"Can someone tell me why we're taking the long way again?" Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the question; it was the fifth time Ares had asked.
Xena took a few steps forward to put a little distance between herself and the former God of War. Gabrielle figured it was to keep from slitting his throat to shut him up. Not a bad idea, really. In fact, there was no reason Gabrielle couldn't do it her...no, Eli wouldn't have approved. "Ares…" Gabrielle turned to say something encouraging to him, but at the look on his face, clamped her mouth shut and turned back around.
"What? WHAT?" He barked. "I swear to -whoever- that if you say something uplifting I will NOT be responsible for what I do to you."
"Oh! How the mighty have fallen. Poor little Ares is tired of walking." She purred.
"You want a piece of me little girl? Give it your best shot."
"Any time has-been!"
Ares' reached for his sword. Gabrielle was stooping to her sais.
"Will you two STOP IT?" Xena had backtracked to put herself between Ares and the bard. At this rate, one of them would end up dead. "It's not that much farther. Ares –you walk up front...don't say a fucking word, just get up there. We'll get there when we get there!" She watched as, sulking, he slowly walked until he passed her. Gabrielle stayed put, giving him the evilest eye she could muster.
"Now move. MOVE!" Xena yelled. Ares reluctantly starting walking, pointedly ignoring her and Gabrielle. Xena looked at Gabrielle as they too started walking, more than a few paces behind Ares.
"What's gotten into you?" She asked. Gabrielle shrugged.
"I just lost my temper...I'll be alright."
"Again?? That's not like you Gabrielle and you know it."
"I know." A smug spark lit her eye as she raised her voice, loud enough for Ares to hear, "I'm just so sick of hearing the mighty fucking God of War whine like a sick dog!" Ares stopped dead in his tracks. Xena and Gabrielle stopped too.
"She's just tired, Ares. She didn't mean anything by it." Xena called to him. Too late, he was drawing his sword. To her chagrin, Gabrielle had armed herself as well.
"Yes she did." He intoned.
"Yes I did." Gabrielle confirmed. Xena placed herself between them. They were still equally spaced on either side of her. Bard and war god simply veered to the right, outflanking Xena.
"It doesn't have to be this way." She said, trying to reason with both of them.
"Oh, yes it does. I've been wanting a piece of her for a while now. Just didn't seem fair, me being a god; her being, well, a nothing." Ares said conversationally.
"Is that why you begged me to take Xena's place? Because I'm *nothing*?" Gabrielle's voice was like honey even as she circled him. Xena was about to say something, then changed her mind. She was tired too. And hungry. And dirty. If these two were going to kill each other, then so be it. She could almost taste whatever she was going to buy for dinner.
"Fine. Whatever. I'll meet you in the next town. It's straight up the road. You can't miss it." Xena hadn't made it five steps when she heard the clash of metal. "Here we go again." She muttered as she kept walking.
Ares and Gabrielle both arrived in town looking a little less for wear. Unsurprisingly, Xena was nowhere to be found.
"You thirsty?" Gabrielle asked.
Without another word, they walked into the only tavern and ordered two ales. Gabrielle asked if there was food as well. The barmaid shrugged. Neither Gabrielle nor Ares could figure out if it meant yes or no.
When two plates of something brown, lumpy and steaming were brought to them a little while later, they were unanimous that the shrug had, in fact, meant no. They both sat there staring at their food.
"You first." Ares said.
Gabrielle swallowed. "Alright." She picked up her spoon and scooped some up. When it slid off the spoon back onto the plate, splashed and then jiggled back into place, Gabrielle’s stomach jiggled too. Ares turned pale.
"I. Am. Not. Eating. That." He announced, unable to take his eyes off of her plate.
Another voice broke their hypnosis. "Good call. That stuff'll kill you."
Gabrielle looked up to see Xena picking up a spoon and poking the food. Evidently she thought it was amusing.
"Tell me you have food in that satchel." She said. Xena smiled.
"Got a room, too."
"Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?" Ares asked, thinking of previous sleeping arrangements.
