INTO THE DAWN
Disclaimer: I know it will come as a surprise to some of you, but none of these people... I mean, characters, belong to me. In fact, they are owned by RenPics, MCA/Universal and probably a whole bunch of other folks with a lot more money than I have, so please don't sue me.
Rating: R – sexual references
Author's note: This is my take on the Season 6 episode "You Are There". Xena and Gabrielle find that they must restore Aphrodite to Olympus -- but nothing is ever that simple.
On through the evening and into
Journey me, journey me
To where love keeps on.
They were the worst two months of my life. It didn't feel like it at first. It never does, not at the start of any campaign. The reasons are clear then, fixed in my mind, easy points of light by which to navigate the darkness of night or uncertainty. The mate of the ship which carried me from the Norselands used to come out on deck and just stand there, watching the heavens, while the oily blackness of the waves shushed and slapped at the hull. Once, he turned and gave me an appraising glare through the puffs of smoke from his pipe. "Got family over in Greece?"
I was silent for too long, until it was easier not to reply. He chewed the end of his pipe thoughtfully, then removed it and spat overboard, into the black waves. "Yours too, huh," he said to the water. "Well, we all gotta die sometime. They say you'll see them again, one day."
"Him," I said suddenly, surprising myself.
"Him, then," he agreed.
I came to stand beside him. His smell, sea and cheap tobacco, brought back memories of other ships, other times. Pirates and Caesar, perhaps. Or a ship carrying a bunch of cut-throats vying for the godhood of War – and the real God of War, stripped of his powers and dependent on the one warrior who refused to serve him, but for some reason could not refuse to help.
"Odd," I said, "how everything keeps repeating itself. I feel like I've made this journey a hundred times before."
"Maybe you have," he said with a shrug. "Maybe whatever you're looking for, it's just over the horizon."
"Isn't it always?" I asked quietly, even though it was too dark to tell sky from sea.
He chuckled, and stood bow-legged on the deck, gripping it with his weight. "Don't mean it's gotta be out of reach. Sometimes all it takes is one more journey." He clenched my shoulder hard, a gesture of comfort we could both understand. "They say we never lose them, as long as they're in our hearts."
We did not speak again after that. At dawn the ship came into port, not a major one, but convinced of its own importance, its docks grumbling with the usual creaks and shouts and the never-ending parade of moving cargo, its morning air bitter with seaweed. The ship's hull groaned heavily when the gangplank was dropped, straining on its mooring ropes like a confined beast. It was good to be on solid ground again and especially good to finally have something to busy myself with – even if it was only restocking supplies and hiring a horse for the journey inland. The forced inactivity of the ship had made me restless. I told myself that's all there was to the thin thread of worry that tugged at my mind and hurried me through the list of errands.
There was no reason for the haste. Gabrielle needed plenty of time to find Aphrodite in Rome; for either of us to arrive in the Norselands ahead of the agreed day would only give Odin's snooping ravens a better chance at discovering our presence. They'd set Valhalla buzzing like a stirred anthill, and then not even Grinhilda's promised help would get us into Freya's garden with its Golden Apples of immortality. No, there was definitely no point in hurrying. It wasn't like anything could've happened to Ares on a farm in the middle of nowhere.
But by late afternoon I had abandoned all pretense at taking my time. I gave up haggling, overpaid for the few remaining provisions and saddled my horse; early evening found me well on my way. I took the shortest route I knew, cutting straight through damp ancient forest, heading due west to the Lacoon valley – and my grandparents' old farm. I hoped he was still there.
The ride should have been pleasant. It was early spring, and the sun was warm on my skin during the day, though the nights still nipped at me through the wool of my cloak. The horse I rode could hardly measure up to Argo's simple, familiar company, but she was good-natured and took willingly to my guidance, and that was all I could ask. With a keenness I'd somehow managed to underestimate, I missed Gabrielle. I wondered if she was all right on her own. She would be, of course – I was the one who needed her here, who missed her chatter and her laugh. My own thoughts had never been the best of travelling companions. Each night I would douse the fire and lie awake in the dark, listening to chilly silence that couldn't be broken by the rustle of wind in the branches above me, or by the distant keening of night birds. I tried not to think of Ares, or of what I was about to do.
