Title: Skin Tight
Author: Juxian Tang
Timing: Set in season 6. Think Old Ares Had a Farm - just don't expect comedy
from *me* :-)
Flashback spoilers: Season 3 (The Debt I & II, The Dirty Half Dozen)
Disclaimer: Not mine. No copyright infringement is intended.
Summary: Ares gets in trouble and Xena tries to help him. That brings
Many thanks to Quinn for kindest help, support and inspiration. You are the
best friend I have.
Many thanks to Iphenys for wonderful beta in extreme conditions :-)
For Quinn with love
She remembered pain the best. It returned undeniably real - mind-numbing,
tormenting ache in badly knitted bones - not just settling there but rising all
through her body, resounding even in her teeth at every jerking step she
managed. She didn't know how many of them she had forced herself to make - and
every one felt like the last - and yet she didn't let herself just fall and
curl down and wait until the dogs caught her.
She knew it was hatred that made her move - perhaps the last thread that
linked her to consciousness. Sometimes this hatred seemed to her a huge ball of
blackness growing inside her head - one that encompassed everything and
everyone in the world. There were brighter streaks of personal hatred: to
Borias the traitor; to the frail Chinese in his embroidered robes; to the too
silent child with a quiet absorbing stare. She wouldn't let them get her so
easily. They could chase her like a beast - but she would bite back like a
She just wished she didn't know so clearly that she was doomed, that within
minutes or within hours they would catch her, and she would never be able to
hurt them as much as they would hurt her.
It was the moment when time and place changed, and it prompted her to
understand that it was a dream; but the revelation did nothing to cloud the
unbearable clarity of perception. She was still in the forest but it was a
different one - tall trees and green light falling on the ground through the
network of leaves; Greece, not Chin. Her legs didn't hurt her any more - agile
and strong, they carried her forward confidently. At her side there was
Gabrielle doing her best to keep up, her face flushed, her eyes serious and
They were following the traces. The little things marked the way clearly for
Xena's eyes - a broken branch, a clot of bloody spittle on the ground; an
imprint of a palm, red and still moist on bark of the tree, made her wince
slightly. Couldn't he be a little more careful, more discreet? Well, he
probably couldn't - was past it by now.
The signs he was leaving made it all too easy for his pursuers, who had a
good start over her and Gabrielle.
The weirdest thing about this dream was not the shifting of time but that
Xena could shift her consciousness, too. She remembered her own feelings at
that moment - how calm and resolute she was, ready for action, as always.
And she was him, too, because she knew so well how it felt - the sharpness
of the air ripping his lungs on every breath - the maddening fury at his own
body that couldn't move fast enough, be deft enough - was ready to give up and
betray him. And she knew the panicky feeling that he couldn't shun completely
no matter how he tried: that he was no match for them, and sooner or later they
would get him.
This feeling of being two people at once was so disconcerting - Xena hated
it. It robbed her of composure, destroyed her remoteness, made it too personal.
Like she couldn't stand the thought that she could fail, could be too late.
She and Gabrielle got to the clearing at last - and he was there, trailing
blood against brilliant green grass. The clashing of his sword against the
others' was odd and inefficient but everything was going to be okay, now that
she was there. Yet in her dream she knew that nothing was really going to be
okay. Something had to happen, something she'd overlooked - and she tried to
prevent it from happening but couldn't.
She took another step and the world turned upside down around her. She fell,
if someone could fall upwards, and heard Gabrielle's frightened shriek, and
someone underneath yelled:
"Take them all alive!"
And still hearing it, Xena woke up and sat up in bed.
The air was harsh in her dry mouth and she stared wildly into the shadows
but the quietness of the night was already reaching her: the near-darkness
laced with thin pathways of moonlight on the floor, the near-silence tagged
with the soft screeching of insects from outside.
She reached on the left of her blindly and felt the warm softness of
Gabrielle's belly, the edge of the coarse linen top brushed against her skin.
Gabby's breath was level - slow and regular rhythm that drove the last shades
of the dream away from Xena. At least till the moment she groped to the right
of herself automatically.
Xena realized what she was doing a moment later and pulled her fingers away
as if they were burnt. She had developed a habit of checking for Gabrielle
beside her after losing her, and Gabrielle got used to it, stopped waking or
murmuring sleepily at the touch. But recently Xena caught herself on checking
on the other side equally - for Ares - and she didn't know if it angered or
frightened her more.
The place on the right of her was empty and cool. Not that there was
anything new in it; if anything, she should have been feeling a kind of relief
that he was not there, that he was giving her a rare moment of nearly complete
privacy. She slid down on her back and shifted minutely, settling the mattress
under her in the shape of her body. Ah, it felt so good; Gabrielle's sleepy,
comfortable closeness at her side - and no need to avoid stumbling against his
knees and elbows as she turned, no need to deal with his tossing, turning and
kicking or to prevent him from occupying two thirds of the bed for himself.
She wished she could enjoy it more often. The truth was that Xena could
reconcile with these bodily inconveniences; she didn't have to like them but
could spare as little thought to them as possible. If only he didn't manage to
invade her dreams, too...
