The Best World Possible

by McJude

Xena sat on her knees on the wood planked floor and dabbed a blunt-ended brush dipped in black ink on a rice paper scroll.  She was actually better at painting than she was at embroidery, but that wasn't saying much.  At least with the brush you didn't end up with a mass of tangled silk skeins and your paper didn't get speckled with what couldn't actually be, but looked like, blood from needle pricks on your fingers.  You also didn't have to wear a stupid thimble.  She never did get the hang of that little thingy you wore over... she couldn't even remember which finger you put it on and often put it on her little finger to get it out of the way.  She really hated the embroidery projects and was very happy when it was suggested that she try another craft.

The major problem with the painting was that she couldn't read the script in which the words were written; she had no idea what she was copying on the scrolls.  It could be anything: love poems, death sentences, grocery lists or even pornographic stories. She had absolutely no idea.  She merely dipped the brush in the ink and blobbed the color on the paper.  Someday when her skill improved she would get to use finer brushes and try her hand on flowers and landscapes, but for today it was just scrolls.

On any given day, that was how Xena spent her time.  Most days were quiet at the teahouse.  Most days were just like this.  The geishas would just work on their womanly arts waiting for strangers to pass by.  Strange men seeking pleasure at the cost of their souls.  She was much better at the skills necessary to harvest men's souls than at the other arts of a geisha.

Xena had never been able to tell Gabrielle that even though by staying dead she had avenged the souls of the 40,000 she had killed in the fire, she had never completely freed her own soul.  It was still held prisoner, at least during the day, by the spirits that controlled the teahouse.  Her days were spent here condemned to live the life of a geisha ghost.  Condemned to continue the taking of men's souls.

At night her spirit was free to go to Gabrielle.  As soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, it was released and she found herself back in Greece or where ever Gabrielle was at that time.  She had gone to Egypt with her, to Jerusalem, and to Turkey.  Now Gabrielle was back in Greece, and Xena was glad that her spirit got to return home.  From sunset to sunrise, she could be with Gabrielle, or at least her spirit could.

Xena realized spending all her nights with Gabrielle would leave the bard exhausted.  Xena's spirit seemed to have transcended the need for sleep, so most nights she would appear and they would spend the entire night talking.  Both were most upset by the fact that Xena could not touch.  Why couldn't the "touch" that allowed her to paint or even embroider be used when she was with Gabrielle at night?  She hated the fact that she could use those touches with men visiting the teahouse, if she had wanted she could have even touched Akimi; but as much as she desired it, she could not touch Gabrielle. 

Sometimes Xena would delay her spirit's departure giving Gabrielle just enough time to become unable to fight off sleep.  She would then join the sleeping woman wanting so badly to snuggle their bodies together, but unable to do so; and just watch her as she slept.  Gabrielle needed the rest almost as much as she needed to know Xena was there.

She finished painting her scroll and hung it on the wall.  It looked exactly like the one she had done yesterday, and she was sure if she could find the one she had done a year ago it would look exactly the same.  She sure wished she knew what she was writing.

She noticed one of her sister geisha's head move slightly and looked to see someone coming in the door.  A group of four monks wearing saffron robes were crawling through the low doorway and entering the house.  She always felt sorry for the men who came here, especially the monks.  How did people not know that those who came here never returned?  Were they that disinterested in their fellow men?  Why did holy men come here?  She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stiffen.  She recognized the last of the four men; he was not supposed to be with them.

He was much taller than the other men and almost twice their mass.  Even with his head shaved and facial hair significantly changed she still recognized his black eyes.  He looked, as she must have to others, awkwardly out of place in this world.  She wondered what he wanted.  No, she knew what he wanted; she just wondered what he was going to try to do about it.

"What can you do for a poor holy man?" he asked softly.  She knew he had to know that as a geisha she couldn't question his requests.  Her job was to enthrall, comply, and satisfy until that time as the spirit came to eat his soul.  She wondered, did he have a soul to eat, and what effect it would have on the monster's digestive process?

"What was it that you were seeking when you chose to come here?"  She looked down, not at his eyes.  She was sure both of them would burst out laughing if she did.  After all the games they had played with each other, in a foreign world like this, they were still friends.