It was necessary, I kept reminding myself, the Goddess of Love could not be restored to Olympus without the God of War to balance out her power. At least that was what the Norse runes said. They also warned, with all the pomp of a doomsday prophecy, that without a Goddess of Love, love itself would eventually disappear from the world. I had my doubts – after all, war showed no signs of abating since Ares had become mortal, and the death of the other gods had not thrown the world out of kilter. Why should love be any different? But that would set me to thinking of how they'd hunted my daughter, and of the terrible, bloody days of trying to save her. It was almost easier to think of Ares instead – all the times he'd tried to bend me to his will, the way he tried to turn Eve's life into a bargaining chip, the way he fought for that same life when I turned his own game against him... And the light of hope in his eyes when he gave up everything he was to save my daughter and Gabrielle. Now I was about to tread on that light, and crush it like the petals of a tiny flower. Perhaps there was something to the prophecy after all. Perhaps this was already a world without love.
He saw me before I saw him, even though it was beginning to get dark and the windows of the farmhouse were marked with a yellow glow. He came outside as I rode up. Without his powers, my awareness of him did not seem as keen. He made a joke about that instead of greeting me, about being able to sense me now that he was mortal. I asked if that was how he'd known to put on his leathers instead of the farmer's outfit, if he was trying to impress me. Not at all, he said, he was trying to impress Greba the oh-so-lonely widow next door, but to his chagrin, she seemed rather more taken with Horace. The traitor mutt had been only too happy to accompany her to the market – no doubt imagining himself as a new Cerberus guarding the souls of chickens. We laughed, in a tense sort of way that had nothing to do with Ares' jokes, and I could not admit even to myself that I was relieved to see him. His hair had grown out a little and there were new lines on his face, and he seemed more real to me than the house and the fields.
When I took my horse to the stables and came into the house, I realised I'd been wrong – I could still feel him, in every corner, filling it with his presence. I hadn't expected him to fix up the place, and he hadn't – but it was undeniably his now, from the boots slumped casually against a sagging doorframe to the newly-hewn table leg, splintery and raw, but surprisingly sturdy. There was a pile of wood by the hearth and a soot-blackened kettle set to boil over the fire. Aside from the pale stripes of evening between the shutters, the fire was the only light in the room, and its warmth made all the clutter look somehow cosy and lived-in. It made me think of how long he had waited for me here – and when I heard him come in after me, I spoke a little too quickly, and much too brightly.
"The warlords haven't bothered you again?"
He grinned, "Sadly, no." Then he paused quizzically. "So..?"
I searched for something else to say, but small talk eluded me. "Ares," I started, coming closer, and realised that I didn't want to tell him why I was there. I didn't think I could bear the thrill it would put in his eyes.
He looked at me carefully, as though he had already figured it out – but that trick had never worked on me, I knew him too well. He surprised me: "So you think you can beat the Golden Apples out of Odin."
"How do you know about that?" It sounded defensive, and he held up his hands in surrender.
"Hey, it was only a guess. The Norse runes kinda gave it away."
He nodded at the cloak I still wore, and I remembered too late the ornate buckle at my throat. I had to laugh at that, and perhaps that was why I didn't mind when he reached forward and undid the clasp. The cloak stayed around my shoulders. Ares looked at it, and then at me, and for a long moment we stayed that way, the distance between us a fragile thing, but unbearably heavy to hold.
"It's over, isn't it," he said softly, and something clenched at my throat.
"You told me once that you were born to be a god, Ares."
Again I had the sense that I'd been there before, watching the horizon retreat into the mist, knowing that what I was searching for was eternal, and therefore, impossible. He was not born to be a mortal. There had been moments when I'd come so close to forgetting it, or convincing myself that it didn't matter – like the time after the Furies' little mind-game that had left us both the worse for wear. I'd walked away then, only barely. And again, leaving him at the farm. And again, in Rome. He was born to be a god. Inevitably, he would become a god again. And so I chose all those separate pains instead.
