This story originally appeared in the fanzine "Whatever Gets You Through the Night #2", which you can still order if you're interested: just visit The Sockii Press Homepage for details.
Thanks to everone who has encouraged me to keep going with this storyline and these two boys in the time since I originally wrote this tale. I love writing about them and I'm glad you enjoy reading about them. Thanks also to Range Ryder for beta-reading this for me and helping to make it that much better!
This story is set sometime after the episode "The Quill is Mightier...", though exactly when following that isn't very important!
Aphrodite was, this particular quiet afternoon on Mount Olympus, happily immersed in her favorite pastime: admiring her gorgeous reflection in a full-length mirror.
"Sister, when you've got it, you've got it," she sighed, content to see no delicate blonde curl out of place, no fold of her translucent peach gown the least bit wrinkled. As always, the Goddess of Love was the image of absolute beauty and feminine perfection.
She could have continued fussing over and admiring her appearance for hours, perhaps even days (for what was time to an immortal?), but her primping was interrupted by an unexpected visit.
"Yo, mom. Working hard as usual?" a familiar voice called to her from the entryway of her temple.
Greeting her son, only mildly annoyed at the interruption, she replied, "Oh, hello Cupid. And just so you know, maintaining my image is hard work. Don't knock how important appearances are, especially for us Gods. So," she finally turned away from the mirror, "what brings you by?"
"Actually, a matter of appearances, now that you mention it." Cupid crossed his muscled, bronzed arms and leaned against the wall. "I figured you must be... preoccupied...otherwise you would've noticed that another one of your temples has been trashed."
"What?!" the Goddess roared, then she groaned in misery, "Oooh, not vandals again! If Ares is up to another one of his silly games..."
"I don't think it was Ares this time, or simply random vandals. Come with me and see for yourself."
Moments later, the two arrived in the temple in a burst of golden light and showering rose petals. 'Dite looked around in distress, a little relieved to find no insulting graffiti this time, but..."My tapestries! The gemstones in my altar! Oooooh!" She was growing red with fury, which was not a pretty combination with her delicate pink gown. "Doesn't anyone have any respect for the Goddess of Love any more? Who steals from a sacred temple-one of my temples!"
"Well, if it's any consolation, it seems the thief in question left you his calling card." Cupid picked up a scroll that lay on the floor in front of the altar. Breaking the scroll's seal, he opened it and read: "This burglary courtesy the King of Thieves. Services for hire; reasonable rates." Cupid looked up from the words and thought for a moment. "'The King of Thieves'... the only person who goes by that title is a mortal by the name of Autolycus."
"Well, this Autolycus is just asking for it, isn't he?" Aphrodite snarled with as much ire as she could muster. Her image may have been soft and loving, but she was going to put her foot down about this before mortals got the idea she was an easy target. "Stealing from me and then bragging about it! I'm gonna give it to him, and good. No one disses me by stealing from my temples and gets away with it."
"What exactly do you have in mind?" Cupid asked warily. He was beginning to regret bringing the incident to his mother's attention, for she was starting to get that look in her eyes. He knew 'Dite could be a real terror when crossed, and it was more than a few times that he'd surreptitiously worked to help abate the damage she'd caused in her fouler moods.
Her eyes narrowed and with a devilish but still adorable grin, she replied, "Oh, nothing...but a little turnabout. I'm going to make sure this 'King of Thieves' lives to regret playing games with the Queen of Hearts. Thanks, kiddo, I owe you one."
And with that, she disappeared in a flowery burst. Cupid sighed and shook his head. There wasn't much he could do now, as he had his own Godly duties to attend to. But he made a note to himself to check in on Mommy Dearest later to see exactly what kind of games she had in mind for her latest victim.
It didn't take her long to find this mortal Autolycus-she was, after all, a God, possessing such powers as were necessary to do these sorts of things-and it took her even less time to decide upon the perfect plan for her revenge...
"Oh. Okay. ...But you're sure you can't-"
"NO! Exactly what aspect of the word 'No' is escaping you?"
"Okay, okay, I just wanted to help." Joxer the Mighty, Warrior for Hire, Master of Mayhem and all around dangerous fellow (or so he liked to tell people) struggled to keep pace with Autolycus. "I'm just trying to...broaden my horizons, you know. Pick up a few new skills."
"Oh really? Well, consider picking them up elsewhere. I don't need a sidekick."
"I'm not a sidekick, I'm a-"
"Warrior, I know. So you've told me. Repeatedly. I still don't need anyone helping me. I work alone."
"You worked with my brother Jett."
"That was different."
"Well, you know Jett. He's..."
"Bloodthirsty and psychotic?"
"True, but I was thinking more along the lines of 'quick-witted,' 'highly skilled', maybe 'bold' and 'daring'..."
"Okay, I get it, I get it."
Autolycus sighed, wondering what it was going to take to get the Master of Misfits off his tail. It was just his luck he'd run into Xena and Gabrielle's annoying groupie-though he had a growing sense it was less luck and more Joxer having purposefully set out to harass him for a change. Maybe the two ladies had finally grown sick and tired of him. Auto marveled at their patience that it had taken so long.
The King of Thieves was keeping up a quick pace through the marketplace of the village Arta, hoping maybe he could lose Joxer amid the crowd, but was having no such luck. The guy was sticking to him like horse dung to the bottom of thicktreaded boots. "Why aren't you off tagging along with your buddies Xena and Gabrielle?" he finally asked.
Joxer shrugged, the movement causing a loud rattling of his ridiculous armor. "They went on some super-secret mission without me. Said they would probably be gone for a month, maybe longer. C'mon, Autolycus, please?" he started whining. "I'm bored. I can't find any evil warlords to battle..."
"Too bad," Autolycus muttered, rather savoring the possibility of Joxer losing his irritating head in a foolhardy battle. He didn't have time to deal with this character right now; he had a potentially dangerous robbery to plan, and a client waiting to pay him admirably for it. He had to think, to prepare...and he had women he'd like to visit to help his mind...focus...on the job at hand...
Meanwhile, Aphrodite observed the two men arguing, her amusement growing by the second. It was an unexpected bonus to find Joxer tagging along with her target. She already knew he was a mortal who could be amusing to use in her plans. Who better to involve in getting a little revenge in against the King of Thieves? The man's distaste for Joxer was apparent to anyone, Godly or not...well, except for Joxer himself. That seemed to be his problem with the world in general-he was beyond clueless.
A gentle wave of her hand and the thought projected from her mind was all it took to cast her enchantment and set her plan in motion. Joxer was too busy babbling on and on to notice how Autolycus had suddenly stopped dead in his tracks, a strange sensation buzzing through his mind, leaving him dizzy and confused. Indeed, Joxer ended up crashing right into the halted thief, nearly knocking them both onto the ground.
"Oomph! Sorry," Joxer apologized.
"That's...that's okay," Autolycus said distractedly, suddenly wondering why he had been trying to get rid of Joxer. Why on Earth would he want to get rid of this charming, handsome...irresistible... man whom he...
Aphrodite giggled in glee. She'd merely employed one of her standard lust hazes, but as she often told Cupid, Love really only boiled down to a bad case of hormonal overload. And Autolycus? His hormones had just gone critical. This was going to be just too much fun to watch...
"You know, I was just thinking, maybe you're right. I think you are the perfect man to help me with this job," Autolycus suddenly changed his tune.
"Really? I mean-" Joxer straightened himself out quickly, "-of course I am! I'm Joxer the Mighty!"
"Yeah, though speaking of Jett reminded me of something..." You in that tight, sexy black leather outfit that Jett wore...giving me shivers just thinking about it... "C'mon, why don't we grab something to eat and make some plans...We've got a lot of preparations to make...and please, call me Auto. Can I call you Jox...?" Arm around Joxer's surprised shoulders, Autolycus led him back towards the center of the village marketplace.
"See you later, boys." Aphrodite waved after them, though no one could see her. Gods traveled invisible to mortal eyes except when necessary. "And by all means, don't behave yourselves while I'm gone."
A few hours later, after taking stock of necessary supplies and finishing other arrangements, the thief and the warrior departed Arta. Joxer was clearly excited by the prospect of a new adventure, though he was completely unaware of the real reason he had been included and was oblivious to the extent to which Autolycus so desired his company at the moment. The King of Thieves intended to keep it that way for the time being, though his mind was working hard on two different yet very important tasks: the robbery they were about to undertake, and how he was going to seduce Joxer.
The robbery hopefully would be a fairly standard hit and run-and low on the hitting and fast on running, which was the way Autolycus liked to operate. His client was a reasonably well to do and respected local craftsman by the name of Verascon. The man's home had recently been ransacked when he'd refused to pay the local warlord and general allaround troublemaker, Thrakkus, any "protection money" on his jewelry and gemstone business. The damage the thugs sent by Thrakkus had done to Verascon's house had been bad enough, but they'd also stolen several family heirlooms to cover that protection fee Verascon had earlier refused. Now, the tradesman wanted those items back desperately, and had hired Autolycus to retrieve them for him-by whatever means necessary.
"Now, if I pull this off, you realize this Thrakkus will no doubt figure out it was you who hired someone to retrieve the jewels, that it wasn't just some random attack. And if what you've told me about him is true, he won't just have your house trashed in revenge," Autolycus had warned in his discussions with the potential client. "He'll probably go right after you and your family. Are you sure you want that?" Auto didn't normally have much of a conscience when it came to the motivations and fates of his clients, but he wanted to make sure this man knew what he was getting himself into with his request.
Verascon had merely shaken his head in dismissal of Auto's concerns. "I have already packed off my family to Pirgos, where we are going to reopen our business in hopefully much more...pleasant surroundings. Build a new home...start everything over somewhere far away from this place and these thugs. I was growing restless in my old age regardless of these recent events, ready to move on to somewhere new, long before Thrakkus made camp in the hillside near here and started terrorizing Arta.
"No, I only want our family's possessions back before I leave here myself to rejoin them. I'll pay any reasonable price for your services, for I'm told you're the best man for the job. It's not the money that matters to me, but my family's honor."
"Well, what you've heard is right-I am the best. I'll be in touch when I've got your jewels."
That had been yesterday, and Auto had spent most of his time since then investigating the situation and his options, until running into Joxer. It was a good day's journey on foot to reach Thrakkus' stronghold from Arta, so they'd needed to purchase some supplies before leaving. Or rather, Auto had stolen them. Paying for what he could easily pilfer was not a thought that usually crossed the master thief's mind.
He had talked to whomever else in Arta was willing to speak out against the local bully. There hadn't been many, for most of the villagers were afraid they might be the next target of the warlord's ire if word ever got back to him. Still, there had been a few who would speak and had provided information he could use. These had included a number of women of...questionable repute, to put it nicely...who had seen the warlord's stronghold firsthand while "paying their respects" to the warlord's goons, as well as Thrakkus himself. The men had not been pleasant company and hadn't even tipped well for the services rendered, so the women were more than eager to take part in any plan to get back at the thugs. Auto had acquired enough information to get a general sense of the layout of the warlord's small fortress, where the valuables might be hidden, and how he would most likely be able to sneak inside with minimal resistance.
