I satisfied my curiosity about what might happen after A FRIEND IN NEED in three other stories ("The Ghost of A Smile," "A Fly in The Ointment" and "Suns of The Passed.") Still, I found myself wondering how Ares might respond to Xenaís actions in Japa. I started exploring this idea a bit in November 2001, but didnít feel inspired to see it through until Kevin Smithís death in February 2002. The following is dedicated to the amazingly talented man whom Iíll always remember as the God of War.
"She killed her!" Ares thundered, bolts blazing unbidden from his agitated hands. "Just as surely as if sheíd cut off her head herself!" The war godís face darkened even more. "All those years -- whittling and whittling and whittling." He punctuated his anger with slashing motions across his throat. "Another traitorous little bitch and two-bit samurai was all it took to bring her down."
The Goddess of Love lay semi-reclined on her pristine chaise lounge, regarding her furiously pacing sibling with a mixture of pity and scorn. "Cut the melodrama, Bro. Itís not always about you. Gabby was the best thing that ever happened to Xena. Youíre just too full of yourself to admit it."
"Best thing?!" Ares stopped in his tracks, incredulous at Aphroditeís stupidity. "Best thing?! You call chopping the greatest warrior into kindling a good thing? Blowing off what she couldíve been for ashes in the wind? And for what?" He glowered at his mute sister. "For love?!" he spat. "I shoulda let that sappy blonde rot when I had the chance!"
He stalked to his throne, heaving himself down heavily, oblivious to the cobwebs and dust heíd railed about only a few days before. "What a waste," he muttered, his powerful frame deflating. "I just donít get it."
Aphrodite fiddled with the lace on her black gown, the effervescent part of her missing her standard pink, a more somber part mourning the missing half of Gabrielleís soul. Even before theyíd learned of Xenaís death in a faraway land, she and Ares sensed it. Ares had suddenly stopped whining about the negligent treatment of his temples. Heíd clutched at his chest, saying he felt a chill, like the fire inside him had dampened. Aphrodite had clutched her chest too, but for a different reason. A warmth had enveloped her heart ñ greater than any she could remember, almost too much for her to bear. It wasnít until theyíd learned the whole story, seen Gabrielle in Greece, alone, that the two gods realized Olympus wasnít the only part of their universe that had changed.
"It was so beautiful," Aphrodite murmured, brushing at a tear. "Gabby believed, and Xena did it."
Ares raised his head to glower at his sister. "No shit. It was beautiful, all right. Like watching your prize war horse chase a dove over a cliff." He smashed his fist down on the arm of his throne. "Splat!" He looked at his hand with disgust. "All my efforts to break her ñ ride her to the pinnacles of glory ñ and a pissant peasant beats me to it. Xena was supposed to be mine!" His head bowed again. "She was supposed to be mine," he repeated bitterly.
Aphrodite studied her sullen brother a moment, her eyes slowly widening in comprehension. "How could I have missed it," she gasped, slapping her cheek reproachfully. "Here Iíve been waving my magic wand all over creation, and I miss whatís been growing in my own back yard." She peered more closely at Ares. "But the ground was so cold and hard." She smiled impishly. "I must be better than I thought."
Ares cocked his head at her. "What are you blabbering about?"
"You loved Xena." Aphrodite smirked knowingly. "Not just admired or used or lusted after her. You really, truly, actually loved her!"
Ares snorted. "Get a grip. Itís not always about you either, Miss Lonely Hearts. What I saw in Xena went beyond anything as pathetic and useless as Ö as Ö that." He slowly uncurled to his feet, his eyes a flaming tribute. "She was Ö." He shook his head, trying to find the words. "Passion. Discipline. Strength. Brilliance. Courage. Everything a god of war could ever dream of in his champion." He sauntered over to lift Aphroditeís chin. "Whatís a pitiful thing like love, when youíve got all that?"
"You tell me," she answered softly, ignoring the mockery in his voice. "Or maybe you need to ask Gabrielle, seeing as how Xena became her champion and not yours."
"Her again?!" Ares snatched his hand away and stalked back to his chair. "Even after that bastard of a brother turned Xenaís head, she was still mine to have. She never lost her heart for battle. Even you canít sit there and deny that."
Aphrodite faced the challenge in her brotherís eyes. "No, neither would the bestest warrior babe of all time. But that doesnít change that she tried to bury it."
