Forwards and forewarnings: This is the third story in my
Transition series, directly following the events in
Between Sunsets and
Dawn. I suspect there will be several more stories in this series in the
Future--but don't ask me exactly when!
This is Ares/Joxer slash, but it's a lot more of an adventure/
relationship story than an erotica piece. My apologies for the
general lack of smuttiness in what will follow, and perhaps the
bizarreness of some of it as well. THAT much I will blame on the
flu medication I've been on, and also reading too much Terry Pratchett lately.
Many, many thanks to Mimi for beta-reading. Comments, as always,
are most welcome.
Archive: Joxerotica, once it's complete. Anywhere else, please ask.
"Thank you again, Xena, Gabrielle, for all your help bringing peace to
our two kingdoms after all this time." King Fermes smiled, relief
evident on his tired, elderly features.
"Yes," agreed King Lyonus. "Both our lands have lost far too many good
men and women to this war. It has dragged on long enough, and would no
doubt have dragged on much longer had you not helped bring us back to
our senses. How we could have been moved to such bloodshed over foolish
mistakes and petty misunderstandings is beyond me," the younger king
continued, his voice tinged with regret, eyes lowered in shame.
"You were both merely pawns in a game only the gods could understand.
Ares, no doubt, played you both as he wished to bring this war to a
head. Learn from your mistakes, and the way he manipulated you and fed
your fears and jealousies, so that this will never happen between your
two lands again," Xena cautioned. She caught Gabrielle's smile of
approval from across the room, and finished her good-byes to both kings
and their royal courts. It was up to these people now to finish
resolving their conflict amicably; the warrior princess had done her
part and was ready to move on.
"Time to go?" Gabrielle asked when Xena approached her.
The dark-haired woman nodded. "We're done here. And I know I could use a
few days' rest."
"I could use a few days' peace and quiet to work on my scrolls--this is
going to be quite a story to tell!" Gabrielle enthused. "Uniting two
kingdoms after years of conflict and war, saving King Fermes' daughter
so she could wed Prince Marcus, her true love...it's an epic in the
"Mmm, I'm sure," Xena remarked distractedly as they made their way out
of the castle grounds.
"Is something wrong? Aren't you pleased with the way things turned out?"
the bard asked.
"Of course. But I can't help thinking it was a little too easy. Ares
must have gone to great lengths to bring about this war and sustain it
for so long--his 'personal touch' was all over the place," Xena
explained. "Yet he did nothing to stop me from trying to end the
conflict. I was wondering when he was going to show his sneering face,
but he never did. It's almost as if he suddenly lost interest in the
whole affair sometime before we even arrived here. The kings were
already beginning to question continuing with this madness before we
intervened. Where was Ares to keep their anger raging?"
"Maybe he just got bored with the war?"
Xena shook her head. "Ares never gets bored with war. Not in general,
and not any specific war. He doesn't like peaceful resolutions. He's
only happy when one side crushes the other in a sound defeat."
"Maybe...maybe Joxer made him change his mind about this war?" Gabrielle
was hesitant to make the suggestion, and regretted it for a moment when
Xena visibly stiffened at the mention of their former companion's name.
"Just a thought," she quickly amended. "You know, Ares used to be around
goading you almost constantly. And I haven't seen him in months. Have
"No," Xena answered. "No, it is odd. Something big must be going
on...but I'm not ready to believe he's suddenly become some 'kinder,
gentler' god of war, Joxer or no Joxer."
Gabrielle let the discussion drop at that. Xena looked understandably
tired after the past days' work and Joxer was still a sore point to
bring up, even after all these months. The bard knew how betrayed Xena
had felt upon learning that their friend had willingly given himself as
a lover to Ares--if not the warrior princess' greatest enemy then
certainly her most powerful one. Xena had taken Joxer under her wing to
try to steer him to a better life for himself, a better path than that
of the warrior he had claimed to want to become when they had first
crossed paths. And in the end, he had chosen to align himself with the
very personification of all that Xena had tried so hard to put behind
her in the past few years.
"Well, I'm sure we'll find out soon enough what's going on," was all
Gabrielle added on the subject as they neared the stable where Argo was
being kept. "Hey, can we get something to eat before hitting the trail?"
"You're not hungry again, are you?" Xena groaned.
"Can I help it if I have a healthy appetite?"
"All right, all right. We need to pick up some supplies before we leave
The two companions were on the road for hours until nightfall, when Xena
was satisfied they had found a good place to make camp and get some
rest. The older woman betrayed her exhaustion after this last mission by
falling asleep quickly after securing the camp and sharing a simple meal
of meat pies and cheese. Gabrielle stayed up by their campfire a while
longer, trying to work on her scrolls but finding her thoughts mostly
preoccupied with matters besides the stories she wanted to tell.
She never thought the day would have come when she'd feel this way, but
she'd found over the past months that she actually missed Joxer being
around. Because he was always flitting in and out of their lives, his
absence hadn't really hit her at first. He was always disappearing for a
while, then coming back full of energy and usually more full of himself
than ever...but not now. The last time she'd seen him had been that day
only a few weeks after three of them had dealt with Titus, the owner of
a shady gaming establishment. Joxer had been beaten almost to his death,
and was barely beginning his recovery when he had parted ways with the
two women. Gabrielle had been worried enough about him traveling alone
in the state he'd been in, but the trouble he'd found for himself in
their absence was something she never would have expected...
Gabrielle found an empty table in the tavern and settled in to wait for
Xena. The warrior woman had taken off to find a place to board Argo
safely for the night, and hopefully some type of boarding for themselves
while she was at it.
Gabrielle was looking forward to the next few days. While Xena would be
taking care of a local warlord who was stirring up trouble in the nearby
countryside, Gabrielle planned to catch up with a few fellow bards in
town. They were trying to establish a small library here and were
interested in some of her scrolls for their collection. She was curious
to see what they'd gathered from other bards since the last time she and
Xena had passed through this area--an author, after all, owed it to
herself to stay on top of the current work of her fellow artists. Her
only pressing question now was deciding which scrolls to donate or copy
for the library. Some stories with a lot of adventure, or romance? I
wonder if they like stories about Amazons in this neck of the woods...
she wondered, leafing through her bag while she awaited the arrival of
her friend, and also the food she'd ordered.
She was so caught up in her internal debate that she did not notice the
man approaching her table until he called out loudly, in a very familiar
voice, "Hey, Gabrielle! What a surprise!"
Well, those few Joxer-free weeks were good while they lasted, she
sighed to herself. Not that she really had anything against the
man...nothing major, at least. He reminded her of a lot of the boys she
knew in her village when she was growing up--always underfoot and
looking to impress the girls with crazy stories and laughable fake
bravado. Joxer had made a fine art out of the fake bravado part, but he
wasn't quite as irritating about it as he had been at first. Either
that, or she was just getting used to it.
"Hi, Joxer...Joxer?" She was caught by surprise when she looked up and
saw him, the change in his appearance since she'd last laid eyes on him
rather startling. For a moment, she wondered if perhaps this was his
brother Jett sitting down at the table to join her, given the fancy
leather attire he wore instead of his typical hodgepodge of hand-me-down
armor. The well-tailored vest and pants, with matching gauntlets and
boots, made him look almost--dare she even think it--attractive. A small
silver pendant hung about his neck, the design vaguely familiar to the
bard though she couldn't recollect exactly where she'd seen it before.
Despite the fine attire, he still wore his standard loopy grin that
somewhat marred the overall impressive effect of the outfit, especially
as the grin seemed even more lopsided than usual. "None other," he
stated in response to her inquiry, though she still harbored some
doubts. There were some rumors floating about of another brother besides
Jett in his strange family tree and so she remained slightly on guard.
"I thought you were headed towards Corinth."
"I was, but something came up so I was...delayed. Then I decided to see
if I couldn't catch back up with you and Xena after all. Hey, let me buy
you a drink," he offered as a serving wench came over with Gabrielle's
"Uh...sure," Gabrielle agreed, wondering what the story really was here.
For someone who a few weeks' past had been barely hanging onto to the
world of the living by a thread, he looked in remarkably sound and
rested condition now. And had he made another killing at a gaming parlor
somewhere, to afford such luxurious attire? "You're certainly
looking...better than when I last saw you."
"Oh, well...I had a little...unexpected help," he answered with a
snicker, then he snagged a few grapes off her plate before she could
swat his hand away.
"Is that 'unexpected help' why you're in such a good mood?"
"Mmm, yeah, I guess you could say so," Joxer answered, finishing with a
The dreamy-eyed look on his face then was one that the bard understood
well enough. "So, is it someone I know?" Gabrielle asked, recalling they
weren't too far away from where Meg ran her establishment of rather
"Yep. But definitely not someone you'd expect."
The bard was becoming irritated--not unusual when it came to dealing
with Joxer, but still...He couldn't just tell her outright what was
going on, could he? No, he was enjoying this little game, trying to get
her all curious and worked up over who it could be that had Joxer
beaming like he'd just been declared King of Corinth.
The really annoying thing was, Gabrielle was dying to know, if only so
she could thank whoever had distracted Joxer from mooning over her for
a while. "So who is she, already?" the bard asked, stabbing her steak a
little too harshly with her fork.
"I probably I shouldn't tell. And it isn't a she."
