i wish i was a
sacrifice, . . .
that somehow still lived on, . . .
. . .
i wish i was a messenger and all the news was good, . . .
. . .
i wish i was the verb to trust and never let you down . . .
--Pearl Jam, "Wishlist," Yield (Sony Music Entertainment, 1998)
Concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, Xena stumbled wearily out of the cave, every muscle in her legs crying out in protest at every step. Where was Gabrielle? She knew she needed Gabrielle, and had to keep going until she found her. She clutched her boots tightly with one hand, while using the other to brace herself against the inevitable trips and falls. It seemed her wobbly legs couldn't hold her up, but pushing herself off her knees when she fell was even more agonizing. Something caught her eye, and she glanced back to see Callisto vanishing in a column of flame. She continued to make her slow, torturous way down the mountain and away from the scene of her imprisonment. She thought about stopping for water at the stream where she had been bathed once, but she wasn't sure if she bent down to drink she'd be able to get up again. After about half an hour of dazed stumbling and repeated falls, all the horror she'd repressed flooded out of her in a mighty wail. She howled in agony, the sound pouring out of her uncontrollably while two streams of tears welled out of her eyes. She fell to her knees, bowed her head to the ground, rocking back and forth in a frenzy, unable to contain the outpouring of her pain.
That was how Hercules found her. He had been searching for her ever since Gabrielle had found him and told him of Xena's disappearance. Having no leads to follow but intuition, he had, after days of searching, gradually made his way toward the scene of Xena's captivity. The instant she began to howl, he knew immediately it was her. He raced up the mountain, as the sound echoed around him, his heart tugged by a love that had never let him go. Xena's wailing pierced him with sorrow, but that sorrow was nothing compared to what he would endure later when he saw the extent of her injuries.
After a period of time that seemed to stretch out indefinitely, in which nothing existed but Xena's howl of pain, he rushed up to her, dropped to his knees beside her, and was about to pull her into his arms when he saw the countless bruises and marks. "Oh, Xena," he whispered, his hands hovering, wanting to stroke her and comfort her but afraid of causing further pain.
The screaming and rocking stopped and Xena flinched away from him. She stared seemingly right through him in blank terror, but as her eyes focused and she recognized him, she reached out her hands for a moment then collapsed unconscious. As Hercules gathered her up in his arms, having first looped her boots onto his belt, he took in his breath sharply. There wasn't an area he could see that wasn't hurt in one way or another. Gabrielle has to be right, he thought to himself; this had to be Callisto. His heart ached at how light Xena felt in his arms, and he had to shake tears out of his eyes as he walked.
After a while, Xena began to wake. She initially jerked so violently, she almost threw herself out of Hercules' arms, but then she recognized him again. "You're safe, Xena; you're safe," he repeated. "I'm going to take care of you. You're safe."
She nodded briefly to indicate she understood, then mouthed the word "water." He carried her to the nearby stream, and while propping her limp form against his body, scooped up a handful of water, dribbling it on her lips. She swallowed a bit gratefully, then asked for more, all the while recoiling inside at the way she'd been forced to take water from Callisto's lips.
"Who did this?" asked Hercules.
"Callisto. I can't . . . talk about it now. But I can walk . . . I think," said Xena, the dryness of her throat relieved.
"I don't think so," said Hercules calmly.
He helped her to stand, but as soon as she tried to support her own weight, her legs turned to jelly. "I guess you're right," she said wryly. Hercules scooped her up, and soon she had fallen asleep, her head against his shoulder.
He briefly considered where to take her, and settled on the only place with sufficient comfort and privacy--his mother and Jason's house. As he approached the door, his mother rushed outside. "What happened, Hercules? Is that Xena?!" she asked, remembering both the woman who had seduced Iolaus and the woman who had helped clear her son when he had been framed for the murder of his wife, Serena.
"Yes," answered Hercules. "She was imprisoned and tortured by Callisto. Can we take over your spare room for--well--a while? Her recovery's going to take some time."
"Of course," said Alcmene. "The poor thing is going to want a hot bath, and I'll make up some salves for her wounds. I've never seen so many bruises, and that's quite a gash on her arm."
"It's from a sword, and it's a new wound," said Hercules, his face contorting for a moment in fury.
"Ssh, son, don't. The important thing now is to take care of your friend."
As Hercules carried Xena inside, she woke up, still dazed. "Where?" she began to ask.
"You're safe. We're at my mother's house. You can recover here." Alcmene brought a blanket for Xena, who began to try to thank her hostess.
