Gabrielle awoke from a troubled dream. She couldn't quite remember what it was about, but it filled her with a mix of feelings. All she could recall was a man's laughter, and a brief flash of leather. She rolled over, but Xena was still asleep.
Awake, Gabrielle poked the fire with a stick and stared into the flames. Her mind kept wandering back to the enchanted scroll and the trouble it had caused. Aphrodite and Joxer, Minya and--in a flash, she remembered what she had been dreaming about. Who she had been dreaming about. She had been dreaming about Ares. Ares had been kissing her, the studs in his leather tunic pressing into her skin--she shook her head to clear it. She couldn't be thinking of Ares like that--it wasn't possible. They didn't even like each other--at least, they hadn't before. Almost against her will, she recalled the moments during their search for the scroll when they had "warmed up" to each other, and then later, the moment of awkward silence after Xena's battle before Ares returned to Olympus. Gabrielle also remembered the impulse she'd had to call out to Ares, and of how she'd choked it down and hidden it from her friends.
The feelings that the dream brought back troubled Gabrielle. She longed to speak to someone about them, but Xena would never understand. Gabrielle noticed it was almost dawn--soon Xena would be waking up. Gabrielle lay quietly down so that Xena would not realize that anything was wrong. The next morning, Gabrielle seemed distant, and Xena was concerned about her.
"Did you sleep all right last night?"
"You just seem a little distracted, is all."
"Hmm--oh. No, I just--I've got an idea rattling around in my head and I can't get it out." Gabrielle couldn't tell Xena the truth. She would never understand.
Xena walked Argo a little ahead and watched Gabrielle out of the corner of her eye. There was something wrong with Gabrielle--none of her perkiness was there this morning. Just as Xena was about to speak again, Gabrielle spoke.
"Did you ever--have you--have you ever had any kind of feelings for someone who was totally and completely not the type of person you think you would have feelings for?"
"In the past, yes, but not until it was too late to do anything about them. Why?"
"I was just curious, that's all." Gabrielle considered for a while, then said, "You see, I sort of ran into this guy while we were all trying to find the peddler to get the scroll back to get you back after I sent you fishing, and now I can't seem to stop thinking about him."
"I see," Xena said. "And, uh, this guy, does he..."
"Does he what? Share my problem?"
"Well, I wouldn't have put it quite that way, but yes."
"I don't know."
"You don't know."
"No, I don't know."
"Okay, so who is this guy?"
"I can't tell you--you wouldn't understand."
"Oh," said Xena. "You'd be surprised."
"You wouldn't approve, either."
"He's that bad?"
"Maybe is just a positive way of saying I don't know."
"If you say so." Gabrielle followed Xena through the forest. When night came, Gabrielle waited until Xena had gone to sleep to pull out a scroll and begin writing.
\\We were walking together, following muddy ruts over the hills when we began to talk. He asked me where I had learned to read trails. I told him I'd learned from her. We shared stories about her. We were laughing and smiling together. Suddenly we realized what we were doing. We were "starting to warm up to each other", as he had put it. Neither of us would admit to liking it. But I know I did.//
Gabrielle threw the scroll into the fire along with the quill, and watched the flames consume them both. "If only it were that simple," she said to herself. She laid down beside Xena and tried to sleep, but it wouldn't come.
Restless, Gabrielle searched for the stream she had heard nearby and bent to take a drink. For the briefest second, she thought that she saw his face in the water, but she blinked and it was gone. She took several sips of water from her cupped hands and splashed the rest of the water on her face. When she went back to the fireside, she lay down on her roll and finally sleep came. And she dreamed.
Gabrielle dreamed that in that moment of awkward silence after Ares regained his powers that instead of leaving, he kissed her. And even in the dream she could feel her body reacting to him. In the dream, Gabrielle dropped her staff to wrap her arms around him. Ares was crushing her but it felt good. The bit of his hairy flesh that wasn't covered by the leather rubbed against the bare skin of Gabrielle's neck, and his hands were hot against her back. Her hands rubbed the roughness of his beard and then locked in the luxuriant softness of his hair. Gabrielle noticed that his body was hard and sculpted all over where hers was soft.
They seemed to meld together perfectly. Ares broke the kiss. He took a step back, and Gabrielle was shaken. That's when Ares laughed, deeply and heartily, and then returned to Olympus. Gabrielle awoke. Her whole body felt like it was on fire. She recalled the coolness of the stream and decided to take a quick swim to see if she could cool off. She took off her clothes and quietly climbed into the water. She gasped as the cold water closed in around her. But it didn't seem to help. The cold water didn't seem to be able to put out the fire in her blood. She stayed in only long enough to bathe when Xena found her. "Hi, Xena."
"What in Tartarus are you doing, taking a swim in the middle of a cold night in freezing water?"
"Trying to cool off?"
"Don't you think that's overdoing it a tad? Get out."
Gabrielle climbed out of the stream and put her clothes on. "What time is it?"
"About an hour before sunrise, I'd guess. Come on--we're up, we might as well get moving. And what are you doing up so early?"
"A dream woke me."
"Again? Gabrielle, if you're having bad dreams--"
"No, no, this was a good dream. A very good dream. So where are we going?"
"We're going to Thrace. Barbarians are attacking Thrace."
"I thought Thrace was ruled by a warlord," Gabrielle said, thinking of Ares.
"It is. His name is Tracas. He trained under Ares the same time I did. He's my friend. He's asked me to come help him fight the barbarians."
"And you agreed?"
"Tracas is a good friend. Besides, the barbarians need to stay in their own land if they can't come in peace." Xena and Gabrielle followed the roads to Thrace's gate. Xena pointed up. "Tracas had them carved and mounted on the gate when he first took over the city."
Gabrielle looked up and saw two colossal statues of Ares. Both were carved in perfect detail, down the waves in his hair and the single earring. "They look so lifelike," she half whispered.
"Yes, they are quite handsome, aren't they? I always thought so, but it's nice to have an objective opinion."
The women turned around to see Ares. He looked exactly as he had when he'd left--exactly as he had in her dream. Gabrielle couldn't help glancing at his mouth and then flushing when she remembered her dream.
"Xena, I never thought I'd be saying this, but I'm glad you're here," said Ares.
"I didn't come for you--I came for Tracas."
"Yes, I had kind of figured that out myself. The point remains--I'm glad you're here." Ares looked at Gabrielle standing off to one side. "And you brought your little friend, too, I see."
"Look, can't we put our differences aside for the moment? We're all here for the same purpose--to keep the barbarians out of Thrace," said Gabrielle, testily.
Xena looked at Ares. "If you can, I will."
Ares snorted. "Anything you can do, so will I."
Xena extended her hand. After a moment, Ares took it. "A truce?"
"Temporarily, of course," said Ares.
"Of course," agreed Xena, and Ares vanished. "Nicely done, Gabrielle."
"Reminding Ares of why we're here and suggesting the truce so he didn't have to. If I didn't know better--"
"But you do know better,"`broke in Gabrielle.
"It was a joke, Gabrielle." Xena and Gabrielle entered the city. Gabrielle looked around in mild surprise, seeing a prosperous city with happy citizens. Xena caught the look and said, "Tracas rebuilt this city from huts and rubble. Its people prosper. Tracas is a fair ruler."
"So that's why you agreed to help him. Because of the way he runs the city."
"It's not the only reason. I think there are worse ways to rule. Tracas' rule has been tough but fair. The people are mostly content and happy here. A lot of other warlords could learn a lot from how Tracas runs his government."
Xena and Gabrielle made their way through the city to Tracas' house. It was a large house, columned with white marble. Tracas was sitting on the porch, and Xena hailed him. "Tracas, ho!"
"Xena! You're here--I wasn't sure that you'd come."
"You are my friend, Tracas, and you asked for my help. Of course I'll come." She embraced him quickly. " I always help my friends when they need me."
"Please, come in. You are just in time--we are about to get started. We can use your advice." Tracas led Xena and Gabrielle down a corridor to a brightly lit room filled with veteran warlords, some which Xena knew and all of whom trained under Ares. Ares himself lounged against the wall.
