The Scapegoat

by Lola B.

© September 2004 – January 2005

maybe redemption has stories to tell

maybe forgiveness is right where you fell

where can you run to escape from yourself?

where you gonna go?

where you gonna go?

salvation is here...

(-Switchfoot; Dare You to Move)

chapter titles also taken from this track

- Fanfic's Answer To The Back-Cover Blurb -
(or... the summary)

Some four dismal months after "A Friend in Need," Gabrielle has fallen into a numb, isolated sort of depression, spending her nights getting wasted and her days trying to write and pretending to sleep... until a certain someone we all know from the past (hint: her greatest weapon is her secret stash of bleach) unexpectedly shows up and changes everything. Will it be the key to rediscovering herself or the key to Xena's return – or both?

Disclaimers. Just READ THEM, damn it – they're amusing, I promise – and important. Not to mention the last break from angst you'll be getting for the next hundred pages. ;)

OWNERSHIP:

I do not own these characters. (I tried to buy the rights to Cally, but she just kept hissing at me... though I can't say I didn't enjoy it...) If I did own them, this would not be called a fanfic, it would be called season seven, and I would not be a broke college student, I would be rich and married to Lucy. glares jealously in Rob's general direction Sophia's pastries, however, are all mine.

CONTENT:

('Content,' of course, being the chaste euphemism for sex.) PORN! There, that got your attention. Actually, I don't write the really graphic stuff (though I love reading it, so feel free to send some my way in lieu of cookies), but there's some definite lesbo sketch and melodrama going on. Welcome to my world – if it ain't your thing, get ready to leave it. Or, hell, read it anyway, you might end up liking it.

PLOT:

SEMI-ALTERNATE UNIVERSE WARNING! I don't like the way things ended with Callisto so I am taking some liberties. Read on, therefore, under the assumption that neither Xena nor Gab have had any encounters with the goddess of rage since "Sacrifice II".None of this "Fallen Angel" rubbish – I much prefer the evil chakram-stealing bitch to the freakish, winged, white-haired Stepford Wife. (This fic attempts something of a compromise.) This has also, sadly, forced me to write out Eve (more or less...), the 25-Year Jump™, and basically everything important from seasons five and six... which leaves a bloody mass of plot holes, but that'll just make it feel more like a real episode. :P FIN, miraculously, has managed to escape intact.

Let me also note that despite certain, perhaps nontraditional plot developments, THIS IS A XENA/GABRIELLE FIC! I will avow this to my dying day, despite public protests. Yes, it does indulge my shameful semi-closeted passion for a certain highly controversial pairing, but that's beside the point. Just trust me – I promise all good things come to those who wait. ;)

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS:

This story is for Kelly, without whom I would have been unable to write of grief and loss with any semblance of reality. For Eve, who made me a writer. For Dulcey, who never once brought me pain but always joy. For Laren, who gave more than I deserved. I am sorry to you all. For Derek, the only one who remembers when I was straight. For Kamila, who introduced me to Xena by emailing me sketchy X/G pictures. For Hudson, for teaching me how to breathe. And for Keri, whose unconditional acceptance of me as a human being is the reason I'm still alive.

Flashbacks are italicized (as are the prologue and epilogue because I felt like it). That is all. Let us begin.

No pastries were harmed in the writing process. However, due to Hudson's presence during the imaginary filming of this fic, the local Krispy Kreme experienced a considerable boost in business.

Fear not death, for the sooner we die the longer we shall be immortal

--Benjamin Franklin

Callisto's prologue.

I scarcely recognize her. Xena said she'd changed - but you never know quite what that means until you see it. She is perched on a stool at the end of the counter in the darkest corner of the tavern, a near-empty mug clutched protectively between small, slender fingers, and perhaps most notably, an inherited chakram dangling from her belt. It boasts a different design than the one I remember, but it is unmistakable. Without it, I don't know if I would have spotted her - and with it, she's a different person entirely.

Within such irony, it's a miracle I'm able to identify her at all.

Her staff, like so many of other things I remember about her, is nowhere in sight. Still no sword among her accoutrements, either - that lingering shred of purity so desperately fighting to the death: she still hates to kill, that much is clear.

But she has killed. Time and again.

At first glance, her hair is the most obvious change - cropped close, ragged, against her head, exposing that vulnerable exquisiteness of her neck and shoulders. Not for the first time in my life, I find myself envying the nonliving - in this case, Xena. Even in death, she carries the memory of how that smooth, pale skin feels under her touch.

Her body has molded to accommodate the clothes that now embrace it - taut, shaped, conformed... perfect, to be honest - that budding, ambitious figure of the Poteidaian peasant long gone, having shed its unscathed innocence in favor of a skin hardened, not physically but internally, jaded by overexposure to everything Xena had fought so hard to protect her from. It carries a beauty, a glow - a fire, even. She has two battle scars that I know of; one that I can lay claim to. They are soft, subtle, faded over the years like the rest of her - both concealed in the room's shadows.

I'll learn the rest of them in time.

I. Welcome to existence...

It had been a long night – 'night', of course, referring to the hours between five a.m. and about four p.m., which had evolved into my sleep schedule over the past months. That is, when I slept at all.

But last night had been particularly unbearable. Her voice filled my head, just as the dawn began creeping through the cracks in the makeshift coverings I'd draped across the windows in my room at the inn to shut out any remaining reminders of the world outside.

Nightmares had begun to creep their way into my unconscious. Sometimes, when they became almost unbearable, I could swear I felt her arms around me... but it didn't keep them from coming. Flashes of her death, her dark side, her victims... my victims. All cruelly intertwined with images of her smile, of warm nights together by the campfire... of the first kiss that led to more than just a gentle brush of lips.

I didn't get to speak to her often nowadays. Several times a week I'd hear her voice, but sometimes I wondered if it was my imagination... or even simple madness. I tried to answer her but most of the time I found myself choking on words, even thoughts. It didn't matter – I knew she could hear me.

On far rarer occasions, I would see her. She would stand before me, looking even more beautiful than I'd remembered, and I'd endure the torture for my eyes' sake. That immediately post-death tangibility faded within days, of course... and now, every time I reached out for her, my hand grasped at thin, empty air. The first time it happened I couldn't stop crying for three days.

After awhile I learned to stop reaching.

I couldn't understand why she couldn't be with me all the time, if only in spirit. It was complicated, she'd tell me. Death was more complicated even than life. In the beginning, for weeks, that was all she could tell me. That, and that she loved me.

Last night it was three words, just three, before her presence vanished, leaving a chill in the room and a dull ache in the space that once housed my heart. Three simple words:

Listen to her.

I didn't know what she meant. Listen to whom? Listen to the woman I'd once been, perhaps, telling me to snap out of it. Such foolish idealism – the kind I would have fallen for, eyes glazed over with infatuation, some years ago – now only embittered me. But it was the only thought that made any sense at all.

And when the truth finally surfaced right under my nose during my afternoon drink at the tavern below the inn... I was blind. Utterly, completely blind.

"Hello, Gabrielle."

Or maybe just blinded.

I didn't even feel my hand reaching for the chakram until the cold metal brushed my fingertips, and I retreated. It was the first time a knee-jerk reaction had instinctively led me to any weapon less innocuous than my own hands – and the realization, coupled with a voice I'd have had to fight not to recognize, was enough to make me freeze.

Slowly, I turned around in my seat, expecting anything but what I saw. Identifiable only by the long blonde hair and impenetrable brown eyes that would doubtlessly make me shudder well into the afterlife, she stood before me. Her face was soft, strangely but peacefully pale; her once wildly uninhibited hair had been tamed, smoothed, falling gently over her shoulders. Diverse weapons, minimal leathers, the trademark smirk of impending triumph – all absent, having been replaced by an unreadable gaze, gray cloak, and a simple white dress. She looked like anyone else in the room might have looked... except, of course, for those dangerously beautiful features.

Curbing my shock (all right, all right – and fear), I swallowed, hard, and met her eyes. "Xena's not here."

"I know."

A bitter smile crept across my lips, as I suddenly remembered I was in the presence of a deity... of sorts.

"Yeah, I guess you would, wouldn't you."

For the first time, her eyes digressed, scanning the general space around me. I'd never seen her break a gaze before – her eyes' target was always the first to look away; I'd certainly never been an exception.

But I'd changed too. Maybe I caught her off-guard.

She met my eyes again. "I came to see you."

I snorted. "To offer your condolences, no doubt?" Her gaze remained steady, but she said nothing. "If you want to kill me, Callisto... you'll get no complaints from me."

It was her turn to smile – but it was a strange smile: small, and real, with almost no trace of malice. I didn't recognize it.

I didn't recognize her.

She blinked. "You sound like me."

"Well in that case, you really ought to kill me."

Silence. I downed the last half inch of my drink, setting the mug on the counter with a thump, and looked up at her.

Her eyes darted around the room; back to me. "Do you want to get out of here?"

I couldn't help but laugh. "Oh, could we?" I pleaded, sarcasm palpable, as I reached out to place my hand over her arm. "I've so dreamed of running away with you."

I watched her eyes move to my hand, resting on her arm. The gesture hadn't carried even the faintest intention of flirtations, but her attention to it was enough to make me recoil – all in good time, of course – sliding my hand down to her fingertips, teasingly, and finally breaking contact.

If she was going to play the innocent, I was going to play right back.

She blinked. "I need to talk to you."

You're talking right now, I thought to myself. Perhaps that confused me more than anything. When Callisto needed to talk, she did not inform you of the need; she simply talked. If she so desperately wanted privacy, she could quite effortlessly smite every other patron in the bar until we were alone.

"All right," she sighed at my lack of response. "You can sit here, drink yourself into a stupor, crawl upstairs to your room, flirt with the idea of picking up that quill of yours which hasn't been touched in three months, and finally collapse in your bed, where you may or may not sleep – most likely, not."

Lucky guess. I swallowed, marginally more alert.

"Or," she continued, "you can step outside for a few minutes for a little something we call fresh air – you have heard of it, Gabrielle, yes?"

I narrowed my eyes, suddenly conscious of the dark circles that must have been developing beneath them. She had me there, of course – I was starting to lose track of how many days it had been since I'd left the inn or the tavern for more than thirty seconds. But even her patronizing felt less malicious than it always had; I was started to get worried.

The corners of her mouth curled upward, barely discernible. "Maybe you'll get lucky and I'll kill you after all."

Inwardly, I heaved a sigh of something akin to relief. She was still Callisto – that much was certain. But, enjoying how much stubbornness she was allowing me to get away with, I still didn't breathe a word.

She leaned in, face inches from mine – a far more ambitious invasion of space than I had ventured with a simple grasp of her arm – and smiled.

"Indulge me, Gabrielle."

And it was on that note that I found myself on the outskirts of town some ten minutes later, slowly meandering along a back road just at the edge of the forest. She walked beside me, keeping a distance she seemed to think reasonable; but to me, of course, no distance between us in the whole world would ever be great enough.

"So what happened to oblivion?" I ventured politely, opting to get the pleasantries out of the way upfront.

"It wasn't... quite what I'd expected."

"How'd you end up back here?"

She shot me a teasing smile. "They let me out on good behavior."

Somehow I doubted that.

"Still immortal?"

"For today, at least."

Ever the smartass.

Even now, I found myself stealing suspicious glances at her every few seconds. It wasn't an attack I feared, or even death. But you can't kill years of conditioning, and I was still instinctively on the defense. It wasn't long before I found her stealing a few glances of her own, which didn't faze me in the least until she started chuckling.

Slowly I turned towards her, eyes angrily unamused. Off my glare, she opened her mouth to speak, uncharacteristically tongue-tied, and finally turned away with a shrug. But I could still feel her grinning.

"Look at you, carrying around that chakram."

...That was her best shot?

I looked away. "I can do more than carry it."

"I bet." She sounded genuinely impressed, and it unnerved me to no end. "When I first met you you couldn't even hold a sword without dropping it."

"When I first met you I thought there was a chance your soul still possessed an ounce of good." As if moving on the same string of energy, we stopped, turning to face each other. "I guess things change, don't they?"

Her grin had since faded, but my words would echo for much longer. I could tell they'd hit her, but that's what surprised me – the fact that I could tell. If there was one skill she'd always exercised flawlessly, it was the ability to hide absolutely anything.

Then again, she'd never much cared for secrets.

We began walking again, our pace slower, our silence louder. I was growing impatient and began wondering if she'd really wanted to talk at all, when she interrupted my thoughts.

"I know what happened to Xena."

My hand flew to my side, no longer shrinking at the feel of metal against skin, whipping out the disk in a heartbeat and holding it in front of me, ultimately and fully on guard.

We'd both frozen in our steps, but already I could feel myself beginning to tremble.

"I swear to the gods," I breathed raggedly, pinning my gaze to hers, "if you say her name again it'll be the last word you ever speak."

She watched, motionless and undaunted, even as I closed in on her impulsively, holding the cold metal scarcely an inch from her neck. Still, she didn't flinch.

"Maybe I can't kill you but believe me, there are things worse than death."

At length, the blankness in her face softened to something I couldn't identify – but like most everything about her now, it frightened me.

"I know."

Yes... yes, I suppose she would.

I felt the first sting of tears building behind my eyes, but I fought them. I fought them, fought for steady breathing, fought to keep my hand from shaking – it was almost funny, how I was half a gesture away from murder and the only thing I was fighting was myself.

I was so close to her now that I could feel the movement as she lifted her arm, slowly, fingers gently closing over the chakram. My eyes fell shut and I released my grip, complete surrender, dropping my arms listlessly to my sides. I waited for it, waited to feel that clean sweep across my throat, the first warm, wet trickle of blood down my neck – waited the remaining few moments before it would all be over, before I would cross to the other side and finally reunite with her, finally be whole again...

The anticipation was shattered with a light tug on my belt as she placed the chakram back in its hook. My eyes fluttered open – disillusioned, fuming – boring into hers and releasing a pent-up spill of unbidden tears, as I struggled to find my voice.

"Why didn't you do it?"

A fiery brown stared back at me. "Why didn't you?"

She stepped away, causing a cold rush of air to surround me – even for those brief moments, I'd instantly grown used to the warmth and closeness of another body... and the sudden absence sent chills down my back.

"You don't need my help to end your life, Gabrielle."

It was as much as I could take.

"What do you want, Callisto?" I demanded, my voice rising. "WHY ARE YOU HERE?"

At the time, the question seemed unnecessary – I'd already made my guess at her intentions. This new angelic pacifist trick of hers was losing its charm, but it made sense now: She'd heard that I wasn't the nascent young subordinate I once was – that I'd turned, even. (I guess people believe anything about you once you lose your blood innocence.) I could scarcely believe it. It really wasn't surprising, if you thought about it. I had, after all, been apprentice to the warrior princess herself; I'd learned my fair share of skills, on and off the battlefield... but even that was ancient history. I'd come into my own, which only Callisto would take to mean I'd fallen prey to my dark side – and she was going to snatch me up while she had the chance.

She was here to recruit.

In her mind... I was the Xena to her Ares.

Or so I thought... for a glorious, deluded moment... until seven words left her mouth:

"I came here to ask your forgiveness."

I responded as would have anyone in my position: I started laughing. Honestly; she was taking this a bit far.

Sobering instantly, I shook my head. "I don't have time for your games, Callisto."

"You have all the time in the world, Gabrielle."

I stared sharply. "Not for you."

Without waiting for a reaction, I turned and took a step back towards town, and another... slowly at first until her silence encouraged me, and I picked up my pace.

"She told you to listen to me."

Without turning around, I froze, all at once aware of everything around me. A fallen leaf, some three feet in front of me, rustling under the breeze. The small twig beneath my boots that would crackle if I moved even an inch. My breathing – our breathing; it was so quiet I could hear both.

Listen not just to the sounds...

I barely felt myself turning around, until I realized I was facing her again. She hadn't moved. I began to walk back, and stopped.

"Y-you... you saw Xena."

A deceptively warm smile lit her face. "Who better to consult for advice on turning one's life around?"

Damn immortals; they could visit whomever they wanted whenever they wanted, living or dead. I had half a mind to hunt down some ambrosia myself, no matter the consequences.

"And what did she tell you?" I scoffed dubiously, taking a few curious steps back in her direction.

Her dark eyes, still lacking their evil glint, broke away from mine and glanced around – almost shyly, I might've thought, if I hadn't known her better.

"She thought... I should go back to all the people I've hurt... to tell them... that I'm sorry. That... if I could take it all back, I would. That I'll never be able to make up for it, never be able to forgive myself..."

Her eyes had certainly developed a glint, but even I couldn't have defined it as anything but tears. And as the first drop slid down her cheek, I was convinced. Convinced, at least, that whatever she was up to, it was... convincing.

Finally she met my eyes again, and I was the one who felt compelled to look away – but fought the urge. "You're my last stop," she concluded softly.

I smirked. "Nice of you to squeeze me in."

"Gabrielle..."

I waited, still too curious to interrupt – but whatever had been on the tip of her tongue died there.

She shrugged gently. "That's all I wanted to say – that I'm sorry. And I'm sorry that – "

that Xena died. I could feel the words dripping in the air, even without having heard them. I never had to hear them at all, as it turned out – she was a fast learner.

"...that you're alone."

And then, to throw me off completely, with a reluctant final glance in my direction, she turned to leave.

"So what happens now?" I called after her, unable to accept the oddly incomplete state she'd left us both in. "Is this the part where you grab a handsome palomino and an innocent bard and go fight evil?"

"I... don't know what I'm going to do now."

"Where do you plan to go?"

She shook her head. "I don't know."

There was something in her eyes, something familiar but indiscernible... and it was a good long minute before I recognized what I saw - that untapped drive towards something so specific, yet undefined... that need, to be taken, guided, shown something - even anything - that feeling of being on the edge of two lives, not knowing how to cross from one to the other, from the past to the future.

It was the same feeling I had the first time I met Xena.

But this, I remembered... was Callisto.

But even if it was all an act... what did I have to lose?

And, so it was, I found myself spilling the invitation:

"Um... if you need a place to stay for a few days... or if you just want a drink or something..." I waited for her to decline, but she only stared. "I, uh... I've got a tab at the bar about three scrolls long; I think they've given up on me." A half-hearted chuckle escaped my mouth. "You might as well, uh..."

It seemed she decided I'd made enough of a fool of myself for the time being, evidenced by the sympathetic, if somewhat pitying, smile playing on her lips, telling me clearly I'd said enough.

"You're a good person, Gabrielle."

"I'm not the girl I once was, Callisto."

"Neither am I."

For a strange, final moment, our eyes locked - but somehow it was harder to look at her now.

I started back on the road. "Come on."

It began as the most silent meal I'd had in over half a decade. The last had been under... considerably different circumstances: Xena and I had made love for the first time the night before, and breakfast was a wordless, glorious medley of shy smiles, stolen glances, and blushing cheeks. It wasn't long before we'd flung the frying pan to one side and fell back onto the bedrolls, tangled in each other's bodies.

Tonight... wasn't quite the same.

The waitress knew me by name, as I'd taken my meals there nearly every night for the past four months. She gave me a warm grin as she poured my tea. "You're looking better tonight, Gabby."

I smiled feebly in response.

"You get any sleep yet?"

I shook my head.

"She got some fresh air."

I looked up. Callisto hadn't breathed a word since we started back to town, and even now, with her eyes focused intently on the bowl in front of her, I began to wonder if I'd imagined it.

Sophia turned her attention to the small, unassuming woman sitting opposite me. "Is that so?" she chirped. "Gabby, is this that lovely sister of yours from Poteidaia?"

I winced at the thought of being related to Callisto. "Um... not exactly," I sighed, suddenly regretting all the petty biographical information I'd allowed Sophia to drag out of me over the months. "This is Callisto. She's... uh..."

Good question – what was she?

Both Sophia and the individual in question watched me expectantly. I was trapped.

"Oh," Sophia finally squeaked, a bewilderingly knowing smirk spreading across her face as she directed her kettle to the other mug on the table, filling it to the brim. "I see."

She met my eyes with a wink, and headed off across the room. I opened my mouth to say something, anything, but she was already well out of earshot.

