By Juxian Tang
She remembered pain the best. It returned undeniably real - mind-numbing, tormenting ache in badly knitted bones - not just settling there but rising all through her body, resounding even in her teeth at every jerking step she managed. She didn't know how many of them she had forced herself to make - and every one felt like the last - and yet she didn't let herself just fall and curl down and wait until the dogs caught her.
She knew it was hatred that made her move - perhaps the last thread that linked her to consciousness. Sometimes this hatred seemed to her a huge ball of blackness growing inside her head - one that encompassed everything and everyone in the world. There were brighter streaks of personal hatred: to Borias the traitor; to the frail Chinese in his embroidered robes; to the too silent child with a quiet absorbing stare. She wouldn't let them get her so easily. They could chase her like a beast - but she would bite back like a beast, too.
She just wished she didn't know so clearly that she was doomed, that within minutes or within hours they would catch her, and she would never be able to hurt them as much as they would hurt her.
It was the moment when time and place changed, and it prompted her to understand that it was a dream; but the revelation did nothing to cloud the unbearable clarity of perception. She was still in the forest but it was a different one - tall trees and green light falling on the ground through the network of leaves; Greece, not Chin. Her legs didn't hurt her any more - agile and strong, they carried her forward confidently. At her side there was Gabrielle doing her best to keep up, her face flushed, her eyes serious and determined.
They were following the traces. The little things marked the way clearly for Xena's eyes - a broken branch, a clot of bloody spittle on the ground; an imprint of a palm, red and still moist on bark of the tree, made her wince slightly. Couldn't he be a little more careful, more discreet? Well, he probably couldn't - was past it by now.
The signs he was leaving made it all too easy for his pursuers, who had a good start over her and Gabrielle.
The weirdest thing about this dream was not the shifting of time but that Xena could shift her consciousness, too. She remembered her own feelings at that moment - how calm and resolute she was, ready for action, as always.
And she was him, too, because she knew so well how it felt - the sharpness of the air ripping his lungs on every breath - the maddening fury at his own body that couldn't move fast enough, be deft enough - was ready to give up and betray him. And she knew the panicky feeling that he couldn't shun completely no matter how he tried: that he was no match for them, and sooner or later they would get him.
This feeling of being two people at once was so disconcerting - Xena hated it. It robbed her of composure, destroyed her remoteness, made it too personal. Like she couldn't stand the thought that she could fail, could be too late.
She and Gabrielle got to the clearing at last - and he was there, trailing blood against brilliant green grass. The clashing of his sword against the others' was odd and inefficient but everything was going to be okay, now that she was there. Yet in her dream she knew that nothing was really going to be okay. Something had to happen, something she'd overlooked - and she tried to prevent it from happening but couldn't.
She took another step and the world turned upside down around her. She fell, if someone could fall upwards, and heard Gabrielle's frightened shriek, and someone underneath yelled:
"Take them all alive!"
And still hearing it, Xena woke up and sat up in bed.
The air was harsh in her dry mouth and she stared wildly into the shadows but the quietness of the night was already reaching her: the near-darkness laced with thin pathways of moonlight on the floor, the near-silence tagged with the soft screeching of insects from outside.
She reached on the left of her blindly and felt the warm softness of Gabrielle's belly, the edge of the coarse linen top brushed against her skin. Gabby's breath was level - slow and regular rhythm that drove the last shades of the dream away from Xena. At least till the moment she groped to the right of herself automatically.
Xena realized what she was doing a moment later and pulled her fingers away as if they were burnt. She had developed a habit of checking for Gabrielle beside her after losing her, and Gabrielle got used to it, stopped waking or murmuring sleepily at the touch. But recently Xena caught herself on checking on the other side equally - for Ares - and she didn't know if it angered or frightened her more.
The place on the right of her was empty and cool. Not that there was anything new in it; if anything, she should have been feeling a kind of relief that he was not there, that he was giving her a rare moment of nearly complete privacy. She slid down on her back and shifted minutely, settling the mattress under her in the shape of her body. Ah, it felt so good; Gabrielle's sleepy, comfortable closeness at her side - and no need to avoid stumbling against his knees and elbows as she turned, no need to deal with his tossing, turning and kicking or to prevent him from occupying two thirds of the bed for himself.
She wished she could enjoy it more often. The truth was that Xena could reconcile with these bodily inconveniences; she didn't have to like them but could spare as little thought to them as possible. If only he didn't manage to invade her dreams, too...
It wasn't supposed to happen like that. She'd had no obligation to help him and she knew he hadn't expected it from her. It was just that hearing there was a bounty for him pissed her off and she thought that kicking the asses of some greedy bounty hunters would be fun. She could do it easily, she was sure of it. She didn't expect him get into trouble so fast; she didn't expect that the local man, Anastasias, would fall on Ares' tracks with such infallible flair.
