I Was Only Trying To Help
Aphrodite sighed and shifted some on her throne. Her stepmother was standing in front of her, giving her a not very pleasant lecture on not doing her job. "Hey," she interrupted. "There's only two of us, okay? We've been doing our best. Not even Cupid and I can be in *every* town that you decided should have a population explosion. Not even creating general orgies has helped that much, and we're both pooped."
"Why can't Bliss...?" Hera started.
"Bliss?" she asked, then started to laugh. "Bliss still thinks it's killer that he made that Gabrielle chick fall in love with a skunk last week." She leaned down some. "Personally, I think someone should have a talk to the little boy about his *thing* for animals, ya know?" She sat back again. "Anyway, Cupie's so tired he's passed out at home. I'm about ready to nod off. If you want more love, give some other God an incentive to help us. There's no *way* we can give you a twenty percent population increase with just me and Cupie."
Hera sighed. "I'll talk with the other Gods," she agreed, seeing the sense in it.
"Just don't let Ares tell his men to go to town. I think you want these kids to be cared for, not abandoned."
"Very true," Hera agreed, giving her stepdaughter a faint smile. "Where's your next orgy going to be?"
"Crete. Then I'm doing a week-long celebration at all my temples. You know these sorta things only appeal to the young, right? I mean, you're missin' a whole part of the mortal population by relying on orgies. The experienced parents don't go to them."
"I know," Hera agreed, waving a hand. "I'm trying to figure out how to appeal to them at the moment."
"What you need is a bard," Strife said as he appeared, tossing something to Aphrodite. "The herb for the soreness stuff," he told her when she looked clueless. "Ya're out in Athens."
"Oh, great," Aphrodite sighed. "I'll make some more after I catch a nap."
"A bard?" Hera asked. "Why a bard?"
"An *enchanted* bard," Strife corrected. "One who casts a love spell on anyone who hears him sing or tell stories, which the older ones do."
Aphrodite sat up straight. "That's a great idea. Can we do that to one of Apollo's people?" She looked at Hera, who shook her head. "Why not?"
"He's not convinced that we need this population explosion." She shrugged. "We'll have to go around him and get an unofficial bard. He can't complain about someone who's not officially devoted to him."
"Well, there's tons of amateur bards," Aphrodite said with a wave of her hand. "Every festival they come out in droves."
"Yeah, but mosta 'em suck," Strife pointed out. "We need one that people'll listen ta, one that'll make 'em laugh so they're distracted as the spell works." He looked around the pale pink temple, then back at Aphrodite. "Where's Bliss?"
"He's still grounded for what he did to that snarky bard that follows Xena around," she said dryly. "He's not to leave mine or Cupid's temple for the next mortal year."
"Can we use this bard?" Hera asked, not knowing Gabrielle too well.
Both Strife and Aphrodite laughed, but Strife created a picture of her - before she had the encounter with the skunk. They all watched as people drifted away while she was telling a fable, managing to miss most of the moral of the story herself apparently as she beat upon a man walking up to her.
"That's Joxer," Strife pointed out. "He's not quite onea mine."
"Hey, he can sing," Aphrodite said.
"Jace does it better," Strife argued. Then he snorted. "Hell, even Jett sings better."
Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "Yeah, that I can see," she said coolly. "Procreate or I'm gonna kill you," she said in a lower voice. "Not exactly gonna work." She thought about it. "We could get Iolaus to do it for us. He'd gladly help if we explained it to him."
"He can't tell a story to groups," Strife pointed out. "At least Joxer's entertaining."
"Children," Hera said calmly. "We need to find a way around this impasse." She took the mirror and sent it to her work room. "I'll think on this matter, maybe I'll find someone with a bard's gift that's not sworn to Apollo." She disappeared, leaving the warring two alone.
Strife winked up at her. "Botha them?" he suggested. "Togeta?"
She shrugged. "If you can keep them together. Joxer and Iolaus would make a great team. Have they even met?"
"Once I think," Strife said with a shrug. "But yay, they'll work it out. They both wanna be heros, they'll do it for us."
Aphrodite considered all the ramifications of putting those two together, then nodded. "Let me get together with Hephie." She tossed a light fireball at him for smirking. "Not *that* way. So he can make something to chain them together. Not real chains, but maybe something that'll make them not be able to be apart."
"Ah, hell, join 'em together at the soul level. Won't hurt 'em. We can always get someone to remove it later if it's necessary."
She shook her head. "That's dangerous, Strife. That leads to all sorts of complications that I don't even want to deal with." He shrugged. "But it may be the only way." She sighed as she looked around the temple. "Are you sure we can't do it with Jace? She sings every day."
"*He's* not performin' for a while, he tossed an ankle or somethin'." He looked at her pile of treats and grinned suddenly, the shield had given him an idea. "I could go ask Unc. He's got warriors who do the whole bard thing every day for their armies."
"Yeah, he does," Aphrodite said, starting to brighten back up. "Go ask him, and watch out, this plan is not sitting well with him."
"Yeah, well, ya're takin' a lot of his warriors away and forcin' 'em to stay at home. He's gonna be pissed for a while." Strife disappeared, leaving Aphrodite alone.
She sighed and checked the herbs, then went to her home temple. She carefully put them into a jar, then went to get some sleep. There was only so many orgies a girl could do before she needed a rest.
Strife ducked a thrown chair, looking around the statue he was hiding behind. "But, Unc, we *need* this or Greece'll die out in a few generations. They're not havin' the kids they once were."
Ares grumbled something and went back to his throne, flopping down in it. "How bad is it," he said finally.
"Bad enough for Hera to order a twenty percent increase in gettin' it on," Strife said, coming out from behind the statue. He moved one step to the left, out into the open. "Even Artemis has had to give up some of her virgins. And Hestia had to release some from their vows because they volunteered." He started to look hopeful. "And you do have some of the best bards, who aren't, if ya know what I mean."
Ares flicked some power at his nephew, binding him to the statue he had been hiding behind. "Strife, I still have to keep armies out in the field," he said calmly and quietly. "If I don't, Greece will fall to some outside power, or to an idiot who thinks he's one of us. Got me here?" Strife nodded, looking fascinated. "I can't do that if all my warriors are off enjoying conjugal fucking!" he yelled.
"Hey, not my idea, but no one said they had to stay home *all* the time," Strife pointed out. "Though Aphrodite did ask Hera to keep you from letting some of the more barbaric ones out to go rape and pillage."
Ares grunted. "I had no intention of that, it's wasteful of resources." He flicked the chains away. "What do you need?" he asked sourly.
"We just need a bard kinda guy to enchant. One we can make a walkin' sex spell."
"That's the big plan?" Ares asked, starting to smirk. "Why can't Aphrodite and Cupid just enchant some beer or something?"
"Because they want to reach the widest audience," Hera said as she appeared. "Plus, they're both too tired to do that." She looked over at Strife, giving him a smile. "I did happen to like your idea, so I checked." She turned back to Ares. "Can you spare Actimonius?"
"Why not?" she asked.
"Because he's supposed to die in about three weeks," Ares said dryly. "Leaving behind four wives in different towns and a total of eleven children. I think." He shrugged. "Something like that. He might have been great for it, but he and his company are dying to force fortifications of a civilian outpost on the border. The Fates have said so."
"If worse comes to worse, enchant Hercules to spread the love vibe," Strife suggested with a smart grin. "Don't let him *know* but let him spread it around for a bit."
"He *is* always on the move," Hera agreed dryly.
"Ah!" Ares said sharply, holding up a finger. "Not near my armies. He's always getting in the middle of one of them and I doubt that's the sort of sex you want to spread at the moment."
Hera chuckled. "Not particularly, but I think we could keep him away from the armies for a bit." Ares sighed but he nodded. "Thank you, that was an excellent idea," she told Strife, patting him on the arm. "What about that pair you were talking about?"
"Iolaus and Joxer?" Strife asked.
She nodded. "Could that work?"
"Iolaus has patience," Ares noted. "He might be able to put up with Joxer."
"And Joxer can tell tales," Strife added. "Not *real* ones, but hey it's all entertainment."
"Jace would be better," Ares pointed out.
"He's down with an ankle thing," Strife reminded him. "Tripped over that boneheaded lunk that ya turned his dick inta marble. He exposed himself to her and then started ta complain about how he was nothin' but a pissin' fountain becausa you."
"Oh, yeah, I forgot about that," Ares said with an amused smile. "Let him insult my daughter and call her statue homely again."
Hera snickered. "I'm sure it's an apt punishment, Ares." She looked at the two men. "Can those two be put together to get what we need?"
"Um, Joxer's not always right in the head," Strife told her cautiously. "He's been picked on so much that he's sorta created this fantasy life in his head where he's good at everything and everyone loves him and worships him."
"He believes he's a God?" Hera asked.
Ares shook his head. "No, not quite, but the yearning to be a great hero has turned his mind away from reality sometimes. That's where he gets all his stories from."
"Yeah, he twists and turns things so they go his way in his head," Strife finished.
Hera chewed on her bottom lip while she thought. "And this Iolaus? Could he handle that?"
"He might actually be a small cure for some of it," Ares said, not looking happy. "Iolaus has patience, something that the people who Joxer follow around now don't have. He's also a decent enough fighter in his own right, and he's a little guy so he's got some pretty good ideas about how to get around fights too." He shifted, moving one leg up over the arm of his throne. "I think they could probably stand each other, but you'd almost have to physically bind them together. They'll end up fighting within a few weeks."
Hera nodded. "All right. I'll consider the option." She smiled at her son. "Do you think Zeus would mind if we did that to Hercules?"
"Only if you tell him," Ares pointed out dryly.
She laughed and disappeared.
Strife giggled too. "Yeah, I can't wait to see that."
In an inn near the Southern border of Greece, in a small town along a small pathway, Hera appeared to her stepson, grimacing at him. "Hercules, sit," she ordered when he started to open his mouth. He obediently sat on the bed, staring up at her in shock. "As much as I hate to say this, you will be the savior of Greece this time. It's up to you to save all of Greece from a horrible fate."
"What do I have to kill?" he asked immediately, it was the heroic thing to do after all.
She smiled and waved a hand over his head. "You'll know when you find it. It won't be today, but you'll find it soon enough. Go out and travel some more, the spell I just put on you will guide you." She disappeared before he could ask any more questions.
Hercules slumped for a moment, then straightened up and went to find his partner, Iolaus, who was in the baths. "Iolaus," he said as he sat on the bench beside the wooden tub. "Hera just came to see me."
"Uh-oh," Iolaus sighed, reaching for his towel, but his friend stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Not something I have to get up for?"
"No, she said I'm going to save all of Greece this time." He started to grin. "That was really nice of her. She even put a spell on me so I could find wherever this menace is because apparently it's traveling."
"Want me to go with you?" Iolaus asked.
Hercules didn't know why, but he shook his head. "No, I think I'll do this one alone." He stood up. "I'll leave tomorrow. I think I have to head West."
Iolaus smiled up at him. "Good luck, Hercules. I'll head back toward home if you need me." They shook hands then Hercules left and Iolaus sunk deeper into the steaming hot water. "I wonder if my home's still standing," he muttered, picking up some soap to try and scrape off the accumulated grime that was his life.
Joxer looked up as he heard hoof beats, quickly getting out of the way of the rider galloping toward them.
"Joxer of Corinth?" the rider panted, looking at the group. "Is one of you him?"
"I am," Joxer said, smiling up at him. "Is there a problem?"
"No, an order. You are to go to the nearest of Aphrodite's temples." He pulled out a scroll and handed it over. "This is for you. Do not waste time." He turned and rode off again.
"Thank you!" Joxer yelled after him. He unrolled the scroll and read the tidy handwriting, starting to smile. "Aphrodite needs me to do something for her," he said proudly.
Xena didn't quite snatch the scroll from his hand, but she did take it to read for herself. "I wonder what she's up to now," she muttered, rolling it up and handing it back. "Well, which one did you want to head to? We might as well go with you."