My eyes panned over to Callisto for sympathy and what I hoped would be mutual annoyance, meeting instead with an unsuccessful attempt to conceal her highly amused grin by directing it at her soup.

I glared at her. "That's not funny."

She looked up, jumping immediately to her best poker face. "I know."

Silence descended once more, covering our table until, yet again, she began talking to her soup.

"You let her call you 'Gabby'."

"She gives me free pastries. She can call me 'The Gabster' for all I care."

This time, she made no attempt to hide her smile. "Pastries, that's all it takes? My goodness, Gabby. She's got you whipped."

My eyes narrowed, no trace of amusement in sight. "Call me that again and see if you get any."

"...Any what?"

I blinked, deadpan, not daring myself to read into her question any further than was necessary. The brief wave of understanding that spread across her face in the form of a blush was enough to kill any suspicion of subtext.

"Oh." She turned back to her soup. "Pastries."

Author's Note: Yes, I'm aware the ancient Greeks probably didn't eat pastries – or at least didn't call them pastries. I also don't think they had L'Oreal hair coloring, either, or pink floral bras from TJ Maxx (coughOld Ares Had a Farmcough)... alas, the writers seem to have disregarded that, so bugger off.

The state of disarray my room was in hadn't occurred to me at the time I'd thought to invite a guest to stay in it. But as I led us through the door, she hardly seemed to mind or even notice. After mechanically unlacing my boots, I set the chakram down on the bureau beside my sais, which, like so many things in this room, hadn't been touched in weeks. I never bothered to wonder why I carried the chakram with me everywhere – the familiarity of it, perhaps. Or some feeble, subconscious attempt to bring her back, in some form. Certainly not as a precaution against an attack – this town, as I'd learned after putting a headlock on the first man who flirted with me, wasn't quite as accustomed to violence as I was.

As my houseguest set down the bag she'd been toting around, I finally took notice of the complete lack of weapons at her disposal. She looked so strange, so out of character, so... human, I suppose – lacking not only the physical paraphernalia, but her strongest weapon of all – her spirit.

Considering what sort of spirit it had been, of course... I couldn't exactly say it was that great of a loss.

And I was sure it was still in there, no doubt. Whatever games she was playing could hardly last forever.

Big, round eyes surveyed the room, watching me as I crossed the floor with a candle and attempted to light a few more around the room. It was late, but sleep was hours away for me, assuming it would even arrive at all. Some nights I went without closing my eyes even once.

I finally looked up to find her on the same square of floor as she was when we'd come in.

"So," I ventured. "Are you always this quiet now?"

She smiled weakly. "It's been a rough few months."

"Oh, I bet."

I had only been going for a fraction of the sarcasm that actually came out, but there it was, out in the open, and I didn't bother to regret it. A rough few months? She'd had a rough few months? She had no idea. Honestly, what could she possibly know about suffering, or loss? You had to love before you could know loss... and that was something, among many things, of which I knew she wasn't capable.

She took a few small steps across the floor. "People don't seem to react very well to apologies from me."

"Really." I didn't pretend to sound surprised.

She shrugged. "Most of them just tried to kill me. Not that I can blame them."

"Does it even matter?" I half-smiled. "You're immortal."

"That doesn't mean I can't feel pain."

"I wasn't aware that you could feel anything, Callisto."

I didn't realize until afterwards that I'd said it looking straight into her eyes, but perhaps that was what shot the pang of guilt straight to my chest – and I immediately looked away. I'd gone too far. And even so, she hadn't reacted.

"I'm sorry," I muttered.

"Why should you be sorry? Whatever abuse you have to throw at me, I deserve it."

"True," I admitted. "But saying it turns me into someone I'm not – no matter what you may think I've become."

I took the initial silence as tact, nonetheless betraying what I could only imagine she thought of me. Couldn't be any worse than the truth, I reasoned... but I'd never have imagined I would ever feel anything close to inadequate in front of this woman. It was she, after all, who had been the monster.

But she had also consistently been the one to surprise everyone – even me. Especially me.

"I think you've become something quite extraordinary, Gabrielle."

I looked up, suspicious at the range of meanings that statement could have carried.

"That's a compliment," she added softly.

I turned back to the candle I was struggling with – the one I was carrying had nearly burned out, barely retaining enough strength for itself, let alone enough to pass light onto another. I sighed angrily, setting them both down on the desk with a thump.

At that moment I felt her standing behind me, and the next thing I knew, her hand was on my shoulder. I froze, until a calm voice put me at ease.

"Step back."

I did as I was told, and she casually reached a hand out towards the desk. I felt myself shrink back as a small burst of flame shot from her fingertips, quickly settling onto the candles and casting a soft, comfortable glow across the room.

I swallowed, my heartbeat slowly returning to normal. I'd forgotten about that trick.

She shot me a brief smile before returning to her bag beside the bureau. I watched as she pulled out a smaller bag and a few other things I didn't recognize, before turning to my own belongings and pulling out the small white shift I typically wore to bed – when I bothered to change at all.

She hadn't even glanced in my direction, but I heard a small chuckle as she fiddled with the ties on her cloak. "I thought you didn't sleep."

"I pretend to. Sometimes it works."

I observed her for several moments, unable to keep from smiling to myself as I watched her busily attempting to untangle the knot just below her neck. Ironic, really – the same fingers that could ignite a flash of fire at their touch still struggled with the drawstrings on the front of a cloak.

Frustrated enough by it as an observer, I sighed, crossing the room, and stood in front of her. As I reached up to replace her hands with my own, she dropped them to her sides and remained still, eyes glued to me.

I gathered her hair to one side, brushing it out of my way, and suddenly remembered the last – the only – time we had ever been quite this close, or this alone. And even then it was hardly the same, not even the same 'we' – seeing as she and Xena had swapped bodies at the time. It was unquestionably one of my more bizarre life experiences – having my best friend, my lover, in the physical form of my worst enemy. At first I'd been scarcely able to look at her, but after awhile we managed to laugh about it. I joked that I'd always had a thing for blondes anyway, and that now I could finally indulge my fantasy. She threw me in the lake for that one, but without the full capacity of her own body, I was delighted to find I was a much better match for her new size and strength, and was able to drag her into the water with me. She was somewhat less than amused.

All that time, I still wasn't able to touch her in the ways I could when she was, well, herself... but we reached a certain comfort level. At one point she told me to close my eyes, and had me rest my head in her lap. She sat there, stroking my hair and telling me stories of all our best times together... strange, coming from Xena – I was always the one to tell the stories. I suppose she did it to put me at ease, remind me it was really her behind those dark, chocolate-colored eyes. Her touch was unsettling, thrilling, terrifying, and soothing all at once – a lover's movements in an enemy's hands. Nothing had ever felt more surreal.

Still feeling those same eyes on me now, I snapped back to reality to find I'd already untied the knot and loosened the strings, but that one hand was still resting at the top of her neck. I let it slide across to her shoulder, lifting the other to rest on her arm. She didn't flinch, didn't shudder, didn't react in the least – tempting me to wonder if my doubts about her ability to feel might have had some merit after all.

All those doubts dissolved the moment I captured her lips in mine.

There was no explanation – no reason, no justification, no excuse. At that moment we'd been the two people most alone in the whole world, and we had the opportunity to change that – even if only for a night. It didn't matter that I despised her more than anything in the known world – it didn't matter who she'd been or who she was now, the latter of which was the most uncertain thing of all... but I also knew that right then, in that moment... I'd stopped thinking.

The absence of all thought was a place of luxury I hadn't been privileged enough to visit in quite some time.

Our clothes and accessories left us almost as quickly as all logic. It wasn't hurried, it wasn't desperate or wild or animalistic; it simply... was. There were certainly no traces of romance or affection, just a simple, unspoken gentleness. We'd spent our whole lives fighting – more often than not, fighting each other. Whoever she was now, neither of us had any need or strength to fight. It's hard to explain, but it would have seemed almost superfluous. Not only had we already lost the battle long ago... but we weren't even sure there was a battle left to lose.

We finally fell back onto the bed, still wrapped in fragments of that first kiss, my eyes locked shut in a vague effort to keep out any threat of common sense. I felt her settle into the pillows beside me, her warm body pressed lightly against mine as she leaned over me, delicately brushing her fingertips across my face.

"Open your eyes," she whispered.

For whatever reason, I did.

"Why?" I breathed. "I don't want to remember this."

I couldn't read the look on her face – likely because I'd never seen it before. If I didn't know any better I would have translated it as pain. Whatever it was, I couldn't bear to look at it, and lifted myself off the pillow, hungrily resuming our kiss. Within seconds, I had her pinned beneath me, slowly trailing my lips down her body, and all at once it hit me like an arrow.

Callisto never would have let me do this.

At least – not the Callisto I knew.

The Callisto I knew would never renounce control, of any kind, never let anyone on top – especially not someone like me – a weak, easy prey. By now she'd have had my wrists chained to the bedposts, a dangerous grin dancing across her lips as she pondered, evaluated, savored every moment of anticipation without even a single touch.

She was right – something had changed.

I didn't know what, but it hardly mattered as everything began to fly by in a haze. I couldn't possibly have stopped to think, if I expected to make it through. In all my life there had only been one person I'd ever touched this way – only one pair of eyes I'd ever gazed into, one mouth I'd tasted every night... only one pair of hands that had explored every inch of my skin.

But that person was gone now.

She was gone, and this was a world I couldn't afford to lose myself in. I didn't hear the gasps, sense the shudders – hers, mine, who could tell them apart? I didn't feel myself tremble beneath her fingers, igniting a fire everywhere they touched – not unlike the flames they'd caressed into the candles across the room only moments before. I didn't feel a shiver as nails gripped my shoulders, didn't feel the silken, almost inhuman softness of her skin when she finally had her way with me and crawled slowly on top, sliding down over me until my hands were tangled in her hair and I found myself unable to fight the release, crying out inside without a single sound emerging from my mouth.

That had never happened before. Xena even used to tease me about it. Told me I screamed so loud I kept the entire forest awake. (Naturally, I blamed her.)

But for the first I didn't make a sound – not now. I didn't feel anything until it was over – or at least, nothing beyond the physical (after all, I couldn't exactly fight my body's own reactions to what turned out to be a dizzyingly vast array of skills). Nothing, until we had collapsed side by side, silent, our ragged breaths the only sound in the world – or so it seemed. And even then, the only thing I felt was the cold, salty wetness sliding down my cheeks. I turned away instantly, desperate to hide the tears... but I should have known nothing would get by her. Nothing ever did.

She placed a hand on my shoulder. "...Gabrielle?"

I shrugged her off, flipping over and yanking a blanket across me.

"Gods, I'm sorry..." she sighed. I couldn't tell if she was talking to herself or to me. "I should never have let this... I'm sorry."

"Haven't you done enough apologizing for one day?"

It was enough to drive her to silence.

At last I turned over, looking up at her. She was still watching me, propped up on her elbow, sheet draped loosely over her waist, hair sprawled across the pillow. She was exquisite – like a painting. I hated it – hated that she could take my breath away, hated that her gaze could ignite a fire in the pit of my stomach. I'd never seen such serenity in her face before. Then again, that was hardly the only thing I was seeing for the first time tonight.

Tentatively, she reached out and touched her hand to my cheek, brushing away one stubborn tear. But this time I didn't push her away – I only stared back.

Stared, and finally spoke.

"I've never seen anything so beautiful that I hated so much."

She gave up then, as I knew she would the moment the words left my mouth. I couldn't believe I'd said it, but even more surprising was how quickly I regretted it; we'd certainly hurled far crueler words at each other in our time, after all – why should I start regretting them now? Without a word she slowly withdrew her touch, breaking our gaze and turning over to face the wall.

After what felt like hours, when I sensed her quiet, steady breathing had lulled her to sleep... I reached out and traced my fingers down her long, bare back, before closing my eyes and drifting into a silent, dreamless world.

It was the first time in four months I slept through the night.

II. Between how it is and how it should be...

She was asleep when I woke up. For the briefest of moments when I began to creep towards consciousness, I forgot where I was and what had happened... and whom it had happened with. All I knew was that there was a soft, warm body curled up against me, just as I had woken up to every morning for so many years. For an instant, the past four months were nonexistent, and I pressed myself closer and buried my head in her shoulder, slipping an arm around her waist.

But I soon noticed the waist was slimmer, the hand entwined in my own was smaller... the rhythm of breathing, lighter. And when my eyelids finally lifted, the first color I saw was blonde.

I jumped back in momentary horror before remembering. She stirred slightly, but never woke.

I threw on the first few items of clothing I could get my hands on, and managed to leave the room before the tears came.

Something about Carmysas, this comfortable, uneventful town I'd picked as my temporary mourning haven, was growing on me. It wasn't but half a day's journey from Amphipolis, where I'd returned to scatter the ashes, and to give the news to Cyrene. Riots and raids here were few, and people were pleasant. Most of them knew who I was; news of Xena's death had spread across Greece like wildfire, and for the most part everyone respected my attempts at low-profile isolation (save for a certain nosey waitress). It was far enough away from the all the places that painfully reminded me of Xena, and on the outskirts of town, once inside the woods... there was a quiet, unobtrusive river I'd taken to visiting whenever I felt I couldn't breathe at the inn.

Unsurprisingly, that's where I found myself that morning.

I watched a tear ripple the calm surface below me as I sat on the boulder by the edge of the water. Most often, I came here to think... but today, much like the night before, it seemed like thinking was the last thing I was capable of.

And so, instead of thought, I gave myself over to memory.

'Gabrielle...'

Barely above a whisper; the way she says my name makes me shiver all over... but that's nothing new.

Further below on the bedroll, I feel her hand slip into mine. 'What is it?'

I can't answer.

The tiniest smile teases her lips. 'The bard is speechless?'

My eyes must answer, both the spoken and unspoken questions, because that's when she kisses me.

It is our first; the night has been full of firsts. We went for a midnight swim, splashed and dunked each other till we were breathless with laughter and playful touches – always playful, indulgent, bold, to a point just beyond the common boundaries of even the deepest friendships. Maybe that was it – we've never really had any boundaries to begin with. Looking back, nothing that happened could really surprise us.

Much later we returned to camp, laughing and wet and shivering and naked, and collapsed on our bedrolls, too lazy to sort through our clothes. Too lazy? Maybe just unwilling. Stubborn. Somehow we knew it was time, knew another night couldn't pass without certain inevitabilities.

Now I watch the moonlight gleaming in the droplets of water that still dot her skin; finally my gaze meets hers. We watch each other a long time, confessing more with our eyes than we ever could with words. Then finally she speaks, more for the sake of making me blush than the need for communication... and the next thing I know we're kissing, everywhere, all at once, slow, deliberate, but desperate, trembling hands sliding over wet bodies, searing tongues against cool flesh, and finally finding their way into warmer places... whispered endearments and encouragements but never questions, never doubts... we never have to ask if anything is right. It is, all of it. All new, but somehow all familiar – it is as if we've been making love our whole lives.

And when it's all over, when we can breathe again... I lean over her, tracing my fingers over the curves of her body... and she smiles. It's the purest, most peaceful look that has ever graced her features. I melt into her, and remain there for the next six years.

"You remember more details of that night than I ever could."

My head spun around in the direction of the voice; the instant my eyes fell upon her form, I felt a pang in my chest.

I'd gotten used to it by now. In the beginning I would forget and run up to her, aching to take her in my arms... and I would be met with thin air; an illusion. And it hurt, over and over, because it was so real. She wasn't some transparent, ethereal shadow of a ghost – it was her... at least my eyes told me it was her. But time and again, I was proven wrong. It was painful enough to happen only a few times before I began to remember, and to fight the impulses.

By now, the impulses had faded almost entirely. I stared at her from where I sat, not even thinking to move a muscle. I swallowed the lump in my throat, suddenly remembering last night, and felt my heartbeat accelerate with a hot, dizzying steadiness as the realization washed over me in harsh waves:

She knew everything.

I fought in vain to gaze into the mirage of blue eyes. "You must hate me."

Those very eyes filled at once with a depth of emotion you wouldn't expect to see from the dead. "Gabrielle..."

I turned back to the river. I didn't want her to see me cry. Not this time.

"It didn't mean anything," I choked. "I – I don't even know why – how it – I wasn't thinking, it just..."

"Happened."

I nodded, helpless. "Xena, I'm so – "

"Don't," she interrupted gently. "Don't say you're sorry. You haven't done anything wrong."

Even as she said it, I could sense the pain in her voice, and I saw it all – she was going to try to assure me I could sleep with whomever I wanted, that I didn't owe myself to someone who was no longer living, that I was free to do what I pleased. And she would say all that and mean it because she was Xena... because she loved me.

Had she forgotten I'd always been able to see through her? That I knew how much this hurt her, to see me with someone else... in that way?

I looked up at her, shaking my head as the reality of it all began to close in on me. "What have I done?"

The corners of her lips curled, just slightly. "You slept through the night for the first time in four months, for starters."

Being in no mood for jokes, I glared. "Why aren't you angry with me?"

"Gabrielle... all I want is for you to be happy."

"This is Callisto! By the gods, Xena!" I hissed, fuming, as I paced back and forth along the riverbank. "I don't even know who she is now, what this... this act is..."

"She's a good person, Gabrielle."

"Do you remember who she used to be!"

"Do you remember who I used to be?"

I couldn't fight that one. Instead, I planted myself back on the rock with an irate thump.

"You want me to be happy?" I challenged, eyes ablaze with angry tears. "Maybe you should have thought of that before leaving me for forty thousand souls you never even met."

Oh, it had been waiting so long to come out: the accusation, the blame, the futile censure, the ultimate bottom line: I was angry with her for dying. For not letting me save her. I hadn't said it until now, not outright, but she'd known it – she always knew. There had been no point in discussing it. She had done the right thing, as she always had and would, even in death. The greater good had triumphed, but that didn't mean it was easy. It didn't mean it was right. It didn't mean I could live with it...

I watched her now, but she didn't answer. She didn't need to. We were beyond that; she could see into my heart. But that wasn't a privilege reserved for the deceased; she'd always been able to do that.

"What did you two talk about?

At least maybe now I could get to the bottom of this disturbing act of redemption I'd been struggling to make sense of since the night before.

Her gaze softened. "You should ask her that."

I narrowed my eyes. "Don't do this, Xena. Don't shut me out."

She took a careful two steps towards me, and in closing the space between us I began to see how desperately this was killing her, even in death. How she ached to bring her hand to my cheek and feel my own hand close over hers, as we had done a thousand times.

"You're still alive," she whispered. "When are you going to start acting like it?"

I clenched my fists, willing myself not to scream out what little significance 'alive' still held for me.

"You think this is any easier for me? There's nothing in the world I want more than to touch you again, make love to you in front of a campfire, take you to Egypt like we'd planned..." She stopped, choking on her own tears. "But what hurts me most is seeing you like this, seeing everything that makes you so extraordinary just dying out..."

"Xena..."

"Gabrielle, if she could bring that back to life..."

"NO!" I roared. But the volume didn't bring relief, only echoed through the forest, empty... and I forced my voice to a quietness, barely above a whisper – a cold, resolute whisper: "She could never."

She stopped, then. Or gave up. Either way, she knew it was hardly the time to try any convincing.

"I love you," she told me.

I said it back, and she was gone.

When I got back to the room, she was awake. Not only awake, but up, dressed, and packing the few small items back into her bag. She looked up at me as I pushed the door open.

None of it should have surprised me, yet all of it did.

"What are you doing?"

She reached for her cloak, draping it over an arm. "I was leaving."

"...Oh." Well, ask a stupid question...

That strange new smile, devoid of mischief and ulterior motives, slowly lit up her face. It was almost disturbing how beautiful she could be when she wasn't trying to kill someone. "I appreciate your letting me stay here. And for... everything."

I rolled my eyes. "Right," I muttered somewhat bitterly, mostly to myself. 'Everything', well, of course - which part would that be, the part where I seduced her or the part where I said I hated her? Oh, don't flatter yourself, Gabrielle, you didn't seduce her. She was far more than willing. Gods, was she ever willing... I could only hope that four months of celibacy hadn't significantly affected certain skills of my own.

