~ Equal To The Gods ~
by LadyKate

DISCLAIMER: Xena, Ares, Gabrielle, Eve, Virgil, Varia, Cyane, Gascar, and other characters who have appeared on the show XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS are the property of Renaissance Pictures-MCA/Universal Studios. This is a not-for-profit work of fan fiction, and no copyright infringement is intended.

Unlike my other Xena fanfics, Equal to the Gods depicts Xena and Gabrielle as lovers. On the show, I can see their relationship either way (though I generally tend to see them as friends). This story shows Xena as being in love with both Gabrielle and Ares, and has scenes depicting both female/female and male/female sexual relations. It also depicts a non-monogamous relationship. If any of this is offensive to you, please find another story to read.

The story takes place in Season 6, starting with OLD ARES HAD A FARM. It adapts and alters plot elements from several other Season 6 episodes, including PATH OF VENGEANCE and WHEN FATES COLLIDE. Readers may also spot a joke at the expense of A FRIEND IN NEED, which never happened according to the Equal to the Gods version of the canon.

Acknowledgments: There are no words to express the depth of my gratitude to my two wonderful beta readers, Sais2Cool and Tango, who gave generously of their time and their attention; without them, this story would not be what it is. Hamutal (Celaeno) made some extremely helpful suggestions on the early chapters, and in particular helped me find my footing in writing Xena and Gabrielle as a couple. I also appreciate the encouragement and advice I have received from everyone else who has read this story as a work in progress. And I simply must mention Dolly, a.k.a. ChyXeGab, whose query on a message board about Xena/Gabrielle/Ares fanfiction first made me think about writing this story.

These acknowledgments would not be complete without a mention of three works of fan fiction that provided some of the inspiration for this story: Family by Mark Annetts; When the Night... by Grit Jahning; and the exquisite Skin Tight by Juxian Tang.

There are many versions of the two Sappho poems quoted in Equal to the Gods. The ones used here were written especially for this story by Tango (adapted from a prose translation).

Please send feedback to LadyKate63@cs.com

"Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell's despair."

So sung a little clod of clay,
Trodden with the cattle's feet;
But a pebble of the brook
Warbled out these meters meet:

"Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven's despite."

-- William Blake, "The Clod and the Pebble"


Leaning back against a bale of hay, Ares reflected with mild surprise that he was in a pretty good mood.

Of course, it was ludicrous for a god -- all right, a former god, but especially the former God of War -- to be even remotely content under the circumstances. Here he was on a dilapidated old farm, hiding from a bunch of homicidal warlords who'd put a bounty on his now-mortal head, wearing what looked like some bedraggled peasant's hand-me-downs. Various parts of him were still aching from the tumble he'd taken earlier trying to fix the roof, and from getting roughed up by one of the bounty hunters while posing as a farmer to fool them. And yet as he sat in the sunlit barn, stroking the shaggy fur of the mutt who had befriended him and watching the love of his life milk a cow, he was -- well, he was actually enjoying himself.

He did hope that before this rustic interlude was over, Xena's irritating little friend would go off somewhere and give them some time alone. He had another chance with her, he could feel it, no matter what she'd told him before about a one-in-a-billion shot. She cared about him, or else she wouldn't have taken him to her grandparents' farm after learning that the warlords were after him. Admittedly, it was humiliating to hide instead of fighting them at her side, as he had wanted. But things had been so good between them these past couple of days -- the comfortable closeness -- the playful bickering -- the way she talked about how great it was that they could all sit together in front of the fire ...

Xena's voice spilled into his reverie. "Double squeeze takes too long."

"Nah, you get more milk that way. It's easier on the cow." Gabrielle giggled as Xena sent a little jet of milk in her direction.

Ares shook his head and laughed. "The Warrior Princess and the Battling Bard, discussing the correct technique for milking a cow. Absurd -- and yet at the same time..." -- he paused to let them think he was about to say something sappy -- "... ridiculous."

Xena shot him a wry look, pointing a finger at him. "It's important."

He chuckled, watching as she returned to her task. The brown country-girl dress she was wearing was just as preposterous as the rest of this setup -- but damn, she looked good in it, the light fabric clinging to the curves of her body, her relaxed posture only hinting at the graceful strength of her limbs?

There was a noise outside, and Horace stirred, pricking up his ears. Then, a squeaky though identifiably male sing-song called out, "Hello? Anyone there?"

"In here!" said Gabrielle.

A gray-bearded man wearing a turban and long motley robes pranced into the barn.

"I'm sorry to bother you," he said with an unctuous little bow, "but I was wondering if anyone had seen my dog."

"Your dog," Ares repeated, with a sudden, embarrassing flutter of anxiety in his chest. Before he could continue, Horace yelped and jumped to his feet.

"Tha- tha- that's him!" The man's wrinkly face spread in a broad grin. "That's him! It's really him! It's Milo!"

"This is your dog?" Xena asked.

"Ye-es," the man drawled. "I was passing through here a couple of weeks ago -- I'm a peddler, you understand -- and he ran off during a thunderstorm. Milo, you bad boy -- I've looked for you everywhere! Did you find him here?"

"Yeah," Gabrielle said. "He was running around the grounds."

"And stealing us blind," Xena chimed in.

"Oh, oh -- " the peddler chuckled apologetically -- "that's my Milo all right. He loves to take things and bury them..."

"You ought to keep a better eye on your damn dog," Ares snapped. Oh no... he was not getting upset over this!

"Sorry, so sorry, sir. I hope he wasn't too much trouble. Well, this is definitely my lucky day... Here, boy!"

The dog turned to Ares and looked at him with those funny eyes of his, one blue and one gray, and then nuzzled him and licked his face. Ares blinked. Great -- anytime now he was going to start bawling like a kid who'd lost a toy. He lifted his hand and patted Horace on the head.

"Maybe he wants to stay here," Gabrielle said.

"Here you go!" The old man was waving a bone he had produced from his pocket. "Come to Daddy, Milo!"

The fickle animal bounded toward his master, but then froze in place and turned back to look at Ares, tail wagging uncertainly, confusion written all over his spotted muzzle. After taking a few steps toward Ares, he fidgeted, whimpered and trudged toward the old man, only to stop again and turn his head, barking a couple of times as if pleading for help. The peddler resolved the dog's plight by walking over and picking him up.

"Thank you for taking care of him!" he said, beaming. "I just can't tell you how glad I am to have him back. Come on, pooch!"

The dog gave another plaintive yelp as the old man waddled away from the barn. Ares rose to his feet, staring after them. Xena came up and gave him a sympathetic squeeze on the shoulder, and he realized that his distress was plain on his face.

"Damn," he muttered.

"Hey," Xena said. "Sorry about that."

"I'm going to change," Ares said abruptly and headed for the house.

Mortality sucks, he thought savagely as he pulled off the peasant togs and kicked them into a corner. Physical pain and discomfort were bad enough; he had been prepared to deal with that, from his previous brief experiences as a mortal. Being at the mercy of his emotions like this was far worse. It was one thing to get agitated over Xena -- she'd had that effect on him even as a god, though not nearly to the same degree -- but some stupid animal? All right, so he'd started to like having the mutt around and to enjoy its overeager affection. So he'd gotten a ridiculously warm and fuzzy feeling when the dog tried to defend him during the confrontation with Gascar's men. Still, it wasn't as if he had lost anything important...

Back in his leather pants, Ares came out into the main room of the house. A single sunbeam that cut through the shadows, with golden specks of dust shimmering in its soft haze, gave just enough light to show what a mess the place was, and made the rest of the room seem even murkier. Xena stood by the rickety table, pouring milk from the bucket into a tall clay jar. The women stopped their conversation and looked at him.


"Gabrielle is going to try to get your furry friend back," Xena said.

"You mean, go after the old codger, kick the crap out of him and grab Horace? I approve."

"No," Gabrielle said, giving him a tolerant little grin. "I'm going to talk to him. Try telling him that maybe Horace will be better off staying here."

"Hmph." He cocked an eyebrow at her. "I guess those people skills of yours may be good for something."

"Thank you, Gabrielle," Xena said rather pointedly, pressing Gabrielle's hand. The bard smiled back at her and went outside.

Things were definitely looking up, Ares thought as he listened to the fading hoofbeat. Then he realized that he was alone with her, and he hadn't the slightest idea what to say.

"You want some?" Xena asked.

He flinched. "Huh?"

"Milk." He thought she actually blushed a bit but it was hard to tell in the semi-dark room. "You want some milk?"

"Yeah, sure."

She poured the white, frothy liquid into a mug and handed it to him. Ares took a sip and gave her a startled look. Xena lifted an eyebrow.

"Don't tell me you've never had milk before."

"It's ... warm."

"Well, of course. It's fresh from the source."

He quirked his lips and sniffed, wincing a little, but finally decided to drink it. It was creamy, with a sweetish taste. He drained the mug and put it down.

Xena looked at him with a faint smile. "You have..."


She reached out and ran her fingers over his mustache, brushing his lips. Suddenly struggling for breath, Ares wondered dizzily what she would do if he kissed her fingers. She pulled her hand away, a little too abruptly.

"There... it's off."

He couldn't think of anything coherent to say, or anything to do except stare at her, breathing in the faint scent of her sweat. Funny how in this half-darkness, her eyes seemed light brown instead of the usual piercing blue... Her mouth opened slightly; then she clamped it shut, her jaw rigid. His ears were ringing, and he felt as if he'd been hit by a gust of icy wind followed by a blast of hot air.

Xena turned away and put a lid on the milk jar, then moved about some mugs and bowls on the table. After a pause that seemed like it would never end, she said, "Don't be upset. If Gabrielle doesn't get Horace back, we'll get you another dog."

"I don't want another dog. I want Horace."

She turned back toward him and smiled again -- and then, without really thinking, he took her hand, looking straight at her, and said, "I don't want another woman, either."

