A/N: Hello again.
The inn door flew open with a crash and Xena strode purposefully inside. Conversations ground to a halt as heads swung in her direction and a tense silence fell across the room. No one dared move as her serious blue eyes intently scanned each face, her hand resting casually on the chakram by her side. When she didn't appear to find what she was looking for, she let out an impatient growl before striding her way over to the barman.
"Where is she, Alexios?" she asked, her voice low and terse.
Knowing instantly who she meant, the usually jovial innkeeper appeared to sober beneath her icy gaze. He raised both his hands in a placating gesture.
"Now Xena, she looked pretty upset… has something happened?"
He noticed the woman's fingers clench and unclench before he felt the vibration of her next words, which were barely above a whisper.
"Tell me where she is."
Alexios swallowed hard. "She's upstairs but what's…?"
Before he could finish his sentence the warrior had pushed off from the bar and was hurrying up the stairs two at a time. Ignoring his calls, she disappeared from sight and the barman could do nothing but shake his head.
Roughly grabbing a dirty mug, he muttered to himself as the nervous thrum of conversation slowly returned to the room.
Quickly arriving at the second floor, Xena marched down the corridor, her boots causing a few loose floorboards to creak as she passed. Within moments she was stood outside her room, a calloused hand outstretched for the doorknob, when the sound of a small muffled sob made her pause. Her brow furrowed and she tilted an ear to the door.
Gabrielle was crying.
Taken aback, Xena froze.
Her friend was upset and she wasn't entirely sure what to do.
Closing her eyes she tried to filter out the noises which were causing unfamiliar waves of panic to rise inside her. Instantly falling back to what she knew, she sought the emotional detachment she'd perfected over the last decade and taking a few calming breaths, schooled her features into impassivity.
Once she felt the last of her unease melt away to nothing, she carefully pushed open the old oak door.
As she entered her eyes immediately fell on the small blonde figure sat hunched over on the far side of the bed. Her back was to the door and she didn't turn around as Xena took a tentative step into the room, but the sniffle of tears immediately ceased. Seconds ticked past as neither woman dared to move and a pregnant silence pervaded the air.
It wasn't long before Xena's impatience won out and she cleared her throat.
There was no reply and the warrior princess nervously rubbed the back of her neck.
"Look, are you okay?" she tried again.
Slowly the blonde stood and turned towards the taller woman. Her flashing green eyes were somewhat puffy and red, but Xena was both surprised and impressed when they defiantly met her gaze.
"I'm fine. I just…" the blonde began, her voice strangled. The words seemed to die in her throat.
The dark haired woman took a cautious step closer.
"I just thought you'd changed Xena," Gabrielle exhaled in a rush. "I…I looked up to you… I defended you…"
Dark eyebrows creased together in confusion. "What are you talking about?"
"I saw you. I saw you with Ares."
"He… you…" Gabrielle sputtered.
Xena breathed out a gentle 'oh' as the pieces finally clicked into place. Gabrielle had disappeared before the warrior princess had rejected Ares' offer and so she thought the God of War had swayed Xena's resolve. She thought Xena had given in to his empty promises and once again succumbed to her dark side.
The warrior woman shuddered imperceptibly at the idea.
"I can't believe you'd do that to Cerames." Gabrielle murmured. "You said you loved this town. And Talia, how could you betray her? And me..."
The blonde trailed off, her gaze dropping to the floor.
"Gabrielle, you've got this all wrong," Xena interjected, holding her palms up as she slowly closed the distance between them.
"I know what I saw Xena." The bard refused to look up.
"Well you didn't see everything."
"I saw you kiss him!" Gabrielle suddenly blurted out, stabbing an accusatory finger towards the darker woman.
Xena froze in surprise at the mix of anger and hurt behind the younger girl's words. For a moment she was thrown; an odd experience for the usually unflappable warrior.
Was that why Gabrielle was so upset? Because she'd kissed the God of War?
Xena felt a surge of annoyance wash over her. Who was Gabrielle to judge her for what she had done? She may look like a woman in those new clothes, but she was still a naïve farm girl from Potidaea. She knew nothing.
Indignantly placing both hands on her hips she fixed the blonde with a piercing look.
"Who I kiss is no concern of yours Gabrielle," she replied coolly.
