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Xena, Gabrielle, Callisto and Argo are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and are used in this story, shamefully used, without any intention or even the slightest possibility of profit being made. Bacchus and Pan belong to mythology and I have no respect for mythology. Mythology can't sue me.


This is subtextual, blatantly subtextual but subtextual nonetheless. Xena and Gabrielle mention that they love each other quite a lot but they've done that before on the show and I suppose they could mean it in a very friendly, close and spiritual sense. There is one minor brushing of the lips between two women, the identities which you will have to continue reading to find out. It was probably caused by them being carried away in the incredible emotion of the moment. Probably. I kinda doubt it. This story is set sometime after the Rift and Crusader and contains spoilers for Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. The violence depicted on the tv show is contained within. Afterall, bacchae aren't fluffy bunnies. Although I DO know one fluffy bunny who might have been one... Humour alert. I'm sorry, it was completely unintentional of course and as it usually is with me, completely unavoidable. Mail me. I don't bite and I mail back. Or at least my other personalities mail you back. Maybe you're better off for that.

*   *   *

The Retreat

by badbard


"Where am I?" she screeched. Thick tendrils of fog swirled about her sluggishly. The air was musty. Callisto was willing to bet that if she hadn't been immortal she would be suffocating. As it was, her heart pounded in fear and outrage as she whirled around and around desperately searching for some dark niche to crawl into.

"Look, Child, we have company!" It was the voice of a demon. Callisto threw back her mangy blond mane and laughed her head off. Safety at last! The deep and dangerous voice was so very familiar, even after she hadn't heard it in an entire year. It reminded her of adolescence, of hazy dreams of revenge against the woman who had destroyed any hope she ever had of being happy.

"Yes, child, she wanted to destroy Xena but she only made her stronger. Isn't that...sad?" The owner of the voice broke through the eddies of fog and Callisto finally laid eyes on her mentor. Stroking a withered scarlet cheek with long gnarled claws, Bacchus' yellowish pupils assaulted her contemplatively. He wasn't speaking to her she realized, but to the faun cavorting around him in dizzying circles. She recognised Pan well enough from the legends, recognised easily the glint of mad hilarity in his obsidian eyes. Bacchus spread his clawed hands outwards in a mocking gesture and purred, "Welcome to Oblivion, Callisto."

She screamed. She never stopped screaming.

*   *   *

"Twenty dinari? That's outrageous! Why, I haven't seen that amount in my miserable life! If the gods ever blessed me with that treasure hoard, I would be spending it on covering myself! Don't you think I get cold in this get-up?"

The trader took full advantage of the invitation to eye the bard appreciatively. True she was modeling two scraps of material that strained and stretched to contain her assets. On the other hand she was as sleek as a pampered warhorse. Just about as muscled too. He wondered idly if her rump rippled. "Nineteen and a half dinari," he leered. Gabrielle spat in disgust.

Next thing the bard knew, a gauntleted hand was grasping her shoulder and steering her away. "Xena!" she yelled, squirming out of the warrior's firm grasp. "I'm trying to haggle if you don't mind, hard as it may be with the pitiful allowance you keep me on. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll just be getting back to stocking us up on necessities."

"Cherries?" murmured the warrior, smoothly positioning herself between the intended target and her fuming bard. Gabrielle had the decency to blush.

"I love cherries," she muttered. Unexpectedly she was swept up into Xena's powerful embrace. After a moment's startlement she squeezed back as hard as she could, before wrapping her arms around her warrior's neck for balance and leaning back to grin up at her. "Now Xena, if you'd just let me get back to the cherries..." She felt a twinge of disappointment as the warrior reluctantly released her but enjoyed the attention as she felt those bluest of eyes boring into her back as she practically skipped back to the trader's stall.

Xena's thoughts were morose. When she watched Gabrielle take such delight in simply shopping, furiously swapping insults with greedy merchants and usually besting them with her bardic creativity for cussing, she felt uneasy. The sweet nostalgia was shoved aside by icy knowledge, resting heavy in the pit of her stomach like a lead shotput. Gabrielle seemed like the same innocent little village girl who had stubbornly followed her all those seasons ago. Yet that Gabrielle was dead.

"So you're back for more are you, Sweet Cheeks? Twenty-five dinari!"

"Go to Tartarus, I hear Hades is on the lookout for new torments for doomed women. We were down to ten dinars, little man! Sheesh!"

She was irrevocably changed. She lied. Adeptly.

"You expect me to sell them to you for ten dinars?! I guess it really is true what they say about blondes...oh c'mon, Sweetie, cherries are in season now."

"So that means more for you to sell, right? At cheaper prices!"

Gabrielle was wiser in the ways of the world yet as gullible as ever. Every time Xena trusted that this time the bard would at last have the good sense not to trust blindly, Gabrielle trusted and got herself hurt.

