don’t call her that!” It was meant as a command, but it sounded like a plea. “She’s not—”

Gabrielle.”

That landed like a blow. Gabrielle whirled around to look at her, face twisted into a rictus of grief and pain and confusion; she couldn’t make sense of this, Xena could tell, and wished she could spare a second to explain. It was so far beyond her comprehension that her best friend would want to be associated with her worst enemy, that Xena would see any benefit at all to taking on Callisto’s identity, even in a moment like this.

The lack of faith stung a little, but even without the added complexity of Callisto’s name it was hardly a surprise. Gabrielle had never had much of a talent for strategic thinking, even on her best days; flights of fancy and fits of passion were more her forté, and Xena knew better than to try and change that now.

“Gabrielle,” she said again. It came out sharper this time, a threat and a warning that left no room for argument. Don’t say my name. Don’t blow my cover. Don’t ruin this. “Go and check on Argo.”

Had Xena been in her own body, Gabrielle would have doubtless read the explanation in her body language, her expression. She would have only needed to look at Xena’s face to see what she was trying to do. As it was, her inability to look Callisto in the eye was her undoing; she didn’t even try. Perhaps she couldn’t. Not that it mattered either way; wouldn’t or couldn’t, the end result was the same. She resisted, blinded by her feelings, and blurted them out without a thought.

“But Xe—”

“Did I stutter?” It was a roar, violent and vicious. Gabrielle flinched as though she’d been struck a blow, but Xena couldn’t afford to care. She had to drown out the name. “I said now, little girl.”

Gabrielle looked stricken, and Xena ached to break down and shout the truth. Even just for a second, she wanted Gabrielle to know that the façade was killing her as well, that she took no pleasure in playing this part. She wanted to, yes, but she knew that she couldn’t; if she outed herself now, there would be only two options left: kill the idiots before they could spread the word, or wait for every warlord in the known world to land at her feet, spoiling for a chance to take her while she was weak.

She would explain later. She would sit Gabrielle down, make her see why it was so important to keep this situation as much a secret as possible, why striking fear into someone’s heart would help to avoid driving a blade through it. For right now, though, she needed to play the part to the hilt, needed to convince these idiots that she really was the one they wanted. She needed to not see the hate and the grief in Gabrielle’s eyes. She needed her gone.

Blessedly, Gabrielle got the hint at last. She fled in a rush, leaving Xena alone with the more pressing issue. She turned away, turned back to her victims without sparing a thought, as ruthless and efficient as she ever was as a warlord.

There was only one of them still on his feet at this point, and so she rounded on him. She was past the point of caring which one of them was in charge, and she rather suspected that they felt the same way as well. Imbeciles like these would sell each other out in a heartbeat if they thought it would spare their own worthless lives, and Xena had no qualms about exploiting that.

She put her sword to his neck, let the edge just nick the skin. It wasn’t close enough to make a real wound, of course, but it was certainly enough to make her— to make Callisto’s point loud and clear.

“Who sent you?” she asked, and let her lips curl into that famed, frightening sneer. “Who’s paying this bounty?”

He stared at her, wide-eyed and fearful, not even bothering to feign defiance. His friends were groaning and reeling all around him, some lying unconscious on the ground and others staggering back to their senses if not their feet. None of them were in any condition to put up much of a fight, even if they had been capable of offering one in the first place, and Xena had never met a mercenary that didn’t put his life above his job.

It was no surprise, then, that he didn’t hesitate for even a second before surrendering all his trade secrets like they were worth nothing at all. He stared up at her, mouth open in a plea for mercy, and said, “Draco.”

The name made Xena’s blood run cold, but of course she couldn’t let that show either.

Callisto, for all of her bloody-mindedness, didn’t know the first thing about Draco; she’d probably never even heard his name before. Xena, of course, had the opposite problem: she knew entirely too much about him, and rather too intimately. It was a painful paradox and she knew all too well that the least reaction might out her as someone other than Callisto. Hired blades weren’t often on first-name terms with their employers, she knew, but Draco’s reputation preceded him just as Xena’s own did, and far too many people were far too aware of their history together.

She kept her expression as neutral as she could, as close to Callisto’s madness as she felt comfortable mirroring, a twitch at the corners of her lips and a flash of teeth to keep him on edge, to remind him beyond all shadow of doubt that she still held all the power here. With any luck he was so busy praying for the gods to spare his snivelling soul that he wouldn’t notice her hand shaking ever so slightly on the hilt of her sword.

“Draco,” she echoed, pretending that the name meant less than nothing. Oh, how she wished that was the case. “And what would a washed-up third-rate warlord want with little ol’ me?”

She punctuated the question with a flick of the sword, another slash against the surface of his skin. It had been a long time since she’d relied on archaic interrogations like this, since she’d used anything other than pressure points or persuasion to get what she wanted, and she was more than a little out of practice. Callisto was the wrong side of ruthless, dangerously close to where Xena herself was not so long ago, and it was hard to keep the line in sight when she was playing her. Doing this her way, and in her skin, made Xena feel unpleasantly close to the monster she used to be.

“How should I know?” He sounded sincere, or at least too frightened to attempt a lie. “He probably just thought your head would make a nice centrepiece.”

Given what she knew about Draco, Xena doubted that was the case; he could be as petty as anyone, but never without cause. Still, now that he’d said, she realised that there were plenty of other warlords out there who weren’t so calculating; Draco might be above such pettiness, but she wouldn’t put it past a good dozen others, and that was very worrying indeed. If this got out of hand, it could get very messy very quickly. The last thing she and Gabrielle needed while they worked through this was a constant rain of steel and arrows from petty sellswords looking to squeeze easy money out of Callisto’s blood.

“My head would make a nice centrepiece,” she said out loud, because she knew that Callisto would think so. “But sadly, I’m rather fond of it where it is. Which puts you in a rather unfortunate situation, wouldn’t you say?”

She punctuated the point by dragging her sword down towards his heart. Naturally, that was all it took for the final thread of his courage to snap. He cried out, begging for his life, snivelling and whimpering like an infant fresh from the womb.

The cowardice wasn’t exactly unexpected; you didn’t become a hired blade if you had even a shred of dignity, and Xena was well prepared for the barrage of pleas and bargains and offerings. It was no surprise, either, that his companions were no better; half of them were already scrambling off into the brush without so much as a thought for their poor friend, and the other half were still strewn about in varying states of unconsciousness. It was pathetic, frankly, but Xena was not about to complain when it made her job so much easier.

Without a doubt, Callisto would have ended his life. All of their lives, most likely, but his without a doubt because he was the one who’d said something she didn’t like. She wouldn’t have even thought about it, simply run him through before he had a chance to speak at all, or else pocketed what petty coin he offered for a change of loyalties and then toss a knife at his back the instant it was turned. Callisto would have done a lot of things, but Xena was the one in control now, and she would not betray what fraying faith Gabrielle still had in her.

“You’re lucky my little toy has a thing for mercy,” she said, and hoped Callisto’s face would sell the lie because she could not stop her voice from hitching on the word ‘toy’. It was entirely too true for the real Callisto, and that made the real Xena tremble with hate. “Next time, maybe you won’t be so lucky. Maybe I’ll have gotten bored with her and found a less sympathetic plaything. Or maybe I just won’t tell her. It’ll be our little secret: me, and your decapitated limbs.” She tried to wide Callisto’s manic grin, but she couldn’t do it; she felt queasy in a way that this kind of threat had never made her feel before. “Either way, you don’t want to test me again. Are we clear?”

He didn’t bother floundering for a reply. The instant she lowered his sword, he was stumbling backwards.

Xena rolled her eyes, and gave him a quick, savage kick; she took no pleasure from it, though it vented a little of her own sour feelings, but she knew that Callisto would have done much worse. She didn’t want word to get out that she was going soft, that she had let a man escape without even putting a mark on him. Until she was confident in this new body, until she could trust herself with its weaknesses, she had to keep the illusion alive. The world needed to fear her, and that meant she needed to be fearsome.

It would serve her well in the end, she knew. She knew Draco well enough to know that he must have a reason for coming after her, that it couldn’t possibly be as simple as wanting a new centrepiece. He seldom did anything for the fun of it and — rather more pressing at the moment — he never gave up; if he really was after Callisto’s head, for whatever reason, she knew that he wouldn’t stop at a few cowardly mercenaries with rusted swords.

Draco had never been the kind of man to admit defeat, even when it would have served him better, and she doubted he would start now. No doubt, this little humiliation would only make him all the more determined. There would be plenty more where this sorry lot came from, and when they arrived Xena could only hope that Callisto’s reputation for bloodshed would keep her from having to spill any herself. If she had learned only one thing from her time with Gabrielle, it was that words could work wonders that even the sharpest blades could not.

She stood there in silence once the mercenaries had fled, pacing a little and listening to the wind. She had to make sure that the coast really was clear, that they weren’t about to be ambushed all over again, though of course that was not the only reason. Far more than taking sensible precautions, she found that she needed a moment to gather her thoughts, a moment to remember who she was and who she wasn’t, to compose and brace herself to confront Gabrielle. She had to be absolutely unwavering, completely confident in who and what she was; if she wasn’t, Gabrielle certainly wouldn’t be.

A few minutes later, finally in control of herself, she found Gabrielle with Argo.

She sat there on the grass, hugging her knees and scowling at the horizon, and did not acknowledge Xena’s approach at all. Xena knew that she must have sensed her presence — she had trained her far to well to believe anything less — but still she held herself completely still and acted as though she hadn’t. No doubt she thought it would make some kind of a point, and Xena’s heart ached too deeply to deny her the moment. Let her have it, she thought; she deserved far more.

She waited a few seconds, then cleared her throat. Gabrielle grunted, no doubt as close to a greeting as Xena could hope for, and recoiled when Xena sat down next to her. Xena was slowly getting used to this, the twitches and flinches every time Callisto’s body got a little too close; still, at least for now, she didn’t tell her to go away, and Xena took the victory for what it was.

Still, it took everything she had not to reach out and try to touch her, to express through the contact what she couldn’t shape into clumsy words. Physicality had always been their language, even before they became as close as they were now. An elbow to the ribs at first, a nudged shoulder, a lock of hair tucked behind an ear; later, a kiss to the forehead, the cheek, the lips, the touches deepening as their relationship did until there was seldom a need for words at all. They had always communicated so purely, so easily through their skin; now, even with her soul in Tartarus, Callisto had taken that away. Without it, Xena felt crippled.

Gabrielle’s body reacted to Callisto’s with an almost visceral violence; half the time, she seemed only partially aware of what she was doing, but Xena had always been so deeply attuned to every part of her and she saw everything. She knew that touching her now would only make things worse, but that didn’t make it any easier to reach down inside herself and fumble for those awful, awkward words. Speech was Gabrielle’s gift, not Xena’s, and she was as much at a disadvantage here and now as she was on the field of battle in a body that was not hers.

“Gabrielle.” The name came out small, almost shaky, as unlike Callisto — or, indeed, Xena herself — as anything she had ever heard. “Do you understand what I was trying to do?”

Gabrielle did not look at her. “Of course,” she said, very quietly.

Still, Xena had to explain. “I had to make them believe it,” she said, as though saying it could make it easier. “I don’t want this to get out. Callisto has a lot of enemies, but I have a lot more, and there’s no shortage of people who would take advantage if they knew I was vulnerable.”

“I know,” Gabrielle said, and Xena wondered if that was really true.

“I have to keep the element of surprise on my side,” she went on. “For the time being, at least. You understand that, right? You understand why it’s so important?” Gabrielle shook her head, though it didn’t really feel like she was saying no. Still, Xena sighed and tried to explain. “Callisto’s face can frighten idiots like that into running off without bloodshed. Mercenaries, hired swords with more muscle than brains… they don’t think, they just run. But if someone like Draco figures out it’s me in her skin…”

Gabrielle swallowed hard. Her face was pale, but her neck was flushed. “You’d be in trouble.”

We’d be in trouble,” Xena corrected gently. “I need them to believe that I’m her. For the time being, anyway. Until I’m comfortable, or at least capable, in this body. Until…”

“Until we can figure out how to get yours back.”

There it was again, that heartbreaking hope that Gabrielle always wore so well. It made Xena want to hold her close, but it also made her angry. She wanted to beat the truth into her, force her to look at the harsh reality until she understood what it meant. This wasn’t a game, and all the hope in the world wouldn’t change the way things were, the way things had to be.

It wouldn’t help, though. Driving the point home, reminding her for the thousandth time that they would just have to deal with it… for someone as steeped in cock-eyed optimism as Gabrielle, that would only compound the issue, make it harder for her to cope. The gods knew, it was hard enough already, painful enough to see her husband’s murderer, her own torturer, every time she looked into Xena’s eyes. Even if it would be better in the long-term, Xena couldn’t bear to be the one who made it worse right now.

At any rate, here and now all that mattered was that she understood, that she didn’t hate the woman who looked like Callisto for treating her the way she just did. Xena knew all too well that another moment like this would probably present itself sooner rather than later, and all that mattered for now was helping Gabrielle to accept it. She needed to know that it didn’t matter what Xena said or what she did, that she was still herself, that Callisto was just a role she had to play. Nothing else was important.

Let Gabrielle believe the future would be better, she thought, if that was what it took for her to accept the present as it was.

So, then, she acknowledged the point, the hope, with a sigh and a false smile. “Until then,” she agreed, and hated that Callisto’s voice was softer than hers, hated that she sounded so much more sincere and tender in the body of a murdering psychopath. “Just… just until then.”

Gabrielle nodded, but she kept her eyes locked on the horizon. “Okay.”

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Xena went on, wishing she was better at this. “If it’s too hard… if it’s too painful…”

“I’m not a little girl.” The word choice was deliberate, Xena could tell; Gabrielle always chose her words so carefully. “I can take care of myself. A few cruel words won’t break me. Not from her, and not from you.”

Are you sure?, Xena thought, though she knew better than to ask.

She wanted so much to trust her, to genuinely believe that Gabrielle was not so sensitive that moments like this might wound her, but the last year or so in her company had taught her better. She knew her too well, recognised the subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in her body language, and she could see the truth without having to hear a word.

She saw the way Gabrielle’s jaw had gone pale at the edges, the way her lips had tightened in the corners, recognised all the tension and turmoil that she’d never quite learned to hide. Gabrielle could tell a story like no-one Xena had ever met, could weave words into whatever shape she wanted, but the language of her tongue was so very different to the language of her body, and an expert in one was so often an amateur in the other. Gabrielle, with her beautiful stories and her wondrous words, was more transparent than she could ever know.

Xena didn’t tell her that, though. Better that she believe she was stronger than she was. Instead, she sighed and turned the frustration back on herself; she, at least, could survive them.

“I hate that I’m putting you through this,” she said, and sucked in her breath when Gabrielle flinched.

“You’re not. She is.” The hatred in Gabrielle’s voice was pure torture. “She put us both through it. If you can handle it, so can I.”

“I know you can,” Xena said, and wished with all her heart that it was true. “You’re very strong, and you’ve been through far worse. I know that you’ll be just fine. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

Gabrielle bowed her head. “That makes two of us,” she whispered.

It was unbearable, being so impotent, so unable to offer the things that usually came as naturally as breathing. It was no coincidence that their relationship was a tactile one; it was because Xena was frankly terrible at things like this. She had no gift for this sort of thing, for offering the kind of solace that could be articulated, for turning her feelings into words.

If their positions were reversed, she knew that Gabrielle would have had little trouble talking Xena through all of this. She could shape the most beautiful words from even the crudest feelings, seemingly without a thought. But that wasn’t the way things are. Gabrielle was the one in pain, the one with doubts and soul-deep scars, and Xena was the one stuck in someone else’s body with her hands bound and her tongue unbearably clumsy. She wanted to take Gabrielle into her arms, wanted to touch her shoulder, kiss her forehead and her cheek and her mouth, wanted to do all the little things that she had come to take for granted. She wanted, she wanted… but she couldn’t.

She didn’t try. She didn’t try to touch her, and she didn’t try to speak either. Her heart felt as useless as her body, her soul as clumsy as her tongue, and she didn’t want to make this worse. Failure wasn’t an option, and so she didn’t try.

Instead, because there was nothing else she could do, she climbed to her feet and said, “We should get going.”

The segue was awkward, like most things were when she tried to act with words instead of weapons, but Gabrielle seemed grateful for the distraction even so, relieved to have something tangible to focus on. “I guess so.”

Xena nodded, dusted down her knees, and studied the horizon. “It’s still a long way to the nearest village,” she said, as though none of this had happened, as though it was just another day in the life. “If it’s all the same, I’d like to get there before you start whining that you’re starving.”

“I don’t whine,” Gabrielle whined.

Xena smiled. It was her own smile, not Callisto’s, a grin that was sharp without showing too many teeth. It was a gesture, if a small one, a reminder to them both that she was still the Xena she wanted to be, that nothing could ever change that. It wasn’t enough, not even close, but it was hers, and that made it Gabrielle’s as well.

“Of course you don’t,” she said, and fought to keep the smile from turning to tears.

*

Chapter Text

*

Xena was right: it was a long way to the nearest village.

The day bled away, lost to a haze of short walks and long breaks. The walking was silent for Gabrielle’s sake, the breaks frequent for Argo’s. Xena was overprotective of them both, almost cloyingly so; she insisted that they stop every time the silly horse got the least bit short of breath, and though Gabrielle made a show of complaining about it she couldn’t deny that compassion was a great comfort to her as well.

Callisto would never do anything like this, she knew. She would would never allow herself to feel any kind of compassion for another living soul, much less show it. She would never insist on stopping a journey to make a horse more comfortable, would never stay silent to make a silly little girl feel safe. It could only be Xena — the real Xena, her Xena — whose eyes darkened with worry every time Argo breathed a little harder, who bit down on her lip to keep from saying something foolish every time Gabrielle sighed or swallowed or turned pale. It had to be Xena. Who else would care so much about either one of them?

“We’ll have to be on the lookout,” she said, maybe the third or fourth time they stopped. They had been fairly lucky thus far, but Gabrielle could tell that she was anxious, anticipating the next attack. “Draco won’t sit on his hands for long. None of them will.”

Gabrielle didn’t ask what she meant by ‘none of them’. She didn’t know who else was after her blood, and to be frank she didn’t trust herself to find out.

“You’ve had bounties on your head before,” she pointed out.

“Plenty of times,” Xena agreed with an easy shrug. “But never as Callisto.”

She was trailing her fingers through Argo’s mane, looking tense and upset. Gabrielle could tell that it was a distraction, that it wasn’t really Argo she wanted to touch, and she was grateful that the horse was there as a convenient stand-in. As desperately as she missed Xena’s hands, even just the thought of letting Callisto’s anywhere near her made her blood run cold and her stomach turn. She shivered, feeling exposed and very, very frightened.

“Is there really that much of a difference?” she asked, as much to distract herself from the feeling as anything else. “A bounty is a bounty, surely?”

“Under normal circumstances, yes,” Xena said, unexpectedly candid. “But you being here makes it a little more complicated.”

That stung, and Gabrielle didn’t bother trying to hide it. “What do you mean?”

Xena sighed. “I don’t want to hurt you, but there’s no way of knowing what I’ll have to do the next time some idiots with dented swords catch up with us to try their luck. A little smarter or a little quicker, and it might not be so easy to convince them that I’m the one they want. Callisto’s reputation for bloodshed precedes her body, after all, and there’s only so many excuses I can make for letting people live.” She shook her head; for once, she was the one avoiding Gabrielle’s eye. “I don’t want to think about what’ll happen if someone gets wise and tries to call my bluff.”

“So don’t think about it,” Gabrielle said, as though it really were so simple. She meant it as encouragement, but it came out embarrassingly blithe. “Can’t we just, I don’t know, hope for the best?”

“Go right ahead, if you can.” Xena forced a smile. It was tight, and it made Callisto look hungry. “But you know me, Gabrielle. I’m a worrier.”

Gabrielle did know that, yes, but she wasn’t sure what to do about it. How in the world was she supposed to convince Xena that everything would turn out all right when they were both already thoroughly convinced that it wouldn’t? For all her naiveté, Gabrielle wasn’t as stupid as people often thought; she understood the differences between this time and the countless others that had gone before, and she understood far better than Xena did just how important it was to keep her hands clean of blood while they looked so much like Callisto’s.

It was a dangerous, dangerous path. They both knew that. There was no such thing as a single drop of blood, no such thing as an accidental slaughter. Xena struggled with it sometimes, more than she wanted Gabrielle to know about, and it was Gabrielle’s job to make that easier. For as long as they’d been travelling together, she had taken that burden onto herself, made it hers so that Xena wouldn’t have to bear it alone. She was supposed to be one who made this easier, the light to Xena’s darkness; she was her conscience, her guide when the road got dark, the one who lit up the way to safety and peace. She was supposed to know what to say when Xena said, ‘I’m worried’.

She didn’t, though. Not this time. She didn’t know how to make this better, and for all her talents she couldn’t think up a story convincing enough to sell. She couldn’t look Callisto in the eye and tell Xena that it was all right, that she could play whatever role she needed to keep them both out of trouble. It had cut deeper than she would ever admit, hearing Xena call her ‘little girl’, and all the more so while she was still struggling to see her as anything other than Callisto.

Gabrielle knew her own limits very well; she knew where her breaking point was, and she knew that it was already far closer than she’d care to admit. A few more encounters like the last one would tear her asunder, and that could not happen. If she let her heart and soul be broken by this, who would be left to keep Xena’s intact?

“Xena…” she started, but Xena didn’t even glance at her.

“Eyes on the road, Gabrielle.”

That was easier said than done, of course. Gabrielle tried, she really did, but the road was long and winding and seemingly without end, and the bard in her was very quick to point out that it was also a very effective metaphor.

It was late in the day, the afternoon starting to bleed into evening, when they finally found their way to a village. Xena was right about more than just the distance: Gabrielle would never admit it in a million years, but she was right about her appetite as well. She would never debase herself to whine like Xena thought she would, but still she couldn’t deny that she was weak with hunger, and skirting dangerously close to cranky.

She tried to keep the feeling to herself, but of course Xena was as infuriatingly perceptive in Callisto’s body as her own, and she knew what was happening without ever having to hear the words. She didn’t remark on it, perhaps still not sure that Gabrielle could endure even a kind-hearted quip from Callisto’s sharp teeth, but even in that monster’s body she had a talent for making her point without saying anything at all. Gabrielle didn’t need to hear it said aloud to know what she was thinking. ‘I told you to eat your breakfast, now, didn’t I?’

“Don’t start,” she said out loud.

Xena almost lost her footing with the effort of trying not to laugh. She caught herself before she could properly stumble, though, and Gabrielle seethed as she bit down on a smirk. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you don’t,” Gabrielle grumbled, and readied herself to storm off. “If you need me, I’ll be in the tavern.”

Xena smiled, ever so sweetly. “Of course you will.”

Tempting though it was, Gabrielle let it drop there. Hunger or no, at this point she was just thankful for an excuse to put some distance between them, to get some space to herself where she could think and breathe in peace.

Xena didn’t push either, preoccupied with getting Argo into a stable where she could be fed and watered and get some decent rest. Most days she was content to let the silly horse run around outside the bounds of whatever village they stopped at, but her injuries had made Xena more protective than usual. Gabrielle supposed that was understandable given the circumstances. They had stopped twice in the last hour for Argo’s sake, and though Gabrielle couldn’t help wondering if maybe Xena was overcompensating a little, pouring onto the horse all the nurturing instincts that she couldn’t show to her human companion in Callisto’s body, she also knew exactly how much Argo meant to her. It must have been a nightmare come to life, finding her lying there wounded and broken and close to death at Callisto’s hand. Little wonder she was pampering the poor thing now that she could.

Besides, separating was a good idea for all three of them. It would give Xena a chance to bond with Argo without Gabrielle breathing down both their necks, and it would give Gabrielle some much-needed solitude to work through her own feelings, the things she couldn’t let show when Xena was around wearing the face from her worst nightmares. It would give her a chance to catch her breath, catch her thoughts… and, of course, get something to eat without the inevitable ‘I told you so’.

(Frankly, that part was worth more than all the rest put together.)

The village was a small one, even by their usual standards, and there wasn’t much in the way of scenery to take in. A cluster of ramshackle houses on one side, a smithy and the stables on the other, and a couple of stores somewhere in the middle. It had all the necessities and sundries, Gabrielle supposed, but everything was in a state of disrepair, and the people looked as weather-worn and downtrodden as their homes. It didn’t bode well for two conspicuous-looking travellers trying to stay out of trouble, and she felt a heavy weight settle in her stomach as she watched Xena lead Argo off towards the stable. It made her feel anxious in a way she couldn’t explain, frightened for something more than herself.

“Please stay safe.”

She didn’t even realise she’d said the words out out loud until a heavy hand dropped onto her shoulder and the last part of ‘safe’ evaporated into a muffled, horrified shriek.

“You don’t want to be messing with her.” The voice was rough, calloused like the hand, but clearly without malice. “That’s Callisto, that is. Everyone knows she’s trouble.”

Gabrielle spun on her heels, pulled free of the grip to find a face to match the voice. It was rough too, ragged and deeply lined, but not cruel. One of the villagers, she realised, and she didn’t need to ask why he was staring at her like that. In a tiny little nowhere place like this, strangers stood out all the more, and Callisto’s name was well known even in the most out-of-the-way parts. No doubt he thought he was being kind, talking some sense into the foolish little girl who must have no idea what kind of monster she was travelling with.

A lot of people seemed to see her that way. Frankly, she was getting more than a little tired of it.

“I know who she is,” she said. “And even if I didn’t, I can take care of myself just fine.”

He shrugged, one bushy eyebrow raised. “Don’t recall saying you couldn’t,” he said, though there was a weight to his voice now that hadn’t been there a moment ago. “But we don’t like trouble round here.”

“Neither do we,” Gabrielle said, very quietly. “You won’t get any from us.”

He studied her for a very long moment, as though trying to figure out whether she really was as naïve as she looked, whether he could put his trust into a girl who looked like she should be back home learning how to weave baskets. In the end, whatever his opinion, he seemed to decide that there was no point in turning it into a confrontation, and grudgingly backed off.

“You make sure we don’t,” he said, but it wasn’t a threat. “We’ve entertained more than our fair share of your kind lately, and we don’t plan on any more.”

Gabrielle sighed, and did not bother to ask who else they’d ‘entertained’ lately. She was fairly sure she didn’t want to know. “Like I said,” she muttered instead, tired and sullen, “we’re not here for trouble.”

“Good.” He cocked his head towards the other side of town and added, as though reading her mind, “Tavern’s that way.”

Grateful for the excuse to get away, Gabrielle scurried off in the direction he pointed out. She didn’t really think it would have been possible to get lost in a village this small, but she made a show of feigning gratitude just the same, if only to smooth over the tension.

It sat unpleasantly inside her, the sound of her own voice so shrill and sharp; she wasn’t used to being so defensive, so quick to snap at innocent people who just didn’t want to get tangled up in warriors’ problems. Had Xena been in her own body, Gabrielle knew she that would have handled the whole thing very differently, would have played the smiling bard — ‘I sing of Xena, warrior princess!’ — and explained in flowery prose that Xena was a changed woman.

Of course, it wasn’t so easy when everyone was seeing Callisto, and it was harder still when Gabrielle herself was as well. It was harder to stay calm, and she could not sing the praises of a woman she hated.

The tavern, when she got there, was mostly empty, and what few straggling patrons were gathered around were rather more interested in their ale than any company that might have blown in. One or two of them glanced at the door when it creaked open, squinting comically through the haze of liquor, but their attention lasted a second at most; as soon as they realised it wasn’t a familiar face, they were back in their cups without so much as a shrug. Gabrielle was grateful for that; there were few places better for anonymity, she’d learned, than one full of drunks.

She made her way to the bar, and pulled up the sturdiest stool she could find. It was about as uncomfortable as everything else in this village seemed to be, but she masked her grimace and didn’t mention it to the barkeep. No sense in making any more enemies around here, she figured, and especially not the one who would be making her dinner. She forced a smile, praying that he wouldn’t notice how strained it was, and asked for the menu.

“Don’t have much,” the barkeep said, voice as rough as the stranger outside. “Nothing fancy, if that’s what you’re after. Bread, broth, ale, that’s your lot. If you’ve got a taste for mutton or venison, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.”

“No, no…” Given those options, Gabrielle couldn’t help thinking it would have been tempting to just skip the food and drown herself in a few dozen mugs of ale. After the day she’d had, not even Xena could blame her for wanting to blur the edges a little bit; still, she knew that her stomach wouldn’t thank her if she did, and tasteless food was better than none. “Some broth would be great, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“No such thing as too much trouble if you got the money.”

It was probably a good thing, Gabrielle realised, that she was the one who usually took care of their coin. Anything Xena might have had on her was down in Tartarus with her body, and Callisto wasn’t exactly the type to carry loose change around. Why pay for things when she could stick a knife in their neck, after all?

The thought made her shudder, threatened to steal her appetite again, and she shook it off before it could become something tangible. It wasn’t important, she reminded herself; she had the money, and that was all that mattered.

“I can pay,” she said, grounding herself by saying it out loud, and punctuated the point by dropping a couple of dinars onto the bar. “Maybe throw an ale my way too, while you’re at it?”

That was probably not the brightest idea, but she didn’t care. She’d be find so long as she was eating too, and in any case she was hardly the kind to drink to excess even on a bad day. She just wanted it to be a little more bearable when she and Xena caught up with each other, when she found herself faced with Callisto’s eyes; a bit of liquor inside her would make them less frightening, she was sure, and who could blame her for wanting that?

The barkeep, not particularly caring about her reasons, simply shrugged and did as she asked. He pocketed the coin a little too eagerly, and wasted no time in shoving an oversized mug in her direction. The ale sloshed over the sides; it looked unappetising, cheap and clearly watered down, but Gabrielle had no doubt that it would quench her thirst — both kinds — without too much trouble. Good enough, she decided and took a large gulp.

She drank fast, and ate even faster. They had been on the road all day, walking and stopping and walking and worrying and walking some more, and she was hungry enough to eat a whole lot more than the meagre portion of broth the barkeep put in front of her. It was far from good, as weak and watery as the drink, but it was food and it was hers, and she relished every mouthful with a kind of gusto these villagers had probably never seen before.

The barkeep watched her, eyes wide and disbelieving, like he’d never seen such a response to his cooking or his ale in his whole life. Given how bad the food and drink actually were, that was probably pretty close to true, but Gabrielle had never been particularly choosey about what she put in her mouth. Travelling with Xena had all but killed off what few tastebuds she might once have had, and she had eaten and enjoyed far worse meals than this.

When she was done, she ordered a refill of both bowl and mug, and handed over a few extra dinars for the trouble. If the look on his face was anything to go by, he’d never seen that before either, and Gabrielle beamed because at least she’d made one friend in this place.

She stayed there probably longer than she should, enjoying the relative luxury of having a roof over her head and no Xena yelling in her ear. She probably ate and drank more than she should as well, though she blamed that on how diabolically watered-down everything was, and how much she needed to get through in order to feel full. It wasn’t decadence, she told herself, but practicality, and if she was swaying ever so slightly as she dragged herself back up to her feet… well, that was between her and the barstool.

It was a strange feeling, being full and content after so long wearing herself down with anger and fear and pain. She hadn’t really over-indulged, though, tempting as it had been; Xena had taught her the dangers of that, had hammered it into her head a long time ago that she needed to always be clear-headed and able-bodied enough to swing a weapon at a moment’s notice. She knew the value of moderation, and she stuck to it well, but there was just enough of a fog inside her brain that the thought of looking Callisto in the eye didn’t fill her with the usual dread.

It was the best that she could hope for, she supposed, and perhaps that was why she let her guard down. The air was fresh and clean when she stepped back outside, and she set off for the stables without a care in the world. Stupid, in hindsight, not to stop and look around first. Stupid, yes, and as the Fates would have it, dangerous too.

She’d made it perhaps ten paces when she realised she was cornered.

They came at her from different angles, penned her in until she had nowhere to go, flanking her from both sides and coming at her from the front with the tavern wall pressing up against her back.

There were three of them this time, all clad in the same piecemeal armour she’d seen on the mercenaries from earlier. They were clearly smarter than the others, though, if still not exactly geniuses; at the very least they were clever enough to have a plan of attack this time, to single out the sidekick and come after her when she was alone and distracted. A solid plan, Gabrielle thought bitterly, and one that she herself had certainly made easier. It was so tragic it was almost funny: they couldn’t tell one warrior princess from another, but apparently they knew enough to recognise that silly little Gabrielle was everyone’s weak spot.

It made her angry. No-one without a death wish would ever dare to take on Xena or Callisto like this, but her little friend was easy pickings, and they honed in on her like it was no task at all. She hated that they saw her that way, hated how obvious it was even to idiots like these, and she hated it all the more because she knew that they were right. Even now, insistent as she was that she wasn’t a little girl, still her first instinct was to cry out for Xena. Far worse, the only thing that stopped her from doing exactly that was the knowledge that it would blow her precious cover.

She couldn’t call for Xena, but she wouldn’t call for Callisto.

That left only one option, and it was a bad one. Alone, backed into a corner, she’d have to fight it out on her own. It was probably to her benefit, then, that like everyone else these bastards had underestimated her; Xena had taught her how much easier it was to surprise people who expected nothing than people who came ready for a fight. She’d taught her that about a thousand times, had told her again and again to exploit anyone stupid enough to underestimate her. Gabrielle’s pride always made it hard, but she wrapped those lessons around her now like a mantra.

She might be a fraction less steady than usual, light-headed from the ale and heavy-bodied from the food, but she was still an Amazon and she would be damned to Tartarus before she held herself as anything less. She might not be Xena, might not be as good as Ephiny or Melosa or her other sisters, might not even be able to hold her own against the hated Callisto… but by the gods, she could put up a fight when she needed to. And she would.

She lashed out with her staff, quick and violent to catch them off-guard. Being the sidekick was always a blessing in these first few crucial seconds; they never went straight for the vein against her like they did against Xena, never took a shot until she forced it. She was leverage, nothing more, and that meant they wanted her in as few pieces as possible; they were hesitant to raise a hand against her, wary of leaving a mark that might make her less valuable, but Gabrielle didn’t share that particular qualm, and she struck very hard.

Her staff cracked the nearest one across the jaw, sharp enough that he went stumbling backwards. She couldn’t really know for sure whether it was the pain or simply surprise that had thrown him, but she didn’t particularly care either way; an opening was an opening, and she capitalised on it with an exuberance that would have made Xena proud if she could see it.

The other two were quick to cover for their comrade, flanking her from both sides, but Gabrielle didn’t even blink. She swung again, just as hard, quick, sharp jabs that didn’t do much against their chainmail but forced them to defend themselves instead of going on the attack.

It worked for a time, longer than she expected it, if she was honest, but still not long enough. Fact was, there were more of them than her, and experience had taught her that a man’s unwillingness to hit a young girl only lasted until he had a bloody nose; the instant she started hitting back, they stopped worrying about keeping her in one piece, and that was her upper hand gone for good. Besides, she had never quite mastered Xena’s talent for watching more than one enemy at the same time, and as soon as they started fighting back their numbers turned the tide against her embarrassingly fast.

She was outmatched like always, and outnumbered as well, and it was only a matter of moments before she was the one stumbling and floundering, before they were the ones swinging at her, before she’d all but forgotten she ever had the upper hand at all.

They were much stronger than her, and bigger, and once they got going they were relentless. As soon as she ducked one of them, another came at her from the opposite side, and she’d barely had time to block or parry a blow from one when someone else — she’d long since given up on figuring out which one of them was which — drove the hilt of their sword right into her face.

Her head snapped back, cracked against the wall, and for second that lasted a lifetime her vision was a wash of red and grey. She almost blacked out, but she fought it back and spat blood instead. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.

Not that staying awake made much of a difference; in truth, it probably just made things worse. They had the opening they needed now, and of course they used it to devastating effect. They were already working on a maelstrom of blows by the time she came back to herself, a hail of fists to her most vulnerable places, her back and her stomach and her face, but she planted her feet and held her ground because she had to, because she was an Amazon, because Xena had taught her, because—

CRACK.

Her whole body shook with the force of the blow, a boot or a mace or something equally hard slamming into her ribs, and the next thing she knew she was on her knees, gagging and gasping and in so much pain that for an impossibly long moment she couldn’t breathe at all.

The need to black out came on her again, and again she fought it back. This wasn’t the end; it couldn’t be the end, and no sooner had she realised that than she was dragging herself back up to her feet. She was swaying, a knot of pain blooming all over her body, pulses of agony radiating out in all directions from her jaw right down to her knees, but she could not let it best her. She fought it all back, the ringing in her ears and the blood in her mouth, the bruises she could feel swelling across every inch of her, drove it all back down and forced herself to breathe, to raise her staff and take another swing.

It was useless, blind and futile, and the effort of lifting it hurt almost worse than the blow that came next. Another crack across her midsection, pain seizing like an explosion inside of her, and the next thing she knew she was back on the ground again.

No, she thought, and swallowed blood and bile. Not here, not now, not yet.

Xena had taught her better. Xena had taught her how to fight, how to focus, how not to die. Her body was on fire, but she couldn’t afford to listen to it. There would be time enough to feel the pain later, when the fight was over and she was still alive, but for now she had to ignore it. She had to get up again. She had to find her staff, find the strength to swing it. She had to make Xena proud. She had to, she had to, she had to…

Gabrielle!”

It was a long, long moment before Gabrielle realised what she was hearing. She lifted her head, and through the tilt and swerve of her vision she could just about make out the blur running towards them, a lightning-bolt of leather and steel and impossibly blonde hair.

Blonde? No, wait, that’s not—

Another blow, the heel of someone’s boot driving her head back down, and when it cleared again a moment later, she remembered everything.

Yes, Xena was blonde now, wasn’t she? Yes, Xena was nearly a head shorter than she used to be. Yes, her clothes really did look like that now, and yes, her sword really was that much sharper. Yes, yes, yes, it really was Xena coming at them, swinging Callisto’s sword and shrieking her demonic war-cry. It was Xena, all of those things, and everything would be all right.

And yes, it was. Like always, as soon as she dove into the fray it was all over in approximately a tenth of a second.

Gabrielle groaned; she didn’t even have the strength left in her to be humiliated. It was all she could do just to hold her head up and hold onto to her senses, to keep her eyes open and her ears alert as the air sang with the with the clash of steel on mail and flesh on bone.

In a sick sort of way, she was almost glad that her vision was too blurry to really see what was going on. The world was spinning around her, the taste of her own blood thick and sharp in her mouth; the sight of theirs too, spilling over Callisto’s hands, would surely have been the end of her if she could have seen see it.

She couldn’t even bear the thought, couldn’t keep it straight in her head that this was Xena, that she was protecting her, saving her, that this was a good thing. She could scarcely think at all, and when she tried even the purest thoughts twisted and transformed until all she could hear was her own voice echoing, please please please don’t kill them, please Xena please don’t kill them, please don’t please don’t kill, Xena please…

She didn’t know if she said the words out loud, or if Xena heeded them. Her eyes wouldn’t focus, and the ringing in her ears drowned out everything except Xena’s imitation of Callisto’s twisted scream. She couldn’t see or hear, and the only things she could feel were stupid and tangible and did not matter at all. Her own pain, her own blood and bruises and the bones rattling inside of her, the cold floor against her skin and the sweat and the sob and the acid in her mouth. She didn’t care about that; she just wanted to know if anyone was dead. She couldn’t figure it out, and she was terrified.

The silence, when it was finally over, was deafening.

Gabrielle lay still on the ground, kept her face pressed into the dirt, and tried as hard as she could to make the world stop spinning. That was hard, but harder still was trying to brace herself for what she would find when she finally hauled herself upright and looked around. A bloodbath worthy of Callisto? A moment of mercy, the kind she prayed Xena was still capable of? An ongoing drama, the villagers running at them with torches and pitchforks to chase them out of town for causing trouble?

It was Xena who helped her to stand; Gabrielle knew it was her because she would recognise Callisto’s hands anywhere. They were surprisingly gentle, gripping her by the arms and easing her back up to her feet, and those horrible, bony shoulders were surprisingly steady as they supported her when she swayed and sagged.

“Easy, now…” she said. Her voice was gentle too, like Xena’s always was after a fight went bad like this, after Gabrielle got herself into a mess and ended up with a bloody nose. “Up you go.”

“I’m up…” she managed. Her voice was slurred, and it sounded very strange to her own ears. “I’m… oh…”

“All right, okay, come on…” Both of their bodies shifted as Xena tried to move them, guiding Gabrielle back towards the tavern as tenderly as she could. “Let’s get you inside, hm?”

Gabrielle tried to turn her head as they walked. It was a bad idea; white-hot pain exploded behind her eyes and she felt so sick she wanted to die, but she didn’t pay the sensation any mind. It wasn’t important. She had to know if there were any bodies. She had to know if Xena had killed. She could pass out or worse, and she wouldn’t care; she had to know.

There weren’t any bodies, at least so far as she could see. Her vision was still swimming, but it was a little clearer now that her head wasn’t being used for target practice, and she could just about make out the spot where they’d fought. There was blood everywhere, staining the wall and the ground, but it wasn’t the wasteland of death she’d been dreading. She had seen far worse since she started travelling with Xena, and she had a humiliating suspicion that most of the blood was hers anyway.

(It wasn’t the best end to the day, she thought, but given the alternative she’d take it.)

Still, she had to be sure. “You didn’t…” Her tongue felt too big for her mouth, and when she tried to swallow she almost choked on it. “Tell me… Xena, please, tell me you didn’t kill anyone.”

“Of course I didn’t.” Callisto’s voice was hard and angry. It made Gabrielle shudder and pull away, made her strain to stay upright all on her own just so she wouldn’t have to touch her again. “I’m not that person any more, Gabrielle. You know that.”

“I know.” It hurt to speak, to move, to breathe, but the relief cut through the pain and made her feel stronger. “Just… I had to be sure. I had to…”

Xena nodded, but didn’t move in to support her again. She wanted to, Gabrielle could tell, but she respected her need for space more than she wanted to close it. Maybe she sensed the discomfort in her, the way she still couldn’t separate what she knew was the truth from what her dizzy eyes were telling her, the vision of Callisto with blood on her hands, screaming her war-cry and swinging that horrible sword.

“It’s all right,” Xena said softly, then turned away to cock her head at the bartender. Her eyes flashed as she moved, darkening under the lights, and Gabrielle could have sworn she saw the exact moment she twisted into Callisto, the exact moment the warrior princess became a monster. “Looks like we’ll be taking a room,” she said, in a voice that left no room for debate. “Got a problem with that?”

“Uh…” Though he clearly wanted to argue, it was obvious that he wouldn’t. He was shaking like a leaf from head to toe, and no-one in their right mind would risk aggravating Callisto when she was in this kind of a mood. “No, no, no. Go on ahead. Room’s on the house.”

Xena quirked a brow. “Oh?”

“Yes. Uh. Your friend paid more than enough anyway, and… uh…”

That wasn’t true at all, Gabrielle realised, and suddenly it felt like the most important thing in the world to make sure Xena knew it. She had to tell her, had to make her see that it wasn’t fair, that they couldn’t just take advantage of someone like that. It wasn’t right to use his fears against him, to intimidate him into giving up a piece of his livelihood just to keep a savage murderer happy. Xena wasn’t like that any more, and Gabrielle would not allow her her slip back into those terrible habits just because she wore the face of someone who frightened people into pleasing them. That couldn’t happen. It felt so, so important.

She limped up the stairs, Xena following close behind, readying to catch her in case she lost her balance and fell. No doubt she thought it was safer that way than trying to support her or carry her if she wasn’t ready for the contact. Gabrielle appreciated the thought, but her stubbornness wouldn’t allow her to say so.

As soon as they were alone in the room, she whirled around to face her. The walls spun, but she didn’t care. “You will pay him, right?”

Xena frowned. “What?”

“The barkeep,” Gabrielle elucidated. She was still slurring, but her head was clear now and that counted for a lot. “I didn’t pay him enough, Xena. Not to cover the room. Promise me you’ll pay. Promise me you won’t take advantage of him thinking you’re her. Promise me you won’t…”

“Of course I won’t.” Callisto’s hands were twitching at Xena’s sides, like she wanted to cuff her on the shoulder for daring to ask but didn’t want to hurt her more than she already was and didn’t want to upset her with the contact. “What kind of a question is that?”

“I don’t know.” The energy drained out of her like water spilling out into the sea, and she collapsed onto the bed. “Sorry.”

Xena sighed, as though the strength were bleeding out of her as well, as though her own heart beat in time with Gabrielle’s even when it sickened.

“Don’t be sorry,” she said, with passion. She really did sound like the real Xena when she spoke like that, overflowing with sorrow and sympathy; Callisto had never understood either of those things, and she would never give them voice. “Don’t you dare apologise for any of this, Gabrielle. Do you hear me? You have nothing to apologise for. Nothing. None of this was your fault, and you…” She shook her head, angry and sad at the same time. “I don’t want to hear it. Not a word of it.”

The guilt was obvious, and it stung. Gabrielle kept her face buried in the pillows, and found that it was easier to listen to her heart when her face was hidden away from Callisto’s.

“It wasn’t your fault either,” she said, grateful that the pillows mostly muffled the words.

Xena, of course, didn’t want to hear that either. Even if she could have believed it was true, she never let Gabrielle turn these moments back on her. It was like she enjoyed torturing herself, like it felt more righteous somehow if she convinced herself it was to Gabrielle from doing the same.

“Hush now,” she said. “We’ll talk about it some other time.”

On another day, Gabrielle might have done as she was asked, let the matter drop and saved it for a time when they were both feeling stronger. Today, however, she did no such thing. In the first, she didn’t feel like she deserved the forgiveness any more than Xena deserved the guilt; she was the one who had gotten into trouble, the one who hadn’t been able to talk or fight her way out of it. She deserved every ounce of the pain and humiliation they’d poured down on her. She needed to be better in moments like this, and soothing words would not make that happen.

Besides, Xena wasn’t to blame for any of this, and Gabrielle would not let her beat herself up over it just because it came easier. It wasn’t Xena’s head that a bounty on it, and it wasn’t Xena’s fault that people kept thinking she was Callisto. Maybe it was a little bit her fault for playing along with it, but who could blame her for that when the truth would take half a lifetime to explain? Who could blame her for preferring that they see her as someone else while she struggled to make sense of who she was in her new body? It wasn’t her fault, and Gabrielle would not let her believe that it was. That was how they’d got into this mess in the first place, wasn’t it?

It took a moment to find her strength, and she used it to roll over, to sit up and brace against the wave of pain.

“It wasn’t your fault,” she said again, grateful that her voice at least was still strong and steady, even if the rest of her was shaking and bloody. “You know that, Xena. It’s not your fault those bastards came after Callisto and it’s not your fault they stumbled on me instead.”

“They didn’t ‘stumble on you’, Gabrielle,” Xena countered, furious. “They knew exactly who you were, and they knew exactly what they were doing. My — Xena’s relationship with you is no secret to anyone, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why her biggest enemy would be dragging you around.”

Gabrielle turned her face away. “They think I’m your trophy,” she realised in a whisper.

“They think you’re her trophy,” Xena corrected. “But that’s not the point, is it? The point is, they know who you are and they know that you’re a prize for either one of us.” Her eyes flashed, bright and suddenly wet, and Gabrielle’s chest burned in a way that had nothing to do with the pain. “Doesn’t matter whose face I’m wearing, or who they think I am. Fact is, Gabrielle, you’re always my weakness.”

“Great,” Gabrielle muttered. “Just what every girl wants to hear.”

She didn’t mean to sound so bitter, so hateful, but that was exactly how she felt and she didn’t have the strength to try and hide it. She was so tired of being the sidekick, so tired of being seen as some helpless girl from Poteidaia, as Xena’s little friend or Callisto’s little trophy. She was so tired of being an easy target or a soft mark, a tool to be used against the important people with no value of her own to speak of. She was so, so tired of being seen as worthless, and so, so tired of having to remind herself that she wasn’t.

Xena studied her for a very long time, knitting Callisto’s brows together, like she was trying to figure a way of clarifying herself without making things worse. Gabrielle didn’t tell her not to bother; she didn’t tell her that it would be a waste of breath. She just laid herself back down, and let her aching head fall back on the pillows.

“Here,” Xena said at last. “Let me…”

She didn’t finish the thought, letting her actions speak for her instead. She crossed the room, closing the space between them as though she owned it, and leaned in close. She didn’t sit on the bed, but she hovered over Gabrielle’s body like it was something less than human, and in the red haze of too much pain and not enough adrenaline she really did look like a crazed warlord looking to claim her prize.

Gabrielle felt her pulse quicken, a flash of panic that she couldn’t control. Xena meant well, she knew; clumsy and indelicate though the change of subject was, she knew that she was just trying to do what she thought was best, distracting them both by focusing in on the task at hand. No doubt she had her own concerns to silence as well, the protective instincts she always denied ever having, the ones that made her dive in front of Gabrielle every time they got into a scrap, that made her spend hours over a fire checking every little nick or bruise or mark. It was typical Xena, Gabrielle knew, but in Callisto’s body it felt like something very different indeed, and it was more terrifying than a hundred warlords or a thousand of their hired swords.

“Xena, no.”

She blurted it out like a plea for mercy, and it made Xena frown. “It’s all right,” she said, visibly fighting to keep her voice low, her expression calm. “I just want to take a look at you. I need to make sure nothing’s broken.”

“Nothing’s broken,” Gabrielle said, far too quickly. She was pretty sure that was a lie, but somehow it felt safer than her position just now. “I’m fine, really. It’s just a few flesh wounds, a couple of bruises… nothing I haven’t done to myself in practice a hundred times or more.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” Xena said; that was a lie too, Gabrielle could tell. “But I still need to check.”

She reached for her again, as carefully as she could. There was nothing intimidating or possessive in the way she moved, and when her fingertips found skin her touch was feather-soft.

It didn’t help. Xena was so delicate, so careful and tender and so deliberate in all those things; if anything, that made it a hundred times worse. Gabrielle knew far too well that Callisto could be delicate too, that she could be careful and tender, and that it was always so deliberate. She couldn’t shake the memories, the terrible moments when they were alone; Callisto knew exactly what kind of a prize Gabrielle was, how deeply Xena cared for her, and she twisted that into something perverse. Gabrielle still shuddered to remember Callisto touching her face, caressing her so tenderly with hands that just hours before had been drenched with Perdicus’s blood.

Oh, yes. Callisto could be delicate too. Tender and careful and delicate, and in her own way more so even than Xena. Her eyes were so cold, so empty, but her touch could be softer than a breath when she wanted it to be.

Gabrielle knew that this was nothing like that. She knew that Xena was sincere, that she really was just checking the damage, that she was being as clipped and professional as she could with her heart ripped open. She knew all of that, of course, but still she couldn’t bring herself to care. It didn’t matter how Xena used her hands, or to what end; they were still Callisto’s, and this was not the first time Gabrielle had felt them on her.

She jerked away, scrambled further up the bed. Her body protested, a shriek in her muscles and a lance of fire through her bones, but she ignored it. She had to get away from those hands, those scary spider’s fingers, the memories of the woman she hated and feared and hated.

“Don’t.” The word was a terrified squeak. “Xena, please. Don’t touch me.”

Xena looked distraught, as though some part of her had known that this would happen but the rest had been praying that it would not. “Gabrielle, I have to—”

“I said don’t.” Her voice broke, and she forced herself to harden it, to turn the fear into anger, into something like courage, something that Xena could be proud of. “I know it’s you in there, Xena. I know that. But those hands are hers, and I don’t want them on me. I don’t… I won’t…” She shook her head, swallowed thickly. “Not now. Not like this.”

“I understand that,” Xena said, so low that Gabrielle almost missed it. “Believe me, I do. But you could be seriously hurt…”

“I’m not.” She didn’t care that it might not be true. Nothing was more important than getting Callisto away from her. “Don’t you think I’d know if I was?”

Xena frowned. Gabrielle watched the conflict playing out across her features, twisting Callisto’s face into something so familiar and so wrong at the same time. There was so much going on inside her head, the need to see for herself that Gabrielle really was all right clashing with the part of her that desperately wanted to respect her wishes, that truly did understand why Gabrielle felt like she did.

Gabrielle hated herself for putting Xena through this, for making a painful situation a million times worse for both of them. She hated that she couldn’t simply put all of those stupid feelings away, couldn’t just shut off the fear and the hate like Xena cut off her enemies’ blood flow. Just like in the fight before, she wanted to be better at this, wanted to be strong like her Amazon sisters, strong like Xena.

But she wasn’t. She wasn’t Xena, and she was nothing like her Amazon sisters. She was angry and she was frightened, and injured and vulnerable and exposed as she was right now, lying helpless on her back like a sick child, she felt both of those things tenfold. If Callisto touched her now it would end her, and far more painfully than any broken bones.

At long last, and clearly hating herself for it, Xena made her choice. She pulled away completely, stormed off to the other side of the room, and sat down on the floor with her head in her hands.

“You’re sure?” she asked.

Gabrielle swallowed the pain, bit back the discomfort, covered over anything that might give her away. “I’m sure.”

“You’re breathing all right?”

“Just fine.”

Xena narrowed her eyes, visibly dubious. “You promise?” she pressed. “Because that’s serious, Gabrielle. If you can’t—”

“Xena, stop. Please.” Her voice was shaking again. It probably didn’t lend much credibility to her point. “I told you I’m fine. For once in your life, can’t you trust me?”

Xena sighed, wringing Callisto’s hands. Gabrielle watched her twisting those spider’s fingers into unnatural shapes, and tried not to remember how they felt against her skin, how they looked covered in Perdicus’s blood, how easily they locked around a sword or a dagger or a face. She wanted to run away, to ask for another room where she could hide until this was all over, until Xena stopped asking all those questions, until she stopped caring about her and reaching out for her and trying to help her, until she stopped looking at her with so much love in Callisto’s eyes.

“All right.” There it was, at last: surrender. “All right, then, Gabrielle: I trust you. You say you’re fine, that’s good enough for me.” She didn’t really sound convinced, but Gabrielle would take the victory for what it was. “But if you feel anything out of the ordinary… even the slightest, smallest little thing… you tell me immediately. That’s not a discussion. Are we clear?”

Gabrielle nodded. She was scared, but she wasn’t stupid.

It wasn’t good enough, she knew, and Xena didn’t even try to hide how much it hurt. Callisto’s face was so much more expressive than her own, so much freer with its feelings, and a thousand times more so when those feelings were Xena’s. Everything she felt was amplified by those devastating dark eyes, by the crinkling of her forehead or the tightening of her jaw. Gabrielle wondered if things might have turned out differently between them if the real Callisto had only allowed her face to look as tragic as this.

Gabrielle took a deep breath. “Are you angry?” she asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

Callisto’s jaw turned white; Xena’s soul shone like tears behind her eyes. She looked so terrible and so beautiful all at once.

“Not with you,” she whispered. “Never with you.”

*

Chapter Text

*

Watching Gabrielle suffer was always a kind of torture, but this time it was worse than usual.

Her face was a mess, her torso even worse, but that wasn’t the hard part. It was the helplessness, the distance, all the things that Xena had never needed to deal with before. She couldn’t touch her, couldn’t hold her, couldn’t even check to make sure there was nothing truly dangerous hidden somewhere among those gruesome patchwork colours. All she could do was watch, counting the bruises, tracing the line of blood from her mouth and nose, studying everything in the minutest detail but from the most excruciating distance.

It was beyond the usual torture, beyond almost any torture Xena had ever known. Gabrielle was so brave for her sake, screwing up her face, gritting her teeth and squeezing her eyes shut, trying so hard not to cry and break Xena’s heart; Xena couldn’t bring herself to tell her that it was broken anyway. Gabrielle always wore her heart on her sleeve; had she been a warrior it would almost certainly be her downfall, but she was the kindest and sweetest soul Xena had ever met and Xena would lay down her life a hundred times to make sure that purity and light stayed in her forever.

It made these moments when she got hurt unbearable, though, and never more so than now, when she was forbidden to touch her.

Xena knew a lot about pain. She had seen innocent-looking wounds fester and deepen, become so intolerable that there was no choice but to cut away the whole limb. She had seen injuries give the illusion of healing in one moment only to become a thousand times worse in the next; she had seen warriors well-versed in the art of shaking off blows insist that they were on the mend then drop dead an hour later, writhing in agony. She had seen too much of so many things to ever truly believe someone who insisted they were ‘fine’. And when it was Gabrielle, her Gabrielle, even the Fates themselves could not have convinced her it was true.

Gabrielle’s breathing was rough. Xena could hear it rattle when she rested on her back, the way it hissed when she sucked it in a little too sharply. She saw, too, the little winces and moans that she thought she was hiding so well, the twitches and tics and tremors that gave away so much more than admitting it aloud ever would. She saw all of that and more besides, saw as though she was inside Gabrielle’s body herself, a part of those battered bones and muscles, like they were hers as well. It didn’t matter that common sense told her she was overreacting, that logic insisted she was being silly; when Gabrielle hurt, Xena hurt.

She knew that Gabrielle knew her own body, knew that she was not stupid enough to hide an injury that might prove dangerous. They had been travelling together long enough by now, and she had grown sensible in a way she hadn’t been when they’d first set out. She was smart enough now to recognise the difference between bruised pride and a brush with death, and at least most of the time she recognised the kind of injury she could ignore and the kind she couldn’t. She liked to pretend that she was tougher than she really was, of course, liked to play the big tough warrior who could shrug off a dislocated shoulder or walk off a sprained ankle, but experience had taught her where the big lines were, and she knew when it was important to admit that she needed help.

Xena knew that was true. Of course she did; she would trust Gabrielle with her life, so why shouldn’t she trust her with her own? Still, though, knowing was one thing, but how in the world was she supposed to accept it when she wasn’t allowed to look her over, hold her hands, and make her better?

This had never happened before. Xena had felt helpless before; just a few short months ago she had watched as Gabrielle slipped away entirely. She had felt that moment of impossible panic, the fist squeezing her throat until she couldn’t breathe either, until she was sure that she would die as well, but even then she’d at least been able to touch her. Even then she had been able to lean in, kiss her and hold her and pound on her chest when the grief overwhelmed her; even then, with her best friend on the brink of death, she had been able to do something. It had saved her life back then, but now…

Now, she couldn’t do anything at all. Nothing. She could only sit there on the opposite side of the room — what might as well be a whole world away — and watch Gabrielle’s breathing hitch, listen to it rattle, bite down on curses and cries as her warrior’s experience twisted every moment into the worst possible outcome. Ruptured spleen, punctured lung, blood on the brain… there were so many potential reasons for every little wince or groan, every little rattle in her chest or rasp in her throat. There were so many awful things that could be going on inside Gabrielle right now, and not a single good one.

She wished she’d been telling the truth when she said ‘that’s good enough for me’. She wished she could find the depth of faith that Gabrielle so often found without even trying. If their positions were reversed, Xena knew that Gabrielle would trust her word. She would worry, of course, but she would lock that part of herself up and smile and say ‘you know yourself better than I do.’ It would be enough; if Xena said said so, it had to be true. But that didn’t work in reverse. For all that she loved Gabrielle — maybe because she loved her — Xena could not simply take her at her word. She could not believe that she was fine when her heart was in pieces for fearing the worst.

Gabrielle was lying on her back now, staring up at the ceiling as though she was in a trance. Xena counted the colours on her jaw, her side, her midsection. She measured the blood, marked out the bruises, the colours, pictured each blow like a painter recreating a landscape. A half-dozen or so to the face, far more to the body, and the gods only knew what terrible things were happening below the surface. She turned away before she could think too hard about it, before she could picture cracked bones and bruised organs, shattering or tearing or—

Stop it, she chided herself. She says she’s fine. Believe her.

A year ago, a beating like this would have left Gabrielle devastated, her spirit broken almost worse than her body. She would have sulked for a week, bouncing back and forth between endless apologies and ceaseless complaints that Xena should have trained her harder. She would have made it into something significant, and every bruise would have become a rite of passage, a symbol of all the ways she wasn’t good enough. Now she shrugged it off, scowled at the ceiling, and said ‘I’m fine’. It was a very personal victory for her; Xena had to remember that.

“I’m proud of you,” she said aloud.

Gabrielle glanced at her for about half a second, then immediately looked away. “I almost got the life beaten out of me,” she pointed out. “That’s not something to be proud of.”

“I disagree,” Xena said, praying that her voice would carry all the things she couldn’t convey through touch. “You’ve come so far since we first met. That innocent little farm girl who followed me home… she had no idea what she was getting herself into. Do you think for a second she could have held her own against any one of those bastards?”

“Probably not,” Gabrielle conceded, licking at the blood on her lips.

“And look at you now. Three of them, Gabrielle. Three armed mercenaries against that same innocent farm girl, and you fought like an Amazon. I’d wager you would’ve had all three of them running for their lives if I hadn’t stepped in to steal the glory for myself.”

Gabrielle tried to smile. Xena watched the colours shift across her face. She wanted to take a cold cloth to them, to wash away the tracks of blood and dull the pain of the bruises that remained. She wanted to press with her fingers, check that the swelling didn’t go down too deep. She wanted to do so many things, but she didn’t. For Gabrielle’s sake, because she loved her and respected her wishes, she stayed where she was, watching and aching, and took what meagre comfort she could from the way Gabrielle didn’t turn away quite so quickly the next time she looked at her.

“You’re exaggerating,” she said. “We both know I’m not worth much in a fight.”

“Quite the contrary,” Xena said, and meant it. “You’ve become quite formidable. If you recall, you had me at knifepoint just yesterday.”

Gabrielle blanched; the bruises stood out all the more starkly for a moment or two. “Did you have to bring that up?” she asked. “I thought you were her. I thought…”

She trailed off with a rattling sigh. Xena thought about apologising, but she didn’t. She wasn’t sorry for bringing it up, wasn’t sorry for reminding them both that it had happened. Gabrielle might not want to dwell on that moment, on the sick realisation that everything was the opposite of how it seemed, but Xena knew it shouldn’t be forgotten.

It must have struck like a blow, worse in its own way than the beating she just got, to realise that she had been sharing food and drink, a bedroll and a horse with the woman she hated more than anyone else in the world, that her Xena was really Callisto and that the woman at the end of her blade was really the one she’d do anything for. Her whole world must have turned upside-down in a heartbeat, but she didn’t fall and she didn’t falter. She threw away the blade because it was the right thing to do, but there wasn’t one among the three of them who had doubted for a second that she would have used it if she’d thought it was necessary. That was the woman Gabrielle was becoming, and Xena would not let her lose sight of it.

“Bad example, maybe,” she said, a minor concession for Gabrielle’s sake. “But it’s the truth. When we first met, you were a slip of a thing, begging me to teach you and train you and turn you into something you weren’t. Now you’re pulling out weapons against the woman who killed your husband and holding your own against a trio of armed sellswords. All without breaking a sweat.”