"You only want Horace?" she joked feebly, but her eyes were soft and almost fearful. Holding his breath, he moved a little closer. Xena tilted her head, her eyes half-lidded now, and they both leaned forward, almost imperceptibly, until their lips touched.

Slowly, they deepened the kiss; Ares took Xena in his arms and felt her arms lock around him. Her body was warm and supple, her full breasts pushing up against him, her nipples hard under the thin fabric. Ares' heart was nearly jumping out of his chest, and his arousal was both intensely pleasurable and almost painful, trapped as he was in the tight leather. For once, this kiss was both tender and passionate, and as her tongue caressed his lips and swirled inside his mouth he thought dimly that one could die from such bliss.

When he opened his eyes, her face was flushed, her lips swollen. He bent down and kissed her neck, savoring the tender skin, feeling the beat of her pulse underneath. She moaned softly and moved her hands down, stroking his back.

Ares lifted his head and whispered raggedly, "So -- how long do you think we have before your little sidekick walks through that door?"

Before he'd finished saying it, he knew it had been the wrong thing to say. Xena's body tensed immediately, and then she was pushing him away and wrenching herself out of his arms.

"I can't do this," she murmured breathlessly.

He stepped back and gaped at her, bewildered.

"What's the matter?"

"I can't..." She looked down. "I can't ... this is wrong."

"Wrong?" He was getting angry; she couldn't be playing games with him, not now, not anymore. "Why?"

Xena finally raised her eyes and gave him an odd, guilty look.

"I can't do this -- to Gabrielle."

"Gabrielle?" He squinted at her. Unbelievable. Of all the excuses... "What in Tartarus does this have to do with Gabrielle? What, she thinks I'm so hideously evil that she can't stand the thought of your being with me? And this is after I -- "

"Ares." Xena shook her head. She looked like she was bracing herself for something, and all of a sudden he was afraid. "Gabrielle and I -- " She tarried for another moment and took the plunge. "Has it ever occurred to you that Gabrielle and I were -- more than friends?"

"More than -- friends," he repeated, stupefied. It was just a joke, she was just teasing, he told himself even as he knew with perfect clarity that it was true. His mouth was very dry, and the room now seemed a lot darker than before. He leaned heavily back against the table. There was a loud thud; something wet and thick covered his hand, and he realized he'd knocked over the milk jar.

"Damn," Xena muttered. She quickly set the jar upright to salvage whatever was left and grabbed a rag to mop up the milk.

"You and Gabrielle..." Ares tried to collect his thoughts. "You mean, you -- you prefer girls."

She stopped mopping. "It's not about preferring girls... You know it's not about -- not wanting you. It's about ... me and Gabrielle, that's all."

"Oh, it's all about you and Gabrielle." For a moment everything else he felt was pushed back by a surge of anger. "And that's why you were kissing me just now -- "

She flinched slightly and stiffened. Then she started mopping again.

"So how long has this been going on?"

Xena said nothing, and he repeated, "For how long?"

"Since ... " She sighed. "Since about three years after we first met."

"And it never occurred to you to tell me about this?"

"Like when?" Her voice suddenly had a hard edge.

"Oh I don't know." He didn't want to sound bitter and sarcastic, but something inside him was goading him on. "Like when I told you I was willing to give up my godhood and take on all the other gods to protect you and your kid -- if I could spend the rest of my life with you. That might have been your cue to say, 'You're wasting your time, Ares, I already have a girlfriend.'"

Throwing aside the soaked rag, Xena whipped around. Her eyes were narrow and bright.

"You mean, when you were using my baby's life as a bargaining chip to get me into bed? You think I owed you an explanation then?"

He felt the blood pounding in his temples. If she had punched him in the face, it would have hurt less.

"It wasn't like that," he said, his voice breaking. "I loved you -- you know I did..."

Her glare dissolved into a sympathetic, rather pained look. "Ares... what's past is past -- I don't want to rehash that. You know you didn't give me a lot of reasons to trust you, back then." She paused. "And besides -- I always thought that maybe you knew and didn't care."

"You thought I knew?"

"Well -- after all, you were a god."

"Yeah, rub it in, why don't you," he snapped. "'Really, Ares, for a god, you were blind as a bat!'"

"I didn't mean it that way."

Ares stared silently at his boots, breathing hard.

After a while, she said, "I always told you we couldn't be together..."

"Dammit. All this time, I thought that if I could just prove myself -- prove that I loved you, that I wasn't bad for you..." His throat clenched painfully and he trailed off.

"I'm sorry," she said, putting a hand on his arm. He shuddered and moved away.

"Don't touch me."

There was another silence. Then he said, "And I saved her for you. If that doesn't make me the world's biggest chump..."

"Maybe it makes you very noble," Xena said quietly.

He gave a short, nasty laugh. "Noble?"

"Once, Gab- -" she stumbled a bit -- "I helped some peasants defend themselves from a gang of thugs who were preying on the local villages. There was one man, Timeas... he had been engaged to his childhood sweetheart, except she fell in love with another man -- the new village schoolteacher -- and ended up marrying him. One night, about a month before we got there, the bandits attacked and torched some houses, and the school too. The teacher was inside -- he'd gone in to copy some scrolls and fallen asleep at his desk. No one knew he was there, and by the time they heard him screaming, everyone thought it was too dangerous to go in. And Timeas went in and rescued him." She paused and added, almost wistfully, "We fought side by side against the bandits later, Timeas and I. He was one of the best men I've ever met."

Maybe she was right, Ares thought; at least he'd made her happy by giving Gabrielle back to her. Then he was furious, at her and at himself. She had led him on and used him -- and now she was trying to pacify him with a feelgood story, and he was lapping it up.

"So what happened to this paragon of virtue?" he asked caustically.

Xena's eyes flickered. "I -- I don't know."

He gave her a probing look.

"You do know, don't you? Only it messes up the moral of your story. What, he ran off with the girl later on?"

"No," Xena said slowly. "He ... he left the village and went to a nearby town to start a new life."

"And then what?"

She avoided his eyes. "He started drinking... He got worse and worse, until he ended up begging in the streets. I heard he died a few years later."

"So your hero drank himself to death. Not a bad idea."

He walked briskly into the back room where he had left his things, and put on his vest. Then he remembered that he had no money. His ring; that should do.

When he came out, Xena stood by the door, a worried look on her face.

"Where are you going?"

"To start a new life. In the first tavern I can find."

"Ares ..." She reached out toward him.


"Ares, listen to me." She put her hands on his shoulders and he wanted to push her away, but her touch was so warm, so gentle. "Please ... I don't want to see you hurt."

"It's a little too late for that," he said hoarsely.

"Please -- after everything we've been through, can't you just -- be glad knowing that we're friends now -- that I care about you?"

Her eyes were tender and a little moist, and Ares knew his anger was slipping away. He wanted so badly to kiss her again.

He swallowed. "Xena..."

Just then, footsteps creaked on the porch. Xena stepped back abruptly. The front door swung open and Gabrielle announced, "I'm back!"

She came in and gave him an apologetic smile. "Ares ... sorry, but I wasn't able to get Horace back -- the man wouldn't even hear of parting with him. Now, don't look so glum," she added brightly, "we'll get -- "

"You," Ares said, almost choking with rage. A memory came over him of how the two of them had played him in Amphipolis years ago -- how Xena had promised herself to him if he protected her child from Athena, and Gabrielle put on a show of distress to convince him that the offer was for real -- and how the little bitch stood there and smirked when, after helping Xena, he realized he'd been tricked. It had been annoying enough then; now, the thought that all that time, she actually had what he so desperately desired nearly drove him mad.

She blinked at him, puzzled. "What?"

"I bet you got off on knowing how much I wanted her -- didn't you," he snarled. "I should have slapped that smug little grin right off your face."

Gabrielle's stunned, open-mouthed look might have given Ares a small measure of satisfaction, but he felt too wretched even for that. He swept past her, deliberately jostling her, and walked out.

* ~ * ~ *

Recovering somewhat from the shock, Gabrielle started to ask, "What was -- ?" but was cut short by the alarmed neighing of her horse, left tied by the porch. That was followed by a rapidly receding clatter of hooves.

"Oh, great!"

She dashed outside, with Xena behind her, just in time to see Ares galloping away.

Xena put a hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah." Gabrielle glanced at her warily. "What's going on?"

"I'm going after him." Xena's face had the intense yet emotionless look of total focus that Gabrielle knew so well. She stepped off the porch but Gabrielle gripped her arm.

"Wait, wait. What happened?"

"I'll tell you later."

Gabrielle's bewilderment was giving way to a vague dread.

"No," she said quietly, making Xena turn around with a start. "Tell me now."

Xena stared at her silently, biting her lip. Gabrielle thought back to what Ares had said; it could only mean one thing.

"You told him about us."

"Yes, I did."


"I had to, Gabrielle. I couldn't keep stringing him along."

Gabrielle frowned slightly. "And how did your conversation happen to take that turn?"

Xena looked down, and just then Gabrielle realized that something odd had caught her eye when she came into the house, before she was distracted by Ares' outburst. She peered inside through the half-open door. There were white streaks on the floor and the tabletop, and a sopping wet rag on the edge of the table that dripped a grayish liquid.

She looked at Xena again, and wondered how she could have missed it before -- the shiny puffiness of her lips, the reddening spot on her neck. Something inside Gabrielle's chest coiled into a knot, momentarily squeezing the breath out of her.

"Of course. I leave you alone with Ares for half an hour and you're already knocking over milk jars!"

Xena flinched. "Look, nothing really happened..."

"Really. Well, I'd hate to see your idea of something." The words were burning Gabrielle's throat; she knew she was being nasty and vicious yet she still wanted to say those things, to punish both Xena and herself. After everything they'd been through together -- to think that Xena would risk throwing it all away because she'd taken a fancy to Ares! Then again, Gabrielle thought, she should have known ... maybe she had known. Xena had always wanted Ares, and now that he was mortal, now that she didn't have to be afraid that he'd pull her into the darkness...

She shook her head bitterly.