"What are you talking about? You heard it. They say she defeated a whole contingent of archers. Slashed through them like Zeusí bolts, pulling arrows out of her body, standing bloody and proud untilÖ." Ares lifted his eyes to the ceiling. "Oh, what I wouldíve given to see that!"
Aphrodite lay back against her pillows. She arranged her gown about her legs. "As I recall, you did give everything, and it wasnít enough. But thatís not what Iím talking about. Iím talking about right after she left Herc and was ready to give it all up, just before she met Ö." Aphrodite discreetly let her voice trail off.
Ares plopped down in his chair with a huff. "Oh, puleez. That little bit of angst?" He shook his head. "She and Hercules deserved each other. No two people had more potential and worried so much about hurting someone with it. Except, with her, all it took was another chance to wade into battle, to wash her doubts away. It wasnít that meddling brat that made her come to her senses. It was the lure of wrapping her hands around her sword again, slicing and dicing Dracoís men."
"Sure, Bro, you keep telling yourself that."
"You doubt me?!" he snarled. "You doubt I knew every murderous thought? That I could feel the battle lust in her blood? How close she was?" He brought his thumb and forefinger nearly together. "This close. Even after that blonde do-gooder, I couldíve had her again." He closed his hand into a fist. "But no. She was too stubborn, too proud. So determined to have her own way."
"Heh, mustíve drawn you like a wolf to raw meat."
Ares glared at Aphrodite. "It was infuriating, never mind disrespectful!" Aphrodite stared back, unimpressed. He finally relented with a boyish grin. "Okay, so she was the challenge of my existence. One of a kind. Nobody ever exhilarated me so. Made me feel who I am, why I am. Before her, it was just a job." Ares surveyed the shambles of his Olympian glory, realizing that there wasnít much need to save face any more. His jaws clenched. "Now itís not even that."
Aphrodite shook her head. Ares had always taken so much for granted, confident he could scare his world into submission. He reminded her of a spoiled child -- clueless about why he attracted bullies and sycophants, carelessly treating what he supposedly valued, unconcerned that his demands and tantrums wreaked havoc among gods and mortals alike. Still, she worried about him, and not just because he was all the "family" she had left. She liked him. She understood that his insufferable self-centeredness came with who he was, with his purpose for being. At his core, he really wasnít evil. He had a surprising code of ethics which ñ deceitfully as he might apply it ñ gave him a certain charm, a vulnerability that Xena appealed to and forced him to recognize.
Aphrodite tried to imagine Ares without Xena. Heíd be worse than a spoiled child; heíd be a terribly wounded one, blindly striking out with nothing but death on his mind. Probably dragging herself into his madness, like that time Caligula perverted her weakened state. She pursed her lips. Bummer. Sighing again, she collected herself. She knew love couldnít fix everything, but she couldnít help trying. Thatís who she was, her purpose for being.
She rose and went to kneel beside her brotherís throne. She laid a hand on his arm.
"Face it, Bro. You had the hots for Xenaís integrity. Every warrior willingly offered you blood. Only she could give you the honor you crave so much."
Ares fidgeted in his chair. "She intrigued me, is all. I thought the ëgoody two shoesí routine was a game, a strategy to keep me chasing her. She used it to trick me, you know. Sheíd dangle her soul in front of me, then find some way to snatch it back." He swiped a hand across his cheek, remembering. "Nobody could spit in my face like that."
Aphrodite stroked his arm. "Yeah, she was good, wasnít she? I thought I knew all the wiles of seduction. Whoída thought olí dark and deadly would come up with something so outta my league?"
Ares grinned. "Yeah, that was one sexy warrior, all right. Brains, beauty, brawn, bravery. She knew how to use the whole arsenal."
Aphrodite scowled at the dirt on the floor but gingerly lowered herself down anyway. She leaned against Aresí throne. "She got to you with her soft side too, huh?"
Ares instinctively started to deny this. He looked down into his sisterís sympathetic eyes, then glanced away with a sigh. "You know, I might not have been that bad of a father. I wouldnít have minded our kid having some of his motherís desire to do right by humankind. If it helped make her such a great warrior, why not?"
Aphrodite blinked a few times. "Hold on a sec. Iím trying hard to picture the two of you in domestic bliss. Gotta admit, I keep seeing dishes flying and a baby crawling on the floor with a knife between its teeth." She shuddered. "Chasing its Auntie Dite."
