A TWIST OF FATE
Disclaimer: The characters in this story do not belong to me; they are the property of Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA, and MCA/Universal. No profit is being made from this story, and no copyright infringement is intended.
Rated NC-17 for violence and the graphic depiction of sex between a man and a woman.
SUMMARY: A mortal Ares finds himself in an alternate universe where all his dreams seem to have come true: he is a god again and Xena, Empress of Rome, is his mistress. But gradually, he realizes that things are not as perfect as they appeared. When the Greek playwright Gabrielle enters the picture, the God of War, the Empress, and the Bard find themselves enmeshed in a plot that escalates to deadly peril. (Loosely based on the Season 6 X:WP episode, "When Fates Collide.")
He who saves one life, it is as if he had saved the entire world
Sprawled on the throne in his quarters on Olympus, Ares cursed under his breath.
Everything was in its place: the tapestries of battle scenes, the spectacular displays of weapons on the walls, the jewel-encrusted goblets ... the human skull ornaments at which the other gods sniffed in disdain, and which he kept not only as a matter of personal taste but as his way of saying, I'm not a nice guy -- live with it.
Yes, everything was in its place. And in a few minutes, before he had a chance to take a few sips of rich, blood-red wine from one of those goblets, he'd wake up in that dump of a farmhouse where Xena had left him with a mutt for company. He'd be lucky if it wasn't raining and the roof wasn't leaking again.
Why did he have to keep dreaming about this? It was over and done with, he was a pathetic mortal who would never get his godhood back -- and, most likely, would never even have the one thing that would have made mortal life worthwhile ... a chance to spend it with the woman who was his other source of almost nightly torment. (But those dreams, at least, sometimes got quite enjoyable before he woke up.)
Well, if he had to have this dream, he might as well do something in it. He got up from the throne, walked around, picked up one of the goblets and thought of fine Falerno wine. The goblet in his hand filled immediately and he savored the liquor, swirling it in his mouth and beginning to hope that the dream would last a little longer. After putting down the empty goblet, he took his Sword of Power out of its scabbard and made a few moves, sparring with the empty air.
If things were going so nicely, maybe he could try to transport himself somewhere. Perversely, he thought of the farm. In the flash of a moment, he was standing in front of -- what the Tartarus? The surrounding fields looked pretty much the same, but in place of the dingy shack was a large villa with a luxurious garden. He chuckled: talk about wishful thinking. He made himself visible in mortal form (all the old tricks were working, exactly as if it were real) and came up to a peasant pushing a cart full of vegetables.
"Wasn't there an old farm over there?"
The man looked up at him.
"You from around here?"
"I used to know the family that lived on this farm."
"Really?" the man eyed him suspiciously. "Well, mister, you must've been out of touch with them for a while. Don't you know about the old folks' granddaughter?"
"Xena," he repeated, as if he's never heard the name before.
"Right. As in Xena, Empress of Rome."
He burst out laughing, ignoring the shocked expression on the man's face -- after all, this idiotic mortal was only a figment of a particularly weird dream -- and took himself back to Olympus.
Everything was still there, down to the goblet where he had left it.
He tried to remember what he'd been drinking the night before.
Just for the heck of it, he thought he'd try to open up a portal on Xena.
There she was, in a magnificent purple mantle and a golden helmet, atop a black steed, surveying a Roman legion.
He closed the portal and shook his head. For a dream, this one had a remarkable if utterly insane consistency. What next, he wondered? At that very moment, there were two flashes of light, and he found himself facing Zeus and Athena -- looking very real and very pissed off. Of course, that was the way they usually looked whenever he had to deal with them in the old days.
"Oh buzz off," he said. "Let me enjoy my dream."
"Nice to see you too, bro," said Athena, with her usual air of amused condescension. "And by the
way, you're not dreaming."
By the time they took him down to the Temple of the Fates, he believed them. The three goddesses -- the crone, the woman, and the girl -- were chained up in such a way as to leave them enough freedom to be able to tend to their loom, but also to hobble and control their movements. Several Proxidicae, special warriors of the gods, were keeping watch.
"Take a look at this, son." Very carefully, Zeus lifted one thread and showed Ares a tiny, barely visible knot in it. "This is where Caesar, having escaped from Tartarus, pulled loose the thread of his own life and then re-wove it -- so that, starting at that moment, his destiny took a different course." Zeus pressed his fingers lightly to the knot, and an image shimmered over the loom, making Ares wince and scowl. It was Xena, naked and moaning in Caesar's arms. Zeus glanced at his son and released the thread, letting the vision fade.
"At that moment in time," Athena spoke up, "your Xena" (oh, the blistering scorn she was able to pour into these two words!) "was merely the leader of a band of pirates which captured Caesar for ransom. He promised her an alliance, only to deceive her and have her crucified; but even then, she had an annoying habit of surviving. Caesar believed it was the resulting enmity between him and Xena that led to his untimely demise, and so he decided to change his fate -- go back to that moment and make a different choice. And his destiny did change, but so did much else. You see, brother, in this world, where Xena became not only a commander in Caesar's army but his wife and the Empress of Rome, she never had that unholy spawn of hers. There is no Twilight, Ares. Zeus lives, as you can see, and so do Hera and the rest of the Olympians. Of course, every good thing has its downside -- you're still a god."
"Gee, Dad" -- Ares pointedly ignored his sister -- "and I thought you were such a stickler for the rules. I seem to recall a lecture about how no one gets to interfere with the Fates' Loom, not even the gods..."
"The gods didn't interfere." Zeus glared at Ares, pursing his lips. "And once Caesar lives out his allotted term in this time, he will pay a price for his trespass. But fate has been altered, in a way that has brought back our lives -- and our powers. It would be madness not to take advantage."
Ares rolled his eyes. "The gods didn't interfere? So I suppose the chains are for decorative purposes. And these guys" -- he nodded toward the Proxidicae -- "are just here to keep the Fates company. You know, you're a real piece of work, Dad."
Old Atropos lifted her head, her reddened eyes mournful and insistent. "Zeus, you must listen to us. You must allow us to undo what Caesar did. This is a world that was not meant to be. The consequences..."
"Silence, you all!" roared the King of the Gods. "Son, I didn't bring you here to bicker, only to show you what is at stake. Nothing less than a chance to save the rule of the Olympians."
"We remember who screwed it up last time, Ares." There was a touch of steel in the silvery voice of the Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare. "And we won't let it happen again."
Back on Olympus, Zeus and Athena finished briefing Ares on how this alternate world worked. Right now, they should have been at the point in time at which, in the other world, Caesar tampered with the loom after chaining the Fates -- about a year after the death of Hades had left Tartarus so poorly guarded. However, the disturbance in the timeline had somehow caused it to shift by about twenty-five years, to the point at which Zeus had died; or, as Zeus put it, "when the godless child was born." That explained why Xena looked as young as the last time he'd seen her in the other world (of which Ares still couldn't help thinking as the real world), even without her twenty-five year nap in the ice cave. No mortals were aware that their world had ever been any different, Caesar being one important exception. But the gods knew, and were somehow able to have memories of both worlds.
"Great," Ares drawled, his legs draped over the side of the throne in a pose of studied insolence. "So why's everyone acting like I'm about to do something to mess up this sweet little deal? Mortality isn't exactly an experience I'd care to repeat. Olympus or a filthy farmhouse ... yeah, that's a tough one."
"Well, bro," Athena leaned in, putting her hands on the arms of his throne, her grey eyes boring into him, "maybe it's because the last memories I have from the other time are of Xena's sword slicing through my guts -- not a very pleasant sensation, I assure you -- and you telling me that you had to let me die because you had, what did you call it? -- oh yes, 'a thing for her.'"
"I'd told you that if you had only left Xena and Eve alone -- "
"Look, we're not going to rehash that," Athena said. "That world doesn't exist anymore. The problem is, your little obsession still does. Still thinking with that same part of your anatomy, aren't you?"
He shrugged, without bothering to dispute the charge. "What does Xena have to do with any of this?"
"The thread of her fate in this altered time is intertwined with Caesar's. You start messing with her and no one knows what problems that's going to create."
"Aw, lighten up, sis -- "
"Ares, you listen to me." Zeus' face was as dark as one of his own thunderclouds. "You are my son, but understand this. You put us in jeopardy again, and I will not hesitate to have you cast into the Abyss of Tartarus, you hear? You may yet come to regret your filthy farmhouse."
"Okay, okay." He raised his hands. "I get the message."
Athena arched a brow at him. "Good to see you two are finally communicating."
"Hey Dad?" Ares called out just as the old man was about to depart.
"What is it now?"
"Say, there isn't any chance that in this brave new world, my favorite half-brother has met with some nasty -- "
Zeus cut him off, his scowl deepening. "Stay away from Hercules, Ares. I mean it."
A second later, the two deities were gone, leaving only a shimmer of sparks behind them. Ares shook his head.
"Great. The guy goes and kills him, and it's still 'Stay away from Hercules.' Why won't anyone ever give me a break?"
A quick trip to a mountain ridge where Ares was able to test his resurrected powers by blasting away at some rock considerably improved his mood. He stretched out on a stony ledge and decided to try out his memories of this altered past.
Some wars and battles had turned out differently; the Roman Army had been even more successful in its conquests, and there were far fewer freelance warlords left. Without Xena the Warlord, the conquering army that had once swept through the Greek countryside like a wildfire had been a mere shadow of itself; Darphus was a loser, just as he had always suspected. He was also intrigued to realize that in this world, he had a far closer relationship with Caesar and the Romans, despite their irritating habit of calling him Mars.
And then --
Ares sat up on the ledge so abruptly that he nearly lost his balance (it was a few seconds before he remembered that a tumble down a mountainside didn't have to worry him any longer).
His mind had retrieved a memory from just a week ago.
Xena, straddling him, gloriously naked, her head thrown back, her nipples taut under his fingers...
In this world, Caesar's wife was also mistress to the God of War.
Probing his new memories further, Ares was irritated to find that something about them wasn't right. They lacked full reality, as if he were watching himself from the outside, and out of focus at that; his passionate dreams from his other life seemed more real in some ways. But no matter -- he would make up for it very soon ... this evening, in fact.
He lay back and closed his eyes, anticipating their meeting. In a few seconds, his erection was straining so hard against his pants that he shifted uncomfortably. He brushed aside the thought of satisfying himself -- good enough for the farm, but it somehow seemed beneath him now that he was a god, and just a short time from fulfilling his fantasies -- and forced his thoughts to drift to other matters. He was relieved to realize that in this world, Xena (a new and apparently much improved Xena) had efficiently put an end to the Dahak mess before it started, wiping out the cult of the dark god and razing the temple just like he told her. Thank all the gods alive, she'd also taken care of that peace-and-love freak Eli, who was stashed away in some Roman prison (preaching his message to the rats, Ares thought with a feral grin). Dear Old Dad had a point -- this world was looking better and better.
He also realized that this time around, he -- or was it a counterpart of his, who had somehow been absorbed into himself at the moment when the timeline switch took place? -- had never experienced two previous brushes with mortality. Of course not; both those incidents were connected to Xena, and the first also to Callisto (of whom, in this time, he had no memories at all). No Callisto ... no Hope ... that meant another difference --
Strife's pasty white physiognomy wasn't exactly a sight for sore eyes, any more than his familiar cackle was music for the ears; nonetheless, Ares was barely able to stop himself from squeezing his idiot nephew in a bear hug. (Dammit, he had to watch those mortal emotions.)
"Strife. Don't you know better than to sneak up on me?" He schooled his voice to the chilly tone the godling could expect.
Strife's beady eyes darted every which way. "Hey, Unc... ya know, that little war we had all planned in Parthia? Well, guess what ... heh heh ... Hercules is meddling again trying to work a peace treaty... what are we gonna do about it?"
Ares sighed. Suddenly, the prospect of going up against Hercules didn't seem at all appealing. He searched his new-world memories for what he could find about this war in Parthia, and decided that it would be a pretty boring affair in any event. He yawned conspicuously.
"Tell you what, I'll leave this one up to you and Discord." (Her annoying head firmly reattached to her shoulders, of course.)
"But Unc -- what if we screw it up?"
"Are you a god or a total incompetent?" he bellowed, hurling a fireball and causing a small shower of splintered rocks to come down on Strife's head. "Can't I delegate anything around here?"
"Okay, okay ... I promise, Unc, I'll do my damnedest," Strife whined as Ares recalled that abusing his nephew had been a lot of fun after all. At the moment, though, he was looking forward to entirely different pleasures.
"Good." He released another fireball into the mountainside. "You bother me again and the next one's gonna be aimed straight for your ass. I'm taking the day... no, the week off."
The feast at the palace was in full swing. Slaves scurried around, refilling cups with wine and carrying trays with such decadent delicacies as roasted swans in apricot glaze; musicians and nearly nude dancers, male and female, entertained the assembly. A sudden hush fell over the banquet hall at the sight of a new arrival: a tall, imposing man in metal-studded black leathers, with a great sword at his belt. While Ares had chosen to materialize outside the hall and walk in rather than make a more spectacular entrance, many guests knew that this was no mere man but the divine patron of the rulers of Rome -- the God of War himself.
The emperor and the empress promptly rose to their feet; it was not often that the Lord Mars honored one of their banquets with his presence. At Caesar's signal, a serving girl, looking down and trying to keep her hands steady, approached the god with a goblet full of wine; he drained it quickly, without breaking stride, and walked right up to the imperial couple.
Caesar, in a white toga with red and gold stripes, bowed his head gravely. "My Lord Mars."
Ares barely acknowledged the emperor with a nod as he looked past him, to the woman at Caesar's side. The empress was clad in a slender purple gown bordered with gold, accentuated by austerely elegant gold forearm bracelets and a necklace. She was wearing a touch too much makeup perhaps, and he was startled to see that her hair was styled in frizzy ringlets. But it was her all right, and she was magnificent.
"My Lord Mars," she said, bowing her head.
Her voice was low and sensuous, but the words were so jarring -- Lord? Mars? For a moment, he would have preferred to hear her call him a bastard or one of those other choice words that she used to sling at him.
"Can we entertain you at our humble dinner, my lord?" Caesar asked. "Or do you wish, perhaps, to talk about the plans for the Egyptian campaign?"
"I'd love to stay and chat, Caesar." Ares' eyes flashed unmistakable mockery at the emperor. "But right now, what I need is to borrow the Empress for -- ah -- a private consultation."
Caesar didn't flinch, but a slight shadow crossed his face; the liaison between the empress and the God of War was an open secret in Rome's high circles, but Mars, or Ares as he preferred to be called, had never yet flaunted it quite so brazenly.
His voice was unfailingly polite. "Of course, my Lord Mars."
All eyes followed the god and the empress as they walked toward the doors. Once outside the hall, he took her hand, feeling the coolness of her slender fingers, and, in a swirl of sparks, whisked them both away to the inner chambers of one of his temples.
She looked at him, a flicker of cool amusement in her blue eyes.
Ares picked up two goblets and handed one to her. "By the way, stop calling me Mars."
"Oh yes," she murmured, sipping her wine, "you prefer Ares."
