Cover Art By Tango

By LadyKate

Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Ares, Gabrielle, Eve, Cyrene, and Virgil do not belong to me; they are the property of Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA, and MCA/Universal. No profit is being made from this story, and no copyright infringement is intended.

WARNING: Rated R for fairly graphic and disturbing violence and occasional vulgar language.

Author's Notes: The plot of Second Chances presumes an alternate story line that diverges from the official one somewhere in the last five minutes of the Season 6 Xena, Warrior Princess episode, “Coming Home." Besides the very different development of the relationship between Xena and Ares, this version has other departures from X:WP “canon"; for instance, Xena’s mother, Cyrene, is still alive when Xena returns to Amphipolis after her 25-year sleep.

In addition to X:WP, some elements of this story were inspired by the film “Unforgiven" (1992), directed by and starring Clint Eastwood.

Summary: Told from Gabrielle's POV, this is a powerfully emotional and moving personal account of the final days of Xena, Warrior Princess.

Dinner's on the table - that rabbit stew smells delicious, I think I've done good this time - and I'm about to go out and call her when there's a knock on the door.

"Gabrielle, would you go and get that wretched little brat of yours!" Lyssia bellows, her face red as beets. "She's beating up on my boy! She's a menace! And keep your mutt away from me, too!"

Arrow barks furiously, tugging at her collar as I restrain her. Knowing Lyssia's boy, I think he was probably asking for it, but I bite my tongue and follow her to the playground. I can hear the commotion from a distance; a small crowd has gathered, kids and grown-ups, and some of the kids are cheering, "A-ri! A-ri!"

There she is, her newly laundered frock a complete mess (why do I even bother?), her black hair flying wildly (yet another ribbon lost), her little face grimy and streaked with sweat and rigid with intense determination - pummeling the Tartarus out of a boy who seems to be about twice her size but isn't doing a very good job of parrying her kicks and punches.

I elbow my way through the crowd, run up to the combatants and grab her.

"Ari! What do you think you're doing?"

She turns to me with a defiant glare. Her hapless opponent picks himself up and runs to Lyssia, whimpering and rubbing at his eyes.

"Aunt Gabby, Nicos is mean! He was picking on the little kids again! He pulled Cori's hair and he broke her dolly - and then he beat up on Cletus and took away his candy and ..."

I suppress a chuckle. Not even seven yet, and already fighting injustice. I wonder where she gets that from.

"Ariana," I say, squatting down next to her and holding her shoulders in a tight grip while she struggles a bit. "That doesn't mean you should fight." I feel like such a hypocrite.

When I stand up, Lyssia gets in my face again. "She's a little demon! You know what she did when I tried to pry her off my boy? Look at that!" She holds up her fleshy arm and I see the tiny bite mark. "That child is begging for a good spanking!"

Fortunately, I have a lot of experience staring down taller people. "Lyssia, why don't you mind your own business. For starters - tell your boy to pick on kids his own size."

As she curses under her breath, I turn away, gently but firmly pushing Ari along.

"Come on, Ari. Dinner's ready." She stops resisting and I take her little hand in mine; she draws in her breath sharply, and I notice that her knuckles are scraped and bleeding a little.

Dammit, I shouldn't feel proud but I do.

By the time I'm done scrubbing her clean, getting her into another dress, combing her hair and putting ointment on her cuts and scrapes, the stew needs to be warmed up again.

It's just the two of us today; Virgil is off visiting his mother and sister, and he has taken our boy Philip with him. As much as I love them, there is something so special about these times alone with Ari, I almost feel guilty about it.

"Alright, sweetie. Eat up and drink your milk. You want to grow up to be strong, don't you?"

She nods. "Just like my mommy and daddy?"

For a second, I catch my breath until the lump in my throat goes away. "Yes, darling, just like your mommy and daddy."