"...And even better luck for us," Autolycus was explaining to Joxer as they began their trek out of the village into the countryside, "word is that our man Thrakkus is currently several days to the south of here, helping out one of his buddies in a turf dispute. That means the homefront oughtta be less guarded than usual. So with luck we'll be able to get the jewels, hand 'em over to the client, and hightail it out of this neck of the woods before Thrakkus returns and finds out what has happened. All in all," Auto concluded, "I...we...could barely ask for a better setup."
"You know, I bet Xena'd be interested in hearing what this guy is up to around here when she gets back," Joxer remarked. "She's got a real thing about nasty warlords picking on innocent people like this...I'd like to teach this guy Thrakkus a few things about pushing around these villagers myself...let him deal with the wrath of Joxer the Mighty! See what he'd have to say about that. Yeah..."
Auto smiled to himself. Joxer was just so cute when he started in with that delusional talk about his prowess. Of course, Auto added to himself, Joxer's always cute. He's just particularly adorable when he scrunches up his eyes like that, trying to put on a menacing sneer. Auto thought Joxer ended up looking more like he was badly constipated when he did so-but it was still adorable. Auto gently told the warrior, "Remember, right now we're not out to be heroes. We're simply doing a job for a client, and for the significant financial reward that's been promised. Xena can do whatever she wants about Thrakkus later. It's not our problem."
"Okay, I understand. I'll do whatever you say, Autolycus. I mean Auto. This is just kind of new to me, you know? I should come up with a new verse for my song about this..."
I so hope you mean that, about doing whatever I say, Auto sighed to himself. He couldn't understand how he'd been so blind to Joxer's allure before now. The realization had suddenly hit him out of nowhere and left his mind reeling since then. Had he been blind before? The man was irresistible-goofy and clumsy, true, but that was in fact part of his charm. It must have been denial, Auto's not wanting to admit to his attraction to another man, that had kept him from seeing this until now. At least, that was how he had begun to rationalize his feelings at the moment.
"Joxer the Mighty,
Roams through the countryside,
He never needs a place to hide..."
The song was taunting Autolycus, making it even harder for him to think straight about anything. He couldn't get it out of his head, even when Joxer stopped singing, which admittedly he rarely did. And when Joxer wasn't singing, he usually was talking instead, so the sweet-if somewhat nasal-sound of his voice followed Auto through the forest, usually just a few steps behind him. So close and yet so far...
"Lessee...hmmm....companion...? No, too many syllables. Ummm...cohort? Not quite...Ah! How about:
"Comrade to the King of Thieves,
Noble and righteous are their deeds,
Stealing fortunes from evil men...
"Um...hmmm..." Joxer was stuck for the next rhyme.
"Best of friends, 'till the bitter end?" Autolycus suggested.
"Really?" Joxer asked. "Hmm...yeah, I think that works. Wow, thanks Autoly-Auto," and he started the verse over again, pouring all his heart into the song.
Auto knew he really needed to focus on the job, but being this close to Joxer, having Joxer singing about him no less, was driving him mad. He yearned to stop right then and there in the middle of the woods, tackle Joxer to the grassy ground, and make wild and crazy love to him 'till the sun set and then rose the next morning...However, he feared successfully bedding the strong warrior was going to take a little more work than that. He wanted to do it just right, and while seducing a woman presented little if any challenge to Auto anymore, he had no experience doing it with a man. What should he say-and how should he say it? How would Joxer react to his invitation? Was there any hope he could return Auto's affections? Auto knew the young man had some sort of thing for Gabrielle, as hopeless as that was...How in the world did Auto stand a chance to win his heart instead?
The only thing he knew was he'd somehow have to build up Joxer's trust in him. Get him completely comfortable. Relaxed. If they could pull off this job together, he hoped perhaps that would be enough.
"Joxer the Mighty
He's very tidy
Everyone admires him
He's so handsome it's a sin..."
Oh, but until then, this journey is going to be pure agony, Autolycus sighed miserably to himself. This wasn't like him. The King of Thieves wasn't supposed to be susceptible to longing this intense. It clouded his wits, and those wits were what kept him alive and what had won him his title as the King. He didn't fall in...love. The word itself sent shivers of terror down his spine. But it was the only way he could think to describe what he was feeling.
"I'm not annoying you by singing, am I?"
"Not at all, Jox."
"Really? Okay. Cool. 'Cause, you know, I think it really bothers Xena and Gabby when I sing. Especially Gabby. But I just like to sing. It helps...get me in that warrior spirit, you know."
"Then sing all you want, it doesn't bother me at all. Sing that verse about me again."
"You really like it? Okay...
"Joxer the Mighty,
Comrade to the King of Thieves,
Noble and righteous are their deeds,
Stealing goods from evil men,
Best of friends, 'till the bitter end!"
Yeah, Autolycus liked the sound of that. A lot. Now to turn those words into reality...
"For blood...valor...and victory! Ha ha!"
They stopped to make camp for the night shortly after dusk, saving the rest of the journey for the following day. They would make their hit on the stronghold the following evening, giving them plenty of time to inspect the area for anything that hadn't been accounted for in their "intelligence" and make sure they had a clear escape route back to the village.
They collected kindling for a fire in a small clearing in the woods. As the blaze grew steady and strong, the two men gathered close to the comfort of the fire's warmth in the slightly chilly air, also using the flames to heat up some food they'd brought along to see them through the next few days. Auto thought Joxer looked wonderful in the warm glow of the firelight and after shedding the bulk of his armor, but he kept the complement to himself. He simply admired his friend in silence and enjoyed the naughty thought of how nice it would be to use Joxer's body to keep him warm, instead of the fire.
Dusk faded to twilight, and conversation was minimal as they ate. Joxer had talked and sung all afternoon until his voice had grown hoarse, so it wasn't surprising he needed to rest it now. Still, Auto could see that Joxer had something on his mind, something he wanted to talk about, but couldn't quite bring himself to mention. The young man had a face that was painfully easy to read; it was something in his too-expressive, dark eyes, his wide mouth that twisted and pouted with each thought that passed through his mind. Joxer never seemed to have learned-as most did when they left childhood for the dangerous world of the adults-how to mask his emotions and thoughts from the world at large.
Auto was ready to try to push and find out was bothering the warrior when Joxer finally spoke up, "Thanks again for letting me come along today, Auto."
"It's no problem, Jox. I'm enjoying the company."
"Yeah, me too." He was nervously playing with the frayed laces on his boots as he queried, "Um... Auto? Can I ask you something?"
There was a long pause before Joxer finally continued, still keeping his eyes down on his boots, "What do you think about Gabrielle?"
So that's what it was. I should have figured. "She's okay, I guess. A little feisty for my tastes, if you know what I mean."
"Yeah." Joxer nodded his head in understanding, though his mouth twisted into a fond smile. "She really knocks me around sometimes..."
Auto raised an eyebrow and replied, "Well, if that's what turns you on..." and he was more than a tad curious to hear Joxer's response.
Joxer looked up in confusion. "What? Oh..." Even in the soft light of the fire Auto could see Joxer's cheeks turn red as he denied quickly, "Oh, no! No, I mean...well, Gabrielle's got a lot of spirit, that's...that's what I like about her, I guess. She looks so sweet and innocent when you first meet her, but she's..." He got a faraway, dreamy look in his eyes and paused, no doubt picturing the wandering bard in all her spunky, golden-haired and butt-kicking glory... "She's a lot more than that."
"Yeah, she's something all right," Auto agreed without much enthusiasm. Joxer had it worse for Xena's little sidekick than he'd realized. This was a potential problem. Didn't Joxer realize that Xena and Gabby were...well...as close as he was hoping he and Joxer were going to become?
"Autolycus, you're really good with women, right? So you must know a lot about...romance. What do you think I could do...with someone like Gabrielle...I mean...do I even stand a chance? I've tried a lot of different things already, but she only seems to get mad at me every time. So I know I'm doing something wrong, but I don't know what. I even asked Aphrodite for advice, but not even her suggestions worked." He let out a long, defeated sigh. "Maybe she just hates me too much to ever...you know...fall in love with me."
The lovesick look in Joxer's eyes was almost too much for Autolycus to take. The thief thought long and hard on how to best answer, before finally deciding he had to go for the bare and ugly truth-even if it hurt, and hurt bad. "Joxer, it's not you. I seriously doubt she hates you." How could anyone hate you? "I'm sure if things were different...if Gabrielle really knew how you felt, how much you cared about her, she'd jump at the chance to be with someone as good and true of heart as you." Joxer's eyes went wide, and Auto hated having to quickly douse those sparks of hope by adding, "The problem is, she, ah...she's already in love with someone else."
Joxer frowned and looked puzzled. "You mean her husband Perdicas, the one Callisto killed?"
Auto shook his head. "No, I'm talking about someone right now. I mean, I'm sure she still loves him too, but there's someone else. Someone...well, I guess there's no point hiding it...it's Xena."
Lack of comprehension. Then confusion. Then shock. Auto watched each state pass over Joxer before the young man exclaimed, "Xena?! You mean...but, how-how do you know?"
"Hey, you're the one who hangs out with them so much. I should've thought you'd have figured it out by now, even if they are pretty quiet about it. I know because Xena took over my body for a while, remember? They must've told you about that one. When Gabrielle went after the Ambrosia to bring Xena back to life?" Joxer nodded dully in remembrance. "Trust me, things got a little...well, I got a pretty intimate look at just how close those two are. And I don't think there's anyone who could ever get between them. I'm...sorry, Jox, to be the one who has to tell you."
Joxer was trying his damnedest to keep himself together, but he was crushed, and it showed. Shaking his head, he sputtered, "I didn't know...but how could I not know, after all this time? How could I not see that?"
"Listen, don't blame yourself for not knowing...I just...well, I figured you deserve to know, if you didn't already."
Joxer was too shocked to really listen to Auto's consolations at this point. Blinking rapidly and angrily wiping tears away, he continued, "But Xena knows how I feel about Gabrielle. Why didn't she say anything? Why wouldn't she tell me? I thought...Gods, they must think I'm an idiot!" Joxer's trembling voice rose louder and he stood up, turning away from the fire and Autolycus. "I bet they're off together right now having a good laugh over dumb ol' Joxer, can't even see what's going on right under his big nose!"
"Jox, don't do this to yourself." Auto stood up and walked over, hoping to calm him down. "It's not your fault. You're not dumb. You're just a man in love, blinded by what he wanted to see. It happens to the best of us."