Gabrielle's eyebrows lifted at that. This was getting more interesting
by the minute, especially as her list of suspects had just changed
radically. "Really? Come on, Joxer, you can tell me."
"I dunno..." he drawled out slowly. "He didn't specifically say I
shouldn't tell anyone..."
"I can keep a secret," Gabrielle encouraged.
Joxer glanced around furtively, as if he was looking about for someone
to actually intervene and keep him from talking. "Okay, I guess it
doesn't really matter. I mean, you'll find out sooner or later, I guess.
Gabrielle stared at him for a moment, not certain she'd heard him
correctly. Then she started to laugh. "Ares?" she repeated, trying to
picture the fearsome god and the hardly fearsome wanna-be warrior
together, and only setting herself off in another fit of laughter.
"That's pretty funny, Joxer. Now who is it, really?"
He gave her a wounded look, then leaned back in his chair and nodded his
head in a superior manner. "It's okay, Gabrielle. I realize how upset
you must be to know that I'm no longer available. Men like me are hard
to come by, after all. But there's only so much of me to go around..."
He let out another sigh and got that dreamy look again. "And Ares sure
doesn't leave much to share with anyone else, let me tell you..."
Now she was starting to worry. Joxer was always making up stories about
his prowess on the battlefield, but to claim to be the lover of the god
of war? I think he's gone over the edge, she mused sadly. Titus'
thugs must've clonked him one too many times on the head, and now he
really can't tell fantasy from reality any longer.
Joxer continued boasting, "Yep, he's just crazy about me. I think he
might even love me--he just isn't ready to admit to it yet, you know,
being the god of war and all that. But it's only a matter of time, I
"Ares doesn't know what love is," another voice interrupted sharply.
Xena's, Gabrielle recognized, turning around to see her friend standing
Her tone of voice grave, Xena continued, "You'd do best to remember
that, Joxer, before you let him try to convince you otherwise. Ares is
nothing but a liar and a coward interested only in his own glory."
Gabrielle looked up at her friend with surprise. She believed Joxer's
Joxer insisted, "That's not true, Xena. You just don't understand him
the way I do."
"Is that so?" Xena's eyes narrowed. Gabrielle knew that look, and knew
that it didn't bode well for anyone who was on the receiving end of it.
"A few nights of rutting with the heartless bastard and you're ready to
believe any lie he feeds you? You're more naive than I thought. I
thought maybe you'd learned a few things from traveling with us. I see
I've been mistaken."
"Xena..." Gabrielle started, not liking where this was leading. Even if
he was an annoyance sometimes, Joxer was still her friend, and she
didn't want to be caught in the middle of a confrontation like this
between the two of them.
"It's okay, Gabrielle," Joxer interrupted evenly, his own gaze
surprisingly strong as he faced down Xena's icy-blue stare. Standing up,
he continued, "I should have known telling you the truth would only lead
to this. I thought we could still be friends. I guess I was wrong."
Without another word he walked away. Xena wouldn't sit, wouldn't relax
until he'd completely left the tavern.
"Xena, he was only telling one of his ridiculous stories," Gabrielle
protested, trying to calm her friend.
"No, he was telling the truth--about becoming somehow involved with
"How do you know?"
"The pendant he wore, didn't you see it?"
Gabrielle recalled the pendant she'd known she had seen somewhere
before. Xena continued, "It's the same design as Ares wears himself. No
blacksmith except Hephaestus himself would dare forge a copy. Ares must
have them made for his...pets."
"But what could Ares want with Joxer?"
Xena shook her head, looking as troubled as Gabrielle was confused. "Who
can say? I can't understand what motivates his actions most of time. I
wouldn't even put it past Ares to be doing this to somehow get to me,
knowing Joxer is our friend. I don't know what he could have in mind,
and I wish I did..."
The call of an owl overhead drew Gabrielle out of her remembrance and
back to her current surroundings. Looking at the still-blank scroll in
her hands, she sighed and rolled it up to start on it some other night.
The muses didn't speak to her when she was troubled about her friends,
be they Xena or Joxer or anyone else. She couldn't shake the feeling
that something was wrong, something serious.
The only marginal comfort she could draw, as she soon after curled up
against Xena's side for the night, was that it probably wouldn't be very
long before that something caught up with them and she'd find out
exactly what it was. Trouble had a way of falling across her and Xena's
path whether they were looking for it or not.
Over the following days of relaxation in the countryside, the two women
enjoyed taking a break from saving kingdoms and other serious
activities. Gabrielle felt satiated and well rested after long hours of
writing--while Xena busied herself fishing and taking Argo for long
rides in search of green apples--and enjoying other pleasurable
activities that the women pursued together. The bard had almost
forgotten her worries over Ares and Joxer. The niggling sense of concern
was still there in the back of her thoughts, but without any information
or clues as to what could be happening except that Ares seemed to be
missing-in-action, she focused her attention more on matters of catching
up on writing up her most recent adventures with Xena.
On the way to a nearby village where they would refresh their supplies
before planning where to head next, Xena commented, "You're awfully
"Hmm? Oh, just thinking. You didn't tell me what you thought of that
scroll I finished before we left this morning." The bard thrived on
feedback, and Xena--being the hero of most of her stories--was the one
reader whose opinion she valued the most.
"I know. I wanted to think about it some more before saying anything."
"That means you hated it."
"It does not! Your writing gets better with every new story you commit
"You're only saying that. I can take the criticism. Go on. Was it the
pacing? The characterizations?"
"Then what was wrong?"
"Nothing! Nothing at all. It was very good."
"But not great."
"I didn't say that..."
They kept at the lighthearted arguing as they made their way into the
small town. Gabrielle's stomach was starting to rumble and Xena didn't
protest her suggestion that they find a tavern and a nice hot meal as
their first priority. As they headed towards the center of town,
however, to a loud crowd milling about drew their attention. It was not
a particularly reputable-looking crowd, either.
"Wonder what's going on here," Xena commented, stopping on the square's
edge to take in the scene from a respectable distance. Most of the men
were dressed in typical warrior-gear, as were the few women. Others, who
to Gabrielle's eyes looked like villagers simply curious about the
impromptu gathering, hung back cautiously from the center of the
One of the warrior men, dressed in finer attire than the rest, stood
upon a small platform and began calling for everyone's attention. "Glory
to our master! Glory to the god of war!"
"Glory to the god of war!" the warriors repeated, many raising their
weapons overhead. They repeated the cry for several minutes, until all
had their attentions focused on the man on the platform.
He called out: "All of you here today, listen to my words well! The time
of great change is at hand! Those who join us will reap the rewards only
our master can provide. Join us in paying respect and tribute to the new
god of war, or be prepared to suffer the consequences." Many of his
supporters murmured in agreement, casting threatening looks about at the
townsfolk as they did.
Xena stepped forward and called out the same question that was forming
on Gabrielle's lips. "What new god of war? What happened to Ares?"
The man on the stage answered, "Ares was outcast, defeated by our new
"Hail Strife!" one of the warlords shouted, and his cry was echoed by
many of the others in the crowd.
"Strife?" Gabrielle yelled over the din. "But I thought Strife was
killed by Callisto!"
"He was, and now he has risen from the dead to claim Ares' throne!" the
warlord stated. "That alone shows he is a god above all others--not even
death can defeat him. Swear your allegiance to the new war god, show
your respect! A great war is coming in his honor, and those who join his
forces will rule the land! Those who don't will instead feel his
"Let's get out of here," Xena muttered, pulling Gabrielle away from the
crowd and towards the tavern they had been walking toward in the first
place. Many of the villagers were trying to slip away from the unruly
mob of thugs without being noticed, or by making a passing show of
donating a few dinars or whatever they had to try to appease the
warriors and get them to move on.
After taking a table and ordering some food, Gabrielle remarked, "This
is crazy, Xena. Strife defeating Ares? I can't believe it." Her
recollection of the God of Mischief, from the time he had been involved
the death of Hercules' wife Serina, was that he was a bit of
a...well...loser. She just couldn't picture him actually turning against
his master--turning against him and defeating him, no less.
"It is crazy, but it would explain why we haven't seen Ares for so
long," Xena trailed off thoughtfully.
"Do you think...Ares is dead?" Gabrielle asked, though silently she
wondered more about Joxer's fate in all of this than the god of war's.
"I don't know. Somehow, I don't think so. The gods are supposed to have
a rule about not killing each other, remember? Callisto's killing Strife
caused a great upheaval--I think we would have heard something if Ares
had met a similar fate. Besides, that man said Ares had been 'defeated',
not killed." Xena shook her head. "I don't like the sound of this. And I
don't think it will make any sense until we can find out what's really
"It'll probably make even less sense once you do," a familiar voice
interrupted. Gabrielle looked up, startled as she had been too focused
on her partner to notice that anyone had been approaching them. For a
moment she didn't recognize the man standing over them, his face
shadowed beneath a hooded cape. Then she saw and immediately recognized
his companion, standing a pace behind him.
"Joxer!" Gabrielle stopped herself short before jumping up from her seat
to grab him in a relieved hug. Xena was simply sitting there, barely
reacting to the mens' presence, and Gabrielle figured it best to follow
her companion's actions here as much as possible.
Still, Joxer smiled softly in acknowledgement of her greeting and said,
"Hi, Gabrielle. Xena."
"So it's true, then. You've lost you're powers, what...how many times is
this now, Ares?" Xena asked nonchalantly.