The pallor was gone in a flash, replaced with a modest blush. Xena turned her face away so Gabrielle wouldn’t have to see Callisto’s mouth twisted into a fond smile. She truly had no idea how far she’d come, how much she was becoming; honestly, Xena found it almost frightening at times. Gabrielle felt so many things all at once, and all so intensely, so furiously; she held so much power, so much passion inside that tender heart of hers, and it always took so little for it to overflow. Xena didn’t know what to do with a heart like that, so soft in one moment and so shattered in the next, or with a soul so fragile and delicate and endlessly full. When they first started travelling together, she’d thought it was her job to protect it, to keep it safe from its owner and her foolish ideals; now, she was starting to see better.

“I wouldn’t say ‘without breaking a sweat’,” Gabrielle mustered, still blushing. “Without breaking any important bones, maybe… but then, I guess the jury’s still out on that one too, huh?”

Xena choked back her paranoia, forced herself to ignore the war-hardened parts of her that still imagined Gabrielle was bleeding internally, that still pictured her with a punctured lung and a shattered jaw, that couldn’t stop reshaping those minor surface injuries as something far more deadly. She focused on what she could see, what she could hear, on the way Gabrielle sounded, shy and sad but so far from broken.

“Ah, you’ll be fine,” she said, willing herself to believe it. She didn’t, though, not really, and of course Callisto’s voice gave her away. “A good night’s sleep will do you a world of good.”

Gabrielle’s face fell. She schooled her expression quickly, but trying to hide her discomfort from someone as keen-eyed as Xena was like trying to hide a slice of cake from Joxer; she was doomed before she even started. “Yeah…” she mumbled. “A good night’s sleep. I guess. Maybe.”

Something in her tone gave Xena pause. “You could barely get out of bed this morning,” she pointed out, eyes narrowed. “Don’t tell me you’re getting cold feet about taking a nap now that we finally have a roof over our heads.”

“Of course not,” Gabrielle huffed, then sighed and pressed her palms to her battered midsection. “I just wasn’t looking forward to lying on my back, that’s all. Even silly little bruises hurt, you know. And that body makes you snore.”

Xena didn’t miss the look on her face as she said that, the real truth shining through the artifice despite her best efforts to keep it down. There was a difference, she realised, between sharing a campfire in the great outdoors, a thousand leagues in either direction and a world of space between them, and sharing a room and a bed in a little tavern like this. Xena was very careful to give Gabrielle as much space as she could when they made camp last night, but she could tell that it wouldn’t be so simple in a cramped little room like this.

She sighed, closed her eyes. “Gabrielle, if you don’t want me here tonight…”

Gabrielle coughed, a splutter that came far more from shame than pain; she was embarrassed, Xena could tell, that she was so transparent. It was endearing, and that made Xena’s heart clench.

“I didn’t say that,” Gabrielle mumbled, like a child caught somewhere they shouldn’t be. “You should… I mean, I’m not… that is… look, you can’t very well sleep in the stables with Argo, can you?”

“Why not?” She tried to make it light, shrug it off with a careless grin, but she didn’t need to see Gabrielle’s flinch to know that it didn’t work. “I’ve slept in worse places.”

“I know you have. But that’s not the point, is it?”

“It’s not?” That was news to Xena, quite frankly. “Well, then, what is?”

“I don’t…”

She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to work through her thoughts until they became something she could put into words. Xena gritted her teeth, desperate once again to touch her, to ground her in the present. It had worked so many times before, but now…

“It’s all right,” she said instead, and the words seemed to shake Gabrielle out of her head a little.

“I can’t sleep without you,” she blurted out, like a shameful secret. “I mean, I can’t sleep with her… which I realise puts you in an awkward position…”

“You could say that,” Xena murmured, mostly to herself.

“I know. And I’m sorry. It’s just… complicated. And messy inside my head, you know? I don’t want her here, but I don’t want you anywhere else. I don’t want to… I don’t want to wake up and not know where you are.” She shook her head, visibly miserable. “And anyway, shouldn’t you be the one telling me I shouldn’t be left alone ‘in my condition’?”

Xena tried to chuckle, but it came out like a groan. “I don’t think you should spend the night without supervision,” she said honestly. “That’s true. But it’s more important that you feel comfortable, that you feel safe. That’s more important to me than all the rest. So if if you really think it would help you to sleep…”

Gabrielle swallowed very hard. “You’d really spend the night in the stables?”

“If you asked me to.”

She wanted to add ‘I’d do anything if you asked me to’, but she didn’t know how Gabrielle would respond. It was so difficult to know what she could and couldn’t say in this body, what would help Gabrielle to see that it really was Xena behind the blonde hair and crazy dark eyes, and what would make it worse.

Sometimes all it took was a smile, a moment’s softness, and Gabrielle would suck in her breath and flinch as though she’d been struck; she saw Callisto, cruel and cold and heartless, saw the madness behind the smile, the malice that tainted it. Other times a sharp grin or a cold look, something that Xena was so sure would upset her, instead got the hint of a laugh, a return if only for a moment to their weird kind of normal. She could not make sense of it, could not figure out why Gabrielle reacted so differently to the same things depending on the moment, and that made it almost impossible to know where the lines were. She wondered, sadly, if perhaps Gabrielle felt that way too. Shaking one minute and smiling the next, she didn’t seem to understand her own responses any better than Xena did.

“I don’t want that,” Gabrielle said at last. She sound so distant, so far away, that the tiny room felt oceans wide.

She spent a long time staring at the ceiling, mouthing wordless prayers to herself. Xena watched, awed by how exposed she was. She did that sort of thing all the time, seemingly without even realising she was doing it, splashing her feelings across her face in colours so much starker than the bruises or the blood; they complemented each other a little too well, Xena thought sadly, the wounds and the water on her eyelashes. She looked so young when she was in pain like this, and Xena hated the distance between them with everything in her.

“I miss having you close,” she heard herself confess.

She could tell that the words cut deep. Gabrielle didn’t flinch, but she let a tear fall, let the light catch the water as it struck her bruised cheek. “I miss it too,” she said, ever so softly. “I miss you.”

I’m still here, Xena thought, almost desperately, but of course she didn’t say so. Gabrielle knew that already, and saying it out loud wouldn’t make it any easier to swallow. She needed more than words, more than feelings in those moments when Xena got carried away and tried to touch her, when urgency and love made her forget that her face was not her own, that her hands had done unspeakable things not only to Gabrielle but to the people she loved. They were both trying as hard as they could, but neither of them were there yet, and it would be cruel to say that they should be, to pretend that things were further along than they were. They would get there in the end, of that she was certain, but neither one of them could force the moment before it was ready.

“Get some rest,” she said instead. “I’ll stand watch. Keep an eye out for more of Draco’s goons, and keep an eye on you while I’m at it.” She took a steadying breath, struggled to unclench her jaw. “From all the way over here.”

“I…” Gabrielle started, but she cut herself off before she could finish, before she could change her mind and break both of their hearts. “I mean, uh… thank you. And I… I’m sorry. I don’t… I mean…”

Xena wanted to smile, but she didn’t want Callisto’s teeth to be the last thing Gabrielle saw before she slept. So instead she just shook her head and said “Rest, Gabrielle.”

“I am resting,” Gabrielle shot back with a childish sort of pout. “I’m in bed, aren’t I? That’s good enough. That’s—”

Gabrielle.”

That did it. She made a show of grumbling, of course, but at least this time she did as she was told. She rolled over onto her side — facing the wall, Xena noted sadly, as though to shield herself from Callisto’s face — and pulled the moth-eaten blanket up over her head. Xena didn’t miss the way her body strained when she moved, or the way her breathing was still laboured, though she tried not to think too hard about every breath was a potential haemorrhage.

It took a long time for her to settle down, and longer still to fall asleep, but Xena didn’t offer to help. Though she would never say so out loud, a part of her couldn’t help wondering if perhaps Gabrielle’s restlessness came less from the obvious places — the physical discomfort and knowing that she was being watched — and more from the absence of a body next to her. Gabrielle was the most tactile person Xena had ever met; she thrived on physical contact, on closeness and intimacy and a thousand other things that had always come so hard to Xena herself. It was natural, with the way they lived and how close they had become, to miss that kind of intimacy now that it was gone, and Xena had to fight very hard to suppress the parts of her that wanted to lay at her side.

When Gabrielle did finally get to sleep, it was not a peaceful one. Xena should probably have anticipated that, in light of everything they’d gone through, but it still tore at her heart to see it, to watch helplessly as Gabrielle tossed and turned and trembled her way through her dreams. The sight upset her more than it usually would, because it felt so much like the way things should be and yet so far away at the same time.

They had spoken about their dreams a couple of days ago, before Callisto stole Xena’s body; Xena had been tortured by hers, the guilt made manifest while she slept, and Gabrielle had been tormented too by the silence of her own slumber, the stories that were no longer there. Her face had been a wash of grief when she confessed that they were gone from her, as though they were her children or her lovers, as though she mourned them as deeply as her husband. Perhaps she did, at that, though Xena hadn’t been able to find much sympathy at the time. Stories be damned, she would have given anything in the world for Gabrielle’s dreamless, guiltless sleep.

Now, at least on the surface, things seemed like they were back to normal. Xena didn’t dream at all in Callisto’s body, a bittersweet reminder that there was something unnatural in all of this, and Gabrielle’s dreams took hold of her almost from the moment she let herself drift off. Xena’s heart ached as she remembered the story Gabrielle had told her this morning, the fond memories of her dead husband made manifest in one of her pretty bard’s songs. ‘I dreamed a wonderful story last night,’ she said with the sweetest sigh Xena had ever heard. She had been so happy for her, so relieved that Gabrielle had finally gotten some inner peace, had finally found her stories again.

There was no relief now, though, and Xena didn’t need to hear these stories to know that they were nightmares.

She watched her toss and turn, helpless and hopeless and utterly despairing. It was like a nightmare of her own, having to watch from so far away, and the only thing she could do to keep herself sane was watch the way she moved and remind herself that at least it wasn’t the pain making her moan, at least she could still move relatively freely, at least she was still breathing. It wasn’t enough, but she had to cling to something, had to find some little piece of positivity to get her through this. If Gabrielle could toss and turn, twitch and tremble, maybe she really wasn’t hurt so terribly. Maybe she really was fine. Maybe—

“…no…”

—but what did it matter when the other kind of pain was so much worse?

Xena closed her eyes, blocked out the sight as Gabrielle rolled over onto her side, facing her completely. She couldn’t look at her, couldn’t bear to see it. It cut like a blade, like serrated steel carving through her guts, so visceral that it left her breathless and queasy. She’d known that it would; Gabrielle’s pain always did.

“…Callisto…” Her voice rasped, unbearably dry. “Callisto… no… Xena…”

It broke Xena’s heart in two, that hers was the name that rang the deepest, the most desperate. Callisto’s was like a shout, a hoarse, gurgling thing that meshed terror and defiance, the rage and hate still seething inside her clashing with the fact that, even on a good day, Callisto was terrifying to anyone. Her name was battle cry; Xena’s was the wail of an animal being torn apart.

“…Xena… please… Xena…”

That was it. Her name, shattered and shaking, and Xena shattered too. Like always, she acted without thinking, aware only of the fact that it hurt, that they both hurt, that she had to make it stop for both their sakes. The thought never even entered her mind that she had promised to keep her distance, that she had promised Gabrielle she would be safe, that she would not touch her with Callisto’s hands. All those things vanished in a heartbeat; all of a sudden, all she could see was Gabrielle’s face, contorted with hate and grief and so many nameless things, and all she knew was that she could not endure another second of it.

She was at Gabrielle’s side in less than three steps, leaning across the bed and gripping her by the shoulder. Gabrielle tensed, her whole body going whipcord-tight as though taking a blow, and Xena’s heart leaped into her mouth. Mindful of her injuries, she gave her a quick, gentle shake, and dropped her voice as low as she could.

“Gabrielle!”

That did the job, albeit rather too well. Gabrielle bolted upright in a flash, choking on another rattling gasp, and of course her body reacted instinctively, leaping to action long before her mind had a chance to catch up. All it took was the sight of Callisto hovering over her, and she lashed out with a blind, frenzied fist.

She caught her hard, a crack across the jaw that took Xena completely by surprise and sent her reeling. She didn’t even think to react, to parry or counter or try to catch the knuckles flying at her head; if there was a part of her that had anticipated Gabrielle might respond like this it was dwarfed next to the part of her that couldn’t even conceive of such a thing. She knew the truth, of course, knew that anyone would react instinctively in a moment like this, but the part of her that ached to see Gabrielle in pain couldn’t let go of the little girl who followed her home, the innocent young thing who would never raise a hand against anyone.

Gabrielle wasn’t that innocent young thing any more, though, was she? Callisto had burned that girl to ashes, right beside her husband.

Xena swallowed over the lump in her throat, turned her face to the side so that Gabrielle see the mark her knuckles had left. “Gabrielle,” she said again, enunciating each syllable very carefully. “Gabrielle, it’s me.”

Gabrielle blinked. Her arm was already raised, drawn back to take another swing, but she’d stopped in her tracks the instant she’d heard her name, frozen like a rabbit caught in the path of an oncoming cart. Good reflexes, Xena thought, though she didn’t say so aloud.

“Xena.” Her voice was uncharacteristically flat as she slowly, slowly lowered her arm. She kept her eyes narrowed, like she was struggling to piece together the truth she knew from the lie she saw; they were wet, though whether that was a product of the moment or a revenant from the nightmare Xena couldn’t tell. All she knew was that she would sell her soul if it would allow her to wipe those tears away. “It’s you.”

Xena let out a breath she hadn’t even known she was holding. “Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, it’s me. It’s me, Gabrielle, it’s me.” She took a deep breath, and tried to muster a smile. “Nice arm, by the way.”

Gabrielle didn’t even try to smile. “You said you’d stay over there,” she said, still flat and lifeless. “You said…”

“I know I did. And I’m so, so sorry.” She was, truly. She couldn’t even imagine how awful it must be, to wake from a nightmare only to find the face of her most hated enemy staring down at her, holding her and shaking her. “You were dreaming, Gabrielle. You were—”

“I know that,” Gabrielle snapped, voice rough. She shook her head again, as though still trying to shake off the dream, and then inched her way across the bed and out Xena’s reach. Xena ached down to her soul, but did not follow. “Are you… are you sure it’s just you in there? I mean, really, really sure?”

She looked so vulnerable, so open. It was the first time she’d asked the question since this had happened, the first time she’d let the doubt show through in a place where Xena could see. She knew that was for her sake, that Gabrielle didn’t want her to think she doubted her even for a moment, as though that wasn’t a completely natural reaction to a situation like this. It must be the grogginess letting it slip now, she supposed, the dull haze of sleep still hanging over her. Though it stung, she couldn’t deny that a part of her preferred it that way; honesty always felt safer than kindness to a warrior. Honesty was easier to return in kind.

“Of course I’m sure.” She kept her voice even, hoped that Gabrielle would catch her Xena behind it. “You think Callisto would’ve let you take a swing at her like that?”

In hindsight, it probably shouldn’t have surprised her that it didn’t help. Gabrielle turned deathly pale and launched herself off the bed, stumbling to the other side of the room. Whether she needed to put some distance between herself and Xena or whether she just needed the motion to ground herself a little, Xena couldn’t quite tell, but she did not follow. She sat down on the bed, slowly and carefully, and watched without a word as Gabrielle paced.

“That’s not funny, Xena,” she gritted out, tugging at her hair. “That’s not… I don’t know what she would have done. For all I know, she would’ve enjoyed it.”

“Okay, okay.” Xena breathed deeply, hoping that the calmness would rub off on Gabrielle. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what else to say.”

Gabrielle sighed. Her eyes were cloudy, though Xena could tell it had nothing to do with the pain or the dreams; she’d seen that look in them a thousand times before, the starlight of a story waiting to be told, so she leaned back and waited.

It took a moment for Gabrielle to compose herself, to shake off the last vestiges of her nightmare, of her feelings and the memories that shaped them, to come back to the present, and Xena recognised the moment those clouds lifted, the moment her eyes became clear and the story began.

“You know…” She spoke slowly, a little slurred, as though to herself. “When I found out that she was you… that you were her… or… uh…” She shook her head, steadying herself to try again. Xena didn’t interrupt, just waited with all the patience she had. “When I found out I’d been wandering around with Callisto… that I’d let her in, let her touch me and talk to me, that I’d let her manipulate me like that…”

“You didn’t let her,” Xena said softly. “You didn’t know.”

“But I should have.” She sounded wretched. “When I found out… there was a part of me that wished she would have just killed me. Put me out of my misery, you know? Just… just run me through with your sword, like she ran Perdicus through with hers, and then it would’ve all been over. I wouldn’t have to live with myself, knowing what she almost made me do. And I wouldn’t have to look at you and say ‘I didn’t know she wasn’t you’. I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t have had to deal with any of this.” She closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them again they were impossibly bright. “Stupid, right? And selfish.”

“Not at all,” Xena said, with as much kindness as Callisto’s voice allowed. “She toyed with you, manipulated you, almost made a killer out of you, all the while pretending to be me. That’s what she does, Gabrielle: she makes you wish she’d just get it over with, put an end to it so the torment will stop.” She grimaced as she spoke. This was inching close to the parts of Callisto she didn’t want to think about, the parts that resonated with her own guilt. “I guess it makes a sick kind of sense, when you think about it. That’s how she lives her life, after all. I suppose she thinks it’s hubris.”

Gabrielle chuckled, humourless and wet. “It feels like it.”

Her voice was so small, like the words meant so much more than they first appeared. Gabrielle blinked once when she’d said it, then turned her face down to keep the tears from falling. Xena studied her, almost awestruck; she hadn’t realised how much it meant to Gabrielle to be understood, to hear Xena say that there was no shame in feeling the way she did. She’d become so evasive, so quick to hide and turn her face away since this all began, it hadn’t occurred to her that underneath all that was still the same Gabrielle who wanted so desperately for Xena to be proud of her.

Xena was proud of her, of course, but she didn’t know how to say so, how to shape the words into something either one of them could stomach. In Callisto’s body, all of her feelings turned into something new; through Gabrielle’s eyes, they were all nightmares.

“I know it does,” she said, and hated that it wasn’t close to enough. “But you beat her, Gabrielle. Hold on to that. It might not feel like much of a victory, but it was an important one. You could have killed her twice—”

“One of them was you.”

“That’s not important,” Xena countered quickly; she wouldn’t let Gabrielle derail this with her self-flagellating logic. “The point is, you didn’t. Either time. Not when she was her, and not when she was me either. No matter what she did, no matter how hard she tried, you never, ever let her break you. Not even a little. That means you won, Gabrielle. You’re still here, still pure and kind and good, while she’s rotting for eternity down in Tartarus.”

“In your body,” Gabrielle whispered.

Xena shook her head. “Our bodies don’t define us.”

“I know,” Gabrielle said, though she didn’t really sound like she did. “But yours…” She shook her head. “It still hurts.”

Xena sighed, shook her head. Gabrielle looked so small, so utterly exposed, and it was so difficult to talk about these things with the weight they needed when she looked ready to break at any moment. Freshly woken from a raw-throated nightmare, bruises swelling on her face and side, blood on her lips, she was the picture of someone who had been to Tartarus and back. Xena wanted nothing more that to protect her, to curl up by her side like she used to and hold her until the pain and the fear and the visions of Callisto died and dissolved into distant memory like the woman herself.

She didn’t, though. She couldn’t. She couldn’t, because Gabrielle was right, because it did still hurt, because for all that she knew the truth of it, for all that her soul and her heart belonged to Xena alone, still she was seeing something else entirely. Xena knew that. Again and again, every time their eyes met and Gabrielle turned away, every time Xena had to stop herself from reaching out for fear of meeting another flinch. She knew that it was not the same, knew that they were not the same. Gabrielle loved her, Xena knew that as well, but it was not easy to remember when she had to watch her squint and struggle and strain just to find her through Callisto’s eyes.

It was hard not to hurt when Gabrielle did; that was something Xena had learned almost from the moment they started travelling together. Just as it was hard not to laugh when she laughed, not to smile or relax when she started another of her silly bard’s tales,it was so hard not to share her suffering as well. Harder still when she couldn’t comfort her. Harder, so much harder, when she was the source.

Gabrielle stopped her pacing and sat herself down on the floor, hugging her knees to her chest. The position looked painful, pulling and pushing against the bruises on her torso, but Xena didn’t ask if she was all right. She folded her arms instead, flexed her fingers over the lines of her own ribs and let herself pretend that she was tracing Gabrielle’s, that she was studying the swelling and the bruising, making sure it was safe, making sure she was.

It didn’t really help. Xena had never possessed Gabrielle’s flair for imagination, her talent for making things real simply by picturing them in her head. Creativity had never been a friend to Xena, and it abandoned her now as well; try as she might to imagine Gabrielle’s skin under her fingertips, all she felt was her own. It drove her mad, made her angry, made her swing to her feet in a flourish of sudden urgency.

She had to get away. Even just for a few minutes, she had to clear her mind, wash away the sight of Gabrielle shaking and hurting, the sight of her haunted eyes, the reflection of Callisto’s face behind them. She couldn’t stand it, couldn’t endure the wanting, the aching to touch her but not being allowed. If Gabrielle felt awful when she looked at Xena and saw Callisto, Xena felt just as bad when she looked and Gabrielle and saw the same person she always had.

“I’ll be back in a bit,” she heard herself say, and turned to the door. “I’m going to see about paying for the room.”

Gabrielle frowned at her, eyes wide all over again. “You’re going?” she asked, voice tiny. “Now?”

It shouldn’t have surprised her as much as it did, the sudden panic in her voice. Gabrielle’s feelings were fragile and strange, and Xena was slowly learning that they often confused Gabrielle herself as much as they did her. In one moment she couldn’t bear to look at Callisto’s face; in the very next she couldn’t bear to be left alone. Xena could hardly imagine the torment it must be to feel so many contradictions, and all at the same time. Had Xena let herself think or feel the same way, she would spend the rest of her life at war with herself until there was nothing left of her at all. In Gabrielle, though, it just seemed to flow, like a river or a pond, to borrow one of her silly metaphors. She was never still, but always so at peace with that.

Xena steadied herself, focused on the question and not the fear behind it. “It seemed important to you,” she said. “Paying him. Not taking advantage of this face. Wouldn’t want to have it hanging over your head any longer than it needs to.”

“Well, sure… I mean, that’s thoughtful… but…”

“Besides.” Blurted out to interrupt, the word sounded strange, almost like a sentence in itself. Another tremor in Gabrielle’s voice would break her, and she couldn’t allow that. “I wanted to scout out the area, make sure Draco’s men haven’t been tracking us.”

Gabrielle swallowed loudly. “That’s… I guess that’s a good idea…”

She sounded so hesitant, though. Xena knew her well enough by now to look beyond the words. This was about more than being alone, she realised.

“All right,” she said, impatient. “What is it?”

“It’s nothing.” Gabrielle swallowed again. She was suddenly very pale. “Just… if you can help it, maybe… maybe don’t go too Callisto on him?”

Xena felt herself tense, sad and angry at the same time. It stung a little, being angry at Gabrielle, but she couldn’t help herself; it felt like a personal attack. “I don’t like it any more than you do,” she pointed out tightly.

“I know that,” Gabrielle said, but she didn’t take back the request.

Xena sighed. She thought about breaking the situation down into words Gabrielle could understand, cutting up the things she was feeling and turning them into a story. Gabrielle spoke so fluently in stories, in metaphors and hidden meanings and other such convoluted nonsense, while Xena had only a warrior’s wryness and her own sharp sense of humour; it was frustrating, sometimes, to express herself pointedly and still have Gabrielle stare at her as though she wasn’t making any sense at all. That distance felt all the more poignant now, the edges sharper and deadlier with Callisto’s body standing there as an extra barrier between them.

Gabrielle needed to cling to the Xena she knew, the woman who was trying to become a better person. She needed to look at the face she hated and see the softness she loved, the chance for redemption she’d seen in that angry one-time warlord who saved her village a year ago. She needed to see the compassion, the will to do good, all those new things that Xena still sometimes saw as weaknesses in herself.

For her part, Xena still leaned a little too heavily on her martial skills, her physical prowess; it was the one thing she knew she could always rely on, and Gabrielle didn’t understand how important it was that she keep those things close when her body was so wrong.

To Gabrielle, it was more crucial now than it had ever been before that Xena stick to the path of righteousness, that she deal with things kindly and patiently. The slightest show of violence was a reminder, not of the warlord that Xena herself used to be but of Callisto, the sadistic murderer that Gabrielle saw in her nightmares. A casual show of force wasn’t just a momentary lapse from the famed warrior princess, it was Callisto brought to life all over again.

Xena understood that, even empathised in a way, but it was not so simple for her, and she did not cling to the same things that Gabrielle did. However fervently Gabrielle tried to deny it, violence was a part of Xena, a fundamental piece of who she was. It had been for as long as she could remember, and it would remain inside of her until the day she died, a fire burning so deep and so hot that she could never hope to extinguish it.

Now more than ever, she needed that fire. Callisto’s body was strange and unfamiliar, and Xena felt like she was drowning in it; she couldn’t do so many of the things she’d come to depend on, and though Gabrielle might ache to believe that wasn’t a problem, to Xena — who had always defined herself by them — it very much was.

She couldn’t depend on herself, not until she’d gotten used to this body and its strengths and weaknesses, and so she had to dig down and find other things to depend on instead. Subterfuge, intimidation, sleight of hand. She had to give the illusion that she was better than she truly was, and she would employ whatever trickery she needed to see it done. Difficult though it was, if she had to choose between bowing to Gabrielle’s feelings and hurting them to keep her safe, she would tread the darker path without flinching.

“I can’t make any promises,” she said aloud, and did not bother to explain.

Of course, Gabrielle didn’t understand. Even if Xena had wasted hours putting all that into words, she couldn’t. Her face fell, and she pulled her knees even closer to her chest, like she was bracing herself for an attack that would never come. Xena swallowed back the anger, frustrated that she could comprehend so easily the struggles and the suffering that Gabrielle was going through while Gabrielle, who prided herself on being so compassionate and soft, would not even try to make sense of this in Xena.

“But—”

“You heard me,” Xena said, a sharp tone that allowed no argument. “Would you rather I lied to you?”

“No,” she said, though Xena could tell that was not really the truth. “I just… I don’t want you to lose yourself in there, that’s all.”

“I won’t,” Xena promised, hoping that the hurt wouldn’t show. “Gabrielle, you’ll just have to trust me on this. I’m not becoming Callisto. I’m just putting on a show to throw my enemies off their guard. That much, I can promise you.”

Gabrielle bit her lip, visibly struggling to keep from asking if she was sure. She wanted to press and push, to keep at it until Xena broke, but she held her tongue and forced down her own feelings. Maybe she did still have a little of that trademark compassion after all, because for all the doubt in her expression, still she must have realised that Xena needed her faith more. She closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and nodded.

“All right then,” she said. “I trust you.”

Xena nodded, turned back to the door.

“Good,” she said, and wondered which of them was the bigger liar.

*

Chapter Text

*

Xena told her to take it easy, but of course Gabrielle did no such thing.

There was something almost reassuring in all that coddling, though she was loathe to admit it; it wasn’t comforting, at least not exactly, but at the very least all that silly ‘can you breathe all right?’ and ‘where does it hurt?’ left no doubt in her mind that it really was Xena behind that dreadful face. Xena cared; Callisto wouldn’t.

It wouldn’t make a difference whether Gabrielle wanted her to touch her or not; the real Callisto would press her thumbs into the darkest bruises she could find just to see if she could make her scream. Xena was the one who worried, the one who bit her lip to keep from reaching out, who cracked her knuckles when she thought Gabrielle wasn’t looking, who did everything she could to keep from making her uncomfortable. Xena was the one who loved her, and as cloying as all the coddling was, at least it felt like love.

It helped her to breathe a little easier, and that helped them both. She’d noticed the way Xena reacted to her breathing, of course, but she didn’t have the heart to tell her that it wasn’t the pain in her ribs or her stomach, that it was the flash of Callisto’s teeth and the twisting of her fingers.

Though she knew that Xena would chide her for it, Gabrielle was out of bed the instant she was left alone.

There was no mirror in the run-down little tavern room, so she couldn’t check her appearance and see how justified Xena’s exaggerated concern really was. In truth, she rather suspected that was for the best; since they’d started travelling together, Gabrielle had been exposed to more violence than she could ever have imagined, but it still didn’t come easy to her, and she wouldn’t have thanked herself for looking in the mirror if her reflection looked anything like she felt.

She paced a little, then stooped to pick up her staff. Bending over hurt, but holding the staff made her feel better. It settled in her palms, as comfortable and familiar as always, a reminder of who she was, an Amazon who might one day be strong and brave enough to deserve that title.

She took a deep breath, then made a couple of experimental thrusts and jabs, testing her muscles and her limits. It hurt a great deal, but she didn’t care and she didn’t stop; as long as she was still conscious, it was a victory.

Besides, the room wasn’t exactly big enough for a training session, so she couldn’t over-exert herself even if she tried. Still, it made her feel better to hold the staff, and to use it, as though she could pretend by arming herself that she really was capable of putting up a fight.

Xena was a bigger influence than she gave herself credit for, she thought sadly, and certainly a bigger than one she wanted to be. Gabrielle closed her eyes, channelled the warrior she wished she was, the warrior she saw in Xena, and gave the staff a mighty swing, an overhead arc that found its mark on the unsuspecting mattress.

The contact was satisfying, knocking some of the stuffing out of the bed. Gabrielle smiled, and swung again.

It was strange, how comfortable she felt with a weapon in her hand now. For so long, she had shied away from confrontation, from even the hint of conflict, no matter how justified; even now, she preferred to sit down and talk things through before pulling out her staff. Since she’d started watching Xena, though, observing the trance-like tranquility she seemed to find with her sword or chakram in hand, she had learned the art of not being too still when something was troubling her.

Xena’s relationship with her violent past was complicated, Gabrielle knew, and she would not be happy to realise just how deep her influence ran, but unwanted or not it did help. It calmed her, helped her to believe that she was more than the sidekick, more than some tag-along little girl just waiting to be kidnapped or killed or both.

Callisto had made her feel worthless so many times; taking a beating now had made that feeling surge up again. The bruises still hurt, the blood was dry but painful, and knowing that the moment had passed did little to shake its echo from her mind. She felt pathetic, like a child playing dress-up as a warrior, who still needed someone else to step in to rescue her every time things got a little bit sticky. Time and time again, she had learned that the only way back up from a feeling like that was to take back the power she’d lost, to reclaim her body and her spirit and remind herself that she could be more, that today was not the only day.

So that was what she did. Swing, step, sweep, slam, then three steps back to start again. Again and again and again, until her body was screaming its protests and even the pain made her feel alive.

Xena, when she returned, was predictably unimpressed. “That doesn’t look like taking it easy…”

She knew better than to step in and force Gabrielle back into bed, but she made no secret of her disapproval, leaning against the doorframe and shaking her head like an exasperated mother as Gabrielle slammed the staff down on the bed again, and then again.

“Your point?” she grunted.

Xena thinned her lips, clearly biting down on the urge to chasten her. “No point,” she said coolly. “What did the bed do to upset you, anyway?”

Gabrielle gave it one last shattering blow, then stepped back, sweating and very shaky. “Gave me nightmares.”

“I don’t think you can blame the bed for that,” Xena quipped gently, and folded her arms. “Now lie back down and take it easy before I take that thing away and toss it out the window.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Try me.”

Gabrielle sulked but did as she was told. Her whole body ached as she let the staff clatter to the floor, a pulse of pain that lanced through her as she leaned back on the pillow; she hadn’t let it get to her when she was practicing, but lying prone on a stupid bed with Callisto’s eyes on her undid all that hard work and plunged her straight back into the worthless, helpless feeling she’d been struggling against. The pain was so much more unbearable when she felt like that.

She scowled up at the ceiling, latched on to the first subject she could think of to distract herself. “Is it all clear? Any chance of getting ambushed in our sleep? Because, as you just saw, I am ready for a remat—”

“No,” Xena said, and Gabrielle couldn’t quite tell whether she was answering the question or forbidding her from joining any potential fight. She moved gracefully, picked up Gabrielle’s discarded staff and set it gently against the nearest wall. “I don’t think we need to worry about another attack tonight. But we’re going to have to deal with this sooner or later.”

“Later,” Gabrielle said, as though she had any place deciding these things. “Much later. When you’re you again.”

Xena grunted, but didn’t argue. Gabrielle recognised the sound, though; even with Callisto’s voice, she couldn’t conceal that sense of superiority, that way of saying ‘I’m the hero, you’re the sidekick’ without actually having to say the words. On most days Gabrielle didn’t mind — she’d always been more comfortable standing a few steps behind — but today the self-righteousness irked her.

She was already feeling helpless, and Xena was supposed to be the one who made it better, not worse. It made her stomach hurt, a kind of seething that went much deeper than the bruises and all the rest, and she tried to sit up, tried to counter the point. Xena cut that off too, of course, with a sharp look that sent her flopping back onto the pillows as effectively as if she’d shoved her down by force.

“I said take it easy.” Her voice was sharp, like a warning or a threat. It made Gabrielle want to scream. “Whether you want to admit it or not, you still took a serious beating. Just because you want me to believe you’re feeling better doesn’t mean you’re in any condition to go stomping around and knocking the stuffing out of other people’s beds.”

Gabrielle sighed, but had to concede the point. Well, the ‘other people’s beds’ part, anyway. It wasn’t really hers to break, after all.

“Fine,” she grumbled. “But I can’t just lie here like an invalid, Xena. I want to do something.”

“I know you do,” Xena said. Her words sounded like a sigh as well. “And you will. But you have to take care of yourself first. For my sake, if not for your own. Call it part of our ‘no touching’ agreement, if it makes you feel better.”

“Fine,” Gabrielle huffed, rolling her eyes and trying not to think about how it made her feel queasy. “But at least let me keep the staff? You never know when trouble might—”

“That’s what I’m here for,” Xena said, a little sharper than she needed to.

Gabrielle didn’t tell her that that was really not helpful, that she didn’t want to be the silly little sidekick who needed to hide behind the big bad warrior every time something bad happened. She just went back to glaring up at the ceiling, waiting for Xena to give up this overprotective nonsense, to realise that she really was just fine, that beating or no beating she could take care of herself without help, and that it would be best for everyone involved if they just collected their things, hit the road, and left this place far behind.

Xena, to no-one’s surprise, did none of those things. Instead, perhaps just to be petty, she insisted that they stay the night.

True to her word, though, she did keep her distance. She stayed on the far side of the room, seated by the door to keep guard. Gabrielle could tell that she didn’t sleep very much, always watchful with one eye on the door and the other on Gabrielle; she dozed off now and then drifting in and out of a light, always-aware sort of half-sleep that couldn’t possibly have been restful. Gabrielle supposed that was a warrior thing, sleeping while staying alert at the same time. Maybe one day she would master that too, instead of her usual all-or-nothing state of ‘dead to the world’ or ‘maddening insomnia’.

Tonight, unsurprisingly, was an ‘insomnia’ night. She could still taste the revenants of her nightmare and was less than eager to revisit it, and in any case she wasn’t exactly comfortable in the first place. Her bones and body were unforgiving now that she was still, and every time she tried to roll over a firestorm of pain ignited across her ribs and left her biting down on a cry. Honestly, the only reason she stayed on the bed at all was because she knew that Xena would throw a sword at her head if she dared to move without permission.

It was just after dawn when a knock at the door jolted them both.

Xena was instantly on her guard, reaching reflexively for a chakram that wasn’t there. Gabrielle sat upright, rather too quickly for her battered body to handle; the pain flared like a warning, and she had to suck in a sharp breath to keep it from showing on her face. Thankfully, it seemed that Xena was for once distracted by more pressing matters, and she didn’t seem to notice at all. Gabrielle was exceptionally grateful for that.

“Who is it?” Xena barked at the door, an effortless imitation of Callisto at her most deranged. Gabrielle swallowed down her disgust.

“B… breakfast?” They both recognised the barkeep’s voice, and Gabrielle watched Xena’s shoulders as they relaxed just a little. “It, uh… it comes with the room, so I thought I might…”

That was all Xena needed to hear, and she silenced his yammering by yanking the door open and pushing herself up into his personal space. It wasn’t exactly tactful, but it silenced him as well as a blow, and had a similar effect on Gabrielle. She felt her stomach leap into her throat, deeply unsettled by how easily Xena threw herself into the role of Callisto, and far more by how perfect her performance always was.

“Breakfast, eh?”

Gabrielle closed her eyes. It was too early in the morning for this; she couldn’t endure it. “Xe— Callisto. Do you really have to—”

“Hush, now. The grown-ups are talking.”

There was a warning behind the exaggerated madness, something that sounded so close to the real Xena. Deep in her heart, Gabrielle knew that it was there, but it was so hard to cut through the echoes of Callisto and find it, so hard to look past the manic rise and fall of her voice and remember that her Xena was still in there, and that she was trying to communicate with her.

Gabrielle opened her mouth to say something — she wasn’t even really entirely sure what — but Xena shot her a look so quick and so sharp that the words died on her lips before she had a chance to figure them out. She leaned back on the bed, eyeing her staff and wondering if she could get to it before either of the others noticed, before Xena caught her eye and and shouted at her.

As it turned out, she probably could have; Xena was utterly focused on the barkeep and his tiny little breakfast tray, unusually so, and she didn’t pay Gabrielle a moment’s more attention than she absolutely needed to. She used Callisto’s lean body like a weapon, filling the whole doorway somehow, shifting and moving and expertly blocking the poor man from getting into the room. Gabrielle thought about asking what he’d done that was so offensive, what she had against a free breakfast, but she knew better than to interrupt Xena — or Callisto — when she was working. Even at her most idealistic, she was not that stupid.

They talked for just a few seconds more, and then without warning everything went horribly wrong.

Xena moved impossibly fast. In one instant she was leaning against the doorframe, eyes like twin fires as she stoked Callisto’s madness, and in the very next the fire ignited her whole body. In less than a heartbeat she really was Callisto brought back to life, ruthless and violent and utterly beyond reason; she threw the barkeep up against the wall seemingly for no reason at all, and when she flashed that awful grin Gabrielle’s stomach lurched because it really did look like she was enjoying it.

The breakfast tray clattered forgotten to the floor, and Gabrielle choked on a horrified breath, nightmares flooding her field of vision as Xena drew Callisto’s sword and pressed it to the helpless barkeep’s throat.

“No!” The word was out before she could stop it, before she could think, before she could do anything more than lose herself to the panic and the visions and the certainty that this was so very wrong. “No, Xe—”

Hush.”

She leaned right in, using every inch of Callisto’s height to hover over the trembling barkeep, and the heavy curtain of her hair obscured her face almost completely. Gabrielle couldn’t find her eyes any more even if she could have stomached the sight of them; she couldn’t track the lines of her mouth or her jaw, couldn’t search for any trace of the woman she prayed was still in there somewhere. She could only watch, slack-jawed and beyond terrified, as Xena dragged the edge of Callisto’s blade down the line of his throat, down past his collarbones, down until the point of it rested over his heart.

“I…” he stammered. “I don’t… I’m not…”

“You too, little man.”

It was Callisto’s voice, not just in the words but in the way she said them. There was no trace of Xena left in there at all, none of the emphatic lowness, or the familiar inflections she’d been using to help Gabrielle tell the difference. There was nothing, not even a ghost of the woman Gabrielle thought she knew. Either Xena was a phenomenal performer, or—

No. Don’t think like that. You can’t. Xena’s still in there. She is, okay? She has to be.

It was so hard to believe that right now, though. Even if it really was still Xena, she seemed to delight so much in playing the part, in twisting her body and her hands the way Callisto did, in shaping her voice into that manic, deranged sing-song that Callisto used to such devastating effect. She seemed to come alive in the role, and that made it seem like so much more than a show. Gabrielle wanted to step in and stop her, stop all of this, but she couldn’t move at all. One half of her was blind with rage, choking on hatred for the woman who had killed her husband; the other half was terrified, frightened against her will of this woman who had tried to kill her so many times. She couldn’t move; how could she, when she couldn’t even breathe?

It’s Xena, she told herself, over and over and ever more desperate. It’s her, it’s Xena, it has to be, it has to be…

“Little man,” Xena said again, and Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t need to see the scene play out to know what was happening; she could hear the slide of sword-steel against bare skin, the threat turned into a very real promise if this didn’t turn out the way she wanted. “Thought you could pull one over on me, eh?”

“No… I… it wasn’t… I didn’t…” The helplessness in his voice was unbearable, but far worse was the helplessness in her own traitorous body, limbs paralysed and heart pounding. She had to help him, had to stop Callisto, had to stop Xena. She had to. “You’ve got the wrong fella. I’m just a… a…”

“—a rat,” Xena finished, effortlessly unhinged. “A filthy, worthless rat. That’s what you are. Now give me one good reason not to skin you like one.”

He didn’t say anything. He probably couldn’t. Fear had that effect, Gabrielle knew, so busy choking on her own, the acid-tasting terror and the certainty that Xena — Callisto would turn around and skin her too if she said so much as a word. She couldn’t give in to it, though, not when someone else’s life hung in the balance. She had to fight it off, had to choke it down even if it was the death of her. She had to move.

The anger was more important than the fear. It didn’t matter if she gave in to the hatred, if she found herself with a dagger in her hand again, with a blade pressed to Xena’s neck; none of that mattered so long as she kept that poor man alive. Xena — the real Xena, if anything was left of her — would never forgive her if she just sat there and let this happen.

“Don’t!” She willed her body into action, leaping off the bed in a haze of pain and rage, forcing her fingers to stop shaking for long enough to reach for her staff. “Xena… Callisto… whoever you are… stop!”

“You stay out of this!” Xena snarled, whirling around to face her.

Her face was terrifying, but Gabrielle would not let it deter her. She couldn’t. She crossed the room in maybe two steps, throwing herself between them for want of anything else to do, and it hurt so much worse than the tugging bruises when she swung her staff against the woman she loved.

Xena deflected her effortlessly, slapping the staff away with an open palm then yanking it out of Gabrielle’s hands. She didn’t even break a sweat.

Had the situation been a little less fraught, a little less urgent, Gabrielle might almost be embarrassed; as it was, she felt her legs go weak, head spinning as the fear surged up in her again, stronger this time and irrepressible. It slammed into her chest like a fist or a boot, clashing queasily with the rage and the hatred and all the rest of it, and of course her body betrayed her again. She froze, seizing up from head to toe, the urge to run locked up with the need to stand her ground and fight.

“Xe—”

“Stupid girl!”

Xena didn’t hit her, but in Gabrielle’s foggy brain it felt like a near thing. She opened her mouth to say that she wasn’t stupid, that Xena was the one who had lost herself, who had done the very thing she swore she wouldn’t, who had given in to everything Callisto was. Weaponless, beaten and broken and completely helpless, she opened her mouth to fight with the one thing she had left, the one thing that even Callisto couldn’t take away, her words

—but they died on her lips when she saw the dagger in the barkeep’s hand.

“Wha…” And there it was, the truth of it as clear as day, and if Xena hadn’t caught her by the shoulder, she would have fallen under the weight of it. “…oh.”

Xena held her for a moment. Just a moment, no more, as though giving her a breath to let it all sink in, and then she was shoving her back. It was enough, though, and when she pushed her Gabrielle could feel her warrior’s control, the way she squeezed just tight enough to make her point but never hard enough to hurt. Still, the shock and the motion left her off-balance in more ways than one, and despite Xena’s best efforts to rein herself in Gabrielle hit the floor with a thud and a groan.

She sat there, dazed, watching through half-lidded eyes as Xena turned back to the barkeep and picked up exactly where she left off.

“I’m still waiting,” she cooed, cupping his face as though the interruption never happened. “Give me a reason not to cut you open.”

“You have to understand…” He squirmed against the edge of Callisto’s sword; Gabrielle watched it nick the skin, little pinpricks of blood welling up along the point of steel. She knows what she’s doing, she thought, tasting acid in her mouth. She’s in control. She knows what she’s doing. “We’re not exactly big on visitors round here… a man has to eat…”

“So do we,” Xena said coldly.

No doubt worried that he’d end up impaling himself if he kept squirming like that, she pulled back and sheathed the stupid sword. Gabrielle almost choked on the effort of holding her relief in check, but Xena wasn’t done yet. Falling back on more familiar methods, she gripped him by the throat with one hand, taking his wrist in the other and twisting until the pain made him yell and drop the knife.

“What are you—”

“Ah-ah-ah. I’m asking the questions now.” She twisted a little harder; Gabrielle’s stomach gave a sharp lurch, anticipating the snapping of bone. “Was it Draco’s men? What did they pay you to piss away your morals?”

He actually laughed at that. It wasn’t a cruel kind of laughter, or even particularly mocking, but rather the manic, halfway delirious laugh of someone caught in a corner. He laughed like it was the only thing he had left, like he would split apart at the seams if he didn’t.

“You’re the last person I’d expect to spout lectures about morality, Callisto.” He tried so hard to sneer as he said it, but just like his laughter it came out fearful and half-feral. “Left to your own devices, who’s to say you won’t burn this whole place to the ground just because you feel like it?”

“Tempting,” Xena said, without a trace of irony. Gabrielle shuddered, and so did the barkeep. “Might still do it, if you don’t stop floundering and answer my question.”

His body went slack, all the laughter and the feigned courage bleeding out of him like he was throwing himself on her mercy. That would have been a dangerous and stupid move if he’d been dealing with the real Callisto, though Gabrielle supposed the real Callisto would have never let him get this far in the first place. If she was in a generous mood, he would have been dead before he pulled the knife; if she was in a bad one, he wouldn’t have even had time to knock on the door. Either way, he had no idea how lucky he was that he’d found Xena instead, however good an actress she was in the moment.

“Draco.” He tried to spit the name, make one last show of bravado, but it came out like a stammer instead. “Big-head warlords, swaggering about like they own half the known world. He thinks hanging Callisto’s head in his trophy room will get his reputation back. I say it’s wishful thinking… but like I told your little girl last night, if you’ve got the money…”

Xena was frowning, still focused on Draco. “His reputation?” she echoed, as though she’d never heard the word before.

“Don’t act so surprised. That’s all that matters to you people, isn’t it?” Xena gave his wrist another warning twist, and he grunted. “Look, all I know is he’s got his underthings in a tangle because Xena humiliated him last year. Probably figures, if he can take out someone better that’ll prove he’s still got some kick left in him. Win back his place in the Ruthless Warlord Hall Of Infamy or whatever it is.”

Xena choked on her outrage, and Gabrielle almost laughed. She couldn’t very well come out and say that Callisto was absolutely not ‘someone better’, but it was painfully obvious she wanted to. She had to settle for smirking, acting like she was flattered by the claim instead of offended, and had the situation been even just a little different it would have been hilarious.

“Well,” she said, visibly struggling not to grit her teeth. “I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised. Draco’s always been a posturing imbecile.”

She cocked her head to the side, lips quirking exactly like Callisto’s did when she was sizing up her prey, readying herself to pounce or worse. Gabrielle had felt the heat of that look herself, too many times to count; it haunted her most terrifying nightmares, and her most hateful thoughts. She would recognise it anywhere, and even knowing as she did now that it really was her Xena in there it still made her blood run cold.

Blessedly, she didn’t have to see it for long. A moment’s contemplation, a sordid little smile, and Xena lashed out with her elbow, a quick, sharp blow that knocked the poor bastard unconscious in a second. It was brutal, and Gabrielle couldn’t help thinking unnecessary, but given the alternative she had no choice but to accept it. Better than bloodshed, she told herself, and tried to keep breathing.

As soon as she was done, Xena was back inside the room, door slammed shut behind her. She stormed past Gabrielle, crossing over to the bed, and began rummaging through their belongings. “Gather your things,” she said, voice as tight as a whip. “We’re leaving.”

That was an order, and one that Gabrielle would have to be stupid to ignore. Still, though, she hesitated. It wasn’t just the situation that had Xena on edge, she could tell; it was Gabrielle’s place in it specifically, the way she’d panicked and leaped to the wrong conclusion, the way she’d assumed the worst without so much as a moment’s hesitation. That had to sting, and she felt terrible for it.

“Xena…”

Don’t.” It cut like a blade, hearing her own plea turned back on her, reforged into a command on Callisto’s lips. “I mean it, Gabrielle: not now.”

“But—”

“No.” She sounded furious, but it was a Xena kind of fury, the controlled exasperation that Gabrielle knew so well, and though her voice rose like Callisto’s it sounded nothing like her now. “We’re clearly not safe in this viper’s nest, and I really don’t want to stick around and wait for yet another unwanted altercation. Now, for once in your life, do as I say and gather your things.”

“I will.” She sighed, and still didn’t move. “I will. It’s just, I’m… I’m sorry.”

“Gabrielle!”

“All right. Okay. Sure. Gathering my things.”

Keeping a safe distance, as much out of lingering fear as shame, she followed Xena’s lead in mostly silence. Xena moved with her usual efficiency, collecting up their meagre possessions and stomping back to the door without even pausing for breath. She looked like a woman possessed, intense and wild even when she wasn’t playing Callisto, and that made Gabrielle less inclined than usual to try and bridge the gap between them. Better to do as Xena said, at least for now, until they were clear of this place and her face went back to something palatable.

The barkeep was still unconscious when they swept past him; no doubt by the time he woke from his impromptu nap they would be be halfway to the next unfriendly welcome and the next not-at-all-metaphorical kick in the head. Good for him, Gabrielle supposed sadly, though not so good for her; her body was still reeling, still close to broken after its beating, and she was more upset by what just happened than she’d care to admit. She felt raw, and walking was unjustly difficult.

They collected Argo from the stables. She seemed a little stronger now, steadier for having spent some time with clean hay and a roof over her head. Whatever ill fortune this village had brought Xena and Gabrielle, it had at least treated poor Argo with dignity; given that she was by far the most wounded of them all, Gabrielle could not deny that it was for the best. It lightened Xena’s heart to see her steed so much improved, and that rose all their spirits.

Still, though, she didn’t ride, and she didn’t suggest that Gabrielle climb up either. Whether it was out of concern for the horse or simply knowing that Gabrielle would refuse any offered hospitality at this point, either way she didn’t waste time on it. She walked close by Argo’s side, keeping a tight grip on her reins and reaching down every now and then to pet her flank or mane. It was as though the horse’s presence was enough to remind her of who she was. At least Argo could be trusted to still have faith in her.

Gabrielle, as best she could, kept her mouth shut. She wanted to apologise again, wanted to say something, but she didn’t, and not just because she knew that Xena would shut her down again. It boiled inside her, the need to explain her perspective, to get all that emotion out in the open before it could fester and putrefy, but it took so much strength just to keep putting one foot in front of the other and every time she thought about opening her mouth she found herself too breathless to try.

Their progress was slow, for all three of their sakes. Xena was paranoid and anxious, pausing every few minutes to look around and make sure that they weren’t being followed; she kept half an eye on Argo and Gabrielle, spreading her worry evenly between them, and the rest went on their surroundings. Gabrielle watched the line of her shoulders, tense and tight and constantly on the alert; it had been a long, long time since she’d seen her quite as intense as this. The altercation with the barkeep had clearly rattled her, and coupled with Gabrielle’s run-in with the trio of mercenaries it was little wonder that she saw every tree as a potential assailant.

For her part, Gabrielle was having a harder time than she would ever admit. Her whole body hurt, even the places where she wasn’t bruised, but she didn’t trust herself to complain. She was shaking all over, teeth chattering, and if she had doubted before that something was broken inside her, there was no doubt in her now. Xena must have noticed her discomfort, but she didn’t comment on it. She must have realised that the second she opened her mouth Gabrielle would change the subject and started running her mouth with those gods-forsaken apologies.

They were a couple of leagues away when they finally stopped to take a break. Xena was very clever about it; she insisted that it was for Argo’s sake, that she didn’t want to overwork the poor old girl while she was still in such a delicate state… but even as she said it, her eyes never left Gabrielle.

She didn’t bother to build a fire, simply sat herself down on the grass with her legs stretched out in front of her. Gabrielle stayed standing, wringing her hands in front of her and summoning what little courage she had left.

“Xena, I—”

“Lie down,” Xena snapped in the same stone-hard tone she’d used to say that they were leaving the village. “You need to rest as well.”

Gabrielle sighed, and did as she was told, if only because she knew that Xena wouldn’t listen to her until she did. “Xena.”

Xena cut her off with a wave of Callisto’s spidery hands. She seemed distracted, eyes shadowed and impossibly dark. Looking into them was the hardest thing in the world for Gabrielle; it was difficult to remember that Xena was still inside her when she looked at those dark eyes — worlds away from Xena’s vivid blue — and saw the soul of a monster. Callisto had no sense of personal space, and she knew exactly how to exploit that; it was there in the way she leaned forwards, the way she pressed herself against her victims, the way she touched them without permission and looked them straight in the eye without blinking. Gabrielle had been having nightmares about those eyes long before Callisto came back to kill her husband.

Right now, though, those eyes were Xena’s, and looking into them revealed so much pain that it stole Gabrielle’s breath. The real Callisto would never have allowed such a thing to show through, and she definitely would never have allowed Xena’s ‘irritating blonde’ companion to see it. It gave her a little courage, helped to keep the distance between the monster she saw and the woman she loved.

“You gonna let me take a look at those bruises?” Xena asked, cutting through her thoughts.

It was deliberately spontaneous, Gabrielle could tell, meant to throw her off-balance so that she would concede without thinking, but it didn’t work. She quirked a brow instead, feigning innocence, and mumbled “They’re fine.”

Of course, that just made Xena roll her eyes. “Don’t give me that,” she said. “Do you really think I haven’t noticed you stumbling this past half-hour?”

“I wasn’t stumbling,” Gabrielle shot back, entirely too quickly. “I was just trying to make Argo look good. She’s been through a lot, you know, and she’s got such a delicate little ego. I wanted to make her feel better about herself.”

“Of course you did.” Xena sighed. “Gabrielle, I really think—”

“No.” It hurt to swallow, hurt to breathe. “I’m fine, Xena. It hurts, yes, but I’m not about to keel over. I’m not dying, I’m just in pain.”

And right now, she added silently, I think I kind of want to be.

Xena huffed another sigh, but let the matter drop. Whether she respected Gabrielle’s decision or simply didn’t want to fight about it any more, Gabrielle didn’t know, but she didn’t much care either. She just wanted Xena to stop trying to touch her with those hands. She just wanted to stop seeing. She just wanted…

“Gabrielle.” The name came out strangely, almost like a plea. Gabrielle was just about to reach out and ask what was wrong when she blurted out, seemingly out of nowhere, “I want you to go back to Amphipolis.”

Gabrielle frowned. “What?”

“You heard me.”

There was an odd kind of strain in the way she said it, as though this ran deeper than she wanted to say. Gabrielle could sense trouble beneath the words, and it sat unpleasantly in her stomach.

“Is this because of what happened back in the tavern?” she asked, in a tiny voice. “Because if that’s what it is, you know I’ve been trying to apologise for the last—”

“It’s not about that,” Xena said.

She didn’t sound especially convinced, though, and Gabrielle could tell that she was still upset about it. She wasn’t looking at her, for a start, and that was definitely a bad sign; ever since this had happened, Gabrielle had been the one looking away, the one averting her eyes and hiding her face, doing whatever she could to keep from looking too closely into the abyss. Xena had been the one pressing her for contact, desperate to touch her or meet her gaze or do any one of the countless things they used to take for granted when she wore her own body. Gabrielle was always the one who couldn’t look at her.

Callisto’s face filled her with rage, yes, but far more than that — and more than she would ever admit to Xena — it filled her with fear. Every time she looked at her, her whole body seized up, panic rising like lava in a volcano, threatening to boil over and burn her from the inside. It was all she could do to hold it all inside, to keep from screaming or sobbing or running for her life.

She wouldn’t let Xena see that part, though. She let her see the anger and the hatred, the righteous fury of a woman who had been wronged, who had lost her husband to those horrible spider hands; she let Xena imagine that she understood her anguish, the trauma that painted itself as grief and rage, but that was only the surface of what she felt, nowhere near the horror and the fear that churned deeper inside her. Xena was a warrior; she couldn’t possibly understand what it was to feel so utterly helpless.

Xena never saw the things that shaped Gabrielle’s nightmares. She’d been there for Perdicus, had been there to see her almost burn, but she had missed the moments before and between and after, the ones that had shaped the fear long before Gabrielle had any reason to hate.

Xena wasn’t there for their first encounter; she’d missed the hours Gabrielle spent strung up in the heavens, suspended, used as a toy and twisted like a tool; she never saw the look on Joxer’s face when Callisto laughed and said ‘do her’. She wasn’t there after Perdicus, either; she never saw that fateful, slow-motion moment when Gabrielle held a sword to her sleeping chest but couldn’t drive it in, when Callisto awoke to tell her that she would die instead. She never saw any of the moments when Callisto held a knife to her throat or touched her face with her fingertips, any of the countless times she taunted or threatened or tortured her.

Xena never saw any of those things, and even if she had her warrior’s heart could not comprehend a world where hate and fear existed in the same place at the same time.

It was for Perdicus’s sake that Gabrielle hated Callisto, but it was for her own that she feared her.

“I’m sorry,” she blurted out, balling her fists in the dirt, yanking up little blades of grass. “I’m sorry I couldn’t trust you in the tavern. I’m sorry I thought you were… I’m sorry for everything. It won’t happen again, Xena, I swear it. Don’t send me away over one stupid mistake. You need me to keep you focused. You need me to ground you. You need me to… to…”

“I need you to rest, Gabrielle.” Xena’s eyes were on the horizon, squinting at the sun, as though blinding herself would somehow make this easier. “I need you and Argo to heal up.”

“We’re both fine,” Gabrielle argued. “Argo’s as good as new. Aren’t you girl?” Argo whinnied, a grudging ‘don’t put words into my mouth’ sort of sound, and Gabrielle quickly switched tack. “Well, she’s Argo. And me… Xena, you know I’m fine. A little sore, sure, but we’ve both had worse. You know that, right? You know—”

“I know that you’re in pain,” Xena interrupted sharply. “I know that you’re stumbling. I know that you’re trying to hide how serious it really is.” She sighed, shaking her head as though disappointed. “And, yes, I also know that you can’t trust me while I look like this.”

It wasn’t hard for Gabrielle to read between the lines, to hear ‘if I can’t trust you to be honest about your injuries, and you can’t trust me to be myself, what’s left for either one of us?’. It made her heart clench. “Xena…”

“No. All of those things are liabilities, Gabrielle. I can’t take care of you and pretend to be Callisto at the same time, and you can’t rest up and heal when we’re getting attacked at every turn. I can’t make mercenaries and warlords believe that I’m a psychopathic murderer if I’m constantly looking back over my shoulder to make sure you’re not getting yourself in trouble or getting your feelings hurt or—”

“It’s not like that,” Gabrielle cried, but her voice broke like a wave and gave her away. “You don’t have to keep an eye on me, Xena. I… I’ll do better next time, okay? I’ll keep my head down, and I’ll keep my mouth shut. I’ll—”

Gabrielle.” Her voice was heavy, but not with anger. Gabrielle swallowed down her protestations and stared at her, tried to take some comfort in the way her jaw had gone pale, the way she was grinding Callisto’s teeth, the way it seemed like this was killing her as well. “It’s not just about you, all right? It’s not about what you can’t do, or what you’re not ready to face. It’s about me as well. It’s about…” She grimaced, as though bracing herself to reveal some deep, dark secret. “Gabrielle, I can’t afford any distractions right now.”

Gabrielle frowned, stung. “I’m a distraction?”

“Yes.” Her tone was harsh, but there was a softness behind it that said she was trying not to be. “For the moment, at least. The way you look at me, the way you don’t look at me… gods, Gabrielle, the way you look.” Gabrielle flushed, painfully aware of the colours blooming across her skin, and did not argue. “Listen. If I have to do what I need to do, I can’t afford to have you there. Do you understand?”

“What you need to do…” Gabrielle echoed dumbly. “What… what, exactly, are you going to do?”

Xena turned to face her. Callisto’s eyes were unexpectedly bright, lit up by the afterimage of sunlight, and Gabrielle forced herself to swallow the fear and look into them. Xena needed to know that she was by her side, that she wanted to stay that way; she needed to remember that the two of them had been through so much worse than this together and still come out all right in the end. She needed to know that they couldn’t solve their problems by giving up and walking away from them. Whatever it was, they had to face it together. They had to.

They stayed like that for a few long seconds, looking at each other as though fighting some wordless, weaponless war. For a moment, Gabrielle was sure that she saw Xena bring tears into Callisto’s eyes.

At long last, Xena looked away. “I’m going after Draco,” she said. “I’m going to put an end to this nonsense.”

Gabrielle tried to nod, but she was paralysed, frozen in place with her eyes on Xena’s. “I can help,” she managed weakly. “I can…”

“Maybe. But that’s not a risk I’m willing to take.”

She sighed, deep and heavy and overflowing with emotion, the kind that Gabrielle knew was still very alien to her, the kind that sat heavy in her chest and left her frustrated when she tried to put it into words that wouldn’t come. It was new to both of them, but sometimes in moments like this Gabrielle couldn’t help feeling like she was the experienced one and Xena the green young thing who didn’t know what she was doing. Sometimes it made her feel whole and beautiful; other times, like now, it made her feel like she wasn’t good enough.

“Xena…”

“No.” Her voice cracked like a whip, and it took a visible force of will for her to soften it again. “Draco knows me, Gabrielle. He knows Xena, intimately. If I’m going to convince him that I’m Callisto, it has to be flawless. I can’t afford to be distracted or preoccupied. Not by you, not by Argo, not by anyone or anything. It needs to be just me and him, and I have to be willing to do whatever… whatever it takes. I don’t want you to be around for that.”

“But—”

“This isn’t a discussion. I’ve made up my mind, and you’re not going to change it.” Still, she looked grudging, and that helped Gabrielle to feel just a little less rejected. “It’s safe in Amphipolis. They know who I am, and what happened. You won’t be attacked there, or caught unawares.” She forced a smile, though Gabrielle could tell it came hard. “You can stay with my mother. She’ll protect you.”

“Your mother?” It came out like a whine, like a child being told it’s time for bed. She flushed, and scrambled to correct herself. “I mean… Cyrene is great, Xena, really. But I’m a warrior. Or, well, half of one, I guess. An Amazon, at least. And I can fight. You’ve seen me fight. You can’t… you can’t really think I need your mother to protect me!”

Xena rolled her eyes. “Fine. You can protect her.”

“That’s better…” Gabrielle mused, then caught herself. “Wait, no! That’s not better at all! Xena, you have to let me go with you. You need me to keep you grounded, to remind you who you are…”

“I know who I am,” Xena said, in less than a whisper.

She was too tactful to add ‘you’re the one who doesn’t’, but of course they both knew that was what she meant. Perhaps there was a grain of truth in that, though even Gabrielle couldn’t say for sure. All she knew was what she could see with her own eyes, and that changed from moment to moment. Callisto’s eyes were so very different in bright sunlight or the glow of a campfire, and different again from behind a black eye or in the haze of post-nightmare grogginess. It was never the same from one moment to the next, so how could she be sure which version was the right one?

