"The Apology"

By Carly

Disclaimer: The characters and incidents portrayed in this story are fictional. No infringment was intended.

Summary: Ares is made mortal after the Dahak fiasco - and then has to face Xena.



She saw Gabrielle shivering there, her face white - her lips blue. Her eyes were wide, as though with all her bardic skills, there were some things she still could not imagine. Like a nail as thick as a man’s thumb penetrating the soft skin of her palm.

The piercing cry of a bird startled Xena, and she hesitated, waiting until she saw a great tree of tiny finches rustle and flee from the sharp eyes of the eagle overhead. They fled to the deep forest for which Xena was making, the dark forest which marked the boundary from the barbarian plains to the hills of Greece. She was nearly home; a few days longer and she’d be home; and all she could think about was death.

Xena winced, shook the image from her mind, and strode on resolutely. Her lip twisted, a little, with the irony of it - she’d seen her best friend die, seen it, and so she knew she was still alive.

“That’s when you know you’re alive!”

Xena jerked, peering around sharply - even though she knew the voice was only echoing in her mind. That laugh; that inimitable shout. That unchangeable belief that only by coming close to death and danger did one really feel the thrill of life.

He’d left her once, with the enemy surrounding her, a warrior twice her size holding a blade to her throat. She had let out an ugly croak of fear - and he’d laughed. She hadn’t been able to see him, just feel him, but she could hear that note of wild pleasure in his voice, as he watched her, moments from death, tasting it in her mouth. And the roar of laughter and triumph which followed as she fought her way back to life.

So, would Ares be laughing now - now that she was alive, now that Gabrielle was alive too, despite his efforts to destroy them both by joining Dahak?

Xena pushed aside a low branch, and snarled. She hoped with everything in her that he was suffering the wrath of all the gods on Olympus for his betrayal.

******

He hoped there was a bar.

Ares’ memories of his previous go of it as mortal were hazy; but he did remember finding a bar, and discovering the strange pleasures of drunkenness. It had been a good bar, with strong, bitter ale, he recalled. And there had been something else -

Oh. Xena had come, and found him, and made his lip bleed. It had stung a little, but then she’d reached out her hand and pulled him up.

He probably wouldn’t take her hand, this time, Ares mused as he continued walking down the remarkably dusty road. He wondered in passing why the dirt didn’t simply stay where it was instead of floating up about the vicinity of his nose. No, this time he’d be more than happy to stay on the ground, and avoid all dealings with the woman. After all, if it hadn’t been for her - or, more precisely, her young friend against whom he had warned and warned her - he would be still blissfully unaware of the distance between one barless town, and the next.

He shrugged uncomfortably, staring up at the summer sun - oh, Apollo was putting on a great show that day, and how he appreciated it - and continued straining ahead, hoping that a tavern would appear about the next bend.

A tavern which, even if it did contain Xena, would be a place to drink alone. As soon as he got embroiled in any of her peculiar schemes, he ended up getting stabbed or punched or made uncomfortable in some other generally odd manner. Zeus would cool down as soon as he realised the extra workload involved with having the god of war out of business. He’d probably not even make it to the tavern.

Ares sighed. No, he’d melt from heat before he made it to the tavern. Zeus would probably wait till he was on his deathbed, pleading, before he reinstated him - and then he’d replay his humiliating whimpers to a highly amused crowd of Olympians again, and again, and -

It had to be a mirage. Ares squinted, and then picked up his pace. There was a building - and it did resemble nothing so much as a tavern -

It occurred to Ares that this time, Xena would probably not be nearly so forgiving of him. After all - the last time he’d been mortal, it had been after he’d messed with her mind, and swapped her body around, and joined up with Callisto. Gave Xena an opportunity to really wipe that crazy bitch out of her mind, so really, she’d been kind of grateful for his part in the whole deal.

This time, he’d got Gabrielle killed.

Weren’t too many ways to put a positive spin on that, Ares decided, wincing a little. It’d be some kind of irony, all right, if he died at Xena’s hand - or got close, anyhow. There was something he just didn’t like about the idea.