Xena didn't notice him, but Gabrielle did as soon as she entered the room. It was as if the hair on her neck and arms stood on end when he was around. She looked up to meet his eyes on her, but when he saw her looking at him, he immediately dropped his eyes. Gabrielle followed Xena to a seat around the circular table, but kept her eyes on Ares. One of the warlords began to talk. He started by attacking Xena's presence. "What is she doing here? She isn't one of us anymore!" Several others murmured agreement but Tracas stopped them.
"When you can best Xena in personal combat, then you may ask her to go. But she is a great warrior. And she is my friend. I have asked for her help. If you do not want her help, please, feel free to return to your domains and your castles. But I won't trade for your releases," continued Tracas.
Tracas continued to argue with the lords but Gabrielle didn't hear it. She was oblivious to everyone around her--except Ares. Slowly, Gabrielle inched away from Xena and back toward a columned opening in the wall. The room was circular, with columns around the room about six feet out from the walls. Gabrielle slipped unnoticed out of the room and into the sunlight.
"What, bored already?" Ares asked snootily.
Gabrielle gasped, frightened. "Oh, you."
"That's it? Nothing poetic, just 'oh, you?' Like you see a god every day?"
"No," Gabrielle said, "I'm just getting used to it. After all, you've been around so much lately, it's nothing special any more."
"Excuse me? You're calling the god of war common?"
"Not exactly, no. Look, what do you want? Why did you come out here?"
"I should ask you that, Gabrielle."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, please. You don't think I've seen all the staring you've been doing? And thinking who knows what. You've been watching me ever since you got into town."
Gabrielle blinked and gulped. "I don't trust you," she lied.
"Of course I'm going to keep an eye on you. If I'm watching you, you can't do anything sneaky."
"Oh, nice try. You almost had me going with the I-don't-trust-you bit. Inspired, I must say. Now, why don't you try telling me the truth?" Ares moved closer.
"That is the truth," she said, panicking.
"No, it isn't," Ares said, still advancing. "Could it be you're thinking about the secret you've been keeping from Xena?" At Gabrielle's startled look, Ares continued. "Oh, yeah. Aphrodite told me all about it. About how you found yourself attracted to me and denied it. Tell me, has it been eating you up inside?"
Gabrielle was trapped against the railing and Ares was only an arms length away from her. Her voice trembled. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Of course you do. Don't deny it, Gabrielle. Don't you think I can feel it, standing this close to you?" Ares closed the distance, their bodies almost touching. Ares lowered his voice to a whisper. "Do you know what it's like to be kissed by a god?"
Even as Gabrielle heard the words, she knew what was coming, but made no move to avoid it. Nothing in her dreams could have prepared her for the real thing, As soon as he'd spoke, Gabrielle was frozen. When Ares touched her, her body seemed to melt and she clung to him for support. His lips sent jolts of energy coursing throughout her body, tingling everywhere. He was hot--heat radiated out from him in pulses and they washed over Gabrielle in waves, burning her. Ares held her tightly, forcing her to meld with him, and Gabrielle let her body melt and mold itself into his. When his tongue stroked hers, Gabrielle tightened her arms around his neck, then let her hands slide down and slip into the leather covering his chest. Spreading the wide V wider, she ran her hands over the skin, feeling the rough hair under her palms and the heat of his skin. She tore her head away from his and was about to start kissing his chest when he stopped her.
"Not here," he said. "And not now. Meet me later." With that, Ares kissed her again, quickly, and vanished. Gabrielle collapsed against the railing, breathless.
About that moment, the council broke and Xena went to look for Gabrielle. "Gabrielle? Are you all right? You look flushed."
"I'm fine. It's just the sunlight, that's all. And I'm a little tired. I just came out here to get some fresh air."
"Well, come on. The council has broken for now. Tracas is going to show us to our room. We'll be staying with him."
Tracas led them down another bright hallway. "Your room has a washing alcove with running water from the city aqueducts. The warm water comes from a citywide reservoir, and the cold from an underground ice spring." Tracas opened the door for them. "There are two sleeping couches, and plenty of space. And there's a desk in one corner if you wish to write." Tracas smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry--I have other business that needs tending. I'll return to check on you when you're settled."
Tracas left, and Gabrielle collapsed on one of the couches. Xena sat on the other one. "I hate big meetings like this. Nothing ever gets decided in time to do anything about it."
"Mm-hmm." Gabrielle wasn't listening.
"I'm going to stand on my head and sing love songs to Joxer."
"Gabrielle, there's a fire-breathing gidra behind you." No response. "Gabrielle. Gabrielle!"
"Huh? Oh, sorry, Xena, I was just daydreaming."
"So I gathered. What has gotten into you?"
"Nothing has gotten into me. I'm fine, really."
"If you're sure. I'm hungry--I'm going to the kitchen. Do you want anything?"
"No, I'm not hungry." Xena left Gabrielle and went to find food. Alone, Gabrielle's mind began to wander, but soon she found herself thinking of Ares yet again, and of how he'd kissed her earlier. And of the promise she hadn't quite made, to meet him later. She tried to think logically about why Ares would kiss her like that, but every time all she thought of was him. The feel of him, the taste of him--everything about him. She closed her eyes, and he was there. When she opened them again, she expected him to be gone. He was still there. She reached out her hand expecting to pass through him, but encountered warm flesh. "You're here."
Ares smiled sensually. "I'm here."
Gabrielle wanted to run to him but instead held her distance. "Why?"
"Why not? Don't question it--you feel it, there's undeniably something between us."
"I feel it," she whispered, barely audible. And as soon as she'd said it, he was there, holding her. And he was kissing her again. "Xena," she managed to get out.
"Don't worry about Xena." Ares' kisses weakened Gabrielle. She held him and they seemed to become one body. Gabrielle's body flared all over, burning hot. Yet she felt Ares touching every part of her, and he was hotter still. He seared her wherever he touched her. His hands moved all over Gabrielle's body, never lingering.
Gabrielle felt like a raft in a maelstrom. Everything was happening so quickly. She wasn't surprised to notice that they had somehow moved over to the edge of her couch. Ares' hands were busy undressing her. Rather than hinder that, Gabrielle pushed Ares' vest down off his shoulders and down the muscular arms, where it puddled on the floor.
When Gabrielle stood naked before him, Ares stepped back and finished the job Gabrielle had begun. Gabrielle watched as the body she'd only dreamed of was revealed to her. He was powerfully built where she was lithe and slender; he was dark skinned and dark haired where she was lighter colored. His chest was sculpted with perfect muscle tone. She knew that if she touched the skin, it would be hard. His legs were powerfully built also, but still graceful. He was so much bigger than she. But she knew that they'd fit together perfectly.
And fit they did when Ares laid Gabrielle down on the couch. He lay on top of her, pressing her but not crushing her. His fingers teased her skin as he kissed her more savagely than before. Gabrielle responded to his kiss with an urgency that surprised them both, especially when she stroked him, and whispered, "Please." Ares pushed himself inside her, and she thrust against him in response. All the pent-up energy from the dreams, the denials and suppression came to the fore, and it gave Gabrielle the strength to match Ares thrust for thrust.
Gabrielle locked her fingers in Ares' hair, and arched her body into his, her nipples brushing against his chest. His hands clasped her waist and tried to hold her hips still beneath him. She and Ares climaxed at the same moment. Gabrielle blacked out a moment from the force of it. Ares was gone by the time she came to. She walked over to the alcove and washed in the cold water. After she bathed, she picked up her clothes and began to dress. Something fell to the floor and lay there glittering. Gabrielle bent to pick it up. It was a silver sword with a silver circlet on the hilt on a silver chain. Gabrielle knew it was from Ares--he always wore one just like it--one around his neck, and one in his ear. Gabrielle put the chain on and it was just long enough to allow the pendant to lie in the valley between her breasts. Her hair covered the rest of the chain.
