Part I: Understanding
DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Ares, Gabrielle, and Argo are the property of Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA, and MCA/Universal; the other characters in this story are the author's own. No profit is being made from this story, and no copyright infringement is intended.
Rated NC-17 for the graphic depiction of consensual sex between a man and a woman.
The story takes place in Season 6 of Xena: Warrior Princess, after the episode "Paths of Vengeance." My thanks to Tango, Taleen, and Karla von Huben for some very helpful comments on the draft version of this story.
Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same. ... He's always, always in my mind -- not as a pleasure, any more than I am a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
The village, a relatively prosperous one by the look of the houses and the well-tended fields, had seemed like a good place to stop for shopping. Yet something was clearly out of the ordinary. On a warm, breezy afternoon, no one was working in the fields, and the streets were empty too -- except for chickens pecking at the dust, some dogs and the occasional pig lazing about in the sun, and a few children playing. There was a din of voices, though, coming from the main square and getting closer.
"Maybe there's a celebration of some kind," ventured Gabrielle. "A wedding?"
"Or something much less cheerful," said Xena.
The grimmer conjecture was right: The villagers were gathered round a still-unlit funeral pyre. At a distance, the dead man, his pale face framed by golden curls, looked almost like a sleeping boy; but the sword, helmet and shield at his side left no doubt that he had died a warrior's death. Inside the circle of mourners, a haggard middle-aged woman who had to be the bereaved mother -- she wasn't weeping now but her every breath sounded like a strangled wail -- leaned on the arm of a man who looked like an older, coarser version of the dead youth. He gently nudged her toward a younger woman who stood next to him, two small children clinging to her skirts, and then stepped forward.
"I don't need to tell you about my brother," he said, obviously struggling to keep his voice firm. "You all knew Lindros since he was a boy. He was always a fighter... always standing up for what he believed in. But he also had a good and loving heart. He was the most devoted brother and son anyone could have. And he didn't just show kindness to his kin or friends. You know how, the summer before last, he rescued a sick stranger and cared for him as if he were family. Let me tell you something else. When that man was leaving, he wanted to give us his jeweled gauntlets in reward, and my brother wouldn't hear of it. 'Melas,' he said to me, 'it looks like this man doesn't have much left in the world. We can't take his last possessions just because we showed him some decency.' That" -- his voice cracked a little -- "that's the kind of man Lindros was."
There was a ripple of scattered sobs in the crowd. Melas paused to catch his breath and went on.
"We are a peaceful village. Most of us are strangers to the ways of war. And yet my brother, like so many young men, wanted to pursue a hero's path before embarking on the quiet life of a farmer and a family man. As we mourn his loss, let us respect his dream of glory..."
"Why?" The shriek came from a slender dark-haired girl barely out of her teens. She lurched forward, wrenching herself from a woman who tried to restrain her. "Why do we keep giving fancy names to butchery? Hero -- glory -- how long are our boys going to die for these stupid words? Why? Why?" Her cry became a howl and she collapsed, clutching at her stomach, as Melas glanced around helplessly.
The girl didn't resist when her parents lifted her and led her away, but her outburst had shattered the reverent atmosphere. The sobbing was louder now, and there was palpable agitation among the spectators. Melas exhaled hoarsely and turned to a young soldier who stood at the front of the crowd, silent and rigid, his helmet in his hand.
"Tyreus," he said. "You have brought my brother's body home so we could give him a funeral, and we are forever in your debt -- though we wish we'd met you under happier circumstances. We would be honored if you were to"-- he faltered again -- "do the final rites."
A torch, black smoke billowing from its flame, was passed to Melas and then to the soldier. A tense silence fell over the square as the young man stepped up to the pyre and sang the warrior's funeral dirge. The flames slithered timidly along the dead branches, gradually grew bolder and then shot up and licked at the air, hiding Lindros from view forever. Sobbing, Melas hugged his mother and his wife.
Gabrielle, too, felt the tears coming on, thinking of the family she had left behind to pursue a life of adventure -- and of Xena and the brothers she has lost. Then she glanced at her friend, and was shocked. The look on her face wasn't so much sad as wary and perplexed, even slightly disgusted, as if she suspected someone here of faking sorrow for an ulterior motive.
The Warrior Princess dismounted, tied the new Argo to a post and made her way through the crowd. Puzzled, the bard followed and realized that Xena was heading toward the soldier.
"Your name is Tyreus?"
He nodded, his face blank.
"And you brought this man's body here when he was killed."
"How nice of you."
Startled by the sarcasm in Xena's tone, Gabrielle looked around to make sure no one else had heard her. Did she know something about this man? Was he some con artist who specialized in ripping off bereaved families? He seemed quite ordinary -- of medium build, with somewhat unkempt ash-blond hair, grey eyes, and a none too memorable face.
"Any special reason?"
"He wanted his remains to be brought home to his family. And he -- did me a favor once."
"Oh did he." The sarcasm was there again, and Gabrielle finally had to step in and ask, "Xena? What's going on?"
Xena tightened her mouth, clearly struggling with a decision of some kind. Finally she tossed her head and said, "Let's go, Gabrielle" -- then, turning to Tyreus, added on the same mocking note, "Nice meeting you."
"Xena?" Gabrielle repeated, frowning a little. "What was that all about?"
"Gabrielle -- " Xena stopped and looked at the people walking past them. "Later. Let's get going."
After a mostly silent meal at the tavern -- which slowly filled up as people drifted back from the funeral -- the two women stocked up on bread, cheese and smoked beef at the store and left the village. Xena still hadn't mentioned the soldier, and Gabrielle, though rattled, was hesitant to press her.
Not far from the main road, they saw Tyreus again, riding ahead of them with Melas. The men stopped briefly; the villager said something to the soldier, then clasped and shook both his hands -- and again, Gabrielle noticed that peculiar look of suspicion and disapproval on Xena's face.
Melas turned around and headed back to the village, barely sparing the women a look as he went by. When he was out of sight, Xena sped up, and a couple of minutes later they caught up with Tyreus. Gabrielle braced herself for the confrontation, though she still had no idea why.
"All right," Xena said, her voice level but with a scornful edge. "You can drop it now."