"I don't know, where's the nearest one?" he asked, looking around what passed for a road in Ancient Greece. "I thought there was a shrine a few hours back."
"There was, or there's one with priests about a day's walk," Xena agreed.
He pulled out the scroll to read it again. "Oh, hey, it says inhabited temple. So I guess I'm with you guys for the next day." He started walking again, putting the scroll firmly into his belt pouch. He knew the girls were worried about this, but there wasn't anything anyone could do until he found out why he was being called on.
"I wonder if this has anything to do with the signs we saw in that village a few days back," Gabrielle said, looking up at Xena.
"Probably," Xena said with a grimace, making her horse pick up his pace a little bit so she could catch up to Joxer. "Why do you think she called you?" she asked him.
"I think someone there either gave her news that she has to pass on, or that it's got something to do with Hera and hers orders to pick up the childbearing in a few towns." He blushed lightly. "I just hope I'm not being called upon to contribute to that in a more personal way. Jace would make a *much* better father than I would." He looked up at Xena, who was looking stunned. "Well, he would," he defended. "He's got lots of spare time during the day between rehearsals. He's traveling with a group of people so there's always someone there to watch out for the child, and he'd be a good dad. Much better than I would be."
She smiled down at him. "I'm sure you'll make an excellent father when the time comes," she assured him, then trotted ahead. "I'm going to find us a camping spot," she called back to Gabrielle.
"Please find one near some water," Gabrielle called after her. She watched as Joxer headed off into the trees for necessary functions and sighed, walking on ahead with her thoughts.
Joxer was led through a secret hallway behind the main altar in Aphrodite's temple, which went right to the Goddess herself. "Hi," he said, giving her a brilliant smile. "You called? Oh, but I've got to tell you that I might not make the best father, Jace would do much better."
Aphrodite smiled down at him, looking tired. "Don't worry about it, you'll have a pack of children one of these years, Joxer, and you'll be great at it." She shifted some. "Did you see any of those notices in the villages you passed?" He nodded. "Do you understand why they're there?"
He nodded. "For the same reason that when we passed through we didn't see very many children," he told her, starting to turn serious. "There were babes under a year, but none of the older kids that you'd expect, just some of the ones that were nearing adulthood."
She smiled and nodded. "Very good. I knew you'd understand." She smiled as Iolaus was brought in. "Did you find anything?"
"Just a few things. Why not tell people it's okay to have them out of wedlock?"
"Because then a lot of them would be dropped off at temples and most temples don't have the money to deal with a passel of kids," she reminded him. "Even if we told everyone to have a kid outside of marriage, a lot of people would still think it's a bad thing and force the girls to give up the children." She shrugged. "It's actually easier on everyone this way until we can change the prejudice."
"Oh. Okay." Iolaus looked at Joxer, then back at the Goddess. "Both of us?"
"Together," she agreed happily. "Where you lack in things like storytelling, Joxie here excels in them. So, for the next year or so, consider yourself partners." Iolaus coughed. "Not *that* way, unless you want to," she added with a shrug. "Hercie's out spreading the love vibe a different way, you two will be spelled to make lust grow when people hear you tell stories."
"Um, Aphrodite, there's a problem with that," Joxer pointed out. "I don't usually tell stories to large groups, I wouldn't know how to do it. I'm not a bard."
She waved a hand. "You two'll be getting some quick lessons from one of Apollo's people. He's been doing a circuit of some villages in the North for a few years now." She looked them over. "Any other questions?"
"Do we get paid for this?" Joxer asked. "I, um, kinda need a few supplies before we go."
Aphrodite looked over his outfit, grimacing at his armor. "Oh, honey, you need more than that," she muttered. "Well, I'm gonna outfit you both, so that's not a *real* problem. You'll have some money to eat and stay at inns, that'll be the best place to tell stories at anyway." She leaned forward. "Let me do the planning, 'kay?" she said cheerfully.
"Mom!" Cupid said as he popped in, his wiggling son held tightly in his hands. "He just spread some of your pink goo on three of Hera's peacocks then managed to trick a mortal into eating some."
"There was a mortal on Olympus?" she asked, looking confused. That was against the rules; no one brought a mortal *home*, they'd be fried for it.
"Zeus had a few *friends* up there," he said uncomfortably. "Hera approved for some reason, but now she's in a snit."
"I'll go deal with it," she sighed. She grabbed Bliss and looked at him. "No touching my stuff, little man, or you're gonna be in *such* trouble."
"They should name him the God of Trouble," Iolaus said quietly.
Cupid glared at him. "Not funny."
"Hey, at least Gabrielle doesn't smell as much anymore," Joxer said happily. "We can stand to be on the same road with her now." Iolaus looked at him, silently asking for why this was necessary. "Bliss made her fall in love with a skunk a little over a week ago," he explained with a grin. "You should have heard Xena's yell."
Cupid snorted. "Woke me up from a nap, dude." He looked at Joxer. "Did they find something to take the smell off?"
"No, but she's been bathed so many times that it's starting to lessen. That and she's begun wearing scented oils."
Cupid nodded. "I can see how that'd help." He shrugged. "It was funny though."
Joxer grinned. "Definitely," he said almost-meanly. Everyone looked at him in shock. "What? She was being mean to me all that morning. I thought it was divine retribution or something."
"Nah, Pop called that right," Cupid said, then he nudged his mother. "Go deal with this, I'll get them settled in for the night." She nodded and disappeared. He turned to look at the two men. "So, you're gonna be partners, right?" They both nodded. "Cool. Get to know each other tonight so this'll be easier. We're counting on you to do some of our work for us because we're too pooped to pop any more." He crossed his arms, looking at them both. "First thing is a bath and then some clothes," he decided. He snapped his fingers and a priestess appeared. "Get them to the baths and then go raid the clothing closet for them," he ordered. She smiled and bowed, leading the way out of the special room.
Joxer followed readily, he was always up for a bath.
Iolaus looked at Cupid. "Are you sure we're the ones you want together?" he asked quietly. "I've heard things about Joxer and his ....unique mental state."
Cupid shrugged. "It'll be fine, Curly. We checked it out thoroughly before we decided on you two. Now go." He watched as the mortal jogged off to catch up and shook his head. "Why me?" he asked.
"Because ya're so good?" Strife asked as he appeared, holding out a scroll. "From Unc. A list of warriors that the Fates said were gonna croak by this time next year and where Unc *thinks* they've got families."
Cupid smiled and took the scroll, reading down it. "Is this a normal amount?" he asked, noticing how the scroll was lying on the floor.
"Some years, yeah," Strife said, nodding as Cupid kicked the scroll to finish unrolling it. "The years with major campaigns and stuff, definitely."
"Okay then," he said, rolling it back up. "I'll give it to Mom and Hera. I'm off to the temple in Athens to get the bard guy." He waved and disappeared.
Strife grinned and looked around, trying to see if there was anything that he could use for his own plans. He saw just the thing behind the throne and grabbed it quickly, heading off to go watch his marks.
Aphrodite appeared, smiling at the spot where the golden apple had been. "Hey, demigods are good too," she told herself, grabbing her basket to go and prepare more tonics. She didn't see the little Godling that snuck back down to the mortal realm, or his evil smirk.
"So, you can't hunt or cook?" Iolaus asked, starting to have that sinking feeling. "What can you do?"
"Xena taught me how to fish," Joxer said calmly. "I know I'm not the best at everything, but I'm willing to try." He rolled onto his side, facing away from the man he was going to have to travel with.
"I'm sorry, Joxer," Iolaus said quietly. "I'm just used to my other partnership."
"Yeah, well, not everyone can be Hercules."
Iolaus sighed and calmed himself. He couldn't help that the other man was bitter and jealous. This wasn't the best start off to their partnership but he was sure they'd find common ground eventually. "So, um, you tell stories?"
"Yup. Not like the bards do, but I can tell stories," Joxer said quietly. He was starting to fall asleep. Hot water always did this to him. "I can sing and play some too." He yawned and curled up a little bit. Someone should invent a way to sleep in water all the time and not have it get cold.
"How did they find out who made Gabrielle fall in love with the skunk?" Iolaus asked.
"Xena saw Bliss and started to scream and yell at the Gods. Artemis and Cupid finally showed up and took care of it, after about an hour," Joxer said through another yawn.
"Maybe you shouldn't fall asleep in there," Iolaus advised. Joxer shrugged. "Come on, you've got to get up. We can go to our rooms after this."
"He always does this," the attendant said from his stool in the corner.
Iolaus stared at him in shock, then the dagger landed between his thighs and the attendant was leaning over him, having moved too fast for him to have caught it. "W..who are you?" he asked.
"I'm his brother," the attendant said, nodding at Joxer. Then he started to grin evilly. "I find it...entertaining to follow him sometimes and this time I think I hit paydirt." He looked the trim body over. "I'll give you the same warning I gave that *woman*," he spat. "Nothing had better happen to my brother." He grabbed Iolaus by the throat and started to squeeze his windpipe. "If something happens to my brother, you *will* pay," he told him, squeezing just a little bit more on 'will'. "My brother will have a happy life or I *will* fix it for him." Another squeeze. "You will *not* make fun of my brother because he can't see that well. He's *very* useful for very *many* things and you *will* respect that or else." He let him go and disappeared. Iolaus was busy gasping for breath so he didn't see the flash of pink cape as the attendants's tunic was turned inside out or the pieces of putty that fell to the floor.
Iolaus had started to breathe normally when the real attendant came in to check on them. "Can I have some water?" he asked, rubbing his throat.
"Of course," he said happily, going to pour some out of the special pitcher sitting in the cold water. He handed over the glass and smiled down at the young man sleeping in the tub. "People like him are just delightful. Never any problem at all."
"He still has to wash," Iolaus told him.
The attendant waved a hand. "He'll soak a lot of it off. It'll only take him a minute when he wakes up." He checked the fires under the tubs then went to check on the other rooms.
Iolaus sipped his water, trying to soothe his sore throat while he considered the advice he had been given. He'd take it, but he would find out what was going on. When Cupid came in an hour later, he was back to normal and they got Joxer woken up and scrubbed so they could go find their rooms. They settled in for the night with a good supper and interesting drawings on the wall to look at.
While they were asleep, Aphrodite and Hephaestus snuck into each of their rooms and slipped a small chain around their wrists. They smiled at each other and went off to follow Hera's dictates.
Iolaus was the first one awake and he didn't notice anything, except a small itch on one wrist. He went down to find one of the two Gods and talk to them, he was still having some pretty serious misgivings about this assignment. He found Cupid first and sat down across from hin in the garden when invited. "You do know that Joxer's pretty helpless, right?" he asked quietly.
Cupid glared at him. "Iolaus, just because you're more capable doesn't make the guy helpless. He's got a lot of skills, just not in some of the most practical areas." He glanced around then looked over the mortal. "Listen, consider this your chance to train the next hero, 'kay? You're the senior hero and he'll listen to you if you don't become a preachy ass. Try and get along, for Greece's sake." He stood up and strode off, heading back into the temple. He looked up at a statue of his mother. "Way bad idea," he whispered. "They'll kill each other, Mom."
She appeared and smiled sweetly at him. "It was this or one of us had to do it," she reminded him. "Or," she paused, "let Strife handle it."
"Hey, he was doin' pretty well in that one town," Cupid pointed out hopefully. He kinda liked Joxer since that one run-in where he and his mother had competed using the mortal. "We could split the team up."
"Nope, sorry, we laid on the spells last night," she said with a shrug. "One to let them know where each other is and when they're in trouble, and one to help them project just the right levels of lust."
"You mean so I won't get lost and so Iolaus can save me?" Joxer said bitterly as he walked up to them. He smiled at each of them. "Can we be broken up? It might be for the best. I think Iolaus considers me some mentally deficient child."
Cupid patted him on the back. "No way, dude, we just discussed that. He'll teach you whatever he can, but he won't go all Hercules on you." Joxer gave him a disbelieving look. "Really, he won't. If he does, then you can beat him down, got it?"