"Oh come on Ares. How can it be a bad thing?" Gabrielle asked.
"Maybe I'm just a little tired of sleeping on the ground, or the floor. Or the ground, or the floor…"
"Maybe I'm just a little tired of you period…"
"Maybe I'm a little tired of the both of you." Xena interrupted. Ares and Gabrielle turned to her in surprise. Gabrielle managed to speak first.
"I never said I got a room for the three of us. It's for me. *You two* get to stay in the stables. I'll be damned if I'm not gonna get one night's sleep out of this." Xena shoved the satchel into Gabrielle’s arms and stalked off.
"Good going Blondie."
"Shut up Ares."
"Hey, stables have hay, don't they?"
"I was just thinking…I've never actually had a 'roll in the hay'."
"Oh, come on. You, me, hay…"
"I'm not in the mood to play 'Find The Needle In The Haystack' tonight, Ares. Maybe another time."
"You don't know what you're missing…" Ares crooned.
Gabrielle didn't like the direction this was going. Mainly because she really, really, *really* wanted to have a roll in the hay with the still-absolutely-beautiful-former-God of War. An unwelcome memory stiffened her resolve.
"From what Hope told me, it wasn't much." She replied easily. Ares cringed.
"That was low, Gabrielle." He said.
"So...how 'bout it?"
"You know you want to."
"No, I know *you* want to."
"Xena!" Xena was surprised to find Aphrodite standing a few feet away from her. She was still so annoyed with Ares and Gabrielle that she hadn't noticed the Goddess of Love.
"'Dite! I hadn't expected to run into you until we got a little further north."
"Yeah, I know that was the plan. But some reporter keeps following me around. You should keep a look out for him."
"Reporter?" Xena asked, instantly worried.
"Yeah, and he's been asking a lot of questions about you and Ares." 'Dite said. Xena snorted.
"Boy, is he ever on the wrong track."
"I'll say. Where is he anyway? And where *is* sweetpea?"
"Back at the tavern, I think. They're sleeping in the stables tonight."
"Who's idea was that?" 'Dite had a knowing smile on her face. Xena waved her hand to dispel the coming misunderstanding.
"Mine." Xena admitted.
Unbelievably, 'Dite misunderstood anyway. "I knew it! You've got a romantic streak in you just dying to get out!" 'Dite gushed. It was at that moment when Xena decided NOT to tell the goddess the real reason for the forced separation.
"Uuh, just don't go telling anybody, okay?"
"My lips are sealed!" 'Dite was squealing with delight. Standing there with the Goddess of Love gave Xena an idea.
"There's only one problem..." she said, feigning frustration.
"They won't stop fighting."
"Well, it's natural for them to argue until they get comfortable with the ide..."
"No, 'Dite. They've been at each other's throats for days now. What if they never get past it? Is there...anything you can do?" Xena asked, looking as anxious as possible. Aphrodite looked around, and then when no one was close enough to hear, whispered:
"Let's just say I packed for just such an emergency."
"That's why I always liked you. You're always prepared!" Xena said, a little untruthfully.
"But we can't let them see you."
"Not a problem, I was just about to blow this place when I saw you." The Goddess of Love reached into a fold of her cape and produced a vial. "Just sprinkle this on their blankets. It's a no fail recipe."
Xena thanked her and watched a gaggle of people follow Aphrodite out of town, all of them clutching at some part of her apparel. Clutching the vial, she turned toward the stables. When she got there, Ares and Gabrielle were arguing -loudly- about who was to blame for the sleeping arrangements. Weapons were drawn. Again. _Looks like I got here just in time_ she thought.
"Xena! What are you doing here?" Gabrielle asked, startled, and looking a little guilty to have been caught arguing. Again. For his part, Ares was looking as innocent as possible. The sword had disappeared behind his back.
"Just checking up on you two." she replied. Spying two blankets as far away from each other as possible, she picked both of them up.
"What are you doing?" Ares asked. Xena had to think fast.
"Made a little purchase. This'll keep any...uh...bugs away from you." she said, as she produced the vial and began to liberally sprinkle each blanket.
