SWORD OF ARES
By JayBird (Jay Markle)
New York City - 1969
Janice Covington sighed and leaned back in her seat, the joints of both her body and the chair creaking dangerously. It was a little after 7 p.m. and she had just spent another exciting day teaching archaeology to five classes of puddin' heads, all of whom seemed more interested in the intricacies of scoring some weed for the big sit-in at the dean's office, than they were in studying the lost scrolls of the Bards of ancient Greece.
>From outside, distant shouts of 'Hell no! We won't go!' echoed through the closed windows of her small office. She got up and peeked through the blinds. Out on the campus of Brooklyn College, several hundred students--some carrying placards or waving North Vietnamese flags--were on the steps of the student union, shouting and punching the air with their fists.
Janice went back to her desk, laying her wire-rimmed glasses on the stack of papers she still had to grade.
At forty-nine, Janice Covington was still a handsome woman. Her reddish-blonde hair now streaked with gray, not to mention some crow's feet about the eyes. But she was still slim, buxom and looked damn fine in a skirt. Not bad for an over-tenured college professor with two busted marriages behind her.
There was a knock at the door. At last, she thought.
Sandy Delpeggio--one of her Archaeology 101 students--walked in, resplendent in bell bottoms, a tie-dyed tee shirt and a floppy brim hat.
"Hiya, Doctah C!"
"Hello, Sandy," Janice said. "Thought you were my dinner."
"I ordered a pizza," Janice said. "What can I do for you?"
"Well... Uh, y'know were still... like havin' the big demonstration across the quad..."
"I can hear."
"An' you did--kinda--say were thinkin' 'bout goin' to it an' all..."
"I changed my mind," Janice replied. "I decided a professor of archaeology isn't qualified to discuss the moral ramifications of theVietnam War. Now, if you wanted to discuss the moral ramifications of the Peloponnesian War..."
"Ohhhh... That is like sucha cop-out!" Sandy whined. "You're sucha groovy person, Doctah C! Why spend your life with these dusty old...stories. Dincha ever wanna save the world?"
"I have saved the world," Janice replied.
"Look, I've got papers to grade, okay? And speaking of papers," Janice started a mock search on her desk, "I... can't seem to find..."
"Oh, I'm workin' on it, Doctah C! Really!"
"Groovy. Friday, Sandy. On my desk."
"Sure, Doctah C. Well, seeya! Peace!"
"Live long and prosper."
Outside, parked on the opposite side of thestreet from the Anthropology-Archaeology Building was a blue 1969 Ford Shelby Mustang GT-500. Behind the wheel, a nervous Japanese girl named Yukari Oshima waited.
As a checker cab pulled up to the steps of the buildin,g she scrunched down in the bucket seat, watching a tall, well-dressed older lady exit the cab and hurry up the steps. A second later someone tapped on the passenger-side window, nearly scaring the bejezus out of her.
"Chiksho!" she hissed, opening the door. "Don't do that, Scott-kun!"
"Gomen-gomen, Yukari-chan," Scott McKenna said, getting in beside her. "But that's her! I just followed her in from La Guardia. First she went to Diana's place on West Seventy-Sixth, then Janice's place in Flatbush... Now here."
"Sugoe!" Yukari chirped. "Everything is working out as planned!"
"Not quite. I just got off the phone with Doctor Kristopolis. Nobody can find Gabriel or Diana. It's like they just... vanished."
"Hmm... Maybe they eloped." She turned to him. "Better get ready."
"Hai." Scott nodded, trying not to notice what a pretty young woman was sitting beside him. Short pageboy of black hair framing such a pretty face, while the black turtleneck sweater and mini skirt she wore showed off her slender form to perfection. He even liked the vinyl go-go boots. "Uh... Yukari-chan, I know this isn't the time, but..."
She sighed, and then they both moved in for a tight, long kiss over the gearbox of the Mustang that left them both gasping for breath.
"...get going," he finished, getting out of the Mustang and grabbing a flat package wrapped in butcher's paper. Yukari handed him a receipt book and a cap, kissed him again, and then he was hurrying up the steps of the building as fast as he could.
Janice looked up as someone pounded on her door. At last, she thought.
"Janice!" Dr. Melinda Pappas-Feinberg of the University of South Carolina stormed in, livid with rage. "What th' hail are we gonna doabout that daughter o' yours!!!"
Janice blinked. "Why hello, Mel. Nice to see you too."
"Oh to hail wit the pleasantries! Your daughter is causing big trouble fo' mah son..."
"Excuse me." There was an edge in Janice's voice as she rose from her seat. "Diana wasn't the one who ran away from home, okay? If anything, it's Gabe who has the raging hormones."
Mel's eyes bugged out like she was going to let Janice have it. Instead she dropped into a chair by her desk and started bawling uncontrollably.
"Oh for chrissakes..." Janice sighed. She looked about her cluttered desk and found a box of Kleenex. She waved the box at Mel. "Here. Take one. Puh... lease? I can take anything you can dish at me, Mel. Anything but your tears."
"Ah'm sorry," Mel sniffled, taking a tissue and blowing her nose. Janice noticed that even in a crisis Mel was well dressed in a smart looking summer-weight suit and skirt. She also noticed she was a littleheavier, her once jet black hair now streaked with gray. "It's just...now that Avron's gone, Gabriel's all ah got."
Janice nodded. She remembered attending the funeral of Mel's husband not two years ago. His grave was half a world away at an Israeli military cemetery near Haifa. Avron Feinberg had been a scholar, a soldier...and a good friend. He had died in the Sinai taking out an Egyptian tank. There hadn't been enough of him left to fill a shoebox.
"Okay," Janice said. "How do you know Gabe is in New York?"
"He called me," Mel answered. "Tol' me not to worry. Said he was headin' north... to Canada."
"Cuz last week his number came up, Janice," Mel said. "Gabe was drafted."
"Damn," Janice muttered. "What about his college deferment?"
"He never took it... And why should he?" Mel looked up at Janice. "Remember Livie? The woman who raised me? Ah saw more a' her than ah did mah Aunt Helen or Daddy. Her son Cletus was drafted. Got sent off to Vietnam and thirteen weeks later got sent back in a box. Is mah son any better 'n hers? Jus' cuz he's white and rich enough to go to college?"
"So you want Gabe to go?"
"'Course not!" Mel hissed. "I've buried a husband, you think ah wanna bury mah only son? But he has a duty. A... responsibility. If he doesn't go... if he skips off to Canada like those other lowlifes, then some other mother's son has gotta go in his place."
Janice nodded. "Look, I'll... try to get in touch with Diana, okay? But it might be tough. We don't talk much these days. I just found out she dropped out of NYU."
Mel looked up and gently squeezed Janice's hand.
"Some pair of mothers, huh?" She tried to smile. "Guess we shoulda stuck with tomb robbin'."
There was a knock on the door.
"I think that's my dinner," Janice said, wiping her eyes. "Care to join me?"
"Sure," Mel replied. "Why not?"
Janice opened the door. A tall, lanky, rather handsome young man in a khaki shirt and jeans stood there with a package in his hands.
"Hi," he said, touching his cap, "I'm with Rapid-Trans Delivery. I have a package for a... Dr. Melinda Pappas-Feinberg?"
"That's me," Mel said, blowing her nose with another tissue. "But how'd you know I'd be here?"
"I wouldn't know, ma-am," he replied, squinting at his receipt book. "It just says here I'm supposed to deliver this package to a Dr. Pappas-Feinberg at Room 227 of the Anthropology-Archaeology Building of Brooklyn College, ASAP. Sign here."
