Disclaimer: All characters are the property of Renaissance Pictures, Studios USA, MCA/Universal and whoever else paid good money for a piece of the Warrior Princess. Sadly, I am not among them. On the bright side, I do own Justice Station, Roaches, pulsers and the rest of the world of this story. I guess that's some small consolation.
Rating: PG13 - a little bit of non-graphic violence and the odd four-letter word.
Dedication: For Molly, whose birthday I didn't forget and whose claims that she will read even the trashiest sci-fi are about to be tested. :)
Author's note: This story is to science fiction what "Xena: Warrior Princess" is to history. The timeline of the show has always been more of a time warp - and why not build on that idea? In the loosely regulated, futuristic world of this story, space stations have replaced Greek city-states, rogue warlords still terrorise innocent civilians, and a certain Warrior Princess is still searching for her redemption.
Feedback: Please let me know what you think of this story! Send comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Justice Station is not exactly Buckingham Palace. From the portal of a ship approaching its main spaceport, it resembles nothing so much as a gigantic barnacle on the hull of the Universe - a blackened silvery mass with windows and airlocks peeking out from the oddest places. A scarred, battle-worn fort, its interior every bit as uninviting as its shell.
Corridors radiate from the central hub to the various office sectors and the one sleeping sector, crisscrossed by smaller passages that twist through the place, turning it into a steel warren. Were it not for the colour-coded paintwork, every sector would look pretty much identical: reinforced metallic walls, sliding door panels of offices and rooms, bundles of cables snaking across the ceiling.
It is not the sort of place you can get sentimental about. But then, neither was my army camp. I guess when it comes down to it, it's all in the company. There are many things I miss about my old life, but they don't matter, any of them - because I don't miss you.
* * *
Xena leaned back into her office chair and crossed her legs on the desk. After the briefest of pauses the sensors in the chair kicked in and it adjusted itself minutely to match her new seating position. In front of her, the translucent screen hovered lower to remain within her sight, but continued to remain resolutely blank. The dry air smelled faintly of ozone and overheating wires - the computer had been running too long. What time was it, anyway? Just when Xena had decided that the system had fried itself, it finally came alight with a silvery grey message:
> Finished collating data. Begin analysis?
"About fucking time," Xena snapped, dropping her feet to the floor to sit forward. The silvery writing blinked once, then changed:
> Checking security clearance... Done.
> Security Level Four operation requested.
> System request: Password?
Xena had a distinct urge to reach for her pulser and help the system along on its way to the trash heap. Analyse data. Same damn operation that she has been requesting hourly for the last week. You'd think the data guard would have learnt to identify her voiceprint by now, but no, its fuzzy logic was apparently rather heavy on the fuzz part.
"Aurora Borealis," Xena said. "And make it snappy, I'm late as it is."
"Access authorised," the system replied aloud, switching inexplicably to voice. "Analysis speed cannot be altered," it added, unperturbed by Xena's scowl. "Estimated operation completion in nine minutes and seventeen seconds."
"Yeah, go on, take your time," Xena rose from the chair in resignation, "Piece of junk."
"Switching to preferred viewing format," the computer continued smugly, as though this was some sort of titanic feat it had mastered. "Voice off, visual on." It paused, remembering her other preferences. "Dinner in ... minus seventeen minutes." It fell silent as the screen glowed brighter, rising now to follow Xena around the room.
She measured the carpeted floor of her office in long angry strides, from the cluttered desk to the sleek chrome of the back wall, pausing when she was close enough to touch the cool irregular waves of metal. The screen hovered to one side of her head, flickering with changing images of spaceships, weapons and faces that refracted oddly on the wall.
Great. Seventeen minutes late and about three days behind schedule. At the rate she was going, Skart and his thugs would be released scot-free and all the work she and Gabrielle had done to capture him would have been a total waste of time.
She looked back to the wall and the images swirling through it, reflecting the screen like a curved, bubbled mirror. Short blonde hair, a square jaw and piggy eyes stared back at her, stretched and squeezed almost beyond recognition - but not quite. There he was - Skart, owner of a medium-sized fleet of raider ships, the sort nicknamed "Space Cockroaches", or Roaches for short. It was their repulsive insectoid appearance and speed that had earned them the name; it had stuck because like the insects, they seemed to thrive on filth.
Unlike the insects, however, Roaches were far from harmless. They were the preferred vehicle of raiders, head hunters, pirates and minor thugs of every description. Hundreds of thousands of these ships riddled every major settled area for light years around, lured by the scent of profit, turning it into the stench of rotting corpses and fuel fires in their wake, making their escape like waddling, hunchbacked monsters.
Yet, there were distinct advantages to Roaches that far outweighed their awkward appearance and cramped interior. They were not just extremely fast, they were also easy to modify. Adding anything from an airlock dock to a radar-jamming device was a simple matter, even for someone like Skart.
Xena looked away from the changing visuals of the warlord and his men, searching in vain for something else to catch her eye while the computer continued its analysis. Compared to Argo's cabin, this place seemed sterile and somehow unreal. Bare, liquid-metallic walls, thick blue carpet, a desk and chair - that was about all; a standard Justice Station office. Other offices in her sector were decorated with pictures of their occupants' family members, lovers, pets - or occasionally, of the owners themselves, graduating from college or accepting an award.
What was she supposed to put up on her walls? A vid of herself, aged sixteen or so, sticking the point of a high-beam pulser into a man's back, forcing him into her Roach with all the other human cargo? A picture of her first and last dog, staring up at her with dark trusting eyes, accepting her own food from her hands for tasting - better to lose a dog to poison than a human, easier to dispose of... but harder to let it go, watch its dying agony.
Or maybe a vid of her mother greeting her that day when she had decided to return home, flushed with pride at having accumulated a considerable amount of booty and credit. Her mother's face, seeing her daughter climb out of a Roach, flanked by tank-like guards, the bronze decorations on her black skinsuit glinting in the hard light of the Amphipolis spaceport... Yeah, that would be quite a vid. Especially if it included her mother spitting into her face before finally walking away, her back rigid with shame.
No, she needed no vids to remind her of what she was. What she had been. The distorted reflections in the white metal of the wall were enough. Xena moved sideways slightly, until her face all but disappeared. There, that's better.
Behind her, the door chimed briefly, recognising Gabrielle's palm print. Xena turned around just in time to see the office doors slide shut behind the young woman, narrowly missing her cloak. She walked up to where Xena was standing, the fabric of her skinsuit making her slight body look like it was made of molten silver. Gabrielle cast a curious glance at the screen hovering beside Xena.
"Nearly done," Xena said, as the screen chimed to confirm success. "Bastard's going to walk free, I know it..."
> Analysis complete. Predicted verdict in 30 seconds...
Gabrielle looked unconcerned. "We've done everything right - they'll convict him, Xena, I've got a really good feeling about ..."
She was interrupted by the computer.
> Verdict determined.
> On thirty-six counts of unauthorised trade activity and
> three counts of illegal slave trafficking, the defendant,
> citizen Skart of Alexandria0445, is found to be
> not guilty.
"Not possible!" Gabrielle breathed. Xena cursed loudly and shut off the system. The hovering screen faded from view.
"Sure it is, Gabrielle," she said, snatching her cloak and bag from the floor. "Innocent until proven guilty beyond a shadow of doubt. We go to Justice Hall tomorrow with this, and Skart goes free. We don't go, and he goes free anyway." She wrapped the cloak around herself and headed for the door, Gabrielle following close.
