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This is a sequel to my story "This Must Be the Place," which is part of a series beginning with ". . . But We're Not the Same" and including "How Long Till My Soul Gets It Right?" It's rated NC-17 for sex and violence and is a very dark exploration of the relationship between Xena and Callisto and also involves a romantic/sexual relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. If same-sex relationships aren't your thing, read no further. It's not essential that you read the other stories first, but they will provide some insight into what's going on here. Starting with ". . . But We're Not the Same," I'm essentially creating an alternate timeline, which branches off after the events in "The Debt" (Parts 1 and 2). In this timeline, Hope has sort of conveniently vanished, and Solan is still living with the Centaurs. The other stories in the series and my other Xena stories can be found at Giffstein Productions:

VIOLENCE/SEXUAL VIOLENCE DISCLAIMER: This is a hurt/comfort story which contains both described and implied torture and sexual violence. There's some very rough stuff going on here, although I hope it serves the purpose of character development--it's not intended to be simply gratuitous. If that kind of thing will bother you, this is your opportunity to BAIL OUT NOW. If you continue, please don't say I didn't warn you.

Xena, Gabrielle, Callisto, Hercules, Iolaus, Argo, and the other characters are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended, and no financial profit is anticipated. :-) Please check with me before archiving or distributing. Feedback welcome at

The Dark Side of My Soul

by atara

Copyright © 1998

For Ruth, as always, with special thanks for beta-reading and encouragement.

Chapter 1

what have i become?
my sweetest friend
everyone i know
goes away in the end
you could have it all
my empire of dirt
i will let you down
i will make you hurt
--Nine Inch Nails, "hurt," _The Downward Spiral_ (Nothing TVT/Interscope, 1994)


"Wake u-up, XE-na! It's time to play-ay!"

The annoyingly childish singsong of Callisto's voice broke in Xena's consciousness, followed immediately by a drenching shock of icy cold water. Xena jerked, realizing that she was chained, hand and foot, and she was naked. A chain around her waist was connected to the cuffs that held her wrists behind her back. She awkwardly managed to sit up, shook water off her face, and, trying not let her jolting shivers reach her voice, said coolly, "What's this all about, Callisto? You were buried under the lava. How did I get here?"

"Welllll," said Callisto, "a long time ago, I used to play with my friends, but then my friends all went away." Her face darkened momentarily before resuming a manic smile. "I didn't know who to play with any more, but then I thought, 'I'll invite Xena over!' So here you are!"

"This hardly constitutes an invitation, Callisto," retorted Xena drily, battling down the shadow of fear that was creeping across her consciousness--Callisto's mania seemed terribly and terrifyingly focused. "Where's Gabrielle?"

Callisto pouted and sighed. "Gabrielle doesn't interest me. She's probably waking up just now wondering where her best pal is!" Callisto laughed gleefully at the image. "I just spirited you away in your sleep, Xena. I'm a goddess now, remember? And I'm much stronger than I was--strong enough to burn my way through that lava--fight fire with fire, they say!" she said brightly. "You'll be glad to know I left that bor-ring Velasca behind. She was terrible company. I think you'll be so much more FUN!" she exclaimed, her voice rising almost to a squeak on the last word. Her mood changed instantly to a dark fury. "So amuse me, Xena!" she declared as she slapped Xena sharply across the face, once on each side.

Xena winced slightly as her cheeks burned. She snapped, "I'm hardly in a position to be amusing, Callisto," while gesturing toward her chains.

Callisto's expression took on a wide-eyed innocence. "Well, that only makes it more challenging, *dear*!" Callisto stood looming over her prisoner, legs apart, hands on her hips, looking like nothing so much as a recalcitrant and demanding child.

"Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you," remarked Xena in the most bored and nonchalant tone she could manage, "but I'm just not interested."

Callisto grabbed Xena under one arm and yanked her roughly to her feet. "Well, I'm sorry, darling Xe-na," she hissed, " but you're going to amuse me whether you like it or not." She struck Xena a powerful blow in the gut, followed immediately by another. Xena collapsed backward, her head striking the cave wall, and darkness pounced on her.

* * *

Xena's eyes fluttered open, and the first thing that caught her attention was the throbbing ache in the back of her head. The strain across her back and arms, from having been left slumped over in an awkward position with her hands chained behind her back, was the next thing she noticed. When she tried to move, she became aware of a deep knot of pain inside her stomach. This was when she remembered everything that had happened. As Callisto laughed at her struggles, Xena was finally awakened to a complete understanding of her situation. She was truly helpless. She couldn't wriggle her way out of iron cuffs, the way she could out of most rope bindings. She tested the strength of the chains, but Callisto had picked her materials well, and she couldn't break them. Her weapons were back with Gabrielle. All she had was her tongue, but trying to talk Callisto out of whatever her plans were seeemed completely futile. She knew at least that she could deal with physical pain very effectively, and she determined not to give Callisto the satisfaction of seeing her break down. The only thing that mattered was that she get out of this and get back to Gabrielle.

Furious and frustrated, Xena used her hands to brace herself and shoved herself into a sitting position. As Callisto approached her, Xena pulled her legs back and kicked out. Callisto easily stepped out of the way, but snapped, "Xe-na! You're *not* cooperating."

"No, I'm not," responded Xena flatly.

Callisto giggled. "Well the great thing about this is you don't *have* to cooperate. I can think of plenty of games we can play anyway!" The artificial brighness in Callisto's voice grated on Xena's already strained nerves. Callisto pointed at Xena's ankles, and the short chain between them vanished. Instead her legs were spread, and the cuffs connected to iron rings embedded in the cave floor. "Now *that's* better," noted Callisto, eyeing her prisoner appraisingly. "You're more accessible." Striking an exaggeratedly thoughtful pose, she mused, "*How* should I *take* you first? I'm a goddess, Xena, and the possibilities are *endless*."

* * *

Gabrielle woke up, sleepily pushing aside the blanket that was now too warm. The day before they had come upon a village recovering from a rockslide, and Xena had set to work using her medical skills, stitching up wounds, setting fractures and in a couple of cases, amputating gangrenous limbs. Gabrielle had been shaken by the extent of the injuries, particularly to children, but she had been pleased at how much more competent she had become as Xena's assistant in treating injuries than she used to be.

After two days of treating the injured, she and Xena had continued on their way, with Xena clearly embarrassed at the villagers' expressions of gratitude. Exhausted, they had set up a minimal camp, and curled up together spoon fashion to go to sleep. Gabrielle was expecting to wake up as she often did, with Xena's hand inside her bodice, cupping a breast. There was no hand. Gabrielle rolled over, only to realize that Xena wasn't there at all. Instinctively, she reached for her staff and leapt up. "Xena?" she called out tentatively.

When she got no answer she inspected their campsite, with a thoroughness born of experience. Xena had simply vanished into thin air. There should have been footprints in the relatively soft ground, but there weren't. Gabrielle's face went white. "No, that's not possible," she murmured. "Could she have really gotten out?" Or, as she reflected, another god might be involved. Ares, perhaps. Xena wouldn't just disappear on her, and even if she had, she would have left prints. As Gabrielle scoured the small clearing and the area around it for any clues, she increasingly realized that she was out of her league. She gathered up Xena's armor and weapons, where they had been discarded the night before, loaded everything on the patient Argo, and set off to find some help. If the gods were involved, she at least knew where to start.

* * *

There was a long chain that could be attached the chain around Xena's waist, when Callisto led her outside to a conveniently leafy bush to tend to bodily needs. She was also hobbled by a short chain between her ankle cuffs. Godlike powers or no, Callisto wasn't taking any chances. While she amused herself in confining Xena in various positions--sometimes standing with her hands pulled above her head and her legs apart, sometimes hogtied, sometimes lying on her back or her side, sometimes sitting up against the wall of the cave--she always made sure Xena's arms were immobilized before she did anything to her legs and vice versa.

There were routines. When Callisto tired of playing, she usually knocked her prisoner out with a blow to the back of the head. Xena's head throbbed in multiple places. She almost always woke her up with a bucketful of icy water from a nearby stream. Xena was always cold, and the iron of her cuffs chafed and ached. "Poor thing, you're so cold," Callisto would mock, lightly brushing her thumbs across Xena's goosebump-pricked breasts and hard, throbbing nipples, and Xena inwardly cursed the small part of herself that wanted that touch repeated. Callisto did not want to endanger her "playfellow's" life, however, and she would point to the floor, creating a warming fire each night. On particularly cold nights, she allowed Xena a cloak, which was always yanked off in the morning before the inevitable cold splash.

On the first day, she was denied food and water. She woke up faint and parched the next day, feeling nauseous from dehydration. Callisto crouched in front of her, took a long drink from a water skin, then offered her mouth to Xena. Xena shook her head, furious and defiant. Her defiance didn't last long. If she was to have water at all, it was passed from Callisto's mouth to hers, and Callisto always made her wait so long, that she clung to her gaoler's lips greedily, sucking down every drop of secondhand moisture. Mouthful after mouthful she drank from Callisto's lips, simultaneously boiling inside at the degradation and hating herself for the faint thrill she felt when Callisto's lips touched her own. What little food she was allowed, Callisto fed her by hand. Xena knew she had no other choice but to eat it to survive. She had no idea how long the goddess intended to keep her there. And she realized that Callisto had no intention of ever allowing her prisoner use of her hands. There was one possible way out of this, but it was one she knew she could never take.

* * *

"Do you ever think of yourself as an Artist, Xena?" asked Callisto rhetorically, as she paced around Xena, who was bound in a standing position, arms above her head. Callisto was tossing a knife in the air and catching it as she circled her prey like a vulture.

"Look at me, Xena!" she demanded, standing directly in front of her prisoner. Xena's eyes travelled over the short leather skirt, the sheath for the knife, the bare stomach, the breasts swelling slightly out of the leather that molded them, the gauntleted arms, and she was mortified at how desirable she found the sight before her. Under other circumstances, Callisto would have been just the type the old Xena would have felt compelled to try to conquer--or let herself be conquered by. A mirror suddenly materialized in on a stand. "Now look in here." Xena saw a blonde happy girl with bright eyes, dressed in a long skirt, playing with another girl that could have been a sister. The girls reminded her disconcertingly of Gabrielle when she first met her in Poteidaia. "That was me," said Callisto flatly. "And my sister. Now look at me again. I'm what *you* created, Xe-na! You molded me from that village girl just as surely as if you'd used your own hands. Do you like your handiwork?"

"Not particularly," muttered Xena.

"Aha!" cried Callisto. "The Creator rejects her Creation. You claim to despise the gods, sweetheart, but you're no different." Xena winced, partly at Callisto's statement, and partly at the continuous rise and fall of her voice, a voice that made her skin twitch with both fear and irritation.

"I didn't make you," Xena protested weakly.

