(Or, alternately, Oops, Sorry! Didn't Mean To Get You, Sweetie!)
Aphrodite glared at the Gods around her. "Well, how did you *expect* to get that prophecy going? Huh? It's not like you're going to turn Curly into a God, or that any of us would *ever* stoop to sleeping with Herc." She fluffed her hair a little bit. "Besides, there's no *real* harm, Hera. You said he had to get knocked up!"
Hera sighed and leaned back in her throne. "That wasn't the point, Aphrodite. He wasn't supposed to get pregnant yet, and his friends weren't supposed to get hit with the same curse."
Aphrodite waved her hand. "Whatever, they'll deal."
"They're mortal, they'll die," Apollo pointed out.
"Not if you, like, start handling this right now," she said smartly, sending a glare at him. "Just because I didn't mean to hit Curly and the other one with the spell doesn't mean that they *have* to die."
Apollo looked up at Hera. "Do you concur?" he asked.
Hera considered the situation.
*** 3 days earlier ***
Hercules sighed as he saw the man coming up the path toward them.
So did Iolaus, but it was in pleasure. He *really* needed someone other than Hercules to talk to for a few days, and Joxer always told great stories. "Hey!" he called, waving their friend over. "What's up?"
"I'm a messenger," Joxer said, giving Hercules a sad smile. "For you." He handed over an envelope and walked Iolaus away so the hero could read in peace.
"What was that?" Iolaus asked quietly.
"Iphicles needs him in Corinth. His concubine just lost his heir." He put a hand on Iolaus' arm. "Just him. There's some sort of prophecy about this and he has to go alone."
"Oh," Iolaus said, looking over at his friend. "Hey, Herc, is everything okay?" he asked.
Hercules looked up, giving him a sad look. "I have to go to Corinth. My brother just lost his first son to a monster, but the monster said he'd take the whole town's children if I didn't come alone." He stood up. "Joxer, would you be willing to stay with Iolaus? I mean, you don't have anything to do, right?"
"Not a thing," Joxer said without anger for the insult. He patted Iolaus on the shoulder. "I was on my way this way anyway when I found Iphicles' messenger collapsed on the side of the road. His horse had dropped from exhaustion and he had walked another two days straight before dropping himself."
"Yeah, I can see why," Hercules said, starting to gather his share of the stuff up. He looked at his friend, who nodded, so he took most of the food to go with him. "I'll be back in a few days. Why don't you two head toward home?"
"Sure, Herc," Iolaus said, coming over to finish the packing for him, he always did it better. "There, go. Give Iphicles my support." He watched his friend go, then turned to look at Joxer. "So, want to stay here, or would you like to walk with me on the way home?"
"How about we stay here tonight?" Joxer suggested, sitting down on the ground and rubbing his calves. "I've been walking for the last two days straight."
Iolaus smiled. "Thank you for that."
"It was the least I could do," Joxer said with a shrug. He looked around the camp, then back at his friend. "How about I work on the fire and you go catch something? You're better at it anyway."
"Sure," Iolaus said, shoving his worry aside. "There's been a few animals around. Put up a spit." He grabbed the rope and his knife, heading off into the woods.
Joxer smiled to himself and straightened up the kicked-apart firepit. Then he got up to get some firewood and some sticks to make a spit with. Iolaus was a good hunter, neither of them would be hungry tonight.
That night, as the stars started to come out, the woods around them seemed to sigh. "What was that?" Joxer asked, looking behind him at the woods. "I've never heard the wind make that noise."
"There's a group of rocks with a hole in the center a little way away," Iolaus said, not looking up from his carving of a small stick. "It always makes that noise." He looked up at the silence. "Herc and I camp here a lot, Joxer, don't worry so much."
"Okay," he said, still seeming to be a bit uneasy. He shifted some, looking at what the other man was carving. "A bear?" he guessed.
"Yeah, there's a market in the next town and I was hoping to sell a few of my carvings for some extra cash," Iolaus admitted. "Herc doesn't know I do this, but we usually need the money to buy supplies."
"Hey, the woods supply a lot, but they don't supply vegetables and beer," Joxer said, grinning at him.
Iolaus laughed. "Exactly. Or beds in inns, or hot baths."
"Oh, baths," Joxer sighed longingly. "I miss baths. That's the only bad thing about being on the road, no baths. Streams are great, but they're cold."
Iolaus started to laugh again. "Exactly! And Herc loves his baths, but he doesn't seem to see the necessity of having money. So I started to carve little things like this." He held it up. "A wineskin stopper."
"It's very good," Joxer said, peering at it across the fire. "Are you going to char the design into it?" Iolaus shook his head. "Wax it?"
"I usually leave them this way, most of the people who sell them have their own treatment. It's a way of marking it as theirs." He put it away in his pouch and shifted to look at his friend. "Tell me a story, Joxer?"
"Sure. Want to hear the latest temple gossip?" Iolaus shrugged and nodded so Joxer got comfortable on his bedroll. "Well, let's see. I guess I should start with what I heard in Artemis' temple."
"Why were you there?"
"Because I had brought down a deer and I wanted to give thanks. It had been a long time since I had eaten fresh meat when I had brought it down."
"You brought down a deer?"
"Yup, just me. I hit it with a large rock while it was drinking at a river," Joxer said proudly. "I had been staying there beside the river for a few days, hoping for some fish, but there weren't any." He shifted again. "Anyway, it was an older deer and the rock stunned it long enough for me to come running out and slit its throat."
Iolaus nodded. "Good job. I hadn't thought of that before."
Joxer grinned. "Thanks. Anyway, I was in Artemis' temple giving thanks, and I overheard one of her priestesses saying how their Goddess was worried about one of the local Queens. Apparently the Queen's parents had refused to let the girl worship Artemis, even though that's what she really wanted to do but she was the only daughter and destined for a political marriage. The priestess she was talking to shrugged and said that was too bad, but it was life. Well, the first priestess said that the Queen had promised her husband no children from their line because she wouldn't give up the vows she had secretly taken for Artemis."
"Which will destabilize the local area," Iolaus put in.
Joxer nodded. "That and there was a large preserve to Artemis' name under this Queen. It went from the Queen's first daughter to the Queen's first granddaughter for protection until her marriage. But recently, there hadn't been any daughters so this Queen had picked up the protection as soon as she was forced to marry her husband. And she *was* forced. Chains and everything from what I understand," he said with a small leer.
Iolaus nodded. "I've seen the like. I've even seen one where the groom was married to a stand-in bride until the bride could be dragged to her new home without any warning." He laughed. "I can just see some of our friends going through that, can't you?"
"Yeah, they'd have to find some pretty heavy chains to bind either Xena or Gabby to do that to them," he agreed. "Well, the priestess was wondering if it would be bad to ask Artemis to talk to the Queen, to get her to agree to bear three children: an heir, a girl, and a spare for the kingdom." He laughed. "The second priestess said it would be self-serving, but that they could only ask. Artemis surely wouldn't want to lose their favorite preserve."
Iolaus chuckled. "I can just see Artemis weighing the options, give up her favorite hunting spot to have the children born, or stick with her ideals of celibacy and have to hope that the preserve is kept for her."
"Oh, that's the worst," Joxer told him, holding up a hand. "I went to the stalls outside Apollo's temple to get some more salve for when I get rubbed wrong by boots or my armor, and I heard the priests over there talking about the same Queen, who had come to one of them to get a potion because her husband was talking about forcing her to bear an heir. She wanted to knock out the King each night so he couldn't come bother her." Iolaus started to laugh harder. "And if that wasn't enough, she needed something to help with her leather burns too. She'd been riding naked while out hunting."
"Ow!" Iolaus said through the laughs. "What did her husband say about that?"
"He accused her of being unfaithful and brought her to a Priestess of Hera to be proven unfaithful. Hera's priestess told the King off after telling him that not only was she faithful, she was still virginal. Which was a problem, because Hera really wants the kids from this marriage to happen too!"
Iolaus shook his head. "That's too good. So, what happened?"
"The story was told to me that the Queen did get a visitation, from Hera herself, and was ordered to have at least a child, that the Queen would have a daughter and she would rule it all. That the girl child would be given to Artemis and she would be able to choose her own husband to rule well before she died."
"So she gave in?" Iolaus asked.
Joxer nodded. "That night, she allowed her husband to visit her in her chambers after dinner then banished him from ever coming near them again. He had her forcefully moved to an empty section of the palace in punishment for her disobedience and for daring to give him an order, but she's pregnant. The way I understand it, she's due any day now and all the augers speak of a girl child."
Iolaus smiled. "Good for her. At least it's settled."
"Until the King wants a son," Joxer pointed out. "But I've heard rumors that Hera's promised that the girl wouldn't bear any more children, no matter what he does to her, and that she's told the King's ministers personally." He cocked his head off to the side. "Which would be all right, but the King's Mother was really looking forward to helping raise the child because the King took over the care of her son as soon as he could walk."
"Hopefully they'll work that out too," Iolaus agreed. "Any other news?"
"Just a few bits. There are rumors in Ares' temple that whatever happened in Corinth pissed Ares off badly. They said he's been throwing fits ever since the son was born and his fate read." He shrugged, waving a hand around. "Iphicles had said that he would promise the child to Ares if he showed the least little sign of being able to fight."
"That's sad," Iolaus said. "How old was the boy?"
"Three. He fell down in the marketplace and no one knew why until the letter came demanding Hercules to appear before the monster. And it had to be only him, or the rest of the town would lose their children the same way."
"Does that leave Iphicles any children?"
"Three other sons on the way, or so the rumors go, and a daughter already born, all from the concubines his wife personally picked to take her place because she's barren. And the daughter's *smart*! I've heard Xena talking about what a Queen she'll make some day. Gabby was wondering if she should ask Iphicles about getting the girl an Amazon tutor to help her become a strong warrior and Queen. There seem to be a few wandering around right now."
"He's not going to like that," Iolaus said, smiling at him. "Iphicles has nothing against Amazons, but he wouldn't want his daughter to become one. Especially not one like Gabrielle. He's a little too traditional for that."
"I noticed," Joxer said with a grin. "My mother was going on about him when I was home last." He shifted closer to the fire, letting it warm his hands. "There's another rumor, but I'm not sure what it's really about." Iolaus perked up at that. "When I was walking past one of Aphrodite's temples, heading for a bath so I could go make a proper offering in hopes of finding a good love, I overheard a few of the priestesses talking about a new prophecy. Something about a man giving birth."
Iolaus snorted. "I'd like to see that. Only Zeus has ever done that."
"Maybe he's going to do it again," Joxer said with another hand wave. "But I had the impression that they were talking about a mortal man, one who was liked very much by the Gods."
"Well, making a man pregnant would make me assume that the Gods hated him," Iolaus argued, still smiling. "I can just see one of us like that, huge and round. Unable to move."
"Autolycus," Joxer said with a grin. "Can't you imagine that?"
Iolaus cracked up again. "I can just see him trying to climb into a vault that way, cursing his new bulk every time he had to move. Or..." He laughed a little harder, "his way of jumping out of trees behind Herc and me to try and get a jump on us, stomach leading!" He rolled around on his bedroll. "Or...or Salmoneus. He'd be selling tickets to pat his stomach!"
Joxer cracked up, too, laughing out loud. "Or, what about Hercules? Going into a battle with one hand on his stomach and the other holding a big fish like that one fight, nagging the bad guys to not hit him in the stomach!"
Iolaus howled. "Oh, I can see that!"
"Or what about you?" Joxer asked, seeing Iolaus balling up to hold his aching stomach. "Trying to run after Hercules, one hand keeping your stomach from bouncing and the other waving and begging Hercules to slow down!" He started to roll around now.
Iolaus' howls got louder and looser. "Or you!" he shrieked. "What about you?"
"Oh, I can *just* see that!" Joxer said. "Gabby would be yelling and poking me to make sure it wasn't a pillow, Xena would grab me so she could lecture me, but she would refuse to help me during labor because it was from the Gods!"
Iolaus slowly calmed down and sat up, looking over at his friend. "Yeah, I can see that," he said finally. He shook himself. "I don't think she'd be able to handle it."
"No," Joxer said, wiping off the tear tracks as he sat up. "I doubt she would. Whomever it was would have to live near one of Apollo's temples."
"And they'd have to beg," Iolaus pointed out. "Apollo isn't known for liking strange things. There's that story of the one woman who wanted a child so bad she prayed for it, and when she got it she forgot to ask for it to be delivered. Carried for *five* years!" he told his friend.
"Yeah, I heard about that. The boy's fine though," he said with a shrug.
"I heard she was telling everyone in the marketplace when she came out. Apollo wasn't happy with her, considered her stupid for not asking sooner. What woman wouldn't know to ask sooner? Five years is an awfully long time to carry a child."
"Too true," Joxer said, nodding. "I used to help my mother with the servants' births when I was smaller. From what they said, they were all too happy to be done with it after nine months. I can't imagine what they'd say to the woman who carried for five years."
"They'd probably yell at her," Iolaus said dryly. "Every pregnant woman I've seen said she was ready to have the child at least a month before it was due, and they were all tired of being pregnant." He settled himself down for the night. "Thanks for the rumors, Joxer. 'Night."
"Good night, Iolaus," Joxer said, settling the fire for the night and getting into his bedroll too. He was quickly asleep, his dreams a vision of the both of them pregnant.
*** 2 days before the Godly meeting ***
Joxer yawned as he and Iolaus walked around a curve in the road, walking into a small camp. "Isn't this Hercules'?" he asked, pointing at a blanket.
Iolaus nodded, looking around. "I wonder why he didn't get farther?" he said as he started around the edge of the camp. "Herc? Hercules?"
"What?" he asked, coming out of the woods on the other side of the road. "What are you doing here? You were headed in the other direction." He dropped his armful of wood beside the fire.
"I was heading for the market. Why are you still here?"
"Aphrodite showed up and told me to stay here for a few extra hours. She wants me to travel at night for some reason." He shrugged and looked Joxer over. "Did you two have fun last night?"
"Yup, Joxer's heard some very interesting rumors recently," Iolaus said, smiling at him. He looked at Joxer, who shrugged. "Want company?"
"No, that's okay. Go ahead to the market. I'm sure you'll need to get there before the bootmaker leaves for the day."
"Yeah, and I could use another shirt," Joxer told him, clapping him on the shoulder. "You're sure? I could easily find a shirt tomorrow."
"No, that's all right," Hercules said, smiling at them as they started to walk away. He looked across the small fire as a flash of glitter caught his eye. "Aphrodite," he said, nodding at her. "Why should I be traveling at night?"
"Because, Herc, I gotta do this. So just hold still, 'kay?" she asked, dimpling at him. She waved a hand, letting her trademark glitter hit him, and his two friends who had turned around to see her. "Oops," she said when she realized she had hit them all. She frowned and bit her lip. "Um, Joxy? You know what you were talking about last night? Well, your wish is my pleasure and all that." Then she disappeared before the information could sink in.
"What were you two talking about last night?" Hercules asked calmly.
Iolaus walked back to the camp, frowning. "About a Queen who was one of Artemis' worshipers and had to be talked into having a child." He looked at Joxer. "And about a prophecy he had overhead a few of Aphrodite's priestesses talking about."