Gabrielle crossed her arms, refusing to be intimidated.
"But it is Xena, I'm your friend. I …" she hesitated for a split second, "I care about you."
The dark haired woman didn't react and Gabrielle shifted her feet nervously. Frosty eyes continued to stare down at her with that unreadable expression.
"I'm just trying to look out for you."
If anyone else had heard Gabrielle's quiet assertion, they would have laughed at the idea of the inexperienced young girl protecting the destroyer of nations.
But Xena did not.
As much as she wanted to deny it, she knew there was a truth behind Gabrielle's words. The blonde was protecting her, in her own special way. Without Gabrielle's encouragement would she have stopped to help the town of Cerames? Would she have found the strength to reject Ares' offer? Would she even be here in the first place…?
A shiver ran down Xena's spine as she pushed those thoughts away. It was almost scary how quickly and how heavily she had come to rely on her new friend.
But of course, she couldn't let anyone see that. Weaknesses were exploitable.
"That's what friends do Xena; they keep each other safe." Gabrielle gazed intently at the expressionless warrior, desperately trying to read the blank features before her.
"Just as I was keeping you safe by asking you not to fight," Xena replied smoothly.
The blonde immediately blushed and hung her head in shame.
"I'm sorry I went against your wishes, but I..."
"Are you going to visit Solari again Gabrielle?" Xena asked bluntly.
Gabrielle was taken aback by the sudden question and there was another pause as she debated her response.
"Yes," she replied finally, "I want to learn."
A tense silence fell as the warrior princess gave her friend a searching look before nodding thoughtfully. Without another word she turned on her heel and strode from the room.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to call after her, but Xena was deaf to her all her entreaties. Running to the doorway, the blonde managed to catch a brief glimpse of dark tresses flying down the stairs before Xena was lost from sight.
Praying that she'd come back some time tonight, Gabrielle sighed deeply. There was still so much she wanted to say – to make her friend understand. Closing the door gently she leant back against the heavy wood and fought the urge to cry. She'd made her choice and she was damned if she wasn't going to stick to it. At the very least Xena would have to admire her tenacity. Scrubbing a hand roughly across her eyes she tried to compose herself.
Finally becoming aware of the lengthening shadows Gabrielle slowly sought out and lit several candles before drawing the drapes across the window. It was dinner time and the faint smells of Alexios's expert cooking were floating up from below. Despite this, Gabrielle found that for once she didn't have much of an appetite. Slipping off her boots she curled up on one side of the bed, still fully dressed but unable to find the energy to care.
Almost instantly her mind wandered to the scene at that street corner. Images replayed in her head as she watched the God of War claim Xena; first with his words and then with his mouth.
Her sudden and visceral reaction to watching the warrior so completely wrapped up in another person (not to mention one as poisonous and powerful as the God of War) had been overwhelming and she had instinctively fled. Her feelings in the moment had been confusing and she tried desperately to work them out.
She knew that she hadn't reacted to the events in the way a friend would. A friend would have stepped in, tried to prevent Ares' persuasive words from taking root, rather than running away with tears streaming down their face.
She'd been upset, that much was obvious, and she'd been concerned and angry and scared, but…
With a start Gabrielle realised her predominant emotion had been jealousy.
She had been jealous of seeing Xena kiss someone… No, that wasn't quite it… She had been jealous of seeing someone kiss Xena.
Gabrielle sat bolt upright in the bed.
She wanted to be the one to kiss Xena.
It was nearly midday when Gabrielle trudged down the stairs into the common room, a hand coming up to stifle another yawn as she quickly scanned the room. She hadn't slept well the previous night; the confrontation with Xena and the sudden insight into her own feelings playing over and over in her mind.
Confused and nervous, she had waited patiently for the warrior princess to return. However her watch had ultimately been in vain; the dark haired woman had never appeared, and when the first birds of dawn began to chirp outside the window, an exhausted Gabrielle had finally succumbed to a restless slumber.
With a sigh, Gabrielle abandoned her search and moved slowly towards the bar. Alexios watched her progress with one eyebrow quirked; the whole scenario reminding him strongly of Xena's entrance the night before.
"You okay Gabrielle?" the innkeeper asked as the blonde slipped heavily onto a stool.
Turbulent green eyes reluctantly met his.
