DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle, and Callisto all belong to RP and Universal. No copyright infringement is intended by this work. The story is copyright ©3/98 WordWarior
NOTE: Not willing to leave any challenge unmet, I've taken up the gauntlet suggested by some readers. This is the result. Is it any good? I dunno, but it's a darn fun exercise to try to see things in a different way than I'm used to. Oh, and I tried to follow the lines of some of the complaints I've seen lately about Xena -- you'll recognize 'em when you see 'em. Once again, it's just me, playing games with character and psychology, seeing what falls outta my head.
"Who Are You, Xena?"
I was looking for a stream. Wanted to wash the blood off. It had been one of those messy fights -- lots of enemies, lots of bleeding, none of it from me. I used to love the feel of another's blood. The smell of it, the consistency -- thick and warm like an enveloping blanket. Because as long as I had someone else's blood on me, mine was generally still safe.
But I don't do that anymore. Enjoy blood, I mean. Now I just fight to help others. I've devoted my life to the greater good and I've given up my dark past.
I had been pushing Argo for awhile, and knew I needed to stop soon. I was waiting until I made it to the forest I could see in the near distance. Figured there might be a stream there, as well. We could both use the rest and I could surely use the bath. Suddenly, the thin hairs on my arms stood straight up. I reined in Argo and leapt from the saddle, drawing my sword in one fluid motion. "Show yourself," I said, and then I heard her cackle. "Callisto." The warlord turned goddess was the last thing I needed.
"Xena," she said, smiling brightly as she shimmered into view. "Look at you! My, but you've been busy. Kill anyone I know?" she asked with a laugh.
"Are you looking for someone to defeat you again?" I asked with a smirk. It's always best to appear invincible around her. Doesn't matter what you think or feel, the enemy only knows what you let them see.
"Oddly enough, I'm not," she said, an almost thoughtful tone to her voice. "C'mon, I'll walk with you for a bit. We can talk about old times, catch up on gossip, lust in our hearts for the complete annihilation of each other -- it'll be fun!" Immediately, she grabbed Argo's reins and began to walk. But my trusty mare doesn't have any gods but me. Argo refused to move an inch. Callisto frowned, darkness filling her eyes. "Make it move, Xena," she said, the cheerfulness of her banter gone now.
Quietly, I stood staring at her for several seconds -- simply to intimidate. Then I casually sheathed my sword, reached for Argo's reins and began to walk, the horse following my lead instantly. A very small victory, and it wouldn't count in the final tally, but whatever the outcome of this meeting, I needed as many marks in my favor as possible. Mortal versus goddess isn't a fair game.
"I just saw your little friend," said Callisto, carelessly.
I stopped, every sense thrown immediately into high awareness. "What did you do to her?" It was more a growl than a question. Some things get right past my defenses and Gabrielle's safety, well, that's the quickest route.
"Nothing! Oh really, Xena, think about it! Would I hurt your little 'companion' without you there as a witness? Would I?"
In her own twisted way, this made perfect sense. "No, I guess you wouldn't." I started walking again and she fell in step right beside me.
"Exactly. We just sat around the campfire, had a nice little chat -- you know, got to know each other a little better. Sweet kid. So innocent and pure, wouldn't you say?" The look in her eyes mocked her words and if I hadn't been on edge before, I would've been after that. She was up to something; was keeping secrets. This encounter, I suddenly realized, wasn't going to be about fighting with swords or finding some new way to bury her. It was going to be about slow, mental torture. And she was in the saddle.
"Are you going to tell me what's on your mind?" I asked, my voice straining under my control. "Or are you going to make me guess?"
"You are no fun at all. Gabrielle did all sorts of interesting things before we got to the point. She picked up her little stick, waved it around a bit, asked about your health..."
"And when you got to the point, what did you say?" I asked, not wanting to hear about the tortures she put Gabrielle through. I needed my concentration to survive, and worrying about my friend would ruin that. Besides, there was nothing I could do until I got back to camp and I was more than an hour away. Argo was still breathing hard from the push I'd given her just before Callisto showed up. I was powerless. So I put my mind toward the demon I had created all those winters ago, and waited for her answer.
"I just asked her a question. And now I'll ask you a similar one. Who are you, Xena?"
I laughed. Was that all? "You know who I am, Callisto. I'm the murdering, warlord bitch who destroyed your family. Is that what you wanted to hear? Well, there it is. Now get out of my way, because Argo and I want to get back to camp." I reached for the saddle, hoping my mare would forgive me for the aborted rest, when Callisto's next question stopped me.
