Disclaimer: The characters and incidents portrayed in this story are fictional. No infringment was intended.
Summary: Set after "Amphipolis Under Seige".
The moon didn’t show that night. Xena moved silently around the perimeter of the camp, listening, waiting. She allowed her instincts to overtake her ordinary senses, dulled by the darkness, and felt for anything, anything at all intruding into their peace.
A twig snapped.
Xena swirled about, her teeth bared, her hands clenched about her sword. Its tip rested an inch below Gabrielle’s throat.
For an instant their eyes locked, and Xena recalled a time when she’d been bewitched by the gods, when she’d slashed her sword at her friend, had tied her up, had looked at her with the eyes of a stranger. But Gabrielle’s eyes were not frightened now; she looked sad, and she waited a moment while Xena sheathed her sword and stepped forward, drawing her friend close to her.
Gabrielle shrugged. “It isn’t your fault.” Then she hesitated, and looked up at her friend. “I thought - after what just happened - you’d be a little more relaxed. After all, Athena backed down because of you. She withdrew the entire army . . .”
Xena flung out her hand in a swift movement of negation. “She didn’t need to do that, Gabrielle. If it had been you - if it had been you dead in my arms, I would not have left anyone standing, there, you know that. Just to leave, just to give up when your enemy is right there before you . . . I can’t understand that!”
Gabrielle’s mouth opened slightly, and then she nodded. “You’re right.” She wrapped her arms about herself, and shivered. “Maybe she went to Mt Olympus to think of even worse things to do with us.”
“Probably.” A small smile came over Xena’s mouth. “You can dream about them tonight.”
Gabrielle snorted. “Thanks, Xena.” She began moving towards camp, and then turned.
“Don’t stay out here all night, will you?”
Xena gave back an indistinct reply, and Gabrielle sighed. They hadn’t chanced another night in Amphipolis. Xena had swept aside her mother’s protests, got their things together, and moved them away from the town, out into the forests. They had been on their way to ease Cleopatra’s fears about her safety, anyway, so the sooner their journey began the better.
But of course, it never made any difference. Their journeys always began, they just never ended.
As Gabrielle headed back towards the fire, Xena turned and looked guardedly into the dark.
Athena had appeared to her, once. She hadn’t told the others . . . but she had sat before her, only a few steps from the room where Eve slept. It would have been so easy to have taken her, so easy! But she had never even tried. Instead she had spoken to her, had listened to Xena’s challenge and had refused it. Had refused it with suspicious alacrity . . .
Xena shook her head again, knowing there was a pattern, there was some sense to it all. If she stared into the night, there was only random shapes, flashes of colour. Sometimes they took form; sometimes they took on meaning.
A leaf rustled; separated itself from a twig, floated down. Xena realised she had heard every soft movement, every sound of that tiny event - and yet, only hours ago an explosion had taken place and she hadn’t heard a thing.
When she and Gabrielle had planned the seduction together, that was exactly what Gabrielle had feared - that she’d get so caught up in the moment that she wouldn’t notice whatever signal they’d devised. That was why she had suggested an explosion, right near Ares’ temple, although it was unlikely Athena would have targeted her brother’s building. Xena had scoffed at Gabrielle’s doubts, but given in. And as it had happened, it wasn’t the sound of the wall falling which stirred her, but her mother’s voice. Even Ares had looked up, then.
But then she hadn’t imagined what it would have been liked. Oh - she’d imagined, but she hadn’t known it could have been like that, with him. Especially when she’d made sure she was in control, from the moment Ares stepped into her arms . . . she had refused his initial kiss, afraid of its tenderness. She’d moved over his body, afraid of the consequences of his touch on hers . . . all to naught.
If he’d been rough, and he’d laughed, and his hands had clenched tightly on her arms, and it had been all exactly like a warrior taking his pleasure where he could - then Xena knew that she would not be remembering it now, and by the time the wall had tumbled to the ground she would have been halfway across the room.
It hadn’t been like that, though. He hadn’t laughed, he’d smiled - his hands hadn’t tightened on her like a man claiming a possession, but had surrounded her, resting on her body as though she were something precious. And when he kissed her, she forgot for a moment where she was, almost who she was, and had fallen into his gentleness.
Maybe there was some godly trick, some way of getting into her mind and knowing exactly what would disarm her. Except that part of Xena knew that it wasn’t Ares’ plan to destroy her from within. She could have sworn for a moment there, when she had kissed him, searched his eyes, and kissed him again - for a moment she thought she saw him as he really was.
She shivered, remembering the raw expression on his face when she’d thrown his courage right back at him. There were a thousand reasons why she had chosen a lie right then - it was just that now, in the dark, most of them didn’t seem so valid, anymore.
“Who was that?”
Xena rode up to the crossroads and dismounted hastily, running up to Gabrielle who was kneeling by the South way. There was a body by her; a girl.
“A priestess of Artemis,” Gabrielle replied dispassionately, pulling the bow from the girl’s hands. “She was laying wait in that tree over there -”
She broke off, and dashed a hand across her eyes. Xena grabbed her shoulder and turned her round, pulling her into her own body, wrapping her arms firmly around her.