"I am most desirous of a bath.  My robes are soiled.  My body aching."  He was a much better actor than she remembered, speaking the lines softy with no hint of underlying passion.

"You can cleanse your body, and I will wash your robes.  Follow me."  She lowered her head and walked slowly to a far corner of the teahouse.  He was already removing his robe, standing naked before her.  It had been a long time since she had seen a man his size naked.  She shuddered because of a combination of memories and true fear.

She dared not sneak a look at the other women in the house.  Each of them had chosen one of his co-patriots and was in turn complying with his requests.  Each of them was easing a man's way to commit his last great mortal sin; the one that would break his vows and cost him his soul.

She helped him into the wooden tub and picked up the yellow robe from the floor.  She handed him a wooden box filled with a clear liquid. 

"Please drink this.  I will take it to the stream and wash it, while you soak."  He grabbed the box and downed the liquid in one gulp.  That was not the way he was supposed to do it; she hoped no one had noticed.  She wondered if he needed the alcohol of the drink more than he needed to use it as a cover.

"I'd rather have you here with me, helping me wash."  She wanted to slap him hard, but his voice went even lower, "I need you close to me, because I have something of utmost importance to tell you.  It involves Gabrielle."

She hoped he wasn't lying.  She knew he was not above using Gabrielle as a ploy to get her into the bubbling water, naked and close to him.  She never trusted Ares, especially when he was naked.  She came closer, leaned over his shoulder and washed his chest with a sponge, her long hair hiding his face from the others in the teahouse.  Sex would be ignored; talking might not be.

He reached up and touched her neck.  He ran his thumb slowly down her hairline, stopping as he felt the small scar that was all that remained from the cut that had once severed her head.  She felt his hand tremble.  She knew he felt a life that was once there, a life that was now impossible for him to share. 

"That is the worst thing you can do."  She looked at him with cold eyes.  "The most intimate of spots."

"I know," he sparkled.  There was something about that man.  "That's why I did it."

"Why are you here?  How did you find me?"

"You weren't hard to find.  There are scrolls all over the place.  Like that one.  Urging men to come here."  He pointed to the scroll that Xena had painted that afternoon -- the one she couldn't read.

Xena shuddered.  She made a silent pledge to go back to embroidery.

"Why I am here is a longer story.  Actually, I'd been hearing rumors for a few months now, but didn't put it together until I saw you, your spirit, visiting with Gabrielle one morning."

"You saw me?  How can you see me?  It's just a spirit that goes to Greece, not my body."

"Gabrielle sees you, doesn't she?"  Xena nodded her head.  "What makes you think that a god can't see his subjects, especially his favorite one?"

"Well, if you can see me there, I assume you could have talked to me there, too.  So what brings you to the end of the earth to visit me?  It's dangerous here, very dangerous."

"Actually Xena, it's halfway around the world, but that's not a discussion we have to have right now. "  He gave her one of his 'I'm a God" smiles and continued.  "And I needed to talk to your body and your spirit.  I need your help.  There has been talk that someone was trying to kill the remaining gods, both Greek and Roman.  Someone from far away.  Not of our world."

"Yes. . . someone is always trying that.  What makes you think they are going to be successful, and how does it involve Gabrielle?"

"It is said they want to use the 'chakram of light.'  The one that was fused into your chakram.  The one Gabrielle now carries at her side.  So if this creature wants your chakram, Gabrielle is most certainly in danger."

"So, why didn't you go to Gabrielle?"

"Do you honestly believe your little friend would believe anything I told her?  Hand over her precious chakram to me, the God of War, for safekeeping?  I'm afraid my reputation works against me on this one, Xena.

"This is a big job, Xena.  I need your help on this one.  You and I are going to have to work together to defeat this threat."

"And Gabrielle?"

"Sure, it might be expedient to include her.  Gabrielle can help, too."

She almost laughed, and drew her hand up to cover her mouth so that he could not see her emotion.  She had been well taught.  She gave the room a quick survey and realized that they would have to act fast, she would have to trust Ares, if he had any chance of survival.

