The Best Revenge
"Living well is the best revenge." - Anonymous
The bedraggled trio contemplated the picturesque valley below them with eyes too exhausted to appreciate the sun-drenched prettiness of the little village. It had been a rough two weeks tramping through swampy ground in mostly inclement weather.
"This is it?"
"I can't believe he ended up in a place like this."
She turned level eyes on her companion. "It's a place like any other place, Gabrielle."
"Tartarus would be more fitting," the younger woman muttered.
Xena made no response. The journey -- specifically the reason for it -- had been a bone of contention between them for most of the way here. Eve had done her best to play peacemaker, with intermittent success. Angry words and tense discussion had punctuated their trek, and it was a relief when bad weather and two days of moving across uphill terrain had made talking a luxury in the face of physical exertion. But nothing had been resolved between them.
"It's about two miles to the west of here. Let's go." She snapped the reins and the horse began to move carefully down the hill.
* * *
The man spat out the mouthful of spring water and grimaced. "It's full of iron. No wonder they won't drink it."
"It's the f-forge," his hired man said. "That one up there on the hill." He struggled with the words. "The … knives and frying pans … and stuff." He pointed jerkily. "Up there. It … drains down. Here."
Ares stood up. "I know." He shaded his eyes from the sun, noting the steady puffs of dark smoke emanating from the chimney of the stone hut at the top of the steep bluff at the edge of his property. Reddish water flowed steadily from the side of the forge in a mostly straight line down the hill, ending at the edge of the watering hole.
"What should I do? It's really warm, and they're thirsty."
"For now, take the herd to the north pasture and let them graze there. But that runoff needs to be diverted."
"Do you know how to do that, Ares?"
"Yeah." He laid his hand on Timor's shoulder. "We'll work on it tomorrow." He chewed his lip thoughtfully for a moment. "Get Asinas and Tribio to help you load the pigs on the wagon. I want you to take them over on the other side of the barn where it's clean." He gestured toward the far side of the wooden enclosure. "Pen them up under the roof overhang so they'll get the shade."
Timor looked confused. "But there's no mud there. For them to lay in."
Ares laughed lightly. "Pigs don't like to be dirty any more than people do. Remember, Timor? I've told you that before, haven't I?"
"Oh, yeah," he said, nodding his head. "I forgot."
"Move the water trough, too, and make sure they have enough grain." He gave the man a steady look. "The cattle to the north pasture, and then the pigs. Get the boys to help you with the pigs. Got that, Timor?"
"Uh-huh. Cows and then pigs." His giggle stopped abruptly, and his brow furrowed with concentration. "Horses."
"No, not the horses." He shook his head sharply. "Cows and pigs, okay?"
"No, Ares! People on horses … ladies … over THERE!" He pointed over Ares' right shoulder.
Ares turned. The three horses loped down the winding road, and his experienced eye noted the gait-and-a-half limp of the golden mare. Recognition hit his stomach in a tremulous wave before the knowledge of the rider's identity registered in his brain. Quelling the urge to lift a hand in greeting, Ares braced his hands on his hips and waited.
* * *
Ten years. It took her ten years to show up.
He grinned in spite of his irritation. It had only taken ten years for her curiosity to get the best of her. Maybe I should be flattered, he mused. As pigheaded as she was, he hadn't been sure he'd ever see her again. Sometimes he lay in bed, muscles slowly relaxing from the day's hard labor, and felt his mind drawn inexorably to her. The years had transformed the thoughts from fevered want and anger to quiet resignation flavored with regret.
The events of the past were water under the bridge.
* * *
Her hands slackened on the reins even as the muscles in her back tightened. It was him. The arrogant stance was unmistakably Ares, even from this distance. Tall, muscled and imposing, he stood against the backdrop of a clear blue sky and calmly watched their approach.
"He hasn't changed a bit," Gabrielle said. "Still the same old Ares."
"No, he's not," Xena said harshly. "He's mortal now, remember?"
"You'd never know it to look at him," Gabrielle retorted. "He still looks like a damn god."
