Notes: I really do like small furry animals. Really.
Protecting The Family Interests.
Joxer took off his armor and put it in the special trunk his father had created for it. As he straightened all the way up for the first time in months, his back started to ache, but it was a good ache. It meant he was home for a while. His duty wasn't over, but he was getting a vacation from it. He walked into the back rooms of the small temple and collapsed on a couch with a sigh of relief. "Finally, no more walking."
"You suck," Strife said with a grin.
"No, fuck *you*," Strife countered.
"No, fuck you both," Cupid growled.
"Gee, bro, but wouldn't that upset Dad?" Joxer asked. He ducked the thrown pillow. "No thanks, I'm comfy already."
"Good," Ares said as he walked in. "Then you can get your feet off the couch and give me a report."
"She's helping Gabrielle visit her family and annoying them for a while," Joxer told him. He grinned at his father. "They still don't know or suspect that you sent me to watch over Xena, but they're *very* annoyed with me." He nudged Strife. "It worked really well."
"Cool," Strife said with a shrug. "Knew it would."
"Yeah, right," Joxer snorted. "That's why you ducked behind the tree when we tried it out."
"Enough," Ares said tiredly. "Joxer, where're your brothers?"
"Beats me. Last I heard, Jett had just escaped the jail Xena stuck him in and was out for blood." He grimaced. "Jace was up near the northern border doing some sort of command performance thing."
Ares nodded. "Thank you. Now can you please keep it down? Hera's having a rag and we're not getting anything done in Council. She's already yelled at me about you three once."
"Let her come down here and try it," Joxer said, his eyes flashing. "I won't be stopped this time."
"You'll sit there and take it," Hera said as she appeared. "How dare you step foot in this temple!"
Joxer stood up. "Listen, Hera. Whether or not you like it, Ares is my father. Not only am I devoted to him, I spend my life serving him, plus your whims. I can rest and talk to my family if I want. If you can't understand that, then why are you in charge of families?" He sat down, rubbing his sore feet. "It's bad enough I had to hear about Gabrielle's short marriage for the last few weeks. If you want to rag on me because I wouldn't marry your priestess, then go right ahead. I'll take another nap, I could use one."
She glared at him. "How dare you!"
"Mother, leave my son alone," Ares said tiredly.
"No, I will not. Make him leave!"
"No. I won't make my own son leave my temple. Nor will I put up with you trying to force the boy into a marriage against his will."
"You didn't like it and we don't appreciate it either," Cupid told her, sticking up for his brother, something he wasn't known for. His mother had butted in too many times over the years for him to be really close to the triplets. "The Love Gods won't sanction any marriage for the triplets unless they ask."
"They don't need love," she ground out.
"No, I need love or I'm not touching them," Joxer told her. "And if you want to blast me to Tartarus, go right ahead. I've traveled with Xena for the last year, it'd be a welcome vacation."
Strife patted him on the thigh. "No, it wouldn't. Trust me here." He looked at Hera. "Want me to go do somethin' nasty ta the old goat?" Usually only Zeus could get her this worked up.
She shook her head, taking another look around. "Ares, you're wanted back at the meeting."
Ares sat down in his chair, shaking his head. "I'm tired, Mother. I'm going to sit here for a few minutes and appreciate having one of my children home, then I'm going to take a nap. I'll come back tomorrow, after the petty bickering is over with. That way Zeus can't blame me for it breaking out this time."
"Zeus himself called for you."
Ares swore under his breath as he heaved himself back up. "Fine. But only for a few minutes. Then I'm going to take a nap so I can appreciate my son's homecoming for a while." He disappeared.
Joxer looked at Hera. "I'm sorry, but you don't scare me and neither does Zeus. There's nothing you can do to me." She started to frown again. "Hey, he's already tried to take me from my father's service, which is against his own rules. If he tries again, I'm calling for Olympian Justice. Eudora would probably be really happy to come back to Mt. Olympus for this. She's been waiting for someone to call her about him."
Hera's frown got deeper. "If he hears you, you'll wish you had never spoken those words," she warned him.
"Hera, I'm watching the woman whose child could bring the Twilight. Zeus doesn't scare me half as much as losing my family to the whims of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Oh, I need some more of that potion. Gabrielle found it and poured it out again."
She nodded. "I'll have some made up tonight." She looked upwards. "You're to come too."
"All I want to do is relax," Joxer complained as he stood back up. He looked down at the slippers now on his feet, smiling at his cousin. "Thanks. I really dig the floppy ears." He took Hera's hand and let her transport them both. "You summoned?" he asked as he walked into the Council's meeting circle.
"Can't you dress appropriately?" Zeus asked snidely, looking him over.
"I've just come home from a year on the road. Be thankful I'm still wearing clothes. If I hadn't been so tired, you would have pulled me out of a bath." He crossed his arms. "Did you want to know something about Xena's travels?"
"Yes and no," Zeus said, looking him over again, pausing while Hera took her seat beside him. "Where did you get those?" he asked, pointing at the slippers.
"Oh. Strife." His lip started to curl, but Ares' glare caught his attention and he kept it inside. "First, is she pregnant yet?"
Joxer shook his head. "The potion Hera gave me is still working. She'll need another dose in a month. So far, it's worked very well. Her few dalliances haven't resulted in anything more than a case of crabs."
"Eww," Aphrodite moaned. "Those things are an insult to my job."
Joxer looked back at her with a grin. "More so than the more harmful diseases?"
"No, they're all an insult," she admitted. "What can we do to help you with Xena?"
"How about you make her stay in one place?" Ares suggested. "Maybe take up farming?"
Demeter snorted. "Not on my land." Gaia zapped her lightly. "Surely you can't like her."