"Xena..." she began, but Xena's black look startled her into silence. The wide corridor was all but deserted, most station personnel would have already gone down to dinner. Xena and Gabrielle turned right, heading for the dining area.
Gabrielle paid scant attention to her surroundings, following the familiar brightly-lit corridors through the hulk of Justice Station to the central hub. She and Xena had spent the past eight days in their offices, putting together all the information they had collected on their last journey. It was intricate, complicated work, and while Gabrielle revelled in it, she knew Xena longed to be out there again, away from the confines of offices and paperwork.
They had spent long weeks aboard Argo, following Skart and his fleet of Roaches, as the warlord sacked ships and small stations, trying to help the victims, but also to collect enough evidence to gain a conviction. It had seemed a sure thing when she and Xena had thrown him, bound and gagged, into Argo's hold. Now, it seemed they had miscalculated.
Gabrielle looked at her friend out of the corner of her eye. Xena's profile was etched sharply against the pastel-coloured corridor walls, fury crackling like electricity to the ends of her long dark hair. She was blaming herself; what should have been a bitter disappointment was to Xena a personal insult. It was times like these that Gabrielle wished her friend's warrior pride would give a little ground to her good sense - but then, she reflected, that would not be Xena.
Half an hour later, they had finally found a free table in the corner of the large dining area. The hall buzzed with conversations, hundreds of people discussing their day or making plans for the night, sitting at the colourful tables or in semicircular booths. Others were just wandering through, talking to friends. The cheerful atmosphere could not be more at odds with Xena's mood. Warm food smells tickled her nose, making her hungry when she did not want to be.
"Look, maybe we did something wrong with the analysis," Gabrielle said tentatively, taking the seat across from her, "or the data. We can try running it again tonight..."
Xena shook her head. "There's nothing wrong with the data, you know that. Gabrielle, don't you see? While we're sitting here, trying to decide between spinach casserole and beef lasagne," - Gabrielle dropped the menu guiltily - "people are dying!" Xena's voice grew urgent. "We've been here for over a week, wasting our time battling the computer instead of doing something useful," she jerked a thumb in the vague direction of the spaceport, "out there."
Gabrielle bristled. "This is useful, Xena! We're trying to get a conviction for a murderer and slave trader! How can you say that's a waste of time?"
Xena threw down her own menu. "You don't get it, do you? Skart is not going to be convicted..."
"The least we can do is try..."
"No, let me finish," Xena said. "He is not going to be convicted because we haven't got enough proof. The bastard sold half of his home station to the Andromeda silver mines, he's raided more ships than I can remember, but we haven't got enough proof to satisfy fucking Justice Station beaurocrats!"
A few people turned around curiously. Xena took a deep breath and lowered her voice slightly. "How many more raids is it going to take before they admit what everyone knows and convict him? How many more lives? Gabrielle, I knew this guy. My army was even allied with his rabble once - slimy, greedy piece of work, always ready to betray for a hint of profit."
"So... you and Ares fought with him?"
Gabrielle thought this over. "And yet you changed. Why can't he?"
Xena recoiled visibly, as if from a blow. "Because I wanted to change! Skart doesn't."
The young lawyer's eyes flashed defiantly. "You can't know that."
"Gabrielle, what happened to me... That was different." Xena sighed heavily. "You saw him yourself, less than a month ago - you saw him tie up those people and herd them into the Roaches."
Gabrielle winced. "Yeah. I did. But then, you told me that you used to do it too... Sell slaves to Andromeda".
"You know, that's exactly the problem!" Xena exploded. "You're always so damn eager to see the goodness in everyone that when there isn't any, you invent it! Those suits up at Justice Hall, they think the same way, and so does their half-brained simulation system. Always so determined to give everyone a second chance, whether they want it or not!"
"You're not being fair."
"And you are?! You saw those people, the ones they took to the mines. Who cares about them, huh? Who cares if we have to let them rot in chain gangs for the rest of their lives because we can't interfere with our precious data collection? Thirty-six raids, Gabrielle - and not one could we stop, because we needed enough data for a conviction. Enough fucking data!"
"They will all be set free when he's convicted..."
"You really think that?" Xena shook her head incredulously. "Wake up and smell the vomit - Skart's walking free tomorrow and all those people are staying right where they are. Even if we did manage a conviction - how many of them would have lasted a month in those mines? How many are dead already?"
Gabrielle's green eyes were dark with sorrow. "I didn't think..."
"No," Xena said, her voice suddenly very tired. "It's not your fault... I just... had to get that out of my system - didn't mean to take it out on you. It's been a long day."
"No, you're right," Gabrielle said. "Completely right. We're so determined to give everyone the benefit of the doubt that we risk forgetting the victims. But, Xena," she asked fretfully, "what else is there to do?"
Before she could answer, a serving tray rolled up to their table. It deposited two laden plates and cups of fizzy drink in front of the women, then rolled away silently.
"Eat," Xena said. Gabrielle caught the apology in her tone and smiled in response. Skart's case could wait until after dinner.
Xena speared a piece of something resembling tofu and examined it. "Daily special," she said with distaste. They had taken too long to place an order and got the default.
Gabrielle consulted the menu for an explanation. "MegaTuna casserole and apple cider," she read. "Could be worse."
"Like what?" Xena feigned horror, glad of the distraction. She shovelled some casserole goop into her mouth and cringed.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to reply, then her face split into a wide grin, her eyes focused on something over Xena's shoulder. Xena swivelled around curiously.
"Like what they've been feeding the prisoners," came a deep voice from behind her, followed a second later by its owner - a tall, powerfully built man with longish brown hair. Her wore a judge's light-coloured skinsuit and a dark cloak, identical to Xena's.
"Hercules!" Gabrielle smiled warmly, "It's good to see you." She moved over as he pulled up another chair and dropped into it tiredly.
"It's good to see you, too," he clasped each woman's hand in greeting. "It's been a while, Warrior Princess."
"It has indeed," Xena said, breaking the handshake to slide her plate over to his side of the table. "Care to join us for some ... what was it again, Gabrielle?"
"Tuna cider, er... casserole," the blonde supplied. "It's not bad, really."
"Thanks," Hercules laughed, "But I just ate." He pushed the plate back to Xena and punched a couple of buttons on the drinks menu.
"Hm." Xena reached for her drink instead. "So what are they feeding the prisoners, Hercules? I wouldn't have picked Skart for a gourmet."
The judge's expression became grave. "Bread and water, mostly. Seems the guards have their own views on what constitutes a fair trial."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked, concerned. "The guards are giving the prisoners a hard time?"
"Some of them. Seems a few have fought against Skart's thugs at one time or another. Looks like he didn't make too many friends in his lifetime. Someone slipped poison into his food, it's a wonder he made it at all. He's very ill, the doctors are fasting him on plain bread and clear fluids." Pre-empting Gabrielle's question, he continued, "But they say he should be well enough to stand trial tomorrow."
"More's the pity," Xena said coldly. "Would have been a fitting death for him, choking on his own bile in a prison cell."
Gabrielle and Hercules wore identical stunned looks.
"Xena," Hercules frowned, "you don't mean that. You and Gabrielle did a lot of work to bring him here in the first place."
"Big mistake," Xena said. "We shouldn't have bothered."