"I know, I know, it's become more than a little tedious to me as well.
But this time it's serious. Strife has to be stopped."
"And you need my help," Xena guessed.
Gabrielle caught Ares' slight grimace at Xena's words, and Joxer's
expectant glance towards Ares before he responded.
"I'd...appreciate...your help, because this is not going to be easy. But
if you want to see this land torn apart at that inept immortal's hands,
by all means, say no right now and we'll be gone."
There was a moment of silence, then Xena shrugged slightly and said,
"All right. I want to hear what happened. Should at least make for an
interesting story for Gabrielle's scrolls," she said with a glance
towards her friend. "What comes next...I'll let you know when
"Fair enough." Ares pulled over two chairs and he and Joxer joined them
at the table. With a sigh he said, "Better order another round of those
drinks; this could take a while."
"...and that," Ares paused to swallow down the last of the ale in his
mug, "is how I ended up here."
"More or less," Joxer added. Ares shot him a look, and he amended, "The
important bits, at least."
"Well, I'm sure Gabrielle can use her wonderful imagination to fill in
the rest," Ares remarked, to which Joxer merely shrugged and pushed
aside his also empty mug.
Gabrielle, for her part, was not quite sure of what to make of what she
was seeing and hearing. It was all a little...perplexing to say the
least. Joxer and Ares together like this, so obviously familiar which
each other: Joxer continually interrupting Ares' story to add his own
take on things, to which Ares just replied with long-suffering glances--
even, occasionally, a hint of a smile. It was one thing to hear that two
people were involved; it was another thing entirely, sometimes, to see
it for one's own eyes, so different perhaps than one had imagined.
Beyond all of that, there was this whole other matter of Joxer's rather
gruesome death, being sent to Tartarus, and only getting his life back
at the price of Ares' godhood to try to comprehend. She could see no
signs that this was not the truth of what had happened, that they were
trying to deceive Xena and her with their story, but that didn't make it
any less impossible to believe. Ares giving up his godhood for a
mortal's life? For Joxer's life?
Her eyes lit upon Joxer's for a moment, a thousand questions she wanted
to ask running through her head. What had it been like, and how had he
held on? Though his outward demeanor did not seem significantly changed,
she could see something very different in his eyes from what she
remembered. This was not the same innocent, ingenuous young man she had
Before she had the chance to speak, however, Xena started in with more
practical concerns and questions. "Does Strife have any idea what you're
up to? That you want to take him down?" she asked.
Ares shook his head. "The sniveling worm only ever showed his face to me
once since this all happened, and that was months ago. Doesn't mean he
couldn't be here spying on us right at this moment, but I think he's
convinced he's unstoppable now. Got better things to do with his time
than harass me once he believes I'm out of the way. Gods can't be
everywhere, Xena, and I can tell you this--being killed or otherwise
indisposed is about the last thing any of them usually worry about."
Ares suddenly fell silent and Gabrielle noticed Xena stiffening
apprehensively. Moments later she also noticed that a group of the
warriors from the square were gathering around their table. She
recognized one as the man who had been speaking to the crowd, and he
stood at the front of the group, smiling down at them in a rather
"Xena, Warrior Princess," he proclaimed. "I thought I recognized you
earlier. Won't you be join us in celebrating the rise of our new god?"
"Sorry. I've got better things to do," Xena answered flatly.
"Oh, that's right--you've given up the old ways, or so I've heard. A
shame, really. We could have used a woman with your...assets...on our
side. What about your friends here?" He walked around the table, casting
glances at Joxer and Ares, who for his part seemed to be trying to sink
even further into the shadows of his hood under the critical gaze.
"These two look like they could be whipped into shape for a good fight.
And this pretty little thing..." He brushed his hand lightly across
Gabrielle's hair. "Well, the men could use someone for...entertainment
purposes, now and again, and she looks right fine for the job."
Gabrielle looked ready to spin around and punch him where it would
really hurt, but he stepped back before she got the chance.
"None of us are interested, so why don't you just move along," Xena
"Or what?" the warrior sneered. "Come on, Xena. I'd like the chance to
take you on almost better than having you join us."
"I'm not here to fight," she insisted.
"Then you must be here to die," the warrior returned. Then, suddenly, he
drew his sword with one solid swing smashed their table in two.
It didn't take long for chaos to ensue.
Gabrielle was quick to her feet, swinging her staff about almost on
instinct as several of the men swarmed about her. They were ill-prepared
for her to fight back at all, let alone with the skill that years of
training and battle at Xena's side had instilled in her. All around her
she heard the smashing of tables and chairs, grunts and the occasional
screams as other patrons of the tavern tried to escape from the melee.
She did not let the sounds distract her until she had downed her first
wave of attackers. When they were out of the way, she glanced about to
see how her companions were handling themselves.
Xena was mostly preoccupied with the leader of the band in a one-on-one
sword fight. She'll handle him fine, Gabrielle knew after a quick
survey of how the battle was going, and so she tried to find Joxer and
Ares. Joxer, to her surprise, was not doing too badly for himself. He'd
somehow landed himself on top of one of the few still-upright tables and
was holding his own against two brutes significantly larger than
himself. He landed a solid kick to one's head, then spun about to stop
the other from slicing him in the leg with his sword.
Ares, for his part, was trying his best, but he had six heavily-armed
men he was trying to hold off and that seemed to be at least one too
many. Though his blows were solid, he was simply unable to keep track of
them all as they ganged up on him. One managed to land a solid kick to
his chest, sending him crashing into a table. The table cracked under
his weight and landed him solidly on his rear amidst the splinted wood.
Gabrielle jumped into action, covering him until he could regain his
feet. Between the two of them, they then managed to subdue their
attackers within a few minutes.
"Um. Thanks," Ares muttered to her under his breath, clearly not happy
about needing to show her any gratitude.
"You're welcome," she replied.
"Just don't mention it. I mean it."
Relative silence then settled upon the room, and Gabrielle observed that
except for the distressed tavern-keeper behind the bar, only she and her
friends were still standing. Xena towered over the leader of the warrior
band where he lay splayed out on the floor, the tip of his sword against
"You had your chance at me. And you lost. You and your thugs, be out of
this village by sundown, or else I won't be so generous in the state I
leave you the next time we meet." Satisfied, she walked over towards the
others and asked, "Everyone all right?" There were nods of agreement all
She went over to the tavern-keep and said, "Sorry about the mess. These
men are probably loaded down with dinars they've been 'collecting' for
tribute. Take what you need off them to cover the damage." The man
"This is all so sloppy," Ares complained, still catching his breath
after the brawl. "Look at what Strife is turning War into: brute thugs
threatening and cajoling tribute. No class. No style."
"Earlier this one was talking about preparing for a 'great war',"
Gabrielle recalled, pointing to the leader on the floor.
Ares nodded. "I heard, and was afraid of as much. It's why we have to
work quickly. A great war would be Strife's bid to build his power base
and try to establish himself as a major player with the other gods."
"So what now?" Gabrielle asked Xena.
"You have a plan for how you intend to stop Strife?" Xena asked Ares,
"I've been working on it for a while. I think it will work. There's one
more person we'll need to pull it off, though, and it might not be easy
getting him to join us."
"Hercules?" Gabrielle guessed, a suggestion that rewarded her with a
look that proved the former god of war still had more than his share of
menace left in his mortal body.
"Don't go there," Joxer whispered in Gabrielle's ear. "Trust me on
"No, not Hercules," Ares answered, his brother's name coming out sourly.
"Let's find somewhere a little quieter where we can hear out this
plan of yours," Xena suggested. "We'll wait around the village tonight
to make sure these thugs pack up like we asked them to."
"So you will help, then?" Ares asked.
"I'll hear out your plan, as I heard out your story." She looked about
at the groaning and unconscious men all around her feet. "I don't like
what I'm seeing here. At least I can...predict your actions and
motivations, Ares. I prefer that in an enemy to the unknown."
"Don't we all," the dethroned god agreed.
It was one thing, Ares supposed, to have been born mortal, to
never have known anything else.
It was another thing entirely to have the miserable state of
existence forced upon you after having known what living was
truly like--living as a god.
Riding on the back of a not particularly well-trained horse, with
Joxer bouncing along against his back, he was being reminded of
this fact with every step of the horse upon the rocky ground
A god never had to bother, first of all, with the tedious process of
getting from one place to the next. You simply..."popped"
there, as Joxer liked to call it. Thought of where you wanted to be,
and pop you were there. None of this nonsense of walking there,
or riding there, or Olympus-forbid taking a boat there, all
processes which took extremely boring, long and sometimes
sickening periods of time. And spending long periods of time on
the back of an animal was damn right uncomfortable along with
being tedious, especially when one's back and bottom were stinging
and sore already from being knocked about a tavern not long before.
All minor discomforts, to be sure, he would admit. But gods
never had to deal with discomforts of any significant kind, nor
pain. Nor horses trotting along over rocky ground, hour after hour
while Joxer clung to him, trying his damndest not to fall off.
To Joxer's credit, he'd only done so seven times since their lunch
break. That was a definite improvement over his performance this
Ares wasn't going to be the one to ask to take a rest, though, that
was for certain. Still, when Xena finally halted Argo and said, "This
looks like a good place to camp for the night," he barely contained
himself from sighing loudly, "Thank the gods!"