"That's damn strange," Janice said. "Who's it from?"
"Ah... doesn't say," he said. "Just says it came to our Manhattan office at six-oh-two p.m. for immediate delivery. Just sign right there, please."
"Don't I know you?" Janice said, looking him over.
"Ah... I don't think so."
"Come to think of it," Mel said as she signed. "You look pretty familiar to me too."
"No, really... I don't... uh, remember meeting either of you two ladies..." The man seemed suddenly nervous. "Well, gotta go, bye!" He pressed the package into Mel's hands and lit down the hallway like a scalded dog.
"Hmph," Janice said as she shut the door. "Seems everybody in town knows where my office is except the goddamned pizza delivery kid."
Mel was busy pulling at the paper and twine that held the package together. Janice moved back to her desk and sat down as Mel opened it up, revealing a simple wooden frame. Both women gasped and felt their hearts skip a beat as a crescent shaped half-disc of iron and bronze fell from the frame to land on Janice's desk.
It was the chakram.
Mel shut her eyes and backed away. "No! Oh mah Gawd, no! Ah don't need this now! I've got mah son to think about. Please..."
But the chakram seemed to call to her. An irresistible siren's song that made her pick it up and hold it before her.
"For chrissake, Mel," Janice whispered. "Put it down."
"Ah can't," she whispered back. "'Sides, we're safe as long as the other half don't come flyin' through the window."
"Wouldn't count on it," Janice said through gritted teeth. She pulled open a drawer of her desk and removed the other half of the chakram.
"Where'd you get that?" Mel muttered.
"Found it lying on my desk, yesterday."
"So why didn't you throw it away? Or tell me you had the goddamned thing?"
"I-I couldn't... I'm... so sorry, Mel. I don't want to do this either..."
The two crescent half-discs seemed to pull towards each other with an almost irresistible magnetic force.
"Damn, Mel," Janice hissed. "Just let go!"
"Christ... here we go again!"
As the two pieces pulled closer, static discharges danced between the crescents, pulling them closer and closer until they met in a burst of brightness that blinded them both as the force of a lightning bolt exploded in the room, kicking Mel back onto her butt with her back to the door, while Janice was thrown ass-over-teakettle into her chair, which finally broke under the impact.
Outside, the student demonstrators looked up from their shouts and rants as the sound of rolling thunder rumbled across the campus over a clear evening sky.
Across the long centuries, the Ancient Gods had spoken.
Xena woke up first, groaning as she picked herself up off the floor. She hated this part. The sudden surge of memories and emotions that rushed into her head all at once. Gabrielle had once said it was like eating a twelve course dinner in one swallow. For Xena it was like trying to put a puzzle together where the pieces didn't fit.
"Gabrielle?" She licked her lips, trying to get rid of that awful electrical taste that made her think of sucking on a light bulb.
"Gabrielle?" Xena followed the moans to find Gabrielle flat on her back by the desk. She knelt down beside her friend.
"Com'n, Gabrielle," Xena said, gently shaking her. "Com'n, wake up now. I need you."
"Umm..." Gabrielle yawned. "Five more minutes, Xena. Go feed Argo or somethin'... Jus' five more minutes..."
"Okay, Gabrielle," Xena said, shaking her harder. "Wakey, wakey!"
Gabrielle finally opened her eyes and looked at her. "Mom?"
Xena let go of her shoulders and let her fall back on the floor.
"Owww! What am I lying on?" Gabrielle pulled a piece of broken chair out from underneath herself and groaned. "Here. Help me up."
Xena helped Gabrielle to her feet. For a long moment they held each other tight.
"Missed you," Xena whispered. "Soooo... much."
"Same here." Gabrielle kissed her and pulled back. "So... where are we? And when are we?"
"I think we're in Janice's office. And judging by the gray in you hair, more than a few years since our last adventure," Xena smirked.
"Oh, yeah?" Gabrielle said. "Just wait till you find a mirror."
Xena frowned. "What do you mean by that?"
"Oh, nothing... I think that door leads to a bathroom. See for yourself."
Xena walked to the bathroom while Gabrielle looked around trying to get her bearings. She felt some of the pieces falling into place as she peeked through the blinds to see what the commotion was outside. Janice's desk had been effectively wiped clean except for the chakram lying innocently in the center. She shifted around the mess on the floor.
"Hey!" Gabrielle called. "I found a newspaper!"
She heard a wail of pain from the bathroom.
"It's not that bad, Xena."
Xena tottered back, leaning against the door frame.
"What in Tartarus has Mel been doing?" she growled. "I'm fat!"
"You're not fat," Gabrielle muttered, squinting at the paper. "Okay...I got the New York Times, Thursday, September 25th, 1969. Seven years since our last adventure."
"Seven?' Xena said. "You forget how to count? East Berlin, 1957. That shootout at Checkpoint Charlie. Twelve years ago."
"You're forgetting Tokyo, 1962. Remember? Our asses hanging off the top of that bullet train? That big fight with those yakuza punks in Shinjuku Station?"
Xena squinted at her. "You're making that up, aren't you? You're just trying to mess with my head."
"Oh, great!" Xena tapped her head against the door frame. "Old, fat and senile! My horror is complete." She sighed. "Anything in the paper?"
"Not yet. We're fighting another war... place called Vietnam. Looks like we're winning though. Arrests made in a big murder case out in Los Angeles. Tate-LaBianca homicides linked to hippie cult... blah, blah..." She stopped. "Holy shit!"
"I'll say." Gabrielle laid the paper down on the desk. Xena squinted at the bold-face print, feeling goose bumps ripple over her body as she read.
"Sword of Ares to go on display in New York..." She patted herself down to find Mel's glasses. She put them on.
"Read it to me, Xena," Gabrielle said. "I can't find Janice's specs!"
"They're on your forehead."
"The legendary Sword of Ares, reputed by some archaeologists to be the actual godhead of the mythological Greek God of War, and repudiated by other archaeologists to be a clever fake, will be seen in New York City starting Friday at the American Museum of Natural History..." Xena skipped down a ways. "...and will be displayed for one week only in the Hall of the Mediterranean People, a continuing anthropological and archaeological exhibition hall."
"The controversial sword was part of a liquidated private collection," Gabrielle continued, "and despite its dubious historical value, was auctioned at three million dollars recently in London... Here, lookit this. The sword was believed to have been unearthed twelve years ago during an illegal excavation in northern Greece..."
"Alright," Xena said. "It could be a fake."
"Maybe," Gabrielle said. "But if this was the same dig site we dynamited back in '40, then the Eye of Hephaestus might have been destroyed... maybe freeing Ares from his tomb."
"That's a lot of 'ifs', 'mights' and 'maybes'," Xena replied. "But if his sword is sitting in a museum, than Ares is walking this earth as a mortal."
"So?" Gabrielle said. "Maybe he reads newspapers too."
"You're right." Xena looked at Gabrielle with a terrible certainty. "He's going to try to get his sword!"
"Says here that after the New York showing, the sword will be returned to London for a year of extensive testing and carbon-dating. If he wanted to take it, now would be the time."
"Great!" Xena snatched her chakram up. "Let's go!"
"Wait a damn minute!" Gabrielle said. "We're both still a little rocky, y'know? Can't we... gear down a little... at least get our bearings?"