Yeah, he does, Xena thought and chewed pensively on her lower lip. As the horses brought them closer, she saw that peasant broadcloth had replaced the sleek black leathers -- but he wears them the same way -- and silvery gray highlighted his beard and the temples of a face which was no longer unlined. Sun and wind had darkened his skin to a burnished copper, and he was leaner than she remembered. But the appraising eyes were as black as obsidian, and he still possessed the same air of command.
His majesty the God of War in retirement, she thought humorlessly as she drew abreast of him. She saw a tiny smirk twitch the corners of his mouth. I think I've made a mistake.
She dismounted and walked slowly toward him.
* * *
"Xena," he said easily, clasping her hand between his warm palms. "Long time no see."
"Yeah, well, we were in the neighborhood."
"And you decided to drop in on an old friend."
Her eyes narrowed slightly and she slid her hand from his grasp. "Okay."
"Maybe I should rephrase that?" Humor crinkled the corners of his eyes. "Anyway … welcome. All of you. Timor?" He motioned toward the saddlebag-laden horses. "Take them to the stable. Groom and feed 'em. Okay?"
The big man nodded. "Sure, Ares."
"And bring the ladies' things in the house when you're finished with the horses." He glanced at Xena questioningly. "Okay by you?"
She looked quickly at Gabrielle and Eve, and then met his eyes directly. "Fine."
"Good." He gestured toward a one-story cottage with a thatched roof. "It's this way."
* * *
"Go ahead and say it. I know you're about to explode from keeping it in."
Gabrielle smiled tightly. "Hand me the soap."
Xena watched her scrub roughly at her forearms and biceps. "Gabrielle."
Eve sidestepped around them. "Please don't start this again, you two," she pleaded. "There's not enough room in here for a fight."
"We're not starting anything, Eve. I'm just --"
"Eve," Gabrielle interrupted quietly, "why don't you go tell Ares we'll be out in a few minutes. Okay?"
Eve sighed softly. "Sure. I'll do that."
When the door closed behind her, Gabrielle turned to Xena. "We are not going to start this again, Xena. We have been over and over and OVER this. You know how I feel." She leaned down to the large basin and splashed handfuls of water on her face. "And I know how you feel," she continued, drying her hands on a towel. "You have to do this, so we're doing it. End of discussion," she said, turning toward the door.
Xena grabbed her arm. "I need for you to understand why I'm doing this. This is something --"
"I know why you're doing this," she snapped. "Guilt. Misplaced guilt, I might add."
"I feel responsible for him because of what he did, Gabrielle. For me. And Eve. And for you," she added pointedly.
"Oh, yeah, he made the ultimate sacrifice. You have shoved that down my throat for two years," Gabrielle retorted hotly. "I didn't ask him for anything, Xena. None of us did."
"Yes, but --"
"But nothing!" Gabrielle shrugged the other woman's hand off her arm carelessly. "And as I recall, we all thanked him for what he did."
"We thanked him. Yes. And then we walked away and left him there." She turned her face away, biting on her bottom lip. "He gave up the life he knew for all of us, and we blew him a kiss and turned our backs on him."
"We are talking about Ares here. Remember him? The god of war. Not exactly helpless, or a babe in the woods."
"No," Xena said tersely, looking squarely at her. "We're talking about a man. A man who can feel hunger and cold, who can get sick, and hurt, and even dead. A man."
"A man with the mind of a god. He gave up his godhood, not his personality. That's still Ares." She laid her hands on Xena's shoulders, squeezing gently. "Don't underestimate him. I acknowledge what he did, Xena. But we're still talking about Ares here. Trusting him … I just can't. And neither should you," she added softly.
"You'd be perfectly happy to see him in Tartarus, Gabrielle," Xena said harshly. "I think your take on things is a little biased."
Gabrielle's face tightened. "And you want to nominate him for sainthood. Now who's biased?"
"At least I'm willing to give him a chance!"
"That's right, Xena. Hand him that formidable weapon -- I'm sure he'll figure out a way to use it to his advantage."
Xena took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Gabrielle. We are just checking on him to make sure he's okay. Like we would for anyone else."