So at least in that respect, he wasn't different in this world.
"You shouldn't forget your Greek roots, my dear. Besides, I hate 'Mars.' It's lame."
"So, my lord Ares..." He winced inwardly -- from her, it still sounded pretty lame -- but in the next instant, the knowing smile that played on her lips made him forget all about that. "Shall we discuss the Egyptian campaign? Their fleet -- "
He gazed at her, his lips parted, his heart racing so fast that he had to catch his breath. His warrior princess -- or was it warrior empress? -- alone with him in his chambers, with that smile and that glitter in her eye, holding a goblet of wine, the fingers of her other hand playing with the golden clasp of her gown ... that she wanted to talk to him about battles could have been the icing on the cake. But, in truth, this particular cake didn't need any icing.
He threw the half-empty goblet aside and pulled her toward him before she could continue.
Her lips opened to welcome his kiss, her tongue thrusting against his. Making an effort to stop his hands from trembling, he undid her belt and the clasp of the gown, and felt the thin fabric slip through his fingers.
Ares took a step back. The soft glow of the oil lamps gave her skin a golden hue. He'd seen Xena like this before, when she so unselfconsciously stood up in her bath at that monk's residence all those years ago ... only this Xena was no innocent. She came closer, pressed her palms to his shoulders and kissed him again, running her tongue over his lips and then probing his mouth before she pulled away, her teeth tugging a little at his upper lip. His breath ragged now, he let his sword belt drop. Her hands slipped the vest off his shoulders and went for the fastenings on his pants, sending little jolts of shock through his body. His arousal wasn't making her task any easier, and he finally did it the old-fashioned way and just wished the damn pants off, along with the boots and gauntlets. The thought flickered in his mind again -- could it be one of those dreams he'd had so many times? Well, if it was ... oh, to Tartarus with it. He clasped her against him, letting out a guttural groan as his cock jutted against her stomach.
Now the only question was whether to bury himself inside her right away, or take it slow and let his mouth make love to every inch of her -- a much more pleasant set of options than any he'd had to face recently.
He pulled her down on the dark crimson sheets of his bed, his lips roaming over her neck then sliding lower; her nipple hardened as he rolled it in his mouth, and she gasped and moaned. He looked up and saw that he had succeeded in wiping that self-possessed little half-smile off her face; her eyes were clouded now, her mouth open in need. None too subtly, she rubbed herself on his leg. No, not yet. He brought his mouth to her other breast before kissing his way down to the dark, neatly trimmed triangle of curls. He had wanted to toy with her some more and linger on her inner thighs before reaching his final destination, but his own need to taste her was too overpowering.
What a thrill, to draw those little sounds out of her and hear them grow louder and more desperate, to feel her quiver as she thrust herself toward him, her fingers clutching at his hair. He knew all the little tricks -- sliding in and out, parting the soft folds, flicking the swollen bud with just a feathery touch and then sucking it hard only to stop before she was too far gone -- but to have her so out of control, so surrendered to his lovemaking ... it was almost like enjoying this caress for the first time. She was nearly crying now, and he knew he wouldn't be able to stand it much longer; this time, he took her over the edge, gripping her hips as she arched, drinking in the cries and the spasms that shook her body and wouldn't stop.
When her tremors subsided, he pulled himself up and lay next to her. Xena finally opened her eyes, the sly coolness returning to her gaze, then lifted her head and leaned forward to kiss him.
"Mmmm ... shall I ... return the favor, my lord?"
"Would you quit calling me 'my lord,'" he whispered hoarsely. "Just 'Ares.'"
She gave him a rather startled look, and he wondered if he could really be that pompous in this world -- until he remembered that such deference had never bothered him in any of the other mortal women he'd bedded.
A few moments later, she could have called him Cupid for all he cared. Oh, it was too much, she was going to leave him as helpless as she had been just now ... and, by Olympus, he didn't mind. Could it be that no woman in thousands of years had made him feel this good? Or was it simply the giddy knowledge that it was Xena, ever so lightly scraping his cock with her teeth, swirling her tongue around the aching tip, teasing him with those butterfly touches, pinching his nipples just hard enough to sting a bit? He clenched his fists, arched his body, muttering incoherent words of encouragement. Just when he thought it couldn't get any more exquisite, she sucked gently on his balls and he could hear himself making a sound that was almost like a whimper; the heat was rising in his body, pulsing and tingling as she took him back in her mouth -- oh yes, just like that -- right there -- don't stop Xena -- by all the gods don't stop --
It took him a while to catch his breath. She was looking at him, smiling, clearly relishing her power. He took her hand and kissed her fingertips.
"You know, if I were still mortal you might have killed me."
She raised her eyebrows. "My lord, your sense of humor is ... fascinating."
"I mean -- if I were mortal." Ares paused. "I told you, stop calling me 'my lord.'"
She nodded and looked at him sideways, obviously trying to figure out what he was up to. He didn't give her too much time for that, grabbing her and pulling her on top of him.
"Let me inside you," he said, his voice thick. "I want you now."
She glanced down and smirked. "Oh yes -- I sometimes forget that you aren't limited by, ah, the weaknesses of mortal flesh -- "
Well, he certainly wasn't going to let her forget it tonight.
As she straddled him and he felt her silky warmth enveloping him, Ares knew he was about to be lost once again. While he was still able to think, he looked at her and thought that he hated her hairstyle. He stroked her hair and, mustering all the concentration he had -- which wasn't very much -- used his power to straighten out those ridiculous ringlets. He hoped that, in the heat of passion, she wouldn't notice for a while.
Ares opened his eyes, coming out of the pleasant half-dozing state into which he'd allowed himself to drift a few hours ago. He looked at Xena, asleep by his side, breathing softly, her head nestled on his shoulder.
The chamber had no windows, but he knew it was high noon. He'd really worn her out, hadn't he. Just as he had suspected, Xena had quite an appetite; but he had godhood on his side, and more than thirty years of frustrated passion. He wasn't sure how many times they had enjoyed each other last night, or in how many ways. He would collapse on top of her, shaking and groaning, and start again almost immediately -- flipping her over on her hands and knees and slipping a hand down to stroke her until she cried out and bucked against him, or kneeling and lifting her supple legs up on his shoulders so he could thrust even deeper into her and watch those lovely full breasts bounce with each move. Then he would lie back and let her take charge, riding him, sometimes ceasing all motion and using just her inner muscles to drive him wild -- keeping him on the brink of release until he rasped, "Xena ... please," not quite sure if he was begging her to end the torture or draw it out even longer.
Now, as he looked at his sleeping princess, Ares ran his fingers through her hair and idly wondered if, some day, he should get Uncle Hades to reduce Caesar's punishment for tampering with the Fates' Loom.
It would soon be time to get her back to the palace; during one of their rare breaks last night, she had mentioned a meeting with the high command to discuss the campaign in Egypt. He bent down, ran his tongue over her right nipple and sucked lightly, feeling the little nub stiffen in his mouth. She sighed and muttered, then stirred and finally opened her eyes.
"Your wake-up call, madam."
Xena stretched luxuriously. "Ah ... my l- -- uh, Ares... good morning..."
"Good afternoon, my dear."
"Have I slept that long?" She smiled, catlike. "You were ... ummm ... unusually enthusiastic last night... did some battle go especially well?"
"No, I've just missed you, that's all." He drew her toward him.
"Oh?" There was a note of sarcasm in her voice, but before she could say anything else, he covered her mouth with his.
"I'm still enthusiastic," he whispered, breaking the kiss.
"Oh no -- Ares ..." she laughed, "I'll barely be able to walk... let alone ride..."
"Come on, you're much tougher than that."
After a moment's hesitation, she kissed him back. He eased himself inside her; this time he was slow and gentle, stroking her face, planting little kisses on her eyelids and her nose, pressing his mouth to her neck and shoulders where he had left purplish marks the night before.
And then, as they lay quietly in the afterglow of their lovemaking, their fingers intertwined, his face buried in her fragrant hair, he murmured, "I love you, Xena."
He heard her low chuckle.
"My Lord Ares -- as I've said ... your sense of humor is exquisite ... but I confess, at times my poor mortal mind just doesn't get the joke."
The sweat on their bodies felt sticky and clammy, and he was acutely aware that a strand of her hair was in his mouth.
By the time Ares raised his head and looked at her, he had managed a mischievous smirk. "I just wanted to see what it would be like -- you know, to say one of those silly things you sentimental mortals say at moments like these."
The Empress rolled her eyes and sat up. "Well, you should have tried it on one of your other girls, then. I may be a mortal, but you ought to know that I am no sentimentalist... In any case -- I think it's time for me to get back to the palace. I must look a total mess." She ran a hand over her hair and gasped. "What happened to my hair?"
He grinned a little sheepishly. "I thought it looked better this way."
"Better?" Her eyes flashed with anger. "I didn't know you doubled as the God of Beauty Tips. Do you realize it took hours to style?" The deference was momentarily gone, and she sounded very much like the old Xena ... the other Xena ... whatever ... berating him over some dirty rotten thing he'd done. Dammit, it was refreshing.
"Hey. Those silly curls make you look like a simpering Roman socialite, not a warrior."
Xena glanced at him, obviously taken aback by her own outburst, but then saw that he wasn't angry and shook her head. "I can't go around the palace like this ... I look like some barbarian queen."
"A gorgeous barbarian queen."
She chuckled and went over to pick up her gown.
When she had finished dressing, Ares took them back to her quarters at the palace.
"Still mad about the hair?" He nuzzled her neck.
The War God's mistress ran her hand up his chest and brushed her lips against his. "Thank you for a lovely night ... Ares."
He pulled her toward him. "I want to see you again tonight."
She laughed huskily. "Have mercy. I must save something for my lawfully wedded husband, you know."
"I outrank him," growled the God of War, crushing the Empress's lips under his. He no longer felt like trying to get Caesar any breaks in Tartarus.
Back in his throne room on Olympus, Ares reflected on the situation.
Okay, maybe this world wasn't quite as perfect as it had seemed.
But it was still pretty good.
The battle had not yet wound down when Ares transported himself to the top of a hill a short distance away. He'd always gotten a kick out of assuming the form of a common soldier and throwing himself into the action, often taking turns on both sides if he wasn't backing one of the combatants. Yet now, the fun just didn't seem to be there.
He wasn't quite sure why. After all, both Egyptian armies -- the one backing Queen Cleopatra and the one championing her rival brother and nominal husband, young Ptolemy -- really fought quite well, for non-Greeks. Besides, he should have been taking an interest in the matter; after all, his protegees planned to take Ptolemy's side and use the civil war to bring Egypt under Rome's thumb. This time around, Xena's presence had apparently prevented Caesar's alliance with the queen -- hardly surprising, considering how it had been cemented -- and the Romans had obviously calculated that the boy king would be easier to handle.
Maybe everything in this new world still seemed a little fake to him, staged, like the Romans' gladiator fights. Or ... what if he wasn't up to the job anymore? He hadn't even gotten all that upset when Strife had -- naturally -- botched the job in Parthia and let Hercules work out the peace deal; sure, he had blasted his nephew with a couple of fireballs and sent him scurrying away whimpering, but that was more of a formality. And down there just now, while chopping his way through Cleopatra's ranks, he was aghast to find, somewhere in the back of his mind, the thought that this wasn't very sporting -- while he exulted in his skill at parrying his opponents' blows, he was invulnerable to them anyway. This latest, extended stint as a mortal must have really messed with his head.
Maybe that was also why this business with Xena was such a distraction.
It had been three weeks since their first meeting. There had been many more, not only in bed but in the council chambers, where they had discussed war strategy -- sometimes along with Caesar, which couldn't be avoided since he was the Emperor after all -- and in a training arena where they enjoyed bouts of swordplay, much like he'd once done with Livia. (To his amusement, he had discovered that the non-existent Livia's old nickname, the Bitch of Rome, had now stuck to Xena in those parts of the world where Rome wasn't well liked.) The swordplay, of course, would usually have a follow-up in bed.
She was everything he could want in his warrior queen: a fighter of superior skill; a strong leader who wholeheartedly embraced the idea of world domination through force on which he had tried in vain to sell the original Xena; a lover of whom he couldn't imagine ever tiring.
For one thing, he found that sharing her with that bastard, her lawfully wedded husband, enraged him. His imagination painted such vivid scenes of Xena and Caesar together that he finally decided the real thing would be easier to deal with and opened up a viewing portal into the imperial couple's bedroom; a few seconds later, he blasted a hole in the wall of his own temple where he happened to be at the time.
But, perhaps worse, every time he saw her, there was some fresh reminder of all the ways in which she wasn't the original Xena.
The hair -- the silly ringlets were back -- was the least of it.
In the other world, he had long reconciled himself to the fact that, however much Xena the dark warlord had drawn and excited him, the Warrior Princess he loved was the one who had channeled her fire and rage into self-sacrificing heroics, into fighting against him and atoning for everything she had done in his service. The irritating blonde, he had to admit, was on to something back there in Amphipolis -- when, in response to his taunt about how much he'd liked the old Xena, she asked why, in that case, he was so obsessed with the new one.
But this Xena was neither of those women. In this life, Cortese's raid and her brother's death had still forged her into a warrior; the union with Caesar, though, had turned her into a politician. There had been no betrayal by a man she had fallen for, no agonizing near-death to send her careening into true darkness, no need to fight her way out that darkness as violently as she had once embraced it. Instead, she had gained power, and had worked carefully and cleverly to preserve and expand it.
Whatever rage she'd ever possessed had been subsumed into ambition; whatever fire burned within her was a controlled, well-behaved little flame. And love ... ? The memory came back to him of how, in his other life, after the Furies had nearly driven him to kill Xena, she came up to examine the bruises and scrapes on his face where she had punched him during their fight, and then leaned in and kissed him softly. It was much too chaste a kiss, and seconds later she told him he had a one-in-a-billion chance of ever being with her. But there was an even smaller chance that, in all those hours of rolling around in bed, Empress Xena would give him a fraction of the tenderness that had been in her kiss and in her eyes just then.
So now he was fantasizing about his life as a mortal. Great, just great.
Ares snapped out of his reverie when a human stampede came charging toward where he sat invisible to mortal eyes. Ptolemy's men were on the run; it was too late to turn the tide of the battle now ... godsdammit, he had promised the Romans to swing this one Ptolemy's way. All this nonsense was indeed affecting his job.
Moments later, he was thousands of miles away from Egypt and in his temple in Rome, pacing back and forth in the inner chamber. It was time to admit it; he wanted his girl back.
Easier said than done, of course.
What could he possibly do?
The Empress opened her eyes and closed them again, feeling the heat of her divine lover's body beside her. Well, that had been one weird dream... She didn't know what time it was, but she needed some more sleep; she wasn't getting nearly enough of it in the past weeks, ever since ... well, ever since whatever had gotten into Ares had gotten into him. She shifted a little to get more comfortable.
"What were you dreaming about?"
She started and turned her head toward him.
He was staring at her with a quizzical smile. "You said some very interesting things in your sleep, my dear."
Damn. "Such as what?"
"Something about wanting me to kill a chicken. That's generally not my specialty, you know. And I think you wanted me to fix the roof or something."