"Uh-uh," Xena said. "Ares is on the move, Gabrielle. I can feel that bastard in my bones." Xena looked at her. "I need for you to trust me on this."
Gabrielle smiled. "When have I not?"
Xena waited while Gabrielle grabbed her purse and went through the drawers of her file cabinet, finally finding a long barreled, blue steel Colt Python .357 magnum revolver.
"Christ," Xena muttered. "What happened to that old Webley you carried?"
"I dunno. Yet."
"Hope you're a better shot with that thing."
"I have a feeling we're going to find out."
Together they raced out the door and down the hallway, taking the stairs two at a time. Suddenly Xena stopped, holding onto the worn bannister. Eyes wide.
"Xena?" Gabrielle looked at her friend. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"Avron..." Xena whispered. "The man I... that Mel loved. He's dead. Killed in a war in the deserts of Judea..."
"Yes," Gabrielle said in an instant of realization. "I... I mean, Janice knows."
"B-But... Janice doesn't know that it's tearing Mel up inside. She loved that man with all her heart... and now she has nothing. She spends her days sitting in a room, thinking about what used to be. And... the only reason she hasn't... taken her own life, was because she still had her son... Gabriel." Xena looked at her. "But now he's missing..."
"Maybe he's with Janice's daughter, Diana."
Xena shook her head. "I... We, don't have time for this."
"Let's go," Xena said, taking a deep breath and bricking over her emotions with practiced ease.
Soon they were outside, running down the front steps of the building.
"Tell me you have a car," Xena called.
"I do!" Gabrielle shouted back. "It's a VW Beetle and I've got the keys in my purse and..." she came to a halt. "I don't have the slightest idea where I parked the damned thing!"
Xena turned in a slow circle, counting to ten in Greek.
"Look, I'm still puttin' the pieces together, okay?" Gabrielle said. "Even now I feel like I'm forgetting something. Something important. Something about a boat..."
"Hah! I'd like to see you in a boat," Xena said. "So how are we going to get to Manhattan? I don't see a cab in sight..."
Both women turned at the sound of a high-performance engine roaring down the street, as a blue Mustang popped the curb and came to a screeching halt just a few feet away from them. As the doors flew open Xena pulled her chakram as Gabrielle searched in her purse for her gun.
"Xena-sama!" a young Japanese girl shouted as she jumped out of the driver's side. "Chotto matte, kudasai! We are Xenites!"
"Hai!" the man on the passenger side said. "Uh, I mean yes! I'm Scott McKenna, Xenite one-forty-seven, North American Branch..."
"Oshima, Yukari des," the girl said, bowing slightly. "Xenite two-sixty-one, Far-Eastern Branch!"
"You!" Xena said, walking towards Scott, still pointing the chakram at him. "You're..."
"Yeah, I was the guy who gave you the chakram," Scott said, backing away. "But I was just..."
"You're Autolycus!" Xena said in amazement.
"I am?" Scott said. "Who's..."
"Autolycus, the legendary Prince of Thieves!' Yukari said. "A figure of Greek mythology almost as great as Xena-sama!"
"Me?" Scott said incredulously.
"You." Xena came around the open door and stood beside him. "Or rather, one of your ancestors."
"Yeah," Gabrielle said. "Anybody notorious in your family tree?'
"No," Scott replied. "In fact I have a great-grandfather who was a rather famous bounty hunter in the old west..."
"Sumimasen," Yukari said. "But we have little time for this! Already the..."
"Sword of Ares?" Xena said.
"Hai!" Yukari said, wide-eyed. "How did you..."
"We read the papers," Gabrielle replied. "So, com'n, let's haul ass! American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West and Seventy-ninth. Step on it!"
Xena and Gabrielle were crowded into the back seat as Scott and Yukari slammed their doors, and Yukari peeled out in a blue haze of burnt rubber, narrowly missing a pizza delivery van as it pulled up to the curb.
"Wait!" Gabrielle cried. "That's my pizza! I mean... Janice's pizza!"
"No time for pizza, Gabrielle-sensei!" Yukari shouted as she rocketed down the block and made the turn onto Ocean Avenue on two wheels.
"But I just remembered Janice hasn't eaten all day and I'm starving!" Gabrielle said as she slid into Xena.
"Excuse me," Xena said, pushing Gabrielle off her. "Either of you two know anything about this sword? Or if Ares is still alive?"
Oh, he's alive alright!" Scott replied. "Some Xenites traced him to San Francisco two years ago. He was heavy into that whole Haight-Ashbury, 'summer of love' scene. Had some kind of a cult following. Then hedisappeared down in L.A. and we haven't been able to find hide or hair of him!" Everyone hung on as Yukari took another corner. " As for the sword, our sources in Athens think it's the real deal. Actually, Doctor Covington was supposed to examine it today at the museum."
"I was?" Gabrielle said.
"Did you?" Xena asked.
"Yukari, we have company," Scott said. "Cops."
"Kso..." Yukari muttered at the squad car in her rear-view mirror as it chased after them with siren and lights. She expertly weaved through the heavy traffic and turned onto Prospect Parkway. "We'll loose 'em on the BQE."
"Hey, Yukari!" Xena called from the backseat. "Were you around when Gabrielle and I supposedly did Tokyo?"
"Oh, no, Xena-sama!" Yukari turned in her seat to look at her to Scott's wide-eyed distress. "I was only ten years old then! But my mother was a Xenite in that operation. She told me she drove the getaway car."
"Ninjababe!" Gabrielle said with a grin. "Your mom was Ninjababe?"
"Hai! That was her codename!"
"Hey, Speed-racer," Scott moaned. "Watch the damn road, yo-kai?"
"Bari-bari," Yukari said, turning back sheepishly.
"Wait a sec..." Scott said. "If you were only ten years old during the Tokyo Op in '62, that means now you're only only..."
"Oops!" Yukari was suddenly red faced. "Did I say ten? I meant to say twelve. Hai. Since I am now nineteen, I was twelve back then. Right, Scott-kun?"
"Ah! Coming up to the BQE!"
As the Mustang roared onto the four-lane Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, Yukari shifted into fifth gear and floored the accelerator. The Mustang took off like a bat out of hell, leaving the cop car behind and Xena and Gabrielle plastered to the backseat.
No one noticed the battered Chevy van or the old Plymouth sedan as they pulled into the loading dock area at the back of the American Museum of Natural History.
A tall dark man with long black hair and a beard got out first, hopping up to the dock while the rest of his people got out of their vehicles. He was casually dressed in a dirty white shirt, leather vest, bellbottom jeans and sandals. The guard who walked up to him had him pegged right away.
"Awright, hippie!" he growled, pulling his .38 from his holster. "You and your little freak show can just blow on outta here 'fore I..."
"'Fore you what?" Ares hissed as he moved in close and drove the blade of his stiletto between the old man's ribs and then angled it up to tickle his heart. He felt the old man's last breath whisper across his cheek as he let him drop to the concrete.
Ares shuddered and closed his eyes as a young pale looking man dressed in black and sporting an unruly mop of black hair eased in behind him.
"Was it good for you, Uncle?" he whispered.
Ares chuckled. "It's amazing, Strife. Across the long millennia...some things never get old."
"My Lord Ares!"
Ares and Strife turned as Derek Coombs rushed up. He was one of the curators of the museum as well as a loyal disciple of the God of War.
"My Lord." He bowed. "T-This was unnecessary! Thomas was an old man! I would've taken care of him!"
"I took care of him," Ares replied. "Is everything prepared?"