Joxer nodded. "Okay," he agreed, starting to look a little happier. He looked down at his outfit, then smiled at Aphrodite. "Thank you for the new clothes. I'll try not to rip them so you can have them back when we're done."
She waved a hand. "Please. Those are just things that people have left in the temples, Joxer. It's no skin off my nose. People leave *tons* of stuff here," she confided with a smile. "We've even found some armor and had to give it to Ares to let him embarrass the guy."
"Or girl," Cupid pointed out. "That one Amazon chick last year."
"Oh, yeah, how's she doing?" she asked.
"She's fine," Cupid said lightly. "The thing worked, she got pregnant and went home to raise them. Twin girls, very strong ones."
"Deloran?" Joxer asked. The Gods looked at him in shock. "We met up with her a few months back. One of the twins had some funny fever and the healer told her that only Xena could cure them. They were really cute little kids." His brow wrinkled. "Looked a lot like Lord Apollo though, or at least what all his paintings look like." He shrugged the thought off. "What do I have to do today?"
"First is breakfast," Aphrodite told him. "Iolaus will join you in a few." She took his arm and walked him into the dining area for the priests and priestesses. "The bard guy will be awake in a few, then you'll be sitting down with him for a few days."
"If I may ask, what did you tell Xena?" he asked quietly as he sat down in the chair she had pulled out for him.
"Nothing, they didn't need to know." She shrugged and disappeared.
Joxer relaxed and grabbed one of the bowls of bread on the table, then the honey to pour over it. He loved sweets, but anything was better than leftover fish for breakfast.
Joxer and Iolaus started off down the large road, one week after meeting each other. The last week had been full of lessons, teaching them how to use their voices to their best benefit, not to mention when to ignore these things and do what the people really wanted and to jump around while they told stories. The crash course in how to be a bard had been fun, for the most part. Joxer hadn't known that sometimes bards had to use their bodies to get what they needed, he had always thought that being a bard payed pretty well. Oh, well, now he was a temporary bard and he had to make the best of it. The bard that had trained them said there were a lot of perks to being a bard, and the downpoints were usually tolerable too. He shrugged off his thoughts and felt along his thigh for the money he had cleverly hidden on the inside hem of his new pants, then he touched his new dagger, a present from Cupid. Iolaus had a real sword, but Cupid had pointed out that Joxer did better when whomever he was fighting was closer to him, mostly because he could see them better. He could tell the road widened ahead and nudged Iolaus. "Bridge?" he suggested.
"Probably," Iolaus agreed. He'd decided to keep the discussion to the minimum needed, that way they could both concentrate on their stories. "Still got the money?"
"Yup." Joxer frowned at his companion but reached inside his beltline and grabbed a coin, handing it over. "Here, in case we need it." He smiled when he saw the warriors crossing the bridge, waving at one he knew. "It's my father's former army," he said happily when Iolaus glared at him. He jogged up to them, accepting the hug from the guy on the horse. "Platius, what are you doing out here? It's not traveling season."
"No, but Lord Ares wanted us to move our troops to a new ground to train on. It seems we're going to be doing something for him in the mountains so he declared some extra training." He looked over the outfit his former protégé wore and smiled. "What are you doing now?"
"We're temporary bards for Aphrodite and Hera," he said honestly, and ignored Iolaus' groan. "Where are you guys headed?"
"To the north. It's a roundabout route, but we're missing a major scuffle on the direct route," he said with a shrug. "You might want to watch out for that too. The fighting started a few miles up the road."
"Who's fighting now?" Iolaus asked, moving closer.
"Some minor idiots who want to be warlords. Ares is personally stopping their fighting because they're taking out some of the villages when Greece can't afford the loss." He smiled at him. "I've seen your partner recently, he was wandering around mumbling to himself." He turned his warm smile on Joxer. "Where are you two headed?"
"Wherever the road takes us." He smiled at the other men walking over to them. "Hiron," he said warmly, shaking the other guy's hand. "Who took over Father's army? You or Platius?"
"We did it together," Platius told him. He patted Hiron on the head. "He's become quite the planner. Just what we had hoped you would become, Joxer." He nodded at the bridge and the troops on the other side. "We'd better catch up with them. Take care of yourself and call on us if you need us." He clicked and his horse moved off.
Hiron smiled at Joxer and gave him a hug, slipping him something. "We'll be back this way in a few months," he whispered, then ran off to catch up.
Iolaus waited until they were alone to turn his glare on Joxer. "How did you know them?" he asked quietly.
"That used to be my father's army," Joxer said with a shrug. "They started to train me when I was younger." He started walking away from the bridge. "Did you want to go start off where the fighting was? They could use the entertainment more than the places where that army's going through."
"Yeah, sure," Iolaus said, watching Joxer very carefully as he followed him. "Why only started training?" Joxer looked back at him, stopping in the middle of the road. "You said started, why not finished?"
"Because I have something wrong with my eyesight, I can't see a lot of detail more than a few feet away. When my father heard about that, he told them to leave me alone and concentrate on my brothers." He shrugged, looking nonchalant. "It happens in the best of families. If I had been allowed to stay with the family, my father would have arranged a political marriage for me to ally the house with another warlord or a district. It's the way life is when you're the son of a warlord," he said when he noticed the pissed body-language the other man was giving off.
"So, why did you leave then?" Iolaus motioned for them to start walking again.
"Because I got a vision while we were camped out one night. It told me to start traveling on my own and that I would find my way then." He shrugged again. "I told my father and he gave me some money. He hated it because he was losing a valuable asset, but my brothers had the same vision a few years earlier."
"Because I finally found my calling," Joxer said, starting to sound tired. "It's not really an interesting story, Iolaus, and we're supposed to be concentrating on the interesting things we can tell people." He pulled the other man out of the way as he heard hoof beats, getting them out of the way of the rider coming up behind them.
"Thanks," Iolaus said once the guy had passed, giving Joxer a strange look. "How did you hear that?"
"It's called compensation. I asked a priest of Ares once and that's what he called it." He started to hum an old work song, getting himself into a happier mood. Iolaus grunted but that didn't stop him. Music was always welcome to Joxer's mind. He only wished they had the money so he could buy a lute. He missed playing, and had ever since the time he had to help Xena kill Bacchus.
"Do you sing?" Iolaus asked finally.
"Some. I'm not that great at it. My brother Jace is much better." He snorted. "And some say that even Jett is better than I am."
"Jett? I've heard of him. Assassin?" Joxer nodded. "You're his brother?"
"We're triplets. Oh, if we go near Corinth, I need to stop in and see my family, I want to see my sister, she was about six the last time I saw her."
"Sure," Iolaus agreed, not sure he wanted to see any more of Joxer's family. The one he'd met in the baths was still very fresh in his mind. "What does this other brother do?"
"He acts in a traveling show. He sings and dances."
"Um, like with women?"
"No, like as a woman," Joxer said dryly.
"Oh. That's great, I guess." Iolaus, who was thankfully behind Joxer, shuddered. "So, how was Xena when you left her?"
"Confused. She wasn't really understanding about Aphrodite and Hera getting together to help protect Greece. She was starting to figure it out, the town where the temple was had a sign up offering any traveler with a child a home if they'd stay." He jogged off into the trees, going to take care of some personal business.
Iolaus sighed and continued to walk, Joxer would catch up with him eventually. If he didn't get lost. He was having even more doubts about this assignment now. They'd never get through this alive.
Joxer smiled at the innkeeper as their bowls were put in front of them, paying the nice older man. "Thank you," he said politely. "When do the crowds start to gather?"
"Why? You bards?" he asked, looking them over.
"Temporary ones for Hera and Aphrodite," Joxer agreed, and Iolaus groaned again so he looked at him. "What? He has a right to know. It's his inn." He looked at the innkeeper again. "Do you mind if we tell stories in here later?"
"Sure." The innkeeper sat down across from them. "That's a strange pair to be working together. Why they'd send you out?"
"Because Greece is starting to drop off in population," Iolaus told him.
"The people aren't having enough kids and the Gods are worried that it'll make Greece vulnerable to an attack," Joxer said seriously. "We've been gifted with the ability to make people want to have children."
The innkeeper nodded. "Sounds reasonable. We haven't had a child born here in nearly twelve years, and that one died during a fever." He slapped the table. "Feel free to tell stories tonight," he offered as he stood up. He handed back the coin. "Here, I don't need it and you'll be needin' it in the next town, they're stingy over there." He walked away, going back to his kitchen and the meat he was roasting.
Joxer dug into the small bowl of beans and meat, blowing on it after the first bite turned out to be very hot. "That was nice of him," he said, putting the coin away again.
"Did you have to tell him?" Iolaus asked.
"They didn't say it was secret, and like I said, it's his place, he should know. Plus, we got some good information," Joxer reminded him. "This town needs us. Besides, it's always better to be honest, you don't have to keep track of the lies when you run into someone from where you've been." He took another bite and smiled as the innkeeper brought out some bread. "Thank you," he said politely.
"You're welcome. Oh, and your friend is right. 'Bout two towns over you won't want to tell them anything. They burned Hera's decree when it appeared. They've been having crop troubles," he confided.
Joxer grinned. "Wow." He glanced at Iolaus. "Then we can probably miss there, we wouldn't want them to have to feed extra people when they can't feed what they already have."
The innkeeper smiled back. "Thanks, boys. They're in a tough spot, the river shifted and their irrigation system isn't working right yet. Go through next year, they should be okay then." He headed back to the bar because someone else had walked in. "Hey, Michnas, those two are bards here to tell stories tonight," he told the other man.
"Great," Michnas said happily. "Been a while since we got one here." He smiled at them. "Are these traditional tales?"
"He does those," Joxer said, pointing at Iolaus. "I tell another sort, of things that could happen, somewhere else."
The man laughed. "Even better. Heard most of the traditional ones." He grabbed his mug of beer and gulped it, then waved at the innkeeper. "Be right back, gotta go tell the missus. Her family'll want to know." He walked out, going to spread the word.
Iolaus shook his head but he went back to eating. Tonight was going to be their first test as a team.
Hercules looked behind him at the village he was leaving, wondering why everyone had left so suddenly. He had taken a bath this week so he didn't smell any worse than the average person in the inn. He had been polite, even when he had beaten up that one guy that had become too drunk and pushed the innkeeper into the fire.
All he knew was that the villagers had all drifted off after about an hour of him sitting there eating his lunch. This was really strange. He really needed Iolaus, this was not what he thought it was going to be.
Bliss appeared and flicked a small dart at his uncle. It would only help the people. His grandma might think he was too little, but he was a big God now and he was going to help. He grinned as Hercules patted the darted spot, and disappeared before he got caught.
Joxer winced as Iolaus told the story of a fight for a group of men and he was hit again as the 'bad guy'. Eventually, though, he had had enough. He picked up his mug and hit Iolaus across the back of the head with it. The crowd laughed. "Ow!"
Joxer nodded. "Yeah, that's how my stomach feels," he said with a grim smile, faking it for the crowd. They all laughed and got up to get more drinks. "I am not your practice dummy," he hissed, rubbing his now very sore stomach. "You want to hit someone, pick someone in the crowd."
"Sorry," Iolaus said, backing away from him. "Why don't you tell one next?"
"Because most of mine are quiet tales. You've worked them up." Joxer got up and walked over to where the women were sitting, smiling at them. "I have some more sedate tales if you'd like to hear one," he offered. "Nothing as *exciting* as what Iolaus has, but some nice things about a warrior princess and her faithful hero."
One of the women groaned. "You know Xena?" she asked. Joxer nodded, grinning at her. "Really?" He nodded again. "How?"
"I'm Joxer, I travel with her."
"Oh, *you're* her bard friend," another woman said.
He laughed. "No, that's Gabrielle. She's not in many of the stories I have ready for you tonight. Just me, the hero."
The women tittered and then waved him on so he settled in to tell them how he had helped Xena scare of some pretty nasty creatures that had been terrorizing some families in the woods.