It wasn't supposed to happen like that. She'd had no obligation to help him
- or, rather, she knew he wouldn't want her help if it were just because she
owed him. Hearing that there was a bounty for him pissed her off and she
thought that kicking the asses of some greedy bounty hunters would be fun. It
was supposed to be - or she wouldn't get Gabrielle involved into it. Not that
Gabrielle was easy to leave behind...
Xena didn't expect Ares get into trouble so fast; she didn't expect that the
local man, Anastasias, would fall on Ares' tracks with such infallible flair.
And then she didn't notice the trap, didn't react quickly enough...
The memories flooded her, no more a dream but the same unwanted and
irrepressible - bright green grass and his blood on it; his wrists rubbed raw
and swollen under the rope cutting into them; the high, bird-like shriek she'd
never known he could make. And how later she dragged him practically on
herself, his broken ribs shifting with every movement, making his eyes wide and
terrified with pain. And how she had to hold him down as he, feverish and
delirious, tried all the time to get up and walk away.
It was too much - too much of him in her life; she didn't want it this way.
But it was not that she had a choice in any particular moment.
Lying on her back quietly, Xena felt the trickles of sweat cool on her body
and resigned herself to the thought that she was not going to fall asleep
...The net that had scooped her and Gabrielle had them hovering in the air,
with the grass swaying in front of their eyes. Xena heard the crude laughter of
the men and realized it was directed at her. And there was no clashing of the
swords any more - so, she knew Ares had lost his battle.
"A full catch - just look at these fish! I think I'm gonna like
She couldn't pin the voice to a face, couldn't turn her head to look, being
squeezed between Gabrielle's soft, thin-boned body and the coarse ropes of the
net. Xena moved her hand minutely for the dagger and then the net dropped down
abruptly, the impact knocking the breath out of her. She felt fear and anger
sweep over her at the thought that Gabrielle might've been hurt, but at the
next moment they both were yanked onto their feet, a blade pressed under Xena's
She clenched her teeth as her chakram was taken away and the hands roamed
over her body. The breastplate buckles clicked softly as they were unfastened.
"I wonder if you ladies are going to be as much fun as he'll be. The
little blonde slut certainly will."
Xena saw a hand slide into Gabby's top and how Gabby struggled frantically,
and it made her surge forward. The warmth of blood on her neck sobered her. No,
it was not the way to do it...
"Take them away."
She saw Ares being pulled up on his feet, his hair falling in his face as his
head dangled. The rope wound around his wrists tied him to the horse's
saddle-girth. Then something hit her in the back of her neck, and blackness
Xena came to her senses with her vision barred by the thick metal rods in
front of her, and for a split second, while passing from unconsciousness to
clarity, she let her past seep into her present and merge with it dangerously.
She thought herself in a cage again, betrayed, crippled and doomed. She made an
abrupt, all-too-awkward movement, fully prepared for the agonizing pain in her
legs. But there was none - and next thing Xena saw was Gabrielle's worried,
"You were out for so long." The words reached Xena through what
seemed like the rustle of sea waves, and she commanded the noise to go away
with an effort of will. Clearing her mind was the next thing; she wouldn't be
able to concentrate until her past was firmly pushed down again.
The bars of the cell were almost as thick as her wrist - moist and
unperturbed as she tried to shake them. Her eyes sting, and she realized it was
the smoke of the torch pinned to the wall, the one that almost didn't give any
light, couldn't burn properly in the stiff, damp air.
She was getting cold. She looked at Gabrielle and saw her shiver; Gabby's
small face with bluish lips and a bleeding cut on her cheekbone made her look
like a waif. She wrapped her arm around Gabrielle and was startled by the
coldness of the girl's shoulders against the sensitive skin of her underarm.
"They didn't take any chances, did they? Didn't even leave me a hairpin
to deal with their locks."
"You don't wear hairpins," Gabrielle giggled against her, making
her heart warm some. At the next moment the exhilaration from Gabrielle's voice
was gone. "We are in this man's - Anastasias' - castle. He turned out to
be more conniving than we thought, right?"
"What is he..." she didn't need to finish.
"He said he didn't need the bounty, he wants to deal with Ares
"Ah." Why didn't it surprise her? There were just too many people
with personal grudges against Ares... too bad that being mortal made him a fair
game for everyone who wanted to play.
"I saw Ares last when we got to the castle. Then they took him
away," Gabrielle added softly.
So, he was alive then, at least at that moment; Xena was not sure she wanted
to know more. She could imagine what would happen and it surprised her how grim
this thought made her feel. Must've been the wounded pride of a warrior: that
she'd tried to do something and failed, someone she'd wanted to defend was
going to get harmed in spite of her efforts. It made her feel uncomfortable,
too - to think about Ares in these terms. Fight him - hate him - resist him -
that was normal, it was what she was used to. But to defend him, feel
responsible for him...