"Bugs?" Gabrielle said. Xena didn't like the look on Gabrielle’s face. In fact, it looked like her best friend didn't believe her.
"Bugs." Gabrielle said again. "From horses."
By now, Ares was looking a little suspicious. Uh oh -they were on to her. She stood up and looked at them both as if they were crazy.
"Look. You two have got to come to some sort of peace. I know it's not going to be easy. And you may never be friends. But you've got to at least try."
"So that's why you got bug repellent? So we'll get a long better?" Ares asked. Xena sighed as loudly as she could.
"No, I got it because I thought I saw fleas in the hay when I was here earlier." she snapped. Gabrielle nodded.
"Oh, I hadn't thought of that." she said.
"Big surprise." Ares quipped.
"Can it, Ares." Xena snapped. By this time she was finished with the second blanket. Meanwhile, the hard looks and rolling eyes passing between Ares and Gabrielle had resumed. She threw each blanket back to its respective corner and brushed her hands clean.
"See ya in the morning." She said cheerfully. Then she left the stables.
"What was that all about?" Ares asked, not liking Xena's strange attitude.
"She probably doesn't want us to kill each other."
"Oh, but sleeping with fleas is okay?" Ares asked.
"She wouldn't have sprinkled the blankets if that was okay." Gabrielle went to her blanket and straightened it out. Xena had left it in a heap.
"I don't understand why she's making you stay here. Me, okay fine. But why *you*?" he asked, with a sly grin.
"You're not back on the hay rolling thing are you?" Gabrielle groaned.
"How do you know *she* isn't?" Ares suggested.
"You know, I wouldn't be offended -AT ALL- if you felt the...urge...to spend the night elsewhere. With someone else, I mean. I've got a few extra coins. I'd even put in for it." She suggested. Ares stiffened and straightened to his full height. Out of habit, he flexed his muscles. It was really quite a menacing sight.
"I am Ares, God of War. I don't *pay* for it." he said through clenched teeth.
"Will you listen at yourself? 'I am Ares, God of War'," She mimicked, clenching her fist and assuming a classic weight lifters pose to illustrate her point, "Ares, you are NOT the God of War anymore. You're just a plain, little ol' mortal, just like me. Deal with it."
"I am NOT like you,” he snarled.
"You're right, Ares. You're nothing like me." Gabrielle yawned even as she spoke. She sunk into the hay and situated herself under the blanket.
"And what in Tartarus is that supposed to mean?"
"*I* don't have to pay for it." she cooed. "Night Ares." she said. Ares stood there and watched as Gabrielle drifted off to sleep. She looked so peaceful when she was sleeping. Nothing like the grating harpy she really was.
"One day, blondie. You'll be begging for it." he muttered, jaw twitching. Out of habit, he tensed to teleport out. Nothing happened. He was still in the stables. "I can't believe this is my life." he groaned as he too, went to his blanket and settled down to sleep.
_I feel good_ was Xena's first thought the next morning. She stretched luxuriantly, enjoying the comfort of the bed. She got up and took her time untangling her hair. On a whim, she put in a few braids, just for the Tartarus of it. She didn't rush while getting dressed or donning weapons. Ready to go, she whistled as she left the room and headed down the stairs.
She was halfway down when she smelled smoke. Instantly on alert, she ran outside ready to help. Her first action was to dodge a gaggle of fleeing horses. After that, she simply followed the smoke and the sounds of confusion to find...
The stables were on fire. Not just on fire, but _blazing_. The clink of metal on metal drew her eyes upward just in time to see Ares and Gabrielle tumble from the hay loft down to the ground in front of her. Every instinct in her body told her to simply kill them both.
Quashing it, she turned and walked away.
_No way I'm taking the blame for this, _ she thought as she strode away from the inferno, _no way in Tartarus_. She didn't turn when she heard the structure collapse; she just kept walking, faster and faster.
"Xena's gonna be pissed when she finds out." Gabrielle muttered. Ares wasn't listening; he was still brushing burnt hay out of his hair and out of his eyebrows. That's when he discovered the bump. Fingering it curiously, he stepped in front of Gabrielle and pointed to it.
