Joxer saw the messenger coming before the two women did, and he nudged Xena.
"What, Joxer?" she sighed.
"Rider," he noted, pointing.
Xena looked up at the fast approaching rider and grabbed her sword, standing up to meet him. "Where are you going in such a hurry," she said, sounding friendly.
"I have a message for Lord Joxer," he panted, swinging down and walking over to fall to his knees beside Joxer's still form. "Your father was killed, Lord Joxer. You and your brothers are to come home at once to settle an old family matter." He glanced at Xena. "I was told to tell you to come alone."
"We're going with him," Gabrielle said, looking at Xena, who nodded. "We're going too. You can tell whomever that we'll be there in a few days."
"There's a shortcut to my family's lands," Joxer said quietly. "I'll be there in two days. Have you freed Jett yet?" The warrior, for that's what he was, one of the minor warriors that had been training under Joxer's father, shook, his head. "Why not?"
"Someone else has gone for him, my Lord." He stood up. "Two days?"
"Three at the latest," Joxer agreed, patting him on the shoulder. "Go tell my family I will be there. Have you seen Jace yet?"
"Another was sent to get him," he said with a light blush.
Joxer smiled. "Many men have that same look when they talk about him." He nodded at the warrior's horse. "Rest him on the way back before he drops." The warrior nodded and pulled the horse's reins over its head, leading it away at a sedate walk. "I've got to go home, guys. And no, you're not coming, Gabrielle." He looked at Xena, who was giving him a wary look. "This is a family matter and I'm going alone." He picked up his pack and started off into the woods, taking a shortcut few outside his father's warriors knew. Once he was out of ear shot, he sighed and shook his head. "This is a disaster, I don't want to do this," he mumbled, trudging on.
Xena looked at Gabrielle. "We should respect his wishes."
"No, we should be there for him," Gabrielle noted, standing up. "We are following him, right?"
"No, we'll wait until daybreak," Xena said, putting her sword away and sitting back down in front of the fire. "Joxer needs some time alone and he'll have to stop soon too. We've been walking all day and he's just as tired as we are."
Gabrielle nodded at her wisdom and sat back down too, flipping over the leaf-wrapped packages of meat that was their dinner.
It was the day he should reach his house, and Joxer was tired. He was sore. And he was scared. Inside that house, the one where he had been raised, was a secret that no one outside the family knew about. Even some of the higher warlords under his father never knew about his secret. They would have to soon though, the reason he had been called home was to fight for control over the family's warriors. Joxer stopped long enough to take off his ridiculous armor, stuffing it in an old, dead tree he used to hide things in as a child.
"I see some things never change," a deep, cheerful voice said from behind him. "You're still using that tree to hide your prized collection of junk."
Joxer smiled at the man standing there, shaking his head. "Not often. At least for me things never seem to change." He straightened up, the branches he had pulled over to cover the opening satisfactory to him. "Melarnis, how have you been?" he asked, holding out a hand. He was pulled into a fierce hug. "Thanks," he squeaked.
The old warrior laughed, clapping him on the back before letting him go. "Joxer. We missed you around the camps." He glanced around. "The women?"
"Are probably about a day behind me," he admitted. "I couldn't stop them from coming but I left before they did."
Melarnis nodded wisely. "Women like Xena never do what you want them to. That's what makes them such good warriors, but lousy to have under your command." He sighed. "Oh, well, we'll deal with them when they get here." He put an arm around Joxer's shoulders. "Listen, I know you don't want to hear this, but no one blames you for Xena putting your father and brother in jail."
"I do," Joxer said quietly, not looking at his old arms teacher. "I considered it a personal insult to my family, but I couldn't say anything or they'd find out...." He swallowed. "I don't want it," he said, stopping to look at the old man. "I don't want control of the army or of the house."
"That's not why you're fighting," Melarnis told him seriously. "You're going to pick who you want to lead and then fight for him. Your brothers will do the same since they don't want to control it either." Joxer looked grim. "It's the only way, Joxer. There's three heirs and it's the only way to solve this fairly."
"Why can't the minor Warlords solve this?"
"Because your father's last request was that you three decide on who was going to take over for him." He smiled lightly. "You would have appreciated the irony of his death, lad. He died trying to take on bandits who were attacking while your father was out whoring."
Joxer snorted. "Yeah, that was all he was good for these last few years." He nodded at the more obvious trail. "We should get back there."
"Yes, you should," Melarnis said quietly, watching him walk away. "And may your sword fit you still," he prayed.
"I'm not using it!" Joxer yelled back. He turned to look at his former teacher. "And if I see it, I'm tossing it into the first fire I see. If I can't beat them by myself, then I won't win." He turned and started off toward the house again.
Melarnis shook his head. "Boy, you're not going to be able to do that, not this time." He shifted back to another form, becoming Ares, God of War. "You won't win and Jace will never pick a decent Warlord after you're dead." He disappeared, knowing that the nosy women behind him had heard him.
Xena looked at Gabrielle, who was wiping some of the sweat off her stomach. Gabrielle looked back, looking scared. "He'll be fine, right, Xena?" she asked. "It's not going to be a fight to the death, right?"
"It shouldn't be, but each Warlord has a different way of picking successors. I don't know how Joxer's father did it." She shook off her worries and started walking again, determined to get to Joxer before nightfall. He would need their advice.
Ares reappeared after the women were out of sight and started to laugh. "I'll get you to hold that sword yet, Joxer," he vowed. He decided to go watch the evening's festivities. A good party the night before a battle was always a happy place to be for a warrior.
Joxer walked into the camp as the sun fell, almost smirking when he saw the amused looks.
"I thought it was your brother that made the grand entrances," a young man yelled out from next to the forge.
Joxer shrugged as he walked over to him. "Sometimes the fates have perfect timing." He smiled and clasped hands with the warrior. "Hilorn, I see you're still wasting your talents on swords."
The blacksmith/warrior laughed. "True, there's not much call for delicate work around here. Except for on the blades."
Joxer smiled. "Yeah, I remember." He glanced around at the warriors who were staring at them. "So, are my brothers here yet?"
"They arrived earlier today. We sent a carriage for them." He looked this young man over. "I can get you your sword and...." he started but Joxer shook his head.
"I'm not touching the cursed thing," he said firmly but quietly. "I vowed never to wield it again and I won't. Especially not against my brothers." He looked around, waving at the warriors who were standing around. "Isn't tonight a party?" he shouted.
The warriors grumbled as they walked back to their final tasks before they could celebrate the upcoming fight.
Hilorn shook his head. "You just gave them cause to worry, my boy. You have the best sense of who should lead of you three. If you don't get to chose the next Warlord, the army may well turn against your brothers."
Joxer nodded. "I know. I'm going to see if I can't solve this sooner, before I have to fight Jett."
"They fight each other first, they're more rested. You get the second battle against the loser. Or the winner if there isn't a loser to fight."
Joxer didn't say anything, he just walked away, going up to the house. "I'm here," he called out as he walked through the door. He ducked as Jace came running toward him, getting out of her way. "Those heels must kill you to run in," he said with a smile.
Jace grinned and pulled him into a hug. "You're fine," she whispered. "I want it to be you. You would pick the best one." He pulled back, batting his heavily made up eyes at his brother. "Where are those *women* you travel with?" he asked delicately, glancing around.
"They should be here any time now," Joxer said, leading his brother into the house and toward the kitchen. "Jett," he said calmly as they found the assassin eating at the table.
Jett smiled at him between bites. "Finally made it?"
"I was on the road to Corinth when the messenger found us." He sat down across from his brother, wary about how this most dangerous man was going to treat him. "Do you really want to do this?"
Jett shrugged one shoulder. "It was Father's will." He scraped his bowl with a piece of bread and looked at Jace. "I see you found her too."
"Yeah, she met me at the door." Joxer looked between them. "I know this is going to be hard, but I don't want to do this. Why can't we just sit down and decide who it's going to be?"
"Because Father wanted us to kill each other," Jace sighed dramatically. "He always did."
"Only you," Jett snorted. He looked at his brother. "Someone has *your* sword if you want it," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
"I told you I'd never touch that blade again," Joxer said quietly, his voice like ice. "I refuse to use a blade that will take control of me. If I can't fight on my own, then I won't fight."
Jett looked startled. "You're still pissed at Father for that? You were the one Ares gave the blade to."
"Yes, but because of it, I never learned how to fight," Joxer pointed out, easing up some. "If I had been allowed to learn like you and Jace did, I might be something more than useless now in a fight."
"You're not useless," Jace said, patting him on the hand. "I've seen you fight. For someone who never had skills of their own, you do a mean impersonation of a club-wielding man."
Joxer pulled his hands away. "I wanted to be a real warrior, not a token body for the sword to wield." He stood up. "I'm going upstairs, come get me when Xena and Gabby show up. If they're not put in chains as soon as they walk in." He saw Jett's cold look. "I was traveling with them when the messenger found us. I tried, but you know how they are," he reminded his brothers as he walked away, going up to his room. He walked in and stopped, looking at the clothes laying on his bed. "I didn't need new clothes," he called out, sure one of the servants was around on the second floor somewhere. "I have my own."
"Sir, we were told to give you something *decent* to wear," a servant said from the hallway. "At least until everything of yours was cleaned."
Joxer shook his head and closed the door. "I'll leave everything that needs it in the bathroom." He walked over to sit on his chair, looking out the window at the encampment. He looked at the bed as a very heavy, very pretty sword appeared on the bed, going back to watching the party going on outside while his mind went back to when he had gotten the sword.
Joxer looked up as his father walked in the barn, standing up to show him respect. "Am I supposed to be at practice?" he asked, looking around at the tack he was cleaning. It was his chore for the day to soap and clean the horse's gear because the army was leaving in a few days and all the leather needed to be in top shape.
"No," he said, looking like he had tasted something bad. "This appeared on the table for you after you had left." He tossed over a long, fabric wrapped bundle.
Joxer unwrapped the sword, his mouth opening when he saw the carvings on the blade. "Father?" he squeaked, then grimaced. He hated being thirteen.
His father nodded. "It doesn't make sense to us either, but Ares has chosen you wield that weapon, boy." He pointed at it. "I want you to wear it to practice this afternoon. There's something funny about that sword." He turned and walked away, letting Joxer get back to his chores.
Joxer sat on the upturned bucket, gently stroking his hand down the sword. His thumb was nicked on the blade and he sucked on it, pulling up a corner of his shirt to wipe it off. But the blood was gone. It had soaked into the blade. He carefully put the blade down, stepping back from it. As his fear started to grow, so did a pressure in his mind. "Father!" he screamed as he passed out.
When he woke, there was a High Priest of Ares standing over him, staring down at him. "What happened?" he asked, trying to sit up. The priest pushed him back down, giving him a smile.
"Ares has chosen you to wield a blade that will help you in all fights. You must have a very special destiny, young man." He looked over his shoulder, nodding for the door guard to let the Warlord in. "He's been chosen for something extraordinary, that blade is a magnificent piece of Hephaestus' work with a soul trapped in it. Your son must have a brilliant destiny for Ares to have gifted an untried boy with it."
Joxer's father didn't look happy, but he nodded. "Thank you. Boy, you've got chores. We'll test the blade out later." He walked out, waving for the guards to follow him.
The priest bent down to kiss Joxer on the forehead, right over where the pain was. "You will never be alone again," he promised quietly. "That blade will always protect you, and you will always win as long as you are holding it." He pulled his hood up and walked out of the boy's bedroom.
Joxer sat up and looked at the sword that had been placed beside him on the bed. "Okay," he said with a shrug. He was sure someone would tell him what was really going on soon enough. He got up and went back to his chores. It wasn't a good thing to make Father mad.
Joxer was pulled from his remembrances by a knock at his door. "What?" he called.
Jace walked in with a tray, giving him a faint smile. He stopped when he saw the sword on the bed, looking at his brother.
"It appeared," Joxer said, putting his feet back on the floor so the table could hold the tray. "Thanks." He pointed at the other chair. "Want to eat with me?"
"No, I ate with the pig. How does he stay so thin?" he complained, his voice going up an octave again. "Girls like me have to always watch their figures."
Joxer shrugged. "I have no idea. I walk all my food off. Why I don't get more muscular is the question I want an answer to." He took a piece of the cheese and pressed it into the bread before taking a bite. "So, how's what his name? Raul?"
"He's fine," Jace said with a slight smile. "He's doing my show for me right now. He's such a pretty girl when he takes his time." She leaned forward and touched a new scar on her brother's cheek. "Joxer, I understand why you said what you did, and I'm glad I got your letter."
He looked embarrassed. "I have no right to judge you, Jace. You are what you are, even if I don't understand. Even if I can't approve because I don't understand." He gave her a hesitant smile. "Are we okay again?"
"We're very okay, sweetie," she said, giving him her most brilliant smile. "Now then, who do *you* like for the Warlord position?"
"I'm not sure yet. I was going to sneak out tonight and talk to a few of the warriors I knew, ask them who they respected and who they thought should get the job. I'll pick the best one among them."
Jace leaned back, relaxed again. "I prayed for guidance, and all I know is that I keep seeing this young, *gorgeous* stud of a leader around the camp."
Joxer shook his head, but he was smiling. "You have to pick someone the warriors would follow," he reminded his brother. "If not, they'll just kill him and settle it themselves."
She nodded, looking thoughtful. "He's a young leader, but I'm not sure how high up the food chain he is."
"We'll have time tomorrow, before the battles," Jett said from the doorway. "We can pull people up to talk to them." He looked at Joxer. "They're here. They're free too, I had word sent along that they're nuisances but that they think they're protecting you."
"Put them in Mom's room," Jace suggested. "It's got the better bathtub and I'm *sure* those two could use it after so long on the road."
Jett grimaced. "True, they do smell worse than I did when I got out of prison." He looked at Joxer, then at the sword. "Not using it?" he asked snidely.
"It appeared, it doesn't mean I'm using it," Joxer said quietly, staring directly into his eyes. He knew how much it bothered his brother. "I'm not a pawn to any weapon, not even a godly one," he said slowly and clearly. Jett walked away, leaving them alone.
"Was it really that bad?" Jace asked quietly.
"Yes, it was," Joxer said, getting up to close the door, leaning against it once it was closed. "I'd get into a fight and lose consciousness, just like passing out. Then I'd wake up after it was all over with and there'd be a body at my feet." He shuddered then walked back over to his seat, pushing his food out of the way. "It was like the sword only wanted my body. I never learned to fight because of that thing." He flung an arm out, pointing at it. "I never learned how to fight, and now I'm a liability to everyone."
"But Ares gave it to you for a reason, sweetie," Jace reminded him as he stood up. "I'll let you eat in peace. I'll even go take care of those *friends* of yours," he said with a smile as he left his brother alone.
Joxer leaned back and stared at the sword, hoping to melt it with the heat of his glare and his hate.
Joxer faced off with his father's arms teacher, holding his new sword the best he could. He could feel something flowing through his mind again, and not sure what it was, he tried to drop the sword. It wouldn't leave his hand. Suddenly, the world went black. The sword had taken him over!
When he came back, he was lying on his back again, looking up at the bright sun and his father's displeased face. "I ... What did I do?" he asked quietly, standing up as soon as the world quit spinning.
"Your new sword took control," Joxer's father said grimly, pointing at the chunks of body lying on the ground in a large puddle of blood. "Can you give it to me now? I saw you try to drop it earlier."
Joxer was amazed, his father actually looked concerned. He handed the sword over without a problem. "This all started when I nicked myself on the blade." He held up his thumb to show the hair-wide split on it. "That's when I passed out." He turned away from the body, not wanting to look at it anymore. "Father, I passed out again, didn't I?" he said quietly.
Joxer's father nodded. "Yes, you did," he said, handing the sword back. "I want you to learn with a regular sword, as much as possible."
Joxer jerked as the sword came up. "Help!" he cried, trying to get it to go back down; he didn't want to threaten his father.
"Get me that priest!" Joxer's father yelled, backing away from his son. "Go to your room!" he shouted at his son. "Take the cursed blade with you!"
"You called, Janus?" Ares said with an amused tone as he appeared. He looked at Joxer, then at the sword. "Good, you got it," he said, smirking at the young boy. "That should take care of any problems you might have about killing anyone." He looked at his most faithful Warlord. "What's wrong, Janus?" he said, talking down to the man. "Did the boy scare you?"
"It's taking me over," Joxer said quietly, holding the sword out to the God who would be his on his next birthday. "It killed with my body, but I had no control over it."
"As you get older and more accustomed to it, you'll be more in control of it," Ares told him. He gave a pointed look at the body, then at the boy. "Maybe you should stick with sparring for right now though. You should be able to explain to the blade that you need to practice and not kill."