"But this is Ares," Gabrielle argued, "and he's not just anyone else."
"Like we would," Xena said deliberately, "for anyone else." Their eyes locked together for a long moment.
Then Gabrielle looked away. "All right, Xena. You win. And Ares wins." She stepped past Xena to the door. "And I lose."
"It's not like that."
Gabrielle turned dull eyes toward her. "It is. And you know it." The door closed behind her with a soft thud.
* * *
"Timor, don't worry about it. We'll do the cleanup." Ares sat back from the table and crossed his legs. "Just put the tea over here."
"Okay, Ares," he said hesitantly, setting the crock down carefully on the trivet in the middle of the table. "Good night. G-good night, ladies."
"Dinner was wonderful, Timor," Eve said. "Thank you."
"Thank you, lady," he said shyly. "I like to cook stuff." He picked up a dark-colored wool hat that lay on the windowsill and opened the door carefully.
"Where did you find him, Ares?" Gabrielle asked, watching the man take plodding steps across the yard toward the small hut that served as quarters for Timor and the two boys that worked with him. "He seems kind of old to be a farmhand." She thought for a moment. "And he really resembles you. He could be your older brother."
"So I've heard, but I really can't see it myself." Ares smiled slightly. "And I guess you could say that he found me. To be precise," he said, taking a carved pipe from the sideboard behind the table, "he came with the farm. It was up for sale after his uncle died, and he was living here, barely surviving, when I took possession." He fired the bowl of the pipe and puffed out fragrant smoke. "He's never lived anywhere else, I think. And he's a hard worker, for all that he's a little slow."
"Slow physically, or --?"
"Both, but mainly here," he said, tapping his forehead. "I suppose he looks younger because of that."
"How old is he?" Eve asked. "He looks about 45."
Ares watched Xena's eyes move in a slow circuit from one end of the room to the other, and back again. "Closer to 60, I think," Ares replied.
She shifted in her chair. "Makes a good foreman, to be honest." She tapped the ball of her index finger soundlessly against the table.
"Follows orders exactly." He stifled a grin as she threw herself out of the chair and paced across the room. "Xena, is something wrong?"
She spun around, her arms crossed tightly under her breasts. "No," she muttered, dropping onto a leather couch next to one of the windows. "Everything's just fine."
He studied her for a moment. "Okay." He turned his attention back toward Eve. "Hercules says he and Timor are about the same age."
"Ares," said Gabrielle slowly, "this place …" She moved restlessly around the large main room which served as a combination living room, dining room and kitchen and was dominated by a huge stone fireplace at one end. Colorful rag rugs covered the wooden floor, and the furniture -- a leather divan fronting one of the two windows, a side table flanked by two upholstered chairs in front of the fireplace, and a knotty pine dining table and four chairs -- was masculine and comfortably worn.
"You don't like the house?"
"No, it's not that," she said. "It's fine." She hesitated for a moment, studying the large etching of fauns and satyr-like creatures that hung over the fireplace. "Although I wouldn't have been surprised to see a shield over the mantle."
"I tried that," he deadpanned, "but it clashed with the pig shit and grain motif I've got going."
Gabrielle laughed, nerves sharpening the pitch. "Well, so does this, actually." She picked up a small ebony lacquered box from the side table. Two graceful peacocks were rendered with delicate brushstrokes on the top of it, and the firelight made them seem to dance in her hands. The box itself appeared to be seamless and solid, but as she turned it over she felt some small weight shift inside it. "This looks Oriental."
"Not Oriental," he answered. "Olympian." He smiled at the speed with which it was replaced on the table. "It's the one thing I took with me when I left."
She looked back at him questioningly. "What's in it?"
"I don't know. It was my mother's," he said casually. "If you figure out how to open it up, let me know."
Gabrielle came back to the dining table and sat down. "This doesn't make sense," she said flatly. "You can't really be a farmer."
"I think the pigs and cattle would disagree with you, honey," he answered lightly. "What you see is what I've done. I think that qualifies me as a farmer."
"What I should have said," she said, obviously struggling for words, "is that … this isn't you. This isn't the god of war."