And then she didn't notice the trap, didn't react quickly enough...
The memories flooded her, no more a dream but the same unwanted and irrepressible - bright green grass and his blood on it; his wrists rubbed raw and swollen under the rope cutting into them; the high, bird-like shriek she'd never known he could make. And how later she dragged him practically on herself, his broken ribs shifting with every movement, making his eyes wide and terrified with pain. And how she had to hold him down as he, feverish and delirious, tried all the time to get up and walk away.
It was too much - too much of him in her life; she didn't want it this way. But it was not that she had a choice in any particular moment.
Lying on her back quietly, Xena felt the trickles of sweat cool on her body and resigned herself to the thought that she was not going to fall asleep again.
...The net that had scooped her and Gabrielle had them hovering in the air, with the grass swaying in front of their eyes. Xena heard the crude laughter of the men and realized it was directed at her. And there was no clashing of the swords any more - so, she knew Ares had lost his battle.
"A full catch - just look at these fish! I think I'm gonna like them!"
She couldn't pin the voice to a face, couldn't turn her head to look, being squeezed between Gabrielle's soft, thin-boned body and the coarse ropes of the net. Xena moved her hand minutely for the dagger and then the net dropped down abruptly, the impact knocking the breath out of her. She felt fear and anger sweep over her at the thought that Gabrielle might've been hurt, but at the next moment they both were yanked onto their feet, a blade pressed under Xena's jaw.
She clenched her teeth as her chakram was taken away and the hands roamed over her body. The breastplate buckles clicked softly as they were unfastened.
"I wonder if you ladies are going to be as much fun as he'll be. The little blonde slut certainly will."
Xena saw a hand slide into Gabby's top and how Gabby struggled frantically, and it made her surge forward. The warmth of blood on her neck sobered her. No, it was not the way to do it...
"Take them away."
She saw Ares being pulled up on his feet, his hair falling in his face as his head dangled. The rope wound around his wrists tied him to the horse's saddle-girth. Then something hit her in the back of her neck, and blackness swallowed her.
Xena came to her senses with her vision barred by the thick metal rods in front of her, and for a split second, while passing from unconsciousness to clarity, she let her past seep into her present and merge with it dangerously. She thought herself in a cage again, betrayed, crippled and doomed. She made an abrupt, all-too-awkward movement, fully prepared for the agonizing pain in her legs. But there was none - and next thing Xena saw was Gabrielle's worried, attentive eyes.
"You were out for so long." The words reached Xena through what seemed like the rustle of sea waves, and she commanded the noise to go away with an effort of will. Clearing her mind was the next thing; she wouldn't be able to concentrate until her past was firmly pushed down again.
The bars of the cell were almost as thick as her wrist - moist and unperturbed as she tried to shake them. Her eyes sting, and she realized it was the smoke of the torch pinned to the wall, the one that almost didn't give any light, couldn't burn properly in the stiff, damp air.
She was getting cold. She looked at Gabrielle and saw her shiver; Gabby's small face with bluish lips and a bleeding cut on her cheekbone made her look like a waif. She wrapped her arm around Gabrielle and was startled by the coldness of the girl's shoulders against the sensitive skin of her underarm.
"They didn't take any chances, did they? Didn't even leave me a hairpin to deal with their locks."
"You don't wear hairpins," Gabrielle giggled against her, making her heart warm some. At the next moment the exhilaration from Gabrielle's voice was gone. "We are in this man's - Anastasias' - castle. He turned out to be more conniving than we thought, right?"
"What is he..." she didn't need to finish.
"He said he didn't need the bounty, he wants to deal with Ares himself."
"Ah." Why didn't it surprise her? There were just too many people with personal grudges against Ares... too bad that being mortal made him a fair game for everyone who wanted to play.
"I saw Ares last when we got to the castle. Then they took him away," Gabrielle added softly.
So, he was alive then, at least at that moment; Xena was not sure she wanted to know more. She could imagine what would happen and it surprised her how grim this thought made her feel. Must've been the wounded pride of a warrior: that she'd tried to do something and failed, someone she'd wanted to defend was going to get harmed in spite of her efforts. It made her feel uncomfortable, too - to think about Ares in these terms. Fight him - hate him - resist him - that was normal, it was what she was used to. But to defend him, feel responsible for him...
Wait, what was that about? She didn't feel responsible. She had known something like this would happen to him, sooner or later, whether she intervened or not. She couldn't baby-sit him, fight his battles... and get herself and Gabrielle in trouble for him!
But she had already got them in trouble.
Xena must've made a convulsive movement at this thought because Gabrielle was looking up, her eyes rich and dark green in the dim light.
"What, counting the mistakes we made?" It was not the first time Gabby seemed to know exactly what Xena was thinking - and Xena was not sure if it gladdened or mystified her.