The soldier sighed. Gabrielle didn't have time to react as the air seemed to part before her eyes, and then it was as if Tyreus were made of clay and an invisible hand deftly remolded him into a taller, darker, more muscular shape. Even before he had fully taken form, and before the grey horse under him melted like a painting wiped away by a sponge, she knew what was happening.
Gabrielle wasn't sure if she had whispered the name or only heard it in her head. Her mouth went dry and she felt short of breath. Part of her still saw Ares as almost an old friend; she had rather fond memories of him as a mortal, and she could never forget that he had sacrificed his godhood to save her, even if it was really for Xena. But now he was back as the God of War, and their last run-in with him had been anything but pleasant. His scheme to rebuild his power base by inciting a war between the Amazons and the Romans had jeopardized the life of Xena's daughter who was acting as a peace broker -- and had cost Gabrielle herself a brutal beating when she challenged Varia, the Amazon Queen, in an effort to save Eve.
"So," Xena said, "what now? What sick little game were you playing with those people back there?"
His stare was grim. "No game, Xena. They did me a favor while I was mortal. I saw the kid's body on a battlefield the other day and thought I'd bring him home."
"Really." A corner of her mouth curled up bitterly.
"What kind of favor?" Gabrielle asked.
He shrugged, still looking at Xena. "Doesn't matter. You don't believe me anyway."
Xena snorted. "Well, I admit I find it just a bit hard to believe considering how well you've repaid me ... and Gabrielle."
"What, that little dust-up with Varia and the Amazons? You know I never meant you any harm."
"Yeah, and Gabrielle still has the bruises to show for it," she snapped, rather to the bard's discomfort. Ares silently twitched his eyebrows as she continued, "And what if those people knew whom they were showering with gratitude? I have a hunch the God of War wouldn't be very popular back there right now."
"You almost told them, didn't you." He gazed at her heavily, and this time the accusation was in his eyes. "All you would have done is hurt them. I've never cared very much about winning popularity contests, Xena."
Xena stared down. "Look, Ares," she finally said. "I don't feel like bickering with you. I don't even want to be angry at you, believe it or not. I know that being the God of War is what you do and -- I accept that. But if I find you plotting to draw a bunch of trusting villagers into a war, you know I'll -- "
"You'll do whatever you can do to stop me, yeah, yeah, yeah," he cut in. "I know. It's what you do. But you're wrong about this one." Nodding slightly to Gabrielle, he grunted, "Take care of those bruises," and flared out of sight, leaving the her to reflect that she had probably heard the closest Ares would ever get to an apology. The two women stayed still for a couple of minutes, staring at the spot where he had just stood and then turning to each other with an unspoken What do you make of that?
They reached the main road and rode in silence. Gabrielle pondered their history with Ares and all its freaky twists, and tried to imagine what could be going through Xena's mind -- given that, for her, this history was a hundred times more complicated. Day was turning to dusk; the setting sun had painted the pale blue sky in streaks of crimson and the green of the trees in a soft golden sheen. More than an hour had passed after their encounter with the War God when Xena brought her mare to an abrupt halt.
"Xena? Is something wrong?"
"We're going back to that village, Gabrielle. I need to find out what he's up to."
By the time Xena and Gabrielle had finished their second mug of ale at the tavern, they knew that Lindros had fought in an army raised to fight Alcibiades, the Macedonian king whose campaign of conquest was threatening the province. The stout, ruddy-faced tavern keeper informed them in a hushed, confidential tone that Alcibiades was rumored to have the patronage of the God of War himself.
They had also learned that two other young villagers, Aminias and Simeon, were signing up for the army. "What can I tell ya?" the tavern keeper sighed. "Boys... You wouldn't think that after that show in the square today, anyone would be envying poor Lindros, but those two ... that's all they can talk about now, the glory of battle. Simeon's my own nephew, you know ... says when he heard that soldier, whatsis name, sing the funeral song, it was like he knew the gods wanted him to be a warrior ... go figure."
Yet, as far as they could tell, "Tyreus" had not talked to these young men and had not tried to recruit anyone to join the war on either side. It seemed that after arriving with Lindros' body the day before, he had stayed at the family's home overnight and generally kept to himself.
"So what now?" Gabrielle asked when they left the tavern.
"Well," Xena said with a sigh, "what we really ought to do is talk to the family. Of course, this is the worst time ..." She lowered her eyes, lost for a moment in her own painful memories.
The mention of Lindros' family made Gabrielle remember something -- and she almost gasped as a connection clicked in her mind.
"Xena, do you remember what Melas said about how Lindros rescued a sick stranger the summer before last?"
Xena blinked at her. "Who?"
"Melas, the brother. He talked about it in the eulogy -- "
"I wasn't listening that closely... I was too busy trying to figure out why I was picking up on his presence and where he was." Xena shivered a little and rubbed her shoulders.
"Xena, he said that the stranger offered them his jeweled gauntlets as a reward."
Xena stared at her. "And you think -- "
"Well, it could be, right?"
"You mean he was telling the truth."
Gabrielle looked at her intently and smiled a little. "Would that disappoint you?"
"All right." Xena straightened up. "Let's go see them."
Inside Melas' house, Xena hung back and let Gabrielle, with her better people skills, do much of the talking. After the condolences and apologies, she asked about the stranger Lindros had brought home, explaining that it could be someone they knew and had lost track of.
"I'll tell you," said Melas' wife, Phyllis, putting a hand on her husband's shoulder. "I helped care for him. He called himself Adrian but we had a hunch it wasn't his real name. When he came to and Lindros asked him his name, he must've taken a full minute to answer."
"What did he look like?" asked Gabrielle.
"Very tall, black hair, beard... dressed all in black leather -- oh and he had a silver earring in one ear..."
"And a pendant," Melas said suddenly. "Shaped like a dagger."
"What happened to him?" This time it was Xena who spoke, a little too tersely.
Phyllis gave her a wan smile. "Very nearly died, the poor fellow, and in such a silly way. Lindros found him in the woods back there" -- she waved her hand in an indeterminate direction -- "he'd eaten a bellyful of nightshade berries. I mean, even five-year-old kids know better. We figured he used to be a rich man and fell on hard times ... didn't know much about living in the real world if you ask me."