"I should have known."

"Gabrielle -- dammit, Ares just rode off alone -- unarmed." Xena's voice dropped to a hiss. "There's an army out there trying to kill him. This really isn't the time for a jealous spat!"

Gabrielle knew she should be furious, but she felt too numb for that -- too numb even to find any comfort in Xena's horrified look.

"Oh, Gabrielle -- " Xena reached out to touch her but Gabrielle shrank back. "I didn't mean that, I didn't mean it that way ... Please trust me -- nothing happened, I stopped it -- I stopped it because of you..."

"Oh, because of me," Gabrielle said quietly. She couldn't let it go, not this easily. "I'm sorry I'm keeping you from what you really want."

"No -- you know it's not true..." Tears were welling in Xena's eyes. "All I want is to spend the rest of my life with you... I swear, nothing is going to change that."

Gabrielle didn't resist when Xena hugged her and stroked her hair and her neck -- but she stiffened her body, not wanting just yet to give in to the hold of those strong arms, to the touch of those hands that had enough tenderness in them to make her feel loved no matter what. At last she relaxed, shivering a bit, and hid her face in Xena's shoulder.

Her soft breath touching Gabrielle's hair, Xena whispered, "I would never betray you. You believe me, don't you?"

Did she? What they had, Gabrielle told herself, was so much greater and deeper than any attraction Xena might feel toward Ares. The thought of Xena in Ares' arms, kissing him, making those low throaty sounds she made when she was excited, still clawed at Gabrielle from inside; but how could she doubt that they would always be together? Of course I believe you. She nodded, pressing her face deeper into Xena's shoulder.

Xena leaned over and kissed her cheek and let her lips slide down, barely brushing the skin, until she touched Gabrielle's mouth. Her eyes closed now, Gabrielle parted her lips, tentatively at first, then responding completely. Right now, it was just the two of them; there was no Ares, no one else in the whole world.

Pulling back, Xena looked at her with a faint, tender smile. Then she said almost pleadingly, "I have to go find him. He's going to get in trouble out there -- Gabrielle, we promised to help him -- "

I can deal with it. Gabrielle managed a mischievous half-grin.

"Go. Just try not to be too helpful."


"I'm joking." She reached up and quickly pressed her lips to Xena's. "I trust you. Be careful, okay?" Catching Xena's look, Gabrielle smiled wanly and shook her head. "I don't mean that way. Go on."

* ~ * ~ *

By the time Xena got to the main road, finding Ares' tracks was hopeless; it seemed like half the people in the province had picked that particular time to pass through. As she rode toward the nearest local tavern, her mind was focused completely on the practical task before her: find Ares and get him back to the farm. Everything else could wait -- had to wait.

Ares wasn't in that tavern, or in the one she checked out after that. She was not going to let herself panic and lose concentration. Everything was going to be okay.

Dusk was already falling when she rode up to yet another tavern, The One-Eyed Ox. She heard raucous laughter and singing coming from inside, and at the same moment spotted Gabrielle's mare, Clio, among the horses tethered outside. She only stopped breathing for a moment.

Giving Argo a quick pat on the neck, Xena dismounted. She was still in her country frock -- there had been no point in changing into her leathers, and if anything, it was best not to attract extra attention under the circumstances -- but she had taken her sword, just in case. Briefly, she pondered whether to take the weapon inside. A farm girl with a really big sword would certainly attract attention, both to herself and to Ares; besides, it didn't sound like Ares was in danger from anything more lethal than cheap booze.

She left the sword hooked to Argo's saddle and strode into the murkily lit tavern. The air inside was heavy with the reek of wine fumes, rancid oil and unwashed human bodies, with an added whiff of vomit which a serving girl crouched on the floor was in the process of cleaning up.

"Hey, lady," the barkeep called out. "What'll it be?"

"Nothing, thanks."

"Just so you know, all the drinks are free."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "What is it, ladies' night?"

"Ladies', gentlemen's, you name it," the man chortled, baring a set of crooked yellow teeth. "Some clown's buying for everyone tonight."

"Really," Xena said icily. She had the bad feeling that she knew exactly who the "clown" was. "How did that happen?"

"Fella walks in and hands me this ring and asks how much it'll buy." The barkeep gave her a broad "can't believe my luck" grin. "And I go, that should be enough to buy drinks for everyone in the place. So he goes, then I'm buying." He shook his head and laughed. "So, you havin' anything?"

Xena gave him a scorching look and turned away, scanning the establishment. A particularly noisy bunch, belting out a song horribly out of tune and out of unison, had gathered in one corner.

She saw him -- his hair messy and slick with sweat, his vest open, leaning on the stained, wet table with a large chipped wine jug and several half-empty cups on it. He was apparently trying to sing along with the rest of the crowd. Plastered against him was a redhead in serious peril of falling out of her dress.

Resolutely ignoring the spasm that clenched around her heart, Xena marched up to Ares.

"Androcles." She stressed the name they had agreed on using in front of strangers. "There you are."

The singing stopped, two or three stragglers still carrying on for a few hoarse notes. Ares looked up at her, his eyes glassy and bloodshot.

"Xe - na." He hiccupped loudly. "What an uness -- unex -- " He shook his head and gave up. "What a -- surprise."

"Let's go home," she said.

"Home?" Ares laughed shrilly. "I don't have a home."

"Sure you do." She tried to touch his arm but he pushed her hand away.

"See, Xena, I don't need you anymore." His eyes were alive again, alive and wounded. "'Cause I got lots -- lotsa new f... friends." In a sweeping gesture, he indicated his fellow revelers. "And I have a girl, too," he added, drawing an arm around the redhead's waist. "C'mere, baby."

The girl obligingly perched herself on Ares' knee and glued herself to his mouth, to cheers and claps from the other patrons.

"Way to go, Chloe," called out a fat middle-aged woman.

Xena pressed her lips into a rigid line. Dammit -- she had to get him out of there.

Ares turned to her with a bitter sneer.

"See, she's not like you," he said. "She's nice. And she likes me."

The only way she could get them both through this was to steel herself, not to let anything he said reach a part of her where it could hurt.

"You're the best, honey," Chloe giggled.

Xena's eyes fell on the bauble that shone dimly between the girl's breasts. It was Ares' dagger pendant. That was too much.

"What are you doing with that?"

The girl looked offended. "Hey -- he gave it to me!"

"Thass right... I did." Ares nodded, looking for a moment like he was falling asleep; then he snapped his head up. "She asked me nicely and I let her have it." He planted a wet kiss on Chloe's plump freckled shoulder. "You can have anything you want, baby ... ess... except my heart. See, I already gave it to her -- " he waved at Xena -- "and she chewed it up and spat it out."

It was getting to her, no matter how she tried.

"These people taught me a great song," he said. "You wanna hear?"

"No," Xena said, but he was already singing hoarsely:

"I fell in love with a beautiful girl
As cold and cruel as Death.
She said: To prove your love is true,
Cut your heart out of your breast.

And I -- "

He faltered, hiccupped again and broke into a fit of coughing. Xena heard snickering, and felt a surge of rage at the thought that a bunch of lowlifes in a cheap tavern were laughing at him. It wasn't that she had ever had much respect for the status of the gods -- but to see him like this ...

"That's enough," she said, her voice steady. She wasn't looking at Ares; right now, she had to get his damn pendant back. "Are you going to give that thing back like a good girl, or do I have to make you give it back?"

"Who are you?" the girl squealed. "His wife?"

"How did you guess?" It was just a good cover story; nothing personal.

Chloe gave her a nervous look, starting to vacillate.

"She's not my wife," Ares said. He rubbed his temples, winced and blinked rapidly, as if trying to clear the fog. "She could've been. She coulda had ... she coulda had everything -- and you oughta see what she chose instead -- "

Focus. She couldn't let it get to her, she couldn't.

Xena held out her hand, glaring at the girl.


"Hey, Chloe!" the barkeep yelled. "Give it back, will ya? I don't want no trouble in here."

Pouting, the girl took off the pendant and threw it down; it landed in a thin pool of wine next to an obscenity someone had carved crookedly into the table's surface. Xena picked it up and turned to Ares.

"Come on, honey. I'm taking you home."

"Aren't you... aren't you lissening to me?" His voice rose. "I don't fucking need you anymore! I was havin' fun here... till you showed up, okay?" His eyes glistened angrily. "No, no -- wait ... I do need you for one thing. All my friends here... they didn't believe me when I told 'em who I was ... I mean, who I am... used to be.... you know what I mean. You tell 'em." He turned to the crowd. "See, she knows."

The chill went right down to the pit of Xena's stomach. As much as she hated to humiliate him, the hideous danger he was in overshadowed everything else.

"So which god is it today?" she said, managing to sound glib and scornful. "Apollo? Hermes? Maybe Zeus himself? You and your drunken fantasies..."

There was more snickering around the table.

"Liar!" His angry shout had a plaintive edge. "Don't listen to her... I'm Ares, God of War... I mean I was... until she was done with me..."

"Sure, and I'm Aphrodite." She came closer. "Come along, God of War. Let's go."

"I'm not going anywhere with you..." Ares grimaced. "You hate me. Leave me alone."

"I don't hate you," Xena said, leaning toward him. Then she kissed him. There wasn't anything pleasant about this kiss, with the cheap wine on his breath and the sour taste in his mouth, and yet something tugged at her heart as he closed his eyes and moaned softly. She pulled away. When he opened his eyes again, all the resistance in them was gone.

"Let's go," she said again, stroking his cheek, ignoring scattered catcalls and guffaws in the audience.

"Okay," he said meekly and got up, leaning on her arm.

As they walked to the door, with Ares shuffling his feet and slumping on her shoulder, a hush fell over the tavern, except for one person cackling somewhere in a corner. Xena had the dreamlike feeling that they were making an escape, and all those people were waiting to pounce on them but couldn't move, frozen under some kind of spell. She thought of trying to get Ares' ring back from the barkeep, but there was no way she could pay for all those drinks. Besides, she just wanted to get out as soon as possible.