"How 'bout I make it eighteen dinari? Of course that means that my poor cherry picker will have no money to buy food to take home to his starving family tonight..."

"If you care so much why don't you just give him these cherries instead of selling them? Huh?"

Last time she had got Xena hurt.

"His entire family is allergic to cherries!"

"So what kind of black-hearted boat-bucket are you to make him pick them? How inhumane! I should report you! In fact, I think I will...AUTHORITIES!"

Last time she had got Xena's only child brutally murdered.

"Hey, hey, quiet down there, Missy, no need to contact anybody. These cherries are on sale. Only fifteen dinari."

"You call that a sale? It'd be cheaper to hire your cherry picker instead. Probably faster too."

It was dangerous to be around someone like that, disastrous to let them into your heart. Secrets were essential. Love had to be contained before it bloomed out of control.

"Alright, thirteen then. Gods, I feel so dizzy all of a sudden. Aphrodite's Nighty, I can feel Celeste hovering over me, reaching out to touch me..."

"Mmmm. You wish! Try to fall a little to the left. I don't want you mooshing up my cherries with your stinky corpse."

Just when some semblance of normalcy had struggled back into their tottering relationship, Gabrielle had left her. Again. To be strictly accurate, she had left Gabrielle, striving for self-preservation. But Gabrielle had been willing to leave her. After all they had been through the bard had loved and trusted Najara. A stranger. It had not been the first time. Would it be the last?

"Zeus on the loose! This is what the younger generation has come to?! You irreverent little harpie, why I ought to take you over my knee and spank you."

"Yuck! You wish! Look how 'bout I cut a deal with you, nag-breath?"

Xena's tormented soul ached over the distance lingering between her and Gabrielle. Oh sure, they joked playfully, they laughed, usually until they cried. They pretended. They were trapped in their roles, trying to remember back to a time when everything was alright, trying to re-create that.

"Sure, what do you wanna play? Strip poker?"

"No! If I didn't meet so many revolting, disgusting and stinky men every day I would have to say you were the stinkiest, scummiest man I've ever met."

Once their friendship had strengthened every day. It had been the most beautiful thing Xena had ever known or known of. Every day she had opened herself up a little more to the gentle ministrations of her bard's heart upon her darkened soul. Every day there had been the possibility of their relationship deepening. Every day it had. She had hoped for something more. Every day they had moved towards the ultimate expression of their love, slowly but very surely. There had never been doubt in her mind, only anticipation, only hope.

"You must keep good company, Darlin'."

"I bet your family is very close, Mister. Tell me, is your Pa your Ma's brother or father?"

Hope was dead.

"Huh? Um, cousin I think. Tell me about your deal then, blondie."

"Just like I thought...inbreeding. Anyhow, I made this great discovery! A very profitable discovery! Cherries aren't just packed full of rich, ripe flavours and jutting juices, they're also perfect for crushing and smearing all over your lips. Enhance your natural beauty! Get that just-kissed blush! Buy cherries today! Don't wait, it may not be cherry season much longer..."

A vein jumped in Xena's stately forehead. This was all so hard.

"How much?! How much?!"

"There's something to be said for inbreeding afterall...uh fifty dinari! But why don't you get yourself a real bargin? Two for the price of four! That's right, you lucky man you, I'll sell you two of these deliciously marketable cherries for only seventy-five dinari! Only because I'm in a good mood mind you."

Not for the first time Xena wondered how Gabrielle felt about her now. Pushing it aside hurriedly she told herself she didn't want to know the true depth of her bard's animosity. Talking things out had never got the taciturn warrior anywhere. It was best not to know. Maybe she could convince herself that the casual affectionate gestures still meant something. Anything.

"Done! Thank you very much! Shake?"

"I'll pass. You seem to have a skin condition. Now be on your way before I change my mind."

Xena smirked at his retreating back, her sharp hearing easily picking up the jubilantly whispered "Sucker!" he threw over his shoulder as he rounded the corner. She crossed over to her bard who was just as jubilantly stuffing cherries into her satchel.


Gabrielle smirked up at her. "Oh, I know. Just call it one of my many skills." Xena directed her steamy blue gaze elsewhere when the bard began stuffing leftover cherries down her cleavage. Dimly the warrior remembered that even those horrifying * few days after Solan's body had been burned, within the malestrom of hatred, raw pain and confusion, carnal thoughts of her bard only increased. Her seething spirit had surged up and demanded that she take what had not yet been offered her. The warrior didn't understand how she could hate a person that much and still want them. Was love supposed to hurt like this?

*   *   *

"I hate you, Xena! I hate you, I hate you! I want to hate you, Xena! I want you! I want to love you, Xena! How dare you make that impossible...I hate you!"