"Not we. I," she admitted - and saw Gabrielle shake her head insistently.
"Don't you try to present it as if you 'dragged' me into it! Besides," Gabby said gently, "you'll find a way to get us out."
"You bet I'll do."
Xena walked to the bars again, stretched her hand to the locks, probing them. A bit of metal could fix this problem - and they were not guarded. Another cell opposite theirs was empty, did not seem to be used. She scanned the floor and the walls thoroughly, trying to find something she could use.
A scream startled her, slicing through her nerves, making her turn to Gabrielle abruptly. Gabby stared back at her, frightening intensity in her eyes. They both were not mistaken about the voice - even distorted with pain, even muffled by the stone walls that separated them - it was Ares'.
Xena realized she was holding her breath until the next scream came, and saw Gabrielle wrap her arms around herself as if feeling cold. There was something so cruelly concrete in this sound; it was one thing to be aware of what awaited Ares in the hands of the man who apparently hated him, even to know that it could be happening right now. Hearing him scream with pain was different.
Xena started relaxing when no further sound came. She knew that the silence meant nothing except that what they were doing had to be bearable enough for him to be able to stifle the cries. And yet the relief of not hearing him shriek was undeniable.
She gritted her teeth when she heard him again.
"What are they doing to him," Gabrielle's voice was small and very tense as she huddled slightly, "to make him scream like this?"
That was what Xena was asking herself.
"You know Ares - he doesn't take pain well." She made her voice sound reasonable, putting the conviction into it that she didn't feel and calmness that she wished she had.
She hadn't seen Anastasias, the man that'd captured them; couldn't direct her anger to a particular face, and she felt hatred ricochet through her mind like the chakram against stone. The rods were too thick... but she could pick the locks - she had to find the way to do it. Xena's lips felt strangely numb - and as she ran her fingers over them, the wetness of blood surprised her distantly. She didn't realize she was biting the inside of her lip. The smell of smoke became too choking suddenly, filling her nostrils and her head but not blunting her mind as she waited for another scream, and heard it.
She didn't realize she was pacing along the bars, and only sobered when catching the way Gabrielle looked at her. Gabby's eyes were wide and sad - and yet there was something else in her stare, something that Xena couldn't recognize or couldn't believe she interpreted right - something that applied to Xena and not to Ares. Like understanding?
The next pause was longer, long enough to make Xena wonder if it was over. Suddenly she knew that she didn't want to think about the way it could've been over. She'd face it if she had to - it wouldn't break her heart if he was dead - why would anything that could've happened to him break her heart? But she didn't want to think about it now.
The door to the cells, up there, clanked suddenly, opening - and Xena turned towards the noise, staring through the bars and blinking the smoke away from her eyes.
It was him. Two men hauled him down the stairs - practically carried, he was not walking at all - she wasn't even sure if he was conscious. His head was hanging, dark hair, sticky and matted with blood, hiding his face. He looked like a rag doll, as dead as possible, but logic told her that, maybe, he was not. As they dragged him past her, she could hear his broken, odd breath, with blood slurping in his lungs. There was way too much blood - staining the floor after him, marking his naked body in trickles, dry and fresh. Even with the dim light of the torch it was still too light not to see the brutal ugliness of the signs they'd left on his body or the awkward angle of his dangling arm. Xena heard Gabrielle's short gasp and couldn't turn away to look at her.
"You are still here, ladies? Frankly speaking, I suspected you'd be gone by now. Must be my fault - I seem to have not left you any means for escape, huh?"
She recognized the voice immediately and whirled around, looking at the stairs again, at the bulky blond-haired man who descended slowly, his arms folded on his chest. Seeing his face wasn't supposed to change anything for her. He had a face of an ordinary man.
Well, wasn't it what she had expected? She had lost the illusion that evil had to have a special face a long time ago. Hope had the same face as her beloved Gabrielle. Caesar was so beautiful that it made her swoon - then when she had been in love with him, so hopelessly and stupidly. Ares was a damn good-looking man, in spite of all the murders he was to blame for.
Ares... what had twisted in her head that she considered Anastasias evil for taking his revenge on Ares? Couldn't she be certain that the man had a reason for it? There was time when she eagerly cheered for anyone able to destroy Ares - physically, spiritually, in any other way. Yet now she was not sure she wouldn't kill Anastasias gladly if only she could.
There was something else in Anastasias' face, something that tingled Xena's memory slightly, deceptively. Like she might've known him - although they had never met before, Xena could be sure of it.
"Well, then you are going to have company for a while. Although I don't think he'll be any fun now."
The smell reached her as Ares was hauled past her cell; thick, maddening smell of blood and burnt flesh. And one more - the sickening, obnoxious reek of sex.