Joxer swallowed. "Please tell me I'm wrong," he said quietly, looking down at himself.
"I hope so," Iolaus said. He looked down at his own stomach. "If you're not, then we're in trouble. Big trouble."
"What sort of trouble?" Hercules asked, starting to sound impatient.
"Um, when I overheard some of Aphrodite's priestesses, they were talking about a pregnant male," Joxer told him, looking sick. "A prophecy about a pregnant male." He sat down in the middle of the road, his teeth knocking together hard with the force of the blow. "Aphrodite?" he pleaded. "Please tell me I'm wrong?"
Strife appeared and looked around, then looked down at him and shook his head. "Fuck!" He sighed as the power of the screw-up hit him. "Nope, gotta say the broad did it a little too hard." He dodged Hercules' grab attempt. "Hey! Wasn't me, all right!" he yelled. "She fucked you up, you gotta deal with me now!" He hid behind Iolaus. "I gotta make sure you get to Apollo's temple in the next month."
"But he's got to do that monster for Iphicles," Joxer told him.
Strife groaned and held his head. "Okay, I'll go see about that. You three stay here!" Then he disappeared, going to nark on his Aunt. Hera was *not* going to be happy and he'd be happy to get away from her with his skin intact.
Hercules looked around, then at his campsite. "Um, I guess, you wanna wait with me?" he offered.
Joxer nodded, crawling over to sit next to the small fire. He grabbed some of the wood to put in it, but then decided to get up and start hitting a tree with it instead. "No! This can't be happening! No, no, no! This does not happen to me!"
Iolaus walked over and gently took the stick from him, pulling him into his arms. "We'll get through this together, Joxer, I won't let you be alone."
"Hands off," Strife said as he appeared. "You two are gonna go to Apollo's temple now. Jackass," he said, turning to Hercules, "you get to go see Hera to get this explained to you."
"No, we stay together," Iolaus said calmly.
"Nope, no can do. This is the orders I got."
"We're staying together!" Iolaus shouted.
"Hey, as far as I'm concerned, you can walk naked through the market in Athens, but first I gotta get you two to Apollo!" Strife countered. "Then you and the jackass can go kick something's ass."
Joxer started to sniffle. "No," he repeated, sitting down, holding his stomach.
"Hey," Strife said, walking over to pull him back up. "Warriors don't sniffle. They don't cry, and Ares agreed, you're goin' to Apollo's. Got me?" Joxer shook his head, giving the God of Mischief a sad look. "Fine," he said finally. "But you're goin'. No arguments."
"I doubt he could," Hercules pointed out. "Why did this happen, Strife, and why are you dealing with it?"
"Because I'm the God of Fuckups too," Strife pointed out dryly. "And boy did Aphrodite fuck up!" He nodded behind him. "Start that way. I gotta get these two started in the right direction." He waited until Hercules had left before smacking Joxer across the face. "Pull it together, Joxer. Now!" Joxer looked at him in shock, and Iolaus backed away from them. "Uncle Ares said you're going to Apollo's. You gonna argue with him?"
Joxer shook his head. "No," he said weakly. "Where's the nearest temple?"
"Three days walk," Iolaus said, pointing in the other direction.
"We want you at that temple as soon as possible," Strife told him. "So I'm gettin' you some help." A hay cart pulled around the corner and he snapped off a little bit of sparkles in front of the ox. "Hey, take them to Apollo!" he ordered.
"I realize you're a God," the farmer said, looking them over. "Why should I though?"
"Because Apollo has asked for them to appear and Ares said so," Strife said, creating a piece of gold. "Ares sends this as thanks."
The farmer looked the coin over, then nodded. "They can ride on the back. I'm only going part way."
"That's fine," Strife said, helping Joxer over to the back of the cart, but watching as Iolaus climbed in. "Take care of him, Curly, I'll be back." Then he disappeared.
"What did you two do?" the farmer asked as he started the ox again.
"Aphrodite tried to do something to our other companion, Hercules, and got us too," Iolaus said quietly.
"No," Joxer said, looking up at him. "Not sick. Not a disease from her." He looked down at his body again. "Iolaus," he said quietly. "You don't think...."
Iolaus touching Joxer's hand. "Just relax and wait until we get there, Joxer, then we'll figure out what's going on. Apollo will help us because they don't want this happening to us."
Joxer shook his head, looking up at his friend. "No, he won't. He won't help me, he's refused to help me in the past."
"Why?" Iolaus asked quietly.
"Because I insulted him a few years ago," Joxer admitted. "I told a priest that I wasn't upset about what had happened to another priest. He had been beaten up because he was an asshole. The priest that was beaten up had insulted half of the town and someone had finally taken offense. Apollo heard and banned me from his temples."
"I'm sure he'll relent this time," Iolaus assured him, trying to reassure him and keep him calm. "We'll see what happens when we get there, but I doubt that Apollo would turn you away this time."
"The priest was his grandson," Joxer whispered.
"Oh, crap," Iolaus muttered. "Still, maybe he'll relent. He's got to know what sort of man this boy was by now."
Joxer shook his head but kept quiet, staring down at his body. He was in so much trouble.
*** After the meeting of the Gods ***
Hercules drug himself into Hera's temple and glared around at the priests and priestesses. "Leave," he ordered loudly. "She's called for me and I'll do this in private!" Everyone left him alone, closing the doors behind them. "Hera," he called tiredly. "I'm here. What's going on?" He was too tired to fight. When she appeared, he could only sit in the chair she created. He hadn't slept in the last day and he couldn't quit thinking about what Joxer had said. "What happened?"
"Apparently, Aphrodite decided to enact a prophecy that could happen," she said regally. She got comfortable on her throne. "Where are the other two?"
"Strife forced them to go to Apollo's." He looked up at her. "Was Joxer right?"
She smiled down at him. "It was only supposed to be you." Her smile turned nasty. "You are now dependant on me. You will die if I don't help you, and you're going to have to work very hard to get onto my good side."
He shuddered. "What are you punishing me for this time?"
"This was not my call," she said, then she disappeared, leaving her laughter echoing around him.
Hercules slumped and shook, starting to cry. "This is unnatural!" he screamed.
Her laughter got louder.
Joxer stopped outside the temple doors, looking at the priest there to greet them. "Has he allowed me in?" he asked quietly. The priest nodded. "Why?"
"Because," Apollo said from inside. "Get in here!"
Joxer followed Iolaus inside, bowing low to the God of Healing, Music, and most everything else. "Thank you, My Lord Apollo. Do I owe you some sort of penance?"
Apollo gave him a nasty smile. "Oh, you will be," he said coldly. "How dare you say he was an asshole!"
"My Lord, he was mean to everyone. He was even mean to some of the other temples' priests. I know he got into a brawl with one of Ares' priestesses, though I heard she won."
Apollo glared at him. "Go sit down!" he ordered.
Iolaus cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, Lord Apollo, but could you please tell us what's going on? I know what we think, but we're not sure."
Apollo sneered at him. "Really? And I thought you were the smart one, Iolaus."
Iolaus frowned at him. "It's not our fault. If you want to be snide, I'll gladly go see Hera."
"She doesn't want to see you two," he said coldly. "She's dumped this little problem of Aphrodite's in *my* lap and expects me to take care of it for her." He crossed his arms, looking them over. "I want to know why I should."
"Because this isn't our fault," Joxer said, standing up straighter. "We didn't ask for this, Lord Apollo. This happened to us. The same as you've seen ..."
"Don't even go there!" Apollo warned coldly.
"I didn't ask for this!" Joxer screamed at him. "I did *not* ask for this, and I don't want it!" He picked up a statue and threw it as hard as he could against a wall.
"What's wrong with him?" Iolaus asked the God in front of him.
Apollo shrugged. "Not a clue, dude," he admitted. He looked them over. "I can't do anything *about* this, but I can help you *through* this," he said finally, once Joxer had calmed down. "You done now?" Joxer shook his head. "Then go outside."
Joxer swallowed and looked around the temple. "How do you fix this?"
"I just told you, I can't."
"Well, someone had better," Joxer told him, glaring at him. When all he got was blank stares, he stormed out of the temple, heading for the city walls again. Iolaus caught up to him as he was trying to disappear into the woods.
"What is going on with you?" Iolaus asked, grabbing him and turning him to make Joxer face him. "What's wrong with you?"
"Iolaus, every first born in my family is multiples," Joxer reminded him coldly. "Back sixteen generations. Every first born is either twins or triplets." Iolaus opened his mouth. "We three triplets are the *only* children of our parents."
"Oh, hell," Iolaus breathed. "You're going to have twins or triplets?"
Joxer nodded. "It has to be. It's a curse laid on our family by that *asshole* back there!" he yelled back toward the town. He took a deep breath. "Now, leave me alone please," he said, getting free and walking off.
Iolaus looked confused but he would honor his friend's wishes. He walked back to Apollo's temple, hoping that the God was still there and willing to talk to him. "What do we do now?" he asked when he ran into a priest at the door.
"The great Apollo said to go home and rest. He would send you help there. Your friend should go with you."
Iolaus laughed bitterly. "He won't. Apollo cursed his family to multiple children for the first born in each generation." The priest frowned. "No one told you?" He got a head shake. "Aphrodite's spell screwed up and hit us too." The priest's mouth opened, but he was rudely shoved aside.
"Excuse me? I did *what*?" Apollo asked.
"Joxer said you cursed his family. Something about sixteen generations of kids being either twins or triplets for the first born."
Apollo frowned and looked at the city wall. "I did that to one family, ever, and Hera got *real* pissed at me for it, but he's not part of that family."
"Well, he and his triplet brothers say that they are," Iolaus told him. "Do you want me to go to my home or get one around here? There's no temple to you anywhere near mine or Herc's home."
Apollo waved a hand. "Set one up near your home." He disappeared in a bright light.
Iolaus shook his head, but he walked off to go see someone, maybe he could sell those stoppers here. He would go get Joxer later.
Joxer sat down on a fallen tree and looked up at the sky. "Grandfather?" he whispered. "I need you. Please?" he asked when there wasn't an answer. Suddenly, something bright flew overhead. "Grandfather?" The golden thing flew back and Hermes hovered over him. "I'm in trouble," he said quietly. "I got caught in Aphrodite's spell."
Hermes frowned but he landed and stared down at his Grandson. "You did?" Joxer nodded. "Since when?"
"Since yesterday," Joxer told him, wrapping his arms around his middle. "And Apollo's still not dealing with me. I have no idea what I have to do now. Or even what I'm going to do. Jett hasn't fathered any kids, has he?" he asked, a touch of hopefulness coming into his voice.
Hermes shook his head. "Not that I know of. I'm sorry, Joxer." He laid a hand on the boy's head, touching his inner self. "Hmm, you're right. You're in deep. I'm going to go bug Apollo for you. You head for house I gave your mother." He jumped up and sped off.
Joxer stood up and headed off for a river he would need to cross. At least he wouldn't have to go near Corinth and his family home for this. He couldn't imagine what his mother would say, or his brothers.
Hera reappeared in front of the meeting, frowning as Hermes floated in. "Yes?" she asked him. "Is there word?"
"Oh, I have words for someone," Hermes said, glaring at Apollo. "You *dare* diss my grandson? Especially over this?"
Apollo backed off. "Hey, I didn't know! Iolaus told me that he was one of them!" He ducked the wild swing and backed closer to Hera. "Tell him to stop it!" he pleaded.
Hera frowned at Hermes. "Sit and explain yourself. Beat him later on your own time."
Hermes settled onto the ground and glared at Apollo. "I'm sure we all remember Apollo's little *joke* about a certain family and multiple children for the first born?" Hera nodded, her frown increasing; she hated those births, they were always troublesome. "Three of my grandchildren were born into that family. One of them is one of Aphrodite's victims."
"Damn," Strife swore. "No wonder there's three a'them." He looked at Hermes. "Where's he headed?"
"For the house I made for his mother. I didn't think he needed to go anywhere near Corinth or his family." He turned his coldest glare on Apollo again. "So, yeah, I'm gonna have *words* with the Golden One."
Hera raised a hand. "It's not his fault, Hermes. The original curse is, but not this. The inclusion of your grandchild was just an unfortunate incident."
"Oh, really?" Hermes asked. "And when he *dies* because of this?" She frowned at him. "You've said yourself that Hercules might not make it through the prophecy. What about someone weaker? Someone who's going to have *two* or *three*?"
"I see the point, but there's nothing we can do. Aphrodite messed up horribly when she did the spell, there's no doubt about that."
"I won't see the boy," Apollo told her.
"Oh, yes, you will," she promised him. "Or you'll share their fate!" Hera promised him. "Every pain they feel, so will you!" Her eyes blazed.
"What's going on?" Zeus asked as he appeared. "I can feel the conflict all the way on the mortal realm." He took his throne and looked at the three battling ones. Then he sighed and looked around. "Artemis, please tell me what's going on," he ordered.
"As per your instructions, Aphrodite enacted the spell on Hercules," Athena told him coolly, glaring at her sister when she tried to do as she was told. "Unfortunately, she caught two other mortal males at the same time."
Zeus nodded. "I knew that. And you're not Artemis."
Artemis stood up. "One of the people affected is a victim of Apollo's curse from two centuries back." Zeus frowned, then finally nodded. "And he's also one of Hermes' grandson's, and this'll be the first born of this generation."
"And I will not see him!" Apollo added, glaring at Hera. "I swore I'd never help that boy again! He insulted my grandson."
"Your grandson was an ass," Ares put in dryly. "He walked into one of my temples and tried to beat up one of my priestesses for being female. He deserved the beating he got for it." He looked up at his father. "Iolaus and Joxer were both involved in this spell, and neither one has a great grasp of reality at the moment. All Joxer can see is that whatever he's having will have to be either twins or triplets. Iolaus is more worried about the 'how' of the birth process."
Zeus sighed and drummed his fingers on the arm of his throne. "Apollo, you will help this boy, and you won't accidently let him die either. Or else I will make Hera's threat to make you feel it stick." He looked around at the group. "Who is presently over this?" Strife raised his hand and one of Zeus' eyebrows went up. "Why?"
"Because I'm over fuckups," Strife reminded him. "And boy is this one." He shrugged off Hera's glare, standing up to face his grandfather. "Jox is on his way to somewhere safe, I'm guessin' Iolaus is too?" Apollo nodded. "Cool. What do you want me to do?"
"Keep them calm," Hera suggested, walking up to sit down on her throne. "That's the major thing. I will be down to examine both of them soon enough." She looked at her husband, who shook his head. "They will live."
Strife nodded. "Okay, but what do I do about Jox? Twins or triplets?" he asked when she frowned at him. "Not a good thing for a mortal *woman*."
"I'll see to him personally during the birth," she decided.
"What about not making them have it?" Hermes suggested.
She shook her head. "Impossible. A Goddess caused it. It won't terminate." He sighed and sat in his appointed chair. "Where is he going?" she asked Hermes.
"Closer to Thrace. I'm sure he'll be appearing in Ares' temple there soon enough."
"He's a warrior?" she asked, looking distressed.
Ares waved a hand sideways in the air. "He tries," he corrected. "He tries very hard, but he doesn't have the natural ability."
"He's more likely to fall than he is to kill," Strife added. Ares nodded his agreement. "And then there's the whole Xena point to consider."
