Royal Colors Part 2 by Pink Rabbit Productions

Part II

Gabrielle had lost all sense of time and distance, when she heard Xena call out, "Attica is just past the next rise. Her eyes lifted from the trail. The sun was falling again, leaving her with the curious sense that she'd lost a day.

"You two wait here," the warrior princess instructed briskly. She swung down, then helped Phobos and Gabrielle to the ground. "I'm going to scout ahead. I'll be as fast as I can." She disappeared into the woods on foot.

Gabrielle settled down into the curve of a tree, cuddling Phobos close. The air was cold, making her breath ghost every time she exhaled, but her cloak formed a cocoon of warmth around she and the child.

Xena had been gone a few minutes, when the boy's small voice broke into the silence of the night. "You won't let my father kill me, will you?" he questioned.

Gabrielle petted silky curls with her good hand. "No," she assured him. "We won't let that happen."

There was a long moment of silence, then he spoke again. "I don't think she likes me," he exhaled, sounding scared.

Gabrielle felt her heart in her chest. "I'm sure that's not true," she whispered, petting his hair with a gentle hand. His body was warm and soft against her own, reminding her of the feel of an infant in her arms. Her heart clenched with remembered ache as she brought up a mental image of Hope, then forced it down again. She couldn't afford to think about her daughter. There was nothing more she could do for her.

"I think it is," the boy whispered. "Sometimes, she looks at me like Menandes did…like she's trying to figure out what I am." He shivered in her arms, and pressed his face into the curve of her throat.

"You're just a little boy," Gabrielle exhaled and buried her nose in his hair. "Just a little boy…and I won't let anyone hurt you," she promised. They remained like that, silently twined as they took what little rest they could.

Finally, Xena reappeared, her breath coming in quick pants, as though she'd run some distance. "Come on," she said quickly, and reached down, slinging Phobos up into her arms. "If we move fast enough, we can do it." She nodded in the direction she'd come. "The difficulty may come in trying to get in. They know Laius' army is on its way, and it looks like the gates are closed."

Gabrielle peered up at her friend with a wry look. "I'm sure you can get us in."

Xena noted the expression on her lover's face, not distrust precisely, but something other than the faith her words might have once proclaimed. She didn't take the time to question it, just lifted the boy onto Argo, then turned, intending to help Gabrielle onto her mount. She blinked in surprise as she realized the bard had already pulled herself onto her horse's back. Xena's brow lifted in silent question, but Gabrielle's answering look was bland. Xena silently climbed onto Argo behind Phobos, then caught up the trailing reins to the horse carrying Aurora's body. "Stay close," she instructed Gabrielle. "This may get hairy."

Xena cantered Argo through the trees, not pushing her to the limit. They might need a burst of speed when they broke from the edge of the forest. Her eyes searched the night, spotting torches in the distance, as they left the thick cover. There was still enough light for them to be visible if someone was watching carefully, but she didn't dare wait any longer. Laius' troops were moving in, readying for a siege, and every passing moment increased the likelihood of encountering them. She glanced back, checking to make certain Gabrielle was safely behind her.

They were nearly to the castle gates when she heard the call go up from the coming troops. "Move!" Xena snapped to Gabrielle, and spurred Argo hard.

In the distance, soldier's shouts rang across the night, along with the sounds of horse's being mounted.

A man's voice, deep, and booming rang on the air, seeming loud, even from halfway across the valley. "STOP THEM!"

A short burst of speed brought them to the closed gates, and Xena shouted up, "LET US IN!"

"GO TO TARTARUS!" a guard shouted down, as the men began readying themselves for the possibility of a coming battle. "AND TELL YOUR MASTER, LAIUS, THAT OUR KING ISN'T SO FOOLISH AS HE THINKS!!"

Xena glanced at Gabrielle. From a distance, she could pass for the young queen and they didn't have time for the niceties of convincing the soldiers to allow them entrance. She reached out, yanking the bard's hood back to reveal strawberry blond hair, while she pulled her own cloak back to show the child seated ahead of her. "I HAVE THE KING'S DAUGHTER AND GRANDSON!! NOW LET US IN, YOU IDIOT!! OR MAYBE YOU WANT TO TELL TITHONUS YOU DENIED US ENTRANCE!"

The soldiers stared down at the small group, their expressions indecisive.

Xena glanced back over her shoulder, noting the men headed their way. "MOVE IT!" she shouted up. "OR IT'LL BE TOO DAMN LATE!!" She drew her sword, and tightened her hold on the reins, preparing to fight.

"AURORA, PHOBOS!!!" a shout rang across the night, and the boy's head snapped up in response.

"Grandpa!!" the child shouted as he struggled to lean forward and see his grandfather.

"OPEN THE GATES!!" King Tithonus' bellow snapped his soldiers into motion.

Xena glanced back again. The men were drawing closer, and she braced herself to feel their arrows if they decided to shoot. "Hurry," she hissed under her breath as she heard the sounds of the guards unbarring the gates. She hooked her arm around Phobos, and slung him over onto Gabrielle's horse, then wheeled Argo, putting her own body between the two.

The soldiers were coming at a dead run, making Xena wonder if she'd finally gambled badly. Then she heard the sound of the gates moving, followed by a man's shout.

"Get in!"

Gabrielle maintained her hold on the reins with her good hand, and Phobos with her bad arm, as she urged the exhausted animal forward, clearing the narrow passage allowed by the soldiers.

Xena wheeled Argo around, slapping the horse carrying the young queen's body on the rump, as she spurred her horse forward. She was through in a moment, and she heard the shout. "Close the doors!" The warrior princess swung down from her mount to add her own strength to the effort. In a moment, the gates snapped shut, and troops dropped the bar back in place.

"Get the barricades in place!" a hard voice rang out. "And prepare the archers! I don’t want those riders anywhere near the walls!"

Xena's eyes lifted, instantly spotting the speaker.

King Tithonus was a tall man, still well muscled, with windblown grey hair. Despite the marks of age on his face, it was obvious he was a vigorous man, ready for a fight, if need be. He hurried down the stairs that led to the parapets, his expression grim. "Aurora!" he called out, his eyes locked on Gabrielle's hunched back.

Phobos twisted out of the bard's hold, so determined to reach his grandfather's arms that he nearly topped her in the process. She held on to keep the boy from falling, not letting him go until Tithonus' hands closed on the small body. The king lifted the child into his arms with ease.

"Aurora," Tithonus said again, as Xena hurried to join them.

The warrior princess caught his arm as Gabrielle's head came around, and he realized she wasn't his daughter.

"Your highness," Xena exhaled, then grabbed for her lover as she started to topple.

Tithonus instinctively reached up as well, leaving Phobos to cling to his neck.

The two warriors levered Gabrielle to the ground, and Xena curved a hand to her forearm, when the bard seemed about to collapse completely. "Hold on," Xena soothed, standing straight while Gabrielle leaned against her side.

Tithonus' hand lifted to her chin, bringing her head up to be certain she wasn't his child. Phobos was still clinging to his neck, his small legs wrapped around the big man's chest. "My daughter?" he whispered tersely.

It was Gabrielle who spoke, her voice infinitely sad. "I'm sorry," she whispered as her eyes slid past him to the riderless horse who'd come in with them.

The king pivoted, staring at the shrouded bundle lying across the animal's back. A young woman appeared at his side, and he handed his grandson off to her without looking at her.

Xena glanced down at Gabrielle, who straightened and nodded, silently urging the warrior to follow the big man as he drew near the shrouded figure of his daughter. "I'm sorry," the warrior princess whispered to his back. "I had to get your men to open the gates quickly."