You don't know the half of it, thought Gabrielle.
"So who was he?" the woman asked. The bard glanced at Xena, not sure whether to admit that they did know the family's mystery guest.
"Pretty much as you guessed," Xena said evenly. "He was ... someone important and he fell on hard times. I wish I could say more, but -- I can't."
For a moment, Melas' curiosity got the better of his grief. "Was he -- royalty?"
Gabrielle almost snickered. You could say that... and more.
"Close," Xena said.
"He had some kind of falling out with his family, right?" Phyllis pressed on. Meeting the women's questioning stares, she explained, "Oh, it's not that he told us anything -- just some of the things he said when he was delirious. Like 'You happy now, Dad?' and something about his sister and how he didn't mean for her to die... And he kept saying -- " Phyllis suddenly looked at the dark-haired woman. "Wait -- what did you say your name was? Seena?"
"Xena," she muttered.
Phyllis became visibly animated. "So you're the one he was in love with."
Gabrielle squirmed with embarrassment. Xena, who already looked like she was fighting back a wave of sickness, might as well have taken a surprise punch in the stomach.
Melas excused himself to go check on his mother. Phyllis darted a worried look after him and then turned back to Xena. "He kept saying your name, you know. Saying he loved you and asking for you -- "
Xena rose abruptly, pushing her chair back with a grating noise.
"Thank you. I'm sorry we've imposed on you. Gabrielle --"
Gabrielle was getting ready to apologize when Xena stopped at the door and turned around, her face softening.
She went back and took Phyllis's hands in hers, and said quietly, "I'm sorry."
Phyllis nodded. "I hope you find your friend."
A couple of hours later, past midnight, Xena put on her leather tunic and slipped out of the inn (it had been much too late to go back on the road and look for a campsite). Unable to sleep, she had tried pacing in her small room but kept bumping into the chair or the bed and cursing silently. A walk outside might help clear her head.
After "that little dust-up with Varia and the Amazons," she thought she had resolved for herself the question of where she and Ares stood now. He was the God of War who reveled in slaughter, who would send thousands to their deaths for his power and glory. "That's what I do," he had told her when she confronted him with an anguished "Why are you doing this to me?" -- having just learned that he was goading on the Amazons who were about to kill her daughter.
She believed him when he said that his scheme wasn't directed at her or Eve personally; she didn't expect any more efforts on his part to bring her back to his fold -- only, perhaps, to get her into a fight for the sheer voyeuristic pleasure. It made no sense to hate him for what he was or to deny the bond between them, including the physical attraction; the memory of his touch that day in the field, the crimson heat emanating from his hand, still gave her sensuous shivers. But there was no going back to the time when he wasn't just mortal but human -- a man who, though often vain and self-centered and prone to posturing and griping about mortality's ills, could also be warm and caring and brave in the face of his new susceptibility to injury and death.
The talk with Phyllis had reminded her all too vividly of the human Ares. She kept thinking of what it must have been like for him to roam the countryside tired and hungry, to have his once-invulnerable body racked by spasms of pain and nausea. It terrified her to know he had come so close to dying. She had been shaken, too, by her glimpse into Ares' private agony over letting Athena die so that she, Xena, could live -- something that had never occurred to her, given the animosity between the War God and his sister. It was still worse to think of him ill and delirious and calling her name.
Caught up in these troubled thoughts, Xena had wandered off the village grounds and walked through a small grove and into a meadow. She breathed in the light sweetness of wildflowers and heard the cicadas and the occasional night bird, and the faint ripple of a brook. She went up to the stream, took off her boots and waded in; it was only ankle-deep but cool and soothing. Squatting down, she scooped up some water and splashed it on her face and neck.
Why think of him as a mortal? That Ares was gone; there was only the God of War. Except that he had brought that boy's body home. Was he really just repaying a favor to the people who had helped him out? She had to believe it; even if he had something to do with the two other villagers joining the war, it couldn't be worth the effort. He still had human feelings, then. She wasn't sure if she found this reassuring or frightening. How was she going to deal with him?
Her lips twisted in exasperation. Why did she have to deal with him at all? Because he'd show up again, of course, sooner rather than later. In fact ... she felt the familiar tingle on the bare skin of her arms and straightened up, water dripping from her chin.
"Ares... what do you want?"
She had said these words, or some variation on them, more times than she cared to remember; but this time, she realized even before she had quite finished saying it, she sounded different -- not angry or bitter or challenging but soft and wistful, if a bit impatient.
"Come on. I know you're here."
The light flared, and he made himself visible sitting by the water's edge.
"All right, I believe you. You just came here to bring Lindros' body back. Is that what you wanted to hear?"
He picked up a pebble and threw it at the surface of the stream, watching the ripples spread.
"You never told me about -- what happened to you here."
Ares shrugged. "What was I supposed to tell you? That the God of War almost died of stomach cramps?"
He picked up more pebbles and threw them in one after the other. Xena came out of the water and sat down on the other side of the brook, shaking herself off and watching him. His silence was beginning to get on her nerves.
"Well," she said, "if you came here so I could watch you play with pebbles, I'm leaving."
She got up, picked up her boots and turned to walk back. She expected him to zap himself over and stand in her path, as he had done so many times before when she had tried to walk away, but instead she heard him behind her.
"He wasn't dead when I found him."
Xena whirled around. "Who, what -- ?"
She held her breath and looked at the God of War. He was staring down, his face hidden in the shadows.
"He was dying."
She came closer, waiting for him to continue as he kicked at the water with the tip of his boot, making droplets fly like tiny pearls in the moonlight.
"Couldn't you have healed him?"
"The healing power of the gods was vested in Athena. That's why there was that deal -- we needed her blessing or else... Now that she's gone, we just don't have it anymore. There was nothing I could do -- except -- "
"You had to -- finish him off?" she whispered. He said nothing but she thought she saw him nod. "Did he recognize you?"
She took his silence to mean yes. Before she could get irritated by this one-sided conversation, her imagination recreated the scene so well that, to her own shock, she felt weak in the knees and sank down on the grass next to Ares. When he spoke, she could barely hear him.