Iolaus looked over and started to listen to Joxer's story, but one of the men clapped him on the back and handed him a mug of wine, asking him for another story. He even volunteered to take Joxer's place as the dummy. Iolaus shrugged and sipped some of the watered down wine, smiling at the innkeeper for his thoughtfulness, then started into the story of another adventure with Hercules. So what if he bent the tale some to make him look better, it was what Joxer was doing. The men didn't seem to realize, but they weren't quite as enthusiastic either. So he changed it back, correcting himself after another drink of wine.
Joxer's group howled in laughter, and the men glared at them, and one even yelled at them to be quiet, but his wife threw a roll at his head so he settled down again. Both groups got back into their stories, and the men were soon satisfied.
As Joxer waved at the women, Iolaus was trying to pull him out of the village. "What did you do to them?" he hissed as they left the small hamlet.
"I just told them stories," Joxer told him, looking pleased with himself. "We talked some after a few stories, about what it was like on the road with a woman and that sort of stuff. Then they got the feeling and took their husbands away from you and went home." He tripped a little but caught himself before he could fall. "I did what they wanted us to do, tell them stories and make them feel good." He shot a glare at Iolaus, his stomach was still hurting from the 'demonstration' last night. "Do you think it worked?"
"With the presents we got this morning, I'd say," Iolaus said dryly, pulling out some of the still- warm bread and handing half of it over. His mood started to lighten with the addition of food to his perpetually empty stomach, and the day started to look better. "How far to the next village?"
"Two days walking," Joxer said, nibbling on his portion of the bread. "That was really nice of them to give us some food," he said after a few minutes silence, trying to start a good conversation. It always made traveling less awkward to have people around to talk to.
"Yeah, it was. People are usually really generous when you've given them something good," Iolaus told him. "But I guess you get to see that with Xena too."
Joxer shook his head. "Almost no one offers Xena anything, or if they do it, they do it out of mine and Gabby's hearing."
"You know, she hates it when people call her that."
"I call her that all the time and she doesn't seem to mind," Joxer countered. "Maybe she just hates it from people she's only met a few times."
"Maybe," Iolaus said, trying to keep the peace. How did Xena travel with Joxer and stay sane?
Joxer hummed in appreciation of the beautiful day, walking along happily. He couldn't help it if Iolaus was a stick in the mud. It was a beautiful day, not even many clouds. He laughed as he saw a zip of gold go across the sky, saluting Hermes. "He's a great God," he said fondly.
"You know Hermes?" Iolaus asked, looking a little skeptical. "How?"
"Um, do you *really* want to hear about it?" Joxer asked, grinning at him. "Or are you just curious?" Iolaus shrugged. "Well, I met Hermes at this little inn in the middle of nowhere. It's a neutral spot for all the male Gods to gather at, nothing said or done in there gets back to any of the Goddesses. I was traveling alone that month and I was pretty desperate for an inn - there hadn't been one for weeks on that road. The innkeeper was moved by my begging and let me have a small room under the stairs, and a long soak in a bath, but I had to stay in my room. But the party got really loud and happy and someone pulled me out from my cot and made me come join in. You wouldn't believe what a sense of humor Zeus has," he said quietly. "Really nasty some days."
Iolaus shook his head. He knew Joxer was touched in the head, but to make up a lie like that?
"Maybe we should head that way," Joxer said, still grinning. "I'd like to see the innkeeper again. She was really nice to me and said I could come back anytime." He glanced at Iolaus. "She didn't say I could bring a guest, but I'm guessing you'd be welcomed too. You're a pretty fun guy." He giggled and jogged up the road some, singing happily.
Iolaus groaned. He was with *happy* people. He *would* beg Aphrodite to let them separate just as soon as they came to her next temple.
Overhead, Hermes came back and smiled down at Joxer, one of his favorite memories at the Godly brothel in the last century.
Iolaus listened as Joxer told a story for the village they were in's children, amazed at what that mind could make up. It might be not quite right, but it definitely had some very good ideas. Their parents had listened to them earlier and had gone off to have some time alone, leaving them with the village children and youngsters. Iolaus had left it to Joxer though, nothing in his repertoire was really suitable for kids of any age. He smiled at the moral of the story, that even when the Gods weren't seeming to pay attention, they might peek in. A good strong finish to a very unusual story. The kids all ran off to go play, and the young adults all begged him for another one, all the women sighing when he grinned at them. Iolaus shook his head and went to get them both some water from the nearest well.
"Hey, you those *gifted* bards?" a man hissed as Iolaus was drawing up water.
He looked the man over, then nodded. "Yes, we are. We're keeping it down so it doesn't touch any of the children. Is there a problem?"
"No," he said, grinning at him. "Think you could get one of the women to come with me?"
Iolaus smiled gently. "I'm sorry, friend, but the gifts don't work that way. We only inspire the thoughts and feelings, who people go off with is up to them."
"How's about a private performance then?" he asked with a grin.
Joxer jogged up and grabbed the dipper from the bucket, taking a quick gulp. "Rest break. One of the mothers came out to grab kids for a meal." He looked the other man over, then shook his head. "I'm sorry, we don't do private performances, Aphrodite said we shouldn't." The man 'humph'ed and walked off. Joxer looked at Iolaus, who wasn't looking too happy. "You didn't see the poster at the last town?" he asked quietly. His traveling companion shook his head, starting to look more confused. "There was one of him in the inn we stayed at. It said he was diseased. It had Aphrodite's seal on it, her *personal* one."
Iolaus sighed. "Thank you. Point them out when you see them, okay?" Joxer nodded happily and sipped some more water, then handed back the dipper and walked off.
Iolaus got his drink and went back to where they were telling stories, trying to find some shade.
Hercules swallowed hard as the woman at the table behind him reached over and felt his butt. He shifted and tried to sip some more of his water, but she was getting insistent. He got up and went to the bar, getting a refill and a piece of jerky, but the people around him started trying to touch him too. He groaned and paid for his meal, and quickly headed out of the town. Unfortunately, the townspeople didn't like that. They caught him and dragged him back to the inn, where he was put up on a table so everyone could see him. "What's going on?" he asked, unamused when the orgy started at his feet. "Um, excuse me," he said, trying to get down off the table without blushing, but he was rudely pushed back into place. He was stuck up there, having to watch the orgy going on around him.
As soon as he could, he escaped, heading for the nearest temple - as it happened, Apollo's. "What's wrong with me!" he called, starting to sound a tad hysterical.
The high priestess walked out and looked him over, then shrugged. "I don't know, what's wrong with you?" She licked her lips and ran a finger down the opening of his shirt. "You look healthy...enough," she finished quickly, trying to regain her professional demeanor. "Um, are you having strange symptoms?" She forced herself to step back before she could touch him again, but she kept her thighs pressed very tightly together.
Apollo appeared, glaring at Hercules. "Go back to your studies," he ordered gently. She smiled and bowed to her God, then left quickly, her hand drifting to her top's opening. Apollo looked down at his half-brother, shaking his head. "What did you get yourself into now?" he asked quietly, coming down to look him over. "How did you get a lust spell?"
"Lust spell?" Hercules asked, still looking confused. Then his face shifted, becoming angry. "Hera. She said she put something on me to help me save Greece."
Apollo gave him his best irritating smile. "Well, we've all got our calling in trying to save Greece. Yours is helping her with her little population explosion."
"Population explosion?" Hercules asked, quickly going back to being confused.
Apollo nodded. "She's decided we're short on kids in Greece. Hera and 'Dite are working on it. Apparently, you're their chosen method of ensuring more children." He shrugged and disappeared in a flash of gold light.
Hercules would have started to yell for Hera, but he knew she wouldn't appear in Apollo's temple. He stormed out and went to find her nearest temple. She *would* tell him why she had done this horrible thing to him.
Joxer collected their tips from the table and put them in his hidden pouch, smiling at the departing people. "I think we're starting to lose them," he said quietly, once Iolaus had sat down. He untucked a few coins so he could pay the innkeeper for their rooms and a meal, which was brought to them.
"None of them looked really enthused," Iolaus agreed, digging into the bowl of soup. "This is great," he called after the innkeeper, who had given them a discount. "What do you want to do about it?" he asked quietly, between bites.
"I think we should drop in on either of our patrons and ask them," Joxer said with a shrug, pushing his soup over so the bottomless stomach could have it. Iolaus looked at him. "I'm not hungry," he said, grabbing his key and heading up to his room. In truth, the soup had tasted more like soap and he really wasn't in the mood for stomach problems. It was hard to travel when you needed to stay near an outhouse. He sent a silent prayer to his two patrons and Ares, not wanting to be forgotten while he was on this unusual assignment. The voice he heard in his head told him to come to Hera's temple in the morning, she would be able to answer all his questions then. He fell asleep, comforted by the knowledge that they weren't out here alone.
Downstairs, Iolaus started a short story for the remaining patrons, who weren't quite drunk yet, and was thrilled when the usual squishy feelings started to be spread. Yeah, they definitely had to work this out, Joxer was holding him back.
Hera appeared in front of the two young men, giving them bright smiles. "How have your travels been?" she asked.
"Fine, until recently," Joxer told her, sitting down on the floor in front of her so he could rub out a sore muscle from where he had slept really wrong the night before, he was obviously going soft.
"I told one after you had left and it went fine," Iolaus told him, then he looked at the Goddess. "It didn't work while we were together though."
She nodded, looking them both over. "I see," she said finally. "Iolaus, do be a good boy and go get some supplies from the market." She watched as Joxer handed over some of the money he was carrying around. "Joxer, are you feeling all right?" she asked quietly, pulling a chair over to sit in front of him. "You seem very...quiet for some reason."
He shrugged. "I'm not sure what it is, but I know that I'm not my usual self." He gave her a weak smile. "I try, I try really hard, Lady Hera. I do fine by myself, just like Iolaus did last night. I even managed not to infect a bunch of youngsters a few weeks back."
She leaned over and patted him on the head. "Good. Has it worked since then?" He nodded and she straightened back up. "Then what do you think it is?"
"I think it's him," he nearly whispered. He looked in her eyes. "We don't get along. He doesn't like to talk while we're walking, he doesn't even chat with me at night when we're done and waiting to go to bed. I miss Xena and Gabby, at least they talked to me."
She nodded again. "That's simple enough to cure. They *are* in a nearby town. I'll have them held up there if you wish." His smile got brighter. "Maybe traveling alone together wasn't the ideal solution we hoped it would be."
"Can we get a third person?" Joxer asked hopefully. "Maybe someone who won't look at me like some sort of oddity?"
She gave him a motherly smile and another pat on the head. "I'm sure he doesn't see you that way. Yes, you are a little odd, but not enough to be labeled an oddity." She stood up and sent the chair back against the wall it had come from. "I'll get to work on finding someone to travel with you two and take some of the stress off you." Then she left him alone.
Joxer stood up carefully, not wanting his muscle to cramp on him, and headed out to the market. Iolaus would never get anything he'd eat, he hated jerky and travel bread.
Hercules stumbled into one of Hera's main temples on the other side of Greece, falling to his knees. He was out of breath, tired beyond belief, and ready to collapse. "Hera?" he groaned. "Why did you punish me this way?"
Hera appeared, giving him a slight smile. "What did I do to you, Hercules?"
"You cursed me!" he said, looking up at her. "Why?"
She manifested a chair and a glass of water for him, waiting until he had gulped it down to tell him what was going on. "Hercules, have you been in towns that have a decree from myself and Aphrodite?" He settled himself in to listen, nodding after a moment. "Did you understand why those were there?"
"Apollo said something about you wanting a population explosion."
She nodded. "True. Greece needs one."
"What, are you losing followers?" he asked snidely.
She flipped a strand of power at him, making him jump. "No, this has nothing to do with our power base, this has to do with the fact that Greece is at its most vulnerable point in history. There's not enough people now to prevent an outsider from taking over Greece. There's also not enough people to ensure that Greece continues to prosper."
