Author's note: This is a response to a fanfic challenge at The Shipper Hangout, to restore the scene cut from the end of the season 5 finale, "Motherhood". In it, Ares and Xena say good-bye. The story had to be consistent with the subsequent development of the show, including their meeting in "Coming Home".
Marriage is not
a house or even a tent
it is before that, and colder:
The edge of the forest, the edge
of the desert
the unpainted stairs
at the back where we squat
outside, eating popcorn
where painfully and with wonder
at having survived even
we are learning to make fire.
"Habitation", Margaret Atwood
The end was quick; so quick that no one noticed it had come. Or perhaps a farmer somewhere did stop his horse and stare warily at the furrow before him, sure that it had moved but a moment ago. Or a writer cursed at at the blot of ink on the vellum page. But the farmer moved on a moment later, and the writer dipped her quill in new ink and continued her work, and the flicker of fear they had felt dropped lightly into memory, and was gone. Nothing had changed.
Thus came the end of the gods.
They were not all dead, though a great many had died that day. Some, like Hermes and Apollo, fled south, to the vast hot sands of Lybia and the Nile. Others who, like Demeter, were ancient enough to recall a time before they had taken a human form, returned to that old life. They became again the wind, the sea foam, the warmth of sunlight. Old Demeter embraced Gaia, her mother, and became once again the beauty of the land.
The new day dawned cloudless, clear and cold as fresh water. The warm stale rain of the night was gone and the land lay quiet and still. Against the sand dunes, the sea rolled softly, its movement lulling and contemplative. There were two figures on the grass beyond the dunes, two young women. One sat with her chin on her drawn-up knees, staring out to sea. She wore rags and her brown hair was knotted and dull, but she was no beggar; her face was bright under the sun, and there was a clarity in her eyes and a wonder as in one seeing the world for the first time. The other woman knelt some way behind her, the wind blowing her short pale hair over her face as she struck a spark from a stone to light the fire. Though she wore the light armour of an Amazon there was no war in her movements. She glanced at the other woman, then her gaze dropped as if it pained her, and her shoulders stiffened. She held her palms to the fire and watched the sparks from the driftwood come orange and green.
There were two others on that beach, woman and man, though they could not be seen from beside the fire. They had separated earlier from the group, continuing out past the crest of the dune, onto the light-brown sand. Neither of them spoke, yet they had walked a long way along the curve of the beach as if by agreement, and stopped at the same time. The sun had started to set, and there was gold in everything, air and sea and their two faces side by side. Up close, it seemed they resembled one another, not in their features but in the way they moved, the way their feet were firm on the ground but their hands were lost, unsure of their place with no weapon to hold.
They did not look at each other at first. The woman, tall and dark like the man beside her, but with brilliant blue eyes and sharper planes to her face, was looking out past the waves breaking, spilling, retreating in the pale twlilight. The man was looking at her. What could he see, when her face was turned from him? Did he know that her eyes were haunted, that her mouth was set hard in anger that was not anger, but shame? Someone looking at her then would have been shocked by the violence of it, the despair. It was as though she had been acquitted of a terrible crime, yet judged herself guilty - and knew that she would do it all over again if she must. Who was she? A mother who had been hunted for the life of her child without pause, without respite, until cornered, she had let out the darkness within her to slay the hunters. Xena, Slayer of Gods. It was a terrible name. She had wanted peace.
Surely the man with her could see none of that. Yet he stood behind her and said nothing at all, as though her pain was a strange thing to him, and precious. There was too much darkness in his eyes to find compassion; but then many things may lurk in the dark unseen. In his own bearing there was no pain, though he seemed ill at ease, uncertain as if awaiting judgement. Or perhaps he merely feared thoughts.
They stood like that, together, until the sun grew large over the horizon, blurring in the mist of the sea. Finally, the woman's face closed as a scar closes a wound, and became composed. Only then did she turn away from the sea, to the man. He met her eyes. A fleeting change passed over the face of the woman, the Slayer of Gods, and touched also the face of the man. His hand went lightly to the pommel of the great sword at his hip, and in that small gesture there was a power that was more than a man's, or less. A former god, then. Ares, the God of War.
Some words passed between them and were lost in the breeze, in the crash of waves on the sand. Their hands moved without their notice, drawing the shape of their words in the air, speaking even when the voices were silent. Those hands spoke of a madness passing, of a tentative awakening. It was not quite a connection. Standing thus apart, they seemed to gather the pieces of themselves, to diminish finally into simplicity. They became human; first to each other, then at last, to themselves.
They talked with more ease after that, of generalities, plans. She would join her family, her daughter and her friend, and take them away from here. Would he travel a way with them? The words were asked lightly, but her face was taut. She, who had never feared the God of War, now seemed to fear a single word from this man. 'Yes' - or maybe, 'no'.
He shook his head, not meeting her eyes. He was not her responsibility; he had his own plans. She nodded, 'I understand'. It was a grace, and Ares raised his head then, and waited. Xena's hand went to his a moment, almost drew back, then darted briefly to touch his, fingertips to wrist. She stepped away. 'I have to go'.
'Yes.' He looked after her as she walked back, her footsteps light on the sand, falling beside his own. Then he nodded, 'I understand.'
And though it was impossible that Xena should have heard him, she turned around then, quickly, without stopping, and smiled.
The end was over; this was a new story. Ares looked out, to the footprints and the sand dune, and tried to imagine this life, and the things he could do. They were not many, but he could learn. He would not enter her life as a child but as a man.
He looked at his hands a moment, a god's hands, unused to work. Then he went to the tideline and slowly began to collect firewood.
The sun had fallen past the sea, leaving a blue, blue evening. Another fire was already burning down over the sand dunes; the three women seated around it were still, dark in the grass. A star blinked above the sea, then another. Xena saw from the corner of her eye as Gabrielle laid a hand on Eve's shoulder, and her heart eased a little. It was a good night for finding peace. Eve bowed her head and Gabrielle sat by her side, and watched the stars with her.
Xena lay down in the grass, her eyes still on her daughter, her friend. It was a very small world, but it was her own, at peace, and she was at peace within it. She turned her face to the warmth of the coals. The wood was smouldering, thin weightless smoke drifting away from the campsite. Beyond it was the wide, dark, open plain. A star sparked there, then died, then came alight again, glowing steady and warm. It was a man, learning to make fire.