Two sharp slaps exploded on her face. "You know you did," said Callisto, her voice hard. "Did you know then you would try to turn your life around? Did you anticipate you would need a new body for the old Xena? Someone to do all the things the new Xena denies herself? When we switched bodies, I felt so . . . ," she paused, frowning in childish concentration, one finger slightly pulling her lower lip. "So . . . at home. You made me, and you made sure you'd be the only influence in my life. You killed Mommy. Where else could I find a role model? And I'm convenient for you, aren't I? You still haven't thanked me for killing that insignificant farmer your girlfriend married." Callisto's voice thickened with menace, then abruptly shifted into a singsong, babyish tone, while her face broke out into a sunny smile. "Yes, I wanted to do Xena a favor. A big favor. I couldn't *bear* to see her unhappy, for her to lose her little friend. I *know* you wanted that Perdy-jerk to disappear. So he did!" Callisto's voice rose to a squeak, and she beamed and cackled triumphantly. Suddenly, the hard edge returned. "So where's your gratitude, XE-na? Why don't you thank me for making *your* happiness possible? Why don't you thank me for being the cold-hearted, self-interested BITCH you really are inside, but keep trying to hide from yourself? Perdicas is dead, and Xena gets the blonde--all thanks to Callisto!"

Xena felt her heart crack inside her at the partial truth of Callisto's words. A knot of panic whipped cords around itself in her chest, cutting off her breath. She gasped for air. How could she make love to Gabrielle, when she had secretly wished that Perdicas had never existed? How could she claim to love Gabrielle, when her first reaction to Callisto's murder of Perdicas had been an instant--and instantly extinguished by a horrified conscience--secret flash of joy and relief? And how could she play the games she did with Gabrielle, knowing the truth about herself? The games--Xena had a vision of Gabrielle, naked, lying on the grass with her hands bound above her head to Xena's chakram, which was embedded in the ground. Xena felt the cuffs on her wrists dig in a little deeper, and the connection was too much. She threw up.

Callisto laughed a bright tinkling laugh, then remarked, "Dis-gust-ing. The truth hurts, doesn't it, dear?" She waved her hand impatiently, cleaning up the mess on the floor and on her prisoner. The humiliation it would have afforded Xena was not worth the assault on her heightened senses.

"Of course," explained Callisto, as if nothing had happened, "sometimes Creator and Creation can trade places. I'm the Artist now. Do you like what I've made of you dear? The raw material was a little rough, but I think I've worked wonders." She positioned the mirror in front of Xena, grasping Xena's chin with her other hand, and forcing her to look. Xena looked into a hollow face, with red eyes outlined with bruised flesh. Her hair was matted and tangled into a Medusa-like horror. Her lips were cracked with dehydration. With an oddly detached curiosity, she studied her figure as Callisto moved the mirror. Her arms held above her head were rail-thin and covered with purple bruises on the underside. Her collarbone and ribs stuck out of very pale skin, and red marks stood out against her breasts.

"Nice work, Callisto," she muttered wearily. "You must be very proud of yourself."

"No prouder than you are of *your* Creation, my love," retorted the goddess. "But I'm not at all through with you yet. There's plenty of untouched surface."

Callisto drew her knife, and Xena briefly sagged against her cuffs in horror. She knew Callisto had no intention of killing her, but, having been both the victim and the inflicter of torture before, she also knew very well that Callisto could hurt her in any number of ways without causing permanent damage.

"Now, let's see-ee," mused Callisto, her lips pursed and her eyes gleaming ferally. "I'm in rather a bardic mode. What shall I write?"

Callisto snapped her fingers, so that another mirror appeared behind Xena. "This way you'll be able to admire my handiwork, Xena."

"You're too kind," sighed Xena.

"Aren't I though? I just *knew* we'd have so much *fun* together!" Callisto licked her lips and moved into position behind her victim. Xena forced away the fear rising in her, and through sheer will battled back the tear that was threatening to leak from her eye. She hadn't cried yet and wasn't about to start now. Instead she willed her body to relax, drawing on every pain-controlling mechanism she knew. By the time she looked in the mirror before her, reflecting her backside from the mirror behind, she had adopted a resigned passivity, knowing she had no other options. She drew on her inner strength to endure, an inner strength that in recent years had taken on the form of a blonde bard. Even if everything Callisto said was right, loving Gabrielle was the essence of what she had to live for.

Callisto was poised with the knife, her face in a calculatedly thoughtful attitude. "Got it!" she exclaimed, then pulled Xena's hair out of the way, and began to carve letters into Xena's back. Xena's face contorted into a silent grimace of pain, and the slightest sigh escaped her lips. At the same time, she had the distance to observe that it was a good thing the knife was sharp and cut cleanly--a duller blade would do more damage. The pain was sharp and intense, little concentrated ripples of lightining on her skin, but she had suffered worse. Callisto took her time, however, cutting each letter with exquisite precision, while Xena concentrated on keeping her body limp and her breathing steady, as she watched lines of blood ooze up on her skin.

After an indeterminate amount of time, Callisto finished. She walked around in front of her victim, carefully and sensuously licked every drop of blood from the blade, and scrunched up her face with pleasure, "Mmm-mmm." Biting her lower lip to arrest a dangerous tremble that was making its way there, Xena gazed impassively in the mirror. Her back was emblazoned with "CALLISTO OF CIRRA WAS HERE," and thin tendrils of blood ran from the wounds.

"So, it's not very poetic, but it's the best I could do on short notice," said Callisto with a shrug. "I'm sure your little bard friend could do better."

The wounds throbbed with contact with the open air, but Xena remained quiet and resigned. She had a fierce drive to survive, but she could see no way out on her own. Callisto's powers were too great, and her control of Xena's every move too complete. Her helplessness terrified her, but her life had afforded her a lot of practice at suppressing any show of her feelings. She tried to empty herself of need and desire and even anger, as Lao Ma had taught her, as it seemed very clear to her that revealing her own feelings would only fuel the desires of her tormentor even more.

Xena's passivity enraged Callisto, who flared out in fury. Suddenly a bucket appeared in Callisto's hands, and she flung the contents at Xena's back--it was salted water. Xena choked the scream that rose in her throat, and distorted her face, emitting only a stifled, "Uggghh!" Callisto's arm whipped through the air, and Xena found herself on her stomach, arms and legs spreadand cuffed to iron rings embedded in the cave floor.

"Let's see just how stoic you can be, old friend!" snapped Callisto impatiently. She was a frustrated child in the midst of a tantrum, and Xena merely pressed her cheek against the cold floor, intending only to ride it out. Callisto fetched a candle, then sat down next to her victim and began systematically dripping hot wax into the wounds. Each drip of the candle was a brief shock of liquid fire that quickly turned into a deep and ferocious itch, but again Xena had suffered worse. Having serious wounds cauterized on the battlefield hurt far more than this, even when Callisto repeatedly dripped wax on the same spot, and the pain lanced through layers of skin and nerves like a thick needle. Again, what made the annoyance turn into torment was the time Callisto was taking. She had lost her angry mood, and was now entranced by the patterns she was making with the hot wax, humming to herself, and cocking her head first on one side and then on the other as she worked. Xena was surprised at her tormentor's patience. One after another, in an endless series, came the hot splashes of wax. In a dreamy voice, Callisto murmured, "You know, Xena, there are other places I can use this too." She was true to her word.

* * *

//She had Gabrielle lying on her back on a platform, her hands tied to her chakram, embedded somehow into the platform itself. Iron cuffs held Gabrielle's legs apart. She was systematically dripping hot wax onto Gabrielle's breasts, stomach, and thighs, while Gabrielle writhed and moaned. She was strategically positioning the candle, so as to cover as much flesh possible. Every splash elicited a sharp cry from the body beneath her . . .

. . . Callisto writhed and wriggled in her bonds, making little squeaks of delight as the hot wax struck her body. "Ooh, Xena, I like your technique," she purred. "You *know* how to give a girl a good time." She had to quiet that voice, that voice that irritated every nerve. She bent over Callisto, pressed her mouth to Callisto's, and plunged her tongue down her throat . . .

. . . Gabrielle cried out, "Please don't! Please stop!" She raked her struggling victim with her eyes. So delicious. She licked her lips, and as she did she glimpsed a mirror that hadn't been there before. Her eyes flicked there briefly, and she saw Callisto's face . . .//

Xena woke with a start. *Just a dream, just a dream, just a dream,* she told herself. Where she was wasn't a dream, however. Her arms ached from being cuffed behind her back, and the cuffs on her wrists and ankles chafed.

Callisto wandered into her field of vision, and, as if bored, casually tossed the morning bucket of cold water on her prisoner. "You stink," she said, raising her eyebrows in mock exasperation. "Time for a bath. Get up." Xena struggled to her feet, and Callisto led her outside, tugging on the chain that went around Xena's waist and connected to the cuffs on her wrists. She was hobbled by a short chain that connected her ankle cuffs. Weak and hungry, Xena stumbled, and Callisto swatted her hard on her buttocks.

"You're filthy, Xena. I don't like it," declared Callisto decisively. "Hurry up." Xena concentrated, finding the appropriate gait, and she allowed herself to be led to a nearby pool fed by a mountain stream. Her heart ached at the contrast between the beauty of the place and the horror of her companion.

Callisto waded into the water, pulling Xena after her. "Now hold still!" she demanded. Callisto tossed the free end of the chain over an overhanging branch, and the links fused to make a closed loop. "I love being a god," she said laconically. "It's so convenient."

"You could get me clean instantly with your powers," commented Xena helpfully, but without much hope.

"I know," said Callisto, her eyes brightening, "but this way will be so much more *fun*. After all, that's why we're here. For *my* amusement."

Callisto held out her hand, palm up, and a soapy sponge appeared on it. Xena endured the indignity of a thorough scrubbing without another word, as her gaoler first washed her hair, then washed her body from head to foot, lingering more on some areas than others. The soap stung the carved places on her back, and Callisto's vigorous style with the sponge revealed to Xena sore spots she hadn't even been aware of.

She could feel a tremor begin to run through her, as she realized her body was responding to certain touches, as it had at other times during her captivity, despite her all-consuming hatred of the person touching her. She stilled the tremor and silently moved into the positions Callisto indicated. "Any job large or small . . . " chanted Callisto cheerfully as she worked.

"Your devotion to duty is touching, Callisto," murmured Xena dully.

"I'm glad you think so!" responded Callisto with her usual manic enthusiasm, as a large comb appeared in her hand and the sponge winked out of existence. She was surprisingly gentle in combing out the numerous tangles in Xena's hair. She worked the comb carefully through a small section at a time, until Xena's hair was pristine. Callisto continued to glide the comb through Xena's silky black hair, and the sensation was so comforting that Xena almost relaxed for a moment into a feeling of safety. She glanced back quickly, and the look on Callisto's face startled her--affection shone out of warm, concerned eyes. Moments later, Callisto recovered herself, smacked Xena sharply on the buttocks several times with the comb, then tossed it into the air, where it vanished.