He reached across the table and took her hand. "No. It's not the god of war. But neither am I." He felt the pressure of Xena's eyes between his shoulder blades as he continued. "He's been gone for ten years, Gabrielle."
"Still a skeptic when it comes to me, aren't you?" he said teasingly. "Well, the sword of power is defunct, the leathers are cracked and brittle, and the only war I'm currently waging is against the Hessian fly. Damn things are all over the grain shoots." He filled four glasses from a flask of wine. "House vintage, from my own grapes," he said. "This is from last year's crop."
"Ares, you actually sound proud about the wine," Xena said.
He grimaced as he sat down. "I am proud. Do you have any idea of the intricacies of winemaking? This is the first time in four years I haven't turned out vinegar vintage."
She walked across the room and lifted one of the glasses. "Not bad," she said after tasting it. She settled herself in a chair, looking at him closely. "You mentioned Hercules earlier. I get the idea you two aren't feuding anymore."
He chuckled throatily. "About what? Nothing to fight about anymore. He's still not my favorite person, but he and Iolaus came in handy when I first settled in here. I had a lot to learn." He took a hefty swallow to dislodge the lump in his throat as he remembered the first three years of hand-to-mouth subsistence: the hunger that was never filled, the muscles that screamed from removing yet another boulder from the rocky soil, the crops frozen and dead from too-early planting, the infection during the first summer from parasites in water he hadn't known to sterilize, and the gut-wrenching agony of watching half-grown crops wash away in a heavy summer rainstorm because he had ignorantly planted them down the hill.
"Are they still in the area?" Xena asked. "We haven't seen them for a long time."
"I saw them last year. They came down this way with Iphicles for some regatta in the king's honor." What convinced her? he mused as he observed her comfortably slumped posture, relaxed for the first time since she had arrived. That I sounded proud of my wine?
"King Iphicles? We had dinner with him once when we passed through Corinth," Gabrielle said. "He was very charming."
"He can be that," Ares said easily.
"Oh, of course, you would know him," Xena said. "The army of Corinth. Sure."
Ares nodded. "I know him. Quite well, as a matter of fact." He filled his glass again. "He encouraged me to settle in this area."
"So you two are, what, friends?" Xena asked incredulously.
"Yeah." He watched a tiny nerve twitch at her temple. "You sound surprised."
"A little. A king and an ex-god would seem to make strange bedf--" She stopped abruptly and took a slow drink of wine. "Close friends with him?"
He was mildly amused by the consternation in her face, but a part of him wondered at it being there at all. "You could say that," he said, clamping his bottom lip between his teeth to keep a straight face. "I hope that's okay with you."
He opened the door to let in cool air. "After all, friends are a mortal convention. You have your friends," he said smoothly, pointing at Gabrielle, "and I have mine."
"It's a good thing, Ares," Gabrielle said emphatically. "Right, Xena?"
He smiled to himself. Is she actually jealous? Sonofabitch. Wait till I tell Iph. Then he caught the look that passed between the two women, and his snicker grew quickly into a full-blown laugh. What's wrong, ladies -- trouble in paradise? He saw Eve's eyes skittering back and forth from her mother, to Gabrielle, to him, and back to her mother, and he laughed harder.
"Having a good time, Ares?"
"Hmmm?" he murmured, wiping the tears from his eyes.
"I said, are you having fun?" Green eyes flashed from a stony face.
He took a couple of deep breaths and succeeded in getting himself under control. "Sorry, Gab. Just struck me funny." He felt the chuckle welling up again, and fought it. "My apologies."
"Glad you find us amusing," Xena said icily.
He shook his head. "Don't be so sensitive, woman. You know my warped sense of humor."
She glared at him. "Nice to know some things never change."
"It's about the only thing that hasn't, Xena," he quipped, masking the tightness in his jaw with a grin. "Allow me to hold onto something, okay?" He leaned the chair back on two legs and crossed his arms loosely. "Speaking of change, what's new with you?"
"Nothing much." Her eyes were still coldly smoky.