Pan cavorted merrily through the seeping mists, picking up the rhythm of the insane goddess' tortured screams. Bacchus enjoyed the spectacle. Oblivion had been boring. He was a god of passion, a god of carnality, a god whose primary objective had been to prod out the raging animal that lurked in the crevices of every mortal's mind. Licking his cracked lips, he remembered the wine, that potent elixir which had all but guaranteed him success when he needed mortals to overcome morality and stupid inhibitions to do his bidding. The evil god swallowed hard but it seemed he would never taste the sharp tang of blood, moistly trickling down his throat again. The heady power was gone. His minions had scattered. All that remained was this fragment of what he had once been, entombed here with these two annoyingly bloodless immortals. He watched as Callisto finally dropped to her knees and begged like the child he remembered.

"Please, I just want peace, please, I don't want to feel, I just want it all to stop, somebody make it stop hurting, please, please, please..."

"Child," he murmured, flickering into being at her side, "Child, you know my voice, don't you?" His voice settled over Callisto like a heavy blanket, reminding her of the initial comfort she had felt hearing it whispering instructions in her adolescent head, filling up the emptiness in the absence of her family. Then it struck her that even the owner of her voice had abandoned her. Without this demon to spur her hatred into a raging flame there was no warmth in her life, no purpose is giving Xena pain, no point. She flew to her feet, brown eyes piercing yet chillingly empty. Bacchus' canines actually tingled as he watched Callisto's insanity return in full force. This was his favourite of all the mortals' array of emotions. Insanity reminded him of soulless' bacchaes cackling and drunks carousing. It was intoxicating.

"Where were you?" Her tone lilted than rasped and was disconcertingly off-kilter. Pan kicked up his forelocked heels to it.

"I was here of course, awaiting your arrival." Bacchus' yellowish pupils became mere sly slits as he added the explanation which would implement his grand plan. "Courtesy of Xena."

"Xena," Callisto hissed. She turned her back on him for an instant before whirling back to face him, palms pressed together in an absurd parody of a thankful prayer. "Xena!" she cooed delightedly, beginning to circle the demon god. "How I've missed her." Her breath was hot on his leathery neck. Bacchus' tongue slaked along his dry lips as he assumed a paternally amused tone.

"You act like the world revolves around Xena, Child."

Callisto simply rolled her eyes and exultantly proclaimed, "it does!"

"Come now, don't be silly. She's just one woman."

Suddenly Pan had sprung between them, extending a forefinger upwards for their bemused inspection. He whistled a note between his pearly white buckteeth and sang,

"Xena is a pretty girl
I like pretty girls!
Xena hates Callisto
with her pretty golden curls

Xena loves her little bard
I love Gabby too
If I caught her in a wood
you all know what I'd do!

Woo Woo!

Xena is a buxom babe
I like buxom babes!
Xena kills her Gabby
who she always used to save

Xena saves Callisto then
filled with righteous hate
I would save Callisto too
Everybody makes mistakes!

Suck it up, baby!"

Pan capered back into the shrouding mist. Callisto continued the enthusiastic off-beat clapping she had begun half way through his ditty. "What's he in for?" she giggled, "did his bid to make Muse fail?" Bacchus shrugged. He had no idea why Pan was trapped in this lonely space reserved for dead gods, except of course the obvious. Pan must be dead.

"Listen, Child," he turned back to Callisto and took her by her frail shoulders. She slowly curled a ringlet around one finger and batted her lashes at him.

"Did Tall, Red and Ugly want something?" she purred. "Like to tell me how my pretty Xena offed him?" Bacchus pupil's dilated and Callisto's pealing laughter filled the stale air.

"The important thing," he growled, shaking her a little, hating the method to her madness, "is that we take our revenge on her. Xena destroyed my hopes and dreams a year ago, Child. She destroyed my family. My precious Bacchae are no more. She took me away from you."

"I could've made her suffer on my own," huffed the goddess, yanking herself away. Bacchus' wizened lips curved into a mocking smile.

"Could you really? One has to wonder why you didn't. Why you failed." Once more she surprised him. Rather than spitting in his face or some other equally as drastic reaction, she winked and sashayed her hips.

"Did Xena turn you down? Weren't you demon enough for her?" Bacchus ignored the taunts.

"Listen to me, my child. It is time to achieve your revenge against Xena. You are going to destroy her little bard while she watches. Interested?"

"I'm more than interested, I'm hot under the chainmail!"

"Only gods get trapped in Oblivion, Child. You weren't always a god though, you were once a mortal. My little girl." Callisto glanced sideways at him and smirked,

"My, but you are a sick one. I'm guessing you're Bacchus, what with you sick preoccupation with the bacchae, who are basically your average group of little Hopes. No wonder you took up with me."

Bacchus shivered involuntarily. He had often watched young Hope in the revealing mists but shied away from her father, who was much too intense in his opinion. Evil was meant to be enjoyed, lingered over. "Yes, I was your guiding voice, my dear, your mentor." Callisto's burning brown eyes flickered away from his and regarded the void that served as their sky.