Hercules looked to Gabrielle with an unspoken question, but the lawyer just shook her head helplessly.
"Is something wrong? I thought the two of you had the case under control..."
"So did I," Xena stabled a knife viciously into her food. "But we don't, do we, Gabrielle? Not fucking guilty!"
Hercules stared at her incredulously. "Skart? The simulator said that?"
"No, a choir of angels sang it to me in my sleep!" Xena shoved the minced casserole into her mouth and chewed angrily.
Hercules let out a long breath. "Well... It's only a simulation, after all. The trial might spring some surprises."
"A surprise?! What kind of surprise will the jury need, if thirty-six catalogued raids aren't enough?"
The three of them sat in bitter silence for a little while, letting the noise of the dining hall disguise the tension. Another tray rolled up and Hercules retrieved a drink from it. It would not be the first time a warlord had been set free - he glanced at Xena's drawn face - but Skart...
"Xena!" Gabrielle dropped her fork. "You're glowing!"
The warrior looked at her friend in preoccupied confusion. "Uh... thanks?"
"No, I mean..."
Xena followed Gabrielle's surprised stare to her own upper arm. Even through the thick metallic fabric of the skinsuit, she could make out the white glow, a patch the size of her palm, sharpening into a distinct shape as she watched. She did not need to pull away the material to know what she would find. Her chakram. A traced mark, normally all but invisible, shaped like the outline of a yin-yang. Half of it was blazing, she could feel the warmth penetrating deep into her. And that meant....
"I'll be back in a minute," she said, taking her bag and rising from her seat.
"Wait!" Gabrielle made as if to rise, too. "Where are you going?" But Xena had already disappeared in the dining room crowd, her cloak billowing behind her.
Gabrielle frowned. What was that all about?
"I didn't know Xena went in for light-up tattoos," Hercules said, swirling his drink before downing the remainder. "Bioluminescence doesn't seem like her style."
Gabrielle blushed and unconsciously tugged her sleeves down - her own arms and hands were covered with an intricate pattern of curling, interconnected lines, dark against her fair skin. Most of the tattoos were concealed by the skinsuit, the days when she had worn them as fashion statements well and truly over, but part of that teenager remained; she did not want to have them removed.
Her tattoos were no secret; incidentally, it had been Xena's curious questions about them that had sparked their eventual friendship. Xena, however, had evidently not seen it fit to share her own story. Hercules, Gabrielle realised, was still watching her expectantly.
"She had it done a little while ago," Gabrielle guessed, suddenly reluctant to be drawn into a discussion about this. "Surprised me, too, but that's Xena for you," she added with complete sincerity, hoping Hercules would drop the matter. She sipped at her own drink with a small shrug. "Is everything ready for the hearing tomorrow?"
Hercules laughed ruefully. "Is anything ever ready on time around here?"
* * *
Xena pushed through the chattering crowd, the determination in her stride enough to clear her way. The chakram on her arm was burning brighter than ever, but a glowing tattoo was hardly an unusual sight on a Friday night - even if the majority of Justice Station's nightclubs were not yet open. Xena pulled her cloak over her arm all the same and continued her search. He was here somewhere, no doubt about that. Xena frowned, searching the faces around her. She'd find him, the son of a bitch, she could feel him, so close...
"You know you're gorgeous even when you frown?"
Xena whipped about to the booth she had just passed. It took her a moment to reconcile the image in her mind with the man seated there, his cloaked muscular figure dwarfing the table. It was bizarre to see him unarmed, dressed in a civilian's skinsuit and cloak instead of the customary black and silver of his armour - but it was him, nonetheless. Ares was looking up at her, his dark eyes glittering with humour. The glowing half-chakram on his arm was visible even through the folds of his cloak.
She ignored what he obviously considered a compliment. "What the hell do you think you're doing, following me here?"
"Don't flatter yourself, Xena," he said easily. "I'm not here for you." Ares indicated the seat opposite him and Xena slid into it, eyeing him sceptically.
"Right..." she said, "You were just passing through the area and thought you'd check out Justice Station's nightlife?"
"Well, if you're offering to show me around..." he dropped his voice slightly, making her feel much warmer than she should, as though the tattoo on her skin was melting through her.
Xena scowled. "I'm not offering anything, Ares. Why are you here, if not because of me?"
He took two drinks from a passing trolley and tossed one to her. Xena caught it one-handed and put it down.
"Actually, what I said was that I'm not following you. But it so happens that I am here because of you." He tried to raise his glass to his lips, but Xena knocked it out of his hand, splashing the wine across the table as the cup rolled. She wasn't going to let him turn this into some sort of social occasion. She had no time for his games now, in the hub of Justice Station of all places.
"What do you mean, you're here because of me?"
He looked regretfully at the empty cup. "You're the one who brought Skart here, after all."
"Meaning," he sent the cup spinning across the tabletop, "that Skart and I were due for a friendly little chat just before you and that sidekick of yours - Gabagrille -"
"Gabrielle," Xena corrected automatically, then cursed herself as Ares grinned - he had said it on purpose, of course...
"Whatever. You and that blonde lawyer chick clapped our friend in irons and carted him off to Justice Station, to the tender mercies of my brother and his do-gooder buddies. Which, you have to admit, left me in a bit of a jam."
"Oh, really? Why's that?" Xena caught the cup and set it upright without looking away from him.
Ares shook his head in disbelief. "You're losing your touch, my dear."
"I'm not 'your dear', Ares, and I asked you a question. What's the deal with you and Skart?"
The wounded look he gave her was so familiar, she felt it pierce right through her, a white-hot ache of memory. Forget it, she told herself firmly. He's just toying with you.
"Just 'Xena' then," he said with a slight twist of his mouth, as though it pained him. "And if you weren't so busy ridding the world of your former friends, you'd have noticed that that station Skart raided belonged to me."
Xena did not know what incensed her more - the arrogant way in which he claimed possession of the home of some three hundred people - or the dig about her turning her back on her friends. What made it worse was that both were true. Now that she thought about it, she had noticed the chakram, Ares' crest, more than once in the ruined station. She should have been paying more attention - but she had been busy sealing the place to trap Skart, there had been no time for inspections... And besides, she caught herself - it made no difference. The place did not 'belong' to him any more than to Skart.
"That station belonged to the residents, Ares. Your army had no business there either."
"I needed that station - it was a good base for manoeuvres, and paid a nice little tribute. It's no use to me as a smouldering wreck."
Xena tossed her head impatiently. "Get to the point."
"Don't tell me you haven't worked it out yet?" He cocked his head, watching her. "Go on, I know you better than that."
Xena kept her face impassive. She took a toothpick from a holder on the table, rolling it idly between her fingers. So Skart had stolen a tasty morsel from Ares' plate - not a big deal, happened all the time. Skart's days would have been numbered, had she not plucked him out of his Roach and brought him to Justice Station. And would that have been so bad, really?
That attempt on his life... But no, poison wasn't Ares' style. Xena snapped the toothpick in half and tossed it aside.
"All right," she said, I'll play along." She tipped the remaining toothpicks out of the holder onto the table, careful to avoid the spilt wine. "What happened to what was left of Skart's rabble, after Gabrielle and I took him and his lieutenants back here?" Argo was a sturdy little ship, but underneath it all she was still a Roach - and an earlier build than the dozen or so that had tried to follow them, the men onboard intent on retrieving their commander. Their escape had not been easy, or graceful.