Gods, she looks like her mother. Those slightly angular, beautifully sculpted features, those cheekbones, the proud mouth - the way she smiles - the way her lips stiffen when she's angry. Except that her eyes are not blue but a deep, rich brown, almost black; they can be soft as velvet or piercing as steel. Just like her father's. Sometimes when I look into her eyes, I get such vivid memories of him looking at me - and a lot of those are memories I don't especially like.

She puts the cup down and earnestly wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.

"Aunt Gabby?"

"Yes, sweetie?"

"I saw my daddy."

My spoon clatters to the floor. When I can speak again, it's almost in a whisper. "Where?"

She stares at me with those eyes. "Last night, when I was dreaming."

I let out my breath.

"Ari, what did your daddy look like?"

Her face goes all dreamy. "He's really big and tall... bigger than Uncle Virgil... even bigger than Cori's daddy. And he's got black hair and a mustache and a beard and he's dressed all in black and he's got a big sword ... with sparkly things on the handle... oh and he's got an earring in one ear, that was funny - I thought only mommies wore earrings..."

I touch her shoulder. "That's all right, honey." She couldn't possibly remember; last time she saw him, she was barely one year old. And, back then, he didn't even look like that... except once, on that last day.

"How do you know it was your daddy? Did he tell you?"

She smiles and shakes her head vigorously, giving me a sly look as she feeds bits of stew to Arrow under the table; I've often told her not to do that, but I've got other things on my mind right now.

"No, Aunt Gabby. I just knew. I liked him a lot."

"What happened in your dream?"

"Well, Arrow and I were running through a field and playing fetch and then I heard someone say, 'Ari!' and I turned around and there he was. I wasn't scared of him at all, you know. He was nice. I asked him if he wanted to play fetch with Arrow and we did."

I sigh. He got into her dream, of course; I know he can do that, now that he's a god again. Xena told me he got into her dream once, a very long time ago; she didn't say much about what happened in that dream, but I have a pretty good idea.

Damn it all to Tartarus, Ares. You don't have to sneak into her dreams. You can come here anytime you want.

"And then what? Did he say anything?"

She scrunches up her little face, staring at the ceiling, trying to remember.

"Well, he got down on his knees and did like this" - she pressed her hands to my cheeks - "and then he said, 'You look just like her.' And he kissed me, right here." She points to the top of her head.

I get up abruptly, almost knocking over my plate.

"Just a minute, sweetie, I have to get something from the kitchen."

I don't like to let her see me cry.

Like some of the best things in life, Ari was an accident.

It happened after Ares was driven mad by the Furies - he was mortal then - and Xena figured out a way to get them out of him and destroy them. As part of her plan, she had to fight him and let him almost kill her, and let both him and the Furies believe she was dead.

When it was all over and Xena was done examining the bruises from their boxing match, she stood up and said she had to go and talk to him.

"He really loves you, you know," I said all of a sudden.

She gave me a sharp look. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Just what I said. He loves you. I don't think I ever really bought it until now, Xena, not even when he gave up his godhood to save us. I thought he had to be up to something, like he always was."

"And now?"

"Oh Xena, you should have seen him when he thought you were dead."

She looked down. "Gabrielle... maybe he's always loved me in some twisted way. But so what?" She must have been reading my mind because she added, "Well, all right, I'm - attracted to him. And now that he's mortal, I even kind of like him. But he's still bad for me and I'm going to tell him exactly that." And off she went.

I wasn't all that surprised when a few hours passed and she hadn't returned.

It was Eve who finally blurted out, "What is she doing?"

I chuckled in spite of myself. "Come on, Eve. You're not her mother and neither am I."

She looked so miserable that I was sorry I said it. It had to be tough - to have a mother who looked only a few years older than herself, and to know that at this moment, her former lover was almost without a doubt making love to her mother. I almost asked if she still had feelings for Ares but then I thought better of it.

Xena came back at dawn. There was enough daylight for me to notice a couple of new purplish marks on her in addition to the ones from that prizefight of the day before - one on the neck, one right above her breastplate.

