Hercules woke up to Xena's blue eyes gazing at him. When he began to stir, she said "Good morning, slave boy" in an amused tone and drew a line with her finger down his spine, then rested her hand casually and possessively on his buttocks. Her fingers lightly brushed his cleft, and she asked, "How do you feel?"
"Overall, great. Down there, a little sore. But it was worth it. You've made me feel . . . wonderful, my lady. I only hope I've been able to please you."
"You know you have," said Xena in a reassuring voice that sounded so much like his Xena it was hard to tell the difference. He looked at her closely, his head still resting on his folded arms, while she lightly caressed his back and buttocks. There was a barely perceptible softening to her features and a somewhat more noticeable modulation to her voice, which had thawed some of its former icy hardness.
"I dreamed of Gabrielle," she said, changing the subject. "I was dead, or almost. I came back--for her. It was an . . . odd feeling. I never thought I'd cling to this life so tenaciously for another person. In my dream I saw something in those green eyes of hers I've never seen before--it was as if where she was was my home."
Hercules nodded. "Yes, that happened--you were almost dead, but you fought your way back. And by the way, I see that in Iolaus' eyes too; even at the times I behaved completely thoughtlessly toward him and taken him for granted, if I took the time to look into his eyes, there was that something there. I knew he would always be there for me."
"It's rare to find that," mused Xena. "And I haven't allowed myself the luxury of getting that attached to anyone, except perhaps Callisto. I destroyed her family, and I've tried my best to be family to her, the mother and older sister she lost. But I've avoided attachments ever since I lost my brothers and my mother to Caesar's armies. I need to be able to maintain my focus, my edge. I can't afford intimacy, and I can't afford grief."
"I can't imagine living like that," said Hercules, a slight choke in his voice. He sat up to face Xena directly. "It is hard. In that other timeline, the one you dream of, anyone close to me becomes a target of Hera and Ares. I've lost . . . two wives to their jealousy, and my three children."
"I'm so sorry, Hercules."
He smiled wanly. "Thank you. I was almost tempted a few times to just leave things be in this timeline because I knew Iolaus was safe there in Ares' temple. But I can't live cut off from my feelings. It's probably selfish, but I haven't been able to forego relationships, and people I've loved have died for that. Yet, I'd still do what I can to put things back the way they were and get my Iolaus back. It's a terrible risk, but I know he's willing to take it. And it's worth it, Xena."
"I would like to see the Gabrielle I dreamed of, the one you described to me," she said wistfully. "But I find myself reluctant to give you up."
"I'm flattered, my lady," said Hercules with just a glimmer of a smile. "But you won't have to give me up. I'll always be your friend, I'll always care for you, and I'll always be there when you need me. You'll always be able to count on me. There's a part of me that will always be yours. I--I don't think I can describe what all this," his hand made a wide circle, "means to me. Serving you is a joy I couldn't have imagined possible--you've opened something so deep inside me that I'll never be the same. In a good way. You've taught me how to give myself, surrender myself in a way I wasn't capable of before." He paused "I could never be a coerced slave, but it's an honor to be your willing pet, my lady. But on the whole, Xena, I think I'd rather be your friend."
"And a lovely pet you are, slave boy" said Xena with a mischievous smile, as she combed back Hercules' hair, and brushed a thumb across his cheek. "I could spend years exploring the resources of that body of yours, while your eyes plead for more." Then, more seriously, she added, "It's good to know that whatever happens, I'll have your loyalty and your friendship. You've taught me something too. I've come to respect you and to value the gift of your freely-offered devotion. It's made me realize what I've lost in having to be the Conqueror before all else. That look I saw in Gabrielle's eyes in my dream--I'd like to see that. I'd like to wake up to that every day, not to slaves and servants and soldiers who obey because they're in awe of or afraid of me. You've touched me in a way I wouldn't have thought possible, Hercules."
"I hoped I would," he said softly, bending to kiss Xena's hand.
"That's a big part of it, but not all," she said firmly, her face darkening. "I don't like the idea that Ares is manipulating me. That he would create this threat by Caesar just to have me where he wants me. I never wished to be a tool of a god."
"He changed time so he could have you where he wanted you," noted Hercules.