"Let me straighten this out then, Demon. We are all trapped here because we are dead and we are gods. God's can't die but if, Hades' Hickeys they DO, well, they wind up in this forsaken hole."

Once again Pan wiggled between the other two gods without the slightest warning. "I'll tell you a secret!" he warbled. His voice was high and bleating. "Once upon a time, Callisto was a mortal, rhymes with portal." Callisto began twirling her curl around her finger faster and faster.

"How do I become mortal again?"

"That's easy, Child." Bacchus' skin was becoming flushed. "All you have to do is sell me your soul."

"Any bidders?" chirped Pan. Callisto made a grab for his throat but he winked off adroitly and her hand only parted the fog. Bacchus' protruding fangs were ripping a slash across his palm and pressing it over the insane goddess' lips.

"Drink my blood. Become one with me. Become my souless creation." So great was Callisto's newly awakened hatred for Xena, she hardly hesitated before sucking noisily at the blood supply. She finished and Bacchus watched in approval as huge red irises filled her eyes and her skin's ruddy health drained to a translucent hue. Snarling and snapping she knelt at his feet and paid obesiance to her newfound master. "You'll do," he decided. "I really wish you could understand me right now, Child, but I'm afraid you've gone and sold your soul. Didn't your mama ever tell you not to sell your soul to...oh, guess not. Xena killed her, right, right. You're hardly a mortal, Child, but that doesn't matter. This place was crafted for beings with godly souls. It can't hold mortal souls. By the same token, it can't hold the souless. Don't worry, my child, I'll take care of your soul. I'll possess you forever. Go now and seek out the woman of your dreams. Seek out Xena."

*   *   *

"Is something wrong, Xena?" Gabrielle's arms fastened around the warrior's waist more snugly as they rode into the sunset. The cherries filling her cleavage had long since been crushed by repeated contact between her swaying chest and her warrior's back. Her billious green sports bra was rapidly becoming a skimpy red sports bra. Xena's voice was as cold as the winter wind.

"You're a good friend, Gabrielle."

"Don't say things you don't really mean, Xena." The warrior stiffened and once again the bard found herself mooched against Xena's back.


"At a loss for words again, Xena? Wouldn't be the first time. The only time you've ever have much to say is when you're angry and obscenities in five languages are hardly my loaf of nutbread."

"Gabrielle! What are you...why are you...are you?"

"I'm leaving you, Xena." Argo came to a stop. Xena simply sat there, not getting off, not looking over her shoulder. Her voice was very small.


"Because you were about to tell me it would be best for us to go our separate ways. Weren't you." It wasn't really a question but the shocked warrior felt compelled to answer.

"It would be the best thing. I hurt you too much, Gabrielle." Now it was the bard's turn to stiffen. Frustration had prompted her impromptu confrontation; too many months of having nothing honest to share with Xena had taken their toll.

"Oh, that's a good one, Xena. You just keep telling me that. Want me to pretend I believe you? It's all for me? Well it isn't. You just don't want me to hurt you again. You're scared of me, Xena, scared of what I've become. Admit it."

"We should make camp, Gabrielle. You can set off in the morning. I'll escort you where you want to go. I'll keep you safe." The bard's voice was frigid as she sought for some jagged words to wound Xena with. Her warrior wouldn't talk to her. Her warrior was sending her away. Again. It was beyond bearable.

"You'll keep me safe? Like you did in Britannia? Please, Xena, don't make me laugh! Don't make promises we both know you have no intention of keeping. Afterall, you never know when we'll meet up with one of your past acquaintances again, do we?"

They slept on opposite sides of the campfire that night.

*   *   *

Gabrielle blearily blinked her eyes open to find a bacchae hunched over her, spewing humid breath over her face. With a mewl of terror she scrambled away, somehow managing to push herself to her feet, turning instinctively to Xena's side of the campfire for safety. What she saw there caused her to fall to her knees, dry heaves wracking her frame as disbelieving tears spurted from her blindly staring eyes. Xena, her Xena, her precious warrior was dead. Her death had not been easy, that much was clear. Gabrielle's last words to her best friend had been hateful. It was too much for her to take. Too much...

*   *   *

Callisto blinked and looked around in confusion. Finding herself squatting on a bedroll, she reached out to touch it and saw that her hands were dripping warm blood. She grinned. An agonised keening drew her attention to the opposite side of the campfire. Easily she recognised the wailing bard and drew closer, fully intending to taunt her over whatever was making her so delightfully miserable.

