I met a lady in the meads, Full beautiful - a faery's child, Her hair was long, her foot was light, And her eyes were wild. -Keats, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"Ares was in a foul mood following his conversation with Aphrodite, but as he resumed his hunt, the mood slowly faded. "Me, of all people," the god grumbled as he picked up the trail of his prey. "Playing matchmaker, for the love of Zeus!" He shook his dark head ruefully.
Do I stress you out? You must wonder why I'm relentless and all strung out. -Alanis Morissette
But now the thrill of the chase was beginning to creep into his veins and he felt the excitement rise. This was more like it! Let that brat Artemis call herself the Goddess of the Hunt ... *he* was the God of War, and war means mayhem, destruction and death. And mayhem was certainly what his prey had in mind. He could smell her on the wind now; he would be upon her in moments. He bared his teeth in a silent grin of pleasure.
Aphrodite, too, was in her element. Unseen by mortal eye, she wafted down between the trees to where Xena and Gabrielle/Taric were moving, their pace slower now as the mountain grew steeper. The tall spire of the oracle's temple loomed over them, tantalizing with its deceptive nearness, egging them on as their spirits flagged. Gabrielle was shifting unhappily in Argo's saddle, wondering how men managed to make riding comfortable. Or maybe they didn't, and that explained why so many of them were in a bad mood all the time. Oh, gods ... am I going to be a man for the rest of my life? The thought was too horrible to contemplate.
For her part, Xena was still trying to force herself to think of this as just another of their adventures. She found it was easier, not surprisingly, if she didn't look at Gabrielle too often. She hated it, though; she felt sure that Gabrielle sensed it and was hurt by it. Too, Xena felt her control of the situation was in jeopardy if there was a part of the perimeter that she couldn't monitor. As a consequence, she forced herself to look up at Gabrielle every few minutes, but every time, the sight gave her an unpleasant jolt. She wondered how much longer they could go on like this.
Luckily, the temple did finally seem to be coming within reach. Xena was almost certain they could reach it before sundown.
Neither traveler had much to say to her companion. Xena was in her grim and silent warrior mode, and Gabrielle was simply terrified of anything and everything that might happen next.
"Like, you two are so sad," Aphrodite sighed melodramatically. "Well, let's see what we can do about that." Pointing one slender delicate finger at Xena, she probed gently. "Ahhh... there it is." She pressed feather-light into Xena's mind, sifted through the multitude of questions and concerns floating in it, selected one, and pulled it deftly to the surface. Then the goddess withdrew and stepped back to admire the results of her handiwork.
"Gabrielle," said Xena thoughtfully, startling the bard out of her own miserable thoughts, "have you given any thought to why this might have happened, now, to you?"
"To why?" Gabrielle repeated uneasily. The truth was that she had thought about almost nothing else. Her mental wanderings of the previous night had returned to her with perfect clarity as she bounced and jounced in the saddle. It seemed obvious, once she remembered what she had been thinking just before she fell asleep, that some capricious god had heard her thoughts and taken her idle speculation as a wish or even -- Gods help us -- a request.
But she couldn't very well tell Xena that, could she? The warrior was already angry enough, and though she knew the situation wasn't really Gabrielle's fault, it was easy to see that much of her resentment was currently directed at the bard. And besides, this wasn't Gabrielle's idea of the best way to be forced into her confession of true love.
"Yeah, why," Xena said slowly, giving Gabrielle a measuring look. "You know, in a situation like this, if you can figure out why, you're usually halfway to figuring out who." She kept watching the unfamiliar male face, her own face expressionless. It was extremely unnerving. Gabrielle was sure that Xena suspected something.
I can't tell her I love her as a man, the bard thought in despair. I just can't. It's all wrong!
"No way, it's like soooo not wrong, babe," Aphrodite crooned under her breath, pointing her finger at Gabrielle. But before she could push her way into the bard's mind, the heads of both mortal women snapped around at the sound of approaching footsteps.
"Two people," Xena said quietly. "Stay there." Gabrielle relaxed slightly in the saddle. If necessary, Xena could handle two in a fight with ease. Gabrielle was slowly adjusting to her male body, but she wasn't sanguine about its ability with the staff.
The two men strode into view an instant later; not too old, probably younger than Xena but older than Gabrielle. Both were swaggering with self-importance, and their arrogant grins widened when they caught sight of Xena. Warrior and bard steeled themselves for a confrontation.
In the brush on the other side of the temple, a figure stood crouching where the bushes shielded it from view. Through the leaves, two preternaturally farseeing eyes watched the progress of Xena and her companion. Full red lips curved in a gleeful smile.
The smile faded as two large, strong hands descended on bare shoulders, pulling the hidden watcher back against a hard, muscular male body.
"Ares," the watcher cooed, trying to keep surprise from her lilting voice. "Long time no see."
"Not long enough," the God of War rasped, brushing aside a lock of golden hair to whisper in an ear. "Just what in Tartarus do you think you're doing? Trying to outwit me?" He tsk'ed sorrowfully. "You should have known better."
"I'm finally going to get the revenge I deserve," she exclaimed angrily, twisting out of his grasp and turning to face him. "And there's nothing you can do to stop me!"
"That's what you think," Ares shot back. "I can, and I will, stop you. You've gone too far this time, Callisto."
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