"No, but I won't stop anyone from growing their own food. Even murderers have to eat sometime and it's better for them to grow their own than to take it from an innocent who grew their own."
"Good point," Hera agreed. She looked at Joxer. "Is there anything else we can do?"
"She's been having strange dreams recently," Joxer admitted. "I'm not sure from what, but it's starting to upset her. She's had some actual nightmares, something that's never happened before." Zeus looked thoughtful. "Unless something happens to Gabrielle and she needs to go save her, I'd say they're staying at Gabby's family's home for a few weeks."
"Good." Zeus nodded. "We'll look into these dreams." He looked at Apollo, who was starting to scratch again. "Do you know where your brother Jace is?"
"Last I heard, up by the northern border. His troupe got an invitation to perform up there and it paid well. He showed me on a map." Ares snapped and a map appeared in front of Joxer. Everyone watched as he ran his finger along the top border. "There's supposed to be a river up around here," he muttered.
"Jace had an old map," Apollo sighed, creating one of the older ones.
"There," Joxer said, stabbing a point. "He said he would be right there by the mouth of the river. Something about a large village on the trading routes that hardly ever got bards."
"That's because they kill them," Apollo said calmly. "Jace is sending nightly prayers, but they included some itching feeling."
"Probably fleas," Ares noted. "This time of year, they're rampant up that way." He looked at Joxer, who was biting on his bottom lip. "He's still fine. Apollo would know otherwise."
"But why would anyone but you and Apollo be worried?" Joxer asked.
Hera leaned down some. "Because he is one of our top performers too," she reminded her.
Joxer shook his head, staring into her eyes. "No, that's not it. Something's going on." He looked at his father, who looked calm. "Not a war." He looked at Apollo, who shook his head. "No plague?" Apollo shook his head again. "Then what's going on?"
"We think that Jace may be seeing portents," Aphrodite told him. "Morpheus clued us in that he was getting funny aftershocks from him a few weeks back. We need him closer."
"Then send for him," Joxer suggested. "He'll gladly come home. Especially since I'm here. We haven't seen each other in months, not since we played that joke on Xena."
"That's the problem," Ares told him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "We can't get a messenger up there to him. We've sent one and they never came back."
"He tried, he can't get anywhere near that valley. It's protected by another pantheon," Hera told him. "We were wondering if you three could still feel each other."
Joxer nodded and closed his eyes, concentrating on his brothers. Jett was up that way too, but not that far up. He sent a thought to him about what was going on and asked him to stay where he was. Jett told him that Jace had asked for him. He asked him to stay put, there were things they needed to figure out. He opened his eyes. "Jett's up that way. He said Jace sent for him. Said Hermes came for him?"
Hermes coughed and shook his head. "Not me. Might have been one of my people."
Joxer shook his head. "No, your picture was in his mind." He looked at Zeus. "What do you want me to do? Jett's staying where he is."
"Short of taking Xena, there's nothing you can do," Ares said quietly. "We'll have to wait this out."
"Then let me go get my armor and I'll ask her."
Ares shook his head. "No, I'll ask her. We'll send you to meet up with Jett."
Strife appeared and grabbed Joxer, holding him still. "Shockwave," he warned loudly. Artemis grabbed Apollo just in time. Both he and Joxer had grabbed their heads and moaned loudly, passing out.
"Dead?" Zeus asked.
Strife shook his head. "Not dead. Taken from us." He looked at Ares. "Cupid was tryin' ta get him. He got hit first. He's fine," he told Aphrodite, who had just hopped up. "Hephie's with him." He looked at Ares again. "I'm going."
"No." Everyone looked at Zeus. "We can't risk a godling."
"We're all going," Ares told him. "Cupid will stay," he told Aphrodite. "Strife, tell Jett to stay there, that we're on our way. We'll leave tonight, after we get a rest." They both nodded and Strife left after handing Ares his son. "Father, we'll find out who's encroaching."
"Good." Zeus smiled at his son's back as he walked away. He looked down at Apollo. "Is he all right?"
"Jace's energy was ripped from his mind," Artemis told him. "He'll be fine with some rest." She and Hermes lifted him up, carrying him back to his temple.
Hera glared at Zeus. "Do you know who's doing this?"
He shook his head. "I haven't heard a thing." He stood up. "We will all aid Ares this time. No one should be able to take one of our children away from us." He flashed out of the area, heading for his private temple.
Hera looked around. "We'll aid Ares however we can," she ordered. She looked at Athena. "Go tell Xena to pack for a journey. We'll send her along too. She'll be too busy to get pregnant." She held out a hand and two vials appeared. "Give this to them, tell them it will make them faster." Athena took the vials and disappeared. "The rest of you, I want to know if you're affected also." Then she disappeared.
Athena appeared in front of everyone. "Xena, Gabrielle. We have need of your services." The warrioresses stood up. "Take these." She handed out the vials. "They'll give you the strength you need on this journey."
"Where are they going?" Gabrielle's mother asked, one hand drifting up to cover her throat.
"To the north. One of the demigods was just cut off from their parent and their chosen God. Your traveling mate will meet you up there."
"We have to take Joxer?" Gabrielle asked.
Athena nodded. "He knows why. He'll tell you where you're going. He was involved." She nodded at the parents. "All we know is that someone is encroaching and taking our children," she told Xena. "You and your partner will be meeting Ares and his helpers up there."
Xena nodded, bouncing the vial. "And this?"
"Is for you. A boon from Hera. You won't have any womanly troubles on this trip to slow you down. She's only given it to a few Amazons in the past and only during the most dire circumstances."
Gabrielle downed hers immediately and nudged Xena until she took hers. "Where do we head to?"
"To Thacharus. Do you have a map?"
"I know where it is roughly," Xena admitted. "We'll leave first thing in the morning."
