Leaning back against a bale of hay, Ares reflected with mild surprise that he was in a pretty good mood.
Of course, it was ludicrous for a god -- all right, a former god, but especially the former God of War -- to be even remotely content under the circumstances. Here he was on a dilapidated old farm, hiding from a bunch of homicidal warlords who'd put a bounty on his now-mortal head, wearing what looked like some bedraggled peasant's hand-me-downs. Various parts of him were still aching from the tumble he'd taken earlier trying to fix the roof, and from getting roughed up by one of the bounty hunters while posing as a farmer to fool them. And yet as he sat in the sunlit barn, stroking the shaggy fur of the mutt who had befriended him and watching the love of his life milk a cow, he was -- well, he was actually enjoying himself.
He did hope that before this rustic interlude was over, Xena's irritating little friend would go off somewhere and give them some time alone. He had another chance with her, he could feel it, no matter what she'd told him before about a one-in-a-billion shot. She cared about him, or else she wouldn't have taken him to her grandparents' farm after learning that the warlords were after him. Admittedly, it was humiliating to hide instead of fighting them at her side, as he had wanted. But things had been so good between them these past couple of days -- the comfortable closeness -- the playful bickering -- the way she talked about how great it was that they could all sit together in front of the fire ...
Xena's voice spilled into his reverie. "Double squeeze takes too long."
"Nah, you get more milk that way. It's easier on the cow." Gabrielle giggled as Xena sent a thin jet of milk in her direction.
Ares shook his head and laughed. "The Warrior Princess and the Battling Bard, discussing the correct technique for milking a cow. Absurd -- and yet at the same time..." -- he paused to let them think he was about to say something sappy -- "... ridiculous."
Xena shot him a wry look, pointing a finger at him. "It's important."
He chuckled, watching as she returned to her task. The brown country-girl dress she was wearing was just as preposterous as the rest of this setup -- but damn, she looked good in it, the light fabric clinging to the curves of her body, her relaxed posture only hinting at the graceful strength of her limbs…
There was a noise outside, and Horace stirred, pricking up his ears. Then, a squeaky though identifiably male sing-song called out, "Hello? Anyone there?"
"In here!" said Gabrielle.
A gray-bearded man wearing a turban and long motley robes pranced into the barn.
"I'm sorry to bother you," he said with an unctuous little bow, "but I was wondering if anyone had seen my dog."
"Your dog," Ares repeated, with a sudden, embarrassing flutter of anxiety in his chest. Before he could continue, Horace yelped and jumped to his feet.
"Tha- tha- that's him!" The man's wrinkly face spread in a broad grin. "That's him! It's really him! It's Milo!"
"This is your dog?" Xena asked.
"Ye-es," the man drawled. "I was passing through here a couple of weeks ago -- I'm a peddler, you understand -- and he ran off during a thunderstorm. Milo, you bad boy -- I've looked for you everywhere! Did you find him here?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle said. "He was running around the grounds."
"And stealing us blind," Xena chimed in.
"Oh, oh -- " the peddler chuckled apologetically -- "that's my Milo all right. He loves to take things and bury them..."
"You ought to keep a better eye on your damn dog," Ares snapped. Oh no... he was not getting upset over this!
"Sorry, so sorry, sir. I hope he wasn't too much trouble. Well, this is definitely my lucky day... Here, boy!"
The dog turned to Ares and looked at him with those funny eyes of his, one blue and one gray, and then nuzzled him and licked his face. Ares blinked. Great -- anytime now he was going to start bawling like a kid who'd lost a toy. He lifted his hand and patted Horace on the head.
"Maybe he wants to stay here," Gabrielle said.
"Here you go!" The old man was waving a bone he had produced from his pocket. "Come to Daddy, Milo!"
The fickle animal bounded toward his master, but then froze in place and turned back to look at Ares, tail wagging uncertainly, confusion written all over his spotted muzzle. After taking a few steps toward Ares, he fidgeted, whimpered and trudged toward the old man, only to stop again and turn his head, barking a couple of times as if pleading for help. The peddler resolved the dog's plight by walking over and picking him up.
"Thank you for taking care of him!" he said, beaming. "I just can't tell you how glad I am to have him back. Come on, pooch!"
The dog gave another plaintive yelp as the old man waddled away from the barn. Ares rose to his feet, staring after them. Xena came up and gave him a sympathetic squeeze on the shoulder, and he realized that his distress was plain on his face.
"Damn," he muttered.
"Hey," Xena said. "Sorry about that."
"I'm going to change," Ares said abruptly and headed for the house.
Mortality sucks, he thought savagely as he pulled off the peasant togs and kicked them into a corner. Physical pain and discomfort were bad enough; he had been prepared to deal with that, from his previous brief experiences as a mortal. Being at the mercy of his emotions like this was far worse. It was one thing to get agitated over Xena -- she'd had that effect on him even as a god, though not nearly to the same degree -- but some stupid animal? All right, so he'd started to like having the mutt around and to enjoy its overeager affection. So he'd gotten a ridiculously warm and fuzzy feeling when the dog tried to defend him during the confrontation with Gascar's men. Still, it wasn't as if he had lost anything important...
