The water ripples and churns. A series of ficlets. 66 - We try because we're human.
14 June 2007
X/A – Part 6 of the Pebbles arc.
This is it. The end. Thank you to everyone who's come with me so far, through the sappy romance, the angst, the stupid ideas. Thank you for reading.
Gabrielle pulled her pillow over her face, trying to either block out the sounds of Xena shifting restlessly beside her, or at least to smother herself and rid herself of her current set of problems.
When the sounds continued, Gabrielle reached over to smack Xena with her pillow.
Gabrielle sighed and rolled over to face her. "Look, I don't see why you can't just go find him and tell him."
"Tell him what? Stand there with a stupid blush on my face and say 'Um… I like you'?"
"It does sound pretty prepubescent now that I think of it."
There was a groan in the darkness. "Gabrielle," Xena said, her voice muffled from whatever she'd covered her face with, "why do I always pick the difficult ones?"
"You'd be bored stiff otherwise." There was a pause. "Hey, did you just call me difficult?"
She heard a faint snicker and groped for her pillow.
A blaze of white light illuminated the night, and the two warriors squinted through the afterimages at the figure that appeared.
The angel reached out and tugged Xena up and off her bedding, into which an arrow thudded moments later.
Another arrow whizzed past Xena's head, and she pulled Callisto into a crouch. "Gabrielle, that sounded like Hercules," she hissed. "I'll take Callisto to cover. You do the same with Hercules, alright?"
Gabrielle nodded and crept off.
Xena half-dragged Callisto into the forest before stopping to peer out from behind a tree.
"Come, Xena," said Callisto's sweet voice. "I know where it's safe."
"No, we're going to wait for Gabrielle and Hercules." She shot the softly-glowing angel a glare. "I don't trust you."
The beatific smile never changed. "I would be more hurt, Xena…" She paused to shrug, and Xena's vision swam alarmingly. "… If I were Callisto."
Shit, Xena thought as she pitched forward.
Gabrielle and Hercules pushed their way through the forest.
"How can Xena just get abducted?" Hercules said, shoving another branch to the side. "She's Xena."
"Complaining isn't helping," Gabrielle snapped.
A thick bundle of leaves crashed to the ground at a vicious hack from Gabrielle's sais.
"Hey," Hercules said. "Don't worry. We'll get her back."
Gabrielle huffed. "I know. She's probably giving Discord a lot of grief right now. But…"
"I know how you feel." Hercules paused. "Gabrielle, I'm sorry. When you were questioning that man, I shouldn't have assumed…"
"Don't apologize. If Xena had actually been hurt, I don't know what I would have done."
Hercules gave a forced laugh. "Gabrielle, I know you wouldn't—"
"No," Gabrielle interrupted, "you wouldn't. That's the difference between you and me."
They walked in silence as Aphrodite's temple appeared in the distance.
Xena crouched behind the heavy drapes of a high window, and she let out a small snicker as she listened to the frantic dashing beneath her.
"How could you lose her already?" Discord's voice screeched.
Gods bless idiots who try to imprison her somewhere without taking her weapons off her.
There was some more running, and a breathless lackey reported that she wasn't in some other room she'd never heard of. Xena had always been good at hide-and-seek when she was a child. They tried all the customary small spaces and under the beds, but the other children never thought to look up.
"I thought you said she wouldn't wake up for at least half a day if I used that spell on her!" Discord again.
"That is the effect on mortals, yes, but I suppose I should have anticipated difficulties with Xena."
Xena frowned. The second voice was familiar, that of a woman not only used to commanding, but having her commands obeyed. She sounded far too sharp for Xena to risk twitching the drapery aside for a look.
"What are we going to do about her?" Discord was whining.
"You are a god, Discord," the other woman snapped. "Act like one."
It sounded like an exit line, and Xena moved to pull at the drapes at the sound of a god's departure, but froze when she heard Discord's voice continue speaking. Moments later, she rolled her eyes when she realized that Discord was muttering to herself.
"—ing meddling warrior bitch… It took forever to get Ares to drink that water without getting him all suspicious and ass-whooping…"
Xena felt as if a cold, gaping chasm had opened up in her chest and rapidly expanded until her ears were ringing and the hairs prickled at the back of her neck. The next thing she knew, she was standing behind Discord with her hand on the goddess's nape, and the thud of Discord's head hitting the table she had been sitting at was fading into the echoes.