"You don't have to say anything, dear. If Hercules brought you here, that's all that matters." Soon Xena was half reclined in a comfortable chair, and Alcmene brought her a small bowl of broth. Xena's hands shook, but she was determined to feed herself, and took small careful sips. When she noticed Hercules about to leave the room, she looked around wildly, her eyes terrified.
"I'll be right back, Xena. Don't worry. I'm just going to get the tub." Xena remained tense and alert while he was gone. He soon came back, bearing a wooden tub and carried it into the spare bedroom. Soon water was being heated on the fire.
"How does a hot bath sound?" he said, crouching down next to Xena, and smiling warmly. He tried to keep his voice neutral and avoid expressing the rage and sorrow that coursed through him.
"Sounds great," she said, speaking as little as possible. She was holding in her emotions through a tremendous battle of will.
"Bath's ready," he announced after Xena had drunk a second bowl of broth. He picked Xena up effortlessly, as if she were hollow inside. After carrying her into the spare bedroom, he asked, hesitantly, "Would you like my mother to help . . . "
"Please stay with me, Hercules. Please." Tears of panic began to well in her eyes. She shook them away fiercely. "It's not as though you've never seen me without clothes before," she explained, trying to sound practical. "And I'm not feeling particularly alluring."
"I'll stay, of course. Whatever you want." He gently helped remove her clothes, then gasped "Gods . . . ." He had seen the inscription, "CALLISTO OF CIRRA WAS HERE" on Xena's back.
"She carved it three different times," said Xena flatly, as Hercules, hands shaking, helped her into the tub.
"I . . .I'm . . . " Hercules began to say.
"Don't!" said Xena suddenly, grabbing his wrist. "Don't go after her. Promise me. She can hurt you or kill you, and it won't solve anything."
Hercules hesitated. As he saw the complete extent of Xena's injuries, the rage within him swelled.
"Xena," he said firmly.
"No!" she exclaimed, tightening her grip on his wrist. "Promise. You have to promise. I need you to promise you won't go after her."
Hercules easily shrugged his wrist out of Xena's grasp, and paced around the room, his strength and size a comforting magnet for Xena's eyes. Then he knelt again by the tub, pulling off his arm braces and gauntlets and said "I promise. I'm going to stay with you as long as you need me. If I can find a way to put her away permanently, I'll tell you first. Otherwise, I won't go after her."
"Thank you," sighed Xena in relief. "Hercules, is Gabrielle safe?"
"As far as I know. She was going to look for you in Amphipolis. I'll have Mother or Jason send Iolaus to find her and bring her here."
Xena nodded, appreciating Hercules' understanding that she could not bear for him to leave her, even for a short while, and slipping lower into the soothing bath. She couldn't believe how much she craved the sensation of hot water. She sponged and soaped herself assiduously, wanting to cleanse every trace of Callisto from her body.
"Would you like some help with your hair?" offered Hercules.
Xena froze for a moment, recalling Callisto washing and combing her hair, but she reminded herself, This is Hercules. I'm safe. She nodded, and he gently washed her hair, then helped Xena stand for a final rinse with a bucket of water. He noted that his mother had already left a clean sleeping shift on the bed, but he said, "We need to put something on those wounds. Mother has a salve that will help them heal more quickly and not leave a permanent scar."
Xena nodded gratefully, and he gently applied salve to the cuts in her back and the sword slash on her arm as well as some of the worst blisters, then bandaged her arm and helped her slip the loose sleeping shift on.
She was sitting on the bed, and he brought a comb for her hair. As he began to comb it out, Xena went rigid. "What is it?" he asked.
"Tell you when you're done," she said between gritted teeth. He finished as quickly as he could, but there were seemingly countless tangles. Xena's heart overflowed with gratitude for his gentleness and patience.
When he was done and began to help Xena under the covers, she lost the brittle veneer of control she'd been maintaining. She burst into frantic, broken sobs. He pulled her into his arms, and held her, rocking her gently as she cried. She couldn't help it. She was aware of being soothed by the sensation of his strong arms cradling her, but she was hysterical with the release of repressed terror, pain, and humiliation. When the sobs subsided after a long while, she began to apologize: "I'm . . . sor-ry!"
"Ssh, ssh, love," murmured Hercules. "You're supposed to cry. You're going to cry more. It's all right. Whatever you need is all right."
She whispered wonderingly, "While I was there, I never cried once," and the dam was broken, and it all came out, every excruciating detail of what Callisto had done to her, every pain Callisto had inflicted, every violation of her body, every humiliation Xena had to endure. She felt absolutely compelled to pour the words out; they had been building inside her with an almost unendurable pressure, and she had to release them. While she talked, Hercules simply held her tightly, trying not to let her see the tears that welled in his eyes. A massive knot grew and tangled in his chest, and he almost trembled with the anguish he felt at the harm done to this woman he loved.