She cursed inwardly. Did she actually talk in her sleep?
"Oh it was nothing..." She smiled coyly. "Just some ridiculous nonsense..."
"Tell me." He propped himself up on an elbow, looking at her. "I like hearing about dreams. Even ridiculous ones."
"You learn new things about me every day, don't you?" He chucked her lightly under the chin. "Come on, I want to hear this. Sounds funny."
"Well all right..." She hoped he wouldn't take offense. "It was funny but -- in a way -- it was almost ... blasphemous."
Ares cocked an eyebrow. "Blasphemous?"
"In my dream, you -- you were mortal."
He seemed to take that in stride. "Go on."
"And we were on my grandparents' old farm outside Amphipolis..."
"You and me?"
"And some blonde girl... I don't even know where that came from, she didn't look like anyone I'd ever met."
"You and me and a blonde, on a farm together? That does sound like fun."
"Oh it wasn't that kind of thing." She winked at him. "And then we found a dog, a funny-looking little mutt with one blue eye and one grey... Anyway, the roof was leaking and..." -- she laughed almost girlishly -- "I asked you to fix it... and then you were supposed to kill a chicken for dinner and you were chasing chickens around with your sword and the dog was chasing after you..." She decided to skip the part where he had tripped and fallen flat on his face in the chicken pen; so far he was being good-humored, but that might be too undignified.
"Fascinating. So what were we doing on your grandparents' farm?"
Could that part get him angry, too? "Uh... I don't remember. You know how it is with dreams -- "
"Oh, I think you do." He was smiling but there was just a hint of danger in his eyes. "Go on."
Xena scrunched her eyebrows, as if straining to remember. "Oh yes -- it's coming back to me now ... well, this is really funny ... some warlords who had old scores to settle with you had found out that you were mortal and they were trying to kill you... and that blonde girl and I decided to hide you on the farm until we could lure them away."
"Really. Well, that was quite a dream." They lay in silence for a while as he put an arm around her and ran his fingers through her curls; she wondered what he was thinking. Then he asked, "Would you do that for me?"
"Would I do what for you?"
"If I became mortal and some vengeful warlords were after me, would you protect me?"
To hear him speak of her protecting him was not just laughable but disconcerting. Still, he was obviously in one of his strange moods again, and she'd have to play along. She coaxed her voice into its most tender expression.
"Of course I would, Ares."
He stared at her intently, brushing the hair away from her face.
His voice was quiet but she still felt a chill as her stomach tightened. His sardonic smile did little to soothe her nerves.
"You're a military strategist, my dear. As a mortal, I wouldn't be of much use to you, would I? And suppose you needed an alliance with one of those warlords who were after me. Wouldn't you personally separate my head from my shoulders and have it delivered to him in a gift box tied up with a nice ribbon? Come on. Tell me." The chill gave way to a feverish warmth, and the Empress felt tiny beads of sweat breaking out on her forehead. What answer did he want to hear? Damn him and his little mind games.
"Wouldn't you?" he repeated.
She made an effort to compose herself.
"I'm sure I'd find -- some use for you as a mortal," she purred, stroking his chest and then moving lower, feeling him stiffen instantly at her touch. Ares shuddered slightly and drew in his breath; unfortunately, it still didn't distract him from his line of questioning.
"You mean, you couldn't find anyone else who'd fuck you so good? Yeah, I'm sure you're right. But you're a warrior and an empress, aren't you? You know where your priorities are. Would you put some hot action in the sack ahead of your strategic interests? So tell me again. The truth, Xena. Would you?"
"Would I what?"
His hand in her hair, he pulled her head back a little; his breath was hot on her face.
"Kill me, my dear. If it would serve your purposes. Or turn me over to the tender mercies of those warlords."
"Yes, I probably would," she said slowly. "But I would say good-bye to you very nicely." She
leaned forward and kissed him, draping a leg over his hip, guiding him inside. He looked at her,
his eyes misty with desire but still inscrutable, and then rolled her over, biting her lips hard
enough to draw blood and ramming into her so brutally that, for once, she cried out with pain
rather than pleasure.
He lay stretched out on his bed, fully dressed now. Dammit, at least a part of him should have been proud of her answer; she was no sentimentalist, just as she'd said. And yet ... the ice in her stare when she told him she'd kill him if she had to -- and of course it was true, she might as well have left out the "probably" ... In a fit of morbid self-torture, Ares imagined himself on his knees, hands bound behind his back, trying desperately to get one more glimpse of his beloved's face before the blade came down on his neck, and seeing that look in her eyes.
He thought of how he had felt when Xena, the other -- the real Xena, had offered him her help, rejecting his plea that they fight the warlords together, telling him that he would forever be a hunted man unless he let her hide him and help him assume a new identity. He vividly remembered the hot flash of humiliation, and then the tiny feeling that spread inside him like the warmth of a fine wine ... one of those new feelings he still wasn't entirely sure how to handle ... the knowledge that she cared enough to, to -- all right, then -- to protect him.
Well, at least she'd fallen for that talking-in-her-sleep line and told him about the dream -- so
now he knew that the dream trick worked and he could, in fact, make her have visions of her
other life. Maybe this meant that somewhere, hidden deep inside the Empress, his Xena still existed.
The Empress slipped out of bed, glancing back at her husband, listening to his soft breath to make sure he was asleep. She picked up a stole, wrapped it around her shoulders and walked out on the balcony, the coolness of the floor on her bare feet bringing her back to reality. The night breeze might help her gather her thoughts.
She didn't know what was going on anymore. First there was this weirdness with Ares, wanting all of a sudden to act like her boyfriend rather than her god (she felt certain, although she'd never ask, that she was the only woman he'd had in the past five weeks or so), going all clingy and moody on her, and paying little attention to important matters like the Egyptian campaign ... he'd blown it at Naukratis, letting Cleopatra's forces carry the day, and then given her some bullshit story about being called away on urgent business. Of course, Caesar was getting to be a problem too; he'd never objected to her affair with Ares before, knowing how advantageous it was -- but he didn't like having it flaunted and he didn't like having his wife away from the marital bed every other night, and often too tired for anything but sleep when she was there. She couldn't say she blamed him for being cranky.
And now there were those dreams, more vivid and lifelike than any she'd ever had. There was that awful one in which she was a pirate, back when she and her men had captured Caesar for ransom and he had won her over and gotten her to take him to Rome -- only in the dream, he betrayed her, and mocked her cruelly as she was being crucified on a beach ... mercifully, she'd jerked awake just as her legs were about to be broken on his orders and her body tensed in anticipation of the pain. It occurred to her that it actually could have happened that way -- she had trusted Caesar so completely, had made herself such easy prey ... she shivered and knew that it wasn't from the breeze.
That nightmare, at least, could be explained as a reflection of her hidden mistrust of her husband; but what about the rest? She'd had yet another dream in which Ares was mortal, and had been driven mad by the Furies -- they got into a vicious fistfight, and when it was over and he had recovered she stroked his bruised face and kissed him; she could still remember how tender she felt, how her heart ached for him because ... well, that's when it got really bizarre ... she knew he had given up his godhood for her, and he told her that mortality might be worthwhile if he could have her love -- and a part of her yearned to melt into his arms but she had to tell herself he would be bad for her.
It got worse. In the other dreams, she had a child, a baby girl whose birth -- she shuddered at the sacrilege -- was supposed to herald the end of the Olympian gods. She was on the run from gods and priests and killers, and the blonde girl from the farm was there again (now she had a name, Gabrielle), and Ares was after her, telling her he would protect her and her child and willingly become mortal if they could only be together; but she didn't trust a word he said, not even after he had her baby's life in his hands and chose to save it.
And then tonight... she shook her head, as if trying to get rid of those appalling visions, and rubbed her face. She really needed sleep, she was supposed to meet with the ambassadors from Ch'in in the morning -- but how could she possibly go back to sleep after this?
... Her daughter was all grown, which was absurd because she and Gabrielle hadn't aged a bit, and somehow ... even to think this was blasphemy ... she, Xena, had the power to -- kill gods as long as her daughter lived. The gods were still after them, and she'd already killed several; then Gabrielle and Eve, her daughter, were badly hurt, and she'd somehow persuaded the goddess Venus, or Aphrodite rather, to take them to Olympus so she could get Athena to heal them. Ares stood in her way and she shot him in the leg with a crossbow... then she and Athena battled fiercely as Olympus trembled, and the two wounded women lay near death on the floor ... her sword slid harmlessly through Athena's smooth flesh and the goddess taunted her about losing her god-slaying powers, and she knew her daughter was dead. She still fought, until she was on her knees with Athena's sword over her, and in desperation she thrust her blade forward once more -- and saw the crimson blood and the goddess's face contorted in shock and pain. And it was Ares who'd saved her, healing her daughter and her friend without Athena's blessing at the cost of his own immortality. She heard Athena's dying gasp, "Why?" and Ares' voice, sad and gentle, "I'm sorry, but I have a thing for her."
She rushed to embrace Eve and Gabrielle and then remembered ... she had been wrong about Ares, he truly did love her -- she felt stunned and moved and a little guilty ... as she approached, he stood there looking at her almost fearfully, and with so many emotions whirling inside her, all she could say was, "Thank you." And yet it seemed to be enough for him -- he nodded a little and swallowed, his face and eyes almost radiant with quiet joy.
... What could it all mean? The Empress looked up at the stars, and down into the dark and silent garden below. She had a sneaking suspicion that Ares had something to do with these dreams, was trying to screw with her mind for some reason ... get her to fall in love with him, perhaps? But why? And what if it wasn't Ares, what if these dreams were omens of something terrible? A practical-minded woman, she had always been inclined to scoff at the superstitions so common among the Romans, at their obsession with signs and dreams; but now, she wasn't so sure.
She had to go and talk to the priests.
"Mom -- Dad -- Sis -- to what do I owe the pleasure?"
They stood in the War God's throne room on Olympus -- Zeus fuming, Hera's face coolly disdainful, and Athena wearing an expression of controlled fury and yet also of near-glee, as though she relished the fact that her no-good brother had lived down to her worst expectations.
"I think you know what the occasion is, Ares," said the Goddess of Wisdom. "You were warned not to mess with Xena, weren't you?"
He lifted his eyes with a "Who, me?" look of surprised innocence.
"What exactly do you mean by 'mess,' sister dear?" The mock innocent expression gave way to a deliberately lewd grin. "You seem to forget that in this wonderful World According to Caesar, Xena has been my very intimate friend for the past five years."
"And you seem to forget what Father and I told you." Athena pursed her thin lips. "We won't have you endangering the rule of the Olympians again."
"Meaning that you made her have dreams about the Twilight of the Gods!" shouted Zeus, his face growing purple. "Would you care to explain why you would go and do an insane thing like that?"
Ares turned away, his cheek twitching slightly, and twiddled his dagger-shaped earring.
"Because it amused me."
Zeus exhaled noisily. "Ares. I don't know what's stopping me from hurling you into the Abyss of Tartarus right now, but -- "
He whipped around. "Yeah, really -- what's stopping you? I give up. What could it possibly be? I mean, it's not like we're family or anything."
"Ares." This time it was his mother who spoke, her eyes hard as crystals. "Shut up."
"Am I permitted to speak now? Good." The King of the Gods paced back and forth, clenching and unclenching his fists and occasionally glancing at his wayward son. "I'm giving you one more chance. Let me spell this out for you. Stay away from that woman. Stay out of her bed. Stay out of her life. And, especially, stay out of her dreams."
Ares sat up abruptly, feeling a cold heaviness in his chest. "What are you telling me, Dad? I can't see my girlfriend? Oh, that's great coming from you." (Hera's murderous glare brought him a moment's sick satisfaction.) "Besides, I'm the patron god of the Emperor and Empress of Rome."
"Not anymore, bro." For a second, the gloating in Athena's melodious voice rose to the surface. "I'm afraid I've taken over that position."
"You -- ?"
"Ye-es," she almost sang out. "Oh, and feel free to try and see your girlfriend. She may not be very eager to see you."
They stood silently, giving him time to digest the announcement -- two female faces frozen in implacable smiles, and a male one drawn into a terrifying scowl.
"Son," Zeus finally said, his face softening slightly and a twinge of regret creeping into his voice. "Do you understand that this is your last chance?"
He looked away and said nothing.
"Well." This time the voice was his mother's, and the tone the chilliest she could muster. "I
certainly hope you do."
When he made himself visible sitting on the ledge of her bedroom balcony, she turned and looked at him, unsurprised -- even though, unlike his Xena, the Empress had no ability to sense his unseen presence.
He reached out to touch her face and she flinched away. "Please leave."
"I just got here."
"Ares, it's over."
"Xena -- you don't mean that -- "
She gave him a scornful look. "Which part of 'it's over' don't you understand?"
He wanted to tell her, however uselessly, that he loved her; but the War God had never found it easy to say those words -- and the way she had reacted the last time didn't make it any easier.
"Why did you do it, Ares?" she asked suddenly, with just a hint of softness and sadness.
"All of this. Things were going so great -- we had such a wonderful time mixing business and pleasure -- and then you had to ruin everything. Minerva -- Athena said you gave me those dreams because you wanted to set me against the other gods..."
He snorted, looking down. "Is that what she said."
"And you tried to set me against my husband, too. Making me dream that he had me crucified with my legs broken ... Ares, that was a horrible thing to do!"
Ares was strongly tempted to say, "He really did, you fool," but then thought better of it.
"Xena..." he stammered. "I -- I -- I have feelings for you, dammit..." He had a vague sense that he'd spoken those very words to her before -- well, to Xena, anyway -- and then he remembered: of course, in Tartarus when she was making her getaway with her dead son, and was about to give birth to Eve.
She replied exactly as she had then -- perhaps she remembered from her dreams -- and for once, the contemptuous narrowing of her eyes was all Xena. "Are you trying to tell me that you love me?"
"Yes," he said, his voice a little choked. "I am. I do." Was she going to do it again? Challenge him to say those words? He should manage this time ... except that he'd already said those words to her that morning and --
The Empress let out a mirthless little laugh. "The God of War in love. How stupid do you think I am?"
"Stranger things have happened," he said simply.
"Like Xena becoming Empress of Rome."
She sighed impatiently. "Enough of the head games, Ares."
He looked up at her. In her gauzy white nightdress, with her pale face bathed in moonlight and reflecting the unsteady light of an oil lantern, she looked almost ghostly -- and so beautiful that the thought of losing her again was tearing him apart. Why had he been such an idiot? Why couldn't he just accept whatever she could give him?
They were both silent for a minute, and Ares noticed that the sneer on Xena's face had dissolved into a look of bitter melancholy.
"The last man who said he loved me -- do you know who it was, Ares?" she said quietly. "My husband. And I suppose he does, in his own way. But if somehow getting rid of me served Caesar's political advantage, he'd do it just as readily as -- as I would have sent your head to those warlords. That's a fact. He would regret it, of course, but he'd do it. Just as he didn't feel good about my being in your bed, but he went along with it because it served his interests."
"It served your interests too, didn't it?"
