Ares and Aphrodite debate the meaning of Xena’s actions in A FRIEND IN NEED. The following is dedicated to Kevin Smith.
"She killed her!" Ares thundered, bolts blazing unbidden from his agitated hands. "Just as surely as if she’d cut off her head herself!" The war god’s 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. It’s not always about you. Gabby was the best thing that ever happened to Xena. You’re just too full of yourself to admit it."
"Best thing?!" Ares stopped in his tracks, incredulous at Aphrodite’s stupidity. "Best thing?! You call chopping the greatest warrior into kindling a good thing? Blowing off what she could’ve 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 he’d railed about only a few days before. "What a waste," he muttered, his powerful frame deflating. "I just don’t 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 Gabrielle’s soul. Even before they’d learned of Xena’s death in a faraway land, she and Ares sensed it. Ares had suddenly stopped whining about the negligent treatment of his temples. He’d 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 – greater than any she could remember, almost too much for her to bear. It wasn’t until they’d learned the whole story, seen Gabrielle in Greece, alone, that the two gods realized Olympus wasn’t the only part of their universe that had changed.
"It was so beautiful," Aphrodite murmured, brushing away a tear. "Gabby believed, and Xena did it."
Ares raised his head to glower at his sister. "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 scowled at his hand with disgust. "All my efforts to break her – ride her to the pinnacles of glory – 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. "Here I’ve been waving my magic wand all over creation, and I miss what’s 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. It’s not always about you either, Miss Lonely Hearts. What I saw in Xena went beyond anything as pathetic and useless as … as … that." He slowly uncurled to his feet, his eyes a flaming tribute. "She was …." 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 Aphrodite’s chin. "What’s a pitiful thing like love, when you’ve got all that?"
"You tell me," she answered softly, ignoring the mockery in his voice. "Or maybe you should ask Gabrielle? Seeing as how Xena became her champion, not yours."
"Her again?!" Ares snatched his hand away and stalked back to his chair. "Even after that bastard of a brother turned Xena’s head, she was still mine to have. She never lost her heart for battle. Even you can’t sit there and deny that."
Aphrodite faced the challenge in her brother’s eyes. "No, neither would the bestest warrior babe of all time. That doesn’t change 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 Zeus’ bolts, pulling arrows out of her body, standing bloody and proud until…." Ares lifted his eyes to the ceiling. "Oh, what I would’ve given to see that!"
Aphrodite lay back against her pillows. She arranged her gown about her legs. "As I recall, you did give everything. It wasn’t enough. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about right after she left Herc and was ready to give it all up, just before she met …." 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 wasn’t 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 Draco’s 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 blond do-gooder, I could’ve 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, must’ve 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 there wasn’t much need to save face any more. His jaw clenched. "Now it’s 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 his insufferable self-centeredness came with who he was, with his purpose for being. At his core, he really wasn’t evil. He had a surprising code of ethics, which – deceitfully as he might apply it – gave him a certain charm, a vulnerability Xena appealed to and forced him to recognize.
Aphrodite tried to imagine Ares without Xena. He’d be worse than a spoiled child; he’d 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 couldn’t fix everything, but she couldn’t help trying. That’s who she was, her purpose for being.
She rose and went to kneel beside her brother’s throne. She rested a hand on his arm. "Face it, Bro. You had the hots for Xena’s 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 ‘goody two shoes’ routine was a game, a strategy to keep me chasing her. She used it to trick me, you know. She’d 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, wasn’t she? I thought I knew all the wiles of seduction. Who’da thought ol’ 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 Ares’ throne. "She got to you with her soft side too, huh?"
Ares instinctively started to deny this. He looked down into his sister’s sympathetic eyes, then glanced away with a sigh. "You know, I might not have been that bad of a father. I wouldn’t have minded our kid having some of his mother’s 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. I’m 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 …." Ares looked down at his hands. "But she didn’t believe I had it in me. Didn’t believe I could change. She’d rather have Callisto’s spawn than mine."
Aphrodite sighed. "Once again, Bro, maybe it wasn’t all about you. Maybe it was herself she didn’t 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 didn’t consider yourself the gods’ gift to anything in a battle skirt?"
He puffed up a little. "Well, of course, but we’re talkin’ Xena here."
"Yeah, we are. A woman you say yourself was attracted to everything about you. Sure, there were lots of … um … a few little things she didn’t like--"
"Um, okay, despised. But they were the same things she didn’t like in herself. If she had trouble controlling them with Ga … on her own, imagine how hard it’ve been in the same bed with Mr. Badness himself. She might’ve lost the qualities that made her special to you. That she wanted for herself, for her child."
Ares pondered this. "Guess that’s 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 – one in a billion, but a chance."
"See?" Aphrodite patted his arm. "She knew you cared. She wouldn’t have let you get your godhood back if she didn’t miss you."
