~ Chapter Three ~

Hot Tin Roof

"Do you really believe people can change?"

The words still haunted Gabrielle even as she raced for Athens on the back of a horse. She hadn't been able to answer the Empress then and she still couldn't now even though she knew the words had just been a taunt.

The fact remained, however, that Xena had let her go even after she had clearly informed the Queen that she strove to overthrow her and told her many other things that had left her with perfect reason to get rid of her permanently.

Did she believe that people could change? Yes, she did, but she didn't think that all people would, and she feared that it was already far too late for Xena even with this one act of mercy in giving her freedom, but she couldn't help hoping it meant there was some good left in her.

She wished she had been able to get some help for the people of Athens, but she knew time didn't allow it. The Queen had given her a horse, but it had been far from the best in the stables, and it was a miracle that it had made it this far.

"Sorry, old Girl, but we can't stop." She whispered into the horse's ear as she felt its sweaty sheen, knowing she was riding it to the point of exhaustion. "I promise I'll take you to water just as soon as I can."

Unfortunately, they did have to stop though. Small boulders blocked the path and she didn't dare try to have the horse jump over it. She dismounted and found a sturdy branch that would help her pry them out of the way and send them rolling down the mountainside.

She accomplished the task with ease, a testament to how she had spent the last 3 years, and she could see evidence of her change from helpless village girl in her taunt stomach and her sinewy arms.

The rest of the journey was met without mishap, and she reached Athens while it was still dark.

As she rode in, she could see the hopelessness of the situation.

Athens was not without natural barriers. The Athenians had mountains and hills to surround their city-state on land. They also had the sea, but they hadn't bothered to build themselves a fleet for protection, only merchant ships and fishing boats were docked in its harbor.

Athens hadn't always been so defenseless. At one time, there had even been a wooden wall surrounding the city, not that it had saved them in battle then, but at least they had been trying. There didn't even appear to be a guard patrolling the streets, so she knew there would be no soldiers to be found. It was a clear sign of people who knew they didn't have a chance in Hades at defending themselves from the Destroyer of Nations and only waited for the inevitable.

There was no defense to be mounted, but at least these people could run, so she raced through the streets of the city, crying, "Flee to the Ends of the Earth! Xena is coming! Xena is coming!"

She rode up and down every street with the terrible news. People gathered in the streets. Some were disturbed from their sleep and others were already up with dawn waiting just below the horizon. She didn't have to tell them the destruction that awaited them if they didn't flee. Even children knew what 'Xena is coming' meant as they clung to their parents tightly, their fathers especially.

Just as surely as panic and fear were flying through the town with the speed of Hermes, back at the Palace, preparing for an all-out war was Xena, her troops already alerted and positioned for victory ahead of tomorrow as she strode proudly off towards the imperial baths, the previous conversation that had unfolded with the Bard singing a song of merry-go-round inside her head.

Seriously, did that Girl really think that the Greater Good could win against Evil and Hatred; that becoming a voice would actually convince the people to stand and fight when they knew the situation was utterly hopeless?

The thought fulfilled another backflip as she began removing her clothes, delighting in the waves of water as they gently washed over her silken form, hoping somehow it'd abolish the stain of an awful plague upon her hands, a resemblance to guilt perhaps, though Xena dare say it, when suddenly an exceedingly familiar presence from behind broke through the ether.

Ares smiled licentiously as he glanced toward her discarded armour.

Nothing turned the God of War on more than the sight of his Warrior Princess slashing bodies with her armour drenched in sweat and sprinkles of her victims' blood decorating her body unless it was the sight of this indomitable Warrioress completely exposed and vulnerable before him.

As he sat down on the edge of the tub, he noticed her hair was swept up and into a bun to keep it dry, leaving her shoulders bare and begging to be touched, so he placed his willing hands there and began to massage the area, feeling the knots of tension in her muscles.

"Still tense I see. You wouldn't be if you had disposed of her in the appropriate manner."

If there were anything in the world Xena despised more, then it would have to be being patronized, and particularly by Ares of all people.

She didn't doubt he'd been there listening though, snooping around for information as always, anything of interest to use against her whenever he saw fit, and right now, the God was doing a fantastically good job at implementing this notion.

"And give up a perfectly good reason as to have someone warn the Athenians for me? Pfft, not in this lifetime." She argued, obstinately standing her ground with the stubbornness of a mule and the temper of a rhino, flipping him off without the slightest sense of hesitation while assimilating every touch of magic his fingers were weaving against her skin.

"Besides, she's got a gift for insight."

"Insight...?" Now it was Ares' turn to scoff. "That annoying, little Blonde? She has about as much insight as the Fates would without their loom."

"You're not jealous, are you?" The Warrior lightly teased, seeing right through the pane of glass he was building higher than the walls of Thermopylae, forever sensing that testament of worry and fear travelling within his tone no matter how hard he'd tried to cloak it.

This time, the ball was rolling in her court, and what a magnificent court it was as she decided to push it further, forcing him roughly out of his comfort zone in order to disclose the truth.

"What is it about her that's got you jumping worse than a cat on hot tin roof? Let me guess, could it be that Greater Good thing?" She divulged before allowing her hair to fall, their raven tendrils cascading with the grace of a waterfall.

He didn't answer right away of course, too distracted it seemed as he watched her long locks dance and weave on the water's surface, but when he finally found his voice, the words were brusque.

"There is no such thing as a Greater Good. It's only your will versus someone else's."

