When she woke up, Gabrielle was still sleeping. Curled up on her side, breathing smoothly, her fingers clutching at the bedcovers, she looked almost waif-like. Xena leaned over and softly, careful not to wake her, kissed her bare shoulder.
Soundlessly, her mouth formed the words, I would never leave you.
Feeling more groggy than rested after a few hours of fitful sleep, Xena climbed out of bed, slipped on her dress and went to the kitchen. She made a fire and hauled a bucket of water up on the stove to warm it up for her bath.
It occurred to her that perhaps she should make breakfast. Gabrielle was nearly always the one who cooked, and Xena had no illusions about her own skills -- but she could try, couldn't she? Something nice, something her grandmother used to make right here in this kitchen... Gabrielle had picked some apples the day before (so long ago!)... a baked apple casserole had to be easy enough.
It wasn't as if she really had a decision or a choice to make, Xena told herself as she chopped the apples. There was no denying her feelings for Ares. Her physical desire for him was something she had always regarded as part of her attraction to the dark power of War, yet it still left her feverish and dizzy now when he was just a man. She cared for him; the affectionate, protective concern that she had felt even the first time she'd met Ares as a mortal was now mixed with gratitude for his sacrifice. He got to her all right. But Gabrielle -- living without Gabrielle was unthinkable, like a world in which the sun didn't come up in the morning.
Putting the knife down, Xena bit her lip, her eyes clouding a little. She wanted to run to the bedroom and take Gabrielle in her arms, hold her, kiss her awake, tell her everything would be okay. She wasn't sure what held her back: the thought that she should let Gabrielle sleep, or the fear that Gabrielle would recoil from her touch.
When she was pouring milk into a bowl, a memory of brushing her fingers across Ares' upper lip invaded her mind, making her pause and close her eyes. Enough of that. She whipped up a mix of milk, egg and honey, poured it over the chopped apples and stuck the pan in the oven. She was not going to burn this.
The water was good enough for the bath. Xena carried the bucket to the small room behind the kitchen and splashed the water into the wooden tub, battered but scrubbed reasonably clean by Gabrielle the day they'd arrived on the farm.
She lay back in the lukewarm water, staring at the moldy wall. She hadn't done Ares any wrong, not really. Giving up his immortality had been his own choice. Besides, as much as he grumbled about the mortal state, the humanity he had gained might well be worth the godhood he'd lost. He seemed -- happier, somehow. At least until... Well, maybe it was for the best that he knew. Maybe he'd learn to accept it, once he got over the shock, and they could still be friends. Ares would be all right; he always was, in the end. In any case, her first responsibility was to Gabrielle. She had to remember that.
As Xena toweled off, it occurred to her that Ares would be in pretty bad shape when he woke up. She hauled in more water to warm up -- a bath would help -- and set about making a willow-bark brew that was good for headaches.
She checked periodically on the casserole. When she got it out of the oven, it looked hard and dry around the edges and soggy and lumpy in the middle. Somewhat hesitantly, Xena scooped up a spoonful. It was too sweet, and a gritty bit of eggshell was caught under her teeth as she chewed. She stared at the result of her effort and wondered if she should throw it away. It felt like such a stupid gesture.
While Xena was still wondering what to do, she heard shuffling footsteps, and Gabrielle came into the kitchen.
"Good morning," she said in that distant, neutral tone Xena dreaded to hear. Her eyes fell on the frying pan. "What's that?
"I -- I made breakfast." Xena was staring at her feet.
Gabrielle expressed no surprise, made no joke, didn't say anything at all. Without sitting down, she ate a helping of casserole and drank some cider. Then she said, in the same toneless voice, "I'll be out in the barn doing some work.
When Gabrielle was at the door, Xena worked up the courage to look up and say, "Gabrielle...
She didn't turn back. "What?
Xena sighed. "I'll see you.
She busied herself around the kitchen. Ares made his appearance about half an hour later, wearing those dark blue linen pants he'd had on the night the three of them shared a bed. His face haggard, he somehow seemed less muscular, more gaunt than the day before.
"Hey," Xena said softly. He avoided her eyes.
"I've warmed some water for you if you want to take a bath. The soap's on that stool by the tub.
"You can drink that if you have a headache ... just eat something first." Xena gestured toward the cup with the willow-bark mixture, then toward the table where she'd laid out a couple of apples and some bread and cheese, along with the remnants of the ill-fated casserole.
"Yeah," he muttered.
"I'll be outside.
Xena sat on the porch and cleaned her boots and skirt, scrubbing until the leather was shiny. The sky above was a deep, cloudless blue; the day was getting hot. She could hear Ares moving around in the house and the water splashing. Gabrielle came out of the barn and walked over to the chicken pen, glancing only once in Xena's direction; she fed the chickens and went back to the barn, her dress fluttering in the breeze.
The door creaked open behind her, and Ares' voice said, "Xena?
