Author's note: I'm trying my hand at yet another new style, so bear with me. This takes place some time after "Path of Vengeance".
Hope you enjoy!
...And again, if two lie together, then they have warmth;
but how can one be warm alone?
A sharp cry, a well-aimed kick and the guy is a shapeless hulk in the tall grass, weapons and all - a flip, two more kicks, and the other man clenches and unclenches his fist in comical incomprehension, his sword gone. Itís a perfect fight, the sort of thing Xena takes for daily exercise, a little skirmish to wake her up. Sheís gorgeous, skin glistening gold, hair streaming around her face like a dark halo. Dammit, I could watch her all day!
Sometimes, I do. Gabrielleís also there, of course, by her side in the forest clearing - not that sheís a sidekick these days. No, Xena did too good a job on the blonde. I hate to admit it, but sheís a warrior now. Whoíd have believed it? Probably one of the best - couldnít be anything less, not with Xena training her. Took her long enough, but she did it, hating it every step of the way. Her brows still furrow in concentration in a fight, as if sheís trying to remember why sheís doing it - which would be amusing, were it not for the fact that sheís the one down there, back-to-back with Xena. Theyíre moving in perfect unison, complete trust.
I watch them dispatch two more thugs - theyíll have a nice set of matching scars when they wake up tomorrow - and wonder what it would be like to be in the blondeís place. Xenaís back pressed against mine, muscles moving under the armour, nothing between us and nothing around us, one with each other and the fight.
I snap the portal closed so abruptly that bright afterimages dance in front of my eyes for an instant. No need to wait for the outcome - whatís a couple more bandits? I slump back in my throne and scowl into the semi-darkness. I want wine. A goblet shimmers into my hand obligingly, stone-cold, the outside matted with condensation. I nearly spill it in surprise. Damn, I keep forgetting it works again - which only makes me more annoyed. Liquid sloshes around the rim as I swirl it. I weigh the goblet in my hand, then swing my arm back and pitch the thing into the depths of the hall like a fireball. It sails through the air turning over and over, trailing ribbons of red liquid, and dissolves away before it can hit the wall, like a shadow melting in torchlight. Figures. The doors donít slam here, either. Some things about being mortal were damn satisfying. Pathetic, but satisfying. Maybe I should wish for some chickens to kill. Wouldnít that be a sight for Olympus!
Just as well thereís no one else here. Except Aphrodite, if sheís still around. Most days though, sheís down there fussing with her mortals - and Iím up here in this ghost town. Somehow, fighting in their little skirmishes doesnít have the same thrill anymore - all those faces. Keep thinking Iíll run into someone I used to know, back when I was mortal. Which is unsettling at best, not to mention embarrassing. Doesnít exactly do wonders for the reputation, does it? Just for now, Iíd rather watch from here. Better view, at any rate.
Everything is exactly like itís always been - frilly, tacky, sparkly. When Aphroditeís not around, I amuse myself by wandering through the corridors and zapping them all black. All that white marble, colonnades, frescoes... Athenaís beloved tapestries all over the walls, the place looks like a cheap carpet shop or a bad theatre set - but Dad wouldnít hear of tossing any of them, not even her very first one, the one that looks like a sick horse threw up over a canvas. One day Iíll get around to torching it.
Itís weird, Iíd have thought Iíd like it. I mean, with my family... Whoíd miss them? But itís too quiet here, like there should be feasts and those inane costume parties of Diteís and Athenaís nasty little jibes at Dadís nymphette of the week...
The mortals have a word for this, Iím sure. They have a word for everything - or a few. No clue - but words by the cartload. What was this one, again? Oh, yeah. I wince at the memory. That nosy neighbour-woman asked me about it, the one time we talked. Or, rather, she talked. It was after Xena had left me on that precious farm of hers. Greba - was that her name? - only got close enough because I hadnít noticed her standing there, watching me. I was too busy watching the two of them disappear over hilltops, then reappear again, smaller each time. Then they were just two dots in the blue distance - funny how mortal eyes see things. Didnít look back.
Thatís when she came up, carrying a steaming pot - like I couldnít cook a chicken! - and just stood there until I took it. Any ideas she had about staying to chat evaporated at the look I gave her. She turned to go - sorry she bothered me, she'd just thought I might be... What? I glared at her, but itís hard to look menacing holding a pot of chicken soup. She shrugged, like it was supposed to be obvious, then said - lonely.
Yeah, thatís it.
