DISCLAIMER: The characters of Gabrielle, Xena, Alti and Ares belong to MCA/Universal and whoever else has a stake in them. Ill give them back when Im done with them. Only slightly bruised! Theres a bit of violence in this story, but thats okay, right?
TIMELINE: This not-very-long story is set in SEASON FIVE, during the episode Them Bones, Them Bones. As such, it contains spoilers. Like this one Gabrielle getting her ass severely kicked in five seconds during her little trip into Altis spirit realm bugged me a LOT. How did that make her feel? So this is my take on it I sent her on a little side trip. Though if you havent seen the episode yet, it might not make much sense! I hope you like it! Thanks to Ged and MaryD! Feedback would be greatly appreciated. Ó March 2000
THE LADY KNOWS WHEN TO LEAVE
The air was devoid of all life. The spiritual realm Alti had created was the ultimate playground for one of her sort a tortured, fragmented world where even the air itself bowed to her smothering will. Bare-boned trees, dry crackling grass. Flames as still as stone. A stream that did not flow. Birds that did not fly or breathe.
Gabrielle was one of those birds now, caught beyond measure. Hot shame filled her along with blinding pain. Oh gods. Ive failed. Ive failed you already, Xena. I never had a chance.
The bard kicked and swore as twisted, relentless hands crushed her windpipe. She closed her eyes, frantically willing herself to use the dagger clenched in her fist. Her muscles screamed in their trapped housings, useless, stilled, unable to obey. Red spots began to swim across the darkness, and Altis hot, fetid breath laughed against her neck.
Somewhere in the back of her mind she could faintly hear the pleading voice of her friend .
You have the dagger, Gabrielle, use it!
A stunning blow to her head sent her crashing to the ground. Dimly, in the distance, she could see her other self fall. Altis chilling, cracked laughter rang out behind her.
Xena, thought Gabrielle desperately, Xena, shes won, she beat me, bring me back. I cant, I cant
She tried to scramble away from the shamaness, inch by agonising inch, clawing her way across the grass.
Alti began counting. "When I reach ten," she hissed, "you will be dead." She thrived on her evil art even showmanship could not disguise her unfettered glee at the torture she was inflicting.
Gabrielle felt as if her body had burst into flames.
The blackness that hovered behind her eyes rushed forward with frightening speed and swallowed her whole.
When she opened her eyes, she was cold. The dark and weathered stone of the temple seemed to hem in the chill rather than drive it away. It was not a large place. Worship in these hard days had come down to a few poor offerings from intimidated mortals. Their scanty farms and threadbare children drove them to their knees in supplication in front of whatever god they thought would help. This temple was no exception.
Outside, it was night. Inside, it was midnight. Nothing could be heard but the hissing of flames, the soft, faraway call of a night-creature. The cornerstones were green, mossy. Years of leaks had trickled their way down the walls of this place, the soft water eroding the hard stone in a silent, unrelenting war. Torches sputtered in dulled brass sockets, emitting a haze that filled the air. It clouded the altar, tickled the nose.
Gabrielle wanted to sneeze, but didnt. She stood silently in the middle of the scarred floor and shivered in the gloom, slender arms wrapped tightly about herself. She was alone. Blood stained and furred Amazon robes were gone, her knife was gone. The pain was gone. She stood, dressed in her leathers, wondering why she was not dead.
Where was this place?
Green eyes mapped the outlines of the room, noted this weeks offerings - a rusted sword, a platter of wrinkled, dried olives, an empty and cracked pewter canister. Her gaze came to rest on a carved likeness which stretched across the entrance. Ares.
A flicker of a rueful smile touched her lips, but not her eyes. Gabrielle had almost forgotten how to smile with her eyes. She had lost touch with many things in the blood-filled days recently behind her. What laughter was. The way love felt when it touched your skin. How to tell stories. How to voice the feelings that churned in her stomach, clenched at her heart. But there was one thing she remembered with perfect, piercing clarity.
"Thank you for coming."
The quiet, deep voice came from nowhere and filled the temple, but Gabrielle was not frightened. Nor was she surprised when the dark form stepped out from behind the altar. Her arms dropped to her sides, shoulders straightening unconsciously. Yes, there was one thing she remembered. How much she hated this god.
"Thanks?" she replied bitterly. "You brought me here. You didnt give me a choice."
"Thats right," agreed the god of war. "I made the choice. The choice to save your life."
"I dont need any favours," she spat. "Especially from you."