Her smile broadened, and my heart immediately caught in my throat as I struggled to remember exactly how much mind-reading power a deity had.

"She was a lucky woman, Gabrielle."

Well, that answered that.

"Why are you really leaving?"

Her face sobered. "It's what you want, isn't it?"

"How would you know what I want?"

The tiniest twinkle danced in her eyes. "I seemed to know last night..."

My eyes turned widened, stupidly, as I sensed a flush spread over my face, making me suddenly feel sixteen again. Honestly; I was starting to behave as though no one had ever hit on me before.

Swallowing my embarrassment, I sighed. "What I want is..."

Resisting several bold conclusions to that sentence that would have more than rivaled her own implications, I sighed again, gesturing rather vaguely, as I wasn't even sure myself what I wanted. All I knew was that it was late morning, I hadn't eaten since dinner, and my stomach was beginning to grumble about it.

"...Breakfast," I concluded, exasperated. "Do you want breakfast?"

She cocked her head to one side, studying me with a perplexed curiosity, as one might study a fish who, for no discernible reason whatsoever, unexpectedly leaps out of the water into your frying pan over the campfire.

I suddenly felt very much like that fish.

Seemingly merciful, however... she smiled. "Okay."

Meals with Callisto were shaping up to be a tribute to silence – though to be fair, it's not as though I had any idea how to carry on a conversation with this woman, and honestly, the silence didn't really bother me. There was a strange, almost unsettling comfort in it. The meal might even have been entirely peaceful, had Sophia not brightly commented on how positively glowing I looked that morning, causing Callisto to choke on her free pastry.

When it was over, I surprised myself by heading outside into the hubbub of town, and Callisto followed me like a puppy dog. She didn't ask where we were going and I didn't offer to tell her, likely because I wasn't entirely sure myself. But I pretended to know until we reached the horse stables down the road from the inn.

"I know the owner," I explained simply, as we stepped into the stables. "He lets me ride whenever I want."

She grinned wickedly, playfully tapping one horse on the nose. "And how did you make that arrangement?"

I shot her a look. "I agreed to tell stories to his children every week."

"You don't sound too thrilled."

I hesitated, fighting the flashing images of a young, bushy-haired girl and an empty bottle of poison in my hands. "I'm not very good with kids."

She stopped, studying me carefully. "I don't believe that."

I opened my mouth, ever ready with a sharp retort, when a short, round, bubbly man appeared in the doorway, arms outstretched.

"Gabrielle!"

"Tyrus." I returned his smile, crossing to the doorway to give him a hug. "How are you?"

"Forget how I am, look at you!" He held me at arm's length. "You look marvelous. Simply radiant. What have you been eating?"

"Um..."

I risked an imploring glance in Callisto's direction, but I should have known by now she was the last one to turn to for help in these embarrassing situations – she seemed to enjoy them too much herself, this time being no exception as she stood against one wall, biting her lip to keep from laughing.

I narrowed my eyes at her before turning back to Tyrus. "Oh, you know... Sophia's been keeping me healthy."

"Ah, she's stopped stuffing you with pastries then, hmm?"

My eyes drifted back to meet Callisto's, which were dancing with far too much amusement. "...Yeah," I offered absently. "Yeah, that's it."

For the first time, Tyrus took notice of her. "And who is..."

His voice faded, as did what I'd always known to be the ubiquitous smile on his face. He froze in place, eyes widened with what could only be perceived as terrified recognition.

"By the gods," he choked, gawking at her. "You're – you're – "

I glanced between them, momentarily bewildered, before it hit me. I don't know why I was surprised – Callisto had certainly made her way around Greece by the time her life allegedly ended. Come to think of it, it was a wonder she hadn't been recognized already.

"Oh – " I interjected quickly. "No, Tyrus, she's..." I fumbled helplessly, finally resorting to laughter. "She gets that all the time."

They both turned to look at me somewhat strangely.

Still laughing, I gestured ineffectively. "This isn't Callisto," I assured him. "That's who you were thinking, right? No, no... her name's, uh... Soreia. She's a friend of mine. Remarkable resemblance, isn't it?"

He blinked, deadpan, and for a moment I wondered if I had completely blown it. But finally as his smile reappeared, he shuffled over to where the woman in question nervously stood and clasped one of her hands between both of his, shaking it enthusiastically.

"My apologies. It's a pleasure to meet you. I should have known; you're far prettier than she was."

I turned away to hide my grin.

Curbing her unease, she stared at him with an odd curiosity. "Uh... thank you."

Tyrus turned back to me, grinning as big as ever. "You two have fun."

"We will." I watched him scamper out the door, his familiar waddle reminding me of an oversized rat. It had become endearing over the months.

Callisto released a breath that she seemed to have been holding for several minutes. "Gabrielle."

I looked at her.

"You didn't have to do that."

"I know." I reached for a saddle, starting towards the stall of my favorite horse. "He's right though, you know."

"What?"

"You're much prettier when you're not killing someone."

She smirked. "Who's Soreia?"

"You are, now."

"It's pretty. How did you come up with it so fast?"

I smiled. "It's Aieros spelled backwards."

"...I guess it is."

I gestured to the nameplate across one of the stables. Her eyes followed the motion.

She glanced from it to me. "A horse? You named me after a horse?"

"A male horse, no less." I laughed shamelessly, slinging the saddle across Aieros' back.

"Thanks."

Stopping to look at her, it almost shocked me to find that there was nothing sarcastic in her tone. She wasn't thanking me for naming her after a horse – but rather, for protecting her. Then again, at the time, I hadn't exactly thought of it as protecting.

If I had... would I still have done it?

I shrugged it off, avoiding her eyes. For a moment I watched her as she made her way across the stable – careful, deliberate steps, perfectly poised as ever. She still moved like a warrior. I wondered if she knew that.

"Oh – " I sputtered suddenly, realizing where she was headed. "I wouldn't get too close to Elyse. She hates everyone. She won't even let Tyrus near her without a fight."

I didn't doubt that she heard me, but Callisto had never been one to follow orders, or even advice. She kept moving, slowly, towards the deceptively beautiful white horse at the far end of the stable. I held my breath, knowing that at any moment, Elyse would be throwing a tantrum that would be heard across town.

Callisto reached the front of the stall and stood motionless in front of an equally, shockingly frozen Elyse, and I began to wonder if they planned to hold a staring contest.

I swallowed. "You're playing with fire."

"Oh, Gabrielle." She turned her head to look at me, shooting me a brief, brilliant smile. "I don't play with fire; I create it."

She waved her fingers teasingly in my direction, the brief regression to her old persona momentarily stopping my heart, as I began to consider whether a ball of flames from that dangerous hand would soon have the entire stable ablaze.

But she merely turned back to Elyse, slowly reaching up to stroke the horse's mane. My eyes widened to saucers as Elyse nuzzled her hand. I almost caught myself feeling somewhat insulted; every time I'd tried anything with Elyse was futile... and I'd given her enough apples to fill an entire basket.

I shook my head in disbelief. "She's never..."

The rest of my words were lost, watching this strange woman I kept fighting to recognize... wondering how the fingers that could ignite an entire village by mere power of will were the same ones that could pacify the most psychotic mare this side of Amphipolis; the same ones that had coaxed shivers from every inch of my skin only the night before.

Watching her, now, I realized it was the first time in my life I wasn't afraid of her.

Perhaps it wasn't all a game, after all. A game could only take her so far – and this was much farther.

As it was, some hours later we found ourselves far outside town at a small stream, resting comfortably at the riverbank while the horses drank. Initially, Elyse seemed to be under the impression that she owned a sizeable portion of the stream, and refused to let Aieros anywhere near it. Callisto was more than amused by this, and when I dared show any sympathy towards my poor parched horse, I was rewarded with a spray of water from a swish of Elyse's tail.

Her accomplice spat a wicked laugh, patting the horse affectionately. "You lied, Gabrielle," she observed, grinning. "She's wonderful."

"She's a bitch," I snarled, only half-serious.

"Gabrielle!" she scolded, laughing disbelievingly at such a statement coming from a supposed innocent as myself. Finally she plopped herself down on a flat rock and began unlacing her boots.

I looked up from the branch I'd been absently sharpening into an arrow with a jagged stone. "What are you doing?"

"I'm not going to let them have all the fun."

She tossed her boots aside, throwing off her cloak and pulling her skirt up to her knees as she stepped into the water.

I turned back to my branch, rolling my eyes. What a child.

We had spent the larger part of the afternoon traveling, both on foot for the time being to give Argo a break, and I'd proposed we play a word game to pass the time. Being that it's towards the end of our second year as partners and our third moon as lovers, I know her well enough by now to know that I have a snowball's chance in Tartarus of getting Xena involved in some silly pastime for any length of time, especially one generated from my own spontaneous imagination.

After I win the first two rounds ('Gabrielle, how am I ever supposed to win if you made up the rules!'), she tactfully suggests I work on my poetry. Silently.

'I think I have one,' I muse after some time of contemplating limericks.

'Hmm,' she grunts, absent-minded as ever.

I skip for a few steps until I am alongside her, struggling to match her long strides.

'There once was a warrior from Greece,

With hair like a raven fleece.

Though in the day she'd fight,

The only sound at night

Was her begging, 'Oh, Gabrielle, please...''

'Gabrielle!' She spins around, eyes wide as saucers, a hot blush creeping over her cheeks as she attempts to hide her smile.

I grin wickedly. 'Something like that, yes.'

Her eyes narrow, playfully deadpan. 'You are such a child.'

I snatch the reins out of her hands, planting myself directly in front of her. 'Say that again.'

She raises an eyebrow. She loves when I challenged her. 'I said... you're such a – "

I throw myself at her, attacking her mouth with mine and raking my fingers through her hair. Once she conquers her shock, I feel her agile hands climbing up my sides, sliding their way to my back. I break away ever so slightly, tracing a line across her lips with my tongue, and slowly pull back, just as I sense she's beginning to lose control.

I study her face. 'I'm a woman, Xena.'

I watch something shift in her eyes, something immense, something I have never seen before. When she finally speaks, there is no trace of patronization, no meaningless words to pacify my spirited, childish frustrations. She is deadly serious – and I know she is seeing it for the first time.

'Yes...' she breathes, almost more to herself than to me. 'Yes, you are.'

For some time I diverged from conscious thought as I took in the sounds around me, sounds that were in every forest in the world but that I hadn't heard in a long time. Though I came here often, I'd never had the energy to listen to much of anything... birds, insects, the wind... perhaps most noticeably, the sound of graceful limbs wading through water – which only struck me just when I realized the sudden absence of that sound.

I looked up. Callisto was standing in the water, now motionless, watching me with a sad sort of intrigue that I wasn't sure I wanted to explore.

"By the gods," she breathed, eyes fixated on me.

I didn't answer. She stepped through the water towards me as she let go of her skirt, letting it unfold across the surface of the water around her, until she was mere inches from where I sat. Still, I was unable to read her eyes.

She glanced down at the items in my hands, and back up at me. "You reminded me so much of her just now."

I swallowed. "Why is that?"

"Always trying to read my eyes. She never could, either."

"Maybe there's nothing to read."

Callisto smiled. "She really did teach you everything she knew, didn't she? I can see it."

I shrugged. "Not everything, I'm sure."

At that, she reached one hand out to the arrow and stone in my lap. A few drops of water from the stream trickled from the tips of her fingers, tickling the insides of my legs as they slid to the ground. Gently, she closed her hand over mine until I surrendered both items to her.

She placed them on the ground, out of my reach. "Everything," she whispered.

It hit me, then, the absurdity of the scene I found myself in. For the first time in my life, I was the one who held back, sitting on the shore and honing my weapon in a somber, no-nonsense focus – watching, with a patronizing disinterest, someone else in all their enviable, childlike innocence.

Innocence was never something I'd imagined I would envy – especially from Callisto.

She was right. I had become everything I'd always wanted to be: Xena.

Perhaps Gabrielle was really the one who'd died.

A soft splash of water brought me out of my thoughts as she stepped away from me, slipping back into the river. "You come here a lot," she noted.

"Yes. How did you know?"

Her eyes flashed towards me, luminous. "I have many skills."

I must have paled somewhat instantly, as she immediately recognized the weight of her teasing words, and opened her mouth to say something – once, then closed it. Opened it again.

"I'm sorry."

Perhaps the only reason I didn't reach for my makeshift arrow in a heated rage was the pleading sincerity I sensed in her voice. Once upon a time, I would never have imagined Callisto would dare apologize for anything. But now, not only had she begged forgiveness from me three times since her arrival... but I was somehow sure she meant it, every time, one hundred percent.

She stared down at the water, drawing circles along the surface with one finger. "Sometimes I just sense things. Being a god gives you some abilities others don't have." Her voice fell, suddenly. "It's not always a blessing."

"You're not a real god."

"I know."

"So." I sat up straight, brushing a few remaining wood shavings off my lap. "What other tricks do you have besides lighting candles and the occasional mind-reading?"

"I don't know them all yet. It doesn't really come with instructions, you know? I've learned most of them by accident."

I smiled to myself at the thought. I idly wondered how much practice it must have taken before she could reach for a doorknob or a plate of food without setting it on fire.

She looked up. "There is one I like, though..."

I watched her, an equal mix of curiosity and suspicion. "...Well?"

A small, impish grin teased her lips, as she lowered her gaze to the water directly below her. I stared, bemused, wondering if she intended to impress me by staring the river into submission, when all of a sudden a fat, splattering fish soared out of the water and landed promptly in my lap.

I jumped back in shock, scarcely paying any heed to the raucous laughter coming from the river, and grabbed the fish by the tail when I had regained my composure. I held it up in front of me, projecting a deadpan stare at its squirming form, and slowly turned to Callisto, who was doubled over, still laughing.

"Nice, Callisto," I deadpanned, gingerly dropping the fish onto the ground beside my bag. "Very nice."

"Hey," she grinned, catching her breath. "No complaints. That's our dinner."

She had me there. Considering most of my dinners of late had consisted of whatever daily creation they'd concocted at the tavern, I couldn't exactly complain about a fresh meal cooked over an open fire.

For a moment I almost found myself smiling, but caught it in time – until, of course, she decided that after causing a fish to land in someone's lap, the only ensuing course of action is to splash them.

Maybe I only smiled because I got to splash her back. Maybe because it was the first time in months I'd been the cause of another's laughter. Maybe because in one particularly ambitious attempt to drag me in, she tripped and fell face first into the water, and when she emerged soaking wet and hilariously indignant, she looked about twelve years old.

But the only thing I remembered was smiling... briefly, perhaps even momentarily... but still smiling, for the first time in as long as I could remember.

Within a mere week's time I found myself falling asleep each night without fail, rarely being the first to wake. I still remember the first morning I awoke without an instinctive panic at the first sight of blonde hair. Part of it frightened me. It was difficult to accept my own growing trust – trust for her, as well as for myself.

I only began to stop fearing that trust the morning I opened my eyes to find a scrap of parchment on my pillow:

Gabrielle,

Sophia has asked me to run away with her. In light of the unlimited potential for free pastries, I had to accept. I'm sure you'll understand.

...In reality, it seems you've run out of candles. Contrary to what appears to be popular belief, I can only light them, not create them out of thin air (as far as I know, at least). I'm out buying you new ones. Don't try to stop me.

C.

It had been the first time in months that I laughed out loud. She returned halfway through the morning with a sack of no less than eight different varieties of candles that she'd encountered in several different shops around town. As my laughter started up again, her expression turned to somewhere between disappointment and confusion. It became obvious that she didn't often go shopping.

That week I spent more time outside my room than I had in all the four months I'd been there. One evening I found myself telling stories in one of the local taverns – yet another of many practices I'd neglected over the months. She watched me from the back of the room like Xena used to do, never taking her eyes off me.

Another day, after I'd become engrossed in a particular booth in the market, I turned around to find her crouched in front of a scrawny young boy of eleven or twelve, using his staff to demonstrate several moves I recognized exclusively from the Amazons.

Not immediately concerned with how she'd learned them, when, or from whom, I stood at a distance and watched, unable to keep from smiling as Callisto instructed the youngster on precisely how to take out his bullies in the future (from whom I suspected she'd rescued him this time around). The boy watched her in giddy fascination, eyes glazed over reverently and glued to her graceful form as she worked her way through the techniques. She smiled as she finished, handing him his staff and planting a kiss on his cheek before strolling back over to me. From where I stood, I watched a furious blush creep over the boy's face before he ran off across town, grinning from ear to ear.

Nights, though uneventful, became the part of each day I most anticipated. Nothing had happened since the first night, not even a single misplaced touch – although I couldn't deny what was shaping up to be a painfully palpable sexual tension. Despite it all, I slept through every night, feeling the rhythm of my breathing slowly begin to match hers as I drifted off.

Tonight, however, I found myself restless. I'd been planning a visit to Amphipolis the following day, alone – though I hadn't told Callisto, or anyone else for that matter. I had been only once since Xena's death, and though I missed Cyrene's company, the prospect of returning to the one place in which I would be forced to dwell on the memories most painful to me... well, it wasn't exactly the most appealing of vacations.

Propped up on my elbow, I stared down at her, idly tracing a finger along one soft, slender arm. The only other time I'd ever watched her sleep, my sword had been poised at the base of her neck. Even then, despite the trembling of every nerve in my body, the petrified tears welling in my eyes... I still remembered how peaceful she looked; how deceptively unthreatening. Now, at least, I could hope that same look was genuine.

I wondered if I would ever know for sure.

"Did you used to watch me sleep?"

My eyes at once lifted in shock, immediately relaxing at the sight of the long dark hair and sapphire eyes, glowing in the light from the fireplace beside which she was seated – an excruciating picture of perfection. Suddenly aware of my rather intimate proximity to another woman, I sat up in bed, hugging a blanket around my flimsy white shift.

"No," I answered softly. "I wanted to. You were always up before me."

She smiled, turning her gaze to the fire. "Sometimes I stayed up just to watch you. You were the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen." She looked up. "You still are."

Careful not to disturb the figure beside me, I crawled out of bed and planted myself beside her on the hearthrug, fighting my fingers' ache to touch her.

She nodded towards the bed. "Couldn't get the entire Roman army to wake her, hmm?"

I nodded, smiling. "I didn't expect she'd be such a sound sleeper."

"I guess she's making up for lost time. She hardly ever used to sleep at all."

I blinked, jerking my eyes from the dormant form in question to look at Xena. "How do you know?"

She shrugged abruptly. "She's traveled with us a few times."

I continued to watch her, but her eyes remained fixed across the room. "I'm going to Amphipolis tomorrow," I offered.

She flashed me a smile, as though she'd already known. "Mother will be glad to see you."

"I've missed her."

Her eyes darted momentarily back to the bed. "Is she going with you?"

"Wh – " I stumbled, flustered. "I – Xena, your mother knows who she is... what she's done..."

"She knows what I've done, too," she countered matter-of-factly. "And she trusts you."

"I don't know if I trust her," I argued, gesturing in Callisto's direction. Unsurprised, though evidently loath to fight me on the issue, Xena merely averted her gaze to the flames behind us. "Xena..." I continued gently, "you can't blame me. I don't know her. I don't know... what this is... what she's doing."

"I know," she reassured me, sliding her hand towards mine and stopping a mere breath from contact, remembering the gesture's futility. "Why haven't you talked to her yet?"

I shook my head, sighing slowly. "I don't know. I guess... I don't know how. I don't know what to say."

I caught her tentative grin out of the corner of my eye. "A loss for words? My Gabrielle?"

Helpless, I shrugged. "Maybe I'm afraid of what she'll tell me."

"Maybe you're afraid you'll forgive her."

My eyes met hers sharply, but she never faltered. In an agonizing gesture, her hand lifted to touch my face. I closed my eyes in weak anticipation, silently begging for even the barest hint of sensation. But I couldn't even feel her breath against my cheek as she leaned in.

"Give my love to Mother."

When I opened my eyes, she was gone.