"Thank the gods?!" he wondered with a shudder. He was starting
to think in exclamations as mortals did? What did he have to
thank the gods for--besides landing him in the miserable condition
he now faced day in and day out?
He was not in a particularly good mood this day, more than
anything because he was not enthusiastic about the notion that here
he was, coming to Xena for help--again. It was a bad blow to his
already hurting ego, and he never would have come to her had he
not known that alone, he would likely fail in his mission to take out
Strife. True, he was not alone with Joxer at his side, but Joxer was
not going to be put in a position of great risk in what would
follow, of that much Ares was certain. If he'd had his way, Joxer
would he back at home at the cabin, but when he'd dared to suggest
as much Joxer had been emphatic that he was coming along.
Ares brooded over all of this and more as the others set up camp
for the night, Xena and Gabrielle preparing some food for dinner
while Joxer took the horses to a nearby stream to drink. Brooding
was something, Joxer had remarked once, that Ares was
particularly good at doing. The former god brooded over the way
he'd nearly been taken out in the fight yesterday by six barely
adequate warriors. Men who, a few months' back, would have been
groveling at his feet instead of trying to knock him off of them.
Was he that out of condition? Did he have no skill for fight,
without his godly powers? He couldn't believe that was the case.
After all, Joxer and he had kept up a solid training regimen while he
learned to live with his new limitations, and he had not wanted to
set off on this mission until he'd felt sufficiently prepared and
adapted. But that had been their first real taste of a battle since
Joxer had handled himself admirably well. And he had landed flat
on his ass, needing Gabrielle of all irritating people to come to his
At least she wasn't rubbing it in. There was that much for which to
But how could he expect to stand up to Strife, even if his plan
worked and he only had to face a Strife with weakened strength and
limited powers? The god could still have an edge in the fight to
come that Ares would not be able to match.
The thought bothered him greatly. It made him begin to think he
should plan for alternatives he would have never before let cross
his mind, for they would have seemed utterly ridiculous and
impossible to him: What if he failed?
As he sat there, a little ways apart from the women to brood in
peace and wait for the food to be ready, he spied a small tortoise
crawling along not far from him. On impulse, he grabbed it, almost
about to fling it as far as he could just for the slight satisfaction of
hearing it go thud. Maybe even crack, and then splat. Splats
were good sounds, very satisfying. He could imagine that it was
actually Strife's severed head being shattered against a tree or rock,
his brains then oozing out onto the ground where the vultures could
feast upon the paltry offerings. Yes.
But something stopped him as he held up the defenseless creature
by the back of its shell, watching its small clawed feet waving
about in alarm. He rotated it about, fixing on its tiny eyes, its beak
snapping uselessly at him. "Pathetic little creature. One good bash
on this rock here where I'm sitting and you'd be supper. Add you
to Gabrielle's stew." He'd heard these things were good eating, after
all, not that he'd sunk to the level of trying one out yet. Though
he'd heard stories about Gabrielle's cooking from Joxer and wasn't
so sure he'd do well to sample anything she'd have a hand in
preparing. Still studying the animal, he asked it, "What do you
think I am, hmm? Do tortoises believe in gods? If you do, I must
seem like a god to you, the way I'm holding your life in my hands.
"But I am no longer a god. Hardly better than you, in comparison.
And at least you're stupid enough that you don't even realize how
small and insignificant you are."
With a sigh, he put the hapless creature down again and watched it
waddle awkwardly away, no doubt already having forgotten its
close encounter with death at the brooding former god's hands.
Running his fingers through his no-doubt disheveled hair--for he
could never get it to look precisely right these days--Ares
muttered, "Talking to tortoises now. This is getting out of hand."
What'll be next? he wondered silently. All this time around
Joxer, I'll probably start stumbling over things. Making up stories
about my skills as a warrior when I can't even hold my own in a
He declared: "The moment I start singing my own theme song,
someone, please, put me out of my misery."
A slap of a hand on his back answered him, along with a too-
cheery, "I'm sure they'll be lining up from here to Athens to take
turns. Though actually, I don't think I've ever heard you sing
before," Joxer commented, sitting down beside him. "I'd like to
sometime. I bet you have a nice voice."
"You haven't heard me sing because the god of war doesn't do
"Oh. And former gods mope about and talk to turtles when they
think no one is around. Fish cake?" Joxer offered.
"Is it fresh?" Ares sniffed it suspiciously.
"More or less."
Ares sighed and took the food, daring a bite. He'd had worse--either
that or he was exceedingly hungry. "It wasn't a turtle; it was a
"What's the difference?"
"Tortoises live on land. Turtles live in water. And why are we
having this conversation?"
"Because you were having one with the turtle. Tortoise," Joxer
amended quickly as picked at his own fish cake.
"Where's the rest of supper?"
"Coming along. I was trying to help, but Gabby didn't agree with
my spicing suggestions. I could've sworn those leaves were
edible..." Joxer trailed off, and then shrugged.
Ares shook his head and managed a small smile. It was hard to keep
up a proper level of brooding when Joxer was around. He always
found someway to cheer Ares up, or at least leave him too
bewildered to wonder about anything else.
It was also hard, after a long day with no time alone with his lover,
to restrain himself from seeking a little more intimate attention
from the man while they had a few moments to themselves. Putting
aside the fish cake, he reached over to stroke the long curve of
Joxer's neck that was so temptingly near to him. Ares had never
thought he had such a neck fetish until he met Joxer. There was
something so continually erotic about that elegant slope of pale
skin that he couldn't help but become aroused whenever he
stopped to contemplate it for a while.
Joxer sighed softly in appreciation and arched back against the
touch, exposing even more of that expanse of delicate flesh to Ares'
fingers. The former god recalled an exceptionally intense evening
when he'd made Joxer come just from nibbling, stroking and sucking
upon his neck without mercy. It had been quite the interesting
experiment in exploring the man's erogenous zones--an experiment
Ares told himself he should repeat once this quest was finished and
they could get back to some semblance of a "normal life" again.
Once it was finished...and assuming he was still alive...that both of
He closed his eyes and tried to put such thoughts aside for now.
Unfortunately he didn't get the chance to continue his
contemplation of Joxer's neck or anywhere else for much longer
before a loud clearing of the throat warned him that someone was
"Supper's ready," Gabrielle called to them both from a short
distance away, "if you two are still hungry," she added a little more
suggestively than Ares cared to hear her joke. "Hope you're hungry
because we've got enough stew to feed an army!"
"Why don't we add some of Joxer's 'spices' and give it to Strife's
army, then," Ares muttered as he got to his feet. That was a
strategy he hadn't considered before...
The four of them settled down around the campfire for dinner,
conversation strained and perfunctory when they could find
anything to really talk about at all. Ares' plan had been discussed in
detail the night before and until they added the final member to
their band, there was little more to do about it. Xena, though she'd
had some reservations, thought the plan sounded adequate and had
so far agreed to go along with it. However, the fact that they were
for the moment working towards the same goal didn't mean that
they were all suddenly the best of friends.
Ares could live with that. He wasn't used to having very many--if
any--friends to begin with, simply people he could use and tolerate
for as long as needed. He could feel Xena's eyes upon him, her
continual wariness around him that was nothing new. He also
thought he could sense some definite curiosity over the events that
had led Ares to this place and situation, but she said little, for now.
Ares turned his attention to Joxer and could tell the man was
feeling more than a touch uncomfortable with the awkward silence
of the gathering. He kept trying without much luck to draw Xena
and Gabrielle into some inane chit-chat about their more recent
adventures. Gabrielle, slowly, allowed herself to be drawn into a
little conversation. It didn't last long, though, for as soon as they
were finished eating Xena declared it was time for bed.
"I'm going to check around the camp once more, make sure it's
secure," she excused herself as she left the rest of them to clear up
the remains of the meal and prepare for sleep. They did so in near
silence, Gabrielle cleaning out their cookware and settling her
bedroll some distance from the fire. Joxer chose a flat spot on the
ground closer to the fire, where Ares was still sitting, poking the
dying flames with a stick.
"You coming to bed?" Joxer asked.
"In a while," he answered. He had a few things to think about first
and wanted a chance to speak with Xena when she returned.
Wherever Xena made camp, she always thoroughly inspected the
area, setting up tripwires and other traps that would signal if
someone tried to sneak up on them during the night. One couldn't
be too careful about such things, she knew from experience. It
had even become a ritual that was comforting in its monotony,
something to help her relax before trying to sleep.
Somehow, it wasn't quite doing the trick tonight.
Finished and satisfied with their safety, she then went to check on
the horses, to ensure Joxer had secured them properly and to spend
a little time fussing over Argo. She was a demanding girl when she
wanted to be, never happy if Xena didn't spend sufficient one-on-
one time with her every day.
"So what do you think of all this, hmm?" she distractedly asked the
mare as she ran a brush through her mane. The horse offered no
answer except a soft snort. "A lot of help you are."
The whole situation was difficult for Xena to accept, particularly
given her normal suspicious nature and her extreme suspicions
whenever Ares was the subject at hand. She'd wondered what his
absence had meant these past months, and the possibility that he'd
been dethroned or otherwise incapacitated had crossed her mind.
There were few if any gods whom she knew of that had so many
enemies, mortal and immortal. Still, she hadn't expected Ares'
downfall to ever happen under the conditions he had described.