"Why does a murderer travel with a pacifist?"
I fiddled with the stirrup, pretending that had been my intention all along. "What do you mean?"
"You just admitted that you were a murderer. And Gabrielle, well, we both agree she's a sweet, innocent little soul. Why did you let her follow you? Why do you continue to use violence when you're supposedly fighting for good? And why did you try to kill your best friend? Who are you, Xena?"
I put my foot in the stirrup. "Good-bye, Callisto."
"I'll lame your precious horse if you try to leave," she said, pointing one godly finger at Argo's foreleg, all humor gone. Nobody's moods are more changeable than Callisto's, and this wasn't one I was happy to see. "In fact, try anything and Argo pays the price."
Slowly, I withdrew my boot. I turned and glared. She smiled, knowingly. We both knew she'd do it. "Why do you care?"
"I care. I really, truly do. You fascinate me -- but you must know that by now."
"Yeah," I said, fighting back the emotions. Did she do this to Gabrielle, too? Did she ask questions with dark answers? Threaten the things she loved? Was I going to have to look at places inside me I didn't want to see? Her questions seemed almost reasonable on the surface. But reasonable didn't interest Callisto. I could smell the trap, though I couldn't see it. Quickly, I tugged on Argo's reins and quickened our pace. The trees beckoned. Once there, I might be able to lose her.
"Why did you let Gabrielle follow you, Xena? You could've dumped her a hundred times. But you didn't. Why? Why did you take the chance with a sweet young thing like that? Surely you understood how... dangerous... your influence would be?"
Again I could feel my own emotions swell. I'd asked myself this question a thousand times when Gabrielle and I first started traveling together. On the one hand, it was an idiotic thing for me to do -- allow that young girl to follow me into who knew what. On the other hand... "I needed help," I said quietly.
"Excuse me? Could you speak up? I didn't quite catch that."
"I needed help," I said, more forcefully, hardening my heart so that Callisto wouldn't see my softness. "It was difficult, changing who I was. And Gabrielle was... she showed me the way. She's always been so clear on what's right and wrong. I needed the guidance."
"And I'll bet you almost believe that, don't you?" asked Callisto with something close to understanding in her eyes.
"It's the truth," I said, bristling. "I have no reason to lie to you."
"No. No, you don't. But there's an excellent reason to lie to yourself. After all, Gabrielle was a nothing peasant from a nowhere town when you met her. Not unlike a certain Warrior Princess, before you earned that title. You took one look at her and saw yourself. Face it, Xena, you let her tag along because you needed to *prove* that you had no choice when you became the murdering harlot you are. Anyone is capable of becoming a monster, right? You want Gabrielle to be your vindication. 'Look at this wonderful, innocent little girl yet even she hates and kills.' And each day she gets closer and closer to that dark ideal. Why, you should be congratulated! You were right. Everybody cheer, because Xena once again proved, as she did with me, that anyone can be destroyed."
"You're wrong," I said, feeling the color in my face. "I *never* wanted Gabrielle to lose her purity or innocence!"
"Is that so? Huh," said Callisto, holding the nail of her index finger in her teeth. "I guess I misunderstood." She tilted her head, a coy, flirtatious expression on her face, then removed the finger from her mouth with a laugh. "Hard to blame me, though. After all, you insist on putting her in situations which would tempt the most loving of creatures. Your life is filled with vengeful gods, evil warlords, hideous beasts and always, at your side, is little Gabrielle. Did she help you see the path of righteousness when you chased after Caesar in Britannia? Did she scream her pacifist lungs hoarse when you let me die in quicksand? Were you protecting her ideals when you made her set up Crassus to die? Did you take her into your arms in shared grief when she murdered her daughter for you?"
"You don't understand--"
"Oh, but you're wrong! You're doing a fantastic job of slowly corrupting this once innocent village girl into the model of an early version of yourself. Who are you, Xena?"
It wasn't true, I told myself. Callisto couldn't possibly understand what those situations had been like. It had never been my goal to corrupt Gabrielle -- it couldn't be. I fought so long to keep her pure. I would've made any sacrifice...
"And why wouldn't you be more comfortable with a bloodthirsty companion? After all, that's what you've always been. Look at yourself, Xena. Covered head to toe in the drying ooze of strangers. You're quite the hero, aren't you? 'Need a problem solved? Call Xena. She'll kill them all.'"
I could feel my skin contracting as the sun evaporated the moisture from my crimson tattoos. The faint scent of iron surrounded me, the perfume of blood. "They were murderers. They had attacked four villages, killing innocents without mercy. Someone had to stop them."