I couldn't repress a smirk. "That must have been some chat you had with Ares."

"Don't start with me, Gabrielle." Her face was inscrutable. "Come on, let's wake Eve and start packing."

"What's the rush?"

"I want to get out of here before he wakes up."

"Are you sure about that?"

She looked away and didn't answer.

We were in the saddle, getting ready to leave, when Xena tensed up all of a sudden. I glanced in the direction where she was looking - and sure enough, there he was coming toward us.

"Xena. What's going on?"

"What does it look like?" she shrugged, sounding deliberately casual. "We're leaving."

"Where to?"

"If you really want to know - Amphipolis."

"I'll go with you."

"I don't recall inviting you."

His face hardened into a scowl. "I see. You were just going to fuck me and leave me." (Eve gasped slightly and he darted a mocking glance her way.)

"Ares..." she sighed. "I'll send you flowers."

"Dammit, don't make fun of me!" He was furious, and for a moment, if it weren't for his slightly disheveled appearance - he had clearly dressed in a hurry - I could have sworn I was looking at the God of War once again. "Can we talk? Alone?"

She shook her head, avoiding his eyes. "Ares, there's nothing to talk about. Please don't start acting like I robbed you of your chastity. Gabrielle, Eve - come on."

She slammed her boots into the sides of the new Argo, so hard that I winced. Just as she started forward, Ares grabbed the bridle and the animal snorted wildly, jerking her head and rolling her eyes.

"Xena ... drop it."

She sighed and, just for a moment, the mask did drop. "Go on ahead," she said, addressing Eve and me but looking at no one in particular. "I'll catch up."

I lingered for a moment.


"Yeah, what?"

"I wanted to thank you for saving my life."

"I didn't do it for you," he spat out.

"Well... thanks anyway."

As Eve and I rode off at a slow trot, I glanced back occasionally. Xena had dismounted and now stood facing Ares. The expression on his face softened and he took her hands in his; she smiled, and then laughed rather affectionately at something he said. Finally she pressed her lips to his, very briefly, and got back in the saddle. He stood there, following her with his eyes; there was longing in them but also a kind of strange serenity. Then he straightened up, arms at his sides, and threw his head back - and I realized that, out of sheer reflex, he was trying to disappear. Thousands of years of habit couldn't be easy to overcome. Suddenly, I was struck by the magnitude of what he had given up: not only his powers but eternity. It would be, I thought, like losing the use of both legs and learning that I had only two days to live. Whoever could have imagined that I would feel sorry for Ares?

We rode for a few minutes until Xena finally broke the silence.

"I guess I didn't handle that too well."

I smiled. "Well, you were being a real bitch there for a while." She glanced at me with a wry little chuckle. "What did you talk about just now? If you don't mind my asking."

Eve gave her mother an uncomfortable look, then kicked her horse and rode faster, settling back into a slower trot when she was out of earshot; Xena followed her with a worried look. I sighed. Over the years, we had grown so used to this easy intimacy, to being able to talk about anything, that it felt odd to have someone else around.

"I told him that we had to have that one night and I'm glad we had it, but that's all it could ever be."

"And what did he say?"

"He asked if there was any chance of us being together, like one in a thousand or something."


"I said, more like one in a billion."


"And he said, So you're saying there is a chance?" She laughed and shook her head. "Classic Ares."



"If that's how you feel, then why - "

"Oh, Gabrielle... you know I didn't plan for it to happen. Just got caught up in the moment."

For some reason, I suddenly felt mischievous. "So how is he?"

It wasn't often that I was able to give Xena a shock. "Gabrielle!"

"Come on," I giggled. "I want details!"

"Well, you're not going to get them."

I glanced at her and saw the grin on her face.

"That good, huh?"

She sputtered, and then we both burst out laughing. When our mirth had subsided, we rode for a few more minutes in a companionable silence until I spoke up again.