* ~ * ~ *

The daylight was gone when they came out, the cool air buzzing with insects drawn to the dim light of the tavern windows. No one followed them; moments after their exit, the shouting and singing inside picked up again. Just off the porch, Ares' legs buckled, and he sagged heavily on Xena's arm and sank to his knees on a patch of sparse, much-trampled grass. Xena tried to help him up, but he lurched forward and she heard the sounds of retching.

Looking around, she saw the well, luckily only a few steps away. She lowered the bucket and drew it up as quickly as she could, gritting her teeth as the handle creaked and groaned at every turn. Filling the dipper with ice-cold water, she brought it to Ares and held it for him while he drank greedily and splashed the water on his face. He grunted and gasped for breath and tried to get up, leaning on her arm. "I've got you," she said, gripping his forearms, "I've got you" -- but his legs gave out and he sank down again. She sighed and went over to get the bucket.

"Sorry," she whispered, almost to herself, and poured the rest of the water over his head.

Ares coughed and spluttered and cursed, and then looked up at her, blinking in confusion, his mouth open. Her heart clenched again; she was glad no one could see them, and hoped that he wouldn't remember too much of this.

This time, Xena was able to haul him to his feet and steer him toward the horses. There was no way he was going to ride on his own. It took her a good deal of effort to get him up on Argo before climbing in the saddle behind him. Argo snorted and tossed her head in displeasure.

"Sorry 'bout that, girl," she said, stroking the mare's side.

Ares leaned back against her, shivering, the cold water trickling down his neck and under his vest.

"I'm..." -- his voice broke for a moment, his teeth chattering -- "I'm always causing you trouble..."

"Shh..." She rubbed his upper arms and then hugged him, trying to get him warm. "It's okay..."

She had to give Argo a few prods with her heels before the mare trudged off. Gradually, Ares stopped trembling and his breathing grew regular, and moments later he was fast asleep.

As they rode home at a slow trot, with the obedient Clio bringing up the rear, Xena knew that the danger wasn't over; they could run into Gascar's army, for all she knew. Nonetheless, she began to relax, enough to chuckle when Ares woke up, glanced behind him and muttered, "Hey... there's a horse following us!" Her muscles were getting sore and numb from riding double and holding him up, and yet -- and yet, despite the discomfort, having him in her arms made her mind drift back to their embrace that afternoon.

Best not to go there. That was something to be stored in a box marked "Do Not Open," along with certain other moments in their history ... like the time she pretended to seduce him to get his help against Athena and found herself melting into his kisses for real.

Other memories came to her. Ares was sitting on a tree stump, alone and mortal, having just recovered from possession by the Furies, and she came to say good-bye. She couldn't resist touching his battered face -- yes, she had to fight him when he was mad, but did she have to hit so hard? -- as if she was doing him any good by poking at those cuts and scratches. She couldn't resist kissing him, not when he held her hands so gently and spoke to her with a quiet hopefulness so unlike the arrogance of the God of War -- and then, after that brief kiss, there was such warmth in his smile and in his eyes. His eyes... she could still see the look in his eyes when she came up to thank him after he had given up his immortality to save her and Gabrielle and Eve: utterly defenseless, fearful at first and then brimming with tenderness. And there was another memory that floated up from much, much earlier -- the first time Ares had lost his godhood, the moment when he regained it with her help and she watched the scruffy but likable mortal disappear into the cold cruel beauty of the god.

It was past midnight when they returned to the farm. There was light in the main room; Xena wondered if Gabrielle was still up, and realized that she felt uneasy at the thought of facing her. She shook Ares gently until he stirred and grumbled an unintelligible complaint.

"We're home," she said. "Hang on..."

None too gracefully, she clambered off Argo, trying to stretch as she maneuvered Ares to the ground. She led him to the house, hobbling a little from the stiffness in her legs, and reflected wryly that it probably looked like they had both enjoyed too much of a good time. Don't we make a pretty picture.

Rather to Xena's relief, Gabrielle was nowhere in sight. She walked Ares to the room he now occupied -- her grandparents' old bedroom -- and carefully let him down on the bed. By the time she started to undress him, he was out again; she found herself feeling grateful for that, and for the darkness.

She fluffed the pillow and lifted Ares up to it, smoothing his still-damp hair, and then pulled up the blanket. He stirred, lifting his head -- she thought she could see his eyelids flutter open -- and grasped her hand, murmuring, "Xena..." She held her breath, not sure if he was asleep or not. Ares' head dropped back on the pillow but he was still holding on to her hand as she stood over him. Xena put her other hand on top of his and ran her thumb over his knuckles, feeling the soft bumps of his veins.

She squatted down by the bed, and stayed there for a while. She wished she didn't have to go.

Finally, with a sigh, Xena extricated her hand from Ares' grasp. Picking up his leathers, she slung them over the windowsill to air them out. Then she walked out of the room, trying rather pointlessly to make no noise.

Exhausted as she was, Xena remembered with grim resignation that she still had to take care of the horses. Lamp in hand, she went outside, only to see that the horses were not by the porch. She found them in the barn, unsaddled and brushed down, feeding contentedly. So Gabrielle wasn't asleep after all.

As she stood in the middle of the barn, the air around her filled with the warm smell of hay and animals, everything that had happened that day caught up with her at last: the shock and quiet anguish in Gabrielle's face, those awful words Ares had thrown at her in the tavern. It was as if she'd taken a brutal beating that had lasted for hours, and had only now let herself feel the pain in every part of her body. She made her way to the house, like an animal crawling toward a hole where it could curl up and lick its wounds.

Back in her old childhood room, Xena took off her dress and her undergarment and climbed under the covers. She wrapped her arms around Gabrielle, who lay facing away from her, and drew her close, burying her face in the crook of Gabrielle's neck.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"Is he okay?"

"Yeah," Xena said in a steady voice. "He'll just wake up with a really bad hangover." Maybe she could even get herself to believe it.

Gabrielle turned around, and they just held each other for a while, until she sought Xena's lips in a gentle kiss that gradually grew more insistent. Their breasts pressed together, Xena heard Gabrielle's breathing quicken and turn to small, almost whimpering moans as her hips shuddered. Xena wanted to feel it too -- but she was still too battered, too bruised inside. Easing Gabrielle on her back, she said, "Lie still..."

Her kisses trailed down Gabrielle's neck to her chest, lingering on each nipple, and then to her flat stomach as Gabrielle gasped and squirmed in anticipation. Brushing her lips over the soft, cool skin of Gabrielle's inner thighs, Xena heard her breathe, "I love you ..." and felt a sharp jab of guilt at the thought that not half an hour ago, she had wanted to stay with Ares.

She lifted her head, reaching out to clasp Gabrielle's hand.

"I love you too..."

Then she bent down and kissed her, making Gabrielle convulse and arch into her mouth. She licked and nibbled delicately, hoping half-consciously that the pleasure she could give her love would make up for the pain she'd caused her before. Gabrielle's grip tightened on her hand. Xena slowed down, barely moving her tongue while Gabrielle trembled and almost cried in exquisite frustration; then she sped up again, finding the rhythm that she knew pleased Gabrielle the most. Her own excitement stirred as Gabrielle's frantic little cries rose higher and her body shook uncontrollably.

When her spasms had passed, Xena laid her cheek on Gabrielle's stomach, still holding her hand, listening as her breaths slowly returned to normal. Then she pulled herself up and slipped an arm under Gabrielle's shoulders, cradling her, touching her face, stroking her hair.

Still panting a little, Gabrielle turned her head and murmured again, "I love you, Xena..." As their lips met once more, Gabrielle's hand touched Xena's breast, squeezing lightly, circling the nipple, and then moved lower -- and Xena knew, with quiet dismay, that she did not want this. Despite her body's response to bringing Gabrielle to a climax, she felt only a bone-deep weariness at the thought of being pleasured herself.

Her fingers closed around Gabrielle's wrist.

"You don't have to, Gabrielle ... I'm so tired ... let's just go to sleep..."

Gabrielle's body tensed at once, and in the moonlight that now streamed in through the window, Xena saw her stricken look before her face went blank.

"Oh ... okay," Gabrielle said in a small voice.

She slid out of Xena's arms and turned away, pulling up the covers. Xena reached out toward her, but her hand froze, lingering a finger's breadth from Gabrielle's tousled hair. She pulled her hand back and lay still, biting her lip.

What was she doing? Gabrielle had given her everything. She had been so lost when they first met, when she had just given up her old life as a warlord, and this simple village girl had believed in her when no one else did, when even she didn't believe in herself -- had offered her friendship, made her young when her soul had grown old far beyond her years. For some reason, she remembered Gabrielle's excitement at catching her first fish, and her silly chatter about how all living things, even humans, lived in the sea once upon a time.

And later, when their friendship became more than that... there was very little Xena hadn't done by then, with men or women, and yet Gabrielle had somehow let her feel new, as if both of them had just discovered the wonder of making love.

Gabrielle was the best thing that had ever happened to her, and all she had ever done was pull Gabrielle into violence and darkness, simply because of who she was, what kind of life she lived. This had been on her mind a lot lately; especially since their recent trip to North Africa, when Gabrielle killed a young man, a kid really, thinking he was about to attack them. With a bittersweet pang, she remembered how much Gabrielle had wanted to be a warrior just like her when they first met -- except that she hated the idea of taking human life. Gabrielle had become a fighter quickly enough, both of them desperately hoping that she could remain a fighter who didn't kill. Sooner or later it was bound to fail; looking back, Xena could see it clearly -- she of all people should have known better, with all the war and violence she had seen by then. Now Gabrielle was a skilled warrior, a full fighting partner .... and it was best not to think about what it was doing to her soul.

And now, to top it off, she was going to break Gabrielle's heart ... just as she had broken Ares' heart. Chewed it up and spat it out.