Dressed in his leather pants once again, Ares came out into the main room. A single sunbeam that cut through the shadows, with golden specks of dust shimmering in its soft haze, gave just enough light to show what a mess the place was, and made the rest of the room seem even murkier. Xena stood by the rickety table, pouring milk from the bucket into a tall clay jar. The women stopped their conversation and looked at him.
"Gabrielle is going to try to get your furry friend back," Xena said.
"You mean, go after the old codger, kick the crap out of him and grab Horace? I approve."
"No." Gabrielle gave him a tolerant little grin. "I'm going to talk to him. Try telling him that maybe Horace will be better off staying here."
"Hmph." He cocked an eyebrow at her. "I guess those people skills of yours may be good for something."
"Thank you, Gabrielle," Xena said rather pointedly, pressing Gabrielle's hand. The bard smiled back at her and went outside.
Things were definitely looking up, Ares thought as he listened to the fading hoofbeat. Then he realized that he was alone with her, and he hadn't the slightest idea what to say.
"You want some?" Xena asked.
He flinched. "Huh?"
"Milk." He thought she actually blushed a bit but it was hard to tell in the semi-dark room. "You want some milk?"
She poured the white, frothy liquid into a mug and handed it to him. Ares took a sip and gave her a startled look. Xena lifted an eyebrow.
"Don't tell me you've never had milk before."
"It's ... warm."
"Well, of course. It's fresh from the source."
He quirked his lips and sniffed, wincing a little, but finally decided to drink it. It was creamy, with a sweetish taste. He drained the mug and put it down.
Xena looked at him with a faint smile. "You have..."
She reached out and ran her fingers over his mustache, brushing his lips. Suddenly struggling for breath, Ares wondered dizzily what she would do if he kissed her fingers. She pulled her hand away, a bit too abruptly.
"There... it's off."
He couldn't think of anything coherent to say, or anything to do except stare at her, breathing in the faint scent of her sweat. Funny how in this half-darkness, her eyes seemed light brown instead of the usual piercing blue... Her mouth opened slightly; then she clamped it shut, her jaw rigid. His ears were ringing, and he felt as if he'd been hit by a gust of icy wind followed by a blast of hot air.
Xena turned away and put a lid on the milk jar, then moved about some mugs and bowls on the table. After a pause that seemed like it would never end, she said, "Don't be upset. If Gabrielle doesn't get Horace back, we'll get you another dog."
"I don't want another dog. I want Horace."
She turned back toward him and smiled again -- and then, without really thinking, he took her hand, looking straight at her, and said, "I don't want another woman, either."
"You only want Horace?" she joked feebly, but her eyes were soft and almost fearful. Holding his breath, he moved closer. Xena tilted her head, her eyes half-lidded now, and they both leaned forward, almost imperceptibly, until their lips touched.
Slowly, they deepened the kiss; Ares took Xena in his arms and felt her arms lock around him. Her body was warm and supple, her full breasts pushing up against him, her nipples hard under the thin fabric. Ares' heart was nearly jumping out of his chest, and his arousal was both intensely pleasurable and almost painful, trapped as he was in the tight leather. For once, this kiss was both tender and passionate, and as her tongue caressed his lips and swirled inside his mouth he thought dimly that one could die from such bliss.
When he opened his eyes, her face was flushed, her lips swollen. He bent down and kissed her neck, savoring the tender skin, feeling the beat of her pulse underneath. She moaned softly and moved her hands down, stroking his back.
Ares lifted his head and whispered raggedly, "So -- how long do you think we have before your little sidekick walks through that door?"
Before he'd finished saying it, he knew it had been the wrong thing to say. Xena's body tensed immediately, and then she was pushing him away and wrenching herself out of his arms.
"I can't do this," she murmured breathlessly.
He stepped back and gaped at her, bewildered.
"What's the matter?"
"I can't..." She looked down. "I can't ... this is wrong."
"Wrong?" He was getting angry; she couldn't be playing games with him, not now, not anymore. "Why?"
Xena finally raised her eyes and gave him an odd, guilty look.
"I can't do this -- to Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle? " He squinted at her. Unbelievable. Of all the excuses... "What in Tartarus does this have to do with Gabrielle? What, she thinks I'm so hideously evil that she can't stand the thought of your being with me? And this is after I -- "
"Ares." Xena shook her head. She looked like she was bracing herself for something, and all of a sudden he was afraid. "Gabrielle and I -- " She tarried for another moment and took the plunge. "Has it ever occurred to you that Gabrielle and I were -- more than friends?"
