Babysitting
By Lorraine
Part 1

Gaia woke up when Hercules threw Ares into her favorite tree.  She'd worked over a century to get that tree exactly right.  And it was perfect: comfortable soft moss below to sit on; a large trunk with an indentation perfectly formed for her to lean against; the first branches beginning just over her head so that she could climb it; and a perfect canopy either for climbing in and sitting on a branch or sitting below in the shade.

She absolutely loved that tree.

Of course after Hercules threw Ares into the canopy 'was' and 'loved', past tense were the operative words.  Her perfect tree had multiple broken limbs; the moss was torn up and uprooted.  She watched as Xena's chakram cut off the branch supporting Ares.  Bringing both Ares and the branch to the ground.

She frowned looking around the grove.

Saplings uprooted.

Scorch marks scattered around.

Trees burnt and broken.

One of her favorite rocks had been split.

She yelled as Hercules lifted another favorite rock to throw at Ares.

"ENOUGH!"  Her yell echoed with the force of an earthquake.

Hercules dropped the rock turning, Xena startled mid-somersault landed on her butt, and the fireball forming in Ares' hand fizzled.  They turned to look at her.  Gaia stood hands on her hips glaring at them.  She was in one of her more intimidating earth mother bodies.  Small yes, but clearly powerful.  Her skin a medium earth brown, with streaks of darker brown, gold, and black lining it.  Hair a wild halo of plant colors, green predominant, but mottled with reds, blues, purples, yellows, with every color known and used by plants.  Her eyes in this form were the pure blues of a perfect sky, no pupils, just never-ending sky.

"WHAT do you think you are doing?"  She didn't give them time to reply. "Never mind I know what you're doing - you are tearing up one of MY groves."

Hercules started to interrupt; "Ares is..."

"I'm doing my job..." Ares started.

"We couldn't let him..." Xena said at the same time.

"I DON'T CARE!"  That shut them up immediately.  "You are all acting like children."  She glared at Hercules and Xena.  "And where exactly are your keepers?"

"Our what?" they asked looking at each other and her in confusion.

"The two blondes who keep you out of trouble.  You know small, intelligent, practical, love sex."  They looked at each with dawning realization as she exclaimed, "Your keepers!  Do you really think that Hades keeps giving them back just because you ask?"

Ares responded for them, "Gabrielle and Iolaus are probably trying to stop Draco," he stated calmly.  "Of course since they are intelligent and practical, they'll probably try talking to him first," he continued snidely, "which means that Draco will keep them from doing any harm."

Hercules and Xena both started yelling again.

"Draco better not hurt them!" Hercules yelled.

Xena yelling at the same time, "There's no possible reason for what you're doing!"

Ares just raised an eyebrow.

Gaia's face set as storm clouds flowed into her sky eyes.

"ENOUGH!"  This time her shout was accompanied by a gesture and power flowed from her to Hercules and Xena.  They collapsed to the ground.  Ares started to fade out and stopped at her sharp, "I. Don't. Think. So."

"Grandmother?" he asked with trepidation, he'd seen her stormy eyed before, it was normally dangerous to be on the same continent.

"You're right," she said in an overly pleasant voice, "they should have asked."  Her voice got matter-of-fact, "But you provoke them, both of them, almost constantly.  You enjoy it."  Now her voice was impatient, "And you are certainly old enough to know better."

Ares got very scared at that moment.

"So when I leave they're going to wake up at about six years old mentally. You have to get them back to their keepers.  Without hurting them.  And they have to agree to 'Be good for Gabrielle and Iolaus.'  Then they can be adults again and you can go about your business as the Big Bad God of War."

She vanished and Hercules and Xena woke up.

Xena yelled, "Daddy!"  Jumping up and hugging Ares.

Hercules said, "He's not your daddy, he's my big brother."  And pulled Xena's hair to get her to let go.  She elbowed him in the ribs and they started wrestling on the ground.  Hercules pinned Xena and she bit him.

He yanked his arm away letting her go.  Ares looked at them in astonishment as they looked to him to mediate their fight.

Hercules shoved his arm in front of Ares face. "She bit me!"

"He pulled my hair."

"She said you were her daddy."

"He said you weren't my daddy."

Ares' eyes bounced from one to the other as he realized that over the centuries of parenting he'd never had more than one at a time.  The started shoving at each other again and he bellowed, "Hercules sit over there," pointing to one rock then pointing to another rock on the other side of the grove he continued bellowing, "Xena sit over there."

He took a deep breath as they sulked off to their respective corners. "Hercules, Xena we're going to see Iolaus and Gabrielle."

"Okay."  Hercules was still sulking, picking up small rocks and crushing them to powder.

"Okay."  Xena was playing with her chakram bouncing it between several rocks and catching it.

"Now come take my hands," Ares held out his hands and they each took one. Ares started moving them through time and space and found himself held fast.

"No, no, no," chanted Hercules pulling his hand away.  "I don't like that. It's all twisty and makes me dizzy and I get sick I'm not going like that."

Ares took a deep impatient breath, remembering Gaia's injunction against hurting them.  "Okay," he said slowly, "We'll take a chariot."

"Huh-uh," Xena pulled away and somersaulted to a tree.  "I don't like chariots, they make me sick."

Ares briefly remembered her first few times in a chariot and exactly how violently ill she got and decided that chariots were out.  He thought briefly.  "Okay, Xena you and I will go first and then I'll bring Hercules in a chariot."

"It'll make you sick," Hercules yelled up to her.

"NO!" Xena cried at Ares.

"Xena, just because Hercules gets sick doesn't mean you will."  Ares patiently lied, Xena got even sicker than Hercules.

"NO!" they both yelled.

Ares sat on the broken branch under the half destroyed tree shut his eyes for a minute and saw Hercules throwing small rocks at Xena when he opened
them.  "Hercules! Stop that!"

"Stop what?" Hercules asked innocently.

"Stop. Throwing. Rocks. At. Xena." Ares demanded forcefully.

Xena stuck her tongue out at Hercules and he lobbed another rock at her. Hitting her in the arm.

"Oww," she whined and somersaulted out of the tree.  "He hit me!"  She showed the red spot to Ares.

"She stuck her tongue out at me."

As they started squabbling again Ares pointed to their respective rocks and bellowed, "Sit!"  They continued yelling back and forth to each other as they went to their rocks, "Silently!"

He ignored them as the made faces, stuck out their tongues, and occasionally lobbed small missiles at each other.  Instead, he calculated the distance between Ambracia by the Gulf of Epirus and close to the Ionion Sea to Macedon.  And realized just how long the walk was going to be.

He looked at the two of them still managing to squabble from several feet apart, recalculated the distance, and leaned back against the broken tree.

"Shit," he muttered under his breath.

Part 2

Hercules stopped teasing Xena and turned to stare at Ares.  "You said a bad word!" he said in a scolding tone.

"I'm a god - I can say bad words."  Ares said firmly staring him down.

"Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit." Xena caroled changing the emphasis and tone with every repeat of the word.

"Xena stop that," Ares demanded.

"Stop what?" she cocked her head to one side looking at him innocently.

"Stop saying 'shit'," he ordered.

"But you said it," she protested.

"XENA!" he bellowed standing up.

She subsided and dug her toe into the ground sulking.  "It's not fair," she whined under her breath, trying to make sure that Ares didn't overhear.

At her whined, 'it's not fair,' Ares rolled his eyes, glared down at the earth and took a deep breath. He looked around and realized that it was starting to get dark.  He took another deep breath.  "Hercules, Xena we're camping here tonight."  They started to get up off their rocks.  "Stay! Sit!" he ordered.

"We want to help set up camp."  Hercules argued looking to Xena for support.

"Yeah, we want to help." Xena added all disagreements forgotten, now that they had a common purpose.

They both were edging away from their rocks.

Ares took another deep breath, drew back his arm gathering power.  Hercules and Xena seeing the glowing ball of power skittered back to their rocks.  He released it with an abrupt roar.  Hercules and Xena squealed and ducked behind their rocks as the power blazed and engulfed the clearing.  Ares laughed uproariously at their reaction.

A few seconds later they opened their eyes and quietly peeked out from behind their rocks.  Ares was leaning against the wrecked tree his arms clutching his stomach laughing.  A campfire was blazing merrily.  Bedrolls were a couple of feet away from it .

And most importantly, they could smell food.  Stew and bread.  The inched out from behind the rocks and saw a bowl of fruit.  A basket with bread & stew over the fire.  Their stomachs rumbled.   Ares was still laughing. Their stomachs rumbled again, they looked at each other hesitantly, back at the food, and Ares who stopped laughing a moment and gestured them to the fire.  After another moment of hesitation and a fast look at each other, they scampered over.  They quietly sat down.

Ares looked at them.  They were filthy.  They both had dirt all over their clothes and skin.  Hercules had grass stains on his shirts.  And his over shirt had a tear in it.  Xena's knees were skinned, he tried to remember when she'd managed that, and couldn't.  Dirt and sweat streaked their faces. Their hair not only had dirt in it but small twigs, grass, leaves, and what were probably animal droppings.  Hercules had a cut over one eye that Ares remembered him getting in the initial fight.  They both had an assortment of bruises, some from the initial fight, but most from their squabbling.  As they reached for the food he saw that they both had dirt ground into their hands.

He sighed.  His stint with Strife had taught him to not let them eat while they were that dirty.  They'd get the dirt into the food and ruin dinner. He shook his head and conjured two washcloths and soap.  "Bath first," he said holding them out.  They looked at him, looked at the washcloths, and looked at each other.  And kept reaching for the food ignoring Ares.

The food vanished.

"Bath first," he ordered holding out the washcloths and soap again.

"But we're hungry," whined Xena.

"Really, really hungry," Hercules added.

"Then you'll get clean 'really, really' fast," growled Ares.

Xena stuck her lower lip out and grabbed the soap and washcloths.  She stomped away toward the nearby stream muttering, "I have a *mean* Daddy."

Hercules followed her more slowly.

Ares could tell when they had reached the stream, by the twin 'me first' yells.  He sat back against the tree, idly bringing back dinner and grabbing an apple.  For a few minutes a combination of yelling, laughter, splashing, and more yelling filled the clearing.  Then there were a few minutes of blissful silence.

Ares sat up straight.  Six-year olds were only silent when they were dead, asleep or involved in serious mischief.  And unlike Strife, Cupid, and Harmonia these two could drown.  He translocated to the nearby stream.

They were building a dam holding back the stream.  A stream that feed wells and irrigation canals for several nearby towns.  Ares stared as they continued working.  Hercules was moving large boulders over and Xena was scooping mud up and slapping it into the cracks.  As Hercules started uprooting a small tree, he grinned.  'Only Hercules and Xena cause a drought during the rainy season, by accident.'

Quickly fixing a stern look on his face he ordered, "Hercules, leave that tree alone."

Hercules and Xena both spun around wide-eyed to look at him.  As he spun Hercules forgot to let go of the tree and uprooted it dragging it around with him.  Guiltily he tried to put it back in the hole, but couldn't get it to stay upright.  As he struggled with the tree Xena unsuccessfully tried to look like she hadn't been playing in the mud for the past several minutes. Ares shook his head silently and walked over to Hercules.  He held the tree with one hand and ran energy through it allowing the roots to reconnect. That done he yanked his head towards Xena.  Hercules ran and joined her.

Ares glared at both of them.  "I thought I told you to take a bath."  They looked at the mud squirming under his glare.  "Where are the washcloths and soap?"

Xena shrugged.

Hercules mumbled, "Xena had them."

Xena punched him in the arm.  "I put them there," she pointed to a pile of dirt and mud, "you're the one who got them dirty."

"Did not."

"Did to."

"STOP!" Ares bellowed and gestured at the pile of mud and dirt.  The washcloths and soap floated to his hand.  With a glance and flick of power they were clean.  Another flick of power and the dam burst into brief flames and disappeared.  They were looking longingly at the disappearing dam when the water burst free and sprayed them.  Ares handed them the washcloths and soap and they finally started washing themselves.

This time Ares stayed to supervise.  Hercules reported done twice and was sent back by Ares to finish cleaning.  The third time Ares approved of the job and sent him to wait on the bank for Xena to finish.  The fourth time Ares sent Xena back to wash behind her ears and she again splashed water on her face Ares waded into the water grabbed the cloth in one hand and the back of Xena's neck in the other bent her over and scrubbed behind her ears.

When he finished, he waded out of the water automatically drying himself and his clothes.  He pretended not to notice Xena stick her tongue out at him. They made their way back to the camp.

The children, which is how Ares had finally come to think of them sat down and eagerly started eating, until Hercules stopped suddenly and started looking for something.  He frowned.  "Where's my milk?" he asked seriously.

"Your milk?" Ares asked back blankly.

"I'm supposed to drink milk with dinner," Hercules said, very seriously adding, "so I can grow up big and strong."

Ares looked at him tempted to tell him that he was big and strong enough. He decided against that and instead conjured a cup of milk and handed it to Hercules.  Hercules tasted it and frowned.  "This milk isn't right."

"It's fine.  It's milk."  Ares responded.

"But it doesn't taste right.  My mommy makes it special for me."  Hercules was whining looking at the milk in disappointment.

Ares shut his eyes wondering, 'What could you possibly do to milk?' "Strife!"  Strife's ghost appeared.  "Find Alcmene and ask her what she did to Hercules milk?"

Strife looked at Ares trying to figure out why he cared, shrugged, and vanished.  A few seconds later he appeared and reported, "Alcmene hates the taste of milk so she added a vanilla bean to it and let it soak in the well all day to chill."  Ares nodded slowly and changed the milk.

Hercules tasted again and smiled.  Xena stared at him.  "I want special milk too."

Ares looked at her. "Xena," he reminded her patiently, "you don't like milk."

"If Hercules gets special milk, than I want special milk too."  Xena responded firmly.

Ares patiently conjured a second cup of chilled vanilla flavored milk and handed it to her.  She took a sip and spat it out, saying "Yuck!"

"Now what's wrong?" Ares asked.

"It still tastes like milk.  I don't like milk."

"Then don't drink it," Ares snarled at her exasperated.  He was never going to make it to Macedon.  He'd kill them first.

Xena started crying at his harsh tone.  Hercules sidled over to comfort her. Patting her on the back clumsily and whispering, "He didn't mean to hurt your feelings he's just not good at the daddy thing."

Xena wiped her eyes and nose on the back of her hand.  "You think so."

Hercules nodded seriously.  "My daddy never even came to see me.  And he stayed even when we were fighting."

Ares cleaned up camp as they talked.  He turned and pointed to the bedrolls. "Go to bed."  Hercules and Xena made their way over to the rolls and got in.

They waited a few minutes.  Then Hercules prompted Ares.  "You need to tuck us in."  Ares moved over to his bedroll and awkwardly pulled the top blanket up and tucked that around Hercules' shoulders.  He moved over and did the same for Xena.

When he didn't do anything else, Hercules realized that he needed more help. "You also have to tell us a story, kiss our foreheads, and say 'I love you.'" Ares stared at him in silent amazement.  Hercules stared back.  "Well you do.  You're Xena's daddy and my big brother and you're taking care of us, so you have to do bedtime right.  Or we won't be able to go to sleep."

"That's right," whispered Xena, "and you have to check under the bed and in the chest for monsters too."  She thought a moment.  "Well you do when we're not camping," she clarified.

They waited patiently a moment.

Ares gaped at them finally saying, "Go to sleep."

They sat up instead.  "You have to tell us a story," Xena insisted.

"That's right," Hercules chimed in, "we need our story and I want Osko."

Frustrated Ares ordered them, "Go to sleep."  But this time he put his will and enough power behind it to enforce the order.  The both fell asleep flopping back to the ground.  He gently fixed them so that they were lying comfortably and tucked them back in.

He sat back feeling a little guilty and had an idea.

"Cupid!" he called urgently.  He waited a moment.  No Cupid.  "CUPID!" he called more forcefully.

Cupid appeared in front of him still fixing a strap.  "What?

"Do you know what's going on?" Ares asked.

Cupid laughed.  "Dad everyone on Olympus knows.  There are more scrying pools focused on this than on Mom's orgy."  He smiled.  "Actually, you're disrupting the orgy, because they have two scrying pools there focused on this."

Ares silently counted to ten in Greek, then in Latin, then in six different Chin dialects.  That didn't help.  He shuddered inwardly, Aphrodite was not going to be happy about this disrupting her orgy, and since she could hardly punish Gaia, she'd have to settle for him.  He briefly considered going around blindfolded for a few weeks after this was over.  He rejected it realizing that she'd just figure out a different way to punish him.

Cupid waited while Ares absorbed his sudden, unwanted popularity.  His father finally replied, "So what do the betting pools say?"

Cupid quirked an eyebrow.  "Three to one on your killing one of them.  Five to one it's Hercules.  Six to one it's Xena.  Two to one you kill yourself and end your misery.  Other official bets include Hercules accidentally killing Xena or vice versa, Gabrielle and Iolaus refusing to take them back, and my personal favorite, six to one that Xena and Hercules won't promise to be good.  And the current odds are seventeen to one against you making it all the way to Macedon without a serious injury.  There have been a number of side bets: Hermes cleaned up on whether you would tell a story, but I got favors from Athena, Poseidon, and Artemis on tucking them in."

"Actually, I'm going to try a shortcut."

"Really?"  Cupid leaned in looking interested.

"Yes."  Ares moved back a little.  "Stay and watch them."  He started translocating, his body faded, his signature wave of flames appeared and he flickered.  Then reappeared.  He frowned and tried again.  With a similar lack of success.