* * *
I lower my sais, slowly, as though coming out of a trance, and look around, waiting for the pounding in my head to stop. I hate these moments - when the rush of battle is ebbing and Iím left weak-kneed and rasping shallow breaths, trying not to think about what I had just done. Xenaís already saddling Argo, checking her shoes. I notice itís not dark anymore, daylight filters through the leaves in yellow patches, but the grass is still damp. I peer at the three unmoving bodies strewn around the sunlit clearing - probably just unconscious, but I still wonder if theyíre dead. Then I wonder what it would be like to go to sleep properly, without expecting to wake up to an ambush.
I bend down to sheathe my sais in my boots and try for a wry smile - at myself, at everything around me. At least this gets me out of bed - or whatever passes.
Xenaís motioning at me impatiently - wondering whatís taking me so long. I resist the impulse to check if the men on the ground are dead - Xenaís right, better to leave now. Just as weíre about to set off, thereís a sound in the trees. I fight momentary dismay - Iíve had enough for today, but Xena just looks wary and jumps off the horse to investigate. She could do this all day, every day - practically does.
Then sheís smiling and a moment later I see why - itís Virgil! Iím ridiculously happy to see him, heís beaming, climbing down off his horse to grip Xenaís arm, then Iím hugging him, trying not to burst into tears - why do I want to cry, anyway? Post-battle comedown, nerves - but I have a feeling itís something else, too. His arms are so comforting around me, his eyes warm with concern - is everything okay? I can only nod, embarrassed at my blubbering, he wipes the tears from my face gently - damn it, here I go again, dissolving into fresh sobs. I canít even remember the last time I cried like this. Whatís wrong with me?
Virigil notices the bodies around us - what happened? Xena just shrugs, like itís nothing to worry about - ambush, some thugs with nothing better to do. Theyíll be all right by nightfall, skulls too thick to crack. Virgil nods thoughtfully, smiles - but there is still worry in his eyes, they donít leave mine.
Xena asks what heís doing in these parts - I want to know, too. He tells me heís running a school - in Potadaeia of all places! We have so much to catch up on.
We get up on the horses and ride to town, while he tells us all about the classes, the new pupils, how they got the kids to perform a comedy in the town square and the magistrate liked it so much that theyíre taking it to Athens! Thatís where heís coming back from, heís been arranging the theatre there. It all sounds great, I have a million questions, but Xenaís very quiet. Theatreís not her thing, let alone school - but I can see sheís trying to show some interest. Doesnít fool me, though. I tell her to wake up and poke her and Virgil rolls his eyes good-naturedly. She pretends to be offended, but I can see sheís laughing.
When we get to town, itís all hustle and bustle, people moving everywhere, carriages piled with wares for the market, kids playing in the mud - the usual. I canít even remember if weíve been here before, but it doesnít matter - we just follow the sour smell of ale to the tavern. Sure enough, itís a dingy little place in the centre of town, all but empty this early in the day. We order some breakfast and settle down to eat.
The porridge arrives, a grey dollop of something that looks suspiciously like glue with bits of shoe polish in it. The waitress assures us itís not bad if we pick out the burnt bits, and I can see Xenaís got that glint in her eyes. I hide a grin. Xena rests her elbows on the table and starts to argue about the price - sheís in a really good mood - admittedly, four dinars is ridiculous. Over the top of their bargaining, Virgil takes my hand and for the life of me, I donít know why my heart is thumping like crazy. He asks if I want to come with him, to Potadaeia. To teach. Xenaís got the price down to three dinars seventy, not a copper less, I note idly - before his words sink in.
Me. Teach writing. In Potadaeia. Go to Athens with the little theatre group, organise more plays. They have a music class, too - Virgil plays the lute, his father taught him. The mention of his father almost has me tearing up again, but I tell myself to stop it. The price for the porridge is now two dinars, but I canít seem to think straight. Heís looking at me expectantly and I suddenly realise that I want to do this.
That takes some getting used to. I umm and uhh a bit, stalling for time - I actually want to do this! Itís been a while since Iíve really wanted something - it always seems to be about having to do something, having to fight, having to get up in the morning. The more I think about it, the more sure I am. The porridge is now one dinar seventy, because itís cold - but it wouldnít have been cold if maíam hadnít argued about the price, would it?