"Are you sure you don't want to be with him?"

Xena reached over suddenly and gripped my shoulder so hard that I cried out - more in surprise than in pain. "Hey!"

She fixed me with a chilly glare, all traces of merriment gone from her eyes. "Gabrielle, give it a rest, okay? I really don't want to talk about this anymore."

"Uh... okay."

"I just needed to get him out of my system."

Well, wasn't that an ironic thing to say. As it turned out, something of him stayed in her and put down roots and grew, until, about six weeks later, there was no longer any doubt.

"Xena? Are you feeling all right?"

She hadn't come out of her room all day since she got back from seeing the midwife and hearing the final confirmation of what she already knew. The curtains drawn, she lay on her bed in the dark, staring into the ceiling.

"Your mother's worried about you."

"Gods ... does she know?"

"No, I thought you should be the one to tell her."

"Damn, Gabrielle." She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and sat hunched over, her forehead resting on her hands. "Damn. Damn."

I sat down next to her and reached out hesitantly to stroke her hair.

"Xena, I know you like to keep to yourself when you're having a bad time, but please, talk to me."

"What's there to talk about? I just can't believe I could have been so stupid. To get knocked up - and by Ares..."

I gradually worked up the nerve to say it.

"Xena, I think you need to let him know."

She whirled around.

"What are you talking about?" Even in the dark, I could see the corner of her mouth go up in a bitter sneer. "Let him know? So he can what, make an honest woman of me? Mrs. God of War?"

"Xena, he's no longer - “

"Yeah, yeah, I know. Mrs. Ex-God of War. How pathetic is that."

"All I'm saying is - “

"Oh, we'd have a wonderful life together, I'm sure!" she sniffed, her eyes glittering. "All those lovely conversations we could have reminiscing about our courtship... 'Oh, Ares, remember how you had me framed for murder... you really know your way to a girl's heart! And - and - when you pretended to be my father to goad me into attacking people - that was so clever! Not to mention when you got the Furies to drive me insane... '"

"If that's all you see in him, why did you sleep with him?"

She sighed and stared at her bare feet. "Well, okay, that's not all I see in him. But those things are there, all that and a lot more. I could put it behind me for a night, there's no way I can put it behind me for the rest of my life. And to have his baby - Gabrielle ... only a few months ago he was threatening to have my daughter killed if I didn't give him a child."

She got up and paced back and forth in a room that was much too small for it.

"You're going to tell me that after that, he gave up everything for me and asked for nothing in return..."

"I didn't say anything, Xena."

"And that changes things, but it doesn't change everything." She stopped and turned up the lamp, making me squint and cover my eyes. "Gabrielle, I can't go through with this. I have to get rid of it."

I jumped up and grabbed her hands.

"Xena, look at me. I'll stand by you no matter what you decide to do, but... This may be your last chance to actually see your child grow up, be there to raise it - " I knew my words would sting terribly, like ripping bandages off wounds that had never quite healed; but I had to say it. I didn't want her to have more losses to regret. "And it's your mother's last chance to see her grandchild grow up. Think about it. Please think about it."

For a second she looked like she could have gladly slugged me and strangled Ares; but then her eyes grew soft and moist, and a few stray tears trickled down her cheeks as she pressed my hand to her face.

"So when are you going to tell Ares?"

Cyrene, quite old and frail by now but still, in her own quiet way, just as tough as her warrior daughter, had taken the news in stride. Even the father's identity, I think, didn't shock her that much. Of course, she had seen them together in Ares' temple back then - and even though it was all just a setup (one that made me feel a little queasy when I thought about it now), she had probably never quite bought Xena's protestations of immunity to the masculine charms of the War God. In any case, her excitement about another grandchild clearly swept aside all other concerns.

"Oh, not you too, Mom," Xena sighed, poking listlessly at her food. "You of all people. What a lovely gift to you that would be ... a son-in-law who wanted to have you killed."