Joxer started to hyperventilate. "I can't do that!" he said, panicking. It was the sword, sending him mental images of him being hung or burned for killing the innocent arms trainer. "I pass out, it takes over! You have to take it back, Ares! I can't do this!"
Janus cuffed his son hard, sending him to the ground. "He's just a boy," he explained. "But I did see it. And when I suggested that he use another sword to practice with...." He had to duck as Joxer came up and tried to run him through. "See!" he demanded. "It's not him, it's the sword. You'll ruin him as a warrior."
Ares sighed and laid a hand on Joxer's head, bringing him back. "As he ages, he'll have better control," he reminded the Warlord. "I sent it early in case he needed it during your next war, but he shouldn't be training with it until he's got the will to control the sword instead of the blade doing so to him." He disappeared and Joxer fell back down.
Jett and Jace walked out into the ring and picked their brother up, blatantly leaving the sword there under their Father's direction.
Joxer jerked as his door opened, giving the servant that was walking in a slight smile. "Sorry, I must have fallen asleep."
"I'm here to take your clothes down to be washed and mended," she said quietly, staring at the floor.
"They're in the bathroom," he said kindly, watching as she hobbled that way and came back with everything he owned. "Watch out for the green shirt, it's got a pin in it somewhere," he warned her.
"Yes, sir, I will, sir," she said, closing the door behind her.
Joxer shook himself out of his remembrances again and stood up. He had more important things to do tonight than remembering tragedies. He had to pick a Warlord to champion for. He pulled on a bright colored vest and went down to join the party, finding one of the Generals immediately outside the house's door. "Hi, Carlis. Would you talk with me? There's too many new warriors for me to know who to pick."
The General slapped him on the back and led the way to a tent, one of the larger ones. "Sit," he ordered, pointing at a pillow. "You still reek of the road, boy. Didn't you clean up yet?"
"I almost ate," Joxer admitted. He looked up at the man who had been with his father since they had been boys. "Who did he want?" he asked quietly.
"He would have liked a few of them, but he never gave me a definite answer." Carlis sat down across from him, sipping at his beer. "You don't want to know who did it?"
"I figure he's been taken care of," Joxer said calmly. That was how things worked in his father's army. Things got taken care of because they needed to be. You never questioned why.
"Aye, it has," the General agreed with a vicious smile. "It was taken care of that night." He looked the boy over. "Who do you favor?"
"I haven't kept track," Joxer admitted. "Last I heard, Melarnis was about to retire. So it shocked me when he met me on the way in."
Carlis gave him a strange look. "Only if he did it in ghost form," he said gently. "He died during the last fever, this spring sometime." He watched as the boy's face grew hard. "You knew that Ares was going to come for you some day," he reminded his former student.
"I serve him now as best I can," Joxer argued. "If I had been allowed to learn how to fight, I would better serve him, but I do the best I can." He stood up and started to pace. "Carlis, this is hard for me. I had put all this behind me when I figured out I couldn't fight without that sword. If only I had been allowed to learn, back when I could still learn."
"Have you tried recently?" the General asked quietly.
Joxer stopped to look at him. "I've had Xena try to teach me a few times. She couldn't. She never understood why I can't even hold a sword properly, but I know it was that cursed item Ares gave me." He ran his fingers through his hair then sat back down. "Carlis, tell me what I have to do. I don't want to kill my brothers. I refuse to kill my brothers, no matter how happy that might make Xena, I can't do it." He glanced around the tent. "And I still can't fight. I won't be able to win against Jace."
Carlis sighed and reached over to tap Joxer on the forehead. "Boy, you've got a God on your side. Go ask him for his help. We've still got the temple here and you know what sort of offering will make him come running for you." He smiled at the young man. "As for beating one of them, I'd be more worried about Jett. He's not too happy with you right now."
Joxer nodded. "Yeah, but Jace is faster. He may not look like it, but he's got moves no one's ever seen before and he *can* fight." He looked at his old teacher. "Do you think he'd actually listen this time?" he asked quietly. "He never has before. It's always been an insult to him that I wouldn't pick up that sword and prove my mastery over it, even though I can't."
"Go talk to Ares and ask for his help," Carlis said again. "He's the only one who would be able to help you now."
Joxer nodded and reached over, squeezing the old man's shoulders. "Who should I promote?"
"Give Redfinis a try. Sure, he's not Greek, but most of the boys like him well enough. Everyone's got their flaws, but the only one better is too young to be followed."
"Is that the guy that Jace likes?"
Carlis smiled. "Yup. He's had his eye on her too." He winked. "Now, go get cleaned up and go to the temple. You'll need your sleep."
Joxer nodded and stood up, leaving the tent.
Carlis looked up at the roof and sighed. "I told him," he said quietly. "Maybe it'll work this time."
Ares appeared beside the old General, giving him a smile. "It will. If he uses it this time, he'll want to control it enough for it to happen." He glanced around. "Redfinis and Coreson?"
"Most of the men would go to Tartarus for Redfinis," he told the God of War. "Coreson's a bright lad, but he's too young. He'd make an excellent second in command." He stood up with a grunt. "He's still got to pick someone for my job when I retire after the battle. Coreson would do good as a second in my job too. Already got the planning skills."
Ares considered it. "I'd really like to see Arul win. He might be an outsider, and the men don't like him, but they tend to respect his skills."
"True," Carlis said with a smile, "but respect will get you killed by someone wanting your job. The men being willing to follow you to Tartarus and back will keep you alive because the boys will kill the guy who doesn't like you."
Ares laughed. "True," he agreed. "How about this? Redfinis and Arul for the General's positions, with Coreson as a second in command to them, and ..." He thought about the other warriors he knew, then nodded slowly. "Hamer for the Warlord?"
Carlis considered it then nodded slowly. "That would work. The two Generals would hold Hamer's mad plans at bay long enough to fight, but they'd give Hamer the freedom to think up the impossible just to see if it would work."
Ares clapped the General on the back. "I'll miss you, Carlis. You've always been an amusement to me. The way you treat those new boys just gets me right here." He thumped himself on the chest. "I'd better go wait on Joxer." He looked toward the house and flicked a finger that way. "He'll come down after he wakes up." He disappeared, his usual flashiness muted.
Carlis sat back down again, grunting at the pain in his knees. "Maybe I'll take up gardening," he mused. "Fighting weeds might be close enough to fighting men."
Joxer stared at the front of the temple of Ares, the wrapped sword heavy in his hands as he considered his past with this place. How many times had he run into here to beg Ares to take the sword back and let him be a normal warrior? Joxer chuckled mirthlessly. "Too many," he reminded himself.
Joxer tossed the magnificent sword onto the altar and looked at the man that had appeared in the throne. "Ares, I can't have that. It's already ruined me as a warrior. I can't fight with a normal weapon anymore."
"So you're going to give back a present from the Gods?" Ares asked lightly. "Who do you think you are to say such things to your God, Joxer?"
"I think I'm the person who can never serve you if you don't take this burden from me," he said hotly. "If I can't fight, then I'm no good to you, Ares. I'll be a useless warrior who's only praying to you to stay out of the fight. I wouldn't do the sword or you justice."
Ares waved a hand and the sword appeared on Joxer's belt. "It's yours. You can fight with other weapons, if you want it enough," he said, raising a finger to stop the argument. "All you have to do is accept that it's a part of you now, Joxer, and you'll be able to control it." He stood up and walked down the few stairs to look at the young warrior. "You can, and you will if you want to serve me."
"Then test me with another weapon," Joxer challenged. "None of the arms masters can teach me a thing. My balance is off now, even the most basic of principles, things I had learned as soon as I could walk, are no longer something I can do. And it's all because of this sword." He drew it and tossed it back on the altar. "Take it back, Ares, *please*? I'll serve you in whatever way you want, but I won't carry that thing."
"You're refusing your destiny and the gift I gave you?" Ares asked calmly, looking the warrior over. "You still have time before you become useless to me."
"I'm already useless to you! Haven't you been listening!" Joxer yelled, throwing up his arms to prove his point. "I can't even walk right now, not without tripping. The damned sword has ruined me, Ares! I'll never be a warrior and it's all because of that cursed blade!"
Ares shook his head and went back to his throne. When he turned around, he and his sword were alone in the temple. He looked at it. "I know you wanted a wielder, but if he can't serve me then he's of no use to anyone," he reminded the soul stuck in the sword. "You might want to fix that before he's sent away." The sword disappeared, but came back a few seconds later. "Couldn't do it, huh?" he asked it grimly.
Joxer shook himself and walked up the stairs, putting the sword on the altar once again. "Ares," he said quietly. "I tried to tell you how bad the sword was for me, and now you've seen for yourself. But I have to fight tomorrow and I still refuse to wield this blade against my brothers. I will not kill them for any reason. Not even for your glory." He turned to the darkly handsome man that had appeared in the throne. "I tried to tell you, Ares, but you never listened. And now you've seen how badly I fight. Not even *Xena* could cure my balance problem." He took a deep breath before walking over to stand in front of the throne. "Listen, I'll do your bidding. I'll even pick who you want me to, but I can't win that fight and not kill them. If I use the sword, then everyone around will die." He looked at the floor. "I know it will happen. Xena will see what's going on and jump down to stop me. I...the sword will kill her first, and then Gabby as she comes down to help Xena. Then, because I killed two women, the rest of the warrior's corp will come for me and I'll end up killing a great many of them before I'm finally taken out by an archer." He looked up. "Choose, Ares. Do you want me to use the sword and destroy everything and everyone that I've ever cared for, or would you be willing to help me win so I can name whomever you want to the leadership?"
Ares chuckled. "You're still a cocky little boy, Joxer. That's why I like you." He leaned forward. "I'll tell you one last time, Joxer. You can control the sword, if you want it bad enough. Your desire to keep your brothers living is pleasing to me, but you'll have to fight with the sword over it."
Joxer stepped away from him and shook his head. "Then I walk into the circle without a weapon this afternoon." He bowed to Ares. "Please, next time give the weapon to an experienced fighter. Maybe they'll be able to handle it and not let it ruin them for your service." He walked out, heading back to his room.
Ares waited for Xena, who had been waiting outside. "So, you heard?" he asked jovially.
"I did. Is he right? Was it the sword that made sure he'd never be able to fight without it?"
Ares shrugged. "Somehow the sword took part of him in and now he's stuck. It doesn't want him to use another blade, not that I blame it, so it's messed him up somehow." Ares waved a hand in the air, leaving light trails. "I have no idea what's going on between them."
"He's not strong enough to fight it," Xena said quietly. "He's doesn't have the will that's needed. Almost no mortals do." He stared at her in shock. "Ares, read the boy. You're his God, you can do that. Whatever you saw in him as a boy isn't there now. He's lost his blood innocence with another blade and he's never been strong enough to stand against a dark power." She looked her former lover and commander over. "Ares, you've given it to the wrong person. Jett may have been able to handle it. Jace may have even been able to handle it, but Joxer's too nice for his own good. He's too *good* for his own good. He's right, everyone around here will die tomorrow if you force him to use the blade." She turned and walked away.
Ares considered her words. He hadn't had a peek into Joxer's mind recently. Maybe he should look, just to see what the sword had done to the once-promising warrior. He concentrated on the young man and winced as he felt the chaos of his mind. He shook his head and tried to straighten it out, but it started to grow worse. Ares left the fragile mortal mind and looked at his sword, his alternate power source. "You really have messed him up, haven't you?" he said glumly. "I'll have to fix that." The sword quivered. "If you would let him win tomorrow, and just guide him, then he might take you with him instead of putting you back into the cabinet." The sword disappeared, going to find its slave. "No, this is not good," Ares said, disappearing into the ether.
Xena walked into Joxer's room, looking around for the scabbard and sword. She knew it was back here already. When she found it, she put her sword in it's place and snuck out, taking the powerful item back to her room. Gabrielle sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes as she walked in. "Go back to sleep," she said quietly as she locked the sword into the cabinet in their room.
"Joxer was given a weapon by Ares that takes him over. If he uses it, everyone around here might die." She looked at her friend, who looked furious. "He's had it since he was a boy, Gabrielle. This isn't something Ares has done recently."
Ares appeared next to her, shaking his head. "You managed to understate the problem yet again, Xena. It isn't that the sword's taking him over, it's that it takes him over completely. He can't throw it away, he can't hand it off, and he can't control it." He waved a hand and Gabrielle was back asleep instantly. "Listen. He should be able to control it, I don't know why he can't, but he should be able to. I can't connect into either mind to see what's wrong."
"You're not getting the sword back, Ares," Xena said coldly.
Ares snorted. "What makes you think it's still in this cabinet?
Xena looked at the cabinet in shock, unlocking it and throwing it open. "Ares, give it back," she growled.
"I would, but I don't have it," he reminded her. "The sword goes where it wants." He glanced around the room. "I remember this place. I stood right over there," he pointed at a chair in the corner, "and watched the triplets being born. Their father asked me to attend, saying that they would be mine some day."
"Two outta three not good enough?" Xena asked snidely. Ares gave her a dirty look. "Well? Is it?"
"I have all three," he reminded her calmly. "Even if Joxer won't control it."
"He can't," Xena shouted. "No one can control that, not even you." She punched him in the stomach. "I'd go take it back from him, Ares, before everyone dies." She turned and stomped over to the bed, getting in beside Gabrielle. "I'd fix it, Ares, before what he thinks will happen does."
Ares flashed out, going to Joxer's room. He gave Jett, who was standing over his brother's sleeping body, a hard look. "Problems?" he asked.
"Just watching him sleep. He has nightmares and it helps him when someone watches him sleep." He looked at his God, giving him a grim look. "He's got the sword again, doesn't he?"
"It came to him as soon as he stepped into this room," Ares agreed. "Xena tried to take it and it's come back already." He pointed at a cabinet and it opened to show the sword in its usual holder, wrapped in velvet. "I'm not sure what's wrong with him, Jett, he should be able to control it."
"It took part of him into it," Jace said from the doorway. "Thankfully, he's a heavy sleeper." She glared at Jett. "No fair playing with Joxer while he's asleep."
"I wasn't," Jett said coldly. "He started to have nightmares again."
"Oh." Jace waved a hand. "Whatever you say. Anyway, the sword cut him when he first got it. He's still got the mark on his thumb."
Ares shook his head. "That wouldn't matter, the sword needed that to establish a link." He looked at the other parts of the trio. "Listen, I know who I want, and I know that for the most part you agree with Joxer not having the sword. He's vowed to walk into the ring tomorrow without a weapon."
"You're that concerned about a warrior who can't do anything?" Jett said in amazement.
"It's probably something related to why Joxer got the sword in the first place," Jace noted for her brother.
"He was best suited for it," Ares said with a shrug. "The sword liked him."
Jett shuddered. "You have no idea how happy that makes me," he said, backing away from the bed as Joxer rolled over. "We should go."
"We should," Ares agreed, grabbing them and taking them with him down to the kitchen, the only comfortably furnished room in the whole downstairs. "What are you two thinking?"
"Father demanded that we fight and not have champions," Jace said quietly, staring at his brother. He might be the epitome of femme, but she knew how to fight well enough. Being the son of a warlord made sure of it. His face scrunched up as he got a sudden thought. "Jett, is *he* going to be there?"
Jett nodded. "He's out in the camp right now." He looked his brother over. "Say the word, girlie, and he's gone. You know that."
"Word," she said quietly. "If I have to run into that man, I'm going to do it myself."
Ares looked at them in confusion. "What?"
"Father tried to give Jace to another warlord when he was younger to form an alliance."
"Oh," Ares said, looking Jace over. "And you didn't kill him why?"
"Because he was too drugged to do it," Joxer said as he walked in. "Thanks," he said, patting Jett on the back. "Tell me and I'll actually use the sword on him. It's been bloodthirsty recently." He looked at Ares. "How do I pass this on again?"
"You don't," he reminded his young warrior. "It passes itself on."
"Yay," Joxer sighed, looking around the room. "What time is it?"
"About four," Jett told him. "You can go back to sleep. We've had beds recently, you've just had the road."
"And Gabby snoring," Joxer reminded him lightly. "Let's not forget that."
"You become so different when you're here," Jett said in admiration. "I like this version of you."
"It's a different me." Joxer looked at Jace. "Let me handle it? Or do you want dark and deadly to do it for you?"
She sniffed. "No, I want to do it," she said firmly. "I want to stick a knife in him and gut him like we used to do to the chickens."
Jett smiled at her and handed over a dagger. "He's in with Olversan, that new guy that we got last week."
Jace looked the blade over and handed it back. "Please, don't give that to me again," he said, walking away. "I'm going back to bed. I need my beauty sleep."
Joxer waited until Jace was gone to hold out a hand. "Let me, I cut him the first time."