Unbeknownst to either of them, Aphrodite was checking in on the progress of her plans at that moment. Listening to the drama unfold, she had to laugh at Auto's completely innocent comment. "You oughtta know about that one, sweetheart," she remarked to herself. "'Blinded by love' indeed..."
Auto tentatively tried to put a reassuring hand on Joxer's shoulder, but the warrior stepped away from him, rejecting the offer of comfort. "Maybe, I just...I, I need to think about this for a while." He paused and let out a long sigh. "I'm gonna...go down by that stream we passed just before making camp, clean up a bit..."
...have a good cry where no one can see you? Auto added silently, understanding completely Joxer needed some time alone to deal with this. But he wished that Joxer would just turn around and cry on his shoulder instead. He could offer whatever support and love Joxer needed right now...but this was too fragile a moment for him to dare suggest it. "Okay, but be careful wandering around by yourself. I'll leave the fire burning 'till you get back."
Joxer merely nodded and noisily stumbled off into the darkness. Auto slumped down by the fire, wishing now that he hadn't said anything. He hated seeing Joxer hurting so badly. But still, the man deserved to know the truth, and if Xena and Gabby were too chicken to tell him about their relationship, someone had to. Wasn't it better he know now, instead of carrying this impossible torch for Gabrielle forever?
Selfishly, Auto also worried how this would affect his own plans for Joxer. True, it might actually help them, for Joxer might have refused any advances from anyone if he was trying to save himself for Gabby. And by being the close, supportive friend through all this, Auto might just be able to work his way into Joxer's heart even faster. But would Joxer feel so burned right now that he wouldn't be able to get past his heartache?
One way or another, it was a mess. Auto knew he'd just have to play it carefully and by ear, and simply hope for the best.
Aphrodite sighed and shook her head. Briefly she debated giving Auto a "helping" hand and putting a similar lust spell over Joxer to get rid of the Gabrielle factor, but then she dismissed the idea quickly. She was enjoying making Auto work at this, knowing the eventual payoff would be worth it. "Come on, King of Thieves, show me you can steal an unsuspecting mortal's heart instead of just my valuables." Then she disappeared, calling it a night. Without sufficient beauty sleep, she wouldn't look properly divine tomorrow.
He busied himself for a while checking through his small bag of tools, checking the condition of his picks, sharpening the blade of his pocketknife...anything to distract him from worrying overly about Joxer. The fire was burning down low and Auto was starting to grow concerned about Joxer's safety when he finally heard the young man approaching the camp again. His hair was wet and dripping moisture down his weary face, instead of standing up at all the impossible angles it usually did. His eyes were red and betrayed the pain he no doubt was still feeling...but he looked as if he was going to pull through and not fall completely apart after all. Maybe Auto's revelation hadn't been completely unexpected; maybe Joxer had just needed to hear someone say what he'd feared to believe. Auto felt proud for Joxer's strength in a moment such as this and only wanted him more than ever.
"You okay?" he asked gently.
Joxer nodded. "Yeah. Not great, but better than before. Sorry 'bout earlier."
"Don't be, just forget about it. C'mon, we'd better get some rest. Tomorrow's gonna be a long day."
He tossed Joxer a spare blanket he'd "acquired" before leaving Arta and the two men prepared for sleep. Joxer laid his blanket not far from Auto's side (though not as close as Auto would have liked) and settled himself down for the night. Auto doused out the last embers of the fire and lay down as well, staring up at the night canopy of stars in the darkened sky, as if searching them for an answer.
Out of nowhere, a bright streak passed quickly far overhead. Joxer must have been doing the same, watching the skies, because he whispered in an excited tone, "Auto, did you see that? What was it?"
"A shooting star, I think-the Gods must be playing games in the Heavens tonight," Auto mused. "I've heard that if you say a prayer when you see one, whatever you pray for will come true."
"Yeah-just keep your prayer to yourself. They cancel the deal if you tell anyone what it was you prayed for."
"Oh, okay. Thanks...Oh, and good night, Auto."
"'Night, Jox..." Auto trailed off, saying his prayer silently, hope blossoming that the star was indeed an omen of success for his plans...
So far, everything was going exactly as planned.
"Stealth, Joxer. Stealth is the key to a successful burglary," Autolycus whispered under his breath.
"Stealth," Joxer echoed reverently, as if the secret of the universe had just been revealed to him. "Stealth..."
Unfortunately, the accident-prone warrior's coordination-or rather, lack thereof-made the application of this little tidbit of knowledge trickier than for most. Lurking along behind Autolycus through the dimly illuminated, empty corridors of the warlord's stronghold, Joxer missed the slight bump in the carpet underfoot and tripped, landing face down on the floor with a breathless "Ooooomph!"
No matter how many times he had the wind knocked out of him in such a fashion (and it was nearly a daily event) it still left him incapacitated for a few oxygen-deprived moments. He was afraid Autolycus was going to yell at him, or at least give him a good nosetwist as Gabrielle would for being so clumsy. Instead the master thief actually helped him back to his feet, while glancing furtively around to make sure the thud had gone unnoticed.
"Sorry..." gasp! "...Auto," Joxer squeaked out in apology.
"Just try to be more careful next time," Auto warned, though there was little malice in his voice-he even seemed to be grinning a little, for Zeus' sake!
Joxer nodded and accepted the friendly pat on the back, wondering what on Earth was with the King of Thieves. The past two days, he'd been downright... pleasant to Joxer, which was not something the self-proclaimed mighty warrior was used to. From anybody. And he had to admit it felt awfully...nice.
For instance, when they'd taken out the guards at the back of the castle, and Auto had needed to dislodge Joxer from the tree into which the first guard had tossed him. Auto hadn't complained, or given him one of those rolled-eyes, disgusted looks that Xena and Gabby always would.
Or when they'd snuck through the kitchen to get to the back corridors of the castle, and Joxer had quite loudly (and painfully) hit his head on a large saute pan hanging from the ceiling. Auto hadn't told him to stay back there with a warning along the lines of "Don't get in any trouble"-the warning he was used to hearing in situations like this one.
It had been that way for practically the whole trip, and it was very disconcerting to someone used to being...underappreciated...for the many skills and the bravery he (pretended to) posses.
Joxer decided he really liked working with Autolycus. He was right in his estimation that they'd simply gotten off on the wrong foot a few months back when they first met, when they'd had to stop Jett from assassinating Cleopatra. Sure, robbery wasn't as noble or impressive a trade as being a warrior, but maybe it was time for a career change. Maybe this could be his true calling, since Autolycus seemed so willing to work with him and tutor him in all the tricks of the trade. Maybe...
Maybe I should stop daydreaming and figure out why Autolycus has disappeared.
Joxer stopped, glanced around in confusion at the branch in the corridor right ahead of him and gulped in fear. He couldn't see anything but the few torches along the dark walls in either direction. He hadn't been paying attention, lost in his thoughts and staring down at the rug to avoid tripping again, and Auto had gotten ahead of him. Now he had no idea which way he was supposed to go.
Another brilliant move, Joxer.
He gulped nervously again and tried to figure out what he should do. It was hard to concentrate, though, because before they'd left the village Auto had selected some special new clothes for Joxer, to wear when they attacked the stronghold, and the tight black leather pants still felt mighty uncomfortable. He could understand the need for dark attire for a mission such as this, but skintight leather? Seemed like overkill, and besides that the trousers were binding him in places that were rather more than a tad painfull...
"Hey!" a voice behind him called. Joxer nearly jumped out of his skin-and his pants, if they hadn't been so tight. He spun around and saw a mean-looking, big, ugly guard with an even meaner-looking sword in hands walking quickly down the hallway towards him. "What're you doing here?"
"Uh..." Joxer stalled, trying to come up with a believable excuse. "I'm here to steal from your boss" just didn't seem like the type of explanation that would keep that sword from finding a resting place in his chest in the next ten seconds. "...New security protocols. Just making sure everything is in order and that you men are doing your job while Thrakkus is away," he babbled, trying to make his babble sound authoritative.
"What new security protocols? I wasn't informed of anything," the guard grumbled. As he drew closer, he squinted and asked, sword pointed directly at Joxer's throat, "And who exactly are you? I ain't never seen you before."
"That's because...I'm..." Joxer stood tall, trying to act as if the blade wasn't about to scare him into wetting his brand new pants, "...a secret agent. No one except...'the boss' is supposed to know I'm here."
"Yeah, sure." The guard wasn't buying it, which didn't surprise Joxer, considering how lame his words had sounded even to him. "If that's the case you can tell it to Thrakkus himself when 'e gets back. Until then, yer gonna stay put in the dungeon. C'mon."
The guard urged Joxer to start walking, back in the direction he'd originally come from. The guard was marching close behind him, the tip of his sword pressing against Joxer's back. It was taking all the warrior's self control not to pass out in fear.
Therefore he did not realize that Autolycus was sneaking up behind the both of them until he heard a loud "Ungh!", then a thud, and saw the guard crash to the ground. Spinning around, he found Auto standing there, a large vase in his hands. The guard's head had apparently collided with it.
"That had to hurt. Oh well." Auto shrugged.
Joxer smiled feebly, letting out a deep sigh of relief. Auto simply said, "Thanks for distracting the guard-I got the jewels, so let's get outta here."
"Uh...sure...you know me, master of distraction," Joxer muttered, almost able to convince himself that it had been a plan, not simply his bumbling incompetence. He said a quick prayer of thanks to his favorite Gods for once again saving his ass, and the pair made a quick and remarkably unaccosted exit from the castle.
As they left, Joxer thought to himself, Maybe this thieving business wasn't so hard after all...
Verascon had been most pleased with the recovery of his-ahem-family jewels, and had gladly paid the King of Thieves his requested fee. Autolycus, in turn, was most pleased with being finished with business for the moment and having a hefty pouch of dinars weighing down his belt as a result, even after giving Joxer a fair cut of the profit. He had momentarily debated on the way back to Arta whether he'd do better taking the jewels and selling them to another bidder, but under close inspection, he'd estimated that they truly weren't worth anything near what Verascon had offered. So he felt satisfied with the deal, and could even feel a little pride at doing the "right thing" and the most profitable thing at the same time. And on top of that, Joxer was still happily at his side, pleased at not having caused any major trouble on their mission and apparently quite willing to stick around for a while longer.
Now was the time for Autolycus to set his plan for seduction into play. He'd had plenty of time to think about it on the journey back to the village and was most eager for the fun to begin. If Joxer was still depressed over the news about Xena and Gabby, he was hiding it pretty well. That gave Auto extra hope that by the end of the day, Joxer would be sharing his bed, thoughts of a particular young lady the furthest thing from his mind.
While Joxer was busy with a small but time-consuming errand the King of Thieves had sent him on, Auto rented a room above the village tavern for the night. He talked to the tavern's proprietor and for a well-worth-it fee, arranged for a "celebratory" dinner to be readied and sent to the room that evening at sunset. The finest vintage wine the tavern could spare would be theirs to enjoy along with the meal. Auto also made sure the room was appointed with the necessary accoutrements to create an intimate-but not, he hoped, intimidatingly so-environment: scented candles, fine silken sheets...all the luxuries that could be found. And mostly stolen, though since he had a little money to burn he had actually-novel a concept as it was-paid for some of them.