"Which demigod?" Gabrielle asked.
Athena smiled her coldest smile. "Jace." She disappeared in a flash of light.
"Jace is a demigod?" Gabrielle asked. "Wouldn't that make Joxer...."
Xena nodded. "He is. I've known for a while now." She looked at the little vial. "I wonder what this is really about."
Hermes appeared, handing her a map. "Just what 'Then told you. Jace was ripped from us. We know he's alive because Joxer and Jett said so. Apollo can't feel him and Joxer's only able to barely feel him. Run fast. We need you up there as soon as possible." He flew off, up the chimney.
Xena unrolled the map, looking it over. "It'll take us about five days to get there," she announced. "The passes are open this time of year."
"Guess we'll be leaving in the morning," Gabrielle told her parents.
"It's a great honor to be asked to serve the Gods," her father reminded her. "Be safe on your journey." He gave her a hug and left the women to talk together.
"What can I pack for you?" Gabrielle's mother asked as she stood up, grabbing some plates. "I can start some bread now, that should do you well enough. Hard-boiled eggs maybe?"
Xena smiled. "That would be great," she agreed.
"I'll help," Gabrielle said, grabbing the rest of the dishes to carry into the kitchen.
Xena sat at the table to study the map, planning the fastest route. If the Gods actually asked, they had to be desperate. Joxer must be frantic by now too.
Joxer appeared beside his brother, giving him a hug in greeting. "Jace is fine. I felt something from him last night," he said as he sat down. Strife appeared behind him and flopped next to him. "We're going to wait here for two days then start up that valley. It'll give our helpers time to catch up to us."
"Xena was saying three," Strife warned.
"Yay," Joxer told him. "Then she can become the calvary." He looked at Jett again. "No debate?"
Jett shook his head. "You know I want to move faster."
Joxer smiled. "But if we wait those two days, there's hope we'll hear from Jace and be able to plan our assault. If not, then we might lose him." Jett looked skeptical. "Trust me. Dad said so."
"All right then," Jett sighed. "We'll wait for *Xena*." He glared at his brother.
"Wasn't his idea," Strife told him. "Dad and Hera said so." That got a glare. "She's starting to mellow toward you three," he offered. "She didn't even try and kill Joxer this time."
"That's because they need me," Joxer snorted. "Xena's coming along for moral support. Dad wanted her to back us up." Jett nodded and went back to staring down into his mug of ale. "Are you all right?" he asked quietly.
"I've been getting some odd flashes from Jace," Jett admitted, swilling some of the weak slop. "Something about women in furs and high boots." He looked over as the innkeeper started their way. "What?"
"Who're they?" the innkeeper asked, nodding at Joxer and Strife.
Strife smiled and created a gold coin. "Someone's who's paying you to go away now. We're hangin' here for the next few days to plan an assault."
The gold coin was taken and promptly disappeared. "Rooms are at the top of the stairs. There's one left. Food won't be ready for an hour." He walked away. He knew when not to say anything and if they paid well enough, he might not even gossip about them.
Strife looked at Jett. "What else is eatin' ya?"
"Dad told me I have to leave Xena alone," he grumbled.
"Ah." Joxer smiled. "I'm sure you can use the time to plan."
"Yeah," Strife agreed, trying to cheer his cousin up. "Extra time means a better death. You can make it really *special*."
"Yeah, I guess," Jett agreed, looking happier. He pushed his mug of ale away. "What do we know?"
"So far, not much," Joxer said, turning serious. "We know he's trapped in that valley. That the guy holding him hostage has done something to his mind. We know he's a new God, unaligned with any pantheon."
"There's been suggestions that he's controllin' some animals," Strife added. "He's got the whole valley blocked off so we'll have ta travel the normal way ta get in."
Jett sighed. "How long will that take?"
"A few days. There's a pass directly to the valley. Dad found a very detailed map and said it should take two days to walk it if nothing happens, three if it does."
"Which of course it will," Jett amended for his brother, who nodded with a faint smile. "So, a week?"
Joxer touched his brother's arm. "Jace can hold on that long. He's strong enough to survive a month with Aphrodite, he can survive a week there." He jumped as the innkeeper put a bowl down between them. "Thanks."
"Welcome." He stared down at Strife. "Do we know you?"
Strife leaned back in his chair and grinned. "Well, let's see." He searched the guy for recent Godly touches. "Not in a few years," he admitted. "Not since your father beat ya for picklin' all those apples." That got a frown. "Ares'll be in later if it makes ya feel better."
The innkeeper shuddered. "What would a God like him want with our tiny village?"
"It's a starting place for a fight," Jett told him. "We're on a rescue, just waiting for our backup." He held out his mug. "Can I have something else, maybe something stronger?"
The innkeeper nodded, taking the mug. Yeah, he'd leave them alone. He didn't want to get Discord on his bad side. Funny, he'd always heard that she was a woman.
"I'm Strife!" Strife called after him. "Get it right before I sic my Ma on ya too!" That made the innkeeper shudder. "That's bettah." He shook his head. "Got me confused with my Mother. How sick is that?"
"You ought to tell her that," Jett said with a smirk. "I'm sure she'd be amused."
Strife snorted. "Not! She'd kill me."
Joxer grinned. "Nah, she couldn't blame you."
Strife looked at him. "Have you met my mother recently? Discord, bad attitude? Mean and nasty? Leather bitch from Tartarus?" Joxer nodded. "And you think she won't be mad at me?"
"No, not at you. We'll tell her it's Dad's fault." His grin got wider. "And then we'll hide you and watch the fighting."
"Dad did look like he could use a real battle," Jett agreed. "I'll tell her if you want."
Strife shook his head. "No, don't. I'll never live it down!"