"Do you see a bump here?" he asked. Gabrielle stared at his eyebrow long and hard.
"No." she replied.
"Are you sure? Look again." he insisted. Gabrielle huffed, but took a moment to examine his face.
"Ares, I don't see anything,” she answered at last. "What's wrong now?"
"Nothing. Probably a scratch is all." he mused.
"Don't tell me you're afraid of acne." she sneered. Ares rolled his eyes.
"I've seen what it's done to your face. I'm afraid, all right. I'm _very afraid_,” he snapped.
Gabrielle ignored the comment.
"How far ahead of us do you think she is?" she wondered. "I know she gets up early, but I didn't see her at all this morning."
"You go-ot di-itched. You go-ot di-itched." Ares snickered. At Gabrielle's evil eye, he stifled another round. "Okay, okay let's say we do catch up with her. What are we going to tell her about the stables?" he asked.
"How 'bout we don't tell her?" Gabrielle suggested, not liking the thought of Xena's infamous temper.
"Not tell her? But, but, you two share _everything_!" Ares mocked, complete with hand over his mouth. Gabrielle held up her hands for a momentary truce.
"Seriously, Ares. If she goes the rest of her life without finding out that we burned the stables -and half the town- down to the ground, that'll be just fine with me."
Ares cocked an eyebrow waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"Never...as in _never_." He said, looking for confirmation. When Gabrielle nodded her head, he whistled. "Alright. Your secret is safe with me. And here I thought you were a natural born snitch..."
"MY Secret? Oh nononononono. OUR SECRET."
Several days passed before Ares and Gabrielle caught up to Xena. And that's only because Xena stopped at a tiny village to wait for them. When they got there, she wasn't alone.
"'Dite!" Ares exclaimed. "What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Hey, Ar. That reporter beat us here. Just want to give you a heads up." Turning to Gabrielle, she said; "Hi, little one!"
"He's not going to leave us alone is he?" Gabrielle asked, after hugging the fading Goddess of Love.
"Xena's got a plan." 'Dite replied.
"Oh, I can't wait to hear it." Ares muttered. Up until this point, Xena had been silent. That silence ended when she turned on the former God of War.
"WHAT WAS THAT?" She bellowed. Not one to ever back down from a fight, Ares gave as good as he got.
"Let me clarify: We've WALKED a thousand fucking miles Xena."
"We did NOT walk a thousand miles. We had horses part of the way." she retorted. 'Dite, sensing a physical confrontation, chose that moment to step in.
"WHAT?" Ares snapped, openly annoyed with his sister's interruption.
"Is that a pimple?"
The query was met with stunned silence as all three women stared at the large pimple over his right eyebrow. Gabrielle inched closer to Xena who, for some inexplicable reason, had instantly slipped into her 'game face'. It was blank as a stone.
"Um....Ares, you go on ahead. Keep our reporter friend distracted." Xena suggested.
Clearly incapable of speech, Ares said nothing as he stalked away from the trio, holding his hand over his eyebrow.
"He has a name you know." Gabrielle said once Ares was some distance away from them."
"Who?" Xena asked.
"The reporter." Gabrielle huffed.
"Do _you_ remember his name?" Xena asked. Gabrielle shook her head.
"Then shut the fuck up." Xena snapped. Turning to Aphrodite, she laid out the next phase of the plan.
Aphrodite was startled by the repartee between Xena and Gabrielle. Things were bad indeed.
"I told you the interview was a bad idea." Gabrielle said the next day, for the umpteenth time.
"Oh, so that's why you were there? Because you thought it was such a bad idea?" Xena retorted.
"No. I just wanted to make sure you didn't say anything stupid. I should have known better..."
"Oh, now I'm too stupid to answer a few questions? You didn't do so hot yourself."
"He...turned my words around."
"Riiiight. Blame it on the reporter." Xena hissed. Visions of being dragged behind a horse made Gabrielle change tracks.