Gabrielle had always prided herself on her empathy, on seeing the goodness in even the darkest souls, the things worth saving in even the cruellest people. She had always imagined that she understood Xena in a way nobody else ever had, or had taken the time to; theirs was a unique bond, and one that grew stronger with every day they spent together. She knew Xena’s heart, and flattered herself that she knew her soul as well. But Xena looked like Callisto now, and that made everything different.

She didn’t know Callisto, didn’t understand her at all. She couldn’t understand her, and every time she tried to rise above herself, to look through those eyes and those hands and that face, to find some sliver of salvation in that monster of a woman, some tiny shred of humanity that she could cling to and forgive… every time she tried, Callisto turned around and did something else, brought herself to a new level of brutality and spite. Gabrielle tried and tried, searched and searched, but if there was any trace of a heart or soul left in Callisto it was buried so deep that Gabrielle would never find it.

Callisto’s eyes burned. Her hands twitched. Her shoulders stiffened and tightened and moved. Her whole body was a study in all the things she’d done, all those tiny little intimacies that she forced down Gabrielle’s throat every time they were alone, the touches to her face, the knife at her neck, the words she whispered into her ear. Gabrielle couldn’t look her in the eye and not remember the madness dancing behind them, couldn’t let Xena touch her with those hands and not remember how they felt caressing her face and threatening her with death. She couldn’t. And that made it so hard, so close to impossible, to see Xena at all.

Maybe Xena was right; maybe she really was herself, as complete and pure as she ever was. But Gabrielle, who had always prided herself on her gift of sight, still could not see it.

“You’ll come back?” she heard herself whisper, a plea that shrouded her surrender. “When you’re finished with Draco? You’ll come to Amphipolis and find me? Take me back?”

Xena stared at her, mouth half-open, as though she couldn’t believe she would even ask. Gabrielle supposed that was fair; they had parted ways plenty of times before and always found their way back to each other in the end. There was no reason to think that this time would be any different, no reason to assume that it would be the last time. There was no reason for any of the things she was feeling. but Gabrielle found that hard to remember when Xena smiled and Callisto’s teeth flashed.

In a lot of ways, maybe Xena understood Gabrielle’s feelings better than she understood her own. Again and again she had asked ‘are you sure?’ or said ‘if you want to leave…’. Again and again she’d made it clear that Gabrielle’s peace of mind was her highest priority, that it was the only thing in the world that mattered to her, that she would suffer herself if that was what it took to keep Gabrielle whole and clean. She had said it so many times that it was all Gabrielle could hear any more. After all that, how could she not be afraid that Xena would take matters into her own hands, ride off into the sunset alone and convince herself it was best for them both?

Gabrielle’s hands shook, so she folded them in her lap until they stopped. She wanted to reach for her, even cling to her, but she couldn’t. So she asked the question again, and then again, because it felt less like weakness when her voice was the only thing shaking.

Xena mirrored her, clenching Callisto’s hands into fists as though she too wanted to reach out. The space between their bodies and their hands felt so wide, so vast, and so close to uncrossable.

“Of course I’ll come back for you,” she said.

“Are you sure?” Gabrielle whispered. “Because you said…”

“I know what I said.” It was a sigh, delicate and fragile, though Callisto’s tongue make it sharp. “But that’s your choice, not mine. If you want to leave, you’re free to. But if you want me, you’ll always have me.” She closed her eyes for just a moment, and Callisto’s whole face transformed; she always looked so young when her eyes were shut. “It doesn’t matter what my body looks like, Gabrielle: you’re a part of me. You’re the best part of me. I couldn’t abandon you, no more than I could cut off my own head and live to tell the tale.”

Gabrielle nodded, swallowing very hard. “You promise?”

Xena leaned in, close enough to touch her but respectful enough to hold back. Maybe she could see the panic still trembling through Gabrielle’s limbs, the part of her that was angry and afraid and too weak not to be, or else maybe she just didn’t want to shatter a precious, fragile moment by stepping beyond its bounds. Either way, she kept her hands at her sides. Gabrielle planted hers in the grass, ripping up little pieces and wishing that he breath would stop.

“I promise,” Xena said. “With all my heart.”

*

Chapter Text

*

Leaving was harder than she thought it would be.

She checked Argo’s wound twice more before she went, not because she trusted Gabrielle any less than she trusted herself but because Argo was at least willing to let Xena put her hands on her. Gabrielle still refused to let her do the same, though it was obvious that she was far from recovered, and that made her feel impotent and angry.

She wanted to touch her, wanted to memorise the lines of her skin, the blemishes under the bruises, the good and the bad; she wanted to be sure that Gabrielle would recover too, that she would be whole and healthy when they reunited. She wanted to touch this woman she had touched so many times before, but she couldn’t. So, instead, she touched Argo. One hand on her flank, the other palming her wound, checking for infection, making sure that it was still healing. It was, but somehow she didn’t feel any better for it. She was furious, almost blindly so, that the most precious, beautiful person in the world was in pain and she was forbidden from touching her.

Her mother would do the job in her stead, she reminded herself. Cyrene had always had a kind touch, had always been good with this sort of thing; she would take care of Gabrielle as well as Xena herself.

She would never tell Gabrielle, of course, but that was one of the biggest reasons why she’d chosen Amphipolis for their rendezvous point. It was safe, that much was certainly true, just as it was also true that the people there understood the situation like no others, but the real heart of it was that Amphipolis had Cyrene. Gabrielle might not know her very well, but she trusted her and cared for her as an extension of Xena, and she would accept her healing hands if she needed them. She would let Xena’s mother care for her in a way she still could not allow from Xena herself, and though it was a blow that she needed to pass her on to someone else, still Xena was aware enough to know that it was the right thing to do. It was best for Gabrielle, and that made it best for her as well.

She left them both, Gabrielle and Argo, with clear and specific instructions, though she didn’t flatter herself that they would heed them. Gabrielle was to walk if she could, but mount Argo if she found herself in too much pain; Argo, for her part, was to at least make an effort to treat Gabrielle nicely. ‘You take care of her,’ Xena told her, a private whisper in the horse’s ear. ‘I’m counting on you to keep her in one piece.’

Of course, no matter what she said, she she couldn’t win with either one of them. Argo whined at the condescension, and Gabrielle sulked at the coddling; it was maddening, even as the familiarity made her smile. It was the smile she clung to, wearing it boldly as she turned to go, because that was what she wanted them both to remember. She hugged Argo as hard as she could, and tried not to let it get to her when Gabrielle waved with her eyes on the ground.

It was the right thing to do, she reminded herself as she walked away. Callisto’s head felt heavier than her own, harder to hold upright, but she did it anyway because she didn’t want either of them to see her falter. It was the right thing to do, the safest way for the only people in the world who mattered, for Gabrielle who was hurt and angry, and for Argo who had already suffered more than any innocent beast should, for both of them who were so scarred by Callisto’s hands. Xena might be the one in her body, the one forced to walk around with that face, but they were the ones she had hurt, and Xena would go to the ends of the world to see that made right.

She couldn’t do anything about Callisto, couldn’t undo the pain she’d inflicted, but she could do something about Draco, and so she focused on that. It was as good a place as any to turn her impotent rage, as good a place as any to start doing some good in this evil body.

Draco knew Xena in every possible way, but he only knew Callisto by reputation. Staying in character was far more crucial with him than it ever was against his mindless mercenaries; it was the only way she could disarm him, and she would not sit idly by while he sent waves of men to die at her hands. He would be expecting her, she was sure; one set of would-be assassins was bad enough, a second was practically a call for retribution. Factor in the bought-off innkeeper and the blade up his sleeve, and he’d practically thrown down a gauntlet; neither Callisto nor Xena would ever let such a thing stand.

He had picked a fight with the wrong warlord, but if it was a fight he wanted she would gladly give him one. Still, as she’d said to Gabrielle, raw with regret, she had to do it alone. If she wanted any chance at outsmarting Draco — the only option, really, in a body she still couldn’t fully control — she had to be Callisto, wholly and completely. Knowing as she did what that meant to Gabrielle, Xena would die before she let her see it.

Draco’s goons came after her twice more. The first time, she countered without a thought; there were three of them in total, and she knocked them unconscious without even thinking to interrogate them. She left them there in the dirt, bloody but alive, and hurried on before the unwanted break gave her mind a chance to wander and wonder and worry about her absent friends. They would be fine, she told herself, again and again and again until it sank in; no mercenary worth their salt would go after Xena’s sidekick if it looked like Callisto had grown bored with her.

By the time the second group came at her, she had pulled herself together enough to interrogate them. Risky though it was, using Xena’s talents in Callisto’s body, the two combined got excellent results; five seconds’ worth of pressure points and a particularly maniacal grin, and they were singing like birds.

As it turned out, she needn’t have bothered. Draco had never been one for subtlety or understatement, and this was no exception; a few more leagues along the route she’d been heading, and she wouldn’t have needed to ask directions at all. He’d abandoned his usual hovels and caverns, it seemed, and had opted this time to set up a base of operations in an old, semi-abandoned fortress. Xena couldn’t deny that he had taste; large and looming as it was, the place looked like a good place to build and house an army, and the part of her that remembered shacking up with him in dank and damp was impressed by how far he’d climbed.

Finding the place was easy enough. Infiltrating it, as it turned out, was even easier.

Draco was a braggart and a show-off. His ego was infinitely bigger than his capacity for common sense, and over the course of his career that had dunked him in more than his fair share of hot water. Xena wasn’t the first person to nearly take his head off, and there was no doubt in her mind that she wouldn’t be the last either; when she did come face-to-face with him, she was certain she’d find a fair number of new scars lining his face. A pity, but he had no-one to blame for that but himself. It made her job a whole lot simpler, though, so she wasn’t about to complain.

He had posted two sentries at the door, green-looking recruits with more armour than muscle, and there was no sign of anyone else within a dozen leagues. It took about half a second for Xena to neutralise them as Callisto, and had she been herself it would have taken perhaps half of that.

In characteristic fashion, Draco seemed to be openly inviting the conflict, spreading his metaphorical arms wide open and welcoming anyone into his domain who felt themselves up to the task of taking him on. Xena had to laugh at that, taking a moment to picture the look on his face; there he would be, up on some imaginary throne, waiting for a stream of challengers that never came. He was arrogant, without a doubt, but that was no more or less than she’d come to expect from him. Why frighten the competition away when he could decimate them in the comfort of his home?

Once she was inside, she stuck to the shadows, scouting the layout of the place as best she could before getting down to business; it always paid to be prepared, after all, and she would sooner take the time now than live to regret it later. Besides, it was easy enough to stay out of sight in a place where nobody was looking for her, and Callisto’s body seemed to have been built for sticking to the shadows. As herself, Xena already knew how to turn the light against itself, how to slip under the guards’ noses without so much as a breath, but Callisto’s feline form made it even easier than it would have been in her own. Naturally, then, she took full advantage of her skills and Callisto’s shape, and spent some time sneaking around the place, weighing up what she was dealing with, what kind of warlord Draco had become in the year since their paths and swords last crossed.

Pretty much the same one he was before, to no-one’s surprise. The inside of his little fortress was mapped out as a giant ring, a corridor of cells lining the outer wall on one side — only a handful occupied, she noted, and wondered if he’d gone soft — and what looked like soldiers’ barracks on the other. The far end housed an armoury, full of more weapons than Draco had men, swords and shields and maces, torches and oil for burning, everything any self-respecting army would ever need. The main hall was a large central area, round like the rest of the place and mostly empty; it boasted only a handful of worn tables and an oversized chair that Draco no doubt fancied as a throne.

That, of course, was where she found him. He sat there on his giant chair, sprawled out like a king; the room was empty, but that didn’t stop him looking out over it as though it were filled with adoring subjects. The placement was good, giving him a full view of the room, and that made it very difficult for anyone to get close enough to take him unawares. Of course, Xena knew him far too well to think for a second that was why he did it; no doubt he just wanted to give off the illusion of power, to make anyone who dared approach cower in their boots at the sight of him.

Nice try, she thought, and squared her shoulders. She sauntered into the room with a smirk and a swagger, playing up Callisto’s mania while at the same time taking advantage of Xena’s knowledge, both of the man himself and his unique code of honour. She kept her sword in its sheath, kept her hands in view at all times, made it as obvious as she could that she wasn’t about to leap in and make a run at him. He might want her dead but even in his own home he would never attack an opponent who wouldn’t draw her weapon.

His eyes narrowed at the sight of her, but he didn’t stand.

“Callisto,” he said, like he was remarking on the weather.

“Draco.” There was perhaps a little too much of Xena’s familiarity in her voice, but she shrouded it well, widening Callisto’s grin until it hurt her cheeks. “I hear you’ve been looking for me.”

He laughed at that like it was some kind of private joke between the two of them. “You’ve got good hearing… for a dead woman.”

Xena snorted. “And you’ve got a lot of nerve for a man with no balls.” She licked her lips, not taking her eyes off him for a second. “I knew that Xena cut them off; I just didn’t realise she’d made you soft as well.” He growled at that, and she responded with a snap of Callisto’s teeth, letting him see how sharp they were. “Sending out half-rate sellswords to do your dirty work? Tch. What will they say at the next warlord’s convention?”

Draco stared at her for a long, stunned moment. “You really are as crazy as they say,” he mused after a moment, as though he couldn’t tell whether to be offended or amused. “Storming into my home without a care in the world, insulting my manhood…”

“More like a compliment, from what I’ve heard,” Xena countered; by her own admission, she was perhaps enjoying this a little too much. “And if your idiot sentries were worth the armour you’ve put them in, maybe I wouldn’t have made it this far to see the truth for myself.”

That got a reaction. He still didn’t reach for his sword, but he stood up and that was a gambit in itself. He moved slowly, stepping down from his makeshift throne like a god descending from Olympus, eyes on fire and never leaving hers. Xena couldn’t help remembering fonder times, seeing that fire lit up with a different kind of passion, the kind that burned them both. It was a shame, the way things had gone between them, but she could not afford to dwell on it now. Not when she was supposed to be meeting him for the first time, and definitely not when she was supposed to be a less-than-stable murderer with a thirst for blood.

“I could chop off your head right now,” Draco pointed out coolly, taking a languorous step towards her. “It would make quite the glorious banner, wouldn’t it?”

Xena yawned, loud and rude and comically exaggerated, obnoxious enough that she knew the real Callisto would approve. “It would certainly make an impression,” she said with a shrug. “You might want to save your energy, though. From what I’ve heard, you’ll need more than a head on a stick — even one as charming as mine — to intimidate anyone.”

Draco’s shoulders tightened. Xena recognised the moment he lost his patience. “Did you really come all the way out here just to insult me?”

“No.” She let herself get angry as well, tapped into the parts of her she didn’t let loose when Gabrielle was around, dug down deep inside the places that felt helpless and impotent, the parts that ached to lash out at the gods for the injustice of leaving her in this body. “I came here because you’re sending worthless idiots after my blood, and killing them is getting tiresome.”

She didn’t point out that she hadn’t killed anyone yet, or that she had no intention of doing so. That, she knew, would give her away in a heartbeat. His expression shifted, though, a subtle twitch that only someone who knew him as intimately as Xena could possibly have caught, but it was enough to let her know that he knew the truth. Perhaps one of his hired swords had made it back to inform him, or perhaps he’d simply heard whisperings from the snake-pit village he had his claws in. Either way, he knew far more than she’d given him credit for, and that made him more dangerous too.

“Oh?” he pressed, keeping his cards close to his chest. “And just what do you plan to do about it? Take another cheap shot at my ego? Try to make me cry?”

“No,” she said again, harder this time. “I’m going to give you two options.”

Finally, deliberately, she did draw her sword. It was an open invitation; she was practically thrusting her chest at the point of his blade, begging him to run her through, but she knew him better than he could ever know and she knew that he wouldn’t do it. She had piqued his interest now, and she knew that he wouldn’t make a move without hearing her out first. He might have his doubts about her, but it was too early for him to be sure of anything, and she was quick to play up to what she knew about him, and about Callisto as well. One more reason for keeping Gabrielle far away from all of this, she thought, and willed herself not to shudder at the thought.

Draco took another step towards her. Just one, but it was enough: a warning, a threat, and a dozen other things all at once.

“I’m waiting,” he said, hand on the hilt of his sword. “Amuse me.”

Xena didn’t let her expression change even a bit. She had to convince him that she held the power here, had to convince him that Callisto held the power here. If he saw through the charade, even for a just second, it would all be over. So she smiled and leaned forwards, let him see the dip of her cleavage, the easiest spot for his blade to slide in if the inclination took him, and a way of saying, without words, ‘I know you won’t do it’.

“Two choices,” she repeated, effortlessly cool. “You can call off your puppies like a good little boy… or you can be a man and face me yourself.” She let her lips twitch, and tossed the sword from one hand to the other. It was not nearly as easy as she made it look; Callisto’s long fingers were not nearly as graceful when Xena was the one using them. “Either way, I promise you that I won’t be the one bleeding.”

Draco burst out laughing, no doubt amused by her forwardness. “Crazy and feisty,” he said, as though he’d just been handed a wonderful gift. “I can see why Xena was obsessed with you.”

“I beg your pardon?” Xena blurted out, before she could stop herself. It was a stupid mistake, her own indignation at having been painted the villain of the piece overriding her common sense, and it was much harder than it should have been to rein in her instincts and flounder for a more Callisto-appropriate response. “I’ll have you know, half the known world is obsessed with me. Not just her.”

The malice in her tone, the venom dripping off her tongue must have convinced him, because he laughed again and shrugged as though he would have expected nothing less.

“I’m sure that’s true,” he said lightly. “But she’s the only one I cared about.”

“Right.” It was much easier to channel Callisto this time, to dig down deep and find some of that years-long resentment, to harness the place deep inside her heart where she hated herself just as much as Callisto had ever hated her. It was all too easy, in fact, and when she spoke again the venom was much more potent. “Because everything’s all about Xena, isn’t it? ‘Xena’ this and ‘Xena’ that…”

Draco snorted, but didn’t laugh this time. Xena kept a close eye on his sword hand; it was wavering just a little, like it did sometimes when he was deep in thought, and he still didn’t draw it. “That’s quite the chip you’ve got on your shoulder.”

“You got a problem with that?” she muttered, lips curling into a snarl.

“Not at all,” he said with a smirk. “In fact, I dare say I’m starting to like you.”

That was all the opening Xena — Callisto needed, and of course she leaped at it. Specifically, she leaped at him, surging forwards with a lunge and a thrust and no warning.

She made a show of it, just as the real Callisto would have done, whooping and screaming and swinging her sword like a whip. If there was one thing that could be said for Callisto’s flashy, melodramatic style of fighting, it was her penchant for making noise and wreaking havoc without ever sacrificing her skill or accuracy. Xena had her own martial tricks, of course, her battle cries and sleight of hand, but just like everything else she did they were precise and carefully considered; Callisto was a loose cannon, completely lacking in reason or logic in anything she did, and it was harder than Xena had expected to emulate her technique, or even find much of one at all.

For all that Callisto’s method made no sense, her ruthlessness carried with aching familiarity. Xena remembered this, at least, from her own warlord days, and it was entirely too easy to cover over her inexperience in melodrama with her decades of fury and fervour. If there was any doubt left in Draco’s mind about who she was or what she stood for, it vanished in the moment she landed at his feet and made a slash straight for his throat.

His sword was in his hand in the blink of an eye. He parried hard, shoving her sword away with the weight of his whole body, and the impact jolted every nerve in her arm. In truth, she’d expected the parry, though the strength of it almost sent her reeling; she wanted to believe that Draco had simply honed his strength since the last time they clashed, but she had a sneaking suspicion that the fault was her own. Callisto was not weak by any definition, but next to Xena’s own mass, she was almost waifishly thin. The impact jolted, not because Draco was excessively strong, but because Callisto’s body was far weaker than Xena was used to.

It startled her, but it forced her to focus as well. She might not have Callisto’s passion for slaughter, might be making more of an effort than normal to refrain from killing, but she could not afford to be slack. She hadn’t been lying when she told Gabrielle that she would do whatever it took, and as much as she would prefer to end this without slaughter, she would not shy away from it if the opening presented itself as the best available option. Better him than her, if it came down to it, and given this body’s obvious weaknesses it was starting to look like a very real possibility.

Even without taking her body’s flaws into account, it felt unexpectedly strange to battle Draco as Callisto. Whenever she fought him as herself, it was a thing of beauty; whatever the reason, they came together as gracefully in combat as they ever did in other activities. Most of the time, it was more of a dance than a battle, a competition marrying agility and grace with just a touch of showing off on both sides. Much like everything else they used to do together, before she found her better self and he did not, fighting with him was fun.

This was not fun. Combat in Callisto’s body was as far from that grace and simplicity as anything could be, and sparring while channelling her spirit was too manic and crazed to be anything close to enjoyable. Callisto fought like an animal, like a woman possessed, like nothing else in the world mattered as much as blood and death and pain; she fought as though she had the hounds of Tartarus at her heels with every move, every breath, every thought. Where Xena was one of the most disciplined warriors in the known world, Callisto was perhaps one of the least. For Xena, as for Draco, a good fight was a point of honour; for Callisto, it was a point of pride.

Fighting as Callisto was like being thrown back into her old self, the years and deeds she’d fought so hard to wash from her soul. That Xena, the one she became again now, was beyond wild; she was vicious and vengeful and more ruthless than the present Xena cared to remember. It was the part of herself that she saw in Callisto’s eyes when they clashed with each other time and time again, the part of herself it had taken years to move on from, years to put behind her. Damaged in places that no poultice could heal, ready to set the world on fire to dull the ache, she’d been a little too close to the monster whose face she wore now, and when her blade met Draco’s again, instead of his throat, the scream that tore out of her was as much that old Xena as it was the young Callisto.

Sparks flew from their swords, steel on steel, and neither one of them yielded so much as an inch. Xena had no desire to kill her former flame, not unless she absolutely had to, but she could not allow him to that, and she knew better than to hold back even a little. He would kill her in a heartbeat if she did, and she was not comfortable enough in this body to climb back out if she fell into trouble. She had to give her all, had to go at him with an aim for his throat, and so she did.

They spun, swung, ran and tore at each other, clashed and clashed and clashed, danced back and started again. It was relentless, endless, and much closer to equal than Xena would have expected. It was exhausting, too, and more than once they both found themselves bracing on their knees, both breathless and blinded by the sweat in their eyes, both gasping and panting and needing a moment to regain their footing. A moment, a few quick breaths split between them, and then the clashing started up again like it had never stopped. Again. Again. Again.

He leaped back, she lunged forwards. She sidestepped, he cut her off. Her boot caught his neck, the hilt of his sword found the side of her head. Every time one of them gained the upper hand, the other snatched it back just as quickly. It surprised her; Draco was nearly a match for Xena on a good day, and this was definitely not a good day. Strung out and in an unfamiliar body as she was, he should have wiped the floor with her in a matter of minutes; that they seemed to be just as evenly matched now as they ever were before said rather more about his weaknesses than hers.

To her surprise, far more than his, it ended in a stalemate.

A series of flips landed her at just the right angle to get the edge of her blade up against his neck, but in the half-second she took to get Callisto’s smaller feet back underneath her he’d already adjusted, shifting to press his own sword to her throat in turn. Just like that, the flashy acrobatics were over; now it was deadly from both sides, both held at sword-point by the other and neither one of them willing to concede even a breath, much less the battle.

“I suppose this is the part where you try to talk me out of killing you?” Draco said, a cruel if curious invitation.

Xena, of course, just burst out laughing. It was entirely too easy to sound like Callisto now, with so much adrenaline surging through her veins; Callisto would be beyond mad by this point, desperate for blood and not caring whether it was his or her own, and Xena had no trouble channelling that feeling now as she looked into her old lover’s eyes and realised that it didn’t make much of a difference which one of them fell.

“I already died once, remember? It didn’t exactly take.” She grinned, delicious aware that he had no idea just how true that was. “What makes you think you’d have better luck than your precious Xena did?”

Draco didn’t shrug this time, though the sudden tensing of his shoulders said he wanted to. Like her, he probably didn’t want to shift too much and risk giving her an opening to run him through.

“Xena always was lacking in the follow-through department,” he said; he still didn’t move, but he ventured a smirk this time, and Xena prayed to the gods that he wouldn’t notice the way her own shoulders tightened too, with far more than the urge to shrug. “Call me a gambling man, but I think I’ll take my chances on your survival instincts.”

“Wrong answer,” Xena said, and let the point of her blade nick the skin just a little, not enough to draw blood but enough that she knew it hurt. His eyes widened, and she flashed a feral, Callisto-mad grin. “Sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t seem to have any survival instincts to speak of. Hades couldn’t handle me any more than Xena could.” She licked her lips, looked him up and down, let it become a bit of a dance, the echo of a years-dead seduction. “But I’ll bet he’ll handle you well enough.”

That landed hard, no doubt because they both knew it was the truth. Xena usually tried very hard not to think too much about Callisto’s inner workings, the sick, dark place her mind and soul must be to make her do and feel and think the things she did. She always tried to keep a steady hand when dealing with her, tried not to let her place in the story overpower her higher purpose, and right up until the moment she watched Callisto die, it had almost worked. Xena was responsible for a lot of terrible things, but until then she had always kept it in her head that Callisto’s deeds, if not her motivations, were entirely her own.

That all changed when she watched her die, when she heard her plead for help, for mercy, for her life, when she listened her screams and watched her sink and chose not to save her. She couldn’t turn away from those cries, those eyes, the hate and the hurt and the terror on Callisto’s face as the earth took her back, and the moment it happened she found that she could not deny her part in it any more. She had been responsible for everything Callisto had been in life, and now she was responsible for her death as well. It had tortured her, torn her apart.

It had almost been her undoing, too, and she could not forget that either. The guilt had driven her so far down, far enough that Callisto and Ares could work their way inside and turn it against her. It had served her ill and served them well, but now she found the tables turned again; now, she was the one using it to her advantage. It didn’t hurt any less, didn’t make her feel any less sick to think about it, but she couldn’t deny the way she felt the words she spoke, couldn’t deny the way they resonated in the place where she remembered Callisto’s fate, remembered the moment she condemned her to it.

Draco recognised some part of that in her, the sincerity if not the experience itself. He saw, and understood, just how much darkness Callisto must have gone through to speak that way, so calloused and so careless, as though she truly did not care if he cut her open right then and there.

Xena never took her eyes off his, but out of the corner of her eye she saw the way his fingers faltered ever so slightly on his sword. Had she been in her own body or had she really been Callisto, she might have exploited that; it was just a fraction of a second, but it would have been enough for either one of them to leap in and reclaim control of the situation, to force the stalemate into a victory on her side. But she was neither — not truly herself and not the true Callisto — and all she could do was hold her ground and pray that calling his bluff would be enough.

It was. It took a long, excruciating moment, but it was.

He didn’t retreat, of course, but she could feel the tension slacken where the steel touched her skin, and knew that he was resigned to call a draw. He would never surrender, no more than she would, but this was as close to bloodless as she could have hoped for.

“All right,” he said, keeping his voice rough, as though he could convince either one of them he still had the upper hand here. “A truce, then? I don’t plan to spend the rest of my day like this.”

“I’m not in the habit of wasting my time either,” Xena agreed, trying not to look or sound too eager. “You go your way, I go mine?”

Draco hummed, a thoughtful and dangerous sound. Xena recognised the way his brows knit together, the way he still refused to step back or yield; he was hatching a plan, she could tell, and that did not bode well at all for her.

She didn’t want to get caught up in his scheming or his stupidity; she just wanted him to call off the bounty on her head and promise to leave her alone. She just wanted to get back to Gabrielle, where she belonged. With any luck she could convince him to spread the word, let people know that Callisto was alive and well and just as much of a threat as she ever was before; it would grant her a little reprieve, and perhaps the rest of the warlord rabble-rousers would take his example and give her a wide berth. It was all she could hope for at this point, some time and breathing room, some peace and quiet to get used to her new body. It was all she could hope for… and, frankly, all she wanted.

Draco, however, seemed to have other plans now, and when his face split into another self-congratulatory grin she could practically see her hope for simplicity going up in smoke. She should have seen this coming, she thought, and chided herself; Draco had never been the kind of man who could leave a challenge empty-handed. He would sooner leave with his own blood on his hands than admit that none had been shed.

“Not so fast,” he said, as though this had been his intention all along; Xena knew better, of course, but she played along for simplicity’s sake. “You see, there’s still the little matter of my reputation. And yours.”

“Nothing wrong with mine,” Xena smirked, and let Callisto’s sharp teeth emphasise her point. “Just ask your beloved Xena.”

“Xena and I aren’t exactly on speaking terms,” he said, with unexpected honesty. “But you… well, you know what they say. The enemy of my enemy…”

“…makes quite the glorious banner?”

He laughed, conceding the point. “Oh, it certainly would. But given our present, ah, situation…” He cocked his head just a little, taking in the lack of space between them. “Well, I’m a flexible man.”

Xena shifted ever so slightly to let him get a good, long look at Callisto’s chest. “Unfortunately for you,” she said, quite pointedly, “I’m neither.”

“So I’ve heard,” he quipped, and paid her cleavage no mind at all. “But come now. Neither one of us is in any position to best the other. I’m willing to admit it; aren’t you?”

Callisto almost certainly wouldn’t have. She would have taken the blade to the neck, would have smiled as she bled herself to death, content in knowing that she had finally died the way she wanted to.

Xena knew that it wasn’t the idea of death that had so traumatised her the last time, but that it would be so meaningless, that the Fates had stripped her of her claim to vengeance, of the righteous firestorm she so wanted, the destruction and the misery she had ached to inflict, that they had stripped her of everything she had wanted, everything that would have made her final moment worthwhile. Xena hadn’t killed her; she had sat there and watched her die. Where was the satisfaction in that? Where was the retribution, the moment of final peace that came with facing her enemy in the moment she drew her last breath?

Callisto’s death, much like her life, had been utterly futile and utterly without meaning; that was why she had begged, why she had looked the woman she hated in the eye and pleaded for her life. She did not mean to say ‘I don’t want to die’, only ‘I don’t want to die this way’.

Here, now, face-to-face with an opponent who had proved themselves worthy, Xena suspected that Callisto would have gladly taken death over surrender. ‘One of us will die here,’ she would have said, ‘and I don’t much care who.’ It would have worked perfectly against a foe like Draco, because it would have been the truth. Callisto would have been utterly unafraid, and she would not have wavered for a second. She would have built on her prior claims, her smiling insistences that Tartarus could not hold her; she would have seen it through to the end. One way or another, she would have brought this stalemate to an end.

Xena did not have that bloody-minded obsession, and she could not pretend to. She could play Callisto’s madness to a point, could push her opponent to a draw like this, but any further and she would be bested. Draco was far from stupid; eventually he would feel the tremor in her blade, or notice the way she blinked for just a second or two too long, and then he would call her bluff. She could not lay down her life like a token at a casino, not when she was unwilling to see the gamble through.

So, then, she nodded, a wordless acknowledgement that yes, they were both in the same position here, an acceptance that neither one of them would be walking out of this victorious.

“Your point?” she hissed.

“My point,” he said, as if talking to a small child, “is that this is getting us nowhere. Why waste our time at each other’s throats when watching each other’s backs could prove so much more beneficial?”

“Beneficial for you, maybe,” Xena huffed. She lifted her voice high, feigned a yawn, tried her best to sound bored like Callisto would be, and not annoyed like she herself was. “But I work better alone.” It took a little work, but she mustered a smile, leaned in until the edge of his sword nicked her skin so he would know she was not afraid. “In any case, you’re incompetent. Frankly, at this point, allying myself with you would be a liability.”

“That pretty little neck of yours says otherwise,” Draco retaliated, watching the blood bead along the edge of his sword. “Or do you still expect me to buy that nonsense about ‘not having survival instincts’?”

Xena laughed, a pitchy sing-song sort of sound that she’d heard from the real Callisto countless times before. “And what makes you think that an eternity in Tartarus isn’t preferable to another moment in your company?”

Draco shrugged, or half-shrugged, the slightest hitch of his shoulder to show his indifference. Even now, it seemed, he was playing his position to the hilt, as though he wasn’t in exactly the same position she was. He’d always been a little too good at that, ignoring the threats and weapons pointed at him, pretending that he had everything all under control even as the rug was yanked out from underneath his feet. Still, Xena couldn’t deny that he played the part well, the dominating overlord looking down on the insect who had wandered into his sanctum; he certainly had the arrogance down. Long ago, it had been one of her favourite things about him.

“I don’t know,” he said after a moment, flexing his arm so that the sword point jumped a little against her throat. She held her body still, refusing to acknowledge the sensation. “Call me an optimist.”

He was certainly one of those, that was true, but he had conveniently left out the part where that optimism usually led to his downfall. Xena, who already knew that part well enough, just rolled her eyes.

“I’ve never been a fan of optimism,” she said coolly. “It tends to leave a stain.”

Draco laughed, and Xena felt her own sword cut dangerously close. “Well, I can’t argue with that,” he said, then sobered, and Xena knew that the time for witty repartee was over. “Look, it’s really very simple: you help me build up my reputation a little, and I call off the bounty on your head. I get what I wanted without the mess, and and you get to loot any peasants you kill. Everyone wins.”

“Everyone wins,” Xena echoed wryly; she couldn’t tell whether or not he was serious. “Except the peasants, of course.”

Draco snorted. “Well, well. I would never have figured you for the kind to worry about the little people.”

“I’m not,” Xena said, probably a little too quickly and with just a little too much of Callisto’s heartless bite; if he didn’t have her sword pressed against his neck right now, she suspected he would have seen through it. “I’m worried about their loot. Somehow, a lifetime’s supply of rotten turnips isn’t much of an incentive.”

The excuse was a feeble one, and anyone who had ever clashed with the real Callisto would have known that. She was no petty thief or raider or pirate, and she had no interest at all in loot or bounty, or even her own reputation; in her own mind, she was a harbinger of justice and vengeance, no more and no less, and though that was a far cry from the reality of it, still it was enough to cool her interest in the usual warlord fare. That she would be put off in a moment like this by a want of profit was beyond uncharacteristic, well into the realm of absurd. But then, how would Draco, who knew her only by her bloodthirsty reputation, know that?

“If it’s money you’re worried about,” he said, “I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.”

“I doubt it,” she said.

She didn’t elucidate, aware of the danger in saying too much; she let him fill in the blanks himself, ponder what he thought she might be after. He had always had a talent for bartering; if his life had taken a different path, he might have made an excellent merchant.

“So quick to doubt,” he said, and couldn’t have missed the way Xena rolled her eyes. “Ten dinars for every dead peasant; how does that sound?”

The offer was a cold one, even by his usual standards, but Xena didn’t let her disgust show through. Callisto would have been excited, if a little unimpressed, that this incompetent wannabe was so eager to get her on his side that he would offer to pay her to do what came naturally. Of course, she would also have seen through his posturing and cut through to the desperation underneath, and so Xena did so as well.

“You sure you’ve got the funds to back that up?” she asked with a dangerous smirk. “I’d hate to have to collect in other ways…”

She left the implication to his imagination, but punctuated the point with a subtle shift of her sword. It didn’t draw blood, not like his, but she made it very clear that if she let it she would not be content like he was with a nick or a scratch; she would go right for the vein and drain it dry.

Draco, never one to take a threat lightly, got the message and immediately looked contrite. He had never been the cleverest warlord in the known world, but he was sharp and quick enough to best a dozen cleverer men without breaking a sweat, and he had the charisma to back it up. She expected no less of him, and when his lips twisted into a condescending smile she knew that he had something new up his sleeve.

“All right,” he said, voice rising to match hers in tone and threat. “If you don’t trust my funding, how about something else? Something I know you won’t be able to refuse?”

It soured her blood, the emphasis on ‘you’, and Xena’s instincts told her that was was something she wouldn’t want to hear. Still, she forced herself to look cool, Callisto’s casual disinterest covering over her own unease, and took some comfort in knowing that her face was not her own. Draco knew the lines of Xena’s face with great intimacy, but he had never looked Callisto in the eye before now, and he could not read her as well. It would be her salvation, she knew, if she couldn’t get out of this the old-fashioned way.

“Oh?” she asked, forcing herself back into the role. “And what would that be, then?”

“What else?” His face split into a grin, one nearly wide enough to crack his cheeks. “A chance to hit Xena where it hurts.”

It struck like a blow to hear her name on his lips in such a vicious tone. More than malice, it was almost spiteful, as though his own feelings ran far deeper than hating an ex-lover who had humiliated him once or twice. To some extent, she had seen it coming; a part of her had known all along that any meeting between Draco and Callisto would ultimately have to boil down to bonding over their mutual enemy.

What she hadn’t remembered, and perhaps she should have, was just how observant he could be, and how sharp he became when he wanted something. Draco knew his enemies like his own skin, and Xena should have realised long before now that his taunting references to her own name were a kind of bait for Callisto; if he knew enough to know that killing her would boost his reputation, he must surely know enough about her motivations to manipulate them. He knew who he was dealing with, or at least who he thought he was dealing with, and Xena had not realised until just now that perhaps this was his endgame all along.

Xena wasn’t Callisto, but of course she couldn’t let him know that. If he learned that Xena was in Callisto’s body, that she was weak enough to be fought to a stalemate, it would be no time at all before every warlord in the known world knew it too, and she’d be spending the rest of her life fighting off long-buried enemies baying for her blood and a chance to exploit her weakened position. Draco was relatively harmless; he, at least, she could deal with alone.

So, with some reluctance, she did the only thing she could under the circumstances: took a deep breath, reminded herself that she was Callisto, that she could only be Callisto, and slowly lowered her sword.

She didn’t sheathe it, keeping it loose and ready in her hand in case she needed it again, but she let the gesture speak for itself. She breathed slowly, blood burning in that critical moment when her opponent had an opening and she wasn’t quite sure whether honour or opportunity would win out. She believed that she knew him — she knew that she knew him — but still for a second or two she doubted them both. Was he still the Draco she knew? Would he follow her lead?

He did. For all his flaws, and there were many, he was still a man of honour. It meant more to her than she thought it would, and not just because it had probably saved her life.

He mirrored her very closely, letting his blade drop down to his side without ever putting it away. Xena acknowledged with a nod, felt her own sword-grip start to slip against the sweat on her palms. She missed her own weapons, her sword and her chakram, the tools that had served her so well for so much of her life. They had been extensions of her body, of her soul, and they fit her as naturally as her own thoughts. She could depend on them, could stake her life on them. Callisto’s sword was as uncomfortable as her skin.

She looked Draco in the eye, let Callisto’s harden to steel. There were no threats between them now, no posturing or plans or pointed steel. There were only two ruthless warlords, united in their hate for a common enemy.

“All right,” she said. “I’m listening.”

*

Chapter Text

*

It wasn’t a long way to Amphipolis, but it felt like one.

Gabrielle was still unsteady, aching all over and more than a little wobbly on her feet, but she refused to give in and mount Argo. Xena might not be around to see her fail, but Argo was, and Gabrielle knew that she would tell her everything the instant they were reunited. She probably wouldn’t even bother to say ‘hello’, or whatever passed for one in horse-speak; she’d just toss her head and do that self-satisfied snort thing she loved so much, and just like that Xena would know the whole story. Whatever the pain, however many times she stumbled, Gabrielle wouldn’t give the smug little mare the satisfaction.

(Of course, it had nothing to do with the fact that Argo was still recovering too, and it definitely had nothing to do with the fact that Gabrielle didn’t want to hurt her. Definitely not.)

She did lean against her a few times, though, letting her weight settle across Argo’s uninjured side in the too-frequent moments when her own pain drove her to dizziness. It cut at her pride, though not nearly as much as riding would have, though she took some small comfort from the fact that Argo limited her complaints to the occasional derisive whinny; she was the most expressive horse Gabrielle had ever met, and the fact that she didn’t rear back or jerk away spoke volumes.

Without Xena around, Argo slipped a little too naturally into the role of leader. She was the one who insisted, again and again, that they stop to rest, planting her hooves and refusing to budge until Gabrielle sat down. Given the choice, Gabrielle would have kept right on going without a break; she would have pushed both of their bodies past their limits in her haste to get to Amphipolis, but of course she wasn’t the one calling the shots. Even with Xena a dozen leagues away, she was still just the sidekick.

The first time Argo made them stop, Gabrielle just rolled her eyes and said “You worry too much.”

Argo snorted, but she didn’t deny it.

The second time it happened, Gabrielle felt her patience start to fray. Hands on her hips, she glared at the stubborn little beast and snapped “You’re worse than Xena.”

Argo nickered at that, like she was was laughing at her, then nudged Gabrielle’s shoulder with her nose as if to say ‘stop whining and go get something to eat’.

Gabrielle did, but just because she was hungry anyway. She would never, ever admit that in her best friend’s absence she let herself get bossed around by a damned horse.

Besides, it didn’t matter if it was Argo’s idea: eating well was just the sensible thing to do. She had to keep her strength up if she wanted to get to Amphipolis in good time, and all the more so when neither one of them were in full health. They hadn’t been on their own for more than a few hours at most, and already she was starting to flag; it wasn’t fair to keep leaning on Argo like she was, but if this kept up she might not have much of a choice.

Her sides and back hurt terribly, a world of unrelenting pain that started deep between her ribs and swelled outwards in ever widening circles, pulsing like a heartbeat in all directions. She had a headache, too, bad enough that she wouldn’t wish it on her worst enemy; she couldn’t remember losing consciousness back when it happened, but right now she might almost consider paying someone to knock her out. She wanted a real roof, a proper meal, and clean water to drink. She wanted… gods, she just wanted to not have to do this any more.

Argo made for surprisingly good company. Whether it was her own injuries pulling at her, or just a well-concealed compassionate streak, she stayed close by Gabrielle’s side; she stood next to her when they rested, even when the best grass was elsewhere, and when they moved on she was always careful to keep within reach. It wasn’t really a substitute for Xena, but Gabrielle was grateful for it just the same.

Gabrielle pushed them harder than Argo would have liked, and even when she yielded she never let them stop for very long. A few minutes here, another few there, just long enough that Argo stopped sulking and acquiesced to get moving again.

Well-meaning though they were, the rest-stops didn’t really help; in truth, it just made things worse, though Gabrielle supposed she should have foreseen that; the constant sitting down and getting back up again tugged and tore a little more each time, straining muscles that were already tender and battered.

It wasn’t just pride that made her put her foot down in the end; if she sat down one more time, she was fairly sure she would never get up again. So, after perhaps the fourth or fifth time they stopped, she looked the stupid horse right in the eye and said “Enough.”

Argo, of course, put it down to her stubbornness and made a show of being thoroughly unimpressed. The response was so much like Xena that Gabrielle would have laughed out loud if she thought she could spare the breath. Argo, just like Xena, didn’t see the pain or the strain, only Gabrielle’s trademark wilfulness, and just like Xena she wasn’t shy about letting Gabrielle know just how much it annoyed her. Argo wasn’t as good at it as Xena was, though; she didn’t have a voice, and she couldn’t really express herself, at least not beyond those annoying horse noises she made. It was a far, far cry from the easy back-and-forth banter that she usually shared with Xena, and Gabrielle felt it much deeper than she thought she would.

“You’re just like her, you know,” she grumbled when they’d been back on the road for an hour or so.

The pain had settled into a rhythmic throb, a pulse that surged in time with her footsteps, and she could feel her temper growing thinner and thinner. For all their disagreements, a horse with no voice made an easy target for venting her frustration, though Argo seemed rather more flattered than offended by the comparison to Xena, tossing her head and giving the most self-satisfied whinny Gabrielle had ever heard.

“That’s not what I mean,” Gabrielle muttered. “I mean you’re like the worst parts of her. Not the talented parts, or the parts that mean well, or do good for good people and put the pinch on bad ones. If you were like that, we’d be all right. But you’re just the parts of her that won’t get off my back. You’re the parts that think I’m stupid and that I can’t take care of myself. Well, you’re wrong, and so is she.”

Argo nickered her indignation; Gabrielle couldn’t tell whether she was more affronted for her own sake or for Xena’s, but either way she wasn’t happy. She butted Gabrielle in the shoulder, a rough jolt with the side of her head that knocked her off-balance for a moment. Gabrielle stumbled, floundered to get her feet back under her, and by the time she turned around to confront her Argo was already looking in the other direction, head held high and shoulders pushed back as if to say ‘who, me?’

“Don’t play innocent,” Gabrielle scolded. “I know you did that on purpose. You think you can get away with it because Xena isn’t around to say ‘play nice’? You know I’ll tell her when she comes back.”

Argo snorted at that, like a kind of challenge. It took more restraint than Gabrielle would ever admit to keep from rising to the bait, elbowing the silly horse right back and turning it into a proper competition. On another day with no Xena around to temper them, she might have done it, but neither one of them were in peak health right now and she didn’t want to hurt Argo over something as petty as this. Tempting as it was right now.

So, instead, she settled for rolling her eyes and sulking for the next leg of the journey. It wasn’t exactly fulfilling, but at least it didn’t make either of them start bleeding again. It did make the headache intensify, though, and being distracted made her stumble again, losing her footing and almost falling completely. This time, she couldn’t blame anyone but herself, and when she righted herself and turned around Argo was watching her with a very different expression. Her eyes were much wider now, like Xena’s got sometimes when she was worried but didn’t want to hurt Gabrielle’s delicate pride by saying so. Not that it helped; just like with Xena, the look itself was almost worse than the worry would have been.

“Shut up,” she snapped, as though it really was Argo’s fault again. “And stop horsing around. It’ll be getting dark in a few hours, and we need to be in Amphipolis by then.” Argo made a curious, cynical sort of sound, and Gabrielle glared. “Because I said so, that’s why.”

If she didn’t know better, she’d swear she heard the horse sigh.

Still, though, annoyed as she obviously was, she seemed to get the message. She stopped demanding that they rest every five minutes, and stopped trying to antagonise Gabrielle at every step; it wasn’t much, and no doubt it came more from concern than any real concession, but Gabrielle took what meagre victory she could. Argo was still the same bratty mare she’d always been, but at the very least she deferred to Gabrielle’s authority this time. Gabrielle, for her part, returned the overture by keeping an eye on Argo’s injured side, counting the beats between her breaths, and making sure that the only one she was really pushing too hard was herself.

The sun was very low in the sky when Amphipolis appeared on the horizon. Gabrielle was beyond exhausted by that point, leaning heavily on her staff and tripping almost more than she was upright, but the sight of the village gave her a kind of second wind, lit her up on the inside like one of Zeus’s lightning bolts, and if it wasn’t for Argo lagging behind at a stubborn slow walk she might have tried to break into a run.

It was only when they arrived and her legs almost gave out completely that she realised the rush wasn’t real. The relief overwhelmed the surge of adrenaline as she staggered into the village bounds, and as soon as she realised that she was here, that she’d made it, that she didn’t have to walk any more, every ounce of strength bled out of her body, sputtering and dying; it felt like someone had thrown cold water over a burning torch somewhere deep inside her body, like something had been extinguished and was too wet to ever reignite.

Perhaps sensing some of that, Argo bowed her head, moving in close so that Gabrielle could rest for a moment against her neck. Too exhausted to be indignant, Gabrielle did so; she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and tried as hard as she could not to fall.

“Don’t you dare,” she said to Argo, depthlessly grateful that Xena wasn’t here to see it. “Don’t you dare say ‘I told you so’.”

Argo snorted at that, then promptly pulled away, as though she couldn’t figure out whether to be amused or disgusted. Bracing on her staff, Gabrielle took another couple of breaths. The pain rattled in her chest, a stabbing like a blade every time she breathed in, and she might have let out a little moan if she didn’t know the horse would judge her for it.

It took more strength than she would ever admit to pull herself together, summon up the strength to take Argo to the stables. They got some odd looks from the villagers, a lot of confusion and probably no small measure of concern; it was always a troubling sign when Xena’s sidekick was seen wandering around and the warrior herself was nowhere to be found, and that was never more true than in her home village. Gabrielle wanted to tell them that everything was all right, try and explain the situation, but her tongue was too clumsy in her mouth and her teeth were chattering.

If the stable boy recognised her, he didn’t say so, though he certainly wasn’t shy about showering affection all over Argo. He must have had a sense for animals, because he went straight for her wounded side without anyone needing to point it out; there was a smile on his face as he looked her over, and when he spoke it was to the horse and not the woman holding her.

“Good girl,” he crooned, and Argo tossed her head, utterly won over, as usual, by the show of affection. Gabrielle halfway wanted to kick them both. “Look at you, healing so very well. Someone’s been taking good care of you…”

“Can she stay here?” Gabrielle blurted out, interrupting. Her voice sounded strange to her own ears, hazy and slurred, and her tongue felt nearly as heavy as her head. “I need to… that is, I’m supposed to go and visit Cyrene, and I don’t think she has room for a horse in her kitchen.”

The stable boy stared at her for a very long moment, head cocked to the side as though he was trying to figure out what in the world she was talking about.

“Sure,” he said, when he was satisfied that she wasn’t completely crazy. “I mean, uh, that’s kind of what we’re here for, and…” He trailed off, brow creasing into a frown, as though noticing the bruises all over her for the first time. “Are you all right, miss? You don’t look so…”

Gabrielle scowled, cutting him off mid-thought. It wasn’t really his fault, but she didn’t much care about that; the question grated against her nerves like it always did, and it made her think of Xena.

“I’m fine,” she said, though she didn’t feel fine at all. She felt tired and dizzy, and her body hurt.

“All right…” He was speaking very slowly now, like he thought she was simple; well, she supposed ‘simple’ was better than ‘sidekick’, so she took it without protest. “Well, uh… Cyrene should be in the tavern, if you need her. I’ll set up a stall for your horse, and…”

“Thank you.” Gabrielle winced at the sound of her voice, still so high and wrong, then turned back to Argo. “You’d better behave yourself. If Xena was here, she’d tell you to be on your very best behaviour for her friends, so you… you do that.”

Argo straightened up a little, head held high as if to say ‘well, of course I will; I’m a perfect angel, aren’t I?’. No doubt she was showing off for her new best friend, and Gabrielle would have rolled her eyes if she didn’t think it would make her sick.

Blessedly, she did find Cyrene in the tavern. The place was modestly crowded, as it always seemed to be, and Cyrene was behind the bar, pouring drinks and chatting with customers, flitting around like it was no effort at all; Gabrielle felt her exhaustion amplify just by watching her.

With all the grace of a falling centaur, Gabrielle weaved her way between tables and chairs and people. It wasn’t easy; her feet had all but given up on working at all by this point, and she had to fight to keep from tripping over them on more than one occasion. No-one noticed her until she did actually fall, slipping on something wet on the floor, and the next thing she knew she’d gone staggering straight into Cyrene’s back.

Cyrene, naturally, didn’t even bat an eyelid at being shoved around by what she must have assumed was another drunk patron. She turned automatically, nudging Gabrielle backwards with a broad shoulder and yanking the staff out of her hands.

“No weapons,” she said, voice as firm as her grip. “We’re a tavern, not a…”

“…stable?” Gabrielle managed, the only word she could think of in her dazed state.

Senseless as it was, the word had the desired effect: Cyrene recognised her in a flash, and her sternness softened into a warm grin. “Gabrielle!”

Gabrielle tried to smile back, but her face felt frozen and awkward. “Hello…”

She swayed on her feet, and Cyrene dropped the staff in her haste to steady her. “By the gods, girl! You look like you just crawled out of the grave! What happened?” She whirled around, still holding Gabrielle by the shoulders, as though searching for Xena. “And where’s my daughter?”

“It’s a long story,” Gabrielle mumbled. “Could I have my staff back, please? It was kind of keeping me upright.”

Cyrene shook her head, more disbelief than outright refusal, and stepped back with her arms spread wide. She probably meant to embrace her, offer a welcoming hug or something like that, but Gabrielle didn’t have the strength to take it that way. She had just enough left in her to recognise the gesture for what it was, and then she was spent, falling headlong into Cyrene’s arms before she had a chance to realise that it was probably rather rude.

No doubt used to this sort of behaviour from her customers, Cyrene didn’t even miss a beat. She sighed, mostly sympathy with just a trace of frustration, and caught her seemingly without thinking.

“All right, then,” she said, gentle but firm, as though this was just another day, nothing out of the ordinary at all. “Let’s get you somewhere you can lie down, hm?”

Gabrielle barely managed a nod. She heard Cyrene shouting at someone over her shoulder, telling them to keep the drinks flowing and the patrons happy until she got back, and then she was sweeping Gabrielle out of the bar and up the stairs, all but holding her upright as she went.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, reeling against the jostling motion, queasy and in a lot of pain. She tried to speak, to offer a much-needed ‘thank you’, but edging delirium as she was all that came out was “So that’s where Xena gets her strength…”

Cyrene huffed a polite laugh and guided her into the nearest bedroom. It was modest, a bed and a stool and a cast-iron bath-tub all crammed into a small space, but it was better than the usual fare of rocks and grass and blankets that hadn’t seen a good wash in three weeks. Without waiting for an invitation, Gabrielle dropped her battered body down onto the bed and sat there in a state of dazed awe. She hadn’t realised how much it had taken out of her to stay on her feet, and now that she was off them it was tempting almost beyond words to just fall back and drift off to sleep.

“All right… there you go…”

Cyrene, unlike her daughter, had a phenomenal talent for masking her impatience. She must have been terribly worried about her absent daughter, but when Gabrielle looked up into her face she could almost believe that it wouldn’t matter if she took the rest of the week just to find her voice. Maybe she really did look that dreadful, or maybe Cyrene better understood the value of playing nice instead of making demands all the time. Either way, though she must have been half-mad with worry she waited as if they had all the time in the world while Gabrielle slowly came back to herself.

“Thank you,” Gabrielle managed at last, when she trusted herself to speak without slurring.

Cyrene smiled. “You’re quite welcome. Take it easy, now.”

Gabrielle grunted, and tried to shake her head. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” she said, though in her present state she doubted she would have fooled anyone. “I just… we’ve been on the road for a long time… and I’m not exactly at my best just now anyway… and…”

“I’ll say. You look like you picked a fight with a barn door.”

She sounded almost derisive for a moment, making a little ‘tsk’ sound low in her throat, as if to say ‘this is what happens when you run around with my daughter’. It made Gabrielle sad and hopeful at the same time; she knew that Xena’s relationship with her mother hadn’t always been as comfortable as it was now, though she hadn’t dared to ask either one of them about it. The past didn’t matter nearly as much as the present, she knew, and the important part was that they cared very deeply about each other. Cyrene understood Xena’s new path; she knew that her daughter was trying very hard, that she was turning her life around and working to atone for the things she did, and though she was still a little guarded around her sometimes, Gabrielle knew that she was proud.

She closed her eyes for a moment, collected herself, and tried to focus. “It’s not so bad. We just… we’ve been having some trouble with some, uh, unsavoury types lately. You know, Xena looks like…” Her voice cracked; it was nothing to do with the pain, and judging by the look on her face Cyrene could tell the difference. “Well, uh… some not-so-good people think she’s Callisto. And you know… you know what Xena’s like. She doesn’t want anyone to think she’s weak, so she’s trying to keep it all under wraps… so…”

Cyrene sighed, exaggeratedly weary. Apparently, this was not the first time she’d had to deal with this sort of bullheadedness. “That’s my daughter.”

“Yeah. I mean, it’s okay. It’s… we’re…” She swallowed hard, fighting down another hitch in her breath, and rushed on before Cyrene could press her. “Xena’s fine. Really. She just… she wanted to try and cut off the problem at the source… like she does… you know, rushing into things head-first, like…”

She mimicked a bull’s horns, demonstrated Xena’s attitude as best she could while on the brink of passing out; Cyrene chuckled, and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Easy, Gabrielle.”

“Yeah.” It hurt to breathe. It hurt to think. “Anyway… uh, I think she was… I think she was worried I wouldn’t like the things she might have to do in Callisto’s body. So she sent me here to keep me out of the way. You know… like she does…”

She trailed off, feeling suddenly very vulnerable, but apparently she’d given enough that Cyrene didn’t press her for more just yet.

Neither one of them said anything for a long time. If Cyrene had any idea of the pain and grief that Callisto had caused Xena and Gabrielle, both together and separately, she didn’t mention it. She sat there for a long moment, looking deeply thoughtful, as though thinking back on her own experiences, that harrowing moment when the woman she thought was her daughter turned out to be someone else entirely. Gabrielle wondered how it felt, whether she was angry or horrified or worried or… or frightened, like she herself was when she faced the same thing.

She wanted to ask about that — ‘were you afraid? did she paralyse you like she does me? do you have nightmares about her?’ — but she didn’t. She couldn’t bear to hear Cyrene say that she hadn’t felt any of those things, that Gabrielle was the only one who was so weak.

“All right,” Cyrene said after a moment, as though coming back to herself. “As long as she’s safe, that’ll have to be good enough.”

“She is safe,” Gabrielle said, and wished she could keep her voice steady. “I mean, I’m sure she’s… well, as safe as she ever is. Which isn’t saying much, I guess.”

“Not really, no.” She sighed, as though she was long accustomed to this — knowing Xena, she probably was — then promptly rolled up her sleeves as if to put the whole issue behind her. “All right, then. Lie back and let me take a look at you.”

Gabrielle blinked at the abrupt change of tack. “Don’t you want to hear the full story?” she blurted out, and only realised after she’d offered that she wasn’t sure she would be able to give it. “I mean, it’s not much, but you—”

“You said my daughter’s safe,” Cyrene said. “I believe you. And in any case, what could I do about it if she wasn’t? Xena is gods-only-know where, and I’m here.” She smiled, though it wasn’t quite as warm as before. “And so are you. Now, believe me, I’ll worry about my daughter in due course, but she’s not the one sprawling half dead on my bed.”

“I’m not half dead,” Gabrielle muttered, though her body begged to differ. “It’s just a few bruises.”

Cyrene rolled her eyes, exactly like Xena would have. “Of course it is.”

Gabrielle sighed, but she did as she was told. She was too exhausted and in far too much pain to put up much of a fight anyway, and if she was completely honest with herself it was something of a relief to finally give in to someone like this, to let herself be touched. She had wanted so desperately to do it with Xena, to close her eyes and let her look her over; she had wanted to put herself into her hands, her injuries and her body and all of her, just like she used to do. She wanted it so badly that it hurt almost more than the physical pain, but she couldn’t fight back the part of her that only saw Callisto.

Even now, the memory was enough to make her tremble. Xena, so impotent and so angry at her own impotence, but that anger was so frightening when her eyes were brown instead of blue. Even now, faced only with Xena’s mother, knowing that Xena and Callisto’s body were far away from here, still it was so much harder than it should have been to lean back and lay herself open like that. She did it, of course, but it was a struggle.

Cyrene’s hands were big, sure and strong but feather-gentle; they were nothing like Xena’s or Callisto’s. Xena’s hands were big as well, but as far from gentle as anything could be; even her tenderest touches came with a kind of desperation, and there was a ferocity even in the way she tried to be soft. She held on so tightly — to everything, yes, but to Gabrielle most of all — as though afraid of what would happen if she let go for even a moment. It was breathtaking, and, even in her own body, a little frightening.

Callisto, in this as in so many things, was almost exactly the opposite. Her hands were far from big, and far from strong. They were delicate, long spider’s fingers that tickled where Xena’s would have taken; in its own way, it was so much worse. Xena touched her like she couldn’t bear to lose her; Callisto touched her like she couldn’t quite figure out what she wanted to do with her. In one moment she would grab Gabrielle’s jaw so fiercely that she felt like it would break, and in the very next she would caress her cheek or her wrist or trail her fingers through her hair with such excruciating gentleness that Gabrielle feared for so much more than her life.

Cyrene’s touches were something else entirely, something apart from either of those things; she was patient and slow in a way that Xena was not, strong and steady like Callisto could never be. Hers was a mother’s touch, a mother’s calloused fingers and worn-down palms, the skin roughened and patched by hard work and too much compassion, and it was so far removed from either one of them that Gabrielle felt ashamed because they were all she could think of.

She closed her eyes, sucked in her breath through her teeth, resenting the way the sound made Cyrene’s hands still over her sides. She thought that it was the pain, Gabrielle could tell, thought that she was hurting her with her patient steadiness, but she wasn’t. Gabrielle hated the feeling that surged in her, the helplessness rising up again, and with it the shame of realising that Xena’s mother, just like Xena herself, seemed to believe that she was just a weak little girl who could not endure a little pain.

Compassionate even in this, Cyrene didn’t mention it aloud. She didn’t say anything at all; she just sighed again, the kind of soft, sad sound that Xena often made when Gabrielle got herself into trouble, the kind she heard with her eyes closed when Xena dabbed at cuts and scrapes and bruises, when she bathed her in a spring or stitched up raw new wounds. Empathy, if it had a name, and Gabrielle wanted to take it for what it was — a mark that these beautiful, strong women cared about her — but all she felt was angry and ashamed.

After a long moment, Cyrene resumed her ministrations. She spread her fingers along Gabrielle’s ribs, palms flat against her abdomen, studying her by instinct and insight. Gabrielle counted the cracks in the ceiling and felt her heart burning wet behind her eyes.

Cyrene sighed when she pulled away, tangibly upset. “Xena let you walk around like that?”

Gabrielle shrugged. Her shoulders were nearly as sore as the rest of her, the burnt-out ache of muscles that had all but forgotten how to relax. “There was no point. It wasn’t that bad.” she said. “And besides, it’s not like we had much of a choice. You see, the last village we stayed in—”

“That’s no excuse,” Cyrene snapped, cutting her off with a piercing look. “Xena should have known better. Did she even bother to look you over at all?”

Gabrielle flushed, embarrassed. The answer was a resounding ‘no’, of course, but she couldn’t very well say that it was her fault, not Xena’s, that she was the one who had refused, who had told Xena to leave her alone, who had begged her not to put Callisto’s hands on her. She couldn’t very well tell Cyrene that she was afraid of her daughter now, that the hands in her nightmares belonged to Xena now.

It wasn’t fair, and she couldn’t break a mother’s heart by saying it. Cyrene loved Xena, no matter what she did or whose body she was in. Gabrielle wanted so desperately to say that the same was true for herself, too look Xena’s mother in the eye and say ‘I will love your daughter to the ends of the world’… but she could not lie. At least for now, the love she felt, that ends-of-the-world passion, was strangled by hurt and hate and fear, by the memories of things she knew that Xena would never do, by reflexes and gut reactions and panic. There were no conditions, no provisos to a mother’s love; Cyrene couldn’t possibly understand.