"He was so scared..."
Xena felt a chill settling in her bones. He couldn't be saying this -- she couldn't listen to this -- she had to change the subject. She forced her voice to a crisp clarity.
"So what about this Alcibiades? Is it true what they're saying? He's your man?"
"What's the idea?"
"Unite the provinces. Build up a single Greek army. One strong enough to challenge the Roman Empire." Ares spoke firmly now, but seemingly without the glee that was usually there when he talked about his plans. He paused. "Xena ... I don't think it's working out."
"The thing with Alcibiades?" Her mind reeled. Was he asking her to lead his army ... ? The War God shook his head slightly. "Then what?"
Another pebble skidded along the water. "The whole thing."
"What whole thing?"
"Dammit!" His voice rose from a near-whisper to a shout, making her flinch. "I'm not supposed to feel this way!"
"You mean, feel for people who die."
Xena felt the chilly tingle creeping up her spine again, and could barely force the words out. "It wasn't just -- this time?"
Ares finally looked at her, and his eyes were human, very human.
"Xena, I lived as a mortal for two years. I could have ended up like any one of those men on the battlefield with my guts spilling out. And now -- I don't..." he looked down. "I don't know if I can think of them the way I used to."
"The way you used to?" She felt the bitterness coming back. "Sort of like -- tin soldiers in a toy-box? Or -- or those little wooden figures in the game on the checkered board that the Persians play? Or like pets if they were lucky?"
"Something like that." He glanced at her. "With ... some exceptions."
"So what am I supposed to say to all this? 'Oh, poor baby, I'm so sorry you can't be a completely cold-blooded killer anymore?'"
"That would be nice."
Xena snorted, narrowing her eyes. "And where was this newfound compassion when you nearly got Eve killed?"
"Do you have to make it personal?"
"Sorry, it gets a little personal for me when my daughter is sentenced to death."
"I told you, I didn't know she was going to get involved."
"But once she got involved, you just kept egging Varia on."
He looked away, shifting a little, and finally muttered, "I knew you could handle it."
"That's what it was all about, wasn't it?" She rose abruptly to her feet, her face and neck burning. "Getting off on watching me kick some Amazon ass?"
"Well, you can't deny me some little thrills," he retorted, but the attempted grin came out as a grimace.
Her mouth tightened in disgust. That was it -- she was leaving.
"Xena..." His voice was quiet again, filled with such raw misery that she turned around. She saw him clearly in the moonlit night; he was leaning back, his body tense, his eyes closed. "I wanted to ... to prove to myself that I didn't give a damn -- that I was really back in business." He opened his eyes, and there was a hopeless plea in his look. "But ... I did give a damn."
"And why should I believe you?" Even as she spoke, she realized with a shock that she did believe him.
"Can you at least believe that I'm glad she's all right?"
She looked at him and nodded slightly. Then she said, "Don't tell me you're also glad that Varia didn't go to war against the Romans."
"No, I won't tell you that. Only that, if she had -- there would have been times when I might have wished she hadn't." He caught Xena's skeptical look. "For about five seconds. Maybe ten. But that makes -- all the difference."
She sighed and sat down. "Well, if you don't like this business anymore, get out of it."
"Out?" He chuckled. "Are you insane? The spirit of battle -- it's in me. I'm not saying that I don't love it. Only that there's a part of me now that ..." he trailed off.
"It's in me too, Ares," the Warrior Princess said very quietly. "I got away from it."
In the next instant, Ares' hands were grabbing her shoulders and his face was right up against hers, a hard glint in his eye. "You don't have a clue, do you? I'm not just some warlord, Xena. I'm the God of War." His voice took on the familiar quality of velvet-coated steel. "My godhood feeds on combat -- on the rage and the battle-lust of warriors -- and when they worship me, when they fight in my name, the surge of power I get is ... magnified a hundredfold. I can give it up like you can give up food and water."
He let go of her and turned away, and for a moment Xena was paralyzed by a stark terror he had never made her feel before, even as her enemy and tormentor. It occurred to her that maybe she had thought of him as little more than a warlord with some magical powers.
When she managed to speak, she said, "You're telling me you don't have a choice."
"Not really. Not anymore." She didn't think she had ever heard him sound so bleak.
"What do you mean, not anymore?"
He lay back, stretching out on the grass.
"You mean -- now that you're a god again?" He was back to stubborn silence, and she felt the chilly tingle creeping up her spine again. "Ares, are you telling me that you wish you'd stayed mortal?"
He didn't say no.
"Ares..." Ungrateful son of a bitch -- after all she'd done to get him his godhood back. "Don't give me that. Don't. You know that you weren't any good at being mortal -- "
"You never gave me a chance."
"You heard me."
"You mean" -- her mouth curved in a sneer -- "you might have had a go at it if I'd let you in my bed."
"In your life."
"What are you talking about?"
"Remember right after -- " he stumbled, searching for the right words -- "right after I -- became mortal -- we were walking on that beach and you asked me what I was going to do ..."
"And you said, 'wander the earth...'" She shivered a little, just as she had then.
"I was kinda hoping you'd say, 'Wander with me, Ares.' With or without being in your bed. But you wished me luck and we went our separate ways."
"I said you could count on me if you needed anything."
"I needed a new life, Xena. And not as a farmer, dammit! Like you'd ever settle for that wonderful, peaceful country life. Sure, you liked playing farm girl for a few days, but for real? Give me a break."
"Ares ... do you actually think we could have followed the same path? My life is about helping people, protecting the defenseless -- "
"Oh please -- when were you ever interested in helping anyone?" She caught his stare and felt herself blushing. "Well, other than -- " His cheerless, crooked smile unnerved her even more. "Ares -- it wasn't something you could do just because you wanted me to like you..."
"Why not? Everything you do is because you want to like yourself."
Anger gripped Xena's throat. "You bastard -- " she hissed. "The way you twist everything around -- "
That dismal smile was still on his face. "Go ahead, hit me if it makes you feel better. Too bad I can't oblige you with any blood."