"Of course it did." Her voice hardened again. "And it was great fun too. I'm not the one talking about love, Ares. I don't know what your game was, but I think you've lost."
She turned around and went inside, never looking back.
"I don't know if I did the right thing, my love. But I have found out that there is something even more important to me than the right thing."
The slender chestnut-haired actress stood in the middle of the minimally decorated circular stage, her words addressed to the audience as much as to her stage lover.
"Our love?" the actor said, taking her hands in his.
That was the final line of the play. As the actors took their bows, the applause was a little timid at first. The message of the Greek play, after all, was rather at odds with Roman notions of duty and honor -- the heroine risked much more than her life to save her beloved, putting him ahead of her family's and her city's survival -- and its title, The Greater Good, could even be seen as a mockery of these cherished ideals.
Then, the Empress rose in her box and began clapping enthusiastically; more and more spectators joined in until the applause became a standing ovation.
When the noise died down, the lead actress stepped forward. "And now, citizens of Rome, I have the privilege of introducing the author. The new sensation of Greece and now, for the first time in Rome -- Gabrielle, the Bard of Potedaia."
Out of the corner of her eye, the Empress noticed Caesar flinch and frown slightly, as though the name had been an unpleasant surprise. Had he had an affair with the girl? Not that she'd care much. Then another thought struck her. Gabrielle ... an unusual name, and one she'd heard somewhere before. Oh yes, of course -- the blonde girl from those awful dreams of a few months ago.
And there she was, standing on the stage -- her hair much longer and styled in fashionable curls, with a softer and less muscular frame, wearing a long, flowing gown rather than an Amazon-style short skirt and skimpy top -- but it was her, no question about it.
Could this young woman be a pawn in some new game Ares was playing? Xena somehow doubted it, and actually found that, for whatever reason, she didn't want to believe it.
The young woman pressed a hand to her heart and bowed several times, her face flushed.
The Empress motioned to one of her attendants who was holding a rose wreath; she always brought one to the theater in case she wanted to bestow a special honor on a performer or author.
"Give it to the playwright."
There were gasps in the audience when Gabrielle took the wreath. She looked troubled for a second and seemed to hesitate before finally placing it on her head in a graceful gesture. It made her look lovely, the dark red of the roses setting off the pale gold of her locks and the light blue of her dress.
Caesar, who had also risen from his seat -- out of politeness, Xena suspected -- gave her a sideways glance she couldn't quite interpret.
"Well, I see that you really enjoyed the play."
She shrugged. "Well, it was a tad sentimental ... and with a somewhat questionable moral. But I thought I'd lend some support to a former compatriot." She paused as the Emperor nodded, looking at her expectantly. "She's coming to the reception at the palace, isn't she? I'm looking forward to meeting her."
"I'm sure you will enjoy it very much, dear," Caesar said slowly; there seemed to be something
in the back of his mind but she couldn't imagine what. "I'm sure you will."
"Do you think such love really exists? The kind where you would risk not only your life but ... the whole world for the person you love?"
The Empress reclined on a couch, absent-mindedly slipping slices of peach into her mouth and sipping her wine. The young playwright, who had been given the place of honor next to her hostess, blushed a little.
"I do, my lady."
"Because you want to be with that person more than anything in the world."
"Because that person is your world. Even if you may never have a chance to be with them."
"Really." Xena put a touch of sarcasm in her voice. "You know, some people would say that's just a way of putting a romantic gloss on our -- base animal instincts."
"Oh, but it doesn't even have to involve -- " Gabrielle stumbled and blushed even more.
She nodded. "It's just a -- connection between two souls, so deep that you become -- the whole world to each other. It's almost as if the other person is more yourself than you are."
"Is that something you've actually experienced?"
"No, I have not, my lady." The young woman looked pensively into the distance. "And yet -- sometimes I think... I can't quite explain it... I know it's going to sound crazy, but it's almost as if it's something that happened to me in a past life."
The Empress raised her eyebrows. "A past life?"
"Some philosophers believe that we have lived many times before."
There was a brief silence between them, and then Gabrielle asked, "Have you?"
Xena turned to her with a start. "Have I what?"
The playwright's face was crimson. "I'm sorry, my lady -- I was just lost in thought and -- I don't even know what I said -- "
"No, no." The Empress looked at her intently with a little half-smile. "You wanted to ask if I've ever experienced that kind of love?" Gabrielle was staring into her goblet. "And then you thought it was a rather inappropriate question to ask of an empress."
"I'm truly sorry, my lady," the young woman muttered.
Xena chuckled. "No need. Artists are allowed a bit of license, even in the presence of emperors. It's not inappropriate, really ... just -- naive. It wouldn't do at all, you understand, for an empress to feel that way." She looked at Gabrielle again and shrugged slightly. "Let's change the subject, shall we? Tell me about your life -- this life, not a past one. I'm told you were a slave once?"
"Yes, my lady. Some five years ago, I was taken by slavers in Potedaia and brought to Athens."
"How does one go from slave to famous playwright?"
Gabrielle looked up; a sudden shadow darkened her face.
"I was b- -- I was taken into a household where -- they appreciated literature and the arts." Her voice was strained, as if she had to force every sound out of her throat. "My -- my masters, Kyrillos and Myrrhina, had wanted an educated slave to tutor their children -- but then they saw some of my writings and -- liked them... So they encouraged me to write more. And then they released me and helped launch my career."
"Lucky for you, then." Xena saw the look in the young woman's eyes. "What?"
"Not at first." Gabrielle spoke almost in a whisper.
"I had some -- bad experiences with my first -- masters."
Whatever it was, she obviously didn't want to talk about it. The Empress felt almost relieved when she heard her husband's voice.
"Excuse me, ladies. Is a mere male permitted to join this conversation?"
"But of course, my Emperor," she replied with a slight toss of the head.
The Empress paced around the balcony, finding little relief in the muggy air of the summer night.
Why would Gabrielle have appeared in the bizarre visions that had once haunted her dreams? Maybe Ares had put her in them for some unfathomable reason of his own. Or maybe there was more to those dreams than mere Ares-induced delusions ... a sign of some special connection between herself and the Greek playwright?
She shook her head at this inane idea. And yet there really was something special about the girl. Perhaps it was the fact that she was so unlike everyone else Xena knew, in the palace or in the army. She actually said what she thought and felt, or showed it in her face and voice; more remarkably yet, it seemed that she never said anything she didn't think or feel ... almost like a child, and yet not at all infantile. Indeed, Xena felt certain that, at her fairly young age, the playwright had been through some rough stuff.
She looked down into the garden and stopped in her tracks. In the moonlight, she could plainly see Gabrielle -- who had been invited to spend the night in the guest quarters of the palace -- sitting on a bench and looking up at the sky. The girl had not seen her, yet she quickly stepped back into the shadows.
Suddenly, Xena knew she wanted to go and speak to her. Tomorrow, everything would be back to business as usual -- the new ambassadors from Ch'in still being cagey about the trade agreement, the Egyptian campaign stalled now that Ares had thrown his support behind Cleopatra's forces (which bothered her far more than it had any right to). But tonight, she and the girl could just talk as -- two people.
A few minutes later she was down in the garden, striding toward the bench where Gabrielle still sat lost in thought.
The girl turned around with a gasp.
Xena sat down next to her.
"What are you doing?"
"I couldn't sleep and ... it's so beautiful out here."
"It is, isn't it. Too bad I hardly notice that anymore." With a sigh, she looked at Gabrielle and was startled by the pained and somehow puzzled expression on the young woman's face. "What is it, Gabrielle? What's wrong?"
Gabrielle looked down at her hands.
"You can tell me. No one can hear us."
"I never thought you'd be like this," the young woman blurted out in a whisper.
Xena chuckled. "Of course. You expected the Bitch. Isn't that what they call me in the home country? The Bitch of Rome... the Butcher of Cirra..."
The playwright looked away. "I'm -- I'm not really interested in politics."
"But you know about Cirra. There was a rebellion against Rome and my troops put it down. And then they rounded up everyone over the age of sixteen and executed one out of every ten, randomly picked." In the dark, fragrant stillness, she could hear Gabrielle's agitated breathing. "So because of that, you think that I should be like the Gorgon with snakes in my hair -- and I most certainly shouldn't be able to enjoy something pure and noble like your play."
"I'm sorry, my lady." Gabrielle choked back a sob. "I should go back to my room."
"No, stay." She held out her arm with a habitual commanding gesture. "You see, Gabrielle, things aren't so simple when you have to deal with reality. If you start writing a play and you screw up a scene -- you can just go back and rewrite it. If I start a campaign and I screw up a battle -- well, it's a little more serious. Do you know what would have happened if we hadn't made an example of Cirra? More rebellions. In the end, more people would have died, not only adults but children."
Gabrielle finally mustered the courage to look at the Empress. "So you believed that you did was -- for the best?"
Xena's mouth was distorted in a bitter smirk. "The right thing, as you would have put it."
After a long pause, Gabrielle murmured, "I'd -- I'd like to believe you."
"Why? Because you like me?"
"Because I usually like to believe the best about people."
"You do?" She chuckled again. "You were taken by slavers, Gabrielle. Your first master -- " She glanced at the girl. "Did he rape you?"
Gabrielle bit her lip. "No, but he -- tried to."
"And then what happened?"
"My mistress came in and caught him and she thought I had encouraged him, and she -- did some things to me."
"What did she do?" Xena asked, a steely edge in her voice.
"She had me whipped and -- and -- she had my head shaved." The young woman's shoulders quivered a little, and she rubbed quickly at her eyes.
"And you still like to believe the best about people."
Gabrielle made no reply, and after a while it was Xena who spoke up again.
"Gabrielle, I want you to have a job at the palace."
"A job?" she echoed, her voice barely audible.
"I'd like to -- Caesar and I would like to do more to cultivate the arts and letters. Many people think we're not interested in anything except expanding the empire, but it isn't true. We want Rome to be a cultural capital the way Athens once was ... and you know as well as I do that the Golden Age of Athens has long passed. We want to build up an imperial library. We want to encourage writers, philosophers -- playwrights. We need somebody in charge of those projects, and I can't think of anyone better than you. You could still go on writing your plays ... you'd have very appreciative audiences here." She paused. "And I'd enjoy having you around."
The playwright sat twisting a fold of her gown until the fine fabric was all wrinkled. When she raised her eyes again, she looked as if she were bracing herself for a blow. "I'm sorry, my lady. You've been very generous, but -- I can't."
There was the briefest of silences and then the Empress rose brusquely to her feet, as though slamming a door shut. "Pity, but no need to apologize. I've made the offer, you've turned it down; I'll just find someone else. This is good-bye, then -- I know you're going back to Athens tomorrow afternoon, and I have a lot of business to attend to in the morning. It was -- interesting to meet you, Gabrielle of Potedaia."
She walked away briskly, her black robe and dark hair blending away into the darkness of the garden.
Xena had been wrong about one thing: somebody could hear them.
Unbelievable, he thought. They were bonding again.
For these past several months, Ares had often wondered if the Abyss of Tartarus could be any worse.
In all this time, he hadn't seen her once; or, to be more exact, she hadn't seen him. He felt certain that now, he had lost her far more irrevocably than the other time. Throwing himself into his job hadn't worked, though he did take some pleasure in wars that could be a serious nuisance to the Romans. In Egypt, this vendetta had led to an attempt at another kind of distraction. Queen Cleopatra, thrilled to have the God of War on her side, had made it clear that she wouldn't mind having him in her bed as well. Her lithe, tanned body, sphinx-like almond-shaped eyes and slightly irregular features hinted at interesting possibilities -- a vast improvement, at least, on the stable of girlfriends kept by this timeline's earlier version of himself (among them, to his bitter amusement, that twit Mavican). The queen was smart, witty and charming, with an arsenal of expert caresses which might have exceeded that of Empress Xena; but in the four or five nights he spent with her, Cleopatra's company made him miss Xena all the more.
It didn't help that he knew his obsession was the subject of gossip and ridicule on Olympus, and apparently beyond. His lowest point, perhaps, had come when he finally locked horns with his bastard half-brother over some trifle of a local war. Hercules coolly remarked, "You know, Ares, just because your girlfriend kicked you out on your ass doesn't mean you have to take it out on innocent people," and in a surge of blinding rage that nearly made him flout the no-killing-Hercules rule, he yelled, "Yeah, like you don't have the hots for her yourself!" The slip having been made, there was nothing he could do to avoid seeing the hero's eyes roll all the way up into his forehead or hearing the inevitable rejoinder: "Excuse me? For Xena? The Bitch of Rome? No thanks ... she does seem much more your type." (Hercules had walked away from this encounter firmly convinced that the God of War had finally flipped.)
In all that time, there had been nothing to suggest that things with Xena might change. Until that evening -- when he succumbed, once again, to the urge to open up a viewing portal on the Empress, and saw something that gave him more of a shock than seeing her walk into that arena in Rome after being dead for twenty-five years.
There she was, at an imperial banquet, chatting with Gabrielle.
Within seconds, he was at the palace -- for once, grateful for her inability to feel his presence.
And now he stood in the garden, watching as Gabrielle burst into quiet sobs when the Empress had stalked off, and then finally got up and wandered slowly back to the palace.
If anyone could reach the real Xena, it was the blonde bard. He hated to admit it -- after all, the little pest had been instrumental in keeping Xena away from him in the other world, and she clearly had a special bond with Xena that he would never fully understand; he had seen the evidence of this just now. On the other hand ... if he could use her now to actually get through to Xena ... there would be a certain delicious irony in that. For the first time in months, Ares found himself grinning.
But tomorrow, she would be gone. No, that would never do.
A plan was forming in his mind. His relatives had warned him not to mess with Xena's buried memories of her other life; but no one had ever said anything about messing with Gabrielle.
By the time she got back to her bedroom, he was already there, waiting.
Gabrielle sank down on the velvet-covered seat in front of the dressing table. Her eyes were red and puffy, her lower lip a little swollen where she'd been biting it. Partly, it was reliving the events of her first months as a slave that had brought on the crying jag; she closed her eyes, her mind flashing to the moment when Cleone, her first mistress, had dragged her to a mirror to make her look at her pitiful pink head. Yet, those memories aside, the entire evening had left her shaken. She had come prepared to be polite and deferential to the Empress -- her manager had strongly warned her not to offend their hosts -- but nothing she'd heard about this woman made her sound remotely likable. And yet there had been times, at the banquet and later in the garden, when she felt she could have thrown her arms around Xena, held her in a tight embrace, and confided in her about anything.
Absent-mindedly, she began to remove the pins from her hair, thinking about the trip home. Then, she looked up at the mirror and felt as if she's been punched in the gut. There was a man standing behind her.
He was very tall and dressed in black leather, with a sword at his belt; he looked like a warrior, and one of high rank, yet he certainly didn't seem to be a Roman officer. He watched her with hooded eyes, his face still and unreadable.
The man made a step forward. Gabrielle managed to take a breath and open her mouth -- but before she could make a sound, the man waved his hand lazily and her vocal chords were paralyzed. She lifted her hands to her throat.