“It’s… complicated,” Gabrielle managed after a moment; her voice was weak too, no doubt giving her away, but she tried just the same, because lying was less cruel than the truth. “We were in a hurry, you see… and there wasn’t really time to… that is, we couldn’t…”

Cyrene was frowning more deeply now, as though she was Gabrielle’s mother as well, or else an extension of Xena. It reminded Gabrielle of being on the road, talking to Argo and catching Xena’s impatience in the way she stomped her hooves, or her crankiness when she tossed her head, echoes of all the subtle ways they’d influenced each other over the years. She saw the same thing now in Cyrene, the fondness when she shook her head, the soft crinkling at the corners of her eyes when she saw through Gabrielle’s bad lying, the way she shook her head and tousled her hair. And, yes, maybe a little of the way she looked at her too, like she was something incompetent, a girl who couldn’t take care of herself.

“Gabrielle.” She sounded exasperated, albeit in a kind way. “I know my daughter.”

“And I know my Xena.” She’d blurted it out before she could stop herself, and all of a sudden the room was very, very hot. “I mean, Xena. I mean, she’s not… that is, we… I… she…” She groaned, tried again. “I know her too.”

Cyrene swallowed back a knowing smile. “I’m sure you do,” she said, a little more gently. “So, then, if I’d tried to tell you that we’d been travelling together, that I had gotten hurt and she hadn’t even bothered to look me over…”

Gabrielle sighed. “…I probably wouldn’t believe you either.”

She didn’t volunteer anything more than that, though, and Cyrene didn’t push her. She just studied her face for a long beat, as though trying to read between the lines and the bruises, trying to piece together all the terrible things that Gabrielle was not yet ready to confess. It made the blush on her neck fade away, turned her skin pale and made the injuries stand out even more starkly against the curve of her jaw and cheek; it probably made her look small and young, so much like the innocent little village girl that everyone still saw when they looked at her, the image of the life in Poteidaia that she could never fully shake off. It made her want to cry.

After a long, tense moment, Cyrene shrugged and leaned back. She wasn’t satisfied, Gabrielle could tell, but she seemed content for the time being to focus on the more immediate task. “Well, I’m sure you both had your reasons,” she murmured, not even trying to sound like she believed it. “Now, roll over; I need to check your back.”

Rolling over hurt, but stretching out on her front hurt more. Gabrielle had to bite down on her tongue to keep from crying out and letting Cyrene see just how deep the pain ran. Cyrene wasn’t Xena, Gabrielle knew, but still a part of her couldn’t help seeing her in the same light; she was Xena’s mother, after all, and Gabrielle knew how hard Xena tried to make her proud. Gabrielle barely knew the woman, had only met her a handful of times, and yet still she found herself wanting to do the same. She wanted to be good enough, wanted to be the kind of person that Xena’s mother would welcome into her arms, maybe one day into her family. It meant more to her than perhaps it should, and it made her shoulders shake.

“I’m going to be stuck here for a while, aren’t I?” she asked, and wished that her voice could sound a little stronger.

“At least,” Cyrene clucked. “And when I see that daughter of mine, I’m going to have a good long talk with her about it. Letting you run around in that state… I’ve half a mind to—”

“Please don’t.” She blurted it out, like always, without thinking, and like always she hated herself for it. “It wasn’t Xena’s fault, Cyrene. It was mine.” The confession came hard, and she didn’t try to hide it. “Xena wanted to look me over. She tried so hard, but I wouldn’t… I couldn’t…”

She trailed off, shaking her head and shaking all over. Honestly, she was fairly sure Cyrene had figured all of this out already, but she had to say it just the same. She couldn’t let Xena, the strongest woman she’d ever met, take the fall for her stupid weaknesses. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her face into the pillow, as though she could somehow make this moment hurt less if she didn’t have to look her in the eye. It didn’t help, of course; the world turned to black around her, and all she could see was Xena’s smile and Callisto’s spidery hands.

Cyrene breathed out, like a sigh but somehow deeper, and flattened her palms against Gabrielle’s skin. It hurt.

“Xena told me about her,” she said, scarcely above a whisper.

“Callisto?” Gabrielle asked, somewhat unnecessarily. She didn’t need to turn around to see Cyrene nod; the shifting of her hand against her back said it all. Gabrielle buried her face a little deeper into the pillow, deep enough that she hoped it might suffocate her and put her out of her misery. “It’s not as bad as it…”

“Gabrielle, please.”

“Fine. All right, okay, yes. It is bad. It’s awful, it’s horrible, it’s…” This time, she didn’t even try to hide the way her voice broke. “It’s a mess. It’s an awful, horrible, stupid mess.”

“So is your body,” Cyrene pointed out coolly. If she had any strength left, Gabrielle might have laughed; she was beginning to see where Xena got her gallows humour. “And your face, come to that.” She didn’t say, ‘silly girl’, but Gabrielle heard it just the same, and for once she couldn’t argue. “You’ll be ‘stuck here’, as you so eloquently put it, for as long as I say. Are we clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The willing obedience seemed to soften something in Cyrene, or else connect with the maternal place in her heart. With a daughter like Xena, Gabrielle supposed she didn’t get to hear that kind of thing very often. The thought ignited something inside her, a feeling of grief and love that tugged at her chest, and she turned her head just enough to seek out Cyrene’s face.

She was smiling, warm but also sort of tragic; Gabrielle had seen the same look a few times in her sister’s eyes back home in Poteidaia, when she thought Gabrielle wasn’t looking, and she had seen it in Xena a few times since they started travelling together. It was an odd look, like they were seeing things in her that she didn’t know about, secret tragedies that she hadn’t endured yet or suffering that she could no longer remember. Strange, how people could call her a little girl in one moment and then in the very next look at her as though she had lived through so much. She wished they could find some kind of middle ground, a place between too little and too much.

“I’ll be back in a little while,” Cyrene said. Her voice was very different now, and her touch made Gabrielle’s skin feel like it was on fire. “I’m going to mix up a poultice or two for those injuries. You should rest for a while. Get some sleep if you can.”

It was strangely pointed, the way she said that. ‘If you can,’ as if she knew, though Gabrielle hadn’t said a word, all of the awful things that haunted her dreams now.

She hated it, more than she could say, that dreaming had become such a horror. The Fates had been so cruel to her lately, in so many ways, but this was a crueller trick than most. After Perdicus died and she stopped dreaming, she had spent so many nights awake, aching and longing and wishing that they’d come back to her, so certain that it would bring her some measure of peace if only she could dream again, if only she could bend her grief into stories. The emptiness was a kind of torture, a pain that only a dreamer and a storyteller could truly understand, but now they had returned so much changed that she almost wished they’d stayed gone.

It was terrible, after so long in the dark and silence, to be afraid of the very thing she craved, but here she was feeling exactly that. A few beautiful visions still came to her once in a while, moments of clarity so bright and garish that they blinded her, but the rest were nightmares, horrors upon horrors, a vibrant, churning mass of colour and sound, of blood-soaked blades and Perdicus’s screams, of dark eyes and spider’s hands and Xena, no, Xena…

She gripped the sheets between her fingers, tried to ground herself in what was here and real, in the fact that she was far, far away from both Xena and Callisto, that neither of them would be anywhere near her for a good long while. She was here in Amphipolis and she was alone, safe and sound in Cyrene’s tavern, hidden out of sight from all the things that frightened her. There were no mercenaries out here, no posturing warlords or double-crossing barkeeps, and there was no sign of Callisto’s body either. She could sleep. She was warm and safe, and she could sleep.

Besides, she didn’t have much choice in the matter. Even without Cyrene’s gentle nudging, Gabrielle rather doubted she would be able to stay awake on her own anyway. The bed was uncomfortable, but it was softer than the ground, and after a full day of tripping and stumbling over her own feet, of insisting that she was fine, that it wasn’t that bad, that she didn’t need Argo to carry her… after a full day of pain and stubbornness and yet more pain, it was all she could do not to lose consciousness right then and there, all she could do not to sob with the relief of finally, finally, being in a real bed.

Cyrene eased her over onto her side, helping her to settle as comfortably as she could, and pulling a moth-eaten blanket up over her shoulders. Gabrielle wondered how long it had been since she’d taken care of someone like this, since she’d been allowed to coddle and cluck over someone who needed her without meeting resistance or argument. It was more than a little unusual for Gabrielle herself, as well; she hated this kind of thing from Xena, hated being treated like the sidekick, the little girl who couldn’t take care of herself. She hated it so much… but here and now, with someone who truly was a mother — who was Xena’s mother — it seemed to come almost as naturally as being back home with her real family.

“Thank you,” she whispered, and closed her eyes.

Sleep came easily enough, but the dreaming was just as hard as it was the last time. Being warm and safe couldn’t shield her from the nightmares, no more than being stubborn could keep the pain and the exhaustion at bay forever. Her body was too tired to keep itself awake, and her mind was too worn down to even try and drive the dreams away.

She dreamed of Xena, and of Callisto. She always dreamed of them both, it seemed; more and more, they were becoming interchangeable inside her head, and that frightened her almost more than the visions themselves.

In this one, Xena was hers, smiling and beautiful but so far away that Gabrielle almost couldn’t see her; her voice was a far-off echo, a whispering promise that she would always be with her, that she would always take care of her, protect her, that Gabrielle would always be safe so long as she was at her side. Xena, making promises she couldn’t keep from such a distance that she couldn’t see they were already broken. Gabrielle wanted to call out to her, wanted to crawl through the darkness until she found her, until she could touch her and hold her and see her, until she knew that she was real.

Xena was so far distant, but Callisto was as close as her own clothes. She was all over her, eyes dark and deadly and hands so delicate, feather-light touches across her face, her cheek, her jaw, fingertips dancing across her skin, and no matter where Gabrielle turned all she could see was that awful smile. She surrounded her, knelt over her with sharp knees squeezing her sides, digging in until the pain made Gabrielle scream. She turned away, or tried to, but even with her eyes squeezed shut she couldn’t hide from Callisto’s face, the light burning behind her eyes, glinting off the points of her teeth. Callisto was everywhere, and Xena was so far away…

She dreamed of Perdicus’s blood and Callisto’s sword, of holding them both in her hands. The blood was sticky and wet, the sword solid and impossibly sharp, and she couldn’t rid herself of either one. Callisto laughed in her ear, breath hot with threats and warnings; she was seductive in a way that Perdicus never was, and her hands were all over the parts of Gabrielle that he had treated with so much care, spiderwebs skittering across her skin, raising welts with just the faintest touch. And still Xena was too far away, and still she couldn’t do anything, and still she couldn’t see, and still she didn’t know, and still she she couldn’t understand why Gabrielle turned away to weep.

She dreamed of a thousand moments, some that were real and some that weren’t. At first she knew the difference, but the longer it went on, the more the moments bled into each other, the deeper they ran and the more they all felt true. Over and over and over, Callisto’s eyes and Callisto’s hands, Callisto’s face and her voice and her body; over and over and over, Gabrielle searched for Xena, strained to hear her whispering those words, the promises that she knew were worthless; over and over and over, she tried to see Xena, her Xena, but over and over and over all she could find was Callisto. Every time, Xena faded just a little further away; every time, she became a little bit smaller and a little bit softer, dissolving piece by piece until she was gone completely, until there was left at all, only Callisto.

She dreamed. Endlessly, helplessly, desperately, she dreamed, and when she finally woke she couldn’t remember what Xena’s face looked like at all.

She must have slept for some time, because Cyrene was by her side again when she came around, watching over her with shadows behind her eyes.

“We’ll have to do something about that,” she murmured, almost to herself.

Gabrielle swallowed down her feelings, the hurt and the hate and the gut-rending fear left by her dream. She wanted to take a bath, to cleanse herself of the memories, to remind herself that they weren’t real and she was.

“About what?”

The question came out rusted and weak; she didn’t even really realise she’d asked it until Cyrene frowned, reaching out for her. She didn’t smile, didn’t seem able to, but she pushed Gabrielle’s hair back with unbearable tenderness, palm cool against her sweaty forehead. It was such a simple gesture, a mother’s compassion made manifest, but it made Gabrielle’s skin crawl, made her feel ashamed.

“You were thrashing around in your sleep,” Cyrene told her, voice low as though in prayer. “We’ll have to do something about it. You’ll never heal if you don’t stay still.”

“It’s not my fault,” Gabrielle said. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth, skin hot and prickling. “I have very vivid dreams.”

Cyrene chuckled, low and without humour. “I can see that. Now, lie back and let me—”

“No.” Gabrielle struggled to sit up. She felt very heavy, exhausted even though she had slept very deeply. “I’m all right, really. I’d rather sit up.”

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

“I know. But I can’t stay like this. I can’t…” She swallowed very hard. “Just for a few minutes. Please?”

Cyrene sighed, but didn’t try to stop her as she struggled into a semi-upright position. Her breath rattled in her chest as she moved, more painful than it should have been, but she ignored it. She was getting quite good at that.

“Gabrielle…”

“Cyrene.” She thought of Xena, tried to picture her, but all she could see were dark, hollow eyes and hands soaked in innocent blood. She could feel the panic bubbling inside her chest, like the seething, burning pain that came after eating too fast; she tried to hold it down, tried to keep it to herself, but it burst out of her before she had a chance to silence herself. “What if she never comes back?”

Cyrene knitted her brows. “What do you mean?” she asked, sounding afraid. “Are you telling me she might not be safe after all? Are you telling me there’s a chance she’ll…”

She trailed off, as though she couldn’t even think of it, much less say the words. Gabrielle felt awful for putting that thought into her head, and hastened to reassure her.

“No, no. Not like that. I don’t mean…” She took a deep breath, winced when it hurt. “It’s just… ever since it happened, this thing with Callisto, I’ve been trying to convince myself that it’s only temporary, that we’ll find a way to get her real body back soon, that everything will be back to normal. I’ve been… I’ve been holding on so tight to this… this hope… and I just… I don’t know what I’ll do if I’m wrong. If Xena’s right, if this really is her, forever… Cyrene, how are we supposed to just accept that?”

She trailed off, unable to finish. Cyrene studied her for a moment, then took a deep breath, holding it in just a heartbeat longer than she needed.

“I don’t know,” she said when she let it out. “But I do know this: Xena is my daughter, and I will love her no matter what or who she looks like. This Callisto that upsets you so much… whatever she’s done, Gabrielle, the deeds are hers. They’re not Xena’s, and we can’t hold her accountable for them.”

Gabrielle bowed her head, hid her face so that Cyrene wouldn’t see the shame in her eyes, the tremors in her lips. She felt sick, dizzy; it was hard to think clearly and put her feelings into words, but she had to try. Words were the only gift she had, the only thing that was all her own, the only talent she’d ever had. They were all she had left, her only true weapon, and she hated that she was too weak right now to even use them.

“I keep…” She licked her lips a couple of times; they were painfully dry, and so was her throat. “I keep dreaming about her. Both of them, I mean, in their own bodies. And it… I know it’s Callisto when I see her. I know when it’s not Xena, and I know when it is. Even when I’m dreaming I know the difference. But the real Xena… she keeps drifting further and further away, until she’s gone completely, and it’s like… it’s like she’s disappearing, like she’s…” She shut her eyes tight, drove back the tears and forced down a scream when Callisto’s face flooded her field of vision. “…like she’s leaving me with her.”

“She’s not,” Cyrene reminded her, somewhat needlessly. “You know she would never leave you with anyone she thought might hurt you, not while she’s got breath in her body. She cares about you… she loves you too much.”

“I know she does,” Gabrielle whispered. “And I don’t… I don’t understand why it’s so hard for me to see her, to recognise her and know her and… and…” Her whole body was shaking now, racked with pain and heartache, and Cyrene steadied her with a strong hand on her shoulder. “I’ve tried. I’ve tried so hard to put aside what I feel about Callisto, to look past it and find the Xena I know is in there. I’ve tried so hard… so hard…”

“Gabrielle—”

“…but I can’t.” She choked down a desperate, rattling breath and looked up at Cyrene with all the shame and guilt, all the terrible feelings she’d been struggling with, all those awful things that Xena could never see. “What’s wrong with me, Cyrene, that I can’t love her like this?”

Cyrene let go of her shoulder, and turned away with her whole body. Her hands were trembling ever so slightly as she reached for her poultice, and when she turned back her eyes were wet with grief.

“Only the gods can answer that,” she whispered, so much like Xena. “Now, please, lie back.”

*

Chapter Text

*

“No.”

The atmosphere had changed between them, a subtle shift in the moment they put their weapons down, and with it the play of power had changed as well. It wasn’t a challenge any more, or a duel, or even a point of pride; neither one of them wanted the other dead now, and that made all the difference.

Xena was grateful, not just for the shift in dynamic, but because it meant that she could try and talk instead of blindly swinging her weapons around. She had no intention of giving in to the parts of herself she was forced to channel by becoming Callisto, the ruthless warlord with a taste for blood; had the stalemate continued between them, there was little doubt in her mind that one or the other of them — perhaps even both — would have ended up dead. Bad enough to return to Amphipolis to look Gabrielle in the eye and say ‘yes, I killed him’. Far worse, though, would be to die and never return to her at all.

Blessedly, Draco’s sense of self-preservation outweighed Xena’s scruples. He was a reasonable man, at least by warlord standards, and he would never forfeit his own life if he saw a clean way out. It wasn’t really much of a compromise, granted, but it would suffice for the time being, and Xena would gladly take it over the alternative.

He was smirking, the way he did sometimes when he felt the need to show off, a calculating sort of expression that was far more bravado than anything else. No doubt he was acutely aware of the fact that he still had the upper hand, or as much of one as anyone could hope for; they were in his stronghold, after all, and Xena knew as well as he did that he could have her surrounded if he really wanted. A quick shout to his men, assuming he actually had any to speak of this time, and things would suddenly be very interesting. That they wouldn’t stand a chance was, of course, irrelevant; he always enjoyed making a show of his power more than making actual use of it.

Xena didn’t bother to correct him, of course. Why risk upsetting him when he was finally starting to like her? Of course, that might have had something to do with the fact that he still thought he was dealing with Callisto and that they were united in their hatred for Xena. Frankly, Xena was more than happy to let him believe that for at least as long as it served in her favour; sometimes silence was the best weapon a warrior could hope for.

His plan, such as it was, was as predictable as it was maddening; it was nothing she hadn’t heard from him before, though of course she couldn’t let him see it. She knew what was coming from the moment his lips curled up, the moment he leaned in to whisper the word — ‘Amphipolis’ — and it set her blood alight for a hundred different reasons.

The last time Draco had clashed swords with Xena, he was so offended by her spurning him for the path of good that he’d threatened to wipe out her mother’s village out of pure spite. The real cut there, of course, had come not from Draco’s ego-driven plan but from her friends and family, from the way they had reacted to her warnings, her offers to help, her desperation to prove herself. They had refused to accept, or even believe, that she truly was a changed woman, and in the end she’d been forced to defend them alone, going up against Draco in a duel that, blessedly, changed their minds as well as his. In one fell swoop she proved Draco wrong and proved her own merits; in truth, perhaps she should have thanked him for opportunity.

Of course, he had no idea that he was recycling his old plan in front of the very woman who had foiled it the first time. How could he? Instead, he smirked and swaggered, posturing like a professional, as though Callisto hadn’t tried the very thing just days ago herself.

It was hilarious and tragic in near-equal measure. Here he was, waxing lyrical about pretty Amphipolis, about how it was the key to Xena’s heart and how its destruction would be her undoing, with no idea that the woman in front of him had heard the story, and rewritten its ending, a thousand times before. If she wasn’t so angry on behalf of the people who lived there — her family, her friends, and Gabrielle who she’d sent there in good faith, assuming in blithe ignorance that she and they would be safe — Xena might almost have laughed.

“No,” she said again. “Not there. No chance.”

Draco narrowed his eyes. The smile didn’t fall off his face, but she could tell that he was growing guarded. “You’re awfully resistant,” he murmured, almost to himself. “And here I was thinking you were a rational woman.”

“Now, where in the world would you get an idea like that?”

He huffed his amusement, but didn’t argue. “Come now. You and I both know that Amphipolis is Xena’s weak spot. We both—”

“We both tried it already,” Xena snapped, cutting him off with a glare. She let her eyes narrow as well, let the light catch Callisto’s dark irises and make the point more clearly than the words. “And from what I’ve heard, you didn’t even make it as far as the gates.”

“I’m a man of honour,” Draco said, instantly defensive just like Xena knew he would be. Good, she thought. Keep the focus on him. “She bested me in single combat, what was I supposed to do?”

“Be a man and take the gods-forsaken village anyway?”

The suggestion came automatically, without any thought at all for what she was saying; in the instant she said, it Xena really did feel just like Callisto, a woman who just wanted to watch the world burn. It might have worried her, if she could afford the moment or two to think about it.

“Oh, you are cold.”

“No.” She took a breath, willed herself to believe it. “I just don’t work with fools who can’t follow through.”

It was an odd feeling, standing around and talking this kind of business again, and with Draco of all people. It felt like almost a lifetime since Xena was this calculating, since she got to argue plans and stratagems and attack patterns like this. She hadn’t thought much about it, hadn’t let herself get nostalgic for the good moments between the violence and the bloodshed, and it was only now that she realised a part of her had almost missed it.

This little corner of her old life, the quill-and-parchment moments, maps and ideas and incentives, the part of herself that treated sadism and cruelty like a business, who was shrewd and clever and got all worked up on little back-and-forth moments like this. It was a strange thing to miss, but even as she said the words, more and more like Callisto with every breath even as she spoke of razing her own home, still she felt the old fire ignite, the old excitement flickering and blazing under her skin.

There was a reason she and Draco had clashed so cataclysmically when they were together, a reason why they were so feared. Alone, either one of them could stop an army; together, they were all but unstoppable. It was always a thrill to clash and crash against each other like this, to argue and squabble over stupid things, to watch words shape themselves into plans, intent into action, to watch something beautiful and bloody come to life as they fought.

Xena was grateful that she’d chosen to come here on her own, that she’d kept Gabrielle out of it; Gabrielle would only need a moment’s glance at her face to know that the mania was real, that she really did feel the terrible things she said. She knew, of course, that Xena would have to play the role, that she would have to become Callisto right down to her bones, but neither one of them had foreseen just how easy it would be for Xena to make the moment genuine, to feed on her old self and feed her into what she knew about Callisto. She had not expected it to feel as intoxicating or invigorating as it did.

It floored her, how quickly the nostalgia had struck her. Xena had been travelling with Gabrielle for a long time now, more than a year, and though she could feel how far she’d come, how much closer to the light she was now than she’d ever imagined she could be. It was natural to do good, to think and feel and become good with someone like Gabrielle by her side, a walking, talking conscience who loved her deeply… but still apparently she hadn’t come far enough. Still, moments like this were a challenge. Still, for all the progress she had made towards the person Gabrielle saw in her — not a warlord but a warrior, a force for good and right — still she had so much further to go. Gabrielle believed that Xena was a changed woman, that every step she took away from her old life was a step she would never have to repeat. Xena knew that was not true.

Every day her work began again, an endless repetition of steps and struggles that Gabrielle had all but forgotten. The wrong memory in the wrong moment and a bandit on the road would meet her blade instead of her fist; the wrong feeling on the wrong day and another would find his throat slit. Gabrielle would cry out, scream at her to stop, and if she was loud enough she would break through maybe two thirds of the time, cut through the memories and the feelings and find the version of Xena that was her friend. The rest of the time, it didn’t matter; Gabrielle was too quiet, too far away, or just not convincing enough. Xena would turn to her, make a sad face, and find some convenient lie to excuse a death that she knew all too well could have been avoided.

The fire that had consumed her as a warlord was still there inside of her now, and it couldn’t be extinguished by a pretty smile or a few sweet words. It seethed and simmered, dimming when Gabrielle told her stories but never going out completely, never enough. Gabrielle saw what she wanted to see, the warrior princess who was changing day by day, the woman she had followed all the way from Poteidaia and slowly but surely shaped into a friend. It was a nice ideal, a beautiful picture that Xena hoped to one day see in herself as well, but it bore no resemblance to the woman she was just now. She had changed, yes, had stepped away from the path she used to tread, but she could still see it, her own footsteps deep and familiar, and every now and then she found herself drifting back. She hadn’t come far enough, not even close, and she could not afford to be as complacent and naïve as Gabrielle.

It was far too easy, then, to lose herself in the performance in a moment like this, to pat herself on the back and imagine that all of the ruthlessness and the cruelty came from Callisto and not from herself. Without Gabrielle to see the difference in her, it was easy to pretend that she was just a gifted actor, that it was insight rather than experience that told her precisely what Callisto would be thinking.

Draco was looking at her with an odd expression now, the smile shifting to something a little closer to confusion, as though he couldn’t quite figure out what to make of her. Xena supposed that was another credit to her performance; no-one ever knew what to make of Callisto. The look on his face made her a little uncomfortable, though, as though he was piercing a little too close to the places she couldn’t let him see, and she widened her own smile in a floundering bid at unnerving him in return.

“Funny,” he murmured, looking away. “You accusing me of not following through.”

Xena hissed, a animal sound that she’d heard gurgling in Callisto’s throat a dozen times. “And what, pray tell, is that supposed to mean?”

He shrugged, leaning back a little, as though anxious that she’d pull her sword on him again. Xena thought about it, just to see if she could make him flinch, but she didn’t. It was more effective, in its own way, to just stand there staring at him, jaw tight and eyes hard. It was always this way between warlords, especially ones as in touch with their egos as Draco; every word was a potential challenge, every look a threat in the making. If it didn’t lend itself so neatly to Xena’s purpose, it would almost be a bore.

“The bloodthirsty Callisto,” Draco said after a moment; Xena laughed, pushing back her shoulders to let him know that the title pleased her. “Only you’re not, really, are you?”

The laughter died in a heartbeat, replaced with a scowl and a deeper, venomous hiss. “I hope you plan on backing that up,” she challenged. “Or I'll have to redecorate your little fortress.”

Draco snorted, letting the threat run off him like water. “When I hire men to kill someone,” he said, “I anticipate one of two outcomes: either they return with the head I paid them for, or someone else returns with theirs. Either way, I get a trophy for my shiny new throne room.”

Xena yawned loudly. “Your point?”

“My point,” he snapped, annoyed by the interruption, “is that, as you can see, my shiny new throne room is tragically trophy-free.” Xena opened her mouth, but he cut her off with a wave before she could come up with a suitably scathing remark. “Can you imagine my surprise when the idiots I paid to end your sad life came crawling back, claiming that you spared theirs?”

That was a valid point, and one that any self-respecting warlord would understand. Xena silently cursed herself for not anticipating something like this. She should have tied the fools to a tree or something, made certain that they never made it back to their employer. The oversight made her angry; she was so preoccupied by not wanting to hurt Gabrielle’s feelings or do anything unpleasant in front of her while she wore this body, that she hadn’t given enough thought to the consequences. Had she been herself she would never have made such a rookie mistake… but then, of course, had she been herself she would never have been in this position at all.

She sighed, twisting the sound to become part of the act, and said, far too quickly, “You made it too easy.”

“Oh?”

“I’m not your little Xena.” She licked her lips to punctuate the name, thanking the gods that her voice held steady. “And I’m not you, either. I don’t kill to prove some silly little point, or to stroke my own ego. I do it for fun. And there’s no fun in killing third-rate mercenaries who stand there with targets painted on their chests.”

“No sense in letting them live to try again, either,” Draco countered hotly. “Unless you’re more like her than you want to admit.” He grinned, eyes crinkling at the edges like they did when he was certain that he’d won. “Is that it, Callisto? Are you turning into another Xena? Getting all soft and squishy on the inside?”

Xena snarled. “I’d stop talking if I were you. Unless you want to see how soft and squishy your insides are.”

His hand snapped out, as quick as a snake and just as dangerous, fingers locking like vices around her upper arm. It made Xena very aware of the differences between Callisto’s body and her own, the years of training and endurance and war that had hardened her muscles to steel, and the hack-and-slash madness that had left Callisto’s so much thinner. She was more than a match for almost anyone in single combat, Draco and Xena included, but it was never about brute strength or raw power; she had physical weaknesses that Xena had all but forgotten how to work through, and her body simply lacked the strength and size that Xena was used to. For the first time in decades she found herself dwarfed by Draco in every imaginable way, and that made her feel more exposed, more vulnerable, than even the sharpest blade held to her neck.

“I’ve got a better idea,” he said, with the most sickening, saccharine smile she had ever seen. “Come with me.”

It wasn’t an invitation, so much as a command, and of course he didn’t give her the option of refusing. He led her out of the room, into the big outer ring that formed the rest of the fortress, all the while pretending to be the gracious, accommodating host. It would be a natural enough assumption, if anyone saw them, that he was just showing her around the place, though Xena knew better than to mistake the gesture as anything of the sort; he kept a firm, vice-like grip on her arm at all times, and though she was perfectly willing to go wherever he led, still he didn’t let her go for even a second.

The outer ring was dimly lit, in direct contrast to the grandeur of the inner sanctum; Xena recalled the layout well enough from when she’d snuck in, and she counted their steps carefully as they walked. Draco led her around in a wide arc; neither of them had anything to say about the living quarters, though Xena couldn’t help noticing how empty they were, but when they passed the armoury Draco turned to look at her with a familiar look on his face, the one that said he was waiting for some kind of praise.

She didn’t offer any. What few words sprang to mind about the size of his arsenal were far from complimentary.

Finally, as though relishing the detour, he brought her to the other side of the fortress, the long line of cells he’d turned into a ground-level dungeon of sorts. Most of them were empty, two or three occupied by pitiful people in varying degrees of distress. Bandits, a couple of innocent-looking villagers, typical warlord fare; it was more of a struggle than Xena would ever admit to keep her expression neutral, to keep from thinking of Gabrielle. Such a sight was as common as anything to her or Draco, or even Callisto, but to someone like Gabrielle it would be the worst kind of horror. She had never been able to accept the crueller corners of these things.

“Nice,” Xena quipped archly, using the word to ground herself and take her mind off the thought. Gabrielle was far away from here, and with any luck she would stay that way. “I assume you didn’t drag me all the way out here to just laugh at the less fortunate?”

“I certainly did.” He flashed his teeth, something a little too sharp and a little too dangerous to really be a smile. “And here we are…”

He pulled her to a stop outside one of the smaller cells, about halfway between the armoury and the main entrance. Xena’s better judgement was shouting at her to make him work for it, but as ever her curiosity overrode her common sense, and she found herself peering inside without prompting.

In a flash of sudden, unexplainable dread, a moment of panic that she couldn’t fully conceal, she found herself wondering if he’d had her figured out all along, if he knew exactly who she was and where her weaknesses was. Though she knew that it was impossible, still for a moment or two she was terrified of looking into that cell to find her mother and Gabrielle hog-tied and waiting to be executed.

Blessedly, what she found instead was much, much simpler.

She recognised the bastard immediately, of course, though she refused to let Draco see that. If it had been one of the no-hoper sellswords who attacked them on the road, his face might not have registered so quickly, or at all, but of course Draco in his infinite cleverness had singled out one of the three bastards who’d gone after Gabrielle in the last village.

Xena tried to make a habit of not looking too closely into the faces of people she had to defeat, of not letting them turn into souls that she might come to regret. Years upon years of experience had taught her the dangers of seeing people where she needed to see challengers or victims, and that was a hard habit to break. Even now, changed though she was, she tried not to think of the people she fought as people at all, only nameless, soulless occupations. Soldiers, mercenaries, bandits; if she broke them down to what they did, she didn’t need to get distracted by who they were.

The problem was, with this just as everything else, she always seemed to make an exception when Gabrielle was involved. The instant someone touched her, whether for good or for ill, Xena memorised every line on their face. Just as she had done to Xena, Gabrielle took those nameless, soulless occupations and turned them into people.

People were so important to Gabrielle. Their names, their faces, their stories… every little detail she could glean from anyone she met became a kind of lifeblood flowing through her. They became her whole world, and though Xena had tried a million times to put a stop to it, to break her of those feelings before they broke her instead, still she clung to them. She had been beaten and kidnapped and nearly killed more times than Xena could count, but still she insisted on seeking out the best in everyone. Even with a dagger at her neck or a sword at her chest, still she always looked deeper, always made a point of turning around to look her captor in the eye and ask ‘why?’. That was the kind of person she was, and more and more in recent weeks Xena had found herself doing exactly the same thing, not for her own sake but because she knew that it would make Gabrielle smile, because she hoped that it would make her proud.

It was a stupid, dangerous habit, and it would cost her dearly now.

Draco chuckled, no doubt catching the flicker of recognition in her eyes and enjoying it a little too much. Xena bit down on a growl; neither she nor Callisto approved of being toyed with, and she was more than happy to let it show from them both.

“Stop playing games, Draco,” she gritted out, voice tight. “Why’d you bring me out here? You want me to give this guy a pat on the head for not dying? Buy him a drink and apologise for roughing him up?”

She had no intention of doing either of those things, of course, and if the look on Draco’s face was any measure to go by he knew it too. She was angry, vengeful, full up on spite in a way that surprised her; apparently, playing Callisto had taken a toll on her easily-blackened heart, and her self-control was much thinner than usual. She wanted to reach into that cell and beat the bastard to a pulp for what he did to Gabrielle, and it was only knowing that it would blow her cover that stayed her hands.

“Not at all,” Draco said, quite calm.

“What then?” Xena snapped, turning away because she couldn’t stand the sight of that bastard’s face. “I don’t have all day, Draco. Spit it out.”

Apparently he was waiting for that, because his smile grew sharper, vicious enough to give Callisto’s a run for its dinars. “I want you to kill him.”

Xena’s heart leaped into her throat, for perhaps a dozen different reasons. She should have seen this coming, and now that it was standing in front of her it was all the more obvious. She knew Draco intimately, and she was an idiot for not realising sooner that he would quickly decide that she wasn’t adding up to the tales he’d heard about the crazed, bloodthirsty Callisto. Of course he would press her to prove herself, and wasn’t it just her luck that this was the way he chose to do it?

She steadied her thoughts, pulled her arm out of his grip, and forced herself not to think too hard. “Oh?” she huffed, feigning carelessness. “Too lazy to do the job yourself?”

“Not in the least. Call it a riposte. You accused me of lacking follow through. I’m throwing that accusation right back at you.” The corners of his lips twitched, softening the smile just a little, as though taking aim at some chink he thought he saw in her armour. “Xena wouldn’t leave a job like this half-done.”

Oh yes she would, Xena thought bitterly. Her heart ached as she pictured Gabrielle once more, as she saw her face with excruciating clarity, the blood and the bruises and the pain that the bastard in there had inflicted.

The emotion must have shown through on her face, at least in some measure, because Draco quirked a brow, as though she’d given him exactly the response he’d been waiting for. She let out another primal hiss, one of Callisto’s favourite noises, and gave him a quick, sharp slap across the face.

“I’m not the one leaving my mistakes to rot in a prison cell,” she said, and spat onto the floor. “You’re the one who paid for him. Clean up your own mess.”

He studied her for a long moment, as though vaguely aware that the woman speaking the words was not the woman he thought he was seeing. He wasn’t smart enough to figure it out, she knew, not without a much bigger mis-step on her part, but he was closer than she expected him to get, and that set her nerves on edge, made her feel unsteady in a fresh, unfamiliar way.

She wasn’t here to play power games, or to get tangled up in whatever ego-driven nonsense he thought he needed to prove. She was here to get him to call off the bounty on her head and promise to leave her alone. She was here because she didn’t trust herself to keep Gabrielle safe against endless waves of mercenaries while she was stuck in Callisto’s weaker, smaller body. She was here to get results, not to get bogged down in negotiating with a man who had no idea who or what he was dealing with. This was more than she had bargained for, and the fact that she had allowed it to catch her unawares spoke volumes of how far out of her depth she really was.

“It’s not my mess that’s the problem,” Draco was telling her, pushing on all the places he knew she couldn’t resist. “You let him get away, let him come crawling back to me demanding restitution… and then you have the audacity to show up on my doorstep and start making demands. I don’t know how they do things down in Tartarus, but up here in the mortal realm, we call that rude.”

Xena grunted. “Don’t care,” she said, because for Callisto it would be true.

“You should,” Draco said, quite pointedly. “You want me to leave you alone, I’m willing to cut a deal.” He was in business mode now, Xena could tell, and she knew it would only be a matter of time before he brought the subject back around to Amphipolis. “I just want some proof that you’re worth half of what I’ve spent on you. You refuse to kill the men I sent for your head, then refuse to storm the home of your most hated enemy. Frankly, my dear, I’m failing to understand the songs they sing about you.”

“You don’t need to understand them,” Xena snapped, gritting her teeth. She couldn’t take her eyes off the bastard in the cell, couldn’t stop seeing Gabrielle’s stricken face, the bruises and blood staining her skin, and the way she refused to let ‘Callisto’ touch them. “All you need to know is that they’re true. I’ve done things that would make your blood run cold.”

Draco smiled at her, another sickly-sweet sort of thing that belied his true intentions. “Then is it really so much to ask you to prove it?”

Xena looked into the cell, studied the man’s face until she had every line memorised. She wanted to say ‘yes, it is too much’, to think like Gabrielle. She wanted to be disgusted, horrified like she would have, to try and find some shred of humanity in even the most unforgivable enemy. She wanted to make Gabrielle proud, wanted to be the Xena she loved and not the Callisto she saw.

It should have been so easy, so natural. After all this time travelling together, all the little things Xena had learned from her, all the little ways she tried every day to be a little less herself and a little more Gabrielle, all the little cracks in her face she saw when she looked in the mirror, filled with new light and new hope… after all those things, it should have been so easy to turn away from a task like this.

It wasn’t, though. It wasn’t, and not because of Callisto. Gabrielle would have looked up at her, frightened and anxious, and said ‘it’s her, isn’t it? you’re becoming like her,’ and Xena might have let her believe it because it was so much kinder than the truth, the harsh reality that no, there was nothing of Callisto in her now, that it was Xena who wanted to reach into that cell and strangle the idiot in there.

It should have grounded her, picturing Gabrielle’s face; it should have summoned up the things she valued most, the calm and the kindness and the love, but it did the opposite. All she could see were the bruises, the blood, the way her breath rattled in her chest, the way she screwed up her face when something hurt. All she could hear was ‘don’t touch me’ and ‘Xena, please’ and all the countless ways that bastard had hurt the woman she loved. All she could see when she looked inside the cell and found his face was a coward and a low-life, a worthless nobody who had gone after the sidekick because he was afraid of the hero.

You went after an innocent girl, she thought, and felt her old warrior’s instincts surge up inside her once more. You could have gone straight for me. At least that would have been a fair fight. You could have come after me, and we could have settled it the right way. But you don’t have the guts for that, do you? You don’t have the courage to go after someone who might hit you back, so you went after her instead. You went after the one person in this gods-forsaken world who would never hurt anyone. My friend. My…

She acted without thinking, ripping Callisto’s sword out of its sheath with a scream.

Gabrielle wasn’t here. Her walking, talking conscience wasn’t here, and the voice that was supposed to exist inside herself was deathly silent.

It was too convenient, she knew. It felt like an opportunity dropped into her lap, a chance to eke out the right kind of justice on someone who had caused so much pain. He might have killed her, she thought; if she’d shown up just a second later, even a half-second, he might have finished her off completely, with no remorse. He deserved to pay for that, the lowest crime that even a worthless sellsword could stoop to. He deserved it, and wasn’t it just so wonderfully convenient that Draco was standing over her shoulder, not just encouraging, but demanding that she do it?

It was so easy to use him as an excuse, a justification for the way she lunged through the bars, for the way her blade found the bastard’s skin, sliding between his ribs with the kind of precision that came from years of practice. It was so excruciatingly easy to look down on herself from a distance as she pulled back and drove it in again, so easy to look down and see it all as part of the job, the very thing she told Gabrielle she might have to do. It was so, so easy to convince herself that those things were true, that it wasn’t just hatred and violence, the impotence and the helplessness surging to the surface in a moment when she could finally, finally do something about it.

It was so easy to believe it when she let herself think Draco made me do it or I had to convince him I was Callisto. That was true, wasn’t it? It was true, and didn’t it taste so much sweeter than I’ll kill for hurting her?

Bitter-tasting or not, that was what she did. Eyes squeezed shut, vision flooded with Gabrielle’s wounded face, she did.

He didn’t cry out. He didn’t even make a sound. For all his cowardice, at least he had that going for him in the end.

Xena turned away when it was done, opened her eyes only when she knew that she wouldn’t see the body and the blood. She tried to clear her thoughts, focus her mind, keep her attention on Draco, on here and now and the things that mattered. It didn’t take much to keep the ruse going, to convince herself that she’d done the deed for his sake, for the performance, that she’d done it because he’d told her to and she couldn’t afford to disobey. Whatever guilt she might have felt, she pushed it to the side; she couldn’t afford to think about it now.

Finding Draco’s smiling face, she bit down on the urge to punch it. “Satisfied?”

“Oh, definitely. I mean, well… you don’t have Xena’s panache, but…”

“Say that name again, and you’ll be next.” Covering the hitch in her throat, she thrust the bloody sword into his hands. She couldn’t bear to look at the blasted thing. “I want it cleaned and sharpened. I did as you asked, now you’ll show me the same courtesy.”

“As you wish,” he said with a mock-bow. He always was a little too good at licking boots when it suited him. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t really expect you to go through with it. When I found out you’ve been letting my men live… well, naturally, I assumed…” He shrugged, as though dismissing the issue entirely. “Well. You made your point, and put me in my place.”

Xena swallowed, forced herself to put the whole affair out of her mind; if he could do it, she could, and she wouldn’t last long if she didn’t. “Don’t you forget it.”

“Oh, I won’t.” He dropped into a mock-bow. “I’m sorry I ever doubted you, most ruthless of warlords.”

“Stop posturing,” she snapped, making it quite clear that she was in no mood for this. “And this little game doesn’t change anything, so stop acting like you’ve won me over. I already told you I won’t march on Amphipolis again. You want me to help you claw back some shred of your reputation, you’ll find another way to do it. You hear me?”

“I don’t think so.” It was maddening, the way he still spoke like he held all the cards, the way he refused to accept that maybe she had a point or two of her own. “Come on. Even you have to realise the wisdom in what I’m suggesting. Alone, we might have failed, but together…” He spread his arms wide, as though that would change her mind. “We wouldn’t even need an army. Just the two of us.”

Xena shook her head, turned her back on both him and the cell. She thought of Gabrielle, of her mother, of all her friends and family waiting for her back in Amphipolis, oblivious to any of this. It was painful enough, agreeing to do anything for a man like Draco; it wouldn’t have been easy, even if he’d picked out some tiny no-name hamlet to make his stand, but Amphipolis was her home.

Draco might not know who she was, might not realise exactly what he was suggesting — no doubt he would have hatched the same hare-brained scheme no matter who he set his sights on — but it still felt personal.

In truth, he meant it to be, albeit in a very, very different way. Draco knew his enemies and his friends equally; no doubt he thought he had Callisto’s partnership all but guaranteed by appealing to her hatred of Xena like this. He really believed — rightly, though that didn’t help right now — that the way to Callisto’s heart was through Xena’s, and that marching on her village would be a coup for them both. In his own way, he was being almost generous, and had he been dealing with the real Callisto it would have worked like a charm.

Callisto would have leaped on the chance to storm the place Xena called home, to raze it to the ground and spit on the ashes, to tear it up in her own name and in Draco’s. She would appreciate the irony there, a partnership of sorts between Xena’s worst enemy and the man she used to know with such great intimacy. It would have been perfect to her, and it froze Xena’s blood to know that she was supposed to be playing that part. She couldn’t wave him off with excuses forever; sooner or later, he would see through all the evasion and realise the truth.

“Forget it,” she said, and grudgingly turned back to the cell.

The bars were stained red where she’d pulled the sword back out, and she could make out the silhouette of the body slumped back against the wall. A fool to the end, she thought sadly, and wondered why she didn’t find the remorse that should have come naturally to her by now. She would have felt it if Gabrielle was here, she knew; the grief on her face would have brought on a tidal wave of guilt and self-loathing, a stream of apologies and promises to be better next time, to find a new way without shedding more blood. Here, now, alone, when she tried to conjure Gabrielle’s stricken face, the only thought that sprang to mind was she doesn’t need to find out.

Was she truly so close to the monster she used to be? Was that old Xena still so much alive that only a few hours’ distance was enough to undo everything Gabrielle had helped her become? Or could she hide like Gabrielle did behind the easy delusion that it was all Callisto, that it was her body and her deeds and her thirst for vengeance?

She didn’t want to think about it. And with Draco breathing down her neck, grinning like he’d found a new soulmate, she knew that she couldn’t afford to.

“What’s the matter?” Draco asked, noting a little too well the way she wasn’t taking pleasure in the blood on her hands like Callisto would have done. “Feeling a little queasy?”

“Nothing of the sort,” she assured him, and dug down deep to find a smile. “I’ll put a dozen idiots like this out of their misery if that’s what you want.”

“Tempting,” he said with a laugh. “My army could use a little culling.”

Xena rolled her eyes, polite enough not to mention the fact that she hadn’t caught even a glimpse of his supposed ‘army’ in the time she’d been here. “Fine by me,” she said instead. “If that’s what gets your rocks off, I’m happy to oblige. But I won’t let you march on Amphipolis.”

“So you keep saying.” There was a weight behind his voice now, close to a threat.

“I wouldn’t have to keep saying it if you listened the first time.” She took a breath, played the one card that she knew Callisto would. “Xena isn’t yours any more, Draco. She’s mine. And I won’t share her misery with some half-rate loser who couldn’t keep her when he had her.”

“Yes, you will.” He was so smug, even now; no matter how many swings she took at his manhood, she couldn’t seem to make a dent. If only he’d had such confidence when they were together. “If you want me to leave you alone, that is. Even you have to sleep some time, Callisto. And even if you don’t… well, there are other ways of getting to you, aren’t there?”

It was a different kind of threat now, more like a warning, and Xena met it with a glare, drawing herself up to Callisto’s full height. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Only that idiots like this talk.” Draco smiled into the cage, deceptively amicable, as though the dead mercenary were his best friend. “It’s common knowledge that you’ve been dragging Xena’s little friend around. Can’t imagine what either of you see in her, frankly…”

“You’re hardly fit to judge,” Xena countered, perhaps a little too defensive. “Your taste is worse.”

Draco laughed, as though proud of that. His teeth flashed, and Xena bit down on the urge to knock them out of his head. “Point is, you of all people should know that it doesn’t pay to get too attached. Casualties do happen in this game of ours, after all…”

It’s not a game, Xena thought, but controlled herself before she could say it. She couldn’t let Draco see how much this hurt, how much it meant to her. He had to believe that she was soulless, that she didn’t care about Gabrielle at all, that the girl was nothing more than a trophy, a toy stolen from her nemesis. She had to make him believe that Xena was the only one who cared about Gabrielle, that Callisto just wanted a bit of leverage over the woman who had outsmarted her too many times.

“The only one who gets to kill her is me,” she said, willing her voice not to give her away this time. “She’s mine now. That’s not up for debate.”

“You’re very possessive, aren’t you?” Draco chuckled, more amused than offended by the outburst. “What else of Xena’s do you keep in your bedroll for those long and lonely nights?”

The implication made her see red for a moment, made her fists ball at her sides and her nails dig into her palms to keep from scratching a new scar out of his face. “That’s none of your business,” she said, low and very dangerous. “Anything that ever belonged to her is mine. Her little friend, her little village. All of it. You had your chance, Draco. It’s not my fault I’m better than you.”

“All’s fair in love and war,” Draco countered coolly. “You of all people should know that. Take Amphipolis with me, or watch it burn in the moment before I cut your head off. Your choice.”

Xena snarled under her breath, let him interpret it as Callisto disapproving of his persuasion methods. In a way, she supposed it was; she was furious with him for playing her like this, for treating this whole thing like it was a game, like Amphipolis and the people who lived there were no more than bargaining chips in the gamble for his precious dignity, like anyone or anything Xena had ever loved was just a trophy to be won and kicked to pieces.

She was furious with herself as well, for letting it get this far, for trying to reason with him in the first place, for heeding the parts of herself that wanted to make Gabrielle proud instead of the parts that had perhaps always known what she had to do. She should have played the role of Callisto just a fraction more convincingly, shoved that stupid sword right through his throat and damn the fact that he would have dragged her down to Tartarus right along with him. She had blood on her hands now anyway, and another man’s life on her conscience; she should have made it Draco’s instead. Gods damn the fact that she refused to break Gabrielle’s heart by dying too.

Of course, there was nothing she could do about that now. She’d made her bed, and she had no choice but to lie in it, and let it take her wherever Draco and his ego decided to steer them.

She thought about calling his bluff, telling him that he wouldn’t dare march alone when his whole point was to be seen shoulder-to-shoulder with the mighty Callisto. Had he been anyone else, she might have done, but of course she knew him too well to believe for a second it was about that now. The instant he’d named the village, the instant she told him his plan was stupid, it became a point of pride, and he would sooner die than back down from that. Doomed or not, once he set his mind to do something, he would see it through to the end. That strange code of his, honour and pride and stubbornness clashing into something ugly, had been a blessing for Xena the last time they met, but now it had become a curse, and one she knew she could not fight.

So, then, she accepted her fate, albeit without much grace. She sighed, heaved her shoulders in an exaggerated shrug, and scowled.

She must present quite the picture, she thought, childish and more than a little sullen. But then, wasn’t that Callisto all over? Much like Draco, she became a petulant, cranky infant when she didn’t get her way, and much like him she was not ashamed to let it show. Xena was an expert when it came to scowling and growling, terrifying people with her eyes and intimidating them with her voice, but Callisto just looked young when she tried to do the same, as though every little setback was a regression to the little girl whose childhood Xena stripped away.

“Fine,” she said, harnessing all of that infantile sulkiness, slipping as deep inside Callisto’s skin as she could, as though it would make this hurt less.

Draco’s cheeks split into a smug grin. “I knew you’d see things—”

My way,” Xena interrupted quickly. “If we do it, we do it my way. Just you and me. No hired swords, none of your so-called ‘army’. After the last dozen idiots you sent after my head, I don’t trust your quality control.”

She didn’t need to sell the pitch, she knew; Draco had all but laid it on the table himself, insisting that they wouldn’t need his army, and it didn’t take much work to stroke his ego into taking that as a challenge. He huffed another chuckle, greatly amused, and bowed his head in acquiescence. It wasn’t much of a victory, but she’d take what she could get.

“I knew I was right in picking you,” he said, as though she should be flattered.

Xena ignored him. “And you know my other terms. Anything of Xena’s is mine, with no exceptions. Her family, her friends, her little plaything. Anything she’s touched belongs to me.”

That was the one thing she could not afford to compromise on. Whatever happened, she would not allow the people she loved to be hurt. It was her fault she was here — a momentary lapse in judgement, and she was in too deep to claw her way back out — but she would die in Callisto’s skin before she let her mother or Gabrielle or anyone else suffer for it. Let Draco think what he wanted about Callisto’s obsession with Xena; she was past the point of caring.

Blessedly, as usual, he just found her entertaining. “Whatever you say, oh great one. So long as it’s my name they’re screaming when their precious homes burn, you can take whatever prisoners your little heart desires.”

It wasn’t much of a bargain, Xena thought miserably. Really, it wasn’t one at all. She could only hope that the journey to Amphipolis would bring a chance for her to get one over on him, to knock him out and tie him up, that he would glance away or drop his guard for just long enough that she could knock him out and tie him to a tree. If she was lucky, she could bring him to heel before he ever set foot in her village. If not…

Well. She would just have to cross that bridge — or village — when she came to it.

Getting his way made Draco playful, almost giddy, and Xena watched as he tossed Callisto’s sword from one hand to the other. The blade was still wet with mercenary’s blood, and there was something quite sinister in the way he leaned forwards to wipe it off on her bare arm. You wanted it clean, he seemed to be saying, and Xena gritted her teeth at the posturing. She couldn’t tell whether it was a threat, a warning, or even a promise, though she suspected he was just showing off, letting her see how cruel he could be. If he was trying to prove himself a match for Callisto’s bloodlust, she couldn’t help thinking he was adorably deluded; given her present state, not even Xena could make that claim.

Still she made a point of ignoring him, snatching the sword back and glaring. Whatever silly point he was trying to make, she wasn’t playing any more. The stakes were far too high.

“To Amphipolis, then,” she sighed, letting Callisto’s voice cut through them both.

Draco laughed, raising an invisible chalice. “To my reputation,” he said. “And to Xena’s unending misery.”

Xena closed her eyes and prayed that the words would not prove too prophetic.

*

Chapter Text

*

Well-intentioned though they were, Cyrene’s poultices didn’t do very much good.

The pain, it seemed, was every bit as stubborn as Gabrielle herself was; the more she refused to acknowledge it, the more it flared up, stronger and stronger, a relentless heavy throb across her back and sharp pulses between her ribs that shook her whole body when she tried to breathe. It wouldn’t let up, and neither would she; the harder it pushed, the more it left her gasping, the more she tried to sit up and insist that she was just fine.

It was a wasted effort, though. Cyrene, much like her daughter, saw through the pretence without the least bit of effort, and she was just as quick to chide her for it.

“This stoic act isn’t impressing anyone,” she said.

“It’s not an act,” Gabrielle pouted. Then, because Cyrene’s expression made it quite clear that she wasn’t fooling her, “It would have impressed Argo.”

That probably wasn’t true either, and even if it was Argo would never admit it. Still, it helped her to pretend, made it less humiliating to lie there like a worthless invalid, choking down the pain and the tears and the shame. It didn’t matter how hard she tried, how desperately she wanted to be like Xena, she wasn’t. Xena was clever and stoic — genuinely stoic, not putting-on-an-act stoic — and her years on the battlefield had made her an expert in hiding her discomfort. Xena could turn strength and stamina into art forms, but when Gabrielle tried to do the same everyone looked at her like she was still some helpless child.

“I’m sure it would,” Cyrene said with a wry chuckle. “But Argo isn’t here, now, is she?”

“Well, that’s not her fault. You’re the one with the sign that says ’no weapons, no warlords, no horses’.”

Cyrene chuckled again, though Gabrielle could tell it was more a feint at politeness than any genuine amusement. “You should try to get some sleep,” she said.

“Cyrene, I slept for hours…”

“You tossed and turned,” Cyrene corrected. “That’s hardly the same thing.”

Gabrielle scowled. It wouldn’t usually irritate her as much as it did just now, but she was in a great deal of pain and far more tired than she would ever admit. She didn’t want to be bed-ridden, and she definitely didn’t want to waste any more time sleeping, but the pain was draining her strength dry faster than she could replenish it. She wished that she could be more like Xena, beaten to within an inch of her life and then back on her feet two hours later. She wanted so badly to care as little as Xena did about things like this, but she was weak and wounded and miserable beyond measure.

“It’s not my fault,” she muttered, letting her sour mood bleed into her voice. “If you can take my dreams away, go right ahead.”

Cyrene sighed again, leaning in to brush the hair out of Gabrielle’s eyes. She was so tender, so full of love; it shouldn’t have reminded Gabrielle of Xena at all, but it did. Not the Xena the rest of the world saw, the angry, fearsome warrior princess, the battle-scarred hero that Gabrielle wanted so desperately to be. No, it was the other Xena who touched her like this, the Xena who came out in those rare moments when no-one else was around, when it was just the two of them under the stars, when she held Gabrielle close and kissed her until she fell asleep.

Cyrene didn’t do any of that, obviously, but still the contact made Gabrielle ache deep in her heart, underneath all the pain.

“You know I can’t do that.” She sounded regretful, though, as if she understood why Gabrielle was so afraid of her nightmares, as if she could possibly see any of the things she saw. “But I’ll watch over you, if you like.”

Gabrielle shook her head. I don’t want to be a burden, she thought, but the words died in her throat before they could reach her tongue. She hated being helpless, hated being dependant, but Cyrene was all the parts of Xena that she missed and none of the parts that looked like Callisto. Being taken care of like this made her feel like she was home, like maybe if she closed her eyes for a few minutes she would really believe that she was safe.

“I’m not afraid,” she said, and willed them both to believe it.

Cyrene’s smile was devastating, her hands large but gentle when they cupped Gabrielle’s face. Gabrielle had all but forgotten how it felt to be touched and not flinch.

“You don’t have to be,” Cyrene said. “Now, get some sleep.”

She did. Kicking and struggling and resisting the whole way, she did.

It was almost embarrassing, how quickly she succumbed to her body’s exhaustion. The world dissolved around her, reshaping itself into surreal, hazy visions almost before she was even aware of it. She barely had time to notice the way it tugged at her, the darkness pulling her under and under and under, and then she was drowning completely, the world fading out and out until everything became a kind of mist, a writhing, tangled mass of threads and tendrils and truths. She watched as though from a distance, delirious and confused, and the panic gripped her like a hand, like Callisto’s awful spider’s fingers locking around her throat, dread and awe and a silent scream as it all turned in on itself, twisting up and taking on a familiar new shape.

You’re dreaming, she thought, and the certainty, the awareness of it made her feel dizzy.

It was a strange feeling, like being in two places at once, experiencing and watching herself experience, learning while at the same time already knowing. It reminded her of when she was very young, always sick and catching fevers; she used to dream such vivid, vibrant truths, but no-one ever believed her when she woke and tried to tell about them. She knew that she was dreaming then, too, and it frightened her just as much to feel that way again now. Age and wisdom didn’t count for much in the throes of a too-real nightmare.

She saw Xena in Callisto’s body, laughing with blood on her hands. She saw Draco smiling at her side. She saw the two of them together, and she wanted to cry out but she didn’t know which name to call.

Xena, she thought, but what tore from her throat was “Callisto!”

They both turned to look at her, teeth sharp like predators. Draco reached out for her with hungry eyes and hungry hands, but Xena stopped him before he could come close.

“She’s mine,” she said. Her voice was disjoined, echoing like they were in a closed space, a cave or a well or a locked room; her face, Callisto’s face, shimmered at the edges, so vivid and yet so surreal.

I don’t want to be yours, Gabrielle tried to say. Not like this. Xena…

The words wouldn’t come, though. Like she so often was in dreams, she found herself without a voice; her mouth wouldn’t move, tongue too thick to shape the words, and when she tried to scream her throat closed up and left her choking. She couldn’t cry out, couldn’t speak, couldn’t make any kind of sound, but still Xena heard her anyway, caught the chaos in her heart just like she always did, and her teeth flashed just like Callisto’s.

“You’re my little friend now,” she said.

Draco growled. Gabrielle could feel him seething even from such a distant. He was angry, impatient, as though his whole world hinged on something she couldn’t see. “You’re wasting time,” he snapped, peevish. “Save her for later, and let’s get on with it.”

Xena laughed. “Ah-ah-ah,” she purred. “I told you. We’re doing this my way.”

Gabrielle tried to close her eyes, but she couldn’t do that either. She was helpless, unable to speak or move or do anything at all. It was like being in purgatory, the space between living and dying, forced for what felt like an eternity to watch the one thing she couldn’t bear to see.

You’re not her, she thought. You’re not really her. You’re Xena, you’re my Xena. You’re you. This is all just a clever trick. You told me you’d have to do this, you said you’d have to become her. You told me everything, and I have to believe that’s what you’re doing. I have to trust you. I have to, I have to, I…

“Your way can wait,” Draco snapped, glaring at Xena. “ We have work to do.”

Though she had never closed them, Gabrielle’s eyes snapped open. For just a second or two, she was back, out of the dream, safe in Cyrene’s tavern. The ceiling swerved above her, out of focus and hazy, and everything was impossibly hot; her body was on fire, heat and pain and vertigo, but before she had a chance to think that even that was a relief next to Callisto’s face, she was falling back under, sinking and choking and drowning all over again.

Xena was on top of her now, pressing down on her with a kind of force that the real Xena would never use. She was touching her in all the places she knew it hurt and with so much violence that it would have hurt even if she wasn’t broke. She tugged on her hair, pressed down on her side with a white-knuckled fist, pressed and pulled and took her apart. Gabrielle still couldn’t move, but she felt the real-world pain tearing right through her as Xena’s fist found the blooming black-blue bruises across her ribs. It forced a cry out of her throat, helpless and shattered and beyond control.

“Please,” she heard herself choke. “Xena, please. Xena…”

Xena laughed. With her mouth open, Gabrielle saw that her teeth were dark with blood. “Xena’s not home right now.”

“A shame,” Draco interjected, voice distant and dreamy. “I was looking forward to watching her burn when we raze her precious village to the ground.” His smile sharpened, as bloody as Xena’s. “Want to watch, little girl?”

Gabrielle swallowed hard, but she couldn’t shake her head. This isn’t right, she thought. This can’t be right.

Her lungs were burning, heart pounding against her ribs; the pain flared hotter, and she could feel Xena’s knuckles leaving their mark against the skin. She looked up at her, tried to find the woman she loved through the endless dark of Callisto’s eyes, tried to find the lips she’d kissed, the voice that said ‘I love you’, the touch that made her shiver instead of sweat. She searched and searched, desperate for some flicker of the woman who would never burn anything to the ground.

“Xena?” she choked again.

But it wasn’t. It wasn’t Xena’s breath in her ear. It wasn’t Xena’s fingers in her hair, and it wasn’t Xena’s fist branding the bruises at her ribs. It wasn’t Xena holding her, and when she leaned over her to bite at her lips, it wasn’t Xena’s mouth claiming hers. There was no trace of her Xena left in that body; there was only Callisto now, painting Gabrielle’s skin with Perdicus’s blood, with Xena’s, with the blood of every soul Gabrielle had loved and lost, every soul who had ever suffered at those awful spider’s hands.

“Don’t worry,” Callisto said, and licked her lips. “I’ll make it quick.”

Gabrielle tensed. She wasn’t really sure whether she was bracing for a blow or a different kind of pain, but it didn’t matter; in the end, neither came. Instead, Callisto just kissed her on the cheek, a feather-light brush that burned another bloodstain onto her skin, and then she was gone, sauntering back to Draco’s side with swaying hips.

“Good.” Draco nodded his approval. “Business first, pleasure later. Shall we, my dear?”

Gabrielle saw the scene shift. She saw Callisto with a torch in her hand, flames all around her; the firelight caught in her eyes, and for a second they were blinding blue. She saw Draco shouting, roaring his defiance like a beast in a cage. She saw the fire from the torch ignite, heard the screams. She saw them charge, tasting blood and choking on the stench of death. She saw Amphipolis, a shimmering silhouette in the distance, and she knew that this was no dream.

“No!” she howled, and the force of it dragged her back to consciousness.

She bolted upright, choking on a scream as Callisto and Draco and the phantasmal Amphipolis dissolved around her, replaced by the blank tavern walls and Cyrene’s stricken eyes.

“Gabrielle! Thank the gods!”

She had an odd look on her face, terror mixed with relief, as though she couldn’t quite figure out whether Gabrielle was really awake or not, as though some part of her almost expected her to go into spasms or drop down dead right in front of her or something. Gabrielle tried to reassure her, but her throat was raw and sore, and she wasn’t sure if she could speak without gagging.

I’m here, she thought instead, shaking all over. I’m here, it’s okay, you don’t have to worry.

Cyrene let out a relieved breath, as though she’d somehow heard all of that. “You said you had vivid dreams,” she managed. “But I never…” She shook her head, as though she’d never seen anything like this in her life. “Are you all right?”