Had Joxer somehow managed to change him, as Gabrielle had
proposed to her only a few days back? Had she been wrong in the
way she'd reacted when she'd first learned of Joxer's involvement
with the god of war? She didn't see how she could have predicted
such a turn of events. Nevertheless, the possibility that she'd
misjudged both man and immortal turned her thoughts back to that
day when she'd first found out about their involvement, and her
confrontation with Joxer over it...
Gabrielle had been terribly upset by the scene in the tavern and the
news about Joxer and Ares. In that particularly persuasive way
that only she possessed, she managed to convince Xena to try to
find Joxer before he left the village. "Talk to him, try to reason with
him," she'd pleaded. "Xena, he's our friend! We can't just turn him
away. You know how manipulative Ares can be, and you know
how, well...Joxer can be pretty easy to manipulate." Xena had
eventually decided it was worth a shot, once she'd gotten her anger
under control and realized Gabrielle had a point. She owed Joxer at
least a chance to explain himself, and a chance to hear out her
It didn't take much time to find Joxer as he had not left the village
yet. Xena found him browsing through the marketplace, wandering
from one merchant's stall to the next. He spotted her coming
towards him, held her gaze for a moment, then went back to
examining leather work on one vendor's display with heightened
Despite his glance that had clearly been meant to say, "Don't start
with me," Xena came up behind him. In a conciliatory tone, she
told him, "I only said what I did because I care what happens to
you. Gabrielle and I both do."
"And neither of you trust me to be able to make decisions about
my life on my own," he answered sharply.
"That's not true. But maybe in this case I have some experience
that you don't. Will you at least give me a moment to hear me out?"
He looked up at her again, still obviously angry, but Xena knew he
wasn't quite as ready to throw aside their friendship as he had
seemed earlier. When he said nothing more, she put her hand on his
shoulder and led him away from the booths. They walked along in
silence, Xena leading him towards the nearby stable where she had
Argo boarded. It would be a quiet place to talk and she needed to
check on her horse anyway.
Stepping inside, and finding a pair of low stools, she took one and
waited for Joxer to sit upon the other. "So...care to tell me how this
started? It's only been a few weeks since we parted. It did just
recently start, didn't it?" she added cautiously.
"Yeah. Right after I last saw you guys. And even I can't believe
what's happened, or why it happened." Joxer paused, shrugging
after a moment as Xena looked to him to continue. "There's not a
whole lot to tell, really. Do you remember that rainstorm, just after
I left you guys? It was the worst storm I'd seen in years."
"Well I was out in the middle of nowhere, and I needed to find
some shelter to wait it out. By...luck...I found a cave. A shrine to
Ares, actually, but I wouldn't have cared whose shrine it was, or
even if there was a hydra sleeping inside or anything. I went inside,
fell asleep...and next thing I knew I was...somewhere else. With
him. And he'd taken care of all my injuries."
"Did he tell you why he'd brought you there?"
"He said he was...curious. Nothing more than that. And then,
um...things just sort of happened after that. Really nice
things..." Joxer trailed off, the memory enough to bring a smile to
his face even now.
Not to Xena's face, however. "First he'll seduce you into his bed,
then he'll be seducing you to fight for him. Kill for him. Is that
what you want, Joxer? I thought you had decided you wanted
something different for yourself from what your family wanted
you to become."
"I did--I do! It's not like that, Xena. You wouldn't understand."
Joxer seemed at a loss to try to explain for a while, then he started,
"Okay, it's like...I think he likes me because I'm so...not like him.
Yeah, he's helping me learn how to fight better, a little bit. How to
defend myself, at least. But I've spent more time practicing my
music for him than practicing with my sword."
"Your music?" Xena repeated in disbelief.
Joxer shrugged. "He likes me to play music for him. Don't ask me
to explain it. Xena, I know what you think of Ares. I know the
things he does, and that he's...dangerous. Maybe I'm signing my
own death scroll getting involved with him. But right now...for the
first time in my life I think I might have found somewhere I belong.
It seems crazy but that's the way I feel."
Xena sighed and shook her head. "Joxer, I'm not going to tell you
what you should or shouldn't do here, even though all I see ahead
for you if you continue with this relationship is a lot of pain. But
you've obviously made up your mind about Ares and what I have
to say won't mean a damn to you."
"Xena..." he started to protest.
"No, it's all right. Sometimes we have to go ahead and do what we
think is best--so long as we're willing to live with the consequences
now, and later." She paused for a moment, then continued
resolutely, "If you stay with Ares, you can't travel with Gabrielle
and me any longer."
She saw the brief shock on his face at this news, but then he
seemed to accept it. How could it be any different, really? She
couldn't allow him to continue in their company if he was going to
align himself with the one god who was constantly trying to
undermine her efforts for redemption. And so after a moment, he
nodded his head and said, "I understand."
A part of her had hoped, truly hoped, he might have chosen to
reject Ares if it would cost him her and Gabrielle's friendship. What
had happened to the feelings he'd so obviously had before for the
bard? "I'm not saying we're enemies now, Joxer. It's just--"
"--I'm 'sleeping with the enemy', as the saying goes. No, it makes
sense, Xena. I only wish....maybe someday things will be
Silence had fallen then, the awkward silence of two people with
nothing left to say to each other. Joxer was the first to rise, and he
looked towards the doors and gathered his things to leave. "Take
care of Gabrielle, okay? I mean, I know you do already, I just...I
still...well, you know."
She had nodded and answered, "I know. And I will."
He had left the stable at that, disappearing into the crowds of the
village. That had been the last she or Gabrielle had seen of him until
just the day before today.
Had she been wrong to judge Ares so harshly, then? But when had
she ever seen anything except Ares the manipulator, the
destroyer...a god who like all the other gods seemed interested in
mortals only as tools towards achieving his own greater glory. The
story he told now--which all evidence so far pointed towards being
the truth--seemed to suggest that her old view of him had to have
been wrong, or at least, incomplete. The Ares she thought she
knew would have never sacrificed his godhood, all his powers, for
the life of one mortal man who seemed the utter antithesis of
everything Ares stood for. She had believed that Joxer could have
been no more than a passing whim to the god--someone to take
advantage of and, at best, toss aside when he grew bored with the
mortal's company. At worst, Ares would corrupt all that was good
and innocent about him, turning him, perhaps, into an enemy she
might have to strike down in battle herself someday.
So far neither grim scenario that she'd expected had happened.
Instead, she was faced with a dethroned god who needed her help.
Who, though he vowed he needed his title back, seemed more
concerned about protecting and keeping Joxer safe, as well as
protecting the rest of the country from the inept new god of war.
Once before, she had hoped perhaps that a taste of mortality had
changed Ares' view of the world, and she had been mistaken. This
time...? The skeptical, cautious side of her wasn't entirely
convinced, but those doubts were growing less as this journey
continued and she observed the two men together. Perhaps Joxer
had seen some spark of goodness in the dark god that was invisible
to the rest of the world, and helped it take seed and bring about this
change in him. The parallels, if that were the case, to her own
relationship with Gabrielle were not lost on the warrior princess.
The young bard was, in many ways, her conscience, her constant
reminder of the goodness in the world. Gabrielle was the one
person who seemed, somehow, to have a faith in her no matter
what and to help her from falling back toward the person she once
She supposed it was possible that Ares had found the same in
Joxer. Incredible...but perhaps possible. She had to give them both
the benefit of the doubt for now, and hope she was doing the right
thing in helping Ares in this mission.
Finished tending to her horse, Xena walked back to the campsite,
finding on a quick scan that both Gabrielle and Joxer were asleep on
the bedrolls they shared with their respective companions. Only
Ares was still awake, poking at the fire, his concentration drawn
somewhere deep into the flames such that he did not seem to notice
her approach until she was standing right across from him.
"You should try to get some rest," she said. "Tomorrow we'll have
another long day on the road."
He looked up at her and after a moment answered, "Every day is a
long one as a mortal. Rest does little to change that."
"No, but it might improve your disposition."
"The only thing that will do that is sending that bastard Strife back
to the Underworld, where he belongs." A soft murmur from where
Joxer slept tore Ares' attention away from the fire for a moment.
He watched, with obvious concern, as Joxer stirred in his sleep,
muttering something under his breath. Ares shifted over toward
him, lightly touching his forehead, concern evident on his features
to an extent that surprised the still suspicious warrior princess.
Ares did not relax until Joxer seemed settled back asleep quietly.
Satisfied, Ares returned to the fire, answering Xena's curious look
with a curt, "Nightmare, I think. I know he needs his sleep, even
if I can't relax myself." She said nothing for a time, and the silence
of her stare seemed to aggravate the former god. "So what is it that
you want to say, hmm, Xena? Gloat a little at how the mighty has
fallen? Go on, I've been waiting for it. I won't deny you the
She shook her head. "Unlike some people, I don't gather my
amusement from enjoying the suffering of others."
"Stop. You're making me misty-eyed for the good old days," Ares
"No. I hate to say it, but I think I may actually owe you an
apology. At least, I owe Joxer one." Ares looked up at her as she
continued, "I told Joxer to keep away from you, that you couldn't
possibly have sincere feelings for him. I thought that the only thing
you'd bring into his life was pain and suffering."