Xena glanced at her balled fists and took a deep breath, unclenching her fingers. She should go back, stop this before he drove her completely crazy...
"You never wanted me to make it as a mortal."
She felt as if he'd slapped her. Steady now -- it's just one of his mind games ...
"What are you talking about?" She was doing her best to sound sarcastic but knew that she couldn't quite hide the hurt. "I liked you as a mortal -- we were friends -- "
"Oh, you liked me. But deep down -- you still wanted the God of War around, didn't you?"
"Maybe the world needs a God of War."
"And maybe you need to put a name and a face to the darkness that you think you have to keep fighting. Or maybe this stuff turns you on." The god lifted a hand and she watched, mesmerized, as it started to glow from the inside -- a deep fiery red that was like a halo around his fingers. If he touched her now... He smirked at her, as if he'd proven his point, and lowered his hand. "You know, I saw your face that day outside Odin's castle, after you gave me the apple... right after you watched me blast away at that mountainside. You're drawn to the power, aren't you? You just won't admit it."
A memory stirred inside her -- a memory of the things he yelled at her more than two years ago when he was possessed by the Furies and they were slugging it out by the icy pond, things that stung badly even though she knew he was deranged.
The War God sat up, and they were silent for a while.
"Then again, maybe you're right," Ares said. "Maybe I couldn't cut it as a mortal no matter what. And maybe now I can't cut it as a god."
Almost before she knew what she was doing, Xena reached out and touched his arm. He turned to her and spat out, "What am I good for?"
"And you think that ... I've done this to you."
"Sure you have," he said matter-of-factly. "Even before the Twilight -- I had two brushes with mortality thanks to you and ... it changed me. You think there aren't times when I've cursed you and asked why the Fates had to get your thread mixed up with mine?" He took her hand, raised it to his lips, kissed her fingers and added, still in that casual tone, "I can never hate you for very long, though."
"Ares... Do you think I should feel guilty if, thanks to me, the God of War has -- something of a heart and a soul?"
"When you put it that way -- I suppose not, from your point of view."
"What do you really want from me?" Xena said softly. "My sympathy? All right, I'm -- I'm very sorry that you're -- hurting like this."
The War God winced a little. "It's not even that. I was hoping that you of all people would ... understand."
He turned around. She found herself looking straight into his eyes, and realized that her hand was still in his. She remembered being amazed by how soft and defenseless his eyes could be when he was mortal -- but he was a god again and she could still see that vulnerability there, only slightly veiled.
She leaned forward and kissed him, affectionately rather than passionately, just like she had after he had recovered from his Furies-driven madness. Then, his lips had been swollen and bruised from their fight; now they were soft and smooth, and she could feel that heat she remembered from before when she had kissed the God of War -- even though, she reminded herself, none of those kisses had been for real -- a heat barely palpable on the surface of his skin but seeming to radiate from some distant volcanic core within him. Was he right? Was there something about his godhood that excited her?
And what if there was? Even as a god, he was so human now. She wanted to kiss him again and she did, this time slipping her tongue between his lips, making him moan a little. When she pulled away, he looked at her and said hoarsely, "Xena ... don't ..."
She was startled. "Don't what?"
"Don't ... mess with my head anymore."
Now, Xena felt an undeniable stab of guilt. All the times she had assumed he had no feelings to hurt... of course, it's not as if he hadn't done his share of messing with her head in some pretty awful ways... oh, never mind. She forgot what she had meant to say -- so instead she brought Ares' hand to her face and slowly rubbed her cheek and then her lips on his hot dry palm, lifting her other hand to brush her fingertips over his hair, his eyelids, his cheek, his mouth. She undid his gauntlet, letting it drop, and kissed the inside of his wrist where she could feel the beat of his pulse. He let out a ragged breath as she took off his other gauntlet.
"Xena -- "
"It's all right," she whispered, "it's all right -- "
He cupped her chin, lifted her face toward his; how could his eyes be so tender and burn so at the same time? She put her hands on his shoulders and moved closer to kiss him again, and finally he kissed her back and took her in his arms. They sank down in the grass; pressing her body to his, she felt how hard he was, and was barely able to restrain herself from grinding against him. She could still stop ... couldn't she? Ares was stroking her hair and kissing her neck but he seemed to be waiting for her to take it further. She sat up while he gazed at her expectantly, his lips parted. She could stop. If she wanted...
Xena reached behind her back to undo the fastenings on her leather tunic, and he reached up to pull it off her; then she helped him out of his clothes -- she was sure he could get rid of them with a wish but he wouldn't, not tonight, not here with her -- and the God of War gasped and shuddered at her touch. When she lay back, the grass was cool and a little tingly on her skin. His hand glided over her breasts as he kissed her again.
"Ares -- "
"Don't use your powers... just -- "
"I wasn't -- "
"Just make love to me..."
She had often wondered what it would be like with Ares; they had come so close several times, in her old days as a warlord and later in his temple in Amphipolis when she led him on and tricked him. Maybe she'd always known it was going to happen someday. She had anticipated sensual refinements or rough passion; anything but this tender union -- the way he entered her and lay still for a while, holding her, caressing her neck and face and shoulders with his mouth -- the gentle rhythm when they began to move together -- the way the warmth in her rose and spread until it swept over her and she clung to him with a soft cry.
"Xena -- oh gods -- Xena... tell me..."
"Tell me this isn't -- just one time... will you ... will you be with me again?"
She looked at Ares and saw him bite his lip, and realized that he was doing all he could to delay his release, to prolong these moments inside her, afraid that once it was over it would be over for good. She stifled back the "yes" that had almost left her lips -- she couldn't give him that promise right now, she needed to think -- all she could do was hold him and tell him again, "It's all right, it's all right...", whatever that meant. His thrusts grew frantic and the sounds in his throat were almost like sobs; she wrapped her legs around him and whispered, "Let it come ... I want to feel you -- " and that was more than he could take.
Afterwards, when he had stopped shaking, Ares raised himself on an elbow and looked at her, brushing her face with his fingertips as she'd done to him before, and he was so beautiful in the pale haze of moonlight that she wanted to cry.
He sighed deeply. "Xena..."
He was silent for a moment. "I love you."