"Crap," Ares muttered, rubbing over his tired face. "If I order her to stay away from him, she'll run right to him. If I order her to go to him, she'll run right to him and threaten him for conspiring with me to harm her."
"If she hears about this, she'll run right to him and beat him for breaking the Gods' laws that she says she doesn't believe in," Artemis noted dryly. "Can you distract her somewhere near the border?" Hera looked at her in shock. "Xena was once one of mine and her companion is one of my Queens. I know them both intimately and they'll kill the young man in question."
"They're kinda more near Iolaus," Strife told everyone.
"Shit," Hermes said, standing up. "I'll go warn him not to tell anyone." He flew off.
Hera looked around. "Are there any other problems?"
"They won't be able to hunt," Artemis pointed out. "Not while pregnant."
"Or farm or do forge work, Iolaus won't anyway," Hephaestus added, he had been quietly watching the proceedings. "They won't have anything to do to support themselves."
"Plus, we'll have the question of what to do with the children once they're born," Strife pointed out. "I doubt Iolaus would want to raise a kid on the road with Herc. Or that Herc'll want to raise the kid, he's kinda scared of them."
Ares shrugged. "That's their problem, they can find suitable surrogate homes for the infants." He stood up. "Is there anything else?"
"Yes," Zeus said, "sit. This meeting is not adjourned. I'd think you'd be more concerned, one of them appears to be your worshiper."
Ares frowned at him. "He is, but he's not one of the ones I'm worried about. I'm more worried about the army between Joxer and where he's headed."
"Go," Zeus agreed. "Get him safely somewhere. We do owe this boy that much. And the other one too." Ares nodded and disappeared, Strife and Eris going with him. Zeus looked over at his wife. "What do you have planned for this?"
"I have no idea yet," Hera admitted. "They'll be difficult, definitely, but I have no idea how best to handle this. The prophecy spoke of the one demigod that was strongest being pregnant. The two mortals are just an added complication that I'll have to figure out."
Zeus nodded and stood up. "Do so. I want to know what you have planned. Where did you stash Hercules?"
"His brother has need of him, there's a creature that's going to kill all the children in Corinth," Athena told him. She glanced around. "Are either of the other two mortals demigods? We know one's a grandchild, where does that place him?"
"Powerless, but technically a demigod for another generation," Zeus told her, frowning, then frowning at Hera. "What about the other one. Iolaus wasn't it?"
"He's a distant relation of Aphrodite's," Hephaestus told him. "Not close enough to be of any influence."
Zeus sighed. "Is there *any* way that we misread the prophecy?"
"I'll go check with the Fates," Artemis offered. Hera smiled at her so she disappeared to go do that.
Zeus looked at his wife. "Make sure those children are well taken care of, Hera," he said quietly. "We do owe them for this. If word of this ...accident gets out, we're in trouble." He disappeared, heading for something to take care of his headache.
Hera glared around the other Gods. "We will *each* do what we can to make sure this story doesn't get out." Then she too disappeared.
Athena snorted and stood up, going back to her temple. She would record this for posterity; it would not be happening again, not if she had any say in the matter.
Ares appeared in front of Xena, holding up a hand. "Hold it," he said, glaring at the horse when it snorted at him. "Hello, Argo. Xena, I need you to go do something for me."
Her eyes narrowed. "Why?" she asked cautiously.
"Because something more important has come up, but I need a war stopped on the western border," he sneered. "Unfortunately, I don't have anyone else I can get to at the moment. Strife and Discord are both too busy to go stop this for me."
Gabrielle walked around until she could see Ares. "So, you come begging?"
"I am *not* begging!" Ares thundered, shaking the ground a little bit and making her fall over. He waited until Argo calmed down to look at his former Warrior Princess again. "You have to go stop this."
"We were going to Corinth," Xena admitted. "Which part of the western border? In the mountains?"
He shook his head. "Off in the foothills, not in the mountains. It's a small skirmish at the moment, but it's about to blow up. If it gets out of hand, it'll never stop."
"What about Hercules?" Gabrielle asked.
"He's doing something for his father," Ares said absently. "He can't go." He looked over his shoulder as he heard whistling. "And you can't take Iolaus either. He's got to go have a rest. Hit in the head once too often," he seemed to confide.
Xena thought for a moment, then nodded. "All right, I'll go stop this. If only to keep the amount of war down." She smiled as Iolaus walked into view. "Hey," she greeted.
"How do you feel?" Gabrielle asked, walking over to give him a hug.
Iolaus pushed her back some. "Fine," he told her patiently. "For now." He nodded at Ares. "I'm following orders."
"I know. Xena needs to go stop a war on the western border, I've got another one that needs my personal attention."
Iolaus shrugged. "Okay." Hermes had filled him in. "That's good." He looked around the road, then at Xena. "I'm going to go home." He walked on, not sure what he was supposed to be saying.
Xena waited until they were alone to glare down at Ares. "Is he all right?"
"He'll be fine with some rest," Ares assured her. "Apollo said so. Just once too many times into a tree." He shrugged and disappeared.
"I don't like this," Gabrielle told Xena as they stared down the path after Iolaus.
"If the Gods say he'll be fine, I'm sure he will," Xena told her. "We need to go east. The best road is east of here." She turned Argo that way and walked off. "Coming?" she called back to her traveling companion.
"Yeah, I'm coming," Gabrielle said, giving Iolaus' back one last look before trotting after her friend.
Around the corner, Iolaus stopped to lean against a tree and relax. That had been a very timely warning Hermes had brought him. He pushed himself away from the tree and headed off the path, there was a shortcut up ahead so he could get home faster.
Ares reappeared in another clearing, watching his nephew comfort his warrior. He cleared his throat and Joxer looked up at him. "Not even a hello?" he asked dryly. Joxer growled. "I see." He moved closer. "This wasn't my fault, you know."
Joxer shrugged. "I know. Doesn't mean I'm feeling very good at the moment." He looked at Strife again. "Is there any way I can get home faster? Or at least nearer to home, like the closest village? I'll have to pick up supplies." He touched his nearly empty bag of coins, thinking about all he would need and how best to get it with the few bronze coins he had.
Strife handed him a small bag. "Hermes sent this for you," he said quietly, patting Joxer on the head. "Go home." He looked at his Uncle, who frowned, but created a horse. "Here, take this, give it to the nearest temple of Unc's." He and Ares went invisible, but stayed there.
Joxer got up with a grunt and moved to the horse, carefully letting it sniff him first. "Just for a few days, guy, and then you can go back to wherever." He grabbed the reins and carefully pulled himself into the saddle. Then he headed for his safe spot. He would do anything at the moment, just as long as he got home soon. He just wanted to hide from the world now.
Ares and Strife reappeared in the clearing, looking at each other. "Why do you care?" Strife asked his uncle.
"Because he's going to be forgotten about," Ares said with a shrug. "He'll be forgotten about because he's not a hero, you know that."
Strife nodded. "I know, that's why I'm helpin' him. Why are *you*, the God of War, helpin' him though?"
"Because I'm not going to let this happen to my warriors," Ares told him, starting to get pissed. "Did you want me to *not* help?"
Strife shook his head. "No, thanks." He disappeared, going to tell Hermes about what he'd done in his name.
Ares shuddered. "Like I said, the kid'll be forgotten and his kids will be important. The Fates never said that they would be *his* kids, but hey, a gift horse and all that." He disappeared, going home. He needed something for his head, and to start that border skirmish.
Iolaus only stopped in the local village long enough to get some seeds and some food, but he was caught. "Jason," he said as his friend walked up to him. He glanced around but no one else was coming up to them. "How are you?" he asked, clasping wrists with the other man.
"Fine. Or at least better." He looked at the sack his friend was carrying. "Back in town for a while?" He looked around. "Where's Hercules?"
"He's in Corinth, taking care of a problem that I wasn't needed for."
"Oh, yeah, I heard about that," Jason said, nodding.
A woman ran up to them. "Jason, help me," she panted. "My goat's stuck in my well." She noticed Iolaus and smiled. "Is Hercules with you?" He shook his head. "Shoot!" She stamped her foot. "Well, come on then. You can probably come help too."
Iolaus grabbed his sack and the grain he had just purchased, then followed the woman pulling Jason along. "How did your goat get into your well?" he asked.
"I don't know," she told him, sounding tired. "It's been in there all day. I guess it liked the goat it saw in the water when it looked down in it."
Jason looked back at his childhood friend. "This is the second time this has happened." He looked at the young woman. "Did you keep the plank?" She nodded. "Not worked?"
"Not yet. Can you rope?" she asked the former king.
Jason and Iolaus laughed and Iolaus shook his head. "He can't, but I can." He followed them back to the small farmstead, going right to the uncovered well. "It got through a cover?"
"Last time it knocked it down," she said with a shrug. "She's a determined thing, let me tell you." She looked at his things, then ran for the barn. "Let me get you a rope."
Iolaus and Jason looked down into the well, and sure enough, there was a goat standing in the water. It bleeted up at them, and both men waved down at it. Jason adjusted the small plank, which had rungs nailed onto it for traction purposes. "This worked last time," Jason told him. He headed for the small garden plot, going to pick a carrot. By the time he came back, the goat had been snared and was reluctantly coming up the plank, so he dangled the carrot, making it run up and knock Iolaus over.
"Ow," Iolaus said, looking up at them. "Some warning next time?" He accepted the hand up, rubbing his now-sore back. "Thanks." He looked at the young woman. "Would you like us to fix the well cover?" he suggested.
"Please," she begged lightly, giving him a smile. "I'll make you some bread to go home with. I'm assuming you're home for a while, what with you picking up supplies and the like."
Jason frowned at Iolaus, noticing he was still rubbing his back. "Why didn't you say you were hurt!" he said suddenly, punching Iolaus on the arm.
"It's just a little hurt," he complained, rubbing this new sore spot. "I can still help fix the well cover." He went to look at the present well cover, frowning at the simple design. "Do you have any other wood?" he asked the young widow.
She nodded and pointed at the barn. "Before my husband went off to fight last time, he hewed a bunch for some new roof slats."
"Thanks." Iolaus headed for the barn, going to check out the lumber. If he was right, he could fix this thing pretty quickly with just three or four good pieces of wood. When he came back out, Jason had a hammer and had the well cover back into place. Iolaus laid the pieces out, getting a smile from Jason. "You approve?"
"I'd like to see the goat get through it," Jason agreed, holding the first one while Iolaus hammered the extra support into the side of the well. "How did you hurt yourself?" he asked quietly. He grunted at the grimace. "Wrestling?"
"No, not quite," Iolaus told him. He glanced around, then back at his second best friend in the whole world. "I'm not allowed to tell, Jason. I promised."
Jason shrugged. "I guess that's all right. Want to come over for dinner tonight?"
Iolaus shook his head. "No thanks. I think I want a long bath." He finished the first support and started on the crossbeam, working it harder. "I...this is really strange, but trust me, I don't want to be at home right now." Jason just nodded and Iolaus looked around. "I'm not allowed to let the news get out."
"Something that important?"
Iolaus shuddered. "Important, no. Disturbing, yes. Especially to me. And Joxer I guess." He shrugged and moved to start on the other set of crossbeams. He pounded his thumb and swore, sticking the injured digit in his mouth. "I can't tell you," he said at the patient look, knowing Jason wasn't going to give this up. "Let's just say I'm home for the next year, and Herc may be coming home soon too."
"Uh-huh," Jason said, taking the hammer to finish the job. He gave one last blow and looked at the well cover, testing it by pushing on it. "We need another set," he said, heading for the barn. By the time he came back, Iolaus was leaning against the well, his thumb was apparently better, and the younger man was slowly swinging the hammer. "You really can't tell me?"
"I'm under orders not to tell *anyone*," Iolaus told him.
"Not even your best friend?"
"Not even a God," Iolaus told him.
"Oh." Jason held the new shingles in place, watching as Iolaus pounded this one into place. "Were you defending one?"
"Rescuing one? Or something of their's? Like the time we went after Artemis' bow?"
"Um, no," Iolaus said, shifting to cross nail the piece, noticing a weakness in the wood. "We'll need another one," he told his friend.
"I'll go get it," the widow said, coming toward them with a pitcher. "I have some milk if you want some," she offered, handing it to Jason. She looked at the well cover and frowned. "Will I be able to get it off?"
"The whole lid comes off," Iolaus told her, showing her how to open the top hatch, and the whole lid. "This will keep the cover itself on though."
She nodded. "Okay. As long as I can get the big bucket down there." She hurried toward the barn, letting them drink their fill from the pitcher. She came back with a few of the shingles, then sighed. "I guess I'm going to have to hire a young man this year. I just noticed a hole in the barn wall."
Iolaus considered his condition. "I could probably do a little bit of work for you, but not for very long."
She smiled brightly and gave him a big hug. "I know you've got to leave again soon...."
"No, it's not that, my...illness is going to get worse in a few months and the priests said I would have to be on bedrest for most of it," he told her. When she frowned, he added, "It's a problem with my stomach. They gave me medicine, but they expect it to get worse before it gets better. Bloated and everything."
"Oh," she said, nodding. "How long before the medicine starts to do that?"
"I'm not supposed to take it for another month, that'll give me time to lay in some supplies and stuff, and then I'm pretty muchly going to be housebound for the next year." She 'ohhed' and gave him another hug. "So I can do a few things, but maybe Jason could do something?"
"I wasn't exactly trained as a carpenter," Jason pointed out. "But I could probably help some. I had to learn on my own house recently."
"Thank you," she said, kissing them both on the cheek. "Finish up the milk and I'll go work on the bread." She hurried back to the house, letting them get back to work.
"Stomach problems?" Jason asked. "I've never heard of a healer saying to leave off medicine until you've got supplies in."
"Yeah, well, I'm fudging the instructions a bit so I won't have to hunt while I'm down." Iolaus went back to securing the well cover, making sure that the goat would not be able to get down the well again. Hopefully, Jason would drop the subject, and when he started to gain weight, he could hide.
Joxer walked through the marketplace, gathering up some small supplies to tide him over until he had some time to think about this situation. He smiled at the fabric seller as he walked past her stall, making a mental note to come back there in a few days. A yell caught his attention and he groaned. "Jett," he said as his brother walked toward him. He was picked up and squeezed. "Ow!"
"Sissy," Jett sneered. He looked his twin over. "What, no armor?"
"I left it at mom's house," he said, going back to picking out some food and candles. "Why are you in town?"
"I'm meeting the queen, she'll be passing through in the next day or so," Jett told him, following behind him. "Staying for a while?" Joxer nodded and Jett frowned at his back. He pulled his brother into the space between buildings and forced his brother to look at him. "What?"
"I'm having a bad time," Joxer said quietly. "I'm staying in mom's house until I get some things straightened out." He glanced back at the crowd moving past the end of the alley. "Can we please drop this now?"
"No." Jett looked him over, then poked him on the stomach, earning a wince. "You're hurt? Did *she* hurt you?"
Joxer shook his head. "No, Gabrielle and Xena didn't hurt me, and I didn't get hurt in a fight." He caught a flash of black from the corner of his eye and looked toward it, finding Strife at the end of the alley. "Can I?" Strife shook his head.
