Disclaimer: This all belongs to Renaissance Pictures and Universal. I wish I could say it was all mine. Truly I do. But I'm just borrowing this wonderful world with all due respect.

Spoilers: Through mid-season 6

Warning: Brief non-graphic reference to rape.

Timeline: Late Season Six

Major beta thanks to Teddy E TalieToEnnien. Y'all keep me presentable.

LISTENING

by LadyRowan Copyright (c) 2009

I began to understand when Xena broke her wrist.

Before that misfortune, I'd been missing too many pieces.

"Xena. I want this. I want you."

"Ares...." Drawn out like a tongue on skin.

"I want this. All of this."

"I can't just...and Gabrielle, she'll be--"

"--gone until sunset."

Xena's body pulls toward Ares'. I knew this for as long as I can remember; felt the heat wafting off of them when I stood too near, smelled the embers when I returned too soon. I understood she was attracted to the power tumbling between his hands, understood the temptation when the power was held out in her direction. I knew she drank in his praise for what she used to do best (still could if she let herself slide).

In that, I understood there was something lacking in our friendship, in what I could offer her as family.

"Ha ha, that's my girl!! That's my girl!" Childish glee on the tongue of an age old god, a deep set admiration toward his finest adversary. His finest love.

The Warrior Princess, the Destroyer of Nations...she is beautiful. What she can do, how she moves on a battlefield, the way her mind runs twelve steps ahead of those around her...she is beautiful. The way she draws even the suspicious into her web and snaps the trap with wild abandon. The way she whirls and slashes and fights with an instinct beyond hearing or sight or smell. The way she levels a field of men and remains powerful and stolid.

After all this time, I understand there is beauty in the horror. There is a uniqueness, a treasure. Yet, I cannot love the violence. I cannot embrace the destruction, the cruelty, the death that Xena has both reveled in and regretted.

"Remember Xena...remember the rush. The swell of the men's voices, washing over you like a warm rain. The admiration. The power. You were brilliant. The best I ever saw, ever had..." A god's words down my friend's throat, hot breath, fingers entangled, and Xena's eyes half closed on a memory.

Ares sees it. He could watch her ride through a field of soldiers, leaving a river of blood and agony, and he would have the same easy smile and bright sparkle in his eyes that always frightens me when it appears on Xena's countenance.

In the early days, I thought this was the very reason Ares was dangerous for her. Power is her drug, and he was the fix for which she so desperately hungered. My role in those days was to keep turning her away, leading her towards her own kind of light. Later, I came to understand that utter denial is unfair to her. Xena is a warrior. The warrior way is her Way. And I'm wrong to deny her the comfort of like-minded souls.

So I understood all of these attractions, knew their rationales in my mind if I did not feel them in my heart. What I didn't know was that she was attracted to this man-god's all too human soul. That she was slowly, slyly, laconically falling in love with the lost and searching man inside the body of someone I had only ever considered the enemy.

"How am I supposed to catch that?"

"Just hold still for a moment. Hold still and listen."

"I'm holding still."

"And listen. Wait for it...wait for it...now!" A splash of water, a grunt of frustration, and a warrior's laughter that rang through the trees like sunbeams.

On rare occasion, Xena has all but said that I am the blind one, the closed one. All these years, I was her forgiver, her savior, and all those around me labeled me as kind and accepting. But somehow, I had come to judge others more harshly than I judged Xena, while my compassion for Xena had opened her to every lost soul she encountered. She had called me on this more than once, in her subtle and not-so-subtle ways, horrifying the light within me that was struggling so hard to survive... Tara, Palamon, even Belach. I have learned enough of this world now to understand that I have much to learn. My arrogance of youth has long dispelled.

Ares travelled with us while he was mortal. I saw Xena adopting yet another stray. Another Tara. Another Armon, another Joxer. Until Xena broke her wrist.

"Xeennnaaa!!!"

Rumble of wagon wheels, wild wings of birds, and screams through the trees as they ring through my nightmares.