Xena took a few toothpicks from the pile and dropped them, one by one, into her untouched drink.
Ares stretched in his seat. "What happened to his men? They were smarter than they looked. Which, between you and me, isn't saying much - but there's no army that has no use for a few hundred fully trained, well-equipped men." He reached out and scooped up a handful of the scattered sticks into his own empty cup, looking quite satisfied. "They're settling in nicely."
"Don't tell me. You're here to thank Skart for the bonus."
Ares ignored her sarcasm. "A few decided to make a run for it, of course." He shrugged, gathering up the remaining toothpicks into the palm of one hand, before adding them to the cup. "They're a problem."
"Oh, not for me," he added hastily at Xena's look, "for morale."
Xena nearly smiled, then caught herself. This was too familiar - this little game of give and take, the deceptively comfortable way he sprawled in the seat, feeding her tidbits of information like sweet berries, waiting for her to piece it together, just as he knew she would. Enjoying her response in a way that reminded her all too vividly of the harsh sweetness of berry juice on her tongue, the brush of his fingers against her lips, the thrill of being two steps ahead, manoeuvring him into a trap made all the more delightful by its inevitability...
"Forget it, Ares," she snapped out of her thoughts, "I'm not helping you find fodder for an execution. Skart stays where he is, he's going to stand trial tomorrow. You're just going to have to find another way to boost morale."
One look at his face, and she knew her guess had been correct - not because anything about Ares' expression gave away his plans, but because he never could conceal that glow of genuine delight he got when she beat him at his own game. She thought she should have been disgusted by his arrogance - he had known she would work him out! - but probing her thoughts, Xena fell silent.
What stunned her was the flurry of fire in her stomach, the stirring of something she had thought dead, wanted dead. Nothing he could have done or said would have driven the point home with the hot clarity of that unfeigned joy in his eyes. Xena, the Warrior Princess whose army had terrorised every station and ship from Andromeda to Siberia, one-time ally of Ares, who with admirable overconfidence called himself the God of War - Xena, who had turned away from a dizzyingly rich future their alliance had promised - missed him.
And because she did not think she could stand to hear him ask, she said: "That other offer you were going to make? I'm not interested, either. I'm happy where I am, Ares - I will never return to what I was with you."
For an instant, he got that wounded look in his eyes again, and Xena thought she understood why it should affect her the way it did. It was a look she had never seen directed at anyone else. Warlord or Justice Officer, she still held the power to hurt him.
"Well, it was worth a shot, anyway," he grinned finally, as though it did not matter in the slightest. "At least I got to see your mind at work after all these months - it was a treat, my dear."
This time, Xena allowed him the endearment. Ares regarded her almost apprehensively, without saying another word and, looking back at him over the too-small table, Xena thought of a myriad little stinging things she could say, a thousand ways to hurt him - and said nothing.
It was Hercules who broke the silence, coming around to their booth, Gabrielle beside him.
"There you are! Gabrielle and I were -" he broke off and looked from Xena's slightly flushed face to her arm, where the half-chakram was still glowing white, to Ares' cloaked figure, the matching glow clearly visible through his sleeve.
"Ah." All warmth left Hercules' voice, leaving it quietly dangerous. "Brother."
Gabrielle shifted uneasily at his side, eyeing the couple at the table. So that's why Xena had never mentioned the tattoo!
"Brother," Ares threw the word back at him, his gaze taking in Hercules' judge's attire with amused contempt. "I see your fashion sense hasn't improved any."
Gabrielle stumbled forward as a group of garishly dressed women pushed past her, heading for the exit. She flung out an arm to steady herself against the back of Xena's seat. The warrior gripped her friend's hand, acutely afraid of losing the anchor of Gabrielle's touch. She should never have allowed Ares' little game to go this far...
"What's going on?" Gabrielle said. "I thought you and Ares..."
"What is he doing here, Xena?" Hercules interrupted, his tall figure throwing the entire booth into shadow as he drew himself up, watching his brother.
He will be arrested, Xena thought, a mental statement unadorned by emotion. She had imagined this moment countless times, wondered how she would feel to see him in Justice Hall, how he would stand there, listening with slight irony as his sentence was being read out, as if none of it concerned him...
"He's helping me," she replied tranquilly, clenching her fingers around Gabrielle's small wrist with such ferocity that the younger woman blanched slightly, but made no move to loosen Xena's hand, instinctively drawing closer to lend support. Explanations could come later.
"Helping you," Hercules repeated in disbelief. "Helping you with what?"
Xena refused to meet Ares' surprised glance. She had no idea why she was covering for him; perhaps it was nothing more than the residual warmth of his spell - whatever the reason, she thought resentfully, she had committed herself now.
"Information. Ares' army has some dealings with Skart's men, we need the data."
Xena rose from the table, letting go of Gabrielle's hand. The blonde rubbed at her bruised skin absentmindedly, fascinated despite herself by the weight of unspoken things between the other three.
"Why would Ares help?" Hercules asked suspiciously.
"Confidentiality clause," Xena cautioned. "Can't say." Spinning tales was Gabrielle's forte. "Would you excuse us, Hercules? Gabrielle and I have a lot of work to get through tonight."
Ares followed Xena up, standing beside her. He was clearly itching to say something, but wisely contented himself with an eloquent smirk in his brother's direction.
Hercules nodded grudgingly. "All right. But Xena - you know it's dangerous for him to be seen here." There was a hint of warning in his tone.
Ares' fingers danced through a strand of Xena's hair; she pretended not to notice.
"I happen to be quite fond of danger," Ares said. "I find it -" he closed his eyes with a deep, appreciative intake of breath - "invigorating." His eyes flew open. "But that's not something a coward like you would understand."
Hercules scoffed. "You're confusing bully tactics with bravery, brother."
"We'll see you in court tomorrow," Xena said, drawing Hercules' attention away from the brewing trouble. "We'd better get back to work."
Ares, Gabrielle noted, did not appear the least interested in doing work of any kind. They had met previously, two or three times - always with him fully armed and looking for all the world like a genuine God of War, trying without success to woo Xena back. But now, here, dressed like any civilian... Gabrielle had never imagined Ares could look so... well, so human.
She had watched him and Xena for a few moments, just before Hercules had noticed them. The aura of power and danger that hung around Ares seemed almost translucent, dissolved by the everyday setting. There had been an intimacy in the scene that Gabrielle supposed to be due to the years the two of them had spent together; she had no doubt that whatever the subject of the conversation, gleaning information about Skart's arrest had not been its purpose.
"Fine. I'll see you in court." Hercules turned on his heel and walked away, not exactly offended, Gabrielle thought, but resentful that Xena should still harbour some measure of affection for his warlord brother, when Hercules had been the one to help her find her feet when she had fled her old life.
"See you," Xena said quietly, watching him leave.
"I'll go pay the bill," Gabrielle sighed. She did not relish the idea of leaving Xena alone with Ares - but she supposed it was only fair to let them finish their conversation.
"Thanks," Xena said, reaching into her bag and holding out a small card. "There should be enough credit on this, I got paid on Monday. I'll meet you back in my office."
Gabrielle took the card without argument, but with no intention of using it. Xena's salary was considerably more modest than the fees she collected as a lawyer.