"You weren't exactly wrong in that," Ares admitted. "I...I love him,
as much as I'd never thought I'd ever say that about anyone. Let
alone mean it. And I've caused him more pain than I can probably
ever forgive myself for. I could have done things to protect
him...but that would have required me admitting how much I
needed him." He paused, casting a glance towards his sleeping
lover. "My only intentions now are to do what I can to make up
for what happened. I did not even want him to come along on this
mission, but he insisted. If anything happens to him...I don't know
what I'd do. Losing him once was bad enough."
"I never thought I'd see the day when I'd be hearing talk like that
coming from you."
"Things change. As impossible as it may seem to you, I've
"I know. And it's not simply being a mortal now that's making you
talk like this. It's not out of selfish fear. It's sincere." She paused
for a moment. "Are you sure this is the right thing to do?"
"Trying to go back to being the god of war. Maybe you've become
too...human...for the position."
The fact that his reaction to her comments was so muted told Xena
that it was a possibility he had considered already. "Maybe. I don't
know. All I know is that Strife acting in my place is not good for
this world. You would be a much better replacement for me than
that...miserable excuse for an immortal."
"We've been over that issue before, Ares, and I'm still not
"But what if...if I fail, Xena, would you do it, to save Greece?"
Ares asked her. "You have the strength of will and the fire inside
you to honor the sword properly. Would you kill him and take the
sword, if I don't manage to do it myself?"
Xena was quiet, trying to determine her answer. "I'll consider the
"Consider it seriously, that's all I ask."
"But right now, I'm going to sleep," Xena said, not wanting to
dwell on this conversation any further. Ares did not stop her, nor
even say a word of goodnight as she stood and went to join
Gabrielle for the night's rest. It was some time later when she heard
the sounds of Ares putting out the fire and retiring for the night as
The temple was empty, quiet, and the air felt unusually cold. Joxer
shivered as he stepped inside, fighting the urge to leave but
dismissing it as silly superstition. Ares had told him to meet him
here; so what if he'd arrived a little early and the place felt kind of
spooky and dark in the god's absence? Ares would be here soon
enough, and it wasn't as if he'd never spent time alone here before.
"Ares?" he called softly, just to be certain the god wasn't there. It
never hurt to check--Ares might be busy somewhere in one of the
back chambers and not have realized he'd arrived.
The only answer he received was the sudden slamming of the
temple doors behind him.
He spun around, drawing his sword and taking a defensive stance.
Instinctively he knew something was wrong. Really wrong.
Sometimes Ares played games with him, but a part of him knew
this was no game. He felt an ill presence about the place, unfamiliar
"Ares!" he called again, more insistently. He took a moment to
clutch at the pendant about his neck, thinking hard about his
immortal lover in a desperate attempt to summon him there. Ares
had told him it would, if he were ever in trouble and needed to
reach him quickly.
Ares, if you can hear me...I need you! he cried out through his
mind. But no one answered.
Somewhere above him, under the high ceiling of the temple, the
unfurling and flapping of wings echoed down to his ears. It was
followed by a shriek that trailed into what he could only imagine
was a monstrous imitation of laughter.
Terror seized him, the worst fear he had ever known. He knew
what was waiting above if he dared to look up, but he couldn't.
And he knew he had no chance of fighting it, not alone. He ran for
the large doors, trying to get out, trying to open them, but they
were locked from the outside. He was trapped. His desperate
poundings against the heavy doors did nothing.
"Ares! Ares, where are you!" he screamed, not believing that it was
going to happen again--not again!--as the creature began its
descent towards him. He cowered against the door, eyes shut
desperately as he awaited the moment when its talons would grip
his shoulders and--
"Joxer! Joxer, wake up!"
Ares' voice cut through the terrible vision at last moment, stirring
Joxer awake with a gasp. He blinked his eyes in confusion, trying
to remember where he was. "Ar...Ares?" he stammered uncertainly,
shaking and cold, his body drenched in sweat. He was aware,
dimly, of the warm arms holding him tightly, but the nightmare had
been so real, so intense...just as it always was. And he couldn't
easily shake the terror it placed in his pounding heart.
"I'm here, Joxer. It wasn't real. Just a dream. Only a dream," Ares
"It was that same one...trapped in the temple...calling for you but
you couldn't hear me..."
"Don't think about it. Try to forget about it."
Joxer turned around into Ares' arms, burying himself against his
lover's body as he tried to shut out the terrible visions, the way his
own body shivered in remembered pain. "I don't think about it,
but at night...it keeps coming back to me at night..."
"I know. Not so often as before, though."
That was true. There had been a time when he could barely close
his eyes and the dreams would come to thwart his attempts to
sleep. Now...now he could usually manage a quiet night or two
before they came again. Ares said it was likely all a result of the
mortal body and mind not being designed to suffer death and the
misery of the afterlife, and then return to the world of the living.
That was why the dead, well...stayed dead, except under extreme
circumstances. Like his.
"Try to go back to sleep," Ares insisted.
Joxer shook his head. "Not now." Far too often the dreams were
quick to return if he fell asleep to quickly after awakening from
"All right. I wasn't sleeping very well myself," Ares agreed, one
hand loosening his hold slightly to run suggestively against Joxer's
back. "So what do you propose we do for the rest of the night?"
Joxer managed a small smile at that. Ares had his ways of making
him forget about these dreams that were quite effective. "We'll
wake up Xena and Gabby."
"Not if you can stay quiet," Ares said, pulling the blanket over the
two of them, the fabric barely muffling Joxer's soft giggles a few
The young boy ran through the field, laughing as he chased an elusive
butterfly through the tall wildflowers and overgrown grass. The simple
game was a pleasant diversion from the extended and often boring
lessons his mother insisted upon every morning. It wasn't that he
didn't like learning, for he wanted to learn about everything. He
merely enjoyed having his share of fun as well. A "special" child or
not, he was still a child--and one much younger than any casual
observer would ever suspect.
To most strangers' eyes, the boy would have appeared to be an ordinary
child of no more than six or seven years. They would be shocked to
discover that he was in fact barely a year and a half old. His remarkable
growth rate was only one of his unique qualities, although his mother
tried her best to keep such facts from anyone but her closest, most-
He knew mother wouldn't want him wandering so far from home, but
the way back was familiar enough to him. He wasn't going to get lost,
not with his memory for detail and directions. She worried about him,
which he could understand--he knew he was "different," and that
difference could make him a target for undue attention--but the truth
was he could defend himself if necessary. In fact, he could do so more
capably than his mother suspected.
Mother had fallen asleep watching him play in the clearing right in
front of their house, tired after finishing the morning lessons and then
trying to do some cleaning around their modest house. He paused for a
moment, searching out her presence with his mind. Still sleeping... he
could tell from the steady heartbeat that echoed in his head. He would
make sure to turn back towards home as soon as he felt her beginning
Glancing around, he spotted the butterfly once more and took up
renewed pursuit. He was so focused that his feet barely touched the
ground now, each step lifting him lightly into the air, where he could
almost reach up and touch the fragile creature...if he just jumped a
He missed, and losing his concentration he fell to the ground with a
soft thud. Pouting, he watched as the butterfly soared higher, far out of
his reach, then disappeared somewhere into the skies above.
He wasn't quite strong enough yet to follow it up that high. But one
He wandered about the fields, kicking about a small ball he had when
he could find no more butterflies or other wildlife to pursue. He
stopped when he sensed someone coming. Several someones, their
minds and--when he could see them from across the field, their faces--
unfamiliar to him...except for one. The others lingered behind, while
this one slowly walked toward him.
Evander wasn't afraid. His mother had told him, countless times, he
should be afraid of this person. Well, not necessarily afraid, but
cautious...and never, ever trusting. "He tried to take you from me
once," he heard his mother's voice warning him. "Someday, I'm sure he
will try again."
"Hello, Evander," the man said, crouching down so he was eye-to-eye
to the boy. "Do you know who I am?"
Evander nodded. "You're Ares. My father."
"That's right." Ares smiled slightly as he stroked the boy's dark brown
hair. "You've certainly grown, son. When I last saw you, you were so
small...just a baby..."
"When you tried to take me from mother. Is that why you're here now,
to try to take me away again?"
"Only for a short time," Ares said.
"Get away from him, Ares!" a sharp voice called out, interrupting the
Ares rose slowly, turning to face the mother of his child. "Hello,
Nemesis. Nice seeing you again, as well."
"Evander, come here." The fair-haired woman stood her ground, staring
coldly at Ares until the boy walked away from him and took hold of
his mother's skirts. Nemesis warned, "I told you once before, I
won't have you influencing my son or trying to take him away from
"Our son," Ares corrected. "And, though I'm sure you don't believe
me, I'm not trying to take him from you...for long, at least. I...need
help, for something very important."
Nemesis laughed, though the humor didn't reach her eyes. "You're right,
I don't believe you. What could you possibly want with him besides
poisoning his mind, turning him into a monster like you? No, I've spent
all this time working to make sure he learns how to use his gifts for
good, not evil."
"He will be using them for good, if you let him come with us," another
interrupted. Nemesis turned around to find a man and two women
closing in on the tense situation.
"Who are you?" Nemesis demanded of the unknown man, lifting
her son protectively into her arms.
"Joxer. Xena. Gab...Gabrielle," the boy answered for them, after
studying each in turn. "Friends of father. Well...only this one really
likes father." Evander pointed towards Joxer, who couldn't help but
give a bashful smile towards the boy.