"More than -- friends," he repeated, stupefied. It was just a joke, she was just teasing, he told himself even as he knew with perfect clarity that it was true. His mouth was very dry, and the room now seemed a lot darker than before. He leaned heavily back against the table. There was a loud thud; something wet and thick covered his hand, and he realized he'd knocked over the milk jar.
"Damn," Xena muttered. She quickly set the jar upright to salvage whatever was left and grabbed a rag to mop up the milk.
"You and Gabrielle..." Ares tried to collect his thoughts. "You mean, you -- you prefer girls."
She stopped mopping. "It's not about preferring girls... You know it's not about -- not wanting you. It's about ... me and Gabrielle, that's all."
"Oh, it's all about you and Gabrielle." For a moment everything else he felt was pushed back by a surge of anger. "And that's why you were kissing me just now -- "
She flinched slightly and stiffened. Then she started mopping again.
"So how long has this been going on?"
Xena said nothing, and he repeated, "For how long?"
"Since ... " She sighed. "Since about three years after we first met."
"And it never occurred to you to tell me about this?"
"Like when?" Her voice suddenly had a hard edge.
"Oh I don't know." He didn't want to sound bitter and sarcastic, but something inside him was goading him on. "Like when I told you I was willing to give up my godhood and take on all the other gods to protect you and your kid -- if I could spend the rest of my life with you. That might have been your cue to say, 'You're wasting your time, Ares, I already have a girlfriend.'"
Throwing aside the soaked rag, Xena whipped around. Her eyes were narrow and bright.
"You mean, when you were using my baby's life as a bargaining chip to get me into bed? You think I owed you an explanation then?"
He felt the blood pounding in his temples. If she had punched him in the face, it would have hurt less.
"It wasn't like that," he said, his voice breaking. "I loved you -- you know I did..."
Her glare dissolved into a sympathetic, pained look. "Ares... what's past is past -- I don't want to rehash that. You know you didn't give me a lot of reasons to trust you, back then." She paused. "And besides -- I always thought that maybe you knew and didn't care."
"You thought I knew?"
"Well -- after all, you were a god."
"Yeah, rub it in, why don't you," he snapped. "'Really, Ares, for a god, you were blind as a bat!'"
"I didn't mean it that way."
Ares stared silently at his boots, breathing hard.
After a while, she said, "I always told you we couldn't be together..."
"Dammit. All this time, I thought that if I could just prove myself -- prove that I loved you, that I wasn't bad for you..." His throat clenched painfully and he trailed off.
"I'm sorry," she said, putting a hand on his arm. He shuddered and moved away.
"Don't touch me."
There was another silence. Then he said, "And I saved her for you. If that doesn't make me the world's biggest chump..."
"Maybe it makes you very noble," Xena said quietly.
He gave a short, nasty laugh. "Noble? "
"Once, Gab- –" she stumbled a bit -- "I helped some peasants defend themselves from a gang of thugs who were preying on the local villages. There was one man, Timeas... he had been engaged to his childhood sweetheart, except she fell in love with another man -- the new village schoolteacher -- and ended up marrying him. One night, about a month before we got there, the bandits attacked and torched some houses, and the school too. The teacher was inside -- he'd gone in to copy some scrolls and fallen asleep at his desk. No one knew he was there, and by the time they heard him screaming, everyone thought it was too dangerous to go in. And Timeas went in and rescued him." She paused and added, almost wistfully, "We fought side by side against the bandits later, Timeas and I. He was one of the best men I've ever met."
Maybe she was right, Ares thought; at least he'd made her happy by giving Gabrielle back to her. Then he was furious, at her and at himself. She had led him on and used him -- and now she was trying to pacify him with a feelgood story and he was lapping it up.
"So what happened to this paragon of virtue?"
Xena's eyes flickered. "I -- I don't know."
He gave her a probing look.
"You do know, don't you? Only it messes up the moral of your story. What, he ran off with the girl later on?"
"No," Xena said slowly. "He ... he left the village and went to a nearby town to start a new life."
"And then what?"
She avoided his eyes. "He started drinking... He got worse and worse, until he ended up begging in the streets. I heard he died a few years later."
"So your hero drank himself to death. Not a bad idea."
He walked briskly into the back room where he had left his things, and put on his vest. Then he remembered that he had no money. His ring; that should do.
When he came out, Xena stood by the door, a worried look on her face.
"Where are you going?"
"To start a new life. In the first tavern I can find."
"Ares ..." She reached out toward him.
"Ares, listen to me." She put her hands on his shoulders and he wanted to push her away, but her touch was so warm, so gentle. "Please ... I don't want to see you hurt."
"It's a little too late for that," he said hoarsely.
"Please -- after everything we've been through, can't you just -- be glad knowing that we're friends now -- that I care about you?"
Her eyes were tender and slightly moist, and Ares knew his anger was slipping away. He wanted so badly to kiss her again.
He swallowed. "Xena..."