"And who better than you? But here's what I don't understand. Hercules -- the man you modeled your new career after -- never kills. He doesn't even carry a sword. Sure, he throws people around, but he doesn't take lives. You, however, don't really enjoy taking prisoners, do you? Oh, sometimes you avoid the bloodletting, but in the heat of a battle you want your enemy to stay down. And the best way to assure that is death. Your sword and your chakram -- those aren't toys, Xena. They're deadly weapons. So why do you continue to use violence when you're supposedly fighting for good?"
"I fight for the greater good," I said, knowing I had the answer to this one. "Sometimes you have to sacrifice the few to save the many."
"Is that so? There's no other way, huh?" She was silent for a moment, walking alongside Argo, a smile playing at her lips. She laughed then looked at me from wide eyes. "It's funny. I never realized how hypocritical you'd become. I used to respect your honesty, but really, Xena. 'Sacrifice the few to save the many?' Please. Did you read that in a scroll somewhere?"
"What are you trying to say, Callisto?" I asked, dangerously. I desperately needed my sword in my hand but didn't want to aid her argument. It took all my strength to continue walking calmly beside Argo.
"I'm so glad you asked! I think you kill because you enjoy the Tartarus out of it. I think it doesn't matter at all if you kill for good or evil purposes, as long as you get to keep killing. You kill to feel powerful. You kill because it makes you hot. You kill to show you're better than the other guy. You kill because you have to prove you deserve to live and every time you go up against a sword it's a contest to see which of you survives. But most of all, you kill to prove that you're always right."
"You're insane," I said dismissively. I'd never heard such nonsense in my life.
"Funny, Gabrielle told me the same thing. She was right, too. But that has no bearing here." She skipped ahead of me then walked backward, to maintain eye contact. "You *always* have to be right. And one way to make sure of it is to kill off anyone who could prove you wrong. With your background, one might think you'd be overly eager to spare the villains. After all, you were one of them once. And you changed, right? So giving someone else a chance would seem the natural thing to do."
"I gave you a chance and look what it got me," I said, angrily.
"Oh yes, me. Well, you righted that wrong soon enough. And with the exception of me," said Callisto with a bright smile, "every time you kill another warlord or despot, they can't come back to haunt you. After all -- what if they were to reform? No, no, no! Can't take that chance because Xena has declared them beyond help. They have to die to eliminate that possibility. And what if they seek vengeance, as I did? That would mean you were wrong to spare them. It's so much smarter to just kill everyone the first time, then you don't take any chances. Really, Xena, I admire you for this. You've found the perfect method of always being right. Take Gabrielle's little brat, for instance. You knew she was evil from the moment she was born. You didn't need any proof, did you?"
"She killed a man before she could walk! She wasn't a child, she was a vessel for evil!" Why was this so hard for everyone to understand? I wondered. It was so clear to me. And I *was* right about Hope.
"I hadn't realized you'd witnessed that murder. Silly me."
"I didn't have to."
"Oh, of course not. You'd already made up your mind. 'Vessel for evil' and all that. I suppose it was impossible that she was also a vessel of Gabrielle's goodness?"
"But she wasn't. You saw what she did. Hope killed my son!" Just talking about it hurt. I could feel the pain of discovering Solan's body as if it was happening again for the first time.
Callisto skipped to the side of me, walking too close. I could feel the heat of her. "Little Hope didn't have much of a chance, did she? You forced Gabrielle to lie to you and send her daughter as far from your sword as she could. But what if Gabrielle had raised her child? Taught her right from wrong? Used some of that love and morality that you were so eager to tap into for yourself, on her own child? What would have happened then?"
"Hope would have killed us both in our sleep."
"Really? Well, we'll never know now, will we? Convenient, isn't it? Never having to prove you're right, just making sure circumstances dictate that you are. And Gabrielle lets you get away with this kind of thing all the time, doesn't she? A perfect little companion. Don't you just adore blind devotion? You wear a hero's mask, Xena, but you'll never atone for your past if you insist on killing everyone who might give you the lessons you need in order to grow. Who are you, Xena?"
Argo's breathing was back to normal and I'd had enough of this disgusting conversation. I moved to mount my horse and again, Callisto pointed that goddess finger of hers.
"Ah, ah, ah!" she said and I leaned my head against the saddle. "One more question." Callisto smiled, delighting in my discomfort.
"Get it over with," I said, holding back my temper.
