The Exchange


The sun was well past its apex, and Xena still hadn’t returned. Gabrielle had kept busy all morning: cooking some salted fish they’d had left for breakfast, scrubbing the plates and utensils — all the plates and utensils — rewriting some scrolls, gathering firewood, all but sweeping the campsite; there just wasn’t enough work to keep her mind occupied.

Why had she let Xena leave when they were both so angry?

She took a deep breath, trying to slow her pulse. Closing her eyes, she tried to visualize the target before her, then swung the staff back up to a neutral position in her already sore hands. She flexed her fingers, and started back into her rhythm, roll left, roll right, slash left and up, roll back... the twitch of her head to throw off the sweat dripping into her eyes. A cool breeze on her back enlivened her, and Gabrielle swung and dodged more quickly, her pulse strong, breathing even, swing behind left, back and roll, slash up and right—

—and hearing the hoof-beats too late behind found the staff plucked right from her hands as the rider pounded by. Gabrielle smiled... then drew back in surprise as she realized the horse was black, not tawny, and the figure swinging the staff skillfully around herself in a blur of motion was blonde, not raven. Using only her legs she brought the massive beast she rode around so they faced Gabrielle.

The warrior goddess turned her shining blue eyes towards the bard. She stopped the staff fluidly and offered one end to Gabrielle. “Thanks, but I don’t need one right now.”

“Callisto!” Gabrielle exclaimed in shock.

Callisto smiled a dazzling and wicked smile. “Hello, Angel,” she said. “Miss me?”

Gabrielle found herself at a loss for words, but was saved by the sound of heavily pounding hooves. Xena barreled out of the brush on Argo, both breathing hard. Xena reined up.

“Xena?” Gabrielle turned a hopeful and questioning look on her partner.

Xena looked from Callisto to Gabrielle and back, trying to ascertain what she’d missed. “I’ll explain later,” she said. She dismounted.

“You’ll explain now,” Gabrielle said, ill at ease.

The Warrior Princess tried to catch her breath. Her tone was impatient. “Gabrielle...” she began.

Callisto, watching the two, still smiling, cut in. “Oh really, Xena, can’t you see she’s worried?” She turned to Gabrielle. “Don’t fret, Angel, you’re safe. There’s no more Velasca to worry about. For that matter,” she shrugged disarmingly, “at the moment, there’s no me, either. To worry about, that is.”

Gabrielle just looked at her, not sure of what to think. Xena frowned at Callisto.

Callisto planted the staff’s end and flicked the other so it fell into Gabrielle’s hands, then swung down from her horse. She turned towards the others, gestured at them with her hands. “Go on, kiss and make up.”

Xena took a deep breath, then took Argo’s reins and led the mare towards the bard. “Gabrielle, I’ll explain everything, I promise.” She offered Gabrielle the reins. “For the moment, could you please take her to that little stream we saw? I’ll be right there.”

Gabrielle frowned, but nodded slowly. With a last look towards Callisto, she led Argo away.

Xena waited until she felt Gabrielle was out of earshot, then turned to Callisto. “What did you tell her?”

Callisto raised her eyebrows. “Not a thing! I just got here.”

“On that beast?” she nodded her head towards the night-mare, “You were at least a half-hour ahead of me.”

“I took the scenic route.”

Xena narrowed her eyes. “Listen, not a word about—”

“I wouldn’t think of it,” Callisto interrupted. She smiled. “It’s part of the bargain. I promise.”

Xena raised a skeptical eyebrow.

The goddess shrugged. “You’ll have to trust me.”

“That’ll be a cold day in Tartarus.”

Callisto smiled with her eyes. “Oh there’ve been those.” She lifted her lips in a broad grin. “All in a good day’s torture.”

Xena pursed her lips. “Stay here,” she turned to follow Gabrielle.

The smile vanished. “Don’t order me.”

“Please,” Xena sighed, pausing.