Cupid was trying, really hard, actually really really hard, not to laugh. It wasn't working.  Ares just glared at him.  When Cupid finally subsided, Ares grumbled, "I want you to go to Macedon, find Gabrielle and Iolaus, explain what's happened, and bring them back here."  When Cupid started backing away giving excuses he growled, "They should be close to Draco's camp.  Do it - NOW!"

Cupid shrugged and vanished.

He reappeared a few minutes later.  Without Iolaus and Gabrielle.

Ares scowled at him.

"It's not my fault!" Cupid exclaimed.  "They're already in Draco's camp and on the wrong side of the river."  Ares eyes widened in alarm.  Cupid continued hastily, "They're not sick but they could be carriers."

Ares kept scowling at him. Cupid met his glare.  Finally, Ares shrugged. "You're right.  Although who let them get across the river is going to regret it."

Cupid shook his head.  "Apparently they swam it on their own, they thought the plague was a story to cover some plot of Draco's.  Once they realized it wasn't they showed up at the hospital grounds and made themselves useful."

Ares thought a moment.  "Cupid as soon as we have a cure, get it into those two and bring them to Corinth."

"Corinth?"

"I'm not taking them all the way to Macedon.  We'll have enough trouble getting to Corinth and at least there Iphicles can help," Ares responded.

Cupid shrugged his shoulders and disappeared.

Ares sat down by the tree and considered the best way to get two very large, very dangerous six-year-olds to Corinth and grimaced.  He was still going to have  problems, but it was better than Macedon.   He kept watch and wondered, 'What the blazes is Osko?'

Part 3

Ares realized that he only had himself to blame, but he had hoped that they would forget about the no story thing.

They hadn't.

Hercules in particular was upset.  "You made us go to sleep without a story, and you didn't kiss us, or tell us you loved us, or anything." He sobbed. "And I want Osko."

Ares looked at him in bewilderment.  "What's Osko."

"Osko," Hercules sobbed.

"Hercules, I don't know Osko, describe it."

"He's fluffy and about this big, and I want him," he ended on a howl.

Ares shook his head realizing that he still had absolutely no idea of what Osko was.

A rock connected with his the back of his head.

"You're the meanest daddy in the whole world!"

Xena was up.

Ares turned to glare at her.  "Don't! Throw! Things!"

She glared back at him and subsided, sitting on her bedroll furiously muttering under her breath.

Ares deliberately tuned her out.  Instead, he turned back to Hercules. "Hercules, we're going to go see Iphicles."  Hercules sobbed harder.

"Now what?" Ares asked with exasperation.

At his tone Hercules wailed, "Iphy doesn't like me.  None of my brothers like me."

Ares looked at Xena muttering imprecations that a six year old shouldn't know under her breath and then looked back at Hercules sobbing that none of his brothers liked him and crying for Osko.  He took a deep breath.  And he
realized that he had no ideas on how to manage either situation.

And briefly considered killing himself.

Then he realized that someone was betting that direction and he decided not to.  That way at least one other god would have a bad day, too.  He started counting to ten in various languages.  It didn't help his patience any but it gave Hercules and Xena time to subside.  He quickly feed them and got the camp packed back to the twist in time and space he had claimed as his junk closet. Ares figured on an easy two-hour walk to the nearest village and renting a horse and cart to make the rest of the trip to Corinth.

The first five minutes went fine.

Then Xena wanted to climb the really big tree.

"No."

Hercules wanted to fish.

"No."

Hercules was thirsty.

He conjured a cup of water.

Then Xena needed to go to the bathroom.

He conjured suitable paper.

Xena started collecting rocks.

"Xena hurry up."

Hercules started asking what kind of plant was that for every plant.

"Hercules, I've told you six times that's moss."

Xena and Hercules started fighting.

"No biting."

Three hours later they stopped for lunch.  It had been the worst morning of his life.  They wandered off, climbed trees, bickered constantly, and were always hungry, thirsty, tired, or had to go to the bathroom.  Ares realized that they weren't going to make it out of the woods if he didn't change his tactics.

"Hercules, Xena when we get to the village I'm going to get you each a new toy."  Ares bribed them shamelessly.

"Why don't you just make us a toy like you did the food?" asked Hercules.

"Because I want to get to the village," he explained carefully keeping his voice patient.

"Oh Xena," wisely realized, "it's a bribe."

"Absolutely," Ares agreed, "we get to the village before dark and I buy you each a toy."

Xena and Hercules looked at each other.  "Okay," they both said nodding.

Ares took a deep breath and they again started to the nearest village.

Five minutes later they were bickering again.  However, since they were both walking the right direction he ignored them.  Until thirty minutes later he had to say, "Xena stop," as Xena tried to convince Hercules to pick some poison ivy.

Five minutes later Hercules pulled her hair and she hit him.

"ENOUGH!"  Ares erupted.  "Xena you stand here," he pointed to his right. "Hercules you stand here," he pointed to his left.  He grabbed Hercules' right hand and Xena's left hand and started walking.

"You're going too fast," Hercules complained.

"My hand hurts," Xena complained.

Ares ignored them.

"I'm telling my mommy," they both cried.

"Do it quietly," Ares bit out.

Three hours later after six total hours of walking they finally made it to the village.  As they walked a small group collected to stare.  Hercules and Xena were both crying.  Ares was muttering threats under his breath.  And all three were filthy.  The villagers stared.  Ares dragged Xena and Hercules to the inn.

"I need a room, two baths, and supper for three," Ares demanded.  The innkeeper gaped at the harried God of War and the two very large, very whiney heroes.  "Now," he ground out.

"Oh," the innkeeper realized that he had just kept the God of War waiting and yelled, "Get two baths up to the private room."

"You said you get us toys if we got to the village before dark," Xena screamed.

Ares stared at her.

"You did say that you'd buy us toys." Hercules supported Xena moving to stand next to her.

Ares stared at them both realizing that every warrior, merchant, and farmer in the place was staring at them.  He took a deep breath, "Go upstairs and take your baths."

Xena took a deep breath.  "You promised us toys."

"And it's not fair," Hercules chimed in, "You said you'd get us each a toy if we got here before dark and we did."  His voice was very firm.  When Ares was silent he added, "We can't trust you if you don't keep your promises."

"GO UPSTAIRS AND TAKE YOUR BATHS!"  Everyone in the place ducked at his roar, except Xena and Hercules.  They glared at him.  He glared back.
Finally, "Go upstairs and take your baths."

They glared.  "NOW!"

They turned and stomped up the stairs both muttering.  At the landing Xena turned around and pointed at Ares.

"I have the meanest daddy in the whole world."  She shook her hand at him. "He's mean, mean, mean, MEAN.  And he doesn't keep his promises."  She burst into tears and ran upstairs.

Hercules looked after Xena as she ran upstairs crying and then turned to Ares.  "You made Xena cry."  He took a deep breath and finished, "And I want Osko."  He burst into tears and followed her to their room.

Ares turned to the innkeeper.  "Have your wife watch them." He took a deep breath and released enough energy to clean himself up.  "And where's the nearest toy store."

The innkeeper nodded and pointed across the way.  Ares nodded and vanished. A few minutes later he reappeared with two carved horses with warriors.  He heard Xena screaming at the innkeeper's wife, "I don't want to clean behind my ears," and shut his eyes.

"Ale."  The innkeeper silently handed him a mug.  He polished it off, listening to Xena's screams of outrage.  He looked at the amazed faces and shook his head, holding his mug out for a refill.  He drank it.  Finally, he shook his head.  Looked to the stairs and muttered, "Just remind me to never piss off Gaia again."

"STRIFE!"

Strife's ghost appeared.

"Unc, I'm dead!  You've got to stop doing this." He glared at Ares.  "It really ticks Hades off."  He started pacing back and forth.  "He's got me judging the only kinda evil dead guys.  The ones that aren't bad enough to send to the lower reaches of Tartarus, but no way good enough for the Elysian Fields.  You know the ones who drink their wages and cheat on their wives sometimes but feel guilty afterward."  As he continued, some of the customers turned pale.

"STRIFE!"  Ares bellowed.

He stopped talking.

"Find Alcmene and find out what Osko is."

"Osko?"

"Yes 'Osko'.  NOW Strife."

Strife shrugged and disappeared.

Ares took a deep breath and drank another ale waiting for Strife to return.

"It's a stuffed animal."  Strife reported.

Ares looked at his nephew.  "What kind of stuffed animal?"  He leaned against the bar.

"Cat."

"A stuffed cat?"  Strife nodded.  Ares nodded once seriously.  "Strife, I want a stuffed cat, that looks exactly like Osko, in that room in an hour."

He vanished, leaving Strife's ghost in inn's main room.  Strife looked longingly at the remaining ale in Ares' mug and shrugged vanishing.

Ares appeared in their room.  By that time Hercules and Xena were clean and had been dressed in nightclothes the innkeeper's wife had scrounged up. They were both irritated.  He held out the toys.  They looked, smiled, and grabbed.  They nosily played with the new toys, until dinner appeared.

"Time to eat."

They looked at Ares, the meal, and the toys.

"You can play again after you eat.  And then it's bed time and I'll tuck you in and tell you a story."  They smiled at each other.

Two hours later Ares called bedtime.  They had actually played fairly well with each other.  And Strife had appeared and left a package.

"Hercules," Ares called as he opened the package.  There were two stuffed cats.

"Osko," Hercules cried joyfully grabbing one, a fluffy tiger-stripped stuffed cat.  He pulled out the other one a fluffy black and white kitty and handed it to Xena.  "My mommy made one for you, too."  Xena smiled.

"Bedtime."  Ares stated firmly.  They started to protest and he looked at them sternly.  They stopped and pouted their way to the bed.  Ares tucked them in and brought a chair over.

Part 4

Ares made sure that they were settled, dimmed the lights and began his story.

"Nuk was a very young rabbit.  His father, Ung was the general, one of the greatest of the Rabbits of War.  Nuk adored his father but often disappointed him.  He was the last born and smallest of his litter.  And he had none of the traditional virtues of a great Rabbit of War: his paws weren't particularly strong, he flunked Tactics and Strategy, twice, and while he was fast, he simply wasn't good with weapons.  What Nuk did have was an overabundance of curiosity. A great overabundance of curiosity. Which often got him in trouble.  Sometimes the trouble was simply irritating his elders with frequent questions.  Of which his favorite was, 'Why?'."

Hercules and Xena laid in bed listening with rapt attention as Ares deep soothing voice held them spellbound.

"'Why is the sky sometimes blue and sometimes gray?' he would ask.  'Why are there clouds?' 'Why does it rain?' 'Why is 10 bigger than 2?' 'Why do the wolves hunt us?' 'Why do we hide from man?' No matter what he saw, he wanted to know *why*."

Hercules and Xena giggled at Ares' recitation of all of Nuk's questions.

"Sometimes the trouble was finding himself somewhere he shouldn't be.  Like when he wanted to know just how different girl rabbits were from boy rabbits and he peeked at Aunt Lis while she got dressed or when he snuck into old burrows and got lost.  His mother found him quickly enough, but everyone was upset.  And every once and a while he would end up in *real* danger.  Like the time he went to talk to some wolf cubs and ask them why they hunted rabbits."

"Nuk went to talk to the wolf cubs!" squealed Xena sitting up.

"Did he get hurt?" asked Hercules in the same breath also sitting up.

"Lay down again and I'll tell you," promised Ares tucking them back into the soft bed.  When they had settled back down, he continued.

"Nuk carefully squirmed from between his brothers and sisters.  He'd been wondering why wolves hunted rabbits for ever so long and none of the answers the grownup Rabbits of War gave him were satisfactory."

Ares carefully watched his two charges for signs of imminent sleep.  But they stubbornly kept their eyes open.  So, he continued his story.

"Aunt Lis, very exasperated, said, 'Because they eat rabbits!'  But she couldn't explain why wolves ate rabbits and not plants, like rabbits ate. Father said, very gruffly, 'It doesn't matter *why* they hunt rabbits.  What *matters* is that they *do* hunt rabbits.  So you must become a strong warrior to defend your sisters, and when you are older your mate and children.'  Of course, that was his father's standard answer to all of Nuk's questions and as always was quite unsatisfactory.  And his mother's answer was her equally standard: 'Who knows why?  They just do."  And her answer as always was followed by a long list chores.  Finally, he went to Old Gud, the oldest and wisest Rabbit of War.  Old Gud cleared his throat, looked down at him sternly, and replied in a wavering voice, 'Wolves hunt rabbits.  Wolves have always hunted rabbits and wolves always will hunt rabbits.'  His answer complete Old Gud dozed off again."

Hercules' eyes had started drifting shut, but at Xena's sharp kick, he snapped them back open.  Ares smiled at them ignoring the kick.

"So Nuk had resolved to find out from the source.  He was going to visit the wolf cubs.  As he squirmed his oldest brother sighed and wiggled.  Nuk froze
feigning sleep until he had settled back into a sound sleep.  Then he cautiously finished wiggling out of the pile of sleeping rabbits and ever so quietly snuck to one of the burrow's side exits.  He knew that the guard that night was Cousin Uok and he was seeing Cousin Rlk.  Nuk was pretty sure that Uok and Rlk would be together and Uok wouldn't notice a full army going out that exit."

Xena and Hercules' eyes were bright with interest.

Ares leaned down and in a conspiratorial whisper said, "Nuk was right."  The children giggled softly.

"Nuk carefully sniffed the air as he exited the burrow making sure that there were no adult wolves close by.  Then he rapidly hopped off.  Heading deeper into the forest and for the large dead oak that sheltered the wolf clan that claimed that part of the forest as their hunting grounds.  The forest was always a little spooky at night.  The full moon faintly lighted the woods, but that created odd shadows.  And wolves weren't the only hunters he needed to worry about.  Owls and hawks sometimes hunted rabbits, too.  So did foxes and the big cats.  So, Nuk was just a little nervous as he hopped to the oak.  But he was quite stubborn and continued on his way until he reached the small clearing that led to the oak."

Hercules and Xena shivered.

"Nuk carefully examined the situation.  The oak had been huge.  Many years ago before Old Gud's grandfather was born it had been struck by lightening and split in two.  All its branches were gone and most of the top of the trunk.  All that was left was the two pieces of trunk that created a protected hollow. It was in that hollow that the wolves made their den. Finally, Nuk saw his way.  A branch from another oak had fallen in the last great storm and ended up leaning against the old burnt out oak.  Nuk could climb that and carefully look down on the den from above.  And the wolves shouldn't be able to get to him from up there."

"Nuk gave a rabbity little smile and started hopping.  Soon he was on the rim of the hollow old oak trunk and could look down.  The den was good sized, large enough for a half dozen adult wolves and their litters.  Right now, all the adults were gone and there were five cubs.  Two were a little larger than the other three.  All five were asleep in a pile."

"Nuk gathered his courage, took a deep breath, and called, 'Hello down there!'  The wolf cubs started awake and looked up.  They all started at Nuk.  They'd never seen a live rabbit.  Only the dead ones that their parents brought them to eat.  One of the older ones prepared to howl bringing herself up and putting her head back.  'Oh no,' cried Nuk, 'oh please don't do that. I just want to ask you a question!'  They all stared at him and he started shaking.  If they called for the adult wolves, he was going to be in *big* trouble."

Xena gasped, "Ares did they call?"

Hercules just stared at him his eyes very wide.

"No Xena, she didn't call.  Instead, she growled at Nuk, 'What are you doing here?'  Nuk relaxed and replied, 'I want to know why wolves hunt rabbits?' The five wolf cubs looked at each other and giggled.  One of the little ones finally replied, 'We eat you!'  Nuk looked down at them very disappointed. 'I know that!  Why do you eat us?'  They cubs looked at each other again. Their confusion was obvious.  Finally, the little one called back up, 'Because rabbit tastes ever so good.'  Nuk leaned back and thought a moment. 'Well grass and leaves taste good, too.  So does lettuce and carrots and some kinds of bark.  So why don't you eat those things?'  The cubs spoke with each other quietly for a few minutes.  This time the older girl answered, 'Sometimes we do eat those things, but they don't fill us up enough, and rabbit tastes much better.'  Nuk was very unhappy with that answer."

"Nuk looked down at them and called, 'But we don't like to be eaten.' The wolves looked at each other and shrugged.  The very smallest wolf finally answered, 'We're wolves we eat rabbits.  We've always eaten rabbits and always will eat rabbits.'  Nuk looked at him and muttered, 'Have you talked to Old Gud recently?'  The little cub said, 'We don't know Old Gud, if he's a rabbit then we'd eat him.'  Nuk stared at them and they stared back up at him.  Suddenly, he heard a low-pitched growl from behind him.  His branch wiggled.  He slowly looked back and down and saw six very large, very adult, and very very hungry looking wolves behind him.  Two of them were leaning on his branch wiggling it."

"Nuk looked at them and all he could think was, 'uh-oh'."

Xena sat up again yelling, "Ares what happened to Nuk?"  Ares frowned and stopped talking.

Urgently Hercules elbowed her.  "Xena you gotta lay down."  Xena crossed her arms frowning at Ares.  Hercules elbowed her again.  "Xena!"  She shook her
head no and frowned at him.

Hercules sat up and glared at her.  "Xena! This is a bedtime story.  You gotta lay down so he can tell the story."  She glared back at him.  Ares calmly watched them waiting to see what they would do.  "Xena, you gotta do what I say, I'm the uncle.  Now lay down so your daddy can finish the bedtime story."