"It *was* too bad that he moved," Jett agreed, putting the dagger back into its sheathe. "I'm on it, Joxer, relax." He looked up at Ares. "Get over losing him. Or don't, I really don't care. It's time to solve a few old problems."
"Yeah, I have one of those," Joxer said softly, leaving the room.
Jett looked at Ares. "Are you going to let him suffer like this?"
"I have no say in this matter, it's the sword's will," he said as he disappeared.
"So I'll deal with the sword," Jett said with a shrug as he left the house. He stopped along the way to pick a pretty flower for the man who had hurt his brother so much. Once he got to the right tent, he found a slave inside, tied to a post, crying as the General screwed him hard. "Oh, not again," Jett sighed, loud enough to break the General's attention. "Didn't we tell you that your kind wasn't wanted around here?" he asked snidely as the older man turned around. "Even my father didn't want you around after you hurt Jace that way." He pulled a dagger and flipped it at the man, putting it in his throat. He dropped the flower onto the struggling body as he walked over to free the slave, making him face him. "Go up to the main house and wait in the kitchen for me. I'll make sure you're all right." The slave looked even more scared, giving the dying man a fearful glance. "I'm not like him, but I've seen this sort of injury before. You'll bathe in my room and sleep on the foot of my bed. Go." He pushed the young boy away, sending him out of the tent.
Someone tapped on the outside of the tent, making it shake. "Sire?" he called before walking in. "You," he hissed.
Jett flipped him off. "Next time, pick someone else to work for, preferably one who doesn't rape little boys," he muttered as he walked past him. He noted a few of his warriors outside and gave them hard looks. "Is the party over already?"
"No," one of them said, backing away from him. "We were trying to see if you needed help burying him."
Jett smiled at him. "Let him rot." He nodded at a commander that had been in the camp forever, then back at the tent. "Have him dragged into the woods and tied to a tree as a tasty snack for squirrels." He walked up to the house to honor his promise. He was the family's guardian, he had to protect all that were under it's protection, and take out any that weren't.
Jace opened her door at the continued knocking, frowning at his brother and the obvious slave standing behind him. "Father would not approve," he said quietly, letting them in.
"I found Merdrick. He was back to his old stunts."
Jace went pale and looked at the slave. "Is he okay?"
"He's in shock. I need some of that stuff you carry around in your flask. I tried my version of shock medicine and it didn't work."
"Poor baby," Jace said, pulling the young man into her arms for a hug. "Poor, poor thing. I was there once. Come, let's get you into a nice, warm bath. That should help you a little bit. It always did me when life got to be too much." She waved her brother out so the boy wouldn't see it as she led him into the bathroom.
Jett walked out, smirking. Some things were better left to the masters of the femme condition. That's what Jace was to their father, a way for him to make alliances.
Joxer woke up at the rough shoving, grunting and swinging at the person shaking him.
"Hey!" Gabrielle shouted. "Don't hit me." She slapped him hard.
"Gabby, out!" he ordered, not opening his eyes. "I deserve the right to sleep in on the day I might die." He rolled over and pulled the blankets up around his head.
Gabrielle looked stunned but she walked out, leaving the tray there. "He wouldn't get up," she told Jace, who was fawning over a young man. "He got surly."
"Joxer?" Xena asked in shock.
"He's different at home," Jace explained. "Give him a few moments to adjust to it being morning and he'll be up shortly." He looked over at his new friend, reaching over to gently touch him on the forearm. "You should eat something soft, Marcus. It's not going to be fun if you eat something hard or firm." The boy nodded and picked up a piece of fruit, which was switched for him. "That's much too acidic. It'll hurt like it did this morning." The boy winced but he bit into the apple.
Xena looked at Jace, then at the boy. "I've got some healing skills," she offered.
"One of our camp doctors has looked at him," Jace said, giving her a smile. "It's all right again. He just needs to take some time off and rest." He touched the boy's arm again. "Eat and then we'll go settle you into my room for a while."
Xena shook her head and went back to her breakfast. "If you need my help, come get me. Or find Gabrielle and have her get me." She glanced over again. "I've seen this sort of injury too."
Jace nodded. "I figured as much, so have I."
Nothing more was said of the young man eating with them.
Joxer walked into the silence a few minutes after it started, nodding at the people there. "What happened last night? The warrior at the door gave me a scared look." He sat down beside Jett, looking at him. "Was it fixed?"
"It was fixed," Jett agreed. "What about today?"
"I'm still not taking that sword into the ring. I refuse. Even if I walk in there without a weapon, it's still more honorable than what that sword has planned for us."
"If you say so," Jett said, looking over at Jace. "We fight first. You fight one of us tomorrow. Then the winners fight, if there's two winners by the day after that."
"Fine by me," Joxer mumbled, loading his plate up with food. "How was your room, Xena?"
"It was very comfortable, Joxer. Thank you for putting us in there. Gabrielle spent most of the evening in the bathtub." She smiled at the warrior that followed them around. "Are you sure? I'll give you my sword."
"I still can't use a real sword," Joxer reminded her. "You've tried, you know that."
"I do," Xena agreed, going back to her breakfast.
"Joxer, you seem so different here," Gabrielle said quietly, looking at him.
"I am," he said simply, digging into his food. "Jett, are you going to the temple before the fight?"
"We all are," Jace told him, staring at him, but flicking a glance at Xena. "Are you coming with us?"
"Yeah. I want to put the sword in there so it can't come out." He scraped his plate and added more food. "Who's your friend?"
"He was Merdrick's," Jett said quietly.
"Welcome to the family camp," Joxer said, stretching a hand across. "Were you going to train as a warrior or did you want to serve in the house?" The boy looked startled. "You didn't tell him?" he asked Jace.
"Not yet," she demurred. "I was thinking about taking him with me as a bodyguard."
"Good," Jett said, looking up at her. "You could use a bodyguard. I hear Raul isn't all that you need."
Jace frowned at him. "He is so. I simply need a guard. Sometimes my fans get a bit... enthusiastic," he said with a slight smile. "I'm sure he'll train very well."
Jett and Joxer both looked the boy over, then nodded. "Yes, he should," Joxer agreed. "He's got a good build, the right sort of body-type."
"He should be the perfect guard," Jett agreed. "I'll start his training tonight." He pushed back from the table. "Joxer, you sure you want to put the sword out there?"
"Yes," he said firmly, ending the questioning. "It goes out there."
"Okay," Jace agreed, sharing a look with Jett. "Girls, what are you going to do tonight?"
"I was going to offer to teach your new guard some hand-to-hand," Xena offered. "I've done it before and you three have a lot on your mind right now."
"I'll help her," Gabrielle said quickly. "I make a good practice dummy." She frowned when she realized what she had said. "I didn't mean that."
Xena looked at her. "You do make a good person to practice on," she agreed, giving her a smile. "He's safe with us, Jace. You know that."
Jace looked her over, then nodded. "Fine. If he's willing." He looked at his new guard, who shrugged. "Go with them for today, we'll see how well you pick up the basics," he said gently. The boy nodded, looking over at Xena. "He's very shy."
"Okay," Xena said with a shrug. "Talking during a fight means you have less breath to fight." She finished up her breakfast and got up. "I'll be out in the garden in a few minutes. I need to go up and get my sword."
"No fighting in the garden," Jace said, her face falling. "Mother never allowed it."
Jett kicked him under the table. "Let her go pull all the tops off the flowers, Jace. It'll make you feel better."
Jace shook his head. "No, it won't. I'll show you where we practice." He got up, leading the way out the door, Gabrielle running up the stairs to get their weapons.
Joxer looked at Jett. "Was he sorry before he died?"
"No, but he took a long time. I punctured his airway." He looked his brother over. "You're sure of this? You really want to give him the sword?"
"Yes," Joxer sighed, slumping on him himself. "It's bad enough he's been taking me over while I travel. Why can't we let him out now?"
"Because Mother made a deal," Jett reminded him quietly. "The army is prosperous and in control while he's in there. As soon as he steps out of the valley, we start to fall apart."
"But does it still hold?" Joxer asked. "Father and Mother are dead. They were the focus of the blessing. Juren deserves freedom."
"He might, but we'll have to check. He's still being visited by the Goddess. He should know." He looked at the weary form. "Go back to bed, Joxer, get used to being yourself. The sword can wait."
"It was meant to go to him," he said simply as he got up. "I'm going to go read in my room. Yell if you need me before the fighting. Not that I want to come." He left, going up to his room.
Jett shook his head. "This is not a good sign," he muttered, nodding the servants over to clear the table. "Has anyone seen Juren recently?"
"No, my Lord," one of the serving girls said quietly, not looking at him. "We've not seen him even in his garden." She took the plates and trotted off, not wanting to be caught talking to him.
Jett shook his head. "Someone's going to have to stay and take care of the house," he told himself. He got up and went out to watch Xena train Jace's new friend.
The triplets walked up to the small temple behind the one dedicated to Ares, tapping on the bronze door. It was opened for them and they walked in, squinting in the dim light. "Juren?" Jett called, walking forward.
"He's not here," a tiny voice called out from the altar room. Juren's lone servant and fellow worshiper walked out to meet them. "He's in the house. Shall I go get him for you?"
"Please," Joxer said, shifting the sword in his arms so it would quit trying to dig into his flesh. "We'd like to see our brother, Marcan."
The priest nodded and jogged away, coming back a few minutes later with the last of the children. Their brother Juren. Juren smiled at them all, giving each one of them a hug before stepping back to look at them as a group. "If I could only travel with all of you instead of just Joxer," he sighed happily. "Why have you come?" He led the way to a small sitting room in the personal section of the temple. "Tell me you're not going to honor Father's way of choosing a new leader."
"We have to," Jett said with a shrug. "If we don't, we'll be killed by the rest of the army. That is the rule he set down." He looked his brother over. "Juren, have you talked to *her* yet?"
"Yes," he said, glancing around the room. "I've talked to her and she said the deal still stands. She's willing to give me some more freedom, allow me to live up at the main house now that Mother's no longer living, but I have to stay in her service and with the army."
Joxer's face fell. "I wanted you to be free," he mumbled, tossing over the bundle. "We both know this should have been yours."
Juren put the fabric-wrapped bundle on the couch next to him. "We also know why it wasn't," he said quietly. "Joxer, I can't take it. You know that."
"I know, but I can't deal with it. It's still calling me by your name." He relaxed. "You're the one Ares meant to give it to, he got us confused."
"Which is *so* hard," Jace snorted.
"It is," Joxer reminded him. "You may be different than the rest of us, but I still get confused for you, and for Jett sometimes too." He looked at Juren. "No one knows who you are," he reminded his biological twin. When they had been conceived it had only been a set of twins. Jett's body had branched off to form him and Jace, while Joxer's body had branched off to form him and Juren. That's why Juren could take over Joxer's mind and travel with him. Joxer let him because it gave his brother such joy to see the rest of the world through him. Besides, it meant he didn't have to do very much with his own body. Juren could control more of the effects that the sword had caused in him. It made more sense to work it this way whenever possible. Joxer shifted uncomfortably, pulling his mind back to the present. "Juren, were you told you had to fight too?" he asked.
"No," Juren said with a smile. "I'm not to fight. Even if I'm called to fight, I'm not allowed to. My Goddess will destroy the whole army if I'm forced to fight." He gave Joxer a sad smile. "She wanted me to thank you for taking over during the fight where we killed someone. I have to remain a blood innocent."
"So we'll keep ignoring you exist," Jett said, standing up. "We'll leave you two alone to talk." He nodded at Jace, who frowned at him. "You're leaving *Xena* alone with your man?" Jace hopped up and ran out the door, going to check on his new friend. Jett shook his head. "I don't know how you two stand traveling with her. Or with the blonde."
"You get used to it," Juren said with a smile. "After a while, they become background noise." He smiled at his oldest brother. "How have you been, dear Jett?"
"Better now that I'm out of prison," he said with a smile. "I'm going to go scare the servants some more."
"Leave the blonde one alone," Joxer warned. "She was Father's favorite when he died. From what I heard in the camps last night, someone decided she had done it and almost punished her."
Jett nodded. "I'll be extra nice to her." He left them alone, making sure the temple's door was closed behind him.
Juren looked at Joxer, shaking his head. "Even if I could take the sword from you, I can't make it all better. It won't fix what it's done to you already."
"I know. There's only one thing that will, and that would ruin everything you have," he said, looking down at his feet. "Juren, how do you control it?"
"I'm not sure. Mostly, when I'm in you, I move around the damage it caused. Actually," he said, leaning forward, "there might be a way to fix the damage. I've noticed the damage it caused to your brain, maybe that can be fixed to a degree and give you back full use of your body." He touched his brother's hand. "Joxer, you only have three days before it all comes back. You remember what happened last time you were at home for three days, I know you do."
"In three days, the fight will be done," he said, looking up. "Then I'll leave again and you'll take over my body. We'll go somewhere and rest for a few days until I'm over this attack and we'll be fine." He stood up, smiling down at his brother. "I'll be okay during the fights. I refuse to bring the sword anywhere near the ring." He walked out, going back to his room. He tripped twice on the way up the stairs, but managed to catch himself before anyone in the hall could remark. He shut his door firmly and locked it, wanting to be alone as the effects started again. He made it to the bed as the weakness started, falling down onto the newly laundered sheets as he started to shake. He passed out a few minutes later as the headache started, not wanting to go through this again.
Ares appeared and waved a blanket over his chosen warrior, grimacing down at him. "This really won't do." He disappeared, going to where his sword was. "Juren," he called, bringing him running. "It's starting faster this time."
"I can't take over his body, Lord Ares, not when he's at home. That was the deal I made with my Goddess." He looked down. "I noticed he was starting to shake, and that it was a day earlier than last time."
"Juren, call your Goddess, I need to talk to her."
"I will try," he agreed, walking over to the altar. He knelt before it, praying to the Goddess who made his life complete.
Athena appeared a few minutes later, glaring at Ares. "Why are you invading my holy space?" she demanded.
"Because the geis you put on your follower's brother is working overtime this year," he said, glaring back. He looked her over. "Athena, I don't even know why you picked this one. Joxer would have been much better suited to your campaign."
She laughed. "Because you had to choose the other one," she said simply. She pointed at the sword. "Get that out of my temple."
"My brother gave it to me to guard for him," Juren said respectfully. "It's not going to be used, I swear, Goddess Athena."
She frowned at him. "Get it out of my temple, Juren, or I'm going to take away my part of our deal." He blanched but he didn't move. "Do you really want to be stuck here for the rest of your life?"
"And what happens when he dies?" Ares asked her. "What happens to this army then? They head for another of your temples to beg for your help?" He snorted at her smile. "It won't happen, Athena, they don't know you're helping them. They think this is all because of me." He glanced around. "Juren, I'll give you the same deal she has, but you'll be allowed to walk out of this valley if you want."
"You lie!" Athena snarled. "Zeus had to agree to this too. He won't do that for you!"
"Zeus," Ares yelled. "Come here."
Zeus appeared a few seconds later and gave his children a tired look. "What is it this time, Ares?"
"Father, he's trying to break the deal you agreed I could have with this mortal and his Father's army," Athena told him. "And he's given my follower that sword."
"Joxer gave him the sword," Ares pointed out. "You're the one who made sure the sword destroyed him this time." He looked at his father. "I'm willing to keep the terms of the deal, but I'm not going to keep this boy here in this valley. I would give him the choice to wield the sword or not, as his twin's almost dead because of Athena's mischief."
"She did that to Joxer?" Juren asked quietly, looking at his Goddess. "You're the one who made the sword hurt him?"
"Somehow, she made sure the sword embedded itself too far into Joxer's mind. I just figured it out this morning when I looked into it." He looked at Zeus. "I'll keep this army the way it is, strong and rule-bound, but I won't let her harm my warrior. If it continues, I'm going to fight back through her pawn."
Zeus frowned at his daughter. "Is this true?"
"No," she said petulantly.
"I know where Joxer is if you want to go check," Ares offered. "He's right, the sword has ruined him for anything other than collapsing in pain every few hours." He looked at his half-sister. "And it's all her fault. I couldn't take it back, and I can't heal it."
"Neither can I," Athena said stiffly. "What the sword did, it did on it's own."
"Enough," Zeus sighed. "I would go look at this boy to make the decision."
"He's in his room," Ares said, showing him where it was. "I'll meet you there if you'd like." Zeus left them alone. "So help me Gods, Athena, if you hurt Joxer any more, this army will not protect you when the Twilight is here." He disappeared, going to help his warrior. He had really started to like Joxer; no matter what, the boy fought on. He admired that in a mortal. He flashed in beside Zeus, looking down at his chosen warrior. "I can't heal what the sword's done," he reminded his father. "He is the crucial piece in stopping the Twilight."
"I know," Zeus said in resignation. "I can't fix it either, Ares. Only Athena can, and we both know that if she were to try, she'd harm him in other ways."
