She discovered this early. It hums in their veins, burst forth forte when she slits their throats, throbs a staccato base line through her skull. Hot and fluid and vital, it provides all the notes for the endless etude of her life in the ring.
Once, when she was still Gabrielle, before she became a golden knife in the hands of the lanistae, she would sing stories like the greatest bards - “Rage, goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles” - but now she only knows the song of a blade, the roar of the crowd her chorus.
And it sings to the gods as well. Not in praise, though she imagines the priests at their altars, red with bull’s blood, might argue - not in praise, but instead, beckoning. Or so she assumes when she finds, standing in the middle of her modest cell, the God of War. He is clapping.
She should be surprised, dazzled - when she was Gabrielle she might have seen this as the start of a magnificent story and laughed even at the danger of it. When she merely stares, eyes narrowed as she idly rubs at the cut on her lip, he grins, and says, “Gotta say, kiddo, you’ve really surpassed all expectations. I mean, wow.”
She remains silent, but her heart thunders. Expectations? Until now, she had thought her life meaningless to the gods. It was an odd sort of comfort - that this was just her fate. That the game of what-if that she had played in the early days was pointless, because all roads, for her, lead to Rome.
“Hey, c’mon, the god of war is complementing you here. If you aren’t gonna bow in deference, you could at least say thanks. How many gods have called you a masterpiece, huh?”
He circles her, admiring the sinewy flex of her muscles as she strains to hold herself in check.
“Aw, no false modesty, blondie. You’re magnificent. I should know; I made you. Put you in the right place so that they burned through all that dippy love and compassion shit to your iron core. Forged you in the heat of battle so you could be my blade. You’re perfect, now.”
“You already have a champion, Ares. What do you want me for?”
Even here, she has heard stories of the Warrior Princess, the Destroyer of Nations, the woman who had conquered Greece. That Rome still stands is a testament to her strange sense of humor, not Rome’s strength - it was only Caesar she killed, not the city, not the empire. The empire, she left to fear her.
“Ah Xena, yeah. She’s been great but lately she’s been, what was it - ‘tired of the killing.’ Doesn’t have the bloodlust anymore, seems a little burned out. You know there hasn’t been a war in Greece in over 2 years? I can’t have that. I think it’s time to upgrade to a new model, you know?”
She laughs, deep and low and scathing, the sound lurching through her, clenching her stomach and her teeth into a sick wince. She can’t decide if this news makes her love Xena or hate her.
“What’s so funny, shorty?”
“She’s tired of killing?”
That she would ask such a question seems to please him, and he prowls closer. She stand stock still, as he uses one finger to trace a healing gash on her forehead that’s as crooked as his smile.
“See this is why I like you - you can’t even fathom that, can ya?”
She hates the implication - that all she could understand is death. This has been her secret - that even now, even as she loves her strength and the feel of the sword in her hand and even as she holds tight to the signs of her survival, counting her scars and pulling sounds of the crowd’s ecstatic rage into her heart, she does not love the killing. She only loves the song, and the song stops when the heart does.
To Ares, she snorts.
“Sure I can. Like I can fathom wealth and love and freedom. They’re all luxuries I can’t afford.”
He grins and spreads his arms wide. It’s almost a fatherly gesture, almost an invitation to an embrace. “Can’t afford yet. Come with me, gladiator, and I will make you free.”
She licks her lips, mind racing. Her lip is still bleeding, she realizes. She can taste it. And in its metallic tang she can taste the future he offers her. Freedom, but freedom where the sound of blood is no longer just a song but an endless scream, murder no longer just the life forced on her but a choice made and embraced. She thought it was her fate, to be under the heel of Rome. But Ares had intervened.
She spits in his face, the blood splashing against his cheek.
“Go fuck yourself Ares. You don’t own me.”
For a moment he’s actually too shocked to act, but then he howls.
He stomps and curses and shoots fireballs at the walls in frustration. It’s all very impressive. Idly she wonders if he’ll inadvertently free her in another way by cutting her down. Her cheeks hurt and it takes her a moment to realizes it’s from a ferocious smile.
He leaves, though, when the tantrum is done, perhaps unwilling to kill her without making a second later try, and she lays down, wrestling with the new thought, giddy with it - this is not my destiny; I am not a sword and I can choose not to be a tool, even of gods - before tumbling into sleep.
It is not many days later when she’s called again to the ring.
They don’t usually waste her on executions. She’s too good, and though pitting her against anyone is a death sentence for her opponent, they are almost always gladiators as well trained as she. The killing of lesser opponents is left to lions or more feeble fighters - were it her responsibility, it would be too fast, too boring a spectacle.
Today, then, is special.
Somehow, Xena the Conqueror has fallen alone into the hands of Rome and she is to fight her in the ring. She suspects Ares has something to do with it, suspects there may be another ploy to coerce her into joining him, but she has tasted the power of refusal, and has already decided to lose. Her masters will kill her if Xena does not, of course, but it doesn’t matter. She knows now that there is no destiny in her being in damnable Rome, and now the thought of staying in this life is untenable.
She only has a moment to drink in her opponent before the clash begins. Xena is tall, and dark, and wild, with eyes like chips of ice or sparks of fire or calm blue sky - she cannot decide which - and Xena is not paying attention to her. The Conqueror growls low in her throat as she takes in the crowd, the nation yelling for her death, and lunges at the gladiator with fluid grace even as her eyes are fixed on the gate from which she entered. She’s distracted and underestimating her opponent, who could have killed her already, if she were fighting to win.
Instead, with a slow, lazy bat to deflect Xena’ sword from her throat, she says, “You are very beautiful.”
This jolts Xena’s full attention to her. But for some reason the shock does not show on her face at the words; it shows only when they lock eyes. Xena stumbles back a step, gaping at her for some reason she cannot fathom.
“You’re the Golden Gladiator?”
She nods just so, the wrist of her sword arm hanging limp, the tip of the blade dragging along the ground as they circle one another.
“That’s who they made me. But that’s not who I am. My name is Gabrielle.”
And even as Xena shifts into a better stance, Gabrielle can see the dawning realization on Xena’s face that the gladiator before her has no intention of killing her. She raises her sword again, but strikes no blow; instead, it is a salute. Xena’s lips twitch into a sardonic smile.
“Good to meet you Gabrielle. Even under the circumstances.”
Xena strikes out with her blade, but now too her blows are only for show, a distraction while they talk. They are both skilled enough that the crowd has yet to realize that something is amiss.
Xena gestures vaguely towards the box where the most respected citizens sit as she parries a swipe of Gabrielle’s sword towards her belly. “What happens if we don’t fight?”
“They find another way to kill us. Arrows, or men. More likely men.”
Xena nods. Gabrielle can almost hear her think. Then: “I had planned on killing you then rushing the gate when they let out their backup executioners and cutting my way out of this gods be damned city, but I think, Gabrielle, I would rather we escape together. What do you say?”
She really should thank Ares after all. Before, she would never have the hope to make such a decision, let alone the opportunity. This, even if they both die, is a gift. A chance of freedom, real freedom, and someone to fight with instead of against, for it.
Gabrielle smiles. “Where you go, I will go.”
The answering grin on Xena’s face makes more than just Gabrielle’s blood sing.
They turn and run towards the gate in unison. Gabrielle raises her sword and then, together, they dance.