Xena stuck out her lower lip stubbornly and tears welled up.  "I just want to know what happened."

Hercules plopped back down obviously exasperated.  "Xena if you lay down he'll *tell* you what happened."

"Promise?"

Ares nodded solemnly.

Xena lay back down.  Ares tucked the blankets around them and continued. "As I said all Nuk could think was..."

"uh-oh," whispered Xena.

"That's right," whispered Ares back in a teasing voice.  "And a for long dangerous moment he froze."

The children gasped shivering their eyes wide.

"Then a third wolf joined the other two in wiggling the branch and Nuk realized that he had to get out of there.  *Now.*  He looked around for an escape path, but couldn't find one.  He continued looking around the clearing, starting to get desperate."

Ares noticed that Xena and Hercules were holding their stuffed cats to them very tightly with one arm and that they were holding hands under the covers.

"Suddenly the branch moved.  Really moved, completely off the oak's burnt trunk."  He paused a moment letting them see the picture in their minds, before continuing.  "As the branch flew down, Nuk knew that he had no more
time to think.  He was just going to have to hop for his life.  So he leaned back, gathered all the power he could into his hind legs and took a great leap into the air."

Ares stopped a moment.

"Did he make it?" asked Hercules.

"He *flew* over their heads and almost to the very edge of the clearing."

"Good going Nuk," Xena cried.

"Very good going, but it wasn't over yet."  Ares continued his story.  "The wolves gave chase.  Nuk fled through the forest.  Bravely he didn't go back to the burrow.  He didn't want to lead the wolves there.  Instead, he hopped
as fast as he could to the brambles and brush on the edge of the forest.  He hoped to find shelter there.  Nuk hopped very very fast the wolves hot on his trail.  He was panting for breath by the time he reached the forest's edge.  Once there he dived into the brush swiftly moving through the brambles.  He could hear the wolves growling in frustration.  They were too large to get through the brush and brambles.  The briars and thorns tore through their coats, drawing blood when they tried.  Nuk slowly and quietly moved to the center of the brambles curling into the most protected area he could find."

"Was he safe?" Hercules wanted to know.

"Well the wolves couldn't get to him.  But he couldn't get out as long as they stayed there and waited.  So, it was a standoff.  Nuk waited and waited.  He was very tired, and hungry, and thirsty, and *very* sore from his run to the brambles.  And the wolves waited and waited.  They were
angry, and hungry and tired and sore from chasing him."

Ares insinuated his mind into theirs and slowly started moving them to sleep.  "They waited until finally Nuk heard a familiar sound, 'thump, thump, thump.'  He sat up in his small-protected corner of the brambles.  It was the Rabbits of War.  They'd come for him."

"The wolves sat up too searching for the source of the thumping sound. Suddenly a large rock careened at them.  They scattered.  Smaller rocks followed and the realized that they couldn't fight the rabbits from their position.  They couldn't go into the brambles, but they couldn't go forward through the rocks either.  They broke and ran for cover in the forest and found themselves running into a well placed trap.  They were tangled in brambles and brush.  As they struggled to free themselves, Nuk's father and several of his best soldiers hopped out of the forest towards the bramble patch searching for Nuk."

"Nuk took a deep breath and hopped out to greet his father.  'I'm sorry Daddy.'  His father just hrmphed, 'Your mother is worried about you.  Come along.'  They made their way to the safety of the burrow."

Hercules yawned, "I bet that Nuk got scolded by his mommy."

"Yes he did," said Ares, "And got extra chores for the longest time."

Xena yawned and scooted down under the covers curling on her side. "Daddy," she mumbled sleepily, "Why do wolves hunt rabbits?"

"Because it's their nature."  Ares stood leaning over them.  He brushed their hair from their face with a gentle hand whispering, "Go to sleep." They quietly fell into a deep sleep.  Done Ares sat back in the chair smiling and leaning back.

He straightened as he felt an incoming god.

Psyche appeared.

"That was well done," she softly said.  The offered him a pile of clothing. "I thought you might want some different clothes for them, something they could manage better, and something less 'warrior princess' like for Xena."

Ares stood silently taking the offered clothing.  As he did, he noticed some faint bruises on Psyche's arm and more on her wrist.

She moved back preparing to leave.

"Stay a moment," he ordered taking her wrist and examining it.  She trembled.  Ares' raised an eyebrow at her.  "I know you're not frightened of me."  He sat back down conjuring a large comfortable stool for her.

She looked at it realizing that it was very similar to the one that his daughter Harmonia sat on when she visited him in his temple on Olympus. "Actually," she said as she sat down, "I'm terrified of you."

Ares snorted.  "You might have been when you first arrived, but you're over it."

She shrugged, "You made no pretense about what you thought of me.  You believed that I had conned Cupid into marrying me for power."  She looked down remembering those first terrible months on Olympus when everyone
believed that she married for power rather than love.  Ares and Hephaestus didn't bother to conceal their contempt, but neither of them had ever actually harmed her.  And on the rare occasions when they were in Olympus, none of the petty vicious tricks occurred.  So, Psyche quickly learned to seek them out and stay quietly in her and Cupid's temple when neither of them were there.  She never found out what made them change their minds, but shortly before she became pregnant with Bliss they changed.  She couldn't say that they had warmed, but the contempt was gone and they seemed to be on Olympus more frequently.  Then after Bliss was born they both started visiting very regularly clearly accepting her into the family.  After that, most of the pranks stopped.  But now Apollo decided he wanted her.  She wasn't about to tell Cupid, he'd go after him and Zeus favored him, in spite of his allegiance with Hera.  So, she was once again hiding out in her temple.

"Maybe at first," Ares replied he watched her struggling with her memories. And examined his own.  She was right at first he had seen her as a mortal who had conned her son into giving her godhood.  Later he decided that it was more complicated.  But he still didn't like her.  He knew that several of the other gods held her in contempt.  But it wasn't until they had been married for nearly a year that he realized just how bad it was.  Aphrodite and Persephone had just had their little spat concerning Adonis and he and Hephaestus were comforting one another when Cupid had shown up in his temple calling for him.  He vividly remembered the conversation and trying to calm down a very emotional Cupid.  His son had duties on earth and often had to leave Psyche alone, he wasn't sure what was going on, but she was miserable and crying almost constantly when he wasn't there.  Hephaestus finally promised him that they would visit more often and watch out for her.  Ares had considered it foolishness, but the very next night he and Hephaestus went to dinner on Olympus.  They had entered the hall late and both noticed a surge of power focused on Psyche as she suddenly tipped her wine.  They stopped and instead of going in climbed the back stairs to the observation gallery.  From there, they could observe the dinner without being noticed. A series of pranks and pratfalls made it very clear why she was so miserable.  After that they had both dropped a word in various ears and made more frequent trips to Olympus.  Ares had thought that the pranks had stopped completely after Bliss was born.  He looked again at her wrists and considered which of the gods would go after her.  He came to the same conclusion he had initially, either Apollo or Zeus.

Ares stood up stretching.  "Any advise on handling these two?" he asked in a joking tone.

"Well," she started hesitantly and then continued at his obvious interest, "They've never had a father, I mean Hercules' never had a father and Xena's died when she was young and wasn't there much before that.  And this whole thing is strange to them.  A lot of their brattyness is not having a routine and knowing what to expect." She bit her lip and finished, "And you might want to use a cart.  That way you can put them in the back with some toys
and bedding and drive."

"So a daily routine and a cart," Ares mused, "Those are good suggestions." He took her hands in his and she felt a slight tingling around her bruises as he healed them and they faded.  Then she felt a tingling in her mind and
heard his voice.

*Psyche, as my son's wife you are under my protection, as much as my daughters.*  As his voice echoed in her mind the tingling got stronger and faded on the edges she sensed a new tag, one similar to the ones he had on
Cupid and Harmonia.

She smiled.  "Thank you Father."

"I prefer Ares," he growled.

"As my husband's father I owe you proper respect and title, most honored father."  She smiled slyly.  "Cupid cleaned up on the bedtime story, by the way, and I won a favor from Calliope on the toys."  At his grumbling she grinned hugely and disappeared.

Ares sat back down and checked his charges.  After assuring that they were still deeply asleep he reached out with his mind and reviewed his followers' prayers sorting through them and answering them appropriately, if not always in the manner they requested.  Several hours later he finished and returned his mind to the room exhausted.  He stretched, rotated his shoulders, and again checked the kids, as he thought of them.  Still well and truly asleep. He smiled and pulled the covers back up where Xena had kicked them off.

He settled back in the chair and set about gathering energy.  Once more his mind went out, but this time he sought out the battles and violence, pulling energy off the blood, pain, and death.  As he did that he also soothed anger and rage from the minds of the majority of the population, leaving only the most rage-filled with the rage he couldn't remove.  Those would become murders, rapists, and some of them warlords.  Sinking deeper into his trance, he moved his mind to earth reaching down deeply to restore his power levels.  His mind floated following tendrils down to the molten core of the planet gently pulling power from the shift of the earth's layers against each other.  As he moved down, he flowed his mind through that power, spreading it further out until he had only the vaguest concept of himself and knew only the ecstasy of riding the waves of power as it filled him.

On the periphery he heard a child's voice calling, "Daddy help me."  He distantly realized that this was important, but was too caught up in the power trance to be truly aware.  Suddenly a rage and terror filled scream pulled him from his trance.

"DADDY!"

Ares abruptly woke from his trance searching for Xena.  They were gone. Both of them.  The bed was rumpled, their toys and stuffed cats were still there, but they were gone.

Part 5

Xena woke up first.  Sitting up in bed to look around. Ares sat in the chair
next to their bed.  She stared into his open eyes and poked him on the arm.
He didn't respond.  She poked him again.  Still no response.

She grinned and shook Hercules awake.

He woke up with grunt flailing his arms.

"Shhhh," Xena hushed him with a concerned glance at their guardian.  "He's
asleep."

Hercules blearily shook his head and turned over to go back to sleep.  This
time Xena kicked him awake.

"Stop kicking," Hercules complained pushing her away.

"Be quiet," Xena whispered, "He's asleep!"

"I wanna be asleep, too!"  Hercules rolled into the blankets and stuck his
head under the pillow.

Xena frowned crossing her arms.  She stared at his slumbering body then
climbed over him to get out of bed.  He grunted at her when her knees
collided with his ribs.  Once out of bed she glared at him with her hands on
her hips.  She blew some hair out of her eyes and spied the new clothes at
the end of the bed.  Her eyes widened as she dove for the clothes.  After
some struggle, she got the new pants on tangling the drawstring.  She pulled
the shirt over her head.  The bone fastening on the shirt ended up in the
back so she pulled her arms out, twisted it around and struggled with the
fastener a couple of minutes.  When she couldn't get it fastened she gave up
and shook Hercules.  "Get up!"  She glanced guiltily at Ares and more
quietly repeated her command.  "Get up."  He ignored her.  She sighed loudly
and shook her head at him.  He still wouldn't get up.  Finally, she walked
over to the water pitcher and poured water on his neck.

"Xena!" Hercules yelled sitting up.  "You stop that!"

"Shhh!"  Xena signaled him to be quiet.  "He's asleep!"

Hercules looked over at Ares.  "No he isn't his eyes are open!"

"Yes he is!" Xena insisted, "so you be quiet!"  She picked up Hercules' new
clothes and shoved them at him.  "He got us new clothes.  Get dressed."

"Turn around," he demanded looking at the new clothes.

She looked at him in exasperation.  "I have brothers.  I've seen it before."

"Turn around."  Hercules stuck out his chin.

With a sigh, Xena slowly turned around.  She waited impatiently tapping her
foot.  When she felt that he'd had enough time, she turned back.  "My
brothers' aren't that big."  She said pointing with interest.

"Xena!"  Hercules grabbed the blanket and covered himself.  "You turn around and stay turned around till I say."

She rolled her eyes.  "I've already seen it."

Hercules took a deep breath.

"I'm turning okay, I'm turning."  Xena slowly turned back around.  "But you
better hurry."

"Don't peek!"

Xena muttered under her breath, "He's silly that's what he is.  Girls and
boys are different and I know it and he knows and he's just silly and I've
already seen it!"  Then to Hercules.  "Will you hurry!"

Finally done Hercules said, "You can look."

"You're sure.  I wouldn't want to embarrass you."

"Be like that."  Hercules stared at Xena's back.

Xena peeked over her shoulder.  "Wanna go explore?"

Hercules glanced at Ares.  "We have to stay here."

Xena turned back to look at them.  "No we don't."

Hercules looked at her then at Ares.  "We're supposed to stay here."

Xena looked at Hercules and smiled.  "He didn't tell us we had to stay
here."

Hercules bit his lip and looked back at Ares.

Xena leaned in and whispered, "He didn't.  He didn't tell us.  He said, 'Go
to sleep' and we did.  But now we're awake.  And he didn't say we had to
stay."

Hercules reviewed the night before.  Ares told them to take a bath, and to
eat dinner, and go to bed and to go sleep.  "You're right he didn't."

"So do you wanna explore?"  Xena asked again.  Hercules glanced one last
time at Ares then nodded yes.

Very very quietly they slipped to the door and opened it crack and Xena
peered out to make sure there were no adults to order them back to their
room.  Certain the coast was clear the slipped out tiptoeing to make no
noise.

As they made their way down the stairs the dayshift waitress yelled, "Good
morning dearies, would you like some breakfast?"

Xena and Hercules looked at each other, nodded and quickly ran down the rest of the stairs.  "Well you sweeties just sit down there," she called
pointing, "while I get you a nice big breakfast."

As she went back to the kitchen she stopped at the other tables, "Hello
sweetie, do you need a refill?  Dearie, those eggs aren't overdone are they?
Love, didn't you get your porridge yet, well don't you worry I'll get you
fixed up."

A few minutes later she came out with porridge, eggs, fresh bread with
cream, honey, fresh fruit, some left over slices of meat from last night,
and well watered ale.  "There you go loves, breakfast comes with the room,
so don't you worry about it."

Xena took a big gulp of ale and poured honey over her porridge, eggs, and
bread.  As she ate, she talked.  "She sure is nice, my mommy doesn't call
customers sweetie and dear and stuff."

Hercules finished swallowing his piece of fruit.  "Xena don't talk with your
mouth full."

Xena took another gulp of the watered ale and swallowed.  "You sound like my mommy."

"I do not!"  Hercules drank some of his ale and continued eating.  "Ares
told a good story last night.  I like Nuk, he's like Iolaus."

"Yeah he gets in trouble a lot."  Xena grabbed some of the bread and fruit.

"Xena you don't eat with both hands."  Hercules shook his head at her.  "And
Iolaus doesn't get in trouble that much."

"He does to!"

"Does not!"

"Does to!"

"Nuh-uh!"

"Uh-uh.  He's been dead *THREE* times!"  Gesturing with three fingers for
emphasis.

Hercules bit his lip.  "Well you and Gabrielle have been dead, too!" he
finally retorted.

Xena shook her head at his lame rejoinder.  "But not as often.  Iolaus has
been dead three times.  Gabriel and I have only been dead twice."

"Yeah but you were dead twice each.  So that's four times and that's more
than Iolaus and me."

As Xena got ready to end the battle with a devastating rejoinder, just as
soon as she could think of one, they were distracted by a loud clatter from
outside.

"What's that?" she asked.  Hercules shrugged.  "Let's go see."  She grabbed
his hand and started dragging him away from the food.

"I'm still hungry!"

Xena pilled fruit and bread into his hand and grabbed some more with her
free hand then resumed dragging him to the door.

As they left, the clatter drifted down the street and they followed at a
run.  After a few minutes, they thought they heard it behind them and
doubled back.  When they reached the inn, they looked around in confusion.
Xena climbed up a pole to the awning and jumping up and down looked around.

"Xena get down from there!" Hercules warned.  She continued bouncing.
"Xena, you gotta do what I say, I'm the uncle."

"NO. I. DON'T," she yelled back and ran down the awning to leap on the next one.  "It's that way," she called pointing as the awning behind her sprang
free and came down covering the door to the inn and Hercules.

After several minutes of struggling Hercules crawled out from under the
awning and yelled down to Xena who had already traveled down three more
awnings.  "Wait for me!"  And ran after her.  Unfortunately, he collided
with several vendors.  First the fish vendor who had come to sell to the
innkeeper.  The fish scattered flying then gravity took over and they flew
down, mostly on top of the ribbon vendor's ware.  As the woman selling
ribbons started screaming at the man selling fish, the basket weaver slipped
on a fish and flew into the hat maker.  The hat maker's cart tipped over
into the dirt.  They immediately started yelling at each other.

Hercules threw one of the fish at Xena in frustration when she'd continued
blithely skipping awnings.  Two more of the awnings fell as she flew from
one to the other.  Finally, she impatiently waited for Hercules to catch up
jumping between two awnings.

Hercules collided with the cart holding flowers sending them into the air
many of them landed in vases in the potter's cart.  The two gentlemen began
immediate discussions to consolidate their businesses.  However, Hercules'
collision with the wagon of turnips was less fortuitous resulting in large
turnips landing on heads and most importantly into the cart of glass beads
and trinkets from the trader from India, breaking most of them.