"I don't understand your plan. Why use Aphrodite and Ares to distract that guy from 'You Are There'?"
"We want to put him on the right track, don't we? We can't have the world thinking I want to rule, um, the world."
"But how does Ares fit in?"
"Put it like this. If 'Dite tells the truth -that all the love in the world is fading, then he's gonna have to find confirmation to back up her claim."
"And he would find it...where?"
"What better place than a brothel? There are two or three of them in the next town. And if I know Ares...he needs to get laid right about now."
"So the Ares part is just...spite?"
"Better; humiliations galore."
Gabrielle watched as Xena held the apple out to Ares. When he bit into the fruit, she released a breath she didn't know she had been holding.
"Mmm...Juicy....Oh, yeah....Here it comes!" he exclaimed. A faint glow arose, then intensified and washed over him, restoring the power he had sacrificed. _Must be nice,_ she mused.
"How do you feel? Xena was looking at Aphrodite, who was all but dancing in the air.
"Wonderful. Thank you Xena. I never doubted you." she replied happily.
"I did -I didn't think we'd succeed."
"Yeah, things were really bad. When you and Gabrielle went at it, I was worried." Aphrodite caressed Xena's cheek lightly. Xena accepted the show of affection.
"I got worried when your love powder didn't work." she admitted.
"Why?" Aphrodite looked confused.
"I figured if your love potion didn't work, then love was fading faster than we thought."
"Wait...what?" Aphrodite asked. Now Xena was confused.
"That's why it didn't work, right? The love was fading...it affected your 'no fail recipe'...right?" she asked, afraid of the implications. Aphrodite snorted.
"Noooo, the powder didn't work because Ares and Gabrielle are already in love." she said, as if talking to an idiot.
"WHAT?" Xena shrieked.
"Take a look over there, sweetpea." Aphrodite calmly pointed to a not so hidden area where a part time bard/warrior/follower of Eli was being very thoroughly kissed by the very recently restored God of War. Xena very nearly hyperventilated.
Xena watched as the Goddess of Love just stood there. Ares broke the kiss with Gabrielle just long enough to wave at 'Dite and the Warrior Princess beside her. Then he and Gabrielle disappeared in a spectacular flash of blue.
"Those two are puttin off some SERIOUS vibes. 'Say god DAMN what a rush!!" Aphrodite squealed with delight.
"That's NOT what I meant!" Xena growled. 'Dite shrugged.
"I can't do anything about it, and I don't want to. I didn't make it happen -they did. Don't tell me you didn't know? I spotted it last year!"
"Last year." Xena repeated numbly.
"Where are we?" Gabrielle asked.
"Paradise, little girl."
"Looks like a bedroom to me." she said, eyeing the enormous bed in the middle of the expansive room. Ares let her look around for a moment before pulling her back to him.
"Paradise, my bedroom -they're one and the same...Now as for the price of admission..."
"Price....admis...Ares, what are you talking about?"
"Come on. Empty your pockets," Ares said, patting the bard down.
"I don't believe this." she muttered as the God of War grabbed and poked around the few clothes she was still wearing.
"Ah! You really don't carry much money do you? Okay, let's see;" he started counting the coins, "One...three, Four...Eight dinars. You'll just have to owe me the last two."
"I'm warning you Ares. Give them back." she held her hand out expectantly. He pocketed them just before his clothes disappeared.
"No refunds, blondie. Now, are you ready for this or not?" he asked, his statement unreadable. Gabrielle was on the verge of imprinting her hand on his face, but thought better of it; after the previous weeks, she really just didn't feel like fighting anymore.
"Does the price include a demonstration of 'Thor's Hammer'?" She asked. Ares was shocked for a moment, then threw his head back and laughed out loud.
"That'll cost extra."
"Really? I would think it's free with purchase." she haggled.
"You're pushing it blondie."
"How about a roll in the hay?"
"We could work something out. We'll start a tab."
"There should be a 'thanks for my godhood' discount."
"Fine, whatever. So long as you pay for it."
"That was low, Ares."
"Oh, I'll show you low, little girl..."