~ Chapter Forty Three ~

The Lesser of Two Evils

"Now you've really hurt my feelings, Babe. My heart aches, I have to tell yah." Ares mockingly bit back, stubbornly refusing to grant her the sheer joy of getting to see exactly what she had been expecting, nonchalantly faking his most 'I'm twisting about in pain,' famous expression.

"You're cruel and devious." He lecherously added scanning her head to toe, lingering a little bit longer than usual on her breasts, lips slightly parted, head tilted to the side, a very brash look in his eyes explicitly letting her know all about the countless arousing perversities that had taken by storm his 'enviable good judgement' as he liked to call it, during the past few minutes they had been talking.

As if sedated, his mind completely plunged into a fantasy type world where his Princess did whatever he wanted her to, no questions asked, and he just went on talking without even realising what he was ranting about.

"My type of girl. I like it." He quickly snapped out of it the moment a glittery geranium sparkle was thrown into the air by the consuming campfire, making him flinch for a second.

"Those flowers were a nice touch though, you have to give me credit for that. You're just way too insensitive and cold hearted to appreciate my sweet and vulnerable nature, that's all." Came the most ridiculous line of the century that literally made Xena's mouth drop to the floor in disbelief.

As she had always said, if there were a word on this planet that could characterize the God completely, that was 'nerve,' plus an ego as big as the Aegean.

"Don't give me that look, Hon, 'cause you lack romance just like I lack your suicidal disposition to being around a frustrated, irritating Blonde 24/7."

"Well, then i'm sure we can come to some other arrangement." Reverted a suggestively intimidating answer as she lent forward to conclude the rest of its charming message.

"Just say the word and I'll be glad to put you out of your misery. It'll be quick, I promise." A raised brow told her precisely more than she needed to know, the beat of silence held between them presenting the opportunity to slam the rose against his chest before turning her back upon him.

"Taking this far too personal, aren't we? Well, this certainly puts an end to that useless debate we used to go on with for hours back in the good old days. You know, the one about people and Gods alike being able to change the nature of their instincts. Remember?" He stated gravely, detachedly staring at the peach petals of the flower she had literally stuck to his chest in less than a blink.

"Death's perfume can be very addictive. You're living proof of that theory, Xena. No matter how open minded you are, you will never have enough of it. Despite the general belief that each one of us can control his madness, quenching his own thirst by cultivating his reason and spirit, we are forever lost between the walls of it's lethal labyrinth. And just like now, even when you think you're over it, from somewhere deep inside your core, a crushing need invades your blood from time to time with an unbearable longing as hot and destructive as lava, tempting you beyond reason to slash, to pierce, to turn bodies into dust. You can never leave it behind you, always calling your name." He whispered lowly against her ear, caressing her cheek with the delicate flower held within his hand.

"Worries and tension tend to exacerbate those feral impulses too, especially when the concern for our loved one's well being is involved." He was now standing behind her, an arm firmly embracing her waist, while the other had possessively circled her shoulders seconds before, her naked back resting comfortably against his warm chest, her complete attention focused on the irregular drumming of his heart and laboured breath.

"A son, or a 'good friend' in danger, often has the power to make one draw blood from even the toughest of rocks if needed," he kept on murmuring, nuzzling her neck with the tip of his lips. "Not to mention a crazy Lunatic with no future plans to begin with."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Bit back an extreme bolt of anger, her beautiful voice raining down with as much disdain and bitterness as any God were willing to allow, as his figure made contact with the rocky surface of the wall, creating a substantially loud thunk upon impact.

"Oh yeah! See? This is exactly what I was talking about. This raging violence you have brutally chained somewhere under this goodie, goodie mask you're currently wearing, still fighting to reach the surface, to crush anything in it's destructive path." Ares underlined sharply, a displeased expression on his face, his index pointing towards her chest.

"What?" He continued against her neck, uncontrollably inhaling the enthralling perfume of that adrenaline rush filling her blood stream.