"Xena...NO!" Callisto stopped dead in her tracks, unsure of herself suddenly, wondering who had screamed denial of Xena's death and realising she had all in the same laboured breath. Licking trembling lips, she tasted the warm blood clotting her skin and understood that she had won at last. Xena was dead. Callisto the bacchae had torn her throat out though she had no recollection of the actual event. For some reason she had been granted her soul again. Yes, at long last Xena was dead. So why did the little girl from Cirrah feel like falling into a heap beside her nemesis and sobbing her cold, dead heart out? Was this hate?

Callisto watched as though still staring through the fogs of Oblivion as Gabrielle howled out her grief, crawling the rest of the way to Xena to cradle the bloodied head in her lap. She started when Bacchus' voice oiled into her mind.

"Go to the bard, Child. Make her pay. Xena is watching. Destroy what Xena loves."

"Yes!" giggled Callisto, puffing up with new purpose. "Xena took away everything and everyone I loved! But it's my turn now, Xe-na!"

*   *   *

"Welcome to Oblivion, Xena." The Warrior Princess leapt to her feet and unsheathed her sword in one easy movement. She regonised this voice. One of her victims. One of her most dangerous victims.

"That's right, Xena, I'm intent on making my comeback." Bacchus smiled almost genially as he stepped out of the swirling fog and crooked a negligent claw in her direction, gesturing that she come closer. When she didn't he threw back his huge horned head and laughed. "Still suspicious I see, my dear. It's probably saved your life more than once. Pity that your little bard never picked up that particular skill. Pity she trusted my beautiful bacchaes that one time. Then again, maybe she was just starved for dancing. You're not much of a dancer, are you Xena? Or perhaps you were just too busy to save a dance for your 'best friend', in the midst of a festival no less! My festival."

The Warrior Princess bared her teeth at him, infuriated at his sly insinuations and at her own confusion regarding what had just happened. She remembered the argument with Gabrielle. She remembered tossing and turning in her sleep. Horrible dreams had come to her, dreams of a bacchae tearing and pulling at flesh like a dog worrying at a bone. Fear skittered down her spine suddenly and she concentrated all of her formidable control on not shivering. As Bacchus explained himself to her she felt her blood grow colder and colder until she was wondering if her heart had actually ceased to beat.

*   *   *

Callisto cleared her throat. "Gab-ri-elle!" she sang. The bard looked up and Callisto took an involuntary step back. She hadn't been prepared for the churning turmoil that threatened to gush from those green eyes. Her mouth opened and snapped shut again when a small blonde bard hurtled into her arms.

"Xena," Gabrielle gasped, wrapping her arms tightly around Callisto and holding on for dear life. "Thank the gods! Xena, I thought...I don't know what I thought. It must have been a nightmare. Oh Gods, Xena, I am so sorry I said those things last night. I love you, Xena. I love you." Callisto simply stood there, utterly shellshocked, soaring higher and higher on the completely new sensation of having so much love and devotion directed at her.

"Xena," Gabrielle stepped back reluctantly and started violently when she saw Callisto staring down at her with an unreadable expression on her face. "Oh! Xena, are you sure you won't dye your hair dark? I think it would help. ALOT." Comprehension dawned on the ex-goddess. Somehow the bard had managed to convince her fractured mind that Xena was once more trapped in Callisto's body. That Xena was alive. That those harsh words of the night before could still be forgiven. Barely restraining a giggle of glee, Callisto embraced this newfound power she had over the Warrior Princess' heart. Break Gabrielle and Xena would suffer the torment of the damned for eternity within the private Tartarus of her soul. Oh the possibilities!

*   *   *

Midday found them well on their way down the road. Callisto rode a skittering Argo, kicking her heels into the mare's heaving flanks at every opportunity. Gabrielle strode alongside, not seeming to notice anything amiss. The bard's attention had been oddly selective ever since Xena's death mused the ex-goddess. At the campsite Gabrielle had been careful to stick to her side of the fire and had never glanced back at Xena's corpse after deciding that Callisto was her Warrior Princess. It seemed that the bard wasn't about to question her companion's identity under any circumstances. That made Callisto's job so much the easier. She had already decided that 'Xena' would begin by breaking the bard's heart. After that a little torturing was in order followed by a slow painful death. Revenge was sweet.

"Oh Gabby, what did we fight about last night? Refresh my memory." Callisto genuinely wanted to know. What had their last words been? How had Xena managed to convince this sweet young villager that she was worth saving when she was so obviously a brutal murderer?

"You want to talk?" Gabrielle couldn't quite keep the surprise out of her voice. Brown eyes narrowed down at her.

"Yes, I do. So talk. Be a bard." Callisto watched in fascination as Gabrielle's stride stiffened and shortened and her knuckles clenched white around her staff. This was going to be interesting.

"We have company," bit out the bard, swinging her staff into a defensive position in front of her. Callisto looked around in confusion, finally smelling the odour of very bad breath on the air and beginning to easily pick out the outlines of badly-hidden thugs all around them. Their scraggly leader lumbered out from behind a tree trunk which had been unsuccessful in hiding his expansive girth from view. Callisto swung down from Argo, ignoring the panicked mare as she took the opportunity to gallop away. An evilly delighted grin lifted the corners of her face. Goody! An opportunity to play at being the Warrior Princess. This was her favourite game.