Tithonus swallowed hard. "My daughter?" he exhaled again, as though he couldn't yet believe what seemed so obvious. His hand lifted to the shrouded body.

"Laius' soldiers were trying to kill Phobos…she put herself between them."

Tithonus peeled the cloth back, revealing his child's face, her skin pale and blue with death. He made a small gasping sound, but didn't speak, just reached out to touch her cheek with a tender hand. "What happened?" he demanded raggedly. "Riders came this morning demanding I turn Phobos and Aurora back over to Laius, or we'd be seiged…I couldn't believe it. I thought it was a joke…until the outlying pickets sent word that an army was bearing down on us." He spun, glaring at Xena through agonized dark eyes. "What happened out there?" he hissed.

Xena shook her head. "I'm not entirely certain. My friend and I were camping when soldiers caught up with your daughter and her son. We interfered, but not in time to save both of them."

A hard hand snatched out, grabbing Xena by her armor. "And who are you?" Tithonus rasped.

She started to respond with equal violence, but managed to tamp down the urge. She caught his hand, prying it free. "Xena…you can ask the boy…my friend and I risked our lives to bring him here." She nodded toward Gabrielle where she was leaning heavily against her horse's flank. "She was badly wounded trying to protect your daughter. She probably saved your grandson's life."

Tithonus backed up a half step, his chest heaving. "The warrior princess?"

"Some call me that, but that's past…I was just trying to help."

Tithonus strode past her, hurrying to where the serving woman was still holding the squirming figure of Phobos. He plucked his grandson from her arms, with the question, "Can you tell me what happened?"

The boy swung his arms around his neck, clinging tightly. "Papa's trying to kill me," he whispered. "A few days ago, Mama came to me, and said we had to leave…she was really scared. Menandes and Davius and some others were chasing us when her horse went down. She tried to fight, but she couldn't, then they showed up." He nodded toward Xena and Gabrielle. "They fought the soldiers, and Mama ran, but Menandes caught up with her. Gabrielle tried to fight him, but he threw a knife at her and hit her shoulder…then he tried to get me, and Mama wouldn't let him. She stabbed him with her knife, but he'd already stabbed her with his sword." Crying quietly, the boy buried his face in his grandfather's throat. "She died before I could get back. I didn't mean for her to die instead of me."

Tears ran silently down the king's cheeks, while the soldiers, and serving people milling about went completely silent. The king lifted a hand, tenderly petting the boy's hair. "Shhh," he soothed. "Your mama wouldn't have wanted anything to happen to you." He glanced at Xena. "It seems I owe you a debt," he rasped.

"Your daughter asked us to bring him here before…" Xena trailed off.

Tithonus nodded, and finished the sentence. "Before she died."

Xena nodded.

"Miriam," he called out to the young serving girl. "See them to the finest guest quarters in the castle, then get them anything they need." He nodded to a young soldier wearing polished armor and an intricate epaulette that proclaimed him as some kind of officer. "Nelaphus, take two men and remove my daughter's body to the temple of Athena. Ask the sisters to see to her purification."

The young man nodded, and waved to a couple of the watching soldiers as he moved follow his orders.

"Malus, you have the guard. If any of Laius' troops attempt to enter or attack the castle, show no mercy." A moment later, he disappeared through the huge castle doors, still holding his grandson tightly in his arms.

The young serving girl, Miriam, cleared her throat, drawing Xena's attention. "If you and your friend want to come with me," she said softly.

Xena gripped Gabrielle's arm in a large hand, holding her upright when she seemed on the verge of toppling. "My horse," she said softly to the servant.

Miriam waved to the boys already moving the gather up the reins of the various animals. "See to their care," she called out. "And make sure they're curried properly." She glanced back at Xena, who was staring worriedly at Gabrielle. "Would you like me to get someone to carry her up?" she questioned.

Xena felt Gabrielle sag against her side, and shook her head. "I'll do it," she bit out, and swung the bard up, holding her small form high in her arms. Gabrielle slung an arm loosely around her neck and leaned her head exhaustedly on her shoulder. She was unconscious before Xena had gone more than two steps.

*****

Laius cursed under his breath, as he watched his soldiers turn away from the castle walls to avoid the arrows fired from the walls. He was a big man, handsome, but hard featured. He ran fingers through his hair as he recalled the glimpse he'd caught of his wife riding for her father's castle. He'd been hoping to get to her before she could get behind the walls. This would only make things that much harder and cost that many more lives. He sighed tiredly, damning the fates that had cursed him with this situation. Even if he could have reached Aurora in time, it would hardly have made things any better. If he killed Phobos, she would never forgive him. He spat an obscenity as he remembered the predictions of the oracles. Melampus had made his predictions first. The famed blind seer had come to the court of Thebes, trading for his view of the future. Laius still shivered as he remembered the look on the man's face when Phobos stumbled into the throne room during his reading.

The old man had spun, seeming to stare at the child through blind eyes. "This is your first son," the old man predicted. "He will be the fear of the world, destined to hold his mother's heart in his hands, while he sows the seeds of your destruction."

He hadn't believed it. In fact he'd laughed at whole idea. His son was no madman. He adored his mother, and had never shown a violent impulse in his young life.

"He is not your child," the old man had added, ignoring Laius' stiff look of fury. "Though his father wore your face….you'll know I do not lie when a child falls under his hands."

Despite the rumors that abounded about the accuracy of Melampus' predictions, Laius had ignored them, drawing another seer into the palace, determined to show the suddenly uneasy court that no two seers would give the same prediction.

Except the woman stared at the boy for a long moment, then screeched, "He is his father’s son, not yours…and terror will be his name." And refused to say anymore. Laius had finally tossed her a single dinar and ordered her removed from his kingdom. As she was being drug out, she'd yelled more predictions, warning him of his eventual destruction at his own child's hands.

It had left Laius uneasy, but not enough so to actually believe it all. But his court started to believe, started to wonder about the nature of their next king. They gossiped, spreading nasty rumors with casual disdain, careless of the damage they might inflict on the child. After all, according to the prophets he was evil. Any discomfort their gossip engendered was earned. Or at least that's what his court whispered when the king wasn't listening. Wanting to quell the rumors, Laius tried another Oracle, and this one predicted that his son would terrify the world.

Laius still hadn't accepted the truth. Not until he saw it himself. His son--or at least the child he'd long believed was his son--in the tower, his arm outstretched as his best friend clawed and dug, then lost his grip, screaming "No!" Even now, Laius remembered the scene with a sick look of horror. A small boy's body broken on the stones in the courtyard, while Phobos stood in the open window of the tower above, his body suspended in mid air, seeming almost to float. He knew it was true in that moment. No human child could have hung suspended that way.

Laius forced down his nausea at the memory. Andarus had been a lively, charming child, the son of Talaris, his senior general. The boys had been raised together, both treated as family by the two men. He'd loved Andarus nearly as much as he loved Phobos.

He hadn't wanted to accept the truth, even then, but he'd had little choice.

Aurora must have seen the intent in his eyes when he went into a room with his generals, wanting their support to be certain he was doing the right thing--as much as he loved the boy, he couldn't turn such evil loose on the world--because when he came out of the conference, she was already gone, riding out in the dead of night.

So now, he had to find a way to make her understand, that he had to destroy her child, before that child destroyed them all. He was just turning away when a page called out.

"My Lord, Menandes just rode in! He needs to speak with you!"

Laius straightened himself, and hurried toward the young soldier.

*****

Gabrielle awoke to the awareness of throbbing pain and bright sunlight. She blinked several times, trying to remember what had happened the night before, and coming up with little substantial after the last mad dash toward Attica. A shadow washed over her, and a gentle hand landed on her forehead.