"Well," Cyrene smiled, with an irrepressible twinkle in her still-young eyes, "it's true, that usually doesn't start until at least a month after the wedding."

"Mom!" Xena laughed helplessly.

"Xena." Cyrene reached out and put her wizened hand on top of her daughter's. "Whatever you do, do it for the right reasons. I don't pretend to even begin to understand this thing between you and Ares, and he's certainly not everything I'd want in a son-in-law. But you know, there are a lot of things I don't understand about your life. You have to admit, compared to the way you had Eve, this is pretty normal. And Xena... maybe, after what you told me he did for you, he has ... well, a right to be involved in this too."

Xena bristled and opened her mouth, no doubt to make some kind of sarcastic remark about what rights Ares did and didn't have; then she shook her head, pushed away her half-full plate and rose from the table.

"I'm tired, Mom. I'm going to get some sleep."

A few days later, at dusk, the two of us sat on the porch, sipping lemonade and watching the last colors fading from the sky - tender blue with wispy patches of creamy white and pink. We had been reading a letter from Eve, who was on the road spreading the message of Eli; it was mostly about her mission, with a rather formal inquiry about her mother's health.

"Eve is having a hard time dealing with this," Xena said thoughtfully.

Fireflies, flickering green, danced in the air in front of us.

"Don't you see, Gabrielle, this makes it even more complicated. If Ares were to hang around as some sort of father figure..."

"You mean as the father."

"Whatever." Her cheek twitched a little. "Eve would have a - a - a - well, stepfather, for all intents and purposes - who used to be her" - her voice trailed off.

"Eve is a big girl."

Xena glanced at me sideways and took another sip of lemonade.

"I can't believe this. You actually want me to be with him."

"Maybe I'm just playing devil's advocate."

"Aha," she grinned. "So you do concede that he's the devil."

At least she was teasing, not snapping at me. I chuckled, and there was a long silence. Xena had picked up a twig and was tracing intricate patterns in the dust.

"Anyway," she said finally, her eyes still down, "I don't even know where he is now. I mean, it's not like the old days when all I had to do was yell 'Ares!' and he would pop in with that stupid grin and some supposedly witty remark like 'You rang, madam?'“

"Ow. That hurt," said a deep, smooth voice that could only belong to one man.

There he was, on a splendid black horse, in all his glory - except that his hair had grown out and looked a bit shaggy. Xena spluttered and spit out her lemonade.

"Ares." She got up, shaking off her dress. "What are you doing here?"

"Well, hello to you too." He started to dismount. "Oh, I just wanted to pay you a visit and see if you'd give me an update on those odds... you know, that one-in-a-billion thing... you think it might be down to one in a million this week?"

"I'm pregnant."

Her abrupt delivery of this news, made as matter-of-factly as if she had announced that she had just painted her house, startled me more than his arrival. As for Ares, his foot missed the stirrup and he tumbled most ungracefully off the horse, landing on his behind. He sat up and gaped at Xena, much too stunned to take umbrage at our laughter.

He scrambled to his feet with a grunt, dusted himself off and came up to her.

"You're pregnant."

"That's what I said."

"You're going to have a baby."

Xena smirked. "Wow, you've actually figured out how that works. Brilliant."

He cupped her face and began to plant quick, small kisses on her forehead, her eyes, her nose, the corners of her lips before finally claiming her mouth.

"Xena…" his voice was thick and low. "This is it, this is our second chance…"

Then he slid down to his knees, his tanned, muscular arms encircling her hips, and nuzzled her belly. Xena gasped a little and leaned forward, digging her hands into his shoulders. Whatever her opinion of Ares, there was little doubt about her body's response to him.

"Better go inside before you get arrested for public indecency," I said.

He rose and hoisted her up, wrapping her legs around his waist. As he pushed the door open, he turned his head in my direction, flashed me one of his killer smiles and said, "Take care of my horse, will you."

