Midsummer Night's Nightmare
By Roo

Prologue I : Faerie

The Court of Faerie was a court of nomads. While the lands of Faerie were mostly located in one place in time and space, the rulers of the land enjoyed travel. Especially when they wished to avoid each other, which was most of the time. Titania and Oberon's infidelities, arguments and battles were legendary even in the other realms, and few wished to stand between the aggressive couple. So, while the Court traveled, most gave them free reign with the understanding that the Court keep moving along and not settle in any one place. They generally avoided the rulers of the other realms and were in turn ignored, and so everyone was happy. Unfortunately, both Titania and Oberon had tempers that sometimes led them to become careless, not to mention that the continual intrigue of the Court meant that sometimes innocent bystanders were used as pawns and sucked into the battles. At this particular time, Oberon and Titania were fighting over her foster son, who Oberon rightly suspected his wife would soon take as a lover. While he was used to her many lovers, he was currently tired of his and wished to reconcile with his wife. And so it was that the Court of Oberon was chasing the Court of Titania, and both came to be in a small forest outside of Athens.

Prologue II : Mount Olympus (Throne Room of Zeus)

The throne room on Mount Olympus was a large and imposing room, calculated to make visitors feel small and insignificant. The windows were tall, designed for the viewing pleasure of the Titans. The white marble columns stretched into a ceiling so high it was barely visible, covered by clouds even inside the room. Every move produced an echo that reverberated for an awe-inspiring time. While Zeus found that it reminded most of his children of who was in charge and added a small measure of respect to their demeanors, this tactic failed utterly and completely when it came to Ares, who insisted on being insufferable even when he was being disciplined. Quite possibly, he mused to himself, because Ares spent more time here than most of his siblings, and so had become acclimated to the majesty of the throne room. And, he admitted to himself, because his son was an expert at taking every punishment, every humiliation, every pain and agony and shrugging it off as if it made no difference to him. In a way he was proud of the fact that Ares refused to be cowed or broken, but at the same time it meant that disciplining his son taxed his creativity and his patience.

Zeus glared menacingly at his son, who stood before him wearing what had to be the least convincing innocent expression in all of history.

"Ares, you've tried yet again to kill Hercules."

Ares shrugged. "If I'd tried to kill him, he'd be dead." Ares gave his father a look that somehow managed to combine innocence and a smirk. Zeus shook his head in resignation.

"It's time you learned some humility. Maybe, if you had to live like your brother, you could become more like him."

"What?!? What are you talking about? Why in Tartarus would I want to be more like that annoying, self-righteous, sanctimonious..." Ares' tirade was cut short as Zeus waved his hand and Ares' sword disappeared.

The war god realized that something was different... wrong. And suddenly the throne room looked much bigger and much more imposing. In fact, it actually seemed to loom at the moment.

"Because, unlike you, your brother has the ability to care about others. Maybe, if you were to live among mortals and come to depend on them and get to know some of them, you would appreciate them. And not," at this, Zeus began poking a surprised Ares in the chest, "using them as toys and breaking and discarding them at your every whim."

Ares stood before his father, trying to understand exactly what was happening. Of course, he knew already what his father had done. It wasn't the first time this had happened to him, after all, but he was hoping that he was wrong. Lately his motto in life had become "Mortality sucks", and it looked like he was going to be afforded a chance to add more items to his list of exactly why it sucked.

Zeus walked to his throne and sat on it, looking down at his son. "As of this moment, you are mortal. Yet again. You are being sent to Athens, where you will find Hercules. Your sword is in Athena's temple in Sparta. You have two weeks to make your way to the temple and retrieve your sword. If you cannot do this, you will remain mortal and Athena will become the God of War. I would advise you to think carefully and swallow your pride and ask Hercules for help, if you wish to continue as God of War." With this, Zeus sent his son to Athens, cutting off what was quite an impressive and inventive litany of curses.

Somehow, Zeus knew that Ares would not only succeed at this, but would come out on top. But at least he had made an effort. He sighed and slouched lower in his throne, trying in vain to think of something he could do to smash some sense into his wayward son, not to mention his wife.

Prologue III : Palace of Duke Theseus, Athens (The Bedchamber of the Duke)

Duke Theseus of Athens, a tall and dignified man, tried desperately to ignore the pounding at his door.

He failed. The voice at the door was his steward, Demetrius, who had survived years of court intrigue, political schisms, and had even foiled an assassination attempt, but who currently sounded as if he were faced with the greatest crisis of his life.

"My lord!" The pounding increased in intensity. "My lord, it's very important to speak with you about the wedding plans! Sir, Hercules is with me!"

"Fuck!" This came from the Duke's bedmate, who suddenly ceased his previous highly excited sucking of the Duke's cock and quickly slid under the bed. The frustrated and confused Duke suddenly found himself alone in the bed just as the door opened with a crash, admitting a flustered Demetrius and an exuberant demigod.

"Duke Theseus!" Hercules strode forward, his entire face lit up with a warm smile and his arm outstretched. The Duke grasped it automatically as he wondered exactly what horrible fate would befall him if he were to have the son of Zeus executed. But Hercules, ever excitable, was on a roll. "Duke, I can't thank you enough for inviting us to this wedding. The alliance of Sparta and Athens will help bring a lasting peace to this region."

"Well, um, yes it will..." the Duke trailed off as he realized that Hercules had merely been pausing for breath, not looking for a response.