Having allowed several tears to dampen the floor beneath me before returning to bed, I pulled the covers over both of us and resumed my furtive observation A drop of moonlight shone through the nearby window, illuminating wisps of blonde to almost white. At length I settled my head into a pillow, studying the profile of her delicate features as she slept.

"Callisto?" I whispered, still surprised at the progressive lack of malice that had begun to accompany the name every time it left my lips. She stirred, but did not respond. I touched her shoulder.

"Hmm."

"Are you awake?"

"No, Gabrielle, I'm asleep."

Eyelids fluttered, and slowly, she turned her head to look directly into my eyes, catching me with an impish grin. I smirked in return.

She stared at me for a moment, that piercing gaze solid as ever. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I – I'm going to Amphipolis tomorrow."

She was awake then, fully – not intensely, but enough to realize I'd woken her for a reason beyond my own amusement.

"Permanently?"

I shook my head. "Just for a day or so. Do you want to come?"

Soft chestnut eyes blinked at me, then at the hint of dawn beginning to creep through the window. "You really bring new meaning to last-minute invitations, babe."

"Sorry."

"Cyrene knows who I am."

"I know. But she trusts me."

Xena, you'd damn well better be right on this one.

"Aha," Callisto smiled, indulging in an old-school tone of mischief. "But do you trust me?"

I swallowed a nervous lump in my throat, wondering how much of Xena's visit had been absorbed into Callisto's subconscious. But I couldn't answer her. Not now. Not yet. We both knew that.

"We'll leave after breakfast," I concluded, rolling over and forcing my eyes shut.

I could have sworn I felt her gently brush a strand of hair off the back of my neck... but it was probably just the blanket.

III. Maybe redemption has stories to tell...

We left after breakfast.

Sophia managed to extract from us the news of our trip and insisted on sending us off with an entire saddlebag's worth of goodies, not the least of which included a certain brew of tea which, as she coyly informed me with a sideways glance at Callisto, was an aphrodisiac. ("She's got it bad for you," Callisto cooed once Sophia had left our table. I responded by throwing a warm cinnamon roll in her general direction, earning myself one of her trademark high-pitched giggles.)

I spontaneously elected to make a small detour before we set out, allowing myself to indulge my usually concealed passion for shopping. We got as far as the door to the town's main clothing supplier, when I noticed I was about to enter it alone. When I turned around, Callisto was planted some ten feet away from me, one eyebrow raised suspiciously.

She glanced from me to the door. "You have got to be kidding."

"Come on!" I whined.

"Are we even going to Amphipolis, or was this all a ploy so you could play dress-up?"

"Look," I sighed melodramatically. "We both know the gray cloak and white peasant dress aren't working. No wonder everyone thinks you're my sister – you look like you ought to be in a farmhouse in Poteidaia, knitting. And what's happened to your hair, anyway!" I went on, losing myself in making a point. "It looks so... so normal."

She narrowed her eyes, warily absorbing my sudden rabid zeal, and fingered a loose strand of her soft, tamed hair. "Would you rather it... didn't?"

"...Yes, I think so."

Obligingly, she shrugged, bending forward until her hair flopped over her head, nearly touching the ground. She vigorously ruffled the locks with her hands until the general mass of blonde was sufficiently tangled. She swung her head back up, hair sticking out frizzily in every direction.

"Better?"

I couldn't keep from smiling. "Yes."

"That's all you're getting," she smirked. "I'm afraid my old taste in wardrobe doesn't much suit me anymore."

"Well, neither does this. Come on, I'm sure we can find a compromise between malicious warrior and virgin farmgirl."

She nodded thoughtfully. "You're right. Malicious farmgirl does sound intriguing."

I rolled my eyes, grabbing her by the hand and dragging her inside the shop, where I trapped her for the next forty-five minutes. Despite her insistence that, being something of a goddess, she could fashion up any number of ensembles with a snap of her fingers, I sent her through a string of outfits until I finally found one I liked. Fortunately, she seemed to take to it as well. It was something I might have worn, if I were taller. It was all a dark, deep violet, with barely lighter accents in various spots. The top, aside from its color, was not unlike the one I'd worn for a spell in India, though with laces down the front – and the skirt, boasting long, flowing fringes all the way around, was notably reminiscent of traditional Amazon style.

I stared several moments too long, having nearly forgotten what an exquisitely flawless figure she possessed. There had been a time when every moment I was in her presence, my gaze was fixed exclusively on her eyes. It was a precaution for my own safety – always anticipating, always fearing her next move. But now, feeling somewhat less threatened, my eyes could wander freely, and I hadn't quite realized how freely they did wander until she grinned, snorted "I'll take that as a yes," and handed the dinars to the clerk – who, might I add in my own defense, was gawking far more shamelessly than I.

With that and a quick stop at Tyrus' stables, we were off.

It was a mere half-day's trip, putting us there shortly before dinner. We had grown accustomed enough to each other's presence that conversation had lost its strain, and silence was no longer awkward. I didn't talk around her as much as I did around others... around Xena... but I didn't need to. I did find myself engaging her in an informal round of questions, but she didn't seem to mind. In a rare daring moment, I asked her to tell me something about herself I didn't know. She responded by informing me that she once ate a worm just to gross out her sister.

One thing was certain: she had quickly learned how to make me laugh.

"Something occurred to me," I observed after we had been riding for some time.

"What's that?" Callisto patted Elyse's neck affectionately, determined to protect the horse from my wary glances.

"You could have just beamed us to Amphipolis in a big yellow flash."

She chuckled. "I wish."

"What are you talking about? You used to do it all the time. Got a big kick out of it, if I remember..."

"That was a long time ago. I don't have all the powers I once had."

"Why not?"

"The gods have done what they can to keep me at bay. The vanishing act was the first thing they took, back when I..." She stopped, as though she had already said too much.

I looked over at her. "...When you what?"

Ignoring the question, she nodded in the vague direction in front of us. "We're almost there."

I didn't press it. Indeed, the outskirts of Amphipolis were growing visible in the distance, and a warm sensation spread over me. It had been awhile since I'd been amongst anyone but strangers (barring the ubiquitous company of Sophia). Cyrene was as close to family to me as my own parents, and the moment I saw her step through the door of her tavern to greet us, I felt like I was home.

I hopped off Aieros in a childish leap and ran up to her, throwing my arms around her in a mammoth hug. She laughed, and her laugh reminded me of Xena's. I finally pulled away, and she held me at arm's length like an impish youngster.

"My dear Gabrielle," she sighed contentedly. "It's so wonderful to see you."

"You knew I was coming?"

"I had a word with my daughter."

I grinned. I should have known. Tentatively, I glanced at Callisto, who was standing several paces behind me, evidently wondering whether or not it was all right to move.

I looked back to Cyrene. "What did she tell you?"

She smiled knowingly. "Everything." She looked behind me. "Hello, Callisto."

The named stood frozen in her spot, glancing between us, and only risking a step forward when I gave her a reassuring nod.

"Hello," she responded softly, a faint smile fighting its way through.

I watched as they shook hands timidly, and although I'd seen stranger things in my lifetime, the sight of this certainly ranked near the top. It struck me that Cyrene had never truly known Callisto as I had, as any of us had... the last time she'd seen this same physical form, it was her daughter she saw – trapped in the body of a stranger, perhaps – but her daughter nonetheless.

Strangely enough, I myself saw more of Xena in Callisto at this moment than I ever had.

Finally Callisto turned to me, looking significantly less flustered, and smiled. "I'll take care of the horses."

I smiled back. "Thank you."

Cyrene put an arm around me, leading me inside the comfortably bustling tavern. A couple people recognized me, waving or calling out a greeting, and at once I felt glad to be there. All painful reminders of Xena aside, it was one of the few places I felt most safe in all the world.

We found ourselves in a quiet room at the back of the tavern, and took a seat.

"Well," I began. "You look wonderful."

"Of course I do," she chirped, fluffing her hair, and we laughed. "You're doing much better than the last time I saw you, that much is obvious."

I nodded slowly. "It... hasn't been easy."

"I know." She glanced in the general direction of the door. "She's had quite an effect on you."

"...She has?"

Cyrene laughed quietly. "You honestly think I don't know?"

I watched her for a moment, puzzled, not entirely sure what she was implying. I'd gotten used to the general public assuming Callisto and I were something significantly more than acquaintances, but I hadn't expected the same reaction from Cyrene – especially considering she hadn't even known the extent of my relationship with her daughter.

"Gabrielle... when Xena came to me last night, and I said she told me everything..." She hesitated, briefly. "I do mean everything."

I swallowed tensely "...Everything."

"She told me... how close you both were."

Nodding to myself, I stared at the ground. So, apparently we'd been outed to one side of the family, at least. I began to wonder if this was the point at which I'd be asked never to return to Amphipolis... when suddenly I felt her take my hand.

"Gabrielle," she began deliberately, and I looked up. "I can't imagine anyone else I'd have wanted my daughter to spend her life with."

My face broke into a smile, washed over by a wave of relief.

How could I have expected anything less from the mother of the most amazing woman I'd ever known?

Dinner was quite a luxurious break from tradition for us – we hadn't been bothered with catching it ourselves, nor were we under Sophia's prying eyes and suggestive glances every time we looked up. Dalta, one of the gangly teenage boys working at the tavern, however, developed an immediate and ardent crush on Callisto with all the subtlety of a lightning storm, and his efforts went unnoticed by no one. At the very least, instead of casually pitching a dagger into his chest as I suspected she would have done years ago, Callisto merely eyed him with a narrow, bemused and somewhat mystified stare. I finally snorted a giggle when he brought her an extra breadstick "just for being beautiful."

"Quiet, you," Callisto redirected her sharp gaze at me, though unable to maintain any real malice in her expression. "It's all your fault, anyway."

"My fault!" I squeaked.

"You put me in this outfit! I wouldn't have to deal with this if you'd let me keep my dress and cloak."

"Puh-lease," I scoffed, downing a particularly large spoonful of stew. "It's not my fault you have those perfect long legs."

"Well, I – "

"Girls! Honestly," Cyrene scolded good-naturedly through a bite of bread, shaking her head in mock-exasperation. "And here I thought I'd finished raising children years ago..."

Callisto and I shared a small smile, and under the table she whacked my boot with her foot, effectively punctuating her argument.

Last-word freak.

Some while after dinner, Callisto excused herself with the pretext of going for a walk in the warm night air, obviously supposing Cyrene and I would have things we'd want to talk about on our own. I, too, assumed as much – although once presented with the opportunity, I couldn't think of where to begin.

"She's nothing like she used to be," Cyrene observed as we watched her walking into the distance.

I shook my head. "She's a different person."

As soon as the words left my lips, my heart jumped I could scarcely take in the fact that I actually believed what I'd just said. It was the first time I'd admitted it – to anyone else, for certain – but more importantly, to myself.

She truly had changed. And it was real.

Cyrene caught the shift in my expression, and smiled. "You really believe that, then?"

Shocking myself still, I nodded. "Yes."

"Aren't you the least bit curious what brought her to a new life?"

"Curious doesn't begin to cover it," I admitted.

"You ought to talk to her, Gabrielle. She's dying for you to ask her."

I looked up instantly. "Wh – how – "

She smiled to herself, still looking off into the darkness. "We had an interesting conversation while you were off giving Dalta a piece of your mind."

I glanced down sheepishly, recalling my unsuccessful attempt to let the poor boy down easy, gently advising him that he had a snowball's chance in Tartarus of winning Callisto's heart. I realized I'd failed when he begged me to give her a rose on his behalf with a note asking her to meet him at midnight. By that point I hadn't been able to hold back my laughter any longer.

Looking up at Cyrene, and absorbing her words... it hit me that I was the only person left who didn't have Callisto's full story – or even part of it, for that matter. Me, of all people. I'd invited her into my room... into my life. I'd lived with her for weeks; I'd shared my bed with her – in more than one sense.

And I was the only one who didn't know why or how she had become the person I had come to know, even to trust...

Cyrene must have sensed my thoughts, as I felt her eyes dart in my direction. "You can still catch up to her. She's probably headed down to the lake."

I shook my head, smiling in wonder. "It's not hard to see where Xena got her wisdom."

She smiled back, squeezing my hand as I rose from my chair and started off towards the edge of town.

As predicted, she'd found her way to the lake. From a distance, I leaned up against a tree for several minutes, watching her. Illumined by a fiery orange sunset, she was crouched by the shore, picking up small stones and skipping them along the surface of the water, one by one, with astounding precision. I watched one skip nearly all the way to the other side of the lake.

She is standing at the lake when I find her. It has been scarcely two days since our jolting but long overdue return from Illusia. After the initial relief-induced euphoria on the beach, we quieted down somewhat, letting reality slowly sink into us. Conversation has been minimal, as it seems we are both still recovering from it all. Though our lips haven't met, our eyes have, and we steal every opportunity to be as close to one another as possible.

Today we laughed, and talked for some while after breakfast. I was just beginning to think things might have a chance of returning to normal when she took off after our meal with the abrupt excuse of needing to 'walk off dinner,' and although her voice was kind in refusing my offer to join her, I still felt a pang in my chest as I watched her disappear into the woods.

After a candlemark, I go after her.

Resting against my staff, I watch her standing at the edge of the water, one foot resting on a rock. Outlined by the waning sun, all armor in place as ever and hair rustled by the soft wind... I have never seen anything so beautiful.

I set my staff down and step up to her, slipping my arms around her waist. She keeps her eyes on the water, but holds me close, dropping a kiss into my hair.

'I love you,' she tells me.

I echo her words, and we separate only enough to see each other's faces. Her head drops and she meet my mouth with hers. It is fire, the first time we have kissed in days, or what has felt like years. Our tongues meet instantly, and hands desperately struggle to close a nonexistent gap between bodies. But as I reach to unhook her breastplate, her hands gently clasp over mine, and she breaks the kiss.

'Can we talk?'

Blindsided by the sudden role reversal, I blink. 'You... you want to talk?'

She nods, eyes unblinking. 'Yes.'

Her arm encircle my waist as we make our way back to the campsite, and that night I fall in love with her just a little more.

"A less destructive pastime than burning down trees, don't you think?"

I jumped at the sound of her voice, realizing she'd been aware of my presence all along. She turned around, giving me a small smile before turning back to her collection of stones.

I walked up to her, watching as another skimmed the water and landed with a plop in the middle of the lake. "Mind if I sit down?"

She gathered up her stones in response, creating a space for me beside her, and dropped them into her lap before plucking a large flat one out of the pile and sending it flying across the water. Seating myself beside her, I looked out over the water, relaxed by the rhythmic sequence of her agile movements as I watched each stone through the toss, its journey across the surface, and the final splash into the water.

"Callisto?"

"Hmm?" Toss, skip, plop.

Nervously, I clasped my hands together. "What happened?"

She stopped, stone in hand, and looked at me. "What?"

I took a deep breath. "What... what changed you?"

Her blank expression ruled out any possibility for interpretation, and for a moment I wondered if I should have just kept quiet.

She blinked, as though in disbelief. "You're... asking."

Slowly, hesitantly, I nodded. "I'm asking."

"Why?"

"I – I want to know."

In her classic deliberate style, she carefully replaced the stone with the others and focused her eyes out across the water. In an instant, I felt my heartbeat quicken.

"I'd gotten a small army together," she began, initially masked by impassivity. "We were planning to raid an Amazon village; take them all as slaves. But the camp was the biggest I'd come across, and there were only a few of us. By this time the gods had already managed to take away most of my powers that were of any use..." She picked up a stone, absently, sending it across the water. "We didn't have the resources. We needed to know their camp, from the inside, if we were to take them. We had to learn their ways, how they lived, how they conquered... before we could conquer them."

I felt a shudder creep down my spine, gradually coming to realize why this wasn't the sort of narrative she casually volunteered.

"And so," she went on with a sigh, as though wishing the story didn't continue, "I decided to go undercover. The plan was flawless. I went to their camp, told them I was from another tribe – it's always the easiest part of the job, you know, faking your way into any situation... any role... any façade."

Like the one that had masqueraded as herself for so long, I thought.

"The woman... who took me in..." Immediately her voice had changed, growing softer, seemingly less assured that she even could go on. "She looked out for me while I was there. She taught me the ways of the tribe – all their secrets, their techniques. I learned how to fight with them, how to live with them... how to kill them. And she... she trusted me." Her voice fell to a whisper. "I don't know why."

"I do." I smiled weakly, gently touching her hand. Callisto looked at me questioningly. "She saw something in you that no one else could. Even you."

Turning away, she shook her head. "I don't know what happened. I became... someone else. Someone I hadn't been in years. I started feeling things that made no sense, because I hadn't felt anything in so long. I... I fell in love with her."

"Did she love you?" I asked softly.

Callisto nodded. "One night she finally told me. And..." Even in the growing darkness around us, I caught the glimmer in her eyes. "It was incredible."

My hand closed over hers.

"The next morning I planned to go to my army; tell them to retreat. Tell them to go on without me. I couldn't conceive of leaving. Gods, Gabrielle, she... she wanted to give me her rite of caste. She wanted me to stay, as her fellow Amazon... as her consort."

Tightening my fingers around her hand, I looked down. "What happened?"

She shook her head, as though she couldn't quite believe it herself. "My army got the signals mixed up before I got a chance to tell them, and they attacked. She didn't know who they were, didn't know they were under my command. And she certainly didn't know I was immortal. Otherwise she never would have..."

I felt my own voice begin to crack. "Never would have what?"

Callisto met my eyes. "She died trying to save me."

...Oh, gods.

My face must have paled, and I felt my stomach jump.

That was it then, wasn't it? This strange and, until now, unsettling connection I'd come to recognize between us over the weeks – I finally saw what it was.

We'd both lost our soulmates.

"I knew then," she said quietly. "I knew the life I had couldn't go on."

My free hand moved to rest on her knee. "What was her name?"

She swiped a hand across her tear-stained cheeks. "Her name was Eve."

"It's beautiful," I whispered.

"So was she." A faint, wistful cloud hovered over her face. "She... she gave me her rite of caste before she died."

My eyes widened. "You're an Amazon!"

She smiled sadly. "I never went through the ceremony, of course, but... well, technically..."

"Oh, gods... Callisto..."

I pulled her into my arms then, holding her close as she rested her head against me, tears sliding down her face and onto my chest. I'd never seen her cry before – although one night long ago, I thought I sensed quiet sobs coming from across the campfire, long after we had all gone to bed. It was the night before she and Velasca met their fate with the lava... the night she told me more about herself than I had ever imagined I would know.

The problem is, Gabrielle, I never feel anything...

She had come further than I could have dreamed possible.

Pulling away slightly, she looked into my eyes. But she didn't speak, she only watched – and all at once I felt her reading every inch of my soul through my eyes. But it didn't feel like some god-exclusive power. It felt... human.

Suddenly I was jealous, desperate to see her the same way she so obviously was seeing me.

"Why can't I do that?" I shook my head, feeling my own tears begin to sting my vision. "Why can't I read your eyes?"

A small smile; and her voice barely a breath. "Stop trying."

...So I did.

Author's Note: resists urge to start singing Van Morisson's "Brown-Eyed Girl"... Ahem, back to the story...

I stopped trying, and merely watched her, sinking into those intense, dark orbs – so different from the crystal blue I was used to, but somehow just as gentle. And that's when I saw it – that fire I had seen all those years ago every time I looked in her eyes. That fire that I hadn't once seen since she showed up in the tavern weeks ago – that fire I had presumed dead... it was still there, blazing in her eyes.

But this wasn't a fire of hate, or vengeance, or rage.

It was of love.

Slowly, I lowered my head, touching my lips to the corner of her mouth. I felt her lean into me, and for a moment, neither of us dared to move. I pulled back a few inches and looked at her. She smiled.

Smiling back, I finally felt myself relax. "We should get back."

"It's getting dark."

We stood up, but instead of taking a step, I caught her eye, resting my hand on her arm.

"Thank you."

She nodded slowly, a small, peaceful smile resting on her lips. Shooting me a wink, she slipped her hand into mine as we started back to town.