"Zeus, if he dies, then I die, and I won't be able to bring you all back."
Zeus momentarily looked scared but he erased it with a calm breath. "We'll figure it out, Ares. Are you truly willing to take over this army's control and keep it this way? Keep it clean and just?"
Ares glanced around the room. "I'll have to, won't I? If she continues this way, none of you will be able to come back."
"Then I will let the outcome of the fight for control sway who has the deal." He disappeared.
"But he has to fight," Ares called after him.
"Is everything okay?" a female voice said from outside the door.
Ares walked over and opened it. "Run Joxer a bath," he ordered. "I need him in good shape to talk to him." She squeaked and ran away, going to do his bidding. Ares sat down in the comfortable chair, watching as heated water was brought up to bathe Joxer with. He had to plan this *very* carefully, or everything would fall apart and the Gods truly would die.
Xena looked up as Ares appeared next to her in the library, giving him a bland look. "Planning on who you want as leader?"
"No, I already know that. I have another problem, Xena, and you're about the only hope everyone has this time." He pulled a chair over with his powers and sat down next to her. "Listen," he said, leaning over to touch her on the head, sending the information into her head.
"And you've got another problem," Jett said as he walked around the bookshelves. "Hercules is coming this way."
Xena and Ares both groaned. "I'll send Gabrielle to go stop him," she decided. She looked at Ares. "You're sure it's permanent?"
"It has been."
"No, I've seen Joxer..."
"You've seen Juren," Jett put in. "This is about the weakness and stuff, right?"
Ares looked at him and nodded. "It is. I found out this morning that Athena caused the sword to embed too deeply into his mind. Zeus has said I can take over the deal, if Joxer wins. If either of you win, it's a tie and he'll have it fixed some other way."
Jett sighed and sat down in a chair. "So, Joxer has to win, even though he's not going to use a weapon?"
"The weakness started today," Ares said quietly. "He's in a hot bath upstairs."
Jett shook his head. "Can't you fix that?"
"Athena could fix it, but we're sure she'll do something else to him. She doesn't believe that the Twilight will happen and that it will take me to bring her back. And without Joxer, I die too."
Xena closed her eyes for a second. "Can this ... Juren take him over again?"
"Not while we're at home," Jett said quietly. "That's so he can go out and experience life without breaking the tenets of Mother's agreement with Athena."
"Is Athena being reasonable?" Xena asked.
"No, not about this," Ares said calmly. "She's never been reasonable about this." He looked at Jett. "Can you find a way out of this?"
"Only if we defer to him without fighting."
"Did the rule your father set down say that you had to actually do battle, or just face each other in the ring?" Xena asked. "Gabrielle," she shouted as her companion walked past the doorway. "Come here. I need you to do something." The blonde amazon walked in and looked at the people, giving her friend a dirty look. "It's important, Gabrielle. Hercules is coming this way. You need to stall him."
Gabrielle looked confused. "Why? Is he going to interrupt the fighting?"
"Of course he will," Ares said brightly. "It's his nature to get in the way." He looked at Xena again. "Maybe you should go do this yourself, so he doesn't show up for at least two more days?"
"I'll leave tonight to join them," Xena said. "After I look at Joxer and see if there isn't something I can do for him."
"What did you do to Joxer, Ares?" Gabrielle demanded.
"Nothing, it was Athena this time," Xena said as she stood up. "Go stop Hercules, tell him we're monitoring this situation because we're friends with most of the Generals that were under Joxer's father." Gabrielle nodded and left, and Xena looked down at Ares. "Where is he?"
"In a bath, it's the only thing that helps the weakness and pain," Jett said seriously. "He can't go on for very long like this. This is why he never comes home." He stood up. "How can I help, Ares?"
"Win today," he said grimly. "Or find a way to let Joxer win overall."
"I'll go talk to Jace," he said, going out to find his other brother. She had the right to know too.
Ares flashed out, going back to Joxer's room to watch over him. "Hey," he said, waking Joxer up. "Xena's coming up in a few minutes." He saw the panicked look so he grabbed a towel and handed it over. "Here, cover yourself, not that she'll care." He manifested a chair beside the tub and sat down, leaning forward. "I found out why the sword did that to you, Joxer. Athena made it take you in too deeply. The sword is deeper into you than your twin is." The mortal looked alarmed. "That and it did it's usual brain damage, but as it was going too deep, it created the problems deeper than it should have."
"You just found this out?" he begged. "Can you fix it?"
"No one can fix it but Athena," Ares said quietly. "We don't know what she's going to do if she does."
Joxer slumped a little more. "So I have to fight like this?"
"Yeah, you might have to fight like this."
"Did he tell you the really bad news?" Xena asked as she walked in. "Hercules is on his way in."
Joxer shuddered. "He'll create chaos in the camp, he always does when he's near an army."
Ares smirked. "That's because Strife took him on as a follower, not that he knows that."
Xena burst out laughing, leaning on the side of the tub to calm herself down before she fell over. "Oh, that explains so much!" she shouted, sharing a smile with Joxer. "Is Iolaus with him?"
"Yup," Ares said, giving him a smile. "He won't be a problem though. Not unless Hercules gets a stick up his ass again about breaking the army up. He's honor bound to help my dear half-brother if he wants to destroy something."
"I'll talk to Iolaus when he comes in," Joxer told him, "and explain everything. Who went to stop Hercules?"
"Gabrielle." Xena pointed at Joxer's leg. "May I?"
"Sure," he said, waving a hand down his body. "Poke all you want, you won't be the first. He looked over at Ares. "Is there *any* chance Athena might take this off and only cause minimal damage?"
"Maybe," Ares hesitated. "You can ask her, but I wouldn't hold my breath."
Hera appeared, frowning down at her son. "What are you doing down here?"
"The leadership fights are about to begin and I'm talking with my chosen follower, Hera," he sighed, looking up at her. "The one the sword chose." Her scowl eased off immediately. "Whom Athena screwed up because she made the sword go too deeply into Joxer's brain."
Hera looked down at the man in the tub. "It's gone on too long. I could call Apollo down here, he might be able to fix it."
"I asked him if he'd consider trying, he said no," Joxer told her, staying nice and respectful.
"If I ask him, it might have a different outcome," she said, smiling down at him. "And Xena, why are *you* here?"
"We followed Joxer when he came home," she said, massaging a weakened muscle in the warrior's leg. "I might have something to strengthen him, but it won't last for long," she said, letting the leg fall back into the water. She looked up at Hera. "What Athena did was allow the sword to ruin his balance and muscle control. He can't fight anymore."
"And if he doesn't win, then I can't take over her pact and save you all," Ares finished up.
"With the complication of Hercules coming in," Joxer added.
Hera scowled again. "This is a mess, Ares. How did you let it get this far gone?" She disappeared, going back to her temple to find her step-son.
Ares shrugged. "It wasn't me," he reasoned. He looked at Xena. "What are you thinking of trying?"
"There's a hallucinogenic that has the property of making everyone stronger. If we give him a lighter dose, he shouldn't be hurt by the visions, but he should get a little more control."
Ares stared at Joxer while he thought about it. "We'll try it tonight," he decided.
"Hey, I don't need drugs," Joxer protested. "I remember quite well what being high was like the last time."
"Don't worry, this one is worse," Xena told him with a smile, "but we'll be giving you less so you won't have the same sort of experience. Ares, I need to get something from Argo's saddlebag. I'll be right back." She stood up and left, going back to her room.
Ares looked down at Joxer. "We're trying it tonight to make sure you can handle it," he reminded his warrior. "We'll figure this out...." He stopped as he saw a golden light flash in the other room. "In here," he called, rolling his eyes as Apollo walked in wearing a very shiny, tight, tiny bathing suit. "Athena messed with his head through the sword." He got out of the God of Healing's way, letting him in next to his warrior.
Apollo looked down at Joxer. "Didn't you ask me to fix this before?"
"I did, but Hera said she'd ask you this time," he said hopefully. "Please, just look and see, Apollo? I'll make the best offering I can at your temple when I leave." He pointed down at his feet. "I can't even feel them anymore. The shakes are getting worse. Everything's gone."
Apollo shrugged and touched the right side of Joxer's head with his left hand. "I can't," he said after a few minutes. "It's all about the scar tissue. If I try to remove that, then he'll start having seizures."
Xena walked in with a little pouch, stopping to look at Apollo. "It's scarred?"
"It's scarred," he agreed, pointing at the pouch. "I wouldn't give him that. It'll make it worse when it's all over with. The affects won't last long enough for him to make it out of the house." He disappeared.
Joxer looked up at Xena. "Do you have any other ideas?"
"Not a one," she sighed, sitting down beside the tub again. "I don't know of anything that can make you stronger or make the shaking stop."
"The shaking is his muscles weakening as he stays," Ares said, frowning out a window. "She wasn't successful," he noted. "They're here."
Xena hopped up. "I'm going to talk to Iolaus. Joxer, you stay in there if it helps. I'll make sure dinner's sent up to you."
"I have to watch the fight between Jett and Jace," he reminded her.
"Then we'll help you out there," Ares told him. "Stay in here for as long as possible." He disappeared.
Xena shrugged. "He's right. Stay in there for as long as possible." She walked out, making it down to the front hall as Hercules was being led inside with Iolaus. "Hi, guys," she said, smiling at them. "Why are you here?"
"Because I heard this army's picking a new leader and I wanted to know how much trouble the rest of the country was in for," Hercules said grimly. "Why are you here?"
"This is Joxer's family's army," Xena reminded him. Iolaus looked stunned. "You never connected them?"
"No," he said, looking outside. "They're certainly not as unruly as some I've fought with."
"They're very well controlled," Xena agreed, earning strange looks from Hercules and Gabrielle. "Gabby, have someone get them a room. I need to speak with Iolaus and Hercules alone." Her companion walked away muttering. "And one at a time. Hercules?" She waved a hand at the library before walking that way. She turned once they were inside. "Hercules, you can't be here," she said quietly. "If you are, then you're going to get hurt. They're going to come after you because of what you've been doing recently."
He shook his head. "I don't think so. The last thing I did was help build a dam across a river."
"Which was their job," Iolaus said from the doorway. "What's really going on, Xena? Gabby mentioned Ares showing up."
"This is one of his favorite armies," Hercules said grimly. "He'd have to be here."
"He's here because Joxer's father asked him to show up for the fights." She looked at Iolaus. "There's a reason I needed to talk to you alone, I have a message for you from someone."
"Oh, let me," Aphrodite said as she appeared, handing over a small piece of something to Xena. "Cupie nicked this and told me to come give it to you for whatever reason." She rolled her eyes. "It's best fresh," she pointed out when Xena hadn't moved. "Go with her, Curly. Let me talk to my baby brother." She cooed and pinched Hercules' cheek. "Don't you look all macho today?"
Xena and Iolaus walked up the stairs together, but she stopped them outside of Joxer's room to explain what was going on. "You know about the Gods picking certain warriors to make sure they live on, right?" He nodded. "Well, this family has two. One is Athena's, and I didn't even know he existed until today. The other is Joxer, and Athena did something to him. Through a blessed sword Ares gave him as a boy." She walked in. "Joxer, I have Iolaus with me," she called as they walked toward the bathroom. He was just starting to wake up as she walked in. "Here, Cupid sent this down for you." She put the small piece of fruit into his mouth, watching as it took effect. "How do you feel?"
"A little stronger," he admitted, smiling at his other friend. "Hey, you arrived already?"
"Yeah, even though Gabby tried to keep us away." He looked at Xena, closing the door so he could lean on it. "What's really going on here, guys? I need to know so I can control Hercules."
"Yes, you do," Ares said as he appeared. He repeated the action he had done on Xena with Iolaus then stepped back as he realized what he now knew. "Got it now?"
Iolaus nodded, staring down at Joxer. "Then how have you been able to fight?"
"Juren has been able to take over his body," Ares told him. "That's who you see whenever you're not in this valley. He's tied to his temple and this house."
"Ares, I always wanted to know something," Joxer said carefully. "What happens if Juren takes a life?"
"Then the pact is broken. It has to be a blood innocent to keep the pact. At first, it actually had to be a virginal blood innocent, but Zeus allowed that part to slip past."
"So this army is all that's standing between Greece and destruction?"
"Yes," Ares said, smiling at him. "Very good." He smiled at Xena. "What did you just give him?"
"Aphrodite showed up and gave it to me, she said it was from Cupid," she said with a one-sided shrug. "All I know is that it was fruit."
"An apple?" Iolaus asked. "A whole slice is said to be able to cure anything."
"Not even Apollo can cure this," Joxer said, pushing himself farther up in the bathtub. "He said it's all scar tissue now."
"Well, that sucks," Iolaus said, looking at Ares. "How can I help?"
"You can help by not letting Hercules destroy the army," Ares told him. "Don't worry, I've told them not to attack you unless they have to, but they're probably going to make an exception for my brother." He looked at Xena. "As for you, go talk to the other two." She walked out, leaving them alone. "Do you understand why it's so important?" he asked quietly.
"You guys harness the flow of energy for each of your fields," Iolaus said, giving him a grin. "I've figured that much out."
"And you're right about that, we do give our individual areas a focus for the energy, but we also regulate how much of the energy comes out into the world. If the Gods aren't here, then all that energy explodes and destroys everything."
Iolaus nodded. "Okay. Are you going to pick another warrior, just in case?"
"No," Ares said, looking down at Joxer. "I picked him." He disappeared, after pointing at the door.
Iolaus opened the door and found Hercules on the other side. "Hey, Herc. Have a nice talk with Aphrodite?"
"Yes, what did Ares want?"
"He wanted to explain what was going on. The whole fighting thing and why Joxer's so tired." He shrugged and waved at Joxer before walking out, closing the door behind him. "He's taking a bath," he explained at the heated look.
"So, Ares picked him to win the fights?"
"He did. Joxer has chosen the leader that he thinks will be best for the army, so he's backing him. Jett and Jace's choices aren't bad, but Joxer's got a plan for the complete leadership, including a few new Generals since some of the present ones are retiring."
"Oh. Joxer did that?"
"With some help," Xena said as she walked in. "He went down last night to talk to one of the older Generals." She handed over the tray of drinks. "Here." She took the last one into the bathroom and gave it to Joxer, coming back after saying something quietly. She stared at the two men. "So, why else are you here? Besides watching?"
"I wanted to make sure this army wasn't going to go out and start claiming new territory again," he told her. "No other reason."
"I'm sure. How many times have you heard of this army taking over lands, Hercules?" Iolaus asked. He looked at Xena. "He said we were coming to see what was going on. I didn't get anything else."
Hercules glared at him. "You know how bad this army can be."
Joxer walked out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist. "Actually, this army is one of the most controlled ones in Greece today," he told his friends as he walked over to the bed. "I need to get dressed."
Xena smiled. "I'll leave." She walked out, leaving them alone.
Iolaus nodded. "That is what I've heard, that your army is very controlled and very tight." He looked up at Hercules. "These guys only take experienced warriors with good references."
"Not quite," Joxer disagreed. "Once a year, new warriors have the right to petition us to be admitted and finish their training under us. Most of those kids are cadets or the sons of the warriors we already have. My Father was adamant about only keeping warriors that could follow the rules." He pulled on his pants under the towel, tossing it aside once they were on. "Now then," he said, turning to look at them. "Why are you really here, Hercules? You were headed for Northern Greece last I heard, which was last week actually. And now you've made a big detour to come here."
"You're not Joxer," Hercules accused. "You're Jett."
"No, Jett is getting ready for his fight. At home, I become someone different." He pulled on a loose shirt and tied up a few of the strings in the front. "I don't mind if you want to watch, but you may *not* get in the way or cause trouble." He looked at Iolaus. "Want to walk me out? I have to go watch those two fight today. I'm even in a shaded part of the stands."
"Okay," Iolaus agreed, looking him over. "No weapons?"
"No, I don't carry one at home." He walked out slowly, his friend coming with him. "How much do you know?" he asked.
"Enough," Iolaus told him. He took Joxer's arm as they came closer to the stairs, letting him have the railing. "Here, you need this more." He helped his friend down the stairs and out into the courtyard, toward where the stands were set up for spectators. He helped Joxer into his seat, noticing who was watching them. "Do they know?" he asked.
"Most of them," Joxer told him. "If they were here when I got the sword, then they know." He pointed at one of the major people down in a lower row. "He won't know. He merged his force with ours about three years ago. Most everyone who stared was probably his." He smiled as a warrior he knew from his youth came over and sat down near them. "He knows, he's the one who figured out the weakness." He leaned down and patted him on the shoulder. "I missed seeing you yesterday, Harlis. How are you?"
"Fine, Lord Joxer," he said, smiling up at them. "Is this your friend Hercules?"