It was a tavern. And all in good time, too - Ares realised that his walk had taken him longer than he’d expected, and the sun was hesitating on the horizon. He approached the door, and felt a strong hand grab at his arm and pull him in.

“Hurry, hurry!” a voice cried out. “We bar the doors at sunset - get in, before it’s too late!”

Chapter Two

Xena waded knee-deep into the river and waited, watching the water flow by her. There was a flash; and her right hand darted, grabbing at the fish. She hooked her fingers into its gills, and turned back to shore. If Gabrielle had been there, she would have waited a little longer, and caught another one - but there was no need, not just for herself.

She realised how much the silence changed everything about her. Mealtimes, travelling, even preparing for bed. It had a completely different quality, now, because she was no longer completing her tasks while dodging the thousand and one questions Gabrielle always threw at her; or trying her best to grasp the main point in a very drawn out story; or attempting to explain, for the hundredth time, why they were going where they were going and what they were to do there.

A small smile crept over Xena’s lips. Whenever she was apart from Gabrielle, she always vowed that she’d never complain again. But she would, of course. It was just part of their friendship, Gabrielle making the noise and Xena enduring it. She knew enough of herself now to know that it wasn’t going to change between them, no matter how she tried.

And no matter how she tried to prevent Gabrielle from being hurt by her, it would happen. After all, she’d seen Gabrielle dying by her side.

*****

“Wha - Hey, what are you doing?” Ares protested as he stumbled awkwardly into the tavern. He looked into the face of a small rotund man, with wide frightened eyes.

“We bar the door at sunset -“ the man repeated, then pushed by him, fixing the lock and lifting a thick wooden bar into its place.

“And I’m sure that’s a very good idea - keeping out undesirables -“ Ares agreed cheerfully, looking around at the place. It was almost empty; he guessed it wasn’t happy hour, here. In that case it was unlikely they would run out of ale.

“Undesirables! Huh!” the man grunted. He turned to Ares finally and shook his head. “You think we’ve barred the door against something - human?”

Ares frowned. “Well, I don’t think a ghost will take any notice of a few locks, but that’s me. Can I have a room and the biggest mug of your best ale?”

“Ghosts!” the man repeated, ignoring Ares’ request. “What do you think I am, a loon?”

The idea had crossed Ares’ mind, but he decided revealing that would render him even less likely to get his ale. “Not at all,” he lied. “So - if it isn’t ghosts you fear -”

He settled himself hopefully at the counter, and finally the publican slid a mug in front of him, and lifted the wine-jar from the floor.

“Only a few nights ago, young Tyder’s daughter - Tyder the smith, you know, who’s as quiet a man as you’ll ever meet - Tyder the man who takes care of every horse in this neighbourhood, can shoe the wildest colt without pause - Tyder who -”

“His daughter?” Ares prompted.

“Humph. Well, she was on the way home from her sister’s house, just the other side of the wood, a little before sunset. And she - she saw something.”

“Ah,” Ares nodded intelligently, setting down his empty mug and wiping his moustache. He slid it across the bar, and the man filled it abstractly.

“Tall as a house - thin, though - and it chased her all the way back to the smithy’s house.”

“A bear?” Ares suggested.

“No - no bear that big, not with thin arms more like twigs than anything flesh.”

“Perhaps the girl was frightened by shadows - the trees moving in the wind.”

“Still a night as any I did see,” the publican assured him stubbornly. “And that’s not all. Old Petros - Petros the tinker - Petros who fixes every pan in this village - Petros who -”

“- saw something in the woods?”

“Noo - not exactly,” the publican admitted reluctantly. “But his dog was barking and barking - and broke the rope which tied him - Petros has a crippled leg, you know, so he couldn’t chase him - well, next morning they found the dog - torn into a hundred pieces.”

“A bear?” Ares suggested again.

“No dog’s that wild around a bear,” the publican told him. “More ale?”