"Even though we've established that you're a murderer at heart, it still surprised me when you tried to kill Gabrielle. She means everything to you, remember? Isn't that what you've always said? So why eliminate the one person in this world you claim to love?"
"I... I was wrong..." I whispered, hiding my face from her.
"Of course you were. But you didn't think so at the time. What made you do it?"
"My son... Solan... when he died, my grief was... it was overwhelming. And Gabrielle could have prevented it. Hope -- she sent Hope right to him. I was blinded by rage and grief. I wasn't myself. Then Ares came to me and I... well, I lost my mind. I would never have done that otherwise." It sounded lame even to me. But how was I to describe what it had felt like?
"She betrayed you," said Callisto, with genuine feeling in her voice.
I looked up sharply and saw the understanding in her eyes. "Yes," I whispered.
"Like everyone in your life betrays you."
"Yes." Can a heart still function when it shatters? I didn't know why mine was still beating.
"Why do you suppose that is?" she asked. "Why does everyone you love betray you?"
"I don't know."
"You look so sad, Xena, I can barely stand it." She reached toward me and I flinched, but instead of touching me, she stroked Argo's neck. The horse nickered, warily. "I'll help you, Xena. I'll explain it to you, so you can stop torturing yourself."
"I don't need your explanations."
"Oh, but you do! Think how good it's going to make you feel, finally knowing the answer. You have been betrayed by everyone in your life because you *want* to be. Hear me out!" she said, holding up a hand to forestall my instant objections. "Caesar, Borias, Petricles, your father, your mother -- oh the list is too long to go into here. They all betrayed you. And when they did, it confirmed what you knew all along -- that you weren't worth being loved. You're a killer, right? And killers shouldn't be loved. People who give in to the darkness, they should be stopped. That's what you do now, hero. You kill the killers. So you made sure you chose people who would hurt you in the end. You even made sure your own parents would try to destroy you. That took some work, I'd imagine. And then there's Gabrielle."
"Yeah, she's the worst of them all, isn't she?"
"Oh hush. Let me finish. Gabrielle appeared to be the one person who would never betray you, right? She loved you so much, hero-worshipped you, looked up to you in every way. And it looked like she wasn't going to fulfill her part of the bargain. But you *needed* her to betray you -- to prove that you weren't worthy of her friendship. So you told her about Lao Ma and M'ing T'ien then left her alone to stew. And when she finally did what she was supposed to do, you forgave her. Why? Because it hadn't been enough. You loved her too much. And she, damn her, still loved you. You needed something bigger. The biggest betrayal you could think of."
For the first time in my life, I began to weigh how much Argo meant to me. If I didn't have to worry about her, then I could escape. The forest was close. If I could abandon Argo, I could leave this conversation behind...
"So you put Gabrielle in harm's way. You can't tell me you didn't see through Krafstar from the start. That slimy little toad? He was too, too obvious. And you're way too smart to have been taken in. But you let yourself get lost in thoughts of revenge against Caesar -- because that's what you do when you're betrayed: seek revenge -- and left Gabrielle to be taken by Dahok. And when Hope was born, you made sure your little friend knew that only a lie could save her daughter. You did everything perfectly, Xena. Set it up like the master planner you are. You got Gabrielle to betray you in the biggest way possible: you got your son killed."
"I *never* wanted Solan to die!" I screamed, my voice raw with pain. This was too much. Too much.
"Of course he had to die! He loved you, Xena! Even without knowing you were his mother, he worshipped you. And that meant he would have betrayed you eventually. Why not get rid of the problem early? But that's a moot point. We were discussing Gabrielle. You got her to betray you so that you had an excuse to kill her. What a perfect way to prove your guilt! That you were, once again, supremely *right* in your belief that you are irredeemable. A killer. Unlovable. And it would have been your most successful yet. Because you dragged her just far enough that she survived, but was filled with hate. And then she pushed you off the cliff. Your dream realized. Your dearest friend finally doing you the favor of proving you weren't worthy of loyalty and affection -- that you *cannot* be truly loved. Who are you, Xena?"
I leapt on Argo's back and dug my heels into her sides. She bolted into a gallop and we flew across the ground into the trees. I closed my eyes, my cheek against her neck, trusting her to take us as far away as possible from Callisto's words.
I had to find a way to stop Callisto again, I decided. Some hind's blood or another avalanche -- something to keep her buried forever. She was too dangerous as a goddess. I needed to destroy her once and for all. I was right to kill her before.
I was right.
The killer of killers.
But never worthy of love.
I pulled on Argo's reins and stopped, now alone in the forest. "Who am I?"
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