"You're workin' for *him*?" Jett asked, sounding and looking shocked. He glared at the God of Mischief. "Leave my brother alone!"
"Not the problem," Strife told him, grinning at him. "I'm *protecting* him." He looked behind him and frowned, then shook his head and looked at the twins again. "Listen, Jett, I can't tell ya and neither can Joxer. No one can tell you what's going on until it's become common knowledge. Just get him back to his house, with supplies, and then leave him alone." He disappeared.
Joxer frowned and shifted his carrysac better on his shoulder. "I'm sorry about that," Joxer told his brother, "but I'm not allowed to tell you. You heard him. I don't want to upset him or Ares." He pushed his way past the human blockade and went back to his shopping. He knew his brother was stalking him, but in some ways it made him feel safer. It wasn't like he could fight at the moment. As soon as he was done, he headed out of the town to the cabin his grandfather had created for his orphaned daughter. He bolted the door shut behind him and sat down at the small table, looking around the simple cabin. There was a separate bedroom, and a fireplace behind him, but the best thing was the well opening right outside the back door. He pulled down the large copper washtub and set it in the open area between the fireplace and the table, then got to work hauling up water. He put up his supplies while he waited for it to heat, sighing when he heard the footsteps. "Go away, Jett," he called, taking off his shirt. He frowned at the bruise on his abdomen, but it was only a little painful. He was climbing into the water as the door burst inward. "Go away," he said seriously, but he didn't get out of the water. He had missed baths while he had traveled.
Jett shut the door and turned to look at his brother. He noticed the bruise and looked back up at the tired face. "What happened?" he asked quietly, sitting down at the table.
"I'm tired, Jett, and I want to be alone."
Jett handed over a cup, watching as Joxer started on his hair. "You always felt better if you talked out your problems," he reminded his younger brother, younger by nearly an hour. "You know I can keep a secret."
"Go ahead," floated out of the air. Strife appeared and grinned down at Joxer. "Hera said you'd need some help."
"What does Hera have to do with him?" Jett asked.
"Um, how do I put this?" Strife asked.
"Aphrodite made Hercules pregnant and I got caught in it," Joxer told his brother.
Jett fell out of the chair, staring from the God to the brother and back. "He is?" he asked Strife finally. Strife nodded. "No way." Strife nodded again. Jett stood up. "She did *what* to my brother? I'll kill her!" He turned around and kicked the door a few times. "Joxer, why does this happen to you?" he asked once he was calmer again. He turned back, but Strife was still there. "What's your place in all this?"
"It's now my domain," Strife said with a shrug. "She fucked up. I *am* the God of Fuckups, as you know because you're one." He smirked at the growl. "Yay, get over yourself. Jox needs you now. Are ya gonna be here or throw fits?"
"Let him throw a fit," Joxer advised. "He usually feels better. But you will *not* tell Jace about this. He'll make himself sick with laughing at me." He looked down at his stomach. "How did I bruise myself, Strife?"
Strife frowned down at him. "Like I know!" He looked down at the bruise. "Looks bad. Painful?"
"Only when Jett picked me up."
Strife rolled his eyes and Jett glared at him. "I wouldn't have if you had told me you were...." He waved a hand. "Whatever. What can I do to help?"
"I want you to come back when it's almost time," Strife said, sounding serious. "I want someone here who can do the deed when it's time for the rugrats to come out and I doubt we want Xena here at all." Jett nodded, getting the point. "I know you can't sew 'em up, but we'll deal with that when we come to it. So stay outta jail," he said, then he left.
Joxer looked up at his brother. "If you're willing, you could wash my back," he offered with a grin.
Jett rolled his eyes and stormed out. The cabin door bounced open again and Joxer sighed, but he didn't get up to close it, there wasn't anyone around to see him. He picked up the cloth he had put down next to the tub and started to work the soft soap into it. He really had missed his daily bath.
Hercules walked into Iphicles' palace after having dealt with the monster, and frowned at the people standing around staring at him. "What? Did I miss a spot while shaving?"
"No," Iphicles said, leaning forward to look at his half-brother. "We just got the strangest demand from Hera. You're to stay here for the next year, or until whatever *it* is over with." He looked him over again. "Would you care to enlighten us?"
Hercules shook his head. "I can't. I've been told I can't let anyone know." He felt a God appear and turned around to find his father behind him. "Why do I have to stay here?"
"Because you'll need the benefit of your brother's protection," Zeus said sadly. He glanced at Iphicles then looked back at his son. "Whenever you're ready, you may tell him. Until then, you'll need to rest." He walked around Hercules and stared down the king. "He will need to rest, Iphicles. We chose your protection because my son, Ares, said you were one of his finest and most honorable warriors." Zeus knew better than to hint at the family relationship, Iphicles wasn't that fond of his brother.
Iphicles straightened up. "I am, Lord Zeus, and I will look after my brother whenever he needs it, I just wanted to know why I was protecting him. It would make it easier."
Zeus smiled. "Yes, I understand. When Hercules is ready, he'll tell you himself. Until such a time, please respect his silence." He disappeared.
"Hercules, just one question, is Iolaus all right?" Iphicles asked his brother.
"As far as I know," Hercules said, looking a little pale. "He's probably not very happy at the moment, but he should be fine. He was heading home last time I knew."
Iphicles came down and led Hercules out into the hall. "I'll show you to your room. You'll rest. You look like you've seen one too many battles."
"That's a good analogy," Hercules agreed, sounding weaker. He stopped them, glancing around to make sure they were alone. "I'm pregnant," he mumbled.
"What?" Iphicles asked, pulling back some.
"I'm pregnant!" Hercules told him. "Aphrodite enacted a prophecy to..." He sighed and leaned against a wall. "That's what's wrong. Iolaus and another of our friends is too, Aphrodite caught them by accident."
Iphicles frowned and turned to stare out a window. "Should I send someone to check up on them? Your homes aren't that far from here."
Hercules nodded. "I think Iolaus would appreciate that, but I'm not sure where Joxer is."
"Joxer? That guy that follows Xena around?" he asked, looking confused. Hercules nodded. "Wow. Why was he with you two?"
"He brought me your message. Your messenger's horse collapsed under him while he was trying to find me and Joxer found him." He scrubbed his face with his hands. "I think I want to take a nap, Iphicles. Can we talk about this later?"
Iphicles straightened up and nodded quickly. "Of course. This way. I'll put you in my wing, in case you need to talk. It's also far from the kitchen so you won't have to smell the food cooking." He led the way down the halls, ignoring the servants.
One servant came out of a room, looking stunned. He hurried on to report to his real master. This was news worthy of a reward.
Joxer looked around the small market, trying to figure the best places to spend what was left of the gold Strife had given him. He knew he needed some grain, maybe a goat for milk, and some fabric to make himself some clothes in a few months. The problem was, he only had enough gold left for two out of the three. He touched his belt pouch again, just to make sure it was there, and frowned when he felt a larger hardness in it. He turned to find his brothers standing behind him, Jett bouncing the bag of gold in his hand. "You wanted to help me shop?" he asked, grabbing the bag and starting to walk. "I could use some help carrying."
"Joxer, wait," Jace called, running after him and stopping him, turning him around. "Is what Jett said true?"
Joxer shrugged. "I don't know what he told you," he said, trying to stay practical and not hysterical. "If it's what I think it is, then yeah, I am." He glanced at Jett, who nodded. So he nodded at his other brother. "Aphrodite messed up. I had nothing to do with this, but now I'm going to pay the price. Preferably alone for now? I really would like to be alone."
"Fat chance," Jett said snidely.
"Not a chance in Tartarus," Jace agreed. "There is no way my little brother is going to go through something like this alone. I certainly wouldn't expect a sister to, and I won't allow you to."
Joxer smiled. "Thanks, Jace, but I really want some time to be sick in peace. You know, get it all out of my system now?"
Jace nodded and gave him a hug. "I know," she said quietly. "I'm staying in town for a few days. We'll talk tomorrow?"
Joxer nodded. "Okay. Want to help me shop? You always did haggle better than I did." Jace laughed and Jett frowned. "Hey, I'll let you carry," Joxer offered his other brother. "I need some food supplies, a goat, and some cloth."
"Oh, honey, you need more than a little cloth," Jace said, steering Joxer toward one of the many cloths stalls. "Some nice comforting fabric for later on."
Jett followed along behind them, mentally groaning at the way Jace was steamrolling Joxer. It was going to be a long day.
Iolaus looked up from his cooking as someone knocked on the door, getting up with a grunt to answer it. "Yes?" he asked the messenger on the other side.
"King Iphicles sends his greetings and this," he said, handing over a letter. "I'll wait for your reply."
"There's a well behind the house," Iolaus told him, pointing at the worn path. He sat down to read the letter, smiling at the invitation and then frowning at the fact that Iphicles knew. "So much for secrecy," he muttered, rolling it back up. He dropped the invitation on the table, trying to figure out what to say in return. He didn't want to go live with Iphicles and Hercules while he went through this. He was comfortable where he was. He didn't want to be gawked at like some oddity at a fair, he wanted to stay at home. The messenger cleared his throat. "Tell him I said thanks, but I really want to stay here. Tell him not to worry about me. I have Jason here and it'll be okay." The messenger nodded and Iolaus nodded at the pot behind him. "I have some soup started if you'd like some. It'll be about an hour."
The messenger shook his head, but he was smiling. "No thank you. King Iphicles gave me a chit to get meals at any inn in the kingdom." He bowed and ran off, heading for Corinth.
Iolaus frowned at the letter again, but left it there. Maybe he'd just hand that to Jason to explain what was going on. He got up and added some more water to the soup, settling it back over the fire to heat, wondering if he was supposed to be this hungry.
Joxer frowned. He hoped he was hearing something, but he could swear there were people out in the woods. A lot of people, saying a cadence. He opened the door and glared at the men standing in the clearing between him and the woods. "What do you want?" he called out. "I will not fight."
"Are you the hero?" one of the men said.
"I try to be," Joxer admitted. "Right now, I need seclusion." The warrior walked closer. "No, you can't come near me," he said, starting to get hysterical and pray for Strife or Ares. He couldn't deal with an army. "Why did you seek me?"
"We have need of a hero," the warrior said, looking him over, frowning at the heaviness around Joxer's middle. "You don't help people?"
"Not in the last few months," Joxer told him. "What did you need a hero for?"
"We have need of a hero to fight beside us," he said, trying to sound grand. "Ours is a good cause."
"Yeah, well, I'm sorry but it won't be me. And please leave the local village alone, they're good people who mean no one any harm." He stepped back inside his house. "I'm sorry I can't help you, but I can't leave here and travel now." He closed the door, leaning against it when the warrior tried to open it. "Ares?" he begged. "Please?"
Ares frowned and looked at his nephew. "Go stop the idiot from harassing Joxer before he miscarries." Strife frowned but left. A few minutes later, he followed his nephew. Some warlords never learned manners. "I said to leave!" he thundered. "I did *not* say to conquer this area!"
The warrior bowed at him. "We're sorry, Lord Ares, but we have need of a figurehead, someone for the men to fight for besides your magnificence. It's been a long tour, my Lord Ares, and the men are tired and miss their homes."
Ares shrugged. "Then go home. I told you to go home last season and you didn't."
"Sire, you said you wanted that town at all costs."
"True," Ares agreed, looking at the men. "You may leave," he called out. "Go home and rest for the next campaign." He heard a quiet mutter behind him and frowned at Joxer. "What?"
"I said the local town wouldn't live through being conquered again," he said, staying quiet. "They've never fought. There's not even a temple in the town itself, they won't allow it because it causes dissension." He looked at the army. "Please spare them, Ares. They're good people."
Ares frowned but looked at the warriors again. "If you go through the local village, don't conquer it." The warrior nodded and ran off, taking his men with him. Ares turned to glare at the young demigod. "Are you happy now?" he asked coldly.
Joxer leaned against the door frame. "I am," he agreed. "The locals have been very good to me. They're the sort that would give you a tribute if you appeared in the center of town and asked, they hate to fight. Please don't destroy that." He rubbed his stomach. "I'm sorry if I annoy you, Lord Ares, but sometimes I can't help it. And right now, I really need to go be sick." He ran back into the cabin, heading for the attached outhouse.
Ares looked over at Strife, who shrugged. "Have you understood any of this?"
"Some," he admitted, grinning at his Uncle. "The village really would give you a tribute if you asked. Hell, they'd paint the town pink if Aphrodite asked, or did they already do that?" Strife asked himself, scrunching up his face to think about it. "I think they already did that, for a year or somethin'." He shrugged. "Anyway, they're real anti-fighting. They hate it so much that any natives that want to fight have ta leave."
Ares shook his head. "What is Greece coming to?" he groaned. He grimaced when he heard the sick noises from inside. "Go fix that, Strife, it's sickening."
"Hey, he's pregnant, women do that, you should expect him to too." He walked inside the cabin and slammed the door, going to help Joxer. As soon as he touched the young demigod, he frowned. Something wasn't right. "Um, Unc?" he called. Ares walked in and glared at him. "Sense him? I don't know what it is, but something's way off."
Ares gently touched the back of Joxer's head and shook his head. "Something's very wrong. Apollo?" he yelled, bringing the God of Healing. "Feel him."
Apollo glared at Ares but he did it. "One's dead," he announced. He shrugged when everyone looked at him. "Not my fault. He should have taken it easier."
Ares grabbed Apollo and pushed him into a wall. "Fix it. I will not let you forget about this one."
"Chill, dude," Apollo said calmly. "I can take the sick one if I can get some help from Hades." Ares let him go. "Why do you care?" he asked, flicking some dust off his chest. "Even Hera worries about this one."
"Have you thought yet that being 'strong' doesn't necessarily mean Jerkules?" Strife asked conversationally. "There's lots of kinds of strengths, and there's *two* demigods pregnant."
Apollo frowned at him. "Yeah, and? The Fates said the strongest one."
"What Strife was saying was that there's more than one definition for strength. The Fates didn't say that it was *physical* strength, which does leave Joxer in the running." Apollo looked nonplused. "He follows behind Xena and that yappy thing that travels with her. Makes him stronger than I am, he never yells at them."
Apollo shuddered but he shook his head. "I'd still lay odds on it being Herc, but I'll do this, this time." He looked up, then grimaced. "Hades will be right here. Get him lying down." He walked out of the way, going to stand in the main room, but making sure nothing touched him. He frowned at Hades as he materialized. "One of the kids in him is dead," he said quietly. "We need to take it."
Hades nodded. "I had heard of the problem with Hercules." He looked around the small cabin. "I don't feel him."
"'Dite fucked up," Strife said cheerfully. "Got Curly and Joxer."
"Joxer?" Hades asked. "Hermes' grandson?" He saw Ares, who was rolling his eyes. "I thought Hermes looked worried when I saw him earlier. Lead on, Apollo."
Apollo led the way into the bedroom, looking down at the bare-chested man on the bed. "When did you bruise yourself?" he asked coolly.
"It's been there for a few days," Joxer said, looking over at Hades. "Is this all over with? Am I free again?"
Hades laid his hand against Joxer's middle and shook his head. "One's sick, one's stopped developing, but the other's healthy. I'm sorry, boy."