He got a haircut, had his mustache trimmed to symmetric perfection, and picked out some brand new and particularly flattering clothes before returning to the room. He felt good, he felt handsome and-from the looks some of the ladies had been giving him as he'd wandered through town-quite desirable, but he still felt worried. He was tense with nervous energy, especially after having spent the past two days barely able to think of anything except his companion. Now the time had come to finally act on his feelings, something he had to do before they threatened to consume him and drive him utterly mad.
A nice bath might help me relax, he decided, and so he ordered hot water for the tub, welcoming the steaming warmth when he settled into it shortly thereafter. He closed his eyes and sank down into the water, letting it soothe his tired and tense muscles. But it couldn't soothe his mind, where still all he could see and think about was Joxer. Gods, how he wanted that man! Wanted him more than he had ever wanted anything in his life. If his desire had not been so blinding, he no doubt would have questioned its origin-and why his opinion of Joxer had changed so radically in such a short period of time. But that was the power of the Gods: the ability to cloud mortals' minds as they chose. And when it came to clouding rational thought, lust was pretty much the logical mind's worst enemy.
Mentally playing out his planned seduction as he tried to unwind, he found he was getting hard just from the expectation, the wonderful images pouring forth in his mind. So much for relaxing, he sighed to himself. He slid one hand slowly down his body, down to relieve the building ache in his crotch. He wished he could save himself for the evening ahead but knew it would leave him too completely distracted if he didn't relieve some of the sexual tension he was feeling right now.
His cock was stiff and ready, and he bit down on his lip to suppress a moan as he wrapped his hand around the shaft and began pleasuring himself. He let his mind wander to thoughts of everything he wanted to do to Joxer, everything he hoped Joxer might do to him in return. He imagined Joxer's hand on his cock instead of his own, pumping him with those long, lovely fingers...then his mouth, those succulent lips, sucking him off with abandon...then Joxer beneath him, bare assed and face down on the bed, while Auto plunged fiercely down into his tight, hot hole...
Before he knew it, his whole body shuddered with the release of his pent-up desires, semen slickening his hand until it dissipated into the warm water around him. He released his grip on his cock as it began to soften in his hand, and he felt much better. Calmed and subdued after the quick fix yet still feeling eager for the "main event" to begin, Auto got out of the tub and dried off.
He dressed and fussed even more than usual over his appearance, and was definitely pleased with the results. "Autolycus, my friend, if anyone's got the goods to pull this off, it's you," he complemented himself. Glancing out the window and noticing the goldentinged light of late afternoon approaching, he finished up and headed out to meet Joxer downstairs.
"Wow..." Joxer gushed as they entered the room together a short while later. Dinner had been brought upstairs while they'd enjoyed a few ales in the tavern and Auto had explained what he had set up for the evening (sans the seduction, of course). "Do you live it up like this all the time, Auto? Geez, the warrior life never has perks like this. Usually with Xena you're lucky if you get to spend the night sleeping with Argo in a barn somewhere."
"Oh, I'm not always this extravagant, but we do have something to celebrate, don't we?" Auto insisted, feeling completely at his most charming. After pulling out a chair at the small dining table for Joxer, he lit two gently-perfumed candles and started to pour the fragrant red wine from the carafe into Joxer's glass. He also poured some for himself, then sat down across from the other man. His eyes sparkled like fine crystal as he lifted his glass and toasted, "To our first successful partnership." ...And may that partnership lead to many more...interesting...adventures in the near future, he added to himself.
Joxer was practically glowing as he met Auto's glass with a clink of his own, his normally pale cheeks flushed for once with pride and excitement. Auto smiled in return, seeing how Joxer was already practically eating out of his hands (Ooh, there was a dangerous thought...)
As they dove into the food, Auto couldn't help believing that this was going to be easier than he had dared to think...
The evening progressed exceedingly well. The dinner wasn't gourmet, but what could you expect from a small village tavern, after all. It was at least well cooked, and the meat tasted fresh, not gamey in the least. The wine had loosened up Auto enough to take off most of what remained of his nervousness, and Joxer seemed ready to take on the world, Auto having successfully fed his ego as well as his stomach quite well throughout the evening.
"We should go do something to really celebrate, like, like...go to the gambling hall for a while!" Joxer enthused, but Auto merely shook his head in the negative.
"Gambling's only good for losing all those dinars we just earned, my friend-except when you're the one in charge of the game. But that's a lesson for another day." By this point, Auto had managed to maneuver them both away from the dining table and to the edge of the bed to finish the wine-not so difficult, as there was very little other furniture in the small room, and the chairs at the dining table were not particularly comfortable.
Joxer picked up the intended hint in Auto's words, and asked hopefully, "So, you mean, you don't mind me hanging around some more? 'Cause I was kind of thinking, maybe when Xena and Gabrielle get back, I should stop hanging around with them so much. I don't want to...well, I'm not sure how comfortable I'd be about it right now."
"Of course I don't mind, Joxer..." Auto wrapped a "friendly" arm around the other man's shoulders. "You can hang around with me as long as you want. Why should I mind?"
"Well, um...it's just...most people...well, Xena and Gabrielle are about the only ones who seem to not want to kill me when I'm around them for more than about...oh, ten minutes." Joxer frowned.
Such a cute little frown, Auto mused, wanting nothing more than to kiss it away. His pulse was quickening as he knew it was almost time to make his move. "Nonsense. Do you think I would've prepared all of this tonight if I wanted you to go away?"
"Oh. Yeah, I guess not." The frown was quickly gone. "So," Joxer continued cheerily, "if you don't want to go gambling tonight, what d'you want to do instead?"
Auto grinned. He'd just been served the perfect setup. Right on a plate.
"What do I want to do?" he repeated the question slowly, feeling the weight of Joxer's expectant but oh-so-innocent gaze upon him. "What I want to do, Joxer, more than anything else right now, is this..."
And with that, Autolycus pulled Joxer to him, planting his mouth quickly and firmly onto the other man's lips. Joxer stiffened in shock and let out a surprised whimper, but his response only added to Auto's desire. He'd expected and even hoped for a little fight. Joxer struggled under the unexpected advance, but Auto wouldn't release him, not now when he finally had him right where he wanted him.
Finally he forced himself to release his love's protesting mouth (though not his body, no-he wasn't going to give Joxer the chance to try to run away on him) and Joxer squeaked out, "What did you do that for?!"
"Isn't it obvious, Joxer? I want you. I love you. By the Gods, you are the sexiest man to ever walk upon this Earth," Autolycus sighed, aching for another chance to kiss those lips. Joxer was too shocked at this point to even move, his wide eyes locked on Auto like a cornered animal in a hunter's snare. "Please, don't reject me," Auto begged. "I may be the King of Thieves, but you, Joxer the Mighty, have stolen my heart." Tartarus, did I just say that?! Talk about corny lines...
"Me?! You're...you love me? Bbut...but..." Auto stopped Joxer's protests with another kiss, this time catching the other man open-mouthed, mid-exclamation. His tongue probed forward, savoring the warm, sweet depths of Joxer's mouth. And gradually, he noticed, Joxer's defenses began to melt away with his persistence. Those muscles that had gone so taught in protest under his groping hands started to relax. Joxer's lips began to respond to Auto's urgings. His tongue even met Auto's briefly, the touch eliciting a moan from both men. Quickly, Joxer pulled away, gasping for air, clearly shocked at his own behavior as well as that of his companion.
"I...I don't understand..." Joxer said, shaking his head. "Why do you want me?"
"Because, silly, you're handsome, charming, brave, ssssexy..." Auto's finger traced down Joxer's neck teasingly as he drew out that last word.
"I am?" Joxer asked, looking questioningly into Auto's eyes. "No one...nobody's ever told me that before."
"Then the world is full of fools, if they can't see what I do. I think you are all of the above. Please, I want to make love to you...Please, Joxer, my love, I'd do anything for you..."
Instead of Joxer's mouth, this time he dove for his neck, that long, so erotically graceful neck. Joxer arched back in surprised delight, gasping, "Auto...oh... oooooh...!" as his hands reached for the thief's back for support.
Yes, now we're getting somewhere, Auto sighed, his mouth continuing to taste and caress the soft skin of the other man's neck, moving up slowly now, back to his mouth...that mouth that now accepted him eagerly.
Oh Gods, the taste was so sweet. Like nectar, like Ambrosia. Auto's hard cock pulsed with the need for release; his desire was so strong he was certain he'd pass out from sensory overload at any moment. But yet again, Joxer started resisting him as he started trying to work his hands under the warrior's clothing. "Wait... wait a second...please..." Joxer gasped.
With the last of his willpower, Auto paused, easing himself slightly off his love. He wanted him, but he didn't want to risk losing him because he moved too quickly and scared him off.
Joxer's face was flushed with desire, but his eyes still betrayed his uncertainty. "Auto, I've never...not with a...a man...I don't know how I feel about this. I mean, you-you're certainly a goodlooking, I mean... oh, Hades, I don't know what I mean," Joxer finished in exasperation, turning away in embarrassment.
"It's okay, Joxer...I'm sorry. You just...being this close to you, I couldn't help myself any longer. Would it help any if I told you I've never felt like this about a man before either?" Auto laughed nervously. "I don't think I've ever felt this way about anyone before. But I'm willing to give it a try. And I bet I can make you feel...real good...just give me a chance. Don't tell me you didn't just enjoy that kiss." He started creeping back towards the other man, his mouth settling close to Joxer's ear. He blew gently upon it and murmured, "I heard you moaning when I touched you..." He smiled when Joxer's body trembled as his lips eversolightly brushed the ear..."I see the way you're responding to me now..." He teased the tender lobe, teeth gently bruising the skin, causing Joxer to whimper in agony..."Just give in and let it happen..."
Joxer turned his mouth to meet Auto's, giving his wordless acceptance of the offer. This time the kiss went on endlessly and was returned without restraint. When Joxer grasped at Auto's body to pull him close, the thief wanted to cry out in joy, knowing that he'd won the first battle of the evening. "Mmm...yes...oh yes..." he sighed, his hands sliding under Joxer's vest, under his shirt, finding the cool, soft skin awaiting his attention. While his mouth refused to leave Joxer's, his fingers struggled to untie the leather strips of his love's vest, tossing it aside, then began on the shirt. Soon Joxer was barechested in his arms and Auto's senses reeled, the feeling of the taught muscles-the feeling of this man in his arms, so strong, so desirable, almost too much to bear.
Skin like china, so pale and perfect... Auto's mouth trailed down to one bare shoulder, nibbling hungrily at it, enjoying Joxer's every soft sigh and cry of surprised delight, the long fingers digging firmly and almost painfully into his own back.