"So you're still no-go on the Skart thing," Ares said briskly, once Gabrielle's silvery figure was well out of earshot and he and Xena wove their way between mostly empty tables.
They left the dining hall and continued through the corridor, heading back towards the sector housing Xena's office. Their footsteps echoed off the smooth walls.
"And you're not in the least worried that he might walk free tomorrow?"
Xena nearly missed a step. How could he know? He couldn't. No one save herself, Gabrielle and Hercules knew about the simulator disaster - it had to have been a lucky guess.
"So you are worried," Ares said, catching her elbow before she could trip. "I thought as much."
Xena got an idea. "What I said to Hercules, Ares? That wasn't me covering your ass back there."
"It wasn't? I'm shocked and dismayed," he said, deadpan.
"I'm serious. You're going to tell me everything you know about Skart - and you're going to do it on record. I want the data for the hearing tomorrow."
Xena pressed her hand to her office door and it slid open, recognising her touch. Ares followed her inside. The thick carpet drowned out the footsteps and softened his reply: "Forget it, Xena. I don't want to end up like him. I happen to like my freedom. And my army."
Xena dismissed his comment, walking to her desk and starting up the computer. The hovering screen appeared above the desktop; she spoke into its still-blank darkness. "You and I both know that Hercules could have had you arrested back there. The only reason he didn't was because you turned out to be a witness willing to talk."
"And because he's been perfecting that look of outraged virtue," Ares said dryly. "Wouldn't want it to go to waste."
"I'd say you owe me, Ares." Xena watched Ares' reflection in the screen as he looked around, taking in the bare walls and sparse furniture.
"You gave up everything for this?" He shook his head in amazement. "Why?"
Because, she wanted to say, I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror, Ares. Because I want to see my mother again, and not from the portal of a Roach. Because I burned away my adolescence, and can never have it back. Because I, too, like my freedom.
What she said was, "I wanted more."
She watched his reflection grow larger in the screen as he came up behind her. His hands were so soothing, running through her hair, that she allowed herself a moment, just one moment, of not thinking about anything at all, feeling nothing but the warmth of his hands meeting the warmth of the glowing chakram somewhere inside her.
"I would have given you more," he whispered into her hair - and the moment was over.
"You never had it to give, Ares," she said, pulling away. "I'm going to set this up so that you can talk directly into the system - I need you to tell me about that station of yours that Skart raided, and about his army..."
"Xena," he started, but got no further. The doors flew open and the quiet of the office exploded into wails of alarms, waves of noise crashing in from the corridors.
"Evacuate as directed," a mechanical voice commanded, "All operative personnel to the airlocks."
"What the...?" Ares dropped his hands instinctively to his side, where the hilt of his pulser should have been, forgetting that he was unarmed.
"Shit! Someone's attacking!"
Gabrielle's blonde head appeared the in the doorway, her pulser drawn, the weapon's sash cutting into the silver of her skinsuit. "Xena? You in here?" Behind her, another alarm engulfed the office in waves of red light. "The station's surrounded, there's Roaches everywhere! They say they're trying to storm the prisons - that's right in the hub!"
"Evacuate as directed. Evacuate as directed. Evacuate..."
"Coming!" The screen vanished with a sizzle as Xena killed the system and wrenched open a compartment under the desk. She grabbed a pulser and threw one to Ares; he clicked it into his belt with a familiar movement, just as she attached hers.
"You gotta hand it to the blonde, she sure knows how to make an entrance!"
Gabrielle's head snapped up. "Unless you want a couple of new entrances in your head, God of War, shut up and follow me!" She aimed the point of the pulser squarely at him. Both Xena and Ares gaped, stunned into momentary immobility in the doorway.
"Who knew..." Ares breathed, somewhere between surprised and impressed.
"Gabrielle, he's not going anywhere - what is the matter with you?" Xena reached forward and tried to move Gabrielle's hand with the weapon, but the young woman shrugged her off, still aiming the pulser at Ares. She glanced at the still-glowing tattoo on his arm, then Xena's.
"Maybe you should ask him why those Roaches out there are branded with chakrams!"
Xena's eyes widened, she rounded on Ares. "Your army is attacking us?!"
Ares held up his hands. "Whoa, whoa - wait a minute. My army is here?"
Gabrielle pressed the pulser to his chest in response. Ares cursed.
"I should have known! It was too easy, Skart's men should have shown more resistance. It was a set-up, dammit!"
Xena made a chopping motion with her hand, and Gabrielle's weapon ended up in her grasp.
"Sorry - but we don't have time for this. Ares, you have ten seconds to explain, go."
He shook his head, "I can't believe I didn't see it coming. I sent two guys in to retrieve Skart - they came back, said security was too tight. Incompetent morons! If you want something done right, do it yourself - so here I am, trying to work out how to get him out before the trial..."
"And meanwhile, back at your army quarters, the right men are letting it be known that you'd gone over to Justice Station," Xena completed. Wouldn't have been difficult to convince them, not after her own defection. They had never intended to kill Skart - that had been merely a diversion to lure Ares to Justice Station.
"The poison?" she asked.
"Sleeping potion," Ares shrugged. "So they could smuggle him out."
Gabrielle looked between them in confusion. "So Ares' army has turned on him? Then why are the prisons being attacked?"
"It's not Ares they want," Xena said, "it's Skart. Ares' army has chosen a new commander, by the looks of things. Skart's thugs gave them a push in that direction."
Ares scowled. "Someone's gonna pay for this when I get back there..."
One of the alarms near the doorway died away suddenly, plunging them into an unexpected darkness as their eyes tried to adjust to the absence of the flashing light. Before they could, another alarm replaced the dead one.
"Evacuate as directed," the sirens blared, punctuated by red and yellow flashes as alert lights came to life throughout the station. "All operative personnel to the airlocks."
"Come on," Xena thrust Gabrielle's pulser back into the young woman's hands, then pushed her and Ares out into the corridor, looking back and forward. Sirens were wailing and flashing all the way along, but there was no sign of people.
Xena charged her pulser. "This way," she motioned, turning left towards the spaceport and breaking into a run.
"Xena, you're not thinking of going out there," Ares yelled from behind her as the three of them rounded a corner. "You're insane, there's hundreds of them!"
Gabrielle huffed, running alongside them. "Like you care!"
"For your information, Miss "Shoot first, ask questions later", I know what my army is capable of!"
"And vice versa, obviously!"
Xena brought out her hands to stop them; they had reached the last turn before the spaceport.
"You bet I'm going in there, Ares," she said distractedly, her eyes searching for something on the walls, "it's my job. Gabrielle's coming with me -"
The lawyer smirked at Ares' indignant expression.
"...But you're not," Xena finished, putting her hands against a ceramic panel on the wall.
"What do you expect me to do, cheer from the sidelines?"
"Not unless you brought your pom-poms." Xena pushed the panel and a hatch slid aside, revealing the mouth of a pipe, wide enough for a person to walk through. "This leads into the evacuation hall, in the hub. That's where all the civilians are - and that's where you're going, Ares." She held up a hand at his outraged look. "If those men see you with me, you don't have a hope of getting them back." Her lips curled bitterly. "I'm the ultimate traitor, remember?"
Ares breathed heavily, as though struggling with a decision. Xena waited, calm but impatient.
"You want your army back, or what?"
Gabrielle wondered why Xena didn't just push him in and lock the hatch.