"I'm fine," Gabrielle muttered quietly.
Alexios let out a disbelieving hum and fixed the young girl with a look, however the normally talkative blonde remained silent. Realising he wasn't going to get an explanation anytime soon, the barman sighed.
"Well let's get some food in you anyway. I missed you last night at dinner."
The innkeeper disappeared into the back, returning a few minutes later with a steaming bowl which he set before the girl. When the enticing smell met Gabrielle's nose, her stomach let out a loud rumble.
Alexios chuckled. "That's more like it," he grinned as she tucked into the food.
A small smile graced the blonde's lips between mouthfuls and soon the dish was scraped clean. Dropping her spoon with a clatter, Gabrielle looked up to see Alexios leaning against the back of the bar giving her an expectant look.
"Want to talk about it?" he asked, as Gabrielle caught his eye.
The blonde tilted her head thoughtfully. She really did want to talk about it. Usually laying out her problems helped her cope, and although Alexios wasn't anything like Lila, her normal confidante, he was kind and friendly and had the aura of a man who genuinely wanted to help.
But the things she wanted to discuss… well, she wasn't exactly sure she had them sorted out in her own mind yet.
Silence stretched between the two until finally Gabrielle dropped her head.
"No …" she whispered.
The innkeeper sighed. He knew whatever was upsetting the blonde had something to do with Xena; he'd seen the darker woman's expression as she'd stormed out the previous night. However Gabrielle seemed reluctant to explain exactly what had happened and he didn't want to push her.
Reaching a hand across the bar he patted her arm in what he hoped was a comforting manner before sympathetically changing the subject.
"Well, I refuse to let you be sad today," he said brightly. "No one's allowed to be upset on summer solstice."
Gabrielle looked up at that. With everything that had happened, she'd completely forgotten today was the day everyone had been talking about.
"Summer solstice is today?" she asked.
"Indeed it is! Everything kicks off in the square after sundown. Oh Gabrielle, just you wait…" he rubbed his hands together excitedly. "If there's one thing Cerames knows how to do, it's celebrate."
The blonde leaned forward in her stool, her head tilted in interest. Alexios smiled as he saw a familiar glint begin to make its way back into her eyes.
"If you're free, I could use your help setting up?"
"I'd love to," Gabrielle replied, finally breaking out into a small smile of her own. "I have an appointment in town first, but I'll come to the square as soon as I'm done."
The innkeeper raised an eyebrow as the blonde hastily stood from her stool.
"I mean, if that's okay with you?"
Alexios let out a low chuckle.
"As soon as you're ready Gabrielle, you're always welcome."
It was eerily silent as the God of War surveyed the scene below him.
Three bodies were sprawled at unnatural angles within the confines of the tent. One lay, sword still sheathed, in a pool of blood at the entrance; his face a mask of surprise but his eyes undeniably vacant. A spray of blood marred the wall behind him, against which the second body had come to rest. This soldier had managed to free his weapon and put up a brief resistance, before he too had been brutally cut down. Ares noted one of his arms now dangled loosely from its socket.
The third body was kneeling amongst the splintered remains of a table which had been smashed during the fight. His sword lay useless beside him; having slipped from numb fingers after his chest had been sliced open from shoulder to shoulder. Ares was surprised when he took a slow shuddering breath and raised his head towards his attacker.
Not quite three bodies… Not yet anyway.
Marcus stepped forward to crouch before the broken man. Cruel dark eyes bored mercilessly into his victim as he reached out and grabbed a handful of the man's tunic to clean his sword.
"What an ignoble end Lucius. An ignoble end to an ignoble life."
Marcus sat back on his heels as the old centurion took a shallow, rasping breath. A crimson bruise had blossomed down his right cheek where the bone had been crushed beyond repair. Marcus recalled the sickening crack with pleasure.
"It's a pity you won't even get the honour of dying in Rome..." Marcus said.
The old man's throat bobbed furiously as a cruel laugh filled the tent. He tried to speak but his words were drowned by a fresh wave of blood that bubbled up and out of his mouth.
"Don't try to talk, there's really nothing left for you to say. I'm afraid your time is up and your army is mine." Marcus continued as Lucius swayed unsteadily.
His lip curled in disgust as he watched a single tear slip from the man's eye.