When the words finally slowed and stilled, she looked up into Hercules' warm eyes and saw the pain there. "Please stay," she whispered. "Please stay while I sleep."
"Of course," said Hercules gently, wiping his eyes. He helped Xena lay back against the pillows, then pulled off his boots and got back up into the bed. Xena was blinking with fatigue, and Hercules said, "Come here, love, and I'll hold you. That way you'll know I'm here." He dozed most of the night, keeping his arms wrapped around Xena and trying not to think about how fragile she looked and felt.
* * *
She dreamed restlessly of approaching fingers, candles, and the hilt of Callisto's knife. She couldn't avoid them no matter how she fled and flipped and dodged and rolled. They always met their mark with invasive force.
Hercules felt the warrior shudder and tremble in his arms as she slept. When she began to moan and whimper, he had to wake her up. He couldn't stand to think of her suffering more pain. When she awoke, tears began to leak out of her eyes. All Hercules could do was stroke her hair and try to soothe her.
"The worst of it is . . ." she said through her tears, "that I can't help feeling . . . Oh gods, how can I say this?"
"Some kind of attraction to her?" asked Hercules softly.
Xena looked up at him, eyes wide. "Yes! It's awful. I hate her for everything she's done, and I feel all this guilt about making her who she is. But I can't help feeling drawn to her."
Hercules nodded, saying soberly, "I know."
"Do you feel it too?"
"Yeah. Iolaus too. Don't know what it is about her."
"I was afraid it was just me," Xena whispered, "because of our history." Tears began spilling more quickly down her cheeks. "Most of the time there . . . it was torture, unbelievable torture. I've . . . dealt with worse pain . . . it was mostly the helplessness . . . and humiliation, but . . . there were a . . . a few times she touched me, and . . . I . . . "
"Ssh, Xena," said Hercules. "You don't need to say it; I know what you're saying."
"But--how could I?"
She buried her head in Hercules' shoulder, sobbing in self-revulsion, while the demigod struggled with what to say. Action was so much easier, and from his first encounter with the warrior princess, he knew he'd never have the words to keep up with her. "Xena, listen to me." He carefully cupped her jaw in his hand and tipped her head up so she could look at him. "You can't blame yourself for those feelings. Callisto--has some kind of . . . ability to draw people. She's like a magnet--or a flame to a moth. She had it even before she became a god. Are you listening to me, Xena?"
Xena nodded, the tears coming more slowly. Hercules continued. "And, well--I know this is hard, Xena--but she has a pretty powerful crush on you. She was just a child--when you . . . when your army attacked Cirra. In many ways, she never grew up. She just got stuck there. I think it would be almost impossible not to respond to those feelings she has for you under the hatred. It explains a lot about why she does what she does--and why she's so terrifying." Hercules sighed in disgust. "She's just like most of the gods, even before she became one--an overgrown child with way too much power."
"You're right," said Xena. "You're right, but the feeling still makes me want to crawl under a rock and stay there. A couple of times . . . her whole face changed . . . and she reminded me of . . . Gabrielle--back at the beginning. And what she did to me . . . sometimes . . . made me think of things Gabrielle and I do--we sometimes play a bit rough--and it made me sick . . . literally."
Embarrassed, but touched by Xena's willingness to confide in him, Hercules said, "You know it's not the same."
"I know," answered Xena. "But Callisto has a way of making it seem the same--she twists everything beautiful so it becomes ugly. But the ugliness is there too. She shows me parts of myself that really do exist. When she killed Perdicas . . . for a moment, inside my soul, I thanked her for giving Gabrielle back to me. Sometimes, I don't know how I can live with myself!"
"Xena, that's natural--selfish but natural. You're human. You have to battle more darkness than many of us do. But we all have it. We all have our selfish, greedy sides. You're talking to a man who hurt his best friend--more than best friend, I was already starting to realize my feelings for him--who hurt him because I decided that being with this glorious woman who lit up my heart was worth almost anything short of killing someone. Was worth the hurt to Iolaus, was worth the price we both paid later."
"Oh, Hercules, I'm so, so sorry."
"Don't be, Xena. I told you it was worth it. And at that time and in that place, it was just--right."
"Yes, it was," she said smiling gently.