"No, I'm Iolaus." He pointed out Hercules, who was sitting next to Xena. "That's him. Watch out for him, okay? I think he's going to try and start a fight to break up the army soon."
Joxer snorted. "Over his dead body." Harlis smiled at him. "Isn't that right?"
"Yes, it is," the warrior agreed.
They all turned as the crowd cheered, watching Jett and Jace walk into the ring.
Harlis looked back at Joxer. "Is it true that Ares has come to visit you about your choices?"
"He has," Iolaus agreed. "He was weighing the various ideas."
"I talked to Carlis last night. My choices are all based on his ideas of how the army should continue. Especially after he's retired soon."
"He's retiring?" Harlis asked. "How did you know?"
"His knees," Joxer sighed. "They're not healthy anymore." He stood up to clap as Ares appeared. "We'll talk about it later, Harlis. I'd like to know what you think of my choices also." The warrior nodded as they sat down to watch the fight.
The fight didn't last that long, each man in the ring had an individual fighting style. Jett's was to take advantage of weaknesses and to move fast. Jace's was to be more graceful and flowing. Jett won easily. He looked up at the stands and gave his brother a cold smile. "Tomorrow," he called before leaving the ring, letting his brother's new 'guard' come get him and help him back to their room.
Iolaus shuddered. "That could have been *much* worse," he said quietly.
"I'm not the only one who's different when we come home," Joxer said with a faint smile as he stood up. He immediately grabbed for Iolaus' arm when he felt himself start to sway.
"You know, if we keep meeting like this, someone's going to say we're together," Iolaus quipped.
Joxer gave him a grateful look. "You'd do that for me?" He threw his arms around the other man and gave him a hug. "Thank you, Iolaus." He looked down at Harlis, who looked stunned. "What?"
"Aren't you supposed to fight Juren?" he asked softly, glancing around at the emptying stands.
"Juren has been forced to remain a blood innocent," Joxer reminded him. "He may not fight, not even to defend himself. Or me." He winked at his friend and accepted the help to get down the stairs.
Harlis looked at the warrior sitting below him, his commander. "Oh, crap," he whispered. His commander nodded and got up, going to catch up with the others of his rank. They had something to discuss.
Joxer was staring out his window, so he saw the two dark shapes heading for the small temple. His eyes narrowed and he turned, but he found General Carlis standing behind him. "They'd better not be going for Juren," he said quietly. "My brother has to remain a blood innocent or this army is destroyed. You know about my mother's deal with Athena."
General Carlis bowed his gray head. "I'm sorry, but your father's rule said *all* of his sons." He looked back up. "You will have to fight Juren tomorrow, Joxer."
"Then it's going to be a damn short fight," Joxer snorted. "The weakness started earlier in me this time and he can't take me over to cure it. Neither of us will be wielding weapons, so I doubt you're going to be very satisfied."
The General looked shocked. "No weapons?"
"My brother *has* to remain a blood innocent," Joxer reminded him again, a little more loudly this time. "If not, the deal with Athena to keep the army manageable is finished." He sat down suddenly, rubbing the back of his right calf, trying to work out the cramp before it started. "Carlis, you and I both know about that deal. And we both know exactly what will happen if it's broken. Do you really want to leave the army in ruins?"
"No," he said quietly. "I don't. But I don't have a choice. Your father..."
"Is dead," Joxer said coldly. "And he knew about this crap too!" He stood up and regretted it because the cramp he had been trying to hold off hit him as soon as he put weight on the muscle. "Oh, no," he groaned, falling down onto the floor to try and rub it out. "Get Xena," he groaned.
The General looked scared but he followed the order, it was too ingrained into him not to. He came back with the female warrior within a few minutes, so Joxer was still rolling around on the ground. He shoved her toward him. "Fix him!" he demanded.
Xena pulled a dagger off her belt and threw it at the General's heavily armored chest, both of them watching where it stuck into his armor for a second before falling. "I take orders from no one," she hissed, but she went to try and help Joxer too.
"Into a warm bath with you," Jace said from the doorway, slurring a little from some pain medication the house healer had given him after the fight. "Right now," he ordered, stomping his foot delicately.
Xena picked Joxer up and carried him into the bathroom, putting him into the bath of warm water that she had ordered be kept in there for him. She continued to rub the cramp out under the water, trying to get it soothed before the pain lasted all night.
Joxer relaxed after a few minutes, his death grip on the side of the tub loosening a little bit. "Better," he said, giving her a grateful smile. "Carlis, tell whomever you sent out there that if my brother Juren shows up in that ring tomorrow, I'm going to kill someone and it's not going to be my brother." He looked at the General. "Even if I do have to take that sword back from him to do it."
General Carlis spun on his heel and stormed out, going to talk to the other commanders.
Xena smiled down at Joxer. "That was very brave."
"No, it was very stupid, but Juren has to remain a blood innocent or the army is destroyed." Joxer looked down at his clothes. "Speaking of destroyed...."
"I didn't think you wanted me to undress you," she said with a smile as she stood up. "I'll go get Iolaus to help you. All right?"
"Thanks, Xena," Joxer called after her as she walked out. He pulled off his sodden shirt and tossed it at the basket for clothes, smiling when it caught on the edge. "Good enough," he decided, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. By the time Iolaus and Xena came back, he was asleep.
Joxer walked into the combat ring the next afternoon and two of his brothers were standing there. "Get back to your temple, Juren," he said, walking over slowly, trying to make it look like he wasn't shaking badly.
"I will, but I'm supposed to fight in your place," he said with a grimace. "Jett said so."
"He's to remain a blood innocent," Joxer reminded his brother. "And if you win, then he's never going to be allowed out of the valley."
"The fight will begin," a General called down from the stands.
Joxer took the crossbow from Jett's hands before he could fire and sent a bolt of his own up at them. "Shut up!" He looked at the stunned crowd. "My brother has made a pact with Athena to remain a blood innocent; he is not even to *see* fighting! How dare you challenge the deal our mother made for him, and for the good of this army!" He tossed down the crossbow. "I will *not* fight my brother Juren and bring ruin down on all of your heads. No matter how happy that might make me at this moment."
Jett snickered as he patted Joxer on the back, steadying him when he saw him wobble too hard. "Good job," he snorted. "Willing to fight me?"
"Hey, if you want to fight me, then that's all good. Juren, go back to your temple!" he ordered, pointing. "Even if these idiots don't believe in the pact, you still may not be here."
"He has to turn it down in his own right," Athena said as she appeared behind him. She looked Joxer over. "So that's what the sword did to you."
Joxer shrieked and lunged at her, and his sword appeared in his hand as he lunged. Juren had had it hidden behind him the whole time. He danced with the somber, cruel Goddess, fighting her instead of his brothers. He managed to knock her down, tripping her basically when he started to fall. "Fix me or I'm going to run you through," he hissed. "You have no right to touch my life, I'm not dedicated to you." He stood up and backed away from her. "Of course, I'm an *honorable* opponent. I don't attack children and I don't attack the helpless." He looked at the sword, coming back to himself. "Jett, take it," he begged. "I know who the soul is."
Jett started to step forward, but the sword swung around to point at him, Joxer trying to fight it. "Um, I can't, Joxer. It's not going to work that well." He pointed at the sword. "You know it doesn't like me."
"Just drop it," Gabrielle called down.
"He can't," Xena reminded her. "The sword, which Athena has cursed, takes him over. This is why this set of twins does not fight!" She stood up and walked down, slowly walking towards him. "Give me the sword, Joxer." He lunged at her. "Control it, Joxer, it's all in your head."
"And so's *he*!" Joxer shouted, falling to his knees, one on top of the blade. "Xena, take my hand off, now!"
"I won't," she said, walking over to him. She touched the handle of the blade, which made it start to quiver, then gently eased it from his hand. Joxer passed out and she put it in her belt. "No more fighting today!" she yelled, turning to look at Juren. "You, go run your brother a bath. Now!"
Juren and Jett ran up to the house, going to do her bidding.
Xena looked at Athena, who was glaring at her. "Better luck next time, Athena, and I hope you enjoy your death." She waved a few warriors down and they carried Joxer up to the house together. Gabrielle and the two men followed them after a short discussion.
Iolaus tapped on Joxer's door, sticking his head in. "Is it safe?" he asked, giving Xena a worried look when she walked out of the bathroom.
"The sword's in the cabinet," she said, nodding him in. She frowned as her friends walked in behind him. "Joxer shouldn't have visitors right now, especially not ones that will disturb him." She glared at Gabrielle, who shrugged.
"I wanted to make sure he was all right. He's my friend too, you know."
"Go away," floated out from the bathroom.
Xena nodded. "I think it's for the best right now."
"Not until I see this sword," Hercules insisted, blocking the doorway.
"Get out," Joxer yelled, and splashing sounds followed. He hobbled over to the doorway, barely covered by a towel. "Get out! Get out of my room! Out of my family's valley! Go back to whatever problem you were on your way to!" He slammed the bathroom door.
Iolaus looked up at Hercules. "I told you not to upset him," he said, smacking him on the chest before he walked over and knocked on the door. "Joxer, can I come in?" he called.
"Yeah, go ahead. I don't want him to fall getting back into the bathtub," Xena told him, still staring at Gabrielle and Hercules. "Maybe it would be better if you left," she said quietly, once the bathroom door was closed again. "Joxer doesn't need this sort of stress. It's undermining his condition." She glared at Hercules when he snorted. "If you hadn't been there, neither would Athena. She was following you!" She opened the main door and stuck her head out, smiling at the young warrior Joxer had introduced her to during last night's supper. "Harlis, please make sure Hercules and Gabrielle are safely out of the valley. They're upsetting Joxer." She got out of his way, letting him and a few other of the warriors lead them out. "And I do mean safely," she called after them. She walked back in and stopped when she saw Zeus standing there. "What? Come to punish him because the sword went after Athena?"
Zeus shook his head and gave her a gentle smile. "No, I was quite amused by that actually." He pointed at the bathroom. "Ares called on me."
"Ah." Xena sat down on the bed and looked at the King of the Gods. "So? Did Ares win?"
"I'm not sure," Zeus said, still smiling. "Thank you for making sure my son lived to see another sunrise."
"Personally, I could do without his preachy attitude," Iolaus said as he walked out. "The sword did more damage this time," he said grimly. Xena nodded, still looking calm. "What about when he leaves?"
"If Juren decides to stay, he'll still be able to take over Joxer," Ares said as he walked out. "And you thought I was overblowing this last night?" he asked his father, his voice colder. "You've seen what it was that she made the sword do."
"And I still can't fix it, even this new damage. I have asked Apollo to come down tonight, after he's done at his temple, to see if he can't heal this new damage. I told him of what happened and he laughed."
"I bet he did," Iolaus said darkly, looking around. "Xena, are they safe?"
"That's what I told them to ...." She stopped as Jett burst into the room. "He's in the bath," she said, pointing. "Do I need to help?"
"Athena's warriors are headed this way. Hercules is with them."
"Oh, crap," Iolaus muttered, looking at Zeus. "Can't you control her?" He jogged out of the room, going to help this army. Not even Hercules would be allowed to destroy them. Not this time.
Xena looked up at Ares, who nodded. "Go protect them," the God of War ordered. "I'll protect Joxer and the rear positions. Not even Athena will be allowed to hurt Juren." She ran out, heading for her room to get her armor and weapons first. Ares looked at Zeus. "She's going to kill her own warrior," he noted.
"Which isn't her right, but there's nothing I can do to stop her," Zeus said as he disappeared.
Ares shook his head, looking at Jett. "How good are you with a bow?"
"Okay, go out and help command. Where's Jace?"
"In her room," he said with a snort. "She's trying to find her special armor."
"Okay, have her guarding the house with the retired warriors and the servants. I'm going to go save Juren."
"No, I will," Joxer said from the doorway. "Go fight your sister, kick her ass for me," he said as he limped out of the room, heading for the stairs, his sword magically back in his hands.
Ares shook his head. "He won't stop her, the sword will kill one of the twins." He flashed out, going to help his new army.
Jett walked out too, going to find a commander to attach himself to. Their father's early lessons were going to pay off today.
The six-year old triplets looked across the table at their father, then back down at the map. "Father," Jett asked, pointing at a valley. "Why don't we fight there?"
"Because we'll be trapped," he said, not looking up. "We have to keep the fight out of there. Theron!" An older warrior came running. "My sons want to learn tactics and strategy, teach them!"
"Yes, sir," he said, leading the triplets out of the room. "Come, boys, you can't disturb your father."
Jett shook himself from the remembrance, jogging out to grab a horse that was lunging around riderless. He grabbed it and took off, going to help fight for his family's rights. It was his job, after all. And if he got a piece of Hercules while he was at it, good.
Joxer ran into Juren's temple and stopped when he saw his brother tied to the altar. "Oh, no," he vowed, walking over to cut the ropes. He blinked as they reformed, turning to look for the Goddess. "Oh, Bitch Queen," he called out in the sword's voice, "come out, come out where ever you are. I'm waiting."
"You're weak," she said as she appeared behind the altar. "Your human host is weak and he's given you a conscious."
"True, but I like him anyway." He winked at her and lunged, trying to hit her with the blade. "Oh, come on, stand still. Make it hard on this little boy." He looked her over. "My, aren't you so not-regal," he said at her sneer. "No real queen would make a face like that."
She shrieked and teleported out, coming to meet him in the middle of the floor. "Let's fight," she said, looking him over. "Your mortal body's too weak to last very long and then I'll have the pleasure of killing my worshiper."
"Nope." He spun around, coming in under her blade to elbow her, his sword going up under her arm to cut her. He got free before she could lock him there, stepping back a little. He ducked the little knives that came out of nowhere, dodging them as best he could when they turned and came back for more. "A Goddess of War has to cheat to win?" he asked in mock-shock. "What would Ares say?"
"Nothing. I made sure he's going to be gutted today. While he's healing, I'm going to be enjoying destroying this whole army in front of him." She rushed forward, knocking him down. "That's where you belong, at a real warrior's feet."
Joxer laughed and it was in his voice this time. "If you really think so, that's nice, but I don't." He bit her when she tried to grab him, then pulled her down with him. They wrestled for a few minutes, but she ended up getting free and standing up. "Shoot," he said as he stood up, panting. "I liked seeing you under me. It was nice to see a Goddess finding the spot she belongs."
Athena shrieked in outrage, her eyes flashing with rage now. She engaged him again, narrowly missing her chance to kill him, but not missing the point of the blade that entered her side. "Bastard!" she cried, stepping back to examine the cut. "How dare you injure me!"
"Yay," he said, and it was the sword's voice again. He followed her, not giving her a chance to recover. Each time she moved, he countered and hit her with the blade somehow - a flat slap here, a prick there, even a long thrust back into the bleeding gash to open it farther. He stepped back to catch his breath and watched his opponent for her next move, blocking her quick lunge at him and stepping out of her way. He swung the sword at her side as she ran past him, getting her in the other side. She screamed and turned to glare at him, holding this new, deeper cut. "You will pay," she vowed, disappearing as the temple's doors opened.
Joxer turned to find a few of the lower commanders and a General standing there, and gave them a weak smile. "Get my brother off the bitch's altar and bring him up to my room," he commanded quietly, leaning against the pillar next to him. "Hey, Carlis," he said, waving his hand. "What's going on out there?"
"They're running away," he said, coming over slowly. "Is the sword safe?" It quivered but didn't move. "I see. Are you ready to go back to your rooms, Lord Joxer?" he asked respectfully.
"Only if I can have some heated rocks," Joxer mumbled, the sword dropping from his hand as he started to shake. He fell onto the floor, the shaking increasing as he went into real seizures.
"Let me have him!" Juren yelled, trying to get free of the soldiers holding him. "I can help him!"
"Let him go," Carlis commanded, getting out of his way. He watched as the twin knelt beside his brother and lifted his head into his lap. "We should take him into the main house," he reminded the remaining twin as the shaking slowed down. Juren looked up at him, tears starting to flow down his cheeks. "Juren, your brother needs to go up to the main house so the healers can help him," he said again, bending down to offer the boy a hand. "Come, let us carry him. He fought a Goddess, he deserves a good rest." Juren nodded and allowed himself to be pulled up, leaning on the old General as they followed his brother's body up to the main house.
Jace screamed when she saw them carrying her brother, running over to stop them. "What happened?" she shrieked, looking at Juren. "What happened?" She grabbed him to shake him. "What?"
"Let him go," Jett said calmly, pulling Jace off Juren. "What happened?"
"In the house," Carlis commanded. "Not in front of the rest of the army!" He pointed. "Up to his room!" The soldiers carried the limp body up to his room, the rest of the family following. Carlis stopped one of the minor commanders by grabbing him on the arm. "How many healers are free?"