She turned around. He was in his leathers now, though without his swordbelt; his hair neatly combed, he looked his old self, except that something was gone from his face. It was as if he would never smile again.
"Come in here a minute," he said. "I need to talk to you.
Xena rose and followed him into the house. As they stood facing each other, she braced herself for whatever was coming next. The anticipation was a cold, heavy lump in her chest.
"I'm leaving," Ares said.
"What?" she whispered.
"I can't stay here anymore.
"It's still dangerous -- Gascar's men may still be out there --
"I'll be fine.
"Ares -- " Her apprehension surged to stark terror. "You haven't decided to -- to take them on and go out in a blaze of glory, have you?
"A blaze of glory..." Seeing him smile was even worse. "You ought to be the writer." Meeting her worried look, Ares shook his head. "I haven't, Xena. Not my style.
"You don't have to go," she said. "Gabrielle and I could leave, you can stay here as long as you --
"No," he said quietly. "I should -- get out of your life." He paused, as if waiting for a reply, and then added, "Make a clean break.
It didn't come as a complete shock. She stared at him, feeling numb.
"I'm going to leave Greece," he said.
"Yeah." He swallowed a little. "I think I'll head East.
"East..." Xena felt like the nymph in the legend, condemned by the gods to speak nothing except for repeating another's last words.
"There's a place beyond Ch'in -- Jappa --
"The Land of the Rising Sun..." Xena nodded. For some reason it gave her goose-bumps; she had heard stories of Jappa during the time she'd spent in Ch'in, but somehow it never seemed like a real place, more like a ghost island. "They say it's a land of fierce warriors.
"Sounds like my kind of place." Ares paused. "Maybe it is my chance to start a new life. Preferably not in a wine jug." He smiled again, making her wish he wouldn't.
She had no right to try to stop him.
"Yeah, maybe it's best for you," she said. "No one will be after you over there -- they probably haven't even heard of Ares, God of War.
"Right. Who knew that could be a good thing.
"Maybe you'll find another girl." Gods ... what an awful thing to say -- and she'd meant it as light banter.
"Yeah." He looked at her, the corner of his mouth twitching up. "Or another dog.
Damn. Why did it have to feel like a piece of her heart was being ripped out?
"So -- when are you leaving?
Ares shrugged. "The sooner the better.
She squelched the pang. "At least stay a couple more nights. Until we know Gascar's army has left the valley.
He gave her a curious look, a faint warmth coming back into his eyes.
"All right," he said.
In the silence that fell between them, Xena could hear water dripping somewhere in the house.
"Ares ..." She was close enough to reach out and take his hand, but it was probably better not to. "I hope you have a good life.
"You too," he said.
The silence was much longer this time. Finally, she nodded again, in response either to his last comment or to some unspoken words of his -- or of her own -- then turned and took a step toward the door.
She turned -- a bit too eagerly, perhaps.
"Tell me," he said, with an obvious effort. "You and Gabrielle -- how did you... I mean, how did it --
She couldn't; it would only hurt him more.
"It just happened one day -- one night -- it wasn't any kind of special occasion...
"Don't lie to me." The flash of anger in his voice made him sound more like Ares again; it was easier to deal with. "Tell me.
Xena took a deep breath.
Hope was reborn -- Dahak's daughter had returned to usher in her demon father's reign - and Ares had switched sides and joined Hope and Dahak, making a deal with the Fates to cut Xena's life thread if she killed Hope. That night, Ares came to see her and invited her to join Dahak too, and her revulsion at his treachery gave way to bitter sadness when she realized that it wasn't the quest for ultimate power that drove the God of War, but abject fear for his own life. He was still trying to mask it with his usual bravado, telling her that even if she managed to kill Hope, she would die anyway. He stared at her and added, "So for me, its" -- he paused, an oddly human, almost vulnerable look his eyes -- "win-win.
Then he was gone, and when she and Gabrielle returned to the campsite, Callisto, allied with them for her own purposes, was gone too. It was just her and Gabrielle now, well aware that it was probably their last night together, perhaps the last night of the world as they knew it. It didn't occur to her at the time that Gabrielle, too, was preparing to die -- to sacrifice herself to save Xena and destroy Hope; stupidly, she didn't even realize that Ares was goading Gabrielle to do just that. They sat by the campfire, saying little, glancing almost furtively at each other in the blue moonlight. Xena felt the tears rising as she thought of all the goodness and love the girl from Potadeia had brought into her life, and of all the ways in which they had hurt each other. The prospect of dying didn't frighten her -- she had long learned to accept it as an occupational hazard. She was just sorry there wouldn't be time to make it up to Gabrielle.