There were so many of them. A massive band of slave traders, grabbing a haul of girls to ship from Galepsus. We won, we saved them all, but in Xena's efforts to protect a flailing and panicking young girl, Xena got her wrist neatly crushed under a wagon wheel. Most of the times I've known Xena to be hurt, she's been throwing herself between harm and a child. I nearly lost her that way in only our second year together. The mother in her always prevails.

For the next weeks, Xena had her wrist splinted and any necessary fighting was carried creatively and single-handed. We tried to avoid conflict as best we could, make our way toward some convenient little village for a few peaceful days in an inn with warm meals and cozy sleeping quarters. But the truth remained, we had Ares with us, so even the simple journeys could get complicated and violent. This affliction he shares with Xena.

We found ourselves knee deep in a band of raiders only a morning's walk shy of our intended village haven. And some sweet young couple caught in the throes of first love were huddled on a riverbank in dire need of our protection from the crossfire. Granted, this time the situation probably wasn't Ares' fault, but so many of our encounters during that time were his, I still tend to hold him responsible for the conflict. After all, maybe Xena's wrist wouldn't have been broken in the first place... But the point is, that morning by the river, we had a tough fight against men better trained than we'd expected. We had almost triumphed over the field, almost silenced our foes, when one more rose instead of staying down where he should have, and with Ares still pinned in a struggle with his last opponent, he couldn't turn and save himself. I was too far away. Xena's chakram was still on the fly. Xena had to take him out by hand. From an angle that required a flip. Using both hands to push off, with all her weight. And she did it, knocked out both Ares' attackers in less than a breath, silencing the field and assuring our victory. Then she hit the ground screaming like I hadn't heard in years.

I understood when Xena re-broke her wrist.

Before I could stow my sais and make the run to her side, Ares was down on the ground, covering her body with his own and burying his face in her battle-wild hair. My steps slowed to a halt as I fought for breath and took in the scene around us, one eye on the tree line, the other on Xena. My instincts triple when Xena goes down. She remained curled like a child, fractured wrist close beside her, cheek to the dusty grass. Ares braced his weight above her like a blanket, his long fingers cradling her wrist with a tenderness, a delicacy I would never have imagined he had within him. He stroked her hair, pressed his mouth to her ear, deep voice soothing with a constant stream of words. "They're gone. You did it, they're gone. Why'd you try that? I could have... You shouldn't have...damn it, Xena...ssshhhh...it's okay. Just hold on. It's gonna get better. It's gonna get better, I promise..." And I could see his hands flexing and grasping, body shaking, and it hit me in that moment, that he was aching. Aching to be a god. Aching for the power to touch her skin with a warm glow of power and steal away the pain.

By the Gods. He hurt for her.

Damp strands of hair clinging to Xena's temple. The sweat is concerning in the cool of the glade. Thick, fumbling fingers brushing the hair from her skin, and she leans in, leans into the touch like a lover's caress.

I had seen him suffering at her presumed death, her near death, everyone had. I had understood from those times that he needed her, that he genuinely cared for her in his own selfish way. Losing her would have taken something from his life, and I believed the fear of loss to be genuine. I knew that fear with the marrow of my bones. But this...Xena was in pain, yes, but a broken wrist was no threat of death. Nothing lay at stake but Xena's comfort or suffering. And the look on Ares' face, the vibration beneath his skin...this was about Xena's pain. And I admit, that hit me like a blow to the back of the head.

As I said, I began to understand, when Xena re-broke her wrist.

We made it to the nearest village, and found we had only enough dinars among us for one room (assuming we wanted to eat dinner). Thankfully, the room held two beds. Xena slept on mine. Nestled against me for warmth. Or for comfort (my Xena would never say).

We stayed in the village half a moon. Then travelled on.