"Hello, Gabrielle." His voice was low and smooth, and yet not at all reassuring. "I'll release you if you promise not to scream. I'm not here to hurt you. Promise you won't scream? Just nod."
Gabrielle nodded; he moved his hand again, and the hold on her throat was gone. She whirled around.
"How did you do that?"
He smiled. "All in good time."
"Who are you?"
"Why don't you let me ask the questions for now." The stranger pulled up a chair and sat down facing her. His deep brown eyes were extraordinary -- lusciously soft and searingly intense at the same time -- and she felt as if she had looked into those eyes before, even though she was certain she had never met him; she would have remembered him alright.
"Gabrielle, why did you turn down the job the Empress offered you?"
She felt dizzy. "Did she send you?"
"Oh no." He appeared to be amused by the suggestion.
"Then how did you know about this?"
"I was in the garden."
The thought that this man had overheard some of the things she'd said made the blood rush to the bard's face. "Eavesdropping?" she snapped, briefly forgetting her terror.
The man chuckled. "I do that a lot."
One of Caesar's spies? Her mind was reeling.
"You haven't answered my question."
"I don't have to answer any of your questions."
"No, you don't." He put his hands on the shoulders and looked her straight in the eye. She remembered the stories she'd heard of how the gaze of a snake could mesmerize its prey and leave it unable to move. "Why did you turn her down, Gabrielle?"
She sighed. "Because I can't ... some of the things she's done are so ... horrible."
"But you still like her, don't you? Isn't that what scares you, Gabrielle? You don't want to feel like you're connected to her -- but you are."
She closed her eyes and shook her head, trying to free herself from the spell.
"Why are you saying these things?"
"Look at me, Gabrielle. Look at me."
His velvety voice was as compelling as his look, and she felt her eyelids lifting almost of their own accord.
"I can help you understand why you feel that way."
"What are you talking about?"
"Remember what you said at the banquet? About loving someone so much that they matter to you more than the world itself? And how you think you may have experienced that kind of love in a past life?"
Gabrielle thought she would faint. "You heard that too?"
"I can help you figure it all out."
"I can't make heads or tails of what you're saying."
Her mystery visitor leaned in closer, as if about to kiss her.
"Do you want to know who you really are, Gabrielle? Where you get your ideas, your passions, your dreams?"
As if from the outside, she heard herself whisper, "Yes."
"Good." The suave sensuality in his voice was replaced by a businesslike briskness. "Why don't we -- go someplace a little more private."
Before Gabrielle could ask where, everything seemed to disintegrate around her in a swirl of light and it felt as if she were being pulled into a tornado. When the blur cleared up, she was in a completely different room -- windowless, rich but sparsely furnished, mostly war-themed silver decorations supplying the only colors other than black and deep crimson.
So that was it. She was dreaming.
Without waiting for an answer, the man pressed his palms to the sides of her head. This time, the sensation was entirely different. She was falling ... falling into a void -- and then the void began to fill with images.
Ares took a step back. Good thing he'd taken her to his temple; those shrieks would have brought half the palace running to her room.
He hadn't given much thought to how Gabrielle's mortal mind would react to being crammed full of memories from another timeline, another lifetime. Now, as she rolled on the floor clutching her head, her small body racked by piercing screams, he reflected that some of those memories had to be pretty intense; the Dahak and Hope business alone could drive a person mad. Damn -- she might die, or turn into a raving lunatic ... not that it should bother him, but in that case she'd be of no use to him at all.
The screaming stopped and Ares saw that she had passed out, a little blood trickling from her nose. He bent over her and made sure she was alive, then picked her up and carried her to a couch.
It was a few more minutes before her eyes opened. She stared at him and sat up brusquely.
The little blonde's voice was raspy from the screaming, but she sounded much like her old self.
"Oh, so now you remember me." He handed her a goblet of wine. "Here, this may help."
She drained the cup and dabbed the blood away from her nose. Then she looked up and asked, her voice hushed, "Am I crazy?"
The God of War chuckled. "Not any more than usual, I think." He was grudgingly impressed; underneath all the gooey drivel, the girl did have a lot of stamina.
"I feel like I've had -- two different lives... in two different worlds... but I'm not sure which one is real."
He rolled his eyes. "Gabrielle, I'm not especially interested in talking metaphysics."
"But ... how could this be true? I know that Xena is the Empress now, and yet in that other life she was a warrior who fought for common people -- and she was" -- her eyes flickered and brimmed with tears -- "my friend ... my -- soulmate..."
He grunted. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. Look -- "
"And Caesar..." She gasped. "Caesar was her mortal enemy... he had us -- " she shivered and hunched over, grasping her shoulders.
"Gabrielle, I know what the son of a bitch did. I'm something of an expert on all things Xena, remember?"
"I just don't get it. How could all this have happened? I mean -- where did it happen? When?"
He realized he'd have to tell her or she really would go mad. The bard listened rapt, taking it all in. Obviously, after all the extraordinary things she'd encountered in her life -- her other life -- it didn't strike her as completely insane that a dead Roman emperor would escape from the underworld, chain up the Fates, and alter the thread of his own destiny and the world with it.
"So you're a god again," she said thoughtfully when he was done.
"And Zeus and all the other gods -- "
"The whole gang's here. And if they ever find out that you and I have had this little chat, it's going to end most unpleasantly."
"For you or for me?"
"Well, I was thinking about me, of course," he retorted with a crooked grin; oh, she was so much more fun to torment than Strife, with that look of outraged virtue on her face. "But I can't imagine that it would end very pleasantly for you, either."
Gabrielle seemed to digest this for a few moments.
"So why did you do it? Bring back my memories?"
"I'm surprised you have to ask, Gabrielle. I just want Xena to have her best friend back."
"Oh please," she snorted. "You expect me to fall for that? What have you got up your sleeve?" He mockingly raised his bare arms and she gave an exasperated sigh. "Ares, come on. What's the scheme?"
"You're going to take that job at the palace now, aren't you?"
"You haven't answered me. What's your game, Ares?"
He looked down, fidgeting a little. "I want her the way she was."
"Oh really." Ares glanced at the bard and saw her smirk bitterly. "I would have thought that Empress Xena would be much more to your taste."
"Gabrielle." He fixed her with a glare, and her frightened expression told him that his impulse to blast her to bits had registered fully in his face. "We are not going to discuss my taste in women. Got that?"
The young woman nodded. He turned away and began pacing slowly as her eyes followed him, a little nervously.
"You don't think that the way Xena is now is what she's meant to be, do you? No, I'm sure you don't. So go on, take the job and just -- do your thing."
"If you want the real Xena back, why didn't you just bring her memories back the way you did mine?"
Ares shrugged. "It's complicated."
After a pause, she said, "Is it because she won't have anything to do with you? And to do this trick, you need to have the person's mind open to you?"
"Not quite." He wondered if that was true, though -- if he did defy his family and try to bring Xena back directly, would he able to? "I told you, I have my reasons."
"You always do. Well, what if I refuse to play my part in your little game?"
"You mean, if you walk away from your friend."
He heard her sigh and knew that he had won.
Gabrielle mulled it over. "I assume Caesar knows everything about -- the other time?"
"So he knows who I am. I wouldn't imagine he was very happy to see me around his wife." She darted her eyes toward Ares. "You want me to go into the lion's den and stick my neck out for your plan ... because you're afraid to stick out yours."
Generally, whatever slurs she cast on his character could only amuse him, but this time her words stung. "I won't let you come to any harm, okay?" he said, his voice edgy. "I promise."
She rose from the couch and looked up at the War God. With her hair a mess and her dress rumpled, she looked more like a little girl than ever, but her stare was defiant.
"I would have done it anyway," she said. "Because I love her."
When Ares transported himself back to Olympus after dropping Gabrielle off in her room the palace, he was still scowling. His plan was working, but, godsdammit -- in this round, the irritating blonde had actually had the last word.
When Gabrielle requested an audience the next morning, she was told that the Empress was busy. She had no choice than to wait interminably, with a throng of other hopeful petitioners, outside the hall where the ambassadors from Ch'in were being received. (Caesar, luckily, was away from the palace.) Finally the doors swung open; the emissaries left first, walking stiffly in their exotic embroidered robes. A few minutes later, the Empress, in her formal purple gown and tiara, came out followed by her attendants. The crowd of petitioners stirred, and the bard cursed her short stature. Somehow she managed to elbow her way to the front; miraculously, Xena looked straight at her -- and right past her. The clear blue eyes that Gabrielle now knew so well held no touch of warmth or personal connection.
People were pushing her aside; another few seconds and there would be no chance of catching the Empress's attention again.
"My lady, please!" she shouted, desperately wishing she could just call out, Xena! "I -- I was wrong -- I would like to accept your offer."
She got some strange looks. Clearly, people were wondering if she was deranged or if she had actually rejected some kind of offer from the Empress; in their view, it would undoubtedly amount to the same thing. However, Xena stopped and slowly turned. Her eyes were still icy, but what she said -- instantly turning the suspicious stares to envious ones -- was, "Come and see me in two hours."
That afternoon, the actors from Athens and their manager returned home without the playwright. Gabrielle, the Bard of Potedaia, had taken up residence at the imperial palace of Rome.
"What's wrong, Gabrielle? Do you know Ares?"
They were alone in a small room in the imperial library where Gabrielle worked on her first official task of collecting and cataloguing scrolls, and where the Empress would stop by to visit her protegee. In their conversations, Xena generally said little about her own life, letting Gabrielle do much of the talking. But today, about a month after their initial meeting, the discussion had drifted from Gabrielle's play to the general issue of love and then to something unusually personal. Xena had disclosed, albeit in a studied tone of droll nonchalance, that her husband had gone along with her taking a lover because the connection had worked to his advantage. And then, the unspoken puzzlement in the little bard's eyes -- whose good graces could the Emperor of Rome have possibly wanted to buy with his wife's favors? -- had led the Empress to mention a name.
Helplessly, Gabrielle knew that her reaction was written all over her face -- and was reflected in Xena's face, suddenly full of wariness.
She'd never get away with trying to lie, and yet she couldn't tell Xena what was actually going on. The only way out, however she felt about it, was to go with a half-truth.
"My lady..." She felt herself blushing fiercely. "I should have told you... shortly after I first met you ... he came to my room..."
Xena grabbed her wrist. "What did the bastard do?"
"No, no, my lady -- it was nothing like that... he wanted me to -- give you a message of some sort..."
"Of what sort?"
It took a supreme effort not to avert her eyes from Xena's piercing stare. "I have no idea, my lady -- I told him that I wasn't going to serve as his intermediary."
"Good for you. But yes, you should have told me sooner." Xena let go of her wrist and exhaled. "Watch out for Ares, Gabrielle. I think he may have had a plan for some time to somehow use you to manipulate me."
The bard felt a little stab of fear, wondering what she'd gotten herself into. "What do you mean?"
Xena shivered slightly, with an absent look in her eyes. "A while ago ... in the last weeks that we were -- together ... he gave me some very strange dreams and for some reason he planted you in them. At least I think he did."
"Me?" she whispered.
"Well, you looked quite a bit different in those dreams -- dressed like some kind of an Amazon, and with short hair -- but it was definitely you. Your face, you name..."
"What kinds of dreams were they?" Gabrielle tried not to sound probing.
"Weird, sick ones -- about fighting against gods and him becoming mortal ... I'm not sure why, but I think he wanted to persuade me that all the other gods hated me and that he -- " She stopped, her face tightening. "I shouldn't talk to you about that nonsense, Gabrielle. Just be careful. Somebody as innocent as you..."
"My lady." Painfully aware of crossing a line, Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's. "You know that I would never do anything to harm you."
Almost a full minute later, Xena's fingers closed around her hand.
"Gabrielle? I thought those dreams were completely evil ... but now -- " Her voice trailed off and she shook her head. Then she said, "In those dreams, you were my friend."
Gabrielle was glad she was sitting down; her temples were throbbing, and all of a sudden there seemed to be too little air in the room.
Xena moved her hand away and added quite casually, "By the way, when we're by ourselves -- you can just call me Xena."
Later, when she was alone, Gabrielle thought of the God of War. She was dimly beginning to understand what he had tried to do, and why. She still resented the way he was manipulating her; yet on some level, she couldn't help sympathizing.
While Ares had not heard that conversation, he had heard many others, and he was almost in equal measure irritated and pleased by how things were working out. He was painfully jealous, much as he had been before, of all the hours when Gabrielle was with Xena and he was not, of the affection and closeness between them -- and now, of her ability to get through to the real Xena. But of course, it was on this very ability of hers that he was now pinning his hopes.
Xena was coming back, he could feel it. He had to hand it to the bard, she was no dummy. She had come up with the idea of writing stories, for her friend's eyes only, about some of their adventures from their other life; she'd even had the nerve to keep "Xena" as the name of her Warrior Princess heroine, and to tell the Empress with a straight face that she had chosen the name in her honor.
None of his relatives on Olympus had a clue; why would they? Unlike him, they knew nothing about Gabrielle's place in Xena's life or the unique bond between the two women.
All he had to do was bide his time, and eventually he might well have the best of both worlds. Xena would recover her old self, and now, after everything that had passed between them, she would come back to him. And if the bard had a problem with that -- well, she'd owe him far too much to dare stand in his way.
Ares distracted himself from these thoughts to check up on his girl through a viewing portal. There she was, in her military outfit -- a short black leather dress not unlike his Xena's, only with arm-length sleeves and a golden Roman eagle on the breastplate -- inspecting the twenty newest members of her own elite fighting corps. They included two women, a sight that still piqued Ares' interest no matter how preoccupied he was with one and only one woman warrior. His appreciative eyes traveled over the female figures in sleek uniforms, and rested on a familiar face. It wouldn't be familiar to Xena, of course -- not in this destiny.
He sat up, frowning. It might be a coincidence ... or not.
In the next moment, the God of War was at Xena's side, remaining invisible.
When the short sword sliced through the air, aimed straight for the Empress's throat, Ares was there to block it with his hand -- slowing it down just long enough for Xena to lurch backward, and for the other soldiers to disarm the dark-eyed blonde and wrestle her to the ground as she screamed, "Butcher of Cirra!"
The dank, stale air of the Roman dungeon made Gabrielle slightly ill, bringing back memories of the other time she had smelled it. She'd rather be almost anywhere but here. Still, she had to come down and see the would-be assassin for herself. She had heard a description of the woman, and knew about the mention of Cirra. Could it be -- ?
The bard handed her pass from the Empress to a soldier of the Praetorian guard. When she looked up at the lanky man, she blinked hard, her mind reeling at the twists the threads of Fate had taken in this altered world: standing before her was Joxer, in a Roman helmet instead of that ridiculous contraption on his head. So he had, in a way, fulfilled his ambitions for a warrior's career -- only to be stuck guarding prisoners of state. No matter; he didn't know her, and that wasn't going to change.
Acknowledging her credentials with a nod, he opened the door with a clang and let her into the cell.
The young woman sat in the corner, chained and clad only in a grey shirt of rough cotton. She looked up. Her hair was matted and caked with blood, and there was a cut on her cheek and a bruise under her right eye -- but there was no doubt at all.