He continued his run to catch up with Xena, interspersed with apologies.  As
he moved, he saw Xena's awning fall out from under her sending her into the
herb seller's cart.  She leaped up and climbed another pole to get back on
the awnings.  Paying attention to her and yelling at her to, "Stop it right
now!" he ran into another wagon overturning it and its casks of olive oil.
The casks, of course, broke open spilling their contents onto the dirt
street.  Except, the one cask of first press oil which being smaller took
flight.  In a beautiful, albeit completely unplanned trajectory, it flew
through the open door of the shop of the toga salesman.   Breaking as it
thudded to the stone floor, it sprayed its contents over the most valuable
of his wares.  As the toga salesman collapsed in shock, his wife ran from
the backroom.  Seeing the destruction, she kicked at him yelling, "I told
you a stone floor is pretentious and what if something should break!"
Another kick emphasized her irritation as she continued yelling, "And what
did I say about the fine wares?"  Still kicking she reminded him, "What did
I say? 'Put them in the BACK,' I said, 'where no one will know to steal them
and they won't be damaged by accident.' That's what I said!"  Still kicking
she finished, "But you, 'No,' you said, 'put them in the front to tempt the
best customers'.  Well what good do they do us now?  So much scrap!  Oil
will never come out of fine cloth!"

Hercules stared at them and then looked around the street.  He bit his lip.
"Uh-oh."  He looked up at Xena who was also staring down the street in awe.

"Wow!  You did all that."  She grinned bouncing up and down.  "I bet Strife
likes you a lot!"  She looked at the yelling and screaming and smiled at him
again.  "And Discord, too!"

The crowd started grouping and yelling at Hercules and Xena.  As he took in
the scene, he called up, "Xena I think we're in trouble."

"That's okay my Daddy will take care of it!"  Xena shimmied down the pole
and said, "We'd better run though."

"Won't they just get angrier?" he asked doubtfully while looking at her
sideways, while still trying to keep an eye on the crowd.

She started pulling him towards an alley.  "Hercules I don't think they can
get much angrier."  He stood still as the first fish and turnip flew at
them.  She yanked harder.  "RUN!"

As the ruined wares started flying at them fast and heavy they started
running a winding path away from the angry following crowd.  A few minutes
found them ducking through laundry, dice games, playing children, many of
whom decided to follow them for fun, and other obstacles.  Generally, the
obstacles were no problem.  Laundry lines fell, dice players rolled out of
the way or got stepped on or kicked, and the children generally scrambled
out of their path.  The geese flock was a bigger problem.  As they ran
through them the geese bristled, attempting to charge and bite them.  As a
result in addition to the angry crowd, the children, and a few assorted
irritated gamblers and housewives, a flock of geese joined the chase.

As they continued running, they ducked into a small alley.  A small deadend
alley.  A door opened.  "In here."  Xena and Hercules looked at each other
and the young boy who opened the door.  They boy dressed in ragged pants and a shirt, had barefeet and an impish grin.  His riot of blond hair reminded
Hercules vaguely of Iolaus and he started for the door.  Xena stayed back at
first, but dove in when she heard the crowd catch up.

They hid in the little storeroom for nearly an hour not daring to talk,
until the last of the crowd gave up and drifted back down the street.  When
they crept back out the boy finally asked, "So who owes me a favor?"

Xena smiled and pointed to herself, "I'm Xena," jerked her thumb at
Hercules, "and this is Hercules."

The boy looked them up and down smiling, "No, really?"

"Really."  Hercules nodded seriously.

The boy looked them over again: barefeet, uncombed scraggly hair, dirty,
holes ripped in their clothes at elbows and knees, bruises all about, and no
weapons, unless you count that strange round thing the girl wore on her
belt.  "Are you sure?"

"Yes!"  Xena stuck her face into his.

The boy shrugged.  "I'm Lenel and I'm in charge of this block."  He stuck
out his chest and pointed both index fingers at himself as he finished, "You
need something - you ask me!"

"We need to get back to the inn or my daddy will be mad."  Xena explained.

Hercules glared at her.  "Now you think of that, where was 'my daddy will be
mad' when you wanted to 'explore'.  You're gonna get me in trouble."  He
pulled her hair.  "And I hate being in trouble.  Iolaus gets me in trouble
all the time and Mommy would make me do extra work."

Xena turned around and kicked him.  "Stop pulling my hair.  It's your fault!
You're the one who broke everything."

Hercules pushed her so that she fell on her backside.  "Not everything!  You
broke the awnings."  Xena pulled his feet out from under him so that he fell
too.  "Ow!  And I only broke stuff 'cause you were bouncing on the awnings
and being naughty!"

As they started wrestling, a shrill whistle pierced the air, and their ears.
"Hey! Aren't you two a *little old* for that?"  Lenel stood over them his
hands on his hips, staring and shaking his head.  "My six year cousins act
like that."

Xena sat up pushing Hercules off her.  "We're six, too."

Lenel looked at them.  "No you're not."

"Yes we are," Hercules confirmed at Lenel's stare he said it again, "We are.
We're both six and Xena's daddy is taking care of us."

Lenel stared at them.  "Stand up."  They stood up.  "Okay, now look at me."
They looked at him. "Now look at each other."  They looked at each other.
"Now I'm fourteen."

"Okay," agreed Xena, "your fourteen."

Hercules nodded his agreement.

"And when you get older you get bigger.  Right?"  Lenel explained and
checked their understanding.

"Everyone knows that," Hercules said patiently, not quite sure where Lenel
was going, "Big kids are mostly bigger than little kids."

"Good." Lenel nodded approvingly.  "So you might have noticed that you two
are both bigger than me."

Hercules and Xena looked at each and shrugged then nodded yes.

"Real good," Lenel felt like he was on a roll and continued, "And you know
that fourteen is older than six?"

"Yeah,' Xena said, "we can count."

Mumbling, Hercules went, "one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,
nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen."  Out loud, "Yeah fourteen is
bigger than six."

"And, um, did you, like notice, when you were running, that you were... well
... bigger than most of the adults chasing you?"  Lenel continued trying to
make his point.

"Oh yes," Hercules agreed readily.

"Yeah," Xena also agreed.

"Have you considered that you're bigger than six?  Maybe, you might be bigger than fourteen?  Even like, um, maybe you're adults?"  Lenel inquired hesitantly.  Midway through his questions they both started vigorously shaking their heads no.  Lenel looked at them again.  "Let's review this. You're really pretty big, but you're not adults?"

Hercules and Xena nodded yes together.

"That's right," Xena proclaimed.

Seeing his new friend's confusion, Hercules tried to explain it better, "My
Mommy says I'm big for my age.  And I always grow out of my clothes. So I
guess I had a growth spurt."

"Yeah me, too."  Satisfied that the mystery was solved Hercules and Xena
continued walking.

Lenel looked after them and muttered, "Oh boy, some goddess somewhere must be really pissed at you.  Can't be a god, gods just kick your butt.
Probably a mother, the non-mother's just wouldn't do this sort of thing."
He continued following the two grimacing when they started bickering about
who had the 'best' best friend.  "Um Hermes, you know that I really don't
pray to you often.  Well okay, I pray whenever I think I'm going to get
caught, but other than that, I really don't ask for many favors, and frankly
helping thieves get away is kind of part of your job description and I
always share the loot.  Well almost always, unless I'm really hungry.  Never
mind that. Look I really need help here.  I have these two really big
warrior heroes who think they're six.  And they like, *need* someone to take
care of them.  And, I really..." he stopped watching Xena start bouncing on
awnings, "*really* don't think I'm the right person to do that."

"That's okay," Hercules reassured him after overhearing the prayer, "Xena's
daddy is taking care of us."

Lenel stopped, calling absently using his, 'I'm the big brother and if you
don't do what I say right now, I'm going to pull all the hair out of your
head' voice, "Xena get down from there right now."

Xena flipped down to land in front of him.  "I'll be good."

"You had better be."  He made sure he had her eye then asked, "Xena isn't
your daddy dead?"

"Oh that's my 'I thought he was my daddy' my real daddy is Ares and he's
taking care of us."  Xena merrily skipped away.

Lenel shut his eyes remembering wild stories from a couple of years ago
concerning Xena, Ares, and The Furies.  "Oh fuck."

"Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck."

Smack.

"Stop that Xena!  Young ladies do not use foul language."  Lenel ordered.

She pivoted rubbing her backside.  "You hit me!"

"You were being a brat.  And I swatted you.  Behave or I'll do it again."
Lenel stood his ground.

"You said it," she challenged.

"I'm a guy and I'm older, I can say what I want.  You can't."  Lenel started
walking again.  I'm older boy that is strange to tell to a warrior twice my
age.  This is just too odd.  He stopped.  "Get over here."  He waited for
them to run up.  "Where are you and your Daddy staying?

Xena and Hercules looked around and pointed.

In different directions.

They glared at each other.

"At the inn," they both said together.

"Which inn?"

"The inn." Xena explained.

Lenel closed his eyes and silently counted to ten, very slowly.  "Xena,
Hercules there are three inns, which one are you staying at?"

They shrugged again and pointed.

In two other different directions.  Lenel now had four directions that they
thought they had come from.  None of which pointed to any of the inns.  He
silently counted to twenty.

"You're lost."

"I don't get lost," Xena said forcefully kicking Hercules, "he gets lost."

"Not when Iolaus is with me."

"Xena! Hercules!" Lenel called sharply getting their attention back.  "Inns
have signs.  Was there a horse, a stag, or a wine glass on the one you
stayed at."

"Xena broke the awning so we couldn't see."

"It wasn't my fault.  The awning wasn't strong enough."

They started shoving each other again.  Lenel thought a few minutes.  'He
wouldn't have taken them to the Wine & Women.  The Stag isn't anywhere near the market and those were all market vendors who were chasing them.  So that leaves the Horse and Cart.'

While Lenel pondered, Xena climbed up on top of Hercules to pull on his
hair.  As he yelped he reached up and pulled her down by her hair.  They
both ended up with double handfuls of the other's hair.  As they prepared
for another fight Lenel yelled, "Stop that right now!"

Lenel held out his right hand.  "Xena come here!"  Xena stomped over to
reluctantly take his hand.  Lenel held out his left hand.  "Hercules you come here!"  Pouting Hercules took his other hand.  Walking at a fast pace Lenel headed for the Horse and Cart Inn.  "You two need to learn to hold hands like this when you go places.  And to stay with your adult, otherwise, you'll keep getting lost."

Even separated the two managed to argue.  Often reaching around Lenel to
pinch at one another.  He had just finished pulling both around to face them
for another scolding when he saw the gang.   Paling he held tighter to the
two and started them moving quickly again.  "Xena," he whispered urgently,
"call for your daddy right now."

She looked at him.

"Daddy," she called softly.

As the gang struck Lenel pushed Hercules and Xena in opposite direction away from him, yelling, "Run!"

Two of the gang jumped Lenel pummeling him.  Without a thought Hercules
plucked one of them off and threw him.  Xena jumped on the back of the other one tearing at his hair and face.  As she fought him, she called for her
father.  More gang members quickly joined the fight.  Three of them falling
on Lenel, two holding him while a third beat him.  Xena couldn't figure out
how to make the man she was on fall down and kept pummeling him, screaming in fright, "Daddy, help me!"

As Hercules headed for Lenel a second time, a man thrust a sword into his
side and he went down.  Xena saw blood pouring out of Hercules and screamed terrified, "DADDY!"

Ares abruptly woke from his trance searching for Xena.  They were gone.
Both of them.  The bed was rumpled, their toys and stuffed cats were still
there, but they were gone.  He quickly checked his tags for their location.

They were clouded.  Another god had interfered.  Cursing he ran down the
stairs.  The common room still had commotion from the ruckus earlier.  He
ignored them and dashed outside.  Down one way everything was normal.  The other direction had fish still on the street, broken vendors' carts, broken
wagons, and men and women still cursing.  He ran that direction.  As he
passed broken awnings, he felt sure he was headed the right way.

He opened his mind for further cries.  While he couldn't use his tags because of the other god's interference, he could follow their cries for help.  As Xena's cries got more desperate he got closer.

He finally turned the corner and saw them.

Hercules curled up on his side bleeding and moaning.  A young man, beaten
nearly to death still trying to crawl to Xena and help her.

And the men holding Xena down ripping her clothes and preparing to rape her. With a roar of rage, he drew his sword and started killing.  In seconds, the gang members were dead and dismembered.  He quickly leaned over Hercules healing him and putting him to sleep.  He did the same with the young man. Then took care of Xena, first healing her and then holding her.

"Bad men, Daddy, the bad men were going to hurt me," she sobbed against his shoulder.

"They're dead Xena.  The bad men are dead."  He picked her up gently,
summoning a cart and horse.  He floated the sleeping Hercules and Lenel to
the cart and then put Xena in. She clutched at him.

"They were gonna hurt me like before when my brother died."

"Those men are all dead and I killed all of these." Ares gently disengaged
her hand.  "You're going to go to sleep and when you wake up this will be
like a terrible dream."

A flash of adult understanding occurred. "Ares I couldn't find all the men
who raped me."

"I could."

He brushed her forehead and she collapsed deeply asleep.

Grimly he used a blast of fire to destroy the remains.  Another flash of
power cleaned him and the three in the cart.  Then he sent them further into
a healing sleep.  He dropped into a light trance reading Lenel's lifeline
and setting a deep tag into him.  Still in the trance, he reinforced the
tags he had on Xena and Hercules and cleared the interference.  As he
cleaned the clouding on his tags, he recognized Artemis' power signature.

*Aphrodite, Eris,* he mindcalled using a deep private mode.  He waited for
their acknowledgement.  *Artemis clouded my tags punish her appropriately.
I'm sure that you two can come up with something interesting.*

"Hermes."   Hermes appeared without hesitation.  Ares summoned a bag of
silver coins.  "Take this to his mother.  Tell her that he is with me and
that I'll return him or apprentice him."

"He's mine," Hermes protested.

"I won't kill Autolycus for stealing one of my daggers."

Hermes shrugged.  "He's yours, unless he decides to come back when you're
done."

Hermes vanished.

Ares climbed into the driver's seat and pointed the wagon towards Corinth.

Part 6

"Hercules, stop squeezing my hand so hard." Ares growled at him looking down at his fingers.  The tips were turning purple.

"I'll get lost."  Hercules automatically squeezed harder as Ares twisted his hand around trying to loosen the grip.  Ares bit his lip smothering a groan as small bones in his hand were accidentally crushed.  He automatically healed them as he continued walking.

"Hercules! You're hurting my hand.  Loosen up now!"

At his angry tone, Hercules loosened his grip.  "I'm sorry," he cried now sobbing quietly as they continued weaving their way to Iphicles' palace.

Ares turned his head to check his other two charges. Xena held his other hand, fortunately not as tightly as Hercules.  Lenel trailed slightly behind with one carry sack slung over his back and shifting the other from hand to hand as they walked through the maze of streets, vendors, and shops of Corinth.  Nearly dark Ares wanted to get the to Iphicles' palace quickly and started walking faster ignoring various whining complaints.  He ignored incredulous stares and whispers.  Until finally they ran into the narrow winding street that lead to the gate.

They turned once more and the palace gates loomed in front of them.  Ares sighed, 'At last.'  He didn't even want to think of the past few weeks. After the incident, Ares had kept them away from any towns and villages. Instead choosing to use back roads and trails.  Lenel had helped as much as possible.  Mostly distracting the children and playing with them.  Once they were in the palace, even if he couldn't leave to get Iolaus and Gabrielle, at least he'd have more help.  And he might be able to devote some of his attention to his duties.  Several of the warbands were getting completely out of control and there were several wars spinning out of bounds along the coast.  He needed to get those things back in line before petty wars sprang up all over Greece.  Peace had been declared between Athens and Sparta and Demeter was screaming at him about not being able to feed them all.

He walked up to the gate pulling the two overgrown children behind.  The guards barred him.  He glared a minute, contemplated blasting them, and instead calmly demanded entry.  "I'm Ares," he yanked his head towards Hercules, "This is Hercules and..." he yanked his head towards Xena pulling her out from behind him, "This is Xena."  Xena stuck her tongue out at him. He took a deep breath ignoring her and continued, "That's Lenel."  He glared at the boy.  "Lenel get over here so the guards can see you."

Lenel rolled his eyes and moved forward cautiously keeping Ares and the 'kids' between him and the guards. Or rather keeping them between him and the guards' swords.

"We're here to visit Iphicles." Ares finished.

The guards looked at Ares and the two ragamuffins clinging to his hands. Then glanced around at the boy carrying their luggage and laughed.

"You're Ares," mocked one.

"Sure and I'm Apollo," laughed the other pointing to Hercules and Xena. "And they're Hercules and Xena?"  Looking at their mussed hair, grass-stained clothing, and their hands clinging to Ares' he jabbed his partner in the side.  "And you're all standing there holding hands."

Xena let go of Ares' hand yelling, "You better be nice to my Daddy!"

The guards laughed harder as Lenel backed away staring at the glowing ball of power gathering in Ares' free hand.  Ares raised his arm and spying the glowing ball just before he released it the guards dived in opposite directions yelling wildly.  Ares released the ball throwing it at the gate. It impacted with a roar of energy and explosion of light.  A huge booming noise echoed in the courtyard and entry pieces of wood and metal flew about carried yards by the huge explosion.  Billowing smoke followed the explosion of light and sound.

Ares threw back his head roaring with laughter as the guards slowly picked themselves up off the ground.  The guards took a single look at the maniacally laughing god, the bits of wood, stone, and metal strewn around and backed away.  Xena stuck her tongue out at them and in a singsong voice proclaimed, "I told you to be nice to my Daddy."  Giggling she whooped and jumped up somersaulting through the now gateless entry.  At her familiar whoop the guards retreated at a full run to the barracks.