The thought that she was comparing Gabrielle to Ares gave her a jolt. Ares? The same Ares who had spent years trying to lure her back to war and conquest and evil, and might well have succeeded if Gabrielle hadn't been there for her ... who had done such cruel things to her and to Gabrielle? Maybe ... or maybe not. This Ares was a mortal man who, after all that, had given up the world for her ... at least he and Gabrielle had that in common. Given up? No, she had taken everything from them, robbed Ares of his immortality and Gabrielle of more things than she could allow herself to think about ... They both loved her so much -- and now she was going to destroy one of them... hell, probably both. And this is supposed to be the new me, the new Xena who's left her evil ways behind. Great going there, Xena.

She was going to destroy them both and she'd be left all alone ... except for Eve, only she had never been a real mother to Eve, either... She had wanted to serve the Greater Good, and she'd been no good to anyone she cared about -- her mother, her children, Gabrielle... Ares...

She crept closer to Gabrielle and put a hand on her back, and almost timidly snuggled up to her. Gabrielle remained still and rigid; after a while her shoulder twitched ever so slightly. Swallowing the hard lump in her throat, Xena moved away and closed her eyes, hoping that sleep would come. She wondered what they'd have to say to each other tomorrow ... she and Gabrielle ... she and Ares.


When she woke up, Gabrielle was still sleeping. Curled up on her side, breathing smoothly, her fingers clutching at the bedcovers, she looked almost waif-like. Xena leaned over and softly, careful not to wake her, kissed her bare shoulder.

Soundlessly, her mouth formed the words, I would never leave you.

Feeling more groggy than rested after a few hours of fitful sleep, Xena climbed out of bed, slipped on her dress and went to the kitchen. She made a fire and hauled a bucket of water up on the stove to warm it up for her bath.

It occurred to her that perhaps she should make breakfast. Gabrielle was nearly always the one who cooked, and Xena had no illusions about her own skills -- but she could try, couldn't she? Something nice, something her grandmother used to make right here in this kitchen... Gabrielle had picked some apples the day before (so long ago!)... a baked apple casserole had to be easy enough.

It wasn't as if she really had a decision or a choice to make, Xena told herself as she chopped the apples. There was no denying her feelings for Ares. Her physical desire for him was something she had always regarded as part of her attraction to the dark power of War, yet it still left her feverish and dizzy now when he was just a man. She cared for him; the affectionate, protective concern that she had felt even the first time she'd met Ares as a mortal was now mixed with gratitude for his sacrifice. He got to her all right. But Gabrielle -- living without Gabrielle was unthinkable, like a world in which the sun didn't come up in the morning.

Putting the knife down, Xena bit her lip, her eyes clouding a little. She wanted to run to the bedroom and take Gabrielle in her arms, hold her, kiss her awake, tell her everything would be okay. She wasn't sure what held her back: the thought that she should let Gabrielle sleep, or the fear that Gabrielle would recoil from her touch.

When she was pouring milk into a bowl, a memory of brushing her fingers across Ares' upper lip invaded her mind, making her pause and close her eyes. Enough of that. She whipped up a mix of milk, egg and honey, poured it over the chopped apples and stuck the pan in the oven. She was not going to burn this.

The water was good enough for the bath. Xena carried the bucket to the small room behind the kitchen and splashed the water into the wooden tub, battered but scrubbed reasonably clean by Gabrielle the day they'd arrived on the farm.

She lay back in the lukewarm water, staring at the moldy wall. She hadn't done Ares any wrong, not really. Giving up his immortality had been his own choice. Besides, as much as he grumbled about the mortal state, the humanity he had gained might well be worth the godhood he'd lost. He seemed -- happier, somehow. At least until... Well, maybe it was for the best that he knew. Maybe he'd learn to accept it, once he got over the shock, and they could still be friends. Ares would be all right; he always was, in the end. In any case, her first responsibility was to Gabrielle. She had to remember that.

As Xena toweled off, it occurred to her that Ares would be in pretty bad shape when he woke up. She hauled in more water to warm up -- a bath would help -- and set about making a willow-bark brew that was good for headaches.

She checked periodically on the casserole. When she got it out of the oven, it looked hard and dry around the edges and soggy and lumpy in the middle. A little hesitantly, Xena scooped up a spoonful. It was too sweet, and a gritty bit of eggshell was caught under her teeth as she chewed. She stared at the result of her effort and wondered if she should throw it away. It felt like such a stupid gesture.

While Xena was still wondering what to do, she heard shuffling footsteps, and Gabrielle came into the kitchen.

"Good morning," she said in that distant, neutral tone Xena dreaded to hear. Her eyes fell on the frying pan. "What's that?"

"I -- I made breakfast." Xena was staring at her feet.

Gabrielle expressed no surprise, made no joke, didn't say anything at all. Without sitting down, she ate a helping of casserole and drank some cider. Then she said, in the same toneless voice, "I'll be out in the barn doing some work."

When Gabrielle was at the door, Xena worked up the courage to look up and say, "Gabrielle..."

She didn't turn back. "What?"

Xena sighed. "I'll see you."

She busied herself around the kitchen. Ares made his appearance about half an hour later, wearing those dark blue linen pants he'd had on the night the three of them shared a bed. His face haggard, he somehow seemed less muscular, more gaunt than the day before.

"Hey," Xena said softly. He avoided her eyes.

"I've warmed some water for you if you want to take a bath. The soap's on that stool by the tub."

He nodded.

"You can drink that if you have a headache ... just eat something first." Xena gestured toward the cup with the willow-bark mixture, then toward the table where she'd laid out a couple of apples and some bread and cheese, along with the remnants of the ill-fated casserole.

"Yeah," he muttered.

"I'll be outside."

Xena sat on the porch and cleaned her boots and skirt, scrubbing until the leather was shiny. The sky above was a deep, cloudless blue; the day was getting hot. She could hear Ares moving around in the house and the water splashing. Gabrielle came out of the barn and walked over to the chicken pen, glancing only once in Xena's direction; she fed the chickens and went back to the barn, her dress fluttering in the breeze.

The door creaked open behind her, and Ares' voice said, "Xena?"

She turned around. He was in his leathers now, though without his swordbelt; his hair neatly combed, he looked his old self, except that something was gone from his face. It was as if he would never smile again.

"Come in here a minute," he said. "I need to talk to you."

Xena rose and followed him into the house. As they stood facing each other, she braced herself for whatever was coming next. The anticipation was a cold, heavy lump in her chest.

"I'm leaving," Ares said.

"What?" she whispered.

"I can't stay here anymore."

"It's still dangerous -- Gascar's men may still be out there -- "

"I'll be fine."

"Ares -- " Her apprehension surged to stark terror. "You haven't decided to -- to take them on and go out in a blaze of glory, have you?"

"A blaze of glory..." Seeing him smile was even worse. "You ought to be the writer." Meeting her worried look, Ares shook his head. "I haven't, Xena. Not my style."

"You don't have to go," she said. "Gabrielle and I could leave, you can stay here as long as you -- "

"No," he said quietly. "I should -- get out of your life." He paused, as if waiting for a reply, and then added, "Make a clean break."

It didn't come as a complete shock. She stared at him, feeling numb.

"I'm going to leave Greece," he said.

"Leave Greece..."

"Yeah." He swallowed a little. "I think I'll head East."

"East..." Xena felt like the nymph in the legend, condemned by the gods to speak nothing except for repeating another's last words.

"There's a place beyond Ch'in -- Jappa -- "

"The Land of the Rising Sun..." Xena nodded. For some reason it gave her goose-bumps; she had heard stories of Jappa during the time she'd spent in Ch'in, but somehow it never seemed like a real place, more like a ghost island. "They say it's a land of fierce warriors."

"Sounds like my kind of place." Ares paused. "Maybe it is my chance to start a new life. Preferably not in a wine jug." He smiled again, making her wish he wouldn't.

She had no right to try to stop him.

"Yeah, maybe it's best for you," she said. "No one will be after you over there -- they probably haven't even heard of Ares, God of War."

"Right. Who knew that could be a good thing."

"Maybe you'll find another girl." Gods ... what an awful thing to say -- and she'd meant it as light banter.

"Yeah." He looked at her, the corner of his mouth twitching up. "Or another dog."

Damn. Why did it have to feel like a piece of her heart was being ripped out?

"So -- when are you leaving?"

Ares shrugged. "The sooner the better."

She squelched the pang. "At least stay a couple more nights. Until we know Gascar's army has left the valley."

He gave her a curious look, a faint warmth coming back into his eyes.

"All right," he said.

In the silence that fell between them, Xena could hear water dripping somewhere in the house.

"Ares ..." She was close enough to reach out and take his hand, but it was probably better not to. "I hope you have a good life."

"You too," he said.

The silence was much longer this time. Finally, she nodded again, in response either to his last comment or to some unspoken words of his -- or of her own -- then turned and took a step toward the door.


She turned -- a little too eagerly, perhaps.

"Tell me," he said, with an obvious effort. "You and Gabrielle -- how did you... I mean, how did it -- "

She couldn't; it would only hurt him more.

"It just happened one day -- one night -- it wasn't any kind of special occasion..."

"Don't lie to me." The flash of anger in his voice made him sound more like Ares again; it was easier to deal with. "Tell me."

Xena took a deep breath.

Hope was reborn -- Dahak's daughter had returned to usher in her demon father's reign ?- and Ares had switched sides and joined Hope and Dahak, making a deal with the Fates to cut Xena's life thread if she killed Hope. That night, Ares came to see her and invited her to join Dahak too, and her revulsion at his treachery gave way to bitter sadness when she realized that it wasn't the quest for ultimate power that drove the God of War, but abject fear for his own life. He was still trying to mask it with his usual bravado, telling her that even if she managed to kill Hope, she would die anyway. He stared at her and added, "So for me, it's" -- he paused, an oddly human, almost vulnerable look his eyes -- "win-win."