I allow myself a small smile, finding that I have to yell over the bargaining - sure, Iíd love to! Of course, the noise had to have stopped at that exact instant, so that I shout "love to!" into complete silence and half the tavern is looking at me in surprise, Xena included. "Love to what?" she asks suspiciously, handing over the dinar and seventy coppers into the waitressí outstretched hand without looking. The girl leaves in a huff - and I just keep looking at Xenaís face and canít seem to make out the words. A million thoughts run through my mind, most about Xena, how theatreís not her thing, and how I canít believe what Iím about to do. Luckily, Virgil comes to my rescue - his school would be so honoured if I would come and teach... He doesnít get much further, Xenaís face closes over, thunderclouds drawing across it. I donít know how to explain, where to begin, so I just sit there, opening and closing my mouth like a fish out of the water - only I want to breathe - trying to think of the right thing to say, until she pushes the cold porridge away - the gluggy mess wobbles in the bowl - and storms out. Virgil gives me a troubled look - he didnít mean to cause this. I tell him to stay put and slip out after her. The whole tavernís watching - their entertainment for the day!
I go outside and see her back, heading for the stables. She doesnít turn around when I call, so I have to run to catch up. Itís strange - I feel both guilty and free at the same time. Itís good to know what I want to do, I just canít fight the sudden emptiness at the thought that she wonít want to come along. And she wonít, I know.
I grab her arm and she spins around. Thereís such hurt in her eyes - she canít believe Iíd take off just like that. Neither can I. But she doesnít know what happens to me in that twilight zone between warrior and plain old Gabrielle, the bard, the dreamer with my head in the clouds - and blood on my clothes, my hands. She knows I donít sleep well some nights, Iíve told her - but I donít think she really comprehends what itís like. Sheís lived this life since she was little more than a kid. Iíve grown into it. For a long time, I thought that that was exactly what I wanted. Since before I met her.
Sheís listening now, trying to figure me out - so I take a deep breath and keep going. Now that Iíve lived this life, the life of a warrior - adventures, travel. Death, too. Itís been happening for a long time now, brewing - ever since we helped Ares on that farm of his and had a couple of days of ... well, peace. Peace. I want peace, Xena, I canít do this anymore.
And now Iím crying all over again, harder and harder because sheís holding me in her arms and stroking my hair, rocking me back and forth - I donít even care that weíre in a busy street, sheís everything I have - and I donít want to lose her. By whatever gods are still left out there, by the trees, mountains, rivers, people, whatever remains of this strange world - I donít want to lose her! But I canít lose myself, either.
Sheís not crying, but I can feel her breaths making her chest shudder in sharp beats against mine. There arenít going to be any tears, thatís not Xena - it might be easier if there were. I ask her to come with me, repeating it again and again, like I used to do when I was little and really, really, really, wanted something from the gods - for my parents not to fight, a new dress for school. I donít know why I thought that saying it a hundred times would help, but it made sense then - and now. She holds me at an armís length, looking into my face - for a moment I want to say I changed my mind, but I know that would be a betrayal - then she smiles. Oh, if I start bawling again Iíll lose all self-respect, so I break out into hysterical laughter instead. All right, she says, sheíll come, just to see me settle in. A second later, sheís laughing, too - and now I know the passers-by think weíre insane, but I couldnít care less. We half-walk, half-stagger back to the tavern, still laughing - Virgil sees us, waits for an explanation uncertainly, looking from me to Xena and back again, but all I can manage is "everything will be okay!"
And I believe it, too. It will work out.
* * *
I open the door and step out into the street. Argoís waiting where I left her, looking at me with brown accusing eyes. Cheer up, girl, you want to run again, donít you? I pat her nose and feed her an apple quickly, then jump up into the saddle, press my heels into her flanks and weíre off. It feels strange to be riding, wearing my armour again, after nearly two months. Itís comfortable in a way that makes me think of home - not Amphipolis, just some vague notion of Ďhomeí. Iím doing the right thing, I know. Just wish I didnít have to.
I thought something was happening when I woke up this morning, finally - there was all that noise downstairs. Managed to grab my sword before I realised it was just Sarah, Gabrielleís niece, doing the dishes. Sheíd left the back door open, so the clanks and clatters carried right up to my window. I should have been relieved, but no - more annoyed and kind of disappointed. Not that I wanted an army at the doorstep, of course not, but after two months in Potadaeia, Iím just about ready to scream.