Xena lifted a hand to touch his lips. "I ... " Suddenly she was blinking back tears. "Ares -- I -- I want to be with you again."
The god's eyes, still riveted to hers, widened slightly; he gripped her hand and kissed it hard. "Stay with me for the night..."
There was amusement in his smile. "I was thinking of somewhere more comfortable."
"You mean one of your temples -- or -- " Or his halls on Olympus, amidst all those lethally beautiful symbols of destruction? She felt her apprehension creeping back.
"You have your own room at the inn, don't you?"
Was he trying to play at being mortal ... for her, or for himself?
"All right," she said.
Ares kissed her, sat up and reached for the heap of clothing.
"You want to -- walk?"
He grinned at her. "I'm not supposed to use my powers, right?"
Xena sighed. Get dressed ... walk back ... gods, she felt tired. No, it wasn't that ... she just didn't want to leave his arms, not now when the warmth of their lovemaking still lingered in her body. No point in pretending he isn't a god. She pulled him back toward her. "I just changed my mind."
"Whatever you say." He brushed her mouth with his lower lip. "Ready?"
She closed her eyes and held on to him -- and was instantly blindsided by the thought of the only other time she had experienced this mode of transportation ... she was in the rain outside Joxer's tavern, kneeling over the dying Gabrielle and Eve, and then Aphrodite took them to Olympus for her final confrontation with Athena, and for the moment that irrevocably changed things between her and Ares. Dammit, would memories of one or another ordeal from her past always be lying in wait for her? She was about to tell him she had changed her mind again but the night air was already swirling around them, pulling them into a vortex of light that she could see even with her eyes shut.
It occurred to her that the bed at the inn was too small for the two of them, but Ares didn't seem to mind. As he pulled the covers over them and she snuggled close to him, her head nestled on his shoulder, drowsiness filled her at last, pulling her under. Her thigh pressed against his groin and she felt him hardening again, but when she looked up he just smiled and kissed her forehead. "Go to sleep."
"Ares..." she mumbled, "do -- do gods sleep?"
"Not much. But we can when we want to. And I want to. With you."
He was, in fact, asleep when Xena opened her eyes and squinted at the orange glare of the sunrise in the window. His breathing was soft and steady, and he looked like ... anything but a war god.
Who was he now? How much had he really changed? She thought of the things he had said ... whatever humanity the God of War still possessed, there was no doubt that the darkness in him was frighteningly powerful -- enough, perhaps, to lure young men to their deaths even when he didn't mean to -- and he apparently had no desire to fight it, whether he could or not. Could she fight it for him? Or was she herself too tainted for that, too drawn to that very darkness? There would be time to think about it later; not now, when they had just shared something that surely wasn't of the dark side (please, whatever deities could still hear her ... it couldn't be), not now when the heat of his skin felt so good on hers, not now when she wanted him to be simply the man in her bed.
She pulled back the covers and looked at the slumbering god in the daylight, not really surprised but still awed by the perfection of his shape. Her eyes traveled downward, and she suddenly felt very wanton and mischievous -- such a sweet way to wake him...
She wasn't sure when Ares woke up but some moments later he muttered, "Xena..." and his hand clutched at her hair. She lifted her head and gave him her most catlike smile.
"Mmmm... good morning."
"Good -- aah -- " he bucked and squirmed as her fingers closed around him and her tongue again grazed the tender flesh. She relished the sounds she drew from him and the way his fingers dug convulsively into her shoulders, quivering with delight when he rasped, "Xena... do you have any idea ... how good you make me feel?" She wanted to tease him a bit, keep him on the edge, but his pleas were so urgent that she quickened her caresses instead, and didn't stop until he had given her the last shudder and last gasp of his pleasure.
He pulled her up and held her tight, nuzzling her neck.
"From now on," he breathed in her ear, "I plan on sleeping often."
As he gently pushed her down, Xena smiled and touched his face -- and became aware of a tiny jab of unease burrowing into her, getting her defenses back up: Ares was so sure they would be spending a lot of time together... Before she could even think of something to say, she felt his mouth on her breast and his hand on her stomach, making her glow and burn even with no godly tricks, and as he nudged her thighs apart she knew that for these next minutes she would forget everything but his touch.
Part of her still wondered if she could allow the War God to make her helpless like this -- but it felt so exquisite, and when she looked up at him there was such misty softness in his intense gaze, that she closed her eyes and surrendered completely. "So beautiful..." he murmured, his fingers stroking her inside while his thumb circled the aching bud; as her fever rose higher, she felt him kiss her eyelids, heard him say, "I want to see your face when you come..." and then she was past the point of no return, writhing and crying out his name. Before she had regained her breath he slid off the bed and down on his knees to cover her with his mouth; she half-heartedly tried to push him away but within seconds the glow inside her came back, even more powerful this time.
Later, lying cradled in his arms, she remembered, reluctantly, what she had to tell him.
"Ares..." Xena pulled back and looked at him. "I can't stay with you, you know that. I have my own path -- "
The God of War nodded. "And I have mine."
A hint of the bleakness she had heard the night before was back in his tone, and a dull ache clenched around her heart. "But I will ... see you."
She rolled on top of him and kissed him. He'd have to leave soon, and she and Gabrielle would be back on the road ... and, dammit, she would somehow have to explain this to Gabrielle ... but first she needed to feel him inside her once more, to feel their bodies truly joined. Ares held her face in his hands, and she wasn't sure if she wanted him to look at her like this forever or couldn't stand it for another second. He sighed and finally kissed her back, shifting his body under her. She took him in, gasping slightly at the sensation, watching his eyes cloud over in bliss, and began to move slowly. Her nipples brushed against his; he gripped her waist and raised his hips to match her rhythm as his breathing quickened.
Then there was a knock on the door and Gabrielle's voice said, "Xena?"
She clamped a hand over his mouth.
"Are you up yet?"
He snorted into her hand, shaking with silent laughter.
"Um.... not quite."
There was a brief pause. "Are you all right? You sound funny."
"I'm fine ... uh ... don't come in." She gasped as Ares slowly dragged his tongue across her palm, his teeth nipping at the skin.