Then he was gone, and it was just her and Gabrielle at the campsite, well aware that it was probably their last night together, perhaps the last night of the world as they knew it. It didn't occur to her at the time that Gabrielle, too, was preparing to die -- to sacrifice herself to save Xena and destroy Hope; stupidly, she didn't even realize that Ares was goading Gabrielle to do just that. They sat by the campfire, saying little, glancing almost furtively at each other in the blue moonlight. Xena felt the tears rising as she thought of all the goodness and love the girl from Potadeia had brought into her life, and of all the ways in which they had hurt each other. The prospect of dying didn't frighten her -- she had long learned to accept it as an occupational hazard. She was just sorry there wouldn't be time to make it up to Gabrielle.

At last Xena touched Gabrielle's hand and muttered, "Let's get some rest." They hugged fiercely and exchanged a tender kiss on the cheek, and as they pulled apart, still holding hands, Xena was left with the odd feeling that there had to be something more. They got into their bedrolls, but neither of them could sleep. After a while, Gabrielle crawled over to Xena's side and snuggled up to her, and they lay silently in each other's arms, stroking each other's hair. Then Gabrielle kissed her again, and her soft, warm lips traveled over Xena's cheek and a little lower, finally finding Xena's lips.

A moment later Gabrielle drew away, perhaps startled by her own audacity, and it was Xena who gently pulled Gabrielle's head toward her once more, wondering if she herself had wanted to do this for a long time. But they were all out of time now. They kissed again, slowly at first, then with desperate urgency, and everything they could share was in that kiss -- all the tenderness, all the passion, all the things that they no longer had a lifetime to give. It felt so right that they should kiss like this, that they should let their hands and lips roam over each other's bodies, that they should give each other pleasure -- that they should experience each other completely, be together in every way they could, before they lost each other forever.

They needed no words; it just happened. Still, there was an instant when Xena wavered: Gabrielle was so innocent, so inexperienced... She raised herself on an elbow, gazing down on Gabrielle's face -- her eyes bright and wide, her lips parted and swollen a little -- and said, "You don't have to do anything you don't want to." Gabrielle blinked and her lips twitched, as if she was going to cry. She reached up to stroke Xena's face, then took Xena's hand and guided it back to her bare breast and whispered, "Xena ... I want to do everything with you."

She mustered the courage to look straight at Ares.

"It was when Hope returned," she said. "After you came to -- say good-bye."

He flinched and lowered his eyes.

"Ares..." This time, she did reach out and put her hand on his arm. "It's all in the past."

When he looked up, his face was calm but pale, a fine mist of sweat on his forehead. A sudden thought burst into her mind: What if Ares hadn't betrayed her then ... ?

It frightened her, to be thinking that. She wouldn't have traded her life with Gabrielle for anything. She just couldn't help wondering if something, at some point, could have happened differently so that she wouldn't have to lose Ares now.

* ~ * ~ *

Everything was okay, Gabrielle thought as she poured oil over the neatly sliced vegetables and started cutting up the chicken.

Earlier, Xena had come to tell her that Ares was leaving the farm, in a tone as ordinary as if she were delivering any other bit of news. Then she had paused, her eyelashes quivering very slightly, and added that he was going off to some gods-forsaken island on the edge of the world.

Gabrielle knew Xena well enough to see that she was upset; then again, she knew enough not to overreact to this. So Xena had a soft spot for Ares. Xena had always had a weakness for bad boys; Gabrielle didn't have to like it but she accepted it, just as she accepted the fact that Xena took pleasure in fighting ? or that Xena could feel a purely physical desire for someone she didn't love. It wasn't all that long ago (well, at least it didn't seem like long ago) that she'd nearly driven herself crazy over Xena's crush on Antony ... and in the end, it hadn't meant a thing. Sure, it was different with Ares -- he had been in Xena's life for so long -- but not so different that he ever had a chance to get between them.

The quick rush of relief, and perhaps even joy, that Gabrielle had felt at the news of Ares' departure had quickly given way to a twinge of remorse. Taking Xena's hands in hers, she had said, "I know you're worried about him... he'll be all right" -- desperately hoping that she meant it, and that it was true -- and Xena had squeezed her hands and nodded with a quiet "Thanks."

After that, the tension between them had dissolved, at least enough for a few good?natured gibes, welcome and familiar. "Maybe when we retire from the warrior business, we can open a tavern and you can be the cook," Gabrielle had said when they were done putting away the dishes, and Xena had smiled back, "Sure, if we want to run a really quiet place." But she could still see a trace of sadness in Xena's eyes.

They had spent much of the afternoon attending to practical matters, like doing something about all those farm animals they'd taken the trouble to buy. The prospect of stewing in the sun on the market square for hours, trying to sell a cow, a calf and a pig, had very limited appeal. Fortunately, just as Gabrielle and Xena had finished herding the animals into the cart, rescue came in the unlikely form of their chatty neighbor Greba, who offered to take "the poor dears" off their hands at what was surely a reasonable price for a lonely young widow. Judging by her visible disappointment at the news that their "master" (Gabrielle couldn't help rolling her eyes) wasn't staying on the farm, the young widow wouldn't have minded taking Ares off their hands, either.

Ares had mostly kept out of sight. Under other circumstances, Gabrielle would have been sorry to see him go. For all his sniping at her, the former War God had turned out to be surprisingly likable as a mortal. Hard to believe, but she would miss him. Besides, she felt for him; how could she not? He had literally had the world at his feet, and powers that the human mind could only begin to grasp, and he had lost it all to save Xena, and Eve -- and her. And now he was left with nothing ... and she had lost so much, yet she still had everything.

She wished it didn't have to be like this. But it had to, of course. If she and Xena weren't together, Ares still wouldn't be right for Xena: their connection had always been a part of her dark side, and even as a mortal, he'd probably end up bringing out the worst in her. Maybe it was all for the best. Ares would really find a new life instead of pining for Xena -- and Xena wouldn't be tempted to make a mistake she'd always regret.

Tomorrow, she and Xena would go do some scouting, make sure that Gascar's men were heading out of the valley, following the false lead Ares had given them in his peasant disguise. If the way was clear, they could leave, Ares going one way, she and Xena another. Meanwhile, they could at least try to have a nice dinner together. Gabrielle was almost done cutting the chicken for the stew; Xena, judging by the sharp thuds coming from outside, was chopping the firewood. All these chores had a melancholy feel now, rather like preparing for the funeral of someone not yet dead. But that was much too morbid. Life would go on.

Gabrielle put the chicken pieces in the pot with the vegetables, added vinegar and some crushed bay leaves, and headed out to get wood for the stove. Stepping out on the porch, she paused to take in the beauty of the evening -- the trees shimmering in the mild breeze, the fields bathed in the gentle gold of the late sun. With some surprise, she saw that it was not Xena but Ares chopping the wood; the desire to get his mind off his woes had apparently gotten the best of his aversion to the tools of common labor.

Then, Gabrielle turned and saw Xena.

She stood leaning against a pole, watching Ares. Her eyes glittered with tears yet she was smiling, like sunshine peeking through a light rain, a smile all tenderness and regret and wistful longing. She was so beautiful at that moment -- how could any mortal be so beautiful? -- and yet Gabrielle suddenly knew what it must have felt like to look at the Gorgon and turn instantly to stone.

Finally noticing Gabrielle, Xena blinked, as if snapping out of a trance. She seemed frightened and, somehow, helpless.

When Gabrielle could speak again, her voice was quiet and hollow.

"You are in love with him."

* ~ * ~ *

Gabrielle walked slowly into the house. Her legs felt as if they were stuffed with rags. Bumping into a chair and a couple of door jambs along the way, she wandered to the bedroom and slumped down on the edge of the bed. She didn't move when Xena sat down behind her and laid a hand on her back.

"Gabrielle..." There was a plea in Xena's voice. "Oh, Gabrielle..."

"You love him," she said, her head turned away.

"I love you. I'll always love you. You're -- "

She turned around abruptly, dry-eyed, to face Xena.

"Then tell me you're not in love with Ares."

"I -- I'm -- " Xena gave her a pained, apologetic look which was more than enough of an answer, and lowered her eyes.

"It doesn't mean that I love you any less," she said. "You know what you mean to me. It doesn't change how I feel about you..."

"Well, it changes a lot for me."

"Gabrielle... he's going away. I'll never see him again."

"Yes, you will -- every time you close your eyes." Gabrielle paused. "Tell me you're not going to think about him every day."

Xena was silent for a while. Then she said very quietly, "What do you want me to do?"

Gabrielle got up and paced around the room.

She could leave. Take her place with the Amazons, or become a champion of the Elijans -- or hang up her sais and become a full-time bard ... maybe even go north and find Beowulf... and live without half of her soul. Out of the question. It wasn't as if Xena didn't love her anymore. After all, Xena was prepared to let Ares go away, to stay with her forever.

They could just go on; their bond had survived worse things. They would go on, and she would never know for sure that at any particular moment, Xena wasn't thinking of Ares, wondering what he was doing, whether he was all right, whether he was with another woman.

She had a thought ... a crazy, impossible thought. She was hanging over an abyss, holding on to its edge with weakening fingers, and a voice in her head was telling her to let go.

She walked back to Xena and stood over her, her hands resting on Xena's shoulders. Xena looked up at her -- anxiously, expectantly. After a few moments, Gabrielle took Xena's face in her hands, and lingered a little before leaning down to kiss her. She pulled away and looked at Xena again, and ran her thumb over the glittering trace of a tear on Xena's cheekbone.

Let go.

The words died in her throat when she tried to speak, but she found her voice on the second try.

"Do what you want to do."

Xena flinched back, her eyes wide. Had this been about anything else, Gabrielle would have been amused: The little girl from Potadeia had managed to shock the Warrior Princess.

"What do you mean?"

She knew she was blushing. "Go to him."

"Oh gods, Gabrielle, I can't..." Xena seized her hand. "I couldn't...."

Gabrielle sighed and touched Xena's face again. "Xena, if you let him leave now, you'll always wonder about what might have been, and then -- "

Xena shook her head, squeezing her hand harder. "No. Stop it."