A couple of kids wave at me as I ride past and I make myself wave back - theyíre good kids, not their fault Iím in no mood for pleasantries. Iíve got to leave, before things get ugly. I told Gabrielle Iíd only stay until sheís settled in - and sheís so settled in by now, itís hard to believe sheís ever been anything but the townís hero schoolteacher. It shames me that I canít be happier for her. Iíd gotten too used to having her around - but sheís right, she needed this. All those little things that seemed somehow out of place in a warrior - the way she bites her lip when sheís amused, her grumpy hellos in the morning - all that fits in here like a missing piece in those puzzles she and Virgil cut out of maps for their lessons.
Me, on the other hand - I stick out like a sore thumb. Even in a dress. The kids look through the barn door when Iím practicing with the sword - got to keep in shape - and hide as soon as I look their way. "Gabrielleís friendís weird". One little girl pulled on my skirt yesterday and begged me to teach her to "whack things with that circle-thingy," pointing at my chakram. I told her it wasnít for whacking things, but my stomach heaved and I knew I had to leave. Gabrielle doesnít, though.
The school building is quiet - itís the middle of the day, theyíre all inside. I pause by the window despite myself - thereís Gabrielle, her back to me. Sheís waving her arms animatedly, an open scroll in one hand, but sheís not looking at it. Iíd bet she knows that poem, or whatever it is, off by heart. I manage not to laugh as she vaults up onto a studentís desk, startling the kid out of his seat, and continues her declamation to a rapt audience. Thereís still a warrior in her, but a content one. I nudge Argo forward quickly, before she turns, or one of the kids sees me looking in. Itís her moment, they love her.
Iím nearly at the edge of town before I hear my name called. Damn. I pull at Argoís reins, cursing under my breath and wait for Virgil to come up beside me. I donít want to explain, but I canít just ride off now heís seen me. I must admit, though, Iím a little relieved - heíll do a better job telling Gabrielle than I could, they both have a way with words.
He surprises me - thereís a sort of understanding in his face as eyes dart to the saddlebags - filled with the kind of provisions meant for a journey, not a ride to the next village - and then up to my face. I try not to look impatient, but he just asks if thereís anything else I want. No mention of Gabrielle, Iím so grateful I actually smile at him. Heís disappointed, I can tell, but we both know I wasnít going to stay. I tell him to kiss Gabrielle from me, he actually blushes and I canít help grinning - Iím willing to bet he hadnít realised it was so obvious, the way they look at each other. When I clasp his arm in farewell, I tell him, seriously, to look after her and I know he understands what I mean. Itís good to know Gabrielle will never be alone here.
I hate farewells, but I feel lighter somehow - grudgingly glad Iíd said good-bye to Virgil, at least. I know I wouldnít have been able to say it to Gabrielle, but I reassure myself that Iíll be back soon. I just need to stretch my muscles, thatís all. Argo snorts - she doesnít believe me - then her stride lengthens into a gallop and I canít think any more; weíre riding the wind through the fields and then into the hills and for a while, Iím free again.
Itís very late by the time I look up and try to get my bearings - hard to tell, too dark. Iíve been riding for a few days, breaks to eat and sleep, just enjoying the feel of it - or maybe trying to outrun my thoughts. Truth is, I donít know where Iím going. Or where I am. Those hills look familiar, but then, most of Greece does by now, more or less. I wonder if thereís a place I havenít been, at one time or another. It makes me feel old to ride slowly through the tall grass in the darkness, my muscles stiff from days in the saddle after a long break - how much longer can I do this? A year - two, three, ten... I almost turn to ask Gabrielle what she thinks, then shake my head. Iím still getting used to it. How long has it been since Iíd last been on my own like this? Seven years? Well, thirty-two, with the nap.
The ground starts to slope upwards gently, Argoís clicking steps slow down a bit. Thinking of the "nap" in that ice cave - all twenty-five years of it - makes me think of Ares. I hadnít seen him since that time in the Amazon camp, when they captured Eve. Bastard. Iím mad at myself, because the memories that spring into my mind are not the ones I expected. I keep thinking of his eyes, the way he looked at me, up on Olympus, when those chains fell off him and he knew he was mortal - for me. My hands tighten around Argoís reins until my nails dig into my palms. That brings up another memory - I really must be getting old, all thoughts seem to lead to reminiscing somehow - his face, beaten and bruised, the skin of his cheeks rough with scabs and scratches, after the Furies got into his stupid newly-mortal head. But I canít help flinching, it was my blows that did it - then, of course, the rest of that memory demands attention. A warmth spreads through me, I can still feel his soft lips under mine, and a sudden metallic taste as my kiss splits a barely-healed cut.