Xena felt her face twist at that, the muscle of her cheek twitching no matter how she tried to stop it. There was nothing new in it - vae victis!* - the usual fate of the captives. She had been through that herself, had put others through it - knew it could happen again to her - to Gabrielle...
No, not to Gabrielle! The blazing rage of this thought shocked her. Damn Anastasias for doing that! Damn Ares for getting them into this trouble. Damn herself for letting it all happen.
She watched them open the locks on the other cell and shove Ares in. She didn't know if she hoped he would be put with them; what good could it do - except that it would give her a chance to see how severe his injuries were. But Anastasias certainly didn't take his chances.
On the dirty floor of the cell Ares was a heap of twisted limbs, bloodied skin and dark hair. As one of the guards shoved his foot into his side, Xena heard with sickening clarity the crisp sound of breaking ribs. Ares cried out and Xena knew he was conscious.
"You were a lame fuck, you know." Knowing that Ares was in his senses seemed to satisfy Anastasias. He stepped inside the cell and made an impatient sign, dismissing his men. "I'd think the God of War would show more stamina than being able to handle only a few men."
His voice was conversational, seemingly free of gloating, but Xena could feel it there, deep down. The man was too clever to demonstrate his enjoyment but he exulted in his victory all right and was going to derive every possible pleasure out of it.
Xena saw him squat near Ares, a strange but undeniable grace in the motions of his big body, and his hand hovered over Ares' body in distaste, like he didn't want to smear himself in blood and couldn't find a clean place to put it.
"But don't worry," he continued, his voice almost intimate, and indeed, it was not intended for Anastasias' men who were leaving the cells. "I'll do my best for this not to end up too fast for you. There is still so much we can do - so many men of mine who deserve their bit of fun. I have seen you taking them two at once, from the both ends - but how about taking two of them up your ass? And when you are going to be too loose even for that," Anastasias' tone became a bit dreamy at this moment, "there are the stables with my stallions waiting to be served."
He chose the place at last, grasping Ares' hair, making him raise his face. The mess of blood on it made Xena feel sick with anger. And there was something wrong with Ares' mouth, something unnatural; and with a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach she realized the corner of it was cut through, deep into his cheek.
"I am just not sure when I am going to castrate you - before or after that. I'll make you my gelded whore. And, maybe, I'll cut your penis, too, and fuck you in the hole there, make you the slut you really are..." For the first time Anastasias' voice rose, almost indiscreet in its triumph. He got up to his feet and kicked the curled body. He didn't hold back on that, and Xena could see how Ares tried to curl tighter, to protect himself from the worst. She also felt Gabrielle's motion at her side and raised her hand slightly, making the girl be still.
There was nothing they could do. Any words would only please Anastasias even more.
"So many years. I knew one day I'd do it." Anastasias' voice was broken as he panted. "My brother is going to be avenged at last. So young and bright and passionate - and dead because you promised him your help - and all you did was to give him away to the whore murderer here."
He turned towards Xena, his face red and sweaty and distorted with fury - and Xena tried again to catch what was sliding away from her, to wipe off twenty-five or so years of his face, to see through the bags of fat hiding the man's features.
The light eyelashes, the deliriously bright, brash gaze, the straw- blond straight hair... Could it be?
"Your brother was Agathon? The one whom Ares gave Heph's metal?"
"Lady killer understands me." There was sour satisfaction in Anastasias' voice, and surprise, too. "The former God - he didn't recall."
"Oh yeah," she let sarcasm fill her voice. "Your brother was given the most sophisticated weapons of that time - and managed to fuck it all up. Whose fault was it?"
"He didn't fuck up! He was betrayed!" Anastasias moved towards them and Xena stilled, preparing herself for a lunge. "You won him over through deception!"
"You brothers are not difficult to deceive," Xena hissed and, as he touched the bars, jumped towards him. And almost groaned in anguish as the man slipped away from her reach. He really was faster than he looked... and smarter than she had thought him to be. So, it was not just Ares he'd prepared his trap for - but for her, too...
What madness it all was. This man, he must've been a kid when she'd killed Agathon... Was her past ever going to stop coming back to haunt her?
"Easy, ma'am." Anastasias' eyes were laughing. "I know you can't wait to put your greedy hands on me. But first I have to get bored with the God of Sluts. And then I'll possibly taste the blond bitch."
"You bastard!" Xena lost control - did the very thing she'd warned Gabrielle against doing. The bars trembled with the impact as she threw herself on them, the metal hard and painful meeting her chest. Anastasias stepped aside cautiously.
"How ballsy of you! But without success, sorry."
He was saying something else, but at that moment a body crashed against his from behind. He fell down taking Ares with him.