"What do you want?" the prisoner hissed, sounding so much like -- well, like herself that Gabrielle shrank back. She had to remind herself that this Callisto had not murdered Perdicus, had not, as far as she knew, butchered innocents, directing her vengeance only at Xena.
"I'm just here to talk."
"Who are you?" Callisto sounded wary and a little puzzled.
"My name is Gabrielle. I'm -- "
"Oh, I know who you are now." Her eyes glistened. "That playwright from Athens. The new lapdog of the Bitch of Rome. Why on earth would you want to talk to me?"
"Callisto, why did you want to kill Xe- -- the Empress?"
She smiled sweetly. "Why not?"
Gabrielle sat down on the moldy floor, forcing herself to look into the woman's face.
"Tell me, Callisto -- was your family killed at Cirra?"
The familiar hatred flashed in her deep eyes. "You know what your Empress did at Cirra, don't you? One out of every ten picked for execution? Well, here's how it sometimes works with a random pick ... see, my father and my uncle both won that lottery." Her lips parted in a smile. "My mother lost her mind that day. I'm not sure if the fire was an accident, or she started it deliberately because she wanted to die."
Fire... Gabrielle shuddered.
"Oh, does that make you uncomfortable? Poor little Gabrielle." Callisto's laughter rang in her ears. Then she added, her voice turning grave, "This isn't just for my revenge, you understand. I have another family now, all my brothers and sisters who are fighting for the freedom of Greece from Roman tyranny. But to you, I'm sure, these are empty words."
"Killing Xena would not have won freedom for Greece."
"No." Callisto's nostrils flared a little. "But it would have been such a nice first step."
The bard sighed. "Callisto -- I respect your ideals. But you mustn't allow yourself to be consumed by hate ... even if you think you have worthy reasons for it ... or it will poison your soul. Believe me, I know what I'm talking about."
Having a cause beyond personal payback, and comrades in that cause, may have saved Callisto from becoming a psycho killer; but she still had the same laugh, bright with slightly mad glee, and the same mocking, girlish pout.
"My darling Gabrielle. I am so touched by your concern... but you needn't worry. There won't be time for anything nasty to happen to my soul. Oh, didn't you know? In two days, I'm to be crucified. Do you know how it's done? First, they take your hands -- "
Gabrielle sprang up, fighting back a violent fit of nausea, and banged on the door of the cell. "Guard! Guard!"
Joxer let her out and she fled, away from those words, that voice, that laugh.
"You want me to spare an assassin." Xena shook her head, her mouth curled in disgust.
"Xena, I want you to be the kind of ruler you can be ... strong but also merciful."
"You don't know what you're talking about, Gabrielle. It would only encourage more assassins."
"Or maybe it would win you some friends."
Xena chuckled. "I'm not looking for friends." She glanced at Gabrielle, with a flicker of warmth in her eyes, and added, her voice dropping low, "Already got one."
The words brought a lump to Gabrielle's throat, but right now she had another priority.
"Xena, it may be an opportunity sent by the gods to..." -- she searched desperately for a phrase that wouldn't be too offensive, and then took a deep breath -- "make amends for what happened at Cirra."
In the next instant, the Empress was back. "You're forgetting yourself, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle held her gaze and said, softly and earnestly, "But I could never forget our friendship."
Xena sighed. "You can be such a child sometimes. You still think that what we -- what I did at Cirra was terrible."
"I know you thought it was the lesser of two evils. But, Xena, that doesn't make it good. Look at what it did to that girl. You -- you made her what she is." Inwardly, Gabrielle winced at her own words.
Xena leaned back in her chair, running her fingers pensively over her medallion with the imperial eagle. After a while, she asked, "So, what would your Warrior Princess have done?"
This made Gabrielle cringe even more: there wasn't exactly a simple answer to the question. Still, she forced herself to speak.
"I think she would have let Callisto live ... and made sure she'd never hurt anyone." Or at least tried to make sure.
The pause was even longer this time. Finally, Xena got up and gave Gabrielle a light pat on the shoulder.
"Banishment to an island. How does that sound?"
The flash of joy on Gabrielle's face quickly faded; what would life on some piece of rock in the middle of nowhere, with a few weather-worn fishermen for company, do to Callisto's already unstable mind? Still, there was nothing else to be done, and she had to be grateful -- whether to herself or to Xena -- for how this had turned out. She looked up at her friend with a slightly strained smile and nodded, her eyes tearing up.
In his halls on Olympus, Ares ran a fingertip over the surface of the viewing portal, shook his head and laughed. Amazing, just amazing. Even having Callisto back in the picture, a little less unhinged and with no divine powers, could turn out to be a source of entertainment ... some sort of good twisted fun ... somewhere down the line. Things were looking good again.
The trip to the army camp had taken longer than Xena had expected. The sun had already set when she was returning to the palace, looking forward to a hot bath, dinner, and -- oh yes, Gabrielle.
As she rode through the dimly lit and nearly unpeopled streets with her escort of a few guards, barely noticing the bows from the occasional passerby, she thought about taking a trip to Greece together ... maybe even visiting Amphipolis and trying to work things out with Cyrene. If Gabrielle could disapprove of some things she'd done in her career and still look past them, surely her mother could too. Was she starting to look at some of those things Gabrielle's way? That possibility really should have been bothering her more.
Not for the first time, the Empress reflected that Caesar disliked the playwright. When he looked at her, it was with a rather strange expression, as if she reminded him of someone he couldn't quite place, or as if he kept expecting something. He occasionally asked about his wife's "pet bard" in a tone of polite amusement, but Xena knew her husband well enough to sense the hostility underneath the banter. He had certainly been quite displeased, even disturbed, when she told him she'd pardoned Callisto, that girl from Cirra who had tried to kill her. In an ironic yet edgy voice, he had inquired if this was Gabrielle's doing (this time using her actual name), and had undoubtedly seen through her cagey reply. Maybe he felt that Gabrielle was turning her into less of a Roman... Maybe he was right.
She wondered, yet again, what drew her to the bard. Some kind of nostalgia for her own innocence -- if she could even remember it? A fantasy about a different life ... those inexplicably compelling fairy tales about the Warrior Princess ... ? Surely it couldn't be the girl's odd notions about love.
For no apparent reason, her thoughts drifted to Ares and to those times when he tried to get her to believe he loved her. How she would have felt if he did? She winced; come on, snap out of it.Was she getting that soft in the head? Ares was always out for himself, that's why they used to suit each other perfectly. Did she wish they were still together? Well, it was annoying to have him meddling in the Egyptian war and upsetting her and Caesar's plans, and ... alright, she missed the great sex ... that was all. Suddenly, she got a vivid memory of the moment -- that morning after he snatched her from the banquet and went at her like he hadn't seen a woman in years -- when they lay together and she heard him whisper, his breath warm and soft in her ear, "I love you, Xena." Damn. She jerked her head. Next thing, she'd be remembering those dreams again.
Fortunately, she was already at the palace gate. She rode into the courtyard, brought her mare to a halt and began to dismount when she noticed her maid Thais running toward her, and knew something was badly wrong.
"My lady! Oh, my lady!"
"What is it?" She could feel herself turning pale.
"Oh, my lady..." Thais began to sob. "They've arrested Gabrielle..."
"What in Tartarus is going on?"
Xena stood before Caesar, still in her military outfit, holding her ornate helmet in her hands; she was slightly out of breath, her eyes blazing. The Emperor, seated at his desk, took nearly a half-minute before he looked up from the papyri in front of him and stared at his wife. The wry little smile on his thin lips was oddly triumphant.
"My Empress. Do sit down."
She glared at him. "Why is Gabrielle under arrest?"
"You don't know? I am sorry to tell you this, dear wife, but there is evidence that she was involved in the plot against you."
She snorted in disbelief. "What plot?"
"Why, that girl who tried to kill you the other day -- Callisto, I believe her name was."
"Is it, now?" The malice in his smile was now barely concealed. "And why do you say that? Because she has such a sweet, innocent-looking face? But then again, so does Callisto, doesn't she? Or is it because sweet innocent Gabrielle writes plays and poems so she couldn't possibly be in league with assassins?"
"Do you have evidence?"
"Of course we do, my dear wife. We are, after all, a civilized society. All of the evidence will be fully examined before the court pronounces on her guilt -- or her innocence," he added. "And I am sure she will have the best lawyer you can hire in all of Rome." He leaned back in his chair. "In the meantime, I do wish to ask that you do not grant your young friend any hasty pardons. The evidence, I am told, indicates that I was also a target of the plot. So I think you will agree that I should have some say in the matter."
Caesar rose, approached Xena and kissed her hand in a suave gesture, glancing up at her. "You look quite tired, dear wife. You should go and get some rest."
"Caesar." She gripped his shoulder, her eyes probing his face. "What have you got against Gabrielle?"
"Me?" The innocent look he gave her was a bit too sardonic to be truly convincing. "You must be joking. Come now, dear wife, you should not allow your -- emotions to cloud your judgment. The Empress of Rome should be governed by her head, not her heart. Which is not to suggest, of course, that there's any reason for your heart to be implicated in the matter."
Gabrielle tried to find a reasonably comfortable position on the narrow cot. At least they had put her in one of the nicer cells -- though that wasn't saying much -- and even given her a small table, a stool and some writing implements. More importantly, Xena wasn't even for a second buying this idea of her being involved in the assassination plot. She had come to see her, hugged her tightly and said in a low voice, the emotion just beneath the surface, "I will never let them do anything to you, Gabrielle. Never." (So Caesar was now "them.") She had also asked, looking vexed and almost bewildered, if Caesar had any reason to hate her. Gabrielle couldn't tell her, of course; if she had, surely Xena would have thought her insane.
Clearly, Caesar wanted her dead; he didn't know that she knew, but he was still afraid that her company would somehow jolt awake Xena's own memories of her other life. Would Xena be able to protect her? Was Xena herself safe from her husband? And would Ares --
In the darkness of the cell, there was a sound. Gabrielle lifted her head, listening. There it was again ... the cell door opening stealthily. She was about to whisper, "Xena?" when a hand was clamped over her mouth.
The shock momentarily paralyzed her. In the next moment, strong male hands yanked her off the cot and held her in their grip; the oil lamp on the table was lit, and she saw a man in front of her. The two intruders were guards on the night shift. She was acutely aware that she had nothing on but a flimsy shirt, and the memory of what her first master, Stavros, had tried to do to her exploded in her mind. But what she saw next quickly made her realize it wasn't that kind of attack. The second man picked up the belt from her dress and carefully began to tie it into a noose, while his eyes darted up to a beam under the ceiling and then down to the stool.
She tried desperately to collect her thoughts; the other man's hand on her face had nearly cut off her air supply, and she was getting dizzy. Her only hope was to try to draw on the fighting skills she remembered from her other life, even if her body wasn't nearly as well-conditioned.
With a swift move, Gabrielle jabbed her elbow into the chest of the man holding her. The well-aimed blow took him completely by surprise -- the little bard didn't look like she could put up much of a resistance. Letting go of her, he sagged and crumpled on his knees, gasping for breath like a fish. As the other guard froze in shock for a moment, she spun and delivered a kick below the waist that made him stagger and double over, bellowing in pain. The first one lunged again but she had already grabbed the stool, just in time to bring it down on his head and then to knock out her second attacker too before he had quite recovered.
Panting, Gabrielle surveyed her handiwork. Too bad she didn't know those moves when Stavros tried to force himself on her.
Just then, she heard something else behind her -- it sounded like clapping. The stool still clutched in her hand, Gabrielle whirled around and swung it at whoever was there.
She found herself staring at Ares, who was rubbing the bridge of his nose and squinting at her with a rather pained expression on his face.
"Ooh..." she winced. "Did that hurt?"
"No, it's my favorite thing in the world. If I'd been mortal you would have broken my nose."
"Well, it serves you right for sneaking up on me after two guys tried just to hang me! I thought you told me you wouldn't let me come to any harm."
"So? I don't see any harm done. I wanted to see how you'd handle them. Not bad," he added with a grin. "They should've thrown a couple more at you."
"Oh ... thanks very much." The rush of energy that had surged through her during the attack had abated, and Gabrielle was barely able to make it to the cot before her legs gave out under her.
"Well, chop-chop. Let's get you out of here."
"Yeah. Unless, of course, you really like it in here."
She rose, her legs still a little wobbly, and came up to him but then stopped. "What about Xena? I can't just run out on her like this."
Ares rolled his eyes. "Wouldn't have her miss out on the fun of arranging your funeral?"
Gabrielle was still hesitating when Ares cocked his head as if listening for something, and then vanished in a burst of light.
"What -- "she stuttered, blinking at the spot where he had just stood. In the next second, the door of the cell was pushed open and there stood Xena, whose eyes widened at the sight of the two still-unconscious men on the floor.
"Gabrielle? What's going on?"
"Oh, Xena..." She was shaking now, tears streaming down her face. "They ... they were going to ..." With a quick motion of her head, she pointed to the belt.
Xena's face became rigid with rage, only to crumble when she looked at Gabrielle again. With a little anguished sigh, she rushed to embrace her. "Oh, Gabrielle... I have to get you out of here. I don't understand any of this, but Caesar wants you dead."
"Get me out?" She swallowed. "Xena... it could be dangerous for you, too..."
"Nonsense. Caesar wouldn't dare do anything to me."
"Xena, please listen ..." But what could she say? In another lifetime, Caesar had you crucified twice?
"Gabrielle, don't argue." At that moment, Xena sounded far more like the Warrior Princess than the Empress. "Let's go before these bastards wake up." Then she glanced at Gabrielle and frowned, puzzled. "Wait a minute ... you took down two men by yourself?"
"I'm not even sure how I did it, Xena... I don't remember any of it too well..."
"You know, Gabrielle..." Xena patted her friend's arm. "I think you could be a real fighter, just like that Warrior Princess in your stories. Come on."
She grabbed the keys from one of the men and locked the cell door behind them as they left.
The Empress stood in the dark bedroom, looking at her husband's sleeping form.
She had smuggled Gabrielle out of the dungeon and up to her quarters. Less than an hour later, in a black wig, heavy makeup, and a slinky dress that made her look like a dancing girl who might have been visiting some officer of the imperial guard, Gabrielle had left the palace. Xena had given her money, and instructions to get out of the city as quickly as possible. There hadn't been much time for good-byes. "You will always be with me, Gabrielle," she had whispered, hugging the little bard, telling her not to cry or she'd smear her makeup. And then, impulsively, she had added, smiling as sparse tears rolled down her own cheek, "Maybe it's like that connection of souls you keep talking about."
Now, with Gabrielle safely out of the way, she had to confront Caesar.
Turning up the light, she walked over to the bed, sat down, and touched his shoulder.
He sat up with a start, and she was surprised to see a shadow of fear cross his face as he looked at her.
"I know what you did," she said flatly. "You ordered the two guards on the night shift to hang Gabrielle and make it look like suicide, didn't you?" He didn't answer. "And the official theory would have been that she was so despondent over having betrayed her benefactor, the Empress, that she killed herself."
Caesar shifted nervously and licked his lips. He looked like he was pondering some options.