I shake off the thoughts and look up, just as Argo comes up to the hilltop. Then my heart seems to squeeze into a ball and I miss a breath and start coughing. I was right, I do know those hills - and that valley below. Thatís where my grandparentsí farm is. The one where we hid Ares from that warlord.
Before the memories - Ares, shirtless and chasing chickens with his hair mussed up - drive me crazy, I kick my heels, surprising Argo and she launches down the hill. I only have time to wonder why itís his short time as a mortal that I keep thinking of, and not his millennia as a god - so, of course, I canít help but see his face last time we parted, with him very much a god again - and what I thought then - how his eyes still looked mortal.
Argo comes to a halt, foamed and shivering, and I lead her to the stables. Nothingís changed here, really - I bet the roof still leaks, too - but at least the stables are in decent repair. I rub down Argoís sides until her hide is gleaming, give her her feed and watch her munch contentedly for a while. Youíre growing soft, I tell her. Too used to sleeping indoors. But I canít blame her - especially since the air feels heavy, itís going to pour tonight.
Inside the house, itís as I suspected - smells damp, and it is; takes me a while to get a fire going in the fireplace. I get out a chunk of bread and my wineskin and sit in grandpaís old rocking chair. It creaks and moves under me, trailing cobwebs as I rock back and forth. Thereís a distant rumble and before I know it, waterís pouring all over my dinner. Yep, the roof still leaks. I cringe as I swallow the rest of the soggy bread, then head to my old bedroom - I hope the roof is still whole there.
It is. The bed is a mess - tangled linen blankets in a heap and one sorry-looking pillow. I look through the cupboard half-heartedly, but thereís nothing promising there, just some old clothes and a family of mice. For some reason, I donít want to throw them out into the storm - itís really bucketing down now - so I close the cupboard firmly and head back to the bed, dumping my armour on the way.
I shake the blankets in case thereís any other wildlife there, but they look all right. I climb into bed and get an odd shock - it smells like him. Warm, familiar, undeniably masculine - definitely not what I want to be smelling now. I ignore the flutters in my chest and flip the pillow over, beating it savagely. The other sideís no better. I throw it to the floor and turn over to my lie on my stomach, burying my face in my arms, but I can still smell him. I wonder if Iím imagining it now.
"Thought youíd never come," says a voice behind me and I turn over so fast, my fist connects with something warm - then gets caught in it - his hand. "Well, nice to see you too!"
Ares, standing by the bed in those pathetic farmboy trousers heíd worn when all three of us were here, without his shirt. I canít help staring. Heís grinning at me so smugly that I fight an urge to sock him another one, but find myself blushing instead. I really am getting old, it must be hormonal.
Itís only when he lets go of my hand and sits down on the edge of the bed that it dawns on me - I narrow my eyes - "What are you playing at?"
He doesnít answer - predictably - but asks another question instead, that smile still tugging at the corners of his lips and - I canít help noticing - forming small crinkles around his eyes. Maybe Iím not the only one getting old - though thatís ridiculous, of course.
"So," he asks, picking up the pillow off the floor and kneading it, "are you staying long?"
I shrug, still reeling - "No. Just for the night."
He props the pillow behind me, his chest touching my shoulder as he leans forward. "Good," he says, moving back a bit - "Then you canít force me to fix the roof tonight."
And all at once weíre laughing and speaking over the top of each other, a thousand idiotic things that all seem to start with "remember when" and "that time" and then I remember what I wanted to ask. I canít think of the right way to phrase it, so I just say, "Odd look for a God of War."
He stops laughing and looks at me. I cross my arms and wait, my hands suddenly cold. But it canít be, surely... Can it?
"Are you mortal?" I ask, before I can stop myself.
Heís silent for a while, staring down at his bare feet, looking strangely vulnerable - I donít know what to think - then he looks up at me and I see the sparks of laughter dancing in his eyes. "Maybe," he says - and his voice ripples down my spine, setting my skin on fire from somewhere deep inside. Damn him, even after all these years, he can still get to me... He feels it, too, the bastard!
"But you know," he continues, still in that voice - "thereís a really fun way to find out." Yeah, I say, I could try killing you - but itís just bravado, Iím scared of what I might do ...
"That, or..." His voice is teasing, but his eyes are soft, questioning. Just like they were in my memories, only this is real, now. Heís waiting for me to say something, and I can feel the seconds trickling into the past. He looks so silly in those linen pants, with a bit of his hair sticking up at the back - I reach out and smooth it down.
"I prefer the leather."
Maybe heís still a god. But for once, I donít think it matters.