Ares shrugged. "I was tired of switching sides. The same twits with different faces, none of them as good as her. None of `em who made me care about winning or losing like Xena. When it seemed I might live out my existence as a mortal Ö." Ares looked down at his hands. "But she didnít believe I had it in me. She didnít believe I could change. Sheíd rather have Callistoís spawn than mine."
Aphrodite sighed. "Once again, Bro, maybe it wasnít all about you. Maybe it was herself she didnít trust."
Ares raised his head. "What are you saying?" he asked, a hint of hope in his voice.
Aphrodite punched his arm. "Right, like you didnít consider yourself the godsí gift to anything in a battle skirt?"
He puffed up a little. "Well, of course, but weíre talkiní Xena here."
"Yeah, we are. A woman you say yourself was attracted to everything about you. Sure, there were lots of Ö um Ö a few little things she didnít like--"
"Um, okay, despised. But they were the same things she didnít like in herself. If she had trouble controlling them with Ga Ö on her own, imagine how hard itíve been in the same bed with Mr. Badness himself. She mightíve lost the qualities that made her special to you, that she wanted for herself, for her child."
Ares pondered this. "I guess thatís what she was trying to tell me after I gave up my immortality for her." He grinned shyly. "Otherwise, she said I had a chance with her ñ one in a billion, but a chance."
"See?" Aphrodite patted his arm. "She knew you cared. She wouldnít have let you get your godhood back if she didnít miss you."
Ares snorted. "Then she shouldíve eaten that golden apple and become a god with me. We both know youíre the one she really wanted to restore. I was just a counter weight to keep you in balance. Unbelievable."
Aphrodite smirked. "The woman did have her moments of good taste." She patted her brotherís arm again, then stood and stretched. She walked over to a chest next to her lounge and took out a bottle and two golden goblets. "Here," she said, handing Ares a goblet and pouring in some wine. "Iíve been saving this for a special occasion. Us doing a sensitive chat sure qualifies." She winked. "For both of us."
Ares gave her a bemused smile before downing half his drink.
Aphrodite reclined on her lounge again. She sipped her drink and let out a long, satisfied sigh. As an afterthought, she pulled some spectacles from her gown and propped them on her nose. "Whaddya think? Gives me an erudite look, donít you think?"
"Erotite?" Ares snickered. "You and your fancy names for rolling around like weasels. You know what they say about girls who wear glasses. Oh, yeah, wasnít it you who made that up? Bwahahahaha!"
Aphrodite peered over her rims disdainfully. "Pearls before swine," she mumbled to herself, then cleared her throat. "You realize, of course, why Xena died still showing off all those qualities you so hated to admire."
Aresí face clouded. He sat his goblet down. "Iím through chatting."
Aphrodite swirled the wine around in her cup. "I donít think so."
He shot her a warning look. "Donít push it, Sis. I havenít changed that much."
Aphrodite smirked. "Whatíre you gonna do? Brood me out of existence? Smash the few pieces of furniture we have left? Leave me by myself while you go duke it out in some War God of the Known World Competition? Ooooo, I am soooo scared."
Ares growled. "Whereís a good Hindís Blood Dagger when you need it?" he muttered.
"Now, now. No need to get ugly. Iím trying to help you out here. I hate to see you so down."
Ares stomped his foot. "I am not ëdown!í The only thing that gets to me is missing a good fight!"
"Yeah, well, they sure gave you the best you ever had."
"They? What ëthey?í"
"Both of `em. You couldnít have had the one without the other."
"Oh, yeah, and the one wouldnít be dead if not for the other." Ares chopped off an imagined head. "Donít expect me to forgive her for that." He stood and began pacing again. "You," he said accusingly, pausing to point at Aphrodite. "Of all people, you should understand. She killed the only woman I ever Ö." Ares caught himself, suddenly fearful his formidable defenses were being breached.
"Nuh uh, Ares. Maybe Gabrielle did some remodeling on the woman you wanted, but she helped create the woman you loved."
With a curse, Ares tried to will himself some place else, but managed only a slight blurring of his hulking frame. After a few more futile attempts to vanish, he slumped again on his throne. "Iím the God of War, you ditz. Gods of war donít love. They canít afford to. Those ungrateful mortals are already doing their best to dis me. Does it give you that much pleasure to help them?"
"Oh, honey," Aphrodite said, leaning toward him. "I told you. I only want whatís best for you."
