I'm a bitch, I'm a tease I'm a goddess on my knees ...I've been numb I'm revived Can't say I'm not alive -Meredith Brooks"Well, well, well. If it isn't the Warrior Princess," said the young man in the lead, casting his eye insolently across Xena's figure. "Where's your little girlfriend?" Gabrielle winced at the word, but Xena, as always, remained cool.
"She's not here," she said blandly. "Where are your powers of observation?"
The youth turned his attention to Gabrielle/Taric, looking ... him ... up and down. He grinned and nudged his friend before addressing Xena again. "That kid you got there doesn't look too strong. You wouldn't wanna break him." His friend chuckled nastily.
Xena shrugged without concern. "He has many skills," she replied.
"Oh yeah?" He gave Taric another measuring look, and clearly wasn't impressed. "Sure you wouldn't prefer a *real* man?"
"Hey, if you see one, let me know," Xena suggested.
The thug frowned. "Are you making fun of me?"
"Me?" Xena gave her best innocent look -- which wasn't really very innocent. "I only make fun of people who have the brains to know when they're being insulted."
This time the young tough glowered. "Okay, you dumb bitch-" Hand on his sword, he lunged forward, but his friend grabbed his arm.
"Swagrus, are you nuts?" the other man hissed. "That's Xena, for the love of Zeus! She'll tear you in half!"
"I can take her," Swagrus insisted, but without conviction. He took his hand from his sword, but didn't step back.
Aphrodite decided it was time to intervene. In a flash of golden light, she appeared, behind and to the left of Xena, but only unto the two young men. "Yoo-hoo! Boys!" She crooked her finger in invitation.
The would-be attacker's mouth fell open. "By the gods..." he breathed, and took off after the goddess, who strolled backward into the woods.
"Hey... wait up!" His less hot-headed friend hurried after him. Xena and Gabrielle watched them go, bemused.
"What was that all about?" Gabrielle asked uneasily.
"I'm not sure," Xena said in a similar tone, "but I don't think I liked it. Come on, we're almost there." She took hold of Argo's reins and they resumed walking.
In a moment Aphrodite rejoined them, having led the two miscreants on a merry chase through the bramble. "Now, where were we?" she muttered.
Gabrielle had been thinking the same thing. "Xena," she said, "you do realize that the Oracle will only answer in riddle?" A good diversion, she told herself somewhat desperately. Keep her mind occupied so she won't remember....
Xena narrowed her eyes, but answered, "Yeah, well, between your bardly talents and my native wit, I think we'll be able to puzzle it out."
"It's all in how you phrase the question," Gabrielle said weakly. It was clear from Xena's body language that she wasn't going to be distracted. She knows I'm hiding something. How long can I stall her?
Xena was wondering the same thing. What on earth is she hiding? There had to be a reason for Gabrielle's reticence; this was the only thought that kept Xena quiet. Surely she'd tell me if she knew what was really going on here ... wouldn't she?
"Ugh, you girls are like so pathetic!" Aphrodite moaned. "What can I do to make you two *talk* already?" Biting her lip, she thought for a moment, keeping pace with Argo and Xena. "Well...."
But before Aphrodite could act, she was interrupted yet again. This time it was by a high-pitched, bloodcurdling shriek that echoed through the forest, piercing the ears of both mortals and making them wince. Gabrielle's heart began thumping wildly inside Taric's chest. Xena reached for her sword, her entire body tensing as she struggled to identify the eerily familiar sound....
"You can't interfere in this, Ares," Callisto said with more confidence than she felt. "I'm finally going to get my revenge on Xena, thanks to your silly sister." She circled around the God of War, trailing her fingers across his arm.
"Oh, Aphrodite told me all about your little bet," Ares replied without concern. "It'll never happen, Callisto. You're going to lose."
"She obviously didn't tell you the whole story," she said, getting cockier now. "You see," and here she smiled sweetly, evilly, "I'm a god now too. I can spend all eternity tormenting my dear sweet Xena." She laughed with delight, throwing back her head to revel in her newfound power.
"Oh, right." Ares's derisive tone brought Callisto back. "It never fails. Some mortal swallows a little ambrosia and next thing you know, she's got delusions of grandeur." The two continued to circle each other as they talked. "Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. After all, if someone said to you, 'Callisto, how would you like to be a bird?' would you say Yes?" He shook his head slowly at her. "No, no. You'd say, 'What kind of bird?' Because there's a world of difference, isn't there, between a sparrow ... and a hawk." He drew his sword. "And that, my dear, is the difference between *you* and *me.*" He punctuated the pronouns with two sharp jabs of his sword against Callisto's bare midriff.
"Yaiee!" The blonde gave an inarticulate shriek of anger and flung herself at the god, careless of his sword as she wrapped her arms around his neck and bore him to the ground.
"Wha- What..." Gabrielle stammered nervously, looking around. The echoes of Callisto's screech continued to ricochet around the mountainside, making it difficult for even Xena's experienced ears to tell which direction it came from.
"Let's keep moving," Xena said tensely. "I don't like this one bit."
"Aah!" Aphrodite flung up her hands in exasperation. "Ares, what in Tartarus are you doing?" She turned and disappeared in a flash.
"Face it, Callisto," Ares said coolly, glaring up at her from the ground. "You're no match for me, and you've underestimated Aphrodite as well." Seizing her wrists, he gave a powerful thrust and rolled their two bodies over so that he was on top, pinning her down with his larger body, holding her hands over her head in one strong hand. "Or hadn't you heard what happened to your little friend Velasca?" He grinned down at her. "Sure, she had her share of ambrosia. And she escaped from that lava pit not long after you did. But she found she had made a powerful enemy of Artemis." His lips curved upward in appreciation of the younger goddess's wit. "And now poor Velasca is trapped in the body of a rabbit for all eternity." He smirked. "She learned the lesson you're about to learn: Don't mess with the children of Zeus!"
"Rrrrrah!" Callisto grunted, and summoned a burst of godly strength to fling Ares off her. Standing, she threw a series of swift punches and kicks, all of which he deflected with ease, before she shoved him backward and pinned him against a tree.
"I am going to kill Xena," she told him firmly, their faces inches apart. "I don't care if it takes me an eternity! She's going to get what she deserves!" She paused, and her manner became more provocative. "Come on, Ares," she cooed softly. "What is it about you and Xena? You have such a soft spot for her. It's sickening!"
Ares grimaced. "She's a great warrior," he grunted, trying not to show that Callisto's barb had hit home.
"Oh, yeah," Callisto jeered, but whatever else she was about to say was cut off as a flash of light heralded the arrival of Aphrodite.
"You guys, this is like *so* not cool," the goddess scolded, hands on hips. "Like, there's a bet at stake, ya know? Hello?"
Ares glowered. Callisto glared. "Stay out of this," Callisto ordered. Aphrodite's eyes narrowed, but before she could voice her disapproval, Ares waved his hand and both he and Callisto disappeared.
"Oh, great," Aphrodite complained to the empty air. "Like, this is totally messed up. Now what?" She rolled her eyes in frustration and disappeared again with a poof.
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