"Oh, come on!" he said, allowing just a trace of condescension to enter his voice. "It's been ten years. Something must be new." He reached for the pipe. "Still making the world safe for kiddies and old people?"
"What if we are?" Her nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed. "Should I apologize for that?"
He held up one hand. "Peace. I'm just asking."
Xena stared at him for a minute, then shrugged. "What can I say? Some things don't change, Ares. A lot of people still seem to need help." She eyed the pipe. "When did you pick up that habit?"
"Enough about me," he said, dismissing her inquiry. "Maybe it's time to let the world take care of itself."
"That's an easy thing to say. Harder to do." Her hand tightened on the wineglass. "Look at you. Where would you be if Hercules, and Iphicles, I guess, hadn't taken care of you?"
He steadied himself against the fiery flare of dull anger in his mind, and bit firmly on the stem of the pipe. "When I couldn't take care of myself, you mean?" He forced his lips to curve in a small smile. "Where, indeed, Xena?"
The color faded from her face. "Ares, I didn't mean that."
"Sure you did," he said flatly. "I taught you to press your advantage and go in for the kill. You learned well."
"I didn't mean it the way it came out," she argued.
"I know how you meant it," he said, deliberately avoiding her eyes, "and you're not wrong. The loss … was overwhelming. For a while." And I thought I had no trust left to lose. How wrong I was. He drew slowly on the pipe, waiting for the slithery coolness of control to wipe out the exhausted rage that licked at the corners of his mind. "That's one of the things that drew Iphicles and me together. He knows what it's like to feel powerless." And betrayal. He knows how that feels, too. "Gave us something in common." The words came out of his mouth absently, by rote. "And Hercules acted like a brother. I needed that." He concentrated on not listening to what he was saying.
She came over slowly and knelt in front of him, gently placing a hand on his knee. "We shouldn't have left you. Not after what you did."
He watched the red glow of the sunset deepen into shadows over her left shoulder. "It was my choice, Xena. You never asked me to do it. Right, Gab?" he said quietly. Her face froze at his words.
"That doesn't matter," Xena said doggedly, and her grip tightened on his leg. "It was --"
"What it was," he finished. "Let it go." He stood up gracefully and placed the pipe in a ceramic dish on the sideboard. "That water went over the bridge and by the wayside a long time ago."
"Not as far as I'm concerned," she argued.
He turned the flame up on an oil lamp on the fireplace mantle and lifted it by the handle. "I did it for me more than for you," he said curtly, cutting her off. "It's in the past. Let's leave it there, shall we?"
"If you say so," she said hesitantly.
"I do." He exhaled slowly. "It's been an exhausting day, and you three must be tired. I know I am." He managed a smile, but it felt very tight on his lips. "The spare room is at the end of the hall." They followed him slowly.
* * *
She forced herself to lay motionless beneath the light quilt, deliberately matching her breathing to the chirping cadence of the cicadas. It made her feel like a coward, but feigning sleep was the easiest way to avoid a confrontation with Gabrielle. I'm going to regret giving her time to mull over this, she thought glumly. By tomorrow she'll have a fucking arsenal of verbal ammunition to use on me. It was poor strategy, but she needed the path of least resistance tonight.
He had always had the ability to stir her up and knock her off-balance. That had been her largest disadvantage in dealing with the god, but over the years she had trained herself to ignore both the flattery that fell from his mouth like so much silvery rain and the finely-honed goading that lacerated her because of the grain of truth that lived at its core. She became adept at pushing aside any emotional qualities of whatever he said and whatever she felt, and focused on the simple message of the words themselves.
The need to move became insurmountable, and she turned over onto her side carefully.
She knew how to defend herself against the god. That was no problem at all.
But she had no ability to defend herself against the totality of the man that had come into being when the god was no more. That man was an unknown quantity. He looked like the god; older, yes, but the face and body were undeniably Ares. The walk and the stance and the way he held himself were exactly the same. So was the velvet modulation of the deep voice and the rumbling vibrato of the laugh.
But the words he spoke in that familiar voice belonged to a stranger.