"I also told you that my character was perfect for the job," he said, then took my hand between both of his own. "I think you may have messed that up somewhat."
He brought my fingers to his lips, and at the heat of his mouth, I shivered despite myself.
"Aphrodite needs you," I said, unfairly, because it was true, and because both of us knew it. "I can't send her back without you. Can't have love without hate, compassion without suffering, and," I curled my fingers lightly into his, "You certainly can't have forgiveness without anger."
I could not bring myself to say it, but I saw the meaning register in the warm brown of his eyes, and I knew he understood. He shook his head, refusing it. "I'm not asking you to forgive me."
"Good." I smiled at his confusion, touching his cheek, then his eyelids when he shut his eyes. "I don't want you to ask."
"Xena..." He drew me suddenly close, clutching the cloak at my back, "Don't do this."
Anger choked me at those words, at the way he always made it so damn difficult. I freed myself with a jerk. How many times could I do this? How many more ways were there to lose? Once, just once, I wished there was a way to win. But there never would be.
"I have to do this, Ares. I owe you that much."
He frowned. "You don't owe me anything."
It wasn't even the words. It was the way he said them, as though the idea was so obvious that it simply hadn't occurred to him to voice it before. His hands went to my shoulders, pushing back the heavy cloak, and when it collapsed around my feet, I felt suddenly light, lighter than I had in years. We kissed then, not in the searching way that new lovers do, but with a deep certainty, mouths pressed hard together then barely touching, Ares' tongue tingling hot over my lips, my hands opening his vest and roving over his back – the skin bare and warm and so very human. There was no time in that moment, no past and no future, nothing to shape us and nothing to fear. The armour I wore against the rest of the world felt flimsy under his touch, because I didn't need it, because he was human and we were the same. He trailed his fingers down my spine and I arched my neck to his mouth, too aware of his fingers paused on the laces that held my tunic. "Undo it," I said hoarsely, hoping it didn't sound like a plea, my hands weaving through his hair, my eyes shut.
"How?" he asked suddenly, and my eyes snapped to his in surprise. There was bitterness in his voice, and also a sort of resignation. "How can I undo anything?"
"You can't," I said, and took his hands in mine. "None of us can."
"I want to. All the stupid things ..."
"Ares..." I circled his hands around me, so that I stood in his embrace. The surprise in his eyes could not hide his desire, and it ran over me, through me like a fever. "You don't owe me anything."
I released him with those words, and I did not know why – until I saw that light come back into his face, and smooth away the small ravages of mortality, and I knew I had released myself, too. We did not pause after that, could not; armour and clothes fell haphazardly on the floor, the last discarded at the foot of his bed. It had once been mine, and at that moment it was ours, and somehow, it seemed fitting and right. The bedroom was dark, but its blackness only heightened my senses. The warm brush of skin on skin, the breathless caresses, the taste of Ares' mouth and the teasing laughter breaking off into a startled gasp – all those things encompassed me completely, imprinted into my memory as incoherently as the jumble of possessions in the soon to be abandoned house, fleeting and all the more precious because of it.
I woke up at dawn. The light was still bluish and pale, and the chorus of birds outside had quieted to the occasional chirrup. Ares was beside me, also lying on his stomach, his arm around my shoulders as though he feared I would disappear during the night. It was probably a reasonable fear, I reflected – but at that moment I wanted nothing more than to stay there, to listen to his steady breathing, to pretend that we could have that much. He stirred and held me closer, nuzzling my cheek without opening his eyes. I smiled, knowing he could feel it. He ran his hand down my side in response, over my arm and hip and along my thigh, turning my body over in a long shiver of pleasure, and I knew he was completely awake now.
He grinned, propping himself over me. "Sleep well?"
I pretended to consider it. "Hm, I don't know. I've had better." I breezily ignored his look of hurt outrage to go on, "This bed is lumpier than I remember."