She looked at the sleeping couch. She didn't want to lie in it alone, not after what they'd just shared there, but when she did it was almost as if he were still there because his scent remained. She fell asleep there, hands cradling the pendant he'd given her.
Xena returned to find Gabrielle sleeping peacefully. "Finally," Xena said to herself. She spread a blanket over her sleeping friend. Xena sat on her couch and went to sleep there. She was awakened some time later by a young servant, Zarias.
"Xena! You must wake up! The barbarians are coming this way!" The boy hurried over to shake Gabrielle. "You are expected in the Council Chamber."
Zarias left the room and Xena shook Gabrielle again.
Xena and Gabrielle hurried to the chamber where Ares and the others were gathered. One warlord, Ricas, stood and spoke. "We need a plan, and we need one now."
Another lord jeered, "We have Ares fighting for us--we don't need a plan!"
Ares thundered at the lord. "You fool! Did I teach you nothing? Even gods need plans."
All of the men began talking at once. Xena jumped onto the table and used her fingers to blow a shrill whistle. All of the men fell silent and looked to Xena. "Ricas is right. We need a plan. We know how the barbarians fight. They fight with brute strength and bludgeoning. We need to fight back with agility and finesse. Tracas, move whatever catapults you have to the gates. We can use those to break their camps and ranks. Charrus," she said, indicating another lord, "have your men scale the inside of the walls. We'll have them boil oil to pour down on any outside scalers. Mitar, position your centaur-trained archers on the wall also, and of the towers of this building. Use pitch arrows if necessary. The rest of you, comb through your armies and pull out your most lithe, nimble and quickest fighters. I want you to put them in a special reserve unit. The others I want ready to march out with me to face the barbarians. When we've wearied the barbarians fighting their way, our men will fall back and the reserve will come in and finish them off."
Xena jumped down from the table while the men dispersed.
"I taught you well, Xena; no one can deny that, not after today."
"No, I can't deny it--this is what you taught me--you taught me to kill, and to kill well. That's why I was brought here, because of the skills I learned from you. But I would give anything to forget." Xena left the room, but Gabrielle stayed behind a moment.
She pulled the necklace up to dangle from her fingers.
"You're wearing it."
"Yes. But why did you give it to me?"
"I wanted you to know that you are mine. That way, everyone else will know it, too." Gabrielle dropped the pendant back between her breasts. She turned to follow Xena when Ares called her back. "Be careful of the barbarians, Gabrielle. Last time, you had a magic scroll and caves to send them to. This time you're not so lucky." Gabrielle left the same time Ares vanished. She found Xena in the armory, having her sword sharpened.
"Gabrielle, I want you to stay behind this time. I'm afraid for you. I'm afraid your staff won't be enough against the barbarians."
"I can take care of myself, Xena. You don't have to worry about me."
"Yes, I do. I care about you, Gabrielle. I don't want to see you hurt or killed." Xena sighed. "Please listen."
"So it's okay for you to risk your neck fighting against the barbarians for what you believe in, but poor little Gabrielle has to stay behind? I don't think so. Besides, who's going to watch your back if I'm not there?"
Xena sighed again. She realized that she wasn't going to get anywhere with Gabrielle. "I don't have time to argue," she said as she took back her sword.
Gabrielle followed Xena out to the city gates. Xena saw Tracas looking through a leather cylinder. "What is that?"
"It's called a magnascope. One of Sinbad's men, Firouz, made it for me. Here, look through this end," Tracas instructed.
Xena saw the hordes of barbarians. "They outnumber us, two to one," she said. "But don't worry, Tracas. We won't let this city fall without a fight. Men--ATTACK!!" Xena cried as the hordes streamed toward the city gate. The catapults and archers began to fire, dropping many of the barbarians. But hydra-like, two seemed to replace every one that was dropped.
Xena raced out of the city with Gabrielle on her heels. She joined the other soldiers in hand-to-hand combat with the barbarians. Gabrielle scanned the field for Ares while fighting at Xena's back. Finally she saw him only yards away, flailing at one barbarian, heedless of the one sneaking up behind him. Gabrielle knew there was no way to warn him--she couldn't be heard over the noise of the battle. Acting instinctively, Gabrielle used her staff to vault over the distance separating her and Ares. Landing with a jolt, Gabrielle swung her staff down to minimize the impact. Steady, she dropped to the ground and rolled between Ares' back and the barbarian, blocking his sword thrust with her staff. Using that leverage, she pushed the barbarian backwards and impaled him on an upturned spear behind him. She looked over at Xena, who was more than holding her own. Rather than cross that dangerous space again, Gabrielle opted to stay and fight back-to-back with Ares.
Ares felt a presence behind him. He disposed of the barbarian he was fighting and half-turned to see Gabrielle land behind him and impale the barbarian he'd heard behind him. He smiled to himself and turned back to the fight, feeling better now that her presence was at his back and not across the battlefield.
Xena, meanwhile, was searching for Gabrielle while still trying to fight. So she was relieved but puzzled when she saw Gabrielle unharmed and fighting at Ares' back instead of hers. It felt strange to Xena not to have Gabrielle by her side.
Suddenly, a trumpet sounded and the barbarians began a retreat. Tracas and the men cheered as the others ran.
Later, Xena was helping Gabrielle tend to the wounded when she began to talk.
"We got separated," Xena said.
"Yeah, we did."
"I was worried about you."
"It felt strange to me not having you fighting by my side. What happened, that we got separated? One time near the last I saw you fighting alongside Ares."
"Yeah, I don't know what happened. It just seemed like suddenly, there was someone between us and next thing I know I'm fighting beside Ares." Gabrielle didn't want to tell Xena the truth, afraid that Xena would think Gabrielle was abandoning her.
"Well, at least we got the barbarians to retreat. But we've got to be ready in case they come back. I'm going to find Tracas and have him pull everyone together."
Gabrielle looked down. She was covered in dirt and barbarian blood. "You do that. I think I need a bath."
Xena looked at her smiled. I think you do, too. Go on--you also need your rest. Xena walked up the hallway to the Council Chamber and Gabrielle walked down to their room. She shut the door and went straight to the washing alcove. First herself, she decided, then her clothes. She took a pitcher of warm water and poured it over her head. The water sluiced down her hair and skin, washing off at least the surface grime, and relieving some of the soreness she was beginning to feel. She soaked a cloth in the warm water, then began to scrub where the blood and dirt had crusted together. She d finished her scrubbing and was reaching for a pitcher when she heard Ares.
"Let me help you with that." Ares took the water and poured it slowly over the scrubbed places. Gabrielle sighed, and Ares tossed her a drying cloth. "I'm very angry with you, my sweet."
"You are? Why?" Gabrielle asked, not noticing what he'd called her.
"Because you disobeyed me. I told you to be careful and the first thing I see you do is endanger your life for no reason."
"I had a reason! That man was going to--"
"Kill me? I think not. I am immortal, Gabrielle. Not that I don't appreciate the gesture, though."
Gabrielle thought a moment. ~What could she say? He was right. He had been in no danger.~ "I didn't think," she finally confessed. "I saw him and I didn't think I just reacted." For some reason, Gabrielle felt like crying. "The fact that you're immortal never entered my mind. I just saw you in that situation and I reacted to that. I'm sorry."
"Don't be. Tell me, Gabrielle, why did you stay with me? Why didn't you go back to Xena?"
"It was too dangerous. I couldn't risk trying to re-cross that space and fight more barbarians. So I stayed where I was."
"It felt good, didn't it? Fighting with me, by my side?"
"Yes," she whispered. "Yes, it did."
"And that's why you wanted to stay?"
"Yes." Gabrielle began to cry. About that moment, Xena returned to the room. Ares was gone before Xena entered.
"Gabrielle? What's wrong?" asked Xena, seeing the tears.
Gabrielle ran across the room to Xena, who held her friend while she cried. Xena rocked Gabrielle, whose tears subsided as Xena soothed her. "Oh, Xena, I feel so strange," Gabrielle said. "It's terrible yet wonderful at the same time. I've never felt like this before. I don't know what to do."