Joxer leaned over, putting his head on his cousin's shoulders. "Don't we always protect you?" Strife nodded. "And don't we pull great shit on your mother?" Strife nodded again. "It'll be just like that time when we were ten. It'll be great!"
"No," Strife told him, pushing the head off him. "She'll kill me."
The innkeeper cleared his throat. "No, she'll kill me."
Joxer looked at him and shook his head. "No, she'll torment you until you make her a great offering. Maybe even build her a shrine." The man looked relieved and headed into the back, calling for someone to get him some wood. Joxer grinned. It was a brilliant plan, none of them would be involved.
Joxer was sitting on the hitching post, tying down his pack when the women pulled up. "Hey, guys. Ready to head out?"
"We need a few minutes to rest," Xena told him as she dismounted. Argo snorted and stamped her foot.
Jett walked out of the inn, his pack already on. "Then you can meet up with us tonight." He nudged Joxer. "Come on. Ares' gone ahead to scout." He looked at Xena. "Long time no see."
Xena shrugged. "I did what I was supposed to do. Deal with it." She looked at Joxer. "What do we know?"
Joxer stood up. "There's a pass to the valley we have to get to. It'll take two days without problems. The guy's recently turned into a God and he's playing with Jace's mind. We're leaving now, like Jett said, catch up tonight if you don't during the day."
"We've just hiked three days," Gabrielle reminded him.
"That's why we're telling you to catch us tonight," Joxer told her. "We left you a map inside." He walked off, followed by his brother. Strife was waiting for them outside the village so there wouldn't be any problems. When they met up with him, Strife was grinning. "Told Dad yet?"
"Yup. He agreed, they can catch up. He's found one obvious trap, but it was amateur. He's disabled it."
"Any large animals?" Jett asked as he took Strife's other side and they stared to walk.
"Nope. No wolves." Strife knew Jett was scared of wolves. "He thinks he's heard a pig or a boar. Some little furry creatures not worth mentionin'."
"Hey, even better. Hunting," Jett said. "I could use a new set of gloves."
"If we find a pretty fox, maybe Jace'll like it," Joxer put in. Jett looked at him. "What? He's wanted a fox stole for a while. He thinks he's got a dance number that it'd look great with."
"Whatever," Jett sighed. "I'm not giving up mine for him."
"With the way you kill 'em, there won't be enough left for a stole," Strife butted in. "Now, which way are we headin'?" Joxer pointed to the left, and Jett only differed by a few degrees. "Okay then, let's head out, make it harder on the women."
"Maybe they'll get lost," Jett said optimistically. They sped up some, it was a good idea.
Ares looked up as his boys joined him, giving them a smile. "Lost them already?"
Jett shrugged. "Not a clue. Haven't heard the mouth all day though." He flopped down on his father's left and Strife took up a spot across from them. "Anything yet?"
"Just that one trap, he's relying on telltales instead. It looks like we may be able to sneak in after all. On the last day, we'll be inside his shields, so if we use our powers he'll notice and probably come to try and fight us. The upside is that we'll be able to give an anchoring spot for Apollo to come get Jace." He lifted an arm but Jett didn't give him a hug. "Hug me or I'll beat you." Jett snuggled in. "Thank you. You too," he told Joxer, lifting his other arm. Joxer eagerly snuggled in as soon as he was out of his pack. He had missed his father. "You two get cooking duty tonight."
"I'm not eatin' it if Joxer cooks," Strife told him.
Joxer stuck his tongue out. "I'm a good cook. I just don't get along well with fish."
"Or deer," Jett reminded him.
"Or snake, or rabbit, or even possums," Strife added. "Jett, didn't ya hunt?"
"Yeah, I did. It's hanging off my pack." He wiggled out of it and handed it over. "Here, you get to skin it."
"Save me the fur," Joxer asked. He yawned. "I really need a vacation."
Ares smiled down at his gentler son as he fell asleep against him. "Strife, check Joxer's pack, I think he had salt. Jett, make him a bed."
"Baby," Jett snorted.
"He's not," Strife said coolly. "He's been followin' those women for a year. He probably hasn't slept in months with the way Blonde snores." He grabbed Joxer's pack to rummage through, coming up with salt, peppers, and something in a little paper container. "Anyone got a clue?" he asked, holding it up.
"It's hot," Xena said as she walked out of the woods. "He's had it now for months because we won't let him use it." She sat down across from Ares, not making any expression at the sight of him cuddling the twins. "Do we know anything else?"
"Just that the guy's a full God, but he doesn't have full control yet. It feels like he's playing with it to find his boundaries." He nodded at the woods. "You lose her?"
"Functions of nature," Xena remarked. "She's digging a latrine." One side of her mouth quirked up. "Comfy?"
"Very." Ares let Jett go, he was starting to vibrate in agitation. "You can help with the cooking." She nodded. "No arguments?"
"I do most of the cooking anyway," she reminded him. "Gabrielle burns things."
"I heard that," Gabrielle said as she walked out of the woods. "Latrine's fifty feet that way," she said, pointing behind her. "Shallow. Dirt's beside it." She plopped down beside Xena, nudging Argo's nose out of the way. "I'll brush you in a minute." She looked at Ares, then at Joxer, then back at Ares. "Something you wanted to share?"
"Yeah, you snore," Strife told her. He hated it when she picked on his buddy. "One rabbit won't go around," he told Ares.
"You can't use your powers, it'll send a signal to him," Ares told him. "If you want more, go hunt."
"I'll go with you," Jett told him, grabbing his sword and following Strife into the woods. He called back a few minutes later. "Latrine's only twenty-five feet from the camp. She can't measure!"
"Whatever," Gabrielle sighed. Jett would do stuff like that to annoy her. She looked at Xena. "Want me to take care of Argo so you can plan with Ares?"