Just then, footsteps creaked on the porch. Xena stepped back abruptly. The front door swung open and Gabrielle announced, "I'm back!"
She came in and gave him an apologetic smile. "Ares ... sorry, but I wasn't able to get Horace back -- the man wouldn't even hear of parting with him. Now, don't look so glum," she added brightly, "we'll get -- "
"You," Ares said, almost choking with rage. A memory came over him of how the two of them had played him in Amphipolis years ago -- how Xena had promised herself to him if he protected her child from Athena, and Gabrielle put on a show of distress to convince him that the offer was for real -- and how the little bitch stood there and smirked when, after helping Xena, he realized he'd been tricked. It had been annoying enough then; now, the thought that all that time, she actually had what he so desperately desired nearly drove him mad.
She blinked at him, puzzled. "What?"
"I bet you got off on knowing how much I wanted her -- didn't you," he snarled. "I should have slapped that smug little grin right off your face."
Gabrielle's stunned, open-mouthed look might have given Ares a small measure of satisfaction, but he felt too wretched even for that. He swept past her, deliberately jostling her, and walked out.
* ~ * ~ *
Recovering somewhat from the shock, Gabrielle started to ask, "What was -- ?" but was cut short by the alarmed neighing of her horse, left tied by the porch. That was followed by a rapidly receding clatter of hooves.
She dashed outside, with Xena behind her, just in time to see Ares galloping away.
Xena put a hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle glanced at her warily. "What's going on?"
"I'm going after him." Xena's face had the intense yet emotionless look of total focus that Gabrielle knew so well. She stepped off the porch but Gabrielle gripped her arm.
"Wait, wait. What happened?"
"I'll tell you later."
Gabrielle's bewilderment was giving way to a vague dread.
"No," she said quietly, making Xena turn around with a start. "Tell me now."
Xena stared at her silently, her mouth tight. Gabrielle thought back to what Ares had said; it could only mean one thing.
"You told him about us."
"Yes, I did."
"I had to, Gabrielle. I couldn't keep stringing him along."
Gabrielle frowned slightly. "And how did your conversation happen to take that turn?"
Xena looked down, and just then Gabrielle realized that something odd had caught her eye when she came into the house, before she was distracted by Ares' outburst. She peered inside through the half-open door. There were white streaks on the floor and the tabletop, and a sopping wet rag on the edge of the table that dripped a grayish liquid.
She looked at Xena again, and wondered how she could have missed it before -- the shiny puffiness of her lips, the reddening spot on her neck. Something inside Gabrielle's chest coiled into a knot, momentarily squeezing the breath out of her.
"Of course. I leave you alone with Ares for half an hour and you're already knocking over milk jars!"
Xena flinched. "Look, nothing really happened..."
"Really. Well, I'd hate to see your idea of something." The words were burning Gabrielle's throat; she knew she was being vicious yet she still wanted to say those things, to punish both Xena and herself. After everything they'd been through together -- to think that Xena would risk throwing it all away because she'd taken a fancy to Ares! Then again, Gabrielle thought, she should have known ... maybe she had known. Xena had always wanted Ares, and now that he was mortal, now that she didn't have to be afraid that he'd pull her into the darkness...
She shook her head bitterly.
"I should have known."
"Gabrielle -- dammit, Ares just rode off alone -- unarmed." Xena's voice dropped to a hiss. "There's an army out there trying to kill him. This really isn't the time for -- "
"For what? A jealous spat?" Gabrielle knew she should be furious, but she felt too numb for that -- too numb even to find any comfort in Xena's horrified look.
"Oh, Gabrielle -- " Xena reached out to touch her but Gabrielle shrank back. "I didn't mean that, I didn't mean it that way ... Please trust me -- nothing happened, I stopped it -- I stopped it because of you..."
"Oh, because of me," Gabrielle said quietly. "I'm sorry I'm keeping you from what you really want."
"No -- you know it's not true..." Tears were welling in Xena's eyes. "All I want is to spend the rest of my life with you... I swear, nothing is going to change that."
Gabrielle didn't resist when Xena hugged her and stroked her hair and her neck -- but she stiffened her body, not wanting just yet to give in to the hold of those strong arms, to the touch of those hands that had enough tenderness in them to make her feel loved no matter what. At last she relaxed, shivering a bit, and hid her face in Xena's shoulder. She felt Xena’s soft breath on her hair, and the whisper, "I would never betray you. You know that, don't you?"
Did she? What they had, Gabrielle told herself, was so much greater and deeper than any attraction Xena might feel toward Ares. The thought of Xena in Ares' arms, kissing him, making those low throaty sounds she made when she was excited, still clawed at Gabrielle from inside; but how could she doubt that they would always be together? Of course I believe you. She nodded, pressing her face deeper into Xena's shoulder.