"Come on!" she snapped, freeing the chain from the tree branch and yanking hard. "I have a lot of plans for you today!" Xena followed, her mind lost in the amazement of realizing the feelings Callisto had buried for the warrior princess. The expression on her face as she had lovingly combed Xena's hair had resembled nothing so much as that of a young girl with an adolescent crush who was being allowed to minister to her idol. It reminded her disturbingly of Gabrielle the first few weeks they had travelled together. But Gabrielle was no longer that starstruck child--she had grown into the woman Xena loved, and Xena once again resolved to be strong.

* * *

She lost count of the days. Any improvement in her condition from her bath was long gone. Her hair was a mass of tangles, and her body was encrusted with dirt from the cave floor layered here and there with dried blood. Callisto had been getting increasingly frustrated with her visitor, and had lost patience with subtle torments. While Xena was immobilized, hands over her head, Callisto struck and kicked her all over, punctuating each blow with a shriek. Day after day, Xena endured a severe beating, bruises erupting under other bruises and welts emerging from Callisto's flesh-wrenching pinches. And after each beating, she was chained in a kneeling position and forced to take her food and water from the fingers and lips of her tormentor. One day, Callisto recarved the legend on Xena's back. Some days she amused herself by dancing around her victim with a stick, striking her with it at random. Xena never knew when or where the next blow would fall. As Xena took it all with dull resignation and passivity, Callisto got more infuriated, and would kick or punch Xena in the back or stomach before chaining her up for the night.

One day, Xena made the mistake of muttering, "I would have thought you'd be more inventive, Callisto. You're going to kill me with boredom."

"Oh, I'm so *happy* to hear that, XE-na! You'll just *love* what I have planned for you today!"

Callisto waved her hand, and Xena's manacles and chains all disappeared. "This will be more interesting if I give you a sporting chance, old friend," she taunted. Callisto was between Xena and the cave entrance. Without warning, she pointed at Xena and a streak of flame shot from her finger, burning Xena on the arm. Xena instinctively slapped the tiny flame out. As Callisto pointed again, Xena ducked and rolled, but her extensive injuries and minimal meals left her sluggish andher reactions slow. Although she dodged some of Callisto's bolts of flame, most of them hit their mark. Xena had to be in constant motion, so the flames that did connect did not burn too long in the same spot. Patches of skin began to redden and blister, but Callisto didn't stop, and Xena either rolled to put out the flames or slapped them out with her increasingly painful hands. Every muscle throbbed from the daily beatings, and any movement was torture enough.

Callisto's aim was terrifyingly precise, as she avoided Xena's hair, yet managed to deposit small burns systematically all over Xena's body, yet none were life-threatening. She cackled with manic glee, dancing merrily with the flames shooting from her fingertips. After a while, she switched to lighting bolts, but Xena didn't discern much difference in the sensation. It hurt either way, and it was harder and harder to spin out of Callisto's way. A desperate idea formed in her mind. She ran toward her tormentor, enduring the increasingly intense flashes of pain, and attempted a flip over Callisto's head. She didn't have the strength however, and collapsed on her back at Callisto's feet, able only to roll enough to avoid smacking her head on the cave floor.

"I was wondering when you'd try that that," said Callisto casually, before switching into a patronizingly syrupy tone: "Poor, poor dear--so weak." Still lying on the floor, Xena pushed herself partly up and tried to grab Callisto's ankle, but Callisto nimbly leapt out of the way. A moment later, she was flat on her back with Callisto straddling her and yanking her arms over her head. Even the pressure of Callisto's hand on her wrists ached--every part of her body was so sore. Callisto slapped Xena once on each cheek, leaving a hot hand-shaped imprint in the process, about as red as a sunburn. "That's for stupidity, Xena," she said in a hard voice. "Old habits die hard, even when they work against you."

Callisto bent down to cover Xena's lips with her own, invading Xena's mouth with her tongue. She replaced the cuffs so that Xena had her arms still pulled above her head and her legs apart and proceeded to lay claim to her victim's body, while Xena mutely endured. Afterward, Callisto had pulled Xena close and proceeded to stroke her matted hair and caress her abused flesh, all the while crooning endearments. "Why did you make me hate you, Xena?" she would ask with genuine bewilderment. "Why did you make me live to hurt you?" Still manacled at the wrists and ankles, Xena remained mute, while she recoiled inside in horror at her desire for those gentle touches to continue.

* * *

A few more days passed, with the usual beatings and other torments. Callisto opened the wounds on Xena's back once more and occasionally tried to play her fire game, but Xena was too weak and exhausted to provide much sport, and Callisto had to content herself with flicking small flames at a victim who was almost too weary to slap them out. Xena gazed at Callisto continually with the same blank, dull stare out of red-rimmed eyes.

One night, after the usual humiliating meal, and a trip outside to relieve herself, she had been chained all night to the wall, arms and legs far apart. The rough stone was a continuous torment to the knife wounds on her back and to the blisters that dotted her back, buttocks, and legs. It seemed that every muscle in her body screamed with pain. Her cheeks flamed from Callisto's burning slaps, and strands of hair kept sweeping her face, and she couldn't shake them away. If she looked down, she saw a carpet of bruises, blisters, and welts covering the front of her body. The accumulation of agonies was almost more than her will could bear, but she clamped down hard on the shriek that kept trying to force itself out of her throat. She tried to divert herself by thinking of a time before, but she wondered if such a time was merely an illusion, and she had always been right here--nothing but a plaything for a sadistic and demented god.

She was exhausted enough to catch some merciful snatches of sleep. She woke in the morning with a start, expecting the usual bucket of cold water to be flung at her. She had begun to wake each morning moments before this daily ritual, all of Callisto's routines having become terrifyingly familiar. Some were so familiar as to be banal. She hardly thought anything of taking her water from Callisto's lips or her food from Callisto's hand every evening. Some part of her still remembered that she should find this deeply mortifying, but she was so anxious for the food and drink and so impatient to get off her aching knees, that she eagerly took whatever Callisto offered her, and it had never been enough to sate her hunger or thirst--just enough to keep her alive and conscious.

The cold splash never came. Callisto was sitting on a rock, elbows on her knees and head in her hands, obviously brooding. Xena waited silently, trying to ignore the stinging of her various blisters and wounds, the constant jumping and trembling of strained muscles, the gnawing hunger and parching thirst. She was beginning to think that in crucifying her and breaking her legs, Caesar had been a model of humanity and mercy.

Callisto suddenly leapt up. She stood in front of Xena, placed her hands on her hips, and declared, in a flat tone, "The problem, Xena, is that I'm bored. I thought I would enjoy tormenting you for at least a few years, but you really aren't nearly as entertaining as I thought you'd be."

"I'm crushed, Callisto," muttered Xena in a dull whisper--all her parched throat could manage.

Callisto smiled delightedly for a moment at this indication that Xena was not entirely broken. "We had some fun times," she said in a wistfully nostalgic tone, "but . . ." she stretched at full length, with her hands laced high above her head, and yawned ostentatiously, "you've ceased to amuse. So I'm going to let you go." She waved her hand wearily, and the cuffs winked out of existence, leaving Xena to drop on her hands and knees with a dull thud. She almost yelped at the pain to her bruised knees and to her blistered hands, but her brain was beginning to process what Callisto was saying.

She remained on her hands and knees in an almost stupor, unused to moving of her own volition. Callisto tossed Xena her clothes with an irritated flip of her arm. Xena didn't flinch when one of her boots hit her arm. "Put them on, Xena," ordered Callisto, the edge of annoyance in her voice belying the falsely patient tone.

Xena pulled on her undergarments slowly as if in a trance. She carefully pulled her leather garment over her head, wincing at the muscle pain involved in doing so and the shock of the material touching her abraded flesh. She considered her boots for a moment, and decided it was too much to attempt and simply held them in one hand. Callisto held out a hand and pulled Xena to her feet. Suddenly she reached over her shoulder and drew her sword. Xena jumped slightly, and Callisto laughed harshly, and sliced a quick gash into Xena's upper arm, saying, "To remember me by." Xena stood carefully, barely reacting to the flash of pain and the welling blood. Callisto smacked Xena on the rear with the sword and snapped, "Go on, get out of here. I'm tired of you."

Chapter 2

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 travelling 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.

"Of course."

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 travelling 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."

"Thanks, Iolaus."

"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 dothat 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."

"Exactly," said Hercules. Overwhelmed with emotion, Gabrielle broke down, and Hercules put his arm around her and let her cry for as long as she needed.

Chapter 3

In my dream I was drowning my sorrows
But my sorrows they learned to swim
Surrounding me, going down on me
Spilling over the brim
In waves of regret, waves of joy
I reached out for the one I tried to destroy
You, you said you'd wait until the end of the world
--U2, "Until the End of the World," _Achtung Baby_ (Island Records, 1991)


When they went back to the house, Gabrielle felt better about having dissipated some of her rage, but Hercules' revelation about Callisto left her troubled and perplexed. Xena was asleep, with Iolaus still holding her hand. Wonderingly, he whispered, "I never thought I'd see her so . . . frightened." Gabrielle took his place, and Hercules assured her that he'd stay close.

"I should help Mother while I have the chance," said Hercules as they walked out of the bedroom.

"Wait a minute, Herc--talk to me," insisted Iolaus. Hercules nodded wearily, and they went outside. "Tell me--how're you doing?"

Hercules sighed. "I've been better. I'm angry, and I feel helpless, and it hurts like Hades to see her like that. I'm sorry, Iolaus--I know it's hard for you. It doesn't change anything I . . ."

Iolaus raised a finger to his partner's lips. "That's what I wanted to say, Herc. I'm really worried about her too, and I know she'll always be a part of you, and you'll always care about her--I'm OK with that."

"Do you know what *you* mean to me?" asked the demigod, pulling Iolaus into his arms.

Iolaus flashed his sunny grin and just said, "Yeah, I do, Herc. No matter what happens."

"No matter what happens," said Hercules, a slow smile emerging on his face, "You're mine." He laced his fingers through his lover's golden curls, and pulled him up to meet his lips.

Inside, Xena woke up with her usual frightened start, but she relaxed some when her eyes focused on Gabrielle. Wordlessly, they clung together in a fierce hug. "He told you?" Xena finally asked.

"Everything, I think," answered Gabrielle. "I don't know what to say, Xena. I don't know how to begin to understand how it must be for you. All I know is that I love you more than the world, and I'll do whatever I can to help you. Whatever you need."

Xena smiled a tremulous smile, and said, "I needed to hear that, Gabrielle. I'm . . . scared . . . all the time. I hope you understand why I need Hercules around. I'm so afraid of her coming back. And I'm afraid of myself, too--afraid of what she showed me about myself. No, Gabrielle, don't stop me. I *know* that's not all of me, but it's a part of me, and I can't run away from it. But I want to. I want to run away from everything. It feels like something's cracked inside me, Gabrielle--much deeper than all these surface scratches."