"Hi boys," she drawled, lowering her voice several notches. She sounded ridiculous. Paunchly glanced at Callisto doubtfully, trying to place her in his rather rotten memory. He failed and proceeded with his original plan.

"Hey there, little ladies! Are you gonna come with us easy or are you the kind who like to be roughed up a bit?" Callisto arched her eyebrow and brought her sword up in front of her to see if the gesture made her look more like Xena. Engrossed in her reflection, she jumped in fright when Gabrielle's compact weight suddenly hurtled into her, pressing her safely against the ground as an arrow arced overhead. She was just getting caught up in those gladed green eyes when she caught sight of Paunchly looming over the bard and hefting his sword. Callisto didn't even know she could move as fast as she did. One moment she was covered by Gabrielle's warm weight, the next she was bent over Paunchly, ramming her sword into his gullet right up to the hilt and listening to his last slurping gasps with pleasure coursing through her veins.

"How about you and me, Short Stuff?" suggested a huge bear of a man, coming at the bard with a hefty spear. Gabrielle snorted.

"I doubt you'll last long enough, Short Stuff," she threw back at him. Easily avoiding his awkward jab, she tripped him with her staff and pointedly set the shaft home against his temple. He was out cold by the time the next two thugs had managed to get within her range.

*   *   *

Two figures strode through the gathering dusk, determined to reach the next village before dark. Callisto was grappling with herself, wondering why she had bothered to save the bard's life. Gabrielle spoke out of the blue.

"Xena, I can take care of myself. I proved it back there. I've proved it countless times before. You know what I think, Xena? I think you just don't like what I've had to become in order to get this good at fighting."

Callisto wondered if that was true. She was familiar with the details of Xena's recent estrangement from her bard. She herself had helped be the cause of it! A laugh burbled up past her lips.

"Don't try to brush this off, Xena! You wanted to talk before so we're talking. It's about time we did. Yes, I've changed. I'm no longer the innocent little village girl that followed you from Potadeia. Gods, Xena, I've killed! I always promised myself I'd never do that. You were right about one thing. It changed everything." The bard's shoulders shook with silent sobs. Absently Callisto wrapped an arm around her and remembered back to her first kill. The young man had died for her cause; she had become skilled enough to challenge the Warrior Princess. What cut deep was seeing her mother in the dreamscape, knowing that it had all been for nothing. Her family wasn't filled with gratitude that she had dedicated her life to avenging their deaths. They'd condemned her! How could they? How could Xena condemn Gabrielle for dedicating her life to the Warrior Princess too? It was all Xena's fault. Everything always was.

"I've made mistakes, Xena. I betrayed you in Chin. I almost got you killed. I'm so, so sorry. But Xena, I couldn't bear to see you kill again. Not with the memory of Meridian so fresh in my mind. I couldn't let what was happening to me happen to you!" Gabrielle sounded hysterical. So Callisto slapped her. She got a perverse pleasure out of the shock that darkened those green eyes momentarily. The bard looked up at her tearfully then pressed her eyelids tightly closed. "I had no right to hit you then, Xena. I'm sorry." Callisto's own eyes widened. Gabrielle had hit Xena? That little harpy!

"I know we tried to heal this in Illusia, Xena. We made the decision to forgive. But I can't forget! I know that you haven't. Every time you look at me I see the fear you hold inside. We can't pretend nothing happened, Xe. We can't go on like this. I have to understand why you acted the way you did. I have to understand why I acted the way I did. I have to understand. Do you understand?" Callisto rolled her eyes. Gods, but the irritating blonde could be so dense sometimes. How did Xena stand it?

"You should have let me kill, Hope," she explained in her best 'I'm talking to a slow child' voice, wondering why Gabrielle couldn't see what was painfully obvious even to her. If Xena had killed Hope, Dahok would've been stopped in his tracks. She, Callisto would be stuck in the steamy lava with that hot Velasca and Xena's darling little boy would be alive. Obvious.

"I couldn't kill my baby!" screamed Gabrielle, fists clenching into white balls. Callisto gaped at her. "I don't get it, Xena," the bard choked out between frenzied sobs. "Your friend Lao Ma couldn't kill her baby. She let Ming Tien chop her scalp off first! You understood that. You killed him for her. But that's wrong too. She was wrong, Xena. Wrong to ask you to do what she couldn't. I couldn't let you do what I couldn't damn myself by doing. But I did it. Are you happy now?" Callisto placed a tentative hand on the bard's shaking arm.