Back in the room Cyrene had prepared for us, we crawled into bed with few words and fewer candles. Through the thick, quiet darkness, penetrated only by soft night sounds from the open window... I felt a hand slide up my arm to rest on my shoulder. Within three similar gestures, my head was pillowed on her chest, hand resting on her stomach, and her delicate arms protectively encircled my waist.

And just before I dozed off, I was struck with the realization that for that moment, that night... I was at peace.

IV. Maybe forgiveness is right where you fell...

Upon returning to the inn, Carmysas was much the same as we'd left it. And yet, somehow, forever changed. Neither Callisto nor I paid much heed anymore to Sophia's voyeuristic ambiguities, having found that conversation now came easier to us than we ever thought possible. Strangely enough, we didn't seem to talk with any greater frequency as a result of it... we didn't need to. So much could be said without words – a concept I seemed to have forgotten existed since the last time Xena and I were both alone... and both alive.

Though our physical relationship was still confined to the occasional deliberate touch made to look inadvertent, the boundaries were steadily beginning to blur. Now and then as we walked, hands would brush against one another and then casually entwine. There were times at dinner when I would catch her watching me with a look or a smile that could have turned the fiercest warlord into a puddle. But I had a few looks of my own, employing them at certain opportune moments and relishing, with little subtlety, those rare times I actually succeeded in making her blush.

It was growing rapidly clear that neither of us would be able to restrict ourselves to teasing flirtations much longer.

Then everything crashed.

I'd heard there was an extraordinary supply of berries some miles through the forest outside town, and one morning I got it in my head to wake Callisto up at the crack of dawn to help me find it.

Two hours later, when she finally got out of bed, we left.

Not halfway through our trek, we met with a small stream, and having traveled sans the help of horses, the prospect of getting soaking wet this early on the trip did not appeal to me in the least.

I snarled a few choice words, to which Callisto raised an eyebrow.

"My, my, Gabrielle," she purred amusedly. "Where did you learn to talk like that?"

"How are we supposed to get across?" I sighed, flopping my arms against my sides. "I'm not going in there; these are new boots."

"Femmes," she muttered, rolling her eyes and starting down the bank towards the water.

"Callisto!" I whined.

She stopped reluctantly, turning around. "I'd offer to carry you, dear, but..." She wiggled one rail-thin arm. "I'm not exactly Xena."

"Can't you... do something?"

"...With the river?" She effected her most stoic deadpan stare. "What do you want me to do, burn it?"

I shrugged helplessly. "You could... make something hop out of the water."

"Ah yes, those wooden, log-sized fish are so prevalent in these parts."

"All right, smartass." I shook my head in exasperation, fighting a grin. "Although the log isn't a bad idea..."

She gestured towards the chakram hanging from my belt. "That tree on the other side's about ready to flop over – give it a shot, it'll probably fall right across the river."

"Um," was seemingly the only syllable that escaped. The idea was a valid one, and if I were Xena, it would have been my first impulse. There was only one problem.

I hadn't actually used the chakram since Mount Fuji.

The whole experience had been a blur and remained as such in the following months. I was still trapped with an awe every time I touched the chakram since then – 'trapped' being the operative word – unable to believe I had actually succeeded in the attempt... but the truth was, that day was the first and only time I'd ever tried to use it.

I carried it with me, of course – more of a security blanket than anything else. I had wanted to use it, so many times, if only just for practice. But something held me back, every time. I was afraid the one time had been a fluke, a wild stroke of luck; that there was no way I could have mastered the weapon in a single attempt – that if I tried again, I would fail. Miserably.

"...Gabrielle?"

And now she would know.

"Uh... right," I stumbled, pulling the ring from its hook and holding it as competently as I could manage.

I could do this. I had done it, after all, if only once. And I'd seen Xena do it a thousand times or more.

Aiming meticulously for the tree across the river, I swung my arm and released.

Two seconds of whirring as it sliced the air, and then a sudden, dense thump.

I peered across the river, where Callisto had already set her gaze. The chakram sat firmly embedded halfway in the trunk of a tree.

The wrong tree.

Callisto slowly turned to me, vaguely expressionless, but questioning.

I sighed, plopping myself down on a rock and shaking my head.

"Um." Her eyes darted from me to the tree trunk. "Well, it's..."

"It's pathetic," I snapped. "I... I've only used it once. Trying to save Xena's life. And when I tried it, it worked – I did it. I just... haven't touched it since."

A nearly invisible smile danced across her lips, and she knelt in front of me. "Gabrielle... it's okay. You want me to try?"

I nodded helplessly. "Except now it's..."

She looked across the river. "I think I can manage this one." She extended an arm in the direction of the tree, and within seconds the chakram shot from the trunk and into her waiting hand. From there she tossed it with an enviable nonchalance, striking the target tree in precisely the right spot to send it lurching forward across the river, where it was immediately converted into a perfect bridge. The chakram whirled back to its rightful master, who caught it effortlessly and walked back over to where I sat.

She held it out to me, and again I sighed as I took it from her. "Thanks."

She smiled. "Don't be so hard on yourself. It's only the single most difficult weapon in the world to learn how to use."

I pulled myself to my feet. "Would you teach me?"

I hadn't planned on it; the words simply spilled. Upon immediate reflection, I wasn't even sure I was ready for what I was asking. But the request was out.

Her expression lying somewhere between surprised and flattered, she stared at me. "Really?"

Somehow I knew I was sure, and I nodded. It was strange that we both seemed surprised; I, because the only teacher I'd ever allowed myself was Xena – and she, because... she knew just that.

It wasn't merely that I was asking someone else to teach me... it was that I was asking her.

"...Okay," she said slowly. "Um... okay, well... first you've got to grip it from the inside – like this." She placed a hand over mine, carefully adjusting my fingers. "Otherwise, it'll... um, here."

Apparently I still needed adjustment, as she positioned herself behind me and brought one arm alongside mine, matching my hand's position on the weapon. I shivered at her touch, at the feeling of her breasts pressed lightly against my back... but eventually I forced my senses to focus.

"...And if you turn your hand over like this – right – that'll give you more accuracy." She lifted both our hands slowly, as though aiming for an invisible target. "You don't want to aim straight – there's a curve involved, it comes from the wrist..."

My eyes followed her hand as it slid up my arm, gently turning my wrist over. As my gaze slowly began to rise, I turned my head and waited for her eyes to meet mine. When they did, she smiled briefly before deliberately averting them.

"And, uh..." she went on, noticeably distracted, smile still in place, "the, um... number one thing you'll learn is that the secret lies –"

"– In the angles," I finished softly.

She looked up. "Yes... how did you know?"

"Xena gave me a lesson once." My mind was whirling with a fusion of flashbacks, speculations, and perplexity, all flirtations suddenly forgotten and replaced with one all-encompassing matter that had struck me in the space of a heartbeat. "Callisto..."

She didn't speak, but her eyes were enough to tell me she saw the words coming.

"Xena's the only person I've ever seen use this – except you," I noted quietly.

Slowly, she nodded.

My voice, and seemingly time and space, had nearly disappeared. "How did you learn?"

That intense gaze, though never faltering, instantly flooded with fear. I braced myself for the outrageous, the impossible, the worst... even the hilarious. But nothing could have prepared me.

"She taught me."

For a second I didn't react, unsure if I had imagined the words – and blinked once. Twice. "What?"

It wasn't until her hand dropped from mine, allowing me to feel the full weight of the weapon in my grasp, that I realized how comforting her touch had been. She turned away, taking a few comfortably distancing steps in the opposite direction.

"Gabrielle... there's something you should know." She hesitated, and I wondered if I was supposed to say something. "I... oh, for Zeus' sake, I don't know, maybe you should hear this from Xena..."

"No." My voice remained calm, but firm, as I crossed the space between us and placed my hand on her arm. "Tell me."

She looked at me, and immediately we both knew my plea to share a piece of her past carried little of the gentle innocence that accompanied time I learned about Eve. At the very least, I admired her ability to hold my gaze.

Though her expression remained helpless, at last she nodded. Gathering herself together, she sat down, and I followed suit.

"The story about Cirra," she began simply, punctuating it with a pause so extensive I began to wonder if I was supposed to deduce something more from those four words. "That Xena ransacked the village... burned everything in sight, killed my family..." Her voice paled.

I touched her hand. "You don't have to talk about it."

She pulled her hand away, spitting the words out as though they were one: "It's a lie."

I blinked, attempting to register anything coherent. "...What?"

She looked away, finishing the thought in a single breath. "She never touched Cirra, or my family. My sister lives in Athens; she's a seamstress. My mother died giving birth to me. My father was all I had... and he died three moons before I ever met Xena."

I felt my vision beginning to swirl around me, choking on fragments of thought. "But – wh – why – how did..."

"Xena came through Cirra ten years ago," she continued quietly. "Her army needed to restock supplies, that was all. They were headed to Corinth; they had no interest in conquering us."

I continued to watch her, a strange mix of horrified disbelief and sickening anticipation.

"The first time I saw her..." Her tone faded. "I... oh, gods, Gabrielle, you remember it, don't you? How she could make your heart stop?"

Breathless, I nodded carefully. "Yes."

"She was there for three days... and I never let her out of my sight. I followed her around town, day and night – drove her crazy. I wanted to learn everything she knew."

Sensing my stomach begin to churn, I turned away.

"When she left... I asked her to take me with her. I begged her – promised her I could be great if she'd only let me – that I could be her legacy. She didn't want to take me, but she did. She did..."

My eyes had glued themselves to the ground in front of me, but I saw nothing.

"I..." She couldn't seem to be able to know whether or not to continue. Even I couldn't have helped on that account. "I... gods, I was seventeen, I knew nothing – and she taught me everything. For two years, she taught me everything. How to lead an army, how to throw a chakram... how to make love to a woman."

That's when my eyes shot up, stung with tears, finally forcing myself to face her... but she was still looking away.

Her hands fidgeted nervously in her lap. "When she decided to turn her life around... I didn't quite... share her vision. I was practically a child, I couldn't conceive of giving up the glamour of that life. The glory I got from conquering one town after another – the rush, the power, the money... I couldn't let it go. Even for her."

My eyes unconsciously followed her fingers as they lifted to her face, swiping at a stray tear that seemed to have come out of nowhere.

"She asked me to come with her," she went on. "But I couldn't. I couldn't give up all we'd worked for... I was too far gone. And she left me. She was the only person who ever cared about me... and she left." Her voice dipped to near silence. "That's when I started hating her. It just never stopped."

My actions seemed to have taken on a mind separately from my own will, as I had leapt to my feet before I even realized it, fuming, not knowing whether to run or fight or scream. For a brief flash of a moment, I realized what it must have felt like to be her, years ago.

"Gabrielle..."

"NO!" I roared. "...No. No, Cirra's gone, your family's... gone. Xena killed them – that's why you hated her."

"I told that story to save my dignity," she told me softly. "At least it gave me a real reason to hate her. I couldn't let anyone see the truth – that I'd once let myself love her."

"Why!" I found myself screaming. "Why did you – why did she never – oh, gods... all these years... all these years... she never... not a word..."

I'd lost it entirely by this point, fallen into my own realm, my own rage, not even speaking to anyone in particular. I felt her tentative hand on my arm, and instantly I jerked away as though I'd been burned, my eyes on fire, fighting tears as hard as they were capable.

"Don't touch me," I hissed, shaking my head as I watched her face fall. "I don't ever want to see you again."

I started running, recklessly, without destination, and didn't stop. She may have called my name; I wouldn't have known. All my senses seemed to have momentarily halted. I knew the tears were dropping, but I couldn't feel them. I knew the branches and the twigs scraped my arms as I ran, but I didn't feel the sting or see the scrapes.

The first clearing I reached brought on an odd sort of agoraphobia, and I stopped, turning in circles in the same spot of ground, until I found myself screaming her name, summoning her... much the way she used to do with Ares, and with not an entirely dissimilar purpose. Upon receiving no response, I angrily whipped out my sais and hurled them one after another into a tree.

Unsurprisingly, it didn't make me feel any better.

It was then that she appeared, directly in front of the tree I'd exploited as a target, looking real as ever, and overwhelmingly beautiful.

I started crying again as we watched each other, equally pained.

"You lied," I spat.

"Yes," she whispered.

Gazing contemplatively at the ground in front of me, I shook my head. "I... I don't understand. How could you?"

"I was wrong, Gabrielle – desperately wrong. I have no excuse."

"Try," I challenged.

Her head dropped, dark raven hair falling into her face. "I knew how much it would hurt you. I knew you'd never look at me the same way again. And the more time that passed, the harder it was to tell you. Finally I gave up trying. I... I thought you were better off not knowing."

"Oh, I see," I replied casually. "Like with Ming T'ien? Or Akemi?"

Her eyes met mine slowly. "I'm so sorry, Gabrielle."

"Don't. Just... don't."

With that, I roughly plopped myself down on a log, burying my head in my hands. I felt her footsteps approaching me, suddenly jealous that somehow the sticks and leaves on the ground were allowed to feel her when I wasn't. She knelt in front of me, careful to avoid any heartbreaking attempt at physical contact.

"I want you to listen to me," she began quietly, evenly. "When you followed me from Poteidaia... I was terrified. Gabrielle, I'd never been so scared in my life. I let you come only because I fell in love with you the day I met you – I couldn't let you go. But I was scared – you had exactly the same innocent ambition that Callisto had before... before she met me."

At some point I'd lifted my eyes, the past all suddenly clicking into place. It all made sense now – the fear I'd seen in her, every day of our lives for so many years, in every battle, every ounce of danger – not just a fear that I would die... but a fear of who I might become, if I lived.

"I couldn't tell you," she whispered. "I couldn't even let the thought cross my own mind. I was scared to death I would end up creating in you what I'd created in her. When you first got your staff, when you lost your blood innocence... every time, it terrified me. I couldn't bear the thought that you would become what Callisto had become – and I thought if I told you the truth... that it would make it real, somehow – that it would happen after all."

I swallowed the lump in my throat, aching to cradle her face in my hands. "Xena... you were a different person when you met me. Someone who couldn't possibly have created anything like Callisto. Your dark side created her... but your love created me."

Her eyes glistened with moisture. Oh gods, how real she looked. How breathtakingly real. And, as though she were, she suddenly lowered her head to my lap, resting it against my legs. And although neither of us could feel it, I suddenly felt closer to her than I ever had.

"I'm sorry," she breathed, choking on sobs. "I'm so sorry..."

"I am, too."

"Forgive me, Gabrielle." She brought her head up, looking into my eyes. "Please."

I nodded, lifting my hands to her face and feeling nothing but air. "I want to touch you."

"I know." She pulled away, crouching beside the rock. "You can't hate her for this."

"I know."

"You don't know how much you mean to her," she noted meaningfully, drawing my surprised gaze to hers. "And I know what she means to you."

"I love you, Xena," I replied simply, almost in protest.

She smiled, the smile that made me melt. "I never deserved you."

I grinned back. "I'll be the judge of that."

She glanced in the direction I'd come from. "I think someone's waiting for you."

Following her eyes into the empty expanse of forest, I nodded.

"You always were the best thing in my life, Gabrielle," she whispered. "Now you're the best thing in hers."

A final smile fell across her lips, and she was gone.

Callisto was where I'd left her – at least, physically.

I was far enough away that she wouldn't sense my company – at least, not yet – but close enough for my heart to begin beating faster.

She was planted firmly in one spot, repeatedly hurling a dagger into a tree and retrieving it effortlessly through the use of her powers – that not-so-old familiarity of uninhibited rage present in, and nearly defining, every move. I hadn't been aware that she still carried any weapons, but I couldn't exactly say I was shocked. Or perhaps my lack of surprise stemmed only from the fact that, from the inevitability of our history, she looked more natural with a weapon than without.

No... no, she'd changed. I knew I believed it.

All at once, she froze, dagger poised in one hand... but she never turned around. "Who's there?"

I opened my mouth, but no words seemed appropriate.

"Show yourself!" she demanded, still motionless. "If you dare..."

Tentatively, I took a soundless step forward into the clearing.

"Mmm... you wouldn't want to try my patience, now would you?"

I was floored, petrified, at the sound of her voice, the sound of a voice I hadn't heard in its true, authentic form in over three years. It was the voice that had always greeted us upon returning from death or some less eternal form of confinement, the voice that haunted my nightmares for years and chilled every bone in my body when it struck my ears.

No. She was angry – that was all. Angry, hurt, abandoned...

We all fall back, don't we?

I found my voice, though just barely. "...Callisto?"

She spun around, snapping out of it as though she'd been possessed and suddenly exorcised. Her cheeks were stained with dried tears, and her eyes carried none of the manic ferocity I knew from long ago. Inwardly, I breathed a sigh of relief.

She took a step forward, weakly, dagger hanging limp in one hand. "There's nothing you can say to make me feel any worse," she informed me with a miserable half-smile. "Trust me."

I had no idea where to begin, and so for a moment we just stared at one another – both waiting; neither able to give anything.

And then, without warning, an ear-splitting scream pierced the air, and as her grip tightened on the knife, she brought it up to her throat, sweeping the blade from one side to the other in one clean, professional stroke.

"NO!"

I lunged forward, refusing to be a slave to logic as all knowledge of immortality, for the moment, evaded me. I didn't stop to wonder at the lack of blood, didn't see the blade emerge dry and untarnished – I only ran towards her, fueled by instinct, fear, panic...

...Love?

By the time I reached her, I realized my efforts had been unnecessary, but by this point she was crying, falling into my arms as I tore the dagger from her hand and pitched it to the ground, pulling her frail form against me and whispering into her hair.

"Shhh," I breathed gently. "It's okay... it's okay. I'm sorry. Gods, I'm so sorry..."

She let me hold her, silently, while she cried... and it wasn't long before I got the impression this was the first time she'd been held like this since childhood.

After some time she pulled back, pleading eyes gazing into mine.

"I'm sorry," she told me. "I wanted to tell you... I swear..."

I shook my head, lightly pressing my fingers to her lips. I had only intended to silence her, to protect her from words that never needed to leave her mouth – to tell her she had nothing to justify to me, nothing to excuse... she hadn't done anything wrong. But as I withdrew my touch, I felt her own hand sliding up my wrist, stilling my fingers. Before I knew what I was doing, I leaned forward and kissed her. Barely.

It was a momentary flash of a kiss, scarcely noteworthy, and I pulled away before she even had a chance to react, searching her eyes for some sort of answer to a question never asked.

But the answer came, as in the next moment she caught my lips with a dizzyingly intense passion, backing me up against the nearest tree as my arms snaked around her neck, fingers tangling in her hair. I felt her hand deftly slip behind my head just before I hit the tree trunk, and within moments our legs had intertwined until I could scarcely tell whose body was whose.

I'll never remember how long we kissed, but I'll never forget the moment when tongues found their way past lips, or when I felt her entire body sink into mine. It wasn't until my hands finally crawled under her top, fumbling blindly with the laces, before she finally pulled back, smiling at me as she took hold of my hands.

"Maybe..." she gasped, "we should, uh..."

"Wait?" I offered, and she nodded. In response, I grinned wickedly. "Maybe not."

I attacked her again, reclaiming her mouth, and although she had no objections (to put it lightly), after a few moments I found her giggling into my lips, and we broke apart.

"What?" I demanded, breathless.

"Nothing – you just – "

"What!"

"You have a – " She plucked at a spot on my head with two fingers. "You have a caterpillar in your hair."

"Get it out, get it out!" I leapt away from the tree in horror, briskly ruffling my hair.

"It's out!" she assured me, still choking on laughter as she flung the bug to the ground.

We stood some four feet apart, motionless, out of breath, staring at one another with smiles that read as a mix of mischief and timidity. Judging from the smoldering look her eyes were directing at me, it wasn't hard to guess what we'd be doing if we were anywhere but a caterpillar-infested forest. But, under the circumstances, and now suddenly shy... we remained still.

"We should, uh," I stammered, clearing my throat. "We should probably get back."

Her smile widened. "You're incredible, Gabrielle."