"Sometimes, things just have to be a certain way. Like you and Gabrielle. You didn't kill him yourself--you didn't even stand in Gabrielle's way. You did all the right things. But I would have been surprised if you hadn't felt the way you did. I know Iolaus had to have felt a flash of relief when Serena died--I can't hold that against him. I know he sympathized with my feelings, just as you did with Gabrielle's, but I only realized later how miserable he had been, and how foolish and thoughtless I was. You're not the only one with a selfish streak in this room."
Xena slipped her hand into Hercules' hand in sympathy, then said softly, "Callisto accused me of creating her so there would be someone to do all the things I thought were wrong--to do them for me."
"No, love, can't you see how she exaggerates? The way a child would. I know part of you wants to go back to the old Xena; I know my half-brother is offering you the world and more if you do. But the important thing is that you keep resisting the easy way out. Yes, part of you is drawn to Callisto and her crimes, but only a part. There are times when I wish I could be as ruthless as she is and rid the world of my half-brother--whatever the consequences."
"I didn't think of it quite that way," mused Xena. "Why are you so understanding?"
Hercules smiled self-deprecatingly. "I don't know. I like to think that in most people the good outweighs the bad. I'll admit that at first you were a challenge to that belief."
"Yeah, I'll bet I was," she laughed ruefully. Her voice suddenly grew serious. "What's the difference, Hercules? That butcher Cortese said he created me--and I guess he did to an extent, but I changed. He killed my brother, but I was never obsessed with him the way she is with me. And I know I wanted revenge on Caesar for the longest time, but it wasn't the focus of my entire life. What did I do to make her who she is?"
"You didn't, Xena. She's insane. How do you know she wasn't troubled before you ever appeared in Cirra? There's something in her that made it impossible for her to move past that one moment in her life. Yes, you are responsible for the deaths of her family. But you aren't responsible for her soul."
Xena nodded, pressing closer to Hercules. He continued, "And you let other people into your life besides Cortese. He shaped you, but he wasn't the only one. You wouldn't have let me in, you know, if you hadn't been ready for what I had to show you. That was you, Xena--you made the decision to do the right thing, and that was the turning point. After that it was easy for me to look into your heart and see the light there."
She squeezed his hand in acknowledgment, then said in a wondering voice, "There was someone else who saw something in me--and I wasn't ready to accept what she saw. I ruined her hopes, but she came to me once, after she died, and told me she knew how I'd changed and was proud of me. When you gave me that chance to turn my life around, all of a sudden I understood what she'd tried so hard to teach me. Some day I'd like to tell you about her, Hercules."
"I'd like that."
Xena's face looked suddenly troubled, as she shifted in the bed, and a sharp pain shot through her from one of her numerous injuries. "Hercules," she said in a strained whisper, "I'm scared. I am so scared of Callisto now. I was scared every moment she had me. And I hate it. I hate being scared like this. I hate being helpless--she could come back."
"I know, love, I know. And I'm going to take care of you until you're ready to take care of yourself again. Just remember, she's not invincible; she's not invulnerable. There may be something we can do. But Xena," he turned, taking her face very gently in his hands; "you're going to be scared for a long time. What happened to you you're not going to get over right away. I'll help you. Gabrielle will help you. But it's going to take a while."
"I know," she said with a sob, "but I hate feeling like this."
Hercules didn't know what else to say, so he did the only thing he knew how. He put his arms around her, pressed his lips to the top of her head, and held her while she cried, hoping his strength gave her some feeling of security, at least enough to slowly begin healing.
* * *
Gabrielle and Iolaus were traveling as fast as possible. Her first reaction on seeing him was a terrified assumption that he had bad news, and she was so relieved that Xena was still alive, she didn't grasp the magnitude of what had happened to her lover. Iolaus didn't know many details, having been filled in by Alcmene, but as soon as he'd heard what had happened, he had an all too real understanding of the seriousness of Xena's condition.
"How long was she missing, Gabrielle?" he asked as they walked.
"Over two weeks--16 days."
Iolaus' blue eyes looked deeply troubled. "Gods . . . I don't know a lot of the details, Gabrielle, but I can tell you this. Xena's not going to get over this one right away. Probably not for a long time. You can't begin to imagine what the feeling of helplessness does to you."
Gabrielle instantly understood what he was saying and laid a gentle hand on his arm. "Oh, Iolaus, I'm so sorry. I didn't know."
"It's a long story." He shrugged and flashed a self-deprecating grin. "And ancient history. Just don't expect Xena to be herself." He smiled again, reassuringly this time. "And I know from experience, you're a wonderful nurse and the soul of patience."