He pushed Joxer down onto his back and straddled him, sitting up on top of his thighs so he could savor the sight of his love beneath him. Joxer gazed up at him, his chest flushed and heaving, his brown eyes bright and wide with nervous anticipation. Feeling the weight of Joxer's stare, Auto removed his own vest and blouse, but slowly, teasingly, seeing and enjoying the effect his "show" was having on Joxer. Finally undressed from the waist up, Auto coaxed softly, "Touch me, Joxer. I want to feel your hands on me."
Joxer reached up eagerly to touch Auto's shoulders, the callused fingertips feeling wonderfully rough on his bare skin. "I wish I had a body like yours..." Joxer sighed.
"You do...my body is yours now...to do whatever you want with. Mmm...yeah, like that..." Auto arched back as the tentative fingers ran across his chest, down over his nipples. Joxer paused, tracing back over those pinpoints of pleasure that stiffened under his gentle touch.
"Oh Jox..." Auto moaned, lowering himself onto his love's body, pressing bare flesh to bare flesh for the first time. Entwining and wrapping together with arms and legs, they kissed again with a force that left Auto gasping for breath when his mouth was finally released. Joxer barely gave him a chance to let out his first deep breath of air, then he was grabbing him for another kiss, his tongue probing the other man's mouth hungrily. It was almost hard to believe that this was the same man who'd been so taken aback by Auto's advances only minutes before.
He could feel the hardness announcing its presence between Joxer's legs and he loved the way it felt, rubbing against his own erection as they pressed together, as if trying to meld together into one body. Auto's hands reached down to cup and squeeze Joxer's wonderfully firm ass, pushing him even harder up against his own body. "You feel so good...oh baby..."
Joxer gave no protest as Auto's hands moved around, finding the laces that held the tight trousers in place. Instead, he simply lay back and begged, "Please...I'm gonna burst if you don't get me out of these..."
It wasn't actually that far from an overstatement, for Auto could see just how tightly the leather was stretched over Joxer's crotch. He ran his hand down the length of the bulge hidden within and Joxer let out a deep moan, his head dropping back onto the pillow as he cried out for mercy.
Auto decided not to torture the poor baby any longer and to give him just what he wanted. He had the laces undone and started sliding the tight pants down Joxer's slim hips, then off over his feet, managing to suppress a giggle at the sight of the cherryandbanana colored shorts Joxer wore underneath. He'd forgotten about those, having seen them only once before when Joxer had been hanging from them, thanks to a Jett-induced weggie. He kept from giggling by pressing his mouth against Joxer's tender inner thigh, placing a line of kisses and playful bites up it to his crotch, just to the edge of the shorts. Joxer's cries were growing louder, his body shuddering under each and every intimate touch. The front of his shorts were damp with precum, and Auto couldn't help but slide up and press his mouth against the wet spot, exhaling his warm breath onto the bulge that was waiting for his attentions beneath the fabric.
"Oh Gods...oh...Auto!" was all Joxer could keep moaning, louder and louder. Damn, the neighbors sure aren't gonna have any doubts about what's going on in this room tonight, Auto thought to himself, considering Joxer's rather vocal tendencies. Not that he minded, for it was only making him more turned on, if that was humanly possible.
Finally he couldn't play games any longer. He needed Joxer's cock now. His hands slid up Joxer's thighs, up to his stomach then down again, catching the waistband of the shorts and pulling them down with one smooth movement. His love's sex sprang to attention once freed from confinement, and Auto savored the sight of it in all its stiff beauty. He briefly paused to finish getting himself undressed before granting himself the prize of being able to taste Joxer's cock.
The young man yelped loudly and clutched the bedsheets as Auto began sucking him with an almost desperate fervor. Though inexperienced at this particular form of sexplay, he got the impression Joxer was sufficiently pleased with his technique. It was a little trickier than he'd imagined, but as he gazed up and watched Joxer's reactions, he relaxed and began to savor the experience. His own sex ached for release, but that could wait until he had finished doing his best for Joxer.
His hands slid beneath Joxer's ass, cupping the firm cheeks and lifting him gently off the bed and further into his mouth. The taste was salty and musky and so very good, he couldn't get enough of it, or the way the cock throbbed against his tongue...He wouldn't let go, not as Joxer's moans became completely incoherent, not as he began to shake and buck against him. Not until the hard cock rewarded him with Joxer's seed spilling forth into his mouth, dribbling out when he could not swallow it all down fast enough.
"Auto..." Joxer sighed dreamily, "Auto, Auto..." His body was completely limp and sweatdrenched and it all felt delectable to the thief as he finally released the softening organ, sliding his way back up against Joxer. The warrior's warm brown eyes lit upon his face, his expression one of complete rapture, of being utterly satisfied and spent.
He looks more beautiful than ever, Auto sighed to himself as he kissed one cheek, then the other, then left a trail of wet kisses down Joxer's beautiful, long nose. He rested his head on the other man's shoulder and confessed, "You don't know how much I've wanted to do that. I swear, it's practically all I've been able to think about for days."
"I had no idea...that you wanted me. And that it could be so...wow..." was all Joxer could say. His hand traced lazily against the back of Auto's shoulders, through his hair, spreading fiery desire through the thief with each movement. He knew his love needed a moment to recover his senses, but Auto could barely stand it any longer. He gently picked Joxer's hand up off his shoulder and moved it down his own body, directing it towards his hard cock, where it could better serve his needs. Joxer took the hint and wrapped those long delicate fingers of his around his friend's erection. It was just the way Auto had imagined it would feel in his fantasies and he shivered uncontrollably. Joxer's first strokes was unsure, cautious, but Auto lifted his head to smile encouragingly.
"Is that good?" Joxer asked, uncertain.
"Anything you do to me is good," Auto answered, clutching Joxer tighter as the hand began working him more efficiently. "Oh yeah, Jox, that's... just right..."
After continuing in this manner for a while, gradually growing more assured in his actions, Joxer asked softly, "Do you want me to do...what you did... to me?"
More than anything in the world, Auto thought, though with admirable restraint he instead said, "Only if you want to, m'love...mmm...only if you want to."
"I want to make you happy. The way you've made me feel tonight," Joxer murmured, his lips pressing against Auto's forehead, then moving southward in a slow trail of kisses as his hand released Auto's cock and he slowly drifted his way down the other man's body. Kisses dampened Auto's chest, then the top of his stomach...he lay back against the bed with a long sigh as Joxer's light kisses continued to move lower, his chin finally nuzzling against the tip of Auto's burning hot erection.
Joxer finally lowered his head further, and after a short pause took his first taste, a tentative lick around the tip of Auto's cock. He paused again, then swirled his tongue around the tip once more, causing Auto to groan in pleasure. Gradually, he built up his courage, letting his tongue taste and lap up and back down the length of the shaft repeatedly. Then he finally went back to the tip and opened his mouth around it, gently encasing it with his lips as he sucked down hard for the first time.
"Oh, that's it...oh, Holy Hera!" Auto swore, the shock of how good it felt almost sending him spiraling into an orgasm before Joxer had even begun. Clutching desperately at the bedsheets, he wanted to last, wanted to savor this moment as long as he could, but he couldn't get control of his cascading excitement. Like a tidal wave, the orgasm crashed through his body after Joxer had barely begun a steady rhythm of sucking. He had expected Joxer to let go, but he didn't, not until Auto stopped shaking from the tumultuous aftershocks, not until he'd finished lapping up every last droplet that Auto had to give him.
"Didn't realize...I was...so tasty," Auto joked. It was the best his fried brain could come up with as Joxer returned to his arms, the two men collapsing together in exhaustion.
"You came for me. I wanted to savor that, so I'd never forget it," Joxer sighed.
"Jox..." Auto was happier in that moment than he'd ever believed was humanly possible. Shaking his head, he remarked, "You know, you're too good for a bad boy like me."
"You forget, I'm a coldblooded killer...a warrior with hands meant for destruction and chaos," Joxer growled into Auto's ear, though it was more playful in tone than his usual boasts of prowess.
"Mmm hmm, well, I'll have to remember that, killer. I'll need to be careful not to get on your bad side..." Auto teased back, "Though from where I'm at right now, all I see are good sides...very good sides... an even nicer back...and better still..."
"Auto..." Joxer just shook his head against Auto's chest, "I still don't believe this is happening... that it has happened..."
"Believe it," Auto reassured him, "and tell me, isn't this better than pining after that little girl Gabrielle? Do you think she can satisfy you like I can?"
Joxer was silent for a moment before answering. "It doesn't matter. I know now that it's never going to happen between me and Gabrielle anyway. She loves Xena. She only...tolerates me. I think I knew that before you told me, I've just tried to deny it. I couldn't let go of her..." he paused, lifting his head to look into Auto's eyes, "...until now." He grinned, and added, "You know what, Auto? When we saw that star last night, I prayed that I would find someone who could love me, the way you said Xena and Gabrielle loved each other. I never imagined it would be you."
"Well, I prayed that this would happen, too. So it looks like the Gods are with us on this one, Jox," Auto said with a contented sigh, pulling his love up for another kiss.
If only he knew how true his words really were...
"Boy, it's about time you two gave it up for the night," Aphrodite observed with a yawn many hours later, as dawn was already beginning to creep over the horizon. All that humping and bumping and moaning and groaning had been getting a little tiresome to observe. Still, to see things had gone so... exhaustingly well with the first part of her plan would make the second part that much better.
"Fun time's over, boys. Time to bring Autobaby back to his senses." Brushing her hand gently over his sleeping face, 'Dite removed the spell as easily as it had been applied. In a few hours, Autolycus would awaken and remember every excruciating detail of what he had done, and with who, but he'd have no idea why.
"Don't mess with the Goddess of Love, honey, unless you're ready to pay the consequences. Remember that the next time you steal anything from one of my temples," she warned. Would he figure out she was responsible for this? She certainly hoped so! But let him suffer a bit first, before he came begging to her for forgiveness, she decided, feeling quite pleased with herself. She left the room as quickly and undetected as she had arrived.
Autolycus drifted slowly out of his pleasant, wonderfully peaceful slumber, sunlight pressing warmly against the outside of his eyelids as it came streaming through the open windows of the bedroom. He breathed in deeply, yawned and stretched, his body aching in that delicious way that only came after a night of hot, satisfying sex. The air around him was still thick with the musky, sweet smell of passion spent, and the warm body of his partner still rested soundly against his side. Strange, how in his sleepy and tired haze he could not quite remember who that partner was, only how utterly amazing the night had been...such fire and desire as he could never remember feeling before. His eyes were barely fluttering open as he tried to put the pieces of his memories together, his hand drifting over the bare skin under his fingers, recognizing finally the flesh of his lover...
No. It...can't be...