My second moment of understanding came when we tried playing "act out the phrase", on a cold and slightly damp night in the middle of nowhere. I expected Ares to roll his eyes, think this was all just too stupid, and take away what little joy Xena had learned to find in my game over the years. But to my utter surprise, Ares thought the game was a blast and consistently nagged Xena to give it more of a chance. He threw himself fully into trying to guess my pantomimes (and grew almost comically frustrated when he failed), and gave his all to acting out his own little phrases (most of which could only have been guessed by those in residence on Mount Olympus). In the end, Xena had to crack a smile at his antics, and it felt so very strange to be standing beside Ares, looking toward Xena where she sat on a fallen tree, long legs sprawled in random directions, regarding us with sarcastic boredom. Something had shifted, and I wasn't sure where we all stood.

Xena has been mine for a long time.

Romantic interests have always been an option, always been part of our lives. But we have belonged to one another on a deeper level for as long as I can recall. We would never just leave.

She is mine. And as such, I have no choice but to look out for her. I have to know she's all right.

Which is why -- that night -- I kept listening, when maybe I shouldn't have. But I had to know she was all right. That everything was all right.

They thought I was sleeping, there on the other side of the dwindling fire. In truth, I had been asleep until a pine cone from the tree above me dropped sharply onto my shoulder and startled me into consciousness. Before I could glide back out of awareness, I heard it. A soft, throaty whimper from Xena and a heavy sigh from Ares.

I froze in the darkness, eyes closed as the firelight danced temptingly against my lids.

"Does that feel good?" Ares' low murmur. When I had dozed off, Ares had been lying just past my feet, Xena not far from my head. Now they both lay on the far side of the fire.

My lashes pulled apart just a whisper, taking in light and form in the golden blur. Past the edges of the dying flames, I saw their shifting forms beneath Xena's blanket, the silhouette of Ares' wide shoulders rising above the flashes of white skin and dark hair that were Xena. Her armor and leathers were piled clumsily an arm's reach above her head. Her chakram sparkled in the firelight.

"Oh, Gods...yes, that's good..." Her voice was threaded, breaking. I closed my eyes.

A slow breath through my nose and I caught the scent of poplar wood and warm, inviting skin.

A muted sound of suction, the snap of a kiss on tender flesh.

Xena gave a sharp gasp.

I wished I could roll away, but I felt the paralyzing need for silence. Movement would alert them to my restless state, might bring a halt to their private interlude. And I didn't want that for Xena. This was her life and she deserved...she needed...

"Please...I want..."

My eyes opened of their own accord and before I could force them closed again I caught the image of Xena's head tossed back, hair tangling across the ground, throat and chest bare to the moonlight; a hand in Ares hair as she urge him lower beneath her blanket.

I slammed my eyes closed and fought the urge to roll away. Letting them know now that I was awake felt like more of an intrusion than lying still and eavesdropping. I burrowed deeper into my bedroll with careful silence.

The progression from there was too easy to follow, with or without my attempts to blend into the ground. The sounds of movement and desire in the shadows drew pictures of flesh and firelight behind my eyes that I was powerless to deny. The tighter Xena wound, the more she spiraled on the high of Ares' fingers, his tongue, his timeless talents to play and manipulate those beneath his hand, the more her sense of caution slipped away and her pleasured cries fell from her lips with little attempt to hold quiet.

It wasn't the first time such sounds had fallen upon my ears. After all, we have slept within reach of one another for many years, and life does persist. I could almost follow the pace, know how far away the...

But something changed. I had been braced for the barely stifled cries, the image of Xena's nails pulling at the tanned expanse of Ares shoulders. Instead, I heard a shift of blankets and a tender sigh from Xena's lips. My eyes opened unbidden and Xena was skillfully guiding Ares attentions away from her core as she moved in to capture his mouth with her own.

Ares murmured something with the cadence of a question I couldn't quite make out, and Xena shook her head lightly and whispered, "No, I'm okay. I just want you..." I saw the lines of concern wash across Ares' brow, but only a moment and all concern faded into desire as Xena made her way down his chest with her tongue.

I lost sight of her behind the fire and closed my eyes with the movement.

After that, I was almost able to lose the flow of what was happening beside me, caught in my own contemplations and memories and hovering on the edges of sleep.