"We have to get out of here.  I will take your robe to the stream to wash it.  As fast as you think it is prudent, get outside. Tell them you need to use the outhouse if they ask.  And, if you hear bells, small tinkling bells, run like hell.  Understand?"

Xena washed the fine silk robe in the waters of the stream.  She had expected Ares to be at her side quickly, but the minutes that had passed might indicate that he had had a problem.  She hung the robe in a tree and sat down on a rock and thought.  She thought about him.  He had come all this way to ask for her help.  Could she actually be of use to him?  She wondered.  More importantly, could he be of use to her?  This whole atoning business was getting a little old.  What good was "saving your soul" if to do it you had to do unspeakable things?  The rules here were different; they were not the ones she had learned.

Ares quietly walked out of the bushes.  She almost laughed.  She had forgotten that the towels in the teahouse were very small.  He could not wrap a towel around his body and merely clutched one to the front of him.  He looked embarrassed.  She handed him the wet silk robe, which while covering nakedness, clung to his body.  He had to be cold.

"I need to get you, not just your spirit, but also your body back to Greece.  Do you have any ideas, Xena?  How does this body move?"

"It walks.  It's a long walk back to Greece.  My spirit moves instantly.  That's why I can go back at night.  But I think this body has to go the regular way, and that will take a while."

"Isn't there any way you can speed it up a bit?"

"You're the god.  Isn't speeding up in your bailiwick?"

"Wait a second.  I remember you telling Gabrielle about joining her at the fountain at Mt. Fuji, how did you get there?"

"I changed into a bird and flew."  Xena put on her thinking face.  "That would work for a short distance, but I'm afraid my wings would be damn tired before I got to Greece."  Now she was wearing her smiling face.

"Yes, but a bird in a cage.  A god could carry that back to Greece with him.  Do you trust me Xena?"

She didn't have time to answer. She heard a distant tinkle of bells and, in a second, she was a nightingale in a cage disappearing with the God of War.

She awoke in a large bed in the Hall of War.  She could actually feel her body rub against the black silk sheets.  She wondered if maybe she might have been wrong to have trusted Ares, especially since she was now in his bed.  But she could feel, and touch, so her body had to have returned to Greece.  That was probably worth the possible risks involved with trusting Ares.

"Welcome back, sleepy head. "  She heard a male voice speak from some other place in the room. "You've slept for three days.  How long did you say you had been awake?"

"Three days?  I've been asleep for three days.  Why didn't you wake me, Ares?  Gabrielle is going to be worried.  I came to her every night."

"I'm not worried, Xena."  It was Gabrielle; she was here, too.  Ares had actually brought Gabrielle here to be with her when she awoke.  Either the God of War was serious about working together as a team, or he was getting even more devious.  "Why didn't you tell me you never got to sleep when you came to visit me at night?" 

"If I remember correctly, you didn't get to sleep much either."  Gabrielle was at her bedside, holding her hand.  She could actually touch Gabrielle's hand.

"Now, now, ladies.  You can exchange your, shall I say 'pleasantries,' but right now we have a demon to stop.  A world to protect."

"It can wait, Ares.  Just until we say our proper hello."  Xena said. "Turn your head.  We need our privacy."

Ares looked over at the bed and held his hands to his face.  Not for long.  He spread his fingers and watched the two women embrace and kiss.  Then he had to turn away, but not to hide his face.

"Time's up."  He called.  "World needs to be saved.  You two can wait until tonight."

Gabrielle sighed in disappointment and frustration.  Xena wasn't as sure; she liked saving the world, too.

"I have only one question, Ares, am I alive?"  Xena said, confronting the god.

"Well," he folded his arms in front of him, "not technically.  I was only able to reunite your body and spirit here in Greece.  I think you will be good to go for a while, at least until we finish up with this project.  Let me know if you think something isn't working right and maybe I can tweak it." 

"Well, thanks anyway.  I think I can make do in this state for a while." 

"By the way, I burned that red kimono of yours, Xena.  Gabrielle brought something more appropriate for you to wear."

"Thanks.  I always hated that robe."