"That's okay," Joxer sighed. He grabbed Strife's hand as Apollo's approached his stomach, squeezing it as the Godly hand disappeared inside his stomach. He whimpered as he felt the hand moving around inside him.
Apollo's hand brushed up against the sick fetus, and he frowned, healing the heart of the child. He hated doing this, even when it wasn't for someone he hated. He overcompensated a little, but decided it shouldn't hurt the child too much. His hand moved to the next child in the line and he grabbed it, pulling it out and handing it to Hades, who had a blanket waiting.
Hades looked down at it, frowning when he saw it was still barely living. After a second, it died and he relaxed. "I'll take it with me," he told Joxer quietly. "The child will have a chance to be reborn." He disappeared.
Apollo wiped off his hand and wrist, staring down at the man on the bed. "There's another problem besides the sick child, you don't have enough room in there."
"Can't Hera do something about that?" Strife asked, a pinched, hurt look on his face.
Apollo nodded. "I'll have to get her to help me fix that problem. I'll be back soon. Make him stay in bed." He disappeared.
Strife looked down at Joxer. "Can I have my hand back now?" Joxer let it go quickly, looking embarrassed. "Hey, no big to squeeze it, but it was really weird. No one likes touching me."
"I'm sorry, I needed the comfort."
Ares walked back over to the bed, creating a cup of water. "Drink." He and Strife had a mental conversation, Strife pleading to be able to stay, Ares reminding him that he had tasks. Eventually, Strife gave in and agreed. "I'm going to go get Jett to sit with you," Ares told Joxer.
"No, that's okay," Joxer said quickly. "I can handle it. Honestly, Ares, you don't have to go out of your way for me."
Ares rolled his eyes as he left.
Strife leaned down, getting into Joxer's face. "If Unc offers, you take and you take quickly before he changes his mind," he said quietly. "Unc's not generous, so if he likes you enough to offer somethin', you jump and look really happy, even when you hate it."
Joxer nodded. "I will. Thank you." He pulled the God down for a hug. "I'm sorry I'm such a pain and a burden." He pulled back. "I hate this, Strife."
"Yeah, but these mood swings are makin' you nuts." He got free and disappeared, heading back to his Uncles' temple. "He's nuts!" he announced as he appeared.
"Oh, it gets better!" Ares said mock-cheerfully. "The idiots on the western border didn't last long enough. Xena's headed back toward Iolaus."
Eris appeared, clapping. "It's all *over* Greece," she said happily. "Hercules announced it."
Ares groaned and went to sit down. "And? Drop the other boot, Discord."
"Um, well, he's being seen as a hero because they think that the prophecy is to save Greece, but he gave in," she said, nodding at the last two words. "Just a hero doing his duty to the world."
Strife snorted. "And the others?"
"Some people know about Iolaus, but that's not being spread as fast. No one knows about Joxer."
"Just like you thought, Unc, Jox is going to be forgotten." Strife looked around the temple. "Want me to go tell Jett?"
"No, I stopped there and scared him. Hera's probably on her way there now anyway," Ares said, waving a hand in the air. He looked at his sister. "Your son had an idea earlier."
"Stupid," she said, tossing a fireball at him. "I told you to quit that. It makes us look bad."
"No, it was a good one," Ares told her. "His thought was that there are more versions of strength than Jerkules'."
She nodded. "There is. Pain has a strength all its own." She stopped and thought. "You think Joxer's the prophecy demigod?"
Strife shrugged. "It's still a possibility. Iolaus isn't a demigod and Joxer did get hit by accident."
She shrugged. "Yeah, I guess it might be. Don't tell anyone though, Zeus will get pissed and try to kill you." She looked at her brother. "What was that about? The warriors? I thought you sent them home months ago."
"I did," Ares said dryly. "They decided to take down that town for me anyway." He smiled. "It's good to have such loyal people." He looked over at Strife. "Go spy on Xena. I want to know the instant that she figures out what's wrong with Joxer." Strife disappeared.
"You agree with him?" Discord asked quietly.
Ares nodded. "I do. Joxer's very strong in some areas, he's got heart. Which is why he'll never be a good warrior," he sighed. "His heart and conscious trip him up."
"And his feet," Eris said, disappearing quickly.
Ares shook his head and pulled over a mirror to watch his latest wars. He still had a job to do, even though his nephew was becoming enamored of the very strange Joxer.
*** a few months later ***
Hercules looked up as someone yelled his name, groaning in misery. "Don't come closer," he begged Gabrielle, stopping her cold.
"You don't feel good?" Xena asked as she walked up behind her companion. She looked Hercules over. "You look big," she said dryly.
"Not funny," he pouted. "I'm *huge*." He patted his still-nearly trim stomach. "I'm starting to show."
Xena nodded. "As you will continue to show until this is all over." She sat down beside him on the bench. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm finally able to keep food down," he said, still not looking happy. "Now I'm having these funny urges." He looked at Gabrielle. "How do you women do this?"
"Easy, you men make us," Gabrielle countered. Xena glared at her. "What? I *am* an Amazon."
Xena shook her head. "We do it because it's necessary," she gently told her friend.
"We saw Iolaus," Gabrielle said, trying to change the subject. "He seems content to stay where he is and be alone with Jason." Hercules glared at her. "What?"
"He doesn't want help?"
"No, he does," Xena corrected, "but he doesn't want the attention. He's already getting stared at whenever he has to venture into the local village for things. He doesn't want to come here and have even more people stare at him."
"What about Joxer?" Hercules asked quietly.
"Joxer?" Gabrielle asked.
"He's the other one that got caught?" Xena asked.
"You didn't know?"
"No one knows," Gabrielle snorted. "It figures he'd get caught up in something like that." She glanced around. "He's not here either?"
"He's at his mother's house, not her married house, but her childhood house," Hercules told her. "You mean he hasn't been seen to by a healer?"
"I'll check on him," Xena promised. "Do you have any idea where this house is?"
"It's back toward the middle of the country. Iolaus knows," Hercules told her, grabbing her hand. "You have to go see him," he insisted. "He can't do this alone. He's a pretty weak guy, and if I'm feeling like this what does he feel like?"
Xena nodded. "I'll go find him as soon as I can," she agreed. She stood up. "Is there a message you want us to carry to him?" She saw Hercules' glance at Gabrielle and smiled. "We'll travel that way but I'll go see him alone," she said quietly.
"He sent me a present," he said, letting her go so he could point at a small basket beside his feet. "He found a baby blanket that was embroidered." He picked it up with a moan and a hand on his stomach, and showed it to her. "This is it."
Xena looked it over. "I think I know where this is from," she said finally. "The design is common to a certain area." She handed it back. "He has good taste. That'll work well for a son or a daughter." She gave Hercules a hug. "I know you feel rotten, just be careful."
"And no baths," Gabrielle admonished.
Xena shook her head. "Bathing is fine up to a point," she corrected. "It's as you get closer to your time that the water can start you off into labor." She looked at Hercules. "Though I doubt he's got that problem." Her friend looked confused. "No birth canal, Gabrielle," Xena said, shaking her head. "We'll go find him. Do you need anything?"
"No," Hercules said with a smile. "Iphicles has been very good to me."
"Have you decided what you're going to do when it's born?" Gabrielle asked.
Hercules shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I'll find it a good family. It's not like I can take care of it while I'm traveling," he said, looking down at his stomach, putting his hands across the small bump.
"Maybe you should ask your brother," Xena suggested, then she and her companion left. Outside, they found Iphicles standing beside Argo. "He's fine," she assured the king.
"I know. We've talked often." He looked back toward the garden. "Did he say anything about the child?"
"I suggested that he give it to you," Xena told him as she mounted her horse. "He was talking about finding a good family for it."
Gabrielle looked at Iphicles. "Have you heard anything about Joxer? Hercules said he was like that too."
Iphicles sighed, "I know. Hera came in here complaining about him not eating enough the other day." He looked at Xena. "Did you ever hear about Apollo cursing a family to have multiple first children?" Xena shook her head. "Neither did I until someone told me about it." He handed her a letter. "Here, tell him he's welcome to join Hercules here. It would be good for him to be somewhere with a real healer." He headed back into his castle, going to see if his brother needed anything. It was a strange feeling, protecting his brother for a change.
Xena looked down at Gabrielle and shook her head. "We need to hurry. Hercules was right, Joxer has got to be frantic by now."
"I wonder if he's told anyone," Gabrielle said as she followed Xena out of the castle proper.
Joxer laughed and moved his piece on the game board. "I win," he told Strife.
"Cheater," Strife said, but he was grinning. "You've become really good at this stuff. Maybe you should think about strategies after all this is over with."
Joxer blushed and looked down at his enormous stomach. "I like what I do, Strife." He looked up, but his friend was gone and the door was opening. "Yes?" he called, pulling the blanket around his middle.
"Just me, mommy," Jett said as he walked in. "Rumor is, Xena's coming this way."
"Oh," Joxer sighed, slumping in on himself.
"And she knows," Jett finished. "She's looking for you." He watched as his brother forced himself to get up and head over to the fire. "Want me to do something about her?"
"No!" Joxer told him sharply. "The world needs Xena. She creates a balance to all the bad stuff." He turned to look at his brother. "Is there any other news?"
"Just that Iolaus is still at his house." Jett sat down at the table, looking at the game board. "Who was here?"
"Oh." Jett waved at the other chair. "Sit. Your ankles will swell again and you'll be miserable all day."
Joxer sighed as he sat back down. "How long before she gets here?"
"Maybe a week. Three days if she hurries." Jett relaxed. "Have you eaten yet?" Joxer shook his head. "You have to, or Hera will complain again."
"I know, but I don't feel like it. I hate throwing it back up." He looked down at his stomach. "I think you two need to get it straight. I eat, you get fed. You make me sick, you starve." He looked up and caught his brother's smile. "Sorry, but they started to kick yesterday."
"Really?" Jett looked over the edge of the table. "In tandem?"
"Yeah," Joxer said, shifting. "Want to feel?"
"No," Jett said quickly. He looked around the small cabin. "Did you need anything from town?"
"Something to keep my mind occupied," Joxer said dryly. "Strife can't always be here."
"You could always take up sewing," Jett said, then he ran away before Joxer could get up and beat him.
"I'll get you for that!" Joxer yelled after him. He rubbed across his stomach. "Don't worry, he didn't mean that." He shifted in his chair, then decided he needed to go to the outhouse. He heaved himself up and headed that way, wondering why children did this to their mothers and why mothers didn't hate them for it.
Iolaus locked his door behind himself, leaning against it. "Maybe I should take Iphicles up on his offer," he muttered, going to sit down. This hadn't been too hard on him yet, no kicking, not too sick, not like some women he had seen over the years. He sat down on the edge of his bed, and finding it so comfortable, laid back. "Okay, little one," he told his stomach, which was still mostly flat. "We've still got to get up and put up the flour and the meat we bought. We can't nap yet. We can nap later." He groaned when someone knocked on the door.
"Iolaus, I heard you moan," Jason said as he walked in. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah," Iolaus said, allowing his friend to help him sit up. "We just got back from town." Jason gave him an understanding look. "I was just thinking about letting Iphicles take care of me for a week or so, going to check on Hercules."
Jason smiled. "Well, I can almost do that. Xena's at my house. Who's this Joxer guy?"
Iolaus rubbed his face. "He's the one that got caught in this with me. He went off on his own." He looked up. "How did she find out?"
"Hercules told her."
"Oh." Iolaus swung his feet down onto the floor and forced himself to get up. "If you'll bring over some of that tea, you can bring them with you," he offered. "I'll make a stew."
"I'll make dinner, you get presentable," he said, nodding at Iolaus' bare chest. "Did the baker's wife rip off your clothes again?"
"No, she took my shirt to fix the rip," Iolaus said dryly. "Her husband is still not amused."
Jason patted him on the back. "I understand. I'll go get them and bring over some of the meat I caught earlier. You relax." Then he left Iolaus alone, in the messy house.
Iolaus grabbed his broom and started to clean up the wood and stone that he had laid a few years back for a floor. "I wonder how Joxer is," he told himself as he swept. He got his first kick and sat down, hand on his stomach, marveling at how strong his little girl was.
Xena looked around Iolaus' house, then back at him. "How are you feeling?" she asked.
"The little girl kicks like you do," he said, sounding happy but looking tired. "She's pretty good though. I've had it easier than some women I've met. I haven't been too sick or anything." He offered his stomach. "Want to feel?"
"Sure," she said bravely, reaching out to touch the slightly hairy little bump. She jumped back as her hand was kicked. "She's strong."
"Maybe she'll be an Amazon," Gabrielle offered.
Iolaus looked over at her. "They've said something about you having no heir, haven't they?" he asked. She nodded sourly. "My daughter will go to a good farmer's family, become an honest young woman who knows the value of hard work and good sense. I'll expect her to *not* follow in mine and Herc's footsteps." He looked at Xena. "How is he anyway?"
"Sick," she said shortly.
"And tired and weak," Gabrielle added. Xena subtly kicked her in the leg. "Ow! He is. He looked pretty bad. I don't think Iolaus wanted to be lied to." She looked at him. "Was Joxer really caught in all this mess?"
Iolaus nodded. "Definitely. He was standing beside me. And then he yelled at Apollo," he sighed. Xena stared at him. "It seems Apollo cursed his family to have multiple first children," he confided. "He wasn't too happy about the prospects."
"I've heard his brothers were down in that area," Jason noted. Everyone looked at him. "Jace is supposed to be performing near the center of the country and Jett is rumored to be near his brother to protect him, but no one ever says which brother."
"Great, a psychopath and a singer," Gabrielle snorted. "Just what he needs."
"I bet Jett would bend over backwards to make sure Joxer isn't hurt by this," Iolaus told her. "He seems to be very protective of his family, like they're his personal toy and no one else can play with them." Xena nodded. "I also bet that Jett wouldn't hesitate to take those children from his brother's body if he had to."
"Yes, but he probably can't sew him back up," Xena said quietly.
Iolaus shrugged. "He might surprise you. Everyone knows a little healing. I bet he's learned some, if only to take care of himself. He might not be as smooth as *you* would be, Xena, but he probably knows enough." He looked over at Jason. "Unlike some people, who I expect to pass out."
Jason smiled at him. "I told you I'd be there with you, Iolaus, I just won't look while someone's cutting you open." He looked over at Xena. "These children will need to be cut out, right? He's not going to suddenly change?"
"Not as far as anyone's told us," Gabrielle noted. She looked at Iolaus. "Do you feel like you're going to change?"
"I wouldn't care, as long as I change back," he said lightly. He looked at Xena, who rolled her eyes. "I think I'll call it a night, guys. This little girl takes a lot out of me." He stood up and headed to his bed, trusting Jason to remove the women from his house for the night. Jason still had guest rooms, and a barn. "Night," he called after them, waving before shutting the door. He sighed and leaned against the portal, just in case they wanted to come back. "I'm getting too old for this," he muttered as he went to bank the fire and go to bed.
Joxer paced across the small dining area, slowly going insane. He had nothing to do, nothing to take his mind off any of this, or from Xena's visit. He had nothing to do but think and wonder and dream up horrible things that he and the children might go through in the future. He stopped when he heard a horse's snort outside, glancing out the single window. Xena was here. He opened the door, looking around her, but she appeared to be alone.