Xena hugged her friend tightly. "Is it the guy you told me about, the one you met during your search?"
"Yes. He's here; I've seen him and I've spoken to him."
"He's upset you like this? Gabrielle, what did he do to you?"
"Nothing--nothing! He didn't do anything! It's what he's said. He's said things that makes me think that he loves me but I'm not sure, and he knows about my feelings for him, and Xena, I love him and I don't want to! I don't want to love him, but I do!"
Xena looked at Gabrielle. "Who is this man, Gabrielle? Who is it you don't want to love?"
Gabrielle was upset enough to let something slip. "He's not a man, not anymore."
"Not a man anymore? Gabrielle, you're not making any sense." But when Gabrielle reached up to brush away her tears, she moved her hair also, and Xena saw the silver chain. She pulled on the chain till she saw the pendant. "Gabrielle, no. Not him. It can't be him."
Gabrielle saw that Xena had seen the necklace and knew who it belonged to. Of course she would have. "I told you that you wouldn't understand. Or approve."
"I thought you meant it was Joxer, that you'd finally seen the way he loves you!!!"
"What--no! It was Ares, all right? It was always Ares."
"You don't know what you're dealing with, Gabrielle. Ares is a monster, a user who takes people when they serve his purposes and discards them as soon as their usefulness to him is over. I know him, Gabrielle."
"So do I, Xena! And let me tell you about the Ares that I know. He's not a monster. He's fun to be around. He's quick to laugh. He's easy to talk to. And when he talks about you, Xena, and your accomplishments, there's pride in his voice."
"But don't you see, Gabrielle? That's when he was mortal. He's a god again, now."
"He kept his word. He promised that when he got his powers back, he'd stop the soldiers from attacking the valley. And he did. The ones that got away from you, he took care of. Ares stopped them, just as he'd said that he would."
"Gabrielle, look what he's doing to us. We are best friends, and we're at each other's throats because of him."
"No!" Gabrielle blew up, refusing to listen. "Not because of him. Because of you! Because you can't let go of your hate for him! Because you can't open your mind or your eyes to see who he is. And because you don't trust me."
Xena was hurt and angry. She spun on her heel and left Gabrielle alone. She walked to the front of the house where Argo was tethered. She mounted her and was about to ride off when Tracas stopped her.
"Where are you going? It's almost time for the meeting you asked to be called."
"Have it without me." Xena rode Argo out of the city gate. Gabrielle watched from the window.
"It's better you let her go and get it out of her system," Ares said from behind her. "She used to ride out her frustrations when I taught her and she'd come back with a solution. It's her way," he offered as reassurance.
"I know," Gabrielle said as she turned to face him. "So now what?"
"What do you mean, now what?"
"I mean, what now between us."
"I heard everything that you said to Xena," he said, stalling.
"It's nothing that you didn't already know."
"Some of it was."
"Really? You mean Aphrodite hasn't been telling you everything? That's a surprise."
"All Aphrodite told me was that you were attracted to me, just as I was to you."
"Yeah, well, it's a little more than that. Surprised she didn't tell you. I mean, knowing the way she feels about me, I figured she'd have been dying to tell you."
"Even if she had told me, I wouldn't have believed it. Not from her. Not until I heard it from you tonight. You defended me. To Xena," he said quietly.
"What I said was true. Whether she believed it or not, I had to at least get it out there. She has to know how I feel."
"Gabrielle, the things that you said about me, they're some of the most beautiful things that anyone ever has. But what you describe is only part of who I am."
"I know. I know who you are, and what you do and what you've done. But, god or mortal, you have a side that few people see. I saw it, and I fell in love with you."
"Look what this has done to me. I just had a huge fight with my best friend because of this. I knew that she wouldn't understand, but I didn't expect this."
"It doesn't matter what Xena understands, or what Xena likes." Ares took Gabrielle's arms and turned her to look at him. His voice hardened when he spoke. "This is your life, Gabrielle. Yours to take by the throat and make it submit to you, turn it into whatever you want it to be."
"But I'm not strong like Xena."
Ares shook her. "Forget about Xena!! You are strong. Look at yourself. You just had a fight with Xena. So what? You're still here. You made a decision, and you stood by it."
Gabrielle blinked. "You're right. I guess I am stronger than I thought."
"Of course you are. Everyone has the capability. Most just need a reason to tap into it." Ares moved in closer to Gabrielle. "I can be your reason, Gabrielle. I can help you be the kind of woman that I know you can be."
"Please," said Gabrielle, not sure what she was asking for.
Ares kissed Gabrielle, and Gabrielle held him close and lost herself in him, again. Xena walked in on the two of them.
In an eyeblink of fury, without thinking, Xena's war cry burst forth and she whipped up the chakram and flung it toward them. As soon as Gabrielle heard Xena, she grabbed her staff and she deflected the chakram. The two women faced off, ready to fight.
Ares thundered at both of them. "ENOUGH!! Both of you, STOP!"
"Gabrielle, I didn't want to say this, and I still don't, but I can't stand to see you do this to yourself. I can't stay here." Xena grabbed her roll and left the room. Gabrielle stopped her before she could leave.
"Look, Xena, I love you. You're my best friend. At least I thought that you were. But if you can't support me, then I don't need you." She stepped back, and into Ares. To her surprise, he was still there and hadn't left.
Xena didn't reply. She just left the room. Gabrielle turned to Ares. "That didn't hurt as much as I thought it would. I mean, I didn't want to see this happen, but it's not as painful as I thought."
"Of course it's not. Because you've tapped into that core of power and strength inside of you."
There was a knock on the door. "Come in," Gabrielle said. The servant, Zarias, entered the room. "Zarias, what can I do for you?"
"I've come for Xena," he said, ignoring Ares as best he could. "The meeting is ready to begin, and she's not there."
"Xena's gone, Zarias. She just left. I don't know to where."
"But--but she can't be gone! She promised to help!"
"And she still will, Zarias. I just don't know how. But Xena gave her word." Just then, a trumpet sounded from the wall. "What's that?"
"It's our wall caller. He's calling us all to the walls, and quickly." Gabrielle and Ares followed Zarias out to the wall, and the two of them climbed to the top while Zarias pointed. "They're leaving! The barbarians are leaving!"
The armies of Thrace watched as one lone figure on horseback flashed swords and drove the horde back to Barbaria. One of the men down in the front had Tracas' magnascope. "It's Xena!" he cried.
Sure enough, when Gabrielle looked hard enough, she could see the familiar details of Xena's body, and the light flashing off the swords and her chakram flying.
When the barbarians were gone, Xena reared Argo and let out a chilling version of her cry. This one chilled the spines of the people on the wall, and Gabrielle was no exception. She'd never heard Xena sound like that. She touched Argo's flanks, and rode away from Thrace without a backward glance.
Gabrielle watched Xena ride off. She felt as though a part of her had ridden off with Xena, but for the most part she was said that things had come to this. "Will she come back?" she asked Ares as everyone else left the walls and began to congregate in the square.
"Not as long as I'm in your life," Ares said gently.
"Well, that's her problem, Ares. I'm sorry that she can't accept us, really I am, but I'm not going to let her come between us."
"Gabrielle, are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure. I'm more sure of this than anything else." She moved into his arms, wanting comfort.
Some of the warlords came up on the wall to question Gabrielle. "Where did Xena go? What did she do with the barbarians?" asked Ricas.
"I don't know where Xena went, or what she was doing out there. I don't know when she'll be back, or if she'll be back." As Gabrielle climbed down the ladder leaving the lords alone, Zarias was waiting for her at the bottom of the ladder.
"This was left for you, by the gate." Zarias handed her the parchment as Ares jumped down from the wall and landed behind her.
Gabrielle read the note out loud, "Dear Gabrielle: I heard what you said before, and while I don't believe any of it, you said some things I need to think about. I've taken care of the barbarians. Please thank Tracas for his hospitality for me, and apologize to him for me also. He will understand. And I wish you luck. Xena." Gabrielle handed Ares the note to read and cleared her throat. "Th--thank you, Zarias. Could you point me toward Tracas, please? Thank you." She turned to Ares, who looked up from the parchment. "I need to talk to Tracas."