"You mean, Gabrielle is dead?" he finally asked.
"I hate to disappoint you, my dear husband." She looked at him with a bitter sneer. "Somehow, Gabrielle was able to fight off your thugs. And now she's safe. What I want to know is, why?" There was sincere bewilderment in her face and voice.
Caesar got out of bed, threw on a gown and turned around. He had regained his composure; the wry half-smile was back on his lips, and his eyes signaled a veiled threat.
"My dearest wife, I don't know what you're talking about. I think, tomorrow, we will hear a very different story from the guards on the night shift. We will find out that the little playwright, who somehow turned out to have the skills of a seasoned fighter, attacked them and escaped in the night. And maybe she had some help."
For a while, Xena looked at him silently, the corner of her mouth twitching a bit.
"Caesar, I've had a vision," she finally said. "It was about us, the first time we met. You remember that, don't you." The Emperor said nothing, waiting for what she would say next, but she thought she saw his shoulders flinch and his eyelashes quiver.
"In that vision, things ended differently. After I took you back to Rome, you had me captured and crucified. And when I said, 'What about us, we were going to conquer the world together?' you said 'There was never any us, Xena -- only Rome, and I am Rome.' And you said you'd always remember what we had because I'd have a place of honor among your conquered."
"Really." Caesar was watching his wife intently; his voice had the usual note of cool sarcasm, but there was a hint of apprehension in his face.
"And as I was being hoisted up on the cross, you said, 'Divide and conquer. You divide a woman's emotions from her sensibilities and you have her.'"
"No. Well, your last words were -- 'Break her legs.'"
"How very interesting."
"Tell me something, Caesar. You considered doing that, didn't you."
"Dear me. What a question," he said with a forced laugh, his face a mask of elegant haughtiness.
Slowly, she said, "I think I know now what that vision was about."
His eyes narrowed, and there was no mistaking it now -- there was fear in them. His voice, though, remained steady. "Whatever do you mean?"
She rose. "It means that you were always going to betray me, one way or another. There was never any us, Caesar. Not even Rome. Just you."
Caesar followed the Empress with his eyes as she stalked out.
She was his enemy now, no question about it -- and getting uncomfortably close to some dangerous knowledge. It was time to get rid of her. Accuse her of plotting to have him killed and to seize all the power; better yet, of selling out the interests of Rome to help her native Greece.
Of course, it wouldn't do to have an arrest and a trial out in the open. The scandal wouldn't be good, and the Empress had a large fan base, even in the army. He had to strike before she could reach out to her supporters. Rally his loyal Praetorian guards ... work on those Senators who had never reconciled themselves to the fact that a woman, and a foreign-born one at that, had so much power in Rome ... get her isolated and put her in a position where she would see no options other than honorable suicide or a shameful execution. And he was reasonably certain that he would have support from another important quarter as well: his new patron deity.
"My lady Minerva!" he called out.
Golden light flared, and the grey-eyed woman in dazzling armor of silver and gold stood before the Emperor.
"My lady." He bowed his head. "I am badly in need of your wisdom."
When Athena returned to Olympus, a touch of a smile played on her aristocratic mouth. The
Xena problem was almost taken care of -- just as she had thought all along it should be, as an
insurance policy against any possible Twilight scenario. No, of course it wasn't vengeance; such
base emotions might be suited to a half-crazed degenerate like her brother, but the Goddess of
Wisdom and Honorable Warfare was surely above them... The thought of her brother reminded
Athena that something needed to be done to keep him from screwing this up. Oh well, that's
what Hephaestus had his trinkets for.
Ares slowly lifted his head, snapping out of the half-stupor he had been trying, not too successfully, to force himself into. He wasn't sure how long he'd been trapped like this, the way those bitches Athena and Artemis had left him, forearms bound to the armrests of his throne. At first, he had made his halls on Olympus shake with roars of anguished rage, and struggled so hard that, had his body been susceptible to injury, his arms would have been wrenched out of their sockets. Then, numbness and sheer exhaustion had set in.
Aphrodite reached out and gently caressed his cheek. "So sad..."
He jerked his head away. "She's dead, isn't she."
The Goddess of Love sighed. "Not yet, but... well yeah, that's the idea."
He shivered and closed his eyes. "Sis ... let me see."
She cocked her head at him. "You sure you wanna, like, torture yourself, bro?"
"Do it!" he snarled.
Wrinkling her eyebrows with an impatient little sniff, Aphrodite opened a viewing portal. Xena, her eyes closed, her face very white, lay in a large tub -- in water that was red with blood. Two of her maids knelt nearby, sobbing quietly. She opened her eyes and lifted a hand, crimson droplets falling from her wrist into the water.
Ares turned away, his cheek twitching. "Close it."
Aphrodite waved her hand.
He looked at her again and said savagely, "I have to go to her."
The blonde goddess shook her head. "Ares ... I'm sorry, bro, but you can't save her ... Daddy and Athena and, like, everyone else really think she's got to go."
He bit his lip, his breath coming in harsh spurts.
"Awww, look now..." She perched herself next to her brother and stroked his hair. "I feel bad for you and I think it's totally sweet that you're, like, head over heels in love..."
"Oh shut up," he said through clenched teeth.
" ... and I'm kinda bummed out about the warrior babe too ... but you know something, it's so cool to have things back to normal. I mean, it was such a drag before when almost everybody was gone ... and I missed Hephy real bad. Well, Daddy and the others -- see, they think it's not really safe as long as she's around..."
The War God threw his head back, stifling a groan. "They won't even let me say good-bye to her."
His sister eyed him warily. "Just to say good-bye, bro? You promise you won't do anything stupid like last time ... you know, heal her and give up your godhood?"
A deep sigh rattled in his chest. "Okay, I promise."
Aphrodite thought about it for a minute, frowning a little. "What about the bard?"
Ares jerked his head up. "What about her?"
"Well, shouldn't she be with her too? You know, to say good-bye and all that?"
"No," he snapped, his eyes hardening.
"Come on bro... Fair is fair... I let you go, you let me bring the little bard over, and you can all say your good-byes. So lovely ... so touching ... so romantic..." Teardrops glittered prettily in her eyes, but her face was almost beaming with a beatific smile. Ares glanced at Aphrodite, and it occurred to him, much too vaguely to put the thought in words, that the godhood of war wasn't the only one that entailed cruelty. His sister might have a compassionate side -- she was certainly the only one of his fellow Olympians who had ever shown him any affection -- but everything that had to do with matters of the heart, including the agonies, was part of a little private theater for her enjoyment.
"All right," he said.
"Well let's see ..." She bent down to look at the chains. "I know something about Hephy's tricks ... I think there's a lock right there and ... yeah, here we go!"
The dark god stood up abruptly, and vanished into the ether even before he had walked down the steps of his throne, and before Aphrodite was finished saying, "Now remember, bro, don't do anything stupid."
The Empress's weeping maids froze when light swished through the air and the tall leather-clad figure materialized in front of them.
"Out." His voice was low but terrifying. "And if you dare bring anyone in here -- "
The two women scrambled away to their nearby room, and the God of War was left alone with his beloved. He came up to her and knelt by the edge of the tub; his lips were trembling.
She moaned softly, her eyes still closed. "Thais was singing to me -- "
Her whisper was a barely audible rustle, and her face felt cold against his lips, so cold. "Xena... it's me."
"Ares." Her eyelids fluttered open and then closed again.
He put his arms around her shoulders and pulled her toward him. "Xena ... I love you, I love you, I love you -- " He kept repeating it, helplessly, hopelessly, as if to make up for all the times he would never get to say it to her again.
"Funny ... I would ... like to believe that," she whispered. "I don't think anyone loves me ... except ... Gabrielle."
Was this what it felt like for mortals, he wondered, when a blade thrust into one's entrails was twisted in the wound? He could think of nothing to say except to repeat it again -- "I love you, Xena ... I love you..."
"Kiss me," she breathed.
Ares took her face in his hands, shuddering at the chilliness of it, and kissed the closed eyes, the forehead, the bloodless cheeks, the lips that were almost as pale. Her skin had a salty taste, and with a shock he realized that the tears were his. He gathered her in his arms again, cradling her, rocking back and forth. Her head lolled back and her breath was growing fainter. "No, no" -- he swallowed convulsively but still couldn't get rid of the lump in his throat -- "stay with me -- " There was one thing he could think of saying to keep her awake, and he forced himself to give the imaginary blade in his gut another twist. "Gabrielle will be here any minute..."
The burst of pink and gold indeed announced Aphrodite's arrival with Gabrielle. The bard looked a little more like her old self now, in a knee-length dress and boots, her hair short -- the night of her escape, Xena had cropped it so the wig would fit more easily. Her face was flushed and puffy, and what she saw made her burst into tears.
"Xena! No! No!"
Aphrodite gestured to her brother; gritting his teeth, he let go of the dying woman and stepped aside to make way for Gabrielle. Weeping, she embraced her friend, stroked her face and her damp hair, and reached into the reddened water to take Xena's hands in hers, almost choking with sobs at the sight of the thin cuts in the pale wrists.
The Goddess of Love touched Ares' hand. "Now remember, bro... you promised ... it's just a good-bye, nothing else. Otherwise Daddy and the others will have my ass. Not to mention yours."
He nodded slightly; even if he did decide to break his promise and heal Xena, he reflected, it would leave him mortal and unable to protect her, and they would likely both be dead within the hour. He looked away, wishing his sister would quit fawning over him. She reached up to peck him on the cheek, and again sighed melodiously, "So sad..." before dissolving in a cloud of sparks.
Ares closed his eyes and leaned against the wall. He barely flinched when he heard Xena whisper, "I love you, Gabrielle" ... that's right, twist it a little more.
"Ares?" The strangled voice was Gabrielle's. "I think she's -- really going now..."
In a second he was at her side. Xena's shallow breath could still be heard but she was no longer conscious.
"Can't you ... do anything?"
Ares shook his head. He touched her face again, and pressed his lips to her hand; for the first time in his millennia of existence, the sight and smell of blood horrified him. Some minutes later he looked up and said, "She's dead."
He rose to his feet. Conjuring up a sheet to cover her, he picked up Xena's body and carried her to the bed. He thought of the two other times when he had carried her like this, dead in his arms -- except that those times, she had only seemed dead.
The War God took a deep breath and held out a hand over Xena. In a moment, she was fully clad in her warrior outfit. He stood over her for a few minutes, gazing on her face, her body -- even drained of color like this, she was so beautiful -- so still, so white. His eyes lingered on the golden eagle on her breastplate, the symbol of imperial Rome, and his lips twisted in disgust; with a quick motion of his hand, he erased it from existence.
Gabrielle, who had been huddled on the floor sobbing, looked up. "Ares ... what are you doing?"
"None of your business." He picked up Xena's body in his arms again.
She got up and walked toward him, a little unsteady on her feet. "Are you going to take her somewhere?"
"I'll make sure she will -- never be disturbed."
She stared at him, tears still streaming, and then gasped. "The ice cave! That ice cave where you put us both back then ... you want to bury her there."
His stare was heavy and blank. "You are smart."
"What about me?"
"Call Aphrodite, she'll take you back to wherever she got you."
"No!" Gabrielle came up and stared at the God of War, her fists clenched, her tear-stained little face stiff with determination. "You have to take me with you."
He snorted. "Since when do you tell me what I have to do?"
"Ares..." Her eyes sparkled, the anger in them momentarily displacing the pain. "Maybe it's the least you can do! You used me in your game and now I've lost everything -- everything!"
"HowŠ" she sputtered. "How can you love her so much and be such a bastard to everyone else?"
She saw a flicker of emotion in his eyes before he turned away. "A question for the ages, Gabrielle. Why don't you go and write a philosophical treatise about it."
He straightened up and she realized that he was about to disappear. "No!" she screamed. "Ares -- Ares, when you put me in that cave, in a coffin next to hers -- "
Ares glowered at her. "That I could still arrange."
"... you didn't have to do that either, did you? Except you knew that she would have wanted it that way." He sighed and closed his eyes. "She would have wanted me to be there now."
"All right," he grunted. "Come on."
Shivering in the cold air, Gabrielle looked around the cave. At any other time she would have been overwhelmed by its magical beauty -- the luminous crystals of ice, the gentle veil of white mist that hung in the air. The bard remembered how she and Xena woke up here in their other life, the glare of the sun burning her eyes, the silvery tinkling of the water where the ice had melted. This time there would be no waking up. The tears came again, and then something stirred dimly in her mind. This time... their other life...
Before the thought could develop, she heard Ares' voice. "Well? What did you want to do?"
Xena was laid out in her ice coffin now, hands folded, dark hair -- straight and streaming like that of the Warrior Princess -- spread over her shoulders. Gabrielle came up and brushed the knuckles of a trembling hand against her face, a face now as otherworldly in its pallor as this mystical cave. She bent down and pressed her lips to Xena's cheek, and then looked at Ares. "I'd like to have a lock of her hair."
He scowled but took out his dagger, carefully snipped a lock of raven hair and handed it to her. She slipped it inside a locket she wore around her neck -- a locket that had been a parting gift from Myrrhina, the kind woman who had freed her and helped her achieve her dreams of a literary career. Her dreams ... a literary career ... it all seemed so distant now. Could she ever go back to that life, even if some day she was no longer on Caesar's most wanted list?
"Now get out." His voice was flat. "Wait outside."
The bard walked out, the icy wind stinging her wet face and whipping her arms. She thought of Ares back there in the cave, taking a last look at the woman who had broken through a different wall of ice -- the one that surrounded the human part of the God of War.
Then, with a start, she remembered what she had been thinking before.
In a couple of minutes Ares came out, a single teardrop quivering on his eyelashes and already turning to crystal. He raised both hands, and within seconds a thick sheet of ice sealed the entrance to the cave. He pressed his forehead against the ice and stood still.
He shuddered and gave her a disgusted look.
"Can't you ever keep your mouth shut for a few minutes?"
"Ares, I thought of something."
"Am I supposed to find this interesting?"
"Yes, you are. There's still a way we can bring her back."
Slowly, he turned around. "What are you talking about?"
She hunched her shoulders and rubbed her upper arms, trying to ward off the cold. "The threads of Fate, Ares -- there must be some way to undo what Caesar did with the loom. And then it would bring our world back. The real world."
The god stared at her silently.
"I was right! There is a way, isn't there?"
"Bring back a world in which she's alive," he said. "And just about my whole family's dead -- and I'm a mortal man with nothing except a tumble-down shack and some chickens and a dog -- "
His voice broke off and he looked down. A world in which, Gabrielle thought, Xena would be living -- but not with Ares. He was likely thinking the same thing.
Ares shook his head. "Look, the gods aren't that dumb. The security down there is pretty heavy. And what Zeus and the others would do if they caught me trying to mess with the loom -- well, let's just say that, as Dear Old Dad pointed out, the farm would look very good by comparison."
"So you're scared," she said, well aware of the effect such an accusation would have on the God of War. Of course, it could backfire and he could just blast her off the snowy ledge.