Xena's fingernails gripped on the metal of the bars convulsively; she was unable to take her eyes away from the two struggling on the floor. Was there any chance? Anastasias had thought Ares was broken enough not to be afraid of him... The rage at her own helplessness scared her. She knew it was pointless to feel it, it was exactly what Lao Ma warned her from doing: to let herself be blinded by her anger. Yet she couldn't help it; there was nothing she could do but to watch, and it was driving her mad.
She saw Anastasias roll over Ares and lock his hands on Ares' throat. So, it was over - the question was only if Anastasias would stop in time while Ares was still alive. A thought passed through Xena's mind, that possibly Ares didn't want him to stop.
Then there was a flash of blade - Anastasias' own dagger - and she knew it was Ares' bloodied hand that held it. They heard Anastasias' whooshing breath as the man froze suddenly, and then... so very slowly - too slowly for Xena's peace of mind - he slumped down on Ares.
There was another gush of blood covering Ares' face - but this time it was not his.
Now it was really over.
Or was it? Xena heard a soft gasp coming from Gabrielle, turned and saw huge, dark eyes staring back at her, the greenness almost gone from them around the dilated pupils. She nodded to Gabrielle silently and looked back at Ares.
No, nothing was fuckin' over. Anastasias might've been dead - yet they still were in the cell. Ares didn't move under the man's body and Xena caught herself on pushing him mentally, with the insistence that bordered on anger. It was not enough! He had to do something! Had to do more to save them, didn't dare let them die in this cell, let himself die there!
And as if on her order he moved at last, his teeth flashing white and red as he bit on his lip. His gaze was very concentrated, unblinking as he got out from under Anastasias' body. The little dagger slipped from his hand. There had been just one stab but it was enough; as Anastasias' head rolled on the floor, Xena could see the ugly flower of the man's destroyed eye.
She thought about calling Ares, making him hurry - yet found herself strangely unable to make a sound as she watched him move. His left arm was dangling against his body and blood trickled equally on the insides of his thighs and from the long slash on his side. He reached for Anastasias and didn't stay on his feet as he crumbled on the floor again.
He groped over Anastasias' body one-hand, until he pulled a bunch of keys out of the man's pocket. Then Ares' eyes focused on Xena - and the intensity in them made her feel a shiver run down her spine. Now she knew no matter what, he was not going to give up.
Next moment he dragged himself towards their cell and Xena yanked the keys out of his hand.
"Yeah, right," he mumbled, a trickle of blood leaking from his mouth as he spoke. "You'll do it better."
She opened the locks, seeing with her peripheral vision how he hobbled back to Anastasias and tugged on the man's body insistently.
"What are you doing?" They were already out of the cell and she leaned to scoop Anastasias' weapons; they would need them if they wanted to get out of the castle.
"Need some clothes..." That was not said very clearly, almost like for himself, and she thought suddenly that he was going to collapse right now.
"What, are you cold or what?" she started angrily, trying to yank him back into awareness - and met his stubborn gaze.
"You can go, no need to wait for me."
She could bet he would sound as mulish as he looked if he could speak a bit more clearly.
"Oh come on, Xena, let's just help him." Gabrielle's voice was exasperated and suspiciously resonant, like her nerves were on the verge of breaking.
Well... They were going to lose a few precious minutes for it but Xena didn't have heart to argue.
They got out. Once free, Xena was unstoppable. And very pissed off. She took her chakram from the dead body of Anastasias' lieutenant - the dumb man dared be arrogant enough to assume he could have it. And when they left, no one tried to stop them: there was just no one who could or would risk moving.
Later, in the forest, Ares went down very quickly, the last of the nervous energy that must've supported him on his feet draining out of him. Then he slipped on the ground, curled, shivering and coughing blood, and looked exactly like he would rather die there than take one more step.
She and Gabrielle had to put his arms around their shoulders and Xena cursed mutely at nearly every step and every Ares' suggestion to leave him.
"No one is getting left behind here," she mumbled more for herself than for him.
They got to the farm right before she decided that if he was going to be so insistent, she might just do what he wanted.
Things might have gone easier after that - but they didn't. Not quite and not at once. And as he tossed in fever, his wounds infected, Xena caught herself on looking with grim determination at his sharpened, waxen face and repeating to herself:
"Everything will be okay. I won't let you go."
She was not going to give him away to anyone or anything. Not to mad warlords, not to fever. He was hers to deal with.
But, days later, when the worst had passed, she realized that she was stuck with him - and that it didn't make her feel good. The farm was the only safe place for him, at least until he was completely well - it was a fact and they had to live with it; just like it was a fact that there was only one bed there. She simply had to get used to it - as well as to seeing his face during breakfast, to listening to his complaints, silly jokes and abrupt silences.
He was there - through her sleep and her wakefulness - and there was nothing she could do about it.