My irritation bubbled up, and I wanted to slap myself for taking his side earlier. Arrogant bastard, I thought - he barely got here and he's already manhandling her on the porch of her mother's house and ordering me about.

"It wouldn't hurt you to say 'please, '" I snapped.

He didn't turn around. "Of course it would."

I have no idea whether they discussed his moving in, or he just did. If Cyrene had any objections, she hid them well. Ares, on his part, treated her with a comically exaggerated gallantry - such as telling her at virtually every meal that her cooking was the true food of the gods - that made Xena roll her eyes, and that was probably meant to cover up some actual embarrassment about that little business with the Furies.

The one issue on which Cyrene was adamant was keeping his identity secret; she definitely did not want the neighbors or the customers at her tavern to know that the new member of her household not only wasn't married to her daughter but was also a former god. He grudgingly agreed to give up his leathers for something less conspicuous, and was somewhat appeased when it turned out that the town barber was able to give him the exact same cut that he sported in his final days as God of War. When it came to a name change, though, he drew a line in the sand, rejecting every suggestion as utterly unsuitable. We finally settled on telling people his name was Aristos so that "Ares" could be a plausible nickname. There were some rumors but nothing anyone could pin down.

Eve visited a couple of times. Xena had warned Ares that if he made one "Say hello to Daddy" joke, he'd quickly learn that the hazards of mortality include broken bones; so, during her brief stays, he made himself scarce, pursuing his new hobby of teaching combat skills to some of the locals.

Rather to my amazement, he invited me over to show my moves with the staff and the sais, and I felt a twinge of pride as I realized that a year ago - no, I had to remind myself, twenty-six years ago - when he complimented me on my new prowess as a warrior, he wasn't just manipulating me to get to Xena. (Mostly, to be sure, but not just.) He actually asked me again, and there might have been a third time if I hadn't knocked him down on his ass in front of his students.

He still sniped at me, but I had learned not to take it personally and, occasionally, to respond in kind. When we were on our way to that first training session and he told me to keep in mind that it wasn't a good idea to stick daggers in his chest anymore, I gave him my sweetest smile and said that, on the contrary, now it was finally a good idea. Ares grinned broadly, gave me a slap on the back that almost knocked the wind out of me, and replied, "Oh, very good, little girl! Ten more years and you may be able to hold up your end of the conversation."

Things weren't going nearly as well between him and Xena. Except in one department, of course; there was many a night when I wished dearly for thicker walls. In daytime, though, the tension often got palpably dark and heavy, like the air before a storm. She would get distant and moody, he would get clingy and sulk when she gave him the cold shoulder. Her insistence on an almost daily swordplay drill, even with her growing belly, was probably meant less to keep up her skills than to blow off steam; and in her case, I sometimes did worry that she would forget it was no longer all right to drive a blade straight through his gut.

Despite this outlet, the tension boiled over once in a while, and she'd rip into him over the kinds of little things that inevitably come up when living under one roof. Listening to the Warrior Princess berate the former Olympian because he had polished off the leftover apple pie she had saved for herself could have been sublimely ridiculous if it hadn't been so uncomfortable, especially when the trifles led them to rehash far bigger and worse things from the past. Finally, when she brought up his alliance with Dahak and he snapped back, "All because you just couldn't bring yourself to trust me," it was my turn to lose it. Surprising myself, I shrieked, "That's enough!", smashed a plate and ran from the kitchen shaking. Behind me, I heard Ares grunt, "Nice going there, Xena," and Xena snarl, "Oh yeah, like you care!"

Outside the house, she caught up with me and enveloped me in a hug.

"Gabrielle... I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that - I know it brings back all sorts of - "

"How in Tartarus do you get from apple pie to Dahak?" I asked, wiping away tears.

"He's a self-centered bastard, that's how."

"Don't you think you're ... umm .. losing perspective?"