The rage flared up in his eyes for a moment, but then the eyelids drooped again. "I'm tired," he said, his voice unexpectedly soft. "Losing her, finding her, losing her, again and again ... it's too much." She realized that he was talking to himself more than to her. "At some point, it should just be over."
"All right!" Gabrielle spat out. "I'll do it myself."
"You'll do what yourself?"
"Go to the Fates' Temple. I know where it is, remember? Xena and I went down there once."
"You're out of your mind."
"At least I love her enough to try."
This time the fury in his face made her back up perilously close to the edge of the abyss. In the next second, the light flashed around him and he vanished.
Great... now she'd have to make her way down on her own. Oh well, she had done it before -- that time after she and Xena woke up. A little frostbite was no big deal.
Bracing herself against the wind, Gabrielle found something that looked like a path and began her descent. Soon, her hands were raw from gripping the frozen rocks to steady herself, and her legs were growing numb. She wasn't sure how long she'd been climbing when she felt her boot slide on a patch of ice and her feet flailed madly, finding nothing but empty air. She tried clutching at a piece of rock and knew she wouldn't be able to hold on.
Just as her bleeding fingers let go of the rock, powerful hands grabbed her waist and a deep voice grumbled into her ear, "You damn fool."
Well, at least he had kept an eye on her.
Gabrielle felt the vortex of light and air open up around her, and when she opened her eyes she
was standing on the grass below. Ares was nowhere to be seen.
Rome was in mourning, and in shock. Wild rumors flew about the death of the Empress and the
disappearance of her body. Nor did anyone know the identity of the centurion who leaped at
Caesar outside the Senate doors the next day and stabbed him three times before his bodyguards
could react. A split second later they swung their swords at the man, but he seemed simply to
have vanished in the general commotion and panic. Caesar was still alive when he was brought
back to the palace. The physicians noted in bewilderment that the wounds might as well have
been deliberately inflicted so as to cause the slowest, most agonizing death -- though surely, they
agreed, the assailant could not have had the time to take such precise aim.
For the most part, Ares avoided Olympus, and especially his family. He tried to get himself interested in a battle but fled when, to his dismay, the blood that splattered his face brought back a sickening memory of Xena's bleeding wrists. He went to some of his temples and looked listlessly at the offerings. He thought of visiting Cleopatra, and realized that he had not a bit of enthusiasm for the prospect. He tried to remember how long it had taken him to recover when he though her dead for twenty-five years; but everything was so different now, after his time as a mortal and his experiences in this altered world in these past couple of months.
Once or twice, he couldn't resist opening up a portal to see what the insufferable blonde was up to. Well, if she wasn't actually headed for the Fates' Temple. He rolled his eyes. Fine, let her get her silly head chopped off by the Proxidicae the moment she sets foot inside.
Of course, if he were to go there, he could take care of the Proxidicae and unchain the Fates. He remembered how Atropos, the eldest, had looked pleadingly at Zeus. You must allow us to undo what Caesar did. This is a world that was not meant to be. The consequences... Well, what did the old hag know anyway.
In that other world, she would still be alive. And he would have -- nothing.
These thoughts must have gone through his mind about a hundred times when he looked into the viewing portal once more and saw that the foolish little thing was no more than ten minutes away from the temple entrance.
He shook his head.
"At least I love her enough to try," she had told him.
Well, he had loved her enough to give up his godhood. And what did he get? "Thank you." And then, a couple of months later, a tender kiss that made him light-headed with the purest happiness he had ever felt ... until she went on to tell him that he was still bad for her, and that his chances of ever being with her were one in a billion.
The memories of those moments washed over him like a warm wave.
All right, damn it all to Tartarus -- you win. As these words flashed through his mind, he wasn't
sure if they were addressed to Xena, or to Gabrielle, or to a part of himself.
In the murky cavern of the Fates' Temple, glittering swords clashed, sparks flew, and giant shadows danced on the walls as the Proxidicae battled the intruder. The three women watched, mouths agape. They could never have imagined that of all the Olympian gods, the only one who would finally decide to uphold the law would be the one who had always scorned it the most.
The Proxidicae were no match for the God of War. When the last of them had fallen, Ares came up to the three captive women, slightly out of breath and looking very grim. He used his sword to cut the chains that bound Clotho, the youngest of the three -- the weaver of life's threads -- and said, "Go on, do your job."
The amazement on the women's faces abruptly changed to fright, and he already knew what was happening when a silvery voice behind him said, "Not so fast." He whirled around, swinging his sword -- but Athena was ready for him.
"You've really done it now, bro," she said, in a tone as casual as though he had smashed Hera's favorite vase at a family gathering.
Maybe, he thought, he could hold her off long enough for Clotho to re-weave the threads. But then the shadows moved and two other female figures stepped out into the torchlight -- the huntress Artemis followed by his all-too-frequent partner in crime, Discord. What really got his attention, though, was the object in Discord's right hand. He had seen the weapon before; he and Xena had once held it at each other's throats in one of their less amicable moments. The Dagger of Helios, one of the few things that could kill a god.
The unpleasant surprise put him off his guard long enough for Athena's boot to catch him just above his belt and send him sprawling on his back. Before he could get back up, the two other goddesses were pinning him down and chaining his hands; he felt the blade at his neck, the sharp tip pushing against the skin. That other time, when the weapon had been in Xena's hand, he had felt blind rage, at her and at himself, and many other emotions that he did not even recognize then; but he hadn't really been afraid. Now, he knew that the tight, clammy feeling in his chest and in the back of his neck was fear.
"I'm sure you know what this is, Ares." Discord snickered. "So be a good boy and stay down until we take you in for a chat with your daddy." Swooping down, she licked his ear and ran a long red fingernail across his chest. It made him shudder, and she pouted at him. "Oooh, you don't like this anymore?"
Athena, in the meantime, had refastened Clotho's chains and turned back to him. He had expected to see naked glee in her face; but, along with the usual contempt, he also noticed a tiny shadow of regret.
"We're just doing what we have to do, Ares." She sighed. "I'm afraid you only have yourself to blame."
"For a Goddess of Wisdom," he snapped, the anger coming back, "you're awfully full of platitudes."
"Still cocky, are we? Well, I don't think your attitude will make any difference now, one way or the other."
Just then, out of the corner of an eye, he saw something -- or rather, somebody -- that he had forgotten all about. Gabrielle had finally made her way inside.
The idea that she might save the day, however absurd, wasn't so crazy. If the girl had the sense to hide until the goddesses had left, and he could distract them so that they didn't sense her presence, maybe she could free the Fates later -- at least provided that Athena didn't get more Proxidicae down to the temple right away.
Too late: Artemis was already steadying her bow. Ares managed to twist his body and kick at her ankle, and the arrow of the archer goddess only grazed Gabrielle's arm. In the same instant, he felt a searing pain in his neck.
"Discord, you idiot!" That was Athena, her voice momentarily shaken out of its composure. "You weren't supposed to kill him!"
"I didn't mean to!" the leather-clad goddess gasped in fright. "He jerked his head and -- "
He felt the hot, sticky liquid running down to his chest. So much for immortality... I'm sorry, Xena...
The dimly lit temple was growing even darker before the War God's eyes, but he could still see
Gabrielle grab a torch from the wall and sprint toward the loom. Shock over what had happened
to her brother had slowed down Artemis for a moment, but her second shot was, as always,
perfect. The bard shrieked and fell -- but not before, in one final effort, she raised her hand and
flung the torch at the loom. It exploded in a giant fireball as the three Fates screamed shrilly in
unison, and everything went black.
Something heavy was pressing down on Ares' chest. He wasn't quite sure if he was dead; if he was, being dead felt uncomfortable but disconcertingly ordinary. He raised his hand, and his fingers sank into a mass of soft shaggy fur. The thing stirred, and he felt a warm wetness on his neck.
"Horace. Get off me, you damned mutt."
Life at the farm was back to normal, to the extent that it had ever been normal: burnt food, demeaning domestic tasks, chickens who stubbornly resisted their destiny as his dinner, Greba the neighbor lady's attempts at what she obviously considered conversation. And dreams about Xena -- now often filled with memories of some of the moments he had spent with the Empress.
Sometimes, the former War God cursed his own idiocy. More and more often, however, he wondered if the whole thing had been a dream.
About a week later, while Ares was in the barn trying to milk the cow, he heard voices outside. Almost knocking over the bucket (not that there was much in it anyway), he ran to the door. And there they were, standing next to their horses, waving and smiling. There she was, alive.
Somehow, he was able to walk toward them and not run. But when Xena took his hand and her lips brushed lightly against his, his self-control was gone; he crushed her in his arms and held her tight, burying his face in her hair.
"I'm ... I'm sorry." He let go of her and stepped back. "I've just missed you, that's all."
She was smiling.
"That's okay... I've missed you too."
He almost asked "You have?" but then realized that it would sound too pathetic.
He glanced at Gabrielle, and it occurred to him that she might have some memories of the other world.
"So, what about you? Anything interesting happen to you lately?"
"Well, you know how it is, Ares." She smiled brightly. "When you hang around Xena, something interesting always happens... Oh hi, Horace!"
Maybe it really had been a dream. And if not, it didn't make any difference. "Well, come on into
the house," he said. "Guess what I have for dinner. Chicken."
After tossing and turning for a long time, Ares began to drift off to sleep when he felt somebody shaking him by the shoulder. His heart lurched violently. Finally, it was happening -- she had come to his bed.
Before he could take her in his arms, the oil lamp by the bedside was turned up, and he found himself squinting at --
"Gabrielle? What the -- ?"
She gave him a mischievous little smile.
"I just wanted to tell you it was a rotten thing to do, leaving me at the top of that mountain. But thanks for the catch."
He bolted upright. "You do remember!"
"Damn." He exhaled, falling back on the pillow. "So it wasn't a dream."
After a pause, he asked, "How in Tartarus did you get the idea of torching the Fates' Loom?"
"Well, there wasn't much else I could do at that point," she shrugged.
"Why did you think it would bring back ... all this? It could have just destroyed everything."
"Well, I couldn't be sure," she said. "But you know ... maybe ... it's true that people don't need the gods anymore." (She had almost said "maybe Eli was right," but then glanced at Ares and thought better of it.) "Think about it. Zeus is gone but we still have thunder and lightning ... and Athena's gone and I don't think there's any less wisdom or weaving than there ever was ... and you've lost your powers and that doesn't seem to have made any difference as far as war goes."
"Thanks a lot."
"Well -- so I figured maybe we don't need the Fates anymore, either. We make our own fate -- you know, like Hercules used to say."
Ares rolled his eyes. "If you're going to quote someone..."
"Anyway, it worked."
There was another silence, and then she said, "You know, I've wondered sometimes if we did the right thing. I mean, that was a whole world, and we went and destroyed it."
"The right thing," he repeated slowly, as if trying out the sound of it. " Ask someone who doesn't have to look that up in the dictionary, Gabrielle."
"Well, you know what?" Her smile was bittersweet. "I found out there's something even more important to me than the right thing. Her life."
"Why do I get the feeling you're quoting someone again?"
The bard giggled. "I guess you never saw my hit play."
"Oh, your play. No wonder it sounded so lame."
Ignoring the barb, Gabrielle shook her head. The soft glow of happiness in her face was shadowed with sadness. "Ares ... you gave up your godhood for her a second time, and she doesn't even know it."
He twitched a shoulder. "I guess that's one of those things they call 'ironic.'"
She stared at him for a while, and decided she had to tell him -- it was the least she could do. "She has dreams, though."
"Dreams?" he asked with sudden interest.
"She told me she's been dreaming this whole past week about being Caesar's wife and Empress of Rome, and me being a famous playwright. But" -- she smiled slyly and blushed, turning away -- "I think there's something else that she's not telling me..."
When Gabrielle looked at Ares again, he was grinning wickedly. She thought back to the other night when she awoke at the campsite to hear Xena making soft little sounds in her sleep that left little doubt as to the kind of dream she was having, and then saw her sit up with a gasp, clutching her head and looking a bit shaken. Somehow, Gabrielle felt pretty sure that she hadn't been dreaming about Caesar.
She got up. "I'd better get going."
"Yeah, you'd better."
When she was already at the door, he said, "It'll just be our little secret, right?"
Before they went away the next day, Gabrielle made herself scarce, and Ares was left alone with Xena to say good-bye.
"So, where are you going now?" he asked.
"To Rome, eventually. Eve is there ... I think it's about time I checked up on her."
He nodded. Uninvited, a memory swept over him of the moment when, that first night, he stood facing Xena -- the Empress -- and then felt her body on his naked skin. He had to lean against a post and bite his lip to stop himself from groaning.
He looked at her and noticed the flush on her face.
"You know what I think?" Xena said. "Maybe I ought to start working on getting you back your godhood. This place is a mess. And one of these days you'll kill yourself with your own cooking."
"On the other hand, I could just look for a different occupation."
"Well, you've said it yourself. You're just not very good at this whole mortal thing."
"Maybe now I wouldn't be very good at the whole god thing, either."
The Warrior Princess stared at him, taken aback. "Why do you say that?"
Ares shrugged. "I've just been doing some thinking, that's all."
"That could get to be a nasty habit."
"You pick up a lot of nasty habits when you're mortal."
Xena chuckled softly. "Take good care of yourself, Ares."
She looked at Ares and found herself blushing again, wondering what on earth was the matter with her. She had always had the occasional passionate dream about the God of War, but nothing like these incredibly vivid images that now haunted her nearly every night, in the middle of this other bizarre stuff about Rome and Caesar. Of course, Gabrielle would choose this particular moment to insist that they just had to go see how Ares was doing back on the farm.
Now, he was standing before her in his leather pants, shirtless, the dagger pendant glittering on his bare chest. The wear and tear of mortality, she realized, was taking its toll; there were some wrinkles on his once-perfect face, and a few barely visible streaks of gray in the black hair. And still, as he stared at her with that hopeful look, his eyes eager yet gentle, he looked so vulnerable and so young, almost boyish.
She leaned forward and kissed him. It was meant to be only a kiss good-bye; but somehow, before either knew what was happening, their mouths were melting into each other, the tongues sparring, exploring, caressing, until they both had to come up for air.
When Ares could breathe again, he lifted a hand to touch her face and brushed away a strand of hair. Her hair... he thought of the Empress.
"What's so funny?" she asked.
"Oh ... just about everything."
She looked flustered but not displeased. He leaned in closer and said, "So ... am I still bad for you?"
"Very," Xena said in a low voice, with just a hint of a smile.
He closed his eyes, his lips brushing against her ear. "Tell you what. You come on back sometime and I'll show you just how bad."
She chuckled again and mussed his hair. "Bye, Ares."
She turned around, bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun, and walked toward her horse.
"Ready, Gabrielle?" she called out.
When Xena was already in the saddle, the little blonde came up to Ares.
"Well," she said. "It was good to see you again."
She touched his hand and looked up at him, her lips moving in a soundless "Thank you." He nodded slightly, and found himself silently mouthing the same words to her.
The former god sat down on the porch, absently patting his dog on the back, and watched as the women rode away. When they were just two tiny specks in the rich sun-drenched green of the fields, he smiled and said into the warm evening air, "Sweet dreams, Xena. Sweet dreams."