Gabrielle blushed slightly at the compliment. "I was glad I could help out in some way. I felt like such a burden to Xena in those days. Oh, I'm so worried about her, Iolaus."
"I know," he said gently, returning the light touch on her arm. "But she's in good hands. The best. Herc'll take good care of her."
"I know," said Gabrielle, "I just want to see her so badly."
Suddenly, the travellers were accosted by a small band of robbers wielding knives and clubs. The one in front said, "Just hand over all your money and jewelry, and no one gets hurt. You wouldn't want the little lady to suffer, now, would you? And we'll take your food, too, while we're at it."
Gabrielle felt all the anxiety of over two weeks of not knowing what had happened to her lover--and not being able to do anything about it--rush over her. She screamed, "I don't have time for this!" and swung her staff, knocking the knife out of the leader's hand. The next swing knocked him off his feet. Iolaus was instantly in the middle of the fray, disarming two of the thugs with spinning kicks. As another one of the robbers charged him, he crouched, and the man sailed over him. As the robber turned around to charge again, he was upended by Gabrielle's whirling staff. "Yah! Yah!" she cried with each satisfying thwack of the staff. "Behind you!" she yelled, and Iolaus spun, driving his forearm into the throat of a man who had been about to strike him with a club. Between them, they made short work of the gang, who staggered off as fast as their aching bodies would carry them. These two were definitely not worth the trouble.
Gabrielle and Iolaus high-fived, clasped each other's wrists and shook in mutual congratulations, and broke into a shared fit of giggles.
"Nice work," she gasped between laughs.
"Same to you. You're good," he said admiringly. "And last time I had a chance to see you fight, I was more than a little distracted. May I?" he asked, reaching a hand for her staff.
Iolaus tested the staff, practicing a few moves. He was quick and graceful, and Gabrielle envied his swift reflexes. He handed it back to her, and they continued on their way.
"So, um . . . you and Xena . . . are . . . " Iolaus began to ask.
"Yeah," laughed Gabrielle. "Xena and I are um, just like you said."
Iolaus blushed slightly, and Gabrielle continued, "For a few months now. I don't know what took us so long. Some pretty serious differences came between us, but we realized what we felt for each other was more important."
"I've been there," said Iolaus. "Herc's pretty susceptible to a pretty face and a sad story, y' know, but he always comes back to me. It's almost worth it for the sheepish look on his face." He grinned. "I mean it's not like I don't have my flings either, but he tends to take his more seriously."
"If you don't mind my asking, how did you deal with it when he . . . married Serena?"
"Not well. I've long since accepted the fact that part of his heart will always belong to Xena--that's just one of those unchanging facts about him, and it doesn't take anything away from me--and he'll never really be over the loss of Deianara and his children. But when he found someone else after we'd been together, and married her, that was tough."
"I'll bet," mused Gabrielle. "But I did the same thing Hercules did--married someone I thought needed me--for all the wrong reasons. And I was so blind to how much I hurt Xena. And we've talked about it a lot, but I know she still feels guilty about what Callisto did. Hades knows what poison she's been pouring into Xena's head all this time!"
Iolaus shook his head, frowning. "Gabrielle, I still feel guilty for what happened to Serena--just because I wished her out of the picture. We've talked about it too, and Herc's the most understanding guy in the world, but there's that pain there--in the past--that never really goes all the way away. It's just part of who we are together."
"I know all about that," sighed Gabrielle. "But, Iolaus, do you ever think certain things were meant to be--even when really terrible things have to happen to make them work out? I feel so awful that I let Perdicas walk into a situation that was much bigger than he was--there were the feelings Xena and I had for each other and there was Callisto trying to hurt Xena--and he died, for something that was no part of him."
"Yeah, it's the same way with Herc. Whatever he does, whoever he loves, there will always be the shadow of his stepmother and Ares over everything. Sometimes, I wish I could protect him from all the shit he has to deal with. Strongest man in the world, but he's awfully vulnerable inside."
Gabrielle nodded, understanding Iolaus' protective impulse--she felt the same thing and was equally powerless to do much about it.
Iolaus continued, "But I think you're right. Some things just have to happen the way they do. I don't know if it's the gods or the Fates or destiny or what, but something out there can be pretty ruthless in making some things work out. I know Herc needs me, and that's the thing that's important."
"Yes," said Gabrielle. "That's just how I feel about Xena."