"Sure." Xena stood up and grabbed Joxer's pack, taking his bedding off the back of it and spreading it out beside where Ares was sitting. "There." He raised an eyebrow. "Whenever you're ready." She sat back down in her spot. "How did you want to do this?"
"There's a small village he's got in thrall. He's got a throne set up somewhere in there, it's radiating power. There's no telling if he can make the humans fight for him."
"No, they're pawns and some of them might be fighting voluntarily." She grimaced. "You can knock them out if you want, I'm not going to let anyone get back up." He gently removed Joxer from his side and got him settled into his bed. "Does that bother you?"
She nodded. "But I didn't expect anything else from you." She nodded at Joxer. "What's wrong with him?"
"This was supposed to be his vacation. He's tired."
"Then why does he follow us around?" Xena asked.
"Because he's supposed to," Jett said as he walked back into the camp. "We broke up a dominance fight," he said, holding up two foxes, a rabbit that was clearly part of the fight, and a bat. "It attacked Strife, thought he was cute," he explained at the odd look his father gave him. He tossed Xena the rabbit. "Cut out the bites." He sat down to skin the foxes, making sure he could save the skins.
Ares pulled out his map and looked over it again. This was too easy. He made room for Strife next to him when his nephew came back, letting him hold one edge as they traced the route for the next day.
As the group walked through the main part of the pass, Ares felt power wash across the woods surrounding them. "Incoming!" he called, pulling his sword.
"Animals," Strife called back, he and Joxer had the rear guard position.
"Into the woods," Xena told Argo, giving her a push. She could fight better on her own and she wouldn't get in their way. She and Gabrielle moved back to back. "How many?"
"Here they come," Ares said, facing North. He glanced back, Strife was facing behind them, Jett had moved up closer to him, and Joxer was facing East. He nearly laughed when he saw the foxes and raccoons running out of the trees, but then he saw the glow in their eyes and the sharpness of their teeth. "Low animals."
Gabrielle laughed. "Foxes and raccoons?" One of the foxes leaped up at her, and she had to beat it off. "Never mind!" She swung her staff at the next one coming toward them.
"This sucks!" Joxer noted, swinging his sword against the little creatures. "I'm used to fighting bigger things."
"Bitch and be grounded!" Ares called back.
Xena fought silently for a few minutes, then one of the raccoons nearly got her in the knee. "This God is sick. Even Callisto isn't going to send creatures like this against warriors." She swung and decapitated a fox coming up behind Gabrielle. "I wish those two would meet, it'd save us some trouble!" She shrieked as Ares backhanded her. She shrieked again as a fox got her on the arm, but Gabrielle bashed in its skull before it could go for her throat.
"Sorry," he called out, moving to cover Jett's back.
His son smirked at him. "Good one. Think we can get a pig to eat the other one?" A wild boar had just come out of the woods and was heading for him. "I could move," he suggested.
"No, get it. With your luck, it'll hit your brother."
"Hey, lunch!" Strife called happily, throwing one of his knives at another pig coming out of the woods, hitting it in the eye. He heard the shriek of outrage and looked back, but nothing was really going for the women. "Fall together," he called. "They're not attacking Xena unless she's near us." The group moved closer, Xena taking the West side of the line. Joxer and Jett ended up in the center, Jett right behind Gabrielle.
"Can I help her to Hades?" Jett grumbled when Strife moved back into his space. He plucked one of his cousin's knives off him and threw it at a raccoon about to jump down from a tree.
Strife looked at him. "Hades refused to see her yet. He said he wants to put that fate off as long as possible." He danced out of the way of a gore attempt by a boar and stabbed it on the back, not doing a lot of damage. "He even suggested she be made immortal." Jett laughed.
"Hera threw a fit," Ares finished as he stabbed the pig trying to get his nephew. "She said she wouldn't have her hanging around for eternity, writing annoying poetry and giving advice to people who don't need it."
Gabrielle huffed. "Like I'd take it anyway. Who'd want to spend forever with *you*."
"I would," Jett and Joxer said in unison.
"Which proves my point," Gabrielle muttered as she took a swipe at one of the last foxes. "You guys are probably going to have an orgy after this to celebrate."
"Eww!" Joxer yelled. "Daddy, make her stop! Bad mental images!" He tried to stab something outside the circle but he couldn't make it through the gap.
Gabrielle and Xena stopped fighting and looked at him. "Dad?" Gabrielle asked.
Ares let the fox pass him by so it headed for Gabrielle, watching as it nearly got her. Just a claw, shoot. "Don't worry, son, I'll make sure she pays for that." He stabbed the last raccoon and turned to look at her. "Do not give my son such sickening mental images, Gabrielle. You won't like what you get back."
"Yeah, that's my job," Strife added. Ares glared at him. "It is. Joxer said so!"
Joxer nodded, regaining control of his stomach. "I test myself against any gross images he can come up with. It hardens my stomach for traveling."
Xena, holding her wound, looked around to make sure no more furry attackers were coming. "Why are you following us? Your father probably has something better for you to do."
Joxer grinned. "Because something you're going to do will kill my family. I'm there to make sure it doesn't happen."
"What?" Gabrielle asked.
"Have an ankle-biter," Strife told her tiredly. "Zeus'll go nuts and it'll start a war and you'll be fighting all of us and most everyone will end up dead, including you and the brat."
"That potion!" Gabrielle said angrily, starting to turn on Joxer.
"Hey, Hera said we couldn't permanently fix you," Jett told her. "Be thankful, I volunteered for that job." He looked at his brother. "You okay?"
"Fine. They didn't get through my boots. Dad?"
"Fine. Just a backache." He looked around. "Let's start again. It'll be a few hours before there's somewhere good we can stop."