"Are you all right?"
"No. But it's not the time to worry about it." She left Ares to find Tracas. She found him in a celebratory circle with some of the other warlords. "Tracas, I need to speak with you."
Certainly." They moved a little apart from the crowd. "What was that with Xena earlier?"
"I don't know. And I don't know where she is. She left me a note--she asked me to thank you for your hospitality. She also apologizes for her behavior, and that she's sorry she had to leave. But she said you'd understand because you're her friend."
"Did you fight? The two of you, I mean?"
"I saw her race out on Argo earlier," Tracas said, "and judging from the way she was fighting, I knew she was upset. I guessed that the two of you fought."
Gabrielle sighed. "We did."
"Don't worry, Gabrielle. This is Xena's way. When she is angry, she goes off alone."
"So I've been told. Is there anywhere special she goes?"
"No. She usually gives Argo her head, and goes where she takes her. And there's usually no one around where she is. The horse must have a special sense about these things."
"How do you know all this?"
"Because one time she and I were fighting together--training, under Ares. I don't recall exactly what happened, but Xena got very upset with something that happened between Ares and her. I saw her take off like a bat out of Tartarus. Not knowing if she was in trouble or if she'd need help, I followed her. I should say, I tried to follow her. She was riding the horse like every demon from the pit was following her. I realized then it was her way of dealing with whatever's happened. Xena's way is a way of solitude." Tracas sighed. "I'm sorry she couldn't be here for the celebration. Did she say if she'd return?"
"No, she didn't. She didn't really say anything at all. I'm afraid she won't come back."
"I have known Xena for a long time, Gabrielle. Perhaps if you told me what you fought about...I could help you think of where she's gone, or put your mind at ease."
Gabrielle looked at Tracas for a moment. Somehow she knew Ares was listening though he wasn't near. "I'm not sure that I want to find her. But thank you for the offer. Xena's right--we both said things we need to think about. But if you do hear from her..."
Tracas nodded in understanding. "Of course. If you'll excuse me," he said, walking off.
Ares came over to her. "Are you sure that you don't want to find her?"
"I'm sure. She doesn't approve, she doesn't understand, and she doesn't like it. When she comes back, it will be because she wants to. And maybe she'll be able to handle us then," she said, walking to the house and to her room.
"She won't. She doesn't like the idea of me being a part of your life," Ares said, walking with her.
"I know. But she's going to have to accept it."
"You shouldn't have to choose Xena or me."
"No, I shouldn't. But it's not your fault--you didn't do this. Xena chose to leave me. I didn't ask her to."
"No. Don't defend her. We both know what she did was wrong. That's why she left."
"Even so, Xena is your friend. That's important to her. She's only looking out for your best interests."
"That's what she thinks, I know that. But it comes down to the fact that this is my life. You pointed it out to me earlier--it's my life to take by the throat and choke it into whatever I want it to be. If Xena wants to be a part of my life, I'll welcome her, but if all she can do is criticize the choices I make in my life and not be supportive of me, then I don't need her."
"I never meant to come in between you and Xena, Gabrielle," Ares said, secretly delighted that she was coming around to him, and to his way of thinking.
"Of course you didn't mean to. And you didn't. She came between us by not being able to accept the way that I feel about you. She can't open her mind to you. It's so closed by her hatred of you and what you made her into that she can't see you the way I do. She's blinded by it."
"Gabrielle, I can't stand by and watch this. I won't."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that you have to go after her. I'm saying that you don't always have to agree with her, but you've got to understand she's doing what she's doing because she loves you. I don't pretend to begin to understand it, but it is true. You don't know the woman Xena was before, the hardened killer. A lost warlord, I called her, hungry to kill. She was good at it. Damned good. But she has changed so much since she met you. Do you want her turning back into that warlord? That is likely to happen without you by her side. Your influence has kept her away from mine ever since she met you. If you're not there with her, she'll revert to my way. Not that I mind--I would love to have her back on my side, killing for me. But with the way she feels about me., she'd probably raise an army against me."
"She wouldn't do that."
"Oh, yeah, she would. Because you're not there to help her, to hold her back. And she won't stop until she has her vengeance. Innocent people will suffer."
"I can't be held responsible for Xena's actions!!"
"I don't know how to say this. This isn't what I'm good at. You are the one thing that's kept Xena away from me, from hatred. Without you, she'll become that hatred again. I don't know about you, but I don't want someone like Xena angry with me. Would you like to know what she's feeling right now? She's feeling hurt, betrayed, lost and confused. And she's going to want vengeance, revenge on those who hurt her. Do you really want to fight against Xena in a battle in which I tell you will result in the death of one of you? Because if it comes down to that, no matter what, I won't allow her to harm you."
"Are you saying that you'd kill Xena?"
"To protect you, I would. Besides, if I can't woo her back to my side, she's a liability to me. It wouldn't be that much of a sacrifice."
"You can't be serious. You wouldn't kill Xena."
"Wouldn't I? Look at me--do I look like I'm joking? Now do you realize the seriousness of what I'm talking about? Have I impressed upon you just what all of this means? I don't want Xena angry with me and I won't have her angry with you."
"You're trying to manipulate me, Ares," Gabrielle said, closing the door to her room. "But I don't get why. You should be pushing us apart, not together. I thought that you wanted Xena back."
"Oh, I do. I want Xena back so very badly. But I want you, too, though in a much different way. And if it takes me working against every natural instinct I possess, then that's what it takes."
This was making Gabrielle uncomfortable, so she switched topics. "So what if she doesn't listen to me? What then?"
"She will listen. If you remind her of the right things. Of your love for each other. Of all the experiences you've shared. And of all the good things that she'd be throwing away. Like her son. You've also got to make her see that you're not turning against her. You don't want to corner an animal like Xena."
"She's not an animal. She's a human being."
"And you mortals are the most dangerous animals. You should know that--look at all the animals that you and Xena have fought. Xena is the deadliest of them all because she's smart. She thinks. She knows what she's doing--I taught her all of that. Xena's not a threat you take lightly. If she gets angry enough to come after you, she'll be angry enough to kill. Me she can't kill. You she can. Would you like to think about what killing you would do to her when she realizes what she's done? Or of how you'd feel about me if I killed Xena for your life?"
Gabrielle felt cornered by Ares' relentless logic, but also freed by it at the same time, knowing that what she'd wanted to do was the right thing. "It's just so hard, knowing what to do."
Ares embraced her. "I know, my sweet. But you can do it." Ares wondered then to himself what he felt for this little mortal who'd annoyed him for so long.
Gabrielle was wondering about the same thing, what she felt for this powerful and devastating god. She loved Ares, and thought that surely he felt the same way, especially with everything he'd done and said. "You're right. I do need to talk with Xena."
"Then let's go."
"No! I mean, wait a minute. I need to go alone."
"Out of the question. There could still be barbarians in the woods."
"I'll call for you if I need you, I promise. But it needs to be just the two of us. She doesn't like me very much right now, and I feel safe saying she despises you. I'm afraid that if we show up together, she'll be even harder to reach and reason with. It's going to hard enough as it is."
"I don't like this, Gabrielle. If there's the slightest indication of trouble, call me."
Gabrielle knew she'd won. It gave her a heady feeling, besting the God of War. "I promise I'll be careful." She stretched up to kiss him. "One for the road."
"Keep it up and you won't get to the road." She walked to the door and he called her name. "Gabrielle."
"Wear the necklace on the outside. When people see it, they'll know you travel under my protection." He traced the chain down her neck and pulled the pendant out.
Gabrielle picked up her staff and walked out the door. She went to the gates, then started out in the general direction Xena had ridden off in. After an hour or so, she began to tire. She was ready to turn back and ask Tracas or Ares for help when she heard a twig snap off to the side. "Xena?" she asked, thinking it might be her investigating whatever noise Gabrielle herself was making. Instead of Xena, though, five barbarians crashed through the brush.