Xena leaned over and kissed her cheek and let her lips slide down, barely brushing the skin, until she touched Gabrielle's mouth. Her eyes closed now, Gabrielle parted her lips, tentatively at first, then responding completely. Right now, it was just the two of them; there was no Ares, no one else in the whole world.
Pulling back, Xena looked at her with a faint, tender smile. Then she said almost pleadingly, "I have to go find him. He's going to get in trouble out there -- Gabrielle, we promised to help him -- "
I can deal with it. Gabrielle managed a mischievous half-grin.
"Go. Just try not to be too helpful."
"I'm joking." She reached up and quickly pressed her lips to Xena's. "I trust you. Be careful, okay?" Catching Xena's look, Gabrielle smiled wanly and shook her head. "I don't mean that way. Go on."
* ~ * ~ *
By the time Xena got to the main road, finding Ares' tracks was hopeless; it seemed like half the people in the province had picked that particular time to pass through. As she rode toward the nearest local tavern, her mind was focused completely on the practical task before her: find Ares and get him back to the farm. Everything else could wait -- had to wait.
Ares wasn't in that tavern, or in the one she checked out after that. She was not going to let herself panic and lose concentration. Everything was going to be okay.
Dusk was already falling when she rode up to yet another tavern, The One-Eyed Ox. She heard raucous laughter and singing coming from inside, and at the same moment spotted Gabrielle's mare, Clio, among the horses tethered outside. She only stopped breathing for a moment.
Giving Argo a quick pat on the neck, Xena dismounted. She was still in her country frock -- there had been no point in changing into her leathers, and if anything, it was best not to attract extra attention under the circumstances -- but she had taken her sword, just in case. Briefly, she pondered whether to take the weapon inside. A farm girl with a really big sword would certainly attract attention, both to herself and to Ares; besides, it didn't sound like Ares was in danger from anything more lethal than cheap booze.
She left the sword hooked to Argo's saddle and strode into the murkily lit tavern. The air inside was heavy with the reek of wine fumes, rancid oil and unwashed human bodies, with an added whiff of vomit which a serving girl crouched on the floor was in the process of cleaning up.
"Hey, lady," the barkeep called out. "What'll it be?"
"Just so you know, all the drinks are free."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "What is it, ladies' night?"
"Ladies', gentlemen's, you name it," the man chortled, baring a set of crooked yellow teeth. "Some clown's buying for everyone tonight."
"Really," Xena said icily. She had the bad feeling that she knew exactly who the "clown" was. "How did that happen?"
"Fella walks in and hands me this ring and asks how much it'll buy." The barkeep gave her a broad "can't believe my luck" grin. "And I go, that should be enough to buy drinks for everyone in the place. So he goes, then I'm buying." He shook his head and laughed. "So, you havin' anything?"
Xena gave him a scorching look and turned away, scanning the establishment. A particularly noisy bunch, belting out a song horribly out of tune and out of unison, had gathered in one corner.
She saw him -- his hair messy and slick with sweat, his vest open, leaning on the stained, wet table with a large chipped wine jug and several half-empty cups on it. He was apparently trying to sing along with the rest of the crowd. Plastered against him was a redhead in serious peril of falling out of her dress.
Resolutely ignoring the spasm that clenched around her heart, Xena marched up to Ares.
"Androcles. " She stressed the name they had agreed on using in front of strangers. "There you are."
The singing stopped, two or three stragglers still carrying on for a few hoarse notes. Ares looked up at her, his eyes glassy and bloodshot.
"Xe - na." He hiccupped loudly. "What an uness -- unex -- " He shook his head and gave up. "What a -- surprise."
"Let's go home," she said.
"Home?" Ares laughed shrilly. "I don't have a home."
"Sure you do." She tried to touch his arm but he pushed her hand away.
"See, Xena, I don't need you anymore." His eyes were alive again, alive and wounded. "'Cause I got lots -- lotsa new f... friends." In a sweeping gesture, he indicated his fellow revelers. "And I have a girl, too," he added, drawing an arm around the redhead's waist. "C'mere, baby."
The girl obligingly perched herself on Ares' knee and glued herself to his mouth, to cheers and claps from the other patrons.
"Way to go, Chloe," called out a fat middle-aged woman.
Xena pressed her lips into a rigid line. Dammit -- she had to get him out of there.
Ares turned to her with a bitter sneer.
"See, she's not like you," he said. "She's nice. And she likes me."
The only way she could get them both through this was to steel herself, not to let anything he said reach a part of her where it could hurt.
"You're the best, honey," Chloe giggled.
Xena's eyes fell on the bauble that shone dimly between the girl's breasts. It was Ares' dagger pendant. That was too much.
"What are you doing with that?"
The girl looked offended. "Hey -- he gave it to me!"
"Thass right... I did." Ares nodded, looking for a moment like he was falling asleep; then he snapped his head up. "She asked me nicely and I let her have it." He planted a wet kiss on Chloe's plump freckled shoulder. "You can have anything you want, baby ... ess... except my heart. See, I already gave it to her -- " he waved at Xena -- "and she chewed it up and spat it out."
