I'd often wondered how it would end.
I thought that some day, my body would just give out. I was surprised it had endured this long, especially considering that, over several millennia of godhood, it wasn't used to pain. A lot of men would have died many times over.
I suppose it was she who kept me going. The knowledge that, after everything she had done -- was still doing -- to me, she cared about me. Oh yes, she did. The knowledge that there would be those moments when she would caress me, coax me to a pleasure that briefly dissolved the ever-present pain, and whisper tender words into my ear.
I wondered, too, if she would eventually kill me; she'd come up with something slow and very creative, of course. Sometimes I would mull over the possibilities, in a strangely distant way, as if it didn't affect me at all. But somehow I didn't think she'd do it. She needed me; I knew that, and so did she, I think.
I would have never guessed that, of all people, he would butt in again.
My bastard half-brother.
The one who had taken her from me in the first place -- years ago, in another life.
He had been away when she came back to me, and during that whole mess with Zeus. He had left Greece after that annoying sidekick of his, Iolaus, met his long-overdue demise, and had vowed never to return. But then he heard that Xena the Destroyer was back ravaging towns and villages, far worse than the first time he'd met her. So he had to try to reclaim her. Never learned to mind your own business, did you, little brother.
He came to see her at her camp, unafraid. Maybe the fool actually thought that if he had a heart- to-heart chat with her, she'd come back to her senses, return to the path of the Greater Good and all that shit.
They were talking outside the tent. I think I flinched when I heard his voice; not many things could make me flinch anymore. He kept saying, Why, Xena? What happened to you? I heard her laugh and say, Wait, Hercules. Let me show you something that should make you proud.
They came in. She went to the corner where she had me chained, on my knees, hands behind my back. She grabbed my hair and jerked my head back, to make sure our eyes would meet. His gaze traveled downward to my chest, the scars, the burn marks, the bruises, old and still fresh -- it had been only two days, I think, since she had last let her men have their fun.
Oh, the shock on his face. She laughed. Believe it or not, part of me wanted to laugh, too.
Say hello to your brother, Ares, she said. Didn't you hear me? I said, say hello to your brother. She hit me and then turned to him. You'll have to excuse his bad manners, Hercules. I'm afraid the cat did get his tongue. And she forced my mouth open so he could see her handiwork.
He gasped and clutched at his stomach, trying to fight the sickness and losing the battle. He dashed out of the tent and I heard him retching outside.
When he came back, coughing and wiping his mouth, she told him what she'd done, how she'd gotten Zeus to take my godhood away by making the old man believe I was plotting against him, how I had to pay for making her kill Gabrielle. Like what you see? she asked.
Xena, he said, forcing his voice to stay steady. Gabrielle would not have wanted this.
You're right, she said, her voice softening for a moment before becoming bright and hard again. This isn't for Gabrielle really; it's for Ares. He wanted me to embrace my darkness and he wanted me by his side. He's getting his wish. She yanked my hair again, turning my face up toward her. Isn't that so, my love?
Gods, how beautiful she was, with that pale fire in her eyes. When she let go, I glanced at him again. I think that at that moment, he was hurting worse than I.
Xena, don't do this.
Oh, but it's so much fun. She backhanded me across the face, showing off for him. Wait, I haven't shown you the best part. He still loves me -- don't you, Ares? Show your brother how much you love me.
She knelt down next to me and started to kiss me, licking the blood away from my lip. I don't know if he heard me moan. She reached between my legs, stroking me into hardness. Surely I was beyond shame by then, and yet the thought of him seeing me like this made the rage resurface for a moment, the rage that I thought had burned out long ago. And still I couldn't resist her. Was she going to make me come, right there in front of him, or toy with me and leave me aching for release? I wasn't sure which would be worse.
I'll never know, because he yelled at her, his fists clenched. Stop it, Xena. Dammit, stop this now! The sickly pallor on his face had turned to an angry crimson. I'd never seen such fury in his eyes. Not even after his beloved wife of one day had died, because of me.
She let go of me, rose, and started laughing again, laughing in his face. I couldn't see her eyes but I could imagine the glitter in them. Hey -- you want a piece of him, Hercules? She planted her foot on my back and shoved me face down, then kicked my legs apart. I'll even hold him down while you do it. Her boot came down on my neck as I gasped for air. Come on, Herc, don't be such a fucking wimp. Don't you have scores to settle? He's a lot of fun. Just ask any man in my camp.
It was then that he killed her.
I didn't realize it at first. I knew only that then the pressure was lifted from my neck. Then there was a dull thud, and moments later I felt something wet on my face. Her blood.
He had charged her suddenly, grabbed her own dagger from her belt and cut her throat. Never saw that one coming, did you, Xena. Never thought my do-gooder brother would be one to act as judge, jury and executioner. You lay thrashing on the ground, gasping for breath, the blood gushing from your neck. You stared at him with that surprised look in your eyes. I wonder if that was the look you saw in my eyes when you -- well, never mind.
Then you turned to me and I think, in those last seconds, the gentleness came back into your eyes. Funny, I had always loved your rage, your wildness -- and yet now it was the gentleness that I wanted to see, need to believe I saw. Feebly, you lifted your hand, reached out and brushed your fingers across my lips, touched my hair, for once slick with your blood rather than mine. Your lips parted and moved, trying to say something. My name? Gabrielle's, perhaps? Anyhow, your voice was gone. Did you know how I felt, Xena, all those times when I wanted so desperately to say your name?
I strained at my chains, ignoring the searing pain in my arms; I was used to that. I was just able to reach her and press my mouth to her lips, catching her breath as her eyes froze.
I wonder why you did it, brother. Was it because, even after all that had passed between us, I was still family? Or because you finally knew for sure that she was beyond what you call redemption? Or maybe because, in some deep corner of your virtuous soul that you don't like to think about, you suspected that you could have taken her up on her offer and enjoyed it?