The tall shape waved an arm. One wall of the temple rippled, the stones turning upon themselves, distorting into smooth circles. As the breach widened, Gabrielle saw herself in the stone. The picture cleared. She was dragging herself across the yellowed grass, face pale with agony, prone at Altis feet.
Gabrielles breath caught as Alti became visible, the cruel triumph on her face almost too much to bear. Alti was laughing. The shamaness did not have to hurt Gabrielle with her hands in the spirit realm it was her words that were killing the bard, cruel words that forced the air from her lungs and stole the strength from her limbs. Her words. Her reality. Her victory.
Altis earlier declaration echoed in the temple
I dont want to hurt the baby any more than you do. I need it to be born
Gabrielle stiffened. Xenas baby. The babys safety was the reason for her journey to the spirit realm. The reason she had faced Alti and tried to kill her. The reason her other self now lay gasping and dying on the cold earth of Altis creation.
"Look familiar?" Ares voice was as soft as the darkness surrounding him. "How exactly were you planning to get out of this one, my little bard?"
"Dont call me that." The words were daggers, thin and bright. "Im not your anything."
The dark shape on the altar chuckled richly. Without seeming to move, he was suddenly in front of her, a quiet rush of air filling the space he had left. His voice dropped another register, running along her skin like tendrils of smoke.
"I will call you whatever I see fit." A long finger traced the outline of her arm. "Mortal."
Gabrielle did not move, did not blink. Once, this god had frightened her. Once, she had trembled when he was near. Once, she had mastered him, taken his powers away and restored them again. Once, not so long ago, she had almost let herself be his.
Gabrielle didnt like the way her heart had picked up. She could feel it, hear its erratic thunder, knew he must be able to hear it too. In the wall, Altis laughter splintered and broke like ice on stone.
"Take your hand off me," Gabrielle said coolly, striving for calm. "What is it you want?"
His hand dropped from her arm and waved lazily toward the wall again. The image froze. Altis head was thrown back, teeth glistening, hands clenched. Gabrielles visage was stilled too, choking and tortured. Without realising she had been holding her breath, Gabrielle let it out. She had a little time, then.
"You are no longer afraid of me, are you Gabrielle?" Ares asked smoothly.
She raised her head. "No. Why should I be afraid of a waning god?" She indicated the run-down temple. "Look at this place. No-one wants the kind of protection you offer. Youre finished and you dont even know it. Theres nothing to be afraid of any more."
She subsided, satisfied with the words she had chosen, feeling her heart slow and calm again. If her words had offended the god, his face betrayed nothing.
"Ive kept an eye on you," he said calmly. "Both eyes, in fact. Ive been watching you for months now. You knew that."
"You know when Im there." It was not a question.
"Yes. Its like snakes crawling over my skin. Why do you watch me?"
Dark eyes bored into hers. "Why do you think?"
She did not look away. "You want me to be your Chosen."
"Gabrielle," the god chuckled richly, you already are my Chosen. Thats why I brought you here. I can offer you life."
"I already have life," she mimicked, stone-faced.
The wall of the temple rippled once more, and for an instant, just a blink of an eye, Gabrielle began to die again.
"FIVE!" Altis cackle.
The gods voice was a whisper. "Not for much longer."
"Gabrielle, do you hear me? I want you back here right now! Gabrielle, you can do no more good!"
Xena was frantic. Gabrielle was slipping away before her eyes, a thin trickle of blood sliding down her neck. She cradled her friends empty body in her arms, begging her to wake. There was no response.
"What makes you think youll survive?"
Gabrielle drew herself up. "Xena will bring me back."
"Will she?" asked Ares, an eyebrow raising. "How do you know?"
"Because she loves me," answered the blonde, steadfastly. "She promised she wouldnt let go of me, and she wont."
"Gabrielle." Her name silked from the gods lips. "When and if that happens, what will you tell her?"
Green eyes dragged themselves away from brown and dropped to the floor. Her voice was husky.
"Ill Ill tell her that ."
"That you failed?" A torch popped loudly, and Gabrielle swallowed.
"Yes," she replied firmly, her heart breaking, the shame flooding her again. "Ill tell her I failed."
"Will you tell her Alti wants to steal the babys soul, and that because of you, she is still alive to do so?"
The god was silent for a moment. He flickered in the fire light, vanishing and reappearing behind her. Gabrielle forced herself to remain still, though she couldnt stop her skin from goose-pimpling.
His voice purred into her ear.