Ares snorted. "Then she should’ve eaten that golden apple and become a god with me. We both know you’re 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 brother’s 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. "I’ve 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. She sipped her wine 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, don’t 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, wasn’t 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."
Ares’ face clouded. He sat his goblet down. "I’m through chatting."
Aphrodite swirled the wine around in her cup. "I don’t think so."
He shot her a warning look. "Don’t push it, Sis. I haven’t changed that much."
Aphrodite smirked. "What’re 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. "Where’s a good Hind’s Blood Dagger when you need it?" he muttered.
"Now, now. No need to get ugly. I’m trying to help you out here. I hate to see you so down."
Ares stomped his foot. "I am not ‘down!’ 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 ‘they?’"
"Both of `em. You couldn’t have had the one without the other."
"Oh, yeah, and the one wouldn’t be dead if not for the other." Ares chopped off an imagined head. "Don’t 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 …." 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. "I’m the God of War, you ditz. Gods of war don’t love. They can’t 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 what’s best for you."
"What’s best?!" He hurled his goblet across the room. It crashed against a wall, leaving a dribbling red stain. "You said it yourself. What’s best for me is … dead. Gone. Finis. No more ‘next time’ to pursue it again."
"Not yet, Ares. Not as long as your love for her lives. Trust me, you wouldn’t be mooning around like this if it didn’t. You wouldn’t be so … jealous … of Gabrielle."
"Jealous?" Ares sneered. "You never give up, do you?"
"No more than you, dear brother. But don’t 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 can’t sink my teeth into." He shook his head sadly. "Nice try, Sis, but what you speak of is something I can’t 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 wasn’t all that."
Ares narrowed his eyes at her. "What?"
"She had a certain mystique, I’ll 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 should’ve paid more attention to her fashion statement, 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 you’ve 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 wasn’t 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, ‘bor-ing.’" She looked up at the ceiling. "Now Gabby, she’s 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 …." 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 ain’t 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 …. 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 he’d first revealed himself to a chained Warrior Princess. The corner of his mouth turned up in acknowledgment of his own trickery, which he’d 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. He’d 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," he’d 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." She’d outwitted him, as usual, winning her freedom along with the greater good. He hadn’t minded, really. "Until next time," he’d 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 … 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 you’re pretty slick, don’t you?"
"Tsk, tsk, tsk." Aphrodite smirked. "Don’t feel bad. Even Gabby used to underestimate little old moi." She put her file down and patted the space next to her. "C’mere, ya big lug."
Ares glared in response, then shrugged and reluctantly strode over to sit beside her.
"Don’t 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. I’m giving you the secret to my longevity."
"People’ll always need me too," Ares countered. "Just like Xena did, even in the end. She couldn’t’ve won all those battles without me."
Aphrodite nodded. "But would she have wanted to, without me? Without Gabrielle?"
Ares’ 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 Aphrodite’s waist. They sat companionably, each immersed in very different, but similar, reveries.
"The two of us. Agreeing. Who’da thought we’d come to this?" Ares playfully thumped Aphrodite’s head. "But don’t get used to it. What happened with Xena is a one in a trillion chance."
"I wouldn’t count on it. Our girls are supposed to be bumping around the universe for a long time to come in one form or another."
Ares frowned. "Not sure it’s worth fighting over my territory against all those other gods and peace lovers. Getting worshipped by weirdoes. Everybody wants the glory, but in any name except mine. Besides, who’s to say I’d 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. I’d hate to have to start all over again – 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 brother’s face.
"You stole her scrolls?!" Ares smacked his leg, snickering in appreciation. "And you call me ruthless."
"All’s fair in love and war, Bro. Besides, I didn’t steal them. I made duplicates of some, one time when I had to help Gabby with her writer’s 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 that’s when she first started seeing me as a –"
"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 aren’t all romances. I didn’t feel like weeding out the ones that weren’t about me, so I copied what I saw." She hugged a particularly worn scroll to her bosom. "This is among my favorites – ‘One Against An Army.’" She sniffed. "Gabby was so brave and inspiring. Poor baby lay helpless, near death, yet all she worried about was --"
"Army?! Hey, that’s gotta mean Xena and lots of butt kicking." Ares tried to snatch the scroll.
"Oh, no you don’t." 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. It’s called ‘The Price.’"
"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. Xena’s fishing," he reported, reading the first few lines. "Usually a good sign trouble’s coming." A short while later, he lifted his head. "Sis?" He waited until Aphrodite’s eyes met his. "Uh … thanks. For … you know …. 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? Let’s hold on to this as our ‘next time’ while we can, okay?" Silence. She looked up. "Ares? Helloooo."
"Mm." Ares waved a hand distractedly in his sister’s direction. He was back in his realm again, captivated by Gabrielle’s words. Once more sensing his magnificent dark-haired nemesis, feeling her surge against his veins, pleasantly surprised to still be alive in the one battle he’d questioned his heart to win.
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