"How are you feeling?" Xena questioned with a gentle smile.

The bard lifted a hand to her temple, massaging gently. "I hurt," she muttered. "And I have a funny feeling we're rather lucky to be alive…"

Xena laughed wryly. "A bit," she allowed, and petted Gabrielle's bangs away from her brow. She took a seat on the edge of the bed. "The king's given us the best rooms, but I haven't seen him since last night." She touched Gabrielle's shoulder very lightly. "It's no surprise you're in pain. You ripped several stitches while we were riding. It must have hurt like Tartarus."

Gabrielle shrugged. "It may have. I don't remember much." She pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to recall anything she could. "What about Laius' army?" she questioned as she pulled up a mental image of pursuing soldiers.

"They're definitely out there," Xena responded and rose, crossing the room to stare past the castle walls. "Maybe three or four hundred men. That's not enough for a full out attack, but he can choke off most the food coming in, and starve the people out." She shook her head. "They backed off last night, after the archers sent a few arrows flying, and they're just sitting out there now."

"What do you think will happen?"

Xena shrugged. "Hard to say. Everything I've ever heard about Laius paints him as a stubborn man…prideful, but not cruel. Certainly not the kind of maniac to simply decide to murder his son for no reason." She ran a hand through her hair, and sighed heavily. "I think I should ask him what's going on."

"Er…Xena," Gabrielle broke in. "Weren't his soldiers the ones trying to kill us last night?"

"Yeah."

"Are you sure that's the best course of action, in light of that fact?" Gabrielle questioned uncertainly.

Xena shrugged. "Maybe not, but it's the best thing I can think of." She turned around, eyeing Gabrielle with an assessing look. The bard was in no condition to run if the situation blew up, which meant she had to try and calm things down before the war started. A light knock brought her head around as the door opened to admit the young woman who had shown them to their room the night before. She was carrying a tray of sweet smelling breads.

"I thought you might be hungry," Miriam explained as she bustled in. "Now that you're awake again."

Gabrielle blinked in confusion, not remembering her at all.

"I'm Miriam," she introduced herself as she hurried in. "We met briefly last night, but I doubt you remember. …I heard your voices," she added as she moved to the side of the bed.

Gabrielle winced as she sat up, but was pleased that she could move at all. "That smells wonderful," she sighed and reached for a hot mug of some kind of spiced juice.


Xena joined her and snagged a glazed roll of some kind off the tray, wolfing it down hungrily.

"It looks like your arm is doing much better," the maid observed as she watched Gabrielle move. She looked at Xena. "I told you the lady's salve recipe would be better for her than what you were using."

Gabrielle's ears perked up, while Xena frowned. "I didn't have much in the way of supplies on the road," the warrior grumbled.

The bard moved her injured shoulder experimentally, and grabbed a sticky roll as she tested the limits of her mobility. Remembering the pain she'd been in, she was amazed by how easy the motion was. "Thank you," she whispered. "It feels much better."

The servant nodded. "Lady Aurora's…" her voice caught, and trailed of for a moment, then she straightened herself. "It was her recipe…she had her mother's gift for healing. She wrote everything down for me when she went away to marry the king of Thebes."

Gabrielle nibbled on the roll, then took a larger bite.

Xena finished her roll, then licked the honey from her fingers. "Gabrielle," she broke in. "I'm going to go check on things. Will you be okay until I get back?"

Gabrielle nodded, without pausing in downing the roll.

"Don't worry," Miriam added. "The king assigned me to look after your needs. I'll stay with her."

Xena flashed a glance at the young woman. "Thank you," she said curtly, then turned her gaze back on her lover. "I may be a while. I want to check on Argo and…a few other things."

Gabrielle nodded, understanding the message. Xena intended to speak to King Laius, and didn't want Tithonus or his people to know. "I'll see you…soon?" she spoke, her voice lifting in query at the end.

Xena nodded. "As soon as possible," Xena assured her. She slung her sword on, then hooked her chakram on her hip, before slipping out.

Miriam watched her go with wide eyes. "She's very…" she trailed off. "Intense," she decided at last.

Gabrielle nodded. "Very," she agreed.

"She was very frightened for you last night. She didn't even want me to use my lady's salve, or help bandage your arm."

Gabrielle shrugged. "She can be very…protective…"

"I noticed that…"

*****

Hard eyed soldiers watched Xena as she entered Laius' camp, but none made any attempt to stop her. Finally, she grabbed a passing man by the arm. "I need to speak to your king," she snapped impatiently.

He staggered as he spun, then dark eyes rounded as they landed on her. "You," Menandes hissed, and reached for his sword.

A hard voice froze him in place. "Let her through," Laius demanded from the entrance to his tent.

Xena strode past the soldier, to find herself facing a tall, dark haired man.

"The warrior princess," the king exhaled and laughed darkly. "And what are you hear for?" he demanded, seeming unsteady on his feet.

"I came to speak to you about what's happening."

Laius took a deep breath, heaving it out before answering shakily. "What's happening is my son is a demon, and my wife is dead." His voice shattered on the last word, and he swallowed hard in an effort to control his emotions.

"My Lord," Menandes started to speak, only to be cut off by Laius' enraged roar.

"GET OUT!!" the king bellowed, seeming on the verge of violence toward his man.

"It was an accident, I swear," Menandes tried to argue, his own emotions torn to shreds.

"GET OUT!!" Laius screamed again. "Before I take your head, and feed the rest of you to the dogs!"

Soldiers interceded, pulling Menandes away, and leaving their king alone. Shoulders shuddering, Laius spun away and staggered into his tent.

Xena followed silently, her gaze frankly assessing.

Laius sank down onto a folding camp chair, hiding his eyes behind a hand. "My wife is dead," he exhaled almost inaudibly.

"I'm sorry for your loss," Xena said quietly, wanting him to know she was there.

He dropped his hand to peer up at her, too shattered to hide the pain throbbing through him. "You're the one from the forest," he rasped. "You tried to interfere with my men."

"I saw a group of armed men chasing a woman and child…so I tried to stop them. I'm just sorry I failed."

He nodded, absorbing what she'd said. "I would have done the same in your boots," he allowed. His eyes closed and he could barely force the next words past the tightness in his throat. "Aurora…did she suffer?"

"Not long," Xena answered honestly, and saw the way his shoulders shuddered. She didn't want to feel sorry for him. Certainly didn't want to empathize with his plight, but, despite herself, she did. "You can still put a stop to this."

Laius lifted tortured eyes. "I wish I could," he admitted. "I wish I'd never seen it, that I could overlook what the boy is…but I can't."

"What do you believe he is?" Xena questioned her voice carefully bland. "All I saw was a little boy."

Laius laughed grimly. "I know," he almost sobbed. "Beautiful…smart…well mannered…a son any man could be proud of."

"Then why are you trying to kill him?" Xena questioned, not understanding at all.

"He's not my son," Laius groaned, and shielded his eyes again.

Xena tensed. "You're saying you're doing this because you think your wife cheated on you?" she demanded angrily.

Laius laughed darkly. "No," he denied. "Aurora would never have…" he trailed off, taking a breath before continuing. "He isn't even human…I didn't want the oracles to be right," he exhaled sadly. "But when Andarus died…and I saw..." he pushed to his feet, pacing, as his voice choked off, unable to continue.

Xena frowned, remembering the boy's version, and the sense that he hadn't been telling the whole story.

"We heard him scream…" Laius flinched, eyes sliding closed with remembered horror. "The sound of his body hitting the stones…he was so small…so broken…then I looked up. For a moment, I thought Phobos was falling too, but he wasn't. He was just standing there…in mid air…"

The warrior princess stared at the man, taking in his horror.