It was getting to her, no matter how she tried.
"These people taught me a great song," he said. "You wanna hear?"
"No," Xena said, but he was already singing hoarsely:
"I fell in love with a beautiful girl As cold and cruel as Death. She said: To prove your love is true, Cut your heart out of your breast.
And I -- "
He faltered, hiccupped again and broke into a fit of coughing. Xena heard snickering, and felt a surge of rage at the thought that a bunch of lowlifes in a cheap tavern were laughing at him. It wasn't that she had ever had much respect for the status of the gods -- but to see him like this ...
"That's enough," she said, her voice steady. She wasn't looking at Ares; right now, she had to get his damn pendant back. "Are you going to give that thing back like a good girl, or do I have to make you give it back?"
"Who are you?" the girl squealed. "His wife?"
"How did you guess?" It was just a good cover story; nothing personal.
Chloe gave her a nervous look, starting to vacillate.
"She's not my wife," Ares said. He rubbed his temples, winced and blinked rapidly, as if trying to clear the fog. "She could've been. She coulda had ... she coulda had everything -- and you oughta see what she chose instead -- "
Focus. She couldn't let it get to her, she couldn't.
Xena held out her hand, glaring at the girl.
"Hey, Chloe!" the barkeep yelled. "Give it back, will ya? I don't want no trouble in here."
Pouting, the girl took off the pendant and threw it down; it landed in a thin pool of wine next to an obscenity someone had carved crookedly into the table's surface. Xena picked it up and turned to Ares.
"Come on. I'm taking you home."
"Aren't you... aren't you lissening to me?" His voice rose. "I don't fucking need you anymore! I was havin' fun here... till you showed up, okay?" His eyes glistened angrily. "No, no -- wait ... I do need you for one thing. All my friends here... they didn't believe me when I told 'em who I was ... I mean, who I am... used to be.... you know what I mean. You tell 'em." He turned to the crowd. "See, she knows."
The chill went right down to the pit of Xena's stomach. As much as she hated to humiliate him, the hideous danger he was in overshadowed everything else.
"So which god is it today?" she said, managing to sound glib and scornful. "Apollo? Hermes? Maybe Zeus himself? You and your drunken fantasies..."
There was more snickering around the table.
"Liar!" His angry shout had a plaintive edge. "Don't listen to her... I'm Ares, God of War... I mean I was... until she was done with me..."
"Sure, and I'm Aphrodite." She came closer. "Come along, God of War. Let's go."
"I'm not going anywhere with you..." Ares grimaced. "You hate me. Leave me alone."
"I don't hate you," Xena said, leaning toward him. Then she kissed him. There wasn't anything pleasant about this kiss, with the cheap wine on his breath and the sour taste in his mouth, and yet something tugged at her heart as he closed his eyes and moaned softly. She pulled away. When he opened his eyes again, all the resistance in them was gone.
"Let's go," she said again, stroking his cheek, ignoring scattered catcalls and guffaws in the audience.
"Okay," he said meekly and got up, leaning on her arm.
As they walked to the door, with Ares shuffling his feet and slumping on her shoulder, a hush fell over the tavern, except for one person cackling somewhere in a corner. Xena had the dreamlike feeling that they were making an escape, and all those people were waiting to pounce on them but couldn't move, frozen under some kind of spell. She thought of trying to get Ares' ring back from the barkeep, but there was no way she could pay for all those drinks. Besides, she just wanted to get out as soon as possible.
* ~ * ~ *
The daylight was gone when they came out, the cool air buzzing with insects drawn to the dim light of the tavern windows. No one followed them; moments after their exit, the shouting and singing inside picked up again. Just off the porch, Ares' legs buckled, and he sagged heavily on Xena's arm and sank to his knees on a patch of sparse, much-trampled grass. Xena tried to help him up, but he lurched forward and she heard the sounds of retching.
Looking around, she saw the well, luckily only a few steps away. She lowered the bucket and drew it up as quickly as she could, gritting her teeth as the handle creaked and groaned at every turn. Filling the dipper with ice-cold water, she brought it to Ares and held it for him while he drank greedily and splashed the water on his face. He grunted and gasped for breath and tried to get up, leaning on her arm. "I've got you," she said, gripping his forearms, "I've got you" -- but his legs gave out and he sank down again. She sighed and went over to get the bucket.
"Sorry," she whispered, almost to herself, and poured the rest of the water over his head.
Ares coughed and spluttered and cursed, and then looked up at her, blinking in confusion, his mouth open. She was glad no one could see them. She also hoped that he wouldn't remember too much of this.
This time, Xena was able to haul him to his feet and steer him toward the horses. There was no way he was going to ride on his own. It took her a good deal of effort to get him up on Argo before climbing in the saddle behind him. Argo snorted and tossed her head in displeasure.