"She's at the inn in town," Xena said as she dismounted. She slowly walked toward him, checking him over. "Twins?" she guessed.
"It had been triplets, but one died and Apollo took it. Hades has it," he sighed, letting her inside. "How did you find out?"
"Hercules told me. He's still with Iphicles, and apparently worrying himself sick."
"Well, he would. He's got enough guilt to make him worry about what's going on with the average person while he's down."
"I think he's realized that world goes on whether or not he goes out to fight." She sat down across from him, nodding at his stomach. "You haven't figured out the trick with the sheet yet?"
"Jace told me about it, but the weight's not too bad yet. I'll do it soon," he said with a faint smile. "I've been okay, Xena. Really lonely and slowly going insane, but otherwise okay. Strife shows up often," he said suddenly, then wondered why he had said it.
"At least someone is looking out for you," she said kindly. She handed over Iphicles letter. "For you, an invitation."
Joxer read it then shook his head and put it aside. "I don't want to be known about. Let everyone fawn over Hercules. It'll be better for my children if no one knows about them." He grunted and rubbed his stomach. "Sorry, they kick."
"Yes, healthy children do that," she agreed with a smile. "Solan used to pick just the right moment, as I started to fall asleep." Joxer smiled. "Or, just when I was trying to go to the bathroom so I couldn't, even though I really needed to."
Joxer laughed. "I can understand that. I'm wondering if I'm going to have to dig another latrine soon." He laid a hand on his stomach. "They're okay, Xena. We'll be fine. Apollo's even relented enough to come cut them out of me."
She nodded. "Good. I heard about his grandson and I personally agree. You really yelled at him?"
"And threw a statue of his, yeah," Joxer sighed. "I was reacting instead of thinking." He shifted some. "How did you deal with the sore rear?"
"I've had one most of my adult life," she reminded him. "Riding all day doesn't exactly give you calluses back there, but it does help." She reached over and touched his free hand. "Joxer, is there anything I can do for you? Something from town or anything?"
"Teach Jett how to cut these guys out in case Apollo's busy?" he suggested. "And don't tell the townspeople. One of the one who knows suggested I was just trying to take attention away from Hercules' noble sacrifice by lying."
She shook her head. "I won't. Aphrodite might help with that, at least if you asked her to." He shook his head. "All right then." She stood up. "Go sit on the bed, let me check your stomach." He heaved himself up and she steadied him, watching as he walked. "Don't arch your back, you'll never get it to stop aching," she advised, helping him lay back down. She gently poked at his stomach, smiling when her hand was kicked.
"Hey, calm down," Joxer complained.
She patted the extended bellybutton. "They seem fine, Joxer. Don't worry about their growth. Babies will take what they need from your body, even if you don't get any yourself." He nodded. "Have you eaten?"
"I had some gravy over bread for breakfast," he told her. "That's one good thing about this, I've had to learn more about cooking. I haven't poisoned myself yet." She laughed and gave him a hug. "Thank you."
"You know I like you," she teased, pinching him on the arm. "Come on, walk me outside. You look like you could use some sun." She helped him up and out to where Argo was nibbling on the grass. "You're sure you don't need anything?"
"Oh, I could use some things from town, but I'm out of money." He shrugged. "It happens. Hermes does give me stuff that I can't live without, but there's those stupid cravings."
She nodded. "I always seemed to want sea fish when we were inland and cheese when we were by the sea." She mounted her horse and looked down at him. "Is there anything you want me to tell the rest of the group? Iolaus and Hercules both asked about you."
"Tell them I'm fine," Joxer said with a tight smile. "I'm really okay, just a bit bored."
She nodded and rode out of the clearing.
Joxer turned around and found Strife standing there with his grandfather. "Hey, guys," he said, smiling at them. "Two visits in one day?"
"We were watching your other one," Strife told him. "Why didn't you tell me you needed stuff?" he demanded.
"I don't *need* anything, I have enough to last me," Joxer told him.
"Just not the things that you want," Hermes said, giving him a smile. "It's all right, we do understand that you don't want to inconvenience us, or to sound like you're begging and whining."
"But we need to know about these things to fix it for ya," Strife finished. "Whaddaya need?"
"Vegetables," Joxer said, giving him a hopeful look. "Just not potatoes, but things with *taste*! Maybe even some of that sour stuff that grows up near the mountains?"
"Rhubarb?" Hermes asked. "Red stuff that's green when cooked?" Joxer started to salivate. "Okay, we can do that," he agreed, coming over to hug his grandson. "Ask, and I'll see what I can do to give it to you," he reminded the young man. "Jett's said the same thing."
"Yeah, but he wants to kill someone for me," Joxer said, giving Strife a smile. "Can you please remind him not to kill Gabrielle? I know he hates her."
Strife waved a hand. "Not a problem. He's dealin' with a problem of Jace's." He winked. "Anything else?"
"Something to read, or do. Please? I'm going insane!" Joxer begged, ready to get down on his knees if necessary.
"Sure," Strife said. "Unc said I could raid his library, I'll go get you somethin'." He shrugged. "So, anything else?"
Joxer shook his head. "No, just those two things. I'd be really happy with that."
Strife walked over and hugged Joxer, waving a hand across his belt. "Behave and be careful," he whispered, then he let go and disappeared.
Hermes grinned. "Don't worry. I'm even going to have to stop Autolycus from coming this way." Joxer shook his head. "Yes, I will. He'll want to show up."
"I don't mind the company, just not the annoying company. Besides, I doubt he's going to want to play with the twins," he said with a slightly insane grin.
Hermes shook his head. "No, he's pretty scared of children," he agreed. Then he hopped up into the air. "Be back soon. Go sit down." He zipped off, heading off to get his grandson's heart's desire.
Joxer waddled back into the cabin and sat down in the most comfortable chair. He stretched and grabbed his cup and the pitcher of goat's milk, pouring himself a cup of it. "Okay, I'm going to be fine," he told himself as he sipped it. He grimaced as he started to itch. "I've got to get over this. They'll need milk." He forced himself to continue to drink, trying to do the best for his children.
Strife appeared in Ares' temple, nodding up at the owner. "Hey. Xena was pretty cool to him. Didn't nag, didn't bitch, didn't hit, which shocked the hell outta me, let me tell you." He grinned. "Can Joxer borrow some of your scrolls? He's so bored he's becomin' more like me."
Ares frowned at him. "Huh?"
"Joxer's so bored he's slowly going insane. Can he borrow some of your scrolls?"
"I haven't heard him ask."
"He didn't, he asked for something to do and I thought of your library. It's either you or Athena." Ares snorted. "Yeah, so I'm startin' with the easy one."
Ares shook his head. "Sure. Just make sure they don't get destroyed. Copy them or something." He looked Strife over. "How is he doing?"
"He's *huge*, Unc, you should see 'im. It's like he swallowed one of Echidnas eggs." He grinned. "And he's waddlin', and peein' constantly."
Ares nodded. "That's what I'd expect. Are you enjoying this time with him?"
"Well, yeah," Strife told him, looking confused. "He's a neat guy, he don't bitch and whine about stuff. Even when his back hurts so badly that no woman'd stand it, he don't whine." He shrugged. "He's really a great guy and I never saw it before. I could get used to this having friends thing."
"And when he dies?" Ares asked gently. Strife frowned. "He's mortal, Strife, he will die some day."
"Then I'll hang with his kids," Strife declared. "And their kids, and their kids, and on until they ain't no more."
Ares nodded. "As long as you remember he's mortal. Go ahead and copy whatever you want out of my library. And keep him away from eggs, they make every pregnant woman pass horrible gas. They become toxic weapons."
Strife giggled at that thought as he went to get copies for his pet mortal. Joxer would appreciate it so much, he'd hug him again and the kids would kick him by proxy.
Xena walked up behind Jett and tapped him on the shoulder. "I know you know I'm here," she said quietly when she didn't get a reaction. "I'd like to teach you how to cut him open if you have to." Jett turned to look at her. "I can teach you how to do it and how to save his life, Jett."
Jett shrugged. "I can cut them out."
"I can show you where to cut so he doesn't die when you take them out," she offered. "And how to sew him back up so he continues to live."
Jett nodded. "All right. Can we practice on the blonde? She just annoyed Jace again."
Xena groaned. "No. I'll show you on Joxer. You'll have to find a few veins and it'll be easier on him." She held out a hand. "Truce?"
"Truce," he agreed, shaking it. "If she hurts him, you lose her, no matter what." He smiled and walked away, going to look at the exotic nut stall.
Xena went on to the inn, she really needed to have a talk with Gabrielle. Sometimes the girl's mouth got in her way.
Joxer looked down at his belt as he sat down after another trip to the outhouse, frowning at the bag he hadn't felt there. He lifted it off and smiled at the small bag of gold. "Thanks, guys," he said, wiping off a single tear. "This is so great of you."
"Hey, I've got somethin' better than gold," Strife said as he appeared, his arms full of scrolls. "They're copies, but it's somethin' ta do," he offered.
Joxer jumped up, grabbing Strife and giving him a hug. "Thank you," he cried, squeezing him carefully so nothing would get squished.
Strife pushed him back. "Hey, no tears," he warned. "That's not good, I'll get upset." Joxer quickly wiped his face and gave him a smile. "That's better. Your mood swings are hell, dude, but fun." He handed over the scrolls. "I copied the most interestin' ones I could find. I figure in another two months, you'd be ready to read requisition orders."
Joxer nodded. "I'd be willing to read them now," he said, giving Strife a hopeful smile. "Thank you."
"Hey, anything for ya, you know that." He punched Joxer on the arm. "Now sit down!" Joxer sat down in his comfortable chair, nearly purring when Strife created some cushions for him to sit on. "There, that's bettah." He brought over the scrolls and put them beside the young man. "Anything else?"
"No, I'm happy," Joxer sighed, smiling at him. "I won't go insane now."
"Insane's not so bad," Strife said seriously, then he suddenly grinned. "I enjoy it!"
"Yeah, I'm starting to think I'll enjoy it too." He patted his stomach. "Do you think they'll like to travel with me?"
"Sure, dude. Travel's supposed to be great." He shrugged. "Can I touch?"
Joxer pulled open his shirt and thrust his stomach out. "Play all you want, buddy. I'm going to read." He curled up some, letting Strife get his fill of being kicked at, and grabbed a scroll to start reading. "Hey, a warrior's romance," he said happily.
Strife smiled at him and created a bowl of munchies, pushing it closer to Joxer's free hand. Then he went back to playing with the twins. They were so cool!
Hera looked out across the meeting area at Hermes, Apollo, Ares, and Strife. Certainly an odd set of participants in this drama. She cleared her throat and they all looked at her. "How are the other two mortals?"
"Iolaus is fine," Apollo told her. "Very fit and the birth shouldn't wear him out too much. He's decided to give his child, which he thinks is a daughter, to a farm couple."
She nodded. "I can see that point. Farmers tend to be honest and upright. What about the other one?" she asked Strife, whom she had seen beside the young mortal more often than not.
"He's huge," Strife offered. "Was bored, but we recently fixed that. Has cravin's for things like that rhubarb stuff up north. I think he's about ready to head to the bed and not get up, but Unc said that wouldn't be so good for him."
"It might be necessary though," she said thoughtfully. "I shall go see him today with Apollo." Apollo didn't look pleased but he didn't argue the point. "Then we'll check on Hercules."
"Is he really whinin'?" Strife asked.
She smiled and nodded. "Yes, he's not feeling too well," she said snidely. "Apparently he thought this was going to be *easy* on him because he's a demigod."
Ares snorted. "Joxer's taken this much better than Hercules has, even considering the fit he threw there at the beginning."
Strife coughed. "Um, can I please suggest somethin'?" Hera nodded regally. "Well, some of the villagers have started to tell Jox that he's pretendin' to be pregnant to get attention from Hercules'. Now, we all know bettah, but it's really startin' to bum him out, even if he don't say nothin' about it."
She sighed. "I can only ask Aphrodite to put forth a public apology, but that wouldn't seem very proper for a Goddess to do."
"What about in that one town?" Strife suggested. "Make sure it stays there?"
"Are there any temples there?" Hera asked.
"There's a few outside of town," Ares told her. "They think that having them in town would cause divisiveness. None to Aphrodite or me, but there is one to you, Mother."
Hera considered the options. "I will make an announcement at my temple that the young man is to be respected for the accident that happened to him." She looked at Strife. "Would that help?"
Strife shrugged. "I don't know, but maybe. He seriously was willing to eat only bread and beans just so he wouldn't have to go deal with them."
She nodded. "Then I think I should go have a discussion with someone. Maybe take the poor boy shopping."
"Um, your husband may not like that," Hermes suggested lightly. "He's been getting jealous of the time you spend taunting Hercules."
She waved a hand. "He knows I'd never touch anyone committed to me." She stood up. "Come, let us go visit this young mortal." She, Apollo, and Strife all disappeared.
Ares looked at Hermes. "Has the jealousy gotten bad yet?"
Hermes shook his head. "It's just started."
"I'm not jealous," Zeus said as he appeared. "Where did she go?"
"To take care of a small problem that the one mortal, Joxer, is having," Ares told him.
"Yes, how is that poor man?" Zeus asked.
Ares stared at him. "You think Joxer's the one in the prophecy," he said finally.
Zeus smiled. "Yes, I do. He's acted very strong through all of this. The very fact that he was willing to start going insane instead of asking for help told me that much."
"Yeah, Herc is kinda whiny," Hermes agreed. Zeus frowned at him. "Sorry, but he is."
"He's not as flexible mentally as this Joxer boy is," Zeus admonished. "Ares, you and Strife are to be commended for your treatment of the boy. Has he decided who's going to raise them for him?"
"I think he's planning on raising them himself," Ares told him. "He's been pretty insistent about planning their future traveling together. Said he wants to show them the islands once they're old enough to enjoy them."
Zeus frowned. "I'm not sure that's for the best."
Ares laughed. "Then *you* tell Strife."
Zeus shook his head. "No, I think I'll just watch the situation for now. He's really been that devoted to the demigod?" Ares nodded. "Do we know why?"
"He seems to really care for him," Ares said with a shrug, then he disappeared.
Zeus looked at Hermes. "Hey, not my thing, but Strife does seem to like the grandson. He even tries to not pick on Jace when Joxer can hear him." He disappeared too, leaving Zeus alone to think.
Hera flashed into where she felt Joxer was, surprised to find him in the market. "Joxer," she said gently. "Shouldn't you be lying down?"
"Strife gave me some money," he said, grinning at her. "I'm here to buy some necessary stuff. Is there anything I need for the birth?"
She took his arm and steered him toward the knife stall. "Get a good, sharp blade." She looked at the startled smith. "He'll need one for the delivery, of course," she said.
"Of course," the smith said, pointing at his top of the line knives. "Will one of these do, my Lady?"
She checked them over, then picked the thinnest. "That one. Joxer, pay the man and then we'll go find something for the children to be covered in." Joxer just paid the man and let her walk him away. She smiled at him. "No arguments?"
"No, Lady Hera, I figure that you're here to make them quit saying nasty things about me," he said quietly, looking so much like a five-year-old at that moment.
She patted his arm. "We'll get that settled soon enough. Come, let's get you some good fabric, and then we'll look through the food stalls. I know Hermes went to get you those vegetables you wanted."