"In other words, Ares doesn't have enough people coming of age and it's going to take away from farmers?"
She sighed and shook her head. "No. Do you understand about population growth? How there has to be an increase to make sure that Greece prospers for the future?" He thought then slowly nodded. "All right, that's good. But right now, we've got a population *decline*. In three generations, there won't be enough farmers to feed Greece, much less work in any of the other trades." He nodded again, a little faster this time. "You were blessed to make people want to go have children, as have two others."
"Is this really necessary?" he asked.
"Yes. To turn this problem around and ensure that it won't be happening for at least five more generations, we need a twenty percent increase in the normal amount of children born."
"Why couldn't Cupid and Aphrodite do it?" He shifted uncomfortably. This was manipulation and he didn't want to think he had taken part in it.
"They're doing their part, but they're too tired to handle all of it. Hence you being blessed." She smiled at him. "Do you understand now?"
He sighed but he nodded. "I do. Can you tone it down though? Make it more of a suggestion than a full-out need?"
She shook her head. "You do your best work by being around people in short spurts. The other two have a milder version of the spell and are traveling around acting as bards. They're making more of a suggestion than you are." She held in her chuckle at his bright red blush. "Did something happen?"
"Um, the people a few towns over decided to ....." He shook his head. "It doesn't matter. How much longer do I have to do this?"
"Until we have the twenty percent increase we need," she told him. "This year, we project we'll have a five percent increase. We're hoping by the end of next year to have what we need. Then you can go back to whatever you were doing before." She waved a hand. "Any other questions?"
"Can I get Iolaus to travel with me?"
"Only if you want to also travel with Joxer. Those two are the other two that have been spelled." She raised an eyebrow. "I doubt you'd want that, even though Joxer has asked for someone to travel with them I doubt you were who he had in mind."
Hercules shook his head. "No, I don't think I could handle traveling with Joxer." He looked around the temple. "Do I have to continue? It's embarrassing, not to mention hurting the people."
Hera shook her head. "No, you can't stop. You're the best hope we have to get that final ten percent. The other two may get us up over ten percent, but that last little bit needs a harder push." She smiled. "Don't worry, no one will dare say anything to you. You do have the Gods backing you." She disappeared.
Hercules forced himself to stand up and considered his options. He could stay in this town, which would only be embarrassing for a few days. He could continue to travel like he had been and possibly be attacked more often. Or, and he got a bright idea, he could go find the armies that were training in the area and influence them. They wouldn't be able to fight at all if they were doing what this spell was intended for. He smiled as he walked out of the temple, his new course of action sure. It would start a population increase after all, just like what Hera wanted.
"I don't think so," Aphrodite said as she appeared, flashing him with some power. He stopped and looked at her, staring in shock. "Nope, sorry. The deal was we keep you away from Ares' guys and doing your real job. You're going to do just what I say, got me here?" He nodded, his head acting like it was on a string. "You're gonna travel East, toward the border. You're gonna hit every little town but that flowerish sounding one 'cause they don't need your help. You're gonna be happy to spread lots of joy and happiness among the mortals. Got it?" He nodded again, starting to whimper. "Good. Now go away." She flashed out and Hercules went off, doing as she had ordered/programmed him to do.
Joxer squealed as Xena came into view, running up to her and hugging her tightly. "Thank the Gods, someone who'll talk to me!" he told her, giving her an extra squeeze.
Xena peeled him off her, looking him over. Then she noticed another friend coming their way. "Iolaus," she called, waving at him. She looked at Joxer. "What's going on?"
"Iolaus and I are Aphrodite and Hera's bards," he told her. "We've been traveling together now for nearly a month."
Iolaus smiled at Xena as he walked up to them. "You wouldn't believe what can come out of this guy's mouth," he said in greeting. "Want to travel with us for a while?"
She nodded. "Sure. Gabrielle's at the inn, she's been feeling sickly." She nodded the way. "I'll meet you there? I have to pick up some herbs to treat her." Iolaus nodded and headed off. She stopped Joxer. "What's really going on?" she asked quietly.
"Greece needs a population explosion, we won't have enough of anybody in a few generations," he explained. "Hera and Aphrodite gifted us with the ability to make people want to have another child when they listen to us tell stories. But I can't travel with him anymore, Xena. He *hates* me, he doesn't like to talk, and he thinks I'm odd and demented." He gave her a pitiful look. "Can you two please travel with us for a week or so? I could stand another month if I could have good traveling partners for a week."
She patted him on the shoulder. "I'll talk to Gabrielle about it." She started to turn away, but then looked at him again. "Are we being kept here?"
He swallowed. "Hera said you were here and she volunteered to stall you. I'm sure she isn't making Gabby feel bad though."
She gave him a smile. "Of course not. It looks like something she ate." She pointed at the inn's sign. "Go there and wait for me. I'll be there in half an hourglass." He nodded and jogged off. She looked up. "This had better not have been you," she muttered. "Making me live through this living hell is too cruel, even for you guys." She went to finish her errand. She wanted Gabrielle better, before she killed her.
Joxer sat down next to Iolaus, pulling out a coin to pay the guy bringing a bowl of food. "Can I have some too? And rooms, one for each of us?"
The servant looked behind the bar, and the keeper shrugged. "We'll have to see what's open." He took the coin and went to the bar to hand it in and get Joxer some food.
Iolaus dug into the simple stew, slurping heartily. "When will Xena be back?" he asked between bites.
"Half an hourglass. She thinks it's something they ate on the trail."
"Oh. Been there, done that," Iolaus said with a shrug. "Herc and I got bad fish one summer. There was a problem with the water. It was hard to travel for a while." He pointed at Joxer's thigh. "How much do we have left?"
"About twenty coins," Joxer said, after glancing around. "Enough to stay for a few days and augment the travel rations."
"Jerky's perfectly fine," Iolaus defended.
"No, it's not. I've spent the last three years eating jerky and one of Apollo's healers said I needed more variety in my diet, I was starting to get sick and my bones were weakening. He said that jerky and travel bread was supposed to be a method of last resort, not a steady diet." He looked smug. "He even yelled at Xena about it."
Iolaus rolled his eyes and went back to eating, getting out of the servant's way as he put down a bowl for Joxer. "What about the rooms?" he asked.
"We only have three upstairs," he said politely. "Two women have two of them."
"Yeah, we're going to be traveling with them for a few days," Joxer said kindly, giving him a smile. "Xena," he said as she walked in. "They only have three rooms."
"I'll move into Gabrielle's room," she agreed, sitting down beside them. "You two probably need the privacy." She smiled at Iolaus. "How are you?"
"Fighting with him about jerky being a good idea while traveling."
Xena shook her head. "Apollo's healer was right. We all need more variety in our diets. We found out that when we added cheese or milk at least twice a week we quit getting muscle cramps in the mornings. If we get to add vegetables or mushrooms, we all feel better and have fewer stomach problems." She smiled at the servant. "We'll work out the rooming for ourselves. Pay the man, Iolaus."
Joxer reached into his thigh pouch and pulled out three coins. "How much?"
"A bronze a night," he said, accepting the coins. "Three nights?"
Joxer looked at Xena, prompting the servant to do the same. "Probably," she agreed. "They can always tell some stories if they start running low."
The keeper shook his head, slamming a mug down on the bar. "No, they can't. I know who they are and this town won't put up with Hera's meddling ways. We have enough children."
Joxer smiled at him. "We honor such requests. If a town is having enough, we're not supposed to invoke our gifts to help them along. That won't be a problem."
The keeper smiled. "Good. Three days?"
"My companion should be well enough by then," Xena agreed.
"Well, we do have a hayloft in the barn," the keeper noted. "Or an attic. Enough room for everyone."
"I'll take the attic," Joxer said quickly, handing over some more coins. "Thank you."
"Welcome. We'll send some blankets and hay up there for you. Just don't make a mess." Joxer nodded and the keeper's smile got brighter. "Good man." He accepted the coins from the server and tucked them into his apron. "Go pull some hay up there for him and set up a bed by the chimney." The servant ran off to do as he was told. He looked at Xena. "She going to get better now?"
"I have the herbs she needs to finish healing," she agreed, getting up and heading up the stairs. "We'll be down in a few minutes," she told the men.
Iolaus looked at Joxer. "We could have shared."
"No offense, Iolaus, but you talk in your sleep. We have enough money and I'd really like a good night's sleep. It's bad enough Gabby snores." He started on his stew, delicately eating the chunks of what tasted like deer meat.
Iolaus mentally sighed. He hated how pampered Joxer was. It was like the guy hadn't learned anything from his years with Xena.
Xena listened to Joxer's babble as they started out of the town, giving him an encouraging smile. "It sounds like you're doing well," she congratulated. "Are you thinking about finishing your bards training and doing that from now on?"
"No, but I'd like to keep it as a hobby. I miss my lute playing and I miss having fun while I work." He grinned back at Gabrielle, who was talking with Iolaus, then moved closer. "Thank you," he said quietly, but with heartfelt emotion. "He thinks he's so much better and I'm ready to beg Aphrodite again to split us up."
Xena nodded. "I know. It's hard to adjust when your usual partner's gone. Hey, Iolaus, have you seen Hercules?" she called back.
He jogged to catch up to them. "No, I haven't. What's going on with him?"
"He's been spelled too?" Joxer guessed.
"Hera put a spell on him to help him save...Greece...." Iolaus said, slowing down as he thought about it. "He's got spells like us?"
She smiled and shook her head. "His is a pure lust spell. He's creating orgies wherever he goes." She laughed when Gabrielle grimaced. "He's doing his part to make sure Greece continues. He's not comfortable with it, but he's doing a very good job from what we've heard. There's rumors going around about what happens when he leaves a town. A few villages have even tried to keep him in them so they wouldn't be hit. Apparently they thought they wouldn't react so much if they kept him in the village cells."
Iolaus groaned. "He's got to hate that. Does he know?" She nodded. "We need to hook up with him."
"He's headed East according to the rumors," Xena told him. "With a group of warriors guarding him now. Apparently Ares was *requested* to rescue him when one town sent him to jail so he couldn't leave, so he's now got an honor guard."
"I heard about that," Gabrielle put in. "The warrior said that Ares wasn't happy but that he had given in because the other Gods had made him."
"They would have had to," Xena agreed.
Iolaus nodded. "Those two couldn't get along if they were tied naked, face-to-face, in a small room." He looked at Joxer. "Want to travel that way?"
"Sure, I don't care," Joxer told him. "We should probably take a different route though, just so we don't overlap."
"Good idea," Xena congratulated. She looked them over. "Gabrielle?"
"That sounds fine to me," she agreed. "We didn't have a destination in mind and there's plenty of towns along the way." She smiled at Joxer. "So, tell me some of these stories?"
"I'm not sure I can turn off the gifts," Joxer told her, looking hesitant. "I managed it once but it's not been working too well lately."
"Whenever we're together, the gifts aren't working as strongly," Iolaus reminded him.
"So you'll tell us one tonight?" she asked.
Joxer gave in. "Sure. It's not the traditional tales, but I tell stories mostly to the womenfolk. Iolaus does the more energetic stories."
"If you don't like his, I'll tell you one," Iolaus told her, squeezing her shoulder. "Xena, would you like to request anything?"
"No, I'd like to hear Joxer tell one. I haven't heard a story of his in a while and I remember liking the last one." He grinned up at her. "We'll camp tonight, there'll be an inn by mid-afternoon tomorrow." Everyone agreed and the traveling continued slowly. It's not like they were in a hurry.
Behind some bushes a little way back, Bliss giggled as he listened to the men and women. They were funny. He considered the four of them, then nodded. He had *just* the plan for them, and it'd be helping too. Grandma would be happy to have some help.
Xena laughed as Joxer finished his tale, reaching over to bop him on the arm. "That was good," she congratulated. "Very good." Even Gabrielle was smiling. "I like that, and it *could* happen, just to someone else." She handed him a water skin. "Is that what you've been telling?"