"Oh, Gabrielle, I don't know anymore. I feel like I don't have any choice about his being in my life and - I hate that." She gently stroked my damp cheek. "And now he's driving a wedge between you and me, just like he always tried to do."

"Xena, this time I don't think he's doing it on purpose." She didn't answer. "Well, if that's how you feel, tell him to leave."

Her arms tightened around me. "Just bear with me a little, Gabrielle. We'll work it out."

I wondered if she meant her and me, or her and him; she probably didn't know herself.

About half an hour later when I came back from my walk and poked my head in the kitchen, they were still there but they didn't notice me, with their eyes closed. Xena's head was thrown back a little; Ares stood behind her, his cheek pressed to hers, one hand stroking the swell of her belly and the other lightly kneading her shoulder. She sighed contentedly and looked like she was about to purr.

And so it went, good days and bad ones. I didn't like being too sympathetic to Ares; it felt odd, given our history - and besides, I was quite sure that he hadn't lost his manipulative streak with his godhood and would play the sympathy card like a master. Yet sometimes I couldn't help it. Once, passing by the window, I caught sight of Xena sitting on the porch lost in thought, when he sat down next to her, put his hand on her now-distended stomach, and said softly, "Our child, Xena."

She raised her head, her profile chiseled against the evening sky. Her mouth tightened.

"And you didn't even have to blackmail me for it."

Her voice was like the crack of a whip. I couldn't see his face but I saw his shoulders flinch a little, and heard the catch in his throat when he asked, "Xena... does it still... sicken you... to be having my child?"

She said nothing and he sat silently, fingering the dagger-shaped pendant he always wore around his neck. Then he rose abruptly, and for a moment I felt absolutely certain that he was going to leave. Maybe it's really for the best, I thought as I tiptoed sheepishly away from the window.

He didn't leave, but later that evening he went down to the tavern and decided to try the mortal trick of drowning his problems in wine - though the next day, he remembered that he didn't like the aftereffects.

As I handed him the towel when he was done pouring cold water over his head, he suddenly asked, "Do you think she hates me?"

I darted a surprised look at Ares, not at all sure I liked the idea of being his confidant.

"No," I said. "She's just - she doesn't know how to deal with all this and so she ends up - trying to hurt you on purpose."

He toweled off and I couldn't help thinking how gorgeous he was standing there in the sun, shirtless, his muscles playing, the water trickling down his furry chest. I looked away, blushing a little.

"Ares, you did bring a lot of this on yourself, you know. You can't really blame her, considering what you did."

He snorted. "Which one of my evil deeds are we talking about now?"

I could have said "all of them," but maybe the sympathy card had worked. "You told the gods about Eve because Xena wouldn't agree to that baby deal of yours."

"They would have found out anyway."

"But not from you."

He bit his lip. "You seem to forget that I had a very good reason to want Eve dead."

"The Twilight," I whispered. It felt surreal, talking about the Twilight of the Gods with this man who had been one of them - and who was now standing in the sunlit courtyard of a small-town house, slipping into a brown linen shirt and looking a little haggard after a night of drinking.

"Damn right, the Twilight. You know I have this funny thing about self-preservation." He smirked bitterly. "For me to keep Eve alive meant going against - everything I was. Don't you get it? And I still offered her to do that."

"If she let you have your way with her."

He grimaced. "It wasn't just about me having my way with her, as you so charmingly put it. Or even about procreating. Guess what, I wouldn't have had much trouble finding volunteers for that." To my dismay, he caught me blushing again and his eyes twinkled with mockery. "It was about being with her."

"Ares..." I sighed. "That wasn't the way to go about it."

"Maybe I just didn't know how to deal with it," he growled. "And I ended up trying to hurt her on purpose. Okay?" Then, his face relaxed; he ran his hand through his damp hair, tucked the pendant under his shirt, and threw the wet towel at me. "Come on. You were going to give me some sort of herbal thing for the headache."

I followed him back into the house. Either he had done a brilliant job of messing with my head, or maybe he had a point.

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