He froze as the details of the night before started returning in a torrent of images and memories. Not just that night, but the past few days...his irrational, sudden desire to be with this...this...
Joxer?! What in the names of the Gods had gotten into him?
Joxer, apparently, as he remembered in horror how the night had finished before they'd finally fallen into an exhausted sleep.
He felt sick. Nauseous. Embarrassed-no, make that completely and utterly mortified.
The Gods had been playing with him, that was it. Had to be. He'd pissed someone high-up off and they'd played a cruel joke on him in revenge. Made him act like a deranged, lovesick puppy over...over... Oh Gods...
"Heh, heh. Real funny, this is. Oh man..." I have got to get out of here. He needed to vamoose before Joxer woke up, to run off and try to reclaim his dignity. If anyone had seen him acting like...like he'd been in love with...he could barely stand to think about it!
He heard Joxer murmuring something, but the man was still mostly asleep. This was good, Autolycus decided, for he could perhaps sneak out of the room before Joxer awoke. Act like this had never happened, yes, that was what he would have to do.
Carefully, using all his skills to maneuver out from under the body clinging to him (don't think about it...try not to think about his bare skin touching mine, oh sweet mother of Zeus, what did I do to deserve this!), he slipped out from under the covers and skulked across the floor. Trying not to make a sound, he began dressing as quickly as he dared. He was just bending over to lace up his boots when a voice froze him, calling his name, "Autolycus? Whatcha doin'?"
The question was asked in a playful tease. Auto turned around slowly, trying to grin in return. "Oh, hey there. I was...just planning on running out for a quick..." Escape? "...breakfast. Yes. To bring to you. Breakfast in bed, my love."
Joxer gave a catlike smile in response. Auto remembered with a flush the last time he had seen that wicked grin, almost felt his body responding to the thought... Uh uh, stop right there, compadre, he scolded himself. He did not want to think about it-he just wanted to get out of there!
"Auto, you are so romantic," Joxer sighed, then with puppydog eyes, he added, "But don't I get a kiss before you leave? I'll miss you while you're gone."
Oh Gods, don't make me do that... "Uh, sure, but...why don't we both just savor the expectation instead, huh?" He finished lacing his boots and grabbed his small bag of tools, ready to make his break. "I'll be back before you know it."
"What do you need your bag for? You said you were going to be right..." Joxer stopped, confusion giving way to understanding as his expression turned cold.
Damn, he's smarter than I gave him credit for.
"You're not coming back," Joxer stated, the smile completely gone.
"Hey, listen, it's nothing personal, Joxer, it's just...I've got a reputation to maintain, okay? I don't know what got into me, except I have a sneaking suspicion that either Aphrodite or Cupid was responsible for it. So let's simply...do each other big a favor and forget about last night, okay?"
"No! No, it's not okay!" Joxer exclaimed angrily. Auto hated it, but he actually was feeling...guilty?...for the look of pain on the young man's face. The wetness in his wide eyes was threatening suddenly to turn into a flood of tears. "Last night you told me you loved me! I didn't believe it at first, but you swore to me it was the truth! And I...you seduced me into this bed, you kept telling me how much I meant to you...and now you're telling me it was all a lie? You're just going to run out on me?"
"Joxer, I'm sorry, all right? But you're...you're not my type. What do you want me to say? Should I lie to you about that now?"
There was silence for a moment. "Yes," Joxer answered seriously. "I'd really like to be able to believe that lie for a little bit longer, that someone might actually love me."
Damn. There's that guilt again. "Joxer..."
"No, forget it. Go. That's all you want to do. Get out of here."
"GET OUT!" Joxer screamed at him, with a rage that shocked Autolycus. He decided he'd better not stick around to find out if it was the psycho-side of Joxer's family finally coming out. He grabbed all his things and headed for the door.
He wasn't going to cry.
Warriors aren't supposed to cry-especially not over wimpy things like love and broken hearts. Warriors are strong, impermeable to the feeble turmoils inflicted by their emotions.
Dammit, I'm no warrior. I can't even pretend to be one very well. And I am going to cry, because no one is here to see what a loser I am anyway.
Joxer curled miserably up into the blankets, grabbing a pillow and using it to mask his sobbing. A few hours ago he'd felt like the luckiest man on the planet, basking in the love Autolycus professed to feel towards him. It quickly had stopped mattering why, or how, Autolycus could have such strong feelings towards him. It had stopped mattering that it was a man who felt this way towards him, not a woman. Not Gabrielle.
He had been loved. For once he'd thought he'd known what it felt like to share passion with someone who loved him-him, not simply the money he'd leave behind on the bedstand in payment.
And it had all been a damn lie.
Just like the time he'd thought Gabrielle had loved him, and then he found out it had only been a misfired arrow from Cupid's bow. He'd felt enough of a fool that time-and now, he'd fallen for the same stupid trick again.
The Gods hate me, he decided. He would never find someone who loved him, because the Gods considered him as much of a fool, a dupe, as the rest of the world.
It simply wasn't fucking fair. As far as he could tell he'd never done anything to deserve this type of punishment. Not even his brother Jayce-not even he had it this bad. If only he knew what he was doing wrong...if he could figure out what was wrong with him and how he could fix it...
The sun continued to rise and spread cheerful light outside, but inside the room Joxer could not see or feel anything beyond the dark clouds tormenting his heart and his soul.
Cupid perched on the windowsill, a golden shimmer in the sun's bright rays. He shook his head in dismay at the havoc his mother had caused. Sure, she'd gotten Autolycus back for the burglary, but had it been necessary to drag this mortal down, too? Or course, he knew full well that 'Dite tended not to worry about these sorts of things, especially when she got herself all worked up and insulted. Her ego was pretty fragile these days, and the minor problems and heartbreaks of mortals were secondary matters, even for the Goddess of Love.
He wondered if there was anything he could do to sort out this mess-without pissing off his mother by interfering with her schemes. He couldn't officially get involved unless one of the mortals asked for his help. That was the way things usually worked. But hopefully, Auto was smart enough to figure out what was going on, and perhaps come calling to him, hoping for an audience with a God who might be able to appease Aphrodite. Or the thief would simply return what he'd stolen and beg for forgiveness directly. Then Cupid might be able to do something to help Joxer out.
Cupid hoped that either way, Autolycus wouldn't take very long. He could sense something a little too dark in Joxer's mind for this situation to have anything close to a happy resolution if the thief took too long.
Autolycus had no particular place he needed to be (except elsewhere) but he set course out of Arta at a determined pace. His only objective was to put distance between himself and Joxer. A few thousand miles would do nicely.
He avoided meeting the eyes of any other travelers he passed, irrationally afraid that somehow, they would be able to tell what he had done-and more importantly with whom-simply by looking at him. He was therefore thankful when he could turn off onto a quiet, growingly deserted path leading east from the village into the nearby forest.
"I'm ruined...doomed..." he moaned miserably to himself, unable to quite believe it all still. "If he ever opens that big mouth of his about what happened..." He shuddered to even think about it. It was too terrible to imagine.
Autolycus' thoughts were a whirlwind. He hadn't lied when he'd told Joxer he'd never been with a man before. No siree. He'd never even given the idea a serious thought. He was a ladies' man, after all. He loved women, and they loved him. End of the story, and he liked it very much, thank you, precisely like that.
But, dammit, there was a catch that was bugging him the more he thought about it-something he seemed unable to stop doing despite his best efforts otherwise.
He'd enjoyed it.
Spell (curse!) of the Gods or not, he'd apparently loved every last second of it. Even now he couldn't deny that it had been one of the best nights of nonstop bootythumping he could remember. His mind plagued him with images, feelings...when he closed his eyes he could see Joxer gazing up at him with those big liquid eyes, while his mouth was wrapped hungrily around his cock...
"Don't do this to me..." he groaned, trying to shake the image out of his head. He had to pause to take a breather, sitting down for a moment at the base of a tree. Merely the memory was beginning to arouse him.
"Don't you realize who you're getting all hot about? Get over it!" he yelled at his body, in particular a certain part of his anatomy which often, he felt, acted with a mind all of its own. Like now. He wasn't going to take the blame for feeling this way. Not over Joxer. Joxer was...well...Joxer! There shouldn't be anything more that needed to be said beyond that.
But it was no use. He couldn't get rid of this strange sensation...he wasn't going to call it attraction, and he sure wasn't going to call it what he'd apparently called it last night-"love". The King of Thieves didn't do love. Especially not with goofy, annoying and scrawny guys...not even if they had impressive equipment...and knew how to do things with that body and that equipment... Oh Gods, what am I even thinking?! I can't be having these thoughts. I've got to be going insane!
Either that, or I'm still be under some God's spell, he rationalized, immediately brightening at that thought. That's it, that's what it's got be! I've got to find out who's responsible for this, and what I can do to get rid of it. Get back to my normal, femaleloving self.
There-he could live with himself and these feelings he was still having if he could convince himself it was still the result of one of the Gods mucking about with his brain. All he had to do was find out which one, and what he needed to do to fix things. That should be simple enough.
He believed there was a temple for Cupid no more than a few hours' walk from Arta, for he remembered passing it when he'd first headed into the town several days past. He got back to his feet and started walking, this time with determination, for now he had a plan and an acceptable answer for his strange feelings.
True, there was a little niggling voice in the back of his mind-something to do with his conscience. But he was used to ignoring that voice, even when it wasn't nagging at him as strongly as it was now.
Joxer was really upset when you left, it was saying to him.
"You don't need to remind me," he answered it. "But I can't do anything about that right now."
Yes you can. Just turn around. Apologize. You can deal with the Gods later. They've got plenty of time to kill.
"Because I'll probably end up jumping him again." The truthful answer came faster to Auto than he liked, so he quickened his pace.
And that would be wrong because...
"Just shut up and leave me alone," he tried to silence those doubts. But he wasn't having very much luck with them. "I don't need any Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes ideas about what I should do. So I hurt someone's feelings. Big deal. I've got an image to protect, for Zeus' sake!"
Alone and brooding, he kept walking, and thinking. Arguing with himself, mostly. What was it that was so bad about Joxer anyhow? he found himself wondering at one point, trying to make himself feel better, thinking that maybe Joxer wasn't the worst person in the world to be having these feelings for. What exactly was wrong with him? Besides, of course, his clumsiness and ineptitude with so many seemingly simple tasks. Fighting. Social skills. Walking. His incredibly, unbelievably inflated image of himself. And that god-forsaken pasta-strainer excuse of a helmet.
Okay, so there were a lot of things wrong with Joxer. And those were the things that had popped into his mind without even thinking hard.
But there had to be some things right about him. Otherwise he wouldn't still be alive, considering his aforementioned ineptitude and love of getting into dangerous situations. Xena and Gabrielle seemed to think he was at least useful for something or other, for if not they wouldn't tolerate him hanging around so much. And Auto did realize that that annoying "Joxer the Mighty" persona was a joke that even Joxer himself was aware of-and probably more painfully so than anyone else.