Wait, what was that about? She didn't feel responsible. She had known
something like this would happen to him, sooner or later, whether she
intervened or not. She couldn't baby-sit him, fight his battles... and get
herself and Gabrielle in trouble for him!
But she had already got them in trouble.
Xena must've made a convulsive movement at this thought because Gabrielle
was looking up, her eyes rich and dark green in the dim light.
"What, counting the mistakes we made?" It was not the first time
Gabby seemed to know exactly what Xena was thinking - and Xena was not sure if
it gladdened or mystified her.
"Not we. I," she admitted - and saw Gabrielle shake her head
"Don't you try to present it as if you 'dragged' me into it!
Besides," Gabby said gently, "you'll find a way to get us out."
"You bet I'll do."
Xena walked to the bars again, stretched her hand to the locks, probing
them. A bit of metal could fix this problem - and they were not guarded.
Another cell opposite theirs was empty, did not seem to be used. She scanned
the floor and the walls thoroughly, trying to find something she could use.
A scream startled her, slicing through her nerves, making her turn to
Gabrielle abruptly. Gabby stared back at her, frightening intensity in her
eyes. They both were not mistaken about the voice - even distorted with pain,
even muffled by the stone walls that separated them - it was Ares'.
Xena realized she was holding her breath until the next scream came, and saw
Gabrielle wrap her arms around herself as if feeling cold. There was something
so cruelly concrete in this sound; it was one thing to be aware of what awaited
Ares in the hands of the man who apparently hated him, even to know that it
could be happening right now. Hearing him scream with pain was different.
Xena started relaxing when no further sound came. She knew that the silence
meant nothing except that what they were doing had to be bearable enough for
him to be able to stifle the cries. And yet the relief of not hearing him
shriek was undeniable.
She gritted her teeth when she heard him again.
"What are they doing to him," Gabrielle's voice was small and very
tense as she huddled slightly, "to make him scream like this?"
That was what Xena was asking herself.
"You know Ares - he doesn't take pain well." She made her voice
sound reasonable, putting the conviction into it that she didn't feel and
calmness that she wished she had.
She hadn't seen Anastasias, the man that'd captured them; couldn't direct
her anger to a particular face, and she felt hatred ricochet through her mind
like the chakram against stone. The rods were too thick... but she could pick
the locks - she had to find the way to do it. Xena's lips felt strangely numb -
and as she ran her fingers over them, the wetness of blood surprised her
distantly. She didn't realize she was biting the inside of her lip. The smell
of smoke became too choking suddenly, filling her nostrils and her head but not
blunting her mind as she waited for another scream, and heard it.
She didn't realize she was pacing along the bars, and only sobered when
catching the way Gabrielle looked at her. Gabby's eyes were wide and sad - and
yet there was something else in her stare, something that Xena couldn't
recognize or couldn't believe she interpreted right - something that applied to
Xena and not to Ares. Like understanding?
"You care for him." Gabrielle said very quietly. At the first
moment Xena wanted to deny it - and then just kept silent. She did; how
couldn't she? He was almost a half of her life. Not the better one - and yet...
And Gabrielle didn't judge her for that; Gabrielle went with her to Ares'
rescue without a shade of hesitation. Maybe, Gabrielle knew more about her than
she herself did. "You care for him so much," Gabby repeated.
The next pause was longer, long enough to make Xena wonder if it was over.
Suddenly she knew that she didn't want to think about the way it could've been
over. She'd face it if she had to - it wouldn't break her heart if he was dead
- why would anything that could've happened to him break her heart? But she
didn't want to think about it now.
The door to the cells, up there, clanked suddenly, opening - and Xena turned
towards the noise, staring through the bars and blinking the smoke away from
It was Ares. Two men hauled him down the stairs - practically carried, he
was not walking at all - she wasn't even sure if he was conscious. His head was
hanging, dark hair, sticky and matted with blood, hiding his face. He looked
like a rag doll, as dead as possible, but logic told her that, maybe, he was
not. As they dragged him past her, she could hear his broken, odd breath, with
blood slurping in his lungs. There was way too much blood - staining the floor
after him, marking his naked body in trickles, dry and fresh. Even with the dim
light of the torch it was still too light not to see the brutal ugliness of the
signs they'd left on his body or the awkward angle of his dangling arm. Xena heard
Gabrielle's short gasp and couldn't turn away to look at her.
"You are still here, ladies? Frankly speaking, I suspected you'd be
gone by now. Must be my fault - I seem to have not left you any means for
She recognized the voice immediately and whirled around, looking at the
stairs again, at the bulky blond-haired man who descended slowly, his arms
folded on his chest. Seeing his face wasn't supposed to change anything for
her. He had a face of an ordinary man.
Well, wasn't it what she had expected? She had lost the illusion that evil
had to have a special face a long time ago. Hope had the same face as her
beloved Gabrielle. Caesar was so beautiful that it made her swoon - then when
she had been in love with him, so hopelessly and stupidly. Ares was a damn
good-looking man, in spite of all the murders he was to blame for.