"Xena?" Nemesis repeated, studying the dark-haired warrior woman
critically. "I had heard you'd turned away from Ares' influence and
your warring ways long ago. Why are you here with him?"
"As surprising as it may be, trying to help him set things right. And to
save Greece from a fate worse than having Ares for the god of war."
"Nemesis, I only ask that you hear me...us...out," Ares said. "A lot of
things have happened since we last met. Evander's heritage and his
talents can help save countless lives."
"That I don't doubt. But you having anything to do with him using his
talents for good, or you caring about saving lives, that I do doubt."
"I promise, no tricks, no threats," Ares stated, stepping slowly toward
her with hands raised in a conciliatory gesture. "Truth is, I couldn't
any tricks if I wanted to. Evander's probably the strongest person here
right now and I couldn't take him anywhere against his will."
She looked up at him with confusion, then turned to her son and asked
seriously, "Is he telling the truth, honey?"
The young boy fixed his eyes on those of his father, so similar in their
intensity that Ares found it a bit disconcerting to look into this dark
mirror. Then the boy nodded slowly. "Father needs my help. I...don't
think it's for something bad...he doesn't think it's bad..."
"I'm sure he doesn't, but I'll be the one to judge that." She put the boy
down on the ground and indicated to Ares, "Come inside and you can
tell me what you want."
"Thank you," he answered.
"Evander stays out here with the others. I want to hear this first on my
Gabrielle and Joxer watched over and played with Evander while Ares
spoke to Nemesis. Xena went off to attend to their horses in the
meantime. Gabrielle was amazed when, as the ball they were tossing
back and forth flew over Evander's head, the boy stopped it in midair,
then gently let it fall into his waiting hands.
"How does he do that? And knowing our names and everything else?"
Gabrielle asked Joxer. "I thought he was only a half-god, like
Hercules." Hercules did have incredible strength, she knew, but not
these other mysterious powers of which she thought only full-gods
should be capable.
"I don't know. Ares knew Evander was...unique...that's why he tried
before to take him from Nemesis before. Gods...tend to leave more
than a few half-mortal kids running around, but it's really rare when
they actually show any particular immortal traits." Joxer paused to
catch the ball as Evander tossed it to him. From the way he staggered
back slightly as he caught it, Gabrielle guessed the boy had an
impressive throwing arm on top of everything else. "Ares figures that
maybe, since Nemesis is a former god herself, Evander must have
inherited some of his special traits from her as well and the bloodline
is particularly strong. He could very nearly be a full god."
Gabrielle studied the innocent-looking boy across from them, who was
distracted already by a butterfly and no longer interested in playing
catch. "I can see why Nemesis would want to protect him, then."
"But she doesn't have to, not now, anyway. I mean, from Ares. He
wouldn't even have brought us here if he didn't think we needed the
extra help to make his plan work."
"Joxer..." she started, then stopped, trying to think of exactly what she
wanted to ask. The two of them had barely had a moment alone
together since meeting up those few nights before, and there was so
much she wanted to ask him. Finding Joxer patiently waiting for her to
continue, she started over again, "So...you and Ares...you're really
From the warm smile that formed on his lips at that, she knew what
the answer would be without having to hear it. "Yeah. Who would've
"Hmph!" Gabrielle laughed slightly. "Not me, that's for sure." She
paused for a moment, then added, "I worried about you, you know."
Joxer's eyebrows raised and coyly he pressed her, "You worried about
me? Really? I didn't know you cared so much, Gabby..."
She punched him lightly in the arm and rolled her eyes. "I worry about
my friends, Joxer, get over it."
"I know," he admitted, then added, "I got over it a long time ago."
"Well, then, Ares was good for something after all," Gabrielle mused.
They both looked to each other and laughed. It was good to be able to
clear the air and get back on familiar territory with Joxer. However, the
bard couldn't help but continue with the other questions that plagued
her thoughts. "Ares seems so different, from what I remember of him. I
always wondered what you saw in him--I mean, besides physically
which of course I have no problem at all understanding, but--"
"Was there always this side of him?" Joxer guessed her question. "Or
did he change after becoming mortal? Or somehow because of me?"
Joxer seemed to consider for a while, then answered her slowly, "I...I
don't really know. At first, I mean, it was all just a big thrill to me,
y'know, I wasn't...worrying about trying to figure him out. Here I was,
Joxer, stupid clumsy Joxer, and the god of war decided he wanted to
fool around with me. I didn't have a clue why or even particularly care.
But from the start, he always treated me great, always made me feel like
I was someone special." He paused, then continued, "I guess...I think
this part of him was there all along, even if it was hidden under
everything else. He can still be a bossy, arrogant pain-in-the-ass when
he wants to be, believe me, but I think there was always another part
of him...even if he didn't want to admit to it. A lot of things had to
happen before he would do that."
"Most of those things happened to you," Gabrielle added, to which
Joxer said nothing. "It must have been terrible...I can't imagine what it
was like." The details Ares had provided of Joxer's death and time in
the Underworld were sketchy at best, and she wasn't sure that she
should press for further details, unless Joxer wanted someone to talk to
Apparently, he didn't. "No, you can't imagine, Gabrielle," he answered
her softly, and with words that left a chill down her spine, he added,
"Be glad that you can't." With that, he walked off toward Evander.
Glancing towards the house, Gabrielle noticed Xena had finished with
the horses and was heading to the house. Maybe she figured Ares
would be in need of a little extra support by now. Ares, changed man
or no, still seemed to need to learn a few things about the fine art of
making friends and influencing people.
Gabrielle gave Joxer a few minutes alone with Evander before heading
over to join him again.
"This story is ridiculous," Nemesis insisted.
"I agree," Ares said. "Utterly insane. Nevertheless, it's true. Would I
make something like this up?"
"Yes, but that's beside the point. Let's take it for granted, for the
moment, that I believe that you actually gave up your godhood because
you discovered 'true love' and it was the only way to get your
boyfriend out there back. A concept that I find quite impossible to
accept but, for the sake of argument I'll pretend that I do. Now you
think I'll agree to let you use Evander as bait? To draw the attentions
of a god even you say is crazy, so you can get your position back? No.
"Evander will be at the least risk of any of us. As was my right I
ensured he was given the same degree of protection that Zeus granted
Hercules when he was born. No Olympian may kill him."
"But one could poison his mind, as you would have and now claim you
no longer wish to do. I do know Strife, remember, Ares? I was one
of you, once. I don't want that psychopath anywhere near my son."
"Do you want that psychopath to continue as the god of war? If you
do know him, you know how dangerous the prospect is. At least I was
born for the position, Nemesis. Strife has inherited it through deceit,
and out of spite against me by Zeus and the others. There's already
talk of a great war he wants to stage to boost his strength. If he builds
up enough momentum to do so before Zeus can stop him, he won't be
able to control the chaos he unleashes. As one familiar with the ways
of the gods yourself, you must understand the truth of what I'm telling
you here." He paused, and added, more gravely than before, "And what
of Evander's future if we don't stop Strife soon? I never mentioned his
existence to Strife...but Discord knows, and there's certainly no love
lost between her and me these days.
"You want to protect him, fine. So do I. And that means getting rid of
Strife now before the danger only becomes greater. To everyone in
general...and Evander in particular."
She dropped her head in her hands for a moment and sighed. "Ares,
you're asking me to trust you with the one thing that means everything
to me. Trust you, after everything you've done..."
Xena interrupted softly, "I know it's a lot to ask you, Nemesis. You
don't know me, so my words may not mean much to you. But despite
my own...problems, to put it mildly, with Ares, I believe we have to
help him regain his former status. A god of war is necessary whether
we like it or not, to control and harness man's inherent destructive
urges. A god of war who is as unstable and unpredictable as Strife
seems to be is a situation I don't like to think about.
"If you don't trust me, because of my past, ask Hercules to confirm
my good intentions. He saw me at my worst...and helped guide me
towards the person I am now instead. Gabrielle and I have agreed to
help Ares with his plan, and will act as protection for Evander. We'll
accompany him to ensure his safety. We'll be with him--
either right at his side or watching from as close as we dare. If there
any sign of trouble, we'll intervene on his behalf."
"It has to be done, Nemesis," Ares insisted. "If I knew of another way
to do this...but I can't think of any, can you?"
Nemesis considered for a long time, clearly uncomfortable with every
aspect of what she was being asked to agree to. Finally, she said, "All
right. But I'm coming along, with Xena and Gabrielle."
Ares glanced at Xena, who offered no signs of protest. Nemesis, he
knew, could hold her own in a fight and so he told her, "I can live
"And you promise me this, Ares; promise on your precious Joxer's life
if he really means something to you: That you will never, ever have
anything to do with Evander for the rest of his life after this. That you
will leave him alone to lead his own life, not to do your bidding for
He had to pause to think about this--not so much, he realized, because he
regretted he would lose the chance he'd wanted to use Evander to strike
at his half-brother Hercules. No, oddly enough he thought he simply
didn't like the idea of losing all contact with his son.
But if that was what it would take..."Very well, if that it the way it
"Yes, it is," Nemesis emphasized.
"Do we even know Evander is capable of doing what we need him to
do?" Xena asked. "Can he remember a complicated set of instructions,
hide his true intentions from Strife, and make his way through these
complicated traps you say will be waiting for him?"