"Can't blame me for loving the sight of you, angry like this, ready to storm Heaven and Earth, your gaze alone annihilating half of any enemy's will. I don't care what you say, but when you're like this you're a Goddess Xena. This side of you, it's intoxicating." His excited voice broke out with an echo, hitting the cave's walls just to come back multiplied a hundred times more.

"Anyway, that's not the point. I really don't care what side you're on any more, as long as you keep doing what you do best. You'll never be at your max, that's crystal clear to me, but hey, they say one must lose some to gain some, right? As long as you're still capable to face me and hold that sword in your hand, I should be on cloud nine, given that you could as well have sold cheese and milk in some lame market in Athens."

His eyes were burning like coals, and what was actually crystal clear was the fact that Xena was walking on thin ice with her outburst and that tone she had used. He would have normally returned the favour along with a bonus kick right above her kidneys, just to help her remember who she was really talking to, but that was not his objective.

Refusing to let her have her way and free her, he just tightened his grip, and levelling his voice he decided to get to the point.

"I don't believe you should worry about the Bard though. I hate to even have to think about it all the more so say it, but she's not that dumb after all, you know, despite her hair colour, she can perfectly take care of her self. So stop freaking out like this and pull yourself together already. There's other things for you to worry about at the moment."

"Right, like what you're going do after I break your arms if you don't let me go." Launched a typically cocky response in return.

"You know what tomorrow is, don't you?" Questioned a much calmer note, all evidence of hostility swept under the rug, gradually replaced with the quintessence of serenity the second her sights fell upon the divine blossom brushing against her shoulder.

"Okay, okay, let's take it one at a time Doll, shall we?" Came the immediate reaction of a highly elicited Ares, eyes flickering with pride as the sound of his Chosen's acidic voice struck his ear drums.

"First of all, if you think this 'breaking my arms' thing through, you'd quickly reach the conclusion that if I use just a speck of my Godly strength, it's your arms that we should worry about. Plus, I could bet my sword that you like me just fine in one piece." He underlined, clicking his tongue, knowing that the gesture irritated her even more.

"And last but not least," he continued clearing his throat and inhaling profoundly. "Are you trying to change the subject and avoid telling me what's on your mind by sweetly reminding me that tomorrow's Valentine's? Not that it isn't already working or anything, I mean the image of your shocked beautiful face when I told you I loved you that night, up on Olympus, and the utter surprise floating on the clear surface of those baby blues as I gave you that black rose. How could I forget?" He questioned, softly caressing her shoulder.

"I still love you like crazy by the way." He continued with a murmur, leaning his head against hers, placing a delicate kiss on her hair.

"So, long story short. Talk to me and I'll let you go. Pinky swear."

Weighing the pros and cons of Ares' proposition, Xena began her so-called submission, throwing in as many fake leads as possible. Just because she was dealing with the devil didn't mean she couldn't mess with his head along the way.

"Fine. Whaddya wanna' know? Everlasting beauty tips, or maybe how to braid your hair?"

"That's fairly kind of you, Princess, but no thanks. I have Aphrodite for that, but I guess if I'm ever at the end of the rope with my hair style before some fancy party, it's good to know I can always count on your priceless piece of advice." He retorted, seeing right through her skilfully phrased lines.

"You know what I'm interested in, no point repeating it. So talk." He uttered on a grave tone that pretty much left her no way out of the conversation.

"It's stupid, but..." She halted, apprehension and distress clearly residing at the wheel as she was inhaling the cool night air.

"I thought I'd finally found peace, Heaven, maybe even redemption?"

When she voiced it however, the words were but a light whisper filled with a scary kind of pain and emptiness, as if nothing in the universe truly mattered anymore.

"What's worse," she continued, letting a small smile of self mockery cross her features. "Is that I wanted to believe it. I thought that by saving my friends, the Olympians, even Callisto, that I'd at least get to see my Son in return."