At last Xena touched Gabrielle's hand and muttered, "Let's get some rest." They hugged fiercely and exchanged a tender kiss on the cheek, and as they pulled apart, still holding hands, Xena was left with the odd feeling that there had to be something more. They got into their bedrolls, but neither of them could sleep. After a while, Gabrielle crawled over to Xena's side and snuggled up to her, and they lay silently in each other's arms, stroking each other's hair. Then Gabrielle kissed her again, and her soft, warm lips traveled over Xena's cheek and a little lower, finally finding Xena's lips.
A moment later Gabrielle drew away, perhaps startled by her own audacity, and it was Xena who gently pulled Gabrielle's head toward her once more, wondering if she herself had wanted to do this for a long time. But they were all out of time now. They kissed again, slowly at first, then with desperate urgency, and everything they could share was in that kiss -- all the tenderness, all the passion, all the things that they no longer had a lifetime to give. It felt so right that they should kiss like this, that they should let their hands and lips roam over each other's bodies, that they should give each other pleasure -- that they should experience each other completely, be together in every way they could, before they lost each other forever.
They needed no words; it just happened. Still, there was an instant when Xena wavered: Gabrielle was so innocent, so inexperienced... She raised herself on an elbow, gazing down on Gabrielle's face -- her eyes bright and wide, her lips parted and swollen a little -- and said, "You don't have to do anything you don't want to." Gabrielle blinked and her lips twitched, as if she was going to cry. She reached up to stroke Xena's face, then took Xena's hand and guided it back to her bare breast and whispered, "Xena ... I want to do everything with you.
She mustered the courage to look straight at Ares.
"It was when Hope returned," she said. "After you came to -- say good-bye.
He flinched and lowered his eyes.
"Ares..." This time, she did reach out and put her hand on his arm. "It's all in the past.
When he looked up, his face was calm but pale, a fine mist of sweat on his forehead. A sudden thought burst into her mind: What if Ares hadn't betrayed her then ... ?
It frightened her, to be thinking that. She wouldn't have traded her life with Gabrielle for anything. She just couldn't help wondering if something, at some point, could have happened differently so that she wouldn't have to lose Ares now.
* ~ * ~ *
Everything was okay, Gabrielle thought as she poured oil over the neatly sliced vegetables and started cutting up the chicken.
Earlier, Xena had come to tell her that Ares was leaving the farm, in a tone as ordinary as if she were delivering any other bit of news. Then she had paused, her eyelashes quivering very slightly, and added that he was going off to some gods-forsaken island on the edge of the world.
Gabrielle knew Xena well enough to see that she was upset; then again, she knew enough not to overreact to this. So Xena had a soft spot for Ares. Xena had always had a weakness for bad boys; Gabrielle didn't have to like it but she accepted it, just as she accepted the fact that Xena took pleasure in fighting or that Xena could feel a purely physical desire for someone she didn't love. It wasn't all that long ago (well, at least it didn't seem like long ago) that she'd nearly driven herself crazy thinking Xena was in love with Marc Antony ... and in the end, it hadn't meant a thing. Sure, it was different with Ares -- he had been in Xena's life for so long -- but not so different that he ever had a chance to get between them.
The quick rush of relief, and perhaps even joy, that Gabrielle had felt at the news of Ares' departure had quickly given way to a twinge of remorse. Taking Xena's hands in hers, she had said, "I know you're worried about him... he'll be all right" -- desperately hoping that she meant it, and that it was true -- and Xena had squeezed her hands and nodded with a quiet "Thanks.
After that, the tension between them had dissolved, at least enough for a few good natured gibes, welcome and familiar. "Maybe when we retire from the warrior business, we can open a tavern and you can be the cook," Gabrielle had said when they were done putting away the dishes, and Xena had smiled back, "Sure, if we want to run a really quiet place." But she could still see a trace of sadness in Xena's eyes.
They had spent much of the afternoon attending to practical matters, like doing something about all those farm animals they'd taken the trouble to buy. The prospect of stewing in the sun on the market square for hours, trying to sell a cow, a calf and a pig, had very limited appeal. Fortunately, just as Gabrielle and Xena had finished herding the animals into the cart, rescue came in the unlikely form of their chatty neighbor Greba, who offered to take "the poor dears" off their hands at what was surely a reasonable price for a lonely young widow. Judging by her visible disappointment at the news that their "master" (Gabrielle couldn't help rolling her eyes) wasn't staying on the farm, the young widow wouldn't have minded taking Ares off their hands, either.
Ares had mostly kept out of sight. Under other circumstances, Gabrielle would have been sorry to see him go. For all his sniping at her, the former War God had turned out to be surprisingly likable as a mortal. Hard to believe, but she would miss him. Besides, she felt for him; how could she not? He had literally had the world at his feet, and powers that the human mind could only begin to grasp, and he had lost it all to save Xena, and Eve -- and her. And now he was left with nothing ... and she had lost so much, yet she still had everything.