"Me, too!"  Gabrielle and Ares said at the same time. 

Xena was still obviously exhausted.  She propped herself up in the bed and held Gabrielle's hand as she sat beside her.  She drank wine and ale, thankful they were not tea, and seemed to be unable to get enough olives, especially the ones that had been oil cured with herbs and garlic.  If she wasn't alive, at least she had a mind and body that seemed to be functioning; she wasn't sure what else she needed. 

"I believe this new foe we are facing was working in concert with those in control in Japa.  He wanted them to keep you there, so you couldn't defend your land, your people, your gods."  Ares smiled with a salacious grin as he talked about himself.  He wanted Xena to know his efforts to win her back had not been diminished by her death or by his observations of today.  He had to let her know that he was never going to give up on her.  "He needs your chakram.  You need to protect it, Xena."

"Excuse me," Gabrielle raised her voice slightly, "If he wanted the chakram, why hasn't he taken it from me already?  Surely it would have been easier to take from me before I knew of his existence.  I just kept it hanging on a hook in my house most of the time.  Why didn't he just sneak in and take it -- maybe while I was asleep?"

"Haven't been sleeping much lately, have we Gabrielle?"  Ares sneered.

"Come on, Ares, there has to be more to this story, more of a reason for you to bring my body back to Greece than to protect my chakram from some mystery demon, who I have to agree with Gabrielle, doesn't seem all that interested."

Ares looked down at his boots.  He wasn't really sure what he was going to say to the two women next.  It would be so much easier if he could just disappear for a while and think, but that would have been a dead giveaway.

"Maybe he doesn't know she has it.  Maybe he doesn't know where she lives."  His comments sounded lame.

"Come on, Ares, this isn't you." Xena chided. "This whole mystery demon story is a little too thin to be believed."

"OK. OK.  I just made him up.  But such a demon might exist in the future, appear at any time.  Who knows what a new god, or his followers might be capable of?  Even the followers of Eli or another peaceful god like him.  That's why we have to destroy the chakram.  It has to be unfused, melted down, made into an object that will not be readily identified as one that will kill gods -- or a god."

"You mean you just did this to protect your own hide, Ares?"  Gabrielle asked.  "There really wasn't a reason to bring Xena's body here."

"Oh, Gabrielle, there most definitely was a reason.  But if you are not aware of it, I'm not the one who is going to tell you." 

"Thanks!"  Xena commented.  "I guess I am the collateral beneficiary this time, and for that I am even willing to help you. . .  some."

Ares paced the floor.  The two women had been quietly talking between themselves for over an hour.  The conversation appeared very serious with Gabrielle in her usual way pointing out the bad points of proceeding further.  It was not easy to listen to people discuss your motivation and whether or not you could be trusted right in front of you, as if you didn't exist.  Maybe he should leave and give them some privacy, but then he didn't really trust them either.

What Ares had not told Xena earlier was that a full restoration of her life would have required that he give up at least a portion of his god-hood.  At this point in time he wasn't sure he was willing to make that sacrifice, he had to be certain that Xena would not just run off with Gabrielle and leave him behind, as a diminished god, or possibly a mortal.  Maybe in the future, to protect her if needed, but for now he would definitely take the wait and see approach.

After they decided that they would have to trust him regardless of his motivation, they moved on to consider what should be done about the chakram.  Xena, for once, seemed to agree with him that the chakram in its current form was too much of a risk to be allowed to exist, and that the chakram of light had to be separated and destroyed.

The problem was, as Gabrielle was quick to point out, that until it was actually destroyed the chakram of light was dangerous not just in the hands of someone who wanted to kill a god, but to anyone not having a pure soul who might touch it.  Since no one in their group had anything resembling a pure soul, and the chances of finding such a person would require more time than any of them were willing to spend looking, they would have to find a way to destroy the chakram without touching it.  Xena, having had more experience with metal spells, argued that she had once touched the chakram and her soul could not have really been pure, just purified.  It had been the same with the Rhinegold.  It wasn't the actual state of the soul, but the state in which its owner believed it to be, that mattered.  Ares found this way too complicated and philosophical but figured that he owed it to the two women to allow them to work out a solution -- especially because he had no idea of his own.