No, Gabrielle thought, but she nodded anyway. The world was spinning all around her, the pain in her ribs throbbing and pounding like a second heartbeat, and she felt terribly sick. Her stomach churned precarious, but her mind was churning much harder, and she couldn’t afford to let her thoughts take second place to the suffering of her body. Not after what she’d just seen. Not after what her instincts told her was true.

She could still see it, almost more clearly than the room pitching and swaying around her. Callisto’s body hovering over her own, Callisto’s hands all over her, one in her hair and the other pressing down into her side, threatening and grounding at the same time. The pain pulsed, swelling inside of her in rhythm with the memory of those violent knuckles. Draco too, howling his war cry and twisting Xena with his words until she became Callisto. The two of them together, bent on reducing Amphipolis to ashes.

A dream, maybe, but it felt like so much more, and Gabrielle knew with a certainty she could not explain that it was true.

“Cyrene…” She tried to hold herself upright. Her head spun with the room, dizziness and nausea making it hard for her to speak, and she gripped the bedsheets so tightly that her knuckles turned whiter than Callisto’s. “Cyrene, we have to go. They’re coming… they’re coming for us, and we have to…”

“Gabrielle.” Cyrene’s hands were in her hair now as well, but they were nothing like Callisto’s, or Xena’s, or whoever wore that terrible face. “It’s all right. There’s nothing to be afraid of. You were dreaming, that’s all. Dreaming, nothing more.”

“No, you don’t understand…” She swallowed hard. Her whole body was shaking, pulling itself apart with the effort of not losing consciousness again. “I wasn’t… I mean, I was, yes… but it’s not… it wasn’t… it’s not…”

“Gabrielle.”

Her name came out firmer this time, tougher. Cyrene’s voice was a mother’s through and through, worried and gentle but strong because she needed to be, because Gabrielle needed her to be. She was just like Xena, assuming that Gabrielle didn’t know what was best for her. Gabrielle tried to argue, to insist that she did know, that she was perfectly capable of helping herself, that neither one of them could afford this, but her body betrayed her just like it always did, and there was no strength in her to resist when Cyrene eased her back down onto the bed.

“You don’t understand…”

“Shh.” It was a command. “Now, lie still, all right? I have a poultice ready. You need to—”

“I need to go, Cyrene. I need to warn the people here. I need to… I need…”

Cyrene frowned. “What are you…?” she started, as though swept up in spite of herself by Gabrielle’s desperation. She stopped herself before she could get sucked in, though, and shook her head. “No. It doesn’t matter. It was a dream, Gabrielle, no more. Now lie back and try to relax. I’m sure you’re just a little feverish and—”

“No.” Gabrielle swallowed again, shut her eyes and fought to clear her thoughts. “No, I’m not.”

“Gabrielle.” Cyrene’s hand was freezing cold against her skin, a mother’s tenderness pressed for a moment against her cheek, the bruises on her jaw, then her forehead. “You were dreaming, Gabrielle. It was only a dream.”

“It wasn’t. I mean… well, it was…” Saying it a second time didn’t make it feel any less incoherent. “But it wasn’t only a dream.” She wanted to wring her hands, wanted to cry with the frustration, but she didn’t have enough left in her for tears. “It’s real. I know it is. Don’t… don’t ask me how I know, I just do. I know that it’s going to happen. Draco and… and Xena.” She had to say the name, had to remind herself that she was still in there, that she could still be stopped. “They’re coming for Amphipolis, and I… we… we need to stop them.”

Cyrene sighed. “Gabrielle, you’re being silly.”

“No, I’m not.” It came out like a whine, almost petulant, and probably did very little to champion her cause. She dragged herself upright again, swaying unsteadily, and held her ground. “If Xena were here, she’d tell you.”

“But she’s not here,” Cyrene reminded her softly. “Remember? You came here to tell me that. You told me that she’s off fighting warlords. You told me that she sent you here to keep you out of the way, and you…” She sighed, very deeply. “Gabrielle, you told me that you’ve been having dreams like this.”

“I know I did. But this is different.”

“I’m sure you think it is.”

Cyrene.” Her voice broke, anger and frustration boiling over. “Cyrene, I’m not feverish. I’m not sick or crazy or delirious with the pain or anything like that, and I’m not imagining things. Dreams have power. We’ve seen it, Xena and I. Callisto got to her through her dreams, and I…” She closed her eyes for a moment, remembering and wishing that she didn’t. “I know the difference. I do. When I dream about her… about her hands or her eyes, about the parts of her that frighten me or the parts that hurt me… I know that’s not real. I wake and I know… and it’s awful, but I can tell the difference.”

Cyrene cleared her throat, like she wanted to say ‘I should hope so.’ She didn’t; she just said Gabrielle’s name again, soft as a breath. “I don’t—”

“I know the difference.” She felt stronger now, bolstered by the weight of her conviction, and she heard it shine through in her voice. “This was real, Cyrene. It was real, and it’s a warning. From Xena, or from the gods, or just a… I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. But I do know that it’s real. I just… I know it. Do you understand?”

“I understand that you believe it’s real,” Cyrene said, choosing her words very carefully; she didn’t want to upset her, Gabrielle could tell, but believing in a half-delirious young woman who insisted that her dreams meant prophecy must be hard for anyone to swallow. “But it’s impossible. Surely you realise that. You know Xena as well as I do; you know that she would never attack her home.”

“I know,” Gabrielle said, hearing her voice rise. She didn’t say that in her dream it was Callisto, the real one, that Xena had become the very thing she despised, the very thing that Gabrielle was so afraid of. That part couldn’t be true; she wouldn’t let it be. “But Draco’s clever. He’ll trick her, or he’ll find something to use against her. He’ll make it happen somehow, if that’s what he wants, and she won’t… Xena…” She choked out a curse. “She’s so vulnerable in that body. She’s not herself, she…”

“You underestimate her,” Cyrene said softly.

Gabrielle hoped that was true, but after what she’d seen it was very hard to believe. “I never should have let her go alone,” she mumbled, almost to herself. “I should have gone with her. I should have insisted. I should have…”

“Gabrielle, stop—”

“Right!” Her voice was impossibly high now; she knew that she must sound almost crazed. “You’re right, of course. We have to stop thinking, start taking action! No time to be dwelling on the past, we’ve got to to look to the future.” She struggled to stand, but she wasn’t quite strong enough for that just yet. “We need to round up all the villagers. Tell them what’s going to happen. Get all the able-bodied men and women together and—”

“Gabrielle.”

“We can use the tavern, right? It should be big enough. We’ll form a militia, start preparing—”

Gabrielle!”

Cyrene was holding her by the arms now, her grip keener than steel; her skin was so cold, it was little wonder she thought Gabrielle was feverish.

The sharpness of her voice, coupled with the way she held her and refused to let go, brought Gabrielle back to the present. She stared down at Cyrene’s hands for a moment or two, then found her face, suddenly desperate to seek out some kind of faith, some shred of comprehension. Instead she found nothing but confusion, and a depth of doubt that stung sharper than it should have. Gabrielle wasn’t above letting the hurt show, and she pulled away with an angry cry.

“I know you want to put this on me,” she said, not bothering to hide the bitterness. “I know you want to think that I’m delirious or injured or feverish or… or any one of a thousand things. I understand, Cyrene, I do. I don’t want to believe that Xena would march on this village either. I don’t want to believe me any more than you do. But you have to.” Her throat was dry; it rasped like the edge of a dull blade when she tried to swallow. “Xena believes in me. She sent me here so we would both be safe. Maybe she… maybe she knew that something like this would happen. Maybe she…”

She didn’t believe it, not really, but just the idea that she was out here for a reason, that she hadn’t just been tossed out of the way, gave her a sense of purpose. She sat up again, stronger, and when Cyrene reached out for her again there was no tension in the touch. She didn’t shake her, didn’t hold her, just steadied her and sighed.

“I don’t think so,” she said, very quietly.

“Me neither,” Gabrielle confessed. “That part probably is stupid. But she does believe in me. You know she does. And if she were here… if she were here, she would listen. So you should… you have to…” She took a deep breath, ignored the pain; she had to be stoic like Xena would be, had to be unshakeable. “If you can’t have faith in me, have faith in her.”

“You know I do,” Cyrene sighed, softening. “You know I have faith in both of you. But Gabrielle…” She looked like she wanted to argue again, but she didn’t; whether she really had found some kind of faith, or whether she just didn’t want to argue any more, Gabrielle couldn’t tell, but she was grateful just the same. “Do you really expect to talk anyone in this village into standing against an imagin—”

“It’s not imaginary!”

“All right, all right. A hypothetical attack. Do you really expect to form a militia by gathering the whole village together and saying that you had a dream?”

Gabrielle flushed. She hadn’t really thought much about it. “Maybe we can leave that part out?”

Cyrene heaved another tired sigh, though this one sounded a littlecloser to surrender. No doubt she was no more convinced than she had been a moment ago, but Gabrielle was an expert in wearing people down; if she couldn’t best them with logic, she would happily wheedle them into giving in just to shut her up. Whatever worked, she decided. Whatever got the outcome she needed.

After a long, unbearable moment, Cyrene leaned in again. There was a kind of heat in her eyes, a depth of emotion so pure and so powerful that it stole Gabrielle’s breath. She hadn’t seen anyone feel so deeply or so completely in a very long time. Her own mother used to look at her like this sometimes, and her sister as well, and when Cyrene touched her face, fingertips so soft where they brushed her hair back, it was with a tenderness that made her ache for the first time in a year for her family and her home.

“Gabrielle…” There was no judgement in her voice this time, only a kind of hesitation. “Gabrielle, are you sure about this? I mean, really, truly sure?”

Gabrielle let out a gasping breath; she hadn’t realised just how much Cyrene’s acceptance meant to her until it was so close she could practically taste it. “I’m sure,” she said, already bracing her battered body for the task of standing up. “I’m as sure as I’ve ever been of anything.”

Cyrene closed her eyes for a moment, breathed in deep and slow. “Well, then,” she said, “I suppose we’d best get going.”

Standing was torture, just as Gabrielle had known it would be, but she didn’t let it sway her. Cyrene watched with a frown on her face, the world-weary conflict of a mother who knew her own stubborn daughter too well to attempt reason against someone cut from the same cloth; Gabrielle would never claim to be anything like Xena, but at least in their wilfulness they were entirely the same. Given the choice, she knew, Cyrene would have gladly shoved her back down and tied her to the bed, if she thought for even a second that she would stay there. With her back on fire and her ribs protesting her every breath, Gabrielle was almost tempted to let her, but she would not sit idly by and let others fight without her. Never, ever again.

Besides, selfishly, she wanted to face Callisto’s body again. She wanted to stand in front of her, to dig down deep for what little courage she had left, to find it within herself to look into that monster’s eyes and search for her Xena, to know beyond all doubt who was hiding in there. She wanted to be really certain, one way or another, before she allowed any blood to be shed on either side. And if it really was true, if Xena really wasn’t home any more, then Gabrielle wanted to be the one that ended her. If she had to take her first life, she wanted it to be like this. Callisto, at long last.

She limped down the stairs, bracing on her staff, and tried not to think too hard about that part of what she’d seen. She couldn’t pick and choose the parts of her dream that were true and the parts that weren’t; time would fill in the bits and pieces and make sense out of that misty dream haze.

That Xena and Draco were on their way, that they were coming for Amphipolis, she knew beyond any shadow of doubt; she couldn’t say how, didn’t even know why, but she could feel it right down to her bones. The rest was not so clear or so simple, and she didn’t trust herself to pick out the parts that were real from the parts taken from her usual nightmares. She had dreamed too many times of Xena becoming Callisto in soul as well as face, and she was always so floored, so paralysed, that she could not trust herself to look at it objectively. Every time she closed her eyes, it seemed that she watched Xena fade away and become the monster she swore she never would; that part was born of her own fear, she knew, but did that mean it wasn’t true?

She couldn’t know. Not until the moment was upon them, when she and Xena stood face-to-face and she saw it for herself. And then…

Well. One way or another, she had to be there. She had to know.

Convincing the villagers to heed her warning was not nearly as hard as she expected it to be. Only a few short days had passed since the last attack, after all, since the people of Amphipolis had found themselves rounded up like cattle for Callisto’s nefarious purposes, so perhaps they were still on edge. Perhaps deep down inside themselves, they were all just waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the moment when they let their guard down only to discover that they weren’t safe after all. It must be so much of a weight, Gabrielle thought, to feel so unsafe all the time that they believed it without question when a near perfect stranger started spouting warnings about another pending assault.

Though she was an excellent storyteller, Gabrielle wasn’t very good at giving the kind of rousing motivational speeches that were Xena’s forte. Her voice was weak, her courage weaker, and she had never felt more aware of her own shortcomings than here in the heart of Xena’s home.

Strange, then, that they didn’t see her that way. No-one was more conscious than the people of Amphipolis that Gabrielle was no Xena, but still somehow they looked to her now as though her words carried just as much weight as Xena’s would have. The sight of them rallying around her was like a strong drink; it helped her to stay upright, and for a moment or two, for the first time in her life, she felt like something more than some little girl from Poteidaia, like she wasn’t just Xena’s sidekick but her mouthpiece.

She took that metaphor and ran with it. As Cyrene had pointed out, the people of Amphipolis didn’t need to know that she had seen their undoing in a dream. They only needed to know that Draco was coming after them, and that they had to be ready for him.

“Defend yourselves!” she shouted to a too-full tavern. Her head was swimming, pain and power making for a potent, deadly combination, and for the first time since she stumbled into town she wondered if perhaps she was a little feverish after all. The adrenaline, the heady rush of being watched and listened to and almost respected, was enough to make her more than a little dizzy. “Defend your children, your families, your loved ones! Stand proud, and defend your home!”

In hindsight, her speech might have carried a fraction more weight if her legs hadn’t fallen out from under her before she finished the last word. She probably would have hit the ground too, and undercut the whole point, if Cyrene hadn’t caught her and held her up.

“Take it easy,” she murmured in her ear, a mother’s concern tempered by the practicality of someone who knew that she was supporting the only person who stood between her home and certain destruction. “You’ll be no good to anyone if you burn yourself out before we even get started.” She paused for a beat or two, shoulders strong and steady when Gabrielle leaned against her. “And Xena would have my hide if she thought I’d let you out of bed in this condition.”

Gabrielle grimaced at the thought, and let Cyrene guide her into a nearby chair. “I’ll be fine,” she said, and thought I have to be.

Cyrene sighed, and shooed the rallied troops back outside. Gabrielle smiled, exhausted but proud, at the cries that rang out from the streets, anger and defiance and all the things these people would need if they wanted to stand against what was coming, what she knew was coming, what had to be coming.

She closed her eyes, swallowed hard, and breathed out in a desperate sigh when she felt a damp cloth press against her forehead. It was incredibly tempting to give in to the sensation, the cool water so wonderful against her warm skin, but she knew that she couldn’t afford it. She was light-headed, nauseous in a way that couldn’t quite put down to the anxiety of the moment, and she wanted to burn away the pain, the bruises on her skin and the ones underneath, the ones too deep inside for Cyrene’s poultices to reach. She wanted to give in to the exhaustion and the agony, wanted for once to let herself be weak, to crawl back into bed and stay there forever. She wanted…

She wanted a lot of things, but she couldn’t afford any of them. She had to get up, had to go outside and get to work, and though it hurt to step away from something that felt so wonderful and out into something that hurt so badly, she knew that she had no choice.

Gathering up the able-bodied and willing into some kind of training regime was almost shockingly easy. Nobody asked questions, nobody balked at the responsibility; she had never seen people rally together so completely, or get to work with such efficiency. Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised her, how naturally they took up arms, how readily they took their cues and suggestions from the battered-looking girl who had stumbled into their midst mumbling Xena’s name. Their eagerness to follow her was admirable, though it struck her as more than a little tragic, how much easier it seemed to be for them to believe that something terrible was coming than to question it.

Cyrene helped her to help them. She was unsteady, balanced between her staff and Xena’s mother, and she had never felt so small and pathetic in her life than she did watching those able-bodied men and women train and practice and go through the motions of preparing for attack while she stood stuck on the sidelines croaking half-hearted commands, watching and guiding and using words instead of force. She wanted to be out there with them, wanted to be swinging her staff and teaching them by doing instead of saying, but her body was at its breaking point, and it took everything she had just to stay standing at all.

“We’ll defend the village,” Cyrene told her, some time later. Hours, perhaps even a full day; it was hard to tell. Gabrielle was exhausted, and time seemed to bleed and bend around her. “You need to get some rest.”

“No,” Gabrielle insisted. “I need to be here.” Her body felt like it was on fire; her staff was bent almost in two under the weight of her. “I can’t explain it, Cyrene, but I have to be here. I have to defend the village.”

Cyrene leaned in to kiss her temple. Delicate, fragile, and tragic in a way that made her heart ache. Gabrielle wondered if Xena ever let her mother kiss her like this. Going by the way her lips trembled, the silent sorrow behind the contact, she doubted it.

“We can defend ourselves,” Cyrene said. Her voice was light, but weighted down by genuine worry. “We’ve done it before, with and without the Warrior Princess standing by our side.”

Gabrielle frowned. “What do you mean?” It was only when the question was out that she realised she already knew the answer, that she’d been thinking about it almost from the moment she woke up.

“This village’s reputation precedes it,” Cyrene said softly. She was leaning in now, close enough that she could whisper it like a kind of secret, like she was letting Gabrielle into a world she would never let Xena see for herself. It made her feel strange, valued and frightened at the same time. “Every warlord from Athens to Britannia knows that Xena calls Amphipolis her home. That doesn’t change just because she’s not here to see it.”

Gabrielle swallowed hard. She understood, though it broke her heart. She had always prided herself on her cock-eyed optimism; defeatism wasn’t in her nature at all, and it was very difficult to see so many people so quick to assume the very worst. If the look on Cyrene’s face — if the look on any of their faces — was any measure to go by, this was how the people of Amphipolis lived their lives every day, waiting and bracing for another wave of bad news, another attack from another warlord or another siege from another no-name with an axe to grind against the warrior princess. Everyone knew that Amphipolis was Xena’s home, that was true, though Gabrielle hadn’t thought much about it until now, hadn’t stopped to think that these people must be a prime target in moments like this. It made her ache for them, and for the injustices that were so far beyond their control.

“This isn’t the first time you’ve had to defend yourself without Xena around,” she said, in less than a whisper.

“And I doubt it will be the last.” Cyrene huffed, a little bitter and a little accepting. “Though this might be the most unique way we’ve ever come to hear about it.” She cast a glance over the horizon, saw that it was still empty. “Are you really sure, Gabrielle?”

“Yes.”

“All right.” Cyrene sighed. “May the gods have mercy on you if you’re wrong.”

“May they have mercy on us if I’m right.” Eyes closed, Gabrielle let her breathing keep rhythm with the pain. “I wish I was stronger,” she said, a blurted-out confession. “I wish I could work with your people. Stand with them. Teach them like Xena taught me.”

“You are standing with us,” Cyrene reminded her. She let her hand drift down, palm flat against the small of Gabrielle’s back. The contact cooled the skin where her bruises burned deep. “As for me… well, I wish you wouldn’t. I wish you would heed me. I wish you’d let us handle it ourselves, go back to bed, and rest until you’re well.”

“I am well.” It didn’t matter whether it was true or not. “And I have to be here.”

The militia trained with sticks and swords until the sun went down, stopping only for food and water, and when the evening fell the strongest among them formed a wall around the village. Gabrielle watched, awed by their efficiency and their surety. Cyrene hadn’t been exaggerating, she could tell; these poor people had been forced into this position many times before.

She felt superfluous, worthless without her staff in hand, and it was only the memory of her dream that assured her that wasn’t the case. She did have to be here. She had to stand with them, had to make sure that her face was the first thing that Xena or Callisto saw. Whoever it was inside that terrible body, Gabrielle knew with a certainty that stole her breath that it would change the tide of battle if she saw her face in the critical moment, if Gabrielle could just find the courage to look her eye the eye and say her name. She didn’t know how she knew that, no more than she could say why she was so sure that her vision really was more than just another too-vivid dream, but she knew, and she was sure, the truth of it like a blade inside her stomach, as blinding and breathtaking as any broken bones.

Cyrene put her back to bed for the night. “You won’t be any use to us if you’re exhausted,” she said, though she must have realised that Gabrielle was not going to sleep now.

She would never admit it out loud, of course, but she was more than a little afraid of what her dreams would bring if she let herself drift off. She was frightened of what she would see if she fell too far, afraid of closing her eyes and finding herself back there in that limbo between dream and prophecy, of seeing tomorrow as she had today and learning beyond all doubt that it would end in fire and death and sorrow.

If that was what the future held, so be it, but she did not want to know. She couldn’t face those poor people in the morning if she was burdened with the knowledge that all their efforts, all their hard work would amount to nothing.

Perhaps some part of Cyrene understood that, or perhaps she was as afraid as Gabrielle of seeing a doomed future, because she didn’t push like she had before. She told her to try, gentle and encouraging, and when Gabrielle shook her head and said it wasn’t likely, she sighed and nodded and accepted. She didn’t say anything more, though she did spend a long time watching over her, studying her injuries, taking in every detail, every blemish and bruise on her body, as though she could divine some answers from the patterns there, as though Gabrielle was nothing more than the wounds she wore.

When at last Cyrene left her alone for the night, Gabrielle lay on her side, steadied her breathing, and stared at the wall. She hated that her body still hurt, that she couldn’t heal as quickly as Xena did, that she couldn’t shrug off a beating and laugh like Callisto did, that she was nothing like a warrior or a warlord, a hero or a villain. She tried, did the best she could with what meagre skill she had, and she could fight a little when the moment called for it, but she was still so far away from either of those those women, the one she loved and the one she hated. She was so much the opposite of everything they were that she might as well be living in another world entirely, never having touched either of their lives.

The dawn brought a sense of foreboding, brought her heart into her mouth. It also brought Cyrene, and a very big breakfast.

“I’m not…” Gabrielle started, but Cyrene silenced her with a withering glare before she could say any more.

“No excuses,” she said, harsh but kind. “And no arguments, either. You’ll eat a proper breakfast or else you’ll stay here on your back while the rest of us fight.”

Gabrielle sighed, but did what she was told. Cyrene settled down on the edge of the bed, occupying herself with Gabrielle’s injuries, checking them over and smearing her skin with a foul-smelling paste that did little to encourage her appetite. It wasn’t one of her usual poultices, the useless herbal stuff that smelled sweet and felt cool; this stuff was noxious and warm, and it didn’t seep into the skin the way the normal one did. Gabrielle watched her working, trying in vain to block out the smell and the way it turned her stomach.

“What is that?” she asked, through a mouthful of hot buttered bread.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Cyrene chided, but there was a smile on her face as she said it. Gabrielle recognised that smile all too well; Xena wore it sometimes as well, when she was feeling particularly pleased with herself. “It’s a numbing agent. I’m no miracle worker, Gabrielle, and I don’t pretend to be. As soon as this is over, you’ll be back in this bed and stay here until I say otherwise… but for now, assuming you’re to be believed in the first place—”

“I am,” Gabrielle said, and almost choked from swallowing too fast.

“—if you’re to believed,” Cyrene repeated, ignoring her, “we’ll need every pair of hands we have. We can’t afford to be choosy. And in any event, something tells me you’ll find a way of joining the fray one way or the other. This, at least, ought to keep the pain bearable.”

Gabrielle swallowed again, thicker. “Thank you,” she said. “I, uh, I guess I know now where Xena gets her talents for this sort of thing. She’s always coming up with clever stuff like that. One time—”

“Gabrielle.” She was shaking her head now, but the smile never left her face. It was warm and filled with a kind of breathtaking fondness, as awe-inspiring as her daughter was in tender moments like this. “We have a village to defend. Is this really the time for one of your bard’s tales?”

“I guess not.” Gabrielle laughed. The pain was much duller than she expected it to be, and her eyes widened in surprise. “Still, thank you for this. It’s… very effective.”

“Believe me,” Cyrene said, with no trace of humour. “If I thought there was another option, I wouldn’t be doing it at all.”

Gabrielle couldn’t help marvelling at that. Cyrene, who still didn’t really believe her, who still looked at her as though she was dealing with a madwoman when she spoke about dreams and prophecy and knowing what was coming for them, who sighed and shook her head and looked to the heavens as though to ask the gods what she had done in her former lives to deserve such a burden in this one… Cyrene, who made no secret of her doubts, was still willing to go against them and do this for a woman she did not believe at all, to set her own feelings aside and put herself and her village in Gabrielle’s hands, to feign faith even when she didn’t truly feel it, and all because she cared for her.

It made her feel loved, but also unimaginably guilty. That Cyrene could do this sort of thing so easily, that she could look at someone like Gabrielle, wounded and exhausted and probably a little bit feverish (though she would never admit it), that she could listen to her spouting nonsense about dreams, knowing that it was probably the injuries speaking, and still look her in straight the eye and say ‘all right, I believe you’. That she could take a deep breath, cast aside the parts of her that knew better, and somehow convince a whole village that this delirious-looking girl knew what she was talking about. That she could do all of those things, and scarcely even stop to think about how much of a contradiction it was, and how much love it must take to do it and not balk.

Cyrene made it all look so effortless, so simple. Perhaps it was because she was a mother, so used to dealing with resistant and stubborn children. It was a sweet image, an exuberant young Xena playing with her brothers, all three of them lit up with over-active imaginations and each insisting that they were in the right. Alternatively, perhaps it was because Gabrielle was a friend of her daughter’s; perhaps she only trusted her in the first place because she trusted her daughter and she had to have faith in the woman she kept company with. Perhaps, in the end, she was simply better at this sort of thing than Gabrielle could ever hope to be.

Whichever it was, Gabrielle felt silly and cheap sitting next to her. She wanted to do the same thing, to be the same way. She wanted to cut through Callisto’s skin and see Xena’s soul without having to try. She wanted to look beyond her eyes and her hands, beyond all of the terrible things that made her chest seize and her stomach turn, the things that made her angry for Perdicus and frightened for herself. She wanted to be like Cyrene, compassionate and patient and understanding, someone who could see what was important, peel away the nonsense on the surface, the illusive images that said ‘this is wrong’, and take a leap of faith.

She took a deep breath, cast aside the half-eaten bread. She would never get it down now, and so she didn’t bother to try. Better a lecture than choking to death on it.

“How do you do it?” she asked, swallowing her pride instead of her breakfast. “You don’t believe me at all, but you’re going along with me anyway.”

“When did I say I don’t believe you?”

“You don’t need to say it. It’s all over your face You still think I’m delirious or feverish or just plain crazy. You think it’s just the pain talking, but you’re still letting me do all of this. You’re still helping me to lead these people into something you don’t even believe is coming.” She swallowed again; it was much easier without a full mouth. “How do you do that? How can you have that kind of faith in someone you barely even know? How do you… how do you find it in yourself to have faith in something… in someone you don’t really trust?”

Cyrene didn’t have to ask what this was really about. Just like she understood everything else, she understood this too. She is so much like Xena, Gabrielle thought sadly. She’s the very best of her.

“I don’t know,” Cyrene answered after a moment, thoughtful and very honest. “I just… I only need to look at you, Gabrielle, to know that you have faith. And that’s enough.”

She didn’t even need to think about it. Gabrielle felt so very ashamed. “But what if it wasn’t? What if I wasn’t…” The numbing agent was working, but still somehow her chest hurt, a scream of agony like someone had shoved a sword right through her heart. “What if you couldn’t look at me?”

Cyrene took her hand, held it tight. “Then I would look elsewhere.”

*

Chapter Text

*

They rode in silence, at least for the most part.

It was a small victory, at least so far as Xena was concerned, that she had convinced Draco to make it a two-handed affair, to bypass his usual contingent of warriors and underlings and make it all about the two of them, the ruthless, opportunistic Draco and the bloodthirsty half-crazed Callisto joining forces to let the world know that they were a united front, that together they could destroy anything that stood in their way. From his perspective, she supposed it was some kind of great sweeping gesture; from hers, it was the only way to give Amphipolis a fighting chance.

Draco’s horses were rather like his attitude, oversized and prone to reach beyond their limits. They rode the poor beasts hard and fast, and went far too long between breaks. The part of Xena that missed Argo felt sorry for the steed sweating and straining beneath her; no doubt the poor beast wanted only a moment or two to catch its breath, but of course Draco would not be seen showing mercy even to his horses; every time they flagged even a little he would lash their sides and shout until they regained their footing, as ruthless against them as he was against his enemies. Xena, for her part, treated her horse with as much tenderness as she could get away with and not blow her cover, all the while waiting for the moment she would take that whip and turn it against him.

The opportunity never arose. Draco was too focused, too obsessed with seeing his plan through, and he did not drop his guard for even a second. They made good time, tearing across the countryside with the force and fervour of a full army but none of the weight, terrifying or tearing up anyone or anything that stumbled into their path. Draco rode like a man in the throes of possession, and it was all Xena could do to keep up with him at all. In truth, she probably should have anticipated this; once he got a plan into his head, he would not rest until he saw it through, and damn the consequences to Tartarus. In her own body, she had seen it more times than she could count, watching again and again as he got so swept up by his overblown ideals that they almost suffocated him.

She would take great pleasure in making sure they finished the job this time.

On the rare occasion he allowed them a break — keeping his eyes on her at all times, of course — Xena let her thoughts wander to Amphipolis, let herself imagine what would be waiting for them when they arrived. She could only hope that Gabrielle, as she so often did, had gotten distracted somewhere along the road, that she had been waylaid by Joxer or Princess Diana or any one of a dozen other unwanted visitors. She could only pray, fruitless and futile though it was, that she at least would be far away from all of this.

Of course, she knew better than to really expect such a thing, and she would never place her trust in hopes and prayers. Gabrielle might be wilful and stubborn, but she wasn’t stupid; she might not always do what Xena told her, but she always did what she thought was best. Xena had seen the way she was flagging, the little bitten-off groans and sucked-in breaths that she thought she was so good at hiding, the way she stumbled and tripped over her own feet, the way she limped and lost her footing when she thought Xena wasn’t watching. She had seen the pain turning her face pale, and she knew that for all her stubbornness she would understand how important it was to rest and recuperate, to get herself to a place where she could recover in peace.

Better, then, to hope for something else, to hope that Gabrielle’s paranoia would for once work in her favour. It wasn’t so hard to picture her pacing and worrying, unable to silence her doubts and her fears, and though it went against everything in her still Xena found herself wishing that just this once Gabrielle would give in to them, the parts of her that still not-so-secretly believed Xena truly had become Callisto. If Gabrielle was prepared for the worst, maybe she could convince the village to prepare themselves as well.

It was a nice hope, though she never lost sight of how unlikely it was. Not even in her wildest imaginings could she have anticipated that it might be close to the truth.

The sight that greeted them as they approached stole her breath for all the right reasons. The glint of sunlight off steel, the ring of villagers’ voices raised high in defiance and fury, the atmosphere charged and tense even from a distance.

“Gabrielle…” she whispered, before she could stop herself.

Draco, of course, was not nearly so pleased. He brought his horse to a stop, yanking on the reins so violently that the poor creature all but shrieked its protest, and gestured for Xena to do the same.

She obeyed, albeit rather more gently, and turned to look at him. His face was a storm cloud, dark and threatening thunder, and Xena had to work very hard to get Callisto’s expression to twist into something appropriate for a warlord bent on blood; as relieved as she was, she had to make her face scream with the same impotent rage as Draco’s.

“They’re waiting for us!” Draco snarled, voice rising effortlessly over the snorting of their horses. “How could they have known?”

Xena bit down on a smirk. “Apparently, your reputation precedes you,” she said, keeping her voice even. “Or, more likely, mine precedes me.”

It was probably closer to the truth than he would ever know, but of course he didn’t want to hear it.

“Don’t get clever with me, Callisto!” The words were a roar; if Amphipolis wasn’t already lying in wait for him, they’d certainly be aware of him now. “This gods-damned hole of a village was supposed to be ripe for the picking! How could they possibly have known we were coming?”

It was a fair enough question, Xena supposed, though she was frankly too relieved to care too much about the little details. Either Gabrielle was involved, far smarter than anyone gave her credit for, or else the villagers themselves were still on high alert after Callisto and her little army ran them through a few days earlier.

Xena was almost a little disappointed that Draco didn’t know about that, that he would never know the irony in finding Amphipolis braced to stand against a false Callisto mere days after surviving the real one.

“Does it matter?” she asked, taking far more pleasure than she should in grinding him down. “I told you this was a fool’s errand, didn’t I? The two of us against all of them… I say we turn around and take—”

“Oh, I’ll bet you do.” He spat it out, like poison. “You’re just itching for an excuse to turn tail and run, aren’t you? You’d love to go crawling back home just so you can say ‘I told you so’.”

“Please,” Xena snorted. “I don’t need us to retreat to say that. If you’d listened to me in the first place, we’d be cleaning up in some no-name no-town leagues from here, safe and sound and rich as kings. If you’d listened to me, you would have your precious reputation back and I wouldn’t have to keep sharpening my sword on your mercenaries. We’d both be happy.” Frankly, given how the present situation was playing out, she was happy enough for the both of them, relief that her people were too clever to be taken unawares mingling with smugness at the look on Draco’s face, but of course he didn’t need to know about that. “Now, it’s not to late to—”

“No!” Draco shouted, cutting her off before she could finish. Xena sighed; she should have known better than to expect him to take a defeat graciously before it had a chance to devolve into a humiliation. “No. I didn’t come all this way to be chased away by a bunch of pitchfork-waving bumpkins. I came here to raze Xena’s village to the ground, and by the gods, that’s what I’m— that’s what what we are going to do!”

“It’s suicide,” Xena snapped. She didn’t care that she didn’t sound like Callisto at all, that Callisto would have embraced the chance to die setting Xena’s home on fire. All she cared about was getting Draco out of here before he did something stupid. “You can do what you want, you posturing buffoon, but I won’t let you take me down with you.”

“Oh, yes, you will,” Draco said, and raised his whip.

For about a quarter of a second, Xena thought that he was going to attack her; it wasn’t beyond him to use violence to make his point, and they were close enough that it wouldn’t have been difficult for him to bring the stupid thing down on her head, or else wave it around in an attempt to frighten or startle her into doing what he said. Of course, he had to know that it was absurd — in its own way, it was even more suicidal than going up against a whole village all on his own — but still for one breathless split-second she was utterly convinced that he would try it anyway, blinded as he was by his desperation.

Not that blinded, apparently. For all his fire and vitriol, it seemed that he was still much smarter than she ever gave him credit for, and it seemed that he had no intention of taking a swing at her.

The lash came down, yes, but he was aiming at her horse, not her face, a vicious blow that shocked the exhausted creature into a gallop and took the decision out of Xena’s hands without another word.

They tore up the ground, storming towards the village bounds at dizzying speed. Xena couldn’t do much more than hold on, struggling in vain to get her panicked and pain-stricken horse back under some kind of control, and what little part of her wasn’t occupied with that was distracted by Draco’s furious war shouts. He had the whip in the air again, but this time it wasn’t the horses he was aiming at. It was absurd, yet she could see it in his eyes, clearer than the sun: he really believed they could cut through the entire population as easily as they could tear up the grass beneath their horses’ hooves.

It took a great deal of effort for Xena to calm her horse, dragging it to a stop maybe fifty paces away from the wall of angry villagers. Now was definitely not the time for any one of them to lose their heads, and Xena wouldn’t allow the poor animal to meet a sticky end just because its master was a hot-headed fool who didn’t think with his brain.

She caught her breath with some difficulty, scanning the line of people and trying not to look too proud. They were well-prepared, or as close to it as she could have hoped for, waving old swords and gripping new shields, and though she couldn’t afford to let the feeling show on her face still she felt her heart swell at the sight of so many familiar faces, friends and honorary family members, people she had grown up with, people who had loved her and then hated her and then finally, gradually, achingly learned to love her again…

…and right at the front of the line, standing shoulder-to-shoulder to face the threat with clear eyes and strong backs, her mother and her Gabrielle.

If her life had not depended on playing Callisto to perfection in front of Draco, Xena might have let herself shed a tear.

Not that it would have mattered if she had; Draco, again outreaching her expectations, was as quick as she was to see their faces, and with characteristic shrewdness he jumped to his own conclusions, rounding on Xena without a moment’s hesitation.

There was an ugliness in the way he faced her now, the villagers and their wall of defence all but forgotten in the cloud of rage and betrayal. Xena recognised it well, the blind, reckless temper that had been the downfall of their relationship so long ago. It felt like a lifetime, another world and another version of herself, another pair of hate-crossed lovers clashing in all the wrong ways. She could barely even remember who she was back then, the kind of woman who would find a man like Draco attractive, and she did not bother to hide her disgust when he looked at her now, a world and a lifetime later.

You,” he seethed.

This time when he cracked his whip he really was aiming for her head. Xena caught it effortlessly, of course; she let the lash wrap itself around her wrist, then pulled hard enough to haul him down to the ground. For all of its visible weaknesses, it seemed that Callisto’s body had more strength for tricks like this than Xena gave it credit for; given the number of times they had clashed, the number of times that Callisto had brought her to a stalemate in spite of her smaller frame, it probably shouldn’t have surprised her as much as it did to feel the whip go taut as Draco fell from his horse, and it definitely shouldn’t have surprised her when her own feet hit the ground with grace and precision.

“What are you whining about now?” she demanded.

“You planned this!” he roared, not seeming to care at all that he sounded like a raging madman. He righted himself quickly, whirling to face the crowd and jabbing a finger straight at Gabrielle. “You and that girl!”

Xena hissed, as though offended. “What does Xena’s little pet have to do with this?”

Draco raised the whip again, a threat that fell short when Xena lifted up a finger. “Don’t play dumb with me, Callisto. You’ve been seen together, you and that little brat. You’re in league with her, aren’t you?”

Xena didn’t need to ask who he meant by ‘her’. “You’re crazy.”

He let the whip clatter to the ground, favouring his fists instead, and lashed out hard at her face. Xena let the blow find its mark, because she knew that Callisto would have relished the violence of it.

“Oh no you don’t,” he snarled. “Spouting all that nonsense about tearing Xena down, stripping away everything she held dear. ‘She’s mine now,’ you said… and damned fool that I was, I believed you.”

“You should believe me,” Xena said, though she knew it would fall on deaf ears.

“Damned fool,” he muttered again, as though he hadn’t heard her at all. “Everyone knows how much you hate her. Everyone knows you’d do anything to hurt her. And here you are, wandering around with her little plaything. And here she is, against all the odds, defending this pestilent little village from an attack she couldn’t possibly have known about unless you told her!”

“You are crazy,” Xena said, and forced herself to laugh. It wasn’t easy; Callisto’s throat made the sound raspy and rough, and her own feelings cut through the feigned mirth like a knife edge. “You haven’t let me out of your sight. Do you think I keep messenger birds up my sleeve?”

That was as far as either of them got. The villagers, understandably not content to stand around and wait for them to finish bickering, took matters into their own hands, charging at them as one and closing what distance remained in a matter of seconds. Their approach gave the illusion of something greater than it was, the vision of an army rather than the ‘pitchfork-waving bumpkins’ Draco had imagined; they rushed in a seething mass, a storm of steel and strength, running at the two of them as though their lives depended on it. Which, so far as they knew, they did.

Xena’s reflexes took her reactions out of her hands. In her heart and her head she knew that these people were her friends and family, that she was one of them and that she had come here to defend them; she knew that beyond all doubt, of course, but at the same time she had been a warrior for almost as long as she could remember, honing her instincts and her skills for moments exactly like this, for the clang and clash of swords and shields, for marching on helpless villages and cutting through armies like butter. Her heart told her to fall back, but her body acted almost of its own accord; before she even realised she was doing it, she had drawn her sword and was poised to defend herself.

It was chaos, as these things so often were. Draco was a blur of violence and resentment; driven half-mad by his wounded pride, he ran at the villagers like a man possessed, charging at anyone he could reach, hacking and slashing with his sword and lashing out with fists and feet, slamming any part of him he could use into any part of anyone close enough to receive it. Had she been more in control of her own body, perhaps Xena would have used her instincts to turn against him and turn the tide in her favour, to cut through the charade of teamwork and take him out for good.

She should have, and perhaps in hindsight she would later kick herself for not grabbing the opportunity when it was there, but in the blur of madness and violence and singing steel she was a slave to her instincts; they were keener and sharper than her common sense, and even at her most peaceable she had never been able to bite down on her sense of self-preservation.

Besides, her own friends and family forced her hand; whatever her intentions might have been, they were coming at her as well as him. Perhaps they knew who she was, perhaps they understood that this was a ruse on her part, but seemingly just as her own body bowed to its survival instincts, so too did theirs, and they launched themselves with no restraint at anyone who looked like a threat. They came at Draco, at her, even at the horses… and gods preserve her, Xena swung out at them in turn.

These people were her friends, her family. This place was her home, and here she was swinging Callisto’s sword and hearing Callisto’s war-cries wrenching out of her throat; here she was, pledged to defend these people, to make sure they would not have to defend themselves against her, and it was as though she had never changed at all. She didn’t aim to kill, or even to really injure, but at the same time, as hard as she tried, she could not stay her hand.

She knew, and she took some comfort in knowing, that whatever struggles she made would prove futile in the end, that for all their combined talents she and Draco were woefully outmatched; they might have the martial prowess, the strength and the skill to back it up, but Amphipolis had numbers on its side, and Xena had learned too many times the danger of underestimating that advantage. She knew that the village was safe no matter what Draco tried, but she could not hold herself back and she could not stop herself from taking pleasure in the flash of sunlight off steel, the cling and clamour of a battle, whatever the parties involved and however inevitable the outcome.

The villagers’ cries rent the air, mixing with hers and Draco’s. A blacksmith hit the ground with a resounding thud, sprinkling the grass with blood from a cut at his head; Xena spared him less than a glance, moving on without hesitation because at least he was alive. If he was smart and kept his head down, he would stay that way; Draco never bothered to clean up his messes. A farmhand followed, taken down in a tackle; he landed hard, the breath knocked right out of him, and Xena didn’t stop to make sure he was all right because breathless meant that he was still breathing.

She lost count of their numbers, lost count of which deeds were Draco’s and which were hers; she lost track of him, of the villagers, of everything except the noise and the chaos and the scent of blood, everything, everyone, until—

—until, with a shout and flip, she found herself face-to-face with Gabrielle.

For a moment, the whole world faded out to black, spiralling in on itself until there was nothing but her face, the face she loved so much. It stopped Xena in her tracks, left her wide-eyed and struck dumb. That was nothing new; even across a simple campfire, as silent and peaceful as the setting sun, Gabrielle could do that to her. A look or a smile, and Xena would feel the whole world stop. Now, in the heat of battle, with swords and shouts echoing all around them, the sight of her left Xena as breathless as the poor farmhand.

It never failed to astonish her, the way they always found their way back to each other, the way they always ended up face to face just like this, no matter how far they travelled or how long they were apart. The circumstances never seemed to matter, and neither did their plans; it didn’t matter what they did or what they thought or what happened to either one of them in their time apart, still somehow it always came back to this.

Gabrielle’s mouth was open, halfway to shaping Xena’s name, though she knew better than to say it out loud. She didn’t say ‘Callisto’ either, though Xena could tell that she wanted to. It unsettled her, brought her back to herself in a way that all the bloodshed in the world never could; the terror behind her eyes was startling, striking, and it made Xena want to drop everything, forget Amphipolis and Draco and everything else. It made her want to drop her sword, drop the fighting, let her own mother run her through if that was what it took to get Gabrielle into her arms.

She wanted to — more than anything in the world she wanted to hold her close and never let her go, come what may — but she didn’t. Gabrielle didn’t give her the chance.

She was was deathly pale, using her staff almost more as a crutch than a weapon, but still she found the strength inside of her to raise it up high, to take a swing and catch Xena in the side, to remind her without words, with nothing but the shaking, shuddering strength that Xena had long since learned not to take for granted, that she wasn’t here for a blissful reunion, that Xena was on Draco’s side and Gabrielle was here to defend Amphipolis.

“I knew it,” she cried, gasping as she swung the staff again. “I knew you’d come! I knew you’d—”

“Gabrielle, stop!”

Xena caught the staff with her off-hand, and it was a testament to how completely the sight of her face had broken through to the woman behind the warrior, that she didn’t even try for a counterattack. Had it been anyone else, she knew that she would have done, instincts overpowering her self-control, but not even a lifetime of bloodlust could make her raise a hand against Gabrielle. She called her name again, lower and more urgent, but Gabrielle didn’t stop at all.

“I saw you! You and him and… and this. I knew it… I…”

She didn’t bother to finish; leaving the staff all but forgotten in the dirt, she lashed out instead with her fists. There was no strength at all in the blows, and no discipline either; Xena was struck far more by the way she wavered and wobbled than by the assault itself. Whether she was genuinely attacking her or just putting on a show for Draco’s, it was impossible to say, because she didn’t have enough in her to make a real try of it even if she wanted to. Not that it mattered, really; Xena didn’t need to know her motivations to know that she had no place out here.

“Gabrielle!” Each syllable came in the space between a swing or a block or a parry, the sound vibrating with the impact in her chest. “You can hardly stand. You shouldn’t be out here. You shouldn’t be—”

“Someone has to be!” Gabrielle shouted. She swung again, using her whole body, and Xena turned her momentum back against her, watching with a grimace as Gabrielle lost her footing and fell back into the dirt. “Someone has to protect this place from you!” She was on the brink of tears, Xena realised, and the guilt struck a blow far more devastating than anything Gabrielle’s shaking fists could manage. “You said you wouldn’t do this! You swore that you wouldn’t become—”

Callisto!”

That was Draco, finishing the accusation on Gabrielle’s behalf without even realising he was doing it. He came at them like a battering ram, storming through the clamour and the noise, shaking off villagers from every direction, and before Xena had a chance to react at all he had already leaped into the space between them, grabbing Gabrielle by the neck and holding tight.

“Get your hands off her!” She could barely hear her own voice through the chaos, but she didn’t care. Nothing else mattered, not even Amphipolis. “I told you, the girl is mine!”

Draco looked like a man who had taken leave of his senses. His eyes were on fire, his face a wash of blood, and the fury that shook through his body was enough to make almost anyone think twice about getting too close. He looked just about ready to run her through with his sword, or else make her wish that he had.

“Plans change,” he snarled, spitting blood. He raised a fist, but didn’t bring it down. Xena wondered if it was uncertainty that stilled his hand, if perhaps he didn’t really know which of the two of them he wanted to strike. “The two of you cheated me out of what was mine. Now it’s my turn to do the same.”

“That’s not—” Xena started, but that was as far as she got.

“Yeah!” Gabrielle, it seemed, had found some deep, well-hidden reserve of inner strength; her eyes flashed with breathtaking defiance, as bright and as dangerous as Draco’s as she looked him right in the face without blinking. “Yeah, that’s right! You got beaten by Xena’s little sidekick! How does that make you feel, you son of a—”

Draco backhanded her. Xena had to bite down on the inside of her cheek to keep from crying out in sympathy… or better yet, strangling him right on the spot.

“You’ll find out how it feels soon enough,” he snapped, then spun back to Xena. He didn’t bother playing nice this time, clearly sensing the power he had over her for as long as Gabrielle was in his hands, and there was a wordless threat in the way he gripped her arm. “We retreat, Callisto. Now.”

“That was my idea!” she shouted, desperate to get his attention away from Gabrielle. “Now you decide to listen to me?”

“No.” There was a warning in his voice, and Xena didn’t need to say anything to know where it had come from, to understand exactly what had changed about the situation, what had changed his mind. “Now I’ve found a better bargaining chip.”

He drove the point home by giving Gabrielle a quick, forceful shake. What little colour she still had left drained out of her, and she bit down on her lip to keep from crying out. Xena’s heart convulsed, pain shot through with guilt that this was all her fault, and she tried to wrestle her out of Draco’s arms but Callisto’s strength failed Xena’s intentions. He had no problem shoving her aside with his free hand, and the fire still flashing behind his eyes took on a fresh, new intensity.

He didn’t need to push her any further, and they both knew it. He couldn’t possibly know that the woman standing in front of him was Xena, that it was her little sidekick he was manhandling; no doubt he just assumed Gabrielle was one more trophy that the Xena-obsessed Callisto wanted to reclaim for herself. Still, he knew he had a prize that she was not willing to give up, and he knew that was more than enough. Amphipolis could burn itself to the ground for all he cared now; all he wanted was to hurt the woman he thought had betrayed him.

Xena’s heart was in pieces. It was a relief, albeit a tainted one, to leave Amphipolis behind, to retreat from this futile, hopeless battle with no lives lost, but the cost was a terrible one. It rent her soul asunder, the sight of Gabrielle in Draco’s unyielding grip, kicking and struggling and trying so hard to be strong and brave even as the physical pain painted itself in blood and bruises all over her face. Draco must have realised that she was in no condition to put up a fight, but that didn’t stop him holding her as tight as he would a dangerous foe; Xena wondered which one of them he was really trying to hurt, whether he realised what the sight was doing to her. Knowing him, he surely did.

They mounted their horses, pelted by stones and arrows from the furious villagers, and Xena turned back to face them as they rode away.

It was the least she could do, to look in the eye the people she had put through so much needless torment, and it broke her heart almost as deeply as the sound of Gabrielle’s groans when she caught a glimpse of her mother’s face, the anguish and anger coloured by tangible relief. She wondered if Cyrene knew that this was all an act, if Gabrielle had pressed the importance of keeping up appearances while she was in Callisto’s body, or if she believed in what her eyes were telling her. Would she turn on her daughter again now like she did after Cortese? Would she understand now, in a way she hadn’t back then? Time would tell, she supposed, but still it took a great deal of effort to push the thought out of her mind.

Keenly aware of his advantage, Draco set the pace. He kept Gabrielle in front of him, one arm locked tight around her waist as he yanked on the horse’s reins, and Xena had no choice but to push her own steed to its limits in a bid at keeping up.

She wanted to steal a moment, get close enough to Gabrielle that she could whisper ‘I’m sorry’ into her ear, close enough that she could say anything; damn Draco to Tartarus, she just wanted a moment with the woman she loved. The opportunity never arose, though, and she knew him well enough to realise that it was on purpose, that he wouldn’t give either one of them so much as a heartbeat together until he’d gotten to the bottom of this.

They took a break after a couple of hours because Draco’s horse was starting to flag, its gallop dropping to a half-lame canter. Wilful and arrogant though he was, even he couldn’t ignore the harm in letting his horses keel over from exhaustion, and so for their sakes far more than their human riders he acquiesced to a brief if grudging rest-stop.

Xena dismounted carefully, hating that she couldn’t risk showing compassion to her overworked horse. The poor thing was clearly struggling greatly, and her instincts were screaming to treat him with kindness; it was even harder with her mind still reeling with visions of Argo lying on the ground, cut open and bleeding herself out, but of course Callisto had never shown kindness to any living thing in her life and Xena couldn’t risk the exposure. Now more than ever, she could not afford to push the limits of her performance. She did not want to know what Draco would do to Gabrielle if he found out that Xena was the one who had double-crossed him, and she did not trust herself to defeat him before he got the chance to hurt her or worse.

He didn’t take his eyes off her, even as he hauled Gabrielle down from his horse. Free from its burden, the exhausted animal snorted its gratitude and stumbled away to find some food and shade. Gabrielle didn’t speak, but Xena recognised the look in her eyes, and she knew that it was a question of practicality and not fear; no doubt she was worried about saying something to upset whatever delicate balance Xena had struck with her former flame, and had decided that keeping her mouth shut was the safest option for all involved.

It was a sensible decision, though of course Xena couldn’t say so. Instead, she mustered a scowl, Callisto-crazy, and said to Draco, “For every scratch you put on her, I’ll give you two.”

“Touching,” Draco deadpanned, and tilted Gabrielle’s chin up to study her. She sucked in a breath, pain and defiance in equal measure, but still didn’t say anything. “So what is it, then? Xena won’t have you, so you steal her toy instead? Close your eyes and pretend it’s the real thing?”

Xena gritted her teeth. “What I do with her is none of your business.”

Draco huffed a crude laugh, and let go of Gabrielle’s face. “Well, whatever it is, it’s a waste of time. This… she’s just a slip of a girl. Probably still has her maidenhead.” Gabrielle choked on her breath, no doubt stung by uninvited memories of her wedding night, her dead husband; Xena turned her face away so she wouldn’t have to see Callisto when she remembered his death. Draco, oblivious, plowed straight on. “Now, Xena, on the other hand? Suffice it to say she’s—”

“—too much for you to handle,” Xena finished, angry on Gabrielle’s behalf far more than her own. “But go ahead, keep telling yourself that you were any kind of a match for her.”

“Shut up.” It was the first time Gabrielle had spoken since Amphipolis. Her voice was shaking, almost harder than her body. “Both of you. Shut up.”

Draco cuffed her, a sickening blow to the side of the head. “I don’t know what sort of talk-back nonsense Callisto’s been letting you get away with—”

Xena punched him in the fact, cutting off the threat before he could finish it. It hurt more than it should have, certainly more than it did the last time she had any reason to sock him like that. She shook out her fist, hating the fact that Callisto’s arm was weaker than her own, that Draco hardly even flinched, shaking off the blow like it was nothing at all.

Had she been in her own body, she knew perfectly well that he would have been reeling or spitting teeth or worse, that a knock like this would have been all she needed to get the upper hand; she would have capitalised on the moment, beaten him senseless and taken off with Gabrielle before he even had a chance to figure out what had happened.

Xena’s talents lay in exactly this, catching an enemy off-guard and knocking him around; Callisto’s lay in her craftiness, her manipulations and her swordplay. Stuck in her body, Xena could no more out-punch a goliath like Draco than she could out-argue the side of a barn. Still, the crunch of bone against bone and the outrage on Draco’s face were immensely satisfying, even if they felt weak compared to her usual. It wasn’t enough, not even close, but at least it was something.

Gabrielle was shaking her head. She looked a little dizzy, though whether that was from the blow she’d just taken or the one she’d been forced to watch, Xena couldn’t tell.

“Will you stop that?” she snapped. “I can take care of myself.”

She was talking to Xena, not to Callisto, pushing past the façade and the performance to remind her that she was every bit as durable as Xena, that she could take a hit or two and still come out all right, that she didn’t need Xena to blow her cover on her behalf every time she got a little battered. It was the only way she had right now of saying ’I know you can’t protect me, and that’s all right.’

“It’s cute that you think so,” Draco said, cutting in before Xena had the chance to reply; he turned, then, and glared at her instead. “And it’s doubly cute that you think you get any say in this. I don’t know what game you’re playing, Callisto, but you won’t be playing me again. Mark my words, I will find out how the two of you managed to pull off this little trick, and when I do I will personally deposit both of your corpses on Xena’s doorstep.”

“Colourful,” Xena said tartly. “But you’re wasting your breath. Like I told you before, I couldn’t possibly have given away your stupid plan, even if I wanted to. And even if I could, why would I? I was complicit, in case you’ve forgotten, and unlike you I’m not in the habit of embarrassing myself.” That was true enough, at least from Callisto, and Draco acknowledged the point with a sober, sullen scowl. “Besides, didn’t I warn you? Didn’t I tell you that it was a stupid idea? Why in Hades’s name would I try to talk you out of it if I wanted you to come out and get your ass kicked?”

“A double-bluff,” Draco said, though he didn’t sound so confident any more.

“A waste of time,” Xena countered easily. “I told you we should find some other no-name town to pillage. You’re the one who insisted on Amphipolis.”

“Shut up,” Draco snapped, as mature as ever, and rounded on Gabrielle again, one fist raised in a sober warning. “Talk, then, maidenhead. If Callisto didn’t tell you, how did you know we were coming for you?”

Gabrielle looked down at the ground, feigning bashfulness. Xena had a sneaking suspicion it was rather more a feint at avoiding her eye than hiding from Draco’s, and she wasn’t really sure how to feel about that. She had hoped that Gabrielle would see her now, with the battle and the village far behind them, that distance and hindsight would make this a little easier for her, but she recognised the same reticence now that she saw back in the tavern.

She knew without having to try that if she moved to close the space between them Gabrielle would be the one to convince Draco that they really were dealing with Callisto. She would flinch away, suck in a breath and say ‘don’t touch me’ just like she did back then, and Draco would believe without hesitation that Xena truly was the woman who had hurt her so badly. Gabrielle might be Xena’s weakness, but it seemed that Xena was the weak link in this, and it had been a very long time since she’d had to deal with being that.

“I don’t know,” Gabrielle said at long last, speaking to Draco and not looking at Xena at all. Her voice was very raw, hoarse like someone recovering from a bad cold. “I… I guess you could say I had a hunch. Lucky guess. Call it what you like.”

“Mhm. I don’t believe in lucky guesses, and I definitely don’t believe in hunches. Not when you and Callisto were spotted together scarcely a day before.” He glanced back at Xena, as though expecting to intimidate a better answer out of her. Good luck with that, Xena thought, and glared until he looked away again. “No,” he went on after a moment. “Something’s going on here, and one of you will tell me what.”

“You’re being melodramatic,” Xena told him, more to draw the attention back to herself than anything else. “And paranoid. Like I keep telling you, she’s a toy. Xena’s toy, and a chatty little prize for me. She’s just a pretty little trinket to carry around and keep my bed warm and make the warrior princess suffer a little bit. You can’t really be so stupid that you’d think there’s anything more to it than that. The girl has ideals above her station; she thinks she knows more than she does. Xena thinks it’s cute. I just think it’s a fun way of messing with gullible idiots’ heads.”

Draco drew his sword, turned it to the side so that the sunlight caught the sharpened edge. He studied it for a long moment, but didn’t turn it on either one of them. Xena couldn’t tell whether he was trying to frighten Gabrielle or trying to make a point to ‘Callisto’; either way, he wasn’t very successful. Gabrielle was a year past the point of being threatened by a warlord with a sharp sword, and had Xena truly been Callisto she would have cut his head from his body long before now.

“You keep saying that,” he muttered, keeping his attention on both of them at the same time. “But do you really expect me to believe it’s a coincidence that she showed up in the very same village we came here to sack? Do you really expect me to believe it’s a coincidence that Xena’s beloved plaything was one step ahead of us, anticipating our every move, just a day after being seen in your company?”

Xena shrugged, mustering a bitter, careless chuckle. “It would hardly be the first kooky ‘coincidence’ this one’s had a part in.”

“Right,” Gabrielle said, letting slip a hint of her trademark excitability. Xena cut her a glance, a wordless warning to cut back, but of course she ignored her completely. “You have no idea. The stories I could tell…”

“No-one wants to hear them,” Xena snapped, twisting her voice into Callisto’s high timbre to cut her off completely. “You’re not helping your case here, little girl. Best if you just keep that pretty little mouth shut.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Gabrielle shot back.

It surprised Xena more than she’d care to admit, not just the edge to her voice, but the fact that she would attempt a riposte in the first place. That wasn’t her Gabrielle, and it made her uncomfortable, but she knew that she couldn’t afford to dwell on it. Not now. Draco was staring at them both, eyes darting between them as though he realised that he was missing something pivotal but couldn’t figure out what, and though she knew he couldn’t possibly get to the truth of it himself, even with the evidence right in front of him, still it made her heart seize with the kind of panic she would never have felt in her own body.

She couldn’t afford to see her Gabrielle now, couldn’t afford to think of her in the terms that came so naturally to them both. Callisto didn’t know the young woman from Poteidaia, the woman that Xena loved so deeply, and the Xena wearing Callisto’s skin couldn’t afford to look for her walking, talking conscience in the angry, broken little thing that Draco had captured from Amphipolis. If she saw her Gabrielle now, they would both be lost; she would become Xena completely, and even an ego-driven warlord like Draco couldn’t fail to notice that.

Fact is, you’re always my weakness. She’d said as much to Gabrielle after her run-in with Draco’s goons. Beaten and bloody and shaken to her core, Gabrielle had looked so small and so desperately young; she always looked that way when she was in pain, and it always stole Xena’s breath.

She would have given anything to take her into her arms, take care of her, take away all of the hurt and the horror, make her feel better about herself. She would have given anything to be the Xena that Gabrielle knew, the woman she loved in turn, but she wasn’t. The Xena who wore Callisto’s face was a different person to the Xena who wore her own, and as badly as she wanted to believe that wasn’t true, those few fateful hours in Draco’s fortress had taught her otherwise.

Gabrielle was right when she said ‘I can take care of myself’. She was right to remind Xena that she could not protect her out here, that she had to keep her distance for as long as Draco was breathing down their necks. She had to keep who she was apart from who she had to be, had to keep herself separate from the name Xena, had to change the love she felt when she looked at Gabrielle into something vengeful and vicious, something that Callisto would feel when she looked at Xena’s precious plaything. She had to convince Draco that the disaster at Amphipolis really was just a kooky coincidence, that Gabrielle was not her friend at all, that she, Callisto, was only interested in her as someone else’s property.

“Look,” she said to Draco, appealing to his better reason. “The girl is harmless. A distraction at best, for both of us. Give her back to me and we’ll figure out some other way to salvage your manhoo— reputation.”

Draco laughed, making a point of ignoring the deliberate slip. “No,” he said. “I think I’ll keep hold of her for now. Call her ‘leverage’, if you like.” He glanced at Gabrielle. “How does it feel, being passed around like a side dish?”

Gabrielle swallowed thickly. Her eyes were shut tight and her breathing was very shallow. Xena dug her nails into her palms and answered on her behalf. “Leave her alone, Draco.”

He snorted, but didn’t argue. “For now,” he said, as much of a concession as Xena could hope for. “But she’s still mine. You’ll get her back when we’re done. When I know you’ve kept your word.”

Xena cursed internally, but refused to let it show on her face. She wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake him until his teeth rattled. She wanted to ask why, what was so damned important about a little girl who was too beaten to even try to fight back, but of course she already knew the answer. Whether it was Xena or Callisto in front of him, Draco could see the power Gabrielle held over her; he would be a fool to give it up for anything. His alliance with Callisto was tentative at best, and it had taken a serious blow after Amphipolis; for all his posturing and power games, he was not the idiot Xena wanted him to be, and he knew that he would need an ace in his pocket if he wanted to keep her down at heel.

Neither one of them might be in any position to defeat the other in single combat, much to Xena’s regret, but an alliance like this could only last so long before it exploded. With Gabrielle in his hand, Draco was making sure that the fuse was lit from his side and not from hers. From his perspective, unintentional though it might be, Gabrielle was too useful a pawn to give up now. From Xena’s perspective — Gabrielle’s best friend posing as her worst enemy to temper her own ex-lover — it was as surreal as a nightmare.

“You’ll regret this,” she said out loud.

Draco, of course, only shrugged. He didn’t even look at her at all, still fixated like a puppy on Gabrielle. Gabrielle was unimaginably brave, just as Xena knew that she would be; she didn't flinch when she met his gaze, and she didn’t so much as blink when he raised his fist again, a test without teeth to find her limit, to see how far he could push before she broke down.