"Ow! Fuck!" Discord yelped, trying to twist around to see what was holding her down.
"You gave Ares the water?" a voice said softly beside Discord's ear, and she found herself shivering.
"What are you so pissy about?" Discord finally tugged free and glared up at Xena. "He's fine, isn't he?"
"He would have died if Mnemosyne hadn't found him in time," Xena growled.
Discord's eyes widened. "What?"
"Are you trying to tell me that you did something as monumentally stupid as giving him something you didn't know the effect of?"
Discord cringed as Xena's hand dropped to her chakram. "Wait wait! You can't do anything to me anyway! I'm a god!"
Xena stepped forward. "I may not be able to kill gods, but I can definitely ensure that you spend the rest of eternity in small pieces."
The goddess squeaked and tripped over her chair, scrambling up amid rising sparkles.
"Aphrodite! Don't let her leave!"
Aphrodite blinked, disoriented after transporting herself, Gabrielle, and Hercules moments ago, and watched Discord vanish. Her mouth opened in a small "oh," and she disappeared after the fleeing goddess.
Xena's knees buckled, and she grabbed at the table at which Discord had been sitting just as Hercules's hands wrapped around her shoulders. He and Gabrielle helped her into a seat.
"Are you hurt?" Gabrielle asked.
"No, just kind of woozy. Discord knocked me out with some magic spell."
There was a whoosh of air, and Aphrodite leaned down with a frown. "Sorry, Warrior Babe, she got away."
Xena shook her head. "It's alright; we've got bigger fish to fry."
"Yeah," Hercules said. "If I know anything about Discord, I know that she's always the pawn."
"So we have to find the queen?" Gabrielle said thoughtfully. Her eyes widened. "You don't think that Hera…"
Xena shook her head. "Doubt it. She adores Ares." She grimaced. "Really dizzy now…"
Hercules caught her before she fell out of the chair.
It was dark when Xena woke up.
"Hey." A cup of water appeared before her face, and she rubbed her eyes groggily as she reached out and took it. Gabrielle gave her a small smile. "You had us worried for a while there."
"I'm fine, Gabrielle."
"Well, no. Scratch that. I'm starving."
Gabrielle snorted and pointed toward the long table across the room.
Xena ate quietly until she couldn't ignore the eyes boring into her neck anymore. She turned to meet Aphrodite's calculating stare. "Yes?" she said cautiously.
Aphrodite's pretty blue eyes narrowed in a way that sent shots of dread down Xena's spine. "So," Aphrodite said, a smug smile on her lips, "you and Aer…"
Xena let her head fall into her hands. "There's nothing to talk about. Nothing's happened."
The smile widened into something Xena had last seen on something with whiskers and claws. "But you want something to happen."
"Even if I did, I'd still handle it my way." She shot Hercules a glare. "What are you grinning about?"
Hercules turned back to his own food with a cough that sounded suspiciously like laughter.
"Aphrodite! Look, there's absolutely nothing to discuss. I haven't even seen him in three days."
"Aww… You had a fight?"
That gave Xena pause. "Well, I think so. I don't know. There was something about Athena, and then he stomped off."
"Ah, yeah. He's always been like that about Athena. Out of our entire family, she's probably the closest one to him. She's the one he respects the most, and he depends on their rivalry to measure and improve himself." Aphrodite looked around in the sudden silence, and huffed, "Hey, I'm like the relationship guru, right? That's all kinds of relationships!"
"What about Athena? Does she feel the same way about Ares?"
Aphrodite frowned. "Hard to say. Aer's always been more open with his emotions, right? I mean, he's too macho to say anything, but he just can't hide the way he feels with the way he acts." She tapped a perfect nail against her chin. "Hey, you know, Athena did something weird at the meeting of the Twelve after Ares got all de-memorified. She insisted that it was too dangerous to send Aer to you to get fixed up, and it'd be better to keep him holed up at home. Which is funny 'cause anyone who knows anything about Aer would know he'd be miserable like that, vegetable or not…" She looked up at the warrior pulling on her armour and attaching her weapons hastily. "Xena?"
"Can you take me somewhere, Aphrodite? There's something I want to see."
Xena opted for the direct approach and flung open the doors of Athena's chambers on Olympus, only to be greeted with a sword trained on her throat.
"Xena," a dark-haired woman in silver armour greeted.