"Will he even want to, for a father who has not been involved in his life
at all, except coming now to seek favors?" Nemesis added.
"I guess I'll have to ask him that myself, won't I?" Ares mused.
"May I?" he asked, standing up to leave and find his son.
Nemesis nodded, but said nothing more.
Ares watched his son playing with Joxer and Gabrielle for a time
before interrupting. "Evander," he called. "Come for a walk with me?
Your mother says it's all right."
"Okay," Evander agreed, stepping over to his father's side. "And I
know she said it's all right. I wouldn't come with you if she didn't."
"Smart boy. Good with that mind reading, are you?"
Evander shrugged. "It's not hard, with most people. Especially mom
and you." Evander raised his head and studied his father critically for a
moment. "Except you're different than I remember. Your thoughts, I
"You remember the last time I saw you?"
"Sure. I mean, I was just a baby then, so I couldn't do much. Except
watch, and listen. I didn't like your thoughts, then. Or that other
"Her mind...it was all dark, so...evil. I didn't really understand what
was then, but I knew I didn't like the way she made me feel. She was a
bad woman. Mom always said you're bad too, and that was what I
remembered of you."
"So what's different now?" Ares asked, stopping to kneel down in
front of his son. "What do you feel?"
The boy bit his lip and thought, then spoke carefully, "I don't
understand all of it. But there's...sadness. And love. There's still a
darkness in there, just not like before. Before it was so strong there
was nothing else there to feel. Now...it's not so different from what I
feel inside me, sometimes."
Ares nodded in understanding. "You're the son of the god of war,
Evander. That darkness is in your blood--my blood--and you must
take care in learning to control it."
"I know, that's what mom always warns me about. So what is it you
need my help with, father?"
"I came here because the world is going to be in a lot of
trouble if we don't stop a very bad man who now holds my former
position. You remember that...bad feeling you got from Discord? Her
son Strife is no different. Only now, more powerful. Too powerful."
"How can I help stop him?"
"If your powers are as strong as I sense they must be, you can help
lead him to a place where he will be weakened. You will be weaker
there, as well, but by then it won't be important. The final battle, to
take Strife down, that will be mine alone. I won't lie and tell you it's
not going to be dangerous, because it will be. How good is your
"I know most of the works of Socrates and can recite them to you. I
know and can redraw a lot of maps, too. I like doing that sort of thing."
Ares blinked. "And your coordination? Ability to manipulate other
"Not bad. Getting better every day." He looked over to where Joxer
and Gabrielle were now joined by Xena and Nemesis, watching them
cautiously from afar. "I could lift all four of them off the ground from
here, hold them there for a while. Not sure I could bring them all over
here to us, though."
"Well, I think that will more than suffice." Ares sighed as he took in
Nemesis' sour expression. "I suppose we should head back. I think
your mother doesn't like my being alone with you for so long."
"I know she doesn't," Evander agreed.
"Then let's get going."
They walked back slowly to where the others waited. Nemesis said to
her son, "What do you think, Evander? You don't have to do anything
for him if you don't want to."
"I know, but I want to help. It...sounds like fun, maybe."
"Fun. We'll see about that," Nemesis answered, casting Ares a
"Hey, I didn't say anything about it being fun," he argued. "I can't help
it if he has a taste for a good fight in his spirit."
"It's your spirit, and I'd be a lot happier if I could forever rid him
every last touch of it," she replied.
"Damn," Joxer said as Nemesis then sharply turned away from them
and stormed into the house with Evander in tow. "When you said she
wasn't gonna be happy to see you, you weren't kidding."
"On the contrary, this is the nicest I can recall her being to me in a
long time," Ares observed. "I must be wearing her down."
Grudgingly Nemesis offered to put Ares and his companions up in her
home for the night, as the former god needed time to explain to Evander
his role in the plan and test him to see if he understood everything. The
two were hardly seen all afternoon after disappearing into the boy's
room, although Nemesis couldn't resist checking in on them frequently.
"He's not going to hurt him, or try to steal him from you again," Joxer
offered, trying to help make peace. Xena and Gabrielle had headed into
town for a while, leaving Ares' one-time lover and his current one in the
rather awkward position of keeping each other company.
"I'll believe that when Tartarus freezes over."
Joxer corrected her, "Actually, parts of it already are. You'd be
She put down the knitting with which she'd been trying to stay
distracted and studied him critically. "You really did die and
go there because of him? And he gave up his godhood for you?"
"Uh huh. Why don't you believe me?"
"Because you're with him, and I never believe him. Learned that one
the hard way."
"Well, Evander believes him, and he can do the mind reading thing and
"I know, I know, it's just...look, nothing personal, all right? After all
the time I've known Ares, I'm finding it more than a little difficult to
accept this sudden 'change' of heart. Or the fact that he even has a
heart." She paused, then questioned, "If he really has changed, why
does he still want his godhood back so desperately? When I was
expelled from Olympus and learned about love after having Evander, I
never wanted to go back to that old existence again. That's why I doubt
the sincerity of Ares' motives here so much."
"I don't know what to say to that. I've never been a god, I don't
know what it's like, if it's good or bad, or just...so different you
can't really call it one or the other. I only know...I don't think Ares will
ever feel complete without being a god again. And more than that, he wants
to get back at the others for what they did to me. To the both of us."
"To enact his own private justice against the gods?"
"Yeah. Something like that."
"Hmm. I suppose that is something I can understand."
There was the sound of laughter from the other room, both the young
boy's light giggles and Ares' deeper laugh. The sound startled both
Joxer and Nemesis, lulling them into silence for a time. Joxer then
dared, "After all this, it might not be so bad to let Ares...at
least visit from time to time. A boy should have a chance to spend time
his father, you know? I didn't get to see much of mine as a kid...he was
always either out on some campaign, or in jail...and when he was
around he rarely had much time for me."
"No. It's too dangerous, especially if Ares goes back to being the god of
war. The temptation to exploit Evander's powers...I couldn't risk it.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to prepare for tomorrow." With that
she got up and left the room, ending the conversation abruptly.
There were only so many beds to be found in the house, and with
Evander and Nemesis in one and Xena and Gabrielle getting the other
through virtue of not being Ares, that left the living room floor for the
"At least she didn't make us sleep outside in the stable with the
horses," Ares remarked, slipping into the bedroll where Joxer was
"You did say you were starting to wear her down."
"Mmm," Ares agreed, lying down with a sigh. Joxer curled up against
him, a familiar reassuring warmth in these unfamiliar and uncertain
"So, you think Evander is going to be able to pull it off?"
"I'm certain he will. Amazing child. His mind is so clear and focused for
one that young, I know he understands everything I've told him."
"Do all immortal children grow up like that? I mean, so fast."
"Every one is different, you can't predict. Some gods are even born
"Ouch, that's gotta be painful for the mother."
"Sometimes they're even born from the father."
"Double-ouch! How do they...no, I don't think I want to know."
"You forget that gods don't feel pain like mortals do. Their
a completely different kind of thing."
"Everything seems to be completely different for a god. Is it all better?
Or are some things better as a mortal?" Joxer asked.
Ares considered the question for a while. "Mortals...feel more. You'd
think it would be the opposite, when a god has such enhanced senses
and strengths. Perhaps it is the effect of time, the endless time of an
immortal's life...a god either seems to forget how to feel anything, or
grows bored with it all...or they start to reach out for further and more
extreme ways to fulfill their desires and seek pleasure."
"Doesn't actually sound that nice to me," Joxer observed.
"I suppose it doesn't. But it doesn't have to be that way." He kissed
the top of Joxer's head, nuzzling against the familiar silky hair.
"Sometimes it takes a mortal, though, to remind a god how to feel
"What're you feeling right now?" Joxer asked teasingly, fingers creeping
over Ares' waistband.
"Besides a pesky hand trying to get me out of my pants? Hmm, I'm
feeling like having you at least once before calling it a night."
"I think you ought to go with that feeling," Joxer agreed. "'Cause that's
about how I'm feeling, too."
A hasty removal of the necessary garments followed, quietly and
carefully as it was a small house, after all, and it was difficult to
tell if the others were asleep. This sneaking about and being cautious
their affections was rather irksome to the former god, who was used to
the privacy of their home and being with Joxer anywhere and anytime he
wished. For some reason that sort of thing wasn't exactly good
manners, particularly when you were spending the night in a former
lover's home--and with an overly-sensitive child resting somewhere
Joxer shifted on top of him, covering his face with kisses, some soft
and gentle, others much more insistent. "Love you, Ares," he
whispered softly. "Always. No matter what. God, mortal...I love
"I know. And I you, my love." He savored every touch and caress this
night, as he had every night since they'd begun this journey and neared
what could be the end. They didn't talk about it as such, but he thought
he could sense the extra urgency in Joxer as well. To speak of losing
each other, the fear of being separated again...no, it was not something
to be mentioned.
Instead, he would focus on savoring and burning into his memory these
precious moments, images and feelings. The soft glow of the
moonlight on Joxer's pale skin...The way Joxer's lips and hands felt
against his own flesh...The way nothing ever felt more right than being
inside him, bodies joined as one if for only a few fleeting moments.
No matter what happens, don't take him from me again, Ares
silently pleaded to the Fates, or whichever forces might actually be out
there to listen to the prayers of a fallen god.