"I now know that this couldn't ever be paradise, because it's been nothing but Tartarus so far." Came the cold as ice conclusion, while a single tear rolled gently down her cheek.

"Well, you certainly don't have to die to find a little peace, Xena. Come on, you can do better than that." Ares started on a low, sympathetic tone. As much as he hated being sentimental, when it came to Xena, he had no limits, no restrictions what so ever.

With her, unpleasant words like 'shame' or 'dissimulation' were out of his vocabulary.

If for everybody else he had to appear like being the 'cold insensitive bastard' who cared about no one but himself, as she usually called him, forever grinding his own axe, showing no interest in anyone else's problems except fulfilling his own selfish desires, that was definitely not the case when it came to her.

Strangely enough, with her it had always been the complete opposite. He would care about her well being first and then try to figure a way around of his own skilfully designed messes.

He would never admit that though, it was an entirely different concept, and moreover, she didn't even have to realise it. The more she knew, the more power she had over him. And that, he didn't quite like.

"You'll never find peace on the outside Sweetie, this world you are caught up in would never allow it. You are born for war, devastation, order. You are a warrior. You have the heart of a warrior, and not even death itself could change that. But the notion of peace is buried deep within you. You can attain it through detachment, hey maybe a little indifference? It wouldn't hurt to listen to me from time to time, by the way. I mean *really* listen to me. You know what your problem is most of the time? You're always under pressure. Remember what I told you years ago? Try taking a few steps back and see the bigger picture. Darkness is usually very dense stuff Xena. But it only takes one insignificant speck of light to show you everything you need to know."

Placing another gentle kiss on her hair, he surprised her by slowly unwrapping his arms, and turning her to face him, he delicately brushed that warm tear from her cheek, kissing the wet trail it had left.

Taking a deep breath he just added, biting his lips as if wondering if it was for the best to say it out aloud or not. He decided it couldn't kill him after all though.

"Listen, I might not approve of your charitable work most of the time, this crazy idea of having you rescue some smelly villagers and doing this useless world countless favours just for the sake of redeeming yourself 24/7, literally makes me sick to my stomach, aware of what you are actually missing and all, but, it does make you happy, right? So, you should be able to find some peace in that too. Knowing that you're doing your best protecting whomever you feel you need to protect."

His voice trailed off as he noticed another water drop fall from her amazingly blue eyes. It saddened him to see her like this. Furthermore, he couldn't fail feeling that crushing sensation of burdening distress and guilt radiating from her aura.

Protectively encasing her in his arms again he just brushed her forehead with a light kiss, whispering against her ear as if he were telling her the deadly secret of the black powder itself.

"Everything is going to be just fine Luv, I promise. Okay? And Solan, he's gonna' be fine too. No need to worry about it. And when time comes... I'll make sure that you'll get to spend the rest of eternity together. I swear it on Styx."

And there it was. He said it even if he had chocked on the last part of it, deliberately giving up on a future with her by his side, just so that she could be happy.

An overwhelming amount of fear, panic and pain invaded his blood, rising faster than adrenaline towards his brain at the mere thought of losing her while his muscles tensed as his heartrate double at the possibility of ever having to let her go.

He quickly snapped out of it when he felt her picking up on his emotions though.

"Thank you." Followed a surprisingly sincere response as Xena took his words into consideration, everything she had wanted to know up until this point presented with one simple look that had swiftly crossed his face.

"I want to know," she firmly inquired. "What did you..."

"What did I..." Ares continued, his every doubt on what she was trying to say melting like wax the minute he saw the distinguishable concern in her eyes, the fear of loss.

"What? No! Why would you think that? I'm pretty much alive, thank you very much!" He exclaimed, strongly shattered by the mere concept of her witnessing the end of what was supposed to be his eternal existence, instead of being there for her just as he had always imagined it should be, holding her dying body on a corps covered battlefield, retaining her gaze as she entered the other realm.