In the bed, Xena stretched and realized with a kind of surprise how stiff her body was from lying in the same position for too long. And was suddenly aware once again about the empty place on her right - feeling abnormally cold in comparison with Gabrielle's warm supple body on the other side.
He's been gone too long, she thought - and another thought followed that: he's gone. She knew he would be gone, one day. They didn't talk about it; he didn't do anything to make her think it but she just knew. And it was what helped her sometimes, when he got on her nerves especially hard: thinking that some night she would wake up and wouldn't find him near.
Maybe, now he'd left. Xena thought she should've felt satisfaction at this thought. But she was perfectly sure that, if anything, it was not satisfaction she felt. It was rather like loss.
Realizing that made her angry - but anger slipped away quickly. Well, if he was gone - so be it. She'd certainly survive it easily. She just needed to know.
That was the point - she needed to know. She didn't think she would be able to go to sleep now and wait till the morning, and in the morning to know for sure that he was gone. She rose on her feet quietly, glanced at Gabrielle, wondering whether she should wake her, and decided against it. It was her, Xena's, business. Let Gabrielle not worry about it.
The night was warm - one of the last warm nights of the season; later the dusk would be bringing brittle, smarting iciness with it. The sky was so high and clear above her, the stars frighteningly huge that they blurred before her eyes as she looked up. The soft breeze felt good, filling her lungs, and for a few moments she just stood, not looking around, not wanting to look and to know.
Then she heard this sound, turned - and there he was, sitting cross-legged, looking at something on the ground and the strands of longish hair hung over his face hiding it. Now what was he really doing? Found something so interesting that it distracted him from sleep?
Exasperation made her feel light-headed. How dare he worry her like this? She'd thought he was gone! Yeah, sure. He would go - but not before they were all at each other's throats.
She moved towards him, making enough noise to let him know she was there - she didn't like to see him flinch at an unexpected presence.
"Now how are you going to work tomorrow, staying up half of the night..." she started in irritation and then saw the little creature on the ground at her feet. "A hedgehog! Where did you find it? I knew it was a hedgehog - I recognized the sound!"
He was feeding it a piece of apple, apparently not the first one, since the hedgehog just nibbled on it lazily. His face looked peaceful in the moonlight as he raised his eyes to her, but for a moment before his gaze acquired the expression she knew so well - of amusement and slight irony - she saw his eyes unguarded and unhappy.
"A hedgehog!" She was not going to deal with him being happy or unhappy - was going to focus on something else. A hedgehog there, they both could occupy themselves with it for a while. "I used to bring them from the forest when I was small. We had one that got under the cart..."
She cut herself off abruptly. It was certainly more information than he wanted to know. Even if his eyes stayed on her face like he was interested - absorbing, caressing eyes - the gaze she knew so well and learned not to trust automatically.
"I didn't," he said suddenly.
"Didn't have hedgehogs. Stallions, serpents, wolves - but no hedgehogs."
"Don't tell me you missed them," she said but it felt strange for her - to think about him being a child; it must've been such a long time ago that one might've forgotten about it himself. But no, he remembered.
"Nope." There were the little wrinkles around his eyes as he smiled at her. "But it might've been fun if I had them."
She nodded, shifting from one foot to the other. She should leave now, right? She'd found out what she needed to know; now she could go back to sleep - maybe, wrap her arms around Gabrielle's waist. Gabby would mutter something but would assent eventually. If he wanted to stay awake with the damn hedgehog - it was his personal matter. If he needed some space - Xena could understand it; after all, he was generally willing to provide it when she and Gabrielle needed it. Even too willing sometimes - when he got all so gentle and distant like that. And Xena had to admit that she didn't quite like it. He had never been distant before, had always been close - even when she'd hated him, fought him.
She delayed just for a moment, puzzled with this thought, and then he got on his feet, just a bit awkwardly - the effects of what he'd been through at Anastasias' nearly gone - and turned to her. There still was a piece of apple in his hand, and he chuckled and threw it away.
"These creatures stink, you know," he said sniffing his hands.
She reached to him and put her palm on his cheek. She did it because she wanted to do it; it was not that having him standing near went to her head. His presence was almost painfully overwhelming, true - his warmth, his size, the glowing of his eyes. Yet if it was just that, she would be able to fight it, no problem - like she'd always fought it when he was concerned, training her mind into automatic rejection, no matter how her body resisted it. Maybe, it was just as plain as she knew now she could do it now - touch him - didn't have to feel like she'd compromise her very self if she did.
His skin was like warm silk against her fingers, tight over the hardness of his cheekbone. It felt just like she'd known it would be. Just like she'd wanted it to be. And real - not just something distant and hated/dangerous - as she used to think when looking at him - but something she could hold and feel and memorize.