I sensed a warm blush sneak across my face, and I quickly dropped my eyes, all at once a bashful teenager all over again. I took a few steps in the direction of town, and she walked beside me, matching my stride. Our hands didn't dare touch, for fear the simple contact would set us off on a series of delays that would likely get us home well after nightfall.

"There's a festival in town tonight," I noted suddenly, breaking the silence.

"Mm."

"Would you go with me?" At that, she stopped walking, and flashed me a playful smile, which I mirrored. "What?"

"Are you asking me out on a date?"

"Maybe," I shrugged casually, resuming my steps. "Are you saying yes?"

"Maybe."

We stopped again, facing each other as though in hand-to-hand combat. The barest hint of amusement played on her lips before she leaned in, cupping my face with her hands, and gave me a slow, melting kiss.

"Yes," she whispered.

I held the taste of that kiss all the way back to town.

V. Everybody's watching you now...

The festival, well under way by the time we arrived, centered in Carmysas' town square, a now unusually bustling spot for such a small town. Children scampered every which way, delightfully unchaperoned; couples shared drinks; and in the idle of it all, merchants had cleared out in favor of a dance floor, from where music rang brightly.

"Callisto!" a young voice sang behind us.

We spun around, and I recognized the youngster as the subject of Callisto's impromptu marketplace tutelage from some days ago.

"Hey, it's your boyfriend," I muttered teasingly into her ear, earning myself a light smack on my bottom.

Callisto smiled luminously, sauntering up to the boy. "Hi, Laedan. You're looking very handsome tonight."

Laedan blushed, and I rolled my eyes. Ever the flirt, she was – no matter age, sex... honestly, anyone who gave her a second look (and naturally, everyone did) became a target for her shameless, yet somehow innocuous, advances.

It was one of the things I liked best about her.

"I tried that move you showed me," Laedan boasted.

"Oooh, let's see!"

He happily obliged, lunging forward with his fighting staff as Callisto blocked his attack instinctively, obviously pleased. I remembered it as the first move Ephiny had taught me so many years ago – or at least, had tried to teach me. Laedan seemed to be a somewhat faster learner than I'd been.

"Tremendous, sweetpea," she grinned. "Did it work on those thugs?"

"Yep! Next time they came after me, I knocked out two and the rest ran away!"

"All right, that's my boy!"

They clasped one another's forearms, warrior style, and I took the opportunity to clear my throat. Loudly. Laedan was still far too smitten with the blonde presence beside him to notice, but Callisto turned to me, receiving a look I hoped would be translated as 'hey, you're not a psychotic bloodthirsty warlord anymore, remember?'

She smiled sheepishly, turning back to the boy and ruffling his hair. "Uh... remember, Lae – words before weapons, 'kay?"

He nodded obediently, beaming as he ran back to his friends. Callisto and I shared a mutually amused grin.

She winked at me. "Jealous, hon?"

"Shut up," I snapped playfully, grabbing her hand and dragging her towards the square, her laughter mingling with the music in the air.

It wasn't long before I realized, though our hands were still entwined, that she had begun to lead me instead, pulling me towards the fast approaching dance floor.

"Oh, you've got to be kidding," I whined, pulling back. "I haven't danced in years."

"Liar," she smirked. "Come on."

I sighed, relenting. "You go ahead, I'm going to need a drink. You want something?"

She shook her head. "I don't drink."

"Ah, that's right," I smiled. "Like to experience life in all its agonizing glory, hmm?"

"Something like that." Her face lit up momentarily. "Though I've found it's not always so agonizing."

We held one another's gaze for a moment, until she shot me a wink and headed off through the crowd. I quickly found my way to the nearest supply of alcohol, tossing a couple dinars on the counter and downing one very powerful gulp of something I didn't recognize but fell in love with at first sip.

To be honest, I didn't typically drink, either. Well – not until the last four months, at least. But since Callisto had arrived, I hadn't touched a drop. I hadn't had any need to. But why now? And what had been my need before?

Maybe I was just scared. Of what, I didn't know.

Pushing these thoughts aside, I downed a second shot.

Maybe I knew this night had more in store than just dancing.

Reluctantly declining a third shot, I headed back outside, squirming back through the crowd until I was close enough to the dance floor, close enough just to see...

Her. In the middle of the floor, dancing, like some normal human being, with some pleasant-looking young gentleman who had, I assumed, required a few drinks himself before mustering the courage to request a dance of the most gorgeous woman at the festival – and Callisto was, without question, just that.

Mesmerized, as if the past weeks had never happened, and the last anyone had seen of her until now was her momentous death at the mercy of the Hinds' Blood dagger... all I could do was watch.

It's Ephiny's birthday, and the evening has been spent in celebration with the entire tribe. Xena and I have mostly stayed by one another's side, except for the one instance in which Ephiny insisted, as a birthday wish, that I dance with her. Seeing as she'd been the one to teach me to dance in the first place, I was more than happy to oblige. And during that dance, I stole more than one glance in Xena's direction, well aware of how little her eyes could hide – how desperately she envied Ephiny those three minutes.

She soon became aware of it, too – and for the remaining minute, she stopped watching.

Tonight is the first time either of us have fully witnessed the extent of Ephiny and Solari's relationship, although I suspect Xena has known. She always seems to know things like that. I can't exactly say I'm surprised, after all. Watching them dance slowly together beside the fire toward the end of the night, joined eventually by numerous other couples in the tribe... I wonder how I couldn't have seen it sooner. I fight back my jealousy, inwardly cursing myself for envying one of my best friends on their happiest day of the year... and through it all, I feel (and try desperately to ignore) every stolen glance Xena sends my way.

We've been seated together, off to the side, watching them all. Our awkwardness as outsiders is inevitable, but it's hardly as intense as one might think. Perhaps we already knew, then...

Occasionally our arms brush against one another, and before long, her hand has casually slipped over mine. Ignoring my racing heartbeat, I look up at her and smile.

'Dance with me?'

She groans. 'Gabriellllle...'

I leap to my feet, grabbing both her hands. 'Come on!'

'You know I don't dance.'

My hands drop hers, planting themselves firmly on my hips. 'You're going to refuse an Amazon princess?'

One dark eyebrow lifts. I mimic the gesture, effecting my most adorable pleading look, and at last she rolls her eyes and allows herself to be pulled to her feet and into the center of the clearing, among the other couples.

The other couples... are we not one of them? In everything but name?

'Okay,' I state, business-like. 'Now, you're taller, so you can lead. You put your right hand – '

A gentle touch of fingers against my lips silences me instantly, and she smiles. 'Gabrielle... I know.'

In a rare break of character, I keep silent for several moments, watching – but mostly feeling – as every part of her body slips into position, as though she's done this every day of her life. I don't dare ask her where she learned it, or rebuke her for never letting me see this side of her before. The most I can manage, by this point, is concentrating on keeping my feelings hidden as ever.

And even that is proving impossible.

Maybe it's the wine, maybe it's the sunset behind us... maybe it's the company we find ourselves in. But one way or another, her hands find their way to my waist, thumbs gently caressing the skin just above my skirt. My arms rest around her neck, and it takes everything in me just to hold her gaze without leaning in to taste her lips.

'Gabrielle...'

I love the way she says my name. It rolls over her tongue, liquidly, like honey... always so deliberate, intense - but gentle, which is the greatest mystery of all. I suspect it has given me chills since the first day I met her.

My lips curl into a smile as she said it, and just as the urge to take her right then and there begins to overwhelm me to the point of dizziness... the music stops.

By the time it starts up again, she's excused herself with the need for a drink of water.

We've come so close so many times, haven't we?

But later that night, we come closer. As close, in fact, as two souls could be. A midnight swim in the lake brings us to our bedrolls, clothed in nothing but lingering drops of water, where before long her hands are far beyond innocent caresses, and my name is falling from her lips in a way I'd never imagined.

She could have been anyone, then. A woman I'd never seen before... a girl I'd grown up with... the town's resident beauty. She was nothing that I'd known, carried no traces, aside from her ever exquisite physique, of the woman who killed by the dozens, arguably ranking among the known world's greatest warriors and most terrifying nightmares. Now she was only a vision, it seemed – a woman in a town square, carefree, dancing with an unsurprisingly awestruck gentleman and throwing her head back in laughter as they moved lightly across the floor.

But it wasn't a vision at all. It was real.

And I couldn't tear my eyes from her.

Finally I gathered myself together and stepped out onto the floor, winding my way through the other couples until I reached them, tapping lightly on the man's shoulder. Callisto's eyes sparkled as she took notice of me.

I smiled brightly. "Mind if I cut in?"

Giving me a brief once-over, eyes lingering momentarily on the weapons attached to my ensemble and the assertive Xena-like gaze I'd planted on him for my own amusement, the man apparently came to the conclusion that my question would be most wisely interpreted as rhetorical. He nodded quickly, though reluctantly, and backed away.

I held out a hand. "May I have this dance?"

She laughed, eyes narrowing playfully, and extended her hand to meet mine without a word. At once I boldly closed the distance between us until not a sliver of moonlight remained between our bodies.

I felt her lips hovering above my right ear. "Aren't you going to let me lead?"

"Why, just because you're taller?"

"And older, and wiser..." At that, I lightly pinched her waist, eliciting a low giggle. "And I don't scream like a girl when I see a caterpillar."

Forcing enough space between us so I could glare at her properly, I raised an eyebrow. "In case you haven't noticed... I am a girl."

"In case you haven't noticed..." she purred, leaning in closer, "you're a woman."

I swallowed, hard, sensing a blush spread over my face. "As a matter of fact, I have noticed," I retorted.

She turned her head until her cheek just barely brushed against mine. "So have I."

That all too familiar rush of heat found its way between my legs as her fingers crept around my waist to the small of my back, drawing me closer until I felt the soft, subtle curves of her body melting into mine.

I could only imagine how many wide-eyed townspeople had glued their attentions to us by now.

Refusing to lose my resolve, I pulled away slightly, reaffirming my position as the lead. Slowly, I began to sense our increasing isolation as the rest of the couples started shrinking to the sides, falling silent and fixing their gazes on us. I felt a warm embarrassment crawl through me, half exhilarated, and half tempted to step out of the spotlight – until I met her eyes again and realized I'd entirely forgotten what I was thinking about.

Where in Tartarus had she learned to dance like this?

Then again, to be fair, the daring contact and bold ambitions of our hands and bodies scarcely resembled anything close to dancing by this point; in fact, I was almost waiting to hear someone yell for us to get a room.

The music swelled to a climax, finishing to find us in each other's arms as we had begun, though slightly more breathless – faces flushed, eyes locked, and hearts racing.

Which, of course, was precisely the moment at which our entire accumulated audience burst into applause and cheers.

Apparently this innocent little town wasn't quite as conservative as I'd feared.

Callisto let one dexterous hand glide down my back, and I hand slid my hand from her shoulder all the way down her arm, entwining my fingers with hers as I leaned in to whisper in her ear.

"Wanna get out of here?"

She didn't need to be asked twice.

We scampered away from the scene, hand in hand, catching more than a few looks along the way from various members of our 'audience' – some awed; some downright disturbed. Laedan, I'd briefly noticed with amusement, had been standing to the side with his mouth hanging open, evidently heartbroken. One elderly woman gaped at us with eyes that could only be described as deadly, and the moment we dodged our way out of the crowd, Callisto burst into a splutter of giggles as we stopped to catch our breath, and I quickly followed suit.

I was doubled over, laughing and out of breath – an otherwise dangerous, or at least ludicrous, combination. "Did you see the look on that woman's face!"

"I think she would have killed us if she had the chance."

"By the gods," I smiled, shaking my head. "We were just dancing!"

"Gabrielle." Callisto took a step closer to me until I could feel the heat from her body, and raised an eyebrow. "That was hardly... just dancing."

"Oh," I stumbled, feeling myself blush. "Well."

Insightful, Gabrielle. Very.

She smiled at me then, and as we began a languid trek back to our inn, I felt her hand slip back into mine. For some time as we drew further from the crowd, the lingering sounds of festivities were enough to serve us in place of conversation. But when they dwindled completely, leaving us in a quiet darkness as we made our way down the street, silence was upon us. Heavily.

I risked a glance up and, meeting her eyes, quickly averted my own.

"You hardly have reason to be shy after that display," she noted, voice smiling, as she nodded her head in the direction of the town square.

"Hey, you weren't all that innocent yourself."

"No... but have I ever been?" she added seductively.

...Touché.

For another minute, we braved the silence and continued down the street.

"Callisto?" I asked finally.

"Hmm?"

"Who were you?"

I wasn't sure where it came from – or, to be honest, what exactly I meant. And I wasn't the only one.

She looked up. "What do you mean?"

"Before... before you met Xena. Who were you?"

"No one," she smiled softly. "I was so young... I'd never picked up a sword before I met her. I... I wrote stories."

My heart leapt. She... what?

"You... you were a bard?" I stammered. "By the gods... you were... me."

"No," she corrected quickly, firmly reassuring me. "No... I was an accessory to her dark side. You were her soulmate."

"What did you write?"

She shrugged. "Fantasies. I wrote who I wanted to be."

"Who was that?"

"I don't remember," she answered quietly. "I stopped writing after I met Xena."

Oh, gods.

She could have been... anyone. A different time, a different place... and it could have been her with Xena all those years. Her... not me. I could have ended up a farmer's wife in Poteidaia with an apron, a frying pan, and six whiny children.

"I'm sorry," I breathed.

She shook her head dismissively, obviously signaling that it was ancient history and not worth my concern. But I couldn't help it. I squeezed her hand, and felt her respond in kind.

"What about you?" she offered.

"What about me?"

"The farmgirl from Poteidaia," she grinned. "Who was she?"

"Nobody, to be honest," I chuckled lightly. "Truth is... I wasn't really anyone until I met her. She brought out the best in me." I felt a sting tickle the corners of my eyes, lowering my voice. "I only hope I did the same for her."

Stopping in her tracks, she brought her free hand up to my cheek. "Gabrielle... you bring out the best in everyone. Even me."

I smiled, leisurely resuming our steps. "We talked about settling down someday, you know. Amphipolis, maybe."

"Really? House, family, the works?"

I nodded. "We wanted to raise a child."

Her voice softened. "Really."

"I don't really know how we would have managed that exactly – guess we'd have had to take advantage of all her connections on Mount Olympus," I laughed quietly. "But... towards the end… that's what we wanted more than anything. Someone who could share our lives... our love..." I stopped, suddenly struck with the awkwardness of discussing one's dreams of your lost love in the presence of your new one.

...Except I didn't love Callisto. I couldn't. We both knew that.

"Oh, Gabrielle," she breathed.

I shrugged absently, my mind having wandered to places I was terrified to let it remain.

"You would have been a wonderful mother," she told me.

Flashes of Hope struck my senses. "I doubt it," I muttered.

"Don't. You forget..." she winked, "I see things."

I fixed a contemplative smile on her features, slowly drawing my hand up alongside her body until I reached her cheek, committing to memory each angle and plane of the face I'd once hated, once feared... and now cherished as the only source inspiring enough to get me out of bed every morning, and into it every night.

"Are you in love with me?"

Wide, chestnut eyes grew even wider, frozen. "I..."

It was a question I'd never imposed before, on anyone – and why would I? Perdicas had been about comfort, friendship – not love. Not that kind. And Xena – well. I can't remember ever not being in love with her, or not being completely assured she felt the same.

Either way, it is an awful, awful question to ask no matter who the receiver, though I didn't realize it until the words were out. It not only put her on the spot, but left her wondering, if she said yes... would I say it back?

Coming to my senses and suddenly struck with the weight of what I had just placed upon her, I shook my head quickly. "I'm sorry – "

"Gabrielle – "

"No, really, I shouldn't have – "

"I'm – "

This was going nowhere fast.

...Which we both seemed to realize, and eventually adopted a strict mutual silence. Simultaneously.

That, however, was not much of an improvement.

"I'm sorry," I repeated firmly. "I shouldn't have asked. I just..." Gods, Gabrielle, you're a bard. You can do better than this. "Can we just forget I said anything?"

Oh, denial. Brilliant. Clearly not a river in Egypt.

She was still staring, almost to a point where I began to wonder if she'd even heard me.

"Please?" I whispered.

Gradually, her face cleared, and a small smile forced its way through. She nodded.

"Thank you." I released the breath I'd been holding for about the last minute and a half, and glanced behind her, noting that we'd arrived back at the inn. "We're here."

She nodded again.

I gave her hand a squeeze and turned, beginning to lead us towards the entrance, where the tavern's door hung open in a comforting invitation, light from the torches pouring into the night outdoors, and lingering clusters of celebratory villagers laughed and conversed inside, their voices reaching us in a quiet, comforting jumble.

But after a single step, I felt my body being gently swung back to its original position, and immediately found myself inches from those eyes that had been frozen only moments ago, now blazing with something I hadn't seen since the first night she arrived in Carmysas.

I was still learning to read her eyes, but some messages were clear as crystal.

I kissed her.

It was small, gentle, only a hint of what we both knew was only two doors and one flight of stairs away. But it was enough to leave us breathless.

I pointed vaguely at the door. "We should. Um."

So we did.

Sophia was busy tending to a table of gleefully drunk young men when we stepped inside, which was fine by me. The last thing I wanted was to be pestered about our whereabouts for the greater part of the evening, or worse yet, our plans for the remainder of it.

Callisto, however, had other ideas.

"Wait here," she purred in my ear, dropping my hand and snaking her way through the crowded room. I watched as she caught Sophia's attention, drawing her in with one of her more classic seductive grins, and pulling her over to a corner of the room where she proceeded to whisper into her ear, gods only knew what. I expected to fight a sudden onslaught of jealousy, but the whole image was too bizarre and entertaining that all I could do was watch in utter perplexity.

After a few moments, and copious amounts of blushing on Sophia's part, the aforementioned scurried across the room, passed me with a demure smile, and vanished into the kitchen. Callisto remained in the far corner of the room, leaning casually against a wall, evidently waiting. I effected a few inquiring gestures, but she only grinned, pausing briefly to hiss at a group of leering male patrons.

At length, Sophia returned with something wrapped in a small white cloth, which she handed to Callisto, earning herself a generous kiss on the cheek. Still in her schoolgirl daze with her face glowing a bright crimson, Sophia returned to her table of inebriated, albeit now immensely observant, customers.

Clutching the package in one hand, Callisto marched back over to me, took my hand with her free one, and proceeded to lead me up to our room.

As we stepped through our door, I closed it behind us. "All right, what was – "

A finger was suddenly pressed gently against my lips, and in the darkness I couldn't begin to guess her expression, or even her proximity. It wasn't until I felt her breath against my face, sending a sensual jolt through my veins, that I realized our bodies were scarcely an inch apart.

"Quiet," she told me.

I heard a soft whoosh, and a low shower of light filled the room from an assortment of candles. Taking a step away from me, Callisto unwrapped the cloth package with a smile and held up a strawberry.

I gasped. "How did you – she never lets me have these!"

"I know," Callisto grinned, popping one into her mouth.

"She even cut off the stems!"

"But of course."

I shook my head in awe. "What did you say to her!"

She shrugged, licking a spot of juice from one finger. "I told her she could join us in a threesome when she finished the night shift."

"Callisto!"

A satisfied cackle filled the air. "Joke, Gabrielle. It's called a joke."

"You're horrible."

"I know."

I smiled. "So am I getting any or not?" One of her eyebrows crept upwards at my choice of words, and I rolled my eyes. "Give me that."

As I reached for the cloth, her hand caught my wrist, placing it gently down at my side. Instead, she fished a particularly flawless berry from the cloth and held it up to my lips. I closed my mouth around it, losing myself in the tart, liquid sweetness, before my eyes suddenly locked with hers and strawberries were the last thing on my mind. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her hand reach behind me to place the package on the bureau, and the moment her hand was free, I caught it in mine.

Her hands were incredible. Slender, like the rest of her, and just as soft, which was the greatest mystery of all. I held it up in front of me, studying her fingertips one by one, marveling at how those fingers each held a boundless capacity to set an entire village on fire with a single burst of impulse; how those fingers were equally capable of murder and tenderness... how those fingers...