Xena could have told him that it wouldn’t work; Gabrielle had stared down far more frightening men than Draco, had gone toe-to-toe with people who could snap her in half without a second thought, seemingly oblivious to the danger she was in. It was only much later that she ever let herself react to moments like this, that she looked to Xena to hold her through the tremors and the whimpers and the delayed reactions; in the heat of the moment she always stood as strong and steady as Xena herself. Her blithe, blind courage was one of the things that Xena loved most about her, and one of the things she found most frustrating; it was difficult not to be proud of her when she stood strong like that, but just as difficult to protect her when that was the last thing she wanted.

“Oh, I’m sure I will,” Draco said, a derisive response to Xena’s hollow threat. “What was it you said again? Two scratches on me for every one she takes?” He chuckled again, colder this time, and gripped Gabrielle by the chin. He was rough, but not brutal, turning her face in all directions to study the bruises blooming across the skin. “Looks like you have your work cut out for you.”

That was true, Xena thought sadly. She didn’t need to look at Gabrielle to know that she was a mess of pain, and she couldn’t risk it even if she’d wanted to. One good look at those bruises, that blood, the exhaustion in her eyes and the way she was shaking, and she would be destroyed. She could fight so many things, any warlord or army or god the Fates could throw at her, but she could never resist Gabrielle’s face.

So, instead, she looked at Draco’s, and let her hatred for the situation boil over to burn the man she used to love. She looked him right in the eyes and smiled just like Callisto, a threat and a promise and a warning all at once.

“I’m not the only one,” she said, but Draco was the one who laughed.

*

Chapter Text

*

Draco was violent, even a little cruel, but he wasn’t brutal.

He held Gabrielle very hard, one arm locked vice-tight around her middle to hold her in place as they rode. It made her feel unwell, too much weight and pressure digging into the places where she was already bruised and sore, and the jostling motion was making her stomach queasy; still, she could tell that it was necessity, not malice, that made him hold her that way. He wanted to keep her close, that was all; he couldn’t afford to let her wriggle out of his arms or slip off the horse and get away. She was his leverage over Xena — over Callisto — and he wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. Practical, if not exactly pleasant for her.

Xena, to no-one’s surprise, was beyond furious, and she didn’t much seem to care who caught the brunt of it. She was angry with Draco for going after Gabrielle, angry with Gabrielle for throwing herself into a fight that wasn’t hers, and angry with herself for letting both of those things happen in the first place. Knowing her as well as she did, Gabrielle suspected that the last was probably the one that hit hardest, the one that dug in too deep to ever cut out. She wished that she could steal a moment with her, explain that it wasn’t her fault, that it wasn’t really any of their faults. Circumstances and the Fates had conspired to make things messy, just as they always did, and there was nothing any one of them could have done to change that.

Little chance of a moment alone, though, at least for the time being. They rode hard and fast, with some distance between their horses; Draco and Xena were both angry and sullen, and Gabrielle was too miserable to even try to lighten the mood. Cyrene’s numbing agent had worn off long ago, and the jostling of Draco’s horse sent white-hot bolts of pain all through her. All of a sudden, Cyrene and Xena’s endless insistences that she go to bed and stay there forever weren’t nearly so annoying.

It didn’t help at all that they rarely stopped, and even then only for a moment or two. Gabrielle was suffering a great deal, and being wedged between Draco’s chest and the horse’s neck made it about a hundred times worse, but it never let up at all, and she never got even a moment to catch her breath. She didn’t want to let either one of them know how uncomfortable she was, but it was more than she could do to keep the pain inside, and more than once she heard her own voice cut through the air, a keening moan that she couldn’t hold down.

Draco noticed, of course; he was just as perceptive as Xena always said he was. Gabrielle expected him to push her harder just to see how much she could take, but he didn’t. There was no malice in his eyes at all when he looked down at her, silently noting the sweat drenching her face and hair, the bruises standing out dark on her jaw and body, all the places where she was beaten and bloody. He didn’t mock her for it either, didn’t laugh or point out that Xena’s little sidekick had bitten off more than she could chew, didn’t say anything to her at all. No doubt he thought it would be a waste of breath to try and speak with the horse’s hooves thundering beneath them, but there was something quite deliberate in the way he sighed and eased up on the reins until she relaxed.

Xena didn’t notice the gesture, not that she would have acknowledged it even if she had. She was glaring at the horizon as she rode, jaw set and face hidden by shadows. Gabrielle didn’t need to see her face to know how angry she was, though; the rage rippled through every muscle in Callisto’s body. No doubt she was trying to make it easier for herself, keeping her distance so that she wouldn’t have to look over and see Gabrielle’s suffering and know that there was nothing she could do about it. Gabrielle ached for her; she knew how affected Xena always was by this sort of thing, how awful helplessness could feel to someone who had never known it, and she knew that it was always so much worse when she herself was involved.

She was Xena’s weakness, just as she’d said. Xena couldn’t afford to look at her; she couldn’t afford to let Draco see just how deep that weakness ran.

It was hours before they dismounted again, coming to a final stop outside what Gabrielle assumed was Draco’s fortress. The place was intimidating from a distance, if not especially large up close, and Gabrielle didn’t even bother trying to take it all in. She didn’t do much of anything, in fact, not least of all because by then she wasn’t sure if she could.

As soon as the horse was stopped, Draco threw her down, not even bothering to watch as she hit the ground with a thump and a groan. She lay where she landed, and didn’t complain at all; after so many hours of jolting and jostling, she didn’t much care how hard she fell so long as it was solid ground that caught her. She was so relieved to be still again, to finally be able to look up without feeling every inch of her body protest, that she couldn’t even pretend to be offended when he tossed her down like a sack of vegetables.

She kept her head down, face pressed to the ground, as much to express her relief as to recuperate, and when she finally raised her head again it wasn’t Draco’s boots standing in front of her but Xena’s. She kept her feet very far apart, and Gabrielle didn’t need to look up to know why; she was trying to stand like Callisto would have, trying just a little too hard to capture her air of grandeur and possession. It had been too long since Xena had worn those sorts of boots, though, the kind made for a warlord standing over her prey, and the effort fell short for them both.

Besides, Gabrielle’s body might be close to broken but her senses worked as well as they ever had; she could hear the worried hitch of Xena’s breath when she looked down at her, and she recognised the tapping of her toes, the way she couldn’t seem to keep herself still. Draco probably wouldn’t notice little tell-tale tics like that, but Gabrielle had seen them a thousand times before; she had made a study of Xena’s body language for over a year now, and she knew her body language like she knew her own heartbeat.

Still, she didn’t lift her head. With any luck, it would be easy for Xena to play Callisto if she didn’t have to look too closely at her; certainly, it would be easier for Gabrielle to hear that awful voice if she didn’t have to see the face as well. She kept her eyes locked on the ground where it was safe, and tried to concentrate on her own breathing and not Xena’s.

“I’m fine,” she mumbled, getting a mouthful of dirt for her trouble.

Xena nudged her with the edge of her boot; it was a gentle gesture in practice, though Gabrielle imagined she made it look convincingly cruel for Draco’s sake. “Gabrielle, I—”

“I’m fine,” Gabrielle said again, softer but sharper. She wasn’t sure who she wanted to get the message more: Xena or her own pathetic body. “Really. You know I don’t really like horses. And Draco’s not exactly accommodating.”

Xena’s boots shifted, scuffing her toes in the dirt. There was a kind of restrained frustration in the way she moved, like she was having dark fantasies about kicking something considerably less harmless. Gabrielle tried not to think about that, about how fitting it was for the last person who wore those boots; instead, she stared at the worn-down soles and wondered if Callisto’s feet really were that much smaller than Xena’s.

“He’s better than most,” Xena said, after a long thoughtful moment. “You’re lucky we’re dealing with him and not… well, any other warlord in this part of the world. You’re not his type, and he’s not interested in claiming you for himself when this is over. He’ll only keep you around for as long as he thinks I want you. At least for now, that means you’re safe.”

“For now,” Gabrielle echoed, and shook her head. “That’s… that’s just great.”

“Hey,” Xena said; she was trying to sound light, Gabrielle could tell, but the sound twisted to irritation. “Don’t turn say it like that. Believe me, it’s worth a lot.”

Gabrielle didn’t say ‘I do believe you’ or ‘I know that’. She didn’t point out that she was well aware of what other warlords were capable of, what they’d be willing to do to Xena’s little sidekick. She definitely didn’t remind them both that she had been a prisoner before, that she had been Callisto’s prisoner before. She was a million leagues gone from the innocent young idealist of a year ago, head over heels in love with a warrior princess rescuing helpless girls from her village; they both knew that, but she didn’t say it. She didn’t say any of the countless things she knew and understood now, any of the hard, painful lessons that travelling with Xena had taught her. She wouldn’t trade even the hardest of those lessons for anything, but it was hard to keep that in mind when Xena was standing over her wearing its face.

“You marched on Amphipolis,” she heard herself whisper; the weight of the words rocked them both. “You marched on your home.”

Xena crouched, leaning right in so that she could whisper in Gabrielle’s ear. No doubt it was a precaution, intended to keep the conversation quiet in case Draco was listening, but from Gabrielle’s perspective it felt like suffocating, like a threat that ran deeper than the words. She knew that Xena would never stoop to such a thing, not against her, but she didn’t have the strength to remember that when her heart was hammering against ribs she was sure were broken.

“No.” Xena’s voice was a growl. She sounded so sure of herself, as though anyone in the world would have made the same decisions. Gabrielle wondered how much of it was an act for her sake and how much of it was true. “I stopped him from marching on Amphipolis. He wanted to bring an army, Gabrielle. He wanted to burn my home to the ground. He wanted…” She trailed off, and when she shook her head Gabrielle felt Callisto’s fine pale hair tickling her face. “I made sure that didn’t happen. I made sure that it was just the two of us. I’m the reason my home had a fighting chance.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes for a second, remembered the look on Cyrene’s face when she said ‘we can defend ourselves’. “Not much of one,” she said.

“You’re wrong,” Xena said, even sharper. Gabrielle could feel her trembling, as though it took all of her self-discipline to keep from leaning over and touching her face, forcing her to meet her eyes, driving the truth home by force if she would not heed it. Gabrielle trembled too, for very different reasons. “Amphipolis is still standing because I agreed to go with him, because I wouldn’t let him do it his way, because I made him swear that it would be just him and me… because I knew that meant it would be just him. I did everything I could to keep Amphipolis safe, Gabrielle. I did everything I could, and you…”

“Me.” Gabrielle swallowed hard, tried not to remember the details of her dream, the way Xena became Callisto in soul as well as face, the way her hands and her body felt pressing against her broken places. “You couldn’t have predicted that. You couldn’t have possibly known that I’d know. By the gods, even I didn’t know that I’d know. I still don’t really know how I did. And if I hadn’t… if I’d…”

“If you hadn’t, I would have found another way. But the point is, you did.” She breathed out the final syllable like a prayer, like something divine. “You did know, Gabrielle. You knew that we were coming and you knew exactly what to do about it. You knew everything, and you did everything, and it… it doesn’t matter how or why or what if you hadn’t. What matters is that you did, and I…” She touched her face; it was only a fraction of a second, but enough that Gabrielle had no choice but to look up, to find her face and see that Callisto’s eyes were shining. “Gabrielle, I am so—”

Enough.”

That was Draco, stepping between them, unwanted and uninvited. Gabrielle wasn’t sure whether to be angry at the interruption, upset that the moment’s reconciliation was torn away from them, or relieved that he cut into the space between them and cut off her view of Callisto’s face. A little of all three, she decided, and it was harder than it should have been to recover.

Xena, of course, didn’t need to. In less than a heartbeat, every inch of her had transformed completely. Gone was the anxious toe-tapping, the tension, the tightness in her breath and the tell-tale tics, and in their place was the very thing that had haunted Gabrielle’s nightmares. She was Callisto now, in all her vicious glory, as though it was no task at all to become such a thing, as though the transformation was nothing more than an addendum to some nameless scroll.

Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment, blocking out the sight of them both. Yes, she thought sadly. There were far worse warlords out there than Draco.

“About time,” Xena was saying, all fire and authority, as though she was the one in control; Draco wasn’t buying it, but Gabrielle was. She knew in a way he never could exactly what the person who wore that face was capable of. “Go and stable the horses. I’ll take her inside.”

Draco laughed, long and loud and laden with innuendo. “Oh, I’m sure you’d love to take her…”

“Shut up.”

There was an edge to Xena’s voice when she said that, and a sharper one in Draco’s when he laughed again. From his perspective, Gabrielle supposed it was a competition, a fun little game of ‘who has the biggest ego?’. From Xena’s, it was about protecting Gabrielle’s dignity, sparing a blush from someone who had already endured too much. For her part, Gabrielle just wished they would both shut up and leave her alone.

“I don’t think so,” Draco said, as cool as ever. He gave Gabrielle a quick, appraising look, then shoved the horses’ reins at Xena. “You can stable the horses, I think, and I’ll stable your little friend.”

Xena growled, but didn’t argue. No doubt she was worried that Draco would take it out on Gabrielle if she tried. “Fine,” she snapped, tangibly furious. “Make sure she gets a nice warm cell. I don’t want her to catch a cold.”

Draco snorted. “Oh, don’t worry. I have just the place in mind.”

He left it there, turning away from Xena with an ominous grin and focusing in on Gabrielle. There was no gentleness in him when he hauled her to her feet, though she could tell that he wasn’t trying to make it hurt any more than it already was. As compromises went, and having been a victim of the alternative on more than one occasion, she took it gratefully, and did not resist.

She wished that she still had her staff. It was very hard to stay upright under her own power, and the last thing in the world she wanted was for Xena to see her stumbling and leaning against Draco. She wanted to stand on her own, wanted to be strong enough to shrug off Draco’s grip and tell him that she had her own legs, thank you very much, and that she was perfectly capable of using them herself. The problem was, of course, that she wasn’t, at least not without her staff to hold her up. She wasn’t the helpless little tag-along that he thought she was, Xena’s little sidekick or Callisto’s little plaything, but she didn’t have the strength right now to show it.

They moved off, Draco shoving Gabrielle in front of him in a bid at hurrying her along. She stumbled, swayed a little, but she refused to fall over. She didn’t need to look back over her shoulder to know that Xena was watching, and she would not give her any more reasons to pity her.

She kept her eyes on the ground, let him push and drag her around without uttering a word of complaint. If she’d been out here alone, perhaps she would have put up a fight in spite of her obvious disadvantage, gone down swinging if she had to go down at all. She wasn’t the only one involved here, though, and she didn’t trust herself to do or say anything without blurting out Xena’s name.

One bad choice, one weak moment, and it would all be blown, and though it stung to play the meek, submissive prisoner, she knew that it would have stung far more to be the one responsible for whatever came next. Xena had warned her about that, hadn’t she? That was why she’d sent her to Amphipolis, to keep her away from all of this, though of course neither one of them could have predicted what would happen there. Xena had done all she could to do right by Gabrielle; now it was Gabrielle’s turn to do right by Xena.

She could feel Draco’s eyes on her, burning holes through the back of her neck, as though waiting for her to incriminate herself. He still wasn’t gentle, but he wasn’t needlessly rough either; though he was happy to knock her around or shove her if she didn’t move quickly enough, he didn’t beat her for the sake of it either. In his mind, at least, she supposed he was being reasonable; just as Xena had always said, he fancied himself a man of honour, someone who would happily do terrible things but only as long as he could convince himself that there was something worthwhile in it.

Small comfort for the villages he’d razed, she thought sadly, or the slaves he’d bought and sold. She tried not to think about that too much as he struck her another warning blow. Had it not been for Xena she herself might have been one of those slaves; he might have sold her to Mezentius or any one of a hundred others without so much as a thought, and where would his honour be there? It was all right, she supposed, so long as he didn’t have to see the fallout from his deeds. A year gone now since he tried to take the girls of Poteidaia, since Xena leaped in and saved them; Gabrielle wondered if he even remembered her at all.

Probably not. She wasn’t worth remembering back then.

To her relief, the inside of his fortress wasn’t nearly as intimidating as the outside. It felt more like a disused barn than a warlord’s stronghold, with the floor all covered with dirt and straw, with the mud lining the walls and all sorts of discarded stuff strewn about all over the place. Apparently laying waste to nearby villages didn’t amount to much when it came to housekeeping; the place was big, but patchy at best, and had she been feeling a little more confident Gabrielle might have mustered a quip or two about size not being everything. As it was, she could only be thankful that the walls didn’t crumble when she lost her balance and had to brace against them.

Draco made an impatient noise while she righted herself, but allowed her a moment’s rest just the same. “I can see why Xena left you for Callisto,” he muttered irritably.

“She didn’t leave me,” Gabrielle countered in the split-second before her brain caught up and reminded her that it was a bad idea, that she wasn’t supposed to mention Xena at all, much less rise to his bait.

“Oh? Then where, pray tell, is she now?”

Gabrielle opened her mouth to say ‘that’s none of your business’ like Xena would have done, but she knew even before she tried that she couldn’t pull it off. Draco would probably cuff her for trying it. So, instead, she pressed her forehead against the wall and said “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

When she finally straightened up and turned to look at him, she found him with an odd look on his face, curious, as though he was trying to piece together the contradictions of what he was seeing and what he knew to be true. Given the circumstances, she supposed she couldn’t really blame him.

“I would, actually,” he said, shoving her between the shoulders to get her moving again. “And I would just love to know what possessed her to leave you with Callisto. A sweet, innocent little thing like you and a homicidal maniac like her… it’s not exactly a match made in the Elysian Fields, now, is it? Now, if I were a gossiping man…”

He was trying very hard to keep the focus on her and Callisto, but Gabrielle could tell that it was a cover for his real interest; he was trying just a little too hard not to come off as desperate when he mentioned Xena’s name. It was obvious, even to someone as naïve as Gabrielle, that he was itching to ask after his old flame, to find out where she was, what she was doing, whether she talked about him at all. Had he been anyone else, the kicked-to-the-curb puppy love might almost have been sweet; as it was, with his hand at her back and his boots kicking at her ankles, it was mostly just embarrassing for them both.

“Things happen,” Gabrielle said simply, though she doubted that would satisfy him. “You should know how persuasive Callisto can be when she wants something.” That entertained him greatly, and he barked a laugh. “Do you really think I could fight her off if I tried? I might be stupid, but I’m not that stupid.”

Draco’s laughter faded a low rumble, the amusement gone. “No, I suppose you’re not.”

He yanked on her arm, pulling her closer, then leaned in to look her in the face. He didn’t say anything, but of course he didn’t need to; his eyes said it all. They were nearly as frightening as Callisto’s, lit up with something visceral and raw; Gabrielle saw that same look in Xena’s sometimes, the uncontrolled violence and the brutality that sprang up in her when she woke from deep, dark dreams or came back bloody after a long fight. The sight of it in Draco unnerved her, not for her own sake but because she knew how close Xena was to those eyes now, how close she’d gotten to them with Callisto’s. Gabrielle didn’t want to know the awful things that his eyes and hers could do together, given the chance.

No, she thought. Xena isn’t Callisto, and she’s not that person any more. Trust her.

They walked in silence for a few minutes, passing rows of vacant cells. The place had a desolate feel, empty and all but abandoned, but still Draco was swaggering around like it was a palace. Gabrielle thought about tearing him down a little, showing some disdain, but she wasn’t sure she had the strength to make it convincing; she was using almost everything she had just to keep moving at the pace he wanted. He was impatient, clearly desperate to get her into a cell and out of the way, and Gabrielle supposed that showed Xena was right; he really did have no interest in her at all. Safe, Xena had said, for now. Gabrielle wished she could feel that way.

“Look,” she said; the silence was heavy and so was her body, and she couldn’t fight them both at the same time. She might not be able to quip like she wanted, but she had to say something or the tension would crush her. “I’m just biding my time, all right? I’ve been with Xena for a long time—”

“That’s right. What is it now? Two whole weeks?”

Gabrielle scowled, or tried to. “Over a year,” she countered moodily. It sounded weak, even to her own ears, but she didn’t care; better to put up half a fight than no fight at all. “And I think I know her pretty well by now. She’d never let me down, and she’d never leave me alone with the likes of you and… and her.” Even now, she couldn’t say the name without breaking. “Xena’s always got a plan. She just… uh… she just doesn’t always share it with the rest of us.”

“Oh, I’m well aware of that,” Draco said, and this time when he laughed it was a loud barking sound that bounced off the walls and made Gabrielle’s head hurt more than it already was. “So tell me, then, little maidenhead: should I expect a grand entrance befitting the warrior princess? Is she going to come diving in through the window when we least suspect it, waving her chakram and chanting about how she’s changed? Beat Callisto and I to a pulp, then ride off into the sunset with you in her arms?”

His tone made his opinion on the subject very clear, though he couldn’t possibly know just how unlikely it really was. “Probably not,” Gabrielle conceded, but refused to sound defeatist about it. “But it doesn’t matter. I can get myself out of this without help.”

“Of course you can.” He rolled his eyes, then pulled her to a stop, shoving her up against the bars of the nearest cell with unnecessary violence. If not for the pain overriding everything else, Gabrielle might almost have been afraid. “But for now, why don’t you say ‘hello’ to your new cellmate?”

Gabrielle turned her head, squinted into the little cell, and screamed.

It wasn’t her finest moment, though she refused to be ashamed. Gabrielle was not, by nature a screamer; she’d worked very hard to distance herself from the helpless little farmer’s daughter that everyone saw in her, the village girl who would shriek and cower from her own shadow. She made a habit, when she could, of turning around to meet head-on the things that scared her, of facing the fears that brought her heart into her mouth, and though it felt like a kind of failure to give in to reactions like this, visceral and weak, she would not hide her feelings to spare herself a blush or two.

She wasn’t like Xena, who could put on a stoic face, frown and grit her teeth and pretend that nothing ever disturbed her. Gabrielle was easily disturbed, easily unnerved or surprised, nauseated or frightened, and she would not pretend that wasn’t true. Those things made her, just as completely as Xena’s strength made her, and she was not ashamed of herself or her reflexes. Not when she was almost bent double from the pain but still had the strength of mind to hold herself upright. There was no shame in being horrified by something that was horrifying, and this… this was horrifying.

“Are you…” she managed, but she had to stop or risk losing her breakfast. “That’s a…”

“Now, now,” Draco said, clearly enjoying himself a little too much. “You don’t see me drawing attention to your little imperfections, now, do you? He might not be a big talker, but he’s still got feelings.”

“He’s a corpse!”

“Details, details.”

It didn’t feel like a ‘detail’ to Gabrielle. Frankly, it felt like the opposite: something so huge and all-encompassing that there was no chance of ever seeing anything else. The thing was gruesome, would have been gruesome to anyone without an iron stomach, and even by her own admission Gabrielle was more sensitive than most; it felt like she’d been punched, like her body had been pulled inside-out. She wanted to vomit, or else perhaps to scream again, but she didn’t want to give Draco the satisfaction of seeing either of those things.

“You’re joking,” she managed instead, in a pathetic little squeak. “You have to be. All those empty cells we just passed… you’re not really going to put me in there with… with…”

“Why not?” Draco shot back. She didn’t need to look at him to know that he was grinning like a fool, but she did anyway because it gave her an excuse to look away from the slowly-rotting body of her new cellmate. “You’re a bright young thing. I thought you might appreciate a little company.” His expression shifted; the smile didn’t fade, but there was something darker behind it now. “Or a glimpse into the future. One of the two.”

Gabrielle frowned at that. “A glimpse into the… what?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” His grin sharpened, like Callisto’s did when she was having a bit too much fun torturing someone. It made her feel sick, almost more so than the corpse. “This is Callisto’s doing.”

Gabrielle stared at him, swallowing very hard; it was a great struggle to keep the dread from showing through on her face. “What are you talking about?” she whispered, terrified of the answer.

“You heard me.” He was speaking very slowly now, deliberately, like he knew perfectly well that he was touching on a sore spot, tapping into some not-so-hidden fears, as though he could ever understand the messy complexities of what she was going through right now. “Your new best friend. You know, the one Xena just up and left you with. I guess he must’ve looked at her funny or something, because she just sliced him up like he was her next meal.” His smile sharpened; her stomach soured. “From what I’ve heard, she’s famous for that sort of thing. But then, I suppose you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you?”

She would. She definitely, definitely would. “You’re just trying to frighten me.”

“Not at all.” He stopped smiling. “I’m just trying to warn you. It’s only a matter of time before you get the same treatment, you know. It’s practically my duty to make sure you’re prepared for the moment when it comes.”

“You’re wrong,” Gabrielle choked out queasily. “Callisto… Xena… she wouldn’t…”

“Oh, please. Xena isn’t here, little girl. Callisto is. And I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that she’s not in the best of moods after your little stunt back in Amphipolis.” He cocked his head back at the dead body, and Gabrielle had to fight to keep from heaving. “She’s not exactly the kind to bash her head against the wall when things go bad, either, now, is she? Given half a chance, what’s to stop her from venting her frustrations in a more… creative manner?”

Gabrielle took a deep breath, willed herself to stay calm. Or conscious. One of the two. “She won’t.”

“Oh, but she already has.” He gestured at the corpse, waiting with a frozen leer inside the cell. “Just ask your new chum.”

“Shut up!” Her voice was shaking; her whole body was shaking. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t I?” He laughed, short and sharp and very cruel. “Do you really expect me to believe you’re not even a teensy little bit scared of ending up like this poor fellow while you sit around waiting for Xena to rescue you?”

“Not at all,” Gabrielle said, trying so hard to believe that it was true. “You… you and her… you can do what you want. You’re not going to break me.”

Draco rolled his eyes and yanked open the cell door. “We’ll see about that,” he snorted. “Later. For now, I just want you out of the way so I can focus on things that actually matter.” He punctuated the point by shoving her into the cell, so sudden and so rough that she went sprawling across the unfortunate corpse. “There you go. Now you sit down and make yourself comfortable… and maybe think about the kind of company your precious Xena is letting you keep.”

They both knew he wasn’t talking about the dead guy, and Gabrielle’s stomach gave a sudden, violent lurch as Draco turned and walked away. She closed her eyes, swallowed hard, and didn’t say anything.

Left alone in a tiny cell with a slowly rotting corpse, it took everything she had to stay calm, to breathe through the nausea and the panic and all the other emotions roiling inside of her. She crawled to the furthest corner of the cell, desperate to put some distance between herself and the body, and closed her eyes; she couldn’t bring herself to look into the poor man’s face, too afraid of finding something that used to be human.

It was a long, long time before she could bring herself to even open her eyes at all, and longer still before she summoned the courage to take a deep breath and look at him, to study the body even if she still couldn’t endure the face. It was a kind of desperation, the feeling that surged up in her, a crude, masochistic need to see the cause of death, to see for herself the fatal wound that Draco claimed was Xena’s — Callisto’s — Xena’s doing.

She wanted so much to believe that he was lying, that he was just trying to make her second-guess whatever relationship he imagined she had with ‘Callisto’. She wanted so badly to believe that she knew her Xena better, that the woman she loved would never kill a man in cold blood like this. She wanted so desperately to believe those things, but there was no misinterpreting the wound she found. It was neat and clean, almost impossibly so, the kind of wound that boasted precision and absolute control. Gabrielle only needed to glance at it, stomach churning and eyes half-shut, to know that it couldn’t possibly have come from anyone else.

Draco would never have done it that way, she knew. She may not have much in the way of personal experience with the man, but she knew his type well enough to know that he wouldn’t have bothered to make it clean, and he wouldn’t have cared if it was painful. He would have done it with a flourish, showing off to some imaginary audience, or perhaps to the victim himself, just because he could. As for the real Callisto… well, if she truly was responsible, the poor bastard would be in at least ten more pieces, or else he’d still be alive, driven mad by her taunting and torture.

Draco wouldn’t care if his victim died screaming. Callisto would make sure he did. Only Xena would bother killing him painlessly; only she would run him through as quick and as clean as she could. Only Xena would care that much for someone as she slaughtered him in cold blood.

The thought was almost more sickening than the corpse itself. Gabrielle tore her gaze away from the wound, pressed her face against the far wall and closed her eyes again. It took a great deal of effort, breathing deep and slow to keep herself from retching or crying or both, but she wouldn’t give Draco the satisfaction of knowing that he had affected her, that this was affecting her. Whether he cared about her or not, she knew that he would keep an eye on her; she was too valuable to do anything less. Just like Callisto would, perhaps even like Xena would have done in her warlord days, he needed to know how far he would have to push if it came down to that, where to press to exploit her weaknesses, what made her cry out or beg. He was too clever not to know that any weapon he could use against Callisto — or, indeed, Xena — was a weapon he needed to master.

Well, he could try, but she wouldn’t let him succeed. She would let this place kill her first.

She huddled there like that for a long, long time, rocking back and forth in her little corner, ignoring the pain in her ribs where she hugged herself; the contact helped to calm her even as it hurt, and imagining that she was far from here, that her arms were really Xena’s, made it a little easier to breathe. Deluded though it was, she learned long ago how important it was to do whatever it took to keep hope in hopeless moments.

She counted out the seconds, measured her heartbeat, the way it kicked in her chest between her breaths. With nothing to distract her, nothing to help pass the time, everything felt like forever, and though she couldn’t know for sure how long she was in there, she knew enough to know that ‘forever’ was probably not too far off. Hours, definitely; days… well, if not yet, then certainly soon.

It didn’t help that she was crippled. Her body ached, so she couldn’t pace, and every time she opened her eyes all she saw was death and decay, the hollow, empty eyes of her rotting cellmate and the horror of remembering what had happened to put him there. She couldn’t move without pain, couldn’t see without her whole body threatening to turn itself inside-out, couldn’t do any of the things that might normally keep her sane.

So, as she always did when her world started to crumble, she leaned instead on her imagination. Eyes shut, breathing slow and shallow in rhythm with the pain, she pictured a place far away from here, somewhere warm and comfortable, a field flooded with sunshine, full of sheep and cattle and Xena’s smiling face. She didn’t care that it was idealistic nonsense, that it made her weak and childish; all that mattered was that it hurt less than reality.

A million, a hundred million heartbeats later, she heard her name.

It was a whisper, hissed out through Callisto’s teeth. Xena’s teeth, she reminded herself. It’s Xena, it’s not Callisto, it’s Xena.

She kept her eyes and mouth shut, not looking at her and not saying anything, and of course Xena took her silence as an invitation to repeat herself, her voice getting ever closer as she approached the cell with the cracking of boots on straw.

“Gabrielle! Are you all right? Did he hurt you? Are…”

That was as far as she got, and Gabrielle didn’t need to look up to know why. Her voice cut off like someone had struck a blow to her throat, and Gabrielle heard the air go out of her lungs as surely as if she was watching it for herself. She forced herself to open her eyes, to look up and find Callisto’s face, and was ashamed to admit that the horror she found there filled her with a strange kind of pride.

“Hello,” she said. Her voice sounded much steadier than she felt; the illusion of strength helped her to straighten up a little, to look at Xena’s stricken, strangled face, and try to smile. “You look different.”

She meant it ironically, but it was true as well. Xena was much paler than usual, and not just because her face wasn’t her own. It wasn’t often she allowed herself to react like this, and it was even rarer that she let Gabrielle see it; she was always so fixated on being the tough one, the stoic warrior who could never falter, and she never really understood what Gabrielle meant when she said ‘sometimes I wish I could see you the way you see me’. These moments, these rare and precious moments when Xena couldn’t hide the weaknesses in herself made Gabrielle feel less humiliated by her own. Xena, who had never felt humiliated in her life, could not grasp such a thing.

“By the gods.” Her voice was a tremor, eyes flashing as they fell on the corpse in the cell, Callisto-dark and warlord-deadly. “Is this his idea of a sick joke?”

“I think so,” Gabrielle said, swallowing thickly. “Don’t worry. Apparently he’s not a big talker.”

Xena ignored the feint at gallows humour. She wasn’t horrified any more; now she was furious. “That son of a bitch,” she snarled. “I’ll tear out his heart, and feed it to him.”

Gabrielle’s stomach gave another violent lurch. “Please don’t,” she managed, holding herself under control with a desperate force of will. “Xe—”

“Don’t.” It was a warning. “The walls have ears, you know.”

Gabrielle understood, and tried to nod. “Callisto, then.” The name made her feel sicker. “What… what are you doing here?”

“Had to come and see you, didn’t I? I couldn’t just let you rot in here like…”

She trailed off, eyes on the body, sounding as ill as Gabrielle felt. Gabrielle swallowed a handful of times, washed back the taste of acid in her mouth, and forced a chuckle. “Quite the charmer, isn’t he?”

Xena sighed, a tragic sort of sound, laced with deep guilt. “Gabrielle…”

“Yeah. Um.” She swallowed again. It was very hard to keep her reflexes under control, her stomach and her throat and the parts of her that always felt emotions too viscerally. “He said this was… he said…” She tried to breathe deep and slow, and regretted it almost the instant she tried, the stench of decay filling her nostrils in a heartbeat; still, for all her shame, she refused to choke on it. Not while Xena was here watching. “He… Draco, I mean… he told me this was your doing. He told me you… Callisto…”

She trailed off, swallowing again. It was getting harder and harder not to let her emotions take over completely, not to lose herself to them. Perhaps sensing that, Xena leaned back a little, gave her some space to catch her breath.

“Gabrielle…” she said, grief and encouragement in near-equal measure.

“Yeah,” Gabrielle said again. “I don’t believe him. He was just trying to scare me. He was just trying to…” Her voice broke, a hitch that seemed to strike Xena right between the eyes. “You don’t… I mean, we don’t… I mean, I know it wasn’t…”

Gabrielle.”

And there it was, the answer, the real truth of it made clear by the pain and the guilt in her eyes. Callisto’s voice was nothing like Xena’s, but Gabrielle had heard Xena say her name countless times before, and she knew what it meant when she said it like that. She heard the confession behind each syllable, the ugly truth that Xena couldn’t say, the things she couldn’t bear to make Gabrielle hear. She tried to make it gentle, tried to soften the blow as best she could, but few things struck Gabrielle as hard as her own name on Callisto’s lips. She clapped a hand over her mouth and turned away.

“Oh,” she said, and thought don’t be sick, don’t start crying, don’t let her see how much it hurts. “I see.”

Xena was wringing her hands. “Gabrielle, you have to understand. It was…”

But the way she trailed off, even for a moment, was more telling than all the half-hearted explanations and worthless excuses in all the world. Gabrielle didn’t want to hear any of them, but of course she knew that Xena wouldn’t let her off that easy. She had to say it, had to torture them both with the truth, like it was some kind of twisted hubris, like the only way either one of them could be clean of this was to suffer through every last sordid detail. It was so like her, Gabrielle thought wretchedly, and so like Callisto.

When she said the name aloud, twisting it on her lips, she felt almost vindicated. “Callisto. Don’t bother.”

But of course Xena ignored her. “Draco was breathing down my neck,” she said, soft but very intense. “You’ve seen what he’s like. You know how forceful he can be when he wants to prove something, and I… Gabrielle, I’m barely holding it together as it is. If I’d refused, he would have been onto me in a second. He would’ve figured out everything, and then it would be all over Greece. You knew that, Gabrielle. You knew that I might have to—”

“Did you even try?” Gabrielle asked. It bothered her, how much she cared. “By the gods, Xe—” She winced, cut herself off, then repeated herself with tragic weight. “By the gods.”

“Yes, I tried!” Xena snapped. “But I did what I had to do, and I’m not going to pretend that I regret it.”

The honesty broke Gabrielle’s heart, in its own way almost more than the act itself. “You don’t mean that. You can’t mean that. You…”

“I mean it.” Her voice was steady, but her eyes were trembling with tears. Gabrielle had never seen Callisto look like this. “You probably don’t recognise him. Well, I can’t really blame you for that; I wouldn’t want to get too close either. But if you’d taken a look, you’d see that he was one of the bastards who cornered you back in that two-bit snake-pit of a village. One of the reasons you’re black and blue and probably hiding any number of broken bones so I won’t coddle you.” She sighed, looking upset, and Gabrielle suddenly found herself biting back a wave of her own guilt. “So yeah. I’m sorry, Gabrielle, but I’m not shedding any tears. If I had to put my sword through someone for the sake of this… this situation… I can’t say I’m disappointed that it ended up being one of them.”

Gabrielle studied her for a long moment. “You’re saying this is my fault?”

“Of course not.”

“Oh, come on! I get a little bit battered, so you suddenly become a killer?”

“That’s not what happened.” She tried to soften, but it didn’t work. Callisto’s face was capable of great deceptive softness, much like her hands, but Xena had always found it hard not to put up walls when she talked about things like this. Her stoicism won out, this time, over Callisto’s cruel tenderness. “I’ve always been a killer, Gabrielle. You know that. I didn’t magically become one just because I took a life in someone else’s—” She cleared her throat, breaking off before she could say ‘body’. “—fortress.”

The walls have ears, Gabrielle reminded herself, and chose her own words with great care. “But doesn’t that make it all the more important not to… not to…” She shook her head, unable to even see the word. “Here, of all places! If you lose control of your instincts here…”

She wasn’t talking about the fortress either, and Xena knew that.

“I’ll still be me,” she said. “Underneath, where it counts. I swear it, Gabrielle. Whatever I do, I’m still me.”

She sounded so impossibly sure. Gabrielle wanted to believe her, to have the same kind of faith that Xena seemed to, to believe in her the way she seemed to believe in herself. But of course it wasn’t quite so easy to find faith when she was sharing a cell with one of Xena-Callisto’s murdered victims. Whatever the mercenary bastard had done, to her or anyone else, she would never have wished this on him.

Besides, she knew Xena, or at least she flattered herself that she did. She knew the woman Xena had become, or at least the woman she was trying to become, the woman who had turned away from her old ways, who didn’t kill any more unless she absolutely had to, who would look at Gabrielle in a heated moment and do whatever it took to find a better way. She knew how hard Xena struggled with her past, her warrior’s instincts, the parts of herself she never denied even as she tried so hard to leave them behind her. She knew all about them, and she knew that something like this could not have come as easily as she pretended it did.

It must have been a struggle, she decided. It must have drained the life right out of her to go back to her old ways, the violence and the cruelty and the brutality; it must have ripped her apart to see herself that way again, becoming the person she used to be, the cold-blooded killer who didn’t even think before taking a man’s life. It must have cost her dearly, must have broken her heart in pieces. It must have, because if it didn’t…

…if it didn’t, they had bigger problems than a dead mercenary. If Xena could look at her like that and say with honesty that she didn’t regret it, if she really didn’t care, didn’t even blink as she watched a life bleed itself dry onto her blade, if she really, truly didn’t feel anything, then what was left between her and Callisto?

Feeling desperately sick, Gabrielle closed her eyes again. “You should go.”

“Gabrielle.”

“I said go.” It was a plea, simple and shaking. “Go back to Draco. Go back to him and do whatever it is he wants you to do. Go… go and be whatever you think you have to be.”

It was not a blessing. “Gabrielle…”

Now.” Taking a deep breath, filling her lungs with the stench of death and decay, Gabrielle opened her eyes. She forced herself to look the corpse in the face, to measure the life that Xena had ended without a moment’s thought. Someone had to. Someone had to remember that this rotting thing was once a man. “I’m going to be sick, and I don’t want you here to see it. So please, just go.”

Xena nodded, as though she could possibly believe that was the reason. “I’ll be back,” she said, and turned away.

Though she knew Xena wouldn’t see it, Gabrielle shook her head. Please don’t, she thought. Don’t come back. Not while I’m in here, not while you’re being her. I can’t look at you. Not in this place, not in her skin, not like this. I can’t look at you and know what you’ve done, what you’re still doing. I can’t see my Xena inside you. I can’t—

This time, when her stomach tried to rebel, she let it win.

*

Chapter Text

*

“What in Hades’ name were you thinking?”

Draco didn’t laugh, though it was pretty obvious that he wanted to; if Xena were to hazard a guess, it was only the pressure of her elbow against his throat that stopped him. Laughing wasn’t easy, after all, when your breath was all but cut off.

She had him pinned up against the wall, driven half-blind by righteous fury; given her precarious position here, she normally wouldn’t even dream of such a thing, but after what she’d just seen all the common sense in the known world wouldn’t have been enough to make her back off. Let him see through her charade, she thought, if that was what it took to get Gabrielle out of that gods-forsaken cell. Let him tell every warlord in Greece who she was if that was what it took to do right by the only person in the world who meant anything.

“I have…” He coughed, a horrible choked-off noise that vibrated unpleasantly against her arm. Xena eased her grip ever so slightly, just enough that he could get the words out without suffocating but not so much that it wouldn’t hurt like the bastard he was. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You know perfectly well what I’m talking about!” she roared. “Locking her up with that… that thing.”

Draco mustered a smile, though she could tell that it was pained. “I thought she’d appreciate the…” He choked, almost losing his voice entirely when she squeezed his throat again. “…company.”

“Don’t get cute with me, Draco.” It came out as more of a challenge than she expected, focusing on the anger instead of the disgust, the parts of her that wanted to tear him limb from limb instead of the parts that just wanted to turn around and run back to Gabrielle’s side. “What, pray tell, were you hoping to accomplish by traumatising her like that?”

Draco coughed again, finally summoning the strength to shove her away. “Watch yourself,” he snapped, massaging his throat. “You’re a guest in my home. A word to one of my men, and you and the girl will wake up with your throats slit.” The reminder stung, though it was somewhat beside the point just now. “And besides, I thought you of all people would applaud my creativity. Don’t you want the little brat to fear you?”

“That’s between me and her,” Xena said. “It’s none of your business what I want from her.”

“She’s my prisoner now,” he reminded her pointedly. “Until you fulfil your side of our bargain, that makes her my business. Unless you’d care to forfeit your head after all…”

Xena snarled again, giving up on the intimidation act and settling instead for punching him in his pretty face. “If you do anything like that again, I will rip your lungs out.”

“You can try.” He touched the side of his face, tracing the print of her knuckles, and mustered another hoarse chuckle. “Say what you like, Callisto. I think you’re soft for that girl.”

“Like I said,” Xena muttered, “that’s between her and me.”

She turned away, rather more for her own sake than for his. She needed to catch her breath and her composure, needed to try and rein in her tender feelings, the parts of her that were still back in that cell with Gabrielle, the parts of her that couldn’t stop seeing her face no matter what she did or where she went. She had to control herself; the way Draco was looking at her, as though he could read all her tender feelings despite her best efforts, was unforgivable, and she could not afford it.

Still, it was hard. It tore at her, knowing what Gabrielle was going through, knowing that she had to go through it alone, knowing — worst of all — that it was her doing, that she was responsible for so much of her present pain. This was everything Gabrielle was afraid of, all those awful nightmares brought to life, and there was nothing she could do to escape them. Xena had tried so hard to protect her from this, to keep her safe and far away, but her best intentions had landed them both here instead: her in the company of a ruthless warlord and Gabrielle trapped in a cell with the very thing that broke her. Xena knew how frightened she was of seeing Callisto take hold of her, of being forced to watch as her best friend became her worst enemy, and here she was now, all but convinced that it had finally happened and unable to turn away from the not-so-living proof.

It was all her fault, Xena thought wretchedly, but she couldn’t afford to be angry about it. She couldn’t afford to feel anything at all; if she did, it would be the end for them both. Draco’s threats weren’t idle, she knew, no more than her own were. If he thought for even a second that she might turn on him, he would do whatever it took to get the upper hand. He would have his men surround her in a heartbeat, but far worse was what he would do to Gabrielle if he suspected she was a weak point. He would kill her without even a second thought, just because he knew that it would hurt ‘Callisto’.

She wouldn’t let that happen. As Xena or Callisto, it didn’t matter any more; she would not give him a chance to take advantage of her, and she definitely wouldn’t give him a chance to take advantage of Gabrielle. She would tear down this whole fortress with her bare hands before she let either of those things happen, and she didn’t care one bit if it landed her in Tartarus; an eternity swapping stories with the real Callisto was preferable to this. Perhaps, in a twisted way, it would be for the best. She’d always been a sucker for poetic justice.

It took longer than it should have for her to compose herself, and longer even than that to turn around and face Draco again, to find his smirking face and not beat it to a bloody pulp.

“Forget the girl,” she said, and wished that she could do the same. “Amphipolis is out. You got another plan lying about, feel free to share it. Or did you just want to sit around and play word games until we’re both old and grey?”

“Tempting,” Draco said without a hint of irony. “But no. We find another village, take it instead. Forget the girl, like you said, and forget Xena.”

“Smartest thing you’ve said in days,” Xena muttered, and didn’t care that she sounded nothing like the real Callisto.

Thankfully for her, Draco had never been the kind of man to share his spotlight. He was the exactly same way when they were together, always locking himself away to work through this or that grand scheme, building his precious strategies out of some stupid pipe dream or another. Xena had quickly learned to just sit back and let him do what he wanted, to nod and smile when he looked at her but otherwise keep her mouth shut. It was more effort to argue with him than to just work out her own secret contingencies for when his inevitably failed.

That was certainly true now; contingency or not, she had her own planning to do, and this time it had nothing to do with sacking villages. She sat in silence with her feet up on one of his tables, following him with her eyes as he paced the length of the room; he was agitated, she could tell, but he kept an even pace just the same, and the rhythm of his footsteps helped her to stay present.

She watched him, trying in vain not to think too hard about Gabrielle stuck there in that cell with that decaying corpse, the remains of a man who had beaten her, killed by the woman she thought she could trust. Every second that Xena wasted out here with Draco was another second that Gabrielle had to suffer alone in that awful place, seconds upon seconds with only Xena’s darkest deed for company.

It was too much. A part of her wanted to take Draco by the collar, shake him and say, ‘I don’t care what you want from me! I don’t care about your plans! I’ll do anything you want, anything you say if you’ll just let her go right now.’ She wanted to give up the feint at dignity, give up the moral high ground she’d worked so hard to cultivate here, all the places inside herself that Gabrielle had touched, all the ways she’d taught her to find a peaceable solution to every problem. She didn’t care about doing things right any more; she’d raze a dozen villages to the ground and not look back if that was what it took to get Draco off her back and Gabrielle out of that cell. She would become a warlord again without hesitation, and not regret it for a second.

The thought stung. Like always, thinking of Gabrielle was a double-edged sword, in one moment fuelling her desperation and driving her to do unimaginable things, and in the very next extinguishing it completely. She would do anything to get her out of there, would do anything to make this right, but when she closed her eyes and tried to conjure up the horror and the fear in Gabrielle’s eyes, all she could see was the accusation and the betrayal, the wounded, broken look as she turned away and said ‘you should go’.

She couldn’t forget the way she blanched, all the colour draining out of her face and leaving only the bruises and the pain, that awful moment when she realised that Draco was right, that her faith, her hope had been misplaced all along. Xena couldn’t forget how it felt to see her like that, the ache that surged up in her chest; she had wanted more than anything in the world to reach through the bars, to hold her close until she stopped trembling, but she knew then, as she knew now, that it would have only made things worse. Gabrielle couldn’t bear to look at her after what she had did… but here she was all over again, planning to do the very same thing.

It tore her apart, the thought of putting that look back on her face, of making her go pale again, making her sick with the horror of it, of forcing Gabrielle to carry any more of the deeds that Xena had always thought were hers alone. She would do anything in the world to save her, anything to protect her, but what good would it do if she destroyed her in the process? She could blame Draco and his sordid sense of humour for the cell, the corpse, the nightmare that Gabrielle was going through in there, but who could she blame if she got her out only to list all the people she’d slaughtered to do it?

She couldn’t do things her way. She had to be the new Xena, the one who wasn’t comfortable with herself, who was hobbled and useless in Callisto’s body; weak as it made her, exposed as that weakness was, now more than ever she had to be Gabrielle’s Xena, the one who wore her own skin and listened to all of the sweet, beautiful things Gabrielle said about her, the one who could almost, almost believe that one day she might deserve them. For both of their sakes, she had to prove that that Xena could survive even in Callisto’s body. For all that it killed her to sit idly by, she had to do this Gabrielle’s way.

So, yes, she sat in silence. Yes, she watched without a word, and kept her thoughts to herself. Yes, she counted out Draco’s footsteps as he paced, and yes, she made her own plans too. While he stomped around the room muttering and pondering and laying out his stupid maps, Xena looked around and made her own. He mapped out the surrounding farmland and she mapped out his little stronghold. She might not have much at her disposal out here, but she was inspired now, driven in a way she hadn’t been before by the visions in her head of Gabrielle, huddled and shivering, losing herself piece by piece back in that gods-forsaken cell, waiting and praying for a sign that it really was her Xena inside Callisto’s body, that there was still some shred of the woman she loved.

Xena would prove that there was. For both their sakes, she would—

“Are you even listening to me?”

She didn’t even bother to look up. “Not really, no.”

Draco’s tantrum was as predictable as it was short-lived. He slammed his fist down onto the table, cursing her name and invoking as many gods as he could think of, then let the moment sputter out and die as though it never happened at all. That was typical of him, and when she did finally look up, she found him shaking his head and staring at her as though he couldn’t figure out whether to be amused or infuriated by her attitude.

“I should’ve just taken your head when I had the chance, shouldn’t I?” It was his idea of a joke, Xena knew, but she scowled at him just the same. “Oh, don’t start pouting. I said ‘should’. We’re allies now, and you should know that I’m a man of my word.”

Xena did know that. Callisto, on the other hand…

“So you keep saying,” she said, playing up her own bitter mood to add to Callisto’s unique flavour. “All this nonsense you keep spouting about ‘honour’ and ‘integrity’. More like weakness and stupidity, if you ask me. Wasting half the day poking at maps and making plans, and for what? It’s boring.”

“Ah, yes.” He rolled his eyes, though he was starting to look more amused than angry. “Your way’s so much better, isn’t it? Just set everything on fire and hope for the best.”

The point was so accurate, so utterly perfect that Xena burst out laughing. Draco stared at her for a moment, then shook his head again and turned away; finally, he seemed to be realising that there was no sense in even trying to understand Callisto’s brand of humour. Took him long enough, Xena thought with a last little chuckle; for herself, she’d given up on that a long time ago.

Still, his words stuck with her long after she drowned them out, a spark of something in her chest, like the first faint flicker of an idea. Maybe there was something to be learned from Callisto’s methods after all…

“Sneer all you want,” she said after a moment, as much to cover the sudden racing of her thoughts as to counter his quip. “But you can’t deny it’s more effective than sitting around weeping over your precious Xena.”

“From what I’ve heard, that’s far more your speciality than mine.”

Xena rolled her eyes, but didn’t deny it. “Look,” she snapped. “You can sit around making plans until one or both of us dies of boredom or old age, or you can stick a pin in a random spot then burn it to the ground. I know which one I’m in favour of.”

“So do I.” Draco snorted, but there was a thin smile on his face just the same, as though he couldn’t deny the idea had its appeal. “But it’s not really my style. We’re warlords, not barbarians.”

“Same difference,” Xena muttered, neatly coupling Callisto’s immaturity with her own learned wisdom. “Do you want me under your feet for the rest of your life, or would you rather just get this nonsense over with so we can go our separate ways and never have to see each other again?”

Draco chuckled. “That, I’m definitely in favour of.”

“Good. So stick a pin in the stupid map already, and show me where you keep the torches.” The word struck a chord inside of her, lit up that little half-formed thought and turned it into something tangible, something she could work with. “Let’s get this thing finished.”

Draco gave the map a last cursory look, then put it to one side and looked up at her. “You’re awfully eager all of a sudden.”

That was true enough, though of course Xena couldn’t tell him why. Her head was spinning with ideas, slowly taking shape into something solid and dangerous, and she wanted nothing more than to turn around and leave him here with his silly map and his silly plans, and start turning her own into something real. She could feel the straw crackling under her feet, could see the mud, cold and dry, caking the walls, and for the first time since she got here she found herself thinking, really and truly thinking, what would Callisto do?

Of course, now that she’d heard the words spoken aloud, she felt foolish for not having thought of it sooner.

“You say ‘eager’,” she said, keeping her tone cool and breezy. “I say ‘bored with your endless prattling’.”

Draco gave her an odd look, as though sensing that her thoughts were elsewhere, then shrugged and turned back to his map. “Or else you’ve finally got the right kind of motivation,” he said with a cruel smile. “Amazing what a little incentive can do, isn’t it?”

He was certainly right about that, and Xena didn’t bother to pretend otherwise. “Don’t get too cocky,” she said instead, and showed off Callisto’s teeth. “I’m just sick to death of the sight of you.”

“That makes two of us,” Draco shot back, then jabbed a finger at a point on the map. “Here, then. No more than an hour on horseback. You, me, maybe half a dozen of my men, and enough burning oil to light up Mount Olympus.”

Xena let the corners of her lips lift into a grin. She thought about challenging him again, just to see how far she could push, but why risk straining things further?. Besides, even if Draco was willing to leave things to chance again — not very likely after Amphipolis — it didn’t much matter anyway; given an hour or two to herself while he made his overblown preparations, and she would find a far more Callisto-appropriate use for those torches.

“Fine by me,” she said, playing up her indifference. “You figure out the details, Plan Guy, and I’ll bring the style.”

“You’d better bring more than that,” he snapped, predictably aggravated by her nonchalance.

Oh, I will, Xena thought, but didn’t say so. Instead, she swept to her feet, making a spectacle of stretching out Callisto’s long limbs. It was comforting to see that his tastes hadn’t changed much since they last clashed swords, and she couldn’t deny relishing the heat in his eyes as he watched her move.

“If that’s all…” she said. “A girl needs her beauty rest. Wake me when you’re done playing with your… map.”

Draco hunched moodily over the thing, clearly insulted on its behalf. “Count on it,” he muttered, and didn’t bother telling her to stay where she was. “Try not to get into any trouble.”

“Who, little ol’ me?” Xena grinned again, playing up the exaggerated sweetness that Callisto used so well. Draco, who did not know her as well as Xena did, wasn’t clever enough to understand that it was a threat. “Perish the thought.”

She did stay out of trouble, though not because he told her to. She had work to do, things to figure out, and she didn’t want to be noticed before she was ready. She could hear Callisto’s voice in her ears, manic and giggling, exactly like Draco had said; she was so obsessed with burning the world and its people to the ground, with doing exactly what Xena had done to her all those years ago. It was right there in front of her, and wasn’t it just painfully ironic that the only path Xena could see out of this was the one Callisto would have chosen for herself? And how much more so that, for perhaps the first time in either of their lives, Callisto’s solution was the least bloody?

She should have thought of it sooner. All this time playing Callisto, getting under her skin and into her voice, she had been so careful to never let herself venture inside her head.

Too careful, it seemed. Xena — the old Xena, the one that Draco knew so well — would have jumped at the chance to raze a village or two, to make a point by making a funeral pyre, but Callisto didn’t care for that at all. Even if Draco had convinced her to march on Amphipolis instead of killing him outright, waving Xena’s name like a banner as he did, after what happened there she would never have let him make a second attempt. As soon as they returned, defeated and humiliated, she would have turned on him without even blinking. She would have burned this fortress to the ground the instant they set foot inside, calling it penance for the wasted chance and the waste of time.

Xena wasn’t usually one to indulge such brash and petty flights of temper herself… but given the situation, she would make an exception.

It was easy enough to look innocuous, wandering around seemingly without direction with a bored look on her face. It fooled Draco well enough, convinced him that she was just impatient and restless, and of course none of his men paid her any more attention now than they ever had before. She caught a handful of them milling about here and there — even those few were more than she expected, frankly — and for the most part they were content to just stay out of her way. No doubt it was enough that she wasn’t locked up or in chains or bleeding out onto the floor, and so long as she didn’t attempt anything stupid they acted as though she wasn’t there at all. Small surprise there, she thought with some amusement; Draco was hardly known for recruiting big thinkers.

In any case, Xena was good at this. She knew how to act meek in any body, and for once Callisto’s made the task even easier; she was wiry and feline where Xena was strong and solid, and only those familiar with her work would believe her capable of harming more than a fly. If she’d tried this in her own body, pacing back and forth, crouching to study a particular point on the wall or patch of straw on the ground, no doubt she would look more than a little bit suspicious; in Callisto’s body, she just looked… well, like Callisto. Everything Callisto did seemed suspicious, and that meant nothing actually was.

She took her time, finding the least conspicuous spots, the places where the mud was driest or the straw was thickest, the places she could work without drawing attention to herself. She measured out every detail with absolute precision, all the while feeding on what she had learned from her experience with Callisto. It was unnerving in a way, not least of all because there was a part of her that found it more than a little exhilarating, that thrilled in searching for weak spots and chinks in other people’s armour. It was the same part of her that had come alive when she first arrived here, when she and Draco had locked horns and matched wits, the part of her that hadn’t even realised she had missed this part of her old life.

It was a dangerous feeling to fall into, but right now it was the only thing she had, and it was much kinder than the alternative. Surely, even now, Gabrielle would understand that. Surely.

She let Draco do most of her dirty work for her. He took to the idea of fire like a horse to water, and Xena only had to nod and smile as he set to work organising his men and his weapons, preparing the oil and the torches, getting everything set up for their departure. He was the one who said ‘we leave at first light’, and who was Xena to argue when that gave her exactly the time-frame she wanted? Let him think that the way her face lit up was just Callisto being Callisto; the woman was a famed pyromaniac, after all. Why would he assume anything deeper when the obvious answer was right in front of him?

Then again, he’d always had that problem, a burden that always seemed to fall on men and women of honour. Xena had seen it happen to Gabrielle as well, more times than she could count. People with honest hearts and kind souls always saw the best in others, even when it was undeserved; it was so natural for them to just assume that everyone else felt as they did, that treachery was something only the cruel and calloused did, that nobody would be so heartless as to backstab someone who had treated them with respect. Xena had defeated Draco the same way last year, the last time he thought to march on Amphipolis, turning that good man’s honour against him in a challenge she knew he couldn’t win; she would use it against him now as well, hitting him in the one place he believed was safe: his home, his hearth, and, crucially, his honour.

They had agreed to a partnership. In Draco’s mind, that meant they were bound allies, and whatever suspicions he might have about her feelings for Gabrielle, he didn’t think for a moment that she would betray him for her sake. He was, of course, critically wrong.

Xena would do whatever it took to get Gabrielle back. She would have marched on a village for her, killed far less deserving men than the corpse who shared her cell. She would have bloodied her hands and not even thought twice about it. And yes, without even a moment’s hesitation, she would — and did — change the rules and think like Callisto. Without a moment’s hesitation, she would burn this place to the ground, and Draco with it if he didn’t have a back door or an exit plan. Better him than some nameless village; better to think like Callisto and burn one man’s home than follow her own instincts and burn down a hundred more.

Visiting Gabrielle was the hard part, the part that she knew could break her. A disapproving look, a tremor in her hands or in her voice, and Xena would be undone. That was why she made it her last stop.

She waited until nightfall, until the whole place was dark and mostly silent. If anyone ever asked, she would say it was to minimise the chance of being interrupted; in truth, she needed the darkness to shadow her face, and Gabrielle’s bruises. If she saw them, even for a moment…

Well, it didn’t bear thinking about.

Gabrielle hadn’t moved at all since Xena last stopped by to check on her. She was gripping the bars of her cell like they were the only thing keeping her upright, forehead pressed against the steel and eyes squeezed tightly shut. She didn’t look well at all, though Xena could hardly blame her for that; if she’d been forced to spend the best part of a day locked in a cell with a corpse, she probably wouldn’t be at her best either, and she had spent far more time milling among the dead than Gabrielle. Understandable, then, but still the sight of her like that, so angry and frightened and pale, was a blow to her heart.

“Hey,” she whispered, keeping her voice low. “Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle didn’t open her eyes. “Callisto.”

It was deliberate, the way she said that name, and there was something in her voice that Xena had never heard before, at least not from her. The last person who had said her name like that, so full of bitterness and betrayal, so lost and so broken, was Callisto herself. It upset her far more than she expected it to, and she wondered if Gabrielle even realised how much she herself sounded like the very thing she thought she saw in Xena. She supposed it didn’t matter; pain was pain, no matter whose voice it had, and Xena had been responsible for far too much of it lately.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, as kindly as she could.

Gabrielle tried to laugh. It came out hoarse and very dry; Xena wondered how long it had been since she’d had anything to drink. “Oh, you know…” She glanced back at the corpse, and swallowed very hard. “Pleasant company, at least?”

Xena ignored the sarcasm, but it wasn’t so easy to ignore the way Gabrielle still couldn’t seem to look at her. “You’re shaking.”

That was true enough, and it made her ache, but it had nothing to do with the way she leaned in, to study her, closer and closer until their faces were all but touching. Convenient though the moment was, and as much as some hidden part of her sang at the almost-contact, it was just an excuse to get in close enough to whisper, to position herself in such a way that shielded both of their faces from prying eyes. One could never be too careful in a place like this, and Xena had no intention of letting herself be overheard.

Gabrielle seemed to realise that, because she didn’t pull away. She still tensed, though, just like she always did when Xena got too close in this body. She wondered if the moment would have been different if she’d been in her own, if Gabrielle would have let herself forget what had happened here and taken a touch of comfort from the forced intimacy. Honestly, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know; in a way, perhaps it was kinder to blame Callisto for the way Gabrielle flinched and squeezed her eyes shut. Better than accepting the truth that it was all on Xena.

“What are you doing?” Gabrielle asked, voice barely a breath.

Xena grimaced, pressed her nose against the curve of Gabrielle’s ear. “I have a plan,” she whispered, as softly as she could. “I’m going to get us both out of here.”

Gabrielle sighed, but didn’t pull away. “I see,” she whispered back. Her voice was flat, hollow, as though she was seeing a complete stranger, neither Xena nor Callisto. In its own way, Xena thought, that was almost worse. “How many people are going to die this time?”

“None, if they’re smart. If they’re not…”

She cut herself off too quickly, letting the silence say what she couldn’t — ‘if they’re not, that’s hardly my fault’ — and tried not to let the look on Gabrielle’s face cut too deep. She couldn’t afford to apologise. There would be time enough later to wash this place and these deeds off herself, time enough later to look back and wonder if Draco and his men had been smart enough to get out while they could. For now, though, she had to be practical, and if that meant channelling Callisto’s callouses as well as her obsessions, then so be it.

“I see,” Gabrielle mumbled, almost inaudible.

“It’s the best I can do,” Xena told her. “And it’s better than the alternative. Trust me on that.”

Gabrielle flinched again, eyes widening with something like panic. Xena had seen her frightened before, of course, but never when she looked at her. Even when she thought she was Callisto, when the real Callisto had force-fed her so many lies and so much hatred that she’d put a knife to Xena’s neck, still it wasn’t fear in her eyes when they met. Anger, yes. Hatred, doubt, pain, all of those things, of course, but never the kind of fear that she wore now. Never the kind of fear that said ‘if I wasn’t locked up I’d be running from you’.

“I don’t know if I can.” It was a whisper, not like Xena’s to keep her voice down but because it was all she had the strength for. “Trust you, I mean. After… after…”

“Gabrielle.”