"Hey, that's an idea."  Xena's face wrinkled.

"What?"  Gabrielle questioned.

"Maybe we could melt BOTH chakrams without separating them.  Transform both of them into a hunk of metal like the Rhinegold.  No one would know what it was.  We could hide it somewhere, somewhere safe, protected.  Ares could get on being his old god of war self, and you and I could just. . . "

"I get the idea, Xena.  You don't have to spell it out."  He was all too knowledgeable and apprehensive about what they could just do.

"So, do you think it might work?  Ares?  Gabrielle?"  Both of them agreed.

"OK.  I've got the place to hide it.  I have a temple in a cave in Macedonia." Ares continued, grateful to be moving ahead on the project.

"Why Macedonia?  It's a long way away.  All that's there are caves and sheep.  I hate sheep."  Gabrielle suddenly seemed a little whiny as the plan moved from talking to action. 

"No, Ares has a point.  I think taking it to Macedonia is a good idea.  Someone coming from the outside is unlikely to stray far from the coast or the capital cities.  Everything else out there is just . . ."

"Cleveland."  Ares grinned.  Neither Xena or Gabrielle had any idea what he was talking about, but since it really didn't seem germane to their problem, they ignored him.

"What kind of safeguards do you have there, Ares?"

"You know the usual.  Sliding stairs, trap doors, huge spiked balls that swing down from the ceiling and all the rest.  It's a pretty big place and it's not like anyone coming there would be looking for a hunk of melted tin."

"Tin, Ares, this chakram isn't made of tin," Gabrielle commented.  Ares wished Xena, who seemed to be fine with his little comments, would tell the bard to grow a thicker skin.

"Whatever, you know what I mean.  I've got an eye of Hephaestus on the wall, too."

"Pretty strong security for a cave temple, Ares."  Xena commented.  "What were you going to do, hole up there for eternity?"

'Damn her,' Ares cursed under his breath.  He didn't want to have to tell her that the cave had been his backup when she and Gabrielle had been frozen.  If the Twilight of the Gods threatened he had planned to retreat there.  Hide.  Hide from her daughter who was going to kill the gods.  Hide for an eternity or until she returned.

"It's pretty safe.  As safe as anyplace I know."  Ares said.

"I got something else we can use.  I have that old hinge lock from Pandora's box.  Doesn't do much, but it can be very confusing.  We could put that at the door, then hide the door," Gabrielle said. Xena and Ares both smiled.

"Very good, Gabrielle.  Sometimes it is not the puzzle, but the appearance of a puzzle that fakes people out."  Ares commented.

Xena grinned.  Ares certainly seemed to have changed while she was in Japa.  She liked the way he was cooperating with her and Gabrielle, especially the way he respected their ideas and suggestions.  Still she couldn't help but wonder if he had something up his sleeve, besides of course his bulging muscles.

It had taken over a week to reach Macedonia.  Gabrielle had insisted upon taking a great number of her scrolls with them, arguing that if they were going to create a safe storage facility, there were other things that should be included there.  A quick trip to Meg's had produced a wagonload of artifacts also slated for preservation.  Despite Ares's chiding that anyone looking for the chakram could have just followed them and the trail of "bad draft" scrolls Gabrielle discarded along the way, the trio did eventually make it to the cave.

On the trip Ares was content to sit back, even disappear when he felt unwanted, and let the women be together.  Perhaps he should be content just to have Xena back in his world if not with him? Perhaps he could learn to enjoy being with her as a friend?  Perhaps, and this is what he really hoped most, Gabrielle was going to slip up and do something that would really piss Xena off?  Then he might have a chance.

Upon reaching the cave the team members began work on their allotted tasks.  Gabrielle seemed content to find hiding places for the scrolls and work simple traps to conceal them.  She didn't want to hide them too well or people might never find them and never read her stories.  Ares and Xena worked on the major traps. Each of them went full out to design their own security systems and test those created by the other.  By the end of the day an exhausted Xena and an equally exhilarated Ares walked back to the campsite with their arms around each other's shoulders, singing some silly drinking song, much to the chagrin of Gabrielle.