"That and about some of your adventures. Like I said earlier, I tell stories for the women and Iolaus gets the men. Mostly, after I've said I know you, they ask what it's like to be on the road with a woman." He took a sip of water and handed the skin back. "They're all very interested in how you handle natural functions and womanly things."
She smiled. "Easy. Those days, we camp. Preferably at an inn."
Gabrielle snickered. "Or hopefully near a hot spring. Cold water seems to aggravate my woman's problems." She smiled at Joxer. "Very good. Not really formal bard quality, but entertaining."
"Which is what's most important," Joxer agreed. "I just give them the feeling that they should *think* about having another child."
"How," Xena asked.
"Maybe their bodies pick up on the spell or something," Joxer said with a shrug. "All I know is that usually the adults disappear after an hour or so and the next morning everyone looks a little bit happier. Even when we went through some battle-torn areas, the people looked a little happier and more relaxed the next morning."
"Battle-torn?" Gabrielle asked. "It's barely the spring marching season."
"We caught up with some of the warriors from Joxer's family's army," Iolaus said quietly. "They told us they were told to go around a battle because Ares was personally stopping some warlord wannabes." Xena frowned. "They were really happy to see Joxer when we ran into them."
Joxer nodded. "I hadn't seen them for a few years so I stopped to talk to our strategic planner and the new head of the army. Both are really great guys, they trained us when we were younger."
Gabrielle shuddered and moved a little closer to the fire. "Why were they headed out so early?"
"Ares had them going to a new spot to train. Apparently he needed them trained for some mountain work, so he ordered them to move."
Xena nodded. "That sounds reasonable. There's not many armies from up in the mountains, not large ones like your family's is supposed to be." She glanced at Iolaus, who nodded. "At least they weren't helping with the fighting."
"No, they were told to go around it," Joxer agreed. "They did warn us about it though. That was nice of them."
"Very nice of them," Iolaus agreed. "What did that one give you anyway?"
"A note from Jace. His show's moved on and he wanted me to know where he was in case I was headed that way. He still keeps in touch with the rest of the guys, just in case he needs some help or the show's not getting enough people."
"It probably also gives him a warning of when an army's moving through the area," Xena said, sounding pragmatic. "That must be a help to a traveling show."
Joxer nodded. "Probably. I never really did understand about all that stuff he does, but it makes him happy." He looked at Iolaus. "Your turn, tell a story."
Iolaus coughed lightly, accepting Xena's waterskin for a drink. "Thanks. What did you want to hear?"
"Anything where you don't use me as a telling device," Joxer said wryly. Gabrielle glanced at him. "Our first night out, he decided to show how he was beating up on the bad guys using my stomach."
"Oh. Ow," she said, looking pained. "You all right?"
"Fine. I hit him with a mug."
Xena chuckled. "That would certainly get anyone's attention. Is that when you started telling stories to the young ones and the women?" Joxer nodded. "That seems reasonable, your stories are more sedate."
Iolaus nodded. "Definitely more sedate. They sit around and talk or they sew while he tells stories. It works out all right most nights." He cleared his throat. "Let's see. How about I tell you about the last time Herc and I had to fight a hydra. Someone had actually started to fight it first, and was good enough that it had five or six heads by the time we got there." He grinned. "Herc was *not* happy, he yelled at the young guy trying to fight the thing, shoving him out of the way before he got eaten."
Joxer got up and headed into the trees, going to answer the call of his bladder. He was undoing his pants when he heard the bushes behind him rattle and turned, holding his pants together with one hand. "Who's there?" he called quietly, not wanting to alarm anyone back at the camp unless he had to. A little golden body flew up and hovered in front of him. "Bliss," he said, relieved. He did his pants back up and grabbed the baby god to give him a hug. "What are you doing down here? The last time I knew, you were grounded."
Bliss grinned at him. "Me have message," he said happily. "Grammy sent me." He nodded. "Important one."
"Oh. Okay. What is it? Is it for me or for Iolaus?"
"For you, silly," Bliss said happily. He leaned closer, so Joxer did too, and he blew a raspberry on the adult's face. Then he giggled. "There you go."
"Thanks," Joxer said, still grinning. He tickled the baby and tossed him up lightly, watching as he flew off. Then he went back to his original purpose for being out there. By the time he got back, everyone was quiet.
"Who were you talking to?" Xena asked.
"Bliss. He brought a message from Aphrodite."
"Well, what was it?" Iolaus asked when Joxer didn't say anything else.
So Joxer leaned over and gave Iolaus a raspberry on the cheek too. "Just that," he said happily. "Then he flew off. Oh, and he's grounded for a year because of what he did to you, Gabby. Cupid and Aphrodite were talking about it in front of us."
Gabrielle smiled. "Good. Someone needs to talk to that boy about his thing with animals."
Xena covered her laughter very well, her companion didn't even see it. They all settled in for the night, letting Iolaus deal with the fire this time.
During the night, Joxer felt something touch his eyelid so he opened it, looking up at Bliss. "Hey," he said quietly, sitting up. "What's wrong?" He pulled the baby into his lap, treating it like he would any other three-year-old. "Did someone yell at you for coming down?"
Bliss shook his head, looking up at the adult he had plans for. "Nope. Grammy still nap, Daddy too." He stuck his thumb in his mouth. "I need to do somethin' but I shouldn't. Is that bad?"
Joxer shrugged. "I couldn't tell you, Bliss. I'm not a God. Will it hurt someone?" The baby shook his head. "Will it help someone?" Bliss nodded, starting to look happier. "Will people get upset if you do it?" Bliss nodded again. "Hmm, that is hard. I know, we should ask Xena. She knows a lot. Would that be okay?" Bliss nodded so they turned, finding Xena already sitting up. "He's got a moral dilemma," he said, handing the baby over.
Xena cradled the baby boy, smiling down at him. "Why don't you tell me your plan and we'll see how bad it is, okay?" Bliss shook his head. "I'm not allowed to know?" He shook his head quickly. "Hmm. Who will be upset?"
"Ever'body," Bliss told her. "But it's a good thing, help Grammy and Daddy."
"Will Hera get mad at you for it?" Joxer asked.
Bliss pulled his thumb out and stuck out his tongue. "Not care," he said firmly. "She yell me." He looked over Xena's shoulder at Gabrielle. "She okay again? I sorry, I know her not go with skunk now."
Xena gave him a light squeeze. "I'll tell her you're sorry tomorrow, Bliss." She considered the boy and his obsession for causing trouble. "Does this have something to do with what Joxer and Iolaus are doing?" Bliss nodded, starting to look happier again. "You're not going to use a bow, right?"
Bliss shook his head, giggling. "No bow, just some juice. Good juice. Can I? It won't hurt anyone."
Xena thought then she shrugged. "I don't see why not, but you really should ask first."
Bliss blew a raspberry. "No ask, they never agree on anything." He gave her a hug, then launched himself at Joxer, giving him a hug too. "Me do it. Thank you." Then he flashed out.
Xena rubbed her ribs, which now hurt. "I wonder if I told him right," she said quietly.
Joxer shrugged. "It's too late now, and he probably would have done it anyway. You know how he can be." He laid back down. "Did Ares ever tell you why he dropped Bliss off with us after that incident with the arrows and the virgins?"
"No," she sighed. "I've asked a few times and he always grunted something that sounded like 'my sanity'." She laid back down and pulled her blanket back over her. "Good night, Joxer."
"Good night, Xena. Sweet dreams." Joxer got as comfortable as he could and closed his eyes.
On Olympus, Cupid sat up and looked around. "Mom?" he called frantically. "Bliss is loose."
Aphrodite appeared, yawning. "Son, speak clearly and slowly. Not even that stuff that Hades imported is going to wake me up yet."
"What?" she shrieked, grabbing him and shaking him. "What do you mean he's escaped and you feeling something funny with Iolaus and Joxer?"
"Let go," he said calmly. She did and he frowned at him. "That's what I was trying to tell you. He's not up here. I felt him leave."
She ran a hand through her hair, straightening it out. "All right, you go visit the bards, I'll start looking for Bliss. I'll even get Hera up if we need to." She disappeared, followed not long afterwards by her son.
Cupid landed beside Iolaus' sleeping mat, looking down at him with a frown. It wasn't him. He walked over to where Joxer was sleeping, checking on him. Yup, it was definitely him. Just in case, he checked the others, frowning when he saw the same marks on Xena too. "Oh, man," he said, waking everyone up. "Go back to sleep. We're searching for Bliss."
"He just left," Xena said, closing her eyes again. "He was having a moral dilemma and wanted Joxer's advise."
"About what?" Aphrodite said as she appeared.
Joxer looked up at her, giving her a faint smile. "He said he needed to do something to help you, but that you'd get mad. He wanted to know if it was still okay. He did say it wasn't going to hurt anyone and he said it had to do with juice."
Aphrodite stared down at him, then at the other three. "Okay. You four, head to my nearest temple."
"Mine's closer," Cupid butted in.
"Okay, so head for his. Get there really soon and everything should be fine. We're adjusting the plan, after we figure out what Bliss was up to." She and Cupid disappeared.
"You didn't tell them about the cheek thing," Iolaus mumbled, rolling onto his side.
"I'll do it when I see them," Joxer agreed, starting to fall back to sleep.
Gabrielle gave out a loud snore and everyone jumped but Xena. She just groaned and used a stick to poke her.
Cupid flashed into Hera's temple, beside her bed, making her jump. "Grandma, we've got major Bliss-induced problems," he said quickly, before she could kill him. "He did something to Xena and one of our bards."
Hera sighed and put her outer robe on, following him down to the mortal plane so they could look in on the bards and their friends. "I see," she said finally, looking at Cupid. "Where is your son?"
"Damned if I know," he said quietly. "Mom's looking for him now. Apparently he wanted to know if it was wrong to do something that he thought was necessary but that would piss everyone off. Or at least that's what Joxer said he woke them up for." She grimaced. "What do we do now? They're coming to my nearest temple. It's only a few days travel."
"We'll figure out what to do by then," she assured him, patting him on the back. "Go find your son. I'll go wake Zeus and talk with him." She disappeared.
Xena sat up and looked right at him. "Why can't I get any sleep?"
Cupid came over and sat on the bottom of her blanket. "Listen, I'm not sure I'm supposed to be telling you this." His eyes crossed. "Okay, I can tell you this, but only you." She nodded, starting to look bored. "Bliss did something to you and Joxer," he told her, then he checked and made sure everyone would stay asleep while they talked. "He's made you both ...really special and we're trying to figure out *exactly* what he's done to you both." She nodded again, but now she was starting to look kinda pissed. "I'm not sure how Joxer's going to handle this, not on the physical level anyway. You know he's managed to find a way around reality, right?" She nodded again. "Well, what my son did will have a strong effect on that so we need you to watch him for us until you get to my temple. I need to know if he's goin' off the deep end."
"The deep end of what?" she asked.
"Of his mind," Cupid sighed, rolling his eyes. "Just tell me if he's going nuts or not, 'kay? Trust me, it's not going to be pretty if he does."
"What did Bliss do?" she asked. He didn't answer so she grabbed him by the throat. "What did he do this time, Cupid?"
"He made you both Gods," he croaked. "Put some liquid ambrosia into your eyes." She let him go, and he rubbed his throat. "That wasn't nice."
"I don't want to be a God," she said firmly.
"That's what we're tryin' to fix now," he pointed out. "We need to know exactly what he did so we can fix it." He nodded at Joxer. "He's not going to like it either and you *can't* tell anyone." He flipped her on the forehead, making sure of it, then he left before she could retaliate.
Xena laid back down, trying to get back to sleep again. She would think about this tomorrow, when daylight made things look saner. She did glance over at Joxer, who was laughing at something he saw in his dreams, but shrugged it off. He'd always had very loud dreams.
Joxer walked along beside Xena, the place of honor when they were traveling, and went into another of his stories, cracking up laughing at something he was going to say.
"What's so funny?" Gabrielle called.