She had watched him as he had led them around the well-organized farm earlier that afternoon. He strolled across his land, stopping to secure a loose board in a slat fence, examined a branch heavy with apple blossoms with obviously experienced hands, and gave instructions to Timor and his other two hands with the same kind of authority he had always evidenced at the helm of his army. She had been genuinely surprised at the wealth of information he displayed regarding animal husbandry and agricultural processes, and they had all been stunned into silence when he sat down and began to milk one of the cows, explaining that the strange lowing was due to pain from an overly-full milk bag and a calf that had recently been weaned.
Sweat lightly beaded her forehead and upper lip, and she rubbed her face against a pillow that smelled like new-mown hay.
He was strong and in control. No surprise there, really. Control was his middle name, and she had always known that his strength -- whether it manifested itself in the form of determination or pigheadedness or simply the ability to stand up to Athena and the others so long ago -- aided the godly power in him, not the other way around.
It was that calm, settled quality that unnerved her. He seemed to belong here. He fit into this idyllic and pastoral setting like it had constructed especially for him. Or like he had been born to it. It was a seamless, custom-made-glove fit.
Like a noose. The errant thought propelled her to a sitting position on the edge of the bed.
She had never expected him to have changed so much. Be honest, she chided herself. You were hoping he hadn't changed at all. Then it would have been easy to come in like an angel of mercy, prop him up and dust him off, exchange a few wisecracks, and then sail off on your merry way. That would have been easy, just another day in the life of Xena, righter of wrongs, strong arm of the weak, the final authority on the Greater Good and dispenser of just mercy.
But he didn't need her this time. If I had shown up earlier, that might have been different, she thought, but not now. He had gotten to his feet on his own, probably almost completely on his own, since she had a pretty good idea how much help he would have been able to allow himself to accept from Hercules.
He had done it on his own, and he didn't need her at all. For anything.
I have got to get some air. Her throat was constricted and she felt like she was suffocating, and she got abruptly to her feet. If I wake them, so be it, she thought fiercely. I don't care. Light and rapid steps carried her through the door and down the hall, and she closed the front door softly behind her. Leaning against the side of the house, she gratefully sucked in lungfuls of cool air that tasted of pungent earth and sweet clover.
And cherry-wine tobacco from a burning pipe.
* * *
She took a deep breath and looked to her left. He was slouched comfortably in a chair at the end of the porch, shirtless and barefoot, long legs propped on the stone railing. "Can't sleep?" he asked around the stem of the pipe.
"Strange bed, I guess," she said after a moment.
"You're used to a bedroll," he said mildly. "I guess any bed would be strange." He leaned down and picked up a bottle. "Want a drink?"
"Yeah." She took a long pull, and cool warmth slid down her throat. "You really did a great job with this wine."
"It did turn out rather well," he said. "It's not ambrosia, but it'll do."
"Why a farm, Ares?" she asked quietly. "Why not a military position in someone's army? I know Thrace would jump at the chance to get your expertise."
"Would they?" he asked seriously. "I rather doubt it. Ex-gods are persona non grata in polite society nowadays, you know." He locked his hands behind his neck and stretched. "Besides, can you really see me taking orders from some pissant general of a regional division?"
She shook her head. "When you put it that way, I guess not."
"I'd be bored, too." He walked over to her. "This, at least, is a challenge."
She studied him. "Is it enough?"
He laughed shortly, a single bark of mirthless noise. "What's enough, Xena? I had the world once." He leaned against an upright stone support pillar. "It's a living. Puts food on the table."
"But you were a god, Ares. Now you deal in pig shit and fruit trees," she said heatedly. "It just seems odd."
"I was a god, Xena. Now I'm not." His eyes met hers. "You were a ferocious warlord who nearly brought the world to its knees. Now you're a nomad who helps people who can't help themselves. For the price of a meal, if you're lucky."
"I chose to take a different path."
He shrugged. "So did I."
Black hair flew as she shook her head. "No, you didn't," she argued. "If it hadn't been for me, you would never have given up your godhood. And you know that's true."
"So what?" he said tonelessly. "I had a choice between dying as a god or living as a mortal." He crossed his arms and his eyes narrowed. "Athena chose the former. I decided I wanted to stay alive."