"Even after that…I couldn't just…" He shook his head. "While I was talking to my officers, Aurora took the boy and fled."

"I don’t know what the oracles said, or how what you've described could happen, but I do know that oracles and prophets lie… tell us things in ways that make them seem other than they are, or in ways that make them self-fulfilling."

"They told me my first son would hold his mother's heart in his hands, and become the terror of the world. That he would destroy my army." He lifted haunted eyes. "His father is Ares, the God of War, and Phobos is destined to sit at his right hand."

Xena tensed, staring at the man in shock. "Ares?" she repeated.

"He must have taken my form," Laius whispered, sounding sick.

Xena was silent for a long moment, before finally speaking. "Will you give me time to speak to Tithonus, figure out a way to come to some kind of truce?"

Laius' lips twisted in a sneer. "You've met Tithonus. Do you really think he will allow any harm to come to the boy? In his position, I wouldn't. If I hadn't seen it for my own eyes, I wouldn't believe the oracles. I didn’t believe them…and now Aurora is dead for it…"

"Let me speak to him," Xena insisted. For a moment, she thought Laius was going to argue, but finally, he nodded.

"Tell him, I would never have harmed Aurora," he rasped, his voice ragged with emotion. "Never." He fumbled with the sleeve of his tunic. "If you can find a way out of this…" he trailed off, and shook his head, leaving the thought unfinished.

"Please, give me time," the warrior insisted.

Laius nodded. "As much as I can." Then he made a small motion with his hand, dismissing her.

Xena stared at the man's downbent head, realizing that he'd given her as much as he felt he could. With a soft sigh, she turned and left.

*****

The soft sounds of childish laughter echoed from the guestrooms as Xena moved silently through a broad corridor. A frown drew a grim line between her brows, and she hesitated ever so slightly as she reached for the door to the room she shared with Gabrielle. She wasn’t eager for what lay ahead. She pushed the door open and pulled up short as her eyes fell on the bard’s downbent head where she sat on the floor, Phobos ensconced on her lap, as they played with an army of intricately carved wooden soldiers. Tithonus stood off to one side, arms folded across his chest as he watched the two with a half smile. His chin lifted as Xena entered, and their eyes met a heartbeat later.

"Hi Xena," Gabrielle spoke, her voice a little tired, but surprisingly lighthearted.

Xena offered her lover a distant smile. "Feeling better?" she questioned, her tone perfectly neutral.

Gabrielle nodded. "Much," but her eyes were silently questioning.

Xena offered the very faintest of head shakes.

Tithonus noted the interplay with a hint of a frown.

Xena was still standing there, trying to decide what to say, when she became aware of Phobos watching her, his pale eyes nearly the same shade as her own. She stared at the boy, wondering if they shared more than eye color. Was Ares even now chuckling over the irony that she'd saved a child who might one day sit at his right hand? Her stomach clenched at the thought. Could she live with herself, if she was responsible for releasing so great an evil on the world? Did a darkness, mirroring her own, live behind the eyes of a child? Something stirred in her breast, but whether it was an awareness of some kind, or simply fear, she didn't know. Finally, her gaze lifted again, meeting Tithonus. She couldn't help but remember the shattered expression of the Theban king. That wasn't a man who relished his task. She understood that feeling too well. She backed off from that thought, not wanting to think about that dark time. "I’d like to speak to you privately," she said without preamble.

Tithonus’ head tipped to one side for a brief second, then he nodded. "Very well."

Gabrielle looked back and forth between the two, her expression questioning.

Xena tamped down on a soft sigh, wishing Gabrielle wasn't becoming closer to the boy. That might well make things harder. "Stay here." Her gaze lifted to find Miriam, who was hovering in the shadows. "She really should get some rest," she indicated, and nodded toward the child. The maid seemed startled, and looked about to argue, but something in Xena’s expression dissuaded her.

"Come on, Phobos," Miriam spoke quickly, and caught the boy's small hand in her own. "Gabrielle needs to rest…because of her injuries."

He looked disappointed, but nodded, and climbed to his feet. He leaned back down and kissed Gabrielle on the cheek, offering her a shy smile. "I hope you feel better soon," he whispered, then allowed the maid to lead him out.

Xena knelt next to Gabrielle, curling a gentle hand around her good arm. "You really should get some rest," she murmured. "After everything you've been through in the last few days."

Gabrielle seemed about to argue, then glanced between Xena and Tithonus. "You're right," she admitted sleepily. "I am feeling pretty tired."

Xena was a little surprised by how quickly her lover agreed. She'd expected an argument, but after seeing the way she'd been bonding with Phobos, she didn't want the bard there when she spoke to Tithonus. Whatever was decided, she didn't want to lay that burden on Gabrielle's shoulders. She helped the bard into bed, smiling down at her as she lifted the covers over her small frame. "Sleep…we'll talk more later."

Gabrielle nodded, eyes sliding closed as she relaxed.

Xena brushed a tender hand over strawberry bangs, then straightened, nodding to Tithonus. In the corridor outside their rooms, she turned to look at the king, eyeing his hard frame from head to toe. "I've been down to Laius's camp … to speak to him…I think you should hear what he told me…in private."

Tithonus didn't appear terribly surprised by the revelation. "I rather expected you had," he admitted. He nodded down the corridor. "My private quarters are just down the hall. We can speak there…but I warn you, I'm not in a mood to be terribly understanding of my son-in-law's rationale for murdering my daughter."

Xena nodded. "I understand that, but what he told me may affect how you see the matter somewhat."

The king merely ducked his head, and gestured in the direction of his apartments.

Neither the warrior nor the king suspected an avid ear was pressed to the door, nor heard the soft click of a latch long moments later, as Gabrielle slipped after them.

*****

"All right," Tithonus murmured as he pushed the door to his apartments shut in his wake. "Tell me what Laius said that should so interest me." He didn't even try to keep the sneer out of his voice.

"I understand how you feel--" Xena murmured, trying to calm the man.

Tithonus laughed, the sound unbelievably grim. "Do you?" he rasped. He shook his head. "My child is dead…pray you never know what that feels like." His hands fisted at his sides. "Now tell me what my daughter's murderer had to say." He had controlled his rage in the presence of his grandson, but saw no reason to hide it from the woman in front of him.

"He told me the boy isn't his."

Tithonus's face flushed, muscles pulling taut. "If the cowardly bastard means to justify his actions by accusing Aurora of infidelity, I'll spit him on my sword. My daughter was mad for him…more's the pity in that. She adored him--"

"He didn't accuse her of that," Xena denied, tensing, ready to respond if the king lost his temper. "Phobos…your grandson…Laius has reason to believe the boy's real father is Ares."

Tithonus lost all color, his breathing suddenly strained. "Ares?" he hissed, and spun away.

"Yes," Xena confirmed. "Several oracles told him about it, but he didn't believe…I didn't see a man glorying in any of this…he'd just found out about Aurora, and he looked ready to slit his wrists--"

"Good," Tithonus growled, and smashed a fist into the wall, grinding his knuckles so hard they left a bloody smear.

Xena took a deep breath, and let it out slowly to calm her own emotions. She was tired, worried about Gabrielle, and none too happy with life to begin with. Letting go of her own control wouldn't help. "He believes he saw the boy kill another child….he claims he saw him push another boy to his death from a castle window."

Tithonus simply shook his head silently, but every muscle rippled with stress.

"I can't help but notice that the name Ares has gotten a certain…response." Xena ignored her own feelings about the God of War. She knew the dangers he presented the world better than anyone alive. In truth, she had often wondered how much better the world might be had someone slit her throat when she was still a child. Sometimes, she rather wished her mother hadn't succeeded in stopping her father from killing her.