Xens dipped her eyes briefly to the gleam of candle light off the blade. "You have the advantage of me," she replied calmly.
"Ilainus of Mycenae, at your service."
"Charmed. And now that we've covered the pleasantries, move."
Ilainus's lips quirked. "Regrettably, I cannot."
"Well, I tried."
There was a scrape of metal as Xena's chakram shoved the sword to a side, and her other hand rose to land a blow to the solar plexus. Ilainus staggered back and gasped for breath, her sword maintaining a defensive position while watching Xena draw her own blade.
She dodged Xena's next attack with ease before stepping forward with a thrust that Xena quickly parried. Keeping the blades locked together, she shoved forward and sliced into the skin just under Xena's chin. Xena hissed and knocked her weapon aside, ducking under another swing and stepping out of reach.
Xena touched the cut and glanced down at her hand before twisting her mouth into her most condescending smirk. She shrugged, flicking the blood of her fingertips and drawled, "Not bad."
"Ha," Ilainus said and launched another attack.
She was pretty good, Xena admitted to herself as they sparred, but she was a ranged fighter, not quite as experienced with the sword. She was evidently unaware that her eyes betrayed her next movements. Xena grabbed her sword arm and swung her into a pedestal, but she was able to duck Xena's quick swing that shattered the urn sitting on the stand.
Shards of pottery rained on Ilainus's shoulders and cut into her arms as she rolled away, her leg scything out to slam into Xena's side while still in a crouch.
Xena grunted, but her hands clamped on Ilainus's leg, holding it still as her knee rose and connected with the side of the shin with an audible crack. Ilainus cried out in pain, slashing at Xena instinctively, but Xena let go and ducked, picking up her sword in the middle of a half-roll, half-lunge. The lack of support shifted Ilainus's weight onto her broken leg, and she collapsed onto the floor.
She looked up with a pained snarl to see the hilt of Xena's sword descending toward her head.
Xena quickly tied Ilainus's hands behind her back with a decorative cord she found near a window and hauled the barely conscious woman into a sitting position, propping her up against a wall. She straightened, a sigh on her lips, and went to retrieve her chakram. Dammit, shallow cuts on the neck stung like Hades.
She was hooking the chakram back on her waist when she heard the sound of a god's arrival. She swung around, chakram held at neck height, and looked into Ares' surprised eyes.
"Whoa. Are you that mad at me?"
Xena dropped her arm with a muttered "sorry," and knelt down to examine Ilainus's leg. Satisfied that it was only a crack, she began to splint it with Ilainus's scabbard.
Ares cleared his throat awkwardly. "I was looking for you," he said. "I wanted… I guess…" He trailed off helplessly.
"Now's not really a good time," Xena said distractedly, pulling the makeshift bandages tight around Ilainus's leg.
He winced. "Xena…"
She surveyed her handiwork and stood, pushing her hair out of her face.
"I'm sorry, okay? I overreacted. I've just… I mean, I didn't mean—" He took in a sharp breath of air when she turned around with a scowl on her face and pushed her hands into his hair, and all brain function ceased when she tugged him down and covered his mouth with hers.
He stared at her blankly when she let him go and watched as she pulled Ilainus up. She frowned as if preoccupied before turning her head sharply to look at him. "There's something I need to do," she said. "Do me a favour and stay right here? Don't come in until I say."
He continued watching her as she hauled Ilainus down the hall, but the smile had begun spreading over his face by the time she reached the doors at the other end.
Athena looked up with a smile. "Xena," she said. "How good of you to drop by."
"Athena." Xena inclined her head. She watched Athena's eyes shoot to Ilainus as she let the woman sink to the ground. "I see you were expecting me."
There was a flicker of worry when Ilainus groaned softly, but the goddess maintained her friendly smile. "Youthful high spirits, I suppose. What can I do for you?"
"As you know," Xena said stiffly, "I'm investigating Ares' case."
"Yes, and I'd be glad to be of assistance."
"Glad to hear it. When did you steal the water from Mnemosyne's temple?"
Xena mentally applauded Athena's innocently confused face.
"I stole water from Mnemosyne?"
Xena pulled a blood-stained dagger from her belt, reaching down to slip an identical one from the holster on Ilainus's boot. "So your friend here didn't drop this at Mnemosyne's temple?"
Athena's eyes narrowed now. "Am I not allowed to simply visit Mnemosyne without being placed under suspicion?"