She wished it didn't have to be like this. But it had to, of course. If she and Xena weren't together, Ares still wouldn't be right for Xena: their connection had always been a part of her dark side, and even as a mortal, he'd probably end up bringing out the worst in her. Maybe it was all for the best. Ares would really find a new life instead of pining for Xena -- and Xena wouldn't be tempted to make a mistake she'd always regret.
Tomorrow, she and Xena would go do some scouting, make sure that Gascar's men were heading out of the valley, following the false lead Ares had given them in his peasant disguise. If the way was clear, they could leave, Ares going one way, she and Xena another. Meanwhile, they could at least try to have a nice dinner together. Gabrielle was almost done cutting the chicken for the stew; Xena, judging by the sharp thuds coming from outside, was chopping the firewood. All these chores had a melancholy feel now, rather like preparing for the funeral of someone not yet dead. But that was much too morbid. Life would go on.
Gabrielle put the chicken pieces in the pot with the vegetables, added vinegar and some crushed bay leaves, and headed out to get wood for the stove. Stepping out on the porch, she paused to take in the beauty of the evening -- the trees shimmering in the mild breeze, the fields bathed in the gentle gold of the late sun. With some surprise, she saw that it was not Xena but Ares chopping the wood; the desire to get his mind off his woes had apparently gotten the best of his aversion to the tools of common labor.
Then, Gabrielle turned and saw Xena.
She stood leaning against a pole, watching Ares. Her eyes glittered with tears yet she was smiling, like sunshine peeking through a light rain, a smile all tenderness and regret and wistful longing. She was so beautiful at that moment -- how could any mortal be so beautiful? -- and yet Gabrielle suddenly knew what it must have been like to look at the Gorgon and turn instantly to stone.
Finally noticing Gabrielle, Xena blinked, as if snapping out of a trance. She seemed frightened and, somehow, helpless.
When Gabrielle could speak again, her voice was quiet and hollow.
"You are in love with him.
* ~ * ~ *
Gabrielle walked slowly into the house. Her legs felt as if they were stuffed with rags. Bumping into a chair and a couple of door jambs along the way, she wandered to the bedroom and slumped down on the edge of the bed. She didn't move when Xena sat down behind her and laid a hand on her back.
"Gabrielle..." There was a plea in Xena's voice. "Oh, Gabrielle...
"You love him," she said, her head turned away.
"I love you. I'll always love you. You're --
She turned around abruptly, dry-eyed, to face Xena.
"Then tell me you're not in love with Ares.
"I -- I'm -- " Xena gave her a pained, apologetic look which was more than enough of an answer, and lowered her eyes.
"It doesn't mean that I love you any less," she said. "You know what you mean to me. It doesn't change how I feel about you...
"Well, it changes a lot for me.
"Gabrielle... he's going away. I'll never see him again.
"Yes, you will -- every time you close your eyes." Gabrielle paused. "Tell me you're not going to think about him every day.
Xena was silent for a while. Then she said very quietly, "What do you want me to do?
Gabrielle got up and paced around the room.
She could leave. Take her place with the Amazons, or become a champion of the Elijans -- or hang up her sais and become a full-time bard ... and live without half of her soul. Out of the question. It wasn't as if Xena didn't love her anymore. After all, Xena was prepared to let Ares go away, to stay with her forever.
They could just go on; their bond had survived worse things. They would go on, and she would never know for sure that at any particular moment, Xena wasn't thinking of Ares, wondering what he was doing, whether he was all right, whether he was with another woman.
She had a thought ... a crazy, impossible thought. She was hanging over an abyss, holding on to its edge with weakening fingers, and a voice in her head was telling her to let go.
She walked back to Xena and stood over her, her hands resting on Xena's shoulders. Xena looked up at her -- anxiously, expectantly. After a few moments, Gabrielle took Xena's face in her hands, and lingered a little before leaning down to kiss her. She pulled away and looked at Xena again, and ran her thumb over the glittering trace of a tear on Xena's cheekbone.
The words died in her throat when she tried to speak, but she found her voice on the second try.
"Do what you want to do.
Xena flinched back, her eyes wide. Had this been about anything else, Gabrielle would have been amused: The girl from Potadeia had managed to shock the Warrior Princess.
"What do you mean?
She knew she was blushing. "Go to him.
"Oh gods, Gabrielle, I can't..." Xena seized her hand. "I couldn't....
Gabrielle sighed and touched Xena's face again. "Xena, if you let him leave now, you'll always wonder about what might have been, and then --
Xena shook her head, squeezing her hand harder. "No. Stop it.
" -- and then I'll never have all of you.
Xena drew Gabrielle down into her lap, holding her in a tight hug, cheek to cheek, and Gabrielle felt the heat of her whisper. "You don't know what you're saying -- this is crazy...
The tears came at last, streaming down Gabrielle's face.
"Xena, let's not talk about it anymore, okay? Do what you think is right for you. I don't want to know about it ... I just wanted to tell you that I -- that you --
"That I have your blessing?" Xena said bitterly.