She remembered how he'd touched her this way, stroking her face with his fingers, remembered the roughness of the fingertips and the irresistible lightness of the touch. Oh yes, and his patronizing stare at the same moment - and his arrogant words of street-wise philosophy that he tried to pass for the absolute wisdom of life. She hadn't forgotten that; she just was not sure she wanted to think about it now.
After all, they were on the same ground now - whether he wanted that or not. It changed things for her and she didn't know how much it changed for him. Maybe, everything. Maybe, now he wouldn't even want it - maybe, there had never been anything past his games.
Then he turned his head slightly and his lips touched the inside of her wrist, and this gesture almost made her sway. Not even the softness of his lips - but the lightness of this kiss. He couldn't be like that - not so gentle, not so... eager. How could he be - after so much that had been between them, so much bitterness and bad blood from both sides.
But he was - and it was so dangerous.
His hands cupped her face, and she leaned into this touch even before she could stop herself. She regained control, of course, but not to free herself from him - and not because she couldn't. With perfect clarity she knew that she just didn't want to. His hands were so warm - well, she had known it, remembered it, since those times when he touched her trying to manipulate her. Was he trying to do it now, too - by making her feel like her face was a precious gem, a frail cup of Chin porcelain in the careful hold of his hands?
And suddenly she knew that she didn't care. If he did - it was his loss - and she was not going to think about it. She could afford, for once: to feel nothing but the protection of his hands around her face, shielding her from the world. It was not right that he could feel so good despite what he was. But, maybe, she could forget what he was. Maybe, he could forget it.
She met his eyes and saw the intense, questioning stare of his. Like he was trying to figure her out. The irony of it didn't escape her. He was trying to understand what games she was playing, too. His lips pressed to her palm knew the truth - but he himself didn't.
She ran her thumb over his mouth, the softness of his lips upsettingly pleasant and the harshness of the scar in the corner of his mouth like a shock - and she felt his hands lock on her face tighter, almost dangerously tight, like they could crush the bones of it. But at the same time she never felt less threatened and more protected than at that moment.
She reached for him and brought his face to hers, and locked her lips on his, her arms around his neck, invading his mouth with her tongue. His mouth tasted apples slightly - but mostly was just as she knew it would be - warm, moist - and lips so soft and resilient that she was not sure she could let him go any soon.
She heard his sigh, and then his hands cupped on her chest. She threw her body forward, closer towards him - the hardness between his legs pressed against her sex sent a jolt through her, making her feel faint. Yet she wanted to be even closer - braced her leg around him, sucking on his lips until she tasted salt. It couldn't be - she couldn't draw blood; but she knew she had - and not only didn't he back away but followed her mouth with his, pressing harder, giving her all she wanted to take.
She saw a flash of his face, pale, with the eyes of glimmering darkness as his stare was frozen in passion, and then she tossed her head back, presenting her neck to him and felt gentleness of his kisses and hardness of his nibbling going down her throat.
She had to stop that, she thought. She had to. If not for herself - then for Gabrielle. Should've waken up Gabrielle before going out... But even thinking that Xena knew it sounded wrong. She didn't have to use Gabby to shelter herself from Ares. Whatever she was doing - or trying to stop doing - it had to be her decision, and was between him and her. And if she decided to go on, she had to admit it was not just two bodies talking to each other, understanding each other perfectly, like they could never understand each other's words.
She recalled thinking how she'd never seemed to have any choice about him recently, as to letting him into her life and letting him stay there. But at this moment she had a choice.
"Ares, wait." His name came out like a groan - a low sound reverberating deep in her throat - and she felt how his lips stopped still as if the sensation shocked him. Then he raised his head, looking at her, his eyes seeming slightly wild because of dilated pupils - and his hands clenched on her shoulders.
"If you want to stop it now, Xena..."
What then? He'd be mad at her - yet he'd forgive her for it eventually. What didn't they forgive each other?
"How can I stop it?" she said thoughtfully and bitterly. "It is too late, Ares. You are under my skin."
She saw something twitch in his face - and she expected triumph in his eyes or at least expected some kind of witty remark to come from him. But he just shook his head as if he couldn't quite believe he'd heard it, and then pulled the shoulder-straps of her tunic down.
Gabrielle... maybe, she would understand it. Maybe, she already understood too much. Xena recalled her eyes, there, in Anastasias' cell, looking at her with so much compassion and understanding. Maybe, Gabrielle knew it would happen.
Ares kissed down to Xena's collarbones, pulling her tunic lower - and she shivered at the draft of air on her breasts, shivered once more as the liquid flame of his mouth engulfed her nipple. Flame trailed over her everywhere where he touched her; yet everywhere where he didn't - she felt cold, deprived and missing him.