"Do you realize that you have been back from Japa almost a month and you haven't killed anything?  When was the last time you did that, Xena?"  Ares commented to Xena one night as the three of them sat by the fire.

Her hand reached for the chakram she still carried at her side.  "That can be arranged quite quickly, if need be." She teasingly smiled at him.

"Be kind to the little rodents, Xena."

"I wasn't thinking of a little rodent.  I was thinking of a big one.  I still can't figure out what is in this for you, Ares?"

Ares knew, and it appeared that he was being successful, but he wasn't going to tell.  Gabrielle thought she knew, too, and was going to have to do some quick thinking or Ares was going to be right. 

Finally everything was in place.  The cave was as secure as the team members thought it could be.  All that remained was to destroy the chakram.  While Ares built a fire, Xena prepared a casting box.  Gabrielle wrote a scroll to be included with the lump of metal, explaining what was there and how it should be carefully protected. 

Xena took the chakram from her hip.  It had felt so comfortable there the last few weeks; she almost hated to destroy it.  She knew she would find another weapon, or maybe, considering how much she had enjoyed the last few weeks, she might consider giving up fighting entirely.

Ares produced a pair of tongs to hold the chakram in the fire.  Xena resisted asking why he had blacksmith tongs in his temple.  Sometimes with Ares you didn't want to know the answer.  Strangely enough, he was wearing an ornate leather costume she remembered from many seasons before.  She wondered if it had been in the trunks from Meg and Joxer's collection, or if he had just decided to dress up for the occasion.

He took the chakram from her hands with the tongs and held it over the fire.  The metal grew hot and glowed with white light.  Xena and Gabrielle watched as the metal dripped into the casting box, slowly covering the bottom with a thick layer.  Suddenly they heard a clang and were surprised when the two broken pieces of the original chakram of darkness slipped from the melting mass and landed on the floor.  Xena reached over to grab one of the pieces and Ares stopped her.

"Just because it doesn't melt, doesn't negate the fact that it is still hot.  You know like alcohol in the bitter cold.  It may not be frozen, but it can still freeze. . ."

"Thanks.  Wasn't thinking!  Why didn't the chakram of darkness melt, too?

"Probably made of a different metal, something with a much higher melting point.  Or maybe it has another purpose.  I don't know."

"Gee, Ares.  I don't think I've ever heard you say that before."

"I don't know everything, Xena.  But I don't believe we have to worry about this part of the chakram, just the part that was the chakram of light."

Just then a giant roar shook the cave. 

"What is it?"  Gabrielle asked.

Ares bit his lip to avoid saying "I don't know" for the second time in less than a minute.

"It could be someone or something coming looking for the chakram, or it could be just an earthquake."  Ares commented.

"Just an earthquake.  It may be just an earthquake to a god, but I have no intention of getting trapped in this place, Ares."  Gabrielle said.

"Yes, Ares.  I think Gab and I should get out of here, at least until we know that this place isn't going to fall in on us."

"Fine, fine.  I'll stay here, finish melting down the chakram of light.  Hide the two pieces of the chakram of darkness.  I'll get all the traps set, and everything.  You two, head back to Greece.  I'll meet you in about two weeks in Athens."

"I was thinking we were going to go to the islands.  How about Crete?"  Xena asked.

"Crete it is, but give me another week."

"We'll give you a year if you want," Gabrielle smirked. 

Ares reached out and grabbed Xena's hand, mumbling something under his breath.  She stopped for a second, looked deeply into his eyes, smiled with understanding, and ran like hell.  Another rumble and a fall of rocks blocked the passage by which they had left.  Ares would have to go out the back way.

Ares finished the casting. Basically he had molded the once graceful chakram into a lump. Had he been wrong to expect Xena to have worked some kind of design into the cast, or did she just have that little artistic talent? From one way it might look a little like a rabbit and from another maybe a fish. He'd have to ask her, in a way so she wouldn't feel embarrassed. He secretly worried if anyone would even recognize the chakram's remains as an artifact, but again that might be a good thing.