"Yes. my Lord. The sword has been encased and the alarm set... however, I can bypass the alarm and shut this building down in... five minutes."
"Excellent." Ares turned. "Haines?"
Franklin Haines stopped in his tracks, he was a massive black man with a clean-shaven head and muscles on top of muscles. He wore tattered army fatigues and carried two heavy duffle bags with ease.
"Follow Coombs to the sword. Set up your charges but wait for my signal."
Haines nodded. "Com'n, Cassie."
As Haines followed Coombs, a fawn-like blonde haired girl scampered after Haines, avoiding Ares' leer.
"Strife," Ares said. "I'll take care of any others. you get the hostages ready."
"Aw com'n, Uncle!" Strife grimaced. "Let's just get the sword and be done with it! Once we're Gods again... none of this will matter!"
Ares laughed. "Ohhhh... Strife! You simple boy! Like anything else, this is a game. And games have rules, comprende?" His face turned hard. "Now get the hostages."
Strife shrugged and motioned to the van. Instantly, several of Ares' well-armed followers pulled out a pretty teen-aged girl with red hair and a handsome young man with long black hair. Both were casually dressed and also bound hand and foot. Both were gagged.
They were Janice Covington's eighteen year old daughter, Diana Morrow and Melinda Pappas' nineteen year old son, Gabriel Feinberg.
"I still don't get it, Uncle!" Strife hissed. "We don't even know if Xena and Gabrielle will even show up!"
"Are you kidding?" Ares smirked. "They're already on their way. I can feel that bitch in my bones..."
Just a few minutes later a blue Mustang traveling north on Central Park West made a hard U-turn across three lanes of rush hour traffic and came to a screeching halt in front of the mighty granite and stone edifice that was the American Museum of Natural History.
"Ya-ta!" Yukari said, looking at her watch. "Ten minutes flat!"
"Great," Xena said, climbing off Gabrielle. "Now go back to Brooklyn and get my stomach!"
Everybody got out onto the sidewalk. Xena and Gabrielle clutching each other for support.
"So what now?" Scott said anxiously. "Do you wanna rush the front while we..."
"Oh just lighten up, willya?" Xena said. "We don't even know for sure if he's in New York." She sighed. "Look, Gabrielle and I have enough credentials as Janice and Mel to get in there. We'll scout around. You two wait in the car."
"Wait in the car!" Yukari and Scott said in stereo.
"Oh just do as you're told!" Gabrielle said. "Com'n, Xena!"
They started up the steps of the museum.
"Banzai, Xena-sama!" Yukari called.
"Battle on!" Scott shouted.
Xena and Gabrielle both turned and made shushing noises, then continued up the steps to the doors of the museum.
"Closed at five fifty-five," Gabrielle said.
"I can see that! Maybe we can find a guard or a..."
One of the black glass doors opened, revealing a thin nervous man in a suit and tie.
"W-Why, Dr. Covington! Good to see you again!"
"Uhh... Hi! I'm sorry, have we met..."
"Why yes." He smiled. "Yesterday, when you viewed the sword with Dr. Hassan."
"I did? Oh, I did! Yes..."
"I'm Derek Coombs, one of the senior curators. Can I be of assistance?"
"Yes," Gabrielle said. "This is my friend, Dr. Melinda Pappas-Feinberg, Senior Professor of Archaeology at the University of South Carolina. She's due to leave New York tonight and I was just wondering..."
"You'd like to see the sword!" Coombs smiled at Xena. "Of course, Dr. Covington. Anything for you..."
Scott watched Xena and Gabrielle enter the museum. He sighed and got back in the Mustang beside Yukari.
"Been training to be a Xenite since I was fourteen!" he groused. "And for what? To wait in the freakin' car!"
"Jama-jama," Yukari said, tapping on the wheel.
"Y'know," Scott said. "Someone should check around back..."
"Xena-sama said wait in the car!"
"So? Cars move."
"Haaaaai!" Yukari grinned. She kicked over the engine and pulled out into traffic.
It didn't take long for both Xena and Gabrielle to become hopelessly lost as Coombs led them down long hallways and up flights of stairs. They finally entered the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, a vast exhibition hall of stuffed wild beasts tucked away in representations of their natural habitats. In the center of the hall, a herd of wildebeest were frozen in mid-leap as a lion stalked them.
As Coombs nervously chattered away at Gabrielle, Xena once again noticed the total lack of guards. They had already passed two guard stations, both empty.
As they passed a third, Xena noticed another empty chair and a lit cigarette still in a nearby ashtray. She also noticed a wet spot gleaming under the chair.
She dropped to one knee, pretending to fix her shoe as she swiped the spot with a finger, coming up with a slick smear of red.
She looked up. Gabrielle and Coombs were far ahead, approaching the next hall.
Gabrielle turned, seeing Xena pull her chakram from under her jacket, just as Xena saw Coombs pull a revolver from his pocket.
"Get down!" Xena let the chakram fly even as Gabrielle instinctively hit the deck and Coombs was pulling the trigger on her. The razor-sharp hum of the chakram seemed to fill the hall as it hit Coomb's gun hand. He screamed as the .38 hit the floor in two pieces along with his right index finger.
The chakram ricochetted back to Xena who snatched it from the air. Gabrielle grinned until she saw a bearded young man with a shotgun slip into the archway behind Xena.
"Xena! Behind you!"
Xena managed to duck behind a stuffed wildebeest as the man fired, the boom of the shotgun echoing through the building as the head of one of the animals was blown to flinders. Xena flung her chakram at the far corner of the room, even as he pumped the shotgun and fired again, not seeing the chakram ricochet off a wall and home in on him from his left side. The chakram burned through the shotgun at the fore-end and the man's arm at the wrist. Screaming in shock and pain, he dropped the shotgun and was still staring at the bloody stump of his arm when the chakram popped back into his face, killing him instantly. An instant later Xena once again snatched the chakram from the air as it returned to its mistress.
"Damn!" Gabrielle said. "You've gotten good with that thing!"
"I was always good," Xena replied, twirling the chakram in her hand.
Gabrielle got up, pulling her Colt Python from her purse and snapping back the hammer as she approached Coombs, who was still backing away towards the next room.
"Y-You insignificant w-worms think you have a chance against h-him!" Coombs laughed, even as he hugged his bleeding hand to his chest.
"C'mere, laughing boy," Xena growled. Coombs gasped; with her shoulders back and bloody chakram in hand, she looked more like a feral, stalking predator than the frumpy middle-aged woman he had seen just a few minutes ago. She eased in next to him, pressing the edge of the chakram into the underside of his jaw. "Now, take us to your leader."
The Mustang eased around the back of the museum, its big-block V-8 rumbling like a barely-contained beast. Yukari stopped as the headlights picked up a van and a car parked by the loading dock.
"Oh shit," Scott muttered.
"California tags on that van," Scott said. "Kill the engine and lights."
Scott opened the glove box and took out a P-38 Walther pistol and an angel's-breath silencer which he threaded on the barrel with slightly shaking fingers. They eased out of the car and gently shut the doors. Together they ran up onto the loading dock and peered inside. Everything was dark and quiet. Scott looked back at Yukari, who nodded. He realized then that she would've followed him to the Gates of Hell if he asked. Scott smiled and then gave the signal to move in.
They were approaching one of the great fossil halls when Coombs stopped in his tracks.
"He's in there," he said, eyes darting from Xena to Gabrielle. "He's been expecting you..."
Gabrielle glanced through the archway, seeing nothing. "Fine. Lead the way."