"Why are you helping me?" Ares asked, sounding genuinely puzzled. "First the thing with Hercules, now this..."
Xena looked away momentarily. Why was she helping him? What did it matter, anyhow?
"It's a habit I intend to break," she said, "so don't push it. Are you going to stand there gaping all day, or are you going to let Gabrielle and me get back to where we're needed?"
He made a sort of inarticulate noise and stepped into the passage. Xena slammed the hatch closed. "C'mon, Gabrielle - let's get Argo."
"Xena," Gabrielle frowned, "You're sure that sending him to hide with all those people was a good idea? You didn't even take away his pulser."
"I'm not sending anyone through the station unarmed right now - not even Ares. Those red alerts," she indicated the lights flashing across the corridor, "you know what they mean - at least a couple of Roaches must have breached the hull. Probably just the backup airlocks, but we can't take chances."
Gabrielle continued to look unhappy. "Your tattoo - it's fading."
"I know." Xena felt dull loss wash over her as the chakram's warmth slowly left her body, dissipating from her skin. She reached up and touched her arm, trying instinctively to hold on to what remained of the mark, knowing that it was futile. 'He still has a hold on me', Xena thought with dismay. It was the right thing to do, letting him go. The only thing to do.
"How far does Ares have to be for it to fade completely?" Gabrielle asked, looking around anxiously. How long were they going to stand here?
"Far enough," Xena said, keeping her voice hard. "Let's go."
They rounded the corner, coming out into the vast hangar-like spaceport, suddenly engulfed in people and activity. Other officers were running up in twos and threes, all armed. Someone handed Xena and Gabrielle suits of armour as they ran towards the back of the spaceport, where Argo was stationed.
Pulling the gear on along the way, they skirted another ship and came up on either side of Argo's gold-flecked hull. They climbed into the cabin and Xena flicked on the systems, waiting for the self-test.
"All clear," the ship said. "Prepare for lift-off."
Gabrielle looked over at Xena, apprehension turning to exhilaration, as it always did when the two of them were about to go on a new mission. There was something about sitting in Argo's cabin, armed and ready to go, that gave her a glimmer of understanding - she thought she could see just how hard it would have been for Xena to give up this life.
The warrior grinned fiercely at her, blue eyes glinting with steel. "Ready?"
"Definitely," Gabrielle replied. "Let's kick some ass."
The chamber of the rooftop airlock opened as Argo took off - then they were outside.
* * *
Ares had to hunch down a little not to hit his head on the top of the pipe as he made his way through. It was a maintenance passage of some sort, hatches opened into it every fifty paces. He stopped before each and listened, but it was hard to make out anything with the sirens blaring on the other side.
He wasn't sure how much further he had to go to get to the evacuation hall, it was impossible to tell how deep inside the station he was with all the twists and turns. He scrambled forward, holding out his pulser. The thought of Xena out there, fighting, while he was skulking in the pipes like a rat, was maddening - he spat and cursed mentally, despising himself for allowing her to talk him into this. How pathetic! The God of War, running from a battle. With his own army, no less!
A noise, like the hiss of fireworks, made him stop - and a second later, part of the pipe blew out behind him, sending electric blue sparks and smoke in his direction. Sirens shrieked, a hundred times louder because of the rupture in the insulation. Ares was thrown backwards against the other side of the pipe, hit his head and coughed, trying not to lose his grip on the pulser. Two more pulser shots ripped through something outside, followed by a high-pitched scream, then everything went silent. Ares held out his weapon, ready to tackle whoever it was, but no more shots came.
He crawled on his elbows to where the wall was ruptured, the acrid smoke making his eyes water - he could just make out two bodies in the dust, sprawled against the mangled edges of the pipe. Ares peered through the dust - could they be his men?
He got to his knees and holstered the pulser, brushing away the debris from the bodies. Blood, thickly red in the white dust was spreading around them, soaking into the torn insulation fibres hanging from the metal edges in clumps. No - they couldn't belong to his army, he realised as some of the dust came off under his hands - just two station officers. A man and a woman. They were wearing civilian clothes, red skinsuits with an insignia he did not recognise. Both looked young - just boy and girl, really, probably caught as they tried to open a hatch into the passage to safety.
Ares risked climbing up to look out of the breach. The corridor walls beyond were painted pastel pink, a revolting colour - but encouraging nevertheless, because if he remembered the colour coding correctly, it meant he was very close to the hub. It wouldn't be much more than another ten minutes to the evacuation hall.
He looked at the motionless bodies on the floor. The girl was breathing, he could see the dust moving slightly against her mouth - the boy, he wasn't sure about, but there were cuts and bruises over both of their bodies and a lot of blood.
He should leave them both, now - before someone came back. It was stupid to even think about dragging them away from here... He wasn't thinking about it, anyway... He wouldn't stand a chance if a dozen soldiers came strolling down the corridors - and they would, eventually, because the prison compound wasn't far from here. He couldn't get his army back if he was dead.
The thought of Xena, out there in Argo's cabin, sneaked up on him unexpected, bringing with it a memory of her voice, whispering through his mind.
I wanted more.
"Fucking hell," Ares said with feeling. He hoisted up the two bodies on his shoulders, staggering slightly under the weight and moved off down the passage, trying to ignore the throbbing ache in his skull where he had hit his head. They'll provide him with an excuse for finding the evacuation hall, at any rate. He could ignore the headache.
More difficult to ignore was the feeling of being naked, exposed to anyone who cared to peer in through the gaping hole in the pipe, and the cold knowledge that he would not be able to react in time, not with two limp bodies weighing him down. Every step was a challenge, he had not realised just how slippery the floor was; it took all of his concentration not to slip. Sweat poured over his forehead, into his eyes, he could not wipe it away without letting go of his burden - and he did not dare stop to do that, not when he was so exposed, so vulnerable.
He kept hoping for a turn in the passage, to conceal him from any curious eyes checking out the breach, but the pipe, so full of twists and odd angles until now, remained dead-straight, as though conspiring against him.
When the turn did come, it was not in the direction Ares had anticipated. He tripped over a bar of some sort, at ankle level. The floor disappeared under his feet abruptly and he felt himself falling, straight down, like a stone. Without thinking about it, Ares twisted his torso so that the two unconscious civilians ended up above him - and then he slammed into the floor with a sickening thud, something crumpling under his back, hitting the same spot on his head yet again, so that his vision erupted into magenta fireworks. He scarcely noticed the additional jolts of pain as the two bodies fell on top of him.
The world swam in bubbles of painful colour, Ares thought he heard voices around him - afraid? surprised? - and someone lifted the annoying weight from his chest, so that he could breathe a little.
He lay there for a few moments, just taking in shallow breaths, trying to work out if he could move. Painfully, he opened his eyes, squinting as the bright light pierced into his headache. Above him, there was a high ceiling, tiled with plastic - and a wide round opening, like an upside-down escape hatch, with a ladder leading down from it....
Shit. With a monumental effort, Ares forced his eyes to focus on the opening. That was it - the pipe. He'd missed the ladder and toppled straight in. I must have been out of my mind, carrying those idiots. There was a reason he took them along, Ares knew... He just wasn't sure what it was - and then a sudden realisation drove all useless speculation from his mind. The breach in the passage! Soldiers could be streaming in through it at that very moment. He sat up woozily, fighting his lurching stomach as the room around him slowly started to make sense.