He remembered some of the things they had talked about in the night, those secrets of the soul that new lovers always shared in quiet, reverent voices in the early days of a relationship. The stories Joxer had shared about growing up as the ineffective son of an important warlord, always in his brother Jett's shadow...always bearing the brunt of the derision from every other successfully deviant member of his extended family. How he'd set off on his own finally, hoping to learn the skills of a warrior that had somehow escaped him at home...
"I've tried...I just can't understand why it never seems to work out. Xena and Gabby make it all look so easy, but no matter how hard I try, something always messes things up for me. I'm not even trying to prove anything to my family anymore-I don't want to be a tyrant like my dad, or a ruthless assassin like Jett. I want to do good things. But I'm beginning to think I'm simply not good enough."
"We can't all be like Xena, Jox. All we can do is try to be the best we can, and do the best we can with what we have to work with."
"Well, what about when your best only seems to cause more trouble than if you'd done nothing at all? Maybe I've got so little to work with, it's not even worth trying."
"I see someone here with a lot to work with. A good heart. Loyalty, perseverance. A kind of innocence most of us lost ages ago...I can't remember ever having any, myself...You just have some...rough edges...to work off, that's all."
"...Can you help me?"
"I can certainly try."
Joxer snuggled closer against his body, sighing contentedly. As Autolycus was almost drifting asleep from exhaustion, Joxer jarred him back awake by a sudden questioning, "Auto?"
"You really meant it, when you said you loved me, didn't you."
"I did. I do. I love you, exactly the way you are, Jox. Rough edges and all."
Joxer was quiet again for a long moment, his thumb tracing slow circles on Auto's chest. "I think I'm falling in love with you too, Autolycus. So I just wanted to be sure."
Auto blinked and drew himself out of the memory. His regrets over running this morning grew worse, remembering Joxer's complete trust in him, and his words of devotion, words that had sounded and felt so true when they'd been spoken. His anger at the Gods was taking on a new flavor as he quickened his pace to the temple; as mad as he was at the way he'd been manipulated, he was growing angrier that they could toy with Joxer's fragile mind in a perhaps crueler fashion.
But was that cruelty their fault, or his own?
Or were the Gods out to punish Joxer for something, not him, as he'd originally assumed?
Too many questions, and there were no easy answers.
By the time he reached the temple, Autolycus was growing weary from the nonstop pace he'd set for himself. The fact that he still hadn't eaten anything substantial all day wasn't helping either. But he wasn't going to be able to rest until he knew what was really going on.
"Hello? Um...anybody home?" Okay, that probably wasn't how someone was supposed to go about addressing the Gods, he realized, feeling pretty embarrassed to be here and asking for a God's help to begin with. Autolycus had never been an overly...religious...man, preferring to rely more on his own wits than on prayers to get what he wanted.
"Okay, uh...well, I've brought an offering...wasn't sure what exactly you were into: food, flowers, animal sacrifices...so I just brought a nice stack of dinars, feel free to spend 'em for whatever turns you on..."
"And from whom did you steal those?"
The voice right behind Autolycus startled him, because he had not heard anyone sneak up on him. He turned around and was doubly startled, because it turned out the voice belonged to-
"Cupid! So you are the one whose been messing around with my head. Why?" Though he had never seen the God in person before, he had no doubt who it was. The impressive white wings and the satchel of his famed arrows slung over his broad shoulders were a dead giveaway.
The God didn't look angry-which was a bit of a relief to Auto. Cupid said, "Actually, it's my mother's fault. And I should think the 'why' would be obvious to you. Or did you believe you could steal from one of her temples and get away with it without some form of retribution?"
"What?!" The thief was utterly baffled. "I didn't steal anything from Aphrodite. Do you think the King of Thieves got his title by being dumb enough to actually steal from a God? Well, at least a God as high up as her?"
Cupid looked surprised, and paused to consider Auto's reaction. "My mother's temple outside Preveza was burglarized, and the man responsible left this." The scroll appeared instantly in the God's hand. He held it out for Autolycus to inspect.
The thief mumbled to himself, reading the scroll with a frown. The handwriting was not his, nor did he ever leave such an idiotic calling card at the scenes of his crimes. He never needed to. "This is a joke, right? I didn't write this! Wait a minute..." Autolycus narrowed his eyes as he inspected the markings stamped in wax that had been used to seal the scroll. He recognized that seal..."Beron, you son of a Bacchai..."
"Beron?" Cupid interrupted.
Autolycus shook his head and handed the scroll back to Cupid. "Beron is another thief, from Preveza, right where you said the temple was trashed. He's cheesed at me because he thinks he should have the title of King of Thieves for himself. He probably figured if he could set me up for robbing Aphrodite, it would put me out of commission-and he almost pulled it off, the slimy rat..."
"How do you know it's him?"
"That's his seal, on the scroll. Hey, I have to be up on my competition! So, now that we've figured that out, why don't you go tell your mommy to take her little love spell off me and go harass Beron instead for a while."
"Well, the problem is, she already lifted the spell this morning."
Auto so didn't want to believe that. He knew it was true, somewhere deep inside, but it didn't make it any easier to accept. "But...I, ah...why am I still..."
Cupid stepped closer to Auto and helped him finish his thought, "...feeling like you're in love? You're surprised to find out you enjoyed being with Joxer, even if it was Aphrodite who put you there to begin with?"
"No!" Autolycus answered quickly, but the God held his gaze, patiently waiting for the truth. It was hard to lie to him. I guess Gods have that effect on us mortals. "Okay, maybe...I don't know...I mean, Joxer, he's such a....a....he's Joxer! And he's a man, for Zeus' sake!"
"Yes, he is. But love doesn't care about gender. Love only cares about what the heart sees and feels," Cupid explained gently. "What does your heart tell you?"
"My heart...my heart tells me I'm crazy. Delusional."
Cupid shook his golden-haired head patiently. "That's your mind, trying to rationalize that which cannot be explained. No, your heart..." The God rested a gentle, strong hand on Auto's chest. The touch seemed to spread out warm tendrils through his body, tendrils that dissipated much of the anxiety and fear the thief was feeling. Cupid coaxed, "Listen to it...tell me what it is telling you."
Auto closed his eyes and breathed deep. He tried to do as Cupid suggested, and the results were startlingly clear. "It's telling me, 'Hey, Auto, you just had one really great night with someone. Why are you fighting it so much? So Joxer might be a little weird, but he's not really as bad as everyone thinks he is. Maybe he's...even kind of...cute-in a scrawny, ferret-faced kind of way..."
He opened his eyes to see Cupid grinning at him. Removing his hand, he asked, "Anything else?"
"It's also telling me I was a royal jerk this morning with the way I treated him, because of my own fear. And at the very least I owe him an apology."
Cupid nodded. "I think that would be a very good idea. I don't suppose I have to tell you, last time I checked on him, he wasn't doing particularly well."
Autolycus frowned, picturing all too easily the state Joxer must be in. "Is he in some kind of danger?"
"If not yet, I think he might be soon."
"Damn. I should've...well, no point going down that road now, I should just get moving before this situation gets any worse. But what about Aphrodite? Will she leave me alone now? And Beron?"
"Don't worry about them-I can deal with mother. And I'm sure she'll be more than eager to deal with Beron, if what you've told me is the truth. It is the truth, isn't it?"
"Cross my heart and hope to go to Tartarus."
"I'll take that as a yes. Good luck, Autolycus." And with that, Cupid was gone.
Taking only a brief moment to gather his senses, Auto collected his things (including his money, no need to leave that offering after the fact) and headed back towards the village at a quick pace. His thoughts were filled with worry about what kind of trouble Joxer would be getting himself into before he could come to the rescue...
Finding trouble was something Joxer never had any, well...trouble doing, whether he set his mind to it or not. But especially when he did.
That evening, after having consumed several more pints of the type of ale that was so thick you practically had to chew it, he was feeling damn ready to find some trouble. Something to make him forget about Autolycus, about Gabrielle, and about everything else in his miserable existence. He'd wasted his way through most of the day sulking and nursing his misery alone in the room, but he'd finally grown weary of that, and so he'd stumbled downstairs to find some other diversion. Excessive drink was the first part of his cure for a broken heart. And once the alcohol had convinced him of his prowess as a fearless warrior, a good fight would serve nicely for the second part. Even though he knew he'd probably end up being the one bearing the brunt of the damage inflicted. At this point and this inebriated, he didn't even really care about that any more.
The crowd gathered that evening in the tavern looked promising: rowdy, foulmouthed and even fouler in temperament. It was a typical collection of wandering thugs, brutes, and soldiers-for-hire sitting around their tables, the crowd you might find in any small and seedy watering hole, drinking heavily and getting more dangerous by the moment. The tavern's poor server girls were worked up into a sweat trying to keep the ale flowing at a fast pace to keep the men appeased, but it never seemed fast enough, especially as the men grew more inebriated. It seemed that one poor girl had become the focus of a particularly nasty-looking thug's growing temper.
"I said more ale, ya stupid wench! How many times do I have to tell ya ta bring us more t'drink!"
"Here! Here's your lousy ale," she cried, slamming the tray and the pitchers onto the table. As she turned to run back to the bar, she added angrily, "Lousy stinkin' bastards..."
"Hey! What did you just call me 'n my friends?" He grabbed roughly at her ass, and she promptly spun back around to slap away his hand.
"A bunch of lousy stinkin' bastards! And keep your hands to yourself!" The barmaid had had enough, after being harassed all evening by this particular beefy thug and his cronies. But she didn't expect him to go ballistic on her. She didn't expect him to grab her and knock her hard across the face, sending her flying to the ground.
"Nobody calls me that and gets away with it, stupid bitch!" He looked ready to continue his attack but his friends held him back, trying to draw his attention back to the full mugs on the table instead of the humiliated woman on the floor. It was an effective diversion, and the woman took the opportunity to pick herself up off the ground and scurry back to the relative security that existed behind the bar.
Having observed this attack on the misfortunate woman's honor from a nearby table and seeing that no one else was going to do anything about it, Joxer was ready to spring into action. Well, considering that he was finding it difficult to stand up, let alone walk straight in his current condition, maybe "spring" was not the best word to use. Wobble into action was more like it...
It was past dark when Auto finally made it to the edge of the town. He wasn't sure Joxer would even still be around, but he figured he should be able to track him from here, if necessary.
But it turned out it wasn't, for as he made his way towards the tavern, the logical starting place for his search, he heard a familiar nasal voice proclaiming, loud enough to be heard in the street outside, "I fear you not, you miserable sod-neither you nor your bad breath! Now apologize to that fair maiden, or prepare to feel the fury of my deadly rage! Ha ha!"
"Oh for the love of Zeus..." Auto groaned, rushing forward and charging through the doorway of the tavern. He glanced around, trying to find his friend before he got himself pulverized.