"You first," Coombs looked at Xena and snickered. "Age before beauty."
"Shit before shovel," Xena replied as she grabbed him by the seat of his pants and the back of his neck and tossed him into the next room. He stumbled but managed to get to his feet as he looked fearfully about and managed to take three steps before a half dozen shots rang out. Coombs fell dead in his tracks as Xena and Gabrielle took cover on either side of the archway.
"Looks like we got 'em right where they want us," Gabrielle said.
"Cover me," Xena said.
Xena ran into the great hall, nearly slipping in the growing pool of blood spreading from Coombs' body. The sheer size of this hall was breathtaking. It was the largest in the museum, where ornate marble pillars and second story balconies looked down on the massive display of a Brontosaurus skeleton facing off the fossilized bones of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Three of Ares' followers opened up on Xena from two locations. Gabrielle tracked two sets of muzzle flashes from an upper level balcony and fired three times, the thump of her magnum filling the hall. One of the shooters went down, the other went over the side -arms flailing- and hit the floor with a nasty crack that made Gabrielle wince as she cranked off another shot and made her run to Xena's position.
The last shooter was tucked in by the foot of the T-Rex. As he eased up to fire again, Gabrielle double-tapped him in the face. He was dead before he hit the floor.
"Damn," Xena muttered as Gabrielle popped the cylinder, ejected the spent brass and snapped a speed loader in. "You've gotten good with that thing!"
"NRA, lifetime member," Gabrielle replied. "You ready?"
"I was born ready," Xena replied. "Hey! When did you become such a lifetaker?"
"I guess you're forgetting Jakarta, 1959?"
"What?" Xena gasped. "You're kidding!"
"Yeah," Gabrielle grinned. "I'm kidding."
Gabrielle hopped the railing and ran under the Brontosaurus. She made it about halfway before a grenade exploded over the spine of the massive creature, burying her in a sudden avalanche of shattered fossillized bone.
Xena didn't even have time to scream her name before another grenade hit the column she was standing behind; it blew apart in an explosive spray of marble chips. Stunned, Xena rolled out towards the base of the display, getting stopped by a stream of bullets ricochetting off the tiled floor in front of her.
>From the second floor she heard a wild, maniacal laugh she recognized at once.
"Strife!" she shouted, rising to her feet. "Show yourself, you little bastard!"
"Top of the world, ma!" Strife shouted from a balcony. He held an M-16 rifle complete with grenade launcher in his hands. He cut loose with another long burst of fire that sent Xena scampering back to the relative safety of the shattered column.
"Y'can run but ya can't hide, bitch!" Strife screamed. He leaped effortlessly down to the ground level, keeping his weapon trained on Xena's position.
"Betcha surprised as hell to see me, huh?" Strife continued to shout as he walked towards her with his finger tight on the trigger. "Uncle Ares found the hole Hercules put me in and decided to take me along for the ride!" He laughed. "Hey! Wanna try that iron frisbee now? Howzabout it?" He squeezed off another burst. "Your chakram against my popgun. Letsee who gets dead first!"
He was still laughing when Xena cut loose with her chakram, aiming at the wall behind her. It ricocheted twice and Strife whooped with glee as he ducked under the circular blade as it spun past-close enough to cut hair-and watched as it disappeared into the darkness.
"Ha-hah! Missed me, missed me! Now ya gotta kiss me!" A split second later, he heard the razor hum in his ears again. He turned just in time totake the chakram full in the face.
Right after he hit the floor, Xena was rushing to the pile of bones that had been the Brontosaurus. She was shifting through them when Gabrielle popped up, covered in dust.
She coughed. "Christ, Xena! Dinosaurs taste awful!"
Xena dragged her out and hugged her tight.
"Thought I'd lost you, girl," Xena whispered.
"Not ever," Gabrielle replied, returning the hug.
The two friends walked together to Strife's body. The former God was still alive. Barely. The chakram embedded in his skull bisected his face just below his eyes. Right now it was the only thing keeping him alive.
"Puh... leeeese," he whimpered. "Help me..."
Xena bent over him as Gabrielle covered her with her gun.
"Once upon a time you caused a world of pain for a friend of mine," Xena snarled. "Remember Hercules? I do." His eyes went wild as she gripped the iron and bronze ring. "Payback is a bitch, Strife. Today I'm that bitch."
She jerked the chakram free. Strife died screaming soundlessly as blood overflowed his mouth and ran out his eyes in tears of red.
******* Chapter 4
"She's finally here."
Franklin Haines turned and looked at Ares. He seemed transfixed, with an almost awestruck look on his face.
"Hey, man," Haines whispered. "Better get a grip."
They were in the Hall of the Mediterranean People. Everywhere, artifacts of the Roman, Greek and Judean world sat behind protective glass cases. Except for the Sword of Ares, which sat before them protected by three inches of tempered Lexan duraglass, a material harder to get through than titanium steel.
Ares looked at the sword as Haines continued to wire the case with chunks of C-4 plastique. Too little explosive and the sword would remain untouchable, too much and the sword would be destroyed. Because as long as he and his sword remained seperate, Ares was nothing more than a mortal and the sword nothing more than an old piece of iron.
Ares allowed himself a smile. Ten years as a mortal had been ten years too long. When he had finally crawled out of that hole in the ground in Macedonia, the trail of whoever had taken his sword had been cold. But he knew how to bide his time and wait for the right moment to strike.
Strife had helped him build a life for himself... only to be kept on the run by those damnable Xenites who seemed to be everywhere. He had finally managed to lose them in Frisco two years ago, where he had also found believers for his cause.
Still, two years of planning for the apocalypse with a crazy little hippie and his followers had at least netted him enough cannon fodder to get this job done. Ares shook his head. Poor little Charlie and his dreams of helter skelter. From what he had read in the papers during the long drive east, the jig was up anyway.
He walked away to leave Haines to his work. A beat later Cassie knelt beside Haines
"What you want?" he growled as he cut the primer cord.
"He scares me, Frankie," Cassie whispered, She was slender-almostfrail-with a delicate quality to her that made Haines love her all the more. "Can't we just... go?"
"You shittin' me?" he whispered back. "Y'mean after all we've been through y' think he's a fake?"
"No, Frankie," she said with wide eyes. "I believe him. I believe he is the God of War. B-But why follow a man..."
"A... God, who's going to bring so much suffering to this earth? Y-You saw what he did to those guards. He killed them so easily. The way other people turn off a light! The world doesn't need a God like that!"
"Now that's where you're wrong," Haines replied, working on another wad of plastique. "I spent ten years in the SEAL teams and three tours in the 'Nam doin' shit even I don't like to think 'bout. But I did it. SEALs taught us if you got a mission you gotta get 'clicked on' and do your J-O-B. Even after I got messed up and cycled out on a section eight, I knew what was right. What hadda be done. Shit, girl. Ares ain't gonna do nuthin' this world ain't already seen. He's just gonna be organized 'bout it." He looked at her. "Y'gotta trust me on this, baby."
"I love you," she replied.
"This is it," Xena whispered.
The two friends were hunkered down in the shadows just outside the Hall of the Mediterranean People. Gabrielle checked her gun for the third time.
"This really is it, isn't it? I mean, all we've been through over all these centuries... it's come down to this. Either we walk out of here, or Ares does... as a God."
Xena looked at her friend and grinned. "It's been a helluva ride, hasn't it?"
"Wouldn't have missed it for the world."