"Xena stop that and come over here." Ares order came with patient good humor.  He took her hand back as guards poured out of the barracks and palace to cover the gate.  He looked at Hercules noticing his trepidation. "Hercules, now what's wrong?"

"Iphicles doesn't like me.  And now he'll be upset 'cause you broke his gate," Hercules muttered.

"He won't be upset about the gate," Ares reassured him.

"ARES!"  Iphicles' voice carried across the courtyard as he strode to the entry.  "What have you done to my gate?"

"I told you he'd be upset.  Now he'll never like me." Herculesí dejected whisper carried further than he realized and Iphicles stopped abruptly, gesturing the guards away.

Meeting Ares' eyes he demanded, "Fix my gate."

Ares walked across the entry pulling Hercules and Xena.  At his barked, "Come on," Lenel reluctantly followed.  As they continued across the courtyard to the main entrance, the gate started rebuilding itself behind them.  By the time they got to the baths the gate stood again, completely
rebuilt.

Ares left Hercules and Xena with Lenel in the baths with strict orders to have the servants lead *clean* children to their bedroom.  Then he followed Iphicles to the he kept for Hercules and Iolaus.

Ares quickly went through the room removing weapons and other items that the children might either break or injure themselves or others with.  He ignored Iphicles' impatient questions until he finished that task, sending everything to a small pocket in space for future retrieval.  He tagged and shielded the pocket and set guards.  Finished he turned back to, a now fuming, Iphicles.

"Ares what did you do?"

"Me! I didn't do anything!" he roared in a frustrated voice.  "Gaia got upset because we broke her tree in a fight and did this.  If I had done it, I certainly wouldn't be herding them here," he ended in disgust.

"So how young are they?" Iphicles asked sitting on the bed.

Ares rolled his eyes.  "About six.  Xena gets into everything and Hercules worries more than any child I've seen in 3000 years."

Iphicles chuckled as Ares sat down beside him.  "Sounds like Hercules.  Mom was terrified that he'd either hurt someone by accident or grow into an uncaring monster.  So, she went a little overboard in drumming in responsibility and control."

Shrugging Ares continued, "I've got to get them to Gabrielle and Iolaus.  I can't leave them, they won't let me zap them there," at Iphicles raised eyebrows, "with demi-gods, we can't force them to go by our means, and since Iolaus and Gabrielle are in the middle of a plague I can't bring them out."

"So you decided to bring them here?"

"I'd have taken them to Alcmene, but she's dead.  I'm not about to try to get to Antipholie.  And Erythia could never manage them."  He leaned to Iphicles pulling him into a kiss.  As the kiss deepened and their hands started roaming the door burst open.

"You're kissing!" Hercules burst in.  "Ares you're kissing Iphicles!"  He bounced on the bed.  Ares grabbed onto the footboard to keep him and Iphicles from being bounced off.  "Why are you kissing?"

Xena came in running to the other side ending with a backflip into the bed. She landed on her back behind them bouncing the bed so hard that Hercules fell off. He scrambled back on, pushing Xena's legs around, slumping against the headboard.  "It's not fair.  She can hit me and I can't hit back 'cause I'm too strong and I could hurt her, and it's just not fair."

Xena grinned bringing her legs up to kick him in the hip and knock him back off the bed.  Ares caught her grabbing her feet before they could connect and flipping her over.  He spanked her with a single openhanded swat to her backside.  "Behave."

Lenel trudged in, still dripping.  They'd splashed him good this time.  He looked like he'd taken a bath himself.  With his clothes on.  Almost absentmindedly Ares dried him off.  He gestured to the sofa and Lenel settled there.

A half-hour later the bedtime story was done and all the children asleep. As Ares and Iphicles slipped out of the room, Ares took the precaution of tagging the children and setting a series of alarms.

He woke the next morning still holding Iphicles.  One of the alarms had gone off he traced it.  Hercules had gotten out of bed and snuck out of the room. He followed him as he tried sneaking down the palace halls.  He went to the kitchen and stayed there awhile.  Ares pulled Iphicles closer.  Hercules started back up the stairs.  Ares kept only a faint watch on him just to make sure he didn't leave the palace.  Because of that, he didn't notice Hercules until he paused outside their room.  Ares sat up grabbing the sheets and waking Iphicles as the door opened.

"What?" Iphicles rolled over as Hercules gleefully ran into the room carrying a large tray

"Thank you," he called back to the guard who'd opened the door for him.

Ares and Iphicles looked concerned as he carefully set the tray down.  "I made breakfast for you."

Hercules watched as they carefully started eating.  The bread, cheese, and fruit were fine.  The porridge was only slightly lumpy.  But the eggs had been cooked to rubber.  No amount of salt and pepper could salvage them. Iphicles coughed trying to choke down a mouthful with a gulp of water.

Hercules watched them shifting the eggs around and bit his bottom lip.  As Iphicles choked on the eggs, he turned around suppressing sobs.  Iphicles looked at him glanced at Ares in panic and at his shrug squared his shoulders and ordered, "Hercules come here."  Hercules looked at him wiped at his face and stood still.  Iphicles put the tray on the floor straightened looked at his younger brother and repeated his order, "Hercules come here."  Hercules reluctantly approached the bed.  Iphicles pushed at Ares and moved to the edge of the bed.  He patted the new-made space in the middle.

Hercules clambered over and squirmed until he sat between his two half brothers.  Ares stared at Iphicles as he was pushed to the very edge of the bed.  "What are you doing?" he silently mouthed.

Iphicles glared at Ares pulling Hercules to him.  "You made us a very good breakfast."

"The eggs were over-cooked," Hercules looked down.

"I'll give them to the guards for archery practice." Iphicles joked in a light tone hugging his brother.  Ares rolled his eyes wincing at Iphicles' sharp kick to his shin.

"It's my fault." Hercules confessed burying his head in the crock

Iphicles looked to Ares who shrugged wordlessly.  He held his brother wordlessly offering comfort trying to figure out what he was talking about. He felt rather certain that Hercules felt this bad about something besides overcooked eggs.

Finally, he gave up and asked, "What's your fault?

"Momma's sad and you don't like me.  None of my brothers like me," Hercules started squirming loose.

Iphicles held him and glared at Ares.  Slowly Ares moved closer hugging Hercules from behind.  "Hercules look at me."  Instead, he buried his face deeper into the sheets.  More impatiently, "Hercules! Look at me."

Hercules peered up at Iphicles biting his lips and rubbing the back of his hand across his eyes.

"Hercules," Iphicles explained slowly, "I love you."

"You don't like me," he insisted sniffling.

"I like you fine." Iphicles said loudly.

"Then how come you're yelling?"

Iphicles shut his eyes in frustration.  "Just because I get mad at you doesn't mean I don't like you."

"That's true," Ares dryly added, "Iphicles only yells at people he likes. He just ignores the ones he doesn't like."

"Really?"

"Yes really!"  Ares leaned back trying to end the conversation.

Hercules poked him in the side.  "Do you only yell at people you like?"

Ares rolled over on his side.  "NO! I yell at everyone."  He rolled back on his back and shut his eyes pretending to go to sleep.

Hercules poked him again.  He ignored it.  Hercules climbed on top of him. Sitting on his stomach, he poked him in the chest.  "Then how do I know if you like me or not?"

Ares glared as he heard Iphicles choke on laughter.  "I don't like anyone."

Hercules slumped then smiled as Ares closed his eyes again.  "Yes you do. You like Iphicles, and Aphrodite, and Eris, and Cupid, and Strife, and ... and Xena, and..."

Ares sat up spilling Hercules to the middle of the bed.  As Hercules scrambled to sit up, he glowered and said, "I only really despise one brother, and that's Apollo."  He leaned back again and glared at Hercules. "DON'T climb on me again."

Hercules gave a big sigh and turned to Iphicles.  "It's still my fault Momma is sad."

"What do you mean?"

Very quickly, Hercules poured out an explosion of words.  "She cries.  Every night she cries because she wants you to live with us.  And you can't because I came.  She exposed me and Zeus brought me back."

Iphicles tried to make sense out of what he said then did and hugged him. "Hercules.  You were a baby.  They were adults they all made their own choices.  And I know that our mother loved you."

"Daddy!"  Hyllus ran into the room jumping on the bed, closely followed by Xena.  "Daddy!" Hyllus repeated grabbing at his arm as he squirmed into the small space behind Hercules between his father and Ares.  "Xena played with the guards and they're all mad at her because she won."  Iphicles shuddered deciding not to ask.

"Hey! How come wimpy is crying?" Xena yelled.

"Xena!" Ares rebuked her, "that's not very nice."  He stopped, shuddering slightly at the realization that he had rebuked Xena for being mean then continued.  "Hercules was upset because he..." Ares stopped trying to figure out how to say this without sounding like Aphrodite or Cupid.

Sniffing and wiping his nose with the back of his hand, Hercules saved him. "I thought Iphy and Ares didn't like me but they do, so it's okay now."

"Oh," Xena screwed up her face.  "Course Ares likes you.  My Daddy only does what he wants.  And he's taking care of you, isn't he?  He wouldn't do that if he didn't like you."

"He's taking care of me because Gaia's making him!"

"Nuh-uh," Xena responded vigorously shaking her head.  "He doesn't *have* to do what she said. He decided to do it and just 'cause he did doesn't mean he has to make sure that you're okay."  She started counting.  "He won't let me hit you, and he rescued you when you fell into the well, and when I threw the beehive at you, and when you were stabbed, and he tells stories, and tucks us in, and whispers 'go to sleep,' but he really means 'I love you'." And he, he..." She paused sighing in thought.  "He *even* makes that special, yucky milk you like!" she ended triumphantly.

During her quickly recited litany Iphicles stared at Ares his eyes growing wide.  Ares grew red hoping that his family wasn't watching at this particular moment.  He stiffened feeling Iphicles' eyes on him and briefly turned to glare at his lover.  Then gave up as Iphicles started coughing to conceal his laughter.

In a cold voice he asked, "Are you quite done?"

Unsteadily Iphicles nodded yes.  But he didn't dare met Ares' eyes.

As she finished her litany Hercules bounced twice, ignoring Iphicles' groans, when he landed in his lap.  Iphicles determinedly pushed him off towards the floor.  "Why don't you three go play."

"Yeah!" The three children screamed in unison, as Iphicles remembered too late that Hyllus had lessons that morning.  The three tore out of the room leaving the reverberating echo of the slammed door and their screams of glee behind.  Iphicles shrugged one missed morning wouldn't hurt and it might give him time to spend with Ares.

It didn't.

Eight days later Iphicles took yet another deep breath trying not to yell. Xena and Hercules peered through a blanket of falling feathers.  They had just finished a vigorous pillow fight with several of the large cushions from the big fancy chairs in the reception hall. Their pillow fight ended with burst cushions at the same time Iphicles walked into the reception hall.  Iphicles counted to ten as Xena and Hercules looked on in trepidation.

Hyllus crawled out from under the chair where he'd taken refuge.  He looked at his father now counting to ten for the third time, then looked at Xena and Hercules.   "You two are in *big* trouble," he whispered.

"Hyllus! Why aren't you upstairs doing your lessons?"  Iphicles roared at his son.

"I wanted to play with Xena and Hercules.  'Sides my teacher left."

Iphicles stopped stunned.  '*Another* teacher left!'  He took a deep breath. "Why did Halar leave?"

"I donna know."  The response came simultaneously from all three.  Iphicles shut his eyes.  'Oh yes, they do.'  He glared around the room.  Feathers blanketed the floor, tables, and chairs.  Feathers clung to the tapestries and walls.  And yet more feathers hung from the chandelier.  He looked at the feathers clinging to Hercules and Xena taking a deep breath to keep from either yelling or laughing.

Ares walked in.  He glanced over at him and saw the beginning of laughter in his face and eyes and thought fiercely, 'You laugh and you won't see the inside of my bed for a week.'  Abruptly Ares' face got very serious.

"You are going to clean this up aren't you?" He kept his voice very calm and even as he looked at Xena and Hercules.  They nodded silently.

As Iphicles and Ares left the room Hercules, Xena, and Hyllus started picking up feathers and slowly putting them back into the chair cushions.

Iphicles made sure the door was shut before turning to Ares.  He stopped mid-yell as Ares slumped against a wall sinking to the floor laughing.  He waited fuming while Ares clutched his stomach leaned his head against the wall and continued laughing.  Finally, furious he kicked him in the ass.

Ares caught his leg as it returned for a second kick, pulling it up and causing Iphicles to overbalance and land on his butt.  "What did you do that for?" he asked still laughing.

"Ares," he stormed up yelling, "I've had it!"  Pacing he continued, itemizing his woes, "In the last eight days they've driven off four teachers leaving poor Lenel to watch them and they keep tying him up!  Xena's played chakram tag with my guards, which wouldn't be so bad if she hadn't managed to hurt three of them so bad that they'll be off-duty for weeks.  Hercules *helped* in the garden - resulting in the worst castle vegetable harvest in years.   They destroyed two gates, knocked over three walls, broke all the arrows in the armory, uprooted several trees.  Oh by the way, what is it with them and dams?  They've only flooded the courtyard three times."  He ignored Ares' shrug continuing to pace and yell.    "And they fight! Constantly!  About everything."  He took a deep breath.  "Except of course when an adult tries to scold one of them.  *Then* they're instant friends, closest comrades, allies and co-conspirators!  Oh, and speaking of conspiracies, where *exactly* are Iolaus and Gabrielle's spare clothes?"

Ares looked at Iphicles, finally realizing that he really had, 'had it.'  He took a deep breath, ready to lie, when Aphrodite suddenly appeared.

"Ares," she interrupted them urgently.  "Iolaus and Gabrielle have the plague."

Part 7

Iolaus stumbled nearly falling, his body racked by violent coughing.  He leaned forward placing a hand on a table as the coughing continued.   He waited until the current bout passed.  Then taking careful shallow breaths, attempting to avoid another bout, he continued weaving his way around sick beds in the large tent that served as one of their makeshift hospitals. This tent contained people like him and Gabrielle, the walking ill, and people with the next stage, those who could still sit up and talk, use a bedpan, eat with some help, and generally fend for themselves, with a little assistance.  The other two tents were much worse.  One contained those in the final stages of the illness, ones who could no longer care for themselves, often raving from fever and pain before falling into a final deadly coma.  The other tent contained the children, who they kept apart from the sicker adults until the last possible minute.  Those two hospitals had most of the trained healers.  This one made do with warriors like him and Gabrielle who had a little basic medical knowledge and a willingness to keep moving.

As he made his way to the fire, Gabrielle added more herbs to the simmering pot occasionally succumbing to the same violent coughing fits. She looked at Iolaus, taking in his sallow pale skin, occasional shivering and weight loss.  "Iolaus you've probably looked better dead."

He laughed triggering another bout of coughing.  Finally catching his breath he rejoined, "Gabrielle you look like something Cerberus drug out of Tartarus yourself."

"Sorry for making you laugh."  She stirred the pot looking up as she heard the sound of soft tinkling bells at the entrance.  She recognized the sound as the bells the healer, Meri, hung from her staff. They announced her with a soft melody.  She claimed that it kept her patients from being startled to death as she made her rounds.  Meri and her assistants checked on the patients in this tent periodically.  Quickly moving those patients who required more skillful care to the other tent.

As she checked on patients rapidly assessing their condition and deciding which ones needed to be moved, Iolaus and Gabrielle both tried to suppress their coughing instead triggering violent deep hacking.  "You two! Go to bed now!"  She glared at them. She'd given them that same order the last two times she'd checked the tent.  This time, however, they went without protest sitting on beds they'd moved together.  Worried she went to check on them. They both had fevers, their necks were swollen under their chins and ears, they coughed deep hacking coughs, but were unable to produce phlegm.  Iolaus finally admitted to periodically feeling chills and glared at Gabrielle until she admitted the same thing.  Most worrying they only breathed in careful shallow breaths, since normal breathing shot stabbing pain through their chests.  She listened to their chests noting serious congestion as they breathed.

"You two are staying in bed," she ordered them.  "At this point you can't help and may spread the illness even faster."  They reluctantly nodded agreement and settled back.  She left them with tea and broth and strict orders to continue drinking until they finished both.

"We should have heard from Xena and Hercules by now," Gabrielle spoke softly.

"I know," Iolaus agreed.  "I'm real worried about them, but it might be better that they aren't here.  I mean there isn't anything they could do about this and at least they aren't at risk."  He finished softly.

"And they won't have to watch us die," Gabrielle whispered.

Iolaus started coughing and when he finished, gasped out, "I'm not planning on us dying."

Gabrielle responded, "Gotcha."

They settled back both worrying about their partners.  They repeated the same conversation two or three times a day for the past several weeks. Their concern growing with each passing day as their partners didn't show up and they got no messages.  Because of the plague, they didn't dare leave to search for them.  Now all they could do was alternate between worry and relief.
 

Ares and Iphicles stared at Aphrodite.

"Guys," she impatiently drawled snapping her fingers in front of their faces, "Did you hear what I said?"

"We heard you."  Ares picked up Aphrodite ignoring her automatic shiver of delight and put her down out of the way.  He started to open the doors.

"Ares you can't take those children to a plague area." Iphicles grabbed his shoulder and pulled him at him.

Ares impatiently turned around, "Why not?  It's not like they'll get sick."

Iphicles rolled his eyes impatiently, "Can you imagine the kind of havoc they would create?"

Ares and Iphicles stood staring at each other a moment before they got to the serious argument.