He carefully went through the cave setting the traps: the lights that would come on if a door were opened, the walls that would turn if someone sat on a seat, the stones that would move if someone pulled on a lever, and a few more for good measure. The place was definitely secure. He placed the melted chakram on a small shelf and smashed half of the chakram of darkness into a rock near Gabrielle's scrolls. He planned to leave the other half near the door as bait to lure future discoverers into the cave.

Slowly he gathered up his stuff. The temple was ready to challenge anyone who might come to discover or plunder. Only someone very skilled could avoid his traps. The good part of it was that it would protect the metal that once was the chakram of light. The very good part was that it would spare those in the future from having to read Gabrielle's inane scrolls.

He pushed on the outside door and looked over his shoulder fondly at what had been his favorite temple. In three weeks he would be meeting Xena on the black sands of southern Crete. Maybe by then she would have tired of spending time with Gabrielle and would be looking for some real godly action. The door seemed heavy, not wanting to rotate on the ball hinges.

He pushed again. It didn't move. He pushed again. Harder. Nothing happened. Sure, he was a little less strong having relinquished a little of his power to fully restore Xena's life, but Hercules could have opened this door. Unless?

Four weeks later.

Xena and Gabrielle had been on Crete for two weeks, enjoying the sun, the sea, and the food. Gabrielle had dragged Xena to birthplace of Zeus, the ruins of the Palace of Knossos, and several other tourist spots. Strangely enough the meetings with bandits and thugs that always seemed a day-to-day part of their life had not been a part of this trip. Life was coming as close as it ever had to approaching normalcy.

Tonight, Xena and Gabrielle sat in a tavern in Crete drinking the local favorite, Raki. Half a bottle was gone, but Xena continued to pour and drink.

"This stuff is strong, Xena."

"Yea, but good. I love how it burns in my throat. I can't wait to see how it hits our dear friend Ares. He's so cute when he drinks." Gab was sure that Xena had already had one or two too many drinks of this white liquid. "He should have been here by now. He is usually much better at finding me."

"Why, is he late? When was he supposed to meet us anyway?"

"Last week.  Wonder where he is?"

Gabrielle thought for a few moments, Xena seemed truly concerned.  She took Xena's hand in hers, looked quietly into her eyes, and answered, "my guess is he's still in Macedonia."

"What?" The fire of the candle on the table reflected its fire in Xena's eyes.

"My guess is he is still in that cave with the pieces of your chakram. Trying to get them to fit together so he can hurl them at the eye of Hephaestus and try to get himself out of the cave." Gabrielle's voice was quiet, in control, and saying unthinkable things.

"What are you talking about? Ares can't still be in the cave. GABRIELLE!"

"You don't think I was on to him. All that team work and friendship he was feeding us. He had one thing in mind and only one thing, Xena. That whole plan, from the made-up gods to the melting of the chakram was a guise for him to be with you. He wanted to show you that he was really a great guy to be around, and that you ought to have a little more God of War in your life. I may be from Poteidaia, but I wasn't born yesterday."  Xena wanted to pull her hand back, and maybe even hit Gabrielle.

"Gabrielle, we were working together. A team. Trying to save the world."

"Yah, sure."

"And his idea of a team would be you and him off somewhere together.  That's all he ever wanted, Xena.  He's not good for you, you know that, deep down."

"What did you do to him?"

"I trapped him there, he'll not be getting out anytime soon."

"What? How? For how long?"

"It wasn't easy, Xena. I didn't think I could trap a god. Normally, he'd just use his powers to flash out. But ever since that time when he told you that he hadn't totally restored your life, just reunited your body and soul, I figured there was something more he had to do, to give to bring you fully back to life. The fact that he hadn't completed the restoration, led me to believe it was related to giving you some of his precious Godhood. I don't think you really needed it, but I needed to have him give it away. So I created a situation you needed his protection, and he was very quick and willing."

"Protect me? How, when?"

"Didn't you just love my fake earthquake. Just a few rocks at first, then enough to block the front door. What did you think I was doing when you were off all day making and testing your traps? I did a little engineering on my own."