Ares... what had twisted in her head that she considered Anastasias evil for
taking his revenge on Ares? Couldn't she be certain that the man had a reason
for it? There was time when she eagerly cheered for anyone able to destroy Ares
- physically, spiritually, in any other way. Yet now she was not sure she
wouldn't kill Anastasias gladly if only she could.
There was something else in Anastasias' face, something that tingled Xena's
memory slightly, deceptively. Like she might've known him - although they had
never met before, Xena could be sure of it.
"Well, then you are going to have company for a while. Although I don't
think he'll be any fun now."
The smell reached her as Ares was hauled past her cell; thick, maddening
smell of blood and burnt flesh. And one more - the sickening, obnoxious reek of
Xena felt her face twist at that, the muscle of her cheek twitching no
matter how she tried to stop it. There was nothing new in it - vae victis!* -
the usual fate of the captives. She had been through that herself, had put
others through it - knew it could happen again to her - to Gabrielle...
No, not to Gabrielle! The blazing rage of this thought shocked her. Damn
Anastasias for doing that! Damn Ares for getting them into this trouble. Damn
herself for letting it all happen.
She watched them open the locks on the other cell and shove Ares in. She
didn't know if she hoped he would be put with them; what good could it do -
except that it would give her a chance to see how severe his injuries were. But
Anastasias certainly didn't take his chances.
On the dirty floor of the cell Ares was a heap of twisted limbs, bloodied
skin and dark hair. As one of the guards shoved his foot into his side, Xena
heard with sickening clarity the crisp sound of breaking ribs. Ares cried out
and Xena knew he was conscious.
"You were a lame fuck, you know." Knowing that Ares was in his
senses seemed to satisfy Anastasias. He stepped inside the cell and made an
impatient sign, dismissing his men. "I'd think the God of War would show
more stamina than being able to handle only a few men."
His voice was conversational, seemingly free of gloating, but Xena could
feel it there, deep down. The man was too clever to demonstrate his enjoyment
but he exulted in his victory all right and was going to derive every possible
pleasure out of it.
Xena saw him squat near Ares, a strange but undeniable grace in the motions
of his big body, and his hand hovered over Ares' body in distaste, like he
didn't want to smear himself in blood and couldn't find a clean place to put
"But don't worry," he continued, his voice almost intimate, and
indeed, it was not intended for Anastasias' men who were leaving the cells.
"I'll do my best for this not to end up too fast for you. There is still
so much we can do - so many men of mine who deserve their bit of fun. I have
seen you taking them two at once, from the both ends - but how about taking two
of them up your ass? And when you are going to be too loose even for
that," Anastasias' tone became a bit dreamy at this moment, "there
are the stables with my stallions waiting to be served."
He chose the place at last, grasping Ares' hair, making him raise his face.
The mess of blood on it made Xena feel sick with anger. And there was something
wrong with Ares' mouth, something unnatural; and with a cold feeling in the pit
of her stomach she realized the corner of it was cut through, deep into his
"I am just not sure when I am going to castrate you - before or after
that. I'll make you my gelded whore. And, maybe, I'll cut your penis, too, and
fuck you in the hole there, make you the slut you really are..." For the
first time Anastasias' voice rose, almost indiscreet in its triumph. He got up
to his feet and kicked the curled body. He didn't hold back on that, and Xena
could see how Ares tried to curl tighter, to protect himself from the worst.
She also felt Gabrielle's motion at her side and raised her hand slightly,
making the girl be still.
There was nothing they could do. Any words would only please Anastasias even
"So many years. I knew one day I'd do it." Anastasias' voice was
broken as he panted. "My brother is going to be avenged at last. So young
and bright and passionate - and dead because you promised him your help - and
all you did was to give him away to the whore murderer here."
He turned towards Xena, his face red and sweaty and distorted with fury -
and Xena tried again to catch what was sliding away from her, to wipe off
twenty-five or so years of his face, to see through the bags of fat hiding the
The light eyelashes, the deliriously bright, brash gaze, the straw-blond
straight hair... Could it be?
"Your brother was Agathon? The one whom Ares gave Heph's metal?"
"Lady killer understands me." There was sour satisfaction in
Anastasias' voice, and surprise, too. "The former God - he didn't
"Oh yeah," she let sarcasm fill her voice. "Your brother was
given the most sophisticated weapons of that time - and managed to fuck it all
up. Whose fault was it?"
"He didn't fuck up! He was betrayed!" Anastasias moved towards
them and Xena stilled, preparing herself for a lunge. "You won him over
"You brothers are not difficult to deceive," Xena hissed and, as
he touched the bars, jumped towards him. And almost groaned in anguish as the
man slipped away from her reach. He really was faster than he looked... and
smarter than she had thought him to be. So, it was not just Ares he'd prepared
his trap for - but for her, too...
What madness it all was. This man, he must've been a kid when she'd killed
Agathon... Was her past ever going to stop coming back to haunt her?
"Easy, ma'am." Anastasias' eyes were laughing. "I know you
can't wait to put your greedy hands on me. But first I have to get bored with
the God of Sluts. And then I'll possibly taste the blond bitch."