"Sorry 'bout that, girl," she said, stroking the mare's side.
Ares leaned back against her, shivering, the cold water trickling down his neck and under his vest.
"I'm..." -- his voice broke for a moment, his teeth chattering -- "I'm always causing you trouble..."
"Shh..." She rubbed his upper arms and then hugged him, trying to get him warm. "It's okay..."
She had to give Argo a few prods with her heels before the mare trudged off. Gradually, Ares stopped trembling and his breathing grew regular, and moments later he was fast asleep.
As they rode home at a slow trot, with the obedient Clio bringing up the rear, Xena knew that the danger wasn't over; they could run into Gascar's army, for all she knew. Nonetheless, she began to relax, enough to chuckle when Ares woke up, glanced behind him and muttered, "Hey... there's a horse following us!" Her muscles were getting sore and numb from riding double and holding him up, and yet -- and yet, despite the discomfort, having him in her arms made her mind drift back to their embrace that afternoon.
Best not to go there. That was something to be stored in a box marked "Do Not Open," along with certain other moments in their history ... like the time she pretended to seduce him to get his help against Athena and found herself melting into his kisses for real.
Other memories came to her. Ares was sitting on a tree stump, alone and mortal, having just recovered from possession by the Furies, and she came to say good-bye. She couldn't resist touching his battered face -- yes, she had to fight him when he was mad, but did she have to hit so hard? -- as if she was doing him any good by poking at those cuts and scratches. She couldn't resist kissing him, not when he held her hands so gently and spoke to her with a quiet hopefulness so unlike the arrogance of the God of War -- and then, after that brief kiss, there was such warmth in his smile and in his eyes. His eyes... she could still see the look in his eyes when she came up to thank him after he had given up his immortality to save her and Gabrielle and Eve: utterly defenseless, fearful at first and then brimming with tenderness. And there was another memory that floated up from much, much earlier -- the first time Ares had lost his godhood, the moment when he regained it with her help and she watched the scruffy but likable mortal disappear into the cold cruel beauty of the god.
It was past midnight when they returned to the farm. There was light in the main room; Xena wondered if Gabrielle was still up, and realized that she felt uneasy at the thought of facing her. She shook Ares gently until he stirred and grumbled an unintelligible complaint.
"We're home," she said. "Hang on..."
None too gracefully, she clambered off Argo, trying to stretch as she maneuvered Ares to the ground. She led him to the house, hobbling a little from the stiffness in her legs, and reflected wryly that it probably looked like they had both enjoyed too much of a good time. Don't we make a pretty picture.
Rather to Xena's relief, Gabrielle was nowhere in sight. She walked Ares to the room he now occupied -- her grandparents' old bedroom -- and carefully let him down on the bed. By the time she started to undress him, he was out again; she found herself feeling grateful for that, and for the darkness.
She fluffed the pillow and lifted Ares up to it, smoothing his still-damp hair, and then pulled up the blanket. He stirred, lifting his head -- she thought she could see his eyelids flutter open -- and grasped her hand, murmuring, "Xena..." She held her breath, not sure if he was asleep or not. Ares' head dropped back on the pillow but he was still holding on to her hand as she stood over him. Xena put her other hand on top of his and ran her thumb over his knuckles, feeling the soft bumps of his veins.
She squatted down by the bed, and stayed there for a while. Part of her wished she didn't have to go.
Finally, with a sigh, Xena extricated her hand from Ares' grasp. Picking up his leathers, she slung them over the windowsill to air them out. Then she walked out of the room, trying rather pointlessly to make no noise.
Exhausted as she was, Xena remembered with grim resignation that she still had to take care of the horses. Lamp in hand, she went outside, only to see that the horses were not by the porch. She found them in the barn, unsaddled and brushed down, feeding contentedly. So Gabrielle wasn't asleep after all.
As she stood in the middle of the barn, the air around her filled with the warm smell of hay and animals, everything that had happened that day caught up with her at last: the shock and quiet anguish in Gabrielle's face, those awful words Ares had thrown at her in the tavern. It was as if she'd taken a brutal beating that had lasted for hours, and had only now let herself feel the pain in every part of her body.
She walked slowly to the house, feeling a bit like a wounded animal limping back to its den.
In the large bedroom that had once been Xena’s childhood room, Gabrielle was already in bed, huddled under the covers, facing away from the door as Xena came in. Xena quickly undressed and climbed in with her; she wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and drew her close, burying her face in the crook of Gabrielle's neck.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"Is he okay?"
"Yeah," Xena said in a steady voice. "He'll just wake up with a really bad hangover." Maybe she could even get herself to believe it.
Gabrielle sighed and turned around; and then they just held each other for a while, until she sought Xena's lips in a gentle kiss that gradually grew more insistent. Their breasts pressed together, Xena heard Gabrielle's breathing quicken and turn to small, almost whimpering moans as her hips shuddered. Xena wanted to feel it too -- but she was still too battered, too bruised inside. Easing Gabrielle on her back, she said, "Lie still..."