It came back. “Pretty please,” Callisto said.

*  *  *  *  *

Argo drank deeply from the brook as Gabrielle brushed her flank in long strokes. The bard’s head was buzzing. The very air seemed charged. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d brought Callisto here with her dreams. But that was ridiculous, the dreams were obviously Callisto’s doing in the first place; Xena had dreamed of her too.

So why wasn’t it fear that Gabrielle was feeling, instead of this secret thrill?

In her dreams, she had been to places she had been before, yet never seen. Remembered moments she had never lived, met people she knew, yet had never known. And all the while with Callisto by her side. Not this Callisto, the capricious and volatile one, but some other, who smiled genuine smiles, with eyes of brown that windowed a happy soul, not these of blue that showed only cold flame behind.

Xena stepped down to the bank, interrupting her thoughts. Gabrielle watched her as the Warrior Princess crouched down to drink a palm-full of water.

“Did you have to bring her here?” the bard asked.

“I didn’t bring her anywhere,” Xena answered, not looking at her. “She was here last night, remember?”

Could Xena read her thoughts? The question behind her question? Gabrielle resumed her brushing. “When did she get out?”

“I don’t know. From the looks of what I saw, it was probably recent.” Xena bent lower and splashed the cool water on her face. “I’m guessing she had help, too.”

“From who?”

“I don’t know that either, yet.”

Gabrielle hesitated a moment. She looked over her shoulder. “And Velasca?”

“She claims to have destroyed Velasca,” Xena met her eyes.

“Do you believe her?”

Xena shrugged. “There aren’t very many who could fight Callisto as a mortal. As a god... well, it wouldn’t surprise me.”

She patted Argo’s flank and stowed the brush in her saddlebag. “And now we have to deal with her.”

Xena stood. “It’s not like that, Gabrielle.”

The bard looked at her.

“She wants my help.”

“Your help??” Gabrielle furrowed her brow.

Xena turned away. She crossed her arms, walking along the bank. Gabrielle could swear she was fidgeting. The bard let it come naturally, not forcing. “Gabrielle,” Xena said at last, “do you remember when we fought off the mercenaries outside the temple of the Fates?”

“Yes, I remember. You were there to honor Lyceus, like you do every year.”

“I—” She had to clear her throat. “I’ve never told you all of what happened there.”

*  *  *  *  *

Alone in the campsite, Callisto stood stock still and breathed the pungent traces of smoke from the dying fire. She tried to concentrate, let her senses soar as she’d done before, but her horse was prancing restlessly back and forth, moving in circles, snorting flame.

“Settle down, girl,” Callisto soothed the mare. “Running about in circles like that... what, are you going to sail off in a whirlwind as well?”

The horse tossed her head. Callisto stepped to her, taking the reins gently, patting her nose. “Why that’s it! That’s what I’ll call you... Whirlwind.”

Callisto looked off in the direction the others had gone. “Now listen,” she told the mare, “You really must calm down. The little one, you see, she’s a tad nervous around horses.” She cracked a broad smile. “And I’d almost be frightened of you.”

She stroked Whirlwind’s flank and murmured softly to her until she calmed down, then Callisto went back to the dead fire and sat down on a log beside it. She closed her eyes.

Soon, Callisto thought, very soon now.

Penthia, what quilts have you woven in all this time? Was there one for my sister’s wedding? Did she marry that drover, perhaps, what was his name? Wilhem? Did you sew her gown? Did I get to weave some of the lace?

How many hours had she spent amongst the tall grass behind her home, waiting for her mother to call her back to her chores? How many gentle scoldings had she gotten for sneaking out on moonlit hikes beyond the village? Had she convinced her mother to let her travel all the way to Athens, as she’d once dreamed in that field, to tell her many stories at the Academy? Or had she spent her years as a wild game hunter, as she’d also imagined she might?

Callisto thought of that day in Tartarus, when Xena had first made her face all those souls she had loosed, made her see the horror of her own crimes. The face of her own mother, eternally young, so sad at how she had turned out.