"You bastard!" Xena lost control - did the very thing she'd warned
Gabrielle against doing. The bars trembled with the impact as she threw herself
on them, the metal hard and painful meeting her chest. Anastasias stepped aside
"How ballsy of you! But without success, sorry."
He was saying something else, but at that moment a body crashed against his
from behind. He fell down taking Ares with him.
Xena's fingernails gripped on the metal of the bars convulsively; she was
unable to take her eyes away from the two struggling on the floor. Was there
any chance? Anastasias had thought Ares was broken enough not to be afraid of
him... The rage at her own helplessness scared her. She knew it was pointless
to feel it, it was exactly what Lao Ma warned her from doing: to let herself be
blinded by her anger. Yet she couldn't help it; there was nothing she could do
but to watch, and it was driving her mad.
She saw Anastasias roll over Ares and lock his hands on Ares' throat. So, it
was over - the question was only if Anastasias would stop in time while Ares
was still alive. A thought passed through Xena's mind, that possibly Ares
didn't want him to stop.
Then there was a flash of blade - Anastasias' own dagger - and she knew it
was Ares' bloodied hand that held it. They heard Anastasias' whooshing breath
as the man froze suddenly, and then... so very slowly - too slowly for Xena's
peace of mind - he slumped down on Ares.
There was another gush of blood covering Ares' face - but this time it was
Now it was really over.
Or was it? Xena heard a soft gasp coming from Gabrielle, turned and saw
huge, dark eyes staring back at her, the greenness almost gone from them around
the dilated pupils. She nodded to Gabrielle silently and looked back at Ares.
No, nothing was fuckin' over. Anastasias might've been dead - yet they still
were in the cell. Ares didn't move under the man's body and Xena caught herself
on pushing him mentally, with the insistence that bordered on anger. It was not
enough! He had to do something! Had to do more to save them, didn't dare let
them die in this cell, let himself die there!
And as if on her order he moved at last, his teeth flashing white and red as
he bit on his lip. His gaze was very concentrated, unblinking as he got out
from under Anastasias' body. The little dagger slipped from his hand. There had
been just one stab but it was enough; as Anastasias' head rolled on the floor,
Xena could see the ugly flower of the man's destroyed eye.
She thought about calling Ares, making him hurry - yet found herself
strangely unable to make a sound as she watched him move. His left arm was
dangling against his body and blood trickled equally on the insides of his
thighs and from the long slash on his side. He reached for Anastasias and
didn't stay on his feet as he crumbled on the floor again.
He groped over Anastasias' body one-hand, until he pulled a bunch of keys
out of the man's pocket. Then Ares' eyes focused on Xena - and the intensity in
them made her feel a shiver run down her spine. Now she knew no matter what, he
was not going to give up.
Next moment he dragged himself towards their cell and Xena yanked the keys
out of his hand.
"Yeah, right," he mumbled, a trickle of blood leaking from his
mouth as he spoke. "You'll do it better."
She opened the locks, seeing with her peripheral vision how he hobbled back
to Anastasias and tugged on the man's body insistently.
"What are you doing?" They were already out of the cell and she
leaned to scoop Anastasias' weapons; they would need them if they wanted to get
out of the castle.
"Need some clothes..." That was not said very clearly, almost like
for himself, and she thought suddenly that he was going to collapse right now.
"What, are you cold or what?" she started angrily, trying to yank
him back into awareness - and met his stubborn gaze.
"You can go, no need to wait for me."
She could bet he would sound as mulish as he looked if he could speak a bit
"Oh come on, Xena, let's just help him." Gabrielle's voice was
exasperated and suspiciously resonant, like her nerves were on the verge of
Well... They were going to lose a few precious minutes for it but Xena
didn't have heart to argue.
They got out. Once free, Xena was unstoppable. And very pissed off. She took
her chakram from the dead body of Anastasias' lieutenant - the dumb man dared
be arrogant enough to assume he could have it. And when they left, no one tried
to stop them: there was just no one who could or would risk moving.
Later, in the forest, Ares went down very quickly, the last of the nervous
energy that must've supported him on his feet draining out of him. Then he
slipped on the ground, curled, shivering and coughing blood, and looked exactly
like he would rather die there than take one more step.
She and Gabrielle had to put his arms around their shoulders and Xena cursed
mutely at nearly every step and every Ares' suggestion to leave him.
"No one is getting left behind here," she mumbled more for herself
than for him.
They got to the farm right before she decided that if he was going to be so
insistent, she might just do what he wanted.
Things might have gone easier after that - but they didn't. Not quite and
not at once. And as he tossed in fever, his wounds infected, Xena caught
herself on looking with grim determination at his sharpened, waxen face and
repeating to herself:
"Everything will be okay. I won't let you go."
She was not going to give him away to anyone or anything. Not to mad
warlords, not to fever. He was hers to deal with.
But, days later, when the worst had passed, she realized that she was stuck
with him - and that it didn't make her feel good. The farm was the only safe
place for him, at least until he was completely well - it was a fact and they
had to live with it; just like it was a fact that there was only one bed there.