* * *

After a few days, Xena was walking better and eating more, and her bruises and marks were fading. Gabrielle stayed with Xena almost continuously, and Hercules helped his mother and Jason around the house. Soon Xena was joining the family for meals, and was grateful for their quiet but unobtrusive sympathy. Otherwise, she remained in bed, nursing her injuries and avoiding going outside the house as much as possible. She realized, however, that she wanted her mother. At the same time, she was afraid to be far from Hercules. When Gabrielle realized what was going on, she talked to Hercules and Iolaus, and they volunteered to escort Xena back to Amphipolis and to stay with her as long as she needed. Jason arranged the loan of a horse and a wagon for Xena to ride in, and they departed with profuse outpourings of thanks from Xena and Gabrielle.

As they drew closer to Amphipolis, Gabrielle suggested that she go ahead to let Cyrene know what was going on. Xena agreed, and Iolaus offered to keep Gabrielle company. Hercules was walking beside the wagon, as the horse needed minimal direction with a road in front of him. Hercules turned to Xena and asked gently, "How are you doing?"

"Better," she said tentatively. "Listen, Hercules, you don't need to stay with me in Amphipolis. Gabrielle and my mother can take care of me."

"Do you mean that?" asked Hercules.

Xena laughed ruefully. "No, I don't."

"Then we'll stay as long as your mother will put up with us. I told you I was going to do whatever you needed." He made a sweeping bow and announced, "I am at your service."

Xena felt warmed by the smile that flashed across his face and smiled in turn. "Thank you, Hercules," she began.

He interrupted her with another smile and said, "What makes you think I'm doing all this entirely for your sake?" She reached for his hand, and he took it, and they proceeded along the road in companionable silence.

Suddenly the air shimmered in front of them, and Ares emerged out of the shimmer, his arms crossed over his chest and shaking his head. Hercules stopped the horse, then leapt between the god and the wagon. Ares ignored him, and said, "Xena, Xena, Xena, this is pa-thet-ic. Look at you. Feeble as a child and with this useless hulk protecting you. I never thought I'd see you dragged down *this* low."

"Ares," said Hercules warningly.

"It's OK," murmured Xena. Turning to Ares, she said coldly, "What is it you want, Ares? Didn't I discourage you enough from bothering me *last* time?" Inside she was quaking at the god's power, and despising herself for it, but she kept her voice steady and cool.

"Well," said Ares, "you don't seem to be in much of a position to discourage me now."

"Yes, but *I* can!" snapped Hercules.

"Ah, my lovesick half-brother," sneered Ares. "Isn't your golden-haired boy enough for you?"

"Leave him out of this," said Hercules with quiet menace. "Who did you come here to harrass, me or Xena?"

"Yes," drawled Ares, then laughed heartily at his own wit. "You two are hopeless! No wonder the irritating blondes couldn't wait to get away from you."

"Are you ever going to get around to a point, Ares?" asked Xena coolly. "Or are we going to be here all day?"

"My *point*, my lovely one, is this," he answered. "*Why* did you let that bitch do such a number on you?"

Xena trembled slightly, and Hercules took a step forward, "Ares, drop it!"

"It's all right," said Xena. "Why? I didn't have much choice."

"You *always* have a choice," insisted the god. "You know perfectly well that you could have called my name, and I would have gotten you out of there. And, I can still help you."

"Oh, really?" asked Xena, folding her arms across her chest. "How so?"

"Number one," said Ares, ostentatiously counting on his fingers, "I can heal you instantaneously so that you're in better shape than before. Number two, I can give you the ability to tear that loony bitch Callisto to shreds and get her back for every single thing she did to you."

"How so?" asked Xena, pursing her lips.

Ares beamed and opened a pouch on his belt. He dangled a substantial chunk of ambrosia tantalizingly in front of her face, then snatched it back and put it away. "Think of it, Xena! Stronger than ever, maybe even immortal. No more fear--and I know you're afraid, darling. You'd be virtually unstoppable."

Hercules, also with his arms folded, raised his eyebrows and shook his head, but Xena decided to play along a while longer. "Why have you never offered me *this* before, Ares?"

"You never needed it before. Don't you *get* it? You've been hurt before, but you've never really been forced to confront your own . . ." his voice lingered silkily on the last word, *vulnerability*." He paused, then added with urgency, "And you *hate* it don't you, Xena? You hate being scared. You hate having to depend on someone else, even my oh-so-noble and self-sacrificing half-brother. You hate knowing you can't defend yourself against me right now, if I decided I wanted to *hurt* you. You hate having to be on the lookout for Callisto all the time and knowing you'd be helpless if she showed up. Imagine being able to leap out of that rickety wagon and do *this*!" A bolt of lightning leapt from his hand, splitting a nearby tree. "Imagine ruling the world by my side . . . as a *god*!"

Xena glanced at Hercules, during this speech, but he was steadily staring at the god, occasionally shaking his head in disgust. Part of her was demanding, "Say yes! Say yes!", and she knew a look from Hercules would quiet that particular voice. But she knew without him saying so that Hercules had faith that she would resist Ares' temptation on her own.

"Enough!" she snapped, holding up her hand. "Listen, Ares," she continued in a steely voice while fixing the god with a stare from ice-cold blue eyes. "I knew I could have called you when I was in that cave. I know I can call you at any time. You were obviously nearby--did you get a *kick* from watching her do those things to me? *You're* the one who's pathetic here. Do you want to know *why* I didn't call you, *Ares*?" she asked with an absolute contempt lacing her pronounciation of his name. "Even while she beat me and tortured me and starved me and humiliated me and raped me, I didn't call you because what you have to offer isn't worth the price you want me to pay. Ever. Under any circumstances." Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Hercules pulling back his fist in a gesture of "YES!"

"I hope I'm making myself myself clear, Ares," she continued. "You can take your ambrosia and shove it up your godly ass." Hercules was struggling to prevent himself from doubling over in laughter at this point. "But get your head out of there first, so you can hear what I'm saying because," she echoed Ares' own words, "you just don't get it. I WOULD RATHER SUFFER ALL THE TORMENTS OF CALLISTO AND TARTARUS COMBINED THAN BECOME WHAT YOU WANT ME TO BE!"

Ares was furious. "You're going to regret that, Xena!" he threatened.

In a bored voice belied by a wide grin, Hercules interjected, "Can I take out this loser now?"

"Be my guest," said Xena with a grin. God and demigod came together in a furious flurry of arms, gauntlets clashing. Seizing an opening, Hercules struck Ares in the stomach, sending the god flying backward. Ares flipped and flew over his half-brother's head, landing behind him, but Hercules spun around, leapt, and gave the god a flying kick in the chest. Ares vanished in mid-air, reappeared behind the demigod and kicked him squarely in the lower back, making him stagger forward. Hercules reversed direction, flung his body into a roll, and knocked Ares off his feet, coming up behind him, to hook an arm around his neck. The god leapt to his feet, grabbing Hercules' arm and pulled him right over his head, to land on his back with a crash. Ares pulled his sword, raised his arm, and brought it down toward his half-brother's neck, but Hercules clapped his hands on the blade. Their faces strained as they fought for control of the sword. Xena cursed her weakness, but she realized that Hercules wanted to take care of this on his own. Hercules kicked out, forcing Ares to tumble backward and drop the sword. Hercules jumped up at the same time that Ares did. The god lunged for the sword, but Hercules tossed it to Xena, who had to reach out with both hands to grab the hilt. Hercules then swung his right arm in a solid blow across Ares' chest. Ares growled and charged Hercules, knocking him down, and the two rolled furiously across the grass.

Xena couldn't help laughing. "You two look like a couple of kids on the schoolyard!" she yelled. Ares, who was on top at the moment, left off trying to throttle Hercules and glanced back at Xena, his face in a furious snarl. Hercules took the opportunity to push the god off of himself, roll over, and wrestle his opponent to the ground, pulling the god's arms behind his back and yanking Ares up onto his knees. His arms trembled with the strain of keeping the god restrained, and he grimaced with the exertion.

"Have you had e-nough?" Hercules demanded roughly, but his eyes shone. Taking out his fears for Xena and his rage at Callisto on his half-brother made him feel a lot better, and watching Xena stand up to Ares had filled his heart with hope. Ares growled inarticulately, and Hercules glanced at Xena, tipping his head slightly in her direction.

She jumped out of the wagon, wincing slightly at the pain in her bruised legs, and limped over to the half-brothers, pointing Ares' sword and trying not to show just how heavy it felt to her weakened arm. She pressed the point into Ares's chest, just above the vee opening in his vest. "Ares," she said smoothly, her voice like dark honey. "Don't you have anything better to do? You're a *lousy* advertisement for godhood. Why don't you go play with Callisto--you two have a lot in common. Now, we'll give you your sword and let you go, if you promise to get out of here and leave us alone. And Gabrielle and Iolaus too."

Ares snarled, and Xena pushed the point deeper, desperately hoping she wouldn't have to prop up her sword arm with her other hand. "Promise. On your word. Or I might just add this pretty sword to my collection."

She began to turn away, when Ares muttered, "I promise. But I'll be back one day!"

"That's what I was afraid of," sighed Hercules, rising to his feet and yanking Ares up with him. Xena tossed Ares the sword, and Hercules gave him a firm boot in the rear before he vanished.

Xena slumped weakly, shaking her arm. Hercules caught her up in his arms and exclaimed, "Gods, Xena, you were magnificent! If I hadn't already been completely smitten with you, I would be now. You are amazing."

"You knew I'd turn him down," she said, her face bright with a delighted smile.

"Yes, I did," said Hercules seriously. "I *know* you, love. I had absolute faith in you. But the *way* you turned him down! He'll be fuming for weeks." Hercules began laughing uncontrollably. "Did you *see* the look on his face when you told him to take his ambrosia and shove it?" he gasped. "That was priceless!"

Xena cracked up at the memory, and they both howled with laughter at the god of war's humiliation. With the laughter, the massive knot that had settled in her chest from the moment she had first woken up in Callisto's cave began to loosen, and she felt the edges of an aching fissure inside her just begin to come back together. When the laughter had finally bubbled all the way out of them, Hercules asked, "Do you feel a little better?"

"Yeah, I do. But I have a ways to go."

"You're going to be OK--however long it takes," he insisted. "Don't ever let anyone tell you you're not strong. I know you're going to be able to work this out."

"Well, I'm beginning to think it's possible, at least," she said, and he gently kissed her on the forehead, before placing her gently back in the wagon. She added, "Thank you for taking him on."

"It was my pleasure," responded the demigod, and they both laughed, continuing on their journey.

When they arrived in Amphipolis, Gabrielle and Iolaus ran out of the inn, demanding, "What happened?"