“More ale,” Ares repeated happily. As long as that phrase punctuated the conversation regularly enough, he didn’t care how many wild stories the bartender told him that night. And with a barred door, there was no way Xena could appear and take off his head with a flying chakram. Yes - he’d just found the best tavern in all of Greece.

Chapter Three

Hangover.

Xena had explained that word to him, Ares recalled woozily as he hung over the side of the bed and threw up. Fortunately a bucket had been placed there tactfully by the publican and his son, who’d dragged him upstairs late - very late - the previous night.

It was the price mortals paid for drinking to excess, he remembered. Made sense. The whole mortality gig seemed to be pleasure followed by pain; constant pay-offs, in fact.

If you wanted to sleep with a mortal woman, you either had to pay, or face being chased out of town by all her brothers waving large swords.

If you wanted to eat, you either had to pay, or face being chased out of town by everyone in the shop - again, waving large swords.

And if you wanted to drink, you either had to be satisfied with a few mugs, or spend the next day feeling as though death was about to knock on the door.

A loud thud at the door followed that bleary thought. The sound seemed to drive itself into Ares’ brain; he groaned.

“Andres!”

The man had the wrong room. No - Ares recalled that he’d given the innkeeper that very name, out of some fear they’d want to kill him for sending all their sons to war. Perhaps they’d always known, and had pushed the ale onto him, knowing how it would affect him . . .

“Andres!”

Ares managed to sit upright, and paused a moment to allow the room to stop spinning. He managed to creep over to the door, and opened it a crack, leaning heavily against the doorjamb for support.

“Yeah . . ?” he croaked.

“Lucky for us the door was barred!” the innkeeper related with utmost joy. “Someone was taken last night - stabbed by monstrous fingers in a thousand places!”

Ares allowed himself to be led downstairs and outside the tavern - why, he could not say, except that he was too weak to protest - where a circle of gawking villagers stood around a body. He pushed through, suddenly, at a thought -

But it was a stranger. Not a woman, perhaps barred from safety, a woman searching for him . . . no, it was a stranger, an old man.

“Petros!” the innkeeper announced gleefully. “Went after the thing that killed his dog, I suppose. Still think it could be a bear?”

Ares shook his head slowly. The bear idea had made sense before - but viewing this body slit with dozens of small wounds - it was as though he’d been stabbed by an entire band of men. With rather narrow blades.

What had the innkeeper said? Monstrous fingers . . .

“Fortunately for us, we have Andres the warrior here!”

A cheering rose up, and Ares winced again at the noise. Had they hated poor old crippled Petros so much? No . . . what had the man just shouted? Andres the warrior. Andres . . .

Ares uttered a low moan. Something was stirring at the back of his still bleary mind. Something he’d said last night, about being dressed like a warrior, because he was a warrior. Boasting that he could rid the woods of whatever “bear” was stalking the village . . .

A mug was shoved into his free hand, and an arm flung about his shoulders, and suddenly he was surrounded by roaring villagers. He had to go out into the forest, and kill a strange monster, or else he’d be torn apart where he stood.

Ares took a sip of his ale, and cheered up a little. Well, at least he wouldn’t have to pay his bill.

*****

Hope had fallen first. Or - had they fallen together? No, Hope had fallen first, Xena decided, and had taken the brunt of the flames and had died in an instant.

Or at least after suffering horrific agony, anyway.

Gabrielle, on the other hand, had been sheltered from the heat of the fire by Hope’s body. She’d been tossed onto a crag of rock, she’d rolled into some deep recess, climbed into a shallow cave.

And some young priest had heard her cries for help, when she’d at last come to, and had pulled her out. Without Ares noticing. He’d been tricked into the whole serving the god of war thing, and was really a good man . . .

Xena shook her head. She crouched for an instant, watching, then continued her way through the thick forest.

Dahak had taken both of them - they’d fallen together, and he’d transported them instantly to safety. With Gabrielle’s quick wit and clever tongue, she’d managed to convince Hope that she was on her side. Then she’d killed her - again - and was waiting for Xena in Potidea . . .

It was closer to the temple, though.