She simply had to get used to it - as well as to seeing his face during
breakfast, to listening to his complaints, silly jokes and abrupt silences.
He was there - through her sleep and her wakefulness - and there was nothing
she could do about it.
In the bed, Xena stretched and realized with a kind of surprise how stiff
her body was from lying in the same position for too long. And was suddenly
aware once again about the empty place on her right - feeling abnormally cold
in comparison with Gabrielle's warm supple body on the other side.
He's been gone too long, she thought - and another thought followed that:
he's gone. She knew he would be gone, one day. They didn't talk about it; he
didn't do anything to make her think it but she just knew. And it was what
helped her sometimes, when he got on her nerves especially hard: thinking that
some night she would wake up and wouldn't find him near.
Maybe, now he'd left. Xena thought she should've felt satisfaction at this
thought. But she was perfectly sure that, if anything, it was not satisfaction
she felt. It was rather like loss.
Realizing that made her angry - but anger slipped away quickly. Well, if he
was gone - so be it. She'd certainly survive it easily. She just needed to
That was the point - she needed to know. She didn't think she would be able
to go to sleep now and wait till the morning, and in the morning to know for
sure that he was gone. She rose on her feet quietly, glanced at Gabrielle,
wondering whether she should wake her, and decided against it. It was her,
Xena's, business. Let Gabrielle not worry about it.
The night was warm - one of the last warm nights of the season; later the
dusk would be bringing brittle, smarting iciness with it. The sky was so high
and clear above her, the stars frighteningly huge that they blurred before her
eyes as she looked up. The soft breeze felt good, filling her lungs, and for a
few moments she just stood, not looking around, not wanting to look and to
Then she heard this sound, turned - and there he was, sitting cross-legged,
looking at something on the ground and the strands of longish hair hung over
his face hiding it. Now what was he really doing? Found something so
interesting that it distracted him from sleep?
Exasperation made her feel light-headed. How dare he worry her like this?
She'd thought he was gone! Yeah, sure. He would go - but not before they were
all at each other's throats.
She moved towards him, making enough noise to let him know she was there -
she didn't like to see him flinch at an unexpected presence.
"Now how are you going to work tomorrow, staying up half of the
night..." she started in irritation and then saw the little creature on
the ground at her feet. "A hedgehog! Where did you find it? I knew it was
a hedgehog - I recognized the sound!"
He was feeding it a piece of apple, apparently not the first one, since the
hedgehog just nibbled on it lazily. His face looked peaceful in the moonlight
as he raised his eyes to her, but for a moment before his gaze acquired the
expression she knew so well - of amusement and slight irony - she saw his eyes
unguarded and unhappy.
"A hedgehog!" She was not going to deal with him being happy or
unhappy - was going to focus on something else. A hedgehog there, they both
could occupy themselves with it for a while. "I used to bring them from
the forest when I was small. We had one that got under the cart..."
She cut herself off abruptly. It was certainly more information than he
wanted to know. Even if his eyes stayed on her face like he was interested -
absorbing, caressing eyes - the gaze she knew so well and learned not to trust
"I didn't," he said suddenly.
"Didn't have hedgehogs. Stallions, serpents, wolves - but no
"Don't tell me you missed them," she said but it felt strange for
her - to think about him being a child; it must've been such a long time ago
that one might've forgotten about it himself. But no, he remembered.
"Nope." There were the little wrinkles around his eyes as he
smiled at her. "But it might've been fun if I had them."
She nodded, shifting from one foot to the other. She should leave now,
right? She'd found out what she needed to know; now she could go back to sleep
- maybe, wrap her arms around Gabrielle's waist. Gabby would mutter something
but would assent eventually. If he wanted to stay awake with the damn hedgehog
- it was his personal matter. If he needed some space - Xena could understand
it; after all, he was generally willing to provide it when she and Gabrielle
needed it. Even too willing sometimes - when he got all so gentle and distant
like that. And Xena had to admit that she didn't quite like it. He had never
been distant before, had always been close - even when she'd hated him, fought
She delayed just for a moment, puzzled with this thought, and then he got on
his feet, just a bit awkwardly - the effects of what he'd been through at
Anastasias' nearly gone - and turned to her. There still was a piece of apple
in his hand, and he chuckled and threw it away.
"These creatures stink, you know," he said sniffing his hands.
She reached to him and put her palm on his cheek. She did it because she
wanted to do it; it was not that having him standing near went to her head. His
presence was almost painfully overwhelming, true - his warmth, his size, the
glowing of his eyes. Yet if it was just that, she would be able to fight it, no
problem - like she'd always fought it when he was concerned, training her mind
into automatic rejection, no matter how her body resisted it. Maybe, it was
just as plain as she knew now she could do it now - touch him - didn't have to
feel like she'd compromise her very self if she did.