"Ooh..." Ares swooped down for a long kiss; I caught his lips for only a moment – and flipped him over onto his back, straddling him, my hair tangling dark about my shoulders and falling into my laughing mouth. A shadow of the previous night crept into Ares' face, and his smile faded into seriousness. He shook his head, looking at me. "I think I waited for this my whole life."
The intensity in his voice was like a tide; I veered away from it with a lopsided grin. "To have me on top of you, or just to have me?" I could not quite keep the bitterness from my voice.
He pulled me down to lie beside him and kissed my mouth, very slowly, until a new pulse of desire throbbed inside me. "To have you love me."
I know the precise moment when love went out of the world. It was the moment I broke away from Ares, my face burning, an odd emptiness fluttering down in my chest like a sail suddenly torn at the seams. The stolen moment of peace shattered into a million shards; I realised I was cold and naked and the two of us looked ridiculous, tussling in sweat-soaked sheets, trying to fool ourselves.
"I don't love you," I said, and for the first time, those words were true.
"Xena?" he asked, but I rolled away, and sat up. Then his confusion crystallised into a cool understanding, and the emptiness froze his body on the bed. "So." His voice cracked, dying away in a whisper, as though I really had disappeared with the night. "I guess it really is over now." And I bowed my head under the weight of agreement.
I have few memories of the journey back to the coast. There are snatches of conversation, dry and practical, and fragments of cold nights beside a searing fire. There is one, bright, glimpse of Ares bathing in a stream, the water sparkling in the moonlight and shimmering on his shoulders and chest, then dripping off him in tears when he walked out onto the riverbank. There, too, is the taste of that water on my tongue, the momentary warmth of it on my belly and its trickle between my thighs as Ares moved my arms over my head and kissed me hard enough to hurt. That coupling was just that – a coupling, a brief illusion of pleasure that left me just as aching and lonely as before, and feeling somehow cheated and angry. We didn't try it again. They say that hatred is the opposite of love, that those who forsake love are left only with hatred in their hearts, consuming them with insatiable darkness. It isn't true. I had once forsaken love and taken the power of the Rheingold; I didn't know it then, but it wasn't hatred I'd felt – it was nothing. Emptiness; that is what remains when there is no love, emptiness that grows and feeds on itself like a cancer, that leaches the colours from the world until it seems a grey desolate plain with no other soul there to share its loneliness.
The bustle of the port was almost a relief from the oppressive silence of travel. It wasn't healthy, there were too many brawls and fraying tempers, too many squalling children and no laughter at all. I returned my horse and got us a room in the only halfway clean inn in town; although our ship was already in port it would not set sail for another few days, waiting to fill its hold with enough cargo for a profitable voyage. We stayed there for three nights, sleeping in the same bed like lovers or children, though it seemed there were neither lovers nor children left in the world. Between us, the sheets were always empty and cold.
At first it seemed for the best; it should have made it easier to do what I had set out to do, no personal feelings, nothing to lose. I recalled again all the hurtful, black things the man beside me had done to me, to those I loved. They seemed unimportant somehow, like the last of the dry leaves on a tree laid nearly bare for the winter – dead things clinging to the past, with nothing to take their place.
Despite my best efforts, we still arrived early, and when I thought to worry about Gabrielle, I realised I didn't care. It was a terrifying realisation, to suddenly find that a part of yourself mattered so little that you could lose it and not feel the loss. It made me wonder about the rest of me, and realise that my own life mattered just as little. I said as much to Ares, my voice as neutral as though I was commenting on the weather – "You were right, you know. In the scheme of things, mortals don't matter at all. We all die eventually."
"But before that, we live." He fell silent, as though listening to his own mind and surprised at what it whispered – and I realised that it was the first time I'd heard him refer to mortals as 'we'.
It would also be the last. Ares drank himself stupid that night, and the next. He did with a singleminded determination I had never suspected in him, a diligent destruction either of his mortal self or his immortal mind. I didn't stop him, but I took my cloak for a pillow and slept on the floor. The night after that, he went to a brothel, where there was no love to give or receive, and nothing hurt. I didn't stop him then either, but went instead to greet Gabrielle and Aphrodite as they disembarked. My heart didn't leap in my chest to see Gabrielle's bright tousled head on the pier; we exchanged pleasantries like old business partners, and another little part of me died.