"None, sir," he said, looking at the house. "There's a healer up there, Xena's just as good if I've heard right."
Carlis sighed. "Good. Go let it be known that Lord Joxer and Athena were fighting over Juren's life. And she left before he collapsed." The younger man looked shocked. "Then the sword got him again," he said grimly. The younger man ran off, heading off into the darkening night. Carlis walked into the house, watching as servants ran up the stairs with cloths and water, trying to stay out of their way as he walked up to be with the family. He patted Jace on the shoulder, letting her give him a hug so she could cry on him. "How is he?" he asked quietly.
"Apollo's in with him," she sobbed. "He can't do anything though!"
"He will," Jett said, looking at Carlis. "There's not going to be as many of us." He walked back into the room and slammed the door, looking at the people bunched around the bed. "Which one are you saving?" he asked, looking at where Juren had passed out as soon as they had made it back to Joxer's room.
"Both of them," Ares said, looking at him. "With only one body." He stared down at the body on the bed. "We can only save one of their body's," he said quietly, looking over at Xena.
"Save Juren's body," Jett decided. "Put Joxer in there with him. It's not fair to Joxer to make Juren stay in him forever. Not with his injuries."
"Point," Apollo conceded. "Okay. What does your other brother say?"
"She's nearly hysterical." Apollo looked at him. "In times of stress, Jace turns even more female," he said with a shrug. "It tends to annoy us, but it's the way she is." He looked down at the bodies. "So be it, whatever's the best for both of them." He left the room, leaving the two Gods and the wanna-be healer working on his brother. "They can only save one," he said, making Jace cry harder. "They can put them both into Juren's body they think."
Jace wiped her face off. "It would be cruel to put them into Joxer's," she agreed delicately. She looked at the closed door. "Can I go in?"
"Are you sure you want to?" She shook her head. "Then I'd wait." He leaned against the wall, looking at the General. "How's the army?"
"Living," Carlis admitted. "There's not that many injuries. Only three deaths, all from those blasted archer women's bows. Everyone else had minor injuries." He nodded at the door. "What about his arrangements?"
"There won't be a body to burn," Ares said as he walked out. "Apollo merged their bodies." He looked at Jace. "Both of them live, but they're one person again." He looked her over. "Why don't you go calm down?" he asked, his disgust thinly veiled.
"Leave her alone," Jett warned softly. "She's got a right to grieve." Ares stared at him. "She does."
"True, but she should do it somewhere away from Hercules when he's dragged back up here."
"Go to your room, Jace," Jett ordered. "I'll take care of this."
"Oh, no, *I* will take care of him!" she insisted. "He's the reason my brother is injured."
"The reason your brother is injured is because part of Ares' immortal soul, the bad part, is imbedded in the sword," Apollo said as he appeared behind them in the hallway. "A long time ago, we stripped Ares of his worst traits and bundled it into two places, a stone and a sword. Joxer got all the noble warrior traits along with the smart-ass and asshole tendencies." He smiled at Jace, looking over her outfit. "Killer armor, kid." He looked at Ares. "It's done. I'm gonna go clean up now. Maybe see if I can't cut Athena a little deeper." He winked and left in a shower of sunlight.
Ares shook his head. "I never knew about this, but I can't fix it any more than we already have." He looked at Xena as she walked out of the bedroom. "You tell them." He left too.
Xena cleared her throat but she didn't look at them. "Joxer and Juren were joined together. Some of the damage was cured, but not all of it. And the sword is now contained." She glanced at Jett. "It's done."
Jett nodded. "Good. Jace, your room!" he ordered.
"Bite me," she lisped, glaring at him, falling back onto her stage persona. "Get out of my way, youz tramp!" She shoved past him. "This first watch is mine! Youz go deal with the Herculeze person. Make sure he never comes near us again!" She slammed the door in his face.
"Okay," Jett said with a shrug. "Give me the fun job, see if I complain." He smirked at Xena. "Wanna help? I heard you had a way with torture once upon a time."
She smiled and shook her head. "No, I'll let you have all the fun. Just leave him living and moving." She walked away. "I'm going to bathe. Call if you need me."
"Oh, you'll know if you're needed," Jett agreed, walking out of the house. He wandered over to where the prisoners were, pointing at Iolaus. "He fought beside us," he said as he walked past them. "Bring this one to me in a tent," he said, pointing at Hercules. He walked into a nearby tent and scared the people out. "Now!" he called out, bringing the warriors running. He ignored them while he set up a pole to hold the demi-God. He turned to look at the man who might have caused his brother to die, then at the warriors. "Did you want to watch?" he asked archly, pointing at the pole. "Put him there."
"We wanted to know about your brothers," the one on the left said as he tugged Hercules over to the pole. "Are they still living?"
"More or less," Jett told him, giving him a cold smile. "Even Juren is mostly living. They're just in different forms now." The warrior nodded, backing away. "Apollo blessed them by fixing the tragedy of their births."
Both warriors looked stunned as they left, probably going to spread the news. As the tent flap closed, they heard a sickening snap and shuddered. Jett had a reputation around the camp and he was the one that none of them wanted to meet when he was in a bad mood.
Joxer slowly woke up and blinked up at the ceiling. "I'm living?" he asked quietly, knowing someone was nearby.
"Yes, you are," Jace said, coming over to sit beside him, brushing the back of her hand down his cheek.
"Is in there with you," she said quietly. "Apollo joined you. The damage is much less now. We weren't sure which one of you was going to end up on the outside."
Joxer turned to look at his brother. "Are you sure? I can't feel him."
"I'm sure. Ares said so." She looked over her shoulder as the door opened and Iolaus walked in. "He's just woken up."
"I know. I'm the camp's messenger." He held out a letter. "From the Generals. And Ares."
Jace took it and handed it over. "What's Jett doing?" She blanched at the sickened look the other man had on his face. "That bad?"
"He's having fun," Joxer said, squeezing Jace's hand. "It's okay. He'll leave them living, but much wiser about leaving us alone."
Jace smiled down at him. "I know, but I still don't want to think about what he's doing. It makes me ill." She stood up, glancing at Iolaus, who was standing there. "I'll leave you two alone." She winked at her brother before strolling out.
Joxer shook his head as he opened the letter, then tossed it over at his friend. "How's Hercules holding up?"
"Jett's given up on him, for now." He sat down on the edge of the bed, careful not to touch Joxer. "How are you feeling?"
"Good enough, I guess." Joxer pulled himself up and smiled at Iolaus. "I'm not fragile, really," he offered, holding out his arms. "Jace told me hugs were nice."
"They are," Iolaus said, nodding, lunging over to give him a quick hug. He went back to his spot, giving his friend an embarrassed look. "So, can you feel him? Juren I mean."
"Yeah, kinda. I can feel his calmness. He always was the better half," he said with a sad smile. "He had all the patience and the brains."
Iolaus reached over and pinched Joxer's foot. "Stop it, you can't put yourself down. Doing that means that you're dishonoring everything you and your brother stood for." He stood up. "What should I tell the Generals?"
"I like their plan," he admitted, giving his friend a smile. "Thanks, Iolaus. Come back later?"
"Sure," he said with an easy grin. "Anything to get away from Hercules groaning about his broken jaw." He jogged out of the room, letting Xena and Jett take his place.
"Hey," he said, waving at his brother. "Thank you for cleaning up." He looked at Xena. "Thank you too."
"Anything else I can do to help, just ask," she said with a smile. She nodded at the door. "I'd better go save Gabrielle from the army, before she pisses them off more," she said at the disapproving looks she was getting. She left them alone, closing the door after her.
Jett walked over and tipped Joxer's head up. "You okay in there?"
"Very," Joxer said, giving him a small, faint smile. "We're both fine," he said, pulling Jett's hand off to squeeze it. "Are they properly chastised?"
"Oh, very," Jett said with his cruelest smile. "Especially Hercules." He winked. "Anything else I can do for you?"
"Can I have some supper?"
"Sure. I can have some brought up." He looked out the window. "You'll need to go out there. There's some wicked rumors being spread around."
"I'll come out later," he said, standing up and shuffling over to his chair. "Hey, I only almost tripped once," he said happily, looking at his brother. "This might be okay after all."
"If you say so," Jett said uneasily. "Is it strange?" he asked after a few minutes of staring at his brother.
"Very," Joxer agreed. "Remember how Juren and I used to finish each other's sentences? Well, now I know how he used to do it." He grinned. "It's really strange, but it's kind of comforting at the same time. I feel more like a real person now." He shrugged. "I'll get used to it. Just don't try it between you and Jace." His smile got brighter. "Not that it wouldn't be funny, you trying to kill someone in one of Jace's dresses and heels."
Jett grimaced and stared out the window. "Been there, done that, have the blisters to prove it." He walked out, closing the door firmly behind him.
Joxer finally closed his mouth and shook his head. "That I would have paid a few dinars to see," he muttered, picking up his book. He had this sudden urge to read....
Joxer walked out onto the front steps of the house, looking out at the warriors who stopped to stare at him. "We should all declare a celebration to Apollo," he shouted. "For saving me!"
The warriors around him cheered and one of them broke out his lute. Pretty soon, a party had started in Apollo's name, celebrating one of the favorite son's rebirth and the naming of the new commanders.
General Carlis walked over to where Joxer was sitting, listening to the music, and sat beside him. "That was a smart move," he said quietly.
"Thanks," Joxer said, reaching over to pat him on the arm. "When did he die, Ares?" he whispered.
"Earlier, after hearing that you were fine." Ares changed back, looking at his chosen warrior. "You all right?"
"I'm better actually," Joxer admitted. "I'm whole again, Ares." He patted the sword on his side. "And it still likes Juren better. Though it will tell me when you're around."
Ares snorted, but he was giving Joxer a fond look. "Good, I knew one of you could handle it." He stood up and stretched. "It's been a long day. I think I'll go home."
"Stay and celebrate with us, Ares? After all, we're your army now," Joxer said with an impish grin. "And I want to ask you something." Ares gave him a tolerant nod. "Is starting to like someone okay? Even if *you* really don't like them?"
"I think you and Iolaus make a cute couple," Ares said with a smile. "He'll protect you and hopefully train you as best he can." He walked off into the crowd, leaving his warrior alone with his thoughts and the music.
Joxer smiled as Iolaus walked over, pointing at the chair. "Sit, talk, and enjoy the music with me."
Iolaus sat down and looked Joxer over. "Are you really okay?"
"I'm really good," Joxer told him, reaching over to touch him on the arm. "You?"
"I'm...a little freaked by all this attention," he said, glaring at the warriors staring at them. "Go have fun in Apollo's name," he said, smiling at them. He looked at Joxer, who was leaning closer. The kiss was short, but oh so sweet and tender. "Um, okay," he said, shrugging.
"I can cook," Joxer said with a grin. "You can fight, I'll cook, and we'll be happy?"
Iolaus nodded. "Sure. But you have to tell Hercules."
"Sure. I'll let Jace tell him. She's the *best* at giving embarrassing information in the most crowded inns." Iolaus snorted, leaning more into Joxer's side. "So, maybe?"
"Maybe," Iolaus agreed. "We'll see what happens when we travel."
"Okay, but I want to come home sometime."
"Okay," Iolaus agreed, stealing another kiss since no one was staring for once. He pulled back at the clapping.
"Don't you people to have a party to go to?" Jett yelled as he walked through the crowds. "Let them have some privacy. New lovers need privacy." He waved at his brother. "Jace is coming," he warned, and he kept on going.
Jace squealed as she caught sight of them, running over to hug them both. "I'm so *HAPPY*!" she shrieked, hugging Iolaus tightly to her enhanced bosom. "Oh, sweetiez, I'm so happy for youz two! It's time for new lovez in this house!"
Iolaus got free, taking great breaths of air. "Man, Jace, don't strangle me before we figure out if we can stand each other!" he complained, but he was grinning.
"Go have fun!" Joxer said, turning Jace around and pushing her toward the musicians. "Go sing something for us." She waddled away, hurrying as fast as she could to talk with the musicians. After all, she needed back up.
Joxer listened as one of his favorite folk ballads was started, grinning at Iolaus. "Wanna dance?" he asked shyly.
"I'll try anything once, as long as it doesn't try to eat me." He pulled Joxer up and onto the floor, moving in the normal patterns. Until Jace started to sing, then he stopped to stare at her. "She's good," he whispered, pointing.
"Yup, I've got a talented sister," Joxer said. He leaned into Iolaus' body, letting him lead as they danced so he wouldn't trip over anyone else. "So, if we get to travel, where are we going first?"
"How about to the South? Hercules is going towards the North, and the only one of us that I know down there is Autolycus."
"Sounds good," Joxer agreed with a smile for the woman he just passed off to the next partner. "After this, we eat," he said firmly once he got back to Iolaus.
"Hey, I'm *always* ready to eat," Iolaus said with a laugh. He led his new friend off the floor and over to where the tables of food were set up, fixing them a tray to take back to their seats. But Joxer led them over to where a few warriors were sitting on the ground. "Can we eat with you guys?" Iolaus asked them as they walked closer.
"Sure," one of them said, moving out of their way so those two could find a spot against the building. "Lord Joxer, you honor...."
"If you finish that sentence, I'm going to tell Jace you want her to sing to you personally," Joxer warned with a grin.
"Well," the warrior said with a smile toward the stage.
"Come up to house later," Joxer said mildly. "We'll see what happens. She's been lonely without her Ibin." He took a bite of the spicy meat, waving a hand in front of his mouth. "Oh, someone had a heavy hand with the peppers," he said, pushing that over to Iolaus' side. After all, the blond warrior didn't get a reputation for eating anything for no reason. He picked up some of the sweet bread and nibbled on it. "So, what's going on tonight, besides the music and the usual party favorites?"
The warriors almost pulled off the hurt look but one of them started to laugh. That one winked at Iolaus. "Just the usual, sir. Some of us are sneaking into town to go visit some of the houses there. We'll be back by morning, of course," he said as he saw Iolaus' dry look.
"Try the one on the alley off the main street, they just got new girls," Iolaus said, smiling at the nervous man. "I was where you are once, for Jason actually." He slurped a piece of the meat, pushing some of it back toward Joxer's side. "Eat. You've got to need it after today." He smiled at the warriors' shocked looks. "What? Fighting Athena must have taken a lot out of him."
"We heard something else happened," one warrior said cautiously.
"Yup," Joxer said, trying to reassure him. "Which is why we're having the celebration in Apollo's name tonight, and upon the dawn, the house will be making an offering to him. I'd be back by then," he said with his usual impish grin.
"I've never seen that look on your face before," Iolaus said, staring at him. "Is that you? I mean, I've seen Juren...."
Joxer laid a hand on his thigh. "This is me. Juren's in here with me, but he's not going to be able to come back out. During the merge, he gave himself freely to save me. He's going to enjoy going out in the world again, same as he used to."
"Only now he can't speak?" Iolaus asked.
Joxer shrugged. "I'm not sure if he can take me over or not." He smiled at the warriors shifting away from them. "It's all right, guys. Apollo merged us earlier when we would have both died. Now I'm both of us."
"Then what do we call you?" the first warrior asked quietly.
"Joxer's fine," he said, still smiling at him. "Just don't call me clumsy, okay? That wasn't fully fixed."
"Of course not, we'd never think of it." The warriors looked at each other then at the sword. "Is that going with you this time?"
"I can control it now, I think." He shrugged, giving them a self-depreciating smile. "I'm going to try. If not, I'll send it back to the house and the commanders will have to hide it." He glanced around. "Who's going to be staying here anyway?"
"You were, or so we thought," one of the other warriors said, not looking at him. "No member of the family will be staying in the house, I guess."
"Not true," Joxer said, reaching over to tap him on the head. "I'm going to still wander, but I'm going to be home very often. When I'm older, I'll probably stay here most of the time." He got hit by Iolaus. "What?"
"We can stay for a few weeks, send for Autolycus to come see us."
"Okay," Jett said as he walked over. "But Hercules sent for him a few days ago, when he heard about the army. He's being escorted in."
"Awwww, let him go," Iolaus complained. "He wouldn't try and steal anything from around here." He looked at the warriors, who all looked confused. "One of our friends is the King of Thieves." They all nodded, smiling at each other. "And he's here. Can you bring him over here, Jett?"
"Sure. Just keep him away from my weapons." He tapped one of the warriors on the head. "Go find Carlis' honor guard. They found him." The young warrior ran off and he sat down in his place. "So, you're gonna stay for a while?"
"Maybe for another month, then I'll go out and wander, but I'm always going to be coming back. Why?"
"Because I was thinking about taking a little time off and staying home too. Just not right now."
"You three could share the duties," Iolaus suggested. "I'm sure Jace would like some time off her hectic schedule too." He covered his mouth. "Oh, please don't let her..him have heard that."