Aphrodite watched them.  They looked so very much alike.  Not just their bodies, but everything, the way they stood, the way they moved, and argued. And she smiled whimsically, the way they sulked.  She let them continue their argument for several minutes as palace servants and guards peeked in to see the commotion and abruptly left.  Finally bored, she walked between and pushed them apart slightly.

"Not that I'd mind being the filling in this sandwich," she purred stretching luxuriously drawing both men's attention to her breasts, "but don't you boys think that the children have been awfully quiet."

Iphicles and Ares' eyes met over the top of Aphrodite's head and then turned to the doors each grabbing a handle and yanking them open.

"Oh gods," moaned Iphicles as Hyllus flew up and pulled feathers off the chandelier then dropped back into Hercules' arms.  Hyllus made another trip into the air as Xena continued running along the walls and knocking feathers off.

Ares blinked from where he was to next to Hercules and caught Hyllus on his return trip.  "I think Iphicles would rather you not do that." He passed Hyllus to Iphicles sighing as he heard a thumping from underneath a chair with half-filled cushions piled in front.  He walked over, absentmindedly ordering, "Xena come down."  Sulking Xena stopped running around the walls and sat next to Hercules.  She ran her hands through her hair rapidly making it fluff wildly and shaking drips of sweat out of it.  Ares ignored her moving the cushions.  Hercules and Xena looked at each other, muttered "Uh-oh," together, and took off for the door.  When they got to the open door, they bounced back on their butts.

They slowly stood rubbing their sore butts then carefully reached for the doorway.  They stepped back as a flicker of light covered their fingers.

Ares finished pulling the last cushion and reached in to pull out Lenel.  He quickly removed the gag and untied him.  Sputtering Lenel stood up.  "I quit!"  He started walking out of the room.  "I'm not taking care of them anymore!"

Iphicles looked at him as Hyllus started crying. "Want Lenel."

Hercules and Xena looked guilty and cried sobbing, "No."

Hercules pulled Lenel into a hug, "We're sorry Lenel, I won't let Xena tie you no more."

He kicked Xena, who finally stood up, "I promise. Please don't leave."

Iphicles continued looking at Lenel who automatically took Hyllus when the child reached for him.  "Lenel, I'd like you to stay on and watch over Hyllus, when Ares takes Hercules and Xena to Iolaus and Gabrielle.  They're leaving tomorrow morning."

Ares leaned back smiling.  'Sometimes victory just falls into your hands.'

"Just Hyllus?"  Lenel checked.  At Iphicles' nod he agreed, "I'll stay with *Hyllus*."

"Ares are you really taking us to see Gabrielle?" Xena bounced from one foot to the other.

"And Iolaus!" Hercules bit his lip twisting to look at Ares and then Iphicles.

"We're going to go in the morning."  Ares stood up.  Hercules ran and grabbed him in a hug that lifted him off his feet.

"Thank you!  I want to see Iolaus a whole lot!"  He kissed Ares on the cheek as Xena ran over and jumped on them wrapping her arms around the two of them.

"And I want to see Gabrielle." She yelled into Ares ear causing him to wince.  Lenel took one look and stole away with Hyllus moving out of range of their enthusiastic affection as quickly as he could.  Xena started slipping and grabbed Ares and Hercules' hair to catch her balance.

"OW!" Hercules yelled twisting causing all three to land on the floor with Ares on the bottom.

He pushed them off spying Aphrodite standing just inside the door doubled over with laughter.  "It's Aphrodite's idea and I'm sure she'll help you pack for the trip."

She snapped up abruptly staring at him wide-eyed for the brief seconds before the two descended on her yelling in glee.  Their weight knocked her over.  They rolled on the floor trying to scramble up giggling.  They hugged and kissed her thanking her over and over.  Then they each grabbed one of her arms and started to their rooms.  She glared at Ares furiously as they dragged her out of the room towards the stairs.  Gabrielle and Hercules looked at each other and cheered.  "We're going to see Iolaus and Gabrielle!"  They screamed their way up the stairs to their room.  Dragging a bedraggled Aphrodite the entire way.

Iphicles flopped on the floor by Ares and they leaned together laughing at Aphrodite's squeals as the children continued playing with her.  Discord appeared laughing and holding an Ares dolly.

"That was mean twin, real mean."  She grinned, "Especially, since she got Artemis but good for you."

"Oh?" Ares lifted an eyebrow and looking at the doll.

"Artemis was having a nice full moon worship.  It turned into the biggest all female orgy outside Lesbos in a century. Her grove reeks."

Ares looked at his twin, "Aphrodite did that all by herself?"

Discord examined a nail, wrinkled her nose, and shrugged.  "So maybe she had some help getting around the shields."  She stepped back to vanish.

"Hold it," Ares looked at the doll in her hand, ignoring Iphicles' chuckles and Discord's innocent look, "Where did you get that doll?"

She lifted the doll to examine it.  "This dolly?"

"Eris," he said warningly.

She rolled her eyes, "As 'Dite would say, 'chill'.  They're all the rage." She grinned again.  "Apparently, rumors of your wonderful parenting skill have resulted in new bardic tales and the resurrection of the Ares Protector, Ares Defender titles."

"Eris, the doll?"

"Salmoneous is selling like faster than *anything* he's ever sold.  Kids love 'em.  By the end of the quarter every household in Greece will have it's own Ares the Defender dolly."  Ares shut his eyes shuddering at the idea and contemplating various methods of disciplining Salmoneous.  "Hermes already signed a distribution deal for Olympus, although those do have a slight alteration."

At the news of Hermes' involvement, Ares gave up the idea of revenge on Salmoneous.  Then he heard her say, 'alteration.'

"Alteration?" Ares asked with trepidation.

She pulled down the doll's pants briefly and vanished amidst giggles.

Ares sat on the floor stunned.

Iphicles leaned against him laughing.  He tried to get himself under control and did until he looked at Ares' face.  Then he doubled over laughing again this time so hard that tears came to his eyes.

Finally, Ares glowered at him muttering, "It isn't funny."

Iphicles leaned back on his elbows and shook his head blinking away laugh tears and snorted.  "Ares, Hermes is selling anatomically correct Ares dollies to the goddesses." He choked with laughter, finally managing to blurt out, "It's hilarious!"

Ares looks at him and slowly starts chuckling finally giving up and bellowing with laughter.  He pulls Iphicles to him and whispers, "You do realize that it would only take a costume change to make that an anatomically correct Iphicles, King of Corinth dolly.  Although I think he was a bit on the small side."

The doors slammed shut as Ares pulled Iphicles into a kiss.
 

A few hours later they walked up the stairs to Hercules and Xena's rooms. As they approached the area, they noticed that the guards had moved down a little further from their normal post.  And all the servants busied themselves - in another part of the castle.  As they approached the last set of guards, they heard some muffled thuds and yelling.

"What's going on down there?" Iphicles asked the guards.  The two men shifted uneasily looked down and then up at their king.

The ranking man spoke, "We're, um, actually sir we don't know."

"You don't know?" Ares asked sternly wincing at very loud thump coming from down the hall.

Regretting his promotion the guard cleared his throat stalling for a bit and finally responded.  "Well, um, well, uh, they, um, uh, um..." He looked desperately at his partner for inspiration while his king and the God of War examined him.

His partner mouthed risked a brief shrug and silently mouthed, "You're the boss."

Iphicles sharply barked, "Report."

"Aphrodite is with them sir, well, she's a goddess, we figured she could handle them."

Ares and Iphicles looked at each other with concern and hurried down the hall.  A few feet from the door they heard the arguing and Aphrodite's futile attempt to calm them.  Both men took a deep breath.  They set their bodies for battle and Ares decisively pulled the door open.

The room fell silent.

Hercules and Xena sat on their beds staring at each other sullenly.  Their bodies set in matching sulks as they both sat cross-legged and clutched their stuffed kitties and very full travel sacks.

Aphrodite stood her hands on her hips between the two beds turning her heads to glare first at Xena and then at Hercules.  Then back to Xena just as she stuck her tongue out at Hercules.

As she heard Ares clear his throat, she slowly turned around to face them.

Ares frowned; she looked shorter than usual.  He saw one of her high-heeled slippers embedded in the wall by its heel.  He quickly glanced around searching for the other one and found it in two pieces, most likely cut in half by a chakram.  He glanced back at Aphrodite.  One bodice-strap hung loose, her pink robe hung from various items in multiple pieces.  The pink fur trim drifted on small air currents slowly settling.  Her hair hung limply and small bits of stew smeared it, her face, and a small glob of gravy rested in at the top of the valley between her breasts.  The beads from her necklace and bracelets rolled on the floor.  Except for a few that rolled on the chairs and tables.  And one bracelet whose beads flew up from Hercules' bed as he bounced a little.

He glanced at her hands.  Counted.  Then counted again.

Four broken nails.

As Ares looked at her, Aphrodite did her own inventory.  Kiss swollen lips, mussed hair, beard burn on Iphicles' cheeks, love bites on both necks, Ares' unfastened vest, and Iphicles' ripped shirt.

Aphrodite met her brother's eyes.  She looked sweetly into them, smiled and in a light lilting voice.  "Well I sure had fun, all thanks to Ares, I promise I'll never forget this afternoon."

She patted him lightly on the cheek and vanished.

Ares stood silently calculating how much trouble he was in and what kind of *gift* would buy him out of it.  He winced and mentally gathered Aphrodite's clothes and jewelry back together depositing them in her Olympus temple, along with a suitably expensive gift.  A very large, ruby rose.

He heard her response in his mind.  *Next time you need a babysitter call Strife.*  He wasn't sure whether he was forgiven.  He shrugged making a note to stay out of her way for a couple of years.

That done he looked around the room shaking his head.  "What were you two
fighting about this time?"

Hercules bounced up standing on the bed and pointed to Xena.  "She said Gabrielle was the best 'best friend' and she's wrong!  Iolaus is!"

"He is NOT!" Xena yelled back, jumping off the bed then leaping back on it as Ares glared at her.  "Gabrielle tells much better stories!"

"Iolaus' stories are good!" Hercules protested.  "His stories are funny." At Ares' frown he sat back down on the bed, still bouncing it slightly.  "He can hunt and Gabrielle can't."

"So, she can cook and she has prettier hair." Xena stuck her chin out and crossed her arms.

"She does not have prettier hair.  Iolaus does. His hair is curly. And *he* fights better."  Hercules stuck his tongue out at Xena.

"Not anymore, Gabby fights just as good.  And she's cuddlier."

At that, Hercules sprang from his bed into the middle space.  "You take that back!  Iolaus is the cuddliest best friend ever!"  He shoved her back onto the bed and she kicked him in the stomach.

"No he isn't, Gabrielle is!" She jumped up punching him in the face causing a nosebleed.

Iphicles bellowed, "Enough!"

They stared at him.

"Bed," he ordered.  As they started protesting.  "NOW!"

"We need our bath!" Xena complained.

"My nose is bleeding." Hercules complained.

Ares quickly conjured a ball of fire and threw it in between the beds. They shrieked as the ball split and separated bathing each of them in cleansing fire.  When the fire died down they were clean and in their nightshirts. And Hercules' nosebleed had stopped.

Hercules whined, "I'm hungry."

Iphicles pointed to the remains of the dinner Aphrodite had conjured and they had fought with.  "Then you should have eaten that rather than thrown it around," he replied unsympathetically.

"What about our goodnight story?" Xena cried.

Ares took a deep breath and finished cleaning the room.  Then he barked, "Lay down."  They both scrambled into bed.  "No story tonight."  As they sat up he continued, "You were very naughty today, so no story, but if you're good tomorrow you'll get two stories."  They slowly lay back down cuddling their stuffed cats.

Ares went over to Xena tucking her in.  She whispered, "I'm sorry Daddy."

He gently brushed hair off her forehead and quietly said, "I know. Go to sleep."  As she fell asleep, he pulled Gabrielle's shirt out from under her pillow.

Iphicles tucked Hercules in quietly whispering, "I love you little brother."

"I love you too Iphy.  I'm sorry I made the feather storm."  Hercules curled up with Osko as Ares walked over.  "I'm sorry Ares."

Ares bent down and picked up Iolaus' blue shirt from the floor tucking that in by Osko.  "Go to sleep."
 

Gabrielle opened her eyes at the light tinkle of bells.  Meri was making her rounds.  She shut her eyes again as the lamplight stabbed them.  Meri carefully examined them.  Both ran high fevers and Iolaus moaned caught in fever dreams.  They shivered as chills shook their bodies.  Gabrielle convulsed with desperate coughs as her body tried to clear her lungs. Iolaus' breath rattled in his chest.   With a sigh, she called to her assistant,  "Move these two to the other tent."

Part 8

Ares flowed his energy and awareness back into his body.  He lay quietly in the bed next to Iphicles quickly considering what he'd learned of Gabrielle and Iolaus' conditions.  Both were seriously ill.  He'd alleviated their symptoms, draining their sinuses, ear canals, lungs, and lymph nodes of infection, temporarily clearing their congestion and reducing their fevers, and he'd repaired the torn and damaged tissue in their lungs.  As much as his work had helped them, it only bought him a couple of days.  He had the same success that Apollo had in isolating the particular virus, which was to say none at all.  And without ridding their bodies of the virus, the congestion and all the related symptoms would return.  Given the speed this particular virus moved at they would be back at death's door inside a day.

He silently cursed.  The only way to get there in time was to go directly using the twists in time and space.  And they'd made their feelings about that clear.  He recalculated the distance.  Even if he had gone directly to them, they would still be a couple of weeks away.  With their layover with Iphicles, they had at least three weeks of travel through mundane means, if Hercules and Xena cooperated and didn't act like six-year-olds.  Which wasn't likely.  He reviewed and discarded ideas throughout the night.  As dawn light streamed her first weak rays through the shutters, he finally
settled on a plan.

He'd tell them the truth.
 

"NO!" Hercules' long drawn out howl echoed through the palace.  "You're lying," he sobbed hitting him in the stomach as Ares tried to reach for him. Ares landed on his rear grimacing as he repaired a cracked rib.  "Iolaus isn't sick.  You're lying!"

"Hercules," Iphicles started gently.  Breaking off, he ducked under Xena as she flew at him.  She landed with a crash against the wall rebounding to her feet.

She picked up a chair and threw it at him.  Rapidly following up with other projectiles: shoes, a small chest, the water pitcher and glasses, the breakfast tray.  As she reached for her chakram Ares roared, "That's enough."  She sent the chakram flying.  It struck a wall rebounded to another wall, then the door, before flying towards Iphicles' head.  Ares caught it inches before it would have struck.

"I said, 'That's enough,'" he repeated impatiently.  "Now sit down!"

Reluctantly the two of them sat on their beds each grabbing their stuffed cats and their partner's shirts.  Tears streaked their faces as they sobbed. Iphicles and Ares looked at each other than at the two sullen and angry faces.  In unspoken agreement, Iphicles went to Hercules while Ares tried to calm Xena.

Iphicles sat beside Hercules making soothing sounds.  His brother turned to face the wall ignoring Iphicles' attempts to calm him.  As Iphicles continued to try and talk to his brother, Hercules covered his ears and shook his head.  Iphicles patiently continued making soothing sounds and reached around to hug Hercules to him, slowly rocking him back and forth. As he continued rocking, Hercules gradually relaxed finally burying his face in his older brother's shoulder to cry.

When Ares tried to sit on the bed Xena punched him in the nose.  He grabbed her wrist firmly holding it in the gentlest grip that would control her. Keeping her fist clenched for another hit, she bit his forearm.  Ares twisted his arm out of her teeth and continued holding her wrist.  When he didn't release her wrist, she bit him again this time clinging tenaciously as he attempted to free his arm from her teeth.  Blood welled up around her lips as her teeth broke his skin.

"Xena stop that."  Ares kept his voice calm and patient.  Yelling wouldn't help.

She rolled her eyes to look at his face and gave up unclenching her fist and teeth.  Ares waited a second then released her.  She immediately kicked out with both feet.  Expecting the move, Ares grabbed her feet and swung them around.  He sat on her legs.

She curled up pounding at his shoulder and face with both hands.  He quickly grabbed her wrists and head-butted her forehead as she leaned in to bite his nose.  "Xena if you don't stop I won't be able to take you with me to see Gabrielle."

She stared at him.  "You hurt me," she complained.

Ares raised an eyebrow and jerked his chin to point at his still bleeding arm.  "You bite."

"You taste yucky."

Ares patiently continued holding her wrists until she relaxed.  He cautiously let go then moved off her legs.  She quickly snatched up her stuffed kitty and then slowly curled up into a ball.  She started to softly cry, "I want Gabby."

Hercules heard her cry and sat up.  "If Apollo doesn't make Iolaus and Gabrielle better, I'm going to break all his temples."  He shook and a hand wiped tears off his cheek.  "I'll push the pillars down, and tear all the tapestries, and ... and I'll smash the altars."

Xena uncurled and slowly walked over to him as he continued sobbing threats. She gently patted his arm.  "I'll help," she whispered softly as they clung to each other and sobbed.

*Me too.* Ares directed a strong mental warning to his brother.  *If I get stuck with these two like this for the next few decades I'll not only help wreck your temples I'll do a little more personal damage in addition.*

His brother's exasperated and frustrated voice echoed in his mind.  *I can't cure the damn thing! What am I supposed to do - make them immortal!*

Ares ignored Apollo's complaint and crouched before Hercules and Xena.  He checked on Iolaus and Gabrielle quickly soothing her coughing and lowering
his fever again.  Gentling them both to sleep he created a window allowing
Hercules and Xena to see their peacefully resting forms.