"Attack!" yelled the leader, when he saw Gabrielle had seen them.
Suddenly, she was overwhelmed. Gabrielle struggled vainly. There were too many for her to handle. She called to Ares. "Ar-," but a gag was shoved into her mouth and tied in the back of her head. She was bound and taken back to their camp.
Ares had been listening for Gabrielle. When she cried out and was cut off, Ares immediately went to her. He saw the barbarians binding her. Rage clouded his vision and he stepped out to attack the men. One of them saw him and put a knife to Gabrielle's throat.
"Keep back, godling. We know you. If you tell anyone that we're here, we kill the woman. If you attack us, we kill the woman."
Ares looked for a moment into Gabrielle's eyes. There was no fear in them, only calmness and faith in him. "I'll be back for you, my sweet." Her eyes acknowledged his promise as she was dragged away. Ares disappeared and reappeared in the middle of Xena's camp.
Xena saw him and jumped to her feet. "What do you want here?"
"I've got no time for games, Xena. Gabrielle's been captured by a band of barbarians. I need your help to get her back."
Xena stared hard at Ares, searching for some sign of deceit. She saw none. "Tell me everything."
Ares started talking. "Gabrielle was looking for you, to come make things right with you. She got captured by the barbarians in the woods. She called for me, but I couldn't get there in time. They already had her."
"So why didn't you blaze to the rescue?"
"Because I didn't want her killed!" Ares yelled. "They knew who I am. They saw me and threatened to kill her if I made a move against them."
"So you think they don't know me? I'm the one that drove them all back to Barbaria, remember?"
"Not all of them. But that's why I need you. You go in there, and they'll all be so concerned with getting rid of you that I can get Gabrielle out of there."
Ares and Xena sat down in front of the fire and together worked out a plan to rescue Gabrielle. "We wait until nightfall. That's when they'll be sleeping, with only one or two on guard. I'll go in, take care of the guards and the rest of them, and while I'm doing that, you get Gabrielle out of there and bring her back here, all right?"
Night fell, and Xena brazenly walked up to the barbarian camp. The single sentry saw her and called to wake the others. "It's the Warrior Woman! Attack!" The other barbarians woke and all five converged on Xena. Xena let out a scream and flipped into the camp. She drew her sword and swung at the nearest barbarian. She sliced his arm open and he screamed in pain and dropped his sword. Xena kicked him in the chest and he went flying backwards.
Gabrielle's head jerked up when she heard Xena's scream. She began to struggle against her ropes but it only chafed her skin raw. She began to struggle harder, but then she felt someone's hand on her shoulder. Her head twisted around and saw Ares. He untied her gag and kissed her quickly, then worked on the rest of her ropes. "What's going on?"
"What do you think?" he asked as he freed her and pulled her up. "We're getting you out. Put your arms around me and hold on," he said. Ares vanished with Gabrielle, leaving Xena alone with the barbarians.
Xena had disposed of another barbarian by shattering his knee. That left three of them. The sword she'd taken from the first barbarian she threw at the third, penetrating his shoulder and pinning him to the tree Gabrielle had been tied to. She was preparing to fling her chakram at the last two when a crackling bolt of blue lighting arced over her shoulder and incinerated one of the remaining two. Xena threw the chakram with all her might, striking and dropping the last barbarian before the lethal blue bolt struck him. It instead struck the tree Gabrielle had been tied to, showering sparks and debris on the pinioned barbarian. Xena caught her chakram as it arced back to her hand and spun to face Ares, who stood with this arms crossed over his chest. "You didn't have to kill him."
"Yes, I did. Compared to what I could've done to him, to all of them, a quick death was the best mercy I could give them." Ares reached out to Xena to take her back to the camp.
"No thanks," she said, shaking his grip off her arm. "I'll find my own way."
"As you wish." Ares vanished, leaving Xena to make her way through the dark woods. Ares reappeared in Xena's camp.
"Where's Xena?" was the first thing Gabrielle asked, running to him.
"What, no hello? Not even a thank you?" he asked, opening his arms to catch her. "Well, I'm happy to see you, too. And Xena is fine, she's just coming back on her own."
"What was that back there? How did you know Xena would be rescuing me?"
"Doesn't she always? Besides, how could I not have known? I helped her plan it."
"Whoa whoa whoa, wait a minute. You and Xena actually worked together? And you didn't kill each other?"
"When something's important, anyone can work together. Even Ares and I," said Xena, as she walked back into her camp. "And you are important, Gabrielle," Xena said, pausing to look at Ares. "To both of us, it seems."
"Xena, we need to talk."
"Just the two of us," Xena said, turning her steely gaze on Ares. He shrugged and vanished. Alone, Xena felt freer to embrace Gabrielle, who hugged her back fiercely. "I'm glad you're safe."
"Me, too. I've missed you, Xena."
"I've missed you too, Gabrielle." Xena let go of Gabrielle and turned to tend the fire. Gabrielle wanted to pull her back to face her but didn't.
"I thought you were my friend, Xena."
"I am, Gabrielle. I'm only doing what I think is best for you."
"By abandoning me? Because that's what you're doing. I thought that you'd be happy that I finally found someone else that I think I can love."
"If it were anyone else in the world, I would be. I'd be very happy for you. Ecstatic, in fact. But it can't be him. You don't know him, Gabrielle. You don't know what you're getting yourself into when you get involved with Ares."
"If you can't have him, no one else can either, is that it?"
"No, that's not it, Gabrielle. Anyone else is welcome to him. But he doesn't love you."
"How do you know? What do you know about love? You've never loved anyone!" As soon as she'd said that, Gabrielle covered her mouth. How could she say something like that to Xena???
"That's not true. I loved Hercules. I love my son. And I love you, Gabrielle. But I've also loved other people before, and I've gotten hurt by them. I've opened myself to them, gave my heart and soul, and got nothing but pain in return. I don't want that to ever happen to you, Gabrielle. I don't want to see you lose that innocent faith that you have in the power of love. I don't want you to lose it like I did."
"Why can't you let me make my own mistakes?"
"Gabrielle, you are a part of my family. I've lost part of my family already because I couldn't protect them--I don't want to lose you because I couldn't protect you."
"Who are you to run my life?" Then Gabrielle said, "Xena, I'm sorry. I didn't come here to get into this with you again. I came here to ask you to please be my friend again."
"I'll always be your friend, Gabrielle. No matter where we are or what's been said or done between us, I'll always be there for you. I'll always love you."
"Then why can't you support me?" Gabrielle whispered.
Xena saw how much this was hurting Gabrielle, and she sighed. "Is there anything I can say or do to change your mind?"
"No, there isn't."
"Even though I know you'll get hurt in the end, like I did?"
"There's hurt in everything, Xena. You can't protect me from everything forever."
~I would if I could,~ thought Xena, while she watched her friend. She realized that there was nothing that she could do but go along, and catch her when she fell. "You're right. I should support you in the choices that you make. The gods know you've supported me many times over. So if you choose to get involved with Ares, I will be there by your side."
"Do you really mean it?"
"Of course I do. I mean it," Xena said.
"Thank you, Xena. You don't know what this means to me," said Gabrielle, and she moved to embrace Xena again.
Briefly Xena rested her cheek on Gabrielle's hair and thought to herself, ~I hope this isn't the last time I hold this innocent child,~ though inside she knew that Gabrielle would be changed by this situation, and this Gabrielle would be gone forever.
Xena reluctantly broke the camp and packed it onto Argo. She allowed Gabrielle to lead them down the path back toward Thrace. Xena walked in silence, thinking to herself. ~Could Ares have changed? For Gabrielle? Look what she's done for me--maybe she could touch him, too.~ Her thoughts were interrupted by the crier on the city's wall.
"Xena's returned! Xena's returned! The boy jumped onto a pile of hay expressly for quick dismounts and slid into the streets. He raced before them, proclaiming her return to every street and home in the town. People flooded out of their homes and businesses and cheered her as she passed by. Tracas met them at the end of the street.