Jett smirked. "Why? She prefers to be called a girl most of the time. Unless she's fighting." He shrugged and stood up as the warrior came back. "We'll work it out before she leaves tonight."
"Which she?" the warrior asked.
"The Lady Jace," Joxer said with a grin. "We're going to be splitting time in the house."
The warrior beamed at him. "That would be nice," he said, pushing Autolycus toward Joxer. "Here, your friend. The Honor Guard found him putting a note on the General's body."
"He was nice to me when we ran into each other," Autolycus said. "I was sending a well-wish with him on his new journey." He brushed his sleeves off as he sat down beside Iolaus. "Hey, blondie. What's up? Hercules sent for me but I don't see him."
"That's because he fought against this army; he's got a broken jaw and some very nasty bruises." Iolaus touched him on the shoulder. "This is Joxer, Jett, and Jace's family's army. Hercules sided with Athena against them."
"Ah. Is he living?"
"Unfortunately, I was asked to leave him leaving," Jett said, staring down at him. Autolycus shuddered. "Good, you do respect some things," he smirked as he walked away.
Joxer shook his head. "Forgive him, a battle always puts him into a playful mood and he didn't have enough time earlier to work it out. You're safe, unless you make a move on him." He smiled at the thief. "Welcome to my family's valley. Just don't steal anything. You *really* don't want Jett to hurt you for fun."
Autolycus looked at Iolaus who nodded. "He's right. You really don't want Jett to play with you. He's the one who got to punish Hercules. I'll have to remember to congratulate him on the job he did. Everything's a very painful wound, but nothing's fatal."
"I'm sure he'd like to hear that," Joxer said quietly, staring at their friend. "Autolycus, are you all right?"
"Yeah, it's just a shock seeing you two together." He shook himself. "So, I heard that this was a party in your honor?"
"No, it's a party in Apollo's honor, he healed me." He glanced away. "He fixed both of us." Iolaus squeezed his leg. "Thanks, it's just going to take some getting used to." He stood up. "You can stay in the house if you want. I'm going to go back to my room." He smiled at Iolaus. "Have fun." He walked out of the gathering of warriors, heading back to his room. He met his brother Jace on the way and she grabbed him, pulling him over to where she was judging some of the warriors to see who had the best armor. "What's wrong?" he asked when he saw her worried glance at him.
"Where's that nummy boy?" she asked him.
"A friend of his showed up so I'm giving him some time alone with him."
"You can't go," one of the warriors said. "You have to stay, you're the one who declared it a celebration."
"It's about how he healed you," another agreed, smiling at him. "I'll even dance with you if your shieldmate wouldn't mind."
"No, he wouldn't mind," Iolaus said as he walked up behind them. "But we're not quite that yet. We're seeing if we're compatible first." He smiled at the warriors and at Jace. "May I steal him first?"
"Of course," Jace said, gracefully curtseying to him. "Please, have my brother, but you'd better make him happy!"
"I'll do my best," Iolaus agreed, leading Joxer away. "He's sorry, he's just that way. Autolycus didn't mean to insult you."
"He didn't," Joxer protested as they walked. "I knew I wasn't wanted there. He doesn't like me, he sees me as an idiot."
"Joxer, for the longest time, *I* saw you as an idiot - until I figured out that it was an act to keep yourself out of trouble because you kept tripping and falling down." Iolaus stopped them. "See, I figured that out, even if no one else did."
Joxer smiled sadly. "Xena did."
"Good, that shows she is as smart as she thinks she is," Iolaus said with a smile. "Are you going to travel with her again?"
"Only if you want to," Joxer said shyly.
Iolaus pulled him in for a hug. "We'll try it for a while. They're going to be back this way in about a month and we'll travel with them for a few weeks. Would you like that?" He saw that amazing smile again and grinned. "Good. You can help me tease Gabrielle."
Joxer snorted. "She hates being teased." He glanced around then kissed Iolaus on the forehead. "Go have fun with your friends, I'm going to go sit on the porch and be pampered by the staff. They like me best," he finished in a whisper, jogging off to the house.
Iolaus shook his head and turned to find Jett and Jace standing behind him. "What?"
"You're going to let him travel with *Xena*?" Jace asked. "She can be quite judgmental." She sniffed. "Xena never even said she liked my act, not even to be polite."
"Then we'll try to help her see how good you are," Iolaus said, giving her a hug. "Don't worry, I won't let her hurt Joxer. Besides, we're going to be here for a few more weeks. We aren't planning on traveling with her for a few weeks."
Jett nodded. "Good. Protect my baby brother or face *her* wrath," he said, pointing at Jace.
Iolaus looked shocked. "You're not going to threaten me personally?"
Jace laid a hand on Iolaus' upper arm. "If he's pissed at you, you won't see him until he's standing over you with a dagger."
"Jace will get you first," Jett agreed, giving them his coldest look. "Are we clear?"
"Very clear," Iolaus agreed, giving him a hesitant smile. "If I hurt him, I'll expect someone to stop me. I wouldn't ever want to hurt whoever I'm with."
Jett nodded, relaxing. "Good. I'll be watching." He walked away. Jace followed after a small wave, jogging after her brother.
Joxer shook his head, but he had a big smile on his face as he walked back over. "I'm glad we worked everything out a few months ago."
"You did?" Iolaus asked, turning to look at him.
"Yup. We met at an inn in Corinth about three months ago, after all the disastrous meetings we've had while I was with Xena. It took us about a weekend to get everything straightened out."
"Lots of yelling?" Iolaus asked.
"Only them at me," he said with a shrug. He started walking again, going up to sit on the porch of the house, smiling at the servants who jumped up to get things for him. "Relax, you're allowed to celebrate too," he told them, taking the glasses and plates they had fixed for him. "Go have fun. That's an order." He sat down against the house, putting the food down between him and Iolaus after he had sat down too. He laughed as one of the younger serving girls was grabbed off the porch and carried over to the dance floor. "She comes back laughing or you're in trouble," he called after the warrior, who turned and waved.
"Are you sure he's going to be all right with her?" Iolaus asked quietly.
Joxer leaned his head closer to his friend's. "If he isn't, he'll be dead by morning. And every man in the army knows that. My father never allowed raping during the few pillages he allowed. That's been an iron-clad rule for as long as I've known about the army."
"That's good to know." Iolaus waved at Xena as she walked past. "It's good to see her having fun too."
"Yeah, she doesn't do that enough." Joxer shifted, trying to get comfortable. "I wonder where Gabby is?"
"She's off in the tents being healed," Iolaus said calmly, grabbing Joxer before he could get up. "She fought beside Hercules." Joxer relaxed. "Jett wasn't that hard on her, not as hard as he was on Hercules. No broken bones, no obvious injuries. Just a few very large bruises."
Joxer leaned his head on Iolaus' shoulder. "Okay." He yawned. "Can I rest?"
"Sure, you rest," Iolaus said, smiling. He kept smiling as Jett walked past them, and the assassin shook his head in disgust. "He needed to rest," he told him quietly.
"Take him upstairs. I'll cover for him for a while. Remember, he's promised to make a dawn offering." Jett took their place on the porch, watching as his nearly-asleep brother was led inside. He picked up a bite of the meat on the plate, wincing. "Someone was living dangerously near the meat," he said, dropping the rest of it. "I've got to talk to them about the spices they're using." He looked over at the gargling noise one of the servants made. "Not you," he said quietly. "You guys do good. One of the warriors cooked the meat, no doubt, and he used too many peppers."
The servant nodded. "I'll find whoever did it and remind them of that, sir," he said, bowing and walking away.
"I'd rather you didn't do that," Jett called after him. The servant peeked his head back around the doorway. "You don't have to bow to me. Treat me like you would Joxer. And go have fun, my brother was right about that. You should be celebrating in Apollo's name too."
The servant bowed. "Thank you, Master Jett. I'll go do that now." He ran off into the crowd of the army, going to find somewhere safe.
Jett shook his head. "Kill one rabid dog in front of the servants and they all treat you like you're dangerous," he sighed, relaxing so he could watch the celebration go on.
Iolaus tucked the nearly-naked Joxer into his bed, smiling down at the sleepy little boy-looking man. "Do you need anything else?"
"Sleep with me?" Joxer asked, holding out his arms. "I have nightmares."
"Of course," Iolaus said, taking off his boots and crawling onto the bed next to him. He hesitated to climb under the held-up blankets, kissing Joxer on the cheek. "I think it's a little soon for me to do that."
"I need to be able to feel you in here with me," Joxer told him, pouting at him. "Please, Iolaus? I really don't want the nightmares to come tonight. Jace and Jett should have one full night of sleep at home."
"Okay," he relented, getting under the blankets. "But I'm keeping my clothes on."
"Take off your vest," Joxer murmured, rolling over to hold him. "It's scratchy."
Iolaus took off his vest, leaving him bare-chested. "Is that better?" he asked quietly, rubbing over the warm flesh against his body. "Is this going to help?" He got a nod and smiled, continuing to rub the relaxed shoulders and back. He fell asleep holding his future lover, comforting each other throughout the night.
When Jace looked in on them after the middle of the night, she smiled and backed out, putting a finger against her lips. "They're sleeping together," she said as she led her new 'guard' away from the bedrooms. "No nightmares tonight," she told Jett, who shrugged. "And they're so *cute*!"
Jett snorted. "Good. As long as he's good to Joxer, then I'm happy for them." He looked up. "Same for you, Jace."
"I know, my dear brother, and you'd surely *hate* to have to kill my men because they were bad to me."
Jett shook his head. "Not really." He smiled at the new 'guard'. "Remember this conversation," he ordered.
The new guy nodded, keeping partially behind Jace the whole time they were around Jett.
Joxer woke up with a yawn, and a realization that he wasn't alone in the bed and he wasn't tired like he usually was. He rolled into the warm body cradling him gently, hugging him. "Iolaus?" he whispered.
"Humph?" Iolaus yawned and woke up, giving him a squeeze. "No nightmares?"
"Not a one," Joxer said, smiling at him. He saw the answering smile and stole a kiss. "We have to get up, we promised to make an offering this morning."
"So we will," Iolaus said. He tried to get up, but Joxer wasn't moving. "Um, that means we have to get up and bathe."
"True," Joxer said, grinning at him. "But I was enjoying looking at you." He laughed at the blush. "You're cute, and I'm going to enjoy waking up like this. Is that okay?" he asked. He didn't want to have upset his new lover this soon.
"It's fine," Iolaus said, squeezing him. "I was thinking that I didn't want to give the offering this morning because I was so stunned by staring at you when you're half-asleep." They shared another kiss then Iolaus pulled himself away and got out, nodding at the bathroom. "Want it first?"
"No, I'll get it second. I've taken a lot of baths recently, so I'm pretty clean."
Iolaus nodded, his smile dimming a little bit. "Will it come back?"
"It shouldn't. As far as I can tell, only some of the coordination damage is left." He sat up in the bed. "It's okay, Iolaus. The weakness and shaking shouldn't come back anytime soon. Maybe when I'm old and the sword decides to move on." He glanced over at where it was lying. "Have you figured out what we're giving to Apollo?"
"I thought you were going to do that," Iolaus said as he walked into the bathroom. He didn't shut the door so they could talk. "An animal?"
"Maybe," Joxer said as he got out of the bed and stretched. He checked the light outside and frowned. "Iolaus, it's well past dawn," he called.
"And you're still yelling," Jett grumbled from the doorway. "We sacrificed two bulls to him this morning. He said he wanted you to sleep in this morning so he wasn't pissed. But he did ask us to turn Juren's temple into one for him." He handed over the tray he was carrying. "Where's blond boy?"
"Washing up. I should have been there."
"Ares stopped us from waking you up," he said with a shrug. "The Gods decided you needed to sleep in this morning."
"Okay," Iolaus said from the bathroom doorway. "We'll work on the new temple this afternoon." He looked at Joxer, who nodded.
Joxer looked back at his brother. "What about Juren's lover?"
"He left during the night. He did leave you a note, but he said he wasn't really needed here anymore. Jace gave him a nice bag of money so he could go wherever he wanted and resettle himself. I sent a few warriors with him to escort him." He lounged against the doorway. "We didn't ask him to go," he said at the upset look he was getting. "Marcan came to us and asked if he could leave. We tried to tell him he could stay and help us take care of the house and stuff. He decided he wanted to be on his own."
"And if he decides to come back?" Iolaus asked.
"Then he'll be welcome," Joxer told him, glancing at him. "He'll always be welcome here." He looked at Jett again. "Let that be known?"
"You can do that later," Jett reminded him. "You're not leaving this afternoon, like you would normally."
"Okay," Joxer said, giving him a smile. "What else happened?"
"Ares wants a new altar, his is chipped and has a large crack in it. I started a few warriors on that an hour ago. Apollo wants us to change Athena's temple to one for him, but it won't take that much energy. He said it was almost perfect the way it was. He left a scroll for you, it's downstairs." He stood up as Iolaus walked out, redressed in the same pants as yesterday. "I'll have some of the extra clothes from the closets sent up," he said before disappearing.
"That wasn't really necessary," Iolaus said, coming over to hug Joxer from behind. "I'm fine with what I have."
"My mother kept a closet of clothing for warriors that came to us that had lost everything." He turned to look at his lover. "We saw someone after almost every war, all of them destitute and ready to collapse. She was always very good about dressing them and making sure they were fine to go on."
Joxer nodded, giving him a sad smile. "She was a good woman, most of the time. She just had the interest of the army more in her mind than us four." He gave Iolaus a squeeze. "I'm going to bathe."
"The water's dirty," Iolaus warned.
Joxer shook his head. "Then I'll get some clean sent up." He walked into the bathroom and pulled on a rope that led down to the kitchen, a sign that he needed more water. He uncorked the drain in the tub, letting it wash down some tubing his mother had forced his father to have put in which took the dirty water away from the house. He stepped out of the servants' way, watching as they refilled the tubs. He stopped the older one, smiling at him. "What do I have to do today, besides dedicating Athena's old temple to Apollo?"
"There's a few matters of protocol to deal with, mostly with the new Commanders," he said quietly. "They'll want to know what rules you want to keep from your father's rule." Joxer nodded. "Other than that, we'll have to go over the household budget with you later also. Just so we don't displease you with how much we spend on everything."
Joxer patted him on the shoulder. "Tell the Commanders I'll see them in the library in about an hour, that I need to eat and bathe first." The servant nodded, swallowing hard. "Stick your head out the door and tell the first warrior you see to bring the message."
"Yes, Lord Joxer." He glanced around. "We heard you were leaving in a month?"
"We three have decided to share the house when we needed some down time. That means that someone will be here a lot, but not constantly. Do you think that would be all right?"
The servant grinned. "Yes, sir, then the girls could scrub the house like they used to under your mother's watch while the army was gone." He bowed. "As you will it. Would you consider putting in a system of bringing messages down from the house, or up to the house?"
"Sure," Joxer said, smiling at him. "Anything else?"
"That one girl, the one that went dancing, didn't come back," he said quietly.
"Then I'll deal with that too," Joxer promised him, getting serious. "I will keep that rule of my father's. There will be no molestations in this army." The servant nodded and walked out, side- stepping Iolaus as he walked in.
"The girl didn't come back?"
"No, and I'm going to address that first." He blushed, glancing at the bath.
"Oh, go ahead and bathe. I'll be out here...inhaling breakfast." He walked away.
"You could stay," Joxer called quietly. "I wouldn't mind."
Iolaus came back to the doorway. "I will, once we're both ready for that." He smiled and walked away again.
Joxer sighed and got undressed, climbing into his bath. He smiled as he poured in a little oil, splashing it around.
"You look like a little kid," Iolaus said from the doorway, smiling at him.
"I am, when I can get away with it." He smiled and pointed at the stool in the corner. "You can talk to me if you want. My nurse used to do that."
Iolaus walked in, pulling the stool over next to the tub. "Joxer, what do you want to happen between us? I want to know so I won't get my hopes up."
"Well, I kinda liked it when someone suggested we were shieldmates," Joxer admitted. "I wouldn't mind going in that direction. I mean, if you want to."
"I might like that," Iolaus admitted. "I really wouldn't mind if we made this more long-lasting."
"I'd like that," Joxer said, pulling his lover's head down to kiss him. "I would like that a lot. Same as I would if you'd get in here with me."
"Wow, you're very strong-willed."
"I always have been." Joxer pulled back to grin at him. "And Juren was stubborn. You're in for it when we fight."
"Then we shouldn't do that, huh?" Iolaus smirked as he stood up and stripped down, climbing into the warm water to cuddle with his new man. "I like this. I've never had a lover that wanted so much contact before. It was always sex with them."
"I'd like that too," Joxer said mischievously. He was tickled and his screams of laughter floated through the house.