She jerked as if he had physically struck her. "Ares," she said tightly, "I did what I had to do. And I may have bloodied you, but I never tried to take your life."
"I know." His face remained impassive. "But you would have, sooner or later."
Anger twisted her mouth. "You're wrong. And that's a shitty thing to say!"
"You always did fight against seeing certain truths," he said blandly. "Listen, it's late. Morning comes early. Let's call it a night."
"No." She stepped between him and the door. "Explain."
He chuckled nastily. "Is that an order?"
"It's a request." Her voice softened. "Please."
He studied her for a moment. "All right, Xena." He moved past her and sat down on the top step leading down from the porch.
"When I was chained to that pillar," he began as she sat down next to him, "a lot of things went through my mind. I watched you slice and dice Artemis, and I already knew what had happened to Heph and Hades and the others. It took me a few minutes to digest the fact that this mortal warrior woman was killing gods, not with hind's blood or the Helios dagger, but with a regular metal sword."
"Backed up by power from --"
He held up his hand. "Do you want an explanation or not?" He took the bottle from her and drank. "Whatever the source, you had the power. You and I had our moments, but let's be honest: we were enemies, and we each loathed what the other stood for. I represented everything you had turned your back on. You had the power, and you possessed the will to use it as you thought best. I was actually proud of you that day, my dear: you turned thumbs down on Artemis and exacted justice, and you gave Dite the thumbs up and let her live because she swallowed her husband's death and kept smiling. Ye gods, Xena, you were absolutely magnificent! And I was thrilled, because that day on Olympus you fulfilled every hope I ever had for the warrior princess I created."
"Wait a minute --"
"Let me finish, okay? This won't take long." He stood up and leaned so that he was looking down at her. "You weren't content with the simple victory that was yours by right of that power vested in you from wherever. There was no bribe that could be offered, no force in this or any other world, that would satisfy you except the total annihilation of your enemy." He leaned down closer to her. "That day, you showed you were everything I always believed you could be. And it warmed the cockles of my heart. Truly."
She shivered and looked away from his mockery.
"You fought with Athena and were besting her quite easily. Then you started to lose. And I looked over at Eve, and I realized she was dying."
"I never understood why you didn't just let her die," Xena said dully. "If I had been you, I probably would have."
He took her hand lightly. "Because I knew things you didn't. You see, power never dies -- it uses up one form completely, and then moves onto someone or something else. Your power waned as she weakened, but I knew that if she died, the force in her might vest in the most compatible source. You."
She stared at him silently, her head moving in slow negation.
"Yes, Xena. And I couldn't allow that. For your sake as well as my own. You were already vicious -- Eve's power would have made you a monster that would have destroyed the world in the name of the Greater Good. And you would have come after me eventually."
He patted her hand. "Xena, tell the truth: If I was still a god, and if I formed an army and started to try to get back what I lost, would you not feel it was your duty to save the world from me?"
"But you're not a god."
"True. But if I was? And if you knew that I would conduct my campaign as I always carried them on in the past? Would you really let me get away with it?"
She stood up. "I would do my best to talk some sense into you, to make you understand."
"Of course," he said bluntly. "And if I wouldn't listen to reason?"
Her eyes sought his. "I don't know what I would do."
He laughed softly. "I do. You would serve the Greater Good and wipe me off the face of the earth. You might hate doing it, but do it you would." He laid his hand on her forearm. "As a mortal, I was safe. Powerless, perhaps, and certainly not immortal. But I stayed alive, and I didn't have to kiss your ass to do it." He went up the front steps and across the porch.
He turned back from the door. "Yes?"
"Do you have any regrets about your choice?"
The smile on his face left his eyes untouched. "As far as I'm concerned, my dear, I got a great bargain." He pulled the door shut behind with a soft thud.
* * *
Ares stood and watched the gentle evening shower from his porch with satisfaction. It was exactly what was needed for the new arbor vines Timor and the boys had planted that afternoon, and it would cool the increasingly short-tempered disposition of the cattle.