"Then com'n. Let's go make some history."
The eased into the massive hall, now darkened except for a few lights over the actual exhibits. A second floor consisted of marble walkways and staircases where a small army could be hiding. But in her soul, Xena knew it had come down to a showdown between her and Ares.
She heard the laugh first. That evil, gloating chortle of superiority that hadn't changed much over three millennia.
"Greetings, my Warrior Princess!" Ares shouted. He stepped into the light at the center of the hall, standing on the deck of a reconstructed Greek warship. "It has been awhile, hasn't it?"
"Hello and goodbye, asshole," Gabrielle replied. Balancing her right arm over Xena's shoulder, she brought her Colt Python to bear, aiming at the center of Ares' chest, squeezing the trigger even as Ares brought his hand up.
"Na-na-naaah! Now you really didn't think I'd make it that easy for you, did you?" He grinned. "Looky-looky what I got!"
Another light flared on, revealing the second story walkway behind Ares. Balanced precariously on the marble banister were Diana Morrow and Gabriel Feinberg. Both were still tied hand and foot, and both now had old-fashioned hangmans' nooses tight about each of their necks. Diana squalled into her gag, nearly losing her balance.
"Nooooo!!!" Gabrielle screamed, feeling the part of her that was Janice Covington rise out of her soul and grab at her heart. "Ares...please!!!"
"'Ares... please'." He chuckled. "I like the sound of that, little bard." His voice went hard. "Now lose the piece."
"Ares!" Haines shouted from behind him. "It's ready!"
"All in good time," Ares said. Xena could see he was enjoying himself. And why not? It's not every day you get three thousand years worth of vengeance. "Now... lose the gun, or momma's lil' precious gets her neck stretched."
Xena saw two figures standing behind their children, ready to push at Ares' command.
"Do it, Gabrielle," Xena said.
"Shit." Gabrielle tossed the Colt Python away, mentally marking the spot where it landed.
"Now it's your turn, Xena." Ares walked along the port side of the ship and leaned down, hand outstretched. "Surrender your chakram to me."
Xena looked at him, absently twirling the chakram in her hand.
"Oh, I know what your thinking." He grinned. "You're thinking about letting fly and cutting those ropes and then bouncing that thing through my face. Go ahead. Your children-or rather, Mel's and Janice's children-will still crack their skulls open on that floor. And my people will still kill you both. Not that Mel or Janice will have much to live for anyway." Xena looked him in the eyes, realizing that whether mortal or God, he was also mad as a hatter. "Make your play, Xena. I win either way. And I've been wanting this sooooo bad... for sooooo long!"
Xena handed Ares her chakram. He took it in hand, looking at the weapon lovingly as he walked the deck of the ship.
"Sooooo long," he said. "Kept prisoner by the Eye of Hephaestus with this as the key. My mind allowed to wander the centuries... while my body was entombed." He turned and smiled at Xena and Gabrielle, the chakram tight in his fist. "After I take over and rock this world, I will make your chakram the symbol of my power. Don't worry about your lives, or the lives of your children. I intend to let you all live a very, very long time." He stopped and raised his arms wide. "As faithful worshipers of Ares!"
They had moved silently among the shadows of the second floor landing, listening to Ares mouth off. What a blowhard, Scott McKenna thought. After being raised on stories of Ares the Big Bad Boogeyman... here he was, just another spaced-out headcase with delusions of grandeur. Gimme a break!
At the corner of the marble staircase leading down, Yukari Oshima silently took out another one of Ares' followers with a Xenite pressure point attack, laying her gently on the floor. As Ares talked, Scott was tempted to take aim with his silencered pistol and just grease him here and now. But Diana and Gabriel came first. After all, they were needed for the next generation of Xenites.
Scott stopped about fifteen feet from where Diana and Gabriel were standing, precariously perched atop the marble banister. Two of Ares' rather scruffy looking followers stood behind each of them, holding them steady with their hands over their bound wrists. A third follower stood between the first two, holding an M-16 and grinning at the scene below.
Yukari tapped Scott on the shoulder and made hand signals. Scott nodded. A beat later Yukari ran silently up to the three of them. The one in the middle turned his head and spotted Yukari just as she ducked and let Scott double-tap him in the forehead with two rounds from his P-38 that were so quiet he could hear the slide snapping back over the cough of the bullets.
He was still falling as the second follower holding onto Gabriel went for the revolver in her belt. Bad move. Yukari drove the heel of her hand into the girl's nose, killing her instantly.
Yukari leaped over the two falling bodies and threw a spin-kick at thelast man, who stepped away from Diana long enough to block the kick and throw a couple of mean punches which Yukari easily ducked and sidestepped. He then caught her in the belly with a nasty kick that drove the breath out of her. She held onto his foot and retaliated with a kick to the knee that broke his leg. As he tumbled to one side she followed through with a chop to his throat that put him down for good.
When Yukari looked up, all of four seconds had passed and Diana and Gabriel were still on their perches... both wobbling back and forth and starting to pitch over the side. Instantly, Scott grabbed Gabriel and Yukari grabbed Diana, pulling them down on top of them so that they ended up in a noisy heap of arms and legs, sandwiched between the rescued hostages and the dead bodies of Ares' followers.
They made enough of a clatter for Ares to look up from his exaltations of victory and notice that his bargaining chips had suddenly disappeared. He winced as he slowly turned to look at Xena and Gabrielle and saw that they had noticed the same thing.
For a long second the three stared each other down.
"Haines, now!" Ares screamed. He threw the chakram straight for Xena's heart, but she was already gone, somersaulting through the air to land on the deck of the ship beside him. Ares threw a punch that Xena blocked, coming back with a solid hit to the gut that doubled him over.
Laughing with an evil glee, Xena drew back her fist--kissed her knuckle--and punched Ares in the face so hard that he went flying overthe side of the ship, landing on a glass-topped marble display case that shattered on impact. Groaning, he rolled off onto the floor, realizing that she had broken his nose. Again.
Xena hopped up on the ship's railing to finish him off, only to somersault back onto the deck as Franklin Haines opened up on her with his Colt .45. He kept firing at her, amazed that he just couldn't seem to hit her at such close range. She almost seemed to be dodging the bullets.
By then Gabrielle had found her own revolver and eased around the ship to draw a bead on Haines. She fired twice. He yelped as a bullet caught him at the collarbone, spinning him around like a top before he hit the floor, safe behind one of the marble display cases.
He released the spent clip and fumbled a loaded mag into the pistol. Haines looked up to see Cassie kneeling before him, her hands holding tight to the primed detonator.
"Do it, Cassie," he hissed. "For me!"
With tears in her eyes, she pushed down on the plunger.
There was a loud--ka-thump!--as the Lexan case holding the Sword of Ares cracked and spider webbed, but did not shatter. Xena poked her headup and almost got it blown off her shoulders by Haines, who ducked down himself after a near miss by Gabrielle.
Xena saw her chakram embedded high in a marble column about thirty-some feet away.
Still hunkered down behind a marble display case, Ares saw that his sword was only three good strides away.
Up on the second floor, Scott McKenna fought his way through the tangle of bodies and looked down to see Ares approaching the sword case. Scott brought his pistol to bear. He aimed right for Ares head, so intent on his target that he never saw Haines aiming for him. Haines' first shot ricochetted off the banister, throwing stone chips in Scott's face and causing his own shot to go wild. His second shot caught Scott deep in the shoulder. As he went down, Yukari screamed his name.