" -- and then I'll never have all of you."

Xena drew Gabrielle down into her lap, holding her in a tight hug, cheek to cheek, and Gabrielle felt the heat of her whisper. "You don't know what you're saying -- this is crazy..."

The tears came at last, streaming down Gabrielle's face.

"Xena, let's not talk about it anymore, okay? Do what you think is right for you. I don't want to know about it ... I just wanted to tell you that I -- that you -- "

"That I have your blessing?" Xena said bitterly.

"That -- that you won't be betraying me."

Gabrielle drew back, and Xena's face crumbled at the sight of her tears.


"I'll be okay..."

She rested her head on Xena's shoulder, and they sat like that for a while, until Gabrielle looked up and said a little hoarsely, "I'm not going to lose you without a fight."

"You're not going to lose me. You could never lose me." Xena fell silent, a wistful look coming into her eyes. "Gabrielle -- remember the first time we were together..."

"Yes?" Maybe she was a fool, but it felt good, somehow, to know that Xena had been thinking about it.

"Remember what I said to you the next morning?"

Gabrielle nodded, her eyes filling with tears again.

"You said I gave your life meaning and joy..."

"And that you were the best thing that ever happened to me -- that you'd be a part of me forever. I meant it then, Gabrielle. I still do."

They hugged again. Then, Xena lifted a hand and tilted Gabrielle's head, and her voice was suddenly husky as she said, "Come here..." Gabrielle closed her eyes and waited, and waited, and finally felt Xena's mouth on hers and the slow, tantalizing caress of her tongue.

Together, they leaned back until they were lying down, still locked in that kiss. When gentle hands tugged at her skirt, Gabrielle wondered for an instant if Xena was only doing this for her, to reassure her that she was still wanted, still loved. Then she heard the low sound in Xena's throat, and it made her forget all doubt, forget everything.

* ~ * ~ *

Ares threw the axe aside and sat down on the log, panting. It was hard work, and he had probably chopped a lot more wood than was needed; but at least it was a distraction ... not to mention a chance to hit something.

Oh, he'd had it all worked out back then, during the Hope and Dahak mess. He had been utterly terrified of Dahak, there was no point in denying it. When that pillar of fire shot up behind him on the beach, he knew that he was dealing with something unknowable and unspeakable, a power with no corporeal form, no language, no qualities at all except pure malevolence. He was the God of War; he knew when the game was up, and his job was to survive. So he was going to be smart. Pretend to play along with the Dark One. Stop Xena from killing Hope without having to kill Xena. Make sure the pesky sidekick was properly motivated to do the deed. Win-win. He winced at the words.

Well, it had worked out, all right. She had ended up with Xena, and he had ended up doing stud service for Hope, a mating that had made him understand the mortal emotion of shame. Maybe they both got what they deserved. Now, he could spend the remainder of his life wondering what could have been if he had not betrayed Xena then, if he'd stayed at her side. How dumb was that -- to regret not risking his neck for something he hadn't even known he wanted, back then.

Enough with the self-pity. He got up, picked up a few logs and walked to the house. He was about to go up on the porch when a noise coming from one of the windows made him stop in his tracks.

It was Xena ... crying?

His heart lurched wildly. Maybe she did love him after all, enough to cry over losing him. Maybe there was still a chance. If the accursed blonde wasn't around, he could go to Xena now and --

As he put down the logs and stood up, Ares realized that the sound he had heard wasn't crying at all, and that the blonde was definitely around.

Tartarus -- to think that Xena would be carrying on with someone who emitted such pathetic squeaks.

He stood open-jawed, frozen to the spot. There was a time when the thought of Xena and her little friend going at it like cats in heat might have been titillating. Now, it sickened him so much that he fought a powerful impulse to hurl a log through the window, just to make those sounds stop.

Couldn't even wait until he left.

He could leave right now, Gascar or no Gascar. But all his stuff was in the damn house -- the sword, the vest, the gauntlets -- and there was no way he was going in there now.

Finally regaining control of his feet, he walked to the barn and paced around for a while, occasionally kicking at a pole. It didn't help much.

He sat down in the warm hay, leaning back against the wall.

Maybe they'd fall asleep when they were done. Maybe then, he could go inside the house and get his sword.

And kill them.

No, dammit, he could never kill her. Not again. He had already looked at her dead face twice; once thinking that she had died because he had been too selfish to save her, once thinking that he had killed her in a fit of madness. More than enough.

But the other one...

Once, he wasn't sure how many human lifetimes ago, he had bedded the wife of one of his generals in the form of her actual mortal paramour, and the general had caught them after the act, fast asleep -- or so it looked. The affronted husband had held his sword over Ares, taking very precise aim, apparently determined, like a true gentleman, to cut off his head without leaving even a scratch on the lady. It had been such a hoot when the sword went harmlessly through his neck and he rose from the bed in all his fully clothed godly splendor, causing the poor sap to collapse in a dead faint and the woman to wake up screaming ... though it didn't seem nearly as amusing now.

He could do that. Why not? He had bought Blondie's worthless little life with most of his own; he'd only be taking back what she owed him. He could picture it now: walking stealthily into the room and up to the bed, lifting his sword and aiming carefully, making sure Xena wasn't hurt --

Except that he'd never do it, not only because Xena would most certainly kill him afterwards but because he knew it would kill her, too ... and maybe not just because of that, either. A vivid memory forced itself into his mind: the girl standing on the porch of the farmhouse when they had just gotten there, beckoning to him and saying, "Come on!" with that silly wrinkle-nosed grin of hers. As violently as he loathed her now, the thought of her severed head lying in a pool of blood bothered him, somehow.

He thumped the back of his head against the wall a few times.

Stupid -- stupid -- stupid.

Ares wasn't sure how long he sat there, wondering how he'd managed to get himself into such a rotten mess. It was almost dark when he heard a faint rustle and opened his eyes.

It was her.

"Dinner's ready."

"I'm not hungry," he snapped, realizing just then that he was.

Xena lingered for a moment and left without another word. Obviously just as happy to let him starve.

Then she came back, carrying a bowl of delicious-smelling stew, a loaf of bread, and a mug of steaming apple cider. The smell of the food made his mouth water and his stomach clench. She squatted next to him, put it all down and said softly, "Here you go."

In the near-dark, he thought Xena gave him an odd look, as if she were about to say something else, or to touch him. He hoped she wouldn't. At last she got up and walked away. She stopped in the wide doorway of the barn to look back, her silhouette black against the darkening blue-gray sky. Then she was gone.

Ares picked up the bowl and dipped the spoon in the stew.

Damn. Damn it all to Tartarus. It would be so much easier if he could hate her. But no, he had to melt every time she did some little thing which made him believe that she cared. Maybe Athena had been right all along -- he was really whipped.

* ~ * ~ *

When they were done cleaning up after dinner, Gabrielle went back into their room and came out in her Amazon garb, armed with her sais.

"I'm going out," she said. Her tone was casual, deliberately so.

Xena turned abruptly.


"Yeah. To scout the area, see if Gascar's army is gone."

There was still a chance to pull back, for both of them.

"Want me to go with you?"

"No." Gabrielle paused and smiled a little. "I'll be fine."

Xena followed Gabrielle out on the porch. Clio, who had been grazing untethered along with Argo, cantered up in response to Gabrielle's whistle. The women hugged and kissed briefly, the way they would on any night when one of them was going out alone on some errand.

"Be safe," Xena said.

Gabrielle nodded, giving her hand a light squeeze, and got in the saddle. As she rode away, a charcoal-gray cloud swallowed up the moon, and the horse and the rider melted quickly into the darkness.

Xena shook herself and went back into the house.

She told herself that just because Gabrielle had given her the go-ahead didn't mean she was going to do anything.

She wondered if Ares was going to stay in the barn all night.

Then she heard his footsteps on the porch and he came in. Xena noticed with relief that some life seemed to have come back into his face, though it was hard to tell in the low light of a single oil lamp. Their eyes met briefly; he was the first to turn away. She wanted to ask if he needed anything, but that didn't feel right. He muttered, "Good night" and went to his room.

Xena sat down and stared into the fireplace.

She could go out and take Argo to the barn ... then come back to the house and go to bed, alone.

And tomorrow or the next day, Ares would be gone. Whether she had loved him or hated him, he had been in her life since she was scarcely out of adolescence, longer than anyone now alive ... unless, perhaps, her elder brother was still alive somewhere. And just like that, he wouldn't be there anymore.

Gabrielle's voice echoed in her head: You are in love with him. She hadn't, until then, given words to it. Perhaps she had loved him for a long time, when he was still a god, and when she knew -- or thought she knew -- that he couldn't love anyone.

How could she, after everything he had done? Well, she wasn't exactly in a position to wonder if someone who had done terrible things deserved to be loved... Maybe what did it was knowing, ever since Ares' first brief brush with mortality, that buried somewhere under the full weight of the Godhood of War was a human core, vulnerable, capable of feeling -- much as she had once crushed her own human yearnings under the hard armor of the Destroyer of Nations. Not only that -- but knowing that it was she who brought out this human part of the god. Maybe that was why, even in the middle of some vicious, twisted scheme of his to win her back into his service, she had always felt some strange link between them, some special understanding. And then, his sacrifice -- how strong his love had to be, to break through so much power-lust and selfishness and cruelty...

It wouldn't be cheating, really, not if Gabrielle knew and agreed to it. Not cheating, no ... just inflicting a wound that nothing would ever heal. But maybe Gabrielle was right; maybe it would be even worse to share her life and her bed with Gabrielle while missing Ares, thinking about what it would be like to kiss those lips, to look into those deep brown eyes while he sighed in pleasure, his hard body naked under hers --

She tossed her head. Maybe there wasn't any point in trying to snap out of it.

The thought of Gabrielle tugged at her painfully. Gabrielle was out there somewhere, riding all by herself ... probably imagining her in Ares' arms. Even if she didn't go to Ares, Gabrielle would spend the night thinking that she had.