Downstairs in the kitchen, Jett shook his head but Jace smacked him for it. "It's good he's happy," Jace reminded him. "He deserves someone who makes him happy and playful. He's not had enough of that." She sniffed, looking at the men standing around her. "Play is good for older boys, correct?" she asked.
"Yeah," they agreed, nodding.
Jett closed his eyes and shook his head. "Jace, how do you do that?" He picked up his breakfast and walked out into his mother's garden to eat in peace.
Jace smiled at her men. "Good, we're alone now. I need as much playing as my brother does," she cooed, laughing when a few of the warriors looked scared and panicked. "Don't worry, I'll train you right," she said, touching their chins.
Joxer walked into the library, smiling at the Commanders waiting on him. "Sorry, I got caught up in my bath." He sat down and waved a hand at the couch across from him. "Sit, let's talk." The two commanders, the leaders of the army, sat across from him. "First, I need to ask. Do you know where the serving girl that was pulled off the porch to go dance is? I was told she never came back last night."
"One of the warriors claimed her as his wife," the Commander on the left said, grimacing. "If you don't care for married couples...."
"Stop," Joxer said, holding up a hand. "I like married couples, as long as they're both not fighting." Both Commanders nodded, relaxing a little bit. "But I am keeping my father's rules about rape, and about married couples." He got stereo nods. "What rules did you have a doubt about?"
"For one, we have a worry about the traveling rules," the Commander on the left said. Apparently Redfinis was going to be the spokesman. "We've had trouble moving the army before, at least doing it quickly."
"Well," Joxer said, leaning forward. "How about this? Can you break it into units? Something like a fighting force at a time, complete with support staff? That way, if one gets stuck, the whole army doesn't and they'll have backup?"
"If we separate their leaving by an hour or so, it might work," Redfinis agreed, smiling at the young warrior. "You've learned a lot in your travels."
"No, but I know what it's like to get Xena and Gabrielle moving in the mornings," he said with a wink. "I'm assuming it's about the same as getting Gabrielle moving in the morning."
"Maybe," Redfinis agreed, laughing. "They can act like girls sometimes." He looked at his co- commander, Arul, and smiled. "What about you?"
"I think that would work, especially if we can break it down into smaller units. Maybe of under a hundred and their support. But we'd have to include the armorers in one unit by themselves, with carts."
"So you move that one with a unit, one that's meant to protect them," Joxer suggested.
Arul thought for a second then nodded. "That would work for me." The Persian nodded slowly. "That might work for the best anyway."
Redfinis nodded. "That would work for me. We can try it the first time we have to go out and fight." The big Norseman looked at his companion. "What about the pillage rule? A lot of the younger warriors think that they're going to get spoils of war."
"They get paid," Joxer reminded them, sitting back. "That's up to you to teach them differently. Hopefully, it's being made apparent before they sign up." Redfinis nodded quickly. "Good. What else needs to be discussed?"
"How about our new Generals? Coreson?" Arul asked. "He's a bit young."
"He's got the makings of a good leader," Joxer argued. "He needs some experience before I want him to have your position. Technically, if he had experience, I would have named him with you two. The army's actually big enough to have three commanders leading in tandem." He smiled. "He's a great tactician. He taught us strategy when we were teens. Also, he has a lot of patience; he didn't kill us when he taught us as teens."
Arul smiled. "True. I do have another question. I do not worship Ares...."
"Can you do your own in private and uphold Ares to the men?"
Arul nodded. "I can do that, as long as I'm not made to worship him."
"I won't do that," Redfinis said soothingly. "I'll make all dedications to Ares, you can stand there beside me."
Arul nodded. "Good." He looked at Joxer. "He does have a point. Neither of us do have experience in figuring out all the angles of a battle."
"But you both see it differently," Joxer reminded them. "You each come to every battle with a unique way of seeing things. And, in a few years, after he has some experience with leading, you can have Coreson put in his two cents."
Redfinis snorted. "That boy thinks that he's already the warlord."
"Speaking of which, where is he?"
"He's out looking at the troops," Arul said quietly. "He said they were getting weak. Too many celebrations."
Redfinis laughed. "Hamer's too tough on those boys the day after a celebration."
"But it keeps them ready for anything," Joxer reminded him gently. "Including a fight. When better to attack an army than after a night of victory celebration?"
Arul laughed. "True. I had forgotten about that saying of your father's." He punched Redfinis on the shoulder. "Hamer should be here with us."
"Oh, I was asked to suggest something to you, and this would be the perfect time. The servants hate having to come down into the encampment to bring messages, it tends to scare them horribly." Joxer smiled. "They wanted to know if you three couldn't find a way to set up a message system."
Arul looked up as Warlord Hamer walked in, standing up to bow to him. "Your grace," he said respectfully.
"Stop it," Hamer said, tossing down his leather gloves. "So, what do you want to change?"
"Well, I agree with the servants on this, there should be a way of getting messages back and forth from the camp without a servant almost being scared to death." He waved a hand at the couch. "Sit, I'm more than willing to talk to you also."
Hamer frowned but he sat down in a chair between the couch and Joxer. "What else?"
"We were talking about the troop movement problem," Joxer told him. "It was suggested that we move them in smaller groups. A fighting force, and it's support staff, at a time."
"We were thinking about spacing them about an hour apart," Redfinis told him. "That's close enough if there's an ambush, but far enough to keep them separated."
"And the armorers?"
"I thought maybe a small unit going with them and their carts to protect them," Joxer told him. "Coreson once told me that a caravan could be protected by ten men if need be."
Hamer looked impressed. "Good. I like that. What else?"
"We three triplets have decided that we'll be taking turns in this house," Joxer told him quietly. "I'm not leaving for a month. The next will probably be Jett. So, if we're not here and there's a problem, you're going to have to find us. If we're here, then someone's probably still going to have to find the rest of us. We've decided that we're running everything for the family jointly."
Hamer laughed, throwing his head back to let it out. "Oh, that's a good one, Lord Joxer. How long do you plan on lording over us?"
"About a month," Iolaus said from the doorway. "And I doubt he's going to be lording over anything." He walked in and handed Joxer a letter. "From Xena. She left this morning."
"She was here?" Hamer asked, his hand going to his sword.
"She was. I've been traveling with her," Joxer told him, reading the note. He looked up at the Warlord. "She accuses you of harming someone against their will," he said coldly. "How do you answer her charge?"
"That was a prisoner of war," Hamer spat.
Redfinis stood up, drawing his sword out smoothly. "That does not matter. You haven't been here that long, but we do *not* believe in that form of punishment in this army." Hamer stood up and glared at him, both of them looking across the swords. "You are not fit to lead if this is true."
"I agree," Joxer said, pointing at the couch. "Sit, Redfinis." He looked at the newly-appointed Warlord. "Is this true? Xena said she's taken the girl to Corinth for treatment." He tapped the letter on his thigh a few times. "I will ask for a fair trial if you request."
"No need," Hamer said, putting up his sword. "This army is too soft. Ares would never allow such heresy as this in his favored army."
"But he has for years," Iolaus pointed out. "Even if both he and Athena protected the army before, that was still the rule."
"Then it should be changed! Ares would never allow it!"
Joxer stood up, glaring at him. "You dare tell me to contradict Ares' direct order?" he hissed. "He gave my father that order, and it has been followed faithfully until now. Usually we put men to death for this, but this time, we shall hold a trial. Arul, make sure this man is put on *fair* trial. And both of you two consider who you want as a Warlord." He looked Hamer over. "This is your last chance to avoid death."
"I will not yield," Hamer said, lunging at Joxer, pulling a belt knife. Before he got more than a step, Joxer's sword was in his hand and through the former Warlord's chest. "No!" he screamed as he died. "It's cursed!"
"Only to it's wielder," Joxer said calmly. He wiped it off on his opponent's leg. "Redfinish, I need a new Warlord."
Ares appeared, clapping. "Good job. I wasn't sure if he was going to be that zealous." He looked at Joxer's sword. "Put it away," he commanded quietly.
Joxer looked at his sword in confusion. "When did I pull that?"
Ares sighed, rolling his eyes.
"It's not as strong," Redfinis reminded his God. "He had no control of it, but he knew what was going on."
"It's an improvement," Arul agreed, nodding at Ares. "Is our agreement to your liking, Lord Ares?"
"Huh? Oh, the non-worshiping thing? As long as you don't get up in front of everyone and dis me, I'm okay with it," he said, looking at Joxer again. "You okay now?"
Joxer sat down and took Iolaus' hand. "Yeah, I'll be fine. I could see it but I couldn't stop it this time." He looked at the warriors around him. "It is an improvement. Do you want to tell me who you want as the Warlord?"
"Actually, I think we have one," Redfinis said, looking at Ares, who nodded and flashed out. "Lord Joxer, it's your job. You beat the last Warlord and that is the rule your father set down." Arul looked startled.
"Me?" Joxer squeaked. "A Warlord?" He laughed. "I'm not Warlord material!"
"Who better?" Iolaus asked. "You know this army, you were raised in it. Most of the men trust you."
"And you'd have us as your most trusted advisors," Redfinis agreed.
Arul looked him over. "You are inexperienced but you do have a good heart and knowledge of battles. And you know people who you can go to for advice when you need it."
"Yeah, I do," Joxer said, still feeling shocked. "But I wanted to travel."
"So, turn it over to Jett when he gets home," Arul suggested. "We've lived through your brother Jace taking over for a month and a half." He gave Joxer a bland look. "We can survive your brother Jett also. If anything, that would keep the army on it's toes."
"I like it," Iolaus said quietly, sitting on the arm of Joxer's chair. "I've never met a *good* Warlord before. You'd definitely be something unexpected."
"But I'd have to fight," Joxer reminded them.
"Not really," Iolaus countered. "I've never seen a Warlord on the front lines yet." Joxer looked up at him. "And even if you do have to fight, you can do that as long as you have your sword."
Joxer shook his head, standing up to get away from them. "I can't, that's not who I am."
Jett and Jace walked into the library and they both looked at the dead body then at their brother. "So," Jace said, looking at her brother over. "You took up Father's old challenge?"
"What?" Joxer asked, looking at them. "You can't be serious."
"Father always said that if you could beat him then you could have the Warlord's job," Jace said with a delicate shrug. "You beat the Warlord, it's your job now."
"Well, I don't want it!" Joxer yelled. "Give it to someone else, Arul. Pick someone and saddle them with the job." He started to storm out but Iolaus grabbed him, pulling him back into the room to sit him down. "I want to go to my room," Joxer said calmly. "Please?"
"Not yet," Iolaus said gently, wrapping his arm around Joxer's shoulders. "Just relax and let's figure this out."
A big dog landed in front of Joxer and sniffed him, then walked over to sniff Jett and Jace, who it licked on the hand. Then it howled, bringing its master. Ares landed behind Joxer and Iolaus again, glaring at his dog. "What? I know! Greet the new Warlords and get over it already. You can't piss on these to mark them as yours."
Iolaus looked up at the God of War. "He does?" he asked, trying hard not to grin.
"It's a bad habit he's picked up recently," Ares said, glaring at his dog. "Be good or stay in the temple for the next year!"
Jett got down to look in the dog's eyes. "If you piss on me, I'm going to have a Dog of War vest," he snarled.
The dog licked him and yipped, jogging over to jump in Joxer's lap to lean over his shoulder at his master. He barked twice, thumping Joxer with his tail. "Calm down," Joxer complained, pushing the dog down into his lap. "Don't beat me up, I've had enough of that the last few days." The dog licked him too, then looked up to bark at his master. "Ares, what's your dog doing?"
"He's always known who would make a good Warlord." Ares shrugged at Iolaus' incredulous look. "He likes to wander among the warrior candidates and mark who he wants to succeed. He's got very good insight into the leadership situation." He reached down to scratch his dog behind the ears. "Good boy. Go home. And tell Strife to go play with his friends." The dog disappeared. "Good, now that that's settled. Have fun." He faded out too.
"ARES!" Joxer yelled. "I'm not the Warlord! I can't do that!"
Ares reappeared, a fireball in his hand. "Oh, really?" he asked calmly. "Do it or be fried!"
Joxer hopped up to glare at him. "I'm not a Warlord, I can't be that ruthless."
Ares grimaced, his whole face showing distaste. Iolaus hopped up to get in front of Joxer. "Listen, do you know how many Warlords have the stones to stand up to Ares this way?" he asked quietly.
Iolaus tipped Joxer's face down so he could look at him. "No one stands up to Ares like that, not many of the Warlords will even stand up and yell at him like you just did."
Jett walked over to pat Joxer on the back. "Congrat's bro. You just proved that you've got the balls to be the next Warlord." He smirked at Ares. "And we get it when he's not here, right?"
"Sure, fine, whatever," Ares said, looking at Jace. "Even you, if you can hold yourself together."
"I wouldn't," Jett warned, pulling Joxer and Iolaus out of Jace's way.
"Oh, really?" Jace shrilled coldly, stomping forward. "I am *perfectly* in control of myself, Lord Ares. Not even *you*," she spat, "have the right to tell me what I do with my life. I'm going back to my Ibin."
Joxer pulled her in for a hug. "Shh, he didn't mean it like that. He meant your rages and calm periods," he said quietly. "Are you okay?"
She sniffed but nodded. "Fine. But I'm still going back to my Ibin." She smiled at Iolaus, reaching out to touch his cheek. "You be good to my brother or I will come back. And I am *much* scarier than Jett." She got free and looked Ares over. "Maybe you should talk to your sister, *she* always has such good taste in clothes," she shot before leaving the room.
Jett closed his eyes and shook his head. "Just don't blast us over her," he muttered, turning to leave.
Ares snickered. "I like her, she's going to be fun to listen to when she leads the army." He looked at Joxer. "You feel better yet?"
Joxer shook his head. "I'm not Warlord material, Ares. I can't be cold and calculating. I can't place lives below land."
"Then don't," he said with a little shrug. "I never said you had to. You just have to lead."
"Let me explain it to him," Iolaus begged, silently praying to Ares to not blast Joxer into pieces. Ares winked at him when Joxer turned to start pacing and he sighed in relief. "Joxer, if you think about it, you're the perfect Warlord for this army. It has to stay strict and straight-on. You've got the morals to know what that is, without having to fight against them when someone attacks you." Joxer turned to look at him. "You won't hesitate when it counts, and you've got very good commanders under you right now. Besides, if you've got a problem, you can always call on us."
"Even you?" Joxer asked quietly. "Will you stay?"
Iolaus looked shocked. "You mean that?"
Joxer blushed and turned away. "I'll understand if you don't want to stay, I know that you like to travel."
"Hey, there are too many days when all I really want is a bed and a warm bath." Iolaus walked over to stand in front of his boyfriend. "I'd kill if I could stay here with you. And hey, we can still travel, you'll get to turn the army over to Jett or Jace for a few months and we'll go somewhere no one's heard of us and help people."
Joxer hugged Iolaus hard. "Thank you." He looked up. "If I have to, Ares, then I will. But I'm still not going to be happy about it."
"That's what makes you perfect," Iolaus reminded him, pulling back some. "You'll never get power hungry and go after people for the fun of it. Your dislike of the job will keep the army clean." He stole a kiss. "We should go announce this."
"We'll do that," Arul said, reminding them that they were still in the room. He stood up. "Let us call the commanders under us together and we'll call you when it's time." He hit Redfinis on the chest to get him to follow, interrupting the other man's voyeurism. "Come, it's time to call our first meeting."
Redfinis pushed himself up with a grunt and followed his counterpart out of the house and down into the camp.
Iolaus smiled at Joxer. "I have a feeling that our relationship will become camp gossip soon."
"Well, the boys have to have something to talk about," he said with a shrug and a grin. "Can I have a real kiss now?"
Iolaus smirked and leaned in to kiss him. By the time he got to pull back to breathe, he was very impressed with his boyfriend. "Wow," he whispered.
"I used to sneak into Jace's lessons," Joxer admitted with a blush.
"Jace got lessons?"
"Um, yeah," Joxer said, walking away. "Jett has always been the family's enforcer. Jace was the one that Father used to use as a tempting pawn. He used to offer her as an enticement to new Generals who he wanted to merge with his army." He stopped when he realized Iolaus wasn't following him. "There was a clause that said as soon as he was ignored, then he got to come back home again. Only one of the former Warlords didn't take him up on the offer." He grimaced. "And there was only one that had to be killed because of what he did to my brother. Too bad my knife slipped and I only cut him deeply." He shrugged and continued up the stairs. "Come on, we've got to change clothes." He looked Iolaus over. "Well, you're okay, but I've got to change," he said, looking down at his simple cloth pants and shirt. "I'll be laughed at if I go out there wearing this."
Iolaus shook himself and followed Joxer up the stairs. "I saw armor in your closet," he called as he jogged up the stairs.