"And this peace will, above all else, make the area safe for the people." At this, Demetrius pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose, an expression of pain on his face. The Duke could swear he heard a snort from under the bed. But Hercules continued, "You, as the ruler, have an obligation to your people. Without them, you would be nothing." Theseus nodded, wondering if this lecture would end soon. Based on the look on Demetrius' face, he suspected the hero was just warming up.

"So you see, the wedding ceremony, while it is a formal occasion, should be open to everyone. The people should be invited to the ceremony and should take part in the festivities." At this point the Duke thought there was a real danger of Demetrius fainting in sheer horror. He took a deep breath, prepared to interrupt, when Hercules again continued. "In fact, as we came here, I saw a group of people performing on the street. Why don't you let the people of Athens show you their talents? They can provide entertainment for the wedding!" Hercules was obviously taken with this idea and turned to the Duke, who suddenly realized that he was in bed, naked, and so had nowhere to run, not to mention that his dignity was being seriously compromised here. He pulled the covers more securely around his waist and tried his best to act composed.

"Theseus, why don't you let the people entertain you? They can show you that they're not just workers and peasants, but that they are individuals, each with their own special talent."

The Duke, knowing when he was beaten, looked thoughtful and as dignified as he could under the circumstances. He paused and then nodded his assent. "You know, you make several excellent points. Having the people participate by providing the entertainment will help them to feel appreciated. In fact, we can make it a contest and offer a reward to the best performers." He waved a hand at Demetrius, who recognized that the demigod was once again being handed to him, and took Hercules' arm as the Duke continued, "Demetrius will take you to see our court scribes, who can design announcements. I'm sure you'll want to supervise and help distribute them. Demetrius will take care of all the details for you." Demetrius led Hercules out the door, shooting an apologetic look at the Duke.

As soon as the door shut completely, the Duke heard hysterical giggles from under his bed. Leaning over the bed he lifted the brocade coverlet to glare at the semi-hysterical and completely naked King of Corinth, who was curled in a ball fighting a fit of giggles.

Theseus glared. "I trust you're amused?" He lifted his left eyebrow in what he knew was often considered a menacing gesture, but Iphicles continued to laugh helplessly. "Would you at least come back up on *top* of the bed?" He watched, amused against his will, as the laughing king crawled on top of the bed, only to sprawl next to him gasping for air as a few final giggles escaped.

"Is he always that bad?"

"Oh, Gods no! He's usually worse." Theseus looked at Iphicles, shocked. "You did a great job of cutting him off, by the way. Sending him to the scribes was a brilliant idea. Otherwise he would've taken over completely. I know you're trying to reward him for saving the city from that gorgon, or whatever the monster of the week was, but I could have told you that letting him get involved with the wedding plans would be a disaster. You'd be better off with the gorgon, really."

Iphicles tried to look as serious as a naked man in bed with a smudge on his nose can look, as he imitated his brother's voice. "If it was up to him, there would be no food served but bread, cheese and fruits. Anything else is conspicuous consumption, and wasteful and should be used to help all of the starving people throughout the countryside. And of course, you wouldn't be allowed to have any servants, because they're people too. Can't go around exploiting the common man or restricting the common man's dignity. Not when Herc's around." He sighed and threw an arm out in a dramatic gesture. "By the time he got finished with this, you'd feel so guilty for having money that you'd throw yourself off the highest wall of the castle, and Hippolyta would feel morally obligated to become a Hestian virgin and pledge her life to helping orphans of war, despite her notorious dislike of small children."

Theseus looked at Iphicles in horror. "How do you stand it?"

Iphicles shrugged. "Mostly I ignore him. When he comes to visit, which is luckily once every few years, I make sure I have plenty of notice. I hide the good silver and tapestries, give half the servants time off, and agree with everything he says until he leaves. He never stays long, so it works out fairly well. As soon as he leaves the servants put everything back and get back to work, and I take a few days to rest and relax before my head explodes."

Theseus suddenly found himself profoundly grateful for his profligate brothers who visited often and usually ate and drank until they threw up. He was distracted however, as Iphicles slid down his body and picked up where he had left off.

Prologue IV : Streets of Athens

The people of Athens, normally a jaded lot, found themselves staring at the three figures arguing in the center of an intersection. There was a tall and regal warrior, dressed in leathers and armor. There was a small blonde woman wearing foreign garb and looking distinctly unhappy. And then there was... the man who could not be categorized. He was full of energy, unable to stand still, which was a shame because all of his fidgeting caused his ragtag collection of, well, armor, to clatter alarmingly. Several locals settled in to watch the show.

"Look, I know you like Gabby and all, but let's face it, she is *out* of the sidekick business. She won't fight. What good's a sidekick who won't fight?" Joxer looked up at Xena, his arms crossed over his chest, as he attempted to make his point.

Xena took a deep breath, counted to twenty and spoke slowly. "Joxer, Gabrielle and I have been traveling together for a long time. Just because her Way is that of peace, that doesn't change anything between the two of us." Xena and Gabrielle gave each other mutually beatific smiles as Joxer looked on, befuddled.

"Yeah, but you're a warrior. I mean, you're the *Warrior* Princess, right? Um... you *are* still a warrior, aren't you?" Joxer suddenly looked unsure as Xena placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "Yes, my Way is that of the warrior. At least in this lifetime."

Joxer brightened up immediately. "That's great! So you're going to still be doing the heroic warrior gig, right? And to be a heroic warrior, you need a sidekick! And Joxer the Mighty is your man! I mean, I could have a sidekick of my own and all, but working with you, well, it would help me get exposure, you know?"

Xena took several more deep breaths as Gabrielle shook her head and wandered off. "