It was good that Grinhilda found us then. We met in the agreed place, a rocky shelf in the mountains where no raven of Odin's would dream to spy. Grinhilda landed her mount softly, with barely a clap of the heavy hooves on rock slick with ice. She held out the golden apples to me, and Ares sobered at the sight of them. The look he threw me was something between an entreaty and a challenge. I broke off one apple from the branch and held it out to him. A part of me wanted to throw it aside, to watch it tumble and skitter into the depth of the gorge beside us. Instead, I held it to his mouth and felt him bite.
What I felt after that made no sense. The gold glow of power enveloped him and for an instant, I thought it had taken me, too. There was a rush of something like gladness and loss, and when Ares laughed and threw a fireball past my shoulder, I had to bite on my lip to keep from moaning. I wanted him in that instant, more than that, it was as though he had in his keeping everything I had ever wanted, and could feed it to me grain by grain. He held the apple to my lips, and I breathed deeply, inhaling his scent on it, the marks of his teeth and the broken flesh of the apple where his tongue had rasped against it. I believe I would have bit into it then, not for the power it promised but to take into myself all those things, those last shreds of the man I lost before I could ever really find him. I felt mesmerised, irresistibly drawn to follow that loss with my own.
"Wouldn't want you to be alone on Olympus," I said, and brought my mouth to the golden skin of the fruit.
Gabrielle's voice saved me. It brought me back to myself, a lonely place to be – but there was hope, now. I looked at Ares, and said only, "Aphrodite will keep you company." If he caught the apology, he didn't show it. Aphrodite bit into the apple hungrily, the way Ares had not, and restored the world.
It was like spring, a breath of awakening that brought colour and light to break apart the bleakness of the world. A warm wind brushed my face and closed my eyes, and when I opened them I felt I was falling, falling endlessly, effortlessly, in love. I did not see the tears in Gabrielle's eyes, but I felt them, a clean joy that healed me and cleansed me. I could not look away from Ares' face, from the way his lips parted slightly to the warmth that rushed through us all, from the way his eyes laughed again and filled my heart, set it racing with the swiftness of a flooding river. I felt I had leapt into an abyss and instead found solid ground beneath my feet, alive with moss and the rich smells of spring. I thought I had resigned myself to losing him. I didn't know how to deal with finding him instead.
He offered me the apple yet again, his voice now smooth with power, his face free from the little lines I had come to know. And yet, there was more to it all, an undercurrent of feelings that had been locked away from us since the day I came to him on the farm. I took the apples and returned them to Grinhilda; she bid us farewell and for a while, only the clap of her horse's hooves filled the air, until it was nothing but thunder in the distant sky.
"I guess you know I'll never stop trying," Ares said when she was gone.
I nodded. "I'd expect nothing less."
"Come on," Aphrodite urged him, taking hold of his arm. "Let's leave these mortals to their business."
There was a stinging heat in my eyes to watch him walk away, but also a kind of determination. I know he saw both. Gabrielle came up to embrace me, and I stroked her hair. "It's over," she said with relief, and I returned her smile, shaking my head.
"Nope," I said. "It's only just begun."
The same ship that had carried me away from Gabrielle before now carried us home. Gabrielle sat cross-legged in the cabin and grumbled about the rocking that made it impossible to pen a straight line on the parchment. I grinned at her, and pretended to surrender when she shooed me outside. All was as it should be. I went up on deck, and leaned on the railing, watching the silver-blue sparkle of the water all the way to the horizon. A light gust of wind caught my hair, and brought with it a memory of a sailor's gruff voice – "We all gotta die sometime."
I inhaled deeply, taking in the sharp twang of the sea, the sounds of seagulls and the warmth of the sun. "Maybe." I looked past the horizon, to the house where my journey would start again, where I would share this world and lose nothing. "But we before that, we live."
I couldn't wait to start.