Most of the crowd had backed away from the two men involved in the confrontation so they were easy to find. Autolycus' spirits sank when he saw the size of the brute who was glaring down at Joxer with an expression somewhere between supreme amusement and homicidal rage. The brute had at least a foot on Joxer vertically and several horizontally, and most of it looked to be pure muscle. Either Joxer had developed a death wish, or he was so drunk he had no idea just how formidable his opponent was. Maybe both. Whichever was the case, Auto had to do something quick or else what was left of Joxer would probably fit in that stupid helmet of his within the next few minutes.
"You're gonna wish you were never born, you little weasel, by the time I'm done with you." The brute let out a growl, clenching his meaty fists together and advancing.
Joxer shrugged and raised his own fists in a pale imitation of the thug's stance. "Been there, done that, so quit stallin' and let's get brawlin'..."
"Now now now, fellas, hold on!" Autolycus threw himself in between the two before the first bonecrushing punch could be thrown. "There's no need to resort to violence to resolve this little dispute, now, is there?"
"Yes!" both of the other men answered resolutely.
"No!" Autolycus interjected in desperation. Turning to Joxer, he pleaded, "Joxer, apologize to this fine...gentleman...for what you said to him."
"Never! He is the one who must apologize to her-" Joxer swung his arm in the general direction of the bar, but the motion sent him off-balance and right into Autolycus' arms. With a loopy smile and suddenly forgetting his opponent, he slurred, "Oh, hello. Do I know you? You look awfully familiarrrr... hiccup!"
"Hey!" the thug interrupted. "I was about to clobber the puny jerk. Or do you wanna piece of the action too?" he threatened. "I'll take on both of ya in a heartbeat."
Autolycus laughed nervously. "Oh no, not me. I know when I'm outclassed. Listen, I'm sorry to take away your punching bag, but, ahhh..." Shit, I don't believe I'm about to do this, but I don't see any other way to save both our hides right now... Using one arm to keep Joxer mostly on his feet, Auto used his free hand to remove his money pouch from his belt-the pouch containing what remained of his take from the Verascon job-and tossed it to the brute. "Let's say you take what's there, I'll take the puny jerk, and we'll and call it a fair trade, okay?"
The thug opened the pouch with a frown, which quickly dissipated to a greedy smile as he realized what was inside. And how much. Money that could buy him all the puny jerks he could want to pulverize. Auto wanted to cry just thinking about it. With a shrug, the brute pocketed the pouch and announced, "He's yours, though Gods only know what you want with 'im. Just try to keep that fat mouth a'his shut, or next time he can wrap it around this," and he held out one of his very impressive fists once again as a final warning.
"A pleasure doing business with you," Autolycus muttered, heading with Joxer towards the door with Joxer in tow. It was definitely time they moved on from the immediate area, before the big slugger had a change of heart. "C'mon, Mister Mighty, it's time to say goodnight," Auto coaxed the wobbly and totally sloshed warrior as they stumbled down the road, heading back towards the woods.
"Yerr a rreal ssswell guy...whoeverr you arrrre," Joxer slurred, the adrenaline running out and the alcohol settling in. "Wherr'rre we going?"
"Somewhere you can sober up and get some rest, and I can figure out why in the world I just spent all my money saving your ass."
"...I could have beaten 'im. 'E wassunt that tuff. I would've...would've...uhoh...uuuuuh...!"
Joxer's stomach had apparently called it a night. Auto turned away with a grimace and, while waiting for the warrior to finish "painting the town" so to speak, decided that it had to be love. Nothing else could put him through this much misery.
Joxer awoke from a foggy sleep, which had been filled with disturbing dreams, and groaned miserably. He felt as if he'd gone twelve rounds with Xena and then had Gabrielle finish him off with a couple good whacks of her stick to his head, just for good measure. His brain felt ready to ooze out of his skull through his nostrils. He wanted to throw up, but his stomach warned him that it had already purged itself quite thoroughly and to not to even think about solid food at the moment. The rest of his body was not doing much better.
Cautiously, almost afraid to see where he might have ended up after the previous night's drunken stupor (which thankfully he only barely remembered), he opened his eyes. Trees. A forest. The sun was already high in the sky, therefore it was late morning at least. He was wearing only his underwear and a loose blouse and was lying on a thin blanket on the grassy, dew-wet ground.
And Autolycus was lying there right next to him, watching him.
Joxer blinked several times, believing that he must be hallucinating.
Nope. Auto was still there, and smiling at him, no less.
Joxer gulped and tried to fight down his first reaction, which was to return the smile and allow himself to believe that for some reason, Auto's affections for him might actually have been real after all. Trying instead to put on an indifferent face, he asked coolly, "What...what are you doing here?"
With a cocked eyebrow, Auto answered, "Well, last night I found you totally trashed and ready to take on some brute the size of a small castle. I managed to talk him out of trampling you into the dirt-well, bribed him was more like it-and dragged you out here to make sure we were clear of any trouble. Though we had to make several pit stops so you could...ah...well, let's just say most of your clothes are airing out right now, so I don't think you'll be going anywhere for a while unless you want to show off those charming shorts of yours to the world at large. You don't handle alcohol very well, you know."
"You didn't answer me. What are you doing here?" Joxer was not in the mood for playing roundabout games with Autolycus, not with the mother of all hangovers and the pain of rejection that was still too close to the surface of his thoughts.
"Uh, yeah. There's that. I...um..." Autolycus paused, looking uncomfortable, then just started laughing and shaking his head. "You know what, Joxer? I don't know what I'm doing here. I ran away scared...scared and mad as Ares at being manipulated...I had to sort out a lot of things, find out what happened and why." He quickly explained what he'd learned from Cupid about what Aphrodite had done, though he left out the little heart-to-heart with Cupid that had followed this revelation. "But you know, even before I knew what happened, even though I didn't want to accept it...I still...I couldn't stop thinking about you," his voice had dropped to barely above a whisper before he added, "...and wanting to be with you again."
Joxer rolled away, unable to look at him, unable to believe the words he was hearing. "The joke's over, Autolycus. Haven't you all had enough fun at my expense already?"
"I'm not joking. I...I'm telling you, I don't understand it, but I know it's not the Gods this time. Something...we connected...in a way that no trick of the Gods can take away. If there's anyone here who can barely believe it, it's me. Trust me on that. I want the chance to prove that it's for real. Prove it to myself, and especially...to you." Joxer felt a hand rest tentatively on his shoulder. He tried not to let it get to him, nor Auto's sincere sounding plea, "I'm sorry I hurt you before. I'd do anything to prove to you I mean that."
Joxer didn't respond, didn't move, not for a very long time. He wanted so much to believe Auto was telling him the truth...yet pain and too many doubts were holding him back. He didn't want to get burned again.
But if there were a chance...just a chance for what he'd wanted for so very long...
He finally rolled back around to face Auto, staring into the other man's eyes, searching them for the truth. Gods, he was beautiful to look at. You could barely ask for a more wonderfully handsome man. Joxer would've done anything for looks like that, looks that made women swoon...and was making him stiff with yearning. What in the world could Auto possibly see in him-a skinny, funny-looking, clumsy failure of a warrior? He couldn't fathom it. He remembered well all the reasons Auto had told him the other night about why he loved him, but what if any of that had been real? His brain, especially in its current befuddled condition, couldn't figure out what to do or say next.
When the silence lingered, with Joxer unable to find any words, Auto took a chance and leaned down for a tentative kiss. Joxer reeled at the touch, the remembered taste of those lips, the gentle but so erotic way Auto's full mustache teased his nose and upper lip... This is agony, Joxer moaned to himself. The worst kind of torture. I want to be strong, to resist... but I want him and I want this too badly...
Auto pulled back after a moment, concern evident in his gaze. But no disgust, not like Joxer had seen on his face that morning. That was something, at least, to give him hope. Joxer asked him, continuing to test his professions of desire, "So...was that still good for you?"
Unwavering in returning Joxer's gaze, Auto answered seriously, "Oh yeah. Frighteningly so."
"I want to believe you." Joxer reached up to caress Auto's cheek, unable to resist touching him any longer. The feel of rough stubble on his fingers was so good...In some odd way, being with a man like this made Joxer feel stronger, strangely more sure of himself, as if it was an affirmation of who he was, his masculinity. That he had the power to make another man tremble, the way Auto was trembling now as his fingers danced lightly against his skin.
Auto turned his head so his mouth brushed against those fingers, the sensation making Joxer shiver this time. Joxer ran one finger along Auto's lips, tracing their contours, until the thief smiled devilishly at him, and used those lips to trap his exploring finger. He nibbled on it gently with his teeth, and it was too much for Joxer to take; his resolve to resist was gone long before Auto released the finger and said softy, "Give me a chance to prove it to you. No running away this time, I promise. There's nothing I want more right now than to be here, with you."
As far as Joxer was concerned, that was good enough. Sliding his hand gently away from Auto's lips to his neck, he urged the thief's head back towards his own. The warmth of his mouth and the musky aroma of Autolycus' body filled his senses, casting all other thoughts from his mind. Well, except for just a tad of modesty, when he found Auto's hands sliding down his chest towards his waist. "Out here, in the open like this?"
"Why not..." Auto purred, not halting his efforts to free Joxer of what remained of his clothing. "I can't wait until we can make it to the next village. Besides, we're a good hike away from the main road, so who on Earth could be watching us anyway..."
Aphrodite and Cupid watched with amusement, not far from where the two men lay, blissfully ignorant of the world around them. "Check it out, mom. True love," Cupid sighed. "I must admit, you did something very cool here with these two without even planning on it. Or did you?"
"Eh!" The Goddess was not as impressed. "I give it a week before Auto goes berzerk from hearing Joxer sing that stupid song of his ad nauseum. Are you sure you didn't muck around and do your gooey lovey-dovey arrow-thingy on Autolycus while I wasn't watching?" she challenged.
Cupid simply gave an enigmatic smile that many centuries later might have been likened to that of the Mona Lisa. "And what if I did?"
"I'd say you have a really perverse sense of humor, kiddo. C'mon, I've got a real thief to take care of. Let's leave these two alone to their...business..."
'Dite left in a quick golden flash and a flurry of petals, but Cupid stayed for a moment longer, watching, that grin still trapped between his cherubic cheeks. He cast a quick spell on the surrounding forest to ensure that the two men would not be disturbed by any stray wanderers or hunters for the rest of the day. They deserved some quality time alone. "Love does conquer all," he said to himself, adding with a chuckle, "even revenge-and even my mother," before disappearing as well.
Joxer lifted his head, glancing around anxiously. He sniffed and he could've sworn the air smelled faintly of rose and sweet hyacinth. "Did you just hear something?"
Auto merely shrugged and pulled Joxer back down against his body. Where he belonged. Why he was so sure of that was something he'd worry about some other day. "It couldn't have been anything important."