He moved her now heavy veil of hair back from her left ear, bent down until his mouth was next to it and whispered a challenge. "Are you going to let some snippet of a Girl impose her will on you?"

"That depends. Is it worth it?" The challenge arrived in reverse as Xena abruptly turned and rose from the water, completely enchanting him with a body of seductive features while her eyes intensely searched his own, seeking an answer that never seemed to appear when it came to the God of War.

"Is it worth it?" He echoed, not bothering to move from his seat on the edge due to the spectacular view he was now enjoying. "You tell me; you're the mortal. Was your Brother's sacrifice worth it? Was it worth hanging on a cross with broken legs because of that irrational sentiment called love? Was it worth losing M'Lila?"

He grabbed her wrist and twisted her arm in such a way that she fell neatly across his lap, an easier move than usual with the water and slick tub bottom; her eyes blazing from the action and the fact that he had dared to drudge up those memories, not that they hadn't been constantly on her mind since her conversation with the Storyteller.

"Don't let anyone trick you into thinking that people are separated by good and evil, light or darkness, noble or dishonourable. Those are absurd ideas that mortals like Aristotle play around with. People are only separated in one way: those that are strong and those who are weak."

Using his free hand, he cupped her chin. "I'll tell you what's bothering you right now. It's the chaos in this world, but you're already doing something about it by conquering the world, so that we can bring order to the chaos even for fools like your Messenger, or have you forgotten?"

Tired of the discussion and unable to resist the warm, wet body in his lap any longer, he fiercely captured her lips with his own, hoping that would be the end of it.

Oh boy, was Ares sure in for a surprise though.

He should have known from the start she'd never let him escape this easily, not without a proper form of excuse at least; the depth of their kiss already deepening into a wider world of colour, her low moans turning him impossibly harder by the second as she slowly and teasingly began removing his vest to lay a trail of exceedingly hot wet kisses on each newly discovered canvas of skin.

"Don't let anyone play me; you forget, that also means people like you... Gods and Goddesses alike; Aristotle's no different." She whispered the string of seductively deadly lines against his ear.

Another few and perfectly well executed moves, and she was sitting astride his lap, a chest now rubbing rousingly upon his with each bite or lick placed gently against her neck as an incredibly familiar looking knife was suddenly produced, its silvery blade tracing a fine path lightly across the God's heart as she slightly leant back, testing him as usual while the concept of bringing order through slaughter slashed creatively throughout her mind.

"So, weak or strong, which one are you? Could you live if I left, hate without love?"

Could he live without the Vixen in his lap? The unconsidered thought hit him with a startling force. In all the eons of existence, no mortal had ever dared ask such a question, but then, she wasn't just any mortal.

Dare he admit that she had become more than a Protégée or a Tool to wield in the playground of the Gods, even to himself?

The answer was a resounding no to both of the questions in his mind. If he gave her the least bit of inkling that he felt anything for her beyond what she could give and accomplish for him, she would use it against him as surely as the knife she now wielded in her hand.

He knew this because he had used love against the mortal women he'd had before Xena, not feeling it himself but using their love of war, and naturally therefore love of him, to get him what he wanted.

The surroundings behind them melted into his own bedroom in an effort to bring things back into his comfort zone. He slid out from under her and left her on the bed with the silken sheet covering her delectable form, wanting to show that he didn't really need her no matter how his body or heart protested otherwise.

"Gods and Goddesses do not toy around with meaningless ideas; they are ideas made flesh and bone, and all you have to do is look at my sister, Aphrodite, to see how weak and dimwitted love is. You don't need to ask about my strength. You experience it every time you ride in front of your army, every time you hold a weapon. You feel me racing through your veins in passionate heat during all your battles, and you feel the strength I bring when I hold you in my arms. You see the destruction I leave behind and the goals that I make happen. I won't deny love has its place in starting wars, but it can't finish them because it's weak. But I'm going to make this struggle that you're having easy for you."

He walked over to the door and opened it. It didn't lead to the hall outside his bedroom but back to her own palace.

"You can walk away from me now and see what life is like without war and the hatred needed to wage it. You can watch your army dissolve and watch the land revert back to a bunch of spineless but effective warlords like Cortese. Then you can see if love will keep you or anybody else safe."

He moved away from the still opened door back to the bed.

"Or we can forget this ever came up and indulge completely in what really makes life worth living tonight," he yanked the cover back, "and tomorrow in Athens, reaping results and not just pretty little words."

He held his hand out to her, waiting for her to accept or decline it. "Mortals come and mortals go. Empires rise and empires fall. So the real question is can you live without me, Xena?"

That Weasel, now he was giving her an ultimatum for a response, twisting words and reason to avoid some kind of fear or something, like a horrible nightmare they unknowingly seemed to share in the dark.

Well, maybe it was high time to lay down some philosophies of her own as Xena glanced silently towards his hand, a picture of deliberation sketched profoundly across her face in return before catching his gaze.

"Don't confuse fate with desire. The answer's not if I can it's what if I could, and what you'd do then." The message came firm and strong while she shifted away from the bed, ignoring his gesture to examine the door and choose a dress; the crimson texture highlighting every curve and contour to perfection.

"You know war Ares; it's in your blood as it is in mine, so as a warrior I can't ignore that. But if you recall, i'm also mortal and won't have forever. So as a God, can you live with that?" She curiously inquired, turning around to address the stare and offer a smirk.

"When you're ready to indulge, meet me at the ball, I'll be waiting." With that, she walked through the door, defying his proposal to leave but an echo of her own behind.