"Let me bandage that," Gabrielle suggested to Xena as she rummaged around in her pack for some cloths. The men left, letting them catch up again. "Can you believe that?"
Xena nodded. "Yes. My nightmares have been full of a child and the Gods fighting us." She checked the bandage, then nodded. "Let's go. They obviously need our help." She whistled and Argo came trotting out. She leaned against her mare's side, subtly stretching her back. Hitting little, fast, furry creatures was work when you were used to beating up on stupid, slower, six- foot-tall men.
Joxer looked across the campfire, watching Xena watch him. "What?" he asked quietly.
"Just wondering how this child meshes with my nightmares," Xena answered.
Ares looked over at her, then back down at the stick he was carving. "Your nightmares have been of this child?"
"Yes, Eve. Then the Gods start attacking and they all die." She shuddered lightly. "I keep seeing an oxcart too."
Strife nodded. "Yup. The Fates said it'd happen that way." He nudged Jett, who was lighting a long stick on fire again and again. "Having fun yet?"
"Yup, a real family vacation," Jett sighed. "One more day?"
"One more day," Ares agreed. "He's fine, son. You can feel him."
"I can, and he's still plaguing me with visions of women in furs and high boots."
"They could be Norse," Xena suggested. "It's very far south, but it could be a group of them."
Ares shook his head. "It's how the God wants them to dress." He looked at Jett. "Are they hurting him?"
"No, tormenting him."
Joxer coughed. "It's almost like they're trying to make him have sex with them. And for some reason he can't fight it off anymore." He looked at his brother. "Did you get that last night? The scene in the baths?" Jett nodded, grimacing.
"They've fucked with his mind and made him het?" Strife asked, horrified.
"Probably. It's something that Apollo should be able to do something about." Ares tossed his stick into the fire. "Xena, do you want first or second watch?"
"Dawn," she told him. "Jett?"
"I'll take second." He settled down to get a nap. Between midnight and dawn were his favorite hours to work in.
Ares settled himself for a long wait, watching his sons and nephew turn in for the night. He ignored Gabrielle all together, he was going to get her back for that crack about him sleeping with his sons after this was done. Xena sat up for a while longer. "Something you needed?"
"Why did they send Joxer instead of coming to us?" she asked quietly. "I would have responded to a reasonable discussion."
Ares snorted. "Sure you would have. After you attacked or before?" She frowned. "You wouldn't have listened. When someone in one of Apollo's temples suggested that you not have another child, you nearly killed him." Her head bowed. "So we did it the subtle way. Joxer was given a potion to make you infertile. You and the blonde were both fed it once a month."
Strife sat up and looked at them. "Yeah, Joxer had to be *real* creative sometimes too. You're all paranoid about your food."
"Lay back down, Strife," Ares ordered gently. His nephew laid back down and Ares looked at Xena again. "Are you ready to listen to reason now? Mother has something that will make sure you won't get pregnant again. If you want it."
She shrugged. "I'll think about it. I'll take that monthly one for now though, voluntarily."
Ares nodded. "Thank you." He stared into her eyes. "The other option was going to be an attack that killed you and Gabrielle. I wasn't going to risk my son's life that way unless it became necessary."
She nodded, she understood. She went to her bed to sleep until it was her turn to watch.
Ares continued to watch for more small, furry invaders. He'd be damned if he'd get eaten by a fox in the middle of the night.
Xena brushed another fly away, starting to growl when three took its place. "Is this his doing?"
"Nope," Strife said, nodding off to the right. "Dead bodies over that way."
"Eww!" Gabrielle said, brushing the flies away from her.
"They're trying to see if you're dead yet," Jett told her with his nicest smile. Ares slapped him across the back of the head. "Ow! Dad!"
"Stop it. Harass her after we fight off this God and your brother's safe. Then you can kill her all you want." Ares trudged forward, wondering if this guy had a clue that they were coming yet. He was a young God so there wasn't any way he had full control. He might have mastered the art of far-viewing, but then again you usually had to have a target for that. He smacked a fly on his arm. Maybe the flies were from him after all. He zapped one, trying to see if there was any retaliation. Strife glared at him. "No response," he noted.
Strife grimaced. "Want me to go ahead then?"
"Yes. Go ahead." Strife disappeared.
"I thought you weren't using any powers?" Xena asked.
"There wasn't any notice taken," Ares told her. "I want to see if this sick fuck's still alive." He looked at Jett's pack, his son had gone back and gotten all the foxes to skin them. His pack was bulging at the bottom from all the furs. He thought it was a strange thing, but Jett was his son and he'd accept him no matter what. Unless he decided to sleep with Gabrielle and then not kill her, and take a lye soap bath. A very long lye soap bath. Strife flashed back in. "Anything?"
"Dead town." He looked at Joxer, who had just stumbled. "Jace wasn't there. I couldn't find him anywhere."
"Is that asshole still there?" Xena asked.
Strife nodded. "Sittin' on his little throne of gold, one foot restin' on a dead body's back."
"Then where the fuck is Jace!" Joxer yelled. Everyone looked at him. "What? Like I'm really like that!" He sneered at Gabrielle's hurt look. "Trust me, that Joxer is mostly an act so you wouldn't feel paranoid about me."
"Yeah, I created him," Strife said proudly.
"Yes, you did," Ares agreed dryly. "And I'd like to talk to you sometime about what sick part of your mind that persona came from. Especially that armor."
"Um, that was me," Jett admitted. His father glared at him. "What? Would Xena have trusted him if he wasn't wearing something ridiculous like that? And we had Hephie make it."
Ares shook his head. "I'll be thankful when all this is over with and he doesn't have to go out and risk himself like that anymore."