"Well," said Xena with determination, "he's just going to have to change it back. But first . . . " She pushed the demigod onto his back, bending to kiss him. They made love with a fierce urgency, their hands in constant motion over each others' bodies. Xena straddled Hercules, looking down at him, her hair falling about her face, and his hands travelled up and down her arms, then moved to her breasts, kneading them. Then he flipped her over onto her back, rolling with her. She reached for his mouth with hers, pulling him closer with strong hands on his back, her fingers roaming over firm muscles and tracing the healing lines from Hercules' flogging.
He twined his fingers into her hair, deepening the kiss, then suddenly found himself on his back again. Xena took him deep inside her, and he gasped to feel his cock suddenly enclosed in pulsing heat. While he stroked Xena's muscled thigh, she leaned over to take one of his nipples between her teeth, worrying it sharply. When she released it, it was throbbing. She ran her hands rapidly over Hercules' chest and arms, as if snatching a last chance to impress their shapes and textures on her memory, then lowered herself down to his mouth. His hands moved along her back as she began rocking her hips against his. He responded eagerly, plunging into her depths, as they were both enveloped in heat and friction and a timeless rhythm that drove first Xena and then Hercules into a shattering climax. Hercules wrapped his arms around Xena, and their mouths again sought each other out in penetrating kisses. No matter how fiercely their lips locked together they couldn't quench the thirst they had for each other, but at the same time, as if by unspoken agreement, they reluctantly pulled apart. "We'd better go," said Xena, "before I change my mind."
* * *
A little while later, they were dressed and on horseback, riding toward Ares' temple. Hercules had a hard time keeping up with Xena, as she urged her horse forward, her long, black hair flying out behind her. Outside the temple, she jumped lightly off her horse, just as Hercules came riding up. She was the Conqueror again, radiating authority, power, and grim determination. Her eyes blazed with a cold fury, startling him with the piercing relentlessness of her gaze, a gaze that had struck him with awe the first moment he'd seen the Conqueror.
She stalked up the steps of the temple, Hercules a step or two behind her. When she yanked open the heavy doors, Iolaus approached. Seeing who was there, he knelt, bowing his head, murmuring, "My lady Xena. How may I serve you?"
"Look at me," she ordered. Iolaus gazed up at her with guileless blue eyes, while Xena took in the golden mane, the lean, sinewy build, the taut and tanned skin. "You could do so much better," she said ruefully, glancing back at Hercules, and noting the way he stared at Iolaus with eager desire and longing.
"Never mind. Wait outside."
"Yes, my lady," answered Iolaus and withdrew, closing the temple doors behind him.
"ARES!" roared Hercules, his voice resounding through the temple.
"You called?" said a voice, followed by the appearance of the god, leaning against a column, his arms folded across his chest. His pose was a study in casual unconcern, but his eyes shifted warily.
"You know why we're here," said Xena abruptly. "I want you to put things back the way they were before you messed with the timeline."
"Xe-na," cajoled Ares, "do you honestly believe the stories he's been telling you?"
"Yes. I. Do. And you know he's been telling me the truth." The command voice was in full force, and even the god of war seemed taken aback.
"What's wrong with you, Xena? You want to spend your life riding around the countryside with that goody-goody blonde, helping people? Think of your ambitions, your goals, the order and prosperity you bring to Greece."
Xena's eyes narrowed. "What I'm thinking of is you using me. You had to resort to this," she waved her hand in an angry gesture, "trick because the person I really am would never do what you wanted."
Hercules was trembling with impatience and tension. He suddenly strode over to Ares, grabbed his vest with two hands and hauled him forward. "Damn it, Ares! You have no choice about this. You have to do what she says. That's the bargain you struck with Zeus."
Ares reached out one hand and shoved Hercules in the chest, sending him skidding backward across the temple. Hercules was about to leap to his feet, when Xena held up a hand, stopping him. Her expression was furious, and Hercules crumbled inside, but her voice was disarmingly soft. "You've done your part, Hercules. Stay out of this."
She whirled back to Ares and said in a voice that was chillingly calm, "You're going to restore the original timeline. I don't want to hear any attempts to persuade me to stay. You can't come up with any arguments I haven't thought of myself. Ya got that?"