He was lying - no, sitting - on a lot of crushed cardboard. More boxes lay scattered around him. That would explain why he wasn't a heap of broken bones on the floor... And there were faces. Ares looked around - he was surrounded by people, civilians, all looking on in curious concern. He looked down at himself - there was a lot of blood, but he didn't think it was his. The sash of his pulser was torn, the weapon lay next to him.
What the hell was he doing here? He should be out there getting his army back! He brought his legs up, trying to stand, but they didn't seem to want to support his weight.
A dark-haired girl in a silvery suit, like Gabrielle's, stepped forward. She would have been almost pretty, were it not for the unnatural paleness of her skin, Ares thought - and then realised she was trembling.
"Who are you?" she asked, eyeing his pulser warily. "Why didn't you just climb down the ladder?"
Ares tugged at the sash, bringing the pulser into his hand. His lips twisted in black irony. "I forgot I can't fly."
Another woman put her arm around the girl, turning her away. "Give the man some room, Alexis, he's hurt. Go on now, your brother is asking for you."
The girl allowed herself to be propelled through the crowd towards a corner where the two bodies Ares had carried were lying. Only they weren't bodies any more - both looked awake, the boy was whimpering pathetically as a man in a medic's uniform fussed with his wound, trying to bind it.
The woman stretched out her hand to help Ares. "Can you stand?"
Ares tried to shift his weight again, this time managing to climb to his feet unsteadily. He ignored the woman's hand. "I'm fine," he said thickly, looking around at the crowd of civilians surrounding him. "But unless you do something about that hatch, there's a good chance that in a few minutes, we're all going to be pulser-meat."
The woman looked horrified, the crowd around him murmured in fear.
Ares looked up at the gap in the ceiling. "Someone blew a hole in the tunnel back there, where I found your friends," he nodded in the direction of the two injured civilians, then his vision blurred as the movement of his head brought another wave of pain.
"They must have been trying to open a hatch," the woman said, shaking her head. "But what can we do?"
Ares looked at all the faces turned to him anxiously. They were waiting for instructions, he realised. He knew he had complete command, sensed the shift in the power balance and rode it like a wave, encompassing everyone in the crowd, as though addressing his army.
"I'm going back there," he said, "Stack tables up to the hatch after I'm gone, I'll seal it from the other side." He hefted the pulser in his hands for emphasis.
"Wait, you can't go!" the woman said, trying to stop him as he stepped up onto the ladder. "There is an army out there!"
"I know," Ares rolled his eyes, "That's the idea." He grabbed hold of the next rung.
"You'll get killed!" The woman's voice rose, dangerously close to hysteria. She tried to pull him back down, tugging at his ankles. Other hands helped her, attempting to haul him off the ladder.
This was getting annoying. "Listen," Ares yelled, shaking them off, "That hatch closes inwards. I can't seal it from the inside!" Why wouldn't they just let him go? He had to get out to the prison compound before they freed Skart! Bastard wasn't going to get control of his troops.
"You're mad!" The crowd at his feet was no longer murmuring, they were screaming.
'Damn them', Ares thought, climbing quickly upwards, through the hatch, and slamming it shut. He glanced around to make sure the tunnel was still empty - there were still sirens wailing distantly, but he couldn't hear or see any movement. His luck was holding.
With a quick, practiced move, he aimed the pulser at the lip of the closed hatch and pressed the trigger. Bright, angry pulses hit the metal, making it bubble and glow - the noise was deafening, reverberating endlessly in the confines of the pipe - then it was over. The hatch was welded shut, the topmost rung of the ladder melted into the rim, radiating intense heat. Ares' ears rang in the sudden silence.
He reset the weapon and turned back the way he had come, towards the breach in the wall. The prison compound would be just beyond it.
* * *
"Gabrielle, look!" Xena spared one hand from the controls, pointing at something through the portal of the cockpit.
"He's going in!" Gabrielle screamed, "Through the airlock!"
The thick-bellied Roach had attached itself to the hull of the Station, crouching against the airlock like a spider. Sure enough, a pincer-like appendage extended from it, latching onto the airlock and prising it apart. The doors opened and closed reluctantly.
"Brute force and ignorance," Xena scowled. "Gotta be one of Skart's!"
She turned Argo and launched her towards the raider ship, making her way through twisted debris floating through the blackness around them, ramming the Roach sideways, so that it lost hold on the airlock.
"Too late," Gabrielle said, as Xena brought Argo to a halt, releasing the outer doors of the airlock. They climbed through the escape hatch. "They're in the station."
"Not for long," said Xena, as both of them came though the airlock chamber, into the corridor. Pastel-pink walls around them pulsed with red alarm lights, the air filled with siren wails.
"This way," Xena pointed, "They must be heading for the prisons."
* * *
Ares climbed through the breach in the pipe and looked around. The corridor led into another, wider one, about a hundred paces to his left. He pressed his back to the wall as two soldiers ran through the wider corridor and disappeared out of sight.
'Just two', he thought, making his way carefully to the junction, a couple of ships must have broken through the backup airlocks, but it didn't look like they had managed to take the spaceport.
Of course they hadn't - it was Xena they were fighting!
He reached the prison compound without incident. It was just a long corridor, like the one he had just left, but with doors opening out into cells on either side. It was probably intended to be well-guarded, but Ares could not see anyone around - the two soldiers had disappeared somewhere, there were no guards. Some of the alarms had cried themselves into silence, he could hear his own ragged breathing and the uneven rhythm of his footsteps. The effect was surreal - an empty prison, no signs of a struggle anywhere, just a corridor with reinforced doors. Not too different, he realised, to Xena's office sector - with the exception of trip-alarms on the heavy steel of the door panels.
A scuffling noise attracted his attention; Ares stopped and listened. It was coming from behind the door to his left. There was an explosion of light and sound as he blasted away the locking mechanism and prodded the door open with the point of his pulser.
Ares did not know what he had been expecting - but the scene that confronted him was certainly not it. The two soldiers he had seen before were crouching over a pile of something near the back wall, shielding their faces against the light pouring in from the doorway. He recognised them both.
"Strife," he said, coming to stand over the two, smiling ominously. Strife's scrawny body began to shake visibly, teeth chattering. "And Discord. What a pleasant surprise."
Discord scrambled to her feet and took a couple of hasty steps back. "Ares," she said, drawing her too-red lips into a careful pout. "We, uh... Came looking for you."
Ares hauled Strife to his feet by his ear, continuing to look at Discord. "In here?"
The petite brunette glanced back at the pile of what looked like rags. She licked her lips nervously.
"Don't bother," Ares glared at her, "I won't believe it." He released Strife's ear, and the young man tripped backwards, dropping something as he fell.
Ares picked it up - a keycard. So that's how they got in. He crossed his arms and arched his eyebrows slightly, waiting for an explanation. Discord and Strife exchanged a nervous look.
"Ares, you know we're completely loyal to you..."
The pile behind them shifted and Ares realised what it was.
"Skart," he snarled, as the warlord drew himself up to stand. "Thinking of borrowing my army for a turn around the block?"
Next to Discord and Strife, Skart looked like a human tank. "Which army would that be, God of War? The one you sold to your bitch at Justice Station?"
"You know," Ares said conversationally, "I was going to wait until we got back to camp to kill you." He raised his pulser and widened his eyes in mock pity. "But I think I just changed my mind."