Until a shift of skin on cloth and grass was followed by an unmistakably raw and throaty moan from Xena.

My eyes opened as Ares pushed up onto his arm above my friend. They had made their way nearer to the firelight, and I could see their faces too clearly now. Ares drew the backs of his fingers down Xena's cheek, traced the line of the stolid jaw I knew so well. He held her unyielding gaze and Xena closed her eyes. "That's a pretty needy sound for someone who's okay..." The words themselves could have been cold, accusing, or taunting. But his tone... His tone turned the words into "look at me, baby...tell me what hurts".

I was caught off guard by the tears warming my eyes.

Ares touched and coaxed until Xena's eyes opened. She tried to shake her head, but I knew the tension in that taut jaw, the set of her mouth. "I'm fine...I'm just...it's just been a long day."

His thumb brushed across her lips and she kissed the tender flesh. He didn't succumb to temptation, but leaned down and rested his forehead upon Xena's, closing his eyes as he kept her near, cradling the side of her neck, tangling his fingers in her hair. "Talk to me, Xena."

I couldn't hear her whisper, her mouth so close to his ear. I tried to move the blanket over my own ears, leave these two at least their whispered confidences. I caught Ares' words..."let me"...and then..."safe"... I tried to recite Sappho's latest work in my head to fill my ears from the inside out.

For a while, it worked. But there are some things about which the Warrior Princess has never bothered to be quiet.

The desperate cry rising from so deep within this complex and powerful and breakable woman burned through all my barriers and lit the dwindling fire in my belly. My inner thighs stung and I crossed my legs tight beneath the blankets as Xena buried her face in Ares shoulder and pulled his chest tight against her own. I prayed they were lost in their own world far enough to miss the whisper of a whimper that escaped my lips. Yes, it's there. It's always been there, in traces and glimpses, at least. Or maybe not. Maybe we are simply connected on some level that gives us an unspoken simpatico. I feel what she feels in these moments. I don't know if it works both ways, though there have been glances and...moments...that would lead me to believe... But it's not what we're about. In the end. We are simply soulmates. As if that is simple at all.

Ares was on top and moving with her, within her. His sense of decorum was little better than his lover's and I wondered if Xena truly thought I was such a sound sleeper or if she had merely accepted long ago the extent to which our lives have become entangled. Ares' climax left him breathless, and I thought this must be so strange for him after his life as a god.

"I love you..."

"I...I...I love you, too."

A breath like a kiss, and hair tangled to blend into one.

I let Morpheus slip me into the starlight.

Some weeks later we were camping in the Northern territory and it was my turn to gather the firewood. I stumbled upon an unexpectedly useful pile of tender and gathered a good stash in my arms. I headed back toward the campground where I had left Xena cutting the day's fishing catch, and Ares attempting to sew his boots.

What I found was the two of them sitting shoulder to shoulder and speaking in muted tones.

Ares words fell soft, rife with the gentleness that comes of a conversation that has wandered unexpectedly into intimate territory, a moment stolen in time. "So...have you ever been...has anyone ever...forced themselves on you?"

My breath stopped. I tried to swallow.

Xena's pale blue matched his deep brown for such a prolonged silence I thought the world had fallen still. Until Ares said, "I mean, I know you're not the easiest woman to get the upper hand on, but there are...gods...and herbs that... I'm sorry, I didn't..."

Her soft words fell across his apology. "Yes. But it was a really long time ago, I don't...think about it...anymore...really."

Ares sat motionless on the flat-topped rock, and I could see the energy, the anger and electric emotion quivering in his muscles as he drew a controlled breath. At length, he said flatly, "Shit, Xena." His hand came to rest at the small of her back.

I walked away. I retraced my steps and took a lot longer to gather the firewood we didn't need. I stayed out of earshot, ceased to listen. Because Xena had never told me what she just told her lover. It wasn't my place to hear, not like this. And this time, I could honor her trust. Because this time I knew.

I had begun to understand when she broke her wrist. Now I knew...

She was all right.

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