"You mean he really can't fight?" Gabrielle asked.
Joxer shook his head. "I'm not meant to be a fighter. I'm the lover in the family." Then he grinned and started walking again, Jett following right behind him.
Ares sighed. This was going to be a long last few hours. His sons were asking for it though. He looked at Xena. "If you end up pregnant, I'm going to give you a second child that's just like Joxer," he hissed, following his sons.
Xena winced. "No. Not that." She glanced at Gabrielle then started walking. Maybe there wouldn't be so many flies up ahead.
Gabrielle stood there with her mouth open. Until she swallowed the fly. Then she gagged and ran after them.
Strife nearly howled in laughter. Okay, so he did howl, and roll around, and kick some, but he was alone when he did it so he couldn't get yelled at for it.
Xena walked right up to the man in furs sitting on the gold throne. "You have one of our demigods. We want him back," she announced. "Healthy and in the same shape he was when he was stolen."
The man chuckled. "Or what?"
"Or this," Ares said, sending a fireball at the bodies under his feet. They disintegrated. "You're next if my son isn't out here right now and returned to his former state."
The God stood up, grinding what was left of the bodies into the ground. "Who're you to challenge me?"
"Ares, God of War." He waved a hand and Strife stepped forward. "Though I think my nephew Strife, God of Mischief, could probably take you." He looked the idiot over. He didn't look scared, but that would change.
"I want to see Mom kick his ass," Strife said as he tugged on Ares' arm.
"Oh, do you need your mommy?" the God mocked.
Strife sneered. "No, but she's *very* fond'a the triplet you stole."
"Yeah, we could use Discord," Ares decided. "She and you can search for Jace and get him back here. Discord!" She could come now that they were inside the shields.
She appeared ten seconds later, her usual flash dulled. "You bellowed?" Her nose wrinkled as she looked around. "What the fuck is this?"
"This is his doing," Xena said, stepping out of the way and dragging Gabrielle with her. "He took Jace and made him like women."
Discord looked this new God over, sneering at him. "Oh, really?" Everyone stepped out of the way.
"Auntie, he's been terrified by all those women," Joxer agreed. "We've seen it in our dreams."
Discord shrieked and blasted the God, sending him flying through a nearby house. "No one touches my Jacie and lives!" She stormed after him. "Strife, hold him!"
"Yes, mom," Strife said, running after her. A smart man never disobeyed Discord when she was in this mood. His momma may have raised him to be many things, but dumb wasn't one of them.
Ares looked around. "Do a house by house search. Discord, we need him alive to undo the damage," he reminded her. "Xena, take the North end of town. Jett, the South. Take your partners with you. Drag all the living here." He looked around the center of town, looking for any survivors. He found one woman but she was in horrible shape. Her skin was peeling off; he could see part of her shoulder bone through the torn clothes and skin, and it was sickening.
"Kill me," she begged.
"We can heal you," he offered.
She laughed, a hollow and empty sound. "No one can save us."
"As you like it," Ares told her, ending her life with a single sword thrust. He continued on. When he heard the yell, he gladly walked away from the decomposing bodies. It was too much, even for him. "What?" he called.
"Underground chamber!" Jett yelled. "Joxer went down before I could stop him."
Ares ran that way, followed by Xena and Gabrielle. They went down into the tunnels, following the cursing bouncing off the walls. Jett made it first, falling to his knees to help Joxer wake Jace up. "Is he dead?" he asked.
"Drugged," Joxer told him. He got out of Xena's way when she shoved him, glaring at her back. "He was mumbling about trying to get away from those women." He spat on the floor. "I want a piece of him."
"You're not a fighter," Jett reminded him. He backed away from the glare in his brother's eyes. Joxer may not know how to fight, but he could kill you if he really wanted to. "Hey, just saying that Strife would probably hold him for you," he amended quickly. He got out of Joxer's way before he became part of the wall.
Ares shook his head. "Sometimes, I can see the resemblance and some days I wonder," he muttered. He pulled Jace up into his arms. "Let's get him out of here. Grab his things." He walked away, then realized he'd have to climb a ladder. So instead he flashed them out. "Apollo?" he called. "We've got him and he needs you."
Apollo appeared in a furious white flash of light. "What did they do to my Jace?" He snatched the body from Ares' arms and laid him down, checking him over. "Don't kill him, we need him to reverse it."
Ares went to find his sister. "Discord," he called as he walked through the debris that marked her passage. "We need him to save Jace."
She turned and glared at him. "I get him then?"
"Hey, you and Joxer can have him all you want, after he fixes my son." She nodded once. "Strife, Apollo's waiting."
"We'll have ta wake him up first," Strife noted as he kicked the limp body.
"Whatever," Discord snorted, kicking the man herself and rupturing one of his nuts. "Take him out there." Strife dragged the Godling out into the fresh air. "What are we going to do about this town?"
"Find any survivors. Burn the rest so the disease doesn't extend." She nodded and walked away, going to burn off some energy.
"No, Joxer, let him fix your brother first!" Xena yelled.
Ares groaned. Yes, today was one of those days when Joxer was definitely his son. He walked out, zapping his son into unconsciousness. "Put him down," he ordered. "He'll wake up soon enough."
"Dad, doesn't Uncle Asc have anything to calm him down?" Jett asked.
Apollo looked at him. "Psychiatric drugs won't be invented for another two thousand years. When they are, you're *both* going on them." He turned his attention back to Ares. "I can remove it when the asshole wakes up." He looked around, then flinched when the North side of the village exploded. "Discord?"
Ares nodded. Another few buildings went up. "She's not happy. Jace has always been her favorite."
"Even over me," Strife agreed. Apollo looked at him. "What? She's always liked him best."