"It would be like that cowardly bastard of a God," he hissed without turning to face her. "To attack my child instead of me."

"I take it you've had dealings with him before?"

Tithonus turned slowly to face her, and nodded, pain glittering in his eyes. "When I was a young soldier a great many years ago…I was seduced by a demi-goddess. I didn't know what Eos was, or that she was Ares' lover. He came to retrieve her in the form of a general…" He shook his head, looking away as long dead memories assailed him. "He beat her…and I thought to protect my love…I actually beat him with a sword…he must have been distracted, but the rest of the Gods found the event quite…humorous…as punishment, he cursed me…gave me eternal life."

Xena frowned slightly. Normally immortality was a reward, not a penalty. Something more must have happened. "What happened?"

"She went with him…and I became a minor general…and I grew older…and became a major general…and older…and became a king…and grew older still…." He laughed grimly. "Imagine being unable to die, no matter how frail and weak-minded you become…Aurora's mother was a healer, brought into the castle to care for their feeble king…somehow she saw through the veil of ancient flesh…and loved me. She prayed to Aphrodite…who eventually took pity." He sighed softly. "She gave me back my life, and a normal life-span to go with it…I'll die like any man now. I had five years with Aurora's mother…and when she went ahead to the Elysian Fields, I had our child…when Ares found out about Aphrodite's gift, he swore revenge…again. He doesn't like to have his plans thwarted."

"No," Xena agreed. "He doesn't." The pattern definitely fit the God of War's way of doing things….and the boy was like none she'd ever known. She couldn't help but remember Laius' tormented expression as he spoke of his son's nature.

Tithonus worked a hand through his hair. "It can't be," he exhaled, sounding ill.

"It's just the sort of petty cruelty he enjoys," Xena pointed out, though she took no pleasure in the words. "According to Laius, when the other boy fell to his death, Phobos stood in mid air…with nothing to support him. He believes Phobos pushed the child…."

Tithonus's voice was rough as he whispered. "He's a sweet child…."

"Yes," Xena agreed. "And far smarter, and controlled than a child his age should be. The oracles what he is…and that he would terrorize the world."

"So what are you telling me to do?" Tithonus growled. "Hand my grandson over to have his throat slit?"

*****

Gabrielle didn't wait any longer, or maybe she just didn't want to hear Xena's answer. It was too much like everything that had gone before. She didn't want to hear her lover plan a little boy's murder, or plot to turn the child over to the soldiers who would kill him. She hurried back to her rooms, pausing just long enough to pull on her boots and grab her staff before hurrying away.

*****

Miriam looked up at the soft knock on the door, frowning slightly. She was even more surprised when she found Gabrielle standing in the corridor outside of Phobos' rooms.

"May I come in?" the young woman questioned breathlessly.

Miriam nodded quickly, while Phobos instantly bounded up from his toys to catch her hand, and tug her inside. "I thought you needed some sleep," he said obviously happy, but surprised to see her.

The boy wasn't the only one. His maid was equally surprised, particularly since the young woman was carrying a staff, and her sea green eyes were deep with sadness. She crouched down in front of the child, reaching out to brush the hair that fell across his brow.

"I suddenly realized I wasn't really tired and I wanted to see you."

"I'm glad," the boy said impulsively and threw his arms around her, hugging her hard.

Gabrielle wrapped her good arm around the child, holding him close for a long moment. Finally, she straightened a little and tipped her staff down, so the boy could see it more closely. "You said you wanted to see my staff," she murmured, and held it so that he could wrap small hands around the weapon. He was still studying the smooth wood with childish curiosity, when Gabrielle looked up at the nurse. "I'm sorry to bother you, but could I have something to drink." She coughed softly. "I've suddenly got a dry throat."

Miriam seemed to consider the request, uncertain whether to leave the child with a relative stranger in such difficult times.

Gabrielle coughed again, wincing as if in pain, then smiled apologetically. "I probably shouldn't have left the bed, but I couldn't sleep, and I was bored."

"I…uh…I'll go get something for both of you. How does that sound?" the maid decided at last, concluding she'd been imagining things. After all, this woman had already saved Phobos' life. A moment later, her mind on other matters, she hurried out.

Gabrielle waited until she'd gone, then turned her gaze on Phobos. "How would you like to play a game?" she questioned with a forced smile.

The boy stared up at her through serious eyes. "That's what my Mama said," he whispered. "When we left home…it's happening again, isn't it?" he questioned with surprising insight.

Gabrielle wanted to deny it, but under the impact of that clear gaze, couldn't lie. She nodded. "I'm sorry."

Small shoulders sagged and Phobos shook his head. "I don't wanna run anymore…" He peered up at Gabrielle. "And I don't want you to get hurt."

Gabrielle crouched down. "Don't talk like that…I have an idea…" She ruffled his hair, wondering how anyone so small could be considered such a threat. "Just trust me…but we have to hurry."

Phobos seemed uncertain for a long moment, then finally nodded, reaching up to put his hand in hers.

Gabrielle offered him a reassuring smile. "Come on…we've got to move fast, and be very quiet."

Phobos nodded in understanding. "That's what Mama said," he whispered sadly.

Gabrielle didn't respond, just held on tightly to his hand, as she led him out.

******

Guards were mounted on every wall of the castle, and an army lay beyond the walls. There was no way for Gabrielle to escape. At least not any way that would keep them both alive. Luckily, that wasn't her plan. She moved quickly through the castle corridors, trusting the boy's directions as she searched for what she needed.

*****

Miriam barely knocked as she pushed the door to the king's apartments open. "My Lord," she gasped worriedly, as her eyes landed on the tall man, who seemed caught in argument with their dark haired guest.

"Yes, Miriam?" Tithonus murmured distractedly, his attention still focused on Xena.

"It's probably nothing, but….the young woman…Gabrielle," she clarified, casting a nervous look as she saw Xena stiffen, her eyes suddenly blazing. "She came to see Phobos a short while ago…"

"Damn," Xena exhaled almost inaudibly, knowing almost instantly what had happened. Anger and hurt flashed through her, but she forced them down through sheer force of will.

"She asked for a drink," Miriam continued. "And when I came back, she and Phobos were gone…it may be nothing, but I thought you should know."

"Oh, it's something," Xena muttered, and turned a bland gaze on Tithonus. "She'll try and run…she's afraid we're going to hurt him."

The king turned a hard look on Xena. "I assure you, that isn't going to happen." He checked his swordbelt. "No one is going to harm my grandson."

Xena didn't even try to argue. The first thing they had to do was locate the two fugitives. "We've got to find them. If she tries to go outside of the walls, they'll both wind up dead."

*****

"Mama," Phobos whispered very softly as he saw the white shrouded figure that lay on the temple altar. He let go of Gabrielle's hand to rush forward. The bard hurried after the child, catching up with him as he slowed to a halt a few feet from the heavy sacrificial stone.

Suddenly afraid, he pressed back against Gabrielle, while she curved her hands to small shoulders.

"She's not there anymore," he said in a tiny voice. "I can't feel her."

"I'm sorry," Gabrielle choked. "I know she loved you."

Phobos nodded sadly.

Gabrielle glanced back at the doors to the temple. She'd slipped a pike through the heavy door handles as a makeshift barricade, but it wouldn't hold long if pressed. They didn't have much time. Sooner or later, Xena would know she hadn't tried to run.

She set her staff aside, as she urged Phobos to wait where he was. He sat slowly, silently watching her.