"Oh, we just had a little trouble on the road," answered Hercules. "Nothing we couldn't handle."

Cyrene ran outside to see her daughter, as Hercules helped Xena out of the wagon. "Mother," she whispered, and they hugged fiercely, Cyrene's tears dropping into her daughter's hair.

"I'm all right, Mother," said Xena. "Well, no, I'm not all right," she admitted. "But I'm getting better." Xena introduced Hercules and her mother, and they both helped her into the inn.

"I've got rooms ready for you," said Cyrene, "and dinner's almost ready."

During dinner Xena explained to her mother, somewhat abashed, why Hercules and Iolaus would be staying for a while. She felt much better since the encounter with Ares, but she still felt the need of the demigod's protection, and she knew it would be a while before she was back in prime physical condition. Cyrene was delighted to make the heroes welcome, and they both offered to help with any work or repairs needed around the inn.

Xena smiled, feeling more relaxed than she could remember feeling, and said, "I'm not the only one here with many skills."

After dinner, she asked Hercules for an arm to lean on so she could pay a visit to Argo in the stable. She wrapped her arms around the horse's neck and rested her head, while Argo nickered at her.

"I think she missed you," said Hercules with a smile. "We're going to start working out tomorrow, and you'll be back on her in no time."

"Yeah," said Xena. "That sword felt awfully heavy. I've been lying around long enough."

* * *

"What happened to you on the road?" asked Gabrielle, when they had gone to bed.

"Oh, we just happened to run into a god of our mutual acquaintance."


"Ares," replied Xena. "He offered to make me a god and have the power to fight Callisto--had ambrosia on him and everything."

Gabrielle was aghast. "On what conditions?"

"The usual. Rule the world with him, yadda, yadda, yadda."

"What did you say?"

"What do you *think* I said?" asked Xena, slightly exasperated. "Don't you trust me?"

"Yes, I trust you, Xena, but weren't you the least bit tempted?"

"Sure, part of me was, but there was never any doubt in my mind that I'd turn him down. I told him to take his ambrosia and shove it up his godly ass." Gabrielle whooped at the image, and Xena continued. "I told him that even with everything Callisto did to me, asking for his help was never an option. And then Hercules kicked his butt. I can't tell you how much better I feel."

"I'm sorry I missed it," said Gabrielle.

"His jaw just about dropped off when I told him to shove his ambrosia. Kinda like this." Xena imitated Ares' look of dismay, and Gabrielle cracked up.

"Now enough about Ares," said Xena, her voice dropping into a sultry register. "Like I said, I'm feeling a lot better."

"A *lot* better?" asked Gabrielle, hopefully.

"Well, why don't you kiss me and find out?"

Gabrielle claimed Xena's mouth and gave her a kiss that was long and sweet. She paused and lightly stroked the warrior's face with her fingertips, tracing her eyebrows and the line of her jaw. "Are you up for this?" she asked softly. "Can I make love to you?"

"Yes, Gabrielle, just be gentle," the warrior replied, "I love it when you touch me like that."

Gabrielle continued to stroke her lover's face before moving down to deposit a kiss in the hollow of her neck and trace circles there with her tongue. She paused. "Xena, you're a bit overdressed." Xena sat up and pulled off the sleep shift she wore, then snuggled back down in the bed. She felt Gabrielle's eyes travelling over her body and looked up warily to see Gabrielle smiling. "You look so much better," said Gabrielle warmly. Xena wasn't as rail-thin as she'd been when Hercules found her, and the various bruises and marks had mostly faded, and the blisters from Callisto's fireplay had almost healed.

Xena tensed up slightly--her nakedness under another's gaze couldn't help but remind her of her ordeal, and she felt both afraid of being touched intimately and still repulsed at some of her reactions to Callisto. Gabrielle noted Xena's widening eyes, and assured her, "It's going to be all right, and you can stop me any time you need to. I won't take it personally."

Xena nodded and relaxed slightly, and Gabrielle kissed her again, light grazing kisses all over her lips, before parting her own lips to invite Xena's tongue to enterher mouth. The warrior put her arms around her lover and accepted the invitation. Gabrielle then sat up slightly, and ran her fingertips up and down Xena's arms, then traced circles in the palms of her hands and drew her fingertips down the length of Xena's fingers. Xena began to feel a slow heat kindle at her center and moaned softly.

Gabrielle very carefully turned her attention to Xena's breasts, mapping their contours with the same featherlight touches. They heard a stifled groan from the room next door that had been assigned to their friends, and Xena laughed, "Good thing mother's room is down the hall."

Gabrielle deposited a kiss on each nipple and continued to stroke Xena's breasts. "Do you feel at all funny about doing this in your mother's house?" she asked.

"Not any more," laughed Xena. "I'm old enough not to have to worry about being caught."

"I see," said Gabrielle and decided that her own mouth could be better used than to comment on Xena's extensive sexual history. She began lightly kissing Xena's breasts, then tracing delicate circles around each nipple with her tongue. She was terrified of doing anything that would frighten her lover, but she did want to give her pleasure. Her mouth craved being filled, and she enclosed a nipple and the surrounding flesh with her lips, and began sucking slowly and firmly.

"Oh, yesss," moaned Xena, wrapping her fingers into Gabrielle's hair. "Don't stop." Gabrielle murmured something inarticulate, which Xena took to be assent, since she kept sucking. The heat at Xena's center began to glow with a warmth that spread through her body.

Gabrielle shifted to the other nipple, commenting, "I don't want it to feel neglected."

"My thoughts exactly," gasped Xena, as the heat of Gabrielle's mouth surrounded her nipple and areola. The sensation was both soothing and erotic at the same time, and she felt relaxed enough not to jump when Gabrielle's hand experimentally cupped her mound. She spread her legs to allow more access, and Gabrielle began very lighly stroking her, all the while continuing to suck on her breast, maintaining the same slow rhythm with her fingers and her mouth. Her finger now slid between the lips, gliding back and forth in the slippery wetness she discovered.

Gabrielle felt Xena tense up as she dipped one finger just inside her, and she stopped what she was doing, to slide down in the bed. She continued her explorations with her mouth, and Xena relaxed, spreading her legs further. Gabrielle felt a surge of rage at Callisto pass through her, but she quickly dismissed it as irrelevant at the moment. What she wanted to do here was make her lover feel good and feel safe. She focused her attention on Xena's clitoris, patiently drawing circles around it with her tongue, while her lover moaned and wriggled. Her hands were resting on Xena's hips, and the warrior reached down with her own to grasp them tightly, while she tilted her hips upward toward Gabrielle's face. Gabrielle sucked the quivering knot of flesh into her mouth, and continued to stroke it with her tongue until a stifled shriek and a jolt of Xena's body let her know she had succeeded in her endeavors.

"Gabrielle, come here!" she suddenly pleaded, her voice trembling. Gabrielle immediately moved up to the head of the bed and took Xena in her arms. Xena was in tears, but she was smiling. "Oh Gabrielle, I was so afraid I wouldn't be able to . . . to like it any more. Thank you, my dearest."

Gabrielle held her lover and kissed the tears from her face. "I love you, Xena. I'm so happy I could make you feel good." They cuddled together, finally ending up lying spoon-fashion, with Xena's arm wrapped tightly around Gabrielle as they drifted off to sleep. A couple of times she awoke with a start and with her heart pounding, but the warm bed and the warmth of her companion and the comforting knowledge of Hercules and Iolaus next door all reassured her. She knew wasn't *really* safe--she didn't think there was anything anyone could do should Callisto decide to come for her--b ut she was starting to feel just a little bit safer.

* * *

Days followed of exercise, alternating with periods of collapse. Cyrene persistently tried to get her daughter to eat, and her daughter, just as persistently, insisted on working out as much as possible. The four friends would run together, and when her legs tired, Xena threw her chakram over and over until she hit multiple targets with accuracy and caught it without hesitation. As her arms grew stronger, she drilled for hours with her sword, until its weight again felt like an extension of her arm, and she practiced with Iolaus, her reflexes getting slightly faster every time. Iolaus was a good practice partner, quick and alert, and he carefully increased the difficulty of his moves as Xena's ability to counter them improved.

Xena was ecstatic the day she easily disarmed Iolaus and had him on his back with her sword pointing at him. She whooped in delight and held her hand out to help him up, then hugged him and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek to thank him. Her muscles were remembering and easing into their former flexibility, and she felt her whole body returning to its usual perfect condition. She practiced flips complete with energetic war cries, and she celebrated the day she felt up to taking a running flip onto Argo's back. As she ran up the wall of the inn, flipping and landing neatly on her feet, she remembered feeling like this after Lao Ma had healed her legs, and she took a moment to mentally thank her former mentor and lover.

One day a messenger came for Hercules from a village that was being terrorized by a Cyclops. Xena heard and swallowed hard. "Yes, of course you should go," she said. Her eyes grew slightly wider, and she realized how much she had been relying on his presence for her sense of safety. "I'm a lot better, and I can take care of myself," she asserted.

Hercules took both her hands in his. "I'll be back as soon as possible, Xena," he said, understanding her fears. "We both will."

Xena nodded and said faintly, "I'd like that. I know you can't baby sit me forever, but I'd like it a while longer. I should be ready to move on, but I'm not quite there yet."

Hercules said, "Remember. Whatever you need--you'll get there when you're ready, and until then I'm at your disposal--except for dealing with the occasional Cyclops."

He kissed her on the forehead and left with Iolaus, and Xena called out, "Be safe, both of you!"

Gabrielle came outside to find Xena hugging herself tightly and pacing back and forth. She ran to her. "I'm sorry," muttered the warrior. "I'm still scared, I guess."

"Do you want to come inside?" asked Gabrielle softly.

"No, not yet." Xena continued to practice, but Gabrielle noticed she was repeatedly scanning the field around her in every direction, and her eyes were wide with anxiety. She was restless and anxious during the three days that Hercules and Iolaus were gone, but she continued to drill and to work her muscles. Inside the house, she spent an uncharacteristic amount of time gazing in mirrors, but it was to assure herself that all the marks Callisto had laid on her body were gone, except for the slowly healing lettering on her back. Color had returned to her skin, instead of the pallor that was there during the initial days of her recovery, and she had gained back the weight she had lost due to her mother's persistent cooking of her favorite treats.

"Hades, I'm getting spoiled," she told herself, and worked out all the harder. When she spotted her friends down the road, she quickly resheathed her sword, and flew down the road to greet them, forgetting to be embarrassed at her eagerness.

Hercules gave her a quick hug and swept her up in his arms. He grinned. "You're feeling more like yourself--before you felt so light I was afraid you'd snap."

"How was the Cyclops?" she asked when he put her down, after a kiss on the forehead, and she turned to greet Iolaus with a hug.

"No sweat," they said simultaneously. Iolaus turned to go greet Gabrielle, who had been practicingher own moves with her staff, not wanting the luxury of living inside and getting filling meals to let her get out of shape.