Because what if she were still there. It was impossible, but so many things were impossible. What if she were still there, and Xena passed her by. What if . . .

It was closer to the temple.

*****

The forest enclosed him, only a few steps from the path.

The villagers had followed him, cheering, all the way to the forest’s edge. Then they began to drift away. He’d seemed smaller, to them, somehow, compared with the height of the trees, with the darkness of their shadow. The quiet of the place had silenced them. After a few steps on the path, Ares had turned to find himself alone.

He was still a little drunk, he realised, but he had enough wits about him to realise that he’d be no match against a monster as big as a house and with enough blades on its fingertips to turn a man into a sieve. The answer was, of course, to follow the path through the forest and out to the other side, where presumably there’d be another tavern.

The path petered out only a mile into the forest, however. There was a narrow trail after that - and Ares followed it, feeling the trees drawing in about him as he did. Perhaps there was no monster, and his first idea of the trees was correct. Except no ordinary trees, but wild ones, ready to jump out at him and strangle him with their vines.

The trail became invisible a few steps after that. The trees and bushes grew so thickly about that Ares found himself slashing a path nervously, while low branches whipped him in the face. There was a strange scent, a heady aroma of resin and moss and rotting leaves. There was an even stranger quiet, without the sound of birds, or rustle of lizards; and it was dim, with the tall trees overhead blocking the sun.

A branch snapped - the sound echoed around Ares, and he froze, his eyes darting this way and that, looking for the source of the noise.

There was a shuffling - and a rhythmic thudding that frightened Ares horribly before he realised it was his own speeding heartbeat. The shuffling, however, was coming from the bushes ahead of him. From the clump of trees directly in front -

It wasn’t a tree. Ares found himself gripping his sword, and running, yelling, leaping into the air to lop off at least one of the enormous spikes coming from the creature . . . and then being thrust back by an invisible hand, and collapsing hard against the trunk of a tree.

He blinked. Someone appeared from behind the tree-like monster.

“Now is that any way to treat your own son?” Hope asked.

Chapter Four

The temple wasn’t far off, now. The first sight of it, when she’d rounded the hill and it appeared below her, was like being stabbed in the heart. She’d gasped - stumbled - she’d had to grasp at the trunk of a tree to steady herself.

It had flashed upon her inward eye, as clearly as a vision. Her face, as she grabbed Hope and jumped away from her. She’d died for her. She’d died for her.

Xena shook her head, and straightened. Gabrielle was alive. She squinted down at the black squat building. It looked empty. Xena supposed that was a hopeful sign - probably Ares was now hanging somewhere near Prometheus, having his liver eaten by vultures.

Hmm - except that she’d freed Prometheus, hadn’t she. Well, there was a spare spot, then.

There wasn’t a guard or a temple priest in sight. Xena wondered suspiciously whether she’d been watched, ever since she left the Amazon lands, and crept surreptitiously closer.

Still silent; still empty. One of the main doors hung open, but a spider had woven a web in the gap. Xena thrust her sword through the dusty cobweb, then followed it into the main room. It was suddenly cold, after the bright sun; and it was terribly quiet.

She walked over to the blackened pit - cold and empty now. Flipping herself over the edge, she climbed into the narrow pit, and made her way down, feeling the sides for crevices, spaces. It was very dark. Ash coated her fingers, and halfway down she wondered whether she’d been a complete fool all along. This was a place of death.

Alti could have sent her a vision to mock her, trick her. This was a place of death. Gabrielle had fallen and died here - become ashes, become part of the earth - Alti had prevented her from reaching her in the Amazon world of the dead, and instead she’d die here, go to Tartarus and be separated from her friend’s love forever . . .

Her hands shook; her fingers, grasping the sides of the pit, trembled. She felt so weary. Gabrielle had fallen here, and for an instant she wanted to fall, too. Fall into darkness, fall away from the world. She had travelled through the lands of the dead as a mortal; perhaps as a ghost she could do the same.

A door slammed.