The bard worked quickly, laying herbs in front of the altar. Knowing she needed one more thing to complete her offering, she peeled the bandage off, and purposely stretched a stitch, drawing fresh blood. She caught a few crimson drops on her fingers and flicked them onto the herbs as she murmured the sacred incantations. She had to hope the goddess would accept it in place of a slaughtered goat or calf. She was still weaving gently from the pain, when a surprisingly welcome voice reached her ears.

"That is so gross."

Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder at the Goddess. "Aphrodite."

The blonde's eyes ran over the kneeling bard, and she frowned, lips pursing unhappily. "This is strictly a pity visit," the Goddess told her as her eyes ran over the bard's bruised frame. "You really don't know much about the proper procedure in these matters, do you?"

"I didn't have a lot of options," the bard exhaled.

Aphrodite started forward, then suddenly froze in place, pivoting on one foot to stare down at the quietly watching child with a look of disbelieving horror. "Oh, what have you gotten me into?" she moaned as she stared at the boy. Her head swung around to touch on Gabrielle. "Do you know who…what…he is?"

Gabrielle pushed to her feet, wavering slightly. She was surprised to feel a hand on her elbow, when she might have gone down. "He may be Ares'--"

"There's no maybe about it," Aphrodite assured her. She started to help Gabrielle to sit on the altar--after all, as a Goddess, she had no sense of awe over the thing--then noted the body. "Ewww, gross."

Gabrielle considered mentioning the fact that Aphrodite should be glad it was early spring and not summer--The chill nights had preserved the body relatively well--but withheld the comment in deference to the silently listening child. "It's his mother."

Aphrodite's head swung back around, taking in the boy. Uneasily, she muttered, "Look, it's not that I'm afraid of Ares, but this is none of my business." She shook her head, not even wanting to be here or know about the matters before her. At best, Ares was a nasty enemy, and she already had enough problems with Hephaestus riding her case for a minor indiscretion with a roman soldier. Gabrielle turned a hard look on the Goddess, who couldn't hide a flinch. "Okay, so not much afraid," she muttered defensively. "But, this is like…Godly type stuff…mucho serioso…y'know what I mean?"

"He's a little boy," Gabrielle, whispered and held out a hand to Phobos. The child climbed to his feet, and went to her, twining his fingers with hers. "And they're probably going to kill him if you don't help."

Aphrodite started to speak, only to change her mind several times. "Look I'd like to help, I really would, but there's nothing I can do. He is Ares' son…marked to be his right hand, his servant…I can't just step in and change that."

"He's a little boy," Gabrielle repeated, her tone accusing.

Aphrodite fiddled with the bright gold bracelet circling a slender wrist. She was feeling something, something she was very unaccustomed to. She tried to remember the last time she'd felt this way. Yes, she remembered now. Hercules had been involved. He'd called it guilt. According to him, the only way to deal with the problem was to make some kind of amends. She peeled off the bracelet and offered it to Gabrielle. "Here."

Gabrielle peered at the bauble, without taking it. "Is it enchanted? Will it transport us out of here, or protect Phobos, or something like that?"

"Ummm, no, it just goes well with your hair. I thought it might cheer you up."

Gabrielle sighed heavily, wondering why she'd ever thought she might get some help from a God. She'd thought that if Phobos really was a demi-god, maybe they'd lend a hand, but obviously she was mistaken. "I'm sorry," she muttered, and tugged the boy over behind the altar. It would offer the most protection. "I should have known better than to ask you for help."

Wincing as though stung, Aphrodite glared at the bard. "Look, I really don't think you understand my situation."

"NO!" Gabrielle roared. "You don't understand! They … are … going … to … kill … him." She pronounced each word with measured fury. She pointed at the boy. "They think he's evil because of who his father is…even…Xena…" Or maybe mostly Xena, but she didn't want to think about that. It hurt too much.

"Uh, Gabrielle…I hate to break this to you--" Aphrodite began cautiously.

The bard cut her off in a hard voice. "Don't…you…dare…" she hissed, eyes glittering with fury.

The Goddess of love fell silent under the impact of that gaze.

Green eyes raked disdainfully over perfect curves. "Iolaus told you me you actually cried over the death of a mortal…obviously he was exaggerating again." She turned away, crouching down to soothe Phobos, and explain to him that he had to stay quiet, whatever happened. She didn't have much hope though. She might buy some time, but not much more than that. After a moment, she rose, body protesting the movement, and reminding her that she belonged in a bed, resting and regaining some strength. She had to find something more to barricade the door with. The shaft of the pike was metal. It would hold longer than wood, but not much. Her shoulder was bleeding again, red blood slipping between the pull marks around the stitches. She considered trying to put the bandages back on, but there was no way to do it one handed.

Gabrielle shook her head dazedly, feeling lightheaded.

They had to try and escape the castle. If she could just find a way past the army outside the castle walls, she could take him somewhere. In her travels with Xena, she'd done enough good deeds. There had to be a marker or two she could call in to save the boy.

Her skin was slick with sweat by the time she reached the heavy double doors that guarded the temple. She slipped the pike free of the door pulls, then tugged one open, sticking her head into the hallway that fronted the main temple.

It was pure bad luck that she was seen. No one had actually thought to check the area, but a soldier was hurrying past, headed for the stables to see if any horses were missing. "They're here!" he called out, and broke into a run.

Gabrielle jerked back, shoving the door closed, and pushing the pike back into position. It would hold against one man, but once he had help… Breathing hard, the bard looked around the room, hunting for something to use to barricade the door.

A heavy cupboard stood near the heavy double doors, and she braced her good shoulder against. It moved, tipping and falling into place, but the effort cost her dearly. Agony flared through her shoulder and she let out a dull cry of pain as the world swirled around her. When she could see straight again, she was surprised to find Aphrodite kneeling beside her, her expression oddly gentle.

"It won't work," the Goddess whispered, cupping her good shoulder in one hand. "They'll get through that in a few minutes."

"Then help me," the bard begged.

Aphrodite's eyes fell away. "Don't you understand, there's nothing I can do." She shook her head disgustedly. "I've called in every marker doing favors for Hercules, and even if I hadn't, there's no one on Olympus who wants to be on Ares' bad side."

Crying softly, Gabrielle slowly leaned back against the smooth wood of the cabinet, and slid into a sitting position. "Hand me my staff," she rasped, her voice choked with tears of frustration and pain.

"Gabrielle," the Goddess said softly. "You can't be serious."

The bard somehow managed to force her way to her feet. "If you won't help me any other way, then get me my staff." She was ghostly pale, her hair hanging in damp tendrils around her face, while blood ran down her shoulder in slow moving rivulets, but there was an elegant sort of dignity to the young woman who faced the Goddess. She had to lean heavily against the wood of the cabinet to remain upright, but she was ready to face an army to save a small child.

Even Aphrodite was impressed.

"Gabrielle, No!" Phobos' small voice was stronger than a child's had a right to be. He stood in the center of the room, holding her staff in delicate hands. "I won't let you do it." He brought the weapon down on his uplifted knee, shattering the wood in an instant. He threw the pieces aside. "I don't want you to die too."

Gabrielle shook her head. "You shouldn't have done that," she whispered, her tone somewhere between shocked and despondent. She let out a half hysterical laugh. "They wouldn't…won't…" she trailed off. She wasn't so certain about that, if she was honest about it. She wasn't certain about anything. She remembered the expression on Xena's face when she'd been determined to kill Hope. She'd wondered since then, what would have happened if she hadn't run, if she'd tried to fight. Xena so thoroughly believed she was right. Would the warrior princess have put a sword through her own lover in her determination to rid the world of a child she considered evil? Gabrielle honestly didn't know.