"You're going on those drugs too," Apollo muttered, opening one of Jace's eyes. His hand was slapped away. "Someone's awake. Wake the asshole."
Ares zapped him, making him shudder and wake up screaming. "Fix...my...son. NOW!" He formed another fireball.
The God whimpered and sent out a thin trail of power at Jace, who shrieked and grabbed Apollo to hold. "There. Done. Can I go?"
"Bet me," Joxer said, getting off the ground. He stood behind his father's shoulder, glaring at the man. He knew he couldn't attack him without his father's permission, he vividly remembered his punishment from the last time he had done that. "You will pay for what you did to my brother."
"Joxer?" Jace asked weakly. "Jett?" They both fell to their knees beside him, holding him tightly. Jace looked at his father. "Can we go home now, Daddy?" He *knew* how to manipulate them to keep his twins out of trouble and his dad in a good mood. That's why he was an actor.
"Of course. Apollo, Strife, take them to my home temple." They disappeared. Ares turned to look at Xena. "Get the word out that this happened and what we did," he said quietly. "We need to make sure whatever disease doesn't spread." They nodded. He paused. "Thank you for your help." He walked away. "Discord, he's yours. Clean up after yourself." He disappeared, going to make a report.
Discord walked out of a burning building, making her way to her newest playmate. "Let's talk," she said as she pulled him up. "I think you should know what you've done." She smiled at Xena, who hadn't moved. "Wanting to help? I could use someone to hand me things." Gabrielle threw up.
Xena smiled. "I'm sure you can handle him. Want us to search for more living?" Discord shrugged. "Then we're going to leave." She tugged on Gabrielle's arm, making her follow. The Amazon stopped to throw up a few more times. At the end of the village, Xena turned around. "There's more dead in the pass," she called. Discord waved. Xena continued to walk away, taking her heaving companion with her.
Discord smirked at her victim. "I'm sure you're going to tell me all about why you killed them all, right?" He nodded, starting to cry. "Good," she purred. "Then I think we have a lot to talk about. Including how you become a God."
Zeus closed his scrying mirror. "I've got to admit, Discord can bring almost any God to his knees and make him cry."
Hera smiled. "Indeed. It's a wonderful gift. Any word on Ares' sons?"
"When are you going to leave them alone?" Athena asked from across the room.
Hera looked at her. "It's all a game. I actually like those three. Some of Ares' other ones I can do without. Those three are quite entertaining though." She examined her nails. "Maybe I'll suggest that Ares send his son back out and find a spouse soon."
Strife appeared, shaking his head. "No, don't. Joxer's snapped and even I'm running." He disappeared again.
Hera stood up. "I'll be back," she announced. "Have to check with Gaia about fixing that valley." She disappeared.
Joxer strolled in a few minutes later. "Did my grandmother come this way?" he asked in his sweetest voice.
Zeus nodded and pointed at Gaia's temple. "She went that way."
Joxer grinned. "Thank you." He strolled that way.
In his temple, Strife was giggling his ass off. He had warned Hera. Of course, Joxer was in on this one, but she didn't know that.
Jett strolled into Xena's camp and smiled at Gabrielle. "Ready for me yet?" She got up and stormed off, blatantly running away. He'd have fun chasing her later. He nodded at Xena's most recent sword cut, a deep gash that might require her arm to be cut off if the infection didn't stop soon. "Hera said she'd fix that if you agreed to have both of you fixed," he said pleasantly. One of her eyebrows went up. "I won't even get to help."
Xena grunted in pain. "Fine. Gabrielle, get back here."
"She's gone," Jett told her, sitting down in her spot. "She ran away and left you here all alone." He looked up. "She said okay," he called.
Hera and Apollo appeared behind Xena. "Can I still have the blonde?" Xena glared at him. "She was a promised reward."
Xena frowned. "Let me get better first, then we'll discuss it." She looked back at Hera. "I won't have any more womanly cycles?" Hera shook her head. "If you can cure that part too, I'll gladly let you take it all."
Hera smiled. "Done," she said happily. "Apollo?"
He leaned down and touched her arm, healing it until it was almost fully healed. "Sorry, you'll scar." He touched her hand, letting a slow glow move through her. "Expect pain next month and a lot of shedding, like right after birth." He stood up. "Anything else?"
"No, thank you," Xena said quietly. He disappeared. "What'll happen now?"
Hera smiled down at her. "It depends on what sort of mood Jett is in I suppose." Jett gave them his most innocent look, which looked a lot like Joxer the Mighty's goofy grin. "I'm sure he'll wait until you're all better to hunt down your friend."
"It wouldn't be fun otherwise," he agreed. "A month?"
"Two," Hera told him. "She'll need the next month to shed." She patted Xena on the head. "If you'd like, we can send Joxer back."
Xena shook her head. "No thank you. I don't think he wants to see that."
"As you like it. Thank you for not destroying our family." She disappeared.
Jett grinned at her, leaning closer. "Two months? Can I play with her before then?"
Xena glared at her. "Don't hurt her?" He shrugged. "Then she's a grown woman and if she goes along with it, that's up to her."
"All right!" he said, hopping up. "See you in two months!" He walked off into the night, heading after Gabrielle. Tracking in the dark was a wonderful skill to have.
Xena shook her head. Letting Jett go after her wasn't her favorite option, but Gabrielle had changed since they had saved Jace. She had become cruel, sullen, and often said harmful things for no reason. She guessed that finding out her lapdog wasn't who she wanted him to be had changed her. She shrugged off her thoughts and checked her arm. It would scar, but it'd heal. She settled back into her bedding. Maybe she'd call on Joxer and see how he was this week. The last time she'd checked on him, he had been helping Strife create chaos in one of Ares' major worship centers by switching members of armies around using something called a lottery. She wondered how well they had done.