"I'm as clueless about how I got here as you are. But the fact that the notion of a dead me gives you the chills, that's almost flattering." He sarcastically pointed out, hating the direction of the conversation.

"Anyway, what would you say if I did you a favour and cooked those smelly creatures after all? I mean, how bad could a fish taste, right?"

"I wouldn't object if that's what you're asking?" Arrived a much brighter response in return, delicately concealing a small smile, pleased by the fact of watching the God of War play housewife for once.

"What's the matter?" Continued the form of a light tease, the very second Xena happened to catch his apparently perplexed expression shifting aimlessly between the trout and fireplace.

As an open thought entered her mind, she quickly began to realise that if there were ever going to be one dish in the entire cosmos that could truly satisfy the eternal needs of any immortal, then that particular thing would have had to have been Ambrosia, that sweet honey-like Nectar of the Gods she'd heard so much about.

"No wonder he didn't want to cook. He's never had to prepare a single dish of food in his whole damn life." She mentally scoffed, finding some class of amusement amongst those lines before handing Ares the dagger as some level of support.

"Laugh all you want Warrior Princess, but I'm telling yah, this will be a night to remember, in more ways than one." Ares cockily retorted, adopting his sexiest pose ever, before finally gathering the courage to head for the impressive pile of fish laying on the ground.

"This shouldn't be too hard. Any Moron could do it." He said to himself while contemplating with disgust the greasy animals whose fate had been sealed the moment Xena visualised them half fried above the generous campfire.

"You didn't stand a chance did you?" He rhetorically questioned his soon to be dinner, a certain amount of sympathy and profound meditation painted on his face.

"Yeah, I know what you mean, she's vicious! And trust me when I say it, you're as lucky as... a pig in mud! If she had wanted it, she would have trolled your soul too and eaten it for dessert. And no, I'm not kidding. She can do that. I mean, look at me!" He uttered, finally putting an end to his silent imaginary dialogue with the fish.

"I know that you're a woman of great appetite Xe, but, were you planning on feeding ten Roman Legions here, or what?" He voiced, still staring in disbelief towards the corner of the cave.

Though, when he realised apart from that suggestive enough scowl she addressed him with, that she wasn't going to give him the pleasure of a verbal interaction on that particular theme too, he just picked up a still wet, mousy body, and carefully using but two of his fingers, he held it up face level, as if intending to restart that previous mental conversation with it, out loud this time.

"Do you think if I kiss him, he'll grant me three wishes?" He suddenly inquired, unable to convince his aspic sharp tongue to skip the ridiculous interrogation, that irritating ear to ear Cheshire cat smile only broadening even more the moment he noticed the faint quiver of his Princess' lips, his gaze shifting rapidly from the fish to her and back, explicitly ballyhooing that his dangerously indecorous mind had already made up a full list of urges for which he needed to find a solution to, and fast.

"There's only one way to find out." Xena childishly insinuated, using the exact same method to proficiently test his plan, smugly crossing her arms over her chest, attentively watching the faintest trace of hesitation sketching it's way over his features.

"Although, you'd quickly find I'd never kiss you ever again if you do." She jokingly added the precise moment Ares' lips were but an inch away from meeting the cold, stiff ones of his new best friend.

"I don't know about that, I personally find it highly unlikely. But we should definitely explore the possibility." He challengingly retorted, more than willing to continue the game, as if wanting to prove a point.

He was the God of War and he certainly wasn't going to chicken out and take advantage of the escape route she had created for him just to avoid pressing his lips to the dead body he was now so proudly holding, with a morgue that could only indicate the last resort of a dying man on the edge of a cliff, ready to plunge into the abyss and desperately wishing to leave this life with dignity.

"So uh... fishy..." He hesitantly started after having changed the creature's position into a more 'ready to bargain' one, holding it now with both hands, attentively looking it in the eyes while still trying to find the proper words for his rather unusual oration.