"Oh, I get it!" snapped the god, sneering. "What I get is that you don't know what's good for you. I wash my hands of you, Conqueror. You can go back to your pathetic, do-gooding lifestyle and your blonde tagalong, and my useless half-brother will get his boy toy back." He turned to Hercules, "But, dear brother, you will remember all of this. You'll remember how your golden boy looked with my cock in his ass. You'll remember what a born slave you are. You'll remember every word and every touch from your owner here, and you will miss all of it!"
"Fine," said Hercules flatly. "Tell me something I don't know."
"I want you to leave us alone for a few minutes, Ares. I'll call you when I'm ready," said Xena with the assured tone of someone who was always obeyed.
"Yes, my lady," snarled the god sarcastically, as he executed an exaggerated bow and flashed out of the temple.
Hercules turned to Xena. "I'm sorry for interfering . . . " he began.
Xena cut him off. "Hercules, stop. We don't have time for that. It's not important." She pointed to the floor, a half-smile emerging on her face. But her voice was stern. "Down."
Hercules immediately dropped to one knee. He bowed his head in a gesture of respect and reverence, then looked up into her clear blue eyes. His voice trembled slightly as he said, "Belonging to you has been a privilege, my lady."
"And don't you forget it, slave boy," she said, gracing him with a smile that was both conspiratorial and fond.
"I-I th-thought at first you were so different from the Xena I knew. I only wanted to put things back the way they were," he explained hurriedly. "Then it became a challenge--I wanted to make you let me in, care for me in a way you didn't care for any of your other slaves."
"You succeeded," she said, still smiling. "Don't forget what you've learned here, Hercules. If you remember it, your Iolaus will be even luckier than he already is."
"Thank you--I'll try; he deserves it." Hercules paused. "I was trying so hard to prove myself to you. I don't know when it was I realized that what I wanted wasn't important. That what mattered to me was serving and pleasing you, and that it was you I was giving myself to. I love you, Xena."
"I know," she said quietly. "Why do you think I listened to you?" She reached out and grasped a handful of his hair, pulling him forward as she bent down, claiming his mouth in a searing kiss. With one finger she traced her initial on his arm, while their lips and tongues strove to pour a lifetime's worth of desire and fulfillment into each other's mouths. When they parted, Xena helped Hercules to his feet and raised her eyebrows questioningly. He nodded, and she called out, "Ares! I'm ready."
The god appeared, and began, "Did you two have a touching fare--"
"Drop it!" snapped Xena. "Now do it!"
"What-ev-er," said the god, "but I still think you're making a mistake."
The temple tilted and spun, rippling around Hercules and Xena like a whirlpool. Hercules felt Xena's hand slide out of his, and blackness overcame him . . .
* * *
Xena reluctantly disengaged her arm from around a sleeping Gabrielle's waist. She glanced around their campsite, trying to identify the source of the sounds she heard. She let her eyes linger for a moment on the attractive form of her lover, then shook her gently. "Gabrielle, wake up. We've got company." Gabrielle reached for her staff, leaping to her feet a moment after Xena did. As the leader of a gang of armed bandits stepped into the clearing, his sword drawn, Xena reached for her chakram, a feral grin on her face. Yes, it was shaping up to be a good day.
* * *
up slowly, his mind hazy with fragments of unusually vivid dreams.
Suddenly, his head cleared, and a rush of memory crashed on him like a
wave. As if afraid to look, he very carefully rolled over to take
in the lean and golden-haired form of his lover lying beside him.
"Iolaus," he murmured under his breath, "my Iolaus. Gods, I've missed
you." He reached out to wake the hunter, but as he did he glanced
at his own upper arm, now devoid of an initial that, after all, had never
been carved into it with Xena's knife. Overcome with a flood of emotion
that threatened to swamp him, Hercules got up very quietly and took himself
several paces away. Joy at what he'd regained and sorrow at what
he'd lost welled up inside him, mingling and flowing together so that he
couldn't tell them apart. He sat down on a log, put his face in his
hands, and wept.
to Table of Contents
to XWP and HTLJ