"It's called circumstantial evidence, I believe."
"Xena, this is ridiculous. I've always considered you a wise woman."
"What did you hope to gain from Ares' disposal?"
Athena stood now, a scowl on her face. "I've humoured your wild claims, Xena, but even my patience has its limits. Now, if you'd please, I have work to do."
Her eyes widened in shock as Xena reached into a small pouch on her belt, pulled out a large round pendant filled with dark red fluid, and dangled it in front of her face. "How dare you enter my private chambers!" Athena said, surprise overriding her caution. "Not even a god is able to pass my wards—"
"I know. That's why this is a fake. I see you recognize it, though."
Athena's mouth snapped shut, and her expression darkened. "You can't prove anything, Xena. Your so-called evidence is flimsy at best, and in some cases," —she ripped the pendant from Xena's hands and quickly crushed it to dust— "utterly fraudulent."
Xena grinned cheerfully, enjoying the way Athena's scowl deepened. "Yes, it is. That's why I was hoping you'd save us a lot of trouble and confess."
"No," Xena said, pointing to Ares, "to him."
Ares stepped forward, noticing the flash of panic in Athena's eyes before her face closed up. "Athena?" he said.
His sister was silent.
Ares turned to Xena. "What in Tartarus, Xena? This is—"
"I hate you."
Ares blinked at the venom in Athena's voice.
"You fuck around, doing whatever you feel like, and you act like you're justified, like your 'job' is a burden. You're a selfish bastard who's only heir due to an accident of birth. You're completely irresponsible and shallow. I hate you." Her glare turned to Xena. "And her. How does someone like you warrant the loyalty of someone like her? I was watching you. You gave up. I would have won if it wasn't for her—"
"It isn't loyalty, Athena," Ares interrupted. "It's friendship." He shrugged. "And I don't know. That's who I am. I can't make excuses for that. That's the way I am, but Xena's here anyway."
"Spare me, Ares." A mocking sneer twisted her face. "You've won. Are you going to run and tell daddy?"
"No," Ares said, puzzlement tingeing his voice. "What for?"
Athena opened her mouth, closed it again, and searched for a coherent response. She eventually settled on "What?"
"It was… fun. Dad would take it way too seriously."
"I nearly had you killed," Athena spoke slowly, as if prodding a loose tooth.
"I'm not dead."
Athena stared at him.
"I think I've… learned some things, too." He looked away with a low growl. "Look, I'm not good at this sappy talk. We've always communicated best through fighting."
Xena smiled dryly when Athena looked at her. "He surprises me sometimes, too."
"Now if you'll excuse us, I've some business with Xena." His eyebrows lifted suggestively, and Athena grimaced.
"I don't need to know these things, brother." She paused then, the realization of what just happened prickling her, and pinned Ares with an appraising look. He only gave her a dumb grin before leaving with Xena.
"Hey," Gabrielle greeted. "Go alright?"
"Yeah," Xena said. "No more people trying to kill us. For now."
"Works for me." She gave them a grin that contained far too much enjoyment for Xena's comfort. "I see you, uh, found Ares."
Xena settled into her best poker face, but it didn't deter her friends.
"So, Gabrielle," Hercules said, and she could hear laughter in his voice. "I saw this gorgeous tree back there along the road."
"Did you?" Gabrielle returned with manic cheerfulness. "I think I've definitely got to see it!"
"Of course. I'd love to show you."
"So, Xena, Ares, we're going to have to leave you alone for a while. Think you can handle it?"
"Oh shut up," Xena said.
"I know you'll miss us, but really, I just can't live my life to its full extent without seeing this tree."
"Get lost, Gabrielle."
They started laughing well within earshot.
"Xena," Ares started.
She looked him over. "Still missing any pebbles?"
He blinked as if he'd forgotten. "Oh." He frowned. "Yeah. One."
"Can you tell where it is?"
"Yeah." He took her hand and waited through the familiar blaze of light. When it faded, he looked at it with a distinctly uncomfortable expression. "Love," he announced.
"Huh. Predictable and sappy."
He looked at her for a moment, surprised, but then the corners of her eyes crinkled in a smile and her fingers tightened around his. He laughed, picked up the pebble, and flung it away.
"Hey!" Xena said.
"I don't need a stupid piece of rock to tell me something like that."
And he kissed her softly.
The end. Fini. No more Pebbles.