He was sort of interrupted though by Xena's discouraging cackle, her attempts to just let him perform that unprecedentedly ridiculous part of his, failing miserably the minute he tilted his head to one side as if waiting for an answer to be voiced from the fish's dry lips.

"What? Stop giving me that look! And don't act like my friend here is dead or something or he will refuse to grant me the three wishes and I'll have to hold you responsible for that. By the way, are there any magic words I should say or, does it work, just like that?"

Since the Warrior Princess didn't stoop that low as to actually say or do anything besides rolling her eyes in desperation, he went on speaking, caressing the animal's oily scales, just for the sake of getting an exasperated sigh and that famous hard to miss sneer out of her.

"Anyway, we could skip the formalities I suppose. But don't think that I'm not aware of the 'speak your wishes out loud and they will never come true' rule. We should at least respect that tradition, right?" He rhetorically asked, his gaze never leaving his future dinner, silently wondering if there was actually a place where dead fish went.

Maybe it's spirit could hear him after all, even if he wasn't golden and all.

Turning it around and gently approaching his lips to where it's ear should have been, the War God started to silently whisper his demands to his secret genie, freely using his and Xena's bond so that she could hear every single word he was going to utter.

As always, he had a plan. It was not as if he wasn't going to kiss the odious damn water creature just for kicks.

"So, I'll cut you a deal... Fish. Hoping from the bottom of my heart that you're female, I am willing to give you three sexy kisses if you give me something in exchange. And don't even think about double crossing me, 'cause I've got to tell yah, you wouldn't want to see me mad, and yes, you can take that as a threat."

"Gee... you aren't giving that fish much of a choice, are you?" Naturally came as expected the ironic reply, Xena's entire tone echoing inside that daredevil mind of his an all too familiar sign that he was definitely treading on thin ice if he seriously thought she was going to play the whole master and slave gig.

Another sharp notion entering her psyche in the form of a cunning plan seemed to completely change her tune though, if not for the fact of wanting to see precisely where this silly little roleplay of his was going to go.

"Tell you what." She calmly announced, biting firmly into a bottom lip with an almost seductive look inside those hypnotic blue moons, the glowing light from the fire only intensifying their effect even more.

"You cook your little buddies there first, and I'll see to it that you get something in exchange."

"That's right! Just take the joy of friendship away from me and then tell me that I'm not human enough." He reproached while making a move to bend down and collect some of the fish laying on the ground, but he suddenly stopped when he realised that his line was not actually complete without adding some extra branding details that had his name written all over them, and which, despite their facetious nature, actually held an alarming amount of truth.

"You've always been so selfish! You don't want me being with anyone else, but on the other hand you refuse to be with me yourself and just leave each time you think you've found someone better. And the worst part of all, is when you come back to me at the end of the day, all conscience-stricken and repenting having ever believed such repellent nonsense in the first place, your heart broken to pieces, waiting for me to mend it, no questions asked. You couldn't care less about my feelings and yet you can't shake off that weird awareness that you need me. Maybe I should just leave you too for once and choose someone else over you. How would that sound Warrior Princess?" Ares inquired and regardless of his face being only histrionically impassive, his phlegmatic tone left no room for doubts.

"You did, remember?" There was lots of truth there, and definitely a graveyard of buried emotions and repressed, unpleasant memories, but her intonation was barely heard above a whisper.

"And now, to top it all, I have to turn to this type of activity such as frying my only pals just to keep you happy. Where in Cronos' name is the fairness in that?" He continued, partially closing his eyes, tilting his head down slightly, looking at her through his eyelashes just as she had the habit of doing when wanting to tease him about something.

"I'm not saying I won't though. I'm way too hungry not to" He laughed, his eyes now pointedly watching the dagger he had been clutching, as if wondering why she had given it to him in the first place.

"Am I the living example of loyalty and honour or what?"