"Xena, my friend! You've returned, I see. All is well?" At her confirming nod, Tracas grinned broadly. "Excellent news! Today is hereby proclaimed a day of city-wide celebrations, in honor of Xena, Warrior Princess, honorary protectress of Thrace, and deliverer of her people from the barbarian horde!!"
As the Thracians were celebrating Xena's return, Ares looked down on them from his palace on Mt. Olympus. He was brooding over the party and petting his dog Graegus when Discord appeared.
"Go away," he said to her without looking.
"Poor Ares, sulking away up here, missing the party."
"I'm not missing the party," he clarified, "I'm skipping the party. There is a difference."
"Oh, really? I thought the God of War went anywhere he wanted to."
"Well, then, have it your way. I don't want to go."
"Sounds like sour grapes to me. Weren't you invited?"
"Not by the one person that would matter," Ares said, scratching Graegus behind his ears. "Not by Xena. My being there would only complicate things between them."
Discord laughed nastily. "Please. Since when have you needed an invitation? And since when do you care about how mortals feel, anyway? This is not what I expected from the God of War. I thought that Xena was your mortal enemy, the one that must be destroyed at all costs, and now you're not going to her little tea party down there because she didn't invite you?"
Ares gave Discord the steely gaze and Graegus growled in sync with his master's mood. "Get out of my face, or you'll regret the consequences."
"Is that supposed to frighten me?"
"Just get out."
"You know, the Ares I used to know would have taken advantage of the situation. He'd have used this golden opportunity to take care of Xena." Graegus lunged at her, and Discord vanished, leaving Ares with something to think about.
"Do I truly want Xena out of the way more than I desire Gabrielle? When did that irritating blonde harpy become so important to me?" Ares asked himself. "This should be an easy decision, and would be, if not for her." Ares thought silently long and hard. Ultimately, Ares decided, "Xena is a threat," he reasoned aloud. "If I can't woo her back, I'll have to destroy her." And then he began to rationalize. "After all, I am immortal. I'll have the rest of time to find another woman like Gabrielle. But Xena has to go." Then he had a pang of almost-guilt. "Gabrielle," he whispered. "I don't want to hurt you." Then a major realization came to him. He need not worry about Xena as long as Gabrielle was involved with him. Xena would never move against him for the same reason he would not move against Xena--Gabrielle. She would not hurt Gabrielle by challenging Ares. When he realized that, a smile spread over his face, and he laughed. Cheered, he sat back to watch the celebration, but when he caught sight of Xena and Gabrielle together, he impulsively decided to join them.
He appeared between Xena and Gabrielle, and put an arm around each of them, beaming. "Hello, ladies."
Xena shoved his arm off her shoulders. "Hello," she said, barely civil. "And goodbye," she said, stalking off.
Refusing to be upset by Xena, Gabrielle turned to Ares. "You're in a good mood," she said. "And you're smiling. Genuinely smiling."
"Aaah--life is good, Gabrielle. Life is good."
"You are going to explain that, aren't you?" asked Gabrielle, walking alongside him, his arm around her waist.
"Not a chance."
"You can't be thinking I'm going to forget about something like that?"
"Let's just say I've solved a big problem that's been bothering me for a while now," Ares said. "And I feel good."
"So I see," said Gabrielle, smiling.
Ares pulled something out of his vest. "This is for you."
Gabrielle took it and unwrapped it. "It's a scroll."
"Yes, my sweet, but it's a very special scroll."
Gabrielle quickly re-rolled it and handed it back to him. "Oh, no, you don't. I've had more than enough of special scrolls lately to last me the rest of my life."
"No, no, it's not like that! Whenever you write anything on this scroll, whether it's true or not, the scroll will tell you."
"You mean it's like an oracle?"
"It can't tell the future, but anything else it can tell you."
"How will I know what's true or false?"
"True words will glow, false words won't. Try it."
Gabrielle wrote something simple on the scroll. "Gabrielle loves Xena." The words glowed a fiery red. "It works! Thank you!"
"Did you doubt it?" Gabrielle hugged Ares and she found herself in a very passionate kiss. He used his whole body to kiss her, and Gabrielle was lost. Again.
Across the square, Xena was watching them. She watched Ares give Gabrielle the scroll, saw her test it, watched them kiss, then watched them disappear together.
"So that's what you fought about. She wouldn't tell me." Tracas had joined her.
"Yes. That's what we fought about."
"I take it then that you lost."
Xena looked at Tracas. "I couldn't stand seeing her hurt. All the time she was saying that she didn't need me, but she was begging for my approval, my support. I couldn't let her down like that."
Tracas was silent a moment. "Then you didn't tell her about Cythia?"
"No. I didn't."
"You didn't tell her how Ares broke your heart and killed your soul for a while there. Your words, Xena, not mine."
"I tried, but the words wouldn't come. I also tried convincing myself that he's changed because of her, but I couldn't quite do it."
"You love her very much, don't you?"
"Yes. That's why this situation is so hard for me. I've lived it, and I can't stomach the thought of her going through all the things that I did. But I can't stop her. I've tried."
Tracas looked at Xena, and thought again that Xena, for all her tough acting, was truly a vulnerable woman but a good friend. "It is hard, isn't it. Letting go of someone that you love?"
"Yes, it is," she whispered. "You know, I thought that once I left Ares behind, the hurt would go away and I'd be myself again. But it didn't happen until I met her. And she made it go away. But now, he's taking her away and the hurt has come back. I don't want to lose her, but I feel so helpless."
Tracas looked again at Xena, at the woman standing beside him. "I know that you're hurting. But you've got to tell Gabrielle about Cythia. Tell her now, before she gets in any deeper, before she gets hurt the way that you did."
"It's too late for that. I've tried to help her, but she's already in love with him, or at least she tells herself that she is, and anything that I say she's going to hold against me. No, I'm going to stand by her, and help her when she needs me."
"You haven't changed, have you? You're still putting everyone else's welfare ahead of your own. That's what you used to do with me, with Ares, with whoever was your friend or lover."
"I have changed. Gabrielle is the only one I put before everything. That's how I got hurt before, so I changed."
"It's how he's hurting you this time." Tracas watched Xena walk away from him. He looked at his house and sighed.
Gabrielle and Ares were together in Gabrielle's room. Gabrielle slid the scroll carefully into her bag and tossed the bag onto the corner desk. She walked over to the window and looked out onto the people below. Ares came up behind her and slid his arms around her.
"Everyone seems so happy today," she said. But then she saw Xena standing apart from everyone. "Except for Xena. She looks so sad, so alone."
Ares sighed. "She always looks alone. She is a lonely woman, Gabrielle, you know that."
"Yeah, I guess. But she just seems more alone now more than ever."
"That's because you were also alone. But now, you have me, and Xena still doesn't have anyone."
"She still has me."
"Not to her. To her, I have you now and she has no one."
"It's almost like she chooses to be alone all of the time."
"Most people are afraid to get close to her."
"Like they are of you?"
"Yet you braved us both."
Gabrielle turned to look at him. "Because I see something in both of you worth loving." As she said that, she ran her hands over his face, his lips. He caught her hands and kissed her palms. He made her shudder. He kissed her lips and then her neck, then her shoulder. Then he looked toward the ridge and saw that it was empty. He didn't want to leave, but he needed to speak to Xena since Tracas had been with her.
"I have to go. I won't be long."
"Oh. Uh, okay then. I'll be here," Gabrielle said.
Ares vanished and reappeared on the back of the hillside where Xena was waiting. "I thought you'd show up . I knew it as soon as Tracas came up here," Xena said.
"What you're thinking about doing is going to hurt her far more than I ever could," Ares said, cutting to the point.
"I'm not thinking about doing anything right now, but why don't you tell me what you're so afraid I'm going to do."
"I'm not afraid of you doing it, I'm anticipating that you will do it, in fact. I'm trying to head you off before you do it."
"Tell Gabrielle about Cythia."
"And why would I do that?"
"You know why."