"What if you didnt have to? What if, instead of another stunning failure from the Bard of Potedaia, you could return to her victorious?"
At his words, Gabrielle felt a stab in her stomach. She shut her eyes. Damn him! Of course he could read her thoughts. Of course he had been doing so. He had unerringly and mercilessly hit her right where it hurt.
The god continued, circling her with infinite slowness, every word an arrow to her heart.
"Arent you tired of failing, Gabrielle? Arent you tired of being second best? How many times has Xena had to pull you out of a mess of your own making?"
"Shut up, Ares." Gabrielles breath had quickened.
"You havent even been in the spirit world for five minutes, and Altis beaten you already. Doesnt that shame you? What will Xena think of you?"
"Ares, damn you! she shouted. Her eyes were flashing cold fire; fire and something else. Pain. "I did my best! Alti is just too strong for me! Not every battle can be won first round."
Ares steepled his fingers and his head tilted just a fraction. "Is that the excuse youll give Xena?" he inquired, smiling. "She was just too strong for you?"
An explosive noise escaped Gabrielle. I will not let him hurt me, I will not let him hurt me. "When are you going to get tired of this?"
"I can offer you a victory. You can defeat Alti. You can kill her forever and return to Xena and the baby unharmed."
"Oh yeah?" snapped Gabrielle. "At what cost?"
Ares smiled then, and in his smile was love and darkness. "Not cost, Gabrielle. Reward. A seat at my side. You can be everything you have ever wanted to be, including a hero. To her."
Gabrielle sighed. Same old, same old. "No deal. Ares, are you ever going to realise that I cant be won this way?"
"What way is that, my Gabrielle? The way of truth? Youre ashamed of yourself. Of your failure. It is true, isnt it? Your heart is breaking even now."
"Of course Im ashamed!" she burst out, the tears beginning to fall. "Yes, Ive failed her again, and that hurts me. But I would never run away from facing her!"
"Because, because " Because its me that has to live with the guilt.
"Because its happened so many times before that shes used to it?" the god taunted, leering. "Little Gabrielle. All grown up now? New body, new weapons, but still the same scared little girl inside. You think youre her equal? You think you can possibly give Xena what she needs?"
"Because- " Because saving her is saving myself.
"Youve failed her! Alti is still alive and stronger than ever. How can you face her knowing that youre this weak?"
"Because she loves me for trying, you bastard!" The god stepped backwards slightly as the words ripped furiously from Gabrielles mouth.
There was a silence, and during the silence, for the first time Gabrielle accepted the truth of her own words. Win or lose, Xena loved her for trying.
She had no reason to feel guilty. Ares had been using the wrong weapon. It was not what Xena would think of her that left her choked and saddened. It was what Gabrielle thought of herself. And those demons, the invisible demons, she could deal with. The crushing sense of shame lessened, and Gabrielle felt her heart grow lighter.
She raised a hand and pushed the god further away, the tears spilling over her cheeks. "Youll never understand that, will you? For you its always about winning."
She stepped away from him and fixed her eyes on her own tortured image in the wall.
"Send me back."
"Youll die, Gabrielle. If I send you back without my help, youll die. I can promise you that."
"No I wont," she insisted. "Xena will bring me home."
"You trust her that much?" The gods eyes were darker than night itself. "Enough to risk your existence?"
Gabrielle turned to look at Ares. When he saw her eyes, he knew he had lost her forever. He felt a stab in his heart.
"Every day of my existence I owe to her. I would give my life a thousand times if I had to, for her, or for her child."
Her arms crossed her body, an unspoken gesture of determination. "And even if I do go back to Altis world and I die, Id still make this choice again. Death is better than any victory on your terms."
"Gabrielle if Xena fails ." Ares was hurting now, the unfamiliar pain in his chest threatening to drown him.
"Then Ill still love her for trying," answered Gabrielle, softly. "Even from the Elysian Fields. Now, send me back."
Ares looked at her for a long moment. Then he smiled. And in his smile was pain, and loss.
"As you wish. Goodbye, Gabrielle."
The blackness swallowed her again. Xena, Im sorry I failed you, but I tried. Please bring me home.
"TEN!" gloated Alti, and Gabrielles heart exploded in her chest. Her breathing cut short. The blood drained from her face. She rolled onto her back. And then she died, and there was nothing at all.
This time, when she woke, she wasnt cold. There was warmth, and there was pain, but it was bearable. There was a friend cradling her in loving arms, and tears shed over her. And there was the knowledge she had tried.
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