* * *
When Xena woke up again in the afternoon, she felt well enough to sit up and eat and to walk a short distance, although every muscle still hurt. Hercules gently tended to her wounds, applying the healing salve, and then she asked him to invite his mother in, and she thanked her profusely for her hospitality in giving her a safe place to recover. Alcmene graciously reiterated that her son's friends were always welcome and Xena could stay as long as she needed or wanted to, and she wanted to do whatever she could to make Xena comfortable. She assured Xena that Gabrielle would be welcome as well. Xena was still uneasy any time she had to be away from Hercules for long--she kept envisioning Callisto swooping into the house in a column of flame and spiriting her away. That thought brought a sudden realization to her.
"Hercules," she said abruptly. "I'm endangering your mother and Jason and their home by being here. Callisto could torch this place with a flick of her finger. I should go somewhere else."
Hercules just shook his head, with a bemused smile. "Xena, you're not going anywhere. Neither I nor mother will hear of it. Anyway, my intuition tells me that Callisto meant what she said when she told you she was bored. She's not going to go after you any time soon." Then he added gravely, "at least not until you're in good enough shape to provide her with some entertainment." His face darkened. "I just want . . . "
"Hercules! You promised."
"Yes, I did," he sighed.
Xena looked down, almost shyly. "I really hate being this helpless, but don't think for a moment I don't appreciate all you're doing for me, Hercules. I don't even know how to say how much this means to me."
Hercules' face lit up with a sunny smile. "It's a privilege, and I cherish it, Xena." He paused, and added in a serious tone, "What she did to you makes me sick, but selfish as I am, I treasure the chance to spend time with you."
"You flatter me," said Xena.
"Anyway," said Hercules, bringing the topic to more neutral ground, "you're going to have to do a lot of working out to get back in shape once you get out of this bed--who better to help you?"
"I accept your offer."
They both heard the sounds of Iolaus and Gabrielle's arrival. "Let me speak to Gabrielle for a moment," suggested Hercules, looking at Xena. Xena cast an eye over her battered body and nodded, understanding. She found herself feeling anxious as he left the room, and impatient to see Gabrielle.
Hercules greeted the travellers. "Can I see her?" demanded Gabrielle.
"Yes, I just wanted to prepare you--she doesn't look too good. She's been pretty badly beaten up, and she's very weak."
Gabrielle closed her eyes and bowed her head in a moment of dismay. "OK, I'm ready."
Hercules took Gabrielle to the spare room and said to Xena, "I'm going to give you two some time to yourselves. But I'll be just outside if you need me."
A slight shiver of panic passed through Xena, but she was quickly distracted by the sight of Gabrielle, who had never looked so beautiful to her. If there was a reason she had determined to survive her ordeal, Gabrielle was it.
Gabrielle stood for a moment, taking in the sight of her lover. The hand-shaped slap marks on Xena's cheeks had faded only slightly, but were still visible, looking like a sunburn. She took in a bandage on one arm, and bruises covering Xena's arms, neck, and chest. While older bruises were beginning to yellow, deeper, newer ones were just beginning to purple her flesh.
"Oh Xena!" she cried, unable to prevent tears from welling in her eyes. She ran to the bed. "Can I touch you? Does it hurt too much?"
"I need you to touch me, Gabrielle. Please hold me," begged the warrior.
In a moment their arms were around each other, Xena's draped weakly around Gabrielle's waist, and Gabrielle's holding Xena tightly, and Xena found her head resting on her lover's bosom. She began to cry too, her eyes aching from the tears she'd already shed, and they held each other and cried, as if mourning someone they'd both lost.
"You'll have to be strong for me now," whispered Xena brokenly.
"Always, Xena, always," returned Gabrielle, stroking her lover and kissing the tears from her cheeks. "I love you, and you're back. We'll take care of the rest together."
"I love you, too, Gabrielle. I didn't know when she might let me go, and I couldn't escape, but I knew I had to get back to you."
"What did she do to you?" asked Gabrielle softly.
Xena winced. "I can't tell it all again. It hurts to much to say it. Hercules will tell you. You need to know what happened, because it's going to take Tartarus knows how long for me to get better--and because it will always be a part of me. I'll have you talk to him in a bit, but please just hold me for a while."
Gabrielle complied of course, terror shaking her from inside. Xena had never seemed to her so broken and fragile while yet conscious. She held her lover close. Xena looked up into her face with wide, tear-filled blue eyes, and Gabrielle whispered, "I'll always be there for you, no matter what it takes, Xena." She kissed Xena lightly on the lips, and noticed the slight tremor that ran through her, the moment where she briefly froze in response. What had Callisto done to her?