“I mean… I know you’re still in there. I know you’re… I know you’re still you. But I look at you, and then I look back at him, and I…” Her shoulders heaved for a moment, as though someone had thrown a heavy weight across them, and Xena didn’t need to follow her gaze to know that she was looking at the corpse again. “I don’t know if I can. In here, at least. I’m sorry.”

“I understand that.” She did. That was the painful part. “But we don’t have much time.”

“We never do, do we?”

“Gabrielle.” She leaned in again, dropped her voice even lower and letting it get sharper; she hated the way it made her sound, ruthless and spiteful, but experience had taught her that sometimes sharpness was the only way to get through to Gabrielle in moments of urgency. “Either I do this now, or you’re stuck in here until Draco and I burn down someone else’s village. Which would you prefer?”

She could feel Gabrielle shaking against her, limbs like ice. “Honestly,” she said, ever so softly, “I’d prefer it if you just got out now. On your own, if you have to. Anything but… anything but this.”

She didn’t need to explain what she meant by ‘this’; Xena could tell that she was still looking at the gods-damned corpse, and that told her everything she needed to know. “Gabrielle, I…”

“I know. You’d never do that, would you? You’d never save yourself while I was stuck in here.” She sighed, so heavily that her whole body tensed. “It’s like you said: it doesn’t matter who or where you are, I’m always your weakness.”

“You are.” There was no sense in denying it, after all. “But you’re my strength too. You can’t have one without the other.”

“I’d like to try,” Gabrielle sighed, and swallowed like a spasm. “Being weak is kind of a burden.”

“It can be,” Xena conceded gently. “But not always.” She breathed out, nose brushing the curve of Gabrielle’s jaw, and though she knew that Gabrielle would never have allowed it if she thought she had a choice, still a part of her relished the closeness. “For now, though, I need you to be strong. I need to know that you’ll be able to stand up on your own when the time comes.”

Gabrielle stiffened, and Xena recognised her trademark hyper-defensiveness. Xena had won countless battles and lost almost as many, but Gabrielle was still too young and too innocent to have won very much of anything; to her, every little stumble was a personal insult, the world rising up to tell her that she would never be good enough. That wasn’t true, of course, but Gabrielle hadn’t experienced enough to realise it. Xena had only asked her if she was strong enough, but what she heard was ‘I know you’re not’.

“I’m not an invalid,” she said, as though that was an answer.

Xena closed her eyes for a moment, weighing the part of her that wanted to offer some comfort against the part of her that knew they were on a schedule, that knew she couldn’t afford to get sidetracked by softer feelings. Gabrielle’s face always seemed to bring out that side of her, the side she never really thought she had, but right now it was an enemy in disguise, and she could not indulge it.

“I didn’t say you were,” she said instead. “I just said that I’m going to need you to stand on your own. Once we’re out of here, I’ll take care of you properly.” Gabrielle shifted again, mouth already open with another protestation, but this time Xena didn’t give her the chance to voice it. “No. This isn’t a discussion. We get out of here, and I will take care of you. No arguments, no playing it tough, not any more. That’s how it’s going to be.”

“Sure.” She sounded sullen, but not quite as much as Xena expected. “Assuming you actually get us out of here in the first place, right?” Her smile was uncharacteristically cold. “Your plans aren’t exactly fool-proof when you don’t run them by me first. It’s a miracle you’re even still alive, really, after some of the stupid things you’ve done.”

Xena had to crack a smile at that. It wasn’t enough, a vain crack at their usual light-hearted banter, but at least it was something. She could work with it. “You’re one to talk.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not the one making stupid plans, am I?”

“Oh, no.” She couldn’t help herself; time was of the essence; she knew that, of course, but she couldn’t bring herself to give this up. It was too rare, too precious. “Amphipolis was a brilliant one, wasn’t it?”

“That was your plan,” Gabrielle snapped, and just like that the moment was gone.

She pulled away completely, slumping back against the wall, as though all that beautiful strength had just bled out of her, eyes shut tight to block out the two bodies she hated so much, the dead one and the living as well.

Silently, furiously, Xena cursed herself for the mis-step. She hadn’t meant for it to come out the way it had, but as ever she’d lacked Gabrielle’s talent for speaking, for turning good intentions into a beautiful speech or a pitch-perfect riposte. Xena was clumsy, as uncomfortable with words as Gabrielle was with weapons, and apparently it was just as dangerous.

She only meant that it was foolish and headstrong for Gabrielle to try and fight in her condition, to stand back-to-back with a militia that could have taken care of itself perfectly well without her. She only meant that Gabrielle had been a fool to throw herself in harm’s way as blithely as she had, to set herself up as an easy target for a warlord with an eye for weaknesses to exploit. She only meant

But of course, Gabrielle didn’t care what she meant. Even if she could have understood all of that, it didn’t make a difference to how she felt about it. Angry and upset and hurt as she was, all she knew was that the woman who looked and acted so much like her worst enemy was criticising her for standing up and defending the innocent. Xena could hardly blame her for being upset about that, though that didn’t make the apology any less awkward.

“Gabrielle.” She sighed. “I know how that must have sounded. I didn’t…”

“I can stand up just fine,” Gabrielle said; Xena pretended not to notice that her face was wet. “Is that all?”

“Gabrielle…”

Callisto.” The name sounded hard, but Xena could tell that it came entirely too easily. It shouldn’t have, but it did, and that broke her heart. “I’d like to be by myself now.” She cracked her eyes open, and they were hard as well. “Unless there’s something else you want from me?”

The implication was needlessly cruel, not least of all because they both knew that Callisto and Xena were both very capable of such things, of taking advantage or simply taking what they wanted, of doing whatever they felt like without remorse. Xena liked to believe that she had put that soullessness behind her, but the same could not be said for Callisto. The way Gabrielle said it, unflinching and thoughtless, as though they really were one and the same, made Xena’s stomach turn. In its own way, it struck harder than the name.

“No,” she said sadly. “No, there’s nothing else. Just… be ready when I come for you, all right? Be ready, and…” She glanced at the corpse, rotted and stinking and so close to Gabrielle. It was the stuff of nightmares, even to a war-hardened soul like hers; to Gabrielle, it must be a thousand times worse. Xena wanted to reach in and pull it out through the bars, but of course she couldn’t. She could only turn away, tears stinging in her eyes, and finish, “…and be strong.”

She knew that Gabrielle would. She had never needed Xena to tell her that. Still, maybe hearing it would remind her that she cared.

If it did, she gave no sign of it, though Xena wasn’t really expecting one. Her eyes were closed again, her breathing shallow, and she didn’t even try to hide the fact that she was still shaking. Xena couldn’t tell whether it was the cold or her emotions or something else entirely; she wanted to lean in again, to study her skin and find out for sure, but she knew that Gabrielle would never forgive her if she tried to touch her again right now. It didn’t take a genius to see that she was uncomfortable, that the Xena she knew was a thousand leagues away from the woman she was seeing. No amount of whispering or compassion would change that, at least not while she was in there, and touching her now would just make it worse. That was the last thing in the world Xena wanted; far better to make herself suffer than be responsible for any more of Gabrielle’s. And so, aching down to her bones, she turned to leave.

“I’ll be back soon,” she said; against her will, Callisto’s voice twisted the promise into a threat. “Be ready.”

Gabrielle tried very hard to ignore her, to pretend that she’d blocked her out entirely, but Xena noted the way that her chin dipped ever so slightly, head almost bowing in the faintest ghost of a nod; even now, it seemed, she couldn’t help herself. She had to respond, had to react. Her body betrayed her heart, just as it always did, and the sight wrapped itself like a tourniquet around Xena’s own.

Out of sight, she took a moment to steady herself, to brace for what she had to do and wash down the taste of what she’d just seen. Then, with her head held high, her step strong and sure, she made her way to the armoury.

Draco was nothing if not obsessive in his organisation, and the armoury reflected that to a frankly disconcerting level. The torches were stacked and lined up in a neat row against one wall, the oil bottled and stacked with similar precision along the other. Everything was in perfect order just as he’d said it would be, in anticipation of the next day’s planned assault. Xena couldn’t help thinking it was adorable, if somewhat misguided, that he genuinely trusted a renowned pyromaniac like Callisto to run around unsupervised with so much potential fire at her fingertips, just waiting to be lit.

Blessedly, the oil was neither heavy nor obtrusive. The bottles were made for transportation, small and light enough to carry on horseback, but in a quantity vast enough to fell half a city if the whim took them. Even if she failed in this, Xena doubted that Draco or his men would miss a bottle or two from such a heavy supply. As for the torches, stacked and ready to burn… well. If she was lucky she would only need one, and if she wasn’t she doubted it would matter one way or the other.

It wasn’t exactly delicate work, but she went about it carefully just the same, all too conscious that every breath ran the risk of discovery. Draco slept like a rock, she knew, because he always surrounded himself with people he trusted; they were the ones she was worried about. She hadn’t seen much of his so-called army since she’d arrived here, but she’d learned too many times the dangers in underestimating security in a place like this. Even without sentinels or watchmen, there was always some eager-minded underling looking for an opportunity to take initiative and make a name for himself. Xena had no qualms about knocking idiots unconscious if they got in her way, but she wanted to look Gabrielle in the eye when this was done and tell her that she kept it clean.

She spread the oil sparsely. Stealthy, subtly, and wholly Callisto, she stuck to the midnight shadows and only stopped when she was sure that she was all alone. A few drops here, a few there, only where she’d found the mud and the straw to be thickest, and never enough to be noticed or recognised except by the keenest eye. In a place like this, where even the floor was a fuse waiting to be lit, she wouldn’t need any help to make the flames spread; on the contrary, she did everything she could to make sure that it spread slowly. Draco was a better man than most in their line of work, and she had no real desire to hurt him, but she would not shy away from what she needed to do. She had faith in his survival instincts, trusted that he would find a way out of here before the place burned down, but there was no harm in helping him along if she could.

Gabrielle would, after all. And so Xena did.

She took a moment to compose herself when it was done, to catch her breath a little and convince herself that this truly was the cleanest way. Was it really one or the other? Burning down a fortress or burning down a village? Was there really no way out that didn’t involve loss of life or needless property damage? She wanted so much to be the reasonable, rational Xena that Gabrielle had fallen for that day in Poteidaia, the Xena who had stopped Draco in his tracks with words and a hastily-issued challenge, who had the physical prowess to do whatever she set her mind to and not even think about it. She wanted so much to be Gabrielle’s Xena through and through, the woman she had worked so hard to become, but there was not enough left of her in a body that came up short at every turn.

She couldn’t fight in Callisto’s body like she could in her own. She couldn’t even match Draco in single combat, much less defeat him and escape with Gabrielle in tow. In her own body, she would have been leagues from here long before it came down to this, but Callisto’s was forged in a different kind of fire and it fought with a different kind of fury. In time, she might master it; in time she would have to. She would become as formidable as Callisto as she ever was as Xena; given time and freedom and just a little discipline, she would transform Callisto’s name into a force for good just as she had transformed her her own, until no-one trembled to hear it at all. Not even Gabrielle.

In time, she would do all of that. But not now.

Now, she wasn’t ready. It was too soon, too early, and there was too much riding on her shoulders. She could only work with what she had, and her tools right now were woefully limited: cunning, cleverness, and fire. Just like all those years ago in Cirra, Callisto’s body would find itself surrounded by flames, and Xena had to take comfort in knowing that at least this time it wasn’t done out of cruelty. At least this time her intentions were pure and true, even if her actions were still the opposite. As Xena or as Callisto, it didn’t matter any more.

It didn’t matter, she told herself, breathing hard with the torch in her hand. What mattered was Gabrielle. Her strength, her weakness, her everything. She was hurt and frightened, stuck in a frozen cell with every one of her nightmares made flesh, and Xena could not allow that. Nothing else mattered; nothing else could matter. Draco, his men, his fortress, his idiotic plans… they were all irrelevant, and he had brought all of this on himself.

Xena let herself get angry, let herself feel the need for vengeance, for justice, for a violent end to a hateful situation. She let herself feel the worst things, the things Callisto would feel, let them overtake her completely so that there was no more room for doubt or hesitation.

Just as the rage overtook her as she slaughtered that bastard in that gods-forsaken cell, just as it overwhelmed her with visions of what he had done to Gabrielle, she let it overwhelm and overtake her again, not because she wanted it but because she needed it, because she could not afford to doubt. She let it feed her, and she fed it too, overwrought as she remembered the look on Gabrielle’s face when she found her there in that place, the desperation in her eyes as she looked up and whispered ‘you don’t… I mean, we don’t…’, and the gut-punch of betrayal when she realised that yes, Xena still did.

She did, yes, and she would. Here, again, she would. Because she had to. Because someone had to. Because she would do far more than this to protect Gabrielle from far less than that. And now, just like then, she would not regret it.

“May the gods forgive me,” she whispered to the walls, knowing that no-one would hear. “And may she forgive me too.”

She closed her eyes, held her breath, and lit the torch.

*

Chapter Text

*

Gabrielle waited.

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—

Gabrielle!”

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.

“Xena…”

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.

“Let’s go.”

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.”

*

Chapter Text

*

It was a long time before Gabrielle drifted off to sleep.

Xena watched over her like a hawk, heart breaking a little more with every passing moment. It had been years since she last felt an ache as deep as this, so raw and so pure that it felt almost visceral. She wanted to give instructions, tell Gabrielle to lie still, to stop tossing and turning and fidgeting, or else just offer to sing her a lullaby or something equally ridiculous until she fell asleep, but she knew that it wouldn’t help. Gabrielle was uncomfortable enough as it was; saying anything would just make it worse. She would jerk upright, take one look at Callisto’s face, and of course she would never get to sleep after that.

So, though it killed her a little, she held her tongue and watched without saying or doing anything. Gabrielle needed to process what had happened at her own pace, needed time to reel and recoil and recover, and anything Xena said would only get in the way. They were so fundamentally different in the way they worked through their problems; Xena preferred to face hers head-on — ideally with a sword or her chakram in hand — but Gabrielle simply couldn’t process things that way. She preferred to ruminate, to sit quietly in some secluded little corner and feel out her emotions before she talked them through. That was Gabrielle all over: always thinking, always feeling.

Xena knew that she couldn’t force her to deal with this the way she would; she couldn’t force her to deal with it at all, not before she was ready. For once, she would have to be the patient one, reminding herself over and over that it wasn’t just them Gabrielle was struggling with, that it was more than just the bruises on her body that hurt, that it wasn’t just the fact that her beloved Xena shoved a sword through some low-life’s chest. It was the fact that these things had happened while Xena was in Callisto’s body, wearing her face and speaking in her voice. That wasn’t Xena’s biggest issue, of course, but to Gabrielle it was the whole world.

Understanding that was easy; working through it was not. Callisto was still a sore point; for Xena she was a permanent reminder of her most unforgivable deeds, all the innocents she had needlessly killed, and for Gabrielle she was a dozen different breeds of torture all rolled into one, the woman who had killed her husband and the woman who had strung her up and burned her alive and used her as a tool to get to Xena. Callisto represented the worst parts of them both, Xena’s power and Gabrielle’s powerlessness, and for as long as Xena wore her face neither one of them could ever hope to outrun that.

When Gabrielle finally did fall asleep, it was more like losing a battle than letting it happen naturally. As stubborn as ever, she resisted it to the very end, and even when she finally did fall under she was never truly still. She must have started dreaming the instant she drifted off, though, because it was only a few short moments before she started struggling again, twitching and shuddering and choking on Callisto’s name.

Xena clenched her fists until her nails cut into her palms, tried to distract herself with the sting. She’d promised to keep her distance, promised to stay out of the way no matter what happened, and she would stay true to that even if it killed her.

(Watching, impotent and useless, she couldn’t help thinking that it might just do that.)

Gabrielle dreamed in much the same way she did everything else: with passion, and without restraint. She didn’t know how to control herself, how to hold her emotions on the inside or keep them from owning her like Xena did, and that was as true in sleep as it was when she was awake. Xena was stoic, always focused in on her body, letting the rhythm of her breathing dictate the way she reacted. She was always steady, always strong, slow when she could manage it and ferocious when she couldn’t; she only let show what she felt was truly needed in the moment. Gabrielle was the opposite; she felt with all of herself, so completely that it often drowned her. Where Xena bent her feelings to match her body, with Gabrielle it always seemed as though her body was bowing to her feelings.

Even in sleep, she had so many of them. Xena thought it must be exhausting to feel so much all the time.

It certainly seemed that way now. Her face was contorted, her body even more so, tossing and turning almost more now than she had when she was awake; Xena knew from her own experience that her injuries would not thank her for it when she woke. Much like her emotions her dreams took her over completely, and Xena hated the helplessness of having promised not to help bring her out of them.

Strange, how easily she’d grown used to these things, to Gabrielle and her feelings, to the way they overtook her completely, to the way they manifested in her dreams. Gabrielle always dreamed so vividly, so violently; in their first few weeks together, Xena had been startled and annoyed by how relentless it was. It irritated her that this talkative little tag-along was just as noisy when she slept as when she was awake. It drove her to distraction her that even being unconscious wasn’t enough to shut her up. It infuriated her… until the first time she left Gabrielle alone for a few days and found that she could no longer sleep without her.

She felt that way now too. Gabrielle was easily within reach, but she might as well have been half the world away for all the difference it made when Xena couldn’t touch her or talk to her. She couldn’t hold her when she cried out, couldn’t whisper her back to wakefulness when the nightmares overwhelmed her, couldn’t do any of the dozens of little things she’d taken for granted before Callisto came along and rewrote the rules for them both. She felt exactly like she did back then in those early, embarrassing days, like this was something new and terrible, like she hadn’t even realised how completely she depended on those little points of contact until they were taken away. It made her angry, not just with Callisto for taking them, but with Gabrielle as well for refusing to even try to push through.

That was unfair, of course, and she knew it. Gabrielle, so much more than Xena herself, had always had a hard time with situations like this. Intimacy came as naturally to her as breathing, but she hadn’t been out in the world for as long as Xena had and she hadn’t learned to temper her reactions to people; she responded on instinct, taking in the world as she saw it and building it into what she wanted it to be. She couldn’t push past what she saw in Xena now, her deeds twisting into Callisto’s, as though she could make them that way just by seeing it. Xena understood why, and she wished that she could be more patient about it. Gabrielle needed her to keep her distance, and Xena should have respected that; instead, hating herself, she found that a part of her resented it.

Gabrielle cried out again, interrupting her train of thought before it could break her. Callisto’s name one last time, then Xena’s, every bit as broken and tortured as it was back in the tavern. Xena felt her heart pulse, a flare of pain so potent that even her famed discipline couldn’t quash it.

“It’s me,” she whispered. “It’s always been me, Gabrielle. You, more than anyone, should know that.”

Before she even realised she was doing it, she was lurching up to her feet. She swayed for a second or two, a little disoriented by the sudden motion, then locked her legs to iron and stormed off into the underbrush. She had to, or else she would give in to her heart and break her promise. Another moment, another shout of her name, another choked-off whisper of Callisto’s, and all the self-control in the world wouldn’t be enough to keep her from going to Gabrielle’s side and holding her until it stopped.

She didn’t like leaving her alone, even if she was still within earshot. She knew better than to think for a second that Draco would be after them so soon — his ego was unmatched, but he wasn’t stupid, and he respected his men too much to send them out on a hunt before finding a new roof for their heads — but still she hated leaving her exposed. She wanted to be there, to protect her even when she knew there was nothing to protect her from. Just one more of those weird little habits that had crept up on her, she supposed, in the year or so since they started travelling together.

Still, better to leave her alone than hurt her with good intentions, and so she did. She cut a choppy path through the scenery, not because it was in her way but because hacking and slashing at something almost-solid made her feel like she was making herself useful. Sword in hand, boots tramping down the earth beneath, and with no-one else around to look at her and see a monster, for almost the first time since she awoke in Callisto’s skin she felt almost like herself.

Away from their makeshift camp, she let her practicality take over. She scouted the surrounding area, sought out the best places to gather food, find water and wood and anything else they might want. They couldn’t stay long; for all that she wanted Gabrielle well on the road to recovery before they left, she had no intention of pushing their luck here any more than they had to, and she was already laying out maps in her head of the journey back to Amphipolis. It was a long way to go without horses, though, and Gabrielle was in no condition to walk the distance just yet. A day or so to recuperate, at least, and she would see where that brought them.

In any case, there was no shortage of resources out here. Wood for fire, fruit and berries growing on the trees and the low rustling of wildlife all around if they needed something more substantial. Plenty to sustain two weary wanderers for as long as they needed it.

Finding water was simple too, and Xena couldn’t ignore the way it made her heart sing when she stumbled upon a shallow, fast-flowing river. A lake was probably too much to ask for with the ground coverage, but then she hadn’t really been expecting one. The river was more than good enough for what they needed, enough to slake their thirst and, almost more importantly, enough to get Gabrielle cleaned up if she still wanted to bathe when she woke. It made Xena feel a little closer to normal, that for all her failings this was one promise she could easily fulfil. It helped her to not feel so guilty about the distance she’d come for fear of breaking the others.

She sat by the river for a while, drinking a little and thinking a lot. She wrestled with herself, the parts of her that wanted to confront things, to fact the conflict between them head-on, warring against the parts of her that knew it had to be Gabrielle’s decision, that she couldn’t face this until she was ready. Xena wasn’t as good at feeling things out as Gabrielle, though; whenever she let things simmer they ended up festering and rotting, and after the time she’d spent in company with dead things Gabrielle had already been forced to face too much of that already.

Gabrielle needed compassion. She needed a little gods-forsaken patience, and Xena was simply not equipped to give it. Her instincts ran counter to everything Gabrielle needed from her, and though this was far from the first time their natures had clashed like this the added barrier of Callisto’s face made it feel more insurmountable than ever before.

The sun was starting its descent when she returned to their camp. She’d spent a while collecting water, gathering up firewood and fruits that she knew were edible, taking some time to prepare for the night ahead before giving in to the necessity of going back. It helped her to find a kind of peace, a rhythm in routine that helped keep her steady.

Gabrielle was still asleep when she returned, though she didn’t seem any more restful than she had been earlier. She wasn’t as violent as before, though, no doubt having exhausted her battered body with too much thrashing; Xena supposed that was something of a victory, if not really much of one. She was still tossing and turning, but it was less aggressive now, the outbursts and cries reduced to little murmurs and occasional whimpers; all in all, it seemed like a more private, quieter kind of torment.

Xena, true to her word, did not wake her, focusing instead on building a fire. They didn’t really need one yet, but the mindless distraction kept her hands busy and gave her something to do. The labour wasn’t exactly taxing, but she went about it as loudly as she could in hopes that the noise or the smell of smoke would rouse Gabrielle from her dreaming, wake her so Xena wouldn’t have to.

It did, albeit slowly. Gabrielle stirred groggily, eyelids starting to flutter in time with the crackling of the fire, and after a few drawn-out moments she finally rolled onto her back and let them open. Xena didn’t say anything, but she watched out of the corner of her eye as Gabrielle’s breathing finally evened out, seemingly calmer awake than in slumber.

Xena tried to ignore her. She didn’t want to spoil the moment, didn’t want Gabrielle to feel like she was under constant scrutiny. Besides, if her dream-forged whimpers were anything to go by, Xena’s current face was the last thing she’d want to see right now. Better to stay quiet, keep her eyes on the fire, pretend she hadn’t noticed her waking.

In the end, it was Gabrielle who broke the silence, voice rusted and hollow. “Thank you.”

Xena poked at the fire, watched the flames rise, and made a point of not looking up. “For what?”

“You know what.” Gabrielle took a deep breath, as though bracing herself for something excruciating, and slowly sat upright. She winced a little, but didn’t cry out. Good enough, Xena thought. “How long was I asleep?”

“Not long enough,” Xena said with a gentle, chiding shrug. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” Gabrielle said.

The answer was predictable, of course, but her voice was a couple of octaves lower than usual as said it, the way it got sometimes when she was lying and secretly wanted to get caught.

Xena sighed, eyes still on the fire. “Really?”

“Yes, really.” Gabrielle had pressed her fingertips into the dirt, drawing little shapes and patterns as though in need of a distraction. “Can I go and clean up now? Or are you going to make me wait until morning?”

Xena bit back another sigh. “I’d rather you wait,” she said, truthfully. “But you don’t have to if you don’t want to. There’s a river a little ways in that direction—” She gestured with one arm, pointing vaguely into the forest. “It should be easy enough to find by yourself, if you don’t want my company.”

She’d meant to sound light, like she didn’t much care one way or another, but she did care and it showed. For all her restraint, all her discipline and talent, still in moments like this her heart painted itself on her sleeve without her consent. Xena could never hide her thoughts from Gabrielle; perhaps that was another reason why she always preferred the direct approach when they had issues to work through. She didn’t like to throw out cheap insinuations or play stupid little head-games the way Gabrielle did. She liked to say things outright if she had to say them at all — if a point was worth making, then what was wrong with just making it? — but Gabrielle was nothing like that, and Xena had learned too many times that it wasn’t always an option. For now, at least, she knew better than to try, and so her frustrations bled out in other ways, a tension that she couldn’t quite control and a sharp tone that she instantly regretted.

Gabrielle swallowed, visibly stung by the tone if not the words, then turned her head to follow Xena’s direction. “I wouldn’t want to bore you,” she mumbled.

It was a weak excuse, and Xena wouldn’t let her get away with it. “You’re never a bore to me, Gabrielle. You know that.”

“Sometimes I do,” Gabrielle admitted. The honesty, painful as it was, surprised them both. Xena opened her mouth to say something, anything that might capitalise on the impromptu confession, but Gabrielle was already blushing and stumbling on before she got the chance. “Anyway, I won’t be long. There doesn’t seem to be much point in dragging you out there too.”

I’d go anywhere with you, Xena thought, and immediately chided herself for it. Now wasn’t the time for that kind of sentimentality. She needed to pretend that she didn’t feel as deeply as she did, needed to pretend that she didn’t care. If she let herself think too much, she would never let Gabrielle out of her sight again. The tenderness would smother her, frighten her, and that was the last thing Xena wanted.

“Practical,” she said instead. “If you need anything, just holler. I’ll find you.”

Gabrielle nodded, but didn’t say anything. She swung to her feet, swayed unsteadily for a couple of seconds, then turned and limped away into the brush. Xena watched without a word, trying just a fraction too hard to school her heart into being silent as well.

It struck very hard, having to watch Gabrielle struggling to hold herself upright, and not being able to support or carry her or even offer to try. Had she been in her own body, she knew beyond all doubt that Gabrielle would not have hesitated for even a moment before asking for help, leaning on Xena as surely as she’d lean on her staff. Hers wasn’t the only barrier, though; even if Gabrielle would have been willing to accept the help, Xena doubted that Callisto’s body had the strength to see the offer through. In her own body she could carry Gabrielle to the ends of the worth without breaking a sweat, but in Callisto’s she could no more carry her weight than she could have borne Atlas’s burden.

Besides, Gabrielle would sooner break her own legs than lean on Callisto’s arm, so what was the point in dwelling on it?

Xena sighed, hating the situation and all its angles. Hers, Gabrielle’s, both of them together. It was frustrating, not least of all because she had never felt like this before. Gabrielle was the first of so many things for her, the first person Xena had ever truly believed when they claimed to believe in her. Not even Hercules had that kind of power, not like this; he had a way with so many things, but he never made her heart stop when he spoke to her, not like Gabrielle did seemingly without even realising it. No-one had ever done that to her before — at least not just by having faith in her — and it made Xena angry that someone like Callisto could step in and destroy that. Even after she’d died, even after she was sent to Tartarus, still somehow she had that power.

She had already worked so hard, come so far, all at Gabrielle’s urging, all for her sake. It was too much to become so undone so quickly.

“I’ll make it right,” she seethed to herself, turning at last away from the fire. “Mark my words, I’ll make it right.”

She crossed to a nearby tree, a gnarled, aged thing with knotted roots all tangled in the ground. Had Gabrielle been there, she would have told Xena to leave it alone, to respect the natural world even down to its poor decrepit trees, but of course she wasn’t. Not that it would have mattered if she had; Xena didn’t have a great deal of patience for Gabrielle’s love-the-world stuff, at least not as long as she was apologising to her breakfast while she ate it and writing odes to the twigs they burned for warmth. In any case, with a long, arduous trek back to Amphipolis ahead of them, no horse and no supplies to speak of, she had to do something. She had to at least try, and if the only way of making herself useful right now was to tear one of nature’s living things to pieces, then she wouldn’t even blink. She would endure Gabrielle’s ‘ode to a tree’ a thousand times over if it made things even a tiny bit easier for them both.

She ripped loose the biggest branch she could reach, a long, stubborn thing that took all of Callisto’s strength to tear from the tree. Had she been in her own body, it wouldn’t have taken more than a flick of the wrist, but Callisto’s talents had always been in her dexterity and her speed, never her brute strength, so instead of simply yanking the thing down without a thought she found herself tugging and tugging and turning the air blue with foul language.

Once she had the branch she wanted, and had dragged it back to the fire, it was a simple task to whittle it down into a staff. For all that she lacked in physical strength, Callisto had enough weapons to arm a small city, and Xena had little trouble finding the right edge or the right point for the right part of the job.

It helped her to focus, gave her something to pour her frustrated energies into, something that she could look at and watch her progress as it unfolded. Since this whole business had started, Gabrielle had been the opposite of that; over and over, Xena had found that trying to make things normal between them was like slamming her head against the wall. At least with this, an old tree-branch and a crude makeshift staff, she could see where she was going, and how far that was from where she once was.

Practiced as she was in making weapons from whatever was lying around, the task didn’t take very long, and when she was finished Xena allowed herself the ghost of a smile, leaning as far back as she could to admire her handiwork.

It wasn’t the best she’d ever done, to be honest. Gabrielle was used to wielding a real staff, a perfectly balanced, finely-crafted Amazon weapon, and Xena’s meagre effort was as far from that as a stick could possibly get; if she tried to strike someone with it, the whole thing would probably shatter into a million pieces.

But then, of course that wasn’t what she’d made it for. Gabrielle was weak and injured, and though she still insisted that she was fine Xena knew better, and she knew that she wouldn’t endure the journey to Amphipolis unaided. She would never lean on Xena while she wore Callisto’s skin, and Xena was in no position to press the issue, so this was a comfortable alternative for them both.

It wasn’t a fighting staff, just a walking stick. A crude one, perhaps, but it would do its job well enough, and give Gabrielle something to hold on to when she felt frightened or helpless. Xena had learned time and time again the value of having something like that, whether she would admit she needed it or not, and in any event it helped her to feel useful, like she could still do something for Gabrielle even if she wasn’t allowed within touching distance of her. Not much, oh no, but something.

It was a gift, if not a particularly well-made one, and Gabrielle more than anyone Xena had ever known would understand what it meant. She wouldn’t need to see the quality; she would recognise the gesture behind it.

It was a bad idea to go after her, and she knew it. The sensible thing would be to wait, to bide her time while Gabrielle finished up in the river and surprise her with the silly thing when she came back. Unfortunately, Xena’s sensibility was sporadic at best, and her pride and impatience overrode her common sense. She couldn’t help herself.

Besides she was starting to worry a little. Gabrielle had said that she wouldn’t be long, but she’d been absent long enough for Xena to find a decent-sized branch and carve it into a not-so-decent staff; surely that was reason enough to go and check up on her. After what they’d just been through, who could blame her for being a little over-protective?

Following her was easy enough, though Xena already knew where she was headed. Gabrielle left deep prints in the earth, the combined product of limping and knowing that she couldn’t conceal her trail from Xena even if she’d wanted to. Her steps were heavy, visibly clumsy and unusually close together; Xena winced at the sight of them, knowing all too well the kind of pain that would cause the toes to dig in as deep as the heels.

She was right where she said she’d be, washing herself in the water, but still the sight of her knocked the air straight out of Xena’s lungs.

She was on her knees in the fastest flowing part of the river, throwing water on herself as though in the grip of some kind of madness; she was shaking, scrubbing at her skin like a woman possessed, like she was trying to scrub it off. Her clothes lay discarded on the bank, soaked through and in various states of frustrated disarray, as though Gabrielle had made a start at washing them as well but had given up halfway through to work on her body instead.

The sight of her like that, frenzied and desperate, broke Xena’s heart in two and sent the makeshift staff clattering to the ground. She was shaking too, she realised, her shoulders hitching with the ache, the need to help. Damn the consequences to Tartarus, she thought; more than anything in the world she wanted to dive into that water, take Gabrielle into her arms, and stop her before she did herself any real damage.

The only thing that stopped her was remembering the last time she touched her, just after they’d gotten themselves free from Draco’s burning fortress. Xena was so overwhelmed, weak-boned with relief that they were both alive and safe; she had thrown herself over Gabrielle without even thinking, held her tight and hard and whispered her name so many times that she’d lost count. Gabrielle, far from feeling the same way, had lashed out and kicked her away, more traumatised by the weight of Callisto’s body on top of hers than grateful for their too-narrow escape. Unintentional though it had been at the time, Xena didn’t want to put her through that again.

Still, though, she couldn’t just stand there in silence, couldn’t just watch with twitching hands as Gabrielle drowned herself in things that didn’t exist, nightmare phantasms that couldn’t be washed clean with a little water and a quick scrubbing. Xena wanted to dive in and help, but she couldn’t do that; Gabrielle would have wanted her to leave her alone completely, but she couldn’t do that either. The only compromise she could think of, albeit one that would leave them both unsatisfied, was to stay on the shore and call to her from there. Impotent, useless, but at least she would try.

“Gabrielle!” She tried to keep her voice at least mostly tender, but it wasn’t easy. Callisto’s voice could drop almost as low as her own when she set her mind to it, but not when she she had to shout to be heard over the cascading water. “Don’t you think that’s enough?”

Gabrielle’s back stiffened. She didn’t straighten up, but Xena could see the muscles going whipcord-tight beneath the skin, across the curve of her spine and the blue-black bruises still colouring her body. She didn’t turn around either, didn’t let Xena see her face, but of course she didn’t have to. She could see from the tension in her jaw that her teeth were chattering, could see from the strain in her neck and shoulders, that her whole body was shaking with the cold, could see from all those subtle, involuntary tells that she was struggling too with the emotional weight of what she was doing… or what she was trying to.

“Xena.” The word came out like a shudder, blurted out through tightly clenched teeth. “I thought you were going to wait for me.”

“I was,” Xena said, raising her voice again. She glanced back at her silly little tree-branch staff, lying in the dirt where she’d dropped it; suddenly, it felt incredibly unimportant. “You were gone for a long time. I was starting to worry you might be drowning yourself out here.”

Gabrielle flinched. Xena was not as surprised as she wanted to be by the tension in her shoulders, the way she gave away how near that was to the truth. “Don’t be silly,” she mumbled, and if Xena had been anyone else, she might not have heard.

Still, for all that she was obvious upset, Gabrielle hadn’t yet told her to leave. It wasn’t much of a victory, but it was good enough for now, and Xena took it gladly. Honestly, the ever-present pessimist in her had almost anticipated that Gabrielle would start throwing rocks at her the moment as she heard her voice; anything less than that was more than she’d been expecting. She still didn’t turn around, didn’t expose herself any more than she already was, but nor did she shrink away or try to cover herself or what she was doing; it was as close to comfortable as Xena could reasonably hope for, given the circumstances.

Naturally, then, she pushed her luck. “Come on. Why don’t you come out of there?”

“I’m not done,” Gabrielle mumbled, head bowed.

“Sure you are. You’ve been in there forever. Even Joxer would be clean by now.” Gabrielle didn’t even pretend to be amused by that. Xena sighed. “Besides, you must be frozen. Do you really want to catch a cold on top of everything else?”

“I’m not going to catch a cold,” Gabrielle said blankly.

She wasn’t really speaking to Xena, though, and when she turned back to her scrubbing it felt very much like a dismissal. There was a deeper urgency in the way she went at it now, as though she was afraid Xena would dive in and forcibly drag her back to dry land if she didn’t co-operate. It was tempting, honestly; as usual, Gabrielle had no idea what was best for her, and it would have been so easy to storm in there and insist that she was doing it for her own good. She couldn’t, though; watching Gabrielle hurt herself was hard enough, but being the cause of it would be far worse.

“I don’t think you get much of a say in that,” she chided lightly. “Now, come on.”

“Will you stop that?” Gabrielle snapped. “I don’t need you to coddle me, Xena. I told you I’m…”

But her voice broke before she could say ‘fine’, and she turned her face away before Xena could see how much it hurt.

Not being able to see didn’t make it cut any less deeply. Xena was sure her heart would break, the compassion searing her so hot and so helpless that it left her almost breathless. She wanted to jump into that river, not even to haul her back out at this point, just to stand in there with her. She couldn’t refuse her anything when she looked like that; she just wanted to be there at her side, to hold her and warm her and protect her, to become all the things she had failed at too many times lately.

“Gabrielle.” The name was a whisper, so soft that she almost hoped that the waters would catch it and carry it away before Gabrielle could hear how sad she was. “Gabrielle, please. You can’t wash away what happened by scrubbing your skin raw. You can’t make things better by making yourself ill or drowning yourself or… whatever it is you’re trying to do in there. You can’t put yourself back together by tearing yourself apart.”

She knew that all too well. It was personal, a confession of her own as much as a feint at comfort, and Gabrielle seemed to sense that. Her back stiffened again, but it was different this time. “Xena…”

“Gabrielle.” She stretched out a hand, an offer and a plea at the same time. “Come out of there. Please. I don’t want to watch you freeze to death.”

We don’t have any blankets, she thought, in a moment of maddening practicality. You’re freezing and your clothes are wet, and we don’t have any blankets.

The regret, the self-loathing struck her square in the chest, seemingly out of nowhere, and took her completely by surprise. She might have saved a village or two by taking out Draco and his fortress before he could march, but what was the cost? Gabrielle would never have forgiven her if she had followed her instincts and gone through with his stupid ego-saving plan, but at least she’d be dry and warm and safe. At least she wouldn’t be shivering and forcing out words through chattering teeth. At least she wouldn’t be here, like this. Weren’t a few pointless buildings worth that?

She knew what Gabrielle would say — ‘of course not! how could you even think such a thing?’ — but Xena had never had her gift for compassion. Gabrielle, she knew, had always been like this, always putting others before herself, always burdened with empathy, but for Xena it was still new and unfamiliar. The way she felt about her, the ache in her heart that left her helpless and hopeless… she’d never known anything like it before, and she was still learning how to deal with it. She had too many years of violence still to undo before she could stretch it out any further, before ‘I love you, Gabrielle’ would stop twisting itself into ‘I don’t care who else suffers, so long as you don’t’.

Gabrielle would hate her for feeling that way, she knew, would be horrified if she knew the things that went through Xena’s head sometimes when she looked at her. She wouldn’t understand, couldn’t understand, how Xena could possibly doubt that her choice had been the right one, how she could ever question whether bloodless was always better. She would resent her, just as she still resented her for killing the low-life thug who’d put his fist through her ribs; she would turn away from her, and she would whisper to herself, so low that she thought Xena couldn’t possibly hear, ‘this is Callisto, it’s all her fault, you’re in her body and you’re becoming just like her’. She would truly believe that, would turn the comforting lie into a shroud and wrap it around herself as though it could shield her from the cold, biting truth. She would keep herself safe by pretending that these terrible things were never part of Xena at all.

They were, though, and Xena didn’t have the luxury Gabrielle did of pretending they weren’t. She knew that these things were a part of her; long before she ever met Gabrielle, they were the only part of her. She had moved beyond them now, at least a little way, but that didn’t mean she’d escaped them completely; she couldn’t absolve herself of her past mistakes, of her feelings or her decisions. She couldn’t afford to get complacent like Gabrielle did, all too aware of the danger in saying ‘this body isn’t mine, so neither are its deeds’.

Callisto had tried too many times to blame her deeds on Xena, and Xena would not sink so low as to do the same in return. She understood how dark that path was, understood the terrible things it would lead to, and though she knew that it would destroy the innocence she loved so much still she wished that she could make Gabrielle understand it too.

Gabrielle was bent almost double in the river, hunching over the rushing surface until the muscles in her back popped. She was very pale, the sunlight glinting off the water to make her skin look almost ethereal; it brought out the blue-black stain of her injuries, made them stand out starkly, but Gabrielle hardly seemed to feel them at all. The frenzy had bled out of her a little now, and there was something almost automatic in her movements as she threw water over herself a few more times.

“All right,” she said at long last, and Xena felt her knees buckle with relief as she finally turned to look at her.

“Done?” she asked, keeping her voice even.

“I guess so.” She shrugged, as though defeated. Her eyes were very bright, even from a distance, but they were still Gabrielle’s and that made them beautiful. “It wasn’t really helping anyway.”

She struggled back to the shore, limping and slipping over the rocks and the little eddies of water. Xena graciously turned her face away while she fumbled for her clothes, not wanting to invade her personal space. She had trouble picking them up, fingers frozen and half-numb and body wracked with the kind of clumsiness that often came with being too cold, but Xena knew better than to offer help without invitation. If Gabrielle wanted her, she would ask; Xena had learned that lesson now.

To give herself something to do, Xena bent to retrieve the silly makeshift staff. It looked ridiculous now, lopsided and rough, like something only half-finished. Had she been anyone else, she might have been embarrassed by it, but she knew Gabrielle well enough to know she would insist it was the thought that truly mattered.

When Gabrielle was done gathering her clothes, Xena cleared her throat to get her attention. “I made you a staff.”

The words sounded as stupid as the staff looked, and she felt like a perfect fool standing there on the shore and holding the stupid thing out like a stray kitten mewling for attention.

Gabrielle straightened a little, but she didn’t immediately turn around. “I’m sorry?”

“A staff,” Xena said again, enunciating. “I mean… I’m sure your old one is safe back in Amphipolis, but until we get there, I thought you might…” She sighed. This whole idea had sounded so much better in her head. “Well, you know. It’s a long walk, and I… I mean, it might not win you any battles… or, uh, beauty contests… but it’ll keep you upright if you need it to.”

Finally, achingly slowly, Gabrielle turned around. She didn’t bother to cover herself, didn’t even hold her wet clothes over her modesty. She just stood there, mouth half-open, staring at the staff as though she still didn’t really understand what it was supposed to be. It was a long, long moment before she tore her gaze away from the thing and found Xena’s eyes instead, and the sight of hers, still blindingly bright, made Xena’s heart seize all over again.

She hadn’t looked at her like this in so long, unflinching and almost unafraid, looking into her eyes as though she’d all but forgotten who they used to belong to. There was still a great distance between them, and the hesitation wasn’t completely gone, but for just a second or two Gabrielle almost, almost seemed to see her for herself.

Xena didn’t mention it, of course, though a part of her wanted to. She was afraid of letting Gabrielle see that she noticed, afraid of drawing attention to something so delicate and fragile; the slightest wrong move would shatter the moment like glass, and she didn’t know if her heart could endure that. So, instead, she just shrugged and offered the softest smile Callisto’s lips could muster.

Gabrielle returned the smile, or at least tried to, and closed the space between them in a few wobbling steps. Her hair was soaked, dripping into her eyes, and her arms shook with the weight of her clothes; those little things, so much more than the nakedness, made her look breathtakingly exposed. Xena wanted to reach for her, to touch her face and push back her hair, to open up her own arms and take her clothes from her; she wanted to make the most of this, to turn it into another moment like the thousands that had come and gone before, to wash the memory of Callisto from both of them. She wanted to… and if Gabrielle had stood there for just a heartbeat longer, she surely would have.

Gabrielle didn’t linger, though, and the moment was shattered before Xena had a chance to act on it. It was for the best, though that didn’t make it any less wrenching when Xena had to hold still, had to brace against the brush of Gabrielle’s fingers against her own, trembling and beyond frozen as she reached out to take the staff from her hand. She tugged on it, as though impatient, and Xena was so occupied by reminding herself to breathe that she almost forgot she was supposed to let the blasted thing go.

“You’re welcome,” she squeaked, covering for herself, and felt her soul crack when Gabrielle mustered a chuckle.

“Thank you,” she mumbled, almost shyly. “It’s, uh… it looks great.”

“I should hope so,” Xena said with a wry grin. “Whittling is an art, you know.”

“It is?” She shook her head, as though realising the question wasn’t important. “You didn’t have to. You know that, right? You didn’t…”

“Of course I know that,” Xena said quietly. “But we can’t stay out here forever, and I wouldn’t want you tripping over your own feet because you’re too proud to lean on me.”

Gabrielle stiffened, shoulders bunching and knuckles turning deathly white against the wood of the staff. The intimacy, weak though it had been, was gone now, leaving in its wake another wave of the same awkwardness that had been following them around for days now.

“Do you have to say it like that?” she asked, and turned her face down to scowl at the ground. “‘Oh, lean on me, Gabrielle, don’t be so proud.’ Like it was ever about that. Like it was ever…”

Xena grimaced. “You know that’s not what I meant. I was only trying to—”

“You were trying to make it simple,” Gabrielle said quietly. “But it’s not simple. Not for me, at least. I know that it is for you. I know that you know who you are, that you know what you’re thinking and what you’re doing and why you do it. I know that you know yourself, Xena, and I… I thought that I knew you too. I thought that I would recognise you anywhere, any time, any place…” She closed her eyes. “I thought I’d always be able to find you, no matter where or what or… or who you were. But then Ares put you in her, and it’s so…”

“Gabrielle.”

“It’s not simple.” Her breath was laboured, like she’d just run a thousand leagues. “It’s not simple at all.”

“It is,” Xena said, wishing that she could believe it, wishing that just one of them could. “You just need time, Gabrielle. You just—”

“No.” Her voice broke. “Xena, you killed a man in cold blood.”

“He beat the life out of you!” It was no excuse, she knew, at least not to Gabrielle, but she had to try and make her understand. “I had Draco breathing down my neck, telling me to do it… and I looked down into his face, and I knew what he’d done to you, what I couldn’t stop him from doing, and I…” She trailed off, shaking her head, and refused to continue until Gabrielle looked up and saw her. “It wasn’t Callisto, Gabrielle. She wasn’t the one who made that choice. She wasn’t the one who killed him, and she wasn’t the one who wanted to. It wasn’t Callisto in that place, no more than it was Callisto who killed any of the thousands of men and women I’ve killed before.”

“That’s different.” Her voice was shaking harder than her body. She wanted so desperately for it to be true, Xena could tell. “That was the old Xena. You’re not supposed to be like that any more. You’re not supposed to do those things.”

“And I wouldn’t, if I had the choice. But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes these situations present themselves, and I…” She shook her head. Gabrielle would never understand the soul of a killer; she was too much the opposite. “I warned you that I’d have to get my hands dirty. I told you when I left to take on Draco that I was willing to do whatever it took. We both knew that I might have to do this, Gabrielle. That’s why I didn’t want you there. That’s why I sent you to Amphipolis where it was safe. I didn’t want you to have any part of any of this.”

Gabrielle snorted. “Yeah? And how did that work out for you?”

“Gabrielle.”

“I know. I know that’s not fair.” She turned back, eyes misting over when they locked on the river, as though she wanted to throw herself back in and start scrubbing again. If she had, Xena wouldn’t have stopped her. “I know, Xena, and I’m sorry. It’s just… I was in there for a very long time with that… that dead thing. And it’s hard to forget.” She took in a deep breath, swallowing convulsively a couple of times. “Harder than usual, I mean.”

“I understand that,” Xena said. “But I need you to understand, too, that Callisto wasn’t involved in any of this. I know you hate her, Gabrielle. I know you want her to be responsible for every terrible thing that’s ever happened, but she’s not, and I can’t let you blame her for my actions or my choices. I would have done exactly the same thing if I’d been in my own body. I would have—”

“But you wouldn’t.” She sounded worse than desperate now, angry and violently upset; Xena almost expected her to take a swing. “You would never have been in that position in the first place. If you’d been yourself, if you’d been in your own body…” She twisted the staff in her hands. “People know the new Xena now. They know my Xena, the one that I… the one I…” She shook her head, flushing as though ashamed. “Everyone knows that you’ve changed. They see you now, and they know that you aren’t the person you used to be. They know that you would never… that you don’t do those things any more. They know that’s not you.”

“They don’t know anything,” Xena said, getting angry herself. “They have no idea what is and isn’t ‘me’.”

Gabrielle swallowed again, harder. “Maybe they don’t,” she whispered. “But I thought I did.”

That cut, far deeper than Xena would ever admit. Gabrielle looked so open, as she always did when she was feeling things strongly. She was so angry, so hurt; Xena had seen her vent those things many times before, but never against her. They had been through so much together, and their friendship had been tested more times than she could count, but still Gabrielle had never looked at her the way she was looking at her now. It was as if she was finally seeing everything the world had warned her about, everything she’d heard and ignored about the fearsome warrior princess, as though she finally understood, really and truly and for the first time, exactly what the old Xena had done and delighted in. It was a hard lesson to learn, and Xena chided herself because she should have taught it a long, long time ago.

It was difficult, though. Xena did know herself; she knew who she was, and she knew that it didn’t matter what she looked like. She knew her deeds, and she knew her mind, knew what she was capable of, what she would and would not do. She knew how significant it was, the difference between killing a mercenary in cold blood with Draco’s breath on her neck, and razing a village to the ground and delighting as the blood soaked the grass. She knew, a lesson learned again and again and again, that the deed didn’t make her who she was, that it was the context, the situation, her choices and her reasons for making them. She knew all of that, but of course Gabrielle didn’t.

Gabrielle had never been forced to make that distinction. She’d never been forced to look beyond the motion to see the motivation, to feel past past the action to find the reason. She would never delight in death or destruction, couldn’t even imagine such a thing, and so she couldn’t possibly understand the journey Xena had taken. She couldn’t comprehend how hard it was, how long the road from delighting in savagery to killing only when her hand was forced. She didn’t see that this was progress, that the only joy Xena had taken from this was in vengeance and righteousness, in knowing that the bastard who had hurt her friend would never do so again. Gabrielle was selfless, more so than anyone Xena had ever known, and she couldn’t possibly understand that this, cruel as it was, was the closest thing to selflessness that Xena had ever been.

She wanted to say all of those things out loud, wanted to pour them into Gabrielle until she felt them in her blood and her bones, the truth of who she was, just like Gabrielle had always poured her trust and her faith into Xena until it burned and became a part of her too. She wanted to make this right, to make the two of them whole again. She wanted to do and say so many things, all for Gabrielle’s sake… and oh, the painful irony in knowing that it was also for Gabrielle’s sake that she didn’t say any of them.

What she did say, as soft and low as she could, was “You’re freezing.”

“I’m fine,” Gabrielle mumbled, as if from across a vast chasm.

Xena rolled her eyes. She should have seen that coming. “Of course you are. But there’s no point in wasting a perfectly good fire, now, is there?”

Gabrielle actually laughed at that, strangled and utterly humourless. The sound was cold like her skin, rough all like the places she’d scrubbed almost raw, hollow like her eyes when she turned them away; it was nothing like her usual laugh, void of all the mirth and light that made her who she was. In a way, she almost sounded more broken when she was laughing than she would have if she’d cried.

“I think I’ve had enough fire for one day,” she said.

*

Chapter Text

*

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.

“Gabrielle…”

“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.

“Callisto…”

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—”

Gabrielle.

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.”

*

Chapter Text

*

The remainder of the journey wasn’t very long, but the silence made it feel that way.

It was a strange sensation, feeling the time drag out like that. Xena had always held a certain appreciation for silence and solitude, for the focus that came with having only her own thoughts for company. In bad moments she used it as a kind of self-flagellation, a well-deserved punishment for the deeds she knew she could never truly atone for; in the better ones it became a kind of reflection, of looking inside herself and measuring the steps she’d taken, the distance she’d travelled from where she once stood and the distance still to go to where she wanted to be.

When she was alone silence was like an old friend, comforting and maddening depending on her mood; its company had become a fond and familiar thing, even when it left her frustrated or irritable. Like an old cloak or a worn blade, it was sometimes valuable, occasionally cumbersome, but mostly just sort of there; whatever form it took, she had learned a long time ago to never take it for granted.

Then, of course, Gabrielle came along, and everything started to change. Slowly but surely the silence became something else entirely, something new and not nearly as comfortable as it once was. Far from the familiar old friend Xena once knew, now it was a sort of struggle, a strain that stretched out the seconds and made them feel like days.

A year ago, Gabrielle’s incessant chatter had irritated her almost to the point of madness; now it warmed her heart like nothing she’d ever known. Where her voice had once grated on Xena’s nerves, now it made her smile, made her laugh, made the world seem lighter somehow. Somewhere, somehow, the sound became a sweeter alternative to the bittersweet silence, and all of a sudden Xena found that she could scarcely even remember how it felt to relish her solitude.

She certainly didn’t relish it now. Gabrielle walked a few paces ahead, stumbling and leaning ever more heavily on her staff as the day wore on; she never let herself fall, but it was a close thing far too many times and Xena had to bite down on the inside of her cheek to keep from asking if she was all right. She didn’t want to push the tension between them any further, didn’t want to risk causing any more damage to their already tenuous relationship. It meant too much to her, and though she resented the silence now in a way that she never had before, still her common sense insisted that it was the safest option.

It didn’t help, either, that she was frustrated as well. Gabrielle was stubborn, almost more so than Xena herself, but Xena had never seen her take it to such an extreme before. A part of her understood, of course — she knew all too well how deep Gabrielle’s hatred for Callisto ran, and why — but she had never seen her quite like this, so furious in the way she clung to those feelings. Gabrielle was the kindest, most forgiving soul Xena had ever met, and it broke her heart to see her so unwilling to turn away from toxic thoughts. She turned away so quickly now, and her eyes got so cold when she looked at Xena’s face for a moment too long. It broke her heart to think that even now Callisto still held so much power, that even with her soul in Tartarus she could still turn someone so gentle into something so hard.

Xena wanted her Gabrielle back, just as desperately as Gabrielle wanted her Xena. She just didn’t know how to say it.

They didn’t stop for lunch. Xena thought about suggesting it, but she doubted Gabrielle would stand still for long enough to hear her out; she was driving herself forward like a woman possessed, as though her life depended on them getting to Amphipolis before night fell and they were forced to make camp again. Xena certainly understood that impulse — she wasn’t looking forward to another night under the stars with Gabrielle’s nightmare-induced cries — but she couldn’t in good conscience approve of the way Gabrielle kept pushing herself beyond her obvious limits. Small wonder that she was still in pain when she refused to heed her body’s demands. Still, for all that it cut to watch her stumble and suffer like that, Xena couldn’t bring herself to break the silence.

For once, Gabrielle was the one who wanted the silence, who needed the space and the solitude. Xena only wanted Gabrielle to hurt less, and so she was the one who yielded to the things that made her hurt more.

They did make it to Amphipolis before night fell, though not by much; the sun was already starting to sink over the horizon, the hot orange glow burning in their eyes when the village’s silhouette appeared on the horizon.

Gabrielle had been struggling more and more over the last few hours, but it was Xena who gasped with relief, who felt her knees start to buckle with the weight of it, not for Gabrielle’s sake but for her own. She hadn’t anticipated how much it would mean to her, how overwhelming it would feel to see her home again, to look upon the place she loved and know that it was safe as well, that it, like them, had survived.

“There’s a sight for sore eyes,” she murmured.

She was speaking mostly to herself, not really expecting a response, so it surprised her probably more than it should have when she got one just the same. For the first time in at least two or three hours, Gabrielle turned to look at her; she still wasn’t quite able to meet her eyes, but it was closer now than it had been in a while, and Xena relished the effort for what it was. Gabrielle didn’t smile, but her eyes were cloudy with bone-deep exhaustion and Xena could see through them that she was relieved as well.

“Home sweet home?” she asked. Her voice was hoarse but warm, and the words made Xena chuckle.

“Something like that,” she said.

Gabrielle nodded, then sighed ever so softly. It was odd but touching, how she could sound so happy and so sad at the same time.

“Do you think your mother will let me take a bath?”

The question made Xena wince, sorrow touching the joy for a moment as she recalled the sight of Gabrielle in that gods-forsaken river, scrubbing her skin until it was raw, shaking with more than just the cold. She didn’t want to remember the panic and pain in her eyes, but she couldn’t forget it, and it haunted her just like Callisto’s face haunted Gabrielle’s nightmares.

Gabrielle was so desperate to be clean, so desperate to wash herself of everything she’d been through, of Draco’s fortress and the dead mercenary in her cell, of her own bloody beating and the way it had made Xena lose control, of all those things combined and all the things they’d brought out in Xena. The memory made Xena’s heart stop beating, made it clench and burn when it restarted itself. She didn’t want to see that again, didn’t want to watch Gabrielle struggle to cleanse herself of dirt that was never hers.

“I don’t know,” she said, light but very sober. “Do you think you’ll be able to take one in moderation this time?”

Gabrielle flinched, more annoyed than upset. “Xena.”

She meant it as a warning, maybe even a threat, but she was so tired and so drawn that it didn’t carry any weight at all. She looked and sounded so much like the young girl from last year, the idealistic little thing who followed Xena all the way from Poteidaia to Amphipolis, who charmed everyone who met her, who somehow managed to talk a sullen, angry warrior into letting her tag along. She had been so completely out of her depth back then, and it struck Xena harder than she thought it would to see her look so small again now. She half-expected her to break down, as she did so many times in those early weeks, and wail ‘I wasn’t ready for this!’.

She didn’t, though, and now just like back then it seemed that she had Xena wrapped around her little finger. It didn’t need to carry weight, didn’t need to come off like a threat or a warning; the sound of her name was all it took and Xena’s resolve crumbled completely. The tension bled out of her, and in spite of herself and the journey, in spite of her own exhaustion and Gabrielle’s wilful silence, still she found herself smiling again. Still, in spite of everything, she found her heart swelling with love.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said. “But don’t come crying to me if the water’s too hot. You know what my mother’s like.”

“I do.” The clouds in Gabrielle’s eyes cleared a little, as though in recognition, and she even mustered a laugh. “I’ll try not to get carried away this time. I promise.”

Knowing that it was a bad idea but suddenly not caring, Xena reached out to touch her arm. It was just the briefest of moments, a reflexive flutter of contact that didn’t linger, and it was only when she pulled back and started to apologise that she realised Gabrielle hadn’t actually flinched this time. She was swallowing hard, visibly relieved that Xena had let go, but she didn’t look upset at all.

Xena didn’t know what to say. “Gabrielle…”

Gabrielle shook her head, cutting off the apology before it could become something more. “Come on,” she said, just a little too lightly. “Let’s get you home.”

It felt strange, walking back into Amphipolis so brazenly after what happened the last time. Xena hadn’t really thought to quiz Gabrielle on how she’d prepared the people here, or even how she knew in the first place. A part of her hadn’t wanted to press the issue — she had known, the town was safe, what else mattered? — and the rest had just assumed it didn’t really matter. Sometimes Gabrielle just knew things, or claimed that she did, and Xena had learned by now to just run with it. Experience had taught her that prying too deeply often led to headaches for everyone involved.

Still, she regretted her carelessness now. Standing in front of her village, readying herself to step into its arms again, she couldn’t help thinking it might have been nice to have some idea of what kind of welcome to expect.

Ill-prepared though she was, the answer presented itself soon enough. The streets were mostly by the time they crossed the village bounds, but what few people were still outdoors caught one look at her face and instantly fled back into their homes. It didn’t take Xena’s keen hearing, or even Callisto’s, to know what they were whispering as they hurried to bolt their doors.

Xena sighed, but didn’t say or do anything about it. She didn’t want to anger or upset anyone by claiming her innocence or trying to explain herself when everyone who lived here had seen her in this body mounted beside Draco and rushing forward to raze the whole place to the ground. A quick explanation might work on someone like Gabrielle, easily swayed and optimistic by nature, but Xena had been on thin ice with the people of Amphipolis for what felt like half her life, and that wasn’t about to change now. It didn’t matter what she said, or how she explained herself; there were plenty here who still didn’t trust her, and plenty more among the ones that did who were just waiting for an excuse to stop.

No sense in trying to salvage her dignity now, she thought. Better to take a leaf out of Gabrielle’s blithe scroll, pray that she got her own body back, and deal with it all then.

She hesitated outside her mother’s tavern, ashamed to discover that she wasn’t ready to show her face in there just yet. She wanted a chance to sit her mother down, to talk things through with her just as she had tried to do with Gabrielle. The rest of the village might not be worth the breath, but her mother was worth far more.

Xena had long since given up on earning everyone’s forgiveness, here or anywhere else, but she would be damned to Tartarus before she didn’t at least try with the one person whose forgiveness was actually worth anything. She wanted it more than anything in the world, just as she’d wanted it that fateful day a year ago, but it struck her like a blow, body-rocking and soul-shattering, that this time it might not happen, that it might be the last straw, that this might be the line that even a mother couldn’t cross.

She wasn’t ready to face that yet. If it was or if it wasn’t, she wasn’t ready to find out.

Gabrielle, insightful as ever, seemed to sense the discomfort, and perhaps realise the source of it. She was always good at that, seeing into Xena’s most private corners as though she’d left them open and exposed, an unlocked box ready for a thief. Gabrielle was no thief, but she was good at laying Xena open, and with the kind of sweet, gentle care that made Xena almost forget that it was anything unusual.

She leaned in, not close enough to touch but close enough to offer a little compassion, a little tenderness. Xena turned her head to the side, brushed the edge of Gabrielle’s forehead with her cheek.

“Don’t give me that look,” she chided, and didn’t say that she relished it.

Gabrielle chuckled a little, but didn’t smile. “What look?”

“You know what look. The ‘I know what you’re thinking’ look. Believe me, you don’t.”

“I never said I did.” It was maddening, the way she said it, the way she still didn’t smile.

“Gabrielle…”

“All right, all right.” She pulled back a little, then hummed and changed the subject as though she’d never been caught at all. “You know, I think you should go and check on Argo first. I’m sure she’s missed you a lot more than she’s missed me.”

Don’t underestimate yourself, Xena thought, and said “I’m sure she has.”

Gabrielle huffed a little. Xena watched the line of her throat, transfixed, as she swallowed. “And anyway, I wanted to talk to Cyrene. You know, ask about that bath. So, uh, I should…”

She didn’t need to say anything more than that. She didn’t need to say ‘I should be the one to talk to her’ or ‘I’ll tell her what you told me and make sure she doesn’t hate you’. She didn’t need to speak the truth of it, and she knew better than to say aloud ‘I know what you’re feeling and I want to help’. She knew what would happen if she said any of those things aloud; just as Xena had learned from her, piece by piece and day by day, Gabrielle had been learning as well. She knew what Xena couldn’t bear to hear, and she had learned how to speak without her precious words.

She didn’t say anything, but she expressed it just the same, letting the truth bleed out through the excuse, find their mark in the places where it mattered. She let it shine in her eyes, let it glide along the line of her throat as she swallowed, let it catch the rhythm of her body when she rocked a little on the tips of her toes. For someone who valued words so highly, she was surprisingly good at this when she needed to be, speaking with her body and her soul instead of her endlessly chattering mouth. She so rarely needed to say anything, and yet so often she said too much; Xena had often wondered what went on inside her head to make her feel like it was so important, that words were the only gift she had. Was she really so blind to her power in moments like this?