“Why do they leave their dirty work up to these children? What kind of god -“ She took a deep breath, and then looked down at her stained dagger. “We’re destroying the world because of the cowardice of the gods.”
Xena bit her lip at that, then knelt down to look at the archer. The gods claimed Eve meant their lives, and yet they put such a quest in the hands of young women - as though they understood what their deaths would mean to Xena -
“I don’t think it is cowardice, Gabrielle,” Xena said slowly. “I think they are trying to destroy us in a very different way.”
Gabrielle laid her fingers over the girl’s eyes, closing them, then looked up at her friend.
“Perhaps the gods can’t touch Eve - maybe she is under the protection of Someone greater than they.”
“Perhaps,” Xena allowed. “It could be that - or it could be that part of this is not about Eve at all. The gods are targeting us particularly. The question is, what kind of threat do we offer them? And why now? What’s changed, to make them fear us?”
Gabrielle shrugged, then helped Xena lift the body onto her own horse’s back. “There’s a small temple nearby; the priests there should be able to take her back to her people.” Then she paused. “Let me go ahead, will you, Xena?”
Xena nodded, and waited as her friend took the path across to the forest temple. Then she turned back to Argo, mounting her quickly. Cyrene and Eve were waiting in the Inn back at the village, while she and Gabrielle scouted the path ahead. It was best not to leave them too long.
She dug her heels into Argo’s side, but she reared up instead of galloping ahead, while Xena gripped onto her mane and shouted a rebuke. Then she was silent - because she knew who was preventing Argo from obeying her command. She knew from the glow which arose deep within her, and from the light which began just beyond her.
He appeared before her quietly, with his head tilted as though she had asked him a question; as thought it were she who had summoned him.
“Athena refused my offer to fight her, one on one. Why?”
He raised an eyebrow, but he did not answer her. Xena dismounted impatiently, as Argo moved restlessly beneath her. Then she stepped forward.
“And she ignored Eve when she was right in front of her, although a command could have meant her death. Again, why?”
Ares’ eyes narrowed, and he looked at her speculatively.
“It isn’t Eve, is it? Or - it isn’t all Eve. Somehow Athena is challenging me, or is challenged by me. Why now? She’s always known me - why now?”
“Zeus is dead, Xena. Someone had to take charge,” Ares answered, touching a finger lightly to a red mark below her chin.
Xena frowned. “What does that mean?”
“It means she’s enjoying her throne right now. She’s enjoying the fact that there isn’t a god to touch her.”
His hand was warm; Xena jerked herself away.
“She’s afraid of me? But I’m not even a goddess - you know that’s never been an aspiration of mine! You’ve asked, and asked -”
Something in Ares’ face stilled, then, and then he smiled. “Sure, I know that. But she doesn’t. She doesn’t know that you’ll never change. All she knows is that the god of war is in love, and she believes that could change everything.”
He shimmered then, and faded, and was away; while Xena stared, open-mouthed.
That night, Xena dreamt.
She stood in the halls of Olympus; a bloody sword was in hand, a destroyed throne ahead of her. Athena challenged her, and then fell before her blade. A pile of gods dead at her feet. She stood victorious over them all . . .
Xena sat up, a cry on her lips, breathing hard.
“What is it?” Gabrielle whispered, moving over to her friend. She watched as Xena checked Eve in her pouch beside her, stroking the sleeping baby’s cheek gently.
“You were right, I think. Eve can’t be touched by the gods, not directly at any rate. And I was right, too, Gabrielle. It isn’t about my baby - not entirely. They are afraid of me, too.” She broke off, pulling the furs more closely around her. “They - or Athena, anyway - think that if Ares offers me his love, I’ll accept a place by his side, and that as a goddess . . .”
“You’d be unbeatable. So they’d prefer to destroy you before that unlikely event occurs,” Gabrielle finished, with a low, scornful laugh. “Athena is supposed to be the goddess of wisdom - she’s supposed to be able to see into the future, a little, or so I’ve heard -”
Xena remembered her dream, and shuddered.
"So Amphipolis was a test. To see what you'd do - to see what Ares would do -" Gabrielle sighed. "Well, you passed. You didn't go off with Ares, and so you're still alive now.”
Xena wondered a moment whether Ares thought she'd lied to him, to save her own life - and then she wondered whether Ares knew it was a lie at all.
“Xena, the Amazons will give us their protection, not fearing the gods, because we showed kindness to Artemis’ priestess.” Gabrielle swallowed then, and went on. “Athena wouldn’t dare to touch us in her sister’s camp.’
Xena nodded. “We’ll head there, then, while we wait for confirmation from Cleopatra. And I think Athena will see soon enough that my response to Ares will be the same as ever - and that the love of the god of war can't change a thing.”
Gabrielle squeezed her hand, and then moved back to her bedroll to sleep. Xena lay beside her daughter a little longer, before slipping back into dreams.
Athena still lay dead before her; but Ares left his throne, and followed her to earth.