"See they're sleeping."  He soothed the sobbing children.  "We can go to the
woods close by and camp.  Then I'll go check on them."

"Do we have to use the twisty way?"  Hercules stopped crying long enough to ask.

"Yes or it will take too long."

Hercules sat back quietly.  His face scrunched in thought as he considered his dislike for the mode of travel and Iolaus' illness.  Finally, his concern for Iolaus outweighing his fear he whimpered, "Okay."  As he stood up and held out his hand, he twisted his eyes shut.  He visibly shook with fear and tears leaked from under his lids.

Ares took his hand and pulled Xena up.  They stood each holding their stuffed cat in one hand and clenching onto one of Ares' hands with the other.  Ares quickly used his power to clean them and stood a moment relaxing into the flow of space, time, and matter searching for the smoothest path to where he wanted.

Iphicles stood in front of him and kissed him.  As he stepped back, the three vanished.  He shook his head looking at the mess they'd left behind. He quickly called for servants to clean up and repair the room.  Then quietly left to go play with Hyllus.
 

Ares appeared with Xena and Hercules in a small clearing.  They weren't far
from the quarantine camp.  He ignored the light warm spring drizzle. From
his perspective the trip it was a smooth trip, no incursions, collisions,
and minimal twisting and distortion.  However, Hercules and Xena both
dropped his hands collapsing to the grass and upchucking.  He shook his head
as they moaned their stomach's displeasure.

"That's yucky," Xena commented when she'd finished.

"Don't like going that way," Hercules complained.

They moved away from their vomit and Ares absentmindedly speeded up its
decomposition as he set up camp.  Moments later the two were standing in
front of him angrily demanding their friends.

"You said we'd see Gabrielle and Iolaus!" Xena yelled.  She stood arms
akimbo and glared at him.

"That's right!" echoed Hercules, "I want Iolaus!"  He stuck his chin out and
joined Xena in her accusing glare.

Ares continued mentally polling his relatives.

No one would baby-sit.

Ares took a deep breath ignoring their glares, complaints, sulking and other
signs of displeasure.  He thought a moment and grimaced.  He was going to
have to call in a favor.

*Hades!* he sent.

*I'm not babysitting those two hooligans.*  His uncle's mental voice was
calm and absolutely firm.

*You owe me,* Ares reminded him.  Hercules and Xena were exploring the
campsite.  He ignored Hercules' pulling on the tent peg collapsing the
structure onto Xena.  Instead, he continued his negotiations for a
babysitter.  *Didn't you say you were irritated at Charon?*

*Not THAT irritated,* came the calm response.

Xena had come out of the tent kicking and screaming.  Ares briefly checked
on the wrestling bodies.  Aside from a little hair loss, neither seemed in
any imminent danger.

*What about Strife?*

*STRIFE!  You want Strife to babysit Hercules and Xena?*  Hades' tone
clearly indicated his doubts concerning his nephew's sanity.

*I'm desperate,* Ares sullenly admitted as he created a force barrier
between the escalating pair.

Ares waited for his uncle's response.

He waited a few more minutes calmly distracting the two combatants with a
new ball.  As they started playing, he leaned back against a tree righting
the tent.

*This cancels the favor I owed you for calling off the skirmish last month
and I get first pick of Cerberus and Graegus' next litter.*

*That's a little steep...* Ares started to negotiate.

*You really need a babysitter.*  Hades pointed out.

Ares ignored the slightly gleeful note in his uncle's voice.  This entire
matter was becoming altogether too expensive.  Who knew that mortal children
were so expensive? He paused, wincing as Xena threw the ball at Hercules
catching him in the face and starting a nosebleed.  Hercules returned the
ball hard and Ares mentally caught it before it could break any of Xena's
ribs.  He passed the ball to Xena with a quick warning to be more careful
and reminding Hercules that she hadn't hit him in the face on purpose.

*Strife comes fully charged,* he finally conceded.

Seconds later Strife appeared with a huge grin and wriggling a little at the
sensation of being fully charged.  He turned to Ares ignoring Hercules and
Xena's glares.

"Yo Unc!" he shouted joyfully, "Hades said you had a job for me?"  He
glanced around at the campsite noticing the lack of soldiers and weapons,
and the abundance of toys.  He shook his head, certain that Ares couldn't
plan to waste him as a babysitter.

"So what you got for me?  A little war, a diversion?" He danced a bit of his
energy off ending by flicking his fingers at Ares shooting a small stream of
energy out.  "I'm charged up and raring to go Unc."  He grinned excited at
being back.

Ares ignored the flickers of energy.  He'd carefully experimented while in
Corinth and knew exactly how far he could wander from his newly acquired
children before Gaia's spell took over.  "Take care of those two.  I'll be
back."

He vanished.

Strife turned to face his new charges.  The ball caught him in the face full
force.  He staggered back.

"I don't like you!" screamed Hercules as he charged the temporarily revived
god.  Strife lunged out of his way as Xena charged from a different
direction catching him by the waist.  He twisted out of her grip and started
running with both Xena and Hercules chasing.  A litany of mingled
imprecations and curses guided them to Strife even when they lost sight of
him.
 

Ares returned to the clearing carting an unconscious Gabrielle and Iolaus
several hours later.  He stopped the cart examining the camp for clues.
Then stretching his mind out checking his tags on Hercules and Xena.  They
were several miles west of him.  He called Strife.  *Strife! What are you
doing out there?*

*Unc! Unc! You gotta come ...*

Ares furrowed his brows as Strife broke off with a yelp.  He called again.
*Strife!*  He frowned at the lack of response.  *Strife, it's time to stop
playing and bring those two back to camp.*  He waited a few minutes, then
certain that no one observed him he gently carried first Gabrielle then
Iolaus from the conjured cart to prepared bedrolls.  He settled them in
carefully examining their condition and setting up a rain shield.  He
carefully set the shield to keep them warm and dry and to alert him if they
moved.  Satisfied he smiled quietly stiffening at the approach of another
god.  He turned relaxing as Psyche popped into view.

She looked at the two sleeping sidekicks.  "Hm!"

"Hm, what?"  Ares asked relaxing as his daughter-in-law approached.

She grinned, "Hm - It's a wonder how fast Apollo can find a cure when you
threaten to sic Eris *and* Aphrodite on him."

Ares chuckled.  "You're here to compliment me on my intimidating Apollo?" he
asked in a tone that indicated that he didn't think any such thing.

"No.  I just figured that you might want someone to sit with the 'irritating
blonde sidekicks' while you rescued Strife."

Ares looked at her in confusion then quickly traced his tags back to the
children and vanished.

Psyche giggled lightly as she sat next to Iolaus and Gabrielle.  She frowned
at Iolaus' moaned, "Hercules?"

Leaning forward she promised, "He'll be here soon."  She touched his
forehead.  "Go back to sleep," she suggested.  Instead, he shook his head
rolling over and propping up on an arm preparing to stand.  "You really are
*that* stubborn."  This time Psyche's voice came in an amused whisper as
started pulling a knee under him and collapsed back with dizziness.  She
caught him gently lowering him back to the ground.

"Herc needs me," he explained readying himself for a second try.

"Don't do that," Psyche insisted this time holding him down with a light
hand to his chest.  She passed her other hand over his head and using a
trick Aphrodite taught her to use on Bliss sent him back to sleep.

A few minutes later she repeated the scene with Gabrielle.  The only changes
being Gabrielle's substitution of Xena instead of Hercules and her groping
on the ground for her staff.
 

Ares appeared a short distance from the three trying to assess the
situation.  He heard Strife's yelps of concern mingled with yelling from
Hercules and Xena. Along with the sound of a strong wind rustling through
branches and leaves, a very peculiar sound given the absence of so much as a
breeze.  The scent of ozone and burning surrounded him.  He quickly located
and extinguished a large number of small smoldering fires.  He was thankful
the damp conditions and light drizzle had controlled the fires.  He listened
again considering his approach.  Given the strength of Strife's yelping he
felt certain that he remained uninjured, so he calmly combed his hair back
with his fingers, straightened his leather vest, placed one hand on the hilt
of his sword and sauntered into the clearing.

Whistling.

They had him treed.

In a real big tree.

Hercules' arms wrapped only partway around the trunk as he shook the tree
back and forth causing it to rustle.  Xena had climbed up into the tree with
Strife and chased him around following as he jumped, somersaulted, climbed,
fell, and otherwise moved from branch to branch.  They both struggled for
balance as Hercules continued shaking the tree.  Xena managed it better than
Strife.

Both Xena and Hercules yelled at his struggling nephew to come down.  Strife
ignored them and continued his dance among the branches desperately trying
to stay out of their reach.  Given the number of bruises, Ares could see why
he was so desperate in his efforts.  He watched in amusement for a moment
then got their attention.

"Need help?" he called out to his nephew.

Hercules stopped shaking the tree a moment to look at Ares.  Xena turned too
quickly losing her balance and falling to a different branch.

"Uh not really Unc, we were ... just...uh... playing."  Strife responded
clinging to an overhead branch as he precariously balanced in the 'Y' of two
intersecting slender branches. Neither branch was sturdy enough to support
his full weight so he straddled the 'Y' one foot on each branch.

In that brief moment of stillness, Ares got a good look at the three
combatants.  All three were caked in mud, had bruises, torn clothing, and
scratches.  Xena and Hercules had some small burns.  And Strife had bite
marks.

Strife looked down at Hercules in concern as he resumed shaking the tree and
then searched for Xena who'd managed to get above him during the
distraction.  He quickly let go falling back in a layback to another branch.
He spun around as his hands grabbed the branch stopping his momentum at the
height of a handstand and bringing his feet down.  The tree shook again and
he fell, this time in an uncontrolled tumble.

Xena followed in a semi-controlled dive to land on top of him.  The two
continued their fall through the tree.  Ultimately ending in a heap of arms
and legs at the base.  Hercules let go of the trunk and grabbed Strife by
his hair and one arm.

Strife yelped as Hercules started shaking him as hard as he'd shaken the
tree earlier.

"Hercules, stop *playing* so hard with Strife.  Hercules stopped shaking him
a moment.  He turned to look at Ares then turned back and resumed shaking
his victim.

"You're mean and nasty and I don't like you!" he yelled emphasizing his
words with strong teeth rattling shakes.

"Yeah Herc!" Xena yelled jumping up and cheering him on.

Ares glared at her causing her to sit back down quietly.  He knew that
wouldn't last so he tried talking Hercules into putting Strife down before
she resumed her encouragement.  "Hercules put Strife down and I'll take you
to Iolaus."

Hercules stopped yelling and shaking Strife, but didn't let go.  When Strife
tried to wriggle out of his grasp, he gave him a hard shake.  "You stop
that."  He turned around still holding Strife.  "How come I can't beat up
Strife and then go see Iolaus?"

In desperation, Ares resorted to the final resort of all parents.  "Because
I said so."

Hercules weighed his options carefully thinking through the benefits of
beating Strife up versus the benefits of seeing Iolaus.  He frowned and
reconsidered his options.  Finally, he sighed and looked at Ares.  "Okay."
He carelessly threw Strife at the tree.

Ares winced as Strife hit the trunk butt first.

He held out his hands for Hercules and Xena to take.

Strife slowly climbed back to his feet grimacing at his broken tailbone.  He
quickly healed himself preparing to return to Hades.

Xena and Hercules each clung to one of Ares' hands as he shook his head at
Strife.  "You'd better clean everything up," he suggested, "You wouldn't
want Gaia mad at you would you?"  As Strife looked at him in horror he
laughed and vanished.

This time he was prepared for their violent nausea and quickly controlled
their bodies so that they only dry-heaved a couple times before settling
down.  After they recovered, they looked around the camp racing to Gabrielle
and Iolaus.

"Gabrielle!"

"Iolaus!"

"Gently!" Psyche reminded them as they roughly pulled their partners to them
rocking them close.  They both loosened their grips a little, Hercules
blushing and Xena smiling at Gabrielle.  Iolaus and Gabrielle blinked as
they woke up to look into their partner's eyes.  As they did so, Psyche
vanished with a whisper of thought to Ares, *All yours, father.*

"Hey Xena, what kind of trouble are you in now?" Gabrielle whispered
stroking a lock of Xena's hair off her forehead.

"I'm not in trouble.  My daddy's taking care of me," Xena explained calmly.
Gabrielle's eyes widened at the childish posture and tone.  Seeing that Xena
continued her explanation.  "He really good daddy.  He makes us good dinners
and plays with us and he tucks us in and tells us stories."

"Yeah he tells really good bedtime stories Iolaus," Hercules excitedly
joined in ignoring Iolaus' bewildered look.  "They're all about Nuk, who's a
rabbit of war and he's a lot like you, real curious, and he talks a lot and
bounces and always gets into a whole whole lot of trouble."  Hercules paused
his rapid sentence to breathe.

"Herc, Ares is taking care of you?" Iolaus asked gently, glancing at
Gabrielle and meeting her equally concerned eyes.

"Uh-huh." Hercules nodded his head.  "He takes real good care of us.  He
makes my special milk and helps me get my boots on and he found Osko and he
even made it so that Iphicles likes me!"  He looked at Iolaus and intensely,
"And he likes Iphicles a whole lot."

"Herc?"

Hercules confirmed nodding seriously.  "A *whole* lot."

Iolaus twisted in Hercules grasp to glare at Ares, who'd listened impatiently during the exchange.  "What did you do to them?" he demanded of Ares.

"This is Gaia's doing, not mine," Ares responded emphatically.  "She got
irritated because we busted one of her trees in a fight.  But it's almost
over."

Ares turned to Xena.  "Xena, will you promise to be a good girl for
Gabrielle?"

Xena looked at Gabrielle and then at Ares.  She spent nearly a minute doing
that and chewing her lip.   "No," she whispered.

"NO!" Ares bellowed near shock.

"NO!" Xena yelled back.  "I want to be bad like my daddy!"

"If Xena's gonna be bad then I'm gonna be bad too!" Hercules added
emphatically.

"Aw shit!" muttered Ares

Part 9

Ares stared at the two stubborn faces. He took deep breaths while he
considered blasting them both to Tartarus.  The only thing that prevented
him from doing exactly that was a desire to not piss off Gaia again.  He
considered his options and couldn't think of any good ones.  He couldn't
kill them, he wouldn't keep them, and they wouldn't say the magic words.  He
took another deep breath.

Gabrielle started coughing again, he sighed looking at his two new
additions.  Apollo cured them but they still needed to cough out the
remaining congestion and infection.  And regain their strength. Now he had
two overgrown six year olds and two sick adults.  As the two started trying
to cajole Hercules and Xena into agreeing to be good he amended his last
thought, two sick overprotective adults.

He knew that occasionally Fortune's sense of humor left a lot to be desired,
but this was going too far.  As soon as he finished his complaint his
cousin's voice echoed in his head.

*Don't blame me for this!  I'm staying out of the entire mess.  Talk to the
kids.*

He rolled his eyes, no longer able to ignore Xena's screaming.  "NO! I'm not
gonna be good!"

"Everyone shut up!" He stood using his most intimidating body language,
facial expression, and tone.

It worked, mostly.

Xena and Hercules immediately stopped yelling.  Gabrielle flinched and
visibly braced herself.  Iolaus, however, completely ignored his attempt to
intimidate them.

"Ares this is your fault - you had better come up with a plan to return them
to normal."  He braced himself as another fit of coughing overcame him.
Hercules shifted and pulled him into his lap patting him on the back.
Iolaus gasped, as Hercules' pats shook his body causing every organ to
vibrate.

"Herc, take it easy." He squirmed around to reassure him as Herc's face
fell.  "It's okay Herc, you just have to be gentle."

"Okay."  He stroked Iolaus' hair bringing him close and rocking slightly.
"You go to sleep."

"You too Gabrielle," Xena covered her partner with another blanket frowning
as Gabrielle tried to sit up, "No you go to sleep too."

"Herc, I can't go to sleep because you haven't promised to be good for me."
Iolaus looked seriously into Hercules' eyes making another attempt to cajole
him.

Hercules screwed up his face.  "I can't promise to be good until Xena does.
She's my friend and if she's gonna bad, then I have to be bad too, or she'll
be all alone."

Iolaus gave Gabrielle a desperate glance.  She shrugged and rolled her eyes
at Ares.  Iolaus shifted glaring at Ares mouthing, "You had better fix
this."

Ares ground his teeth together in frustration.  Finally, he shrugged and
retrieved the ball.  "Xena you and Hercules go play while Gabrielle and
Iolaus take their naps."

Hercules continued rocking Iolaus.  Xena stiffened and glared at Ares.  Her
lower lip jutted out as she prepared to yell.  Ares saw the stubborn set of
her face and glowered slightly.  "Xena, Gabrielle needs to rest.  She's not
all better yet.  Now you and Hercules go play in the clearing."

Reluctantly, Hercules put Iolaus down, tucking him in and gently patting his
hair.  Xena bit her lip and finally reluctantly got up and sulked over to
Ares grabbing the ball.  As she walked she scuffed her feet along the ground
kicking up dust demonstrating her displeasure.  Hercules slowly followed her
glancing back at Iolaus frequently.  Ares waited until they were well
engaged in boisterous play.  Throwing the ball back and forth and chasing
after it.  He kept just enough of his attention on them to be aware if they
got into trouble.

Gabrielle and Iolaus both pulled themselves up slightly to prop on their
elbows.

"Well Ares what are you going to do about this?"  Iolaus demanded between
coughs.

Ares squatted in front of them catching Iolaus' eyes.  "Little man you
really like living dangerously don't you?"