"How're you doing?" asked Hercules seriously.

"Not terrible, not great," answered Xena. "In case you didn't notice, I was pretty glad to see you two."

"And not just for our great company?" asked Hercules with a half-smile.

"Well always for that," said Xena, playfully smacking him on the arm. "I know if she came after me, there probably wouldn't be much you could do, but I feel safer with you around."

"That's good enough for me," said the demigod.

"Listen, I need your help," said Xena suddenly, uncomfortable with revealing her fears.

"Anything," replied Hercules.

"I've practiced with my sword and chakram. I've practiced flips. But I haven't really practiced just fighting, and I really don't want to pulverize Gabrielle," explained the warrior.

"I'm glad you're feeling well enough to pulverize anybody," said Hercules, "but are you sure you want to do this? I don't want to hurt you."

"Hercules, it's important!" insisted Xena. "Much as I enjoy looking at you, I can't spend the rest of my life using you as my bodyguard . . . and I imagine Iolaus and Gabrielle are going to get pretty tired of this arrangement at some point. C'mon!" she cried, punching him in the arm.

"All right," said Hercules, and turned to face his opponent. Still terrified of hurting Xena, he mostly blocked and deflected her kicks and blows, without striking out himself.

Xena noticed immediately. "Ares' balls, Hercules!" she snapped. "Give me something to work with. Some day I'm going to need to be able to fight like this, or I'm going to *really* get hurt!"

His face fell as understanding sunk in. "Of course, Xena. I'm sorry." He looked so pained, she felt guilty, but soon found herself lifted in the air and flying across the field.

She landed with a roll, and charged back yelling, "Yeah! That's the idea!" She leapt into the air, landing a solid kick to the demigod's chest. He staggered slightly, but managed to grab her wrist and flip her over his head.

Gabrielle and Iolaus, meanwhile, sat down on a log, their mouths gaping. Although Xena was definitely losing, she managed to land a number of kicks and blows and was obviously enjoying herself. The blood sang in her veins, her war cries echoed across the field, and she laughed in triumph when she manged to do a flip and land behind Hercules and get in a blow before he did. "We'd better keep an eye on them," said Iolaus to Gabrielle ruefully. "I'd hate to think this is some exotic form of foreplay."

Gabrielle laughed. "Yeah, no kidding. But I have to admit it's entertaining."

The next time Hercules grabbed Xena's arm and flung her, she curled her body into a midair somersault and landed on her feet. "Yes!" she yelled, pumping her fist. Her reflexes were coming back, and her muscle-memory was recovering old routines.

Hercules took advantage of the distraction of her moment of triumph to kick out, knocking her off her feet. "Gotta concentrate, love" he said with a grin, and she leapt to her feet, chagrined but grinning too. She swung her fist, delivering a solid blow to his chest, a blow that would have flattened anyone else, then whirled, her leg kicking out and connecting with his side. He grabbed her ankle before she had a chance to pull her leg back and upended her again. She rolled to the side, jumped to her feet and charged him, crouched low so she sent him flying over her back.

"Maybe we should sell tickets," commented Iolaus.

"I like it," answered Gabrielle. "It'd do wonders for Cyrene's business." They looked at each other and both laughed. One side effect of Xena's recuperation was that it had allowed Gabrielle and Iolaus to develop a close and warm friendship, one with a slightly bittersweet tinge of a romantic attraction from a couple of years back. As they each had a partner who was larger-than-life, they had a lot in common to talk about and found each other's company both reviving and relaxing.

The combatants were now moving so fast that they seemed to be a blur of flying arms and legs, punctuated by an occasional "uufff!" from Hercules and "yah!" from Xena as feet, fists, and elbows connected with flesh and muscle. Xena drove an elbow into Hercules's stomach, and he gasped, but recovered immediately, and swung her up into his arms. "E-nough!" he panted.

"Hah!" said Xena. "You just didn't want to lose!"

"Whatever you say, Xena," said Hercules. He leaned backward in a controlled fall, and they both collapsed on the ground laughing.

Iolaus glanced at Gabrielle, and jerked his head toward the house. Gabrielle nodded and smiled wryly, and they both got up and headed inside. Neither felt particularly threatened by the bond between Xena and Hercules. Iolaus and Gabrielle both knew that it was a bond that now ran so deep it was inextricable from who Hercules and Xena were, but they also knew that it somehow did not get in the way of their love for their partners.

Xena and Hercules were dissolving into a fit of giggles. They had both noticed Iolaus and Gabrielle's departure, and Xena asked, "D'you think they're trying to tell us something?"

"Yeah," said Hercules. "Like maybe I should kiss you just this once. I don't think they'd mind."

"I get the feeling they expect it," mused Xena.

Hercules cupped her jaw in his hand, and she marvelled again at the gentleness that accompanied his strength. She reached for the back of his neck and grasped a handful of his long hair, and their lips came together. In a rush of emotion, he pulled her closer, and she greedily sucked his tongue into her mouth. For a long time, their mouths clung together, lips and tongues straining and grasping to express floods of emotion, a bond of friendship, affection, respect, gratitude, and love that would give them both a strength to lean on no matter how far apart.

They broke the kiss, and Xena leapt to her feet, extending a hand to Hercules. As they walked to the house, she said, "Thanks for the practice."

"My pleasure," he answered.

"Yeah, you only say that because you convinced yourself you were winning," she laughed, and brought up a foot to kick him in the rear end.

"I *was* winning," he insisted, giving her a returning smack in the same place with his hand, and they both laughed.

Chapter 4

My heart is hurting beyond words
The pain is tearing up my soul
These days have seen my spirit die
My life propelled out of control
My wounds lie naked to the world
My depth of suffering exposed
This damaged past can never heal
Until this nightmare book is closed
--"Hearts are Hurting (Part 1)," _The Bitter Suite_ (New-U Distribution LLC, 1998)


The next morning, Xena went off for a walk by herself. When she returned, she announced that she was ready to move on. Her fear of Callisto still loomed over her, but she couldn't stay at her mother's forever. There were people who needed her help, and she focused on that.

"Are you going to be all right?" asked Hercules.

"I'm not sure," she answered honestly. "Let's try to keep in touch. I may have to ask for your help again."

"I'm all yours," he said with a grave smile, and they hugged briefly. They both knew they had said their farewells the day before. Gabrielle and Iolaus were hugging as well, and they switched. Xena and Iolaus grasped each other's wrists in a firm shake, followed by a hug, while Hercules pulled Gabrielle close for a hug and whispered, "Take care of her . . . and don't ever doubt that her world revolves around you. Last night after dinner, she talked of nothing but you."

"Thanks, Hercules," said Gabrielle with a warm smile. "And thank you for all you've done for her. I was over my head on this one."

"We all were," he said, worried. "I'm afraid it's not over yet." They all could see the cloud of fear and uneasiness that darkened Xena's blue eyes, even when she was able to relax and laugh.

As Hercules and Iolaus left, after repeatedly thanking Cyrene for her hospitality and good cooking, Hercules murmured to his partner, "She still looks so haunted. I wish Icould break every bone in Callisto's body."

"Well, if you get a chance, Herc," said Iolaus, "save a few bones for me."

Xena and Cyrene clung together. When Xena had first arrived, her mother had been dismayed at a vulnerability she hadn't seen since her daughter was a child. She was delighted at the extent of her recovery, but she too knew that Xena wasn't all the way back.

Life seemed to fall into a familiar routine. Soon after they left Amphipolis, Xena and Gabrielle encountered a messenger from a village under siege by a warlord, and they set off immediately to help. Another time it was the kidnapped child of an impoverished prince being held for ransom. Another time it was a killer who stalked the poor, deeming them unnecessary. Another time it was a battle between the Amazons of Ephiny's tribe and those of a renegade tribe looking for new territory.

Xena fought fiercely when necessary, but Gabrielle could see she had lost her joy in battle. She fought with a mechanical and cold efficiency, doing her best to disable each combatant with a single blow of her fist or foot or sword. And always there was the continuous lookout for Callisto, the continuous scanning of the landscape whenever she was awake.

One mornng Xena awoke with a start, to see Ares leaning against a tree, watching her, his arms folded across his chest. "Go a-way," she enunciated slowly. Gabrielle woke up and jumped up, her hands instinctively reaching for her staff. Xena motioned her back and out of the way.

"And what if I don't want to?" asked the god. "I just wanted to see how you were doing, my dear."

"I'll show you! This time I don't need anyone to do my fighting for me," snarled the warrior, reaching over her shoulder to draw her sword. She leapt at Ares in a fury, his presence once again making her boil over at the thought that he'd witnessed her captivity and hadn't done anything about it. Her face was set and grim. There were none of the feral smiles that usually flashed across Xena's face in a good fight. She simply tore into the god, taking him off guard with her determination and purpose. Their swords clashed, as he parried her blows, and she whirled around and kicked him hard in the face. He swung an arm and struck her, but she flipped away from him and flipped back, hitting him squarely in the chest with both feet and knocking him to the ground. He dissolved from beneath her feet and reappeared behind her, but she spun, her instincts telling her where he would be the moment before he got there. Her sword slashed into his upper arm, and as he gaped for a moment in amazement she gave him a kick that sent him flying backward. He flipped in the air, landed on his feet, and turned toward her. "You're wasting my time, Ares!" yelled the warrior, running toward him, her sword arm raised.

Realizing there was no reason to take this abuse and not willing to make the effort it would take to disarm a furious Xena, he vanished, with only his voice remaining to say, "It's not really me you should be fighting, Xena."

"AAAARRRGGHHH!" she yelled and drove her sword into the ground to the hilt. Gabrielle felt helpless. She'd seen Xena like this before, to be sure, but not day in and day out. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle," said Xena wearily, retrieving her sword and proceeding to polish and sharpen it, with furious strokes of the sharpening stone.

"I wish I could help," said Gabrielle, her voice small.

"I wish you could too, my love," said Xena gently. "Remember when I told you I felt like something had broken inside me. It's still not all the way healed, and I still don't know how to fix it."

Gabrielle sighed, and went to tend to Argo. She was feeling increasingly helpless and frustrated as the weeks passed. It was obvious that Xena was not herself. Gabrielle was also angry at herself for her own selfish reasons for being frustrated. She and Xena made love frequently, but Xena had gone back to treating her as if she were infinitely fragile and needed to be protected. Xena still felt that way herself. She welcomed Gabrielle' s fingers or tongue sliding inside her, but she shrunk away from anything the least bit rough, whether on the giving or receiving end. The night before, Gabrielle had stretched her arms out above her head, grasping one wrist in the other hand. Xena had frozen for a moment, looking stricken, before she could continue touching her lover.

Gabrielle turned to Xena, who still sharpening her sword, with tears beginning to pool in her blue eyes. "Did Callisto do this on purpose?" Xena asked. "Was she just trying to amuse herself, or did she know I'd never get past it?"