Leave it to me to get an idea like that.
He was shaking like a leaf. He bent over and threw up again. Then, he came up to me and ripped my chains to pieces, his strength magnified by rage. He grabbed a cloak and threw it over me.
And bellowed for Daddy.
Of course Zeus would come when his favorite bastard son was calling.
The look on Dad's face when he saw me -- oh, that was priceless. I had sometimes wondered if he knew what was going on and approved. It seemed a bit much, even for Zeus. Turns out that, after he cast me out of Olympus, he never checked on me once. Cut me off, just like that, didn't even know if I was alive or dead. As far as he was concerned, I was no longer his son.
Of course, as far as I was concerned, that had been true for a while.
Hercules told him everything. Well, not quite everything. There were some things he couldn't bring himself to say, goody-two-shoes that he is. But I think the old man figured out the rest for himself.
Never thought I'd see dear old dad cry, but there he was, bawling like a big baby, and actually cradling me in his arms, calling me his dear boy. Once, that would have meant something. A lot.
He healed my body, of course. It was strange not to feel pain anymore, the pain that had been my constant companion -- I wasn't sure for how long. In its place, there was a strange emptiness.
I stood up, almost slipping in the pool of blood, and looked at her. Her eyes still open, and so blue, still staring at me. I knelt by her side and pressed my hand to her cheek. I'd so missed being able to taste her mouth. But her lips were cold now, and strange to the touch.
Dad was royally pissed off. When he was done hurling his firebolts, not one man in Xena's camp was left alive. Not even too many charred bodies -- mostly just ashes and some bones.
I should have felt joy. There was a time when I had dreamed of tearing those men limb from limb. Or maybe I should have felt regret -- so many good soldiers gone to waste. I would have felt that way once.
I felt nothing at all, until Dad raised his hand to incinerate her, too. I stopped him. She was going to get a proper funeral.
He gave me this look, like I was crazy. But Hercules -- you understood, didn't you, little brother.
The old man told me he was going to give me my godhood back. I told him where he could shove it.
Son, he said, his voice quivering. I can take it all away, all the memories, everything that happened while you were mortal. It'll be just like it had never been.
Oh, it was very tempting. To forget the sound of my screams, the smell of my own blood, the drunken laughter of those men, their vile stench, their hands on me and more. To forget the pain.
I looked at her again, and closed my eyes. In my head, I could still hear her voice whispering, I love you, Ares. See, we're together now, just like you wanted. Always. I could still hear the sounds she made when she came, could feel her arms around me -- her hands, so soft, wiping the tears and sweat and blood from my face -- her mouth on mine; could see her face when she took me inside her. I thought of the one night when she freed my hands, the sheer bliss of being able to caress her swollen nipples, to lift her breasts in my palms, to slide my fingers into the silky folds between her legs. Those memories taken too.
I shook my head. No.
This time, I'm sure the old man really thought I was nuts -- had gone off the deep end, after everything I'd been through. He said he'd give me time to think, to recover from the shock. He hugged me, tearing up again, and said he was sorry. I said nothing. Talking felt funny anyway; I'd almost forgotten how.
He hugged Hercules too, thanked him again and again, and finally vanished, leaving the two of us alone with the woman we had loved.
We didn't talk. Like I say, I didn't feel like talking. Besides, were there words for what we both knew?
I did think of telling him what a crock it was that I'd made her kill the little blonde bitch. She wanted to; she blamed Gabrielle for Solan's death. Sure, I'd told her to embrace her rage, but it's not as if she took much convincing, or didn't have plenty of time to change her mind before she rode into that Amazon village and wrapped her whip around Gabrielle's neck -- the way she'd do to me later. She hated herself for abandoning her son, and for killing her friend; she needed to take that hatred out on some external target. Gabrielle, then me. Who'd have believed we would actually have something in common.
As we built the funeral pyre together, I thought of telling him that, and also that I never meant for Serena to die. I kept quiet, though; it was just easier. He knew my record too well, and it's not as if I cared, did I? If I wanted Hercules to think that I wasn't such a bad guy after all -- well, maybe I really was out of my head.
So here we are, all done and ready. You're lying with your eyes closed now, the blood washed away, those raven tresses spread to cover the ugly gash in your neck, your sword and chakram at your side. My warrior, my lover, my torturer -- my creation, my undoing -- my everything. Very pale, but still so lovely.
Hercules is holding the torch, about to light the pyre.
But there's one more thing I need to do.
Her dagger is back on her belt. I reach for it, take it out of its sheath, turn it over in my hands, looking at those brown stains on the blade.
It suddenly dawns on him, and he grabs my wrist to stop me. The expected pain doesn't come -- that's right, my wrists are healed now. Our eyes lock, for the first time since he entered that tent and saw me. Then he lets go of my hand. See, little brother, even you, eternal optimist that you are, know it's the only way.
I open my vest, run my hand slowly across my chest. Is this really my body, the skin so smooth with no scars, and no pain when my fingers touch my ribs.
There, that's a good spot.
I look up at him, and see the tears welling up in his grey eyes. Who would have thought that my hero brother would be crying for me, his hated enemy. The corner of my mouth goes up in a sneer. I'm glad I can still enjoy the irony.
At last I speak to him -- in a cold, businesslike tone that grants him no recognition of any bond between us. If I botch it too badly, you'll have to finish the job.
He nods, choking up. Now, he's the one who has lost his voice.
I lie down next to you.
Wait just a bit longer, princess. I'm on my way. I'm sure Zeus will put in a word with Uncle Hades -- it's the least the old man can do. Besides, we belong in the same place, don't we?
Oh yes, we'll be together, love. Always, like you promised.