The water ripples and churns. A series of ficlets. 65 - Gods just wanna have fun.
10 June 2007
X/A – Part 5 of the Pebbles arc.
It was… different.
Xena walked back toward their camp for the night without the sound of bickering guiding her to her destination, and the difference struck her again. Oh gods, she was going soft. Ares had only returned to his duties as the god of war the previous day. She couldn't be missing him.
She heard the familiar sound of ripping air, and her chest jolted.
"There's something wrong with Aer," Aphrodite's voice whined, and Gabrielle spun to face the goddess.
"Don't sneak up like that!"
Xena hoped she didn't look embarrassed. "What do you mean?" Given the circumstances, it had been perfectly reasonable to assume that the newcomer was Ares. "What did he do?"
"That's the problem! He isn't doing anything! Daddy's getting mad 'cause big bro's totally lazing around all day!"
"You mean he's not out starting mindless bloody wars?"
Aphrodite gave Xena a look. "You of all people should know that that's not what it's about," she said.
Xena looked away first. "Yeah," she said. "Sorry."
"No problemo, warrior babe. Can you come talk to Aer?"
"Yeah, just let me get—"
Aphrodite's golden sparkles appeared around them.
"Never mind." Xena glanced around the marble halls of Olympus and asked, "Where's Argo?"
"Oh, she's in the stables."
"You have stables?"
"Duh! Where else would we keep Peggie?"
"Pegasus?" Gabrielle's eyes sparkled.
"Yeah! He's huge and horsey, but still. Wanna see?"
"I'd love to."
"Hey!" Xena watched her companions disappear. She sighed and set off down the hall. "Gods," she grumbled.
It must have been the biggest, most brightly-lit space she'd ever seen. A long table surrounded by a forest of chairs stretched off into the distance, and on a dais at the near end of the room sat another table, this one equipped with only twelve seats.
A young man standing by the head of the higher table and holding a pitcher gave her a disinterested look before turning his attention back to the sole occupant of that table.
It was a well known fact that the act of observation changes that which is being observed, but Xena privately believed that perhaps the greater change occurred in the observer. If culture could pass from one generation to the next through stories and customs, then gods could catch humanity by watching.
Right now, Zeus, with his shock of silver hair and sullen glare at the stack of scrolls before him, looked exhausted.
Xena cleared her throat, and it echoed loudly in the empty space.
Zeus looked up and stared blankly at her. Then he blinked. "Ah, you're the one we sent Ares to."
"Yes, Aphrodite brought me here." She nodded at the parchment he was currently holding. "That's one of Ares' contracts, isn't it?"
"You know about them?"
"He showed me when I was younger."
Zeus sighed and massaged the bridge of his nose. "He's not honouring any of them. He's not even looking at them."
"Can't someone else do this while we finish finding the rest of his memories?"
"Athena, but…" Zeus tossed the scroll back to the table, and it snapped shut. "She can't be found. Besides, half of this seems to be private code. It looks like gibberish." He shot her a sharp look. "You can read it, can't you?"
Xena glanced over the mounds of papyrus, and she stifled the sigh.
"Yeah, I'll do it," she said.
Someone walked in front of his viewing portal and stopped, forcing Ares to crane his neck to try to see around the barrier.
"Ares…" a voice growled.
He grunted, shuffling over to the side in an attempt to see. Something rapped him on the forehead, and looked up at Xena. "Hey!"
"You little ass," Xena snapped, slamming the scrolls in her hands down onto the table beside him and knocking off his nectar goblet. "I go to all the trouble of helping you with your problems, and all you do is sit around watching naked athletes trying to pin each other?"
"You're worrying Aphrodite, your father is exhausted from trying to take in your workload, and you've abandoned all the people who are depending on you in the battles you're supposed to taking care of."
"I thought you hated war."
Xena gave an exasperated scoff. "I'm a warrior, Ares. I hated the stupid fights you started just to get my attention." She lowered her head to look up at him from beneath drawn-together eyebrows in a clear attempt to imitate his persuasive look. "'I just sent a psychopath after you and your family, but hey, come be my warrior queen.' How was I supposed to react? But these are people, soldiers, who are fighting for their families and their land, and they need something to believe in, and even if he's a bastard of a god, he's still their god. So shut up, and get up."
Ares obeyed, shuffling under the glare still trained on him.
"Alright," Xena said. "I've already done the paperwork—tedious stuff. How do you generally send it off to your subordinates?"