* * *

That night, after another mechanical and joyless battle with a group of robbers who had accosted a family of unarmed travellers, Xena sat staring blindly into the fire. "Do you want to come to bed?" asked Gabrielle, hesitantly.

"Not right now, Gabrielle, I want to think. You sleep."

Gabrielle curled up in her blankets near Xena, and Xena automatically reached out to stroke her lover's back, her eyes still fixed on the fire. The next morning she was still sitting in the same position when Gabrielle woke up. Xena turned to her, saying in a flat voice, "I know what I have to do. You're not going to like it, I'm afraid."

When Xena told Gabrielle her plan, Gabrielle tried to talk her out of it, using every argument she could think of, but Xena was adamant. "You don't understand, Gabrielle; this is what I *have* to do. We need to find Hercules--I'm going to need some backup."

After a couple of days' travel, they found Hercules on his own. Iolaus had departed on a fishing expedition, an activity he preferred to undertake alone. Watching Hercules simply grab the fish out of the water irritated him, since he preferred a more patient and meditative approach--using a line. It had been a hard two days for the women. Xena had felt a cold hand clutching at her heart, and near-attacks of panic sometimes cut off her breath. Gabrielle was depressed, having tried repeatedly to talk Xena out of her plan, and each time Xena cut her off, sometimes patiently and sometimes less so.

Hercules listened gravely, asking "Are you sure?" Xena nodded grimly. "All right then," he said. "What do you need?"

* * *

The next morning found Xena purposefully hiking up the mountain toward the scene of her captivity, with Hercules and Gabrielle at her side. When they reached a certain point, she said, "Wait here. *Don't* interfere unless you absolutely *have* to to save my life. Do you understand?"

"No," said Gabrielle miserably, "not really. But I'll do what you say."

"I understand," said Hercules softly. He grasped both of Xena's hands in his, gazed into her eyes, and said, "Be strong." He then turned away, so Xena could hug and hold Gabrielle. She wiped away Gabrielle's tears with gentle strokes and kissed her on the lips, but her own heart was freezing inside her.

Abruptly, she turned away, and loped through the field to the cave. Hercules and Gabrielle were hiding behind a stand of trees and shrubs. Xena strode into the cave, and a rush of panic swept ovr her. She wanted to turn around and run as fast as her legs would carry her. *And keep feeling like this all the time?* she thought. *Not a chance.* Newly resolved on her course, she cried out, "CAL-LIST-TO!" Her voice echoed off the walls of the cave, and she walked back out the entrance, preferring to confront the goddess in an open space.

After a few moments, a column of flame appeared and resolved itself into Callisto's form. She was smiling that infuriating baby smile, and said cheerily, "You called?"

Every nerve in Xena's body and almost every cell in her brain were screaming, "Get me out of here!" The sight of her tormentor made all the fear she'd been feeling the last few months seem like nothing--she was blankly terrified out of her mind.

"I guess you had so much fun *last* time you decided to come back for more!" exclaimed Callisto, lazily drawing her sword. Xena's reflexes reacted before her conscious mind did, and she drew her sword as well.

Callisto lunged, and Xena fought her back, nimbly leaping out of the way of Callisto's weapon. Callisto shot a bolt of lightning from her hand, and Xena dodged that as well. When her voice finally made it back into her throat, after having fled at Callisto's appearance, she yelled, "Callisto! I came her to talk, not fight!"

"Well, what if I don't want to talk?" Callisto demanded petulantly.

"Think about it, Callisto!" yelled Xena, as their swords clashed. "You're going to live forever. I'm not. You're not going to have me to kick around for eternity. What are you going to do with yourself?"

"Who cares?" snapped the goddess, "I'll figure it out after you're gone. I'm counting on many more years of tormenting you!" She started to swing her sword at the warrior.

Xena kicked Callisto's wrist, sending her sword flying. "Callisto, will you please just *listen* to me? Give me a chance?"

Callisto screamed a blood-curdling shriek and yelled, "I'd rather *hurt* you than talk!" She launched another lightning bolt, and Xena flipped out of the way.

"I'll tell you what!" said Xena. "If I let you hurt me first, will you listen to me?"

"Now *that's* an intriguing idea," said Callisto thoughtfully, her finger pulling on her lower lip. "I'll try it. But if I get tired of talking, I'm just going to hurt you some more."

"Thanks for the warning!" snapped Xena, sheathing her sword.

"Stand over there," ordered Callisto, pointing to a nearby tree.

Xena walked where she was ordered, and turned to face the goddess, arms at her side, palms open.

"No tricks, Xe-na?" asked Callisto.

"No tricks," answered the warrior grimly.

"Go-od," said Callisto with a giggle. Suddenly two short knives materialized in her hand. She flung one, then the other with incomprehensible speed. One buried itself in Xena's right thigh, the other in her left shoulder. Xena was momentarily staggered with the pain, and slid down against the trunk of the tree, so she was sitting propped against it. The knives hurt tremendously, but she wouldn't bleed to death any time soon.

As Callisto approached, Xena looked her in the eye and said drily, "Nice placement."

"I'm glad you think so!" said Callisto brightly and sat down, cross-legged, in front of Xena. "So talk to me, darling."

* * *

As soon as the knives left Callisto's hand, Gabrielle jumped up, only to be pulled back down by Hercules. She struggled briefly, hissing, "She's hurt! We've *got* to help her!"

"She's hurt. She's not dying," answered Hercules, his face drawn and worried. "She told us not to interfere, and I'm going to make sure we don't."

"But . . . " Gabrielle began to argue.

"But listen to me," he said. "Do you have any idea how impossibly hard it was for her to put herself in Callisto's way? Do you have any idea how important this must be for her for her to put herself through that? She's completely terrified, and she knew there was no way she'd get out of this without getting hurt. It was a price she was willing to pay."

"But why?" demanded Gabrielle, resigned to not be going anywhere anytime soon. "You can take your hands off me by the way," she snapped. "But don't you care about her?"

"I'm not going to let you get in the way of what she needs to do. Understand?" asked the demigod.

"Yes," sighed Gabrielle.

He let go of her arms, and began to explain. "And you know I care about her--probably much more than I should--it hurts like Hades to know she's out there terrified and in pain. Gabrielle, you have to understand that Xena is the most courageous person I know. Let me tell you a story. You know her army put her through a gauntlet, right?" Gabrielle nodded. "They did it because she saved a baby--they had strict orders from her to preserve women and children. I wasn't there, but Salmoneus told me about it. She should have died, but she willed herself to survive. She came back afterward and tried to kill me, hoping she could get her army back. I had her on the ground, a sword at her neck, and she didn't flinch for a moment. It was as if she had been expecting to be killedat any time. She actually raised her neck toward the sword. I think she was disgusted with me for not killing her--she probably thought I was a coward-- and she refused to help us fight her old army. She went away alone and fought a battle with herself that had to have been harder than any she ever fought with her sword."

Gabrielle gasped, as she saw Callisto draw her sword, and slice a gash in each of Xena's upper arms. "Oh gods," she sobbed. "Keep talking, Hercules. You've got to distract me."

He continued, his face worn with pain. "While we were fighting her army, she joined us. She had made a decision and stood behind it. And with every blow she struck against her former followers, she was dismantling everything that had given her feelings of safety and power and purpose. When the fight was over, I asked her if it was over, all of it, and she agreed. Turning her life around like that to do something entirely unfamiliar and new had to be terrifying. I could see it in her eyes--this confusion, this sense of loss.

"We talked for hours that night. Part of the time she was so full of anger I thought she might try to kill me just because I was there. Part of the time she was simply panicked--like a wounded animal whose legs had collapsed--she didn't know what to stand on any more. And most of that time she told me her crimes, an outpouring of one after another. I was afraid she might hurt herself--it was as if she suddenly saw her life through new eyes, and she despised what she saw. The hatred she directed at herself was devastating. It made my reassurances sound hollow and trite. She had no idea what she was going to do next. She could have regained her army if she wanted to or formed another one--she was the favorite of Ares--but she reached inside herself and found the strength and courage and will to decide to turn her back on what had been the only life she had known for years.

"I don't know if you realize this, Gabrielle. But she makes that decision again every single day. Every single day, she wakes up and knows that my half-brother would hand her the leadership of the *world* on a platter. Every single day, she wakes up and knows that she could recruit the finest army in the world. Every single day, she wakes up and knows that the easiest thing she could do is give in to all the anger and violence and darkness that's still inside her and become the most powerful warlord our world has ever seen. And she's now been offered the powers of a god as well. Yet, every single day she wakes up and continues on the path she's chosen--the hard path, the difficult path. The path without the glories and spoils of battle and the relief of giving her dark side free rein.

"I know you're a very, very large part of why she stays on that path, Gabrielle. I don't know if she could do it alone. But it still takes remarkable courage on her part to stick to it. Remarkable courage. And ever since that bitch out there took her captive, she's been scared. The most courageous person I know has been scared every minute of every day for over three months. If she's willing to put herself in Callisto's way on purpose, it's because living scared has become intolerable to her. This is what she *has* to do, and what we have to do is sit here and suffer through it with her."

"You're right, Hercules. I just hate to see her in pain again."

"She was never *not* in pain, Gabrielle. I know you know that. That's why she's here. She'll never be entirely free of her past, and she shouldn't be--she has a lifetime of atoning to do, and it won't bring her victims back. But Callisto has become so much a part of what she hates in herself that she *has* to free herself from her."

* * *

"Before you start," said Callisto, "tell me. Does it hurt?"

"These?" asked Xena, gesturing weakly toward the knives. "Yes, it hurts."

"Good. Tell me more. Describe it." Callisto leaned forward, swiped a drop of blood running from the wound in Xena's shoulder on her finger, then sucked her finger languidly. "That gives me *such* a rush, Xena dear. Now, describe it."

"I don't know how! Being descriptive isn't my idiom."

"Try, Xena, try. You want me to listen to you, you do what I say."

Xena winced with the pain. "It's sharp and hot all at once," she attempted. "But cold inside. I can feel the blades right through my muscles. It's agonizing, if you want to know the truth."

"Good," said Callisto cheerfully. "But I'd like to see some more blood." Without getting up, she drew her sword and sliced a gash in each of Xena's upper arms. "Oh, that's lovely, now, go ahead and talk."

Xena felt weak and dizzy, but she marshalled herself. "Actually, I want you to talk, Callisto. Tell me about what I did to you. Tell me what made you feel this way. All of it. Everything you felt. I did you an unforgivable injury, and I want to do whatever penance I can. Just talk to me."