Joxer grinned. "He's been so great to me. Him and Strife both. After this is all over with, I've got to make a really wonderful offering to them both."
"I'm sure they'll be happy if you're healthy after the birth," she assured him. "I'm also sure that Strife would be over the moon if you started praying to him sometimes too." She looked over the available fabrics, then smiled up at him. "Has Aphrodite come to apologize to you yet?" she asked. He shook his head, starting to frown. "She said she was going to, for accidentally including you in that spell and all." She patted his stomach, then frowned. "Joxer, you really should be lying down more often."
"I promise, I'll go lay down as soon as I finish shopping. I even made a small cart to get everything home." He sighed when he saw Gabrielle coming toward him.
"Oh, her," Hera said, waving a hand. "She won't cause a scene. She'll wheel the cart along." She looked at the Amazon. "Will you help the poor boy get things back to his cabin?"
"Sure," she said happily. "Is there anything else I can do?"
Hera smiled and shook her head. "Not at all, dear. We're working on finding something appropriate for the coming twins."
"Twins?" she asked. "Really?" She looked at Joxer.
"It was triplets, but one quit developing," Joxer said sadly. He got a squeeze from them both and shook it off. "She'll get a chance to be reborn," he told them, then pointed at a small piece of brightly colored fabric. "How's that?"
"No, dear, you'll need gentle, soft fabrics," Hera instructed. She touched one bolt. "Get that."
Joxer paid for it and Gabrielle put it in the little cart. They went on to the food stalls, him letting Hera pick out his food for him. By the end of the time, he was broke, Hera had solved most of the snide comments, and Gabrielle was wheeling a very full cart back down the small track to the cabin. It had been a good day. When they got back to the cabin, Joxer laid down like he said he would and let her poke and push on his stomach. "Are they okay?" he asked when she straightened up.
"They should be just fine," she said with a smile. "I can feel where Apollo fixed that one's heart, but otherwise fine." She looked behind her as Gabrielle stuck her head into the room.
"Joxer, where should I put the knife?"
"In the cabinet beside the fire," Hera suggested. Gabrielle smiled and backed back out. "How do you put up with such happy people?" she asked quietly.
"I'm very patient," he whispered. Then they both laughed. Which is where Apollo came in.
"How is he?" he asked sullenly.
"He should be fine," Hera told him. "They're growing very well. I can feel where you fixed that one, but otherwise everything is fine." She smiled down at Joxer. "I have to go see to Hercules now. How I wish he was taking this half as well." She disappeared.
Apollo looked down at the mortal. "Need anything?" he offered.
"No, thank you, Lord Apollo. Strife gave me something to read and I got groceries today with Lady Hera. I think I'm all set until the birth. Will I have to make an offering to bring you and her?"
Apollo shrugged. "Probably not." He disappeared, going to deal with much more agreeable patients.
Joxer forced himself to get up and go rearrange everything in the kitchen, Gabrielle never put things where he wanted them. He found her bending over, reading some of the scrolls. "Strife borrowed them from Ares for me."
"Oh. They're good," she said, rolling that one up. She put it in the basket with the others. "Did you need anything else?"
"Nope, I think I'm fine." He smiled and she left, leaving him to rearrange everything.
Iolaus looked up from his scrubbing of the floors, smiling at Apollo. "Hey," he said, tossing aside his scrub brush. "I just felt I had to clean."
"It's normal." Apollo pointed at the bed. "Lay down, let me feel the brat." Iolaus glared at him, reminding him that he was definitely not a pushover. "Down or I go help Hera see to Hercules, the great pouter."
Iolaus took off his shirt and laid down on the bed, relaxing as Apollo prodded and pushed on him. "How is she?"
"She feels fine," Apollo said finally. He stood up and looked down at him. "Don't overdue the cleaning, Iolaus." He disappeared with a sigh. Onto the harder one.
Iolaus got up and went back to his cleaning, not expecting a knock on the door. "Who is it?" he called.
"Autolycus," came the answer and the thief stuck his head through the door. "I was told to come bug you instead of Xena," he said as he came in. He looked at Iolaus' middle. "What happened to you? You've gained weight."
"That's a side effect of being pregnant," Iolaus said dryly, continuing to scrub the floor. "Sit, but don't put your boots on the floor, or the table."
Autolycus sat down and carefully put his feet up in another chair. "How did you, a man, get pregnant?"
"The same way Hercules and Joxer did. Aphrodite."
She appeared, cooing down at him. "I'm sorry, babe, but I couldn't help it. You're so *cute* like this," she said, pinching his cheeks.
Iolaus groaned and she grinned down at him. "Aphrodite, you put glitter on my wet floor," he complained.
She laughed. "Honey, I can scour this place clean enough for even you with a thought. Don't stress, you'll get more wrinkles." She pinched his butt then left him alone, leaving a sparkling clean house behind her.
"So, what happened?" Autolycus asked. "I had heard the rumors about Hercules, but you? And Joxer?"
Iolaus nodded. "Me and Joxer. He's having twins." He shrugged and got up off the floor, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "I hear he's being pretty good, but Strife's been watching him. Aphrodite pops in about every day here and Strife goes there to watch over him." He looked down at his stomach. "I'm not that fat, am I?"
Autolycus shook his head quickly. "No, not at all. And you don't really quite glow either, you just have really good skin." He had been caught in that trap before, he never wanted to go there again.
Hercules belched and excused himself, looking embarrassed. "Sorry, I ate eggs," he explained. "The baby seems to like them."
Hera looked down at him. "I'm sure it does." She laid a hand on his stomach and frowned. "I want you to stop training," she ordered. "No more play-fighting, no more heavy lifting. Just lie around and rest." She backed away, letting Apollo get in there, silently telling him about the problem she felt. She watched as Apollo felt the child and fixed the small problem it had been having. "Have you thought about the child's future?"
"I thought the prophecy would cover that," Hercules pointed out.
"No, just that a child a strong demigod bears will keep the Gods from dying," Apollo said as he straightened up. "There's no talk about what sex the child is, or how it'll be raised." He looked at his stepmother, who shook her head. "I guess it's all up to you."
"Then I think I'd like to give the child to Iphicles and Rena to raise," he said quietly. "Iphicles needs a good heir and I think he's expecting it."
Hera nodded. "Ask first, don't assume, but I don't see a problem with that." She glanced around the room, seeing the scrolls and presents littering one wall. "From friends?"
"From people whom Iolaus and I have helped. I've sent half of them back to him," he said with a faint blush. "I sent most of the stuffed toys back to him. Has he said anything?"
"Just that he's tired of being stared at like a freak," Apollo told him, looking at the gifts. "Who would send you sexual poetry?" He looked back, but Hercules was blushing again. "Never mind. No sex for you, but don't worry about it otherwise." Hera was biting her lip to keep from laughing. "How are you feeling otherwise?"
"A little tired," Hercules said, forcing himself to sit up. "I feel huge and I cleaned my room yesterday until I swear the maids got pissed at me." He smiled. "Is there anything I *can* do? Normal stuff?"
"Your instincts will guide you," Hera said wisely. "Do try not to piss off too many people though." She twitched her robes. "I have seen the other two."
"How's Joxer?" he asked, looking really worried and tense. "I'm sure he's probably having a lot of trouble. Someone told me he might be having twins or triplets."
"He's having twins," Apollo told him. "The third died early on and we removed it." He scowled at his mother. "Otherwise, he's fine."
Hercules sighed and relaxed again. "That's good. Is Xena still with him?"
"She's nearby but not in the actual town," Aphrodite said as she appeared. "He's fine," she said with a smile. "He's got something to do, the kids are happy and active, and Strife's made sure he's comfortable." She looked at Apollo. "Xena's even told his brother Jett how to help him if something should keep you guys from getting there."
Hera smiled at that. "Good. It would be a bit difficult if all three of them went into labor at the same time." She looked down at Hercules. "Don't worry about Joxer, Hercules, he's fine. Much better than you really." She and the other Gods disappeared.
Hercules continued to bite his lower lip, thinking about poor Joxer, out there all alone while he had a lot of attention. He pulled over a piece of parchment and started on a letter to his friend, demanding that he come share Iphicles hospitality with him.
*** a few months later ***
Iolaus groaned and held his stomach, rolling onto his side to make the pains stop. "Hera," he moaned, and she came. "I think she wants out."
Hera touched his stomach, then nodded. "Yes, it's time. Apollo?" she called. The God of Medicine showed up and handed her a knife. "Just relax. We do know what we're doing." She waved his clothes away and knocked him out, then bent down to cut into the tender stomach. "Hold him down," she ordered, helping the poor boy onto his back. Once he was sprawled to her satisfaction, she slowly started the incision. Pretty soon, she had a messy, slimy little girl. As soon as the first scream rang throughout the room, she handed it off to the other God to check over while she worked on her patient. She nodded and stepped away from the bed, letting Apollo do his thing and heal the young man. She looked at the infant, smiling when the baby tried to feed off her. "No, little one," she said quietly. "That's not for you." She tapped the baby on the nose, then laid it next to her father. "I'll go get that Jason mortal," she said quietly. "Stay for five more minutes?" Apollo grunted but he didn't move when she left. She flashed into Jason's house, startling him so badly that he spilled his food on himself. She frowned at him. "It's a girl."
Jason yelled, smiling and nearly hugging her. "Thank you, Lady Hera. If I may ever be of service to you, just yell my way." He ran out of the house, heading down to look at the baby and to watch over Iolaus in his fragile state.
Hera shook her head and went to check on Joxer. He should be the next one. He was sleeping, the poor boy looked exhausted. And Strife was curled protectively around the rotund stomach, making her smile. She tapped her grandson on the back, and he looked up at her. "Iolaus had a girl," she said quietly. "Are you staying with him?"
"He felt really nasty earlier," Strife whispered. "The kids quit kicking him as soon as I touched him so I'm staying."
She nodded. "That's very thoughtful of you. Has he decided what to do about the children?"
"He said he's raisin' them," Strife said with a slight shrug. "Said he wants to teach them about the world."
She frowned but nodded. "If he's determined, we can't stop him."
"I'm going to be takin' special interest in these kids, Hera," Strife told her seriously. "Consider me there."
She smiled at him. "Good. It's about time for you to finish growing up." She patted Joxer on the stomach. "Maybe in three more days, you'll be able to see them." Then she went home.
Strife laid his head back down, listening to the small bodies move around inside their little pouch.
Hercules screamed in agony, his insides felt like they were ripping apart. Apollo appeared, giving him a dry look. "Please," he begged. "Make it stop."
Apollo manifested a knife and knocked Hercules out. He was just getting into the cutting when Iphicles, his wife, and a few guards ran in. "I've got it," he noted. They all stood around until the little boy was safely screaming his heart out because he was cold. He handed the king the baby then got to work healing this patient. He looked up as Hera appeared, smiling at her. "He's fine. Both of them."
She peered down at the baby, smiling at it. "Let's hope you're more like your Uncle than you are your father," she told him, patting him on the hand. She looked at the king and queen, who both looked teary eyed. "Is he giving it to someone else?" she asked.
Iphicles shook his head and smiled at her. "No, we're getting him. We're naming him in three days if you'd like to come back and witness it."
She smiled and patted Iphicles on the cheek. "I'll try. Make sure he stays in bed for the next six weeks. Then you can kick him out and be free of him." She disappeared, leaving Iphicles to celebrate in peace. She went to check on Joxer again, and this time found Hermes standing there. "Is he not doing well?" she asked.
"I'm not sure," Hermes said thoughtfully. "He's been feeling pretty ill recently. He also hasn't been able to get out of that bed for the last week." He shrugged. "This is your area, I'm just a concerned grandfather."
She laid her hand on the boy's stomach and frowned. "Apollo?" she called. The answer she got made her scowl. "Busy my ass," she muttered. "Which healer is here? I'll need some help."
"Strife's coming back in a few minutes. I can go get Jett, it's not that far." She nodded and he left, going to do just that.
Hera went out to grab the sharp knife, cleaning it in the fire before bringing it back to help. Just as she was starting to cut, Jett rushed in. "Grab some clean cloths and get some water ready," she ordered. She continued to make the cut, frowning when she saw the off-color tissue. She sent a thought winging out into the ether to get Strife here faster, and then to punish Apollo, who had went back to his muse-filled bed. He would feel this, every second of it. That'd show him to not disobey her again. She lifted out the first of the twins, handing it off to whomever was standing behind her, Hermes as it happened. "Clear its mouth and nose," she said, bending down to get the other child out. She decided to do some impromptu cleaning of the area, taking the birth sac so it wouldn't have to be absorbed later, and cleaning up all the diseased tissue she saw. When she was done, she had a small pile, but it was significant for a mortal. She frowned, but sewed him back up. She turned to find both babies being breathed into. "Let me," she said, coming over to clean out their lungs. The first child screamed her displeasure, then the second started to automatically cry. She looked them over, then smiled and relaxed. "They're both fine," she announced. Jett smiled and looked down at the girls. "Do wash and cover them," she told him, reminding him of his job. "Hermes, could you please get that asshole's son down here to look after the boy? He was badly off." Hermes handed her the baby then left on her errand. "Strife?" she asked, seeing her grandson sitting down cuddling the infant. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, we're just talkin'," he told her, not looking up. "Hey, you have white hair," he said, after noticing that she had hair. "Lotsa white hair."
Hera came over and looked down at that one, then smiled. "Well, you were right," she said, looking down at the one she held. "You have your father's hair," she told the little girl. Strife peered up at that one so she lowered it some.
"Babies?" Joxer slurred, trying to roll over onto his side.
"I got 'em," Strife called out. Joxer nodded and let himself drift off again.
Asclepias appeared and smiled down at the twin girls. "They're fine?"
"Yes, but poor Joxer had some infected tissue, which I removed. Could you check him please?" Hera ordered gently. She watched the younger God examine the stitches and the tissue, smiling when he shuddered. "Did I do right?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said respectfully, "but we may need to take out some more if the infection doesn't stop. I'll leave a potion here for him to take," he told Strife, who nodded. "Good." He created a small bottle and put it on the floor next to the bed. "Warm it up and give him a few sips every few hours. It should keep the infection down. I'll be back in two days to check on him again." He bowed to Hera. "With your permission, my father has requested that I come check on him," he said with a grin, then he disappeared.
"He's always so efficient," Hera said happily. She let Jett take both of the twins and pulled Strife up to look at him. "What are your intentions, young man?"
"I really like him," he admitted, looking at his feet. "Don't tell Unc?" She frowned. "He kept reminding me Jox was a mortal." She nodded, watching his eyes. When she saw the pain in them, she kissed his cheek. "What was that for?"
"For being so grown up," she said quietly. She nodded at the twins. "Help him for the next few days, then come see me, Strife." She smiled at Jett. "You've been very well trained."
"Xena told me how," he said with a shrug, continuing to clean off the ick.
She chuckled and left, heading to make a report. "Hercules had a boy," she said as he appeared. "Joxer had twin girls." She and her husband shared a look and she nodded. He relaxed. She looked over at Ares. "I told Strife to stay and help him for a few days, he had a serious infection."
Ares shrugged. "I haven't gotten much work out of him recently anyway. I can do without him until the spring marching season." He looked at his parents. "Was he right?" Hera nodded. "Good. What's the boy going to do with them?"