"Gabrielle, cover me!" Xena shouted.
Somersaulting from the deck of the ship and screaming her war cry, Xena leaped through the air in a high arc, as Gabrielle stepped from her cover and emptied her magnum at Haines, who was trying to get Xena in his sights.
Xena snatched the chakram from the column and dropped to the floor.
Haines took two bullets to the chest, managing to fire back before keeling over. Gabrielle heard one of the rounds hum past her ear like an angry bee, while another creased her left forearm in a deep groove before nipping the underside of her breast. Wailing in pain, Gabrielle slid to the floor and popped the cylinder on her Colt Python, letting the hot brass tumble into her lap. Hands shaking, she tried to reload.
It was at that moment that Ares screamed as he made a fist and punched his hand through the spider webbed Lexan to grip his sword once again.
He instantly felt the chains of mortality slip away, as he effortlessly lifted the sword free of the case to hold it high over his head.
Once more, the God of War lived.
That evil, gloating laugh seemed too loud, reverberating across the massive hall and into the very souls of all present.
"I'm baaaaack!!!" Ares shouted. "And I feel good!"
He looked about. Gabrielle was just sitting there, looking lost with her gun still in her lap. Xena was standing her ground, but her chakram trembled in her hands.
"Ahhh..." He grinned. "When Ares talks... people listen!"
Sobbing, Yukari appeared at the second floor landing, holding the M-16 she had taken from one of his followers. She aimed it at him.
"Yukari, don't!" Xena shouted.
"Oh, go ahead, Yukari!" Ares said to her. "I fear nothing and no one! I am invincible and forever! The True God of the Ages!!!!"
"Yukari!" Xena shouted. "Drop the gun! That's an order!"
"Hai... Xena-sama," Yukari choked as she let the carbine clatter down the steps.
Smiling, Ares turned his attention to Xena, walking towards her.
"Now, my Warrior Princess... where were we?"
Ares looked down at Cassie and Haines. Blood was everywhere as she held him in her arms.
"Please, my Lord," she whispered. "Heal him. He is your faithful follower... and you owe him your life. Make him whole again."
"He saved the life of the mortal I once was," he replied. "As a God...I need no one. I ask for nothing." He turned to Xena. "I only take."
He turned his back on Haines, walking to Xena with hooded eyes. Weeping, Gabrielle ran to Xena, standing between her and Ares.
"No!" she screamed. "You can't have her, you bastard! She's mine! My friend! My love! Forever and ever!"
"Nothing is forever.... except me," Ares replied. "As for you, little bard... You have come between the God of War and his Warrior Princess for the last time..."
"Ares," Xena growled. She placed a protective arm around Gabrielle and drew her close. "Answer me one question."
"Better make it quick."
"Okay." Xena smiled. "If you're an invincible God... then why is your nose bleeding?"
He stopped in his tracks, eyes widening in sudden realization. Hetouched his face and winced at the pain he felt--pain he shouldn't have felt--and then stared at his hands, dumbstruck at the sight of his own blood.
"No..." He gripped his sword with both hands, trying to draw strength from it as he stumbled back. Gabrielle started towards him but Xena held her back, wrapping her arms tightly about her friend.
"My Lord Ares..."
He turned at the sound of the voice, almost running into Cassie, who stood there blood splattered and with tears running down her face.
"Cassie," he whispered. "I need..."
She raised Haines' bloody .45 automatic in both hands and shot Ares in the heart. The single, impossibly loud gunshot echoing through the hall made both Xena and Gabrielle jump in surprise. Ares staggered back,tearing at the bloody hole in his shirt to look in wonderment at the dime-sized hole in his chest. He dropped to his knees and fell over onto his back. His sword clattered to the floor beside him.
Still weeping, Cassie now aimed the pistol at Gabrielle. Realizing Xena was behind her, Gabrielle tried to pull away, but Xena held her tight. Xena saw Yukari scoop up the M-16 and take aim at Cassie.
"No," Xena said speaking to both Yukari and Cassie. "This madness ends now. Put down your weapons."
Cassie's aim held steady. "S-She killed the man I love..."
"She was defending me," Xena whispered. "And if you kill her, then you kill me. And then Yukari kills you." A tear coursed down Xena's cheek. "I have... seen so much blood in my life. So much death. Let's end it here. No more. Please."
Cassie held her eyes for a long second before she screamed, throwing the gun away into the darkness with all her might. Sobbing, she went back to Haines' body.
Xena blinked. Together, she and Gabrielle went to Ares. Xena knelt beside him.
"I-I am a... God..." he choked, his eyes were wild and searching.
"You're dying," Xena said, finding his eyes. "I can't do anything for you."
"Xena..." Ares felt himself growing cold. Slipping away. "Xena...lissen... I-I have... and always will... love you..."
Xena felt his last breath brush across her face. Ares was dead.
"The last words of the God of War," Gabrielle said. "And he spoke of...love. I guess there's hope for us mortals yet."
Xena sighed and picked up Ares' sword.
"So how come this thing didn't give him back his Godhood?" she asked looking the sword over.
"Well... Maybe cuz it isn't really Ares' sword," Gabrielle replied.
"Huh?" Xena looked up at her.
"Last night while Janice and Dr. Hassan were examining it, she switched the sword with another relic that she doctored up to look like the real Sword of Ares." She grinned sheepishly. "I... kinda just remembered."
"I guess it woulda killed you to remember that a few minutes earlier, huh? Jeeezus!" Xena tossed the sword back onto the floor, noticing that Yukari was leading the way down the stairs to the first floor, while Diana and Gabe were helping along a wounded Scott McKenna.
"So where is the real sword?" Xena asked as they walked towards the group.
"About mid-way between Battery Park and Staten Island," Gabrielle replied. "Janice took the ferry last night and dumped it in the bay. Y'know, I thought I remembered something about a boat..."
"Xena-sama!" Yukari hugged Xena and Gabriellle. Xena looked over her shoulder at Gabe and Diana.
"Y-You aren't my Momma, are you?" Gabe whispered.
"No," Xena said, her voice breaking. "But you're the spitting image of my brother Lyceus..."
"'Scuse 'm moi," a semi-delirious Scott McKenna said. "But if we're all done saving the world then howzabouts we beat feet outta here? I doubt the NYPD is gonna stay away all night..."
"He's right," Gabrielle said. "Let's..."
"Mom?" Diana whispered, touching her face.
"No, dear," Gabrielle replied. "Not yet." She smiled. "Now let's go." She turned to Yukari. "Where are you parked?"
"Back by the loading docks," Yukari replied, still holding onto the M-16. "I'll lead the way."
"Wait," Xena said. She nodded at Cassie who was still kneeling by the body of Haines. "We're taking her with us."
"Why?" Yukari asked.
"Cuz I said so," Xena growled.
"Oh, great!" Scott groused. "Seven people stuffed into a Ford Mustang! It's gonna be like riding in the clown car in the circus!"
"Com'n, hero," Gabrielle said. As they headed out, she turned to Xena, who was standing over Ares' body.
"Yeah," Xena said. "I'm here."
Dr. Eleni Kristopolis was one of New York's better known OB/GYNs, with a thriving private practice that allowed her many of the finer things in life, including a three story townhouse on the upper east side of Manhattan. Still, she had a few secrets to her life. Like the fact that during the second world war, she had fought with the partisans in the mountains of Northern Greece against the Nazis, and also that for the last twenty years she had been a Xenite. Code name, Askelpios.