"You always were weak, bending over for every Barbarian Bitch and their shitty little town from here to Athens... At least have the decency to die like a proper officer of Rome."
Marcus stood, lifting a sandaled foot and kicked the dying man's stomach. His body fell backwards with a thud and finally lay still.
Ares watched as Marcus drew himself up, head held high before he spat at the crumpled form on the floor.
The man had skill, Ares would give him that. His opponent had clearly been an experienced swordsman despite his age, yet their struggle had scarcely lasted two minutes before Marcus had surprised the old man with a deft parry and struck the fatal blow. It had been a competent show of skill and cunning. The guards he'd cut down outside had barely stood a chance.
And now in victory he was utterly ruthless.
He was exactly what Ares had been looking for.
If I can't get to Xena through seduction, thought Ares, I'll just have to try a different approach. I need her to suffer like I suffered. I need her to see that we belong together.
There was a shimmer of light as the God popped into physical existence.
I need to hit her where it will hurt the most.
Marcus spun instinctively and raised his sword, lethal and poised to strike. Ares smiled with an easy nonchalance, displaying a row of gleaming white teeth.
"You're the vicious type, aren't you?"
Shoulders tense, Marcus growled.
"Who are you?"
"Now now mortal…"
"I said who are you?" Marcus interrupted, cutting off the God mid sentence.
Ares' face darkened and the air began to crackle around him.
"You would do best to respect me," he warned.
Marcus clutched his weapon tighter, but he was not one to back down.
"Tell me who you are!"
Darkness began to swirl around the God as his fists clenched tightly. Marcus edged towards the pool of lantern light spilling from the corner of the tent, his sword held ready. The flickering beams of light caught the guilt lettering upon his breast plate.
Senatus Populusque Romanus.
Ares paused, the darkness dissipating at once. His eyes began to twinkle before a deep chuckle rolled out of him in a wave.
"Gods I almost forgot. You're not one of mine."
Marcus's forehead creased in confusion at the sudden atmospheric change.
"You're a Roman." Ares emphasised. "That's a completely different place. And a different place means different Gods… That explains why you don't know who I am and I guess it excuses the fact that you're not currently grovelling at my feet…"
The Roman was silent and Ares grew frustrated at his continuing lack of kneeling. The God was used to a certain amount of devoted adoration.
He waved a frustrated hand.
"Do I really have to walk you through this? My name is Ares, Greek God of War," he enunciated emphatically.
Marcus raised a sceptical eyebrow and Ares rolled his eyes…
Damn stubborn mortals.
Without flinching Ares thrust himself forward onto Marcus's outstretched blade. The cool metal slid through his chest like a hot knife through butter, leaving neither a mark nor a single drop of blood.
"Convinced yet?" he asked, centimetres away from the mortal's face.
Marcus jerked back as if he had been burnt, leaving the weapon buried deep inside the God.
Finally there was that glint of fear that Ares so desired.
Ares began to pull the steel out inch by inch, keeping one eye locked on the Roman.
"I liked the way you dispatched that old guy by the way. You've got quite the talent for a mortal."
A proud but wary smile flitted across Marcus's features.
"I believe this is yours…"Ares said holding the hilt of the sword out towards the Roman.
Marcus took it gingerly, visibly relaxing as the familiar weight of steel came within his grasp.
"Keep that safe. You'll need it." Ares said.
His interest piqued at that statement, Marcus's eyes flicked to the God's.
"Come now, it doesn't take a God to work out that you're hungry for power… And I do so admire those who seek power… The greatest battles I've ever witnessed – and trust me I've seen a few – have been driven by those who yearn for it. And now that you've come into an army… well, I could help elevate you to such a level of greatness you would look down on Achilles himself…"
Marcus's sword arm began to droop as he hung on the God's every word.
"Of course, for that kind of help, we would need to come to some kind of mutually beneficial arrangement..."
There was a meaningful pause before Marcus spoke.
"You give me what I want and I'll give you what you want. A thousand men to fight in your name? A chance to conquer the known world? A God as your guide? Just think of the unadulterated potential we have here…"
A fire of ambition took root deep within the Roman's soul. Ares knew he almost had him.
"And what is it you want in return Ares? What is your part of this bargain?" Marcus asked, still cautious.
Ares smiled in anticipation.
"There's someone I need you to get rid of."