This time the voice sounded concerned. "Xena, are you sick?"
"Well, what's wrong?"
"Nothing. I'll see you downstairs in a bit."
Well, it's not like she meant to hide this from Gabrielle anyway. "I'm -- with someone."
After a few moments, Gabrielle's feet padded away from the door. Xena sighed and took her hand off Ares' mouth.
"We can stop if you want," he said.
She gave him a quick kiss and slid off him, making him wince.
"It's all right." He sat up and chuckled. "She's still got perfect timing."
Xena got out of bed, feeling a heaviness in her chest and suddenly far from certain it was all right, any of it. He stood behind her and wrapped his powerful arms around her shoulders.
"Hey. It's fine, really."
Some of her misgivings gelled into a concrete and troubling thought, and she whipped around.
"Ares ... last night -- you didn't -- get me pregnant, did you?"
He stared and asked, quite innocently, "You mean, you didn't want me to?"
"Ares!" She gulped and almost choked. He laughed and patted her on the back as she coughed, trying to catch her breath.
"No, Xena. I would ask you first."
She nodded curtly, and he let go of her and stepped back.
"You wish we hadn't done this, don't you." He said it as a statement, not a question, sounding grim but unsurprised.
When she looked at Ares again she realized with a jolt that he was fully dressed, complete with the sword at his belt, and his face was cold and closed.
"No, I don't." She came up and touched him on the arm but he held a hand out, keeping her at bay. "I just have to sort it all out."
He stared at her for a while; Xena hunched her shoulders, suddenly very conscious of being naked next to the leather-clad and armed God of War, and folded her arms over her breasts. His eyes gradually melted back into gentleness, and he pulled her toward him and held her. She shivered, feeling the heat of his hands between her shoulder blades and the chill and slight sting of the metal studs on the leather pressed against her chest and arms. She let her head rest on his shoulder, and then looked up and pressed her lips to his.
"I'll see you later," he said.
"Will you ... be all right?"
He smirked bitterly, a corner of his mouth twitching up, and brushed his knuckles over her hair. "Probably not. But then, you wouldn't want to feel too bad just because I can't be a completely cold-blooded killer anymore, would you?"
That sounded like an exit line, and it was.
"So ... you were with Ares."
Xena nodded, silently stirring the sweetish mush that passed for breakfast at this establishment.
"Were you actually ... ?" Gabrielle glanced at Xena and grimaced a little. "How close was I to being a pile of ashes on the floor?"
She chuckled mirthlessly, still staring into her bowl.
"Xena, look... Honestly, I'm not trying to be judgmental about this -- "
"... but only yesterday, you thought he was trying to get the people in this village into a war."
"I don't believe he was."
"Neither do I, but..."
"Not now, Gabrielle. I -- have a lot of thinking to do."
"Well, maybe you should have done that before you hopped in bed with Ares."
"Gabrielle..." Xena looked up and saw the hurt and bewilderment in her friend's eyes. She shook her head. "Don't."
On their way out of the village, they passed the house of Lindros' family. Phyllis was out in the yard feeding chickens; her children played nearby, the older boy pointing out a frog or a lizard on the ground to his little sister, who was apprehensive but riveted. Xena's eyes fell on Lindros' shield, blackened by the flames of the pyre, hanging on the door; the memory of what Ares had told her forced itself into her mind, and suddenly she was almost choking with rage and grief -- over Lindros, over the violence that had plagued her own life and seemed to engulf everyone close to her, over Ares and whatever had made him the way he was. She kicked at Argo's flanks and sped up to a gallop, as though, if she rode fast enough, there was some chance of leaving it all behind.
They had ridden for hours with only a few words exchanged, and this time the silence between them was not cozy and companionable but miserable and tense.
Gabrielle's initial shock had given way to a vague dread. It would have been different, she told herself, if Ares were still mortal; back then, she had half expected this to happen. But the God of War... the one who, immediately upon regaining his powers, had tried to seduce Xena into eating Odin's golden apple and becoming a goddess... who, after everything they'd been through together in his mortal days, didn't seem to give a damn when she, Gabrielle, was beaten to a bloody pulp by his new protegee Varia... How could she not feel that Xena's attraction to Ares was part of her attraction to the darkness? And yet ... did she really think that he could take Xena back to her old dark self -- or even that he wanted to? Probably not; but something was still nagging at her. Maybe it was just the knowledge that things would never be the same. She had no idea what lay ahead, or what was on Xena's mind, and that was frightening.
And then Xena said simply, "Gabrielle ... " and there was such warmth in her voice that Gabrielle felt herself tearing up.
"Nothing is ever going to keep us apart. Nothing. I want to make sure you know that."
She smiled through tears and turned to Xena, meeting her eyes.
"I know ... I just don't think I've ever imagined I'd be traveling with the girlfriend of the God of War."
Xena reached over to touch her hand.
"Gabrielle, you know I'm not going to ... join him or serve him."
"So what's going to happen?"
"We'll go on as before... I'll just -- spend some time with him once a while."
"Oh -- like a Saturday night date? Dinner and a swordfight?"
Xena chortled. "Something like that."
"Xena ... why? I mean, why now? What happened last night?"
"He's ... changed a lot more than we thought, Gabrielle."
"What do you mean?"
"He's been a little too close to mortals to just see them as playthings now. He knows something about pain and fear ... and death." She paused and said quietly, as if not quite believing her own words, "And -- compassion."
"You mean because he brought Lindros' body home."
"There's ... a lot more to it than that."
"But Xena, just recently he was trying to stir up a war between the Amazons and the Romans..."
"I didn't say he's switched to being the God of Nice, Gabrielle. Though, if you think about it, he didn't seem very upset when that fell through."
"But that's because you beat him. He always got a kind of ... kick out of that, right? Almost like you were his star pupil and whenever you bested him, you did him proud."
Xena glanced thoughtfully at her companion. "You've got a point. But I think there's something else now as well."
"What?" Gabrielle couldn't suppress a sarcastic smirk. "He doesn't like war anymore?"
"He is War, Gabrielle. Only now, there is something in him that can feel ... the consequences. Don't get me wrong, he hates having those feelings. But he still has them."