His skin was like warm silk against her fingers, tight over the hardness of
his cheekbone. It felt just like she'd known it would be. Just like she'd
wanted it to be. And real - not just something distant and hated/dangerous - as
she used to think when looking at him - but something she could hold and feel
She remembered how he'd touched her this way, stroking her face with his
fingers, remembered the roughness of the fingertips and the irresistible
lightness of the touch. Oh yes, and his patronizing stare at the same moment -
and his arrogant words of street-wise philosophy that he tried to pass for the
absolute wisdom of life. She hadn't forgotten that; she just was not sure she
wanted to think about it now.
After all, they were on the same ground now - whether he wanted that or not.
It changed things for her and she didn't know how much it changed for him.
Maybe, everything. Maybe, now he wouldn't even want it - maybe, there had never
been anything past his games.
Then he turned his head slightly and his lips touched the inside of her
wrist, and this gesture almost made her sway. Not even the softness of his lips
- but the lightness of this kiss. He couldn't be like that - not so gentle, not
so... eager. How could he be - after so much that had been between them, so
much bitterness and bad blood from both sides.
But he was - and it was so dangerous.
His hands cupped her face, and she leaned into this touch even before she
could stop herself. She regained control, of course, but not to free herself
from him - and not because she couldn't. With perfect clarity she knew that she
just didn't want to. His hands were so warm - well, she had known it,
remembered it, since those times when he touched her trying to manipulate her.
Was he trying to do it now, too - by making her feel like her face was a
precious gem, a frail cup of Chin porcelain in the careful hold of his hands?
And suddenly she knew that she didn't care. If he did - it was his loss -
and she was not going to think about it. She could afford, for once: to feel
nothing but the protection of his hands around her face, shielding her from the
world. It was not right that he could feel so good despite what he was. But,
maybe, she could forget what he was. Maybe, he could forget it.
She met his eyes and saw the intense, questioning stare of his. Like he was
trying to figure her out. The irony of it didn't escape her. He was trying to
understand what games she was playing, too. His lips pressed to her palm knew
the truth - but he himself didn't.
She ran her thumb over his mouth, the softness of his lips upsettingly
pleasant and the harshness of the scar in the corner of his mouth like a shock
- and she felt his hands lock on her face tighter, almost dangerously tight,
like they could crush the bones of it. But at the same time she never felt less
threatened and more protected than at that moment.
She reached for him and brought his face to hers, and locked her lips on
his, her arms around his neck, invading his mouth with her tongue. His mouth
tasted apples slightly - but mostly was just as she knew it would be - warm,
moist - and lips so soft and resilient that she was not sure she could let him
go any soon.
She heard his sigh, and then his hands cupped on her chest. She threw her
body forward, closer towards him - the hardness between his legs pressed
against her sex sent a jolt through her, making her feel faint. Yet she wanted
to be even closer - braced her leg around him, sucking on his lips until she
tasted salt. It couldn't be - she couldn't draw blood; but she knew she had -
and not only didn't he back away but followed her mouth with his, pressing
harder, giving her all she wanted to take.
She saw a flash of his face, pale, with the eyes of glimmering darkness as
his stare was frozen in passion, and then she tossed her head back, presenting
her neck to him and felt gentleness of his kisses and hardness of his nibbling
going down her throat.
She had to stop that, she thought. She had to. If not for herself - then for
Gabrielle. Should've waken up Gabrielle before going out... But even thinking
that Xena knew it sounded wrong. She didn't have to use Gabby to shelter
herself from Ares. Whatever she was doing - or trying to stop doing - it had to
be her decision, and was between him and her. And if she decided to go on, she
had to admit it was not just two bodies talking to each other, understanding
each other perfectly, like they could never understand each other's words.
She recalled thinking how she'd never seemed to have any choice about him
recently, as to letting him into her life and letting him stay there. But at
this moment she had a choice.
"Ares, wait." His name came out like a groan - a low sound
reverberating deep in her throat - and she felt how his lips stopped still as
if the sensation shocked him. Then he raised his head, looking at her, his eyes
seeming slightly wild because of dilated pupils - and his hands clenched on her
"If you want to stop it now, Xena..."
What then? He'd be mad at her - yet he'd forgive her for it eventually. What
didn't they forgive each other?
"How can I stop it?" she said thoughtfully and bitterly. "It
is too late, Ares. You are under my skin."
She saw something twitch in his face - and she expected triumph in his eyes
or at least expected some kind of witty remark to come from him. But he just
shook his head as if he couldn't quite believe he'd heard it, and then pulled
the shoulder-straps of her tunic down.
Gabrielle... maybe, she would understand it. Maybe, she already understood
too much. Xena recalled her eyes, there, in Anastasias' cell, looking at her
with so much compassion and understanding. Maybe, Gabrielle knew it would
Ares kissed down to Xena's collarbones, pulling her tunic lower - and she
shivered at the draft of air on her breasts, shivered once more as the liquid
flame of his mouth engulfed her nipple. Flame trailed over her everywhere where
he touched her; yet everywhere where he didn't - she felt cold, deprived and
There was a briefest moment of repose as he'd let her - when he slid on his
knees in front of her - and his face turned up to her was like a perfect
drawing of white and black, of the precise lines of his features, the darkness
of his beard and his eyes. He looked like he was trying to imprint her image in
his mind this way forever. And suddenly she knew that whatever else was going
to happen between them from now on - she would never be able to forget him
looking like this at her, either.