Xena froze, her fingers gripping the crevices more firmly. She began to pull herself painfully towards the surface, listening now to shuffling footsteps, to a murmur agonisingly too low to make out. There was someone there - that was all she knew.

There was the creak and low groan of another door being pulled open - then the slam and echo of its closing.

Xena hesitated a moment at the surface of the pit, before raising her head slightly and looking around. The dust had been disturbed, but no one remained in the chamber. For an instant she wondered whether the sounds had been the wind moving through the building - or some strange remnant of all the agony that had happened in this place, not so long ago . . .

She shook her head free of such mysteries, and pulled herself into the room. Someone - or perhaps more than one person - had just come into the temple, had made their way to some inner room. A priest, why not? Some tramp, looking for shelter . . .

Except there did not seem to be another door in the place.

Xena inspected every wall, pushing against the sides of the place, knocking lightly against the wood and stone, listening carefully to find some hollow panel. Nothing.

Had the visitor simply left by the same door by which they’d come? That door, though, was still half-opened, not slammed shut.

Xena’s eyes narrowed as she looked around. A god’s temple would, of course, be filled with hidden passages, strange doorways. Religious acolytes loved mystery - made them feel just that little bit superior to ordinary mortals.

She strode out of the temple, and made her way slowly around the walls of the temple, moving carefully, tapping again against the walls. There wasn’t a temple that didn’t have a back exit, by which the priests could flee if people started to blame them or their god for their troubles.

Bingo.

Xena slid her hands carefully along a narrow crack in the wall. She felt the spring release beneath her fingers - and the door open slightly before her. She looked into the shadowy passage a moment before opening the door up and slipping through. It led sharply downwards; darkness enclosed her as soon as she closed the door.

It was quiet and cool in this strange passage beneath the earth. Xena couldn’t hear her own footsteps, could barely hear her breaths. It reminded her of the odd passage through to Morpheus’ temple, so long ago . . .

The shadows gave way to a dim light, and Xena moved more quickly towards it. Then she ducked hastily; she’d come out onto a platform, looking over a large room beneath. The narrow walkway ran along the length of the room, before ending in a curving staircase. There were no windows; it was so dark that it took a moment for Xena to realise that she was not alone.

Peering down into the room, her eyes adjusting to the light, she noted a low stone table, or perhaps altar, in the very centre of the room. There seemed to be little else in the place. Well, apart from the man chained to the altar.

Xena squinted into the darkness. She had almost made up her mind to leap down, when a door creaked open and lit up the room.

A girl walked in, shutting the door carefully behind her. But in the moment of light her profile was very, very clear.

It was Gabrielle.

Chapter Five

It did make a strange kind of sense - that Gabrielle would have Ares chained beneath his own temple. Well; if Gabrielle had been her, anyway. It was the sort of thing she might have done, once, if she’d been angry enough and if she’d had Ares in her hands. And Gabrielle had said she wanted to be just like her . . .

Xena realised that the low rhythmic thudding was the blood pounding about her ears. She tried to steady and deepen the hasty shallow breaths she was taking; she tried to open her eyes and see. Something in her mouth tasted bitter; she wanted to spit it out, her disappointment most of all. The idea that Gabrielle would prefer revenge rather than searching for her . . .

Xena shook her head, blinked, stared. The girl moved closer to the body on the altar - which, in the flash of light from the open door, Xena had seen was indubitably Ares - and began uttering the filthiest curses over him.

Xena felt a hot rush of shame and relief flow over her. That she’d thought, even for a second, that Gabrielle . . . of course, it was Hope.

In the pit beneath the temple she’d believed for an instant that Gabrielle was dead. And here she had believed that Gabrielle would betray her. Was there something about the temple of war that encouraged one to despair?

Suddenly the cursing stopped.

“A deal’s a deal, Ares. You promised me - your promised my Father - to give me a child. A child!”

Xena saw the pale face below her crack into a grin.

“Rather than a spiky tree-monster? Well, yes - I can’t say he takes after my side of the family. What about yours?”