...were the same ones that had, of their own accord, wriggled subtly from my grasp and down to the waist of my skirt.

And they stayed there, patiently, as her eyes searched mine for an answer.

The world melted away as our lips met, and for some time we simply stood in the middle of the room, kissing with a languid slowness as though time had stood still. My fingers had taken on a will of their own and managed to unfasten the laces of her top before peeling it away and tossing it to the floor, only to find she'd already reciprocated the gesture. Without warning, the wild mess of blonde vanished from my rapidly blurring line of vision as she dropped to her knees, placing feather-light kisses across my stomach as her hands worked at the belt on my skirt.

And when every last accoutrement had come into contact with the floor, long forgotten, we made our way to the bed.

The difference – among many – since the last time we'd found ourselves in this position was that this time, I still allowed room for lucid thought... which seemed only to magnify, brilliantly, every sensation we were sharing. But it also enhanced my awareness – my awareness that this woman was, well, who she was. A touch on my forearm, a light gasp, though hardly in the same context as they'd been years ago... they made me suddenly and hugely aware that this was Callisto, not merely in name... but in spirit. They were the same eyes that had once housed an unearthly madness, the same hands that had murdered my husband, the same mouth that had ended countless lives through a soft, subtle breath of fire.

And now, as she hovered over me, hands everywhere, one knee slipping between my thighs, my eyes shot open in a momentary panic.

She sensed it instantly, opening her own eyes and halting all movement.

And looking at her then, at the purity and, strangely enough, innocence I saw in those eyes... I realized.

She was the same person... but she had changed. And I trusted that more than I could have trusted a different person entirely.

She didn't speak, but I knew she understood.

Nonetheless, she remained still... and the desperate ache that had settled between my legs was beginning to grow restless.

I swallowed, my breath ragged. "Don't stop."

Still motionless.

"Gabrielle..." she breathed, "I want to share something with you."

"...Okay."

She lowered her eyes, breaking our gaze. "You know that gods have heightened senses."

I nodded, slowly.

"...And that doesn't just mean sight, or smell... or taste..."

Her eyes shot up, carefully gauging my reaction. And it was her timidity of the whole matter that finally lit the candle in my mind. I felt my eyes widen, unbidden, and as she caught my sudden comprehension, she smiled.

"I want you to feel what I feel."

I blinked, sensing the shiver that ran down my back. "But how..."

She touched my lips lightly with one hand. "Close your eyes."

Immediately I shook my head, smiling against her fingers, which she let glide down to my neck. "I want to see you."

The look on her face at that moment is the one I will always remember when I think of her. That look; no other. Nothing from the past, but the look of that moment, right then, the look of someone who was, for that time... completely and finally content.

Or perhaps even beyond content – perhaps, even... in love.

She gently slid her hand lower, resting just above my heart, and closed her eyes. I held my breath – a reflex – and after several silent moments, a deep, heavy warmth began to settle over me in the midst of the blinding golden glow that surrounded us, so intense my eyes had no choice but to fall shut.

The glow faded, and the first thing I felt in staggering degrees was the sensation of her hand stroking my cheek, softly brushing a strand of hair from my eyes. It felt like a million touches all at once, all over, inside and out, driving me absolutely wild.

"You okay?"

I nodded slowly, finding my voice somewhere in the midst of it all. "This is... this is what you... how you feel... all the time?"

"My goodness," she chuckled softly, her voice low, luxuriously liquid, meeting my ears like a musical seduction. "I've barely touched you."

She had a point.

"Kiss me."

She leaned in, caught my lips... and it was fire. Every inch of my body responded, no subtlety, no buildup – just pure fire, shooting through every vein. Every softness was softer, every taste sweeter, every point of contact a climax in itself. Her tongue was everywhere, everywhere except where it was so desperately needed... but she solved that problem in no time. And when her hand finally dipped between my legs, pulled inside by a wet, aching warmth, I was convinced I would pass out in seconds.

I didn't... but I doubt there was a single house in Carmysas that my scream didn't reach.

We must have laid there for half a candlemark, completely still, waiting for ragged breaths to subside, and... feeling. Just feeling. The damp heat of her glowing skin pressed against mine. A long, matted strand of blonde that snaked across my left breast. Her head was pillowed on my chest, arm draped over my waist, and I still had one hand tangled in her hair. Sweat covered our bodies from head to toe, despite my having kicked all the bedcovers to the floor at one point or another.

The heightened sensations had begun to fade, but it was nothing less than perfection.

"By the gods..." I finally sighed, disentangling my hand from her hair and beginning to stroke her back.

She lifted her head to look at me, a wide, silly smile planted across her face. "I take it you liked that."

I answered by pulling her up to me, catching her mouth as our tongues melted into a long, leisurely exploration.

She was radiant as ever when we finally separated, and I brought my hand to her face – almost to make sure she was real. There was something about her, even now – and I would never know how it got there, never know how this woman, selfless, gentle... inhabited the same body of the greatest enemy I'd never had.

Her eyes closed as I stroked her face, and she turned her head to kiss the inside of my palm. I shook my head slowly, either in wonder or disbelief – maybe both.

"Who are you?" I whispered, almost to myself.

She opened her eyes, remarkably unfazed by the absurdity of the question. She brought her own hand up to meet mine, subtly lacing our fingers together.

"I am Callisto of Cirra," she said quietly.

It was all I needed to hear. It meant nothing, really, but it was the truth – the ultimate gift, in that moment, that she could give me.

"...And I am in love with you."

A lingering surge of heightened sensations shot through me – at least that's what it felt like. I hadn't heard the words in months, certainly never from anyone's lips but Xena's. And it was the first time I couldn't say it back.

But she knew that. She must have.

Without a word, I sat up, gently rolling her over onto her back. I lowered my mouth to hers, as though to extract the echoes of her words, unable to believe she'd actually said them. When I pulled back, I offered a small, reassuring smile before making my way down her body. A sharp gasp above me; then the sudden intoxicating feel of her fingers tangling in my hair, gently massaging my head as I closed my eyes and flicked my tongue over her lightly, losing myself in her completely... and gratefully.

VI. Welcome to the fallout...

They say you don't know what you have until it's gone. No truer words have been said.

But on the flip side... that night I learned a variation: you don't know what you've been missing until you have it back.

At least... back in some form.

They weren't Xena's hands... weren't her eyes, or lips. The delicate herbal scents that trailed over Callisto's skin were different from the ones I was accustomed to. Her hair wasn't the exact color of a calm lake at midnight, nor did her eyes match the sky so wholly I could have gone the rest of my life without looking into the heavens, for they'd been right before me, gazing into my soul every night.

No... she wasn't Xena.

But here before me tonight was, I could say without reservation, the most incredible woman alive.

Flawless. The only word that came to mind when I drew my fingers lightly down across her arm. Each immaculate curve that embraced that long, lean figure seemed to draw in every caress I bestowed upon it, pulling me into its rich warmth... and I must have shuddered more times than I can count, intoxicated by the liquid softness of her body.

Enchanting. Utterly magnetic; seductive to the point of madness... just as, once, she had been mad to the point of seduction.

And alive. Wasn't she? Immortal, yes... but it takes more than ambrosia to make you as alive as I'd seen this woman in the past several weeks.

And she loved me.

And my eyes must have betrayed something of my thoughts, because at some point in the wanderings of my mind, she'd lifted her head from my chest to watch me... and it was only now that I noticed.

"Strawberry for your thoughts," she offered.

I smiled, shaking my head as nonchalantly as I could manage. It wasn't often someone turned down that particular request under such intimate circumstances... but I couldn't possibly share these things with her.

"Why not?" she whispered.

I blinked. "Wh – "

"Why can't you share them?"

I rolled my eyes, smiling. "If you can read that one, why can't you read them all?"

She smiled back, though with less assurance. "Bits and pieces."

Absently, I nodded.

"You miss her, don't you?"

My eyes abruptly met hers again, then darted away. "I don't want to think about that."

A long, gentle finger slid under my chin and directed my eyes back to hers. "Are you sure?"

"Yes."

She blinked. I knew she didn't believe me. But she said nothing.

"Well," she finally relented, softly, "I can take your thoughts elsewhere, if that's what you wish..."

Again, a smile, this time fully genuine, as I pulled her down to me.

Her lips left mine after mere seconds, drawing a gasp from my throat, but sensation quickly returned as she trailed kisses down across my neck, tongue pausing at that intensely sensitive spot just below my collarbone and, oh, gods, exactly the way I remembered it from when...

"Xena..."

She didn't stop all at once – as I might have expected. Instead, first her hands stilled their explorations; then, the cool wetness on my chest, as the air struck the skin where her tongue had retreated. Finally, her eyes lifted, meeting mine, almost questioning... as though unsure if I'd actually said it.

"I..." What else could I possibly say? "I'm sorry..."

Slowly, without any discernible reaction, she rose from the bed and fished around the clutter of the room for a small, white shift.

"Callisto... I'm sorry. I just..."

She made no reply, or even an indication that she heard me. Picked up the shift, pulled it on over her head – one fluid, effortless movement.

"Callisto." I desperately needed to extend my vocabulary, that much was certain... but I had no words. "Just... please, I – "

She faced me again, marching back to the bed and plopping down in front of me as she locked our eyes.

"I want you to tell me."

I shook my head. "Tell you... what?"

"Tell me how to bring her back."

"What are you talking about?"

"I want to help. I know there's a way," she insisted, eyes never wavering. "Xena wouldn't tell me. You must know. Tell me."

If nothing else, this woman was direct, in almost staggering proportions – one of the first things I ever realized the moment I met her.

I tried to shake my head. "No. No, it's – "

"WHY!" she demanded, leaping from the bed and standing firmly in the middle of the floor. "I know you need her back, Gabrielle. If you tell me how, I can help." Forcing herself into a calmness, she sat back down beside me, taking my hands. "It wasn't her time, I know it. It wasn't supposed to be like this. I know there's a way to bring her back."

A strange, anxious feeling began stirring in my stomach. How... how had she known? What did she know, even? How much? How... how...

Gods... no. No. It didn't matter; I couldn't tell her.

My eyes began to sting, and again, I shook my head. But this time, no words emerged.

She lowered her voice, and I felt her hands tremble in mine. "I know there's something neither one of you is telling me and I don't know why."

"Callisto," I finally choked, "don't. Don't do this. Don't make me do this."

"Why!"

She shot up from the bed again, staring me down with blazing eyes, and I knew every word that left my mouth was only driving her further over the edge. The truth was the only thing I couldn't give her, and it was killing me as much as it was killing her. Slowly, I pulled myself up, consciously drawing in the deepest breath I could muster. But all the words on the edge of my tongue disappeared when I saw the look on her face, and I knew... I couldn't. I couldn't tell her.

She watched me, breath restless and a flow of tears building in her eyes, just waiting for the push that would send them over the edge.

"I... can't."

"Gods, don't say that!" she gasped, frustration finally driving the flood of tears down her face as she dropped to her knees in front of me, directing those round, chestnut eyes into mine. "Gabrielle… you're meant to be with her. Everyone knows that. I know that. I want..." She swallowed, voice beginning to crack. "I want you to be happy."

Again, I shook my head. My resolve had already won.

"Callisto... you don't know what you're asking."

"I know exactly what I'm asking!" she shot back, back on her feet again, pacing and swiping at the stray tears. "I want you to be happy! That's all I care about. And I can't believe that you – "

"An immortal," I spat in surrender, closing my eyes.

It worked well enough to silence her... but unfortunately, it was only the beginning.

She stared at me for a moment. "What?"

"An immortal," I repeated slowly. "Xena's place can only be taken voluntarily through self-sacrifice in a river of flames... the Flumen Incendio. A long way from here. Far north. Past the land of the Norse gods."

"An immortal." The words spilled across her lips as scarcely a whisper.

Slowly, I nodded. "She can only be redeemed by an immortal. An immortal... with a pure soul."

The tragedy of the seconds that followed can only be seen looking back. In the moment, we both foolishly believed we'd won. I was certain my words, though disappointing, would finally placate her and allow the matter to drop.

...And she, of course... thought she'd finally extracted the answer she'd been looking for.

I only realized how disastrously wrong my judgment had been when I saw the small, barely perceptible smile across her lips.

"Why didn't you just tell me?" she asked softly.

"Because there's nothing that can be done about it!" I fumed. "How many immortals do you know who'd sacrifice themselves so someone else could be with the one they love?"

Her smile, having momentarily vanished at my outburst, slowly returned as she took a step towards me.

"There's one standing in front of you."

I know. My eyes fell shut, having expected nothing less. That's why I couldn't tell you.

"Callisto..."

"You don't get it, do you?"

I opened my eyes when I felt her hands resting on my knees. She was kneeling in front of me, eyes glowing with an exuberance I couldn't bear to kill, but couldn't possibly allow to remain.

"I'm going to bring her back," she whispered.

My eyes were stinging relentlessly, but I forced back the tears. "I can't let you do that."

Her forehead crinkled, eyes searching mine with a frightening innocence. "I... don't understand. I know you love her; why... why wouldn't you want..."

"It's not... that simple," I protested.

"What's not simple about it? You just said it; an immortal..."

"...With a pure soul," I finished softly. "And without it... if they fail the test..."

"What makes you think I'd fail?"

I had no words; could only watch her, letting the slow, terrible realization confess itself to her on its own. When it finally struck her, her face betrayed her shock. Now, she saw. Saw everything – my fear, my doubts, my...

"You," she whispered simply, retracting her hands from mine. "You... you don't think I..."

"I know you've changed," I insisted. "I just... I don't..."

"Just not enough, is that what you're saying?"

"There's a difference between redemption and purity, Callisto!"

She let out a disbelieving laugh, jumping to her feet. "What do I have to be, then, an angel! What more do you – "

"Callisto, if you do this and you fail, I lose you both!"

Silence – a sound that would have been welcome at any other moment but this.

"If you try... and it doesn't work..." I went on, catching my breath, "it's over. You don't come back. And neither does Xena."

They were the words that finally drove her to one of the most out-of-character reactions she could have mustered: She broke eye contact.

"I've already lost Xena," I stammered, my voice rapidly losing strength. "I'm not going to risk losing you too."

One risk I did take, however, regretting it instantly... was wordlessly coaxing her gaze back to mine. And the look in her eyes broke my heart.

"You don't trust me."

"I do," I argued softly. "I do, Callisto... I just..."

"You just don't."

I shook my head helplessly. "Please don't do this."

"Gabrielle..."

Three syllables, but just in those I could sense her voice faltering. Within an instant she'd accumulated enough frustration, enough pain, to regress to movements, gestures, even looks I hadn't seen in years. I watched as she paced meticulously in a small square on the floor, wringing her hands, brow furrowed as though in deep concentration, when in reality it was nothing more than utter confusion... just like a child.

"I love you," she finally announced, freezing to face me. "And you are the purest person I know. Doesn't that count for something?"

My head dropped, painfully revealing my inability to answer. I kept my eyes closed – some vague, desperate attempt to hide – but listened as she crossed the room to the window. When silence finally encouraged me it was safe to return to the miserable reality I'd created, I looked up to find her leaning over the windowsill, absently gazing into the night.

I pulled my own shift over my head, shivering slightly at the breeze floating through the open window, and went to stand beside her.

I touched her shoulder. "It does count for something. You don't know what it means to me. What... you've come to mean."

She wouldn't look at me, nor did she shrug me off, either. Carefully, aware that each movement, at this moment, was far a bolder gesture than I had the right to attempt, I gently rested my head on her shoulder and brought my other hand up to her arm, running my fingers along her bare skin.

"Come to bed," I whispered.

Nothing.

I studied her profile in the moonlight as she continued to stare out the window. Her lips pursed, her brow furrowed, not in anger but frustration, confusion – just like I remembered so well. She'd always been angry all those years ago, everyone knew that. But that was the obvious emotion; never the one I really saw. I always saw the utter frustration, because no matter how hard she tried to make a plan work, she always failed – one way or another.

But this was the first time I wasn't relieved.

After a few moments I left her, crawling back into bed and curling up with my face to the wall. I kept my eyes closed, but it wasn't long before she silently returned to the bed and pulled the blankets around her.

I must have laid there for a full candlemark before my ears caught the lullaby of her steady breathing. When I turned over to look at her, I could see the lines of long-dried tears streaking down her face. I couldn't bear to wake her, but there was so much I wanted to say. Did it even matter?

Unable to bear the thought of where her dreams were taking her, given the circumstances under which she'd fallen asleep... I gently brought my hand up to her shoulder.

"Let her sleep. She'll be okay."

My head whipped around to find the voice's source. Sure enough, the tall, dark figure greeted me from across the room. A strange, half-elated sensation always leapt to my stomach the moment I saw her like this. I could never decide whether it was comforting or simply torture.

I swiped at my eyes, suddenly aware of the tears that betrayed my state.

"Do you want me to go?" she asked.

"No," I answered quickly. "...I never did." The last words had been intended as a silent afterthought, until I realized I'd said them aloud. "I'm sorry."

She shook her head sympathetically, dropping her eyes to the floor. "I'm surprised you told her."

"I'm surprised she even knew half of it."

Xena kept her gaze to the ground. "She asked me if there was a loophole... a way to bring me back..." Her voice lowered suddenly. "There always was before."

"...So you said yes," I spat bitterly.

"I wasn't going to lie."

"Well, why stop there?" I went on, sitting up in bed. "Why didn't you tell her how? Figured you'd just leave that part to me, huh?"

"If I'd told her, she would have tried... and failed."

"She still wants to try!"

"Gabrielle..." she began patiently, in that barely patronizing tone I remembered so well that always infuriated me. "She would have been doing it for the wrong reason – she would have been doing it to earn her redemption. And that's not something you can ever earn." Her eyes locked with mine. "I should know."

I blinked, looking away. "And now?"

"Now..." she finished softly, "she'd be doing it out of love."

I fell silent, allowing my eyes to follow a beam of moonlight to the floor. I couldn't say I was surprised at her words, or their truth. But I still couldn't speak.

"That's the key, Gabrielle. It's not about past, or history... or who she once was. A pure soul is any who acts out of utter selflessness."

I froze as it sank over me... and for the first time, I was afraid of something actually real, not fabricated in my mind. I was no longer merely afraid that Callisto would fail...

...but that she would succeed.

Was I ready to lose her too – even for the sake of the result?

"She's in love with you, you know."

"I know," I whispered, finally meeting her eyes. "And I'm in love with you."

Her eyes darted, then, to a spot vaguely behind me. Being enraptured by her as I typically was, I scarcely dared to notice, or even detect the slight anxiety that spread across her face.

"And I with you," she answered, voice choked, as she glanced back to me. "Always."

She was gone.

I stared blankly at the spot where she'd stood, wondering at the sudden departure – at least more sudden than usual, to be fair – until I heard a rustle of bedcovers behind me.

...Oh, gods.

I turned around slowly, as though if the gesture were subtle enough, it might erase the inevitable. Nonetheless, I finally made the full 180 degree circle and rested my eyes on the sight in front of me: Callisto, sitting up in bed, a corner of a sheet draped across one leg and her eyes watching me unwaveringly. No anger, no disappointment, no surprise... just pain.

Indeed; the truth hurts – even if you already knew it.

I found a space on the bed beside her and sat down, ignoring the slight jump in my heartbeat as my bare leg brushed against hers. She was still watching me; that much I could feel. That terrifyingly steadfast eye contact always came easy for her. But all I could do was stare at her hands clasped neatly in her lap, finally venturing to close my own around them gently.

"I'm sorry."

"No." Disentangling our hands, she pressed a finger to my lips and shook her head. "You have nothing to be sorry for."

But I do, I longed to say. I'm sorry you heard that and I'm more sorry that it's true and I'm even more sorry I can't love you the way you –

"Don't be," she whispered.

Once again, I paid the price for unbidden thoughts in the presence of this strangely sublime, selectively psychic woman.

"I..." was the only word that successfully fought its way from my lips before I burst into tears.