"Whatís best?!" He hurled his goblet across the room. It crashed against a wall, leaving a dribbling red stain. "You said it yourself. Whatís best for me is Ö dead. Gone. Finis. No more ënext timeí to pursue it again."
"Not yet, Ares. Not as long as your love for her lives. Trust me, you wouldnít be mooning around like this if it didnít. You wouldnít be so Ö jealous Ö of Gabrielle."
"Jealous?" Ares sneered. "You never give up, do you?"
"No more than you, dear brother. But donít be jealous. If you can accept what Gabrielle meant to Xena, maybe then you can glory in the honor of the warrior Xena became." Aphrodite gentled her voice. "And be okay with loving the woman she was."
Ares sat silently, absently fingering the hilt of his sword. "Yeah," he acknowledged softly. "The woman. The flesh and blood woman. Not some ghost I canít sink my teeth into." He shook his head sadly. "Nice try, Sis, but what you speak of is something I canít touch anymore, not without the woman herself."
Aphrodite relaxed back against the cushions and removed her glasses. She pulled out a nail file. Smiling slyly, she began giving herself a manicure. "Oh, come on, Ares. The warrior babe wasnít all that."
Ares narrowed his eyes at her. "What?"
"She had a certain mystique, Iíll give you that. I always wondered how much of it was the chain mail and leather." Aphrodite lifted the flimsy material of her gown, then let it float back down around her body. "Maybe I shouldíve paid more attention to her fashion statement too, instead of putting all my stock in wimpy frills."
"Did the Furies secretly hide themselves in your pea brain?" Ares asked in disbelief. "You think the clothes made the woman?" He snickered. "Maybe in your world, not mine."
Aphrodite studied her fingertips, stealing a glance at Ares out the corner of her eye. "You sure seemed more interested in my girl Gabby when she started wearing the rough stuff."
Ares threw back his head, laughing. "Oh, now I know youíve lost what few marbles you had. Gabrielle?" He laughed again. "So she got pretty good at the martial arts. Learned to draw blood with the best of `em. Not too shabby in the guts department either. Yeah, it wasnít hard to pretend a little interest in her, but she was nothing compared to my girl."
"If you say so." Aphrodite smothered a yawn. "I say, ëbor-ing.í" She looked up at the ceiling. "Now Gabby, sheís interesting. Lots of sides to her. Purrs like a kitty cat, with the heart of a lion. Every time I picture her throwing herself into that pit, sacrificing herself and her child to save Xena Ö." Aphrodite shivered.
Ares shook his head. "Nah, when she turned into the Gabbinator against those Roman soldiers, that time Xena was crippled, now that was a thing of beauty."
Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "Typical. That ainít exactly what makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside."
Ares rolled his eyes. "Typical." He looked off into the distance. "Give me Xena thundering into battle, throwing the chakram with that arrogant sneer, scaring birds out of trees with her war cry Ö. Zeus, there was nothing like it."
Aphrodite nonchalantly peered up at him. "Still feels good, huh?"
Ares drifted back to a memory etched in his brain, to a dungeon where heíd first revealed himself to a chained Warrior Princess. The corner of his mouth turned up in acknowledgment of his own trickery, which heíd used to land her in jail, to show her the impotence of her quest to redeem herself, to bond her to him with her own integrity in a union to rule the world. Heíd been masterful! Enticing her with promises of the justice, peace and compassion she could achieve as the warrior she wanted to be. Viscerally reminding her of the conqueror she was and could be. Of the danger, the power and action that drew her like a moth to a flame.
"It burns inside you," heíd told her with certainty he saw reflected in her eyes, inhaling her essence as she leaned into his touch. "I burn inside you. You can feel me there, like a fever." Sheíd outwitted him, as usual, winning her freedom along with the greater good. He hadnít minded, really. "Until next time," heíd vowed, anticipating the prospect of another opportunity, knowing her fever would always burn inside. He threw back his head and closed his eyes, the heat searing through him even now.
"Glorious," he finally answered Aphrodite, extending his hands, palms up. "Like I can move Olympus." He took in a huge breath, his massive chest seeming to fill the room. "She makes me feel Ö alive."
Aphrodite paused in her filing. "Huh. All that from a dead woman. Cool."
Ares opened his eyes, turning to study his smugly innocent sister, a scowl spreading slowly across his rugged visage. "You think youíre pretty slick, donít you?"