Gabrielle couldn't help her eyes from traveling over the the bruises and marks. Even Xena's breasts, from what she could see inside the shift Xena wore, were marked. Xena began talking in a flat voice. "The physical pain was the least of it, Gabrielle. It became more of a torment cumulatively--she kept hurting me in places that hadn't healed yet. But the worst part was feeling completely helpless--she humiliated me and violated me every way you can imagine and more." She paused and began to sob again, "How can you let me do it? Tie you up and do things to you? Why?"
Gabrielle went white for a moment as she realized what was going on. "Oh Xena," she tried to reassure her lover, "it's not the same. It's not even close to the same. What you and I do we do in love, not hatred. Callisto just took you and forced you. I give myself to you and open myself up to you because I trust you, because I want and need to let you all the way in."
"Maybe you shouldn't trust me," snapped Xena bitterly. "She showed me what kind of a person I am."
"No!" cried Gabrielle, terrified. She didn't know what to say, and the enormity of what had happened to the woman she loved was begin to roll itself into a huge lump in her chest which made it hard for her to breathe. And she didn't know the half of it yet. "Xena," she said, trying to force her voice to be calm and get past the lump in her chest, "Whatever she showed you was only part of you--I know that. And I've known for a long time that that part of you has been intertwined with her ever since Cirra. I don't know if you can ever separate yourself from her entirely. But that's only a part. Callisto doesn't see the part I see--the much bigger part. She doesn't see your heart, your passion, your tenderness, your courage, your laughter--all those things I love about you. She doesn't see the way the way you love me and bring out the best in me. She doesn't see the way you can smile at someone and touch that person's life in some way forever. She doesn't see all the people whose lives have changed because you helped them, sometimes risking your own life. She can't see those things. She doesn't know how. Callisto only sees one small part of you--and she can't look at you without seeing herself. What she showed you was distorted, Xena."
Xena stared into the intense green eyes as Gabrielle spoke quickly and urgently. The words rang true--but how was she ever going to free herself from the hold Callisto had on her soul? She had so much guilt that she carried, yet Callisto and Cirra loomed largest in her catalog of sins with which she chastised and flagellated herself almost daily. There would never be a total peace; there would never be sufficient atonement. But she knew that somehow, some day, she had to let Callisto go and convince Callisto to let her go. They were so intertwined, as Gabrielle had said, that the release would have to come from both of them.
"I love you, Gabrielle," she murmured through tears. "You're going to have to be very, very patient with me. She's twisted everything that I know to be good, and it's going to be a long time before I can see it true. Hades, Gabrielle, I'm even afraid of you kissing me!"
"Oh, Xena, Xena, I'm so sorry. I'm going to help you every way I can, and I'll be as patient as you need."
"You'd better see this now, Gabrielle," said Xena wearily. "Then you'd better go talk to Hercules--I'm sorry, but I just can't talk about it all again."
Xena carefully disengaged herself from Gabrielle's arms, turned to face the other way, and pulled up the sleeping shift to reveal her back. She heard Gabrielle emit a strangled half-shriek/half-sob. Gabrielle was grateful her staff had been left out in the other room; she was afraid she'd start smashing things with it if it were in reach. She felt rage just pouring out of her, and almost leapt off of the bed to pace it off, but she realized, with immediate insight, that her turning or walking away was the last thing Xena needed. I have to say something, she thought desperately to herself.
Willing away the trembling in her hands, Gabrielle carefully pulled the shift back down and wrapped her arms gently around her lover. Xena stiffened momentarily, then let herself melt into the comforting warmth of Gabrielle's arms. Finally she said carefully, "They're just words, my love, just childish, vindictive words. They'll fade. She thinks she was claiming you as hers, but we're going to prove her wrong, Xena. We're going to prove her wrong."
Xena turned around to face Gabrielle, smiled wanly, and reached up to kiss her. "Please kiss me now," she asked. "Really kiss me. I need it to be your lips . . . " she paused, and a sob broke out of her throat, " . . . to take away the taste of hers." Gabrielle gently cupped Xena's face with one hand and touched her mouth to Xena's. As their lips met, Xena felt that warm flow of energy between them she'd felt with so few others--Lao Ma, Marcus, and Hercules. That flow of love and communion and connection. It was nothing like the distasteful but thrilling charge she had gotten from Callisto's lips. She clung to Gabrielle's mouth fervently--this was the real thing. Her tongue parted Gabrielle's lips as she pressed her own closer, and she slowly explored her lover's mouth again, savoring the closeness she had missed for so long. No matter how much suffering lay ahead of her, she had this certainty. Gabrielle was her life and her home.
When the kiss ended, Xena slightly out of breath, she allowed her first real smile since her captivity to emerge on her face. "Thanks--I needed that!"