"If I have to die," he said, his voice almost conversational,
"I will die thinking about this moment between your legs."
He stroked her inner thighs as he spread her slightly - and then the flame
of his tongue entering her licked away all conscious thoughts that existed in
She knew she was moaning - bit on the back of her palm to shush it; her
other hand was in his hair, unable to let go. She pulled him closer, guided him
rudely, almost violently, how she'd done to her lovers that were also her
enemies and never during last years. And he had been her enemy, hadn't he? He
followed her guidance so easily, so eagerly, his hands warm and pressing firmly
on her hips, the hard palms grazing the skin under her buttocks as she thrust
in his face. Until in a flash, with her hips moving convulsively against his
accepting mouth, she came.
She was gasping; caught the air and couldn't normalize her breath; the
residual spasms still went through her, the pleasure imprinted somewhere in her
bones, reluctant to leave. She was leaking - long trickles over the insides of
her thighs - and a brush of his fingers there was electrifying. But even that
was easier to handle than the sight of his face turned up to her, the
unbearable softness of his stare. He licked his fingers and she shivered - and
knew it was not over, not yet, she wanted him again.
How devious of him! She almost resented him - but couldn't spare enough
thought to it, didn't want to. She clasped her fists on his vest, pulling him
up, pulling him to her, and slid her palms over his chest, tracing the scars
and smoothness of his skin. She tasted her juices in his mouth - and groaned,
sparing one hand unwillingly from stroking the soft fur of his chest and his
hard nipples - to reach for his pants, loosening them.
He caught her hand and pushed it away gently, but Xena reached again and her
fingers wrapped around his shaft - and for a moment she felt breathless at the
warmth and heaviness of it. She heard with vague surprise that he moaned at her
She guided him in and he slid inside her so smoothly - yet making her feel
fuller than she could imagine. She wrapped her arms around his neck and her
legs around his thighs - and felt the strong, secure ring of his arms around
It felt good to know that he could hold her like this, like she was frail
and light enough for him. Her eyelashes felt too heavy, making Xena want to
close her eyes - and she realized she hadn't done this in too long - hadn't let
herself go, without need to monitor the other's reactions, for the evidence of
pleasure or of threat. Yet she wanted to look, too - to remember him like that,
the darkness of his eyelashes, the embers of his eyes, his lips swollen and
tender with her kisses.
"Do it," she whispered, encouraging both him and herself, setting
the rhythm. "Now. Do it."
Then she couldn't talk any more - and heard a sob he made, just once - and
something snapped in her, sending her over the edge as his cock pulsed in her
and she felt herself open for it.
It was safe, of course - she knew she wouldn't get pregnant, she would never
do it if she could. Yet somehow the thought of something of him being in her
added to her pleasure, making her body rigid in a long spasm.
She loosened only a while later, slid on the ground - and held him as he
shivered in her arms, his moist forehead against her shoulder. And with the
clarity that sliced through her mind and hurt her more than she could expect,
she knew that she didn't want to let him go.
She would let him go, she knew, and it would be all over then. And she would
have to deal with the consequences and watch it for never to happen again...
But why? Why did it have to never happen again? Suddenly she asked herself
about it - and all the answers her mind prompted to her were wrong. Not because
of their past. Not because of Gabrielle; it would deprive Gabrielle of nothing.
It was because of her, Xena's, fear that if she let Ares stay with her, let
herself just be with him - she would never be able to stop it.
And what so terrible was in it? Why did the thought of accepting him into
her life willingly scared her so much? She could do it; once she'd had a nearly
limitless capacity for hatred - didn't she have a place in her heart for her
Her man... Was it what Ares could be for her? Gabrielle was her woman and
her friend and Eve was her daughter. She needed them in a different way. But,
maybe, she needed them all.
"Let me..." He whispered - and the arm that cradled her felt so
warm and convenient that she just nodded; she didn't know what he meant - but
she didn't care. He guided her somewhere, just a few steps - and with her eyes
closed she heard a little splash of water - and then felt a shock of soft wet
cloth on her skin. Her tunic fell on the ground - and the cloth slid over her,
cool and wonderful on her, her neck, her arms, her breasts, wiping softly over
her legs and going over her inner thighs.
It made her shiver - not with cold but because she didn't want to feel like
a small sleepy girl washed by the caring hands - and she didn't want even to
start wondering why of all people it had to be him who made her feel this way.
But she let him do it - and after he finished, let him take her in his arms and
carry into the house. There, lying in the middle of the bed, she waited
patiently until he settled next to her. And feeling Gabrielle's sleepy warmth
on one side and Ares' heat on the other, Xena at last felt complete and
protected and let herself slip away.
* Vae victis! (Latin) - Woe to the vanquished.