"Oh, just dump it on Strife. He does the delivering."
"Fine," Xena said. "Let's go, then."
Ares listened with a bored frown while some overawed commander prattled on about glory and courage. It wasn't until he stood at the edge of an overhang with Xena, looking down at the figures splashed in red that he heard the prayers.
They weren't words, mostly. They were hopes, fragments of thoughts, desperate rushes of blood through veins when confronted with unfriendly colours, and the scramble to stay alive. They flooded through him until he couldn't remember where he began and they ended.
"Go, if you want." Xena's voice was accompanied by a brush was warm breath over his neck, and he felt his hair stand on end. Without a backward glance, he jumped down toward the battlefield.
He moved very well, Xena thought, enjoying the rare luxury of sitting back to watch him fight. He moved with practiced ease, all skill and rough strength, and it was probably some instinctive sense of honour that prevented him from ever using his powers. It wasn't as if he needed them.
She grinned as she watched him use a comrade's grip to swing himself up into a hard kick to an attacker's face, a trick he had obviously borrowed from Hercules unintentionally. He always communicated well without a spoken word on the battlefield.
She looked up at Zeus' arrival. Ares chose that moment to give a vigorous yell in conjunction with a particularly vicious attack on a defensive cluster of soldiers, and she found herself smiling sheepishly.
"I see he's enjoying himself," Zeus said dryly. "I suppose that's a good thing. I'm surprised, though. I couldn't get him to leave his chambers."
"Ah," Xena said.
When it became clear that she wasn't going to offer any more information, Zeus laughed. "Ah, then. Well done. If you'll do me one more favour," he said, reaching out a hand to her and opening it to reveal a pebble with its shifting patterns roiling sluggishly, "I'll leave this with you."
She inclined her head respectfully as the king of the gods vanished and turned her attention back to the battle. Knots of skirmishes littered the field, and she quickly found Ares. He'd clearly coordinated some sort of attack on his current opponents with several nearby comrades, Xena noticed, watching them move purposefully, pushing the enemy back. A soldier beside him was knocked to the ground, and his helmet clattered off, revealing curly blond hair and a boy who couldn't have been more than sixteen.
Xena's fists clenched as the boy's opponent moved to drive his sword down in a finishing blow, and sparks flew when Ares' sword blocked the downward stroke with a clang audible even from her distance. He shoved his sword forward, keeping contact with the other blade until it wedged into the place where the crossguard met the blade. A twist of his wrist, and Ares sent the other sword spinning. Another twist, and he sent his weapon into an upward slash that sliced deep into the enemy's torso.
He let the others rush past him now, and looked up at her. A flash, and he was beside her, euphoria glittering in his eyes.
"Why did you save that boy?" Xena asked softly.
Cries of "for Ares!" drifted up from the battlefield, barely heard over the clang of metal and the screams of injured horses.
He looked at her and said, "Why do you help the people that you do?"
"Because someone has to."
He looked at her now with a grin that seemed to say "exactly."
"He might still die today."
"But not right now."
Xena felt a rush of something unidentifiable her chest, sharp so that it hurt but warm at the same time. She held out the pebble to him.
When the dust had settled into his skin, he looked at her with a lopsided smile and said, "What, I had to pass a test before you'd give that to me?"
She shrugged, an answering smile on her lips. "Maybe," she said, noticing that she was drawing closer to him, and that feeling in her chest was increasing in response. A drifting, detached thought informed her that her pulse was increasing. Explains the light-headedness, she thought, tilting her head up.
"Ack! Sorry!" a shrill, nervous voice sounded behind her, and she swung around to see Strife. Cringing under the twin glares, the little god shoved a scroll into Ares' hand before vanishing with another "Sorry!"
"It's from Athena," Ares said, a confused frown on his face as he broke the seal. "Dear brother," he read. "I must commend you, a rare occasion, for the admittedly brilliant strategy you deployed today in our long-standing battle. I look forward to further engagements. Athena."
He stared at the scroll. "I didn't…" He trailed off and his eyes shot up to Xena's. "Did you do this?"
She nodded. "I thought your general could do with some tips. He sent a request with the paperwork today." She frowned. "What?"
His scowl was thunderous. "I thought I told you never to interfere with me and Athena. I thought I told you it was personal."
Xena stared at him. "I just thought you could use some help to win—"
"It's not about winning!"
"What? I was just—"
He cut her off with an abrupt jerk of his hand. "Whatever, Xena," he said, turning and vanishing.
To be continued.