"Because you seduced me there at Cythia, made me love you and made me believe you loved me? Because you killed my soul when I came to you there once to find you making love to Sylia there? Because that broke my heart more than I can say? Yes, I thought about telling her. I wanted to. But I didn't. I couldn't tell her. And I am afraid that I see this happening to Gabrielle right now. I'd have no reason to tell her, though. It would kill her. No, Ares, your secret is safe with me. I've no intention of ever telling Gabrielle or anyone what you did to me."
"I'm sorry that drove you away from me. Sorrier than you know. But right now, my main concern is Gabrielle. I won't let you tell her about this that's happened in the past."
"I've already told you that I won't tell her. What do you want from me--blood?"
"No. Just your word."
"All right. I give you my word. I promise I won't tell her." Ares left and Xena sat on the hillside alone, sounds of the celebration drifting over to her. But instead of joining the celebration, Xena stood at the crest of the hill, with a bird's eye view of everything spread below her.
In her room while she was waiting, Gabrielle pulled out a fresh scroll and quill.
\\The adventure began when Xena got word from an old friend that his city was in danger, under threat of a barbarian invasion. Xena flew to his side like an eagle. She rode from sunrise to sunset to arrive at Thrace in time to prevent the invasion. When she arrived, she was met by her friend Tracas who had called her, and by Ares, the God of War and patron of the city. The two men rushed Xena into a war council, where she amazed everyone in the meeting with her brilliant strategy. The first attack came, as expected, before dusk. Xena led the attack, her swords blazing a deadly path in front of her, carving her name in the memories of the barbarians for years to come. Not to be outshone, Ares was fighting alongside her, racking up kill after kill after kill,
truly proving to the barbarians that he is the God of War. Buckling under the attack, the invading barbarians retreated to their homeland of Barbaria. The victorious warriors returned to Thrace in triumph.//
Gabrielle stopped writing and read over what she'd written. "Not bad," she said aloud to herself. "I'm getting my action--"
"Where?" asked Ares.
"Where are you getting your action, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle looked puzzled. "Weird question, Ares. I'm just writing about The Battle for Thrace."
Ares took the scroll. "Let me see," he said, reading. "Did you mention me?"
"Of course I did."
"Ah, here I am. Only one line? No mention of my 'deadly blade unerringly finding its fatal mark'?"
Gabrielle flushed furiously when he said that. "You read my scroll?"
"Only the one left out on the desk. Nice piece of fiction, I must say."
"It was knotted shut!!"
"I was curious to see what else you write, little bard. Do you really think that people fear my 'handsome yet sometimes cruel visage'?"
"You weren't supposed to read that."
"And not see myself through your eyes? Not see myself as 'a warrior who intimidates as much with physique as physical prowess' yet 'is capable of acting with great honor and tenderness?' Deny myself the pleasure of reading you praising me? No. I get very little sincere admiration and adulation and no positive press. So I think I'm entitled."
Gabrielle silently reminded herself to hide her journal in a different place later. "You'll get positive press from me."
"You're welcome. Now, did you get your business or whatever taken care of?"
"Yeah, it's history," he said. "Now, where were we?" he asked, taking her into his arms.
Gabrielle turned her back to him and walked backwards into him. "I was here," she said, and she pulled his head down to her neck. "And you were here."
"You're right. I was." He started kissing her neck and shoulders. "Or was I here? Or was it here?" he asked, moving downwards. Gabrielle melted in Ares.
Xena stood alone, watching the party beneath her. Joxer seemed to materialize out of nowhere. "Where did you come from?"
"Cirra. I was on my way home, when I was overtaken by a sudden urge to come to Thrace. Don't know why, but I caught a caravan here. When I got here, a party was going on and everyone said that it was in your honor. Then I look up and see you standing alone up here and I thought that you might want to know people are wondering where you are."
"Thanks, Joxer, but no thanks. I don't want to party tonight, if it's all the same to you."
Joxer displayed unusual tact. "Is there something wrong?"
"Nothing that I want to talk about."
Joxer sat quietly beside Xena, playing with a blade of grass. "It's Gabrielle, isn't it?"
"I knew. I knew it here," he said, tapping his chest.
"You love her, don't you Joxer?"
"Yeah. Very much."
"Then you've got a right to know this. She's involved with Ares."
Joxer dropped the blade of grass. "Ares? As in God of War Ares?"
"That's right. And I can't stop it. She won't listen to me, and the only thing that I could have told her that might convince her, I swore that I wouldn't tell. I know that she's going to get hurt, Joxer, but I can't stop it."
Joxer did something that some might call brave, others stupid. He grabbed Xena by the arms and shook her. "You've got to stop it." Xena looked at him in shock. "I'm sorry, Xena, but you have to stop her. You are the only one that she listens to."
"Look at yourself!! This isn't Xena! What have you done with her? Where's the warrior that would risk everything for her friends? Where is Xena? What happened to you, Xena, that suddenly all you can do is stand around and wait for something terrible to happen?"
"I almost lost her, Joxer. I almost drove her away from me trying to tell her. And I'm not going to risk that again."
"So because you're scared, you're gonna stand back and watch Gabrielle get hurt and bitter? I thought better of you, Xena."
Xena whirled on Joxer and knocked him to the ground. She whipped out her sword and pointed it at his throat. "For what you've said, any other man would die," Xena hissed.
"So why not kill me? Just because it hurts doesn't make the words less true. You've got to save her, Xena."
Xena stalked off and didn't notice when Joxer's form melted and Aphrodite appeared. "Go get em, Xena," she said, and disappeared in a flash of golden light. She strode down the hill and through the celebrations, not noticing the people that were trying to stop her and speak to her. She walked straight toward Tracas' house and walked in the door. She went to the room that she and Gabrielle shared. She threw open the door and glared at Ares, who was holding Gabrielle against a bare chest. "I want to talk to you. NOW," she hissed, and almost dragged him out of the room. She slammed the door before Gabrielle could speak.
"You made me promise that I wouldn't tell Gabrielle about Cythia, and I won't. But you can't stop me from showing her just how little you care about her and her feelings."
"And how do you intend to do that? You know that you can't move against me, Xena. I have you at a total disadvantage. Gabrielle believes me when I tell her that you are so angry at me that you would do anything to hurt me. You can't move against me without forever destroying your relationship with Gabrielle. I have you right where I want you, Xena--under control and in my power."
Gabrielle opened the door the rest of the way. Xena looked over Ares' shoulder, and Ares turned a moment later. When he would have gone back in, Gabrielle shut the door in his face. That didn't stop him; he simply appeared inside the room in front of Gabrielle.
"You used me," Gabrielle whispered. "You knew how I felt and you used me."
"Yes. Yes, you did. You took my feelings and you twisted them around your little finger and you lied to me."
"I never lied to you."
"Didn't you? You just as much as said to Xena that you lied to me about her intentions, about her feelings. About your feelings. Knowing the way I love you, how could you do something like this to me?" Gabrielle began to cry, and ran toward Xena. Xena held her friend and glared at Ares.
"It didn't start out that way, Gabrielle. I never meant for it to happen this way. I didn't mean for you to know...."
"For me to know that the only reason that you came to me was to get to Xena?"
"No. I never meant for you to know how I felt. Not everything was a lie, little Gabrielle. Don't tell yourself that. Believe me when I say that there IS something between us. There was before, there is now, and there will be forever." He picked up the scroll he'd given her earlier and threw it at her. "Check for yourself." Ares vanished in a flash of blue light.
Gabrielle cried harder against Xena's shoulder. "I believed him. I thought that what he said was true. I'm sorry, Xena. I didn't know--"
"Of course you didn't know. How could you have?" she soothed. "I know Ares and how charming and seductive he can be. It's going to be all right," Xena said, rocking Gabrielle slowly.
"No, it's not all right. I almost lost the best friend that I ever had, over nothing."
"You never lost me, Gabrielle, and you never will. I'll always be by your side, forever." Gabrielle pulled away from Xena. Xena bent and picked up the scroll that Ares had hurled at her earlier. "Do you want to know?"
Gabrielle took the scroll and tossed it into the fire. "I know all I need to," she said.