Her kisses trailed down Gabrielle's neck to her chest, lingering on each nipple, and then to her flat stomach as Gabrielle gasped and squirmed in anticipation. Brushing her lips over the soft, cool skin of Gabrielle's inner thighs, Xena heard her breathe, "I love you ..." and felt a sharp jab of guilt at the thought that not half an hour ago, she had wanted to stay with Ares.
She lifted her head, reaching out to clasp Gabrielle's hand.
"I love you too..."
Then she bent down and kissed her, making Gabrielle convulse and arch into her mouth, hoping half-consciously that the pleasure she could give her love would make up for the pain she had caused her. Gabrielle's grip tightened on her hand as Xena caressed her with delicate licks and nibbles, faster and slower and faster again, finding the rhythm that she knew would please her most. Her own excitement stirred as Gabrielle's soft frantic cries rose higher and her body shook uncontrollably.
When her spasms had passed, Xena laid her cheek on Gabrielle's stomach, still clutching her hand, listening as her breaths slowly returned to normal. Then she pulled up and slipped an arm under Gabrielle's shoulders, cradling her, touching her face, stroking her hair. Gabrielle turned her head and murmured again, breathlessly, "I love you…"
As their lips met once more Gabrielle's hand touched Xena's breast, squeezing and stroking lightly, then moved lower -- and Xena knew, with quiet dismay, that she did not want this. Her arousal still lingered; yet she felt only a bone-deep weariness at the thought of being pleasured.
Her fingers closed around Gabrielle's wrist.
"You don't have to, Gabrielle ... I'm so tired ... let's just go to sleep..."
Gabrielle's body tensed at once, and in the moonlight that now streamed in through the window, Xena saw her stricken look before her face went blank.
"Oh ... okay," Gabrielle said in a small voice.
She slid out of Xena's arms and turned away, pulling up the covers. Xena reached out toward her, but her hand froze, lingering a finger's breadth from Gabrielle's tousled hair. She pulled her hand back and lay still.
What was she doing? Gabrielle had given her everything. She had been so lost when they first met, when she had just given up her old life as a warlord, and this simple village girl had believed in her when no one else did, when even she didn't believe in herself -- had offered her friendship, made her young when her soul had grown old far beyond her years. For some reason, she remembered Gabrielle's excitement at catching her first fish, and her silly chatter about how all living things, even humans, lived in the sea once upon a time.
And later, when their friendship became more than that... there was very little Xena hadn't done by then, with men or women, and yet Gabrielle had somehow let her feel new, as if both of them had just discovered the wonder of making love.
Gabrielle was the best thing that had ever happened to her, and all she had ever done was pull Gabrielle into violence and darkness, simply because of who she was, the life she lived. This had been on her mind a lot lately; especially since their recent trip to North Africa, when Gabrielle killed a young man -- a kid, really -- thinking he was about to attack them. With a bittersweet pang, she remembered how much Gabrielle had wanted to be a warrior just like her when they first met -- except that she hated the idea of taking human life. Gabrielle had become a fighter quickly enough, both of them desperately hoping that she could remain a fighter who didn't kill. Sooner or later it was bound to fail; looking back, Xena could see it clearly -- she of all people should have known better, with all the war and violence she had seen by then. Now Gabrielle was a skilled warrior, a full fighting partner .... and it was best not to think about what it was doing to her soul.
And now, to top it off, she was going to break Gabrielle's heart ... just as she had broken Ares' heart. Chewed it up and spat it out.
The thought that she was comparing Gabrielle to Ares gave her a jolt. Ares? The same Ares who had spent years trying to lure her back to war and conquest and evil, and might well have succeeded if Gabrielle hadn't been there for her ... who had done such cruel things to her and to Gabrielle? Maybe ... or maybe not. This Ares was a mortal man who, after all that, had given up the world for her ... at least he and Gabrielle had that in common. Given up? No, she had taken everything from them, robbed Ares of his immortality and Gabrielle of more things than she could allow herself to think about ... They both loved her so much -- and now she was going to destroy one of them... hell, probably both. So much for the good Xena.
She was going to destroy them both and she'd be left all alone ... except for Eve, only she had never been a real mother to Eve, either... What a joke. She had wanted to dedicated her life to the Greater Good, and she'd been no good to anyone she cared about -- her mother, her children, Gabrielle... Ares...
She crept closer to Gabrielle and put a hand on her back, and almost timidly snuggled up to her. Gabrielle remained still and rigid; after a while her shoulder twitched ever so slightly. Swallowing the hard lump in her throat, Xena moved away and closed her eyes, hoping that sleep would come. She wondered what they'd have to say to each other tomorrow ... she and Gabrielle ... she and Ares.