Callisto looked surprised and said, "OK, I will. I'll tell you all of it." She had forced Xena to apologize publicly before, but Xena had never offered to *listen* to her. Her voice took on a dreamlike tone. "Cirra was as ordinary a village as you'd find. Farmers, bakers, craftsmen, you name it. I loved my mother and my sister, not just because they were family, but they *understood* me and *accepted* me. All the other little girls in Cirra dreamed of the day they'd find the right man and get married. They played house and played with dolls who were their babies. They had their future husbands all picked out and all the names of their children.

"I wasn't like that. I hated playing those games. I wanted something else. Mother did what she could. She taught me and my sister how to read, and she talked my father into getting me a horse, and I learned to ride. I would ride for hours, dreaming of getting away, but I couldn't think of *how*. What could I do?"

Xena's eyes began to fill with tears, not from the pain as much from the fact that the story sounded disturbingly familiar. She whispered, "I remember feeling that way."

"I played with the other girls sometimes," continued Callisto. "My sister had a lot of friends--everyone liked her. They put up with me for her sake. But I hated their games. It seemed like I would be stuck, that there wasn't anything else I could be. I think I dismembered every doll anyone gave me."

"I did that too," Xena interjected. "Sometimes I cut up their clothes to make bandages--I wanted to be a healer, but the healer told me women couldn't do that."

"Yeah," said Callisto morosely. "Every idea I had for getting out of there, my father discouraged. My mother tried to encourage me, but she didn't have any ideas either. And my sister listened--talking to her always helped a little. Then one day, we heard of an army advancing. There wasn't time to flee. My family was huddling inside their house, but I had been out walking just outside the village, and I couldn't get back in time. There were soldiers between me and the house.

"Then I saw . . . this vision. The most beautiful woman I'd ever seen, riding a magnificent horse. She was tall and proud and *independent*. My heart just *opened*. She was everything I wanted to be, every possibility I had imagined. I thought the boys in my village were repulsive. But I saw this woman, and I wanted to devote my life to her. Foolish, huh? But she was like nothing else I'd ever seen or imagined. Oh, Xena, how I could have loved you."

Tears were running down Xena's cheeks, and they weren't from her wounds. Callisto's voice hardened. "And then the slaughter began. Your army began cutting down men, and some were setting fires. I screamed and screamed, 'NO!' I wanted to make you stop them; I wanted to make you understand. But your eyes were so cold. I ran toward my house, dodging the horses and the soldiers. It was on fire, and the wind was blowing flames everywhere. I tried to get inside, but the fire burned my hands. I heard my mother and my sister screaming while I ran around the house, trying to find a way in, but I was too frightened of the flames." She paused, musing, "Funny how I like to play with fire *now*," and continued, her voice flat. "I did see them through the window though. They were holding each other, as their hair and clothes burned. They had been too frightened of you and your army to escape."

Callisto's voice softened again. "All I could think was, was that it? Was my only road out of a dreary life to be a killer? Was that the only way I could be free? I wasn't thinking very clearly. The smoke burned my eyes, and I ran back toward the outskirts of the village. No one noticed me. Then I realized I'd never see Mommy or my sister again--the only people who understood me. I saw you again--your face was hard with anger. I asked you 'Why?' but you didn't bother to answer. I was just another victim."

Callisto was also crying. "I never cried since then, Xena, why am I crying now?"

"Because it hurts. We need to cry when it hurts. Listen, Callisto, when you saw my face, my anger was directed at my own army. Please believe me that I never intended to kill women and children. The winds spread the fire out of control." She paused. "No, I can't excuse myself. If they hadn't been so afraid of me and my army, they would have escaped, your mother and sister among them."

"Why, Xena, why?" pleaded Callisto, her voice and face that of a young girl.

"I have no excuses," said the warrior softly, her eyes still leaking tears. "Someone hurt me and betrayed me and killed someone I cared about. After that all I cared about was death and power. You weren't a person to me then. No one was. Killing just relieved the anger for a while."

Callisto and Xena stared at each other for a moment in silence, each seeing the other mirrored in their swimming eyes. Wincing at the pain from the knives, Xena began to move, levering herself into a kneeling position. The motion jolted the knives, and the wounds began to bleed more heavily, but Xena ignored the pain. She put her hands behind her back and bowed her head.

"Callisto," she began. "This will sound hollow to you, and I know I've tried to apologize before, but I have to say it. I'm sorry, deeply, sincerely sorry. I can't make excuses. I was in command of that army. I killed your mother, and I killed your sister. I can't bring them back. I can never atone. I can never be forgiven for what I did to you. But I'm sorry with every fiber of my being. I'm sorry I cut short the lives of your family. I'm sorry I cut off all the love they gave you. I'm sorry I tore your childhood away from you." Tears streaked her face, and with a monumental effort, she bowed her head to the ground, biting down a shriek from the pain.

Callisto's tears continued to fall as well. "I needed to hear you say that, Xena--this time you sounded like you meant it," she said dully, "but I don't think I can ever forgive you." She reached forward and gently helped Xena up, but Xena remained on her knees, gazing into Callisto's face.

"I can't forgive myself either," explained the warrior. "If I ever do, I'm out of business. Every day I remember the things I've done. All I'm trying to do is even the balance a little bit. I'll never finish atoning, and I shouldn't ever." She winced again in pain. "Callisto, please, you're going to have to stop the bleeding, or I'm going to pass out."

Callisto waved her hand, and the blood stopped flowing, although the wounds continued to hurt. "But you have to understand something, Callisto," Xena continued. "I committed an unforgivable crime against you. You have every reason to seek revenge against me. But I am *not* responsible for your crimes, for the choices you've made. You had me thinking I was. I felt every death you caused was on my head too. But it's not. No matter how badly someone hurts you, you still have choices you can make."

In an almost emotionless voice, she continued, "I was crucified once. By Julius Caesar. One of his soldiers broke my legs with a sledgehammer. The pain was indescribable. Add to that hunger and parching thirst, and the pain never lettingup for a second. But someone helped me, rescued me, got me down from the cross. And they killed her. I made a choice that death would be my life. My anger at Caesar has still made me make stupid decisions and cause pain to those I love. But it was still *my* decision. *He* is not responsible for the deaths of your family--*I* am. Do you see?"

Callisto nodded grimly, too overwhelmed to speak. "I'm not your creator, Callisto. I'm responsible for causing you an unforgivable injury, but I didn't create you. I will always be a part of you, a part of what shapes you, just as you have become an inextricable part of me. But you're still yourself--don't give me the victory I was looking for in Cirra by letting me control your entire existence. That Xena doesn't deserve that victory. That Xena is still in me, proud to have such a devoted imitator, flattered that someone exists who revolves exclusively around her. She thinks she's like a god for having shaped the destiny of another human being. And I hate her," Xena broke into sobs. "Don't . . . let her win, Callisto. Don't . . . give her that . . . victory. *Please* . . . don't . . . let . . . her . . . win!"

Callisto leaned forward and slapped Xena sharply on each cheek, but without leaving a mark. "That's for her," she said in a hard voice. Then she moved directly in front of Xena, grasped a handful of hair and pulled Xena's face toward hers. She kissed Xena hard, and Xena willingly parted her lips for Callisto's tongue, knowing that she'd have to deal with the pain to Gabrielle later. When Callisto broke the kiss, she said softly, "And that's for you. For what I wanted you to be for me. I love you, Xena, and I hate you as much as I love you. But you've given me something I wanted. And you're right--I don't want that murdering bitch to win. So I guess . . . I don't need to hurt you any more."

"What are you going to do?" asked Xena.

"I don't know," answered Callisto flatly. "But I certainly have plenty of time to work on creating myself."

"Come here, please," asked Xena. She reached for Callisto's face, and drew her in for a final kiss. "I hope you find peace, Callisto, somewhere, somehow."

"Me too," said Callisto shortly. "I hope I can recognize it if I see it." She turned toward where Hercules and Gabrielle were waiting and called out, mockingly, "Yoo hoo! You two can come out now!" She looked back at Xena, and pronounced slowly, "Goodbye, Xena."

"Goodbye, Callisto," said Xena softly. Callisto vanished in a pillar of flame, and Xena collapsed back against the trunk of the tree. Hercules and Gabrielle ran to her side.

"Xena!" sobbed Gabrielle, dropping to her knees next to her lover.

"I'll be all right, Gabrielle," said Xena weakly. "She's gone. I don't think she's coming back. It's going to be all right now."

Hercules gestured toward the bag Gabrielle carried. "Give me some of the bandages. We'll wait to clean these when we get to my mother's, but I have to get those knives out of there." He turned to Xena, "It's going to hurt."

"I know," she said with a wan smile. "I've had knife wounds before, and not nearly so carefully placed. Do the one in my leg first . . . , " she continued to give directions.

Hercules laughed. "Xena, I'm not the healer you are, but I do know a few things. Now be quiet and let me take care of this."

Xena reached for Gabrielle's hand and squeezed tightly, while Hercules pulled the knife out and immediately pressed a wad of cloth against the wound. Xena took in her breath sharply, but did not otherwise react. This kind of injury was familiar territory for her. Her leg was soon wrapped and bandaged, and Hercules carefully removed the other knife from her shoulder, bandaging it swiftly as well. "I want to keep those," said Xena faintly, gesturing toward the knives. Gabrielle's eyes widened in surprise, but she wiped off the blades and put them in the bag, while Hercules wrapped bandages around the gashes in Xena's arm.

"How much blood have you lost?" he asked.

"Not as much as you'd think. She stopped the bleeding after a while."

Hercules carefully picked her up, and she relaxed into the strength and comfort of his arms, and they headed downhill, with Gabrielle carrying the bag of supplies.

Later, when she was resting in bed, her wounds cleaned, and Gabrielle and Hercules sitting on either side of her, Hercules asked, "Did you do what you needed to do?"

"Yeah. I did. I listened to her. I understand some things I never understood before. And I think she understands some things about me. And maybe about herself too." Xena paused and shook her head slowly. "Just think. She's only one, only one of the people whose lives I shattered."

Gabrielle began to protest, to remind Xena of all the good she had done, but Xena raised a hand and stopped her. "No, Gabrielle, not now. I know the good I do is important. I have your love and the love of my friends. Your love is a miracle to me, Gabrielle. I don't know if I deserve it or not, but I do know I'm going to keep working every day to deserve it, to make myself worthy of you." She turned her head back to Hercules, "And I'm going to make sure that all *you've* done for me will prove worth your efforts. But I can't be allowed to forget all the harm I've done. I owe her and all the others that. I'm not afraid of her any more, but what I've done in my past can never be repaired. This is not a day I should spend congratulating myself on my good deeds."

A blonde warrior goddess in black leather stood just outside the window, listening and unseen. She saw Xena reach an arm around Gabrielle, while Hercules lightly took Xena's other hand, as she talked. Callisto listened to what Xena had to say and nodded silently to herself. *Now what?* she asked herself, as a familiar and comfortable hatred began to drain away, a drop at a time, leaving in its stead a hole she didn't know how to fill.

The End

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