"That -- that you won't be betraying me.
Gabrielle drew back, and Xena's face crumbled at the sight of her tears.
"I'll be okay...
She rested her head on Xena's shoulder, and they sat like that for a while, until Gabrielle looked up and spoke, her voice slightly hoarse. "I'm not going to lose you without a fight.
"You're not going to lose me. You could never lose me." Xena fell silent, a wistful look coming into her eyes. "Gabrielle -- remember the first time we were together...
"Yes?" Maybe she was a fool, but it felt good, somehow, to know that Xena had been thinking about it.
"Remember what I said to you the next morning?
Gabrielle nodded, her eyes filling with tears again.
"You said I gave your life meaning and joy...
"And that you were the best thing that ever happened to me -- that you'd be a part of me forever. I meant it then, Gabrielle. I still do.
They hugged again. Then, Xena lifted a hand and tilted Gabrielle's head, and her voice was suddenly husky as she said, "Come here..." Gabrielle closed her eyes and waited, and waited, and finally felt Xena's mouth on hers and the slow, tantalizing caress of her tongue.
Together, they leaned back until they were lying down, still locked in that kiss. When gentle hands tugged at her skirt, Gabrielle wondered for an instant if Xena was only doing this for her, to reassure her that she was still wanted, still loved. Then she heard the low sound in Xena's throat, and it made her forget all doubt, forget everything.
* ~ * ~ *
Ares threw the axe aside and sat down on the log, panting. It was hard work, and he had probably chopped a lot more wood than was needed; but at least it was a distraction ... not to mention a chance to hit something.
Oh, he'd had it all worked out back then, during the Hope and Dahak mess. He had been utterly terrified of Dahak, there was no point in denying it. When that pillar of fire shot up behind him on the beach, he knew that he was dealing with something unknowable and unspeakable, a power with no corporeal form, no language, no qualities at all except pure malevolence. He was the God of War; he knew when the game was up, and his job was to survive. So he was going to be smart. Pretend to play along with the Dark One. Stop Xena from killing Hope without having to kill Xena. Make sure the pesky sidekick was properly motivated to do the deed. Win-win. He winced at the words.
Well, it had worked out, all right. She had ended up with Xena, and he had ended up doing stud service for Hope, a mating that had made him understand the mortal emotion of shame. Maybe they both got what they deserved. Now, he could spend the remainder of his life wondering what could have been if he had not betrayed Xena then, if he'd stayed at her side. How dumb was that -- to regret not risking his neck for something he hadn't even known he wanted, back then.
Enough with the self-pity. He got up, picked up a few logs and walked to the house. He was about to go up on the porch when a noise coming from one of the windows made him stop in his tracks.
It was Xena ... crying?
His heart lurched wildly. Maybe she did love him after all, enough to cry over losing him. Maybe there was still a chance. If the accursed blonde wasn't around, he could go to Xena now and --
As he put down the logs and stood up, Ares realized that the sound he had heard wasn't crying at all, and that the blonde was definitely around.
Tartarus -- to think that Xena would be carrying on with someone who emitted such pathetic squeaks.
He stood open-jawed, frozen to the spot. There was a time when the thought of Xena and her little friend going at it like cats in heat might have been titillating. Now, it sickened him so much that he fought a powerful impulse to hurl a log through the window, just to make those sounds stop.
Couldn't even wait until he left.
He could leave right now, Gascar or no Gascar. But all his stuff was in the damn house -- the sword, the vest, the gauntlets -- and there was no way he was going in there now.
Finally regaining control of his feet, he walked to the barn and paced around for a while, occasionally kicking at a pole. It didn't help much.
He sat down in the warm hay, leaning back against the wall.
Maybe they'd fall asleep when they were done. Maybe then, he could go inside the house and get his sword.
And kill them.
No, dammit, he could never kill her. Not again. He had already looked at her dead face twice; once thinking that she had died because he had been too selfish to save her, once thinking that he had killed her in a fit of madness. More than enough.
But the other one...
Once, he wasn't sure how many human lifetimes ago, he had bedded the wife of one of his generals in the form of her actual mortal paramour, and the general had caught them after the act, fast asleep -- or so it looked. The affronted husband had held his sword over Ares, taking very precise aim, apparently determined, like a true gentleman, to cut off his head without leaving even a scratch on the lady. Hed had some good laughs over that one -- the sword going harmlessly through his neck, the poor sap collapsing in a dead faint as the God of War rose from the bed in all his fully clothed godly splendor, the woman waking up and screaming ... though, somehow, none of it seemed nearly as amusing now.