“You’re mortal now,” Hope sneered. “Invoking your family will do nothing. And if you renege on our deal, then -”

“I did everything I said I would.” His voice was suddenly low and exasperated. “If you can’t bake ‘em right, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

He flinched, then, at the blow Hope dispensed. She waited until he recovered himself; and then she hit him again.

“That really isn’t the best place to aim for, if you’re wanting to give daddy a grandchild,” Xena told her amusedly.

She stood for a moment, waiting, while Hope looked up and located her. Then she gave out her ululation, hearing with some pleasure its echo, and flipped gracefully to the ground, landing in front of Hope and then giving her a kick which sent her sprawling.

Hope gave out a howl of complete fury, and flung out her hands. A creak warned Xena; she turned and saw the platform above her collapse into shards of sharpened stone.

Throwing out her chakram, she rolled out of the way of the falling rocks, landing in the opposite corner. The sharpened circlet rang as it bounced off the stone walls, over Hope’s head, slicing at the ropes which bound Ares to the altar.

He leapt up, and Hope screamed again in violent anger. The room began to shake and suddenly a great fissure opened up in the floor, splitting the altar in half, and marooning Xena and Ares on the far side on the room. Hot bursts of steam poured out of the fissure; flames, and bubbles of lava followed.

Hope’s cry of fury turned into a triumphant laugh. She gazed at the pair, surrounded by heat and flame, then turned and raced out the door.

“Are you really mortal?” Xena questioned Ares hastily.

“Would I still be here if I wasn’t?" Ares retorted. "Getting my godhood back is conditional on Hope's death . . .”

She'd die, all right - that was a given, Xena thought to herself. The question was whether Ares would follow her into the grave. It was in her power now. In all her dreams of vultures and fiery torture, she'd never imagined that she would have to dish it out herself. But here was the lava. Here was the punishment. And here was her utter inability to do such a thing. She could kill Hope, and she would, but she recognised that it wasn't because of anything the - creature - had ever to done to her. It wasn't punishment for Solon's death. It wasn't revenge for Gabrielle. It was simply the completion of a task that she dimly realised had been set down for her from the beginning. Or that she'd chosen along with her new road. The destruction of evil. But to kill Ares . . . a burst of lava spurted up, and they jumped back from the edge of the fiery crevasse. She looked down at him coldly, and saw that he simply trusted her to get them out of the situation. He didn't seem to guess at the thoughts which led to her hesitation. That both infuriated her; and shook her. "Just hang on, then," Xena muttered. Grabbing his arm, she threw him over the gap, then flipped and followed him across. “Let’s go. This time, I’m going to kill her, Fates or no.”

“How about I do it? Then we can celebrate together,” Ares suggested. “I know this great tavern - ow!”

The room began to shake again, and Ares fell to his knees. Xena reached out her hand and pulled him up.

“Shut up and run!”

It was only as they fled the burning temple that Ares realised, with some irritation, that he'd grabbed her hand anyway - that he'd let her pull him up, after all.

*****

“Well, you can always build a new one,” Xena said briskly as they watched Ares’ temple sink into oblivion.

“I liked that temple,” Ares mourned.

“Well, I didn’t,” Xena told him, her lip curling upwards. “It’s the only thing Hope’s done right, so far.”

“Uh. Yeah. I guess so,” Ares muttered. “I didn’t think it’d - work out - exactly the way it did. I mean . . .”

Xena hesitated a moment. “I know what you mean,” she replied finally, then turned away.

“Where are you going?”

“Gabrielle’s alive,” Xena called back over her shoulder, “and now I know Hope is too, I’m pretty sure of where I’ll find them.”

“And what about me?” Ares yelled, breaking into a run and catching up to her. “We can take her on, together - just like old times, fighting side by side . . .”

Xena turned suddenly, and Ares took a step back. He opened his mouth to speak - and at the sight of her face, closed it again.

“No.”

He opened his mouth one more time - then gave a swift nod, and stepped back. Xena turned around and headed for the hills. She didn’t look back; but she knew that Ares would be still standing there, watching her leave.

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