"Listen to me, Gabby. I'm already damned! You have no idea how many I've's easy for me to kill now. It means nothing except in my nightmares. Maybe Xe...I am angry at you for being stupid enough to damn yourself for no reason!" The next thing Callisto knew, Gabrielle was standing chest to chest with her, dripping cherry juice down her front and glaring at her, back in full control.

"So that's it! You haven't changed, Xena. You still believe that you're not worthwhile. I bet you think you're going to Tartarus." Callisto laughed out loud at that one. Gods, was Gabrielle gullible! Tartarus had been invented for people like the Warrior Princess. "No Xena, you're wrong," declared the bard, ignoring Callisto's pitying look. "You do so much good, my warrior, you help so many people. Your heart is so courageous, so wise when you're not blinded with rage. Xena, you once told me that I shouldn't insist on putting people on pedestals. They fall off. So why did you insist on putting me on a pedestal? I fell off too and you couldn't take it."

Callisto heard a rustling in the forest but decided to ignore it. Much as she hated to admit it, she was fascinated by what the bard was revealing.

"Xena," persisted Gabrielle, "I didn't save your soul. You did! YOU'RE NOT IN CHARGE OF SAVING MINE!" Bards have powerful lungs noted Callisto, pressing her hands to her ringing ears. The rustling got closer. "Got that, Xena?" asked the bard, prying Callisto's hands off her ears. The ex-goddess nodded warily, half expecting another outburst. "Good," sighed Gabrielle, stooping to collect her staff off the ground. Callisto watched as she straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath and seemed to gather her courage. "One more thing, Xena." Callisto nodded. Gabrielle closed her eyes. "I want to spend the rest of my life with you, Xena. I want out love to keep growing always." Then the bard was standing on tiptoe, hands on Callisto's shoulders for balance, brushing her soft lips against those of her enemy.

Fireballs exploded in front of the ex-goddess' eyes. She stood shaking all over, desperately afraid of falling as she stared into the bard's gentle regard with growing wonder. Had she just felt something besides anger and rage? Could it be? She had no time to find out. A gibbering bacchae burst from the forest, barely visible in the spread of darkness but for burning red eyes set in a ghostly white face. Gabrielle bit back a gasp of fear. Callisto tried to concentrate. That gasp had sounded damn sensual.

*   *   *

"So that's the plan is it, Bacchus?" The warrior's face was a stoic mask, revealing nothing. The demon ran his hands down his body languorously.

"Yes, Xena. Don't worry, warrior, you get a front row seat in the mists of Oblivion. I wouldn't want you to murder your sweet bard and not know all the details of her gory death! I'm not that cruel. Ah, your impending insanity will be so sweet for me to savour. I think I'm going to enjoy eternity afterall." Neither were prepared for Pan to pop up between them.

"Can you save Gabby's soul? Rhymes with whole," he chirped. Bacchus yawned. Xena glared at the faun.

"You heard what she said," she admitted stiffly. "She thinks I can't. That I have no right to try." Pan squatted down his goat legs splayed out in bow formation. Then he sprang up. Then he squatted. Xena arched one eyebrow in disbelief as he began to chant.

"Xena is lost
I like the leather...
Look at this fog
Beautiful weather!

Got a big sword?
Swing a mean staff?
One can't move forward
One is one half."

"Still can't count, Pan?" smirked Bacchus, deciding to move off and find Callisto's soul to toy with. "Guess that's an unfortunate side effect of insanity," he threw over his caped shoulder. Xena simply squinted at Pan and wondered very hard.

*   *   *

The bacchae advanced on them. Callisto took the time to wonder if she was still immortal. The tall dark shadow spread her arms and took flight. With a small scream, Gabrielle realised the bacchae was upon her. Instructions flooded her mind. Don't get bitten! Don't let her scratch you! Don't die! She brought up her staff to stop the bacchae's descent and almost fainted when she finally made out the angular features of her best friend. "Xena!" she cried, dropping her staff in reflex. It was a mistake. The bacchae's claws tightened over her shoulders, digging deep gouges into her flesh, as the warrior's booted feet came up to impact solidly with Gabrielle's stomach, sending her toppling over into the dust. Callisto stared at the helpless bard with the bacchae that was once Xena ensconced on top and agonised over what to do. Part of her wanted to help Gabrielle, if only to feel those soft lips caress hers again. A bigger part of her knew this was Bacchus' revenge on Xena's watching soul and embraced that eagerly. For the first time she wondered why hurting Gabrielle had to be the ideal revenge. It didn't seem fair. She couldn't watch. It was much easier to kill when you didn't know who was dying - didn't know intimate details of her life, didn't know her gestures, didn't know the sweetness of her kiss. Callisto walked off into the night. Where was peace?