Iolaus stared at the glowing power swirling in his hand and the anger in his
eyes. He forced himself up more and met Ares' angry eyes with stubborn ones.
"You're not going to kill me.  You're stuck with Hercules until he promises
to be good for me.  That'll be awful hard for him to do if you blast me to
ashes."

"Iolaus stop fighting with him." Gabrielle glared at both of them.   "And
this is as much Hercules and Xena's fault as Ares'.'

"My fault!" Ares glared at Gabrielle.

"You might have tried explaining *why* and they might have tried *asking*."
She started coughing again.  "But it doesn't really matter, all three of you
enjoy those petty little fights you have and now you're all paying the
price."

As Ares shifted his glower between Iolaus and Gabrielle light laughter came
from behind.

All three grimaced as they recognized Aphrodite's giggles and she appeared.
"Have noticed Ares, that sometimes, not always mind you, but sometimes,
Gabrielle is right?"

"Thanks...I think."  Gabrielle responded glancing at Iolaus who'd laid back
down clearly tired.

"Besides Ares, you ought to be nice to Gabrielle, she has an idea."
Aphrodite grinned shrugging her shoulders and making Iolaus sit up again as
her breasts nearly popped out of her skimpy top.  Both men looked at her top
struggling to contain her breasts until her last statement registered.  Then
they both turned to look at Gabrielle.

"Well?" they asked together.

"Look Xena doesn't really want to be bad..."

"Well that's not what she's saying..." Ares interrupted in frustration.

"Ares be nice."  Aphrodite grinned making a counting money gesture with her
hands.  "Unless you *want* me to make even *more* money of my bets."

"...she really wants to be like her 'Daddy Ares'.  And Hercules is just
doing it out of loyalty." Gabrielle finally managed to finish.

"And that helps us how?" Iolaus asked.

Ares started shaking his head.  "Oh no.  No.  Absolutely not!"

Aphrodite and Gabrielle started nodding yes at the same time.  Catching on
Iolaus started giggling ending with a choked combination of laughter and
coughing.

"NO!"  Ares stood up.  "This is not going to happen."  He turned to glare at
each of the three in turn.  First at Gabrielle for daring to even think up
the idea and then at Aphrodite and Iolaus for their incessant giggling.
"You can just forget that idea."  He glared at each of them in turn causing
another round of giggles, including Gabrielle's this time.  He drew himself
up to his full height, used the face he normally reserved for recalcitrant
warlords and very firmly said, "When Tartarus *freezes* will that happen."

Xena's yelped, "Hercules you stop that," drew their attention to them.  She
stood in a tree skipping across branches and bouncing the ball between the
trunk and branches.  Hercules stood under the tree futilely shaking it.

"Xena!  You're not playing fair.  I want to play with the ball too!  You
come down and *share*!"  He shook the tree extra hard and Xena slipped
grabbing the ball with one hand and a branch with another.  She spun around
ending up sitting on the branch and throwing the ball up and catching it.
He shook the tree again and she dropped back hanging onto the branch with
her knees and holding the ball out of his reach.  She stuck her tongue out
at him.

"Ares!  Make her share," Hercules whined continuing to shake the tree.

"Or you could just keep them like that and take care of them till they die.
Of course, since they're both demigods, they might not - die I mean."
Iolaus provided him the option in his best straight man tone.

"Hercules stop shaking that tree.  Xena, get down from there and share the
ball.  I want the two of you to play nice," Ares ordered.

"Hey great 'firm daddy voice' Ares."  Aphrodite slapped him lightly on the
arm ignoring his scowl.

"No daddy!  I'm supposed to be bad, like you."  Xena sat back up frowning at
Ares.

Hercules stopped shaking the tree.  "Xena if you come down we can be bad
together.  That's more fun, like when we chased Strife or when we built the
dam..."

"Yeah!"  Xena sprung down.  And they two sat on the grass talking quietly
with their heads together.

Ares turned desperate eyes to Aphrodite, who now wore a fur coat.  "I think
I'm going to see how that cold front is coming along in Tartarus."  She
vanished, leaving rose petals and giggles floating in the air.

"Ares," Gabrielle managed to stop giggling, "all you have to do is convince
Xena that you're good."

He stared at her finally flopping to the ground with a groan.  He sprawled
there keeping half his attention on Xena and Hercules.  They continued their
planning session.  He ignored their occasional glances at him choosing not
to address their plans.

Iolaus looked over at them with concern.  He was easy to read.  His eyes and
body gave everything away.

"They're arguing over what to do.  Hercules wants to build another dam and
Xena feels that's repetitive.  By the time they agree on something it'll be
dark and I plan on getting them feed and asleep quickly."

Iolaus looked over at him.  "Uh thanks.  You know that god stuff would have
come in handy when I was a father."

Ares shrugged.  "Any ideas on how to convince Xena that I'm good?"  His
surrender was followed by long moments of dead silence.

Gabrielle and Iolaus looked at each other, at Hercules and Xena, the sky,
the ground, the trees.   They looked at everything and anything but Ares.
Finally, Iolaus looked at his bedroll shrugging.  "Not a clue."

 Gabrielle reluctantly shook her head.

"That's what I thought."  Ares lay back on the ground.  "You two really do
need rest.  Go to sleep."  He made the last statement an order pushing at
the edges of their exhaustion with his will.  They struggled a moment then
surrendered to sleep falling gently back.
 

Ares watched Iolaus slowly open his eyes blinking in surprise.  Hercules had
wrapped around him when he went to bed and still had one arm thrown over his
partner.  "They fell asleep a couple of hours ago."  He kept his voice
quiet.

Iolaus gently wriggled out from under Hercules' arm carefully not waking
him.  Xena lay asleep on Gabrielle's blanket, but Gabrielle was gone.
"Gabrielle?"
"Call of nature."  Ares jerked his head towards some bushes.

"Oh.  Is that soup?" He pointed to the pot reaching for a bowl and spoon.
Not waiting for Ares' response he ladled some into the bowl and started
eating.  "It's good!"

"Given a few centuries anyone can learn to cook."

Gabrielle came back helping herself to the soup. "Ares did you think of
anything while we were asleep?"

"I'm the God of War.  I don't do *good*."  He crossed his arms over his
chest daring one of them to disagree.

"Ares with that attitude you're going to be stuck with them forever."
Iolaus picked up the gauntlet.

A flush of anger crossed Ares' face.  He stood yelling.  "This isn't going
to work!" He lowered his voice to a near growl.  "I'm the God of War.  I
like battlefields.  I like the blood, the gore, the warriors screaming in
fury and pain.  I enjoy the smoke and fire.  I love the clash of arms."  He
leaned over them.  "And you're going to make *me* good?"  He shook his head
turning his back to them.

Gabrielle stopped Iolaus' response with a glare.

"Enough!  This isn't helping."  Gabrielle turned to Ares.  "Besides taking
care of Hercules and Xena what are you doing now?"

Ares kept his back turned and refused to respond.

When Ares didn't respond softly talked to him. "It can work.  They already
adore you.  *They* don't see the God of War.  They just see a daddy.  Both
of them."

Ares took a deep breath controlling his temper with difficulty.  Finally
deciding that working with them was the lesser evil he sat back down and
responded.  "Maintaining the quarantine.  Playing the King Nestor and the
rebels against each.  Playing Caesar against the senate in Rome.  Helping
Niobe set up the League of Kingdoms.  Working with a few warbands to stir up
trouble along the coast and in Corinth.  And making sure a couple of people
survive learning how to be a warlord."

During Ares recitation Iolaus looked at him clearly trying to piece together
the varied nature of his involvement in mortal affairs.

"Okay.  The quarantine is good.  We can use that.  Playing Caesar against
the senate - we can probably use that too.  We can definitely use setting up
the League of Kings."  Gabrielle nodded seriously.  She looked at Iolaus who
sat studying the ground obviously concentrating on something.

"Iolaus?"

He looked up.  "We can use everything."  She looked at him again.  Iolaus
smiled.  "You're preparing Greece for Caesar."

Ares eyebrows shot up.  He really hadn't expected either of them to pick up
the pattern.  He narrowed his eyes at Iolaus.  He reminded himself yet again
to stop underestimating blonde sidekicks.  Finally, nodding a brief
respectful acknowledgement of Iolaus surmise.

Gabrielle watched Ares' startled reaction.  She jerked her head around to
stare at Iolaus who leaned back grinning clearly pleased with reasoning out
Ares' motivations correctly.  She looked back at Ares in time to catch his
nod.  Turning back she glared at Iolaus.  "I give.  How did you figure that
out?"

"Caesar and the senate and Niobe and the league of kings were obvious.  The
stirring up of trouble in Corinth and along the coast helps maintain those
armies at readiness.  Ares is always nursing a few potential warlords along.
The plague's not related other than as example of him defending Greece.  But
I know Nestor and Calses who leads the rebels.  They are exactly alike.
Until we get someone over there who really will care the best thing to do is
leave them to fight it out and try and help the people who want to leave
out."  He looked at Ares seriously.  "Besides we all keep forgetting that
Ares primary duties as God of War is to keep mortal violence under control
and defend Greece.  Rome and Caesar threaten Greece."

Clap. Clap. Clap.  The sound of applause came from behind.

Ares sat waiting for his sister to decide to put in an appearance.  She
appeared before Iolaus and Gabrielle completed their turns.  Athena appeared
in the school teacher guise she used during the beauty contest Aphrodite
setup.  She gracefully conjured a rock to sit on.   "Well Iolaus you do go
straight to the heart of things."

"What are you doing here?" Ares glared at his sister furious at her
intervention.

"I *hate* your job and while you're stuck here, Father assigned some of the
more unsavory bits and pieces to me.  Battlefield appearances, dealing with
*your* warlords and petty tyrants - none of whom can think past their noses,
having to control some of the offshoots of undesirable violence that you're
too busy to handle.  All of which, mind you, I could manage, but having to
deal with Deimos and Phobus! Father just temporarily assigned those two..."

She got up and started pacing.  "Idiots, no that's overestimating their
intelligence!  Brainless nincompoops!  That comes a little closer to
describing the depths of their stupidity."  She strode up to Ares who
continued to sit on the ground.  "Oh stand up!  How can you just sit there?"

"Let me make sure I understand you."  He slowly stood up.  "You're stuck
with Deimos and Phobus until Hercules and Xena are cured."  His laughter
filled the clearing.  "Sister that almost makes this whole experience
worthwhile."

During the debate Gabrielle and Iolaus scooted back away from them.  As he
laughed again they moved closer together and backed further away.  Ares
noted their determination to stay out of their way and laughed even harder.

"You're enjoying this!" Athena lost her cool screaming at her brother and
poking a finger into his chest.  "This is not going to continue!"  She
emphasized each word with a finger poke.  "Those two *are* going to agree to
be good for Gabrielle and Iolaus and you *are* going back to fulltime God of
War.  And since you obviously can't manage it on your own.  I'm going to
help."  She ended squared off to Ares who continued laughing through her
diatribe.
Finally she backed away from him.  "Look good is nice, but good and boring
is better.  Let them see some of the less interesting aspects of God of War.
Working on treaties.  Prayer response reports.  The boring stuff!"  She
disappeared in a huff.

"Actually, she's right.  The treaties idea isn't bad."  Iolaus quietly
responded slowly scooting back to the fire now that Athena had vanished
again.  Gabrielle joined him as Ares slowly sat back down.  "Particularly if
you make it boring enough.  I mean boring and good, ought to convince them
for sure.  And then there's paperwork.  Hades always complains about it.
Don't you have some too?"

"You want me to be boring, too?"  Ares shook his head.  Using a slight flare
of power he commanded them, "Go back to sleep."  They dropped into a deep
sleep while he mulled over the possibilities.
 

A week later he sat against the stone Athena had conjured with a large pile
of scrolls and a quill.  He eavesdropped on Hercules and Xena.  He'd spent
the week doing the most boring and *nicest* elements of his job.  They had
to be bored stiff by now.  He would have abandoned himself days ago if he'd
had the choice.  Seven days.  Seven unbloody days.  No battlefields, no
gore, no mayhem, death, destruction, burning, pillaging.  Not even a
fistfight.

For the first day he'd helped Draco and Apollo's healer priests take care of
the recovering plague victims and if he never heard Meri's damned bells
again it would be too soon.

The second day he'd brought Niobe to him and reviewed draft after draft of
the Leagues treaties pointing out the traps and hidden loopholes.  He also
gave her a ground up lesson in battle tactics and strategy.  That managed to
take up two days.   He moved on to annotating two centuries worth of battle
scrolls noting the strategies and tactics of both sides and the impact of
natural and unnatural events upon the battles and wars.  Which spent another
two days.  He actually enjoyed those duties in small doses.

But now he'd hit the bottom.  The last two days he spent plowing through
four centuries worth of backlogged scrollwork.  Annual reports.  Budget
reconciliation.  Minor god evaluations.  Reviews of his priests and warlords
performance.    He'd just completed his second most hated task, reconciling
prayers, annotating responses or lack thereof with explanations.  He glared
at the scrolls his uncle had left.  Casualty accounts.  Hades' gleefulness
when he'd dumped the scrolls turned his stomach. He picked up the first
scroll and pulled the appropriate battle scroll from his pile and
laboriously started cross checking his casualty list with Hades'. He hated
this chore.  He hated it with a passion. There was a reason he hadn't done
it in nine centuries.  He had never planned on doing it again. He'd managed
to con Strife into doing a couple centuries worth about four centuries ago.
After that he hadn't been able to sucker anyone into doing it for him.  That
left seven centuries worth to go through.

So, he pretended to work on the scroll while he actually eavesdropped on
Hercules and Xena.

"What's he doing?"  Xena asked Hercules keeping her back to Ares and
throwing the ball up and catching it.

"More stuff with the scrolls."  Hercules frowned.  "I thought he got to have
fun all the time.  And he's not bad.  He helped us and the sick people and
he Niobe."  He sat down.  "Xena we won't have any fun at all if we do what
he does."

"He's my daddy."  Xena looked at Ares who ducked his head hiding a grin that
he hoped wasn't premature.  Ares managed to look completely engrossed in his
scrolls.

"Yeah, but you don't *have* to be like your daddy," Hercules explained in
his most serious voice.  "Zeus is my daddy and I'm not gonna be like him."
Hercules stole the ball from Xena jumping up behind her to grab it out of
the air.

She ignored his stealing the ball still looking at Ares.

"Gabrielle and Iolaus have lots of fun." Hercules pointed out now throwing
the ball into a tree and catching it on the rebound.  "They get to save
people and have fights and go hunting."  He turned to look at his brother.
"And they don't have to do scrollwork."

As Hercules finished Gabrielle and Iolaus walked across the clearing holding
fishing rods.  Gabrielle laughed at something Iolaus said.  Xena turned to
Hercules and grabbed the ball.  "And they cuddle good."

She tossed the ball to the ground and ran to them.  She looked at the rods
longingly.  "Are you going fishing?"

Hercules followed her and got there in time to hear Iolaus' response.

"Yes, Xena, we're going to fishing.  Why don't you ask your daddy if you can
come."  Iolaus grinned at them.  "We'll even let you fish without the pole."

"You will!  Really!"  Hercules jumped up and down.  "I can go in and catch
them with my hands?"

"If Ares gives permission."  Gabrielle cautioned.

"Ares can we go fishing with Iolaus and Gabrielle?"  Hercules yelled across
the clearing.

"If you promise to be good."  Ares gave the automatic response carefully
keeping his voice neutral.  They'd been playing this game for seven days.

Hercules looked at him bit his lip and turned to Xena.  "Xena it's time to
promise to be good.  I want to go fishing."

Xena looked at Ares once more working on the scroll then turned to look at
Iolaus and Gabrielle and their fishing rods.  A firm look crossed her face.
"Ares I'm going to be good for Gabrielle and Iolaus and go fishing."

"Me too, we're both going to be good for Gabrielle and Iolaus."

Xena and Hercules swayed a moment as Gaia's spell lifted and their adult
memories returned.

"Herc?"  Iolaus grabbed the swaying demigod.  "Herc are you okay?"

Gabrielle caught Xena in an embrace. "Xena!"

"I'm fine Iolaus."  Hercules lifted his partner off the ground and hugged
him pulling him into a deep kiss.

"Gabrielle," Xena whispered caressing her hair slightly, "I'm back."

"YES!"  Ares jumped up and danced a fast victory jig.  They turned to him
just in time to see a huge grin cross his face as fire engulfed the scrolls.

"I'm out of here!"  He vanished leaving the four in the clearing.

Hercules released Iolaus gently putting him down.  "I'm never going to see
him the same."  He grabbed the pole Iolaus had dropped.  "After we go
fishing, what do you say we visit Iphicles?"

"Xena any place you want to go?"  Gabrielle looked at her partner.

"Yeah.  All of a sudden I miss my mother's cooking."

They slowly walked laughing across the clearing.  Ares loosened some of his
tags letting their image fade.  He sat back on his throne.

"Well grandson, I'd say you made an excellent father."  He stood to look at
his grandmother.  She appeared in a gentler guise this time mimicking a
plump white-haired grandmother.

"Was that the point of all this."  He looked at her waiting for an answer.
When she didn't respond he shook his head.  "Okay they're not that bad."
She raised an eyebrow.  "What!?"

She stood there waiting for him to understand.  "It felt good to have them
see me as something besides war.  Satisfied?"  He sat back on his throne.

"You are and always will be Ares, Protector and Defender of Greece.  That is
much more than simply being the God of War."

She vanished.

End