He did not get a chance to pull the trigger. Skart was deceptively quick for his bulk - he made a dive for the two soldiers, grabbing Discord's hair and Strife's hand in each huge fist and shoving them in between himself and Ares.
"Go on, then," he said calmly, jerking Discord's hair as she struggled. "Shoot." Strife whimpered, trying to free himself.
"All right, that's enough!"
The sound of a stun gun rang through the cell and Skart collapsed. Discord and Strife jumped back from the falling body, Discord tripped and rammed into Ares, taking him down with her.
Ares threw her off and twisted around to see Xena and Gabrielle in the doorway. Xena flicked the stun gun closed and sheathed it in the sash of her pulser.
"You all right?" she asked him, crossing the room to his side.
"Yeah..." Ares sat up.
"Gabrielle," she said, turning her head, "You better restrain these two." Gabrielle nodded, throwing a pair of handcuffs against Discord's and Strife's wrists before they could work out what was happening. The device locked and shrank back, forcing the two prisoners close together. Their eyes glazed over, as though in a trance.
"I'm going to call the officers," Gabrielle said. Xena nodded, "We'll be here."
The lawyer sheathed her pulser and ran out into the corridor.
"What've you done to them?" Ares frowned as Xena squatted behind him. He tried to stand up, but Xena pressed her hand to his shoulder, forcing him back down.
"They needed a rest," she said. "How did they get in here?"
"Keycard. They must've stolen the code for the locks when they were here last. They were supposed to feed that asshole the sleeping draught and bring him back."
Xena ran her fingers over the back of Ares' neck and head, probing for damage. "It's your own fault, you know. You should have left Skart alone."
Ares winced as her fingers found the injury where he had hit his head. "I know. Are you going to keep rubbing my nose in it?"
"No," Xena said, a slight smile in her voice. "I just want to make sure you know I saved your hide for the third time today."
"Must be a record." Ares felt his breath catching in his throat as Xena's hands moved deftly through his tousled hair and along the grazed skin of his neck. "Not that I'm not grateful - but why did you?"
He was surprised to hear her sigh. Her hands became still, he could feel the heat where her skin touched his.
Xena moved around so that she could see his face in the semi-darkness of the cell, cuts and bruises marking strange lines across it, lines she did not know or recognise. She ran her fingertips over his cheeks and jaw with a gentleness she had not really intended, studying the feel of the new marks, memorising them.
She did not answer his question. Instead, she asked, "Why did you help those two kids back in the tunnel?"
"How do you know?"
Xena smiled. "Just answer the question, Ares."
"I don't know," he admitted. "I thought, maybe it wouldn't look so suspicious when I turned up at that hall if I brought them with me." He wasn't going to tell her about hearing her voice.
"And the hatch?"
"I needed a reason for getting out."
"You could have made something up."
Ares breathed in exasperation. "They were completely exposed back there, okay? What was..."
Xena put a finger to his lips. "I know. It was the right thing to do. The good thing to do."
Ares rolled his eyes. "Wonderful. Pass the tissues."
The doorway darkened as medics and Justice officers piled inside, Hercules and Gabrielle among them. Someone flicked on the light, making Xena squint and blink.
Medics carted stretchers inside the room, as Xena and Ares rose to their feet. "Those two are just witnesses," Gabrielle said, indicating Discord's and Strife's motionless bodies. "That's Skart over there."
Hercules took a step forward. "Brother," he said, shaking his head. "Never thought I'd..." Behind him, a crowd of people pressed into the doorway, an officer was trying in vain to force them back.
Hercules turned around as a woman pushed past the officer, into the cell. Ares recognised her as the one who kept trying to stop him from climbing out of the hall.
"That there is the man who saved those kids," she said to the people behind her, as they pushed closer to get a better look. Ares and Hercules both looked confused, Xena just smiled, looking over at Gabrielle.
"Kids?" Hercules said.
"Yes, Hercules," the woman continued, adjusting her cloak, "He dragged Selas and Mika halfway through the maintenance tunnel to the evacuation hall, after they got caught in the crossfire, back in the corridors."
The people behind her were beaming, someone yelled, "What's his name?"
"Ares," Ares said, backing away slightly. Xena saying it was one thing, having all these people - and Hercules - around was thoroughly humiliating.
"Ares!" The crowd took up the chant. "Ar-es, Ar-es, Ar-es!"
They were cheering, he realised. Him, they were cheering him. He smiled slowly, beginning to enjoy it.
"I could get used to this," he said to Xena in an undertone, continuing to smile.
"Good," she replied, just as quietly. "I'm glad we agree."
Hercules held up a hand, waiting as the crowd fell silent. Ares scowled at him - that was just like his brother, to spoil the fun.
"The army that attacked us..." Hercules began, and Ares understood suddenly what he was doing. He was going to arrest him.
Well, had to happen sooner or later, if he was going to hang around this place. He glanced at Xena, but her face betrayed no emotion. Damn. He straightened, looking at his brother with mild contempt.
"... belonged to Skart," Hercules finished. "This man helped us capture him."
It took a moment for his words to sink in.
"He saved hundreds of lives!" Xena raised her voice to the crowd. "Ares!"
"Ar-es!" they began to cheer again, with renewed zeal. "Ar-es! Ar-es!"
The two brothers exchanged a long look, then Hercules shrugged and turned to go, making his way through the crowd.
"I think you just saved my skin for the fourth time," Ares said to Xena, as Gabrielle came up to them.
"Nope," Xena said. "That was all you."
Gabrielle grinned. "Looks like Ares has just been made a hero."
Ares cringed. "Spare me, please..."
Xena laughed. "No such luck." She took Ares' elbow, manoeuvring the three of them through the throng into the corridor.
"I'll never live this down," Ares muttered.
"You'll have a while to get over it," Xena said. "In Andromeda."
Ares stopped in his tracks and wrenched his arm away. "What?!"
"That's where we're going."
"To Andromeda? Slaves, mines, mean-looking guards - that Andromeda?"
He looked at Gabrielle, who was trying not to laugh.
"Okay, what is going on?"
Xena looked away for an instant - was she really going to do this? She looked back at Ares' bruised and battered face; he was waiting for her to speak... The warmth of the chakram was coursing through her arm again - and she knew she didn't want to lose it, not now. She licked her dry lips.
"I'm going to free those people in the mines. I thought you might like to ... join us. One good turn deserves another."
Ares looked at her in disbelief. "Justice Station wouldn't approve."
"No," Xena said softly, "But then, there are other ways to help people."
She raised her eyes to Ares' and he was shocked to see the question in them. He swallowed, his throat tightening painfully. He thought of Discord and Strife, how they were taken in as witnesses, not criminals - how he had been going to think of some punishment for their betrayal, how the remains of his army were scattering around the galaxy...
Xena was asking too much - asking for everything.
But she was offering more.
* * *
Justice Station is not exactly Buckingham Palace. From the portal of a ship leaving its main spaceport, it resembles nothing so much as a gigantic barnacle on the hull of the Universe - a blackened silvery mass with windows and airlocks peeking out from the oddest places. A scarred, battle-worn fort, its interior every bit as uninviting as its shell.
It is not the sort of place you can get sentimental about. But then, neither was my army camp. I guess when it comes down to it, it's all in the company. There are many things I miss about my old life, but they don't matter, any of them - because now, I don't have to miss you.
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