"Any time," Gabrielle assured her earnestly, but with a half smile. "Do you want me to get Hercules now?"
Xena nodded, sinking back against her pillows. Gabrielle went to the door. In a moment, Hercules was there, taking in the tears standing in both women's eyes. "I hate to do this to you, Hercules, but . . . "
"Anything, Xena, I told you that."
"Can you please tell Gabrielle what . . . Callisto did to me? All of it? She needs to know, but . . . I can't . . . "
"Of course," said Hercules quietly, and Xena tried to still the pang of guilt that flashed over her as she saw a cloud of pain darken his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Hercules."
"Xena, I understand. Would you like Iolaus to sit with you for a while?"
"Yeah, I'd appreciate that."
"C'mon," said Hercules to Gabrielle. "Let's take a walk."
Iolaus tapped on the door and walked in. He was shocked by what he saw, and Xena, whose feelings of past guilt were uncomfortably raw and close to the surface, felt a sudden pain. How could she have used this warm-hearted, beautiful man so callously? As he approached the bed, Xena said wryly, her voice catching, "Guess it's what I deserved. Fit retribution, huh?"
Iolaus sat on the bed and took her hands between his. "No Xena. Not at all. Not even close."
"Listen, Xena, I hate to undermine your opinion of yourself, but you're not the worst thing that ever happened to me. Not by a long shot."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Iolaus," she said gravely, but with a slight smile to acknowledge his attempt to inject at least a dry humor into the situation.
"Yeah, well, I guess you and I have more to talk about than you'd expect."
* * *
On the way out the door, Gabrielle automatically grabbed her staff. She and Hercules walked a short distance from the house. Her eyes were blazing with fury.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," he began. "I don't know you very well, and there's no way to make this at all easy. I know Iolaus thinks the world of you, and anyone Xena loves like she loves you has to be pretty special. You're going to have to be strong."
Gabrielle's hand trembled on her staff. "I saw her back," she said through gritted teeth. "I'm so . . . so angry I don't know what to do. I want to smash Callisto's skull in! I want to dismember her completely. I wish I could rip her into tiny pieces and scatter them so far she'd never get back together."
"I know," said Hercules with a sigh. "That makes two of us. But Xena made me promise not to try anything, and she's right. It would be foolish unless we had a real chance of putting a stop to her."
Gabrielle nodded, feeling defeated. "Go ahead, Hercules. Let's get this over with."
As he related to her the details of Xena's captivity, every detail that Xena had told him having lanced itself permanently and painfully into his brain, he subtly steered the direction in which they walked. Gabrielle didn't notice--she was blind to the landscape around her. As he talked, Hercules saw a continuous stream of tears quietly running from her eyes, but he also noted the absolute rigidity and tenseness of her body and knew better than to try to touch her.
After he finished relating the tortures and humiliations and violations of Xena's captivity, Gabrielle gasped, "Oh Gods . . ." Then her voice rose to a shriek, "She said she was BORED!!!???"
Hercules had steered them toward a large tree with a wide, sturdy trunk. He nodded toward it, and said quietly, "Go ahead. You'll feel better."
With a furious war cry, Gabrielle attacked the tree, whirling with her staff and hitting it again and again. "AAAGGGHH!" she yelled as she battered the trunk, spinning around and striking it from every possible position and angle. Hercules waited, understanding every bit of her rage and sorrow, while a small part of him detachedly assessed her technique. She'd learned a lot.
"Did Iolaus tell you," she gasped, when she'd burned off some of her rage, "that we were attacked?" Hercules nodded. "It's a good thing I didn't know then what I know now--or those thugs would have had a much worse day than they did," she declared. "How could she do that to Xena?"
"I can't excuse it," he said seriously, placing a comforting hand on her arm. "At all. I want to do to her what you did to that tree, and I want to feel bones breaking--I don't feel that way very often. All I can say, Gabrielle, is that Callisto's a child--a child who's been badly hurt and has a whole lot of power to get back at those who hurt her."
"She's not the only one who ever lost her family," retorted Gabrielle.
"But there's more to it than that," said Hercules. "Think about growing up in a small village--what it was like for you. What was it like the first time you saw Xena?"
Understanding began to dawn. "Well," laughed Gabrielle, "she wasn't wearing very much. But she fought Draco's men like a tigress. And she was the most beautiful, spectacular, earth-shattering thing I'd ever seen."
Hercules. Overwhelmed with emotion, Gabrielle broke down, and
put his arm around her and let her cry for as long as she needed.
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