He wondered if they had gotten out of the area before the rain started again. Probably, he thought. They had left that morning near daybreak, hands raised in a negligent farewell as the horses loped back down the road toward town. If they had kept riding at a steady pace, they should have been well clear of it before the cloudburst hit.
He didn't anticipate ever seeing them again.
He counted the lights as they faded in the boys' cabin. When it was dark, he stepped back in the house and latched the door behind him.
A contented sigh escaped him as he settled himself in one of the chairs that faced the fireplace. Stretching his legs out in front of him, he savored the wine in the gem-crusted goblet. Definitely a good vintage, he decided. He expected the wine from this year's harvest would be even better, and wondered for a moment if he should take Iphicles' advice and offer it for sale in the open-air market in town. He crossed his legs and refilled his glass.
He had expected seeing her to be painful. But the faded middle-aged reflection of the hot-blooded, bursting-with-life woman that lived in his memory had aroused no feeling in him except pity. The heat still lived in the depths of her blue eyes, but it was a cooling coal rather than the blazing inferno he remembered so well. It was a shame: Gabrielle had held up much better over the course of time.
He stared into the flames that crackled in the fireplace. She wanted his absolution. And his love? Too little, too late. At one time he would have paid any price to see that hunger in her. She could have written her own ticket almost from the moment he first laid eyes on her.
That ended when he watched her deliver that almost fatal blow to Gabrielle without a moment's hesitation.
He could still hear the scream of the chakram as it soared in a lethal arc and sliced through the woman's skull. He had seen her kill and maim countless times, but this was no battlefield opponent that slumped to the floor. This was Gabrielle, the woman she described as the other half of her soul. The utter ruthlessness of it numbed him, and he had felt the love drain from his heart in the same rhythm as the blood that continued to drip into the spreading pool under her head.
He tossed another log into the fireplace. So that was that. Goodbye to love, and farewell to trust, too, when she looked long at him and murmured, "Thank you." He had heard the same catch in her throat that he remembered from his father, and Zeus' eyes shone just like hers when he feigned gratitude to gain an advantage.
At least Mom had some honesty, he thought as he picked up the ebony lacquered box from the table and sat down again. If Hera hated you, it was obvious, and she never troubled to cover it up. He laid it face down on his lap and placed his thumbs at the upper left and right corners of the back side of the box. Bracing it flat against his thighs, he pressed his thumbs firmly and drew them down in a vertical line to the bottom edge, then slid his right index finger horizontally to join the two vertical lines at their midpoint, the invisible "H" acting as the mechanism that released the box's pressure lock. When he heard the small click, he turned it over so that the peacocks were facing up.
No one could ever say that Mom didn't think ahead, he mused as he removed the lid, and she was rarely unprepared for what the Fates would throw. She had usually managed to stay one step ahead of everyone, even Zeus. Most of the time, anyway.
The large piece of ambrosia glowed and quivered in the reflection of the dancing flames in the fireplace.
He was ready for what the future would bring. The waiting was a bitch, no doubt about it, but he had several thousand years under his belt already. The years he planned to spend here were nothing in the larger scheme of things. He resealed the box and replaced it on the table. Stifling a yawn, he stood up from the chair and stretched, then blew out the lamp and padded his way softly down the hall to his bedchamber.
He stripped off his clothing and slid naked between the cool sheets. He would have to remind Timor to add extra manure to the soil around the roots of the new grape vines, and he needed a final answer from Tildus on the offer he'd made for that bull. Ares wanted the animal, but the man seemed to think he was made of money. Maybe he'd sweeten the deal with a few bottles of wine.
Hercules had lectured him ad nauseam about patience. "You can't rush things, Ares," he had said bluntly. "This is the way it goes. You plant the seeds. Then you wait. You weed and fertilize. Then you wait some more. You prune and water and hope. You do a lot of things, but what never ends is the waiting. Grow a little patience, or you can forget about ever seeing a harvest."
It had been a struggle, but he had learned what thousands of years of godhood hadn't been able to teach him, and he had become a patient man.
He could wait as long as it took.
He knew she had to die eventually.