As the meaning of her words sank in, Gabrielle felt faintly sick. "Oh, Xena, that must be ... horrible."
"Well -- it's not pretty."
Gabrielle sighed, still trying to make sense of it all. Silence fell between them again; birds chirped overhead, and the leaves and the tall grass whispered in the breeze of the summer afternoon.
"Look, a lake." Xena pointed to a silvery blue glitter visible through the lacework of the trees. "Want to set up camp over there? We could go for a swim. I bet there's plenty of fish, too."
As they rode downhill toward the water, Gabrielle asked, quite conscious of the absurdity of the question, "Xena ... did you sleep with him because you felt sorry for him?"
She chuckled, slowing her horse down. "If he heard you say that, you would come close to being a pile of ashes."
"Well, did you?"
"No." Xena gazed into the distance. "I think it was more that I felt that in some ways, we were in the same boat." She turned and met the bard's dismayed look. "He and I both have a hard path, Gabrielle. Maybe his path was always harder than I knew. And now, the battle between light and darkness -- it's going on inside him too."
"Xena!" Gabrielle cried out in shock. "You're not the same! You've spent all this time trying to get away from the darkness -- and he ..."
"He wishes he could go back to it completely. I know." Xena dismounted and looked at the bard, her mouth tight. "And maybe if I'm with him, I can stop it from happening."
"You think he'll appreciate that?"
"I know he won't," Xena said with a wry little grin. "That's his problem."
Gabrielle got down from her horse and began tying it up, doing her best to keep her hands from shaking.
"Xena ... don't you think this is totally insane?"
"Totally." She patted Argo's warm, sweaty flank and took off one of the saddlebags. "Kind of like Ares giving up his immortality to save us."
She sat down and began to remove her shin guards. Gabrielle approached, knelt and hugged Xena tight, resting her head on her companion's chest as the warrior's arms locked around her.
"Xena." She lifted her head, and saw Xena's eyes brimming with tears. "I can't pretend that I like this... or even understand it, really. But I'll be there for you."
"Good." Xena patted Gabrielle's back, her lips twitching in a valiant effort to smile. "Let's go get those fish."
Later, they sat by the campfire under the darkening sky, munching on bread and grilled fish, their hair still damp from the swim, and it was almost like old times -- until Xena said, "I have to see him tonight, Gabrielle. I'll be back in the morning."
Gabrielle looked up at her. "You know what you're doing, Xena." She laughed, but it came out as a nervous giggle. "At least I hope you do."
Xena reached out and squeezed her hands.
"Don't worry about anything."
She stood on the edge of a clearing, leaning against a tree. The night air was silent around her.
Xena walked forward, sat down cross-legged in the grass, threw her head back and ran her fingers through her hair.
There was still no answer, but she could feel his presence now.
"Ares. Stop playing hard to get."
The swoosh that heralded his arrival came from behind her this time. "You should talk."
She chuckled softly, without turning around.
"All right, Xena," he said, a hint of mockery in his voice. "What do you want?"
"I think we have some unfinished business."
"You're way overdressed for that." His hand brushed against her back, and she felt the cool breeze on her skin as her breastplate vanished.
"Where did it go?" she asked, unfazed.
The War God knelt behind her, his fingers lightly kneading her shoulders.
"Would it be any fun if I told you right away?"
As she felt his lips on her neck, the Warrior Princess wanted nothing more than to lean against him and give in to the warmth that was already spreading through her; but she forced herself to turn around and hold him off, pressing a hand against his chest, feeling his heartbeat and the hidden heat under his skin.
"Ares, we need to talk."
"Oh?" His lips brushed against hers. "Can't we take care of the unfinished business first?"
"That was the unfinished business."
"Really. And what were we talking about when we were so rudely interrupted?"
"Us." He leaned back and watched her with hooded eyes, his face impassive. "I like the way that sounds."
"Ares, you know that I'm not agreeing to be your warrior queen or anything like that."
"Perish the thought."
"I'm never going to fight on your side."
"Of course not."
"A lot of the time, I'll probably be fighting against you."
"Probably?" He quirked an eyebrow.
"And you're all right with that."
"Xena..." He took her face in his hands. "Haven't you noticed that I've been all right with that for a while? I wouldn't have it any other way. Why would I feel any different now?" His deep eyes sparkled. "Now that I know that after you're done kicking my ass, we can -- " he paused and she waited for something very crude, but instead he said, "... celebrate together?"
Xena smiled; he leaned forward and she opened her mouth to his kiss.
When Ares pulled away, her teeth tugging at his lower lip, he said, "I have one question for you."
"How can you be so sure that I'll never be on the side of something you want to fight for?"
She frowned a little; dammit, he still had a way of throwing her off-balance.
"Yeah. When Tartarus freezes over."
"Well..." he ran his tongue over her ear. "Just keep checking the weather reports."
"Ares..." She pushed him back a little. "One more thing."
"Remember a while back, I told you that you were bad for me?"
He eyed her warily. "Yeah?"
"I'm not sure if that's true anymore. But I have to warn you." Her tone was very serious. "I'll be bad for you, Ares, God of War. I know you'd like to get rid of all those mortal feelings that interfere with your job. And I'll do whatever I can to make you hold on to them."
The War God's shoulders sagged slightly and he nodded, lowering his eyelids. "I know."
"I know it hurts, Ares." She drew him close. "But that's the only way I can be with you."
He buried his face in her hair. "You'll make it up to me, then."
They stayed like that for a while, holding each other. Then Ares raised his head and said, the mischievous spark back in his eyes, "About that other unfinished business..."
Xena slipped her hands under his vest. As he reached for the fastenings on her tunic, the bristly grass under her thighs was replaced by satiny bedclothes; those godly tricks, she thought, did have their merits.
"So..." he said, his voice low. "Where were we?"
She tweaked his already hard nipples, and smiled at the way he drew in his breath.
"I'll remind you when we get to that point."
Much, much later, she lay in his arms under the starry sky, the warmth of his body and the even beating of his heart lulling her to sleep. Maybe, just maybe, Xena told herself as her conscious thoughts drifted away, it really would be all right.
END OF PART 1