Hermes appeared with glasses of Eire beer. "I'm a great-grandfather," he announced. "Twin girls. And, Ares, stay away from them when they're older, 'kay? I don't want any of you near them, but especially not you." He handed around the mugs of beer, then he went to spread the good news to the other participants.
Hera sipped her beer, smiling at her husband. "Shall we protect them all?" she asked.
"It would be for the best," Zeus agreed, smiling at the Gods around him. "Those four children shall be protected by us all." He heard a startled cough and looked at his daughter. "The beer not to your liking?" he asked Athena, who shook her head. "Pity, but more for us." He took a gulp then wiped off his mouth. "Let the children be safe, healthy, and happy," he pronounced.
"Let them be safe, healthy, and happy," the pantheon agreed, then they all drank.
Ares stayed in his seat, wondering when he could go catch a glimpse of the children. He wanted to make sure Strife would be a good helper for them. He finished his beer and left, going to check on his nephew. He found them all outside the cabin, Joxer curled up in a chair with the twins in his lap. "Not in bed?" he asked as he appeared.
"This is Ares, guys," Joxer said, waving their hands for them. "He's the God of War, he makes sure that the world runs right and isn't going straight to Tartarus." He smiled up at his benefactor. "Thank you for everything, Ares." He looked down at the girls. "I plan on letting them pick their own Gods as they grow up, but I think that this little kicker," he said, touching the one with white hair, "will definitely belong somewhere in your house."
Ares moved a little closer, looking down at the wrinkled bundles of flesh. "They're cute," he said finally. "What are you going to do?"
"We're going to stay here for a few months while I figure out how to travel with twin girls, and then we're going to go explore the world." Joxer looked up at him. "I promise I won't keep Strife with me." Ares waved off that concern. "Is he around?"
"He got called back to Olympus to go talk to Zeus." Ares nodded at the twins. "Watch out for milk allergies. There's a way around it, but I'm not sure what it is." Joxer looked confused. "I noticed your rash the last time I was here, it was obvious what it was." He crossed his arms over his chest. "You're not going to follow Xena, are you?"
Joxer laughed. "Can you see her dealing with the twins, me, and Strife?" he asked with a grin. Ares shook his head. "So I guess we'll travel alone. Maybe we'll hook up with Iolaus and Hercules from time to time, they're probably going to miss their kids."
"Maybe," Strife said as he appeared, with Hermes. "You thinkin' about leavin' already?"
"No, not for months, if it's okay?" he asked his grandfather. Hermes gave him a hug. "Thanks." Joxer smiled at the Gods around him. "Is there anything else I needed to do?"
"Give them names," Strife said dryly.
"Oh, yeah. This is Alecto," he said, touching the girl with white hair. "And this is Basil, I think." He shrugged. "I'll have to decide on that one." He held Alecto out to Hermes, who backed away with a horrified look. "You don't want to hold her?"
"When she's older," Hermes told him. "I drop babies."
Joxer snorted. "No, grandfather, I'm the clumsy one. You're the flyer in the family." Strife grabbed the baby and held her. "See, they're not that fragile."
Ares snickered but he was smiling as he disappeared. He appeared in his temple and hugged Eris. "Strife's happy," he told her. "The twins are good."
"Good." She looked around. "Where is he?"
"There. He's presently giving them hugs." She rolled her eyes. "It's pretty cute actually. Strife's pretty good at protecting. Remember his kitten?"
She nodded. "That thing was the most overprotected animal on this planet." She tugged her skirt down. "At least he'll stay out of *my* hair for a while," she said, then she smiled at her brother. "Did you hear, Hercules had a boy." Ares nodded and she pouted. "How did you know?"
"Hera announced it, you should have been at the meeting. Hermes gave out beer." He walked up and sat down on his throne. "Joxer's promised one of the girls to the house of war."
"Good," she said. "He should, Strife stayed with him almost every day for the last seven months." She put her hands on her hips. "You're thinking," she accused.
"Actually, I'm planning a dynasty," he said lightly. "Want to have another child so I can add them? Maybe for a good political marriage?" She shrieked and left. Ares laughed, relaxing in his private temple. Tomorrow would be soon enough to check on the fate of the girls. He didn't want any surprises this time.
Strife popped into Hera's temple, giving her a hesitant smile. "You called?"
"I do believe I told you to appear last week sometime," she said, putting down her pen and looking up at him. She smiled at the mess on his shirt. "Did that soup fix their stomach problems?" Strife nodded quickly. "Good. Sit." He sat, staring at her in shock. "Strife, what would you say if I told you that we had agreed to put Joxer under *your* aegis?" His mouth fell open. "Zeus and I both agree that you're more over that boy than Ares is, and Ares agreed with us." Strife whooped and got up to dance around. "Sit!" she ordered and he quit laughing and sat, even sitting up straight. "There is something else. You will have to protect those children. They're going to make sure we all survive sometime in the future." Strife nodded, looking happy. "You'd do that?"
"Yeah, I love the little monkeys." Then he clamped a hand over his mouth. "Um, I didn't say that," he mumbled.
She smiled and nodded. "Yes, you did, which is why Zeus and I have agreed to something else. We will allow you to take this boy as a consort, but only if you can find one person to agree to stand up for him at your joining." His eyes bugged. "I'm sorry if this is surprising, but we felt you were ready to be offered the chance of a consort. Was I wrong?"
He shook his head. "No, that's great. I'll, um, go talk to Hermes first," he decided. "Then I'll go talk to his friends. Maybe they'll unbend enough to do that." He disappeared, heading for Ares' temple. "I got given Joxer," he said as he appeared. Ares nodded, not looking up from his planning. "And Hera offered me him as a consort." Ares nodded again and Strife frowned, making the little people on the board move and dance. Ares looked up at him. "Did you just hear what I said?"
"She asked my permission earlier," Ares told him, stopping the figures. He looked down and smiled. "That's a perfect configuration," he congratulated. He walked over to his nephew. "Do you think you can get one mortal to stand up for him?" Strife nodded. "Who?"
"I think Iolaus would do it for him," he said quietly. "He's a pretty fair guy."
"Good choice. Go talk to Hermes, who's ready to celebrate the joining." He clapped Strife on the back. "Those girls are not being raised in this temple," he said as he walked away, going back to his planning.
Strife grimaced, but he left, going to find Hermes, who was with Iolaus and Hercules, who were both in Iphicles palace. "Hey. Um, Iolaus?" he asked, looking a little scared. "I kinda need a mortal to stand up for Joxer so he can be mine. Can I trust you?"
Iolaus looked up at him in shock. "This is really fast, why did you need me?" he asked.
"Because Hera said Joxer had to have at least one mortal to stand up for him at their joining," Hermes said, beaming at Strife. "I'm so happy for my baby boy."
"Geez, you're glowin' like the sunny one."
Hercules looked at Strife. "What does Joxer say about this?"
"Nothin' yet, I forgot to go ask him," Strife said, popping himself on the head. "I'll be right back."
"I'll do it," Iolaus said as Strife left.
"Me too," Hercules said, touching Iolaus' hand. "I missed you."
"You would have hated him," Jason smirked. "He was out chopping wood until the day before the delivery."
Hercules grunted. "I was stuck in bed because my ankles wouldn't unswell for anything."
Strife appeared in front of Joxer and the girls, who were all napping. "Hey, girls. Would you like a second daddy?" he asked as he picked up Basil.
"Second daddy?" Joxer asked.
"Yeah, Hera offered to make you really mine, if you want that is."
Joxer pulled Strife down to look at him. "I'll marry you, but I need time." Strife started to look hurt so he kissed him. "I need time to finish finding myself. But I'll gladly marry you before we go explore the world. You can even come along if you like."
Strife chuckled. "Sure. How about now?"
"Now?" Joxer asked, forcing himself to sit up. "I'm still fat, Strife."
"See, that it won't be a problem. I won't insist on a nude wedding." Joxer laughed, clutching his stomach. "What's wrong with a nude wedding? I always wanted one."
"I used to dream about stuff like this," Joxer said finally, stealing another kiss. "Can we bring the twins?"
"Sure. Go pack your shit and we'll even go see Jackass and Iolaus." He held the girls, watching as Joxer picked up everything, even the bottle of medicine. "Have you been taking that?" he asked as he grabbed Joxer to transport him.
"Yes, dear, I take it regularly," Joxer said, rolling his eyes as they disappeared from the cabin. He stumbled a little as they landed, but Iphicles caught him. "Sorry," he said with a shrug. "I trip a lot."
Iphicles laughed and looked over at the girls Strife was holding. "Twin girls?" he asked. Joxer nodded. "Are you going to find them a surrogate family?"
"Mine!" Strife told him.
"He's really possessive of what's his," Hermes warned Iphicles. "He used to have this kitten that he let out to play but he he'd stay invisible and stalk it all day so it wouldn't get into too much trouble." Hercules looked at him.
"Hey, I'm possessive, that's not a *bad* thing," Strife told them. "So, will one of you stand up for me?"
Joxer grinned. "Yup. I'm going to spend the next year finding myself. After the marriage."
"Yup, the God of Fuckups and Trouble is getting his very own brand of trouble," Strife said happily, nudging Joxer with his shoulder. "They puked again."
Joxer pulled out an old shirt and cleaned their mouths again. "There, that's better, isn't it, girls?" he cooed.
Iolaus heaved himself up and came over to look at them. "Why is her hair white?"
"Bright and shiny boy did it when he fixed her heart," Strife said with a shrug. "Hera!" She appeared, smiling at them. "Can we do this now so Jox can go find himself and then come home?"
She laughed. "I had no idea you were going to have such an unusual marriage," she told them, "but I should have figured. Who will speak for this mortal?"
"I will," Iolaus said.
"We all will," Iphicles told her. "Anyone who could go through double what Hercules did deserve to be a God."
"Just a consort," Hera corrected. "Strife, do you take this mortal as yours? Will you protect him?" Strife nodded and wrapped Joxer in his arms with the kids. "Joxer, will you let Strife protect and keep you?"
"Sure," he said happily. "I like it when someone takes care of me."
She smiled at them. "I'm sure you do. Are there any issues of dissent?" Hercules coughed but he shook his head when she looked at him. "Good. Then you're now married."
Joxer kissed Strife then stole his little girls back. "We'll be back in a year, feel free to come visit," he said, heading for the door.
"Uh-huh," Strife said, catching up to them. "There's the matter of the honeymoon. Besides, they should be old enough to appreciate what you're showing them. Wait a year and wander around my temples ta find yourself?"
Joxer thought about it, then nodded. "Okay, but only if you promise to keep me from tripping and falling onto my stomach for a while."
"I can do that," Strife agreed, taking his new family with him.
"How are they supposed to save the world?" Iolaus asked.
Hera smiled. "They're going to keep Strife out of trouble and safe," she told him. "If any of us fall, the rest of us fall. Strife's the one that the Fates have said would fall and die, leading to our deaths. Now he has a reason to not fall."
Hermes snickered. "I can just see Ares having to start stalking Joxer to find Strife."
Hera smirked. "But he'll be safe, and we'll *all* know where he is now." She disappeared, leaving behind a feather.
Iphicles bent to pick it up and handed it to Iolaus. "So, they caught you guys by accident?" Hercules nodded. "How long have you known it was him and not Hercules?"
"Since about the third week," Iolaus said, looking at Hercules, who shrugged. "I don't think he ever officially knew, but Aphrodite told me." He patted Hercules on the shoulder. "Iphicles, can I talk to that second family again? I really liked them."
"Of course. They're waiting for you in the solarium." He helped Iolaus up and watched him walk away. "Hercules, are you sure?" he asked.
Hercules nodded. "Yes, I'm quite sure. I can't raise him properly and you need an extra heir. Besides, you'll make sure he's trained to be a good and strong man." He stood up with a grunt. "Just give me a few days and we'll be out of your hair." He clapped his brother on the shoulder and walked off, not quite making it to the door before his brother decided to celebrate.
Iphicles turned and hugged his wife, who was crying. "He's all ours," he told her. "A real heir."
She kissed his cheek. "I'll allow you to keep the concubines," she whispered. "I'm pregnant too."
Iphicles passed out, and Hercules laughed at his brother's still form. "Good one," he told her, winking at her as he left the throne room.
*** Epilogue ***
Strife looked at the two young girls, both of whom were dressed like Aphrodite and made up with Discord's makeup palate. "No!" he said, shaking his head. "No way in hell. Go change and scrub up. No girl of mine is going to look like a whore."
Ares appeared, looking at the girls. "Get Aphrodite to show you how to do that correctly," he advised them. He looked at his nephew, who was still frowning. "How would you feel if Mendes came and offered for Basil's hand?" he asked. Then he ducked the flaming ball of pitch that was thrown at him. "That's what I thought." He shrugged. "It was just an idea."
"Yeah, a bad one," Strife snorted. "My girls will marry for lots of reasons, but not to placate a psycho warlord."
"But, daddy, he's supposed to be a great lover," Basil called from the hallway.
"And you're not supposed to know about that shit!" Strife shrieked, getting up to go tickle his daughter into submission.
Joxer appeared, holding his gravid stomach. "Not Mendes, Ares. Maybe that nice guy in Rome, the one that you wanted to be fucked over. Basil's very much into playing with men's minds. Or maybe you could find her a good Amazon. She could use a good woman." He plopped down on Strife's throne. "How did he talk me into this again?"
"I looked cute and pitiful," Strife said as he carried his daughters out, planting them in front of their father. "Tell him what you told me."
"Auntie Aphrodite has been telling us all about what to expect when we finally are allowed to date," nineteen-year-old Alecto said, fluffing out her white hair. "She's taught us all sorts of stuff."
Joxer growled, "Oh, really?" He forced himself to stand up, accepting help from Strife and Ares. "I think we should have a small discussion." He walked off, going to find Aphrodite.
"Don't get too upset," Strife called after him. "Our son will not be happy and will kick you again!"
"We'll deal," Joxer said sweetly. He blew a kiss at his husband, then disappeared.
"If I was being *nice* I'd go warn her," Ares said, smirking at the girls. "What did she do now?"
"She refused to let us go to the orgy tomorrow by the sea," Basil said, looking sad. "Don't you think we should be allowed to go, Uncle Ares?" She gave him her best begging look, which *always* worked, he was a pushover for her. "We are nineteen and getting really old."
Ares laughed. "Nice try, but I doubt I want the God of Trickery, Revenge, and Retribution after me. Joxer's a scary guy." He looked at Strife, who nodded. "See, it's up to Joxer."
"No!" floated out of the air. "No orgies! Not until after you're married!"
"That's no fair," Alecto said, frowning at her other father. "How are we supposed to find men if we can't go out in the world?"
Strife grinned. "Exactly!" he said happily, then he disappeared. He wanted to watch what Joxer was planning on doing to Aphrodite. She was going to have to rub some cream into his hairy, round, pregnant stomach, which made her very grossed out.
Ares held up his hands. "Personally, I agree, but I'm not going there with your fathers. Ask Hermes and Discord. I know she's got a few nice men around her. And Hermes did just find that cute little princess the other day." He disappeared while the Goddesses of Conniving and Tactics planned their assault.