He could do that. Why not? He had bought Blondie's worthless little life with most of his own; he'd only be taking back what she owed him. He could picture it now: walking stealthily into the room and up to the bed, lifting his sword and aiming carefully, making sure Xena wasn't hurt --
Except that he'd never do it, not only because Xena would most certainly kill him afterwards but because he knew it would kill her, too ... and maybe not just because of that, either. A vivid memory forced itself into his mind: the girl standing on the porch of the farmhouse when they had just gotten there, beckoning to him and saying, "Come on!" with that silly wrinkle-nosed grin of hers. As violently as he loathed her now, the thought of her severed head lying in a pool of blood bothered him, somehow.
He thumped the back of his head against the wall a few times.
Stupid -- stupid -- stupid.
Ares wasn't sure how long he sat there, wondering how he'd managed to get himself into such a rotten mess. It was almost dark when he heard a faint rustle and opened his eyes.
It was her.
"I'm not hungry," he snapped, realizing just then that he was.
Xena lingered for a moment and left without another word. Obviously just as happy to let him starve.
Then she came back, carrying a bowl of delicious-smelling stew, a loaf of bread, and a mug of steaming apple cider. The smell of the food made his mouth water and his stomach clench. She squatted next to him, put it all down and said softly, "Here you go.
In the near-dark, he thought Xena gave him an odd look, as if she were about to say something else, or to touch him. He hoped she wouldn't. At last she got up and walked away. She stopped in the wide doorway of the barn to look back, her silhouette black against the darkening blue-gray sky. Then she was gone.
Ares picked up the bowl and dipped the spoon in the stew.
Damn. Damn it all to Tartarus. It would be so much easier if he could hate her. But no, he had to melt every time she did some little thing which made him believe that she cared. Maybe Athena had been right all along -- he was really whipped.
* ~ * ~ *
When they were done cleaning up after dinner, Gabrielle went back into their room and came out in her Amazon garb, armed with her sais.
"I'm going out," she said. Her tone was casual, deliberately so.
Xena turned abruptly.
"Yeah. To scout the area, see if Gascar's army is gone.
There was still a chance to pull back, for both of them.
"Want me to go with you?
"No." Gabrielle paused and smiled a little. "I'll be fine.
Xena followed Gabrielle out on the porch. Clio, who had been grazing untethered along with Argo, cantered up in response to Gabrielle's whistle. The women hugged and kissed briefly, the way they would on any night when one of them was going out alone on some errand.
"Be safe," Xena said.
Gabrielle nodded, giving her hand a light squeeze, and got in the saddle. As she rode away, a charcoal-gray cloud swallowed up the moon, and the horse and the rider melted quickly into the darkness.
Xena shook herself and went back into the house.
She told herself that just because Gabrielle had given her the go-ahead didn't mean she was going to do anything.
She wondered if Ares was going to stay in the barn all night.
Then she heard his footsteps on the porch and he came in. Xena noticed with relief that some life seemed to have come back into his face, though it was hard to tell in the low light of a single oil lamp. Their eyes met briefly; he was the first to turn away. She wanted to ask if he needed anything, but that didn't feel right. He muttered, "Good night" and went to his room.
Xena sat down and stared into the fireplace.
She could go out and take Argo to the barn ... then come back to the house and go to bed, alone.
And tomorrow or the next day, Ares would be gone. Whether she had loved him or hated him, he had been in her life since she was scarcely out of adolescence, longer than anyone now alive ... unless, perhaps, her elder brother was still alive somewhere. And just like that, he wouldn't be there anymore.
Gabrielle's voice echoed in her head: You are in love with him. She hadn't, until then, given words to it. Perhaps she had loved him for a long time, when he was still a god, and when she knew -- or thought she knew -- that he couldn't love anyone.
How could she, after everything he had done? Well, she wasn't exactly in a position to wonder if someone who had done terrible things deserved to be loved... Maybe what did it was knowing, ever since Ares' first brief brush with mortality, that buried somewhere under the full weight of the Godhood of War was a human core, vulnerable, capable of feeling -- much as she had once crushed her own human yearnings under the hard armor of the Destroyer of Nations. Not only that -- but knowing that it was she who brought out this human part of the god. Maybe that was why, even in the middle of some vicious, twisted scheme of his to win her back into his service, she had always felt some strange link between them, some special understanding. And then, his sacrifice -- how strong his love had to be, to break through so much power-lust and selfishness and cruelty...
It wouldn't be cheating, really, not if Gabrielle knew and agreed to it. Not cheating, no ... just inflicting a wound that nothing would ever heal. But maybe Gabrielle was right; maybe it would be even worse to share her life and her bed with Gabrielle while missing Ares, thinking about what it would be like to kiss those lips, to look into those deep brown eyes while he sighed in pleasure, his hard body naked under hers --
She tossed her head. Maybe there wasn't any point in trying to snap out of it.
The thought of Gabrielle tugged at her painfully. Gabrielle was out there somewhere, riding all by herself ... probably imagining her in Ares' arms. Even if she didn't go to Ares, Gabrielle would spend the night thinking that she had.
Maybe she could just go and talk to him, and then, if something happened, it would just -- happen.