Xena watched over her shoulder as she stitched up Scott's wound while Yukari breathlessly held his hand.
"Nice technique," she allowed.
"I have many skills," Dr. Kristopolis replied.
Xena looked at her sideways and left the makeshift operating room that was actually Dr. Kristopolis' study. The girl known only as Cassie was curled up on a couch in a fetal position. Diana and Gabe were huddled together in a hallway.
"Where's Gabrielle?" Xena asked.
"Mom... uh, I mean... she said she was going into the garden." Diana pointed. "Through there."
Xena smiled. "You two okay?"
"Yeah," Gabe answered. "We're fine... Xena." He shook his head. "God, I still can't believe I'm talking to you! After all these years of hearing your stories."
"I've always been here, Gabe," she replied.
He nodded. "And... Momma?"
"Soon," Xena replied. She headed down the hallway to the garden.
"There!" Dr. Kristopolis said. "All is well, young man!"
"Owwww..." Scott hissed as Yukari pulled him up to a sitting position and he looked at his bandaged shoulder. "It hurts like hell, Doc."
"Well of course it hurts like hell. You've been shot!" Dr. Kristopolis said incredulously. She clucked her tongue and moved over to Cassie, leaving Scott and Yukari to themselves.
"You are okay, Scott-kun?" Yukari asked.
"Hai. Genki as hell." He tried to smile. "So, I guess this is it, huh? You'll be going back to Tokyo and I'll be heading home to Detroit. Bet you're gonna miss that Mustang, huh?"
"Hai," Yukari replied. "But not as much as I will miss you, Scott-kun."
"Yeah," Scott replied, getting lost in her eyes once more.
He blinked. "Huh?"
"You heard me," Yukari said. "Marry me. Come to Japan. I will introduce you to my family and you can live there with me... and we can both live happily ever after. Just like the storybooks."
"Yukari-chan," Scott sighed. "Look, I don't know if girls ask guys to marry them in Japan, but here in America..."
Oh, no," Yukari said. "In Japan it would also be quite improper for a girl to ask the hand of a boy in marriage."
"Well, this is a... difficult situation." Yukari hugged him tight, causing him to wince. "And I love you with all my heart. And I don't want to lose you. Ever."
"I-I love you too, Yukari." He smiled. "But wouldn't it be tough on you? After all, I'm a foreigner. A gaijin."
"You are a Xenite," she replied. "And the man I love."
"Marry me," she whispered.
Xena found Gabrielle in the garden behind the townhouse, where ivy covered walls gave privacy and peace to a quiet place of greenery and flowers.
She was smoking a cigarette and staring at a small statue set in the center of the garden on a pedestal. It was an ancient sculpture shaped from Corinthian limestone of a Greek warrior woman in a heroic pose. She carried a sword in one hand and a circular disc in the other. Over the centuries, the disc had broken, leaving her holding a crescent.
"Nasty habit," Xena said.
"Yeah," Gabrielle replied, flicking the cigarette away. "One of these millennia it's gonna kill me."
Xena sat down next to her. Gabrielle's left arm was bandaged from wrist to elbow, and she had traded in her bloody clothes for a set of borrowed hospital scrubs.
"How's the arm?"
"Gonna hurt Janice more'n it hurts me."
"What are you so funked out about?" Xena asked. "Usually after a mission you're pretty jazzed."
"In case you don't realize it, we just killed Ares tonight." Gabrielle looked at her. "Ares being the reason our souls get to occasionally walk this earth. This might be our last adventure, Xena."
Xena grinned. "Oh, I doubt that. Ares didn't corner the market on evil. I've come to realize that there's a balance between what's good and what's bad in this world. Yin and Yang. Sturm und drang. Whatever. And we're part of this balance, for better or for worse. We'll be back." She shrugged. "Although this might be our last appearance as Janice and Mel. They're beginning to show a little wear around the edges."
"But is that fair to Diana and Gabe?"
"Hey, don't ask me," Xena replied. "I just work here."
Gabrielle smiled wistfully. "Looking at that statue got me thinking about us. The places we've been. The people we've met." She closed her eyes. "In all our travels, I have only one regret..."
Xena arched an eyebrow. "Only only one?"
"Yes." She again looked to Xena. "Standing in the throne room of Ming Tien, while you kneeled before me... a prisoner in those horrible stocks..."
"It's not important," Xena said, putting her arm around her and drawing her close. "Not anymore. It's... ancient history."
"Xena," Gabrielle said. "Do you ever wonder where we are... what we do, when we're not saving the world?"
"I have no idea," Xena said. "But wherever we are, we're together."
"Yeah," Gabrielle smiled. "Sometimes, I like to think that all our friends and loved ones are waiting for us on the Elysian Fields. Marcus. Perdicus. Hercules and Iolaus..."
"Joxer," Xena whispered. "And Ephiny and Xenon..."
"Don't forget Meleager and Salmoneus. And your mother... and brothers."
"And Lau Ma," Xena finished.
"All waiting for our safe return, with a big picnic spread!"
"If that's true, then it'd be rude to keep them waiting," Xena replied. She held the chakram up to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle grasped the other side of the chakram as she arched forward to give Xena a gentle kiss.
Inside the townhouse, a sudden boom of thunder startled everybody and made them jump. A few minutes later they heard the two women enter the house and walk down the hallway to the study, appearing at the doorway.
"Hello, Dr. Pappas... Dr. Covington," Scott said. "It's good to meet you..."
"Ah remember you!" Mel replied as she walked over and gave him a big hug. "You're the young man who saved mah son's life! You too, Yukari!"
"Hai, Pappas-sensei," Yukari said with a smile.
"Momma..." Gabriel started.
"Now you wait one second, boy!" she said. "'Fore you say word one, there's something ah gotta say to you!" She walked to him. "Ah just want you to know one thing. That whatever you decide to do, wherever you decide to go... that you will always be mah son. And ah will always love you."
As they hugged, Janice walked over to Diana.
"I'm like... really sorry, Mom," Diana whispered.
"Just don't..." Janice sighed. "Walk outta my life, okay? I know you've got your own life to lead. But I need to know you're still part of me."
"Always," Diana replied.
"I hate like hell to break up a happy ending," Dr. Kristopolis said, "But I just got off the phone with Wilma-Three. Dax-NY has secured a safehouse for us in the Hamptons. I recommend at least three days there until the heat dies down. Our friends in the Fed will need time to generate some... 'plausible deniability.'"
"Groovy," Scott said, looking longingly at Yukari, who giggled like a schoolgirl.
"We'll take two cars," Dr. Kristopolis continued. "Yukari, you take the Mustang, I'll take my Caddie. Let's go, people!"
"Jeeezus onna palomino," Mel muttered. "Who died an' made her boss?"
Everybody got up, the wounded being helped along by the strong. Only Cassie stayed, now sitting up on the couch, looking lost and afraid.
"Hiya, Cassie," Mel said, kneeling down beside her. "I'm Melinda, tho' friends call me Mel. We'd better get goin', okay?"
"I... I have nothing," she said simply.
"You're alive. That's something."
"You don't understand. I-I lost someone. Someone I loved."
"Ah lost someone ah loved not too long ago," Mel replied. "If you want... Ah'll help you through this."
She almost smiled. "How?"
"One step at a time," Mel said. "Now com'n."
Mel got to her feet and then helped Cassie to her feet.
"I dunno... if I can do this."
"First step's the hardest," Mel said. "It gets easier after that."
Together, the two headed out the door to join the others.
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