Mama, will I have made you proud this time?

*  *  *  *  *

Gabrielle returned to the camp alone; Xena was still watering Argo. Callisto’s horse seemed calmer now. The goddess herself sat, eyes closed, by the fire’s embers. Gabrielle cautiously approached, and sat beside her.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked.

“Angel...” Callisto smiled, opening her eyes.

“It’s Gabrielle,” the bard said firmly.

Callisto rolled her head, her tone dismissive, “Angel... Gabrielle...” Her eyes widened as a thought came to her, smiling, “Gabri-angel. Ooh, I like that. Gabriangel...”

Gabrielle shook her head, snorting, and started to get up.

“I was thinking about what it will be like to have a mother again,” Callisto said. Gabrielle stopped, looked back at her. “What it will be like to have a sister again.” Her eyes lingered on Gabrielle, her expression seemed a little more serious to the younger woman.

Gabrielle sat back down. “It will be like you haven’t seen them in years, you know. Xena told me what it was like for her, with Lyceus.”

Callisto shrugged. “Won’t matter.” She hugged her arms to herself, her head back. “I can just imagine that feeling creeping over me, knowing they’ve been there.”

Gabrielle watched her. She opened her mouth, but hesitated before speaking. “Callisto... is part of this... to give you a new start?”

Callisto rolled her head to look into Gabrielle’s eyes. Her mouth twisted into her wicked half-smile. “Haven’t we already played this game, Gabriangel?”

Gabrielle looked away. How could she have dreamed it would be different?

“So you want to know if I’m sorry for all the things I’ve done in my miserable life?” Callisto asked, surprising her.

Gabrielle looked at her. She nodded.

Callisto closed her eyes again, hands on the log, rocking slightly back and forth. “What’s the point in thinking about it? By this time tomorrow they won’t have happened.”

“Is it that easy for you? Can you just wish that guilt away?”

“I suffered for months in Tartarus for what I’ve done! And that was the good part.” Callisto snapped. “I was trapped in that lava statue, unable to move, unable to breathe, for even longer! Is it so much to want that gone?”

Gabrielle just looked at her. “Months, huh? How unfortunate.”

The blue eyes swiveled to face her, bore into her causing physical pain. Her voice was ice. “And how long do you think Xena will suffer there, Gabrielle? Having killed a hundred times what I did? Or did you think that because she’s changed her spots, she can just waltz into the Elyssian Fields upon her demise now?”

The younger woman could say nothing.

“When this is finished,” Callisto turned her gaze to the campfire, “all my crimes will be undone. That’s more valuable than making me suffer, don’t you think?”

“I guess it is...” Gabrielle said honestly.

“Gabriangel.” Callisto cocked her head. “You are like an angel, you know.” She exhaled. “You even forgave me. But then, I wasn’t around at the time,” she smiled. “Still, it’s very sentimental of you.”

“You didn’t like that in Xena.”

“In Xena it’s an hypocrisy,” Callisto snapped. The anger vanished as quickly as it surfaced. “But in you... you’ve always been like that.” She looked to the trees, where Xena was just now emerging. “It must be comforting for someone like her, being around you. For someone with a dark past.”

Callisto stood as Gabrielle thought on that. “Is it time to go yet?” Callisto asked.

Xena shook her head as she led her horse into camp. “It’s a long trip, and Argo is still winded. Let’s have something to eat, shall we? Gabrielle, get that fire going again. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Callisto threw up her hands as Gabrielle began to comply and Xena turned back towards the woods. “Oh, please. You’ll be at it for hours.”

Xena raised an eyebrow.

“Let’s get this over with,” Callisto said, and waved her fingers at the fire. It was suddenly a healthy blaze. Above it was a succulent looking, and delicious smelling, spitted boar. She winked at Gabrielle. “Who’s hungry?”

V: Reunion