She was learning, though. Gradually, at a glacial pace, but she was; with every day that Xena looked at her and said ‘I understand’ before she even got a word out, she let herself believe it just a little more. Slowly, ever so slowly, the talking became less and the communication grew more, and Xena had never in her life felt so connected to another soul as she did in the moments when she heard what Gabrielle didn’t say.

She opened her mouth to say ‘thank you’, or maybe ‘what would I do without you?’, but all that came out was “Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle swallowed again, convulsive, like she did back in Draco’s fortress when she told Xena to leave, but this time it wasn’t horror that she was fighting back, and it wasn’t nausea that made her turn away and duck her head. Xena wasn’t entirely sure what it was, but where those things had twisted her face into something pale and awful, this feeling turned it into something radiant.

“Go on,” she said, and nudged Xena’s shoulder. “Go and check on your silly horse. And don’t you dare tell her I missed her.”

Xena wanted so badly to hug her. It was only because she loved her that she didn’t.

Blessedly, the stable boy didn’t immediately recognise her. At the very least, he didn’t flinch and flee at the sight of her, which was more than she could say for most of the village thus far, and when she thanked him for taking care of her horse she found herself smiling so earnestly that it almost hurt.

Argo whinnied, a strangled, confused sound. She was happy to see her again, Xena could tell, but still a little uneasy about the skin she wore, still not sure what to make of it, or of her while she wore it. She recognised Callisto’s scent, even after so long with Xena underneath, but still somehow she knew that the soul within was the woman she knew. She didn’t rear back when Xena held out a hand, and she accepted the contact when she rested her palm on her nose without complaint. They stood there together for a long, quiet moment, and though Argo didn’t press her head into Xena’s hands the way she usually did when they reunited after a time apart, still she made it obvious in other ways that she understood, and that she still loved her.

If only things were so simple with the other women in her life.

The stable boy, seeming to pick up on her thoughts, cleared his throat. “How’s your friend doing?”

Xena quirked a brow, surprised that he would know that much about her and still not see who she was. “My friend?”

“I… uh… sorry, was she not…?” He coughed, as awkward as a small child. “I just assumed. She brought the old girl in, you see… and, well, the way she seems to know you, I just… well, that is…” He shook his head. “You know, never mind.”

Xena studied him for a moment, searching for a sign of duplicity. Foolish, perhaps, to think that someone in his line of work would care so much as to try and throw her off her guard, but still her warrior’s instincts were stubborn and hard to quash. She found nothing but sincerity in his face, though, discomfort and the fear of offending her balanced with what seemed to be genuine curiosity. Xena sighed, cursing herself for being so suspicious, and tried to salvage what little was left of this.

“No, no,” she said. “You assumed right. My friend… well, it’s not exactly been the best few days, honestly.”

“Yeah. She didn’t look good. She was mumbling something about horses in kitchens. I thought she might be a little…” He gestured with one hand. “You know.”

Xena grimaced. The description was almost comically accurate; indeed, she wouldn’t have been surprised to hear the very same thing said about Gabrielle even on a normal day. Coherence was far from her strong point, after all, and it both warmed and tugged at her heart to know how easily she affected others as well. Still, not wanting the affection to show through, she simply shrugged and rushed on before she poured out a little too much of herself in front of this near-complete stranger.

“She’s doing much better now,” she said, and scrabbled for a change of subject. “Did she pay you for your trouble?”

“Oh, it’s no trouble,” he said, giving himself away by answering too quickly. “We had plenty of room.”

“You’re too kind,” Xena said. She wanted to smile, a warm, reassuring sort of thing, but she knew that it wouldn’t work with Callisto’s face. “I’ll see that you’re paid before we leave town. Should be in the next day or two, depending on my friend.”

He nodded, clever enough despite his youth to play at modesty without ever refusing the offer of payment. “She’s a strange one,” he murmured, almost to himself. “She was in a real bad way. Really thought she’d keel right over on the floor right there, then next thing you know she’s out there on the front lines helping to protect us from…”

…you.

And there it was, the realisation like a punch between the eyes, the recognition fast on its heels. Xena spat a silent curse, and watched as his face drained of all its colour.

It was everything she’d anticipated, everything she’d dreaded. The flash of horror, of panic, the way his head darted about in search of an escape route, the spasms in his throat as he gulped, not quite sure whether to be frightened or simply furious. Xena bit down on her self-loathing, knowing that she should have been better equipped to handle this sort of thing by now. It was hardly the first time it had happened, after all.

She wanted to reassure him, even to lie and say that it wasn’t her out there but some unfortunate lookalike if that was what it took to stop him staring at her like that, to keep him from feeling such awful things when all he did was take care of a horse. She wanted to say and do a lot of things, but she knew that it wouldn’t do either one of them any good, and so she did nothing at all. Weak, impotent, just as she was when Gabrielle was injured and refused her touch, she turned away and held her tongue.

She let Argo be her strength for a moment, leaning into her shoulder and pressing her forehead against her nose. You know me, girl, she thought. You know who I am. Though Argo didn’t say anything either, still the fact that she didn’t rear back helped more than she would care to admit.

“Anyway,” she said to the stable boy, still not turning around. The word came out sharper than she intended, but she didn’t bother to correct herself. “I should go and catch up with my friend. The gods only know what sort of trouble she’ll get into without me. You’ll be paid as soon as we’re on our way.”

He grunted something under his breath, all feints at politeness and small talk long gone by now. Xena couldn’t make out what he was saying, but her instincts told her that she was better off not knowing. She doubted it was anything complimentary.

Pausing only to give Argo a farewell pat, she found herself back outside Cyrene’s tavern entirely too soon. She didn’t feel any more ready now than she had before, and that awkward moment in the stables had only reaffirmed all her worst fears, made it even more daunting to stand here now like a prisoner awaiting judgement. As a woman who had faced down armies and warlords and worse things besides without even blinking, she couldn’t help wondering how it was possible that her mother’s disapproval was more intimidating than all of those things combined.

She took a little time to compose herself before stepping into the tavern. It must have been a strange sight, the terrifying Callisto taking a moment to catch her breath, afraid of an old woman’s wrath, and she wondered if it would have seemed even more surreal if she’d been in her own body.

Callisto’s reputation might precede her, and her face might strike fear into any heart, but she had never been physically imposing. Her body was slender, almost painfully so next to the muscle and the mass that Xena was used to; she was slight and slim in all the places where Xena was broad and buff; to anyone who didn’t know her, it was only the outfit that gave away how fearsome Callisto truly was. She didn’t have the body of a warrior, only the soul of one; it was Xena who looked the part, Xena who could freeze a volcano just by standing near it. For all the softness she had learned since she started travelling with Gabrielle, it was Xena who was built to intimidate.

She was far from intimidating now, though, in any skin. There were few things that could make her heart seize and stop in her chest, but Cyrene was definitely one of them.

Gabrielle was another, of course. Her eyes, bright as the sun when they loved her or dark as the night when they were scared of her… by the gods, it didn’t matter. Either way, those eyes could drop Xena to her knees even in the midst of a war. But it was’t Gabrielle she was about to face now.

(At least, she hoped it wasn’t. The two of them together would surely be the death of her.)

When she did finally summon the courage to push the door open and step inside, it was with her head bowed low and a suitably chastened look on her face. She wasn’t nearly so blithe as to assume it would have the least effect on her mother, but still she had to try. If she was going down, even against a foe as formidable as Cyrene, she would be damned to Tartarus if she didn’t go down swinging.

Naturally, she got scarcely three steps before she heard the familiar voice ringing out, the click of her mother’s tongue and an exasperated “No weapons!”

Xena winced at the sharpness, and swiftly set to work disentangling herself from Callisto’s arsenal. “Yeah, yeah,” she muttered, already slipping into the role of sullen daughter without even realising it. “I’m still not used to this outfit, you know. It has more hidden weapons than—”

“—than your own?” Cyrene finished for her, scowling as she stepped around the bar to unburden Xena of her load. “I swear to the gods, Xena, you act as if we wouldn’t be having this exact conversation if you’d shown up in your own body. You can’t use this Callisto woman as an excuse for everything, you know.”

Xena snorted. After so much time with Gabrielle trying to do precisely that, her mother’s cool rationality was like a breath of fresh air.

“You’re adjusting well,” she observed, and let her tone make it clear that she was glad of it.

“Oh?” Cyrene snorted as well, miraculously even less lady-like than her daughter. “Would you prefer I burst into tears? Throw a mug or two at your head and say ‘you’re no daughter of mine’?”

“Why not?” Xena said, and prayed her mother wouldn’t see how much it stung. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

“No, it wouldn’t.” The words softened her a little, though, and Xena wondered what she and Gabrielle had discussed while she was in the stables, whether they had even spoken at all. “In any event, it’s not like I have any choice in the matter, now, is it? How many times have I told you that wishing doesn’t change things?”

“I don’t know,” Xena quipped. “I lost count after the first six thousand.”

“Hush now.” That was a familiar tone, the knife-edge that always pre-empted a lecture even when Xena was absolutely positive she hadn’t done anything to deserve one. This time was no exception, apparently, and before she knew what was happening she found herself shoved down onto a nearby bar stool. “You’d better have a good explanation, young lady.”

Xena raised a brow. “Young lady?”

Cyrene flushed a little. “Oh, you know what I mean,” she said, almost apologetic. “It’s that new face of yours. It’s deceptively…”

She trailed off, and Xena frowned. She didn’t need to hear it to know what her mother was thinking. It’s deceptively young, deceptively pure, deceptively innocent. I don’t care what you say, that’s not the face of someone evil. Her mother, not so unlike herself, wasn’t exactly difficult to read.

Besides, Xena had often found herself thinking the same thing. Callisto’s features could be almost cherubic in the right moment, and it didn’t help at all that she so enjoyed comparing herself to Gabrielle. It haunted Xena’s memories, the sight of Gabrielle tied to a stake, wood piled high and ready to burn, and Callisto watching her with pain in her eyes. “I wonder if I could have been her,” she said, and Xena wondered too.

She had tortured herself with it almost every day since she first laid eyes on her. So fair, so thin, so utterly lost, and her face was a tragic reflection of all the things she might have become. It hadn’t escaped Xena’s notice how soft her own voice had become since she found herself in this body, how much easier it was to harness the part of herself that felt, the part that loved Gabrielle, the part that wanted to say sweeter things than her own tongue would allow. Callisto’s body was built for softness, for compassion. Xena was the one who had turned it into a vessel for cruelty. She was the one who had burned the soul black.

How fitting, how tragic and painful, that her mother saw all those things as well. How devastating that she, who had never seen this face in its true form, would look into those dark monster’s eyes and find the youth and innocence of the soul that might have been, a wilful young lady who needed a mother’s lecture. Xena didn’t have the heart to tell her own mother that she was the reason Callisto had lost hers. The sight of her, the smile on her face when she said those words, made her ache for things she could never name.

“It’s not a face you want to underestimate,” she said quietly. “If she and I ever switch back, you stay away from her. She’s a monster.”

Cyrene’s smile was heartbreakingly tender. “I find that hard to believe,” she said. “Especially when she’s pouting at me like you used to do when you tripped over your feet and skinned your knees.”

“I never pouted,” Xena sulked. “And I never tripped over my feet.”

“Oh, and I suppose you never did anything you were told not to, either?” Cyrene shot back, then instantly sobered. “Like now, for example. You’ve been irresponsible, Xena. And you’re not a pouting five-year-old any more.”

“You don’t need to tell me that,” Xena said. “I’m well aware of it. But I’ll tell you what I’ve been trying to tell Gabrielle: I did what I thought was right at the time… what I still think was right. Draco would have come for Amphipolis with or without me, and at least by going with him I gave you all a fighting chance against us.”

Gabrielle gave us a fighting chance,” Cyrene corrected, very seriously; Xena didn’t miss the way her gaze darted towards the stairs. “Her and those ‘dreams’ of hers. I don’t know how she did it, but I thank the gods she did.”

“She’s good at that sort of thing,” Xena said fondly. “She…”

But that was as much as she could get out. Her throat closed up, strangling the words, and then they were gone.

Cyrene was looking at her through a mother’s eyes, chiding and warm at the same time, smiling and scowling as though nothing had changed at all, as though Xena was still that pouting five-year-old with skinned knees, as though there was no difference between the daughter she loved and the maniac whose skin she wore. She was chuckling, shaking her head, acting like this whole affair was little more than a mother lecturing her daughter for staying out too late or pulling her brothers’ hair.

It overwhelmed her, how natural this all seemed to Cyrene, how easily she adapted to the change, as though it was no real change at all. Xena hadn’t realised how rare such a thing was, and it was only when she tried to say Gabrielle’s name that she realised how much it hurt that she couldn’t look at her like this, that she still couldn’t look at her at all.

For a moment or two, with her words lodged like rocks in her throat, she wanted to cry. Here, with her mother, feeling so much like a child, thinking not just of the innocent young thing that Callisto could have been, but of her own darkness as well, of the darkness she was wrapping around Gabrielle. Day by day, a little more, a little darker, and who could she blame but herself that darkness was all Gabrielle could see in her now? Who could she blame that it was the only thing left in Callisto too?

She wanted to cry. For Callisto, who she had destroyed, and for Gabrielle who had been almost destroyed in turn, who was so desperate to see things in Xena that weren’t there, so desperate to find faith in her that she couldn’t see she was the cause of all this. She wanted to cry for them both, and for her mother who didn’t need to hear or see or understand any of those things, who loved her simply for being who she was.

She wanted so much to cry, but she didn’t. She wasn’t a pouting five-year-old any more; she was a warrior, and warriors did not cry. Not even in front of their mothers.

It was a long, long moment before she faced Cyrene again, before she trusted herself to show her face without letting the ache show through, without letting the need to cry spill over into real tears. Her mother would see them, of course, even if they never fell, but that didn’t matter; it was the rest of the world she was hiding them from, just as it always was.

Cyrene watched her, but didn’t speak, seeming to realise that there was nothing she could say, understanding as she always did that the only thing her daughter needed right now was for her to be here. She kept her arms spread wide, stretching out into the space between them in a wordless offer of comfort, but Xena leaned as far back as she could and kept her face in the shadows.

“She doesn’t understand,” she heard herself whisper. “She won’t understand. How am I supposed to fix it if she won’t understand?”

Cyrene chuckled, a sad, humourless sort of sound. “Why assume that she’s the one in need of fixing?”

The question grated on her nerves, and Xena bristled; it felt like an accusation, another nudge at her actions and her choices.

“Well, I certainly don’t,” she said. “I know who I am, and I’ve made peace with my choices. What I do, I do for the greater good. A new body won’t make me forget that. Not even this one, not even after everything it did when she was in it.” She closed her eyes for a moment, swallowed something that tasted like tears as her mind’s eye conjured another vision of Gabrielle’s stricken face. “I’ve told her that. I’ve told her a thousand times, but she won’t listen. She doesn’t want to believe it. Mother, she’s so angry…”

Cyrene studied her for a very long moment. “Is she?” she asked.

“Of course she is!” Xena threw up her hands, disgusted that Cyrene would even think to ask such a question. “Callisto has tried to kill her more times now than any one of us can count. She killed her husband in cold blood right in front of her and laughed. She took control of my body and used it to manipulate her. She made her believe that she was me, made her believe that I was her, and tried to trick her into killing me. The things she’s done to her… the things this face reminds her of…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “Of course she’s angry. Wouldn’t you be?”

“I suppose I would, yes.” It sounded sincere enough, but Xena could tell that she wasn’t entirely convinced. “But come now… do you really think that’s all there is to it?”

Xena scowled. “If you’ve got a point to make, just make it,” she snapped, feeling her temper grow thin; how did her mother always have that effect? “But I’ll tell you now, you’re wasting your breath. No-one knows Gabrielle like I do.”

“I don’t claim to know her like you do,” Cyrene said gently. “But she spent some time under this roof, and I…”

She trailed off, sighing, as though realising that she was stepping into something deeply personal, as though she and Gabrielle had shared something here that Xena wasn’t really allowed to know about. It made her angry, made her want to reach out and shake her mother for keeping things from her.

“Out with it,” she said, forcing it out through gritting teeth.

Cyrene sighed again, and bowed her head. “All I’m saying, Xena, is that things are seldom as simple as you want them to be. Everything’s always so black and white to you, but it isn’t always that way for other people.” She folded her hands in her lap, and Xena watched her fingers shake, as though itching to reach out and touch her. “Gabrielle is such a sensitive soul, Xena. And you… well, you’re not.”

Xena huffed. “I’ll have you know I can be very sensitive.”

The corners of Cyrene’s lips lifted ever so slightly, but she bit her tongue and didn’t comment. “You feel things very strongly, my child,” she said. “You draw your emotions inside yourself and feed them until they burst, or until you do. It takes up so much strength, so much space, there’s never enough to hold more than one at a time.”

That was true, though Xena would never say so. “Your point?”

“Gabrielle isn’t like that, Xena. She feels a great many things, often all at the same time. Like I do, like your brother Lyceus did.”

She bowed her head for a moment, struck with the same flash of pain that Xena always felt when she thought of Lyceus, the guilt and the grief of losing someone she loved so dearly. It would never go away, she knew, not for either of them.

“She’s a lot like him,” she murmured, almost regretful.

“She is,” Cyrene said, as though it had only taken a few hours alone with her to see all of that. “And you never really understood his feelings either.” Xena flushed at that; even after all this time, it still hurt. Her mother ignored her, though, and pressed on. “It’s not my place to presume. I’m sure Gabrielle is very, very angry, as she has every right to be. But think, Xena: do you really think it’s anger that she struggles with when she looks at you?”

Xena growled, upset and growing increasingly frustrated. “You don’t understand,” she insisted. “Five minutes with her in your spare bedroom isn’t enough, whatever you might think. You don’t know what she’s been through, or how she feels about Callisto. You weren’t there when she lost her husband, when she begged me to teach her to kill, when she stayed up all night perfecting the fatal blow and then ran off to try and…” She shook her head; she couldn’t even say it. “You can’t possibly know how much she hates her.”

“Maybe not,” Cyrene said, voice so low that Xena had to lean in or risk missing the words entirely. “But I know how much she fears her.”

Xena huffed a laugh. “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “She hates—”

“—Callisto.” The emphasis was deliberate, a gentle reminder that Xena wasn’t the one on display here, that hers weren’t the deeds being called out. She appreciated the gesture, even if it it did fall flat. “Of course she hates her. After what she did, it’s completely natural. Anyone would hate her, and anyone would be angry. Even someone as sweet and kind as Gabrielle. But all the hatred and anger in the world won’t drown out the fear if it’s there.”

“Yes, it does.” It came out automatically, and with honesty. It was the truth, at least so far as Xena had ever known it. For her, the anger always won.

Cyrene, who felt things very differently, only shook her head. “Gabrielle can hate Callisto all she likes,” she said, “but that won’t stop her remembering all the terrible things she did. She can be as angry as she wants, but it won’t make her forget the helplessness she felt when her husband was killed, or in all those moments she thought she was about to die.”

She looked away, still turning her hands over and over in her lap. Xena took them in her own almost without thought. “Mother…”

“Xena.” Cyrene’s voice was so strong and so tremulous at the same time. “You know that Gabrielle doesn’t hate you. She couldn’t hate you in this body any more than she could hate you in your own. She knows who you are just as well as you do, even in that skin. But if you think she’s not frightened by what she sees when she looks into Callisto’s face… if you really think it’s anger that makes her turn away from you when you wear it…” She sighed very deeply, features lined with sorrow; suddenly, she looked so much older than she was. “Well, maybe you don’t know her as well as you think you do.”

Xena tensed at that, yanking her hands back as though they’d been set on fire. Her natural instinct was to retaliate, to scowl and sulk and and counter all those things she didn’t want to hear. If it had been anyone other than Cyrene sitting here and talking to her like this, she would undoubtedly have done just that, but of course she could never win an argument with her mother. Not without lasting repercussions, anyway; a childhood of going to bed without supper had taught her that.

“I do know her,” she said instead, for the hundredth time. It came out so defensive, so petulant, it was almost embarrassing. “You think I wouldn’t know if she was afraid?”

“I think we all see what we want to see,” Cyrene said, with such tenderness that it almost hurt.

Not me, Xena thought, though she didn’t have the courage to say so out loud. I had to give up that luxury a long time ago. I had to see the world as it really was. I had to learn how to analyse every situation, every moment, everything and everyone. I had to learn how be completely objective. I know myself and I know Gabrielle, and I don’t need you or anyone else telling me how I’m supposed to see the woman I love.

“I know her,” she said again, and again and again, clinging to that as if it were the only thing keeping her alive. Certainly, it was the only thing keeping her from losing her temper; the last few days’ worth of impotence and helplessness were almost at their boiling point by now, and her mother’s gentle chiding was not helping at all. “I know her, and she knows me. She would have told me if she felt that way.”

“Would she?”

“Of course she would have! She… I… we…”

She trailed off, though, caught off-guard by a sudden, unwanted memory, a vision of Gabrielle with a knife tied to her staff, the blade keen and deadly where it hovered at her back. She remembered feeling the weapon tremble, the air shaking with the force of it, remembered Gabrielle’s voice, remembered feeling the hate and the hurt and the rage pouring out of her and through the staff.

She was so full, so glutted on the violent images Callisto had fed her, so overpowered by the need to kill that she didn’t even stop to think that something might be wrong. She must have noticed that Xena wasn’t acting like herself, must have realised somewhere deep inside herself that she would never command Gabrielle to kill anyone, even Callisto, that she was the one who had begged her not to. In some deep, locked-off part of herself she must have known even before Xena said the words, even before that flicker of doubt made her hesitate. She must have known, but still it didn’t stop her. Still, it took Xena’s words, Callisto’s floundering lie, the hard proof that she couldn’t deny to make her lower her weapon and let herself believe.

‘Are you really Xena?’ she asked afterwards, and Xena had never seen her look so sick. She hadn’t asked at the time what Callisto had said or done to reignite all of that violence in her, what she must have put Gabrielle through to ready her for such a thing, to blind her so completely that she would drive a blade through someone’s back without even a second thought. In truth, she had been afraid as well, fearful of what the answer might be.

She didn’t know what had happened between them, what Callisto had done in her body, what kind of fresh new torments she might have put Gabrielle through. She didn’t know any of that, and a part of her didn’t want to, but she did know that when Gabrielle looked up into Callisto’s face and found Xena for the first time, her eyes were like those of a ghost. She hadn’t thought too much about it at the time, hadn’t even considered that it might mean something, but she thought of it now, and the memory froze her heart.

It wasn’t anger that had made Gabrielle back away from her after that, and it wasn’t hate that had made her kick the blade from her staff. It was horror, and when she looked up at her with those ghost-wide eyes and whispered ‘I almost killed you…’ Xena could only stand transfixed and stricken as all the anger and the violence flooded out of her like water over a fall.

“Xena.”

Her mother’s voice was still low, but it carried an intensity now, a kind of quietude that Xena often found lacking in her own. It made her want to rebel, but at the same time it brought back to the surface the part of her that wanted to cry. She turned away, balled her fists until the knuckles went white, until Callisto’s pale skin almost cracked, and shook her head.

“You don’t understand.”

Cyrene chuckled, wry and chiding but not cruel. “I don’t claim to,” she said, ever so softly. “But I don’t think I’m the only one.”

Xena grunted, acknowledging the point as best she could without saying so out loud. “Well, what am I supposed to do?” she demanded, perhaps a little unfairly. “She’s not exactly been forthcoming when I’ve asked her.”

“Could it be because you’re asking the wrong questions?” Cyrene asked. She never raised her voice, not even a little, but still it carried. “I know you, Xena. Far better, I’d wager, than you know Gabrielle. You’re always so fixated on what people think, you never stop to ask them how they feel.”

“You just told me how she feels,” Xena countered, resistant to the very end. “What difference will it make to ask that now?”

Cyrene studied her for a long moment, shaking her head ever so slightly, as though she was trying to figure out where in the world she had gone wrong in raising such a proud, argumentative daughter. Xena could have told her that it wasn’t her fault, that she was responsible for her own shortcomings, that wishing them gone wasn’t going to change them. She could have told her a great many things, but of course this wasn’t about her. It wasn’t about either one them, really, and as always Cyrene knew that far better than Xena herself ever could.

Xena marvelled for a moment, awestruck by how many empathetic, compassionate, wonderful people chose to keep her in their lives. She didn’t deserve any of them, though she wished with all her heart that she did.

“Oh, Xena,” Cyrene said, the name as soft as a sigh. “It will make all the difference in the world.”

*

Chapter Text

*

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.”

“I know.”

“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.”

“Good girl.”

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.”

*

Chapter Text

*

“You’re smiling.”

Xena, of course, didn’t dignify that with a response. She’d been downstairs for less than ten seconds, and already her mother was leaping on the chance to interrogate her. It was embarrassing, really, as though her whole life hinged on whether or not her daughter could salvage her damaged relationship. To some extent perhaps it did; after all, bi-monthly sieges from local warlords notwithstanding, there wasn’t exactly much in the way of excitement in a village like Amphipolis.

Still, exciting or not, Xena’s life wasn’t a drama for other people’s entertainment, and she cut off her inquisitive mother before she had a chance to pry any further.

“I’m hungry,” she countered. “Any chance of a hot meal?”

Cyrene huffed a wry laugh, the kind that said she’d been expecting that. “Is that all I am to you?” she asked, with her usual gentle humour. “A free meal, and someone to fluff your pillows at night?”

“I don’t need you to fluff my pillows,” Xena shot back. “I have Gabrielle for that.”

It didn’t come out quite the way she’d intended, and she felt a hot flush creep up the back of her neck. It was maddening, how easily this body blushed, how obvious it was to anyone who looked at her, and unforgivable that she still hadn’t learned how to control it. More infuriating still was the way her mother was looking at her, that sweet maternal smile twitching into something a little cooler and a lot more knowing.

Xena knew that look well, the quirk of her lips and the sparkle in her eye; she recognised the fondness and freedom of someone at peace for the first time in days, a worried parent realising at last that her daughter was safe and well, that she was healthy and whole and in good enough spirits to laugh at herself. It had been far too long since Cyrene had any reason to wear that look. Far too long.

“I take it things have improved between you?” she pressed, though the sly little smirk made it quite clear that she already knew the answer.

Xena didn’t bother playing coy; she was too relieved to want to. “A little,” she said. “We still have a way to go, I think, but…” And there it was, the truth she knew her mother was waiting for. Well, let her have her little victory, Xena thought. She’d earned it. “It helped to know where she’s coming from.”

“Did it, now?”

Xena snorted. “All right, all right. Mother knows best.” She softened, unable to hold even a feint at moodiness right now. “Thank you.”

“You give me too much credit,” Cyrene said, shaking her head, though Xena could tell that she relished being appreciated for once. “I’m just a silly old woman with too much time and insight on her hands.”

“You’re more than that,” Xena told her. “To me, at least.”

Cyrene’s smile softened again, became that loving maternal thing that Xena so often balked at. She didn’t balk this time, though, and when Cyrene leaned in to push her hair away from her face she didn’t resist or scowl or say that she was too old for such things. She accepted it, yielding in a way that still didn’t come naturally to her, and smiled back.

It made her a little self-conscious, though, another reminder of the differences between her body and Callisto’s. Her mother did this sort of thing all the time, a touch to her temples or a kiss to her forehead, instinctive little gestures that Xena so often found herself passing on to Gabrielle almost without thinking; there was nothing new here, except in the way that Xena didn’t resist, but still it felt different now, changed in a way she didn’t expect. Just as it always blushed in the worst moments, it seemed that Callisto’s body found it easier to relax as well. Surprising, given who she was.

“She’s not so unlike you,” Cyrene murmured.

For a second or two, Xena thought she must be talking about Gabrielle. It was true enough in some places; Gabrielle was as stubborn and wilful as the worst parts of Xena, a fact that amused her almost as often as it annoyed her. An easy presumption, given the circumstances between them, but then Xena pulled back and caught the flicker of sorrow behind her mother’s eyes, and she realised that it wasn’t Gabrielle she was thinking of at all.

Even now, here in the midst of a precious moment, Xena still expected the other shoe to drop. She waited, breath held, for her mother to pull back, look her in the eye, and ask whether Xena or Callisto had killed more people, wonder aloud which of the two of them was more terrible. Callisto definitely wasn’t unlike Xena, though Xena would give everything she had for that to not be true.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and she wasn’t sure whether it was her mother or Callisto she was speaking to.

Cyrene pulled back, shaking her head. “It’s strange,” she said, as though she hadn’t heard the apology at all. “You don’t look alike at all, not really, but there’s so much that’s you. You’d think it would be devastating, looking at my daughter and seeing someone I’ve never met, but it’s not. You still wrinkle your forehead when you get annoyed. You still pout like a sulking six-year-old when you don’t want to admit I’m right.”

“I do no such thing,” Xena said, and definitely didn’t pout like a sulking six-year-old.

Cyrene knew better than to laugh. “I keep expecting to look at you and wonder where my daughter’s gone, but she’s right there. Every time you speak or smile, laugh or sigh or scowl, my little girl is right there on her… on your face.”

Xena thought of Gabrielle, and felt a tug at her heart. If only she could feel the same way, she thought sadly.

“I’m glad you think so,” she said aloud, and let her mother see a little of her own doubt, the parts of her that Gabrielle refused to see. “Because I don’t know how long this arrangement will last. For all we know, it could be permanent.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Cyrene said. “You’re still my daughter, Xena.”

Strange, Xena thought, how easy it was to believe her. She had lost count of how many times Gabrielle said ‘I love you’ upstairs in the bath, yet she still found herself wanting after each, still doubted and worried and questioned, still felt compelled to search for the lie between the words. She took advantage of the way Gabrielle kept her eyes closed, looked deep into her face knowing that she wouldn’t know, seeking so desperately for just a trace of dishonesty. She wanted to believe it, wanted it to come as second nature as it did when she was herself, but she had seen Gabrielle react too many times to Callisto, too few to Xena, and she could not fathom how half an hour in a bathtub with her eyes closed would undo all the anger and hate — and, yes, fear — that had clouded her eyes and tightened her shoulders before then. Gabrielle said it so many times, ‘I love you’, and still every time a part of Xena thought how is that possible?

It was so much simpler with her mother. Maybe Cyrene was right when she said that she knew Xena better than Xena could ever know Gabrielle, that the intimacy of a mother and her daughter would outreach anything else in the world; then again, maybe it was just easier because the stakes were so much lower. Cyrene had forgiven her for much worse than this, after all, and she had always possessed a gift for patience and understanding. Xena might have feared the worst when she came back, but now they were here, sitting opposite each other and speaking like this, she found herself wondering why she had ever been afraid.

With Gabrielle, she was still afraid. In a way, it was almost worse now than it was before; the risk felt so much greater, the loss so much more potent now that the fear was tempered by hope, by the faith and the blissful memories of Gabrielle’s body pressing against her own, of the way Callisto’s skin had pricked and ignited under her mouth and hands, of all the ways that Gabrielle, with her eyes closed, had let herself imagine that the world was just as it always had been, that they were just as they always had been. Xena believed in her, or wanted to, but still there was a part of her that worried, still a part of her that feared.

Would the moment carry once the water was drained? Would it linger on Gabrielle’s skin when it was dry, when she was dressed and standing and had put herself back together again? Would she be able to hold on to it when she couldn’t close her eyes any more, when she had no choice but to keep them open, to look Xena in the eye and see all of her?

She hoped so. She wanted to believe it, truly she did, but it was hard. It didn’t come as naturally with Gabrielle as it did with her mother, as seeing Cyrene’s world-weary grin or hearing her wry laugh; with her mother, she knew without ever having to hear the words that yes, she still loved her, yes, she would still call her ‘daughter’, yes, their relationship would survive this just as surely and truly as it had survived every other tragedy that had fallen over them. That was what family was, what it meant, and not even Gabrielle could match the simplicity of being here, of being home.

Not yet, anyway. One day, Xena knew, she would. Years from now, when this whole mess was just a vague, distant memory, Gabrielle would be as much a home as Cyrene, as Amphipolis, as anything Xena had ever known. She didn’t know how she knew it; she just did. Beyond all doubt, she knew that it would happen. She just didn’t know how it could be in this body.

“Will it be enough, do you think?” she heard herself ask. Her voice trembled a little, as though it were as frightened of the answer as she was.

Cyrene didn’t need to ask what she meant, or who she was thinking of. Just like always, with a mother’s sixth sense, she knew.

“Yes,” she said, soft but sincere. “Yes, I think it will.”

She sounded so utterly certain, as though the question didn’t even need asking in the first place. Xena wished that she could find that kind of conviction.

For all her protestations, it didn’t take much to convince Cyrene to cook them dinner. Xena was a natural expert in picking out the right weapon for any task, and she had learned countless times the power she could wield over her mother with a smile and a few carefully-chosen compliments. Cyrene complained as loudly as a poorly-equipped army, of course, but she was grinning from ear to ear when she disappeared into the tavern’s kitchen, and there was something almost musical in the way she slammed doors and rattled pots and pans. She could scowl all she liked, but Xena could see the truth, as clear as daylight: she was loving every second.

Gabrielle came down a little later. She didn’t look comfortable, at least not entirely, but she wasn’t wincing as much as she had been either. She was dressed in a clean set of clothes, though they did little to cover the marks the last few days had left on her, the bruises on her face and torso and the lines and creases where she’d spent just a little too long hunched forwards or struggling to hold herself upright. Strange, Xena thought, how easily she managed to look exhausted and rested at the same time. That was Gabrielle all over, though; even on her best days she was a maelstrom of contradiction, a hundred impossible things at once. It was the thing Xena loved most.

“How are you feeling?” she asked, and kept her eyes on the floor so that Gabrielle wouldn’t feel obligated to look at her face.

“Like I’ve been hit by a speeding chariot.” As ever, Gabrielle spoke with such honesty, so much clarity and insight. It stole Xena’s breath every time, how well she knew herself and how utterly unashamed she was. “But… clean.”

Xena wanted to hug her. She also wanted to cry. She didn’t do either of those things, of course, for fear of making a scene or destroying the fragile progress they’d finally started to make. Instead, she just chuckled and shook her head, pretended that she didn’t see what Gabrielle was really saying, that she really was so blithe and so oblivious that she would take the words literally.

“Good,” she said with a grin. “I was starting to worry you’d cause a drought.”

Gabrielle laughed. “Maybe next time.”

She moved gingerly, but with a confidence that Xena hadn’t seen in her for a long time. She sat herself down at the table, leaning forwards on her elbows with her head in her hands, and seemed almost to drift off into her own thoughts. Xena watched her, heart clenching at the way she chewed at her lip, the way she stared down at the wooden surface, so deep in thought that she’d all but forgotten there was anyone else there at all. She did this sometimes, calling it a ‘bard thing’, whatever that meant, but it seldom touched Xena’s heart the way it did now.

She couldn’t help herself. She smiled, and said “You’re beautiful.”

Gabrielle came back to herself a little. Not completely, just enough to blush and duck her head. “I don’t feel beautiful,” she mumbled. “Mostly, I just feel sore. Is getting better supposed to hurt more than getting hurt?”

“Sometimes,” Xena said. “Don’t worry. We’ll take it easy for a while. Keep you out of trouble, keep you…”

She stopped herself before she could say ‘safe’, though, and Gabrielle’s shoulders relaxed a little, like they did when she avoided a blow. This was nothing new, though Xena wished it would vanish along with certain other things; they’d been travelling together for more than a year now, and still Gabrielle was still so defensive, so proud and quick to fly into a rage if she thought for even a second that Xena was coddling or trying to protect her. She still tensed and panicked sometimes, even now, hunching her shoulders and gripping her staff like it was the only thing keeping her alive, and she still refused to listen when Xena told her it was for her own good. Even after so long, she was still so afraid that Xena would just leave her at the side of the road somewhere if she didn’t prove she was strong enough.

“Really?” she asked after a moment, trying just a little too hard to sound a little too light. “You’re the one running off with a crazy warlord and setting his fortress on fire. Why am I the one who has to be kept out of trouble?”

Xena swallowed her instincts, the almost irrepressible urge to fall back on humour as she so often did. It would have been so easy to laugh off the question, to say something like ‘because I’m the one who has to carry you’, and a part of her would have done almost anything to take that route, but she didn’t. They’d both hidden for long enough, and though she knew it wasn’t comfortable, she also knew that Gabrielle would appreciate the truth. She always was a fan of the mushy stuff.

So, instead of complaining about how much of a burden it was to carry her, Xena turned her face to the wall and said, with all the honesty she had in her, “Because I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you.”

Gabrielle stiffened. “Xena…”

“I know,” Xena said, silencing her with a shake of her head. “I know we have a long way to go before all of this—” She gestured at herself, Callisto’s face and body, as though Gabrielle needed to be reminded of what this meant. “—becomes all right. I know that. But I don’t ever want to see you in that kind of pain again. Not here…” She pointed to Gabrielle’s torso for a moment, then let her hand drift upwards to cover her heart. “And not here either.”

It was a few embarrassed moments before she summoned the courage to look up and find Gabrielle’s face, and when she did she found her staring slack-jawed and tearful, sniffling as though those few words were some big heroic speech. That was absurd, of course, but the sight of her so touched was touching in itself.

“When did you get all sentimental?” Gabrielle asked, sounding almost awed.

Xena huffed a self-deprecating laugh. “You bring out the worst in me.”

The air was weighted, heavy with emotion, so much so that it was almost a relief when Cyrene interrupted them a with dinner and casual conversation. Xena had never loved her mother more than she did in the moment she swept out of the kitchen.

It was always something of a luxury, eating food they didn’t have to kill and skin themselves, and for Xena the luxury felt all the more potent here in her mother’s tavern, surrounded by so much familiarity, by as much love as she had ever known. It made her forget what she looked like, what Gabrielle still saw and remembered when she looked at her; it made her feel almost like the young girl she used to be, the one who grew up here.

She used to be so many things, headstrong and careless at the same time, an idealistic little rebel who thought the whole world would one day belong to her. It did, though not in the way she’d anticipated. Years later, that little rebel had become an all-powerful conqueror, ruthless and full of ambition, taking what and who she wanted and laying the rest to waste; that phase of her life had lasted far too long, outstripping those innocent childhood years a thousand times over.

Today, with both of those people far behind her, she found herself right back where she began, in this small hole of a village, this nothing in the middle of nowhere that she called home, feeling more complete, more alive than she ever had in her life. It didn’t matter that her body was not her own, that she looked down and saw the hands of a woman she hated, that she looked into a mirror and saw the face of her enemy. It didn’t matter that Gabrielle still flinched a little when she looked at her, because a moment later she would close her eyes and remember.

Xena had never been the person she saw in the mirror. She had never truly been the vision of herself she held in her head, and that was no more true now than it was all those years ago when she was idealistic and rebellious and saw the world as a toy for her amusement. It didn’t matter that her face or her hands belonged to someone else, because she was as far distanced from her past selves as she ever was from Callisto. They were all shades and echoes of a time long past, versions of herself that she should have laid to rest a long, long time ago.

She never understood the way Gabrielle looked at her that fateful day in Poteidaia. She couldn’t have imagined being anything like the woman she said she saw. A year ago, that Xena was as much a stranger as the little girl who would not be sent home, but now…

Now, at last, she saw her too, and she didn’t need a mirror to know what that meant.

She met Gabrielle’s eyes, held them, and smiled.

I’m your Xena, she thought. I’m the Xena you saw that day. I’m the Xena you made.

Gabrielle didn’t say anything. But Xena knew that she heard.

Cyrene was hesitant to let them go. Xena was used to that, of course, but this time she found that the reluctance ran both ways. Though she knew that the rest of the village would be glad to see the back of her, still she was as sad to leave as Cyrene was to say goodbye again. One day, she vowed to herself, she would return home with no crisis to speak of, no warlords with bounties on her head, no gods toying with her or crazed lunatics in her body; one day, and hopefully one day soon, she would return home to Amphipolis for no reason at all, simply to pass the time and share a home-cooked meal with her mother.

That time was not this time, though. If the last few days had taught her anything, it was that Callisto’s face was still capable of doing great harm to anyone who came near it. Draco might be out of commission for at least as long as it took to find a new fortress, but there were no shortage of others out there who were more than willing to replace him; Gabrielle was far from the only person out there with a good reason to want Callisto dead.

Staying here would only invite another siege, or something far worse, and prove the rest of the village right in hating or running from her. Xena would not allow that, and she would not allow them to suffer any more on her account. She’d caused them too much pain already, and she had no intention of adding more. As much as she wanted to stay here, as much as she wanted to reconnect with her mother, to give Gabrielle a proper bed to rest in and a proper tub to bathe in, as much as she wanted to give all three of them some time to adjust, she knew that it wasn’t right. It was kinder to put some distance between them. At least for now, it was kinder to be cruel.

“You’re being silly,” Cyrene fretted, wringing her hands. “It’s late. You might as well stay the night, at least.”

“Next time,” Xena promised, and didn’t add that if she stayed for just one night she would be tempted to throw all that kindness out the window and stay forever. “For now, I need to put as much distance as I can between this face and the people I care about.”

Gabrielle looked up at her, suddenly vulnerable. “Except me,” she said. Xena expected her voice to be as small as she looked, but it wasn’t; she had never sounded quite so strong. “You’re not leaving me here again, Xena.”

Xena tried to smile, but it hurt. “Not you,” she agreed, and felt her own shoulders relax as Gabrielle’s slumped in relief. “I won’t leave you again. Not without a good reason, at least.”

“Not even with a good reason,” Gabrielle said. “Never again, you hear?”

“We’ll discuss it later,” Xena said, rolling her eyes; the last thing in the world she wanted was to lose her tenuous grasp on maturity with her mother sitting right there, ready to judge.

Cyrene wrapped up some leftovers for them, cold meat and fresh vegetables and a little bread; it wasn’t much, and it was modest, but it would last a few days if they paced themselves. She handed the package to Gabrielle with a twinkle in her eye, and warned her to keep it out of Xena’s hands at all costs.

“She likes to snack…” she sighed, with all the tragic weariness of an unappreciated slave.

“Don’t I know it,” Gabrielle said, and laughed.

Xena rolled her eyes, but didn’t say anything. It was hard to be annoyed by the petty teasing when it made them light up like that, when their faces were glowing and their eyes were so bright. How long had it been since Gabrielle laughed at all, much less so freely? How long since her mother looked at her with fondness instead of sorrow? What did it matter that the joke was on her when they were both so happy?

When at last Cyrene let them leave, they stopped by the stables to pick up Argo. Feeling uncharacteristically self-conscious after the last time, Xena focused on her horse, making a show of checking her over from head to hoof, and let Gabrielle deal with the stable boy on her own. He still wouldn’t look at Xena at all, though he was more than friendly enough when Gabrielle held out a fistful of dinars for his troubles.

Xena tried not to let it get to her, though she couldn’t help thinking that it soured the moment just a little. It was enough that Gabrielle and her mother didn’t hate her, that they cared enough to work through what mistrust they still carried with them, but the look on the boy’s face made for a pointed reminder that the rest of the world was not as understanding or as easily won over; she could not expect things to be so easy with everyone. There was a long, long way yet to go before Xena could expect to be forgiven for the things Callisto’s body had done.

In a way, perhaps that was for the best. Xena knew herself, knew her mind and her heart, but perhaps some things shouldn’t be so easily forgotten or forgiven; a clean slate among the people who loved her most was one thing, but the world had good reason not to trust her. Callisto and Xena both had a great deal to atone for, and maybe the reminder would help to keep her nose clean, add another layer to the new, righteous Xena she saw when she looked at Gabrielle and caught the light in her eyes.

Back out on the road, they walked in silence. It was still heavy, weighted by their experience and their thoughts, but it was closer to familiar now than it had been in a long time. Warm, if not completely comfortable.

Xena kept one eye on the road, mentally mapping out the journey ahead, and the other on her companions. She didn’t ask Gabrielle if she was all right, didn’t cling to Argo like she wanted to, but she kept watch, studying their movements and their reactions for any signs of pain. They were both stronger than she expected, Argo walking steadily between them and Gabrielle visibly glad to have her own staff back after Xena’s poor substitute; though she still leaned heavily on it, her back was straighter than it had been in days. Holding the thing seemed to bring her a fresh source of strength, as though she felt connected somehow to her Amazon sisters by carrying their weapons. Xena wondered if she knew how much of an Amazon she truly was.

Gabrielle and Argo stayed close, wordlessly nudging and leaning on each other every now and then. There was something almost private in the way they looked at each other, the way they didn’t snap or snipe like usual, as though they were sharing something Xena wasn’t a part of, some shared secrets or hidden feelings; then again, perhaps it was just the camaraderie that came with the pain, two recovering invalids basking in each other’s weaknesses. Either way, the sight made Xena smile, so overwhelmed with love for them both.

It was later than she expected when they finally stopped to make camp. She’d planned on walking for a couple of hours at most, just far enough to put some space between them and Amphipolis, but instead she found herself looking up into a night already inching its way towards morning. Worse yet, it wasn’t Argo’s injuries that caused her to demand a stop, nor Gabrielle’s stumbling, but the fact that Xena herself couldn’t seem to stop yawning.

They didn’t need to know that, of course, and when she guided them into a secluded little clearing she was very careful to study Argo’s side and tsk as loudly as she could.

“This is a good spot,” she said, more to make conversation than anything else. “We’re off the main road, out of the wind, and there’s plenty of firewood. As good a place as any to get a little rest, wouldn’t you say?”

“Mm.” It wasn’t much of a response, and Xena didn’t miss the way Gabrielle kept her eyes in the shadows, or the way she turned to look at Argo as though she was the one speaking. “I guess it’s all right.”

Xena frowned. “You okay?”

Gabrielle didn’t throw out her usual sullen ‘I’m fine’. She just sighed and trailed her fingers through Argo’s mane, and didn’t look at Xena at all.

“You should get a fire started,” she said, very quietly. “I’ll take Argo to find some grass. She must be hungry.”

“Argo can find her own grass, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle grunted, annoyed by the logic. “Well, maybe she’s forgotten how,” she snapped. “She was cooped up in that stable for a long time, you know, and she’s not used to it. Horses don’t have good memories.”

Xena had to swallow very hard to keep from sighing, and from pointing out that Argo’s memory was phenomenal, thank you very much. She could feel the easiness, the levity of the last few hours starting to bleed away, and it tore at her heart that there was nothing she could do about it.

She had a feeling that she knew what this was really about, but she didn’t know how to best deal with it. It was always so difficult to know with Gabrielle; on one day it might help to push her a little, to apply pressure until she broke down and got it all out in the open, and on another the very same pressure would make her clam up for a week. In one moment Gabrielle needed to talk things through at great length and using many large words, and in the very next she needed time and space to work through her feelings alone. Xena, who tended to ignore the existence of her feelings at all, still wasn’t entirely sure how to deal with someone like that.

In the end, she backed down. She didn’t want to be responsible for Gabrielle’s smile fading, even if it was for the right reasons in the end. Though she knew the alternative would be more effective, even more practical, still she couldn’t bear to be the one who made it hurt. So, instead of being the warrior she was, stepping up and facing the challenge head-on, she tried to be the soft, sympathetic one. She nodded, turned away, and pretended not to see the shadows under Gabrielle’s eyes.

“Go on, then,” she said. “I’ll get the fire started.”

Gabrielle had never been subtle, even when she thought she was. She’d never been particularly quiet either, and Xena didn’t need to follow her to hear everything she said as she led Argo away. It didn’t take a genius to figure out where this sudden connection came from, why Gabrielle found it easier to talk to the horse than to Xena herself. Argo had no voice, no hands, no shred of humanity in her at all; Gabrielle was hardly the first person to find solace in animals when she couldn’t turn to people, and Xena wouldn’t dream of taking that away from her.

She did this before, Xena remembered. Before Draco, back when all they had to worry about was a warrior princess who looked like a homicidal maniac. She hadn’t been subtle then either, slipping away to talk to Argo, revealing her feelings as though she truly believed that Xena wasn’t hearing every word she said, as though she truly believed she was capable of being quiet. She wasn’t, of course; she couldn’t keep her voice down any more than she could keep her feelings from shining through in her eyes or on her face, or keep her heart from rending Xena’s asunder with a look or a smile or a tear.

Xena built the fire quickly enough, then set to work warming her hands over it, eyes on the flame and ears on Gabrielle’s one-way conversation.

“—on’t leave you alone again,” she was saying, and Xena imagined her gesturing wildly, as she so often did when she got over-excited or emotional. “I won’t let her. It’s like I told her: she needs you. She needs us, and she… and we…”

Her voice cracked, and Argo cut in with a low, sympathetic whinny. Xena smiled sadly to herself. “That’s my girl,” she whispered.

“I know.” Gabrielle sounded sad as well, and thoughtful. “I know it’s better now. I know she’s better, I know I’m better, I know we’re better. Don’t you think I know that already? You’re a horse, for pity’s sake! If you know it, I know it.”

Xena’s heart seized, love overpowering the parts of her that ached at having to hear the words from a distance. “Oh, Gabrielle.”

“But that’s my point,” Gabrielle went on, as though Argo had said something in return. She was good at that, Xena thought, always so quick with her imagination. “We’re better now. I mean, not good… not like it was… but better. Good enough. For now, I mean. It doesn’t hurt so much. I don’t… you don’t feel so lost any more. And it doesn’t… I don’t…” She let out a load, frustrated groan. “You don’t want to ruin that. You don’t want to have to… you don’t want to look at her again and watch it all just disappear. You don’t want to do that again, do you?”

You. Again and again, she said it. You, you, you. It was like she could only admit to her feelings if she let herself pretend they were Argo’s.

“I know that!” Her voice was higher now, pitchy, like she was fighting back tears. “I know she won’t care. It’s Xena, and she loves you, so you need to… you need to stop worrying so much. You need to stop talking to…” She caught herself, sputtered and cleared her throat. “You need to stop talking to me, you stupid horse, and talk to her.”

“Good plan,” Xena murmured, but she wasn’t talking to Argo.

“It’s not enough,” Gabrielle was saying, oblivious. “You can’t just tell her that you love her too. It’s not good enough. Not for her. Not when she’s like this. She has to believe it, she has to know that it’s true. She has to… she has to see it, you idiot. You stupid… stupid…”

But she didn’t say ‘horse’, and Argo didn’t say anything.

It was a long moment before Gabrielle composed herself enough to continue, and Xena was shocked by how much longer it felt. She was used to the helplessness by now, the feeling of impotence that surged up when Gabrielle flinched from her hands or refused to look at her, all the little things she’d had no choice but to get used to since she found herself in Callisto’s body. She was used to feeling like this, but she wasn’t used to being so far away, so utterly distanced from this moment that wasn’t hers to share.

It’s okay, she thought, and prayed that the love if not the words would reach her. It’s okay.

“She has to see it,” Gabrielle said again, at long last. “You know what she’s like. She doesn’t believe anything she can’t see for herself. So she has to. And you… you have to let her. You hear me? You can’t just stand there whining to me about it. You have to… you have to look her in the eye and let her see.” Her voice broke again, but this time Argo didn’t interrupt. “How else is she going to know?”

“She knows,” Xena whispered, closing her eyes to drive back the tears. “Believe me, Gabrielle, she knows.”

She kept it to herself, though. Even later, when Gabrielle finally came back to the fire, she didn’t say that she knew. She didn’t say anything at all. Gabrielle looked defeated, head bowed low and shoulders slumping, but Xena didn’t even try to lift her up. She wouldn’t embarrass her by saying that she’d heard, that Gabrielle was not as quiet or as subtle as she liked to believe she was. Some things were better left unsaid, better left felt and held close without the pain of trying to sharpen them into words. Some secrets were best kept that way.

“The fire’s looking good,” Gabrielle murmured, and Xena noted the way she sat down beside her this time, not across from her.

“It’s a fire,” she pointed out, trying not to smile and give herself away. “What would a bad one look like?”

Gabrielle’s shoulders tightened, hunching forwards a little; she definitely wasn’t smiling. “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe ask Draco.”

Xena winced. “Gabrielle.”

“I know, I know. That was…” She shook her head, as though clearing it, gripping it between her hands. “I was joking. Or, well, trying to, I guess. It was… I meant…”

“It’s all right.” She did smile now, because Gabrielle looked so confused, like she didn’t know what she was feeling. Xena had to let her know that it didn’t matter, that they were still them no matter what was going on in that ever-spinning head of hers. “Gabrielle, you were right to come down hard on me for what I did back there.”

“I was?” She sounded dubious, but achingly hopeful. “You didn’t seem to think so at the time.”

“I didn’t. But I was wrong. I shouldn’t have killed that low-life bastard. I was taking the easy way out. I knew it at the time, but I didn’t…” She sighed. “It made me feel like I was in control again, like I could be just as strong in this body as I was in my own. And after…” She closed her eyes for a beat or two, let herself drown in the memory of Gabrielle on the floor, of the bastard and his friends all crowded around her, beating her senseless just to get to ‘Callisto’. “After what he did to you, I wanted to do it. It was just that simple: Draco was telling me to do it, and I wanted to do it, and I…”

“Xena…”

“I let that cloud my judgement,” Xena finished, ignoring the cut of her name. “I knew perfectly well that it was wrong, that you wouldn’t approve, but I did it anyway because I wanted to, because I convinced myself he deserved it. The opportunity was there, and and I took it.” She clasped her hands together in her lap, regretful. “I guess I’m not ready to resist my dark side when you’re not there to show me the light.”

It was overly dramatic, yes, and probably sounded more than a little stupid coming from her, but it made Gabrielle smile again — a real smile, the kind that lit up the whole gods-forsaken world — and that was all that mattered. It was shaky, still a little fearful, but like always it was so beautiful that Xena lost her breath.

“I’m here now,” Gabrielle said, so quietly that Xena had to lean in very close to hear it. “Always.”

Xena took advantage of the proximity, tilting her head just enough to press a kiss to her temple. For once, Gabrielle didn’t flinch when she touched her, didn’t reel back from the contact or tremble or shudder; instead, she leaned into it, and into Xena. That, more than all the words in the world, made Xena’s heart sing.

“I love you,” she breathed.

Gabrielle took a deep breath and turned her face upwards, catching her gaze and holding it. “I love you, Xena.”

They stayed like that for a few minutes, both relishing the closeness too much to pull apart. Xena wanted it to last forever, a moment in a moment in a moment where neither one of them cared what the other looked like, where Gabrielle could see through Callisto’s eyes into Xena’s heart, where Xena could keep her eyes on Gabrielle’s and not have to see the bruises on the skin. A moment, just a moment, where they were complete and together, each made a little more whole through the other, each breathing a little more easily the more they let themselves breathe this in.

It was necessity that finally made Xena break the contact. Necessity, and that perpetual practical streak she’d never quite been able to shake off. She pulled away slowly, made it clear that she didn’t want to do this any more than Gabrielle did, and squeezed her hand as tightly as she dared.

“It’s getting pretty late,” she said, by way of explanation.

Gabrielle sighed. “I know.” She mustered a chuckle, but it was watery and weak. “I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.”

“We need to rest,” Xena said.

It was deliberate, the emphasis on ‘we’. She hoped that would make it easier for Gabrielle to swallow, that she would submit to it if she thought it was about both of them equally. Gabrielle, of course, was a little too good at that game, and dove on the opportunity to remove herself entirely.

You need to rest,” she countered. “I could go for another six hours.”

“Don’t play tough.” Xena leaned in again, this time to nudge her shoulder. Again, Gabrielle didn’t flinch, and the flood of affection made it very hard for Xena to play the stern warrior. “You know you’ve never been able to fool me.”

Gabrielle huffed her annoyance, but didn’t argue with that; she couldn’t have, even if she’d wanted to. She made a show of sulking, though, when she laid out her bedroll, and pointedly didn’t look at Xena at all. Xena chuckled to herself, more amused than affronted by the immaturity. This time, for once, Gabrielle was averting her eyes for the right reasons, the easy, comfortable reasons. Sulking by glaring at the ground was good; it was familiar, and Xena would gladly take a lifetime of it.

They settled down quietly, Xena sprawled out on her back with her eyes on the sky; she wasn’t usually one for counting the stars, at least not without Gabrielle pushing her for a story about them, but tonight she found it oddly calming. She could hear Gabrielle tossing and turning on the other side of the fire, trying to find a position that didn’t press on her bruises, and she needed something to distract her. It was too tempting to sit up and watch her, to point out that the discomfort was a good thing, that it had been days since she’d had the strength to roll around like that. Tempting, yes, but she didn’t want to draw attention to it; the last thing either of them needed right now was for Gabrielle to start feeling self-conscious, or for her ego to assert itself and insist she didn’t need to sleep anyway.

It was a while before she found a comfortable position, halfway on her front and halfway on her side. Xena smiled and let her breathing even out, listening to the hitch in Gabrielle’s, the way she used Xena’s rhythm to steady herself as she so often did. She knew that she was watching her, but she kept looking at the sky. The stars up there were safer than the ones in Gabrielle’s eyes, and just as infinite.

“Xena?”

Xena didn’t move. “Yeah, Gabrielle?”

“You’ll wake me in the morning?” Gabrielle swallowed; Xena heard it catch in her throat, recognised the ghost of nervousness. “When it’s time to get going?”

It was such an innocuous question, but at the same time there was nothing innocuous in it at all. Xena recognised the deeper meaning, just as Gabrielle must have known that she would. Gabrielle, who couldn’t bear to even look at Callisto’s face, who couldn’t bear to be touched by her, who became so vulnerable when she slept and dreamed. Gabrielle, who was so reluctant last time, when Xena was the one saying ‘I’ll wake you’. Gabrielle, who was still working through her fears and her struggles, who was still so afraid to be seen or touched and yet somehow willing to ask for those things now because she knew what they meant to Xena. Gabrielle, who was so much… and Xena, who understood without the need for words just how deep her love must run for her to ask for such a thing without even as a tremor in her voice.

“You want that?” she asked, almost breathless with the weight of it.

Gabrielle shrugged, then rolled over again, facing the fire. “I’m tired,” she said, as though she would ever admit to such a thing if it was true. “If you don’t wake me, I won’t get out of bed.”

Xena laughed, let the moment ignite with the humour. “Fine,” she said, throwing a little of Gabrielle’s petulance back at her. “But this time I expect breakfast.”

“You’ll regret that,” Gabrielle threatened, and the grin in her voice made Xena’s heart soar. “When I burn all your mother’s leftovers, don’t come whining to me.”

“I won’t,” Xena said, almost to herself. “I promise.”

“Good.” Gabrielle wriggled a little under her blanket, as though still trying to get comfortable, then finally seemed to settle down. “Goodnight, Xena.”

Xena let her smile be her response. She rolled over onto her side, not because she was uncomfortable on her back but because she wanted to watch Gabrielle fall asleep. She wanted to trace the lines on her face, mark out the all-but-faded bruises, memorise every perfect part of her. She wanted to watch for any signs of discomfort or pain, for a shift in her breathing or the telltale twitch as she drifted off to sleep. She wanted to see what Gabrielle was like without her blushes or her smiles or the way she hid her face. She wanted to see what her dreams had to say for her heart.

She waited for the nightmares to start. She waited for the moment that beautiful, peaceful face twisted itself into a rictus of pain. It had done so every night since Xena had taken on Callisto’s face, and she knew that it was only a matter of time before it did so again; they might have taken steps today, but there weren’t enough steps in the world to silence Gabrielle’s dreams when they took hold. Xena knew that, and she waited for the torment to begin, the little whimpers and the terrible, heart-wrenching cries; she waited for her name whispered like a prayer, for Callisto’s choked like a plea. She had seen those things so many times by now that it was second nature to expect them, to brace for the moment her heart got torn in half, the moment Gabrielle’s dreams gave away what she really felt, what she truly saw when she looked at her.

It seemed to take forever. When she finally surrendered to the need for sleep, at least at first, Gabrielle seemed to be as serene as ever. Her breathing was even, rattling occasionally with a gasp of pain but otherwise steady, and she still wore that ghost of a grin, the good-natured petulance that had so warmed Xena’s heart a moment ago. Briefly, Xena let herself wonder if Morpheus was taking pity on her tonight, if he was finally giving her a little respite from those terrible dreams, leaving her free to sleep in silence as she had in those broken days after Callisto killed Perdicus.

For someone like Gabrielle, Xena knew that dreamlessness was its own kind of torture, but after so many endless nightmares she couldn’t help wondering if perhaps tonight it would be a blessing. Just one night, a whole one, in pure and perfect silence. Gabrielle might not want that for herself, but Xena did. She wanted it for her, for them both. She wanted it so desperately, so—

“…Xena…”

Xena’s heart seized. She waited for the flinch, the panic, the terror, the moment that perfect peace was shattered, the moment Gabrielle started to toss and turn and twitch, the moment her voice rose to a cry and then a scream, the moment Xena’s name turned to Callisto’s and her mouth started to twist and her hands started to fist the blankets, the moment her serenity shattered for good. She’d seen it dozens of times by now, watched helpless and impotent from the other side of a fire or a tavern room or wherever else they happened to lay their heads for the night; she wanted nothing more than to take all it all away, to cross over to Gabrielle’s side, take her into her arms like she did in her own body, pull her in and hold her close, hold her until the dreaming ended, hold her forever.

Gabrielle, she thought, waiting and aching and wanting.

But the flinch never came. None of it came. The panic, the terror, the cry rising to a scream in her throat, the twist in her mouth and the clenching of her fists. Nothing at all, and where she expected to see pain and fear washing away the calm on Gabrielle’s face, it did no such thing. Even now, whispering Xena’s name, still she remained as peaceful as ever, still so serene even as she slept, and though her eyes were moving beneath their lids she didn’t seem broken or afraid.

“Xena…”

“I’m here,” Xena whispered, awestruck at the sight of her. “I’m here, Gabrielle. I’ve always been here.”

Gabrielle sighed. “Always.”

Even in sleep — perhaps especially in sleep — her smile was the most radiant thing Xena had ever seen.

Tears welled up in Xena’s eyes, sharp and sudden, painful but powerful in a way she hadn’t felt in a long time, like the heat of a broken bone setting in the right way or a bad wound finally starting to heal, the kind of pain Gabrielle complained about when she asked ‘is getting better supposed to hurt more than getting hurt?’. It was a healing hurt, but such a beautiful one, and Xena couldn’t remember the last time the sting of tears felt so good.

She let them fall. Not for their sake, not even for her own, but because she didn’t want them to stay in her eyes and blur the lines of Gabrielle’s face. She didn’t want anything between her and the woman she loved, the rhythm of her breathing, the softness and the serenity and the perfect peace, the sound of her own name. She didn’t want anything between her and the smile she thought she would never see again.

“Xena,” Gabrielle said again, breathless and beatific. “My Xena.”

Through the tears, Xena smiled too.

“Goodnight, Gabrielle,” she whispered. “Sweet dreams.”

***