There was a briefest moment of repose as he'd let her - when he slid on his knees in front of her - and his face turned up to her was like a perfect drawing of white and black, of the precise lines of his features, the darkness of his beard and his eyes. He looked like he was trying to imprint her image in his mind this way forever. And suddenly she knew that whatever else was going to happen between them from now on - she would never be able to forget him looking like this at her, either.
"If I have to die," he said, his voice almost conversational, "I will die thinking about this moment between your legs."
He stroked her inner thighs as he spread her slightly - and then the flame of his tongue entering her licked away all conscious thoughts that existed in her mind.
She knew she was moaning - bit on the back of her palm to shush it; her other hand was in his hair, unable to let go. She pulled him closer, guided him rudely, almost violently, how she'd done to her lovers that were also her enemies and never during last years. And he had been her enemy, hadn't he? He followed her guidance so easily, so eagerly, his hands warm and pressing firmly on her hips, the hard palms grazing the skin under her buttocks as she thrust in his face. Until in a flash, with her hips moving convulsively against his accepting mouth, she came.
She was gasping; caught the air and couldn't normalize her breath; the residual spasms still went through her, the pleasure imprinted somewhere in her bones, reluctant to leave. She was leaking - long trickles over the insides of her thighs - and a brush of his fingers there was electrifying. But even that was easier to handle than the sight of his face turned up to her, the unbearable softness of his stare. He licked his fingers and she shivered - and knew it was not over, not yet, she wanted him again.
How devious of him! She almost resented him - but couldn't spare enough thought to it, didn't want to. She clasped her fists on his vest, pulling him up, pulling him to her, and slid her palms over his chest, tracing the scars and smoothness of his skin. She tasted her juices in his mouth - and groaned, sparing one hand unwillingly from stroking the soft fur of his chest and his hard nipples - to reach for his pants, loosening them.
He caught her hand and pushed it away gently, but Xena reached again and her fingers wrapped around his shaft - and for a moment she felt breathless at the warmth and heaviness of it. She heard with vague surprise that he moaned at her touch.
She guided him in and he slid inside her so smoothly - yet making her feel fuller than she could imagine. She wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his thighs - and felt the strong, secure ring of his arms around her.
It felt good to know that he could hold her like this, like she was frail and light enough for him. Her eyelashes felt too heavy, making Xena want to close her eyes - and she realized she hadn't done this in too long - hadn't let herself go, without need to monitor the other's reactions, for the evidence of pleasure or of threat. Yet she wanted to look, too - to remember him like that, the darkness of his eyelashes, the embers of his eyes, his lips swollen and tender with her kisses.
"Do it," she whispered, encouraging both him and herself, setting the rhythm. "Now. Do it."
Then she couldn't talk any more - and heard a sob he made, just once - and something snapped in her, sending her over the edge as his cock pulsed in her and she felt herself open for it.
It was safe, of course - she knew she wouldn't get pregnant, she would never do it if she could. Yet somehow the thought of something of him being in her added to her pleasure, making her body rigid in a long spasm.
She loosened only a while later, slid on the ground - and held him as he shivered in her arms, his moist forehead against her shoulder. And with the clarity that sliced through her mind and hurt her more than she could expect, she knew that she didn't want to let him go.
She would let him go, she knew, and it would be all over then. And she would have to deal with the consequences and watch it for never to happen again...
But why? Why did it have to never happen again? Suddenly she asked herself about it - and all the answers her mind prompted to her were wrong. Not because of their past. Not because of Gabrielle; it would deprive Gabrielle of nothing. It was because of her, Xena's, fear that if she let Ares stay with her, let herself just be with him - she would never be able to stop it.
And what so terrible was in it? Why did the thought of accepting him into her life willingly scared her so much? She could do it; once she'd had a nearly limitless capacity for hatred - didn't she have a place in her heart for her man now?
Her man... Was it what Ares could be for her? Gabrielle was her woman and her friend and Eve was her daughter. She needed them in a different way. But, maybe, she needed them all.
"Let me..." He whispered - and the arm that cradled her felt so warm and convenient that she just nodded; she didn't know what he meant - but she didn't care. He guided her somewhere, just a few steps - and with her eyes closed she heard a little splash of water - and then felt a shock of soft wet cloth on her skin. Her tunic fell on the ground - and the cloth slid over her, cool and wonderful on her, her neck, her arms, her breasts, wiping softly over her legs and going over her inner thighs.
It made her shiver - not with cold but because she didn't want to feel like a small sleepy girl washed by the caring hands - and she didn't want even to start wondering why of all people it had to be him who made her feel this way. But she let him do it - and after he finished, let him take her in his arms and carry into the house. There, lying in the middle of the bed, she waited patiently until he settled next to her. And feeling Gabrielle's sleepy warmth on one side and Ares' heat on the other, Xena at last felt complete and protected and let herself slip away.
* Vae victis (Latin) - Woe to the vanquished.The End