The knock on the doors echoed off the marble walls, creating an eerie cacophony of sound for a brief moment.

"Gabrielle," Xena's voice was low, sensual, inviting confidences and trust, barely even muffled by the heavy wood.

The cabinet at the bard's back jarred as someone shoved on the doors. The movement brought a soft whimper, but no more than that.

"Nobody's going to hurt Phobos, Gabrielle," Xena insisted, still using that soft, silky tone. "But Tithonus is very nervous about you running off with the boy. If you don't open the doors, it could get ugly."

Another hard shove jarred the cabinet and the injured bard, drawing a soft cry.

"Dammit, will you stop that," Xena hissed on the other side of the doors. "You're only scaring her more."

Phobos moved to stand in front of Gabrielle, his expression serious. "Give up to them…whatever's going to happen, you can't stop it."

The bard's head tipped up and she leaned heavily against the smooth wood for a moment, remembering another desperate time in her life, wishing she'd handled it better. The guilt over surrendering her child to nature's power in order to stay with her lover, burned in her chest. She wouldn't surrender another child. She couldn't live with herself if she made that choice again. "I can try," she whispered, and straightened, pulling away just as Xena began speaking again.

"You have to trust me, Gabrielle."

The bard managed to restrain a bitter laugh, simply reaching down to brush a gentle hand over Phobos' soft curls. "Go hide again," she instructed, but he didn't move.

"The boy is the king's grandson…do you really think he'd let anything happen to him?" Xena continued to argue through the heavy wood. "I love you, Gabrielle. I wouldn't lie to you."

Tears rimmed green eyes as the bard slowly turned to face the doors. She knew sooner or later, they'd force their way in. She gathered the two broken pieces of her staff, turning a vaguely pleading look on Aphrodite. "I don't suppose you have the power to put it back together."

The Goddess looked stricken. "You heard her…they're not going to hurt him…"

The bard weaved drunkenly on her feet. "Do you believe her?" she asked no one in particular, then answered her own question. "Me neither."

Seeing she wouldn't change her mind, Aphrodite reached out, touching a hand to the shattered wood. Glowing light followed her touch, mending the break in the two pieces.

Green eyes dropped to the repaired weapon. "Well, at least you're good for something."

Xena's tone took on a desperate note. "Please, Gabrielle, I can't stop them from breaking in for much longer…." Her voice shifted, as she spoke to someone behind her. "Blast it, if anyone hurts her, I'll slice him to bits." Then grew louder again as she addressed the bard. "Please, Gabrielle, please…I know what you think, but you're wrong…but right now, you're very close to getting hurt, and I don't want that to happen."

The bard stood in the center of the room, silently shaking her head. She knew what was coming, accepted it, and was determined to do her best.

"Please, Gabrielle," Phobos begged. "Just give in--"

Something crashed into the doors in earnest, and men's angry shouts hung on the air.

"I did it!" Phobos shouted. "I pushed Andarus…because I was…I was angry…I wanted him to die!"

Another crash, and more shouts. The doors were heavy, but they wouldn't hold forever.

*****

Xena heard the shout and pressed her palms against the door, muscles straining, terrified that the boy was exactly what the oracles had predicted. She couldn't help but remember that Hope had eventually turned on Gabrielle--it was only through sheer luck that the bard had survived--or that the child with her now had been sired by the God of War…just as she had. Little boy or not, that made him supremely dangerous, in her estimation. After all, she'd taken nearly a quarter of Greece by her nineteenth birthday. "GABRIELLE!!" she shouted, then danced out of the way as the soldiers lunged again. Her hand was already on her sword hilt. Tithonus be damned. If the child had harmed Gabrielle, she'd see to it that no one else fell before his evil.

*****

"Now please, do what they want." Phobos begged Gabrielle, tears making his pale eyes glitter with almost unnatural lights.

The bard touched his cheek with a gentle hand, wiping away tears. "Really?" she whispered, not believing a word of it.

"I…I…" the boy stumbled over his words, wanting to confirm the story to save her, but not quite able to confirm the lie.

"Of course it isn't," a dry, far too familiar voice cut in. "Hi sis," Ares sneered at Aphrodite, leering at the curves beneath her diaphanous gown. He took in Gabrielle's battered frame and clucked his tongue. "You look like you've had better days." He reached out, touching her cheek. She twitched away, drawing a teasing grin. "The other boy's little swan dive wasn't Phobos' fault…I have it on the very best authority." He offered a wicked smile.

"You bastard," Gabrielle hissed as she stared at him. Had Ares murdered the other child to set events in motion?

He waved her off. "No, I didn't kill him," he denied. "But I was there." He didn't offer anymore clues as to what he'd heard and seen.

A battering ram crashed into the doors again, while Aphrodite winced at the sound, glaring at Ares with silent dislike, tinged with fear.

The God of War grinned with false good-natured charm. "I suppose I owe you a thanks…they heard his little shout out there," he commented idly to Gabrielle. "That should make things even easier." He crouched down in front of Phobos, studying the fine features. "Bit girlish, don't you think?" he complained.

"Leave him alone," the bard growled, and swung the staff in a roundhouse arc. It caught the God in the chest, then reversed almost instantly, and swept his feet out from under him.

The God let out an inelegant whoof as he went down.

Aphrodite giggled, then sobered instantly as she saw her brother's expression turn thunderous.

"No one," the God of War bellowed. "Does that to me!" In an instant, he was on his feet again, hand lifted to strike. As weak as she was, one blow was likely to kill the girl.

It never fell.

"No!" Phobos shouted, stepping between the two, his small body braced, and somehow seeming larger than it had only moments before. "I won't let you hurt her." His voice was larger and stronger than it should have been, while his pale eyes blazed with intensity.

"What is it about you?" Ares demanded of the bard as he waved a hand at the child. "At least Xena's getting sex."

Another blow crashed into the doors, and the wood cracked under the pressure.

Ares glanced up at the noise, canting his head to one side as he reached out to the boy. "Come along…time to go now…unless of course, you want to die…because they will kill you….just because of what you are."

The boy's eyes burned with blue fire. "You were there…when Andarus died…you're the one who held me up," he whispered tightly.

"Come along," Ares repeated in a hard voice. "Unless you want to be like Andarus…your brains spattered on the stones somewhere."

The boy shivered with terror, but didn't back down. He remembered the site of his friend's broken body too well.

Ares saw his fear. "That's what they'll do to you…because you're different…better…just like Andarus, they won't understand."

"He didn't mean to," the child insisted. "He was just frustrated…because he couldn't keep up…"

"That's what it will always be like…among mortals…you'll always be better, and they'll always hate you for it. Now, take my hand." Ares' voice took on an almost desperate quality.

The boy quivered uncertainly. Shouts and crashes echoed through the room, nearly drowning them out, and reinforcing the God's words. He looked back up at Gabrielle, who stared back, her expression sad. If it was the only way for him to survive, she couldn't tell him not to take that road. "I…I can't protect you," she admitted. "No matter how much I want to…I can't stop them…he can."

Ares' smile turned triumphant. The boy was his now, ready to be raised in the right mold. "You will be my emissary of terror," he crowed.

Phobos started to turn to face the God, his narrow shoulders slumped.

"Not yet."

They all looked up at the interruption.

Ares was the first to get his voice back after the surprise. "What is it Aphrodite?" he demanded impatiently.

"Are you claiming him as your son?" she demanded.

"Yes, yes," Ares answered with a brusque wave. "Mine…son…blah, blah, blah."

"Then I have a right, by Zeus' law, to give him one divine gift."