"But Gabrielle, he saved both of us. He's changed. He'll die in that cave. I'm going to go get him out."

"First, he's not going to die, he's got everything he needs to live there a long, long time. He's still a god; he's just not as strong as he used to be. And second, you can't get him out."

"I can't."

"I had to figure that you would possibly try that. I knew the job he was doing on you. The wording on that scroll with the instructions on who could open the cave specifically states that only a DESCENDANT of Xena could throw the chakram of darkness and hit the eye of Hephaestus to release the locks. Not you, Xena, only your daughter, or your grandchildren, or whatever. Who knows when Eve is going to be back in Greece? My guess is she's going to be even less willing to release Ares than I am. Looks like it is just the two of us for a while, Xena."

"But, I don't think that was what he meant when we agreed. I think Ares figured that he could go in or out any time he wanted. It was his cave."

"Then he should have been a little more careful with the wording. An exclusion clause wouldn't have been that hard to write."

"Are you sure?  There has to be something I CAN DO!  What's he going to do in that cave?"

"He said he was prepared to spend a long time in there. I'm sure he can find something to do. He can carve pictures on the walls, decorate the place. I even left him a few blank scrolls; maybe someday, someone will be interested in what he writes.  He has a great imagination, I'm sure he'll even write a few things about you."

Xena poured herself another glass of Raki and drank it quickly. She had learned that when Gabrielle got this way it was foolish to argue with her. Gabrielle was as skilled with language as Xena was with a sword or her chak. . . she thought about the weapon on which she had always relied. It was gone -- like Ares was gone. 

"He'll be OK. He's still got enough power to keep the world in balance, just not enough to get out of the cave.  Who knows, maybe in another fifty years you can convince one of your great-grand children to open the door and let him out? But by then I don't think he'll be much interested in you, no matter how gracefully you age." Gabrielle seemed to have the whole thing worked out.

She was going to miss Ares. The game they had going had lasted for years. It was one of those games where the thrill came not in victory but with the continuation of play. She had always loved the fact that just when it looked like the game was over, he would find some new rule variation that gave it a whole new twist -- like working together as equals and friends. She WAS going to miss Ares.

Yet, when she thought about it, she could understand why Gabrielle had done what she had. Ares was a threat to her. She had just failed to see exactly how big of a threat Gabrielle had perceived him to be. Xena wasn't even sure that he wasn't a threat. Now, she would never know for sure -- unless?  Perhaps it wasn't the best of all possible worlds, but it might be the best world possible.

The producer looked up from the scrolls he had been reading. The idea had been a good one. The world was definitely ready for a female action hero. Xena: Warrior Princess had been a great success. It was bigger than Bay Watch. It was bigger than Hercules. Yet as he read the rest of the scrolls, he was really confused.

There seemed to be two distinct story lines. One involved the relationship with Xena and Gabrielle as a couple. Gods, what would the studio think if they knew his action heroes were interested in each other "like that." There also seemed to be another set of scrolls, written in typical male fantasy style and more masculine handwriting, that indicated that eventually Xena and Ares ended up together. He pondered that course of events and figured that not only the lesbians but also the feminists would be upset with that story. What's a man to do?

He took the scrolls and placed him on his desk. Carefully he gathered them into piles, without looking for signs that could differentiate the two story lines. Sure it was going to be confusing, but that was why they paid the writers the big bucks. Let's see them try to make a story line for the next few seasons that would incorporate both of these different scenarios found in these scrolls.

He sat back, put his feet on the desk, and lit a cigar. This was going to be fun. He couldn't wait to see how the writers would work out the inconsistencies in that Xena Scrolls episode they had written midway through last season.

DISCLAMER:  Time zones, as they exist today, did not exist for people who considered the world to be flat.  Sunset and sunrise occurred at the same time in Athens and Japa.  Believe that and I'll sell you some swampland just south of Chillicothe.

Author's note: This story was written in response to a challenge by JLynn from Bards of the Xenaverse to write a story explaining how Ares got trapped in the cave in Macedonia where he was found by Mel and Janice. Ares locked in the cave is a given. It is not the way I would have ended the story.

The End