The fire was dying, a few puny flames still clinging to life among the bright-red embers and the pale ashes. Xena sighed and got up.
Almost at the door of Ares' bedroom, she stopped and stood still for a few moments before walking on to the room she shared with Gabrielle. Groping in the dark, she lit the lamp on the small table by the bed, then reached into the bag where she kept her medicines and fished out a small, dark green velvet pouch. She fumbled at the strings and stared at the herbs inside. There was plenty.
Years ago, Lao Ma had taught Xena about these herbs, which a woman could take after being with a man to keep from having a child. She still carried them for their other medicinal properties, and also to help other women in various emergencies.
There was no use pretending now. She was about to make love to Ares -- not in a moment of weakness, not because she got carried away, but because she wanted to.
Xena took off her dress and her undergarment and slipped into the shift she sometimes wore to bed. Then she picked up the lamp and went to Ares.
* ~ * ~ *
He could still hear her moving around the house.
Ares pulled the thin blanket over his head, as if it could shut out her steps and the groaning floorboards. If she'd only stop, maybe he could get some sleep.
He wondered where the other one had gone off to at such an hour, all by herself; he had seen her ride away when he stepped out of the barn. Probably scouting the area to make sure Gascar's army was gone. Couldn't wait to get him out of the way. Of course.
Finally, it was quiet. Ares turned on his back and closed his eyes, trying to keep his mind blank.
Dammit -- there was her door, opening and shutting again. And steps, getting closer ... stopping ...
The door -- his door -- creaked open. Ares' heart did another somersault.
Cautiously, he lifted an eyelid and saw a dim light. He turned his head a little, not sure he wanted her to see that he was awake.
Xena, clad only in that pale purple little number she'd worn when the three of them shared a bed on that first rainy night, carefully put down an oil lamp on a shelf across from the bed. It cast a watery circle of golden light, making stark black shadows glide on the walls of the small room.
What in Tartarus was she doing?
She turned to him. Ares quickly closed his eyes but it was too late.
"Hey," she said.
Pretending to be asleep would just feel dumb. He opened his eyes.
"What do you want?
She came up and sat down on the edge of the bed, and looked at him with a small, nervous smile.
"I'm -- " she licked her lips. "I wanted to see you.
Then he got it, and a spasm of rage rose to his throat. Abruptly, he raised himself up on his elbow.
"What for?" His own voice sounded strange, like a croak. "My going-away present?
Xena winced and looked at him sideways.
"Get out." He had regained control of his voice. "Get out.
"What?" she whispered. Her eyes were wide and hurt --. just like she looked in Amphipolis when she played her damned cock-teasing game with him, and when he had the good sense to reject her at first, knowing she was up to something. The hurt was real, no doubt. Such a blow to her ego.
"I don't want your pity," he spat out.
"It isn't like that.
"Then what's it like? Didn't get enough this afternoon?" He saw her flinch and added with a crooked sneer, "I bet they heard you all the way to Rome.
She lowered her head.
"Don't what? Don't stop being a doormat?
Xena looked up, and their eyes met.
"I'm here because I -- " She paused. "I want to be with you.
He was silent for a few moments, catching his breath. It was awfully difficult to hold on to his anger, especially when she was sitting so close, her eyes tender, her hair falling on her naked shoulders, her nipples erect under the flimsy fabric ... offering herself to him.
"What about --
"It's okay," she said quickly. "Everything's okay.
Suddenly, he knew why the blonde had left, and in a flash his anger was back.
"So you've got it all worked out between you two." He shook his head disbelievingly. "I don't get any say in the matter, do I?
"Well, why should I. You think that if you make a move on me, I won't be able to resist.
Xena looked at him, obviously thinking something over, and then got up.
That was it. He'd done it. She had come to him -- he had one last chance, and he had blown it, thanks to his stupid, stupid pride.
"Ares. It is your choice. You can -- make the moves. I won't ... I won't do anything.
She walked over to the window, which had been left ajar, and stood there just a few paces away looking out into the night, her back to him, the lamplight gleaming softly in her hair.
Ares leaned back on the pillow and shut his eyes. But she was still there, and he could see her just as well with his eyes closed.
He could just lie there until she left. It wouldn't be easy, but he could manage. She wouldn't wait forever. And that would be the end.
If he made love to her, it could -- dammit, probably would -- end up being just this once. He would still go away, carrying this night with him to the edge of the earth. It was bad enough to long for her when the only actual memories he had to torment him were of a few kisses and some interrupted foreplay. To be away from her and have the memory of her naked body against his, of being inside her, of her crying out her pleasure in his arms...
And if he let her walk away, yet again? Then he'd be away from her knowing that he could have had those memories, and perhaps more -- and didn't take his chance.
Some choice. Who was he kidding?
Ares threw the blanket aside and got up. He was glad he'd worn those ridiculous linen pants to bed; somehow, it made him feel ... well, less naked.