Ares' brow lifted and he sighed heavily. Obviously, his sister was up to something, but he wasn't terribly worried. She did like to make trouble for him, but really, what could the Goddess of Hickies possibly do to threaten his plans? "Oh, all right, get it over." he growled impatiently. "Make him a real stud."

Aphrodite glanced up at Gabrielle, noting the young woman's frown with what she hoped was a reassuring look. She didn't know if what she was going to try would work, but it was all she had. She looked down again, searching pale blue eyes, and seeing far more than a mere human child in them. But the innocence of youth was still there. Without his true father's influence, he had a chance. "You remember your mother?" she whispered, ignoring the sounds from the hallway as heavy axes splinted the doors and the back of the cabinet.

The child nodded. "But she's not there anymore."

"No…she's here." Aphrodite lifted a hand, holding a glow of light in her palm. "Her love for you…it's my gift…a divine one…only a God can hold this." She brushed his cheek with her free hand, remembering how Cupid had felt in her arms when he was still a babe, so small, and soft, and sweet smelling. "Hold out your hands."

He cupped them together as he held them up, and she spilled the light into his palms.

"Her love will always be a part of you…it will be your love for mankind…"

"He is fear," Ares ground out. "You can't change that."

"No," Aphrodite agreed, watching the child's wondering face. "But that's not always a bad thing." She was aware of Gabrielle kneeling behind the child, her hands cupping his shoulders as she looked on in wonderment. "Fear can make a man wise and cautious."

The child's eyes lifted as he listened to her.

"Make him avoid a battle he knows will prove too costly, calm him when his temper might get out of control, because he remembers the price he'll pay…" She cupped his small face in her hands. "Her love…her heart…is yours to use as you will…don't fail her."

The boy slowly tipped his hands up, clutching them to his chest as his mother's love slipped through him, touching every part of his soul. Holding him from behind, even Gabrielle felt it.

And the soldiers, as they broke through, they saw it all--two Gods glaring at each other, while a boy and a young woman were lit by the soft glow of a gentle soul.

Xena stepped through the shattered barricade, her sword drawn and ready, to stare at the scene in silent awe. Tithonus stepped through only a moment behind her.

Aphrodite rose slowly, pulling herself together as she met Ares' enraged glare with a purposely dimwitted expression. "Really, it's the only thing I had," she said with false cheer. She fumbled with a bracelet. "And these are my favorites, so I couldn't give those." She shrugged innocently.

Ares wasn't fooled. "You've ruined him," he complained.

"Like, I have no idea what you're talking about." She thumped the boy's narrow chest. "He looks pretty solid to me."

"Bitch."

Ares turned a hard glare on Tithonus. "Got lucky again, old man…at least for now." He turned his gaze to Phobos. "We'll play again later, son," he offered with a forced smile. A second later, he glittered out of existence.

"He does not handle loserdom well, does he?" Aphrodite commented, her tone a cross between victorious and worried. "You'd think he'd be better at it with all the practice he gets."

Tithonus sheathed his sword, stomping past shattered wood to kneel before Phobos, his large hands holding the child at arm's length, as he peered into pale eyes.

"I've bought you some time," Aphrodite told him. "Given him his mother's heart to hold in his own…but he is still Ares's son…don't waste the chance you've been given."

The old king's eyes lifted. "It seems I owe you again," he allowed.

The Goddess shook her head, her eyes falling on Gabrielle as she responded, "I didn’t do it for you." She turned a surprisingly flinty gaze on Xena. "Or you either." She nodded toward Gabrielle. "And now I think she needs your help."

Xena caught the bard before she toppled to the floor, and swung her up into her arms, her touch gentle.

Aphrodite reached out, brushing sweat damp bangs away from the young woman's forehead, noting the way her body hung limp in unconsciousness. She seemed about to speak, only to change her mind. She moved away from the small knot of silently watching mortals. "Use your second chances well," she advised, then disappeared in a cutting wave of light. In a moment, they stood in silence and darkness again.

"I need to treat Gabrielle's shoulder," Xena whispered at last, focusing on practical matters. She could do something about those. "And get her back to bed," she added disgustedly, though it was impossible to tell who her anger was directed at, Gabrielle, the soldiers, or herself.

*****

Gabrielle slept for two days, rarely waking for more than a few minutes. She barely moved in the huge bed set aside for her use. The first night, Xena tried to slide under the covers and hold her close, but the bard squirmed and twisted in her sleep, seemingly disturbed by the contact. Afraid she was risking her lover's health, Xena simply moved to a blanket on the floor.

It took four days, but she finally managed to broker a truce between Tithonus and Laius. The agreement was signed in the castle, and afterward, the Theban king was allowed to see the crypt Tithonus had chosen for Aurora.

He wept on the cold marble that held her body, then stared at the child he'd called son for so long.

"She lives in me," Phobos whispered and held out a hand, letting the glow of his mother's love show in his palm.

Laius looked like he was ready to shatter into a million pieces. He shook his head, losing what little heart he had left in the fight.

Gabrielle was there as well, at her own insistence, and against Xena's advice. "He holds his mother's heart in his hands. And the fear he grants mankind will protect us from ourselves."

Laius turned an infinitely sad gaze on Tithonus. "He's your son now." The gossip had penetrated every level of Thebes. Phobos would never be welcome there again. He turned away slowly, his stride slow and aged beyond his years. "I will remarry…I need an heir and my father always wanted an alliance with the house of Acleides…his daughter Jocasta is still unwed." Another slow shake of the head. "I should ban oracles from the boundaries of Thebes. No good seems to come from them." Then he stumbled out.

Tithonus reached down and swung the child into his arms, holding him close. Phobos buried his face in the curve of his grandfather's throat, once again merely a little boy in need of comfort.

*****

Xena and Gabrielle never discussed it, but they both wanted to be on the road quickly. Or perhaps they were simply hesitant to stay any longer in a situation that held so many painful reminders of the past. They left the next day, their saddlebags full of fresh supplies, Argo fed and curried, and Gabrielle's wound freshly treated. Tithonus would have welcomed both women to stay as long as they wanted, but they were eager to be away.

Where they had often chatted on the road, they were silent that day. Gabrielle told no stories for Xena to gently mock, and Xena made no teasing jokes. They simply walked, and when Gabrielle tired, Xena made her ride.

That night, the fire Xena built, danced as merrily as any she'd ever laid, but the light couldn't cut through the gloom within the two women.

Finally, Xena gave up on her endless sword sharpening to peer down at Gabrielle's downbent head. "I wasn't going to harm him," she said at last.

The bard didn't look up as she continued to write on her scroll, just shook her head.

"Look at me, Gabrielle," Xena pleaded.

Finally, the bard's gaze lifted.

"I had no intention of hurting Phobos," she lied, though it would be years before she admitted the falsehood, even to herself.

"I realize that," Gabrielle lied just as easily, though perhaps more knowledgeably.

Xena set aside her sword, and moved to kneel before her lover, her touch infinitely careful of the bard's injury.

The lovers knew each other well, and they were both gentle, but there was a forced quality to their joining. When it was over, both cuddled into their blankets, alone, even coiled close, bare flesh touching bare flesh.

THE END

  • EndNotes: For those who are trying to figure out where they've heard the name Laius before, he was Oedipus' (oh, he who would kill his father and marry his mother, Jocasta) father, and no, there has never been any mention of an earlier child. I made that part up.
  • Phobos really is Ares right hand in mythology, and is the god of fear or terror
  • Tithonus is another name from mythology, where he was cursed by the Gods to live forever, while his flesh decayed with every passing year.
  • And no, I didn't use any of the stories verbatim, but rather juggled them around with absolutely no respect for the original stories (c'mon, gang, it's Xena--where has it ever been faithful to the original myths).

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