"Nothing," Xena called back. "Don't worry about it." She tapped Joxer, making him look up at her. "What's going on, Joxer? Are you feeling all right?"
He shrugged. "I don't have a clue," he said happily. Then he looked around. "Um, why do I feel like we're being watched."
"We are, they're still looking for Bliss." Xena nodded him closer. "Joxer, do you feel...strange in any way?" He nodded. "Headaches or something?" He shook his head. "Funny how?"
"Like a tingle is running around in my stomach and my head's about to blow up like a sheep's stomach so you can play ball with it." She grimaced but he continued. "And I feel light, really, really light. Almost like I could be dancing."
"Don't," Xena ordered before he could break out in dance. "Try and act normal, okay? It's only one more day until we reach Cupid's temple and we'll get whatever is wrong with us straightened out there."
"Do you feel it too?" His face looked so innocent and trusting. "Was it something we ate?"
She smiled. "No, not something we ate, but I do feel it too. I think Bliss did something." Her horse reared up, making her focus on the road, and the man who just appeared there. "What do you want?" she asked.
Cupid smiled at her. "Hey, sorry 'bout that." He grinned at Joxer. "Um, we found Bliss, and he's in deeper trouble than usual for this stunt, but take a shortcut and head to Hera's temple to the West," he said, pointing. Xena pointed in the other direction. "Whatever, the next town to the West has one of Hera's major temples, so head there. And make it quick, huh?" He disappeared.
"What's going on?" Iolaus said, walking up to stand behind Joxer. "First Cupid and Aphrodite show up and now we're going to see Hera?"
"He said it was about Bliss' plan, so they must have stopped him," Joxer told him, giving him a grin. "We're probably going to be getting some new orders."
"Or maybe your job's done," Gabrielle suggested.
"Maybe," Iolaus said, but he looked doubtful. "Xena?"
"We have to follow orders this time. You don't know this, but Bliss likes to come and tell us about his plans before he does them. Ever since he hit Gabrielle with a lust arrow, he's thought of us first. We may have to testify or something." She turned her horse to the side and started looking for a good connecting path so they didn't have to walk through the forest.
"He got you too," Gabrielle reminded her with a smirk. "Or don't you remember going to see Draco to *talk* to him about the Hestian Virgins?"
Xena glared at her. "Just find a path."
"Sorry." Gabrielle looked down the road, smiling when she saw a flashing arrow. "I think it's down there," she said dryly, making everyone look.
"That is so cool," Joxer said, running toward it. He only tripped once, but he managed to catch himself and roll back up to his feet almost immediately. He tried to touch the arrow, but it moved out of his reach, taunting him with it's blinking. "Guys, come see this," he called, moving the arrow back toward them by trying to touch its backside. The others crowded around the arrow, and it started to blink faster. "I think we're making it upset."
Xena backed off and looked around, spying the small footpath. "Let's head that way," she said as she dismounted, leading Argo down the small path. "Come on, Joxer. You have to finish that story or I'll never find out if the Princess kicks his ass." He hurried to catch up with her, starting off on his story again.
Iolaus and Gabrielle shared a look, but they faithfully followed behind like the good sidekicks they were. Whatever was going on would be explained to them sometime soon.
Cupid was pacing around his mother's home temple by the time she got back with Hera and Zeus in tow. "I put him in bed," he told them before anyone could say anything. "I asked and he did say he was trying to help us."
Zeus grimaced but he shrugged. "It's done."
"Xena's not real happy about this," Cupid warned.
"You talked to her after I left?" Hera asked. He nodded. "What did she say?"
"Not much. I asked her to watch out for Joxer, because this might have finished unbalancing him mentally." The other Gods nodded. "But she doesn't want to be a God."
"We might be able to fix that for her," Hera said thoughtfully. "Maybe not, but we could always try."
"She's a demi," Aphrodite pointed out. "She might make it as an immortal."
"Yes, that would be a workable solution," Zeus agreed. "What about this boy? How unstable is he?"
"He used to find a few good ways around reality, that's why he's one of our chosen bards," Cupid explained. His mother was finding a seat and looked like she was ready to fall asleep again. He was just jumpy. "He's not fully mentally broken, but he manages to find new twists to what he's been through to make it all go his way in his head." Zeus nodded, looking thoughtful. "But I figure if anything would break him, this is it."
"Well, we do need a God of Insanity," Hera noted.
"You need to tell Ares," Aphrodite pointed out from her favorite couch. "He's one of his."
"Good point. Go do that," Zeus ordered. He looked at her when she didn't disappear, frowning when he saw her yawning. "Is there a problem with that order?"
"Yeah, I'm too tired. Cupid, go tell your father."
"Pop!" Cupid yelled. "We've got a small problem."
Ares appeared, looking immaculate as always. "Why doesn't this surprise me?" He looked at those gathered. "Let me guess, Iolaus got fed up with Joxer and tried to kill him?"
"No, Bliss decided we needed two new Gods and turned Xena and Joxer," Hera told him. Ares' mouth just hung there, open with no sound coming out. "I think you see the problem now. What sort of mortal is Joxer?"
Ares cleared his throat and closed his mouth while he figured out how to explain the most complex mortal he'd ever met. "He's a little on the dreamy side, can't really fight. Has horrible taste in armor and weapons. He's kind, gentle, innocent in a way that not even killing someone had stopped. He's also one of those people that Aphrodite looks over. We seem to share him."
"Aphrodite?" Hera asked. When she got a delicate snore, she shook her head. "APHRODITE!" she yelled, waking the poor Goddess up. "Is this true, do you and Ares share this mortal?"
"In some ways," she said through a yawn. "He's constantly goin' on about falling in love. He really wants to fall in love." She snuggled into her fuzzy blankets. "I don't know what to do about him, can we put this off for a few hours?"
"Let's go," Ares said, popping back to his temple. Cupid and the senior couple followed shortly, but it gave him enough time to attune a mirror back to Joxer's life. "This is Joxer," he told them, getting out of their way. "You'll be seeing three of him for a few years of his life, but he eventually splits off from them." He pulled Cupid aside, looking him over. "Go take a *short* nap."
"I can't. I'm too tired to wake up from a short nap. Mom and I both need full-out sleep."
Ares patted him on the shoulder. "Go take one of my guest rooms, I'll make sure you get up."
"Yeah, him too." Ares watched his son walk away, then returned to help Hera and Zeus figure out what to do.
"Is he going to sleep?" Zeus asked quietly.
Ares nodded. "They're both worn out. It's no wonder Bliss decided to do this for them. He loves them, but they're too tired to do anything."
"It's the self-serving actions of a child," Hera agreed. "His parents were gone for too long and he found something to help them out, so he did it." She waved the mirror away. "What do you think we should do?"
"First, I agree, Xena wouldn't make a good God. She can get...power hungry at times. She was a great warlord, but even then there was no stopping her when she wanted something. I'm almost afraid of what she'd do if we fully brought her across and gave her a Godhood." He walked away, going to sit on this throne. "As for Joxer, it all depends on how his mind has taken this, and on his triplet brothers."
"That will be awkward," Zeus agreed, smiling at his son. "What should we do with them?"
"He'll miss them terribly," Hera agreed. "Should we do something about them?"
"No. Let Joxer ask first," Ares told them. "He's the son of a warlord, so he's not like most mortals. He understands that sometimes life gets in the way of living. He also understands about the necessity of losing people to win a fight." He scowled. "Have someone that's not Aphrodite talk to him when he gets into your temple, Hera. Those two are close, but she'll say something that will upset him and make him use his powers. I know it'll happen." Hera nodded. "And no, I'm not volunteering."
"Maybe Hermes?" Zeus suggested.
"More like maybe Hercules," Ares told him. "He likes the id...guy for some reason, and Hera does know where he is."
"Aphrodite sent him East. I could easily bring him to the temple at the same time. We'll have to adjust our plan anyway."
"What did you have him doing?" Zeus asked.
"He's a walking love spell," Hera said primly. "With bodyguards."
"Oh, yeah, let's not forget that he's gotten into trouble. People are trying to keep him in their towns." Ares stood up. "He's ensuring that last little jump in the population is managed, Zeus, and doing a fairly good job of staying out of my hair for once."
Zeus frowned at him. "Did you ask?"
Hera shook her head. "I told him he needed to save Greece. He agreed." She smiled. "He had some qualms once he found out, but Aphrodite seems to have taken care of that." She looked at Ares again. "What about the other two?"
"I want Iolaus around," Ares announced. "Have him made immortal and put him in charge of dealing with anything having to do with Dahak."
"Like that girl, the Celt that's been prophesied?" Zeus asked.
"Same sort of position." Ares held up a hand when his mother opened her mouth. "No, let me reason this out for you. Iolaus was killed by, and taken over by, Dahak. He fought the guy, and Hercules managed to get him back from the dead. He *knows* Dahak, inside and out, and he's fairly competent to deal with a lot of stuff. I think if we put him over anything for, by, or about Dahak, we might just manage to not lose anyone fighting him next time. I think he probably knows a way to stop him, but it's hidden deep in his mind where mortal's can't connect."
"So making him an immortal guardian would allow that, but it would also give us an important ally in fighting Dahak when and if he shows up again," Hera paraphrased. Ares nodded. "I like that idea. Zeus?"
"I'd like to think on it some more and study his life," Zeus said finally, after thinking about it. "I know he travels with Hercules, but I don't know much about him."
"Hey, he's got time," Ares pointed out. "Hades has nearly forbidden him to ever enter his realm again."
"Another good point," Zeus agreed. "What about the girl?"
"She was used by Dahak," Hera told them. "Forced to bear him a child."
"Ah, yes, Hope," Zeus said coolly. "You can't be thinking about punishing her for that?"
"No, I wouldn't," Hera agreed, "but I don't want to reward her for trying to save the child when it was obvious it was evil either. She did manage to kill it herself, and save us some trouble, but she also hid the child when everything and everyone told her it was bad."
"That's a mother for ya," Ares said.
Hera glared at him. "I know. Which is why I'm not punishing her. I don't see that she's done anything worthy of being rewarded. Unless Hercules or one of the others want to marry her. It would be awkward to award one part of a group and not the rest after all."
Zeus shrugged. "I'll ask. They know each other." He looked at his son. "How long before they get there?"
"They'll get there about sunset tonight," Ares told him.
"Then we'd best make the most of the next few hours," Zeus agreed. "Let them sleep, we'll come get Cupid when they get there. Are you coming down?"
"No, I'll watch from up here, unless I'm needed." Zeus nodded and disappeared, heading for his own temple. Ares sat down on his throne and relaxed. This was a good idea of Bliss', but it sucked in its execution. Maybe he'd teach the little guy strategy. He was old enough to start learning now.
Joxer was bouncing as he walked into Hera's temple, well ahead of everyone else. He knew his friends were staring at him, he could feel it, but he didn't care. He felt so good! He stopped in front of the altar, smiling at the priestess standing there. "The Lady Hera told us to show up," he told her.
She smiled, his mirth was infectious. "She just disappeared, she'll be back soon." Her smile fell a little when she saw the others walking in. Then she 'eep'ed and headed back to one of the back aisles.
Xena looked behind him, laughing at the sight of Hercules being walked in by his bodyguards. He looked so disgruntled but he wasn't even moving away from their hands. "Hercules," she said lightly. "Are your travels going well?"
"Fine," he said grumpily. He looked at Joxer, then back at her, and shook his head. "What happened?" He shrugged off the hands on his arms. "They won't attack me," he told them. "Go relax."
"Guys, let's go hit the local inn," Gabrielle called, letting the guys follow her while the others talked. She may not like warriors but they probably hadn't had a real drink since hooking up with Hercules. Or had sex, or even had fun. Something inside her felt that she should go help them, it was horrible when you couldn't have fun.
"Thank you," Xena called after her, getting out of Iolaus' way.
Hercules pulled Iolaus into a tight hug, making the other man groan. "I've missed you."