Maybe she could just go and talk to him, and then, if something happened, it would just -- happen.

The fire was dying, a few puny flames still clinging to life among the bright-red embers and the pale ashes. Xena sighed and got up.

Almost at the door of Ares' bedroom, she stopped and stood still for a few moments before walking on to the room she shared with Gabrielle. Groping in the dark, she lit the lamp on the small table by the bed, then reached into the bag where she kept her medicines and fished out a small, dark green velvet pouch. She fumbled at the strings and stared at the herbs inside. There was plenty.

Years ago, Lao Ma had taught Xena about these herbs, which a woman could take after being with a man to keep from having a child. She still carried them for their other medicinal properties, and also to help other women in various emergencies.

There was no use pretending now. She was about to make love to Ares -- not in a moment of weakness, not because she got carried away, but because she wanted to.

Xena took off her dress and her undergarment and slipped into the shift she sometimes wore to bed. Then she picked up the lamp and went to Ares.

* ~ * ~ *

He could still hear her moving around the house.

Ares pulled the thin blanket over his head, as if it could shut out her steps and the groaning floorboards. If she'd only stop, maybe he could get some sleep.

He wondered where the other one had gone off to at such an hour, all by herself; he had seen her ride away when he stepped out of the barn. Probably scouting the area to make sure Gascar's army was gone. Couldn't wait to get him out of the way. Of course.

Finally, it was quiet. Ares turned on his back and closed his eyes, trying to keep his mind blank.

Dammit -- there was her door, opening and shutting again. And steps, getting closer ... stopping ...

The door -- his door -- creaked open. Ares' heart did another somersault.

Cautiously, he lifted an eyelid and saw a dim light. He turned his head a little, not sure he wanted her to see that he was awake.

Xena, clad only in that pale purple little number she'd worn when the three of them shared a bed on that first rainy night, carefully put down an oil lamp on a shelf across from the bed. It cast a watery circle of golden light, making stark black shadows glide on the walls of the small room.

What in Tartarus was she doing?

She turned to him. Ares quickly closed his eyes but it was too late.

"Hey," she said.

Pretending to be asleep would just feel dumb. He opened his eyes.

"What do you want?"

She came up and sat down on the edge of the bed, smiling a little. She looked nervous.

"I'm -- " she licked her lips. "I wanted to see you."

Then he got it, and a spasm of rage rose to his throat. Abruptly, he raised himself up on his elbow.

"What for?" His own voice sounded strange, like a croak. "My going-away present?"

Xena winced a little and looked at him sideways.

"Ares -- "

"Get out." He had regained control of his voice. "Get out."

"What?" she whispered. Her eyes were wide and hurt --. just like she looked in Amphipolis when she played her damned cock-teasing game with him, and when he had the good sense to reject her at first, knowing she was up to something. The hurt was real, no doubt. Such a blow to her ego.

"I don't want your pity," he spat out.

"It isn't like that."

"Then what's it like? Didn't get enough this afternoon?" He saw her flinch and added with a crooked sneer, "I bet they heard you all the way to Rome."

She lowered her head.

"Ares... don't."

"Don't what? Don't stop being a doormat?"

Xena looked up, and their eyes met.

"I'm here because I -- " She paused. "I want to be with you."

He was silent for a few moments, catching his breath. It was awfully difficult to hold on to his anger, especially when she was sitting so close, her eyes tender, her hair falling on her naked shoulders, her nipples erect under the flimsy fabric ... offering herself to him.

He swallowed.

"What about -- "

"It's okay," she said quickly. "Everything's okay."

Suddenly, he knew why the blonde had left, and in a flash his anger was back.

"So you've got it all worked out between you two." He shook his head disbelievingly. "I don't get any say in the matter, do I?"

"Ares -- "

"Well, why should I. You think that if you make a move on me, I won't be able to resist."

Xena looked at him, obviously thinking something over, and then got up.

That was it. He'd done it. She had come to him -- he had one last chance, and he had blown it, thanks to his stupid, stupid pride.

"Ares. It is your choice. You can -- make the moves. I won't ... I won't do anything."

She walked over to the window, which had been left ajar, and stood there just a few paces away looking out into the night, her back to him, the lamplight gleaming softly in her hair.

Ares leaned back on the pillow and shut his eyes. But she was still there, and he could see her just as well with his eyes closed.

He could just lie there until she left. It wouldn't be easy, but he could manage. She wouldn't wait forever. And that would be the end.

If he made love to her, it could -- dammit, probably would -- end up being just this once. He would still go away, carrying this night with him to the edge of the earth. It was bad enough to long for her when the only actual memories he had to torment him were of a few kisses and some interrupted foreplay. To be away from her and have the memory of her naked body against his, of being inside her, of her crying out her pleasure in his arms...

And if he let her walk away, yet again? Then he'd be away from her knowing that he could have had those memories, and perhaps more -- and didn't take his chance.

Some choice. Who was he kidding?

Ares threw the blanket aside and got up. He was glad he'd worn those ridiculous linen pants to bed; somehow, it made him feel ... well, a little less naked.

He came up behind her and put his hands on her arms. She shivered a little. He leaned down, closing his eyes for an instant, and pressed his lips to her shoulder. His mouth trailed upward, and Xena sighed and let her head drop back, leaning into him, as he swept her hair aside and kissed under her ear. Raising his hand, Ares ran his fingertips across her cheek and the corner of her mouth and her chin, down her neck and chest, and further down over her shift to trace the outline of a breast -- feeling her tremble, listening to her husky shallow breaths.

His other hand crept under her shift and moved up her side, barely touching the skin. He wanted to squeeze her breast but resisted the impulse, instead letting his fingers make small circles around her nipple. This time she moaned aloud. He shuddered and kissed her neck again. His hand slid very slowly down to her stomach, and lower, brushing against the thick curls.


Gods -- to hear her say his name like that...

He had meant to play with her a bit, to drive her crazy -- to really be in charge for a while. At that moment, he knew it was a lost cause. For one thing, he was driving himself just as crazy. His control over his body wasn't what it used to be; his weak mortal flesh was already demanding relief, and if he drew this out much longer it would be over, in the most mortifying way possible. But even aside from that, he just couldn't be playful right now. He needed her too much, needed to lie with her, hold her and be held, feel the warmth of her lips...

When Ares turned her around, Xena reached toward him, as if she'd been waiting for this, and brought her mouth to his with a hunger that couldn't be denied anymore. She broke away to let him take off her shift and then she kissed him again, her hands tugging at his pants, pushing them down --

The pure shock of her touch made him cry out. He dropped his head on her shoulder, gasping as she caressed him; he had to stop her but it felt as if he'd die if she stopped. He managed to get out a choked "Xena -- Xena, don't -- " and she moved her hand away, making him groan in frustration. She stepped back. A mild golden haze seemed to hang around her body, whether it was the lamp behind her or his eyes playing tricks on him.

Maybe this wasn't really happening -- any moment now, he would wake up, or something would interrupt them, or she'd turn and leave. But no, there she was, taking his hands, pulling him back toward the bed, pulling him into another fevered kiss as they sank down on the bed, her body under him a perfect harmony of a warrior's supple strength and a woman's softness. He dipped down to press his mouth to her breast; he wanted to caress all of her with his hands and his mouth, but he couldn't wait anymore.

They kissed very gently, just the tips of their tongues touching, lips parted slightly, catching each other's breaths as she opened up to him.

Ares had tried to prepare himself, not to let it overwhelm him. But there was no preparing for this -- not only for the sensation of melting into her liquid heat but for what it did to him to hear her moan, to feel her meet his thrusts, to watch her eyes blur in tender bliss. He whispered her name and covered her face with kisses. If this could last all night, it would still end too soon.

Except that it wasn't going to last all night; it wasn't going to be like one of his fantasies in which Xena kept coming and coming and coming as he made love to her. His mortal body was already letting him down, pleasure building inside him like a fragile bubble that could burst at any moment.

"Xena..." he whispered hoarsely. "I -- I can't -- "

"Mmm" -- she reached up to kiss his lower lip -- "what?"

"Oh gods -- I can't hold on -- "

"It's okay." She touched his face, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

"No." Ares grit his teeth, trying to keep some control. "You haven't -- " her inner muscles clenched around him and he groaned, closing his eyes -- "you haven't -- Xena -- I wanna make it good for you -- "

"Oh it's good," she breathed into his ear, running her hand down his back, "it's -- better than good." He made one more effort to slow down but his body would have none of it. Her hand moved lower to stroke him, and she caught his cry in her mouth as a new wave of sensation tipped him over. The bubble shattered, its sweet poison spilling into his blood, and this time he truly felt as if he were dying, dissolving into nothingness, into her.

Ares lay still for a while, his face buried in Xena's hair, a wonderful, warm heaviness seeping into every fiber of his body. Then he forced himself to stir -- he couldn't fall asleep -- and rolled off her, kissing her lightly. His fingers grazed her thigh; Xena gave a slight shudder and drew in her breath in anticipation. Bending down, he brushed his mouth against the hard peak of her nipple, then teased it with his tongue, and heard her ragged sigh. She ran her fingers through his hair and moved her legs, almost impatiently, and said, "Ares..."

Her voice was thick and breathless, quivering just a little, just enough to drive him wild. He slid his hand up, feeling the silky warmth of her inner thigh, and higher still, watching her neck arch, watching little spasms run across her face. It was incredible to see her like this, so lost to the world, lost in the pleasure he was giving her -- so completely vulnerable that Ares felt strangely protective toward the Warrior Princess, in a way he had never felt even as a god.

He cradled her in his arms when it was over, almost as if he were comforting her, her head resting on his chest.

If, by some unlikely miracle, he ended up in the Elysian Fields after he died, this would be the one moment he's choose to relive for eternity.

Maybe that meant he was happy.

Continued in Chapter 3

The Athenaeum's Scroll Archive