She pulled me against her, enveloping me in slender but surprisingly strong arms as I pillowed my head against her chest, tears dampening the gauzy white fabric of her shift. She said nothing, merely held me, and I could only hope the silence signaled a dive into her own absent thoughts, rather than an attempt to read mine – seeing as at the moment, I wasn't even sure what they were. I didn't know what I was feeling, what I needed, what I wanted from her. From myself. From anyone.

Slowly I lifted myself up, sensing the reluctance with which she released her embrace. Her eyes glowed as I met them, struggling to fight tears, but she wouldn't let them fall. Not now – not when she knew I needed her to be the strong one.

But I knew it was too much to ask.

Cupping one hand around the elegant lines of her face, I felt myself sink into her eyes. "I don't have anything but you."

"Well," she whispered, hand closing over mine, "you have me."

Lost in my own head, I didn't even realize I'd kissed her until I felt her tongue graze the edge of my lips, and I granted her access without a moment's hesitation. It began so gently, so softly – an act scarcely beyond reassurance or comfort. But the moment my hand crept under her shift, the moment a gasp left her mouth... the gentleness was gone. I made some absentminded attempt to pin her down, but relinquished every trace of effort when I felt the godlike insistence of her strength willing me under her power in a rare display of resolve She looked at me briefly for assent, and I nodded, letting her take me, body and soul. I knew, on some level, she needed this even more than I did.

It was the first time she had ever fully taken control, and the rush of it in itself was enough to send me over the edge. I'd never submitted to anyone like this except Xena – never trusted anyone to be able to give myself over so readily; never imagined there'd be anyone else worth trusting.

But there before me, that night... there was.

I fell asleep in her arms, in the blanket of her embrace, of whispers and feather-light kisses. The last moment I remember is the feel of her fingers across my bare back, meticulously tracing patterns, images... and just before I drifted off, the words 'I love you.'

My eyes opened into the first shadows of dawn. Too dark to be awake... but light enough, and cold enough, to realize I was alone.

I stretched an arm across the bedcovers, and feeling nothing but endless expanse of the bed, bolted upright and scanned the room. The bag that had made a home on the bureau was gone; her leathers, her boots – all absent. Their lack only made her lingering presence stronger somehow; I could still smell her on my pillow, that soft scent of lilies and rosemary. I could feel the warmth on my skin from her searing touches.

But I could see nothing.

Nothing, save for the scrap of parchment secured to the table with an indistinct object.

I sat on the edge of the bed, hands trembling, staring at the table for the better part of a candlemark. The slowly rising sun began to encase the room as the moments slipped by, and with each new ray of light streaming across the room, my heart sped up a notch.

"What..." I grin, glancing from her to the roll of parchment in her hands.

She grins sheepishly, shrugging. "Take it."

I oblige, smiling unwittingly at how much she resembles a child in these circumstances, how nervous she gets, how much she desires to please me... and how I'm the only one who will ever see this shy, bashful side of the warrior princess.

"What is this?" I persist.

"Just...things," she mumbles awkwardly. "Things I've wanted to say for years, but couldn't. You know me. Not much for words. I just... well, we've been traveling together six years as of today, and..."

Slowly, I open the roll of parchment, feeling a wave of déjà vu from scarcely three days prior.

"I know your birthday's over, I just, y'know..." she continues hastily, avoiding my eyes. "Didn't want the only meaningful words you've ever heard to come from some beautiful, talented poet..."

"Hmm," I note with a smirk, uncurling the last of the roll. "Afraid I might leave you for Sappho, huh?"

"Shut up," she teases.

As my eyes scan the paper, taking in every mark, every stroke of her quill, vaguely aware of the many other skills those hands possess... my breath is suddenly swept from me. They are words... words I had longed to hear from her lips for as long as I can remember, words of such grace and elegance and love that, even in all our years as partners, lovers, soulmates... I knew she'd felt, but never imagined she would say to me.

I only realize quite how deeply it has struck me when a fallen tear dots the lower half of the parchment, and I snap back to my senses, swiping at my eyes.

"Oh for the gods' own sake, Gabrielle," she whines. "Don't cry."

I let out a small chuckle, ever enchanted by her unrelenting discomfort with romance or any display of emotion in general, and in one awkward motion I throw myself across the bedroll and into her arms, wrapping my arms around her neck tightly and burying my face in her shoulder.

"I love you," I whisper.

"I love you too," she tells me, pulling me closer.

Leaning back just enough to look into her eyes, I smile. "That was the most beautiful thing I've ever read." She tries to shrug it off modestly, but I catch her face in my hands, directing her eyes to mine. "I mean that."

Finally, she graces me with her smile, the most beautiful one I have ever seen. "So did I," she whispers. "Every word."

Gently, I push her down to the bedrolls, and I make love to her in front of the campfire for the last time.

Later that evening, back in our clothing but still basking in the afterglow, we ponder the direction of our lives. Our place in the cosmos. What course we're on, what we're here for. How many more adventures lie ahead, and where we might go to find them.

On impulse, we decide... Egypt.

It seems they're in need of a girl with a chakram.

After more deep breaths than I could count, I gathered the courage to step up to the table and take whatever was coming.

The 'indistinct object' holding the scrap of parchment in place was a chain, a necklace, perhaps the most beautiful I'd ever seen. Hanging from the center was a stone, a ruby, cut to the shape of one of the many Amazon symbols – each one represented a different tribe, and a different attribute of our race's nobility: courage, strength, loyalty...

It took my mind all of four seconds to recall this one.

It was purity.

Hands shaking despite my steadfast will to steady them, I lifted the note from the table and held it to the light.

You are most beautiful when you sleep - did she ever tell you that?

You will be with her soon.

Eve gave this to me the night she asked me to join her tribe. I only regret that I can't offer you my rite of caste in person.

I realize this is what I am meant to do - to make your life whole again - just as you have done for me. You saved me, Gabrielle... the same way you saved Xena.

It's time someone saved you.

Love,

Callisto

I fought the sickness in my stomach, first with a cup of water and then with a strawberry – neither helped.

With my sais securely fastened to my boots, chakram on my belt, and a crimson stone around my neck, I bolted from the room, from the inn, from Carmysas... and from Greece.

VII. Salvation is here...

I hadn't traveled alone since Xena's death... and even then, she came to me nearly every night. I'd never felt more alone than I had those weeks, traveling back from Mount Fuji.

Never... until now.

My first night following Callisto's trail, I rode Aieros long into the night, my mind's restlessness keeping me far beyond the bother of food or sleep. Even now, I'm convinced the stops I made were only for Aieros' sake. I had never made an emptier camp, spent the night in a more silent wood... or gazed into a more lifeless pool of flames as I sat on my bedroll and stared at the campfire.

Visions were attacking me at mad intervals – not the ethereal, mystical kind – the kind, rather, that memories and fear could induce, producing a mixture of flashbacks and terrible self-produced images of every possible future that was awaiting me in the coming weeks.

Every night I waited for Xena. Every night she didn't come. And every night my heart grew heavier, and I suspected further that Callisto had already attempted her plan... and failed.

And every night, before I curled up in my bedroll for what would more likely than not be a relatively sleepless night, I pulled out the now excessively wrinkled scrap of scroll that Xena had given me on our last real, full night together.

You have always been the writer, so why is it I find a multitude of words flowing to me all at once? You are asleep and unaware, and I am awake, trying to force thoughts onto parchment. Your sais rest beside you, instinctively mere inches from your fingers - a sign of a true warrior - and I sit in front of the fire, unarmed, with a scroll and a quill. How the tides have changed, my love.

Six years ago you begged me to take you with me and teach you everything I knew - and since then I have watched you transform before my eyes, every day. There are still things I haven't taught you - things I would never want you to experience. But the truth is, Gabrielle... you have taught me more than I could ever teach you.

Sometimes I regret the life I've led you into, wonder if you would have been better off in Poteidaia – safe, protected, unharmed But I also know you would never have truly lived, if you had stayed. I have made so many mistakes and caused you more pain than I can bear to think about, but at the end of the day when I look into those sea-colored eyes and hear you whisper that you love me, that you will follow me anywhere, that you have no regrets... I believe you.

All the good in me is from you, Gabrielle. Always remember that. You have brought out parts of me that were presumed dead, even parts I didn't know existed. You think I'm the strong one, but it's you - you have strength and bravery that I will never understand, strength that goes beyond the boundaries of physical prowess.

I want so much to be like you.

You'll never know how exquisite you look in the moonlight; shadows and firelight caressing your soft, bare back in ways that I can't help but envy. Their caress permits slumber; mine would surely wake you. It is a torment, sometimes, having to decide between the beauty of watching you sleep and the heaven of waking you to taste your lips against mine.

It has been six years - six years since you flashed me that smile and stole my heart as only you could. Six years since I first woke up beside you and realized I never wanted to wake up anywhere else. Six years, Gabrielle... since my life began.

I will be with you always.

Yours,

X

I had lost Callisto's trail by the second week. My supplies were running out, and hunting targets were dwindling in the weather's escalating chill. I began to grow convinced Aieros was shooting me glances that suggested I was losing my mind, but I suspect that was just the cold, too. Still, I went on, dining on fish and dining in luxury if I was able to defrost them in time for dinner.

On the day Aieros stubbornly made the executive decision not to cross a river of scarcely two feet in depth, we turned around.

It was over.

That's when I saw it.

I don't know how I saw it, or how it was still there. But there it was – a single, miniscule strand of blonde hair, swaying on an eye-level branch.

Allowing Aieros to remain safely in our camp, I went forward alone and on foot. I couldn't hear myself think over the pounding of my heart, but I could see the thoughts unfold. Callisto hadn't known what she was up for, but I did. I had heard enough of the Flumen Incendio... the river of flames – having researched it as soon as I learned of its name and purpose. I knew where it stood, what it did... and how many it had swallowed. And in my mind, all I could see was myself standing in front of a blaze – an empty, blinding blaze... alone. The vision was, in fact, so strong and so unrelenting that by the time it materialized in front of me, I barely noticed.

The fire was deafening. It was odd; usually when you hear so much about a place of legend, it's never nearly so large or magnificent in person as you pictured it to be. But this... this was exactly the opposite. The river must have been half a mile wide, and the flames towered above treetops and out of sight into the clouds. Below, a swirling mass of fierce orange flickered at the waterless river's edge, beckoning its victims, daring the bravest or insanest of souls to test their purity.

There was, however, one difference between the vision I'd been fearing and the reality before my eyes.

In the reality, a blonde woman stood at the bank with her back to me, hair whipped to and fro by the raging winds of the fire, her figure rippling in the waves of heat.

I must have shouted for her; I can't recall. Maybe I didn't say a word. I didn't have to; she would have known either way. She turned slowly, and our eyes met through the smoky haze.

I suppose I must have tried to run to her, but somehow she came to me instead. It felt slow, silent, motionless, and illusory – until contact. And suddenly everything was real again, and loud and chaotic, and I could barely breathe through the smoke and her arms were around me and our bodies were tangled and her skin was touching mine and it was so warm, so warm...

She pulled me back from the river when I began to cough, gently wiping with her sleeve at what must have been a mixture of smoke and tears on my face. She was so diligent and so unperturbed that I almost didn't notice she was crying too.

"You don't look surprised to see me," I said when I could breathe again.

She stopped wiping and looked into my eyes. "I'm not."

My eyes darted behind us towards the fire, and back to her. "You can't."

"Gabrielle – "

"Please." Already cracking with frenzy, I attempted to calm my voice. "I... you... you ca– "

She touched my face. "I can. Gabrielle, I can do this. I have to do this."

"No," I shook my head frantically, holding her hands tightly in mine. "No, no, you don't, you don't have to, you can step away and we can walk back to camp and we'll take Aieros and we'll go home and you don't have to go, Callisto, you don't have to – "

"Gabrielle."

Three soft, assured syllables, and I knew. I couldn't stop her. I couldn't, and she was leaving, and I broke down. I collapsed in her arms, crying dirty, smoky tears and trying to remember how to breathe, how to exist... how to let go.

"You can't," I whispered into her shoulder. "I can't lose you too."

I felt her lips curve into a tiny smile against my neck, and she pulled away to look me in the eye. "I've asked you a thousand times, a thousand ways... you've never once given me a straight answer."

I stared into her eyes.

"Do you trust me?"

...And I did.

I had all along, hadn't I?

I trusted her...

I just wasn't ready to lose her.

But her question wasn't whether or not I was ready... whether or not I was sure, or prepared, or terrified out of my mind. And I couldn't lie.

I choked, "Yes."

And as we looked at each other in that moment, we knew. I had no choice but to accept her decision, and she saw it. And in one wild movement, we fell into each other, nearly swallowing one another with our kiss, and between us in that moment there was more fire than could ever exist in the river that roared in our ears.

Somewhere in it all, I found my voice.

"I love you."

I felt her shiver, a seemingly impossible task in the midst of so many kinds of heat.

"I love you too."

We stared at one another, for a moment. I would have stared forever if she'd have let me – anything to keep her in my arms and out of the fire.

"I'm never going to see you again," I announced, for reasons unknown.

Somehow, she smiled, and it wasn't until after that I would know why. "Yes, you will," she whispered, strangely sure of herself. "Just not in this form."

As she spoke, her hand slipped down to rest just below my stomach, and in the midst of her words I felt my body enveloped by the warm, dizzying glow I had felt once before... which was gone as quickly as it had come.

"Wh– " I began, ever questioning, but she placed a finger over my lips. I waited for her to speak, but she didn't. And slowly, before I realized it, she broke the contact between our bodies, and took a step backward.

Realizing this was it, I was frozen. I wanted so much in that moment, so much I couldn't move or speak. I wanted to step forward, and grab her, pull her back. To say something, to find words, more words, better words, words that would stop her, words that would...

But nothing came, and by now she had backed up nearly to the bank of the river... and I knew it was too late. I could run and grab her and I could find my words... but nothing would change what was destined to be.

With a small smile, our eyes still locked, she gradually turned from me and slowly, slowly, stepped down the bank and into the river.

It consumed her instantly, and in a heartbeat all trace of her had vanished.

Suddenly everything was quiet, at least to me. I couldn't feel the sting of the smoke in my eyes or the crippling heat waves, or hear the roar of the flames. For a solid minute or more, I stood there, staring at the spot where she'd disappeared, unable to acknowledge my own consciousness.

Slowly, I became aware of it again, little by little. The bitter sights, smells, sounds – all suddenly, overwhelmingly, lonely... but somehow my mind began to unfreeze.

And I remembered... it wasn't over yet.

I had trusted her, because I had no choice.

Had I been wrong?

Had she been wrong?

If not... if she was right all along and she knew what she was doing and it had actually worked... then wouldn't Xena...?

I snapped into the remainder of my consciousness, suddenly shooting my gaze around the clearing for signs of another life form. As the feeling reentered my legs, I started walking, somewhat aimlessly, around the edge of the forest, between trees, back in the clearing, darting my eyes everywhere. I debated calling out.

As the minutes passed, I grew more and more frantic. She should have been there by now, if she...

No. Not if. She had to be. She had to be. Callisto promised, she promised, she was so sure...

There was nothing quite like that sensation: mourning the loss of your lover, your savior, while anxiously awaiting your soulmate's return from the dead. The merge of emotions, emotions that should never be mixed so recklessly – grief, loss, dread, anticipation, just a hint of the most overwhelming joy one could imagine, and the devastating fear that it won't be realized...

I circled the area frantically for half a candlemark, finally ending up back in front of the river.

I had found nothing. Not even a cracked twig.

As I collapsed to the ground, a scream of pure agony pierced the air, and it wasn't until moments later that I realized it was mine.

Another half a candlemark I lay on the ground in front of the river, crying out whatever moisture was left in my body, disregarding the heat and roar of the flames or the sting of smoke in my eyes. And when I finally looked up, circling my gaze once more around the empty clearing, the thought came to me.

I didn't ponder it long; I knew if I did, I might reconsider. And I had no place for reconsideration. No place for anything. There was nothing left for me, and no reason to go on any longer, or any further.

And so instead, I pulled myself to my feet, pushing everything aside but the one rash thought that had entered my mind.

And slowly, but unwavering, I began to descend the bank of the river.

I let my eyes close, just as I felt the flames beginning to lick at the soles of my boots.

"Gabrielle!"

I didn't turn right away. I didn't even open my eyes. I knew at this point it wouldn't be unusual for my mind to be playing tricks.

But it came again. My name – closer now, and the voice unmistakable.

But I couldn't turn around. I couldn't turn around and see the empty clearing again. I couldn't.

...And I didn't have to.

Out of nowhere, I felt her strong, solid hand gripping my arm and yanking me away from the river. I vaguely, numbly felt being dragged until we were a safe distance from the bank, and then suddenly and unbidden, I was looking into her eyes.

More astonishingly than that, I was touching her. For the first time in six months. I was touching her, and she was touching me... and she was real.

We didn't speak at first. We must have spent ten minutes staring at each other, limbs inelegantly tangled, frozen in each other's arms, unable to believe it.

And the sane, logical, wise thing to do would have been to grab each other in a massive hug, walk back to camp, and talk all night until we could make some sort of sense out of anything.

But we'd never been terribly sane, and logic and wisdom happened to be justifiably absent at this particular time.

So when she finally kissed me, we just let everything go.

For hours, or days, or the gods only know how long, we lay there on the ground, ripping off clothing and making love and fucking and making love again, tasting and feeling, inside and out, remembering and rediscovering and renewing, and not stopping until we couldn't move another muscle, until we could scarcely stay awake... until we finally accepted the fact that we weren't dreaming after all.

...And then we went back to camp.

When we were curled up together on my bedroll in front of the campfire, it seemed we were finally able to breathe again.

I felt her eyes on me; I looked up, and smiled.

"I can't believe it," I told her, somewhat unnecessarily.

After a moment, she squeezed my hand. "So," she grinned, "what do we do now?"

I laughed quietly. "Still up for Egypt?"

"Your call," she smiled. "You're the girl with the chakram."

Having forgotten I'd even brought it with me, I quickly fished it out of my saddlebag and handed it to her.

"You must have missed it."

"I did," she observed quietly, running her fingers over the metal. Meeting my eyes, she added, "I missed other things more."

"Well, duh."

We chuckled.

"Gabrielle... can I ask you something?"

I nodded.

"Do you... I mean... do you miss her?"

I held our gaze, nodding slowly. "She was all I had. She gave everything to me."

Xena looked down, staring fixedly at the bedroll. "But... do you... miss her?"

"Xena." I placed a finger under her chin, lifting her eyes back to mine. "It's you," I whispered. "It's always been you."

Appeased, she settled down into our embrace, and as one we gazed out into the campfire, losing ourselves in its small, harmless flickers – a scaled-down reminder, it seemed, of what we'd just left behind.

"She's really gone," Xena whispered suddenly, wistful.

Out of the blue, the glowing, dizzy warmth I'd felt just below my stomach when Callisto last touched me suddenly resurfaced – just for an instant, and then it was gone.

But something... something inside me... felt different.

As I realized, my lips spread into a grin.

"No, she's not," I replied, meeting Xena's confused gaze. "Not really."

Epilogue – nine months later.

The room is quiet now; outside linger the sounds of bustling Egyptian maids with clean bedclothes and towels. Inside is filled with a warmth, a silence and peace, reflecting off the décor – an intricately designed bed frame; beautiful paintings by local artists. A basin of warm water beside the bed; a warm damp cloth draped over it.

The bed houses three, though one can scarcely be counted due to size. Gabrielle is wrapped under a thick later of blankets, with Xena curled up beside her. They gaze at a spot directly in front of them, swaddled in a separate bundle, and only recognizable as a real, live person if you look in close enough.

She is beautiful... though her beauty includes traces of features unidentifiable in either of the two women present. The perfect button nose and soft, yellow hair – distinctly Gabrielle's. But the eyes... a shade of fiery, golden chocolate... far too intense to be mistaken.

Xena allows her finger to be clasped by a tiny fist. "What should we call her?"

Gabrielle smiles, and as she does, a glisten of tears sparkles in the corner of her eye.

"Her name is Eve."

non omnia moriar
(not all of me will die)
-Horace

the real

FIN