"Tsk, tsk, tsk." Aphrodite smirked. "Donít feel bad. Even Gabby used to underestimate little old moi." She put her file down and patted the space next to her. "Címere, ya big lug."
Ares glared in response, then shrugged and reluctantly strode over to sit beside her.
"Donít you see? Love is what keeps us alive. Her through you. You through her." Aphrodite put her arm around his shoulders. "Go with it, Bro. Iím giving you the secret to my longevity."
"Peopleíll always need me too," Ares countered. "Just like Xena did, even in the end. She couldnítíve won all those battles without me."
Aphrodite nodded. "But would she have wanted to, without me? Without Gabrielle?"
Aresí face contorted in frustration, as he tried to summon up one last volley. Finally he sighed what they both knew was his grudging surrender. Hesitantly, he wrapped his arm around Aphroditeís waist. They sat companionably, each immersed in very different, but similar, reveries.
"The two of us. Agreeing. Whoída thought weíd come to this?" Ares playfully thumped Aphroditeís head. "But donít get used to it. What happened with Xena is a one in a trillion chance."
"I wouldnít count on that. Our girls are supposed to be bumping around the universe for a long time to come in one form or another."
Ares frowned. "Iím not sure itís worth fighting over my territory with all those other gods and peace lovers. Getting worshipped by weirdos. Everybody wants the glory, but in any name except mine. Besides, whoís to say Iíd like some future version of Xena?"
"Hmmm." Aphrodite considered this. "And I might not be so fond of a new edition Gabrielle. She and I are such good buds now, Iíd hate to have to start all over again ñ you know, like enduring gruesome duds and hairdos before she got it right." Suddenly Aphrodite clapped her hands. "Oooo, have I got just what we need!" She reached again into the chest next to her lounge, pulling out some rolls of parchment to wave in her brotherís face.
"You stole her scrolls?!" Ares smacked his leg, snickering in appreciation. "And you call me ruthless."
"Allís fair in love and war, Bro. Besides, I didnít steal them. I made duplicates of some, one time when I had to help Gabby with her writerís block." Aphrodite retrieved her discarded spectacles. "These came in handy then too. We had such a good time. She actually listened to me. I think thatís when she first started seeing me as a ñ"
"Oh, goody," Ares interrupted, grimacing. "Stuck with the Goddess of Love and her romance novels to console me. Can it get any better than that?"
Aphrodite smacked his leg. "For your information, they arenít all romances. I didnít feel like weeding out the ones that werenít about me, so I copied what I saw." She hugged a particularly worn scroll to her bosom. "This is among my favorites ñ ëOne Against An Army.í" She sniffed. "Gabby was so brave and inspiring. Poor baby lay helpless, near death, yet all she worried about wasó"
"Army?! Hey, thatís gotta mean Xena and lots of butt kicking." Ares tried to snatch the scroll.
"Oh, no you donít." Aphrodite held the scroll away from him. "This is way too uplifting for your tastes." She thrust at him another scroll with a black ribbon tied around it. "I marked some I could tell right off had an unacceptable amount of blood and guts to skip through. Read this. Itís called ëThe Price.í"
"Oooo, gimme, gimme." Ares grabbed the scroll and loped back to his throne. "Lots of blood and guts, you say? Even more than usual?"
"Probably, featuring your beloved warrior babe at her darkest. Happy?"
"Wonder which time this was?" Ares murmured to himself, already gleefully unrolling the scroll. "Hmmm. Xenaís fishing," he reported, reading the first few lines. "Usually a good sign troubleís coming." A short while later, he lifted his head. "Sis?" He waited until Aphroditeís eyes met his. "Uh Ö thanks. For Ö you know Ö. Everything."
Aphrodite beamed. "No prob, Bro." She smoothed out the scroll in her lap, running her fingers fondly over the bold characters. "Gabrielle and Xena. Me and you. Who knows how much of eternity we have left? Letís hold on to this as our ënext timeí while we can, okay?" Silence. She looked up. "Ares? Helloooo."
"Mmmm." Ares waved a hand distractedly in his sisterís direction. He was back in his realm again, captivated by Gabrielleís words. Once more sensing his magnificent dark-haired nemisis, feeling her surge against his veins, pleasantly surprised to still be alive in the one battle heíd questioned his heart to win.
About the title graphic:
Title: War's Surrender
Author: Cousin Liz
Software used: Cinema 4D XL Ver 7.303