He came up behind her and put his hands on her arms. She shivered a bit. He leaned down, closing his eyes for an instant, and pressed his lips to her shoulder. His mouth trailed upward, and Xena sighed and let her head drop back, leaning into him, as he swept her hair aside and kissed under her ear. Raising his hand, Ares ran his fingertips across her cheek and the corner of her mouth and her chin, down her neck and chest, and further down over her shift to trace the outline of a breast -- feeling her tremble, listening to her husky shallow breaths.
His other hand crept under her shift and moved up her side, barely touching the skin. He wanted to squeeze her breast but resisted the impulse, instead letting his fingers make small circles around her nipple. This time she moaned aloud. He shuddered and kissed her neck again. His hand slid very slowly down to her stomach, and lower, brushing against the thick curls.
Gods -- to hear her say his name like that...
He had meant to play with her a bit, to drive her crazy -- to really be in charge for a while. At that moment, he knew it was a lost cause. For one thing, he was driving himself just as crazy. His control over his body wasn't what it used to be; his weak mortal flesh was already demanding relief, and if he drew this out much longer it would be over, in the most mortifying way possible. But even aside from that, he just couldn't be playful right now. He needed her too much, needed to lie with her, hold her and be held, feel the warmth of her lips...
When Ares turned her around, Xena reached toward him, as if she'd been waiting for this, and brought her mouth to his with a hunger that couldn't be denied anymore. She broke away to let him take off her shift and then she kissed him again, her hands tugging at his pants, pushing them down --
The pure shock of her touch made him cry out. He dropped his head on her shoulder, gasping as she caressed him; he had to stop her but it felt as if he'd die if she stopped. He managed to get out a choked "Xena -- Xena, don't -- " and she moved her hand away, making him groan in frustration. She stepped back. A mild golden haze seemed to hang around her body, whether it was the lamp behind her or his eyes playing tricks on him.
Maybe this wasn't really happening -- any moment now, he would wake up, or something would interrupt them, or she'd turn and leave. But no, there she was, taking his hands, pulling him back toward the bed, pulling him into another fevered kiss as they sank down on the bed, her body under him a perfect harmony of a warrior's supple strength and a woman's softness. He dipped down to press his mouth to her breast; he wanted to caress all of her with his hands and his mouth, but he couldn't wait anymore.
They kissed very gently, just the tips of their tongues touching, lips parted slightly, catching each other's breaths as she opened up to him.
Ares had tried to prepare himself, not to let it overwhelm him. But there was no preparing for this -- not only for the sensation of melting into her liquid heat but for what it did to him to hear her moan, to feel her meet his thrusts, to watch her eyes blur in tender bliss. He whispered her name and covered her face with kisses. If this could last all night, it would still end too soon.
Except that it wasn't going to last all night; it wasn't going to be like one of his fantasies in which Xena kept coming and coming and coming as he made love to her. His mortal body was already letting him down, pleasure building inside him like a fragile bubble that could burst at any moment.
"Xena..." he whispered hoarsely. "I -- I can't --
"Mmm" -- she reached up to kiss his lower lip -- "what?
"Oh gods -- I can't hold on --
"It's okay." She touched his face, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
"No." Ares grit his teeth, trying to keep some control. "You haven't -- " her inner muscles clenched around him and he groaned, closing his eyes -- "you haven't -- Xena -- I wanna make it good for you --
"Oh it's good," she breathed into his ear, running her hand down his back, "it's -- better than good." He made one more effort to slow down but his body would have none of it. Her hand moved lower to stroke him, and she caught his cry in her mouth as a new wave of sensation tipped him over. The bubble shattered, its sweet poison spilling into his blood, and this time he truly felt as if he were dying, dissolving into nothingness, into her.
Ares lay still for a while, his face buried in Xena's hair, a wonderful, warm heaviness seeping into every fiber of his body. Then he forced himself to stir -- he couldn't fall asleep -- and lightly kissed her lips and slid off her. His fingers grazed her thigh; Xena gave a slight shudder and drew in her breath in anticipation. Bending down, he brushed his mouth against the hard peak of her nipple, then teased it with his tongue, and heard her ragged sigh. She ran her fingers through his hair and moved her legs, almost impatiently, and said, "Ares...
Her voice was thick, breathless, shaky, enough to drive him wild. He slid his hand up, feeling the silky warmth of her inner thigh, and higher still, watching her neck arch, watching little spasms run across her face. It was incredible to see her like this, so lost to the world, lost in the pleasure he was giving her -- so completely vulnerable that Ares felt strangely protective toward the Warrior Princess, in a way he had never felt even as a god.
He cradled her in his arms when it was over, almost as if he were comforting her, her head resting on his chest.
If, by some unlikely miracle, he ended up in the Elysian Fields after he died, this would be the one moment he's choose to relive for eternity.
Maybe that meant he was happy.