Gabrielle stared up into the eyes of this stranger. All she could hear was the pounding of her heart and the heavy rasping of the predator above. All she could feel was the burning agony of twisted claws gripping her shoulders and the burning agony inside as she tried to sort out how Xena could be this bacchae about to feed off her. Wasn't Xena trapped in Callisto's body? What was real? She was no longer sure. "Xena," she wheezed, watching in abject horror as the bacchae's canines lengthened and jutted over Xena's bottom lip. "Xena, you're hurting me. Xena, please don't do this. Xena? Are you in there? Xe...Ah!"

Gabrielle struggled to get a grip on her floating awareness. The pulse point at her neck burned and tingled all at once, she could hear soft sucking noises and a contented purring coming from a distant place. "Xena..." she murmured with her last breath. Then she had let go and was soaring away.

*   *   *

"Gabrielle?" Xena stared down at the dying bard in slowly dawning horror. She carefully pulled human fingers from the bloody holes in Gabrielle's shoulders, shuddering uncontrollably. "Gabrielle," she whispered, hoping against hope that the bard could still hear her. Her breath stopped short when her bard's lashes fluttered against her pale cheeks. The bard's breath rasped in and out in short gasps and Xena's heart filled with joy. "Open your eyes, my bard," she murmured, stroking a white cheek lovingly with her unbloodied knuckles. Gabrielle's yellow eyes flew open. Her pupils were rising bloody moons.

*   *   *

"Where is my little girl?" demanded Bacchus, storming from one side of Oblivion to the other. He had searched the fog thoroughly, fully expecting to find Callisto hiding from him and laughing crazily in some dense bank. Only slowly did it dawn on him that her soul was gone from his keeping. "Where is Xena?" he roared, his vision becoming crimson as a terrible rage took him over. The warrior's eating of ambrosia had allowed her soul to take refuge in Oblivion at her death, under his careful guidance of course. He caught a glimpse of the faun through the mists. Pan was flapping his arms and making whooshing sounds between his buckteeth. Bacchus rolled his eyes in irritation. Where was good help when you needed it?

"Listen, Child," he instructed, crossing to the goat god's side. "My two daughters are missing. Do you know where they are?" Pan nodded his curly horned head eagerly and held up a forefinger for inspection. Bacchus came closer and prepared to listen to one of the meaningless song and dance routines the faun seemed to enjoy so much.

"Xena is a sexy girl
Gabby is a cutie-pie
'Listo is my fantasy
'Listo is the one like me
'Member when Callisto died?

Xena is a buxom babe
Gabby really has it made!
They say 'Listo is insane
I say 'Listo is in pain
Have you ever been a shade?"

Bacchus yawned. Pan took a step closer, his obsidian eyes glinting madly. "Look!" he suggested, driving the dagger home into Bacchus' evil heart even as the demon deigned to look. Bacchus opened his mouth to curse the goat god's foolish games but nothing came out. To his utter bewilderment he felt pain coursing through him, thick as mortal's blood, thick as...hind's blood. Callisto had arrived with a dagger stained with hind's blood buried in her heart. So that was Pan's toy.

*   *   *

Xena stared down at the bacchae in her arms and felt like breaking down and sobbing. Even as she contemplated giving up, Gabrielle's eyes closed and reopened. Xena found herself staring into achingly familiar jaded green eyes, her mouth opening and closing in disbelief. "Gabrielle," she stuttered. "Is that you?"

"Who else would it be?" grumped the bard, struggling into a sitting position and moaning as the pain in her shoulders and neck caught up with her.

"Here, lie back," Xena ordered, her instincts taking over as she began to tend to her bard's injuries. For long moments she concentrated on cleaning and stitching, unwilling to face up to how they the wounds had got there. A small hand reached out and bridged the distance between them, cupping the warrior's jutting chin tenderly.

"Xena," whispered Gabrielle. "I'm not exactly sure what happened. I don't understand." Xena shut her eyes and concentrated on the gentle touch, soaking up the caring.

"That doesn't matter, Gabrielle," she whispered back. "All that matters is that we're together. We'll always be together." The smile that met her when she finally opened * her eyes was blinding.

"'Bout time you realised that, Xe," murmured the bard, already half asleep. "About friggin' time." Xena grinned despite herself.

*   *   *

Pan danced through the seeping fog of Oblivion. He was waiting for someone. He didn't have to wait long. Callisto shimmered into the mists and stood peering around herself in disgust. "Oh not this hole again! How'd I wind up here this time?" Pan giggled in pure delight. Time to sing his favourite song. He played the opening notes on his flute and lifted his bleating voice.

"I'm not really here
it's all in your mind
Everything is nothing, Toots!
Everything is fine

Do you hear that laughter
Will it never cease?
When you start to laugh along
You will find your peace."

Callisto simply gaped at him. "You really are crazy!" Pan heard an enraged roar in the distance and guessed Bacchus had finally completed his painful death and returned to join them in Oblivion. The goat god winked at Callisto and opted for shocking clarity.

"Yup, I really am."



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