"Me too." Iolaus pulled back. "How are you faring?"
"Well enough, I guess." He pointed at Joxer. "What happened to him?"
"Bliss," Xena said. "He decided to help his father and grandmother."
Hercules groaned. "All right. What did he do?"
"Liquid ambrosia into each of our eyes," she said quietly, aware that Joxer had noticed Hercules was talking. "Cupid told me to watch out for him. Maybe one of us should go talk to him about this."
"I will," Hercules agreed. "Hera's message said something about me needing to talk to someone." He walked away, going over to where Joxer was studying the carvings on the altar. "Joxer? Can we talk?" The other man nodded so Hercules led the way to a private, sheltered alcove. "Joxer, do you feel different?"
"Yup. Why do people keep asking me that?"
"Because Bliss slipped you some ambrosia in an attempt to help Cupid and Aphrodite." He steadied the young man as he started to wobble. "Easy, sit down." He put him down onto the bench, looking down at him. "You're here because of what Bliss did to you and Xena. I'm here because Hera decided I should tell you apparently." Joxer gulped and nodded. "Do you have any questions?"
"I'm a God?"
"Yes, Joxer, you're a God," Hera announced as she appeared. "You too, Xena. Come here, Joxer." He nodded and bounded around Hercules, going to sit on the floor in front of her, giving her a smile. "You're very anxious."
"I'm a God," he said happily.
Xena patted him on the head as she sat next to him, knowing the other duo was standing behind her. "What happens now?"
"Now, we figure out what to do. We do know of your wishes on the subject, Xena, and we agree. You shouldn't be a Goddess." Xena nodded, not looking the least disappointed. "But, there is something you can do for us. There are a number of guardian positions which are for immortals." She waved a hand at Iolaus. "One has also been put forward for you, Iolaus, for dealing with the whole Dahak issue. It's felt that you do know more about him and his ways, but it's trapped in your mind from where he took you over."
"No," Iolaus said firmly.
"Unfortunately, when we looked, we did find some," she said calmly. He started to open his mouth, but she raised a hand. "Listen first. You would be the one to help us *deal* with Dahak. You would be the keeper of the knowledge about him and how to fight him. If appointed, it would be your job to find a better way to fight him." Iolaus shut his mouth, but he wasn't looking happy. "You have only been put forward, it has not been decided yet." He nodded. "You and Hercules may go talk about this."
"What about Joxer?" Hercules asked. "If you can take the powers away from Xena, surely you can take it from Joxer."
"We're looking into that now," she agreed. She dismissed them and looked down at Joxer, who was still sitting on the floor. "Joxer, do you want to be a God?" He shrugged, still smiling. "You don't know?"
"I've never considered it before," he said truthfully. "I guess it would make things easier." His smile got brighter. "I wouldn't trip any more."
Hera chuckled lightly. "No, you wouldn't trip any more." She sat down on the stairs in front of her throne, facing him. "May I touch you and figure out where you would be?" He nodded, shifting closer, letting her lay her hand on his head. "Oh, my," she whispered. "Joxer, I don't think we can take it from you," she said quietly.
He shrugged, then his face fell. "What about my..." He shook himself. "It will be as it will be," he said firmly, but his eyes still looked sad.
"We know about your brothers," she said quietly. "We also know how much they mean to you. We can't offer them Godhood. We could offer them immortality, possibly even connected to your aegis." He looked up at her again. "We can only offer." He nodded. "Zeus, we're ready for you," she called. Zeus appeared behind her. "Xena has agreed, but Joxer has used some of his power."
She shook her head, but she was smiling. "No, not the arrow. That's something that Cupid started doing for Bliss when he managed to get lost on an errand around Olympus. No, you used it while you were traveling, to make your trip easier."
"Oh." Joxer looked impressed. "Wow, I'm good."
Zeus chuckled. "Yes, young man, you are. You are a very good young man." He walked down to look at Joxer. "What did you find?"
"He used his abilities to clean and smooth the path, even widened it in a few places." She looked up at her husband. "He's used it, we can't take it."
Zeus nodded. "And what is he?"
"God of Fancies."
"Fantasies, Zeus, fantasies."
"Oh." He considered it, then burst out laughing. "That would definitely help Aphrodite and Cupid." His wife nodded, smiling herself. "How about it, Joxer, are you willing to take that on?"
"Sure," he said happily, looking around the temple. "Does this mean I can hit Ares for making fun of me?"
"No," Zeus said, shaking his head. "You'd still be a very minor God. He wouldn't allow that."
Hera winked. "You might be able to use some of your powers on him though, just to teach him a lesson."
"Hera," Hercules called as he walked back in, followed by Iolaus. "He accepts."
Iolaus crossed his arms. "Under duress, but I can't let him get free and do nothing, even if I were dead."
Zeus smiled at him. "Good. We'll deal with that in a few moments, boys." He looked down at his wife. "What about the other?"
"Gabrielle wouldn't accept anything, even if it didn't come from you," Xena said as she walked in with Gabrielle.
"I value my mortality, it's how life should be. It's what gives me my urge to create and leave a mark." She smiled at Xena. "But if you have to make her immortal, can you make her like some other meat beside rabbit and fish?"
Hera burst out laughing. "My, you are an unusual mortal." She smiled at her husband, who nodded. "Then we'll finish this. Zeus will take as much as he can from Xena. Joxer is going to go do his training and is released from his duties for us." Iolaus opened his mouth. "No, you will still be doing this, but you will be traveling with your usual partner for a while." Iolaus nodded and backed away. "Hercules...."
"You could release him," Zeus suggested.
"I want to see how much of an increase we're getting first," Hera reminded him. "One more year."
Zeus sighed. "Fine, one more year. This is too important to leave to others." He looked at his son. "You will travel with the guards."
"Father, if you let Xena and Gabrielle come with me, then I wouldn't need to accept any help from Ares," Hercules pointed out casually.
Zeus laughed. "Good try. They can travel with you if they want, as long as they remember what you two are doing." He looked up. "Ares? We need them now."
Ares, Cupid, and Aphrodite appeared together, and Bliss came without any help, but he was captured quickly. "You yelled?" Ares asked.
"Yes. Your warriors will continue to guard Hercules on his travels."
"Then I'm going to change them out." He looked at Joxer, who was still sitting on the floor. "You can't take it from him?"
"He's used it already," Hera told him. "Aphrodite, he will be a minor God under you. The God of Fancies."
"Name it Fantasies," Iolaus suggested. "Otherwise, people will think he'll be over decorated cloth and other things to help you dress up too."
She looked at him, then at her husband, who shrugged. "All right, we'll rename it the God of Fantasies. I'm putting his care and training into *your* hands, Cupid. You're doing an excellent job teaching Bliss about his Godhood. Bliss," she said, continuing to smile. "You are grounded for the rest of this millennium. You will start coming to my temple every day when either your father or grandmother are busy and *I* will watch over you." Bliss smiled at her, but she shook her head. "No playing. This is a punishment."
Bliss slumped a little bit, but he flew over to land in Joxer's lap. "Me help him?"
"Of course you may," Zeus agreed. "It can only help you learn control." He smiled at Joxer, holding out his hand. "Take it," he offered when Joxer didn't move.
"Can I tell my brothers myself?"
Zeus blinked a few times. "Of course, if you'd rather."
"We can hold off the announcement for a few days," Hera agreed. "Take his hand, Joxer."
Joxer took Zeus' hand, and they both started to glow. "Wow!" he said happily. "The tingles are back!" He hopped up and hugged Zeus, then Hera, then the other three Gods. "Wow!" He blinked and disappeared.
Aphrodite groaned. "I'm going to go find him. Be right back." She disappeared, but didn't come back for quite a while.
Cupid shrugged when Hera looked at him. "Not a clue. Maybe she found a great couple."
Ares took the direct route, creating a mirror. Then he banished it. "He's talking to one of his brothers, who's about to hit him." He looked at his father, then at Hercules. "Give me a week to get different warriors to follow him around."
"What armies are near?" Hera asked.
"Joxer's family army are about three day's walk away, but there's two small mercenary groups closer. I'll choose a few from them." He glanced at Gabrielle and Xena. "Ones who'll follow them willingly." He disappeared.
Hera sighed as she stood up. "All right. Boys, you only have to do this for another year. Do behave. Iolaus, try not to beat up too many people while telling stories."
Zeus walked down and touched Xena's head, stripping her of her powers. "There, done with that part." He smiled at her. "You're immortal, but not very special." He looked at Hercules. "I'm sure he can tell you how to get rid of it, he got rid of his after all." He walked over to his son, smiling as he hugged him, feeding him the power he had stripped off Xena. "Be safe, Hercules." He disappeared before Hera could say anything.
Hera was too busy enjoying the happiness in her temple to notice. This temple didn't often see marriages, the population was very low near there. "Go have fun in town," she suggested lightly. Then she too disappeared.
Hercules looked at the other three. "Inn?" he suggested.
"Inn," Iolaus agreed, seconded by Xena.
Together, they walked out, heading off to do their job.
Joxer smiled as he landed in front of Jett, freezing the guy about to cut off his head. "Hi. I can save you."
"You appeared," Jett pointed out.
"I'm the God of Fantasies," Joxer said happily. "Hera said I can make you immortal and you can help." He looked his brother over, then tweaked the line he could see hanging off him, bringing Ares. "How do I help him?"
"Personally, I'd kill the executioner," Ares noted. He looked at Jett. "He really is. Bliss did it."
Jett groaned and looked at the axe frozen a few inches from his neck. "Whatever. What would I do?"
"You could help him think up fantasies," Jace said as he appeared behind his brother. "That Aphrodite is a wonderful lady. Very understanding. She's even going to give me my own room, with a closet, a real one."
Ares groaned. "Say yes, Jett, or I'll be the only sane one up there."
Joxer grinned at him. "I am too sane. But now I get to daydream all day long."
Jett rattled his chains, and they disappeared. "All right, but I'm not doing fluffy shit."
"Hey, fantasies cover the darker stuff too," Joxer pointed out. "Can we go tell Dad?"
Ares handed Jett a slim mug. "Let him drink first." He waited until Joxer had turned away to smile at Jett. "Thank you," he said quietly.
"Daddy!" Joxer yelled, bringing his father out. He squealed and ran over to stop in front of him. "I'm a God. The God of Fantasies. And I'm protecting my brothers."
Joxer's father groaned and headed over to the other two. "Someone made him a God?" he asked his own personal deity.
Ares nodded. "Bliss did. He's under Aphrodite." He blasted the executioner, then grabbed Jett and Jace, heading off. "Joxer, come," he called.
"Coming!" Joxer concentrated and everyone in the stands watching the execution, and the prison itself, moaned in unison as the good thoughts started. He disappeared with a giggle and a snort, going to finish his training.
Joxer's father picked up a knife and considered it, but tossed it down and walked out of the prison. The guards were sucking face already. Outside, a warrior was waiting on him with an extra horse. "My son planned this?" he asked as he swung up.
"Yes, m'lord, he did. Lord Joxer was most considerate to our army. Though we won't be much good later this season, when the children come. Lord Ares was not happy, but Lady Hera was quite enthused." He set off, his liege following him. They could catch up on the trip. "We're training in the mountains on Lord Ares' orders. The people you picked to take over have kept us going strong."
"Good." Joxer's father smiled. "Then it won't be that hard to go conquer some land in my...I mean his name."
Joxer smiled across the room at the other Gods, he couldn't hold in his power anymore. "Joxer," Cupid said quietly. "There's an orgy later. Wait until dessert."
Bliss giggled. "Me come?"
"No!" Cupid said harshly. "You're not going to the orgy."
Aphrodite leaned closer. "After this course, start a slow, building feeling. Got me?" He nodded. "Good boy." She glanced at Ares. "But yeah, you can fuck with him tonight."
"Coooollllllll," Joxer breathed. "I've been wanting to get back at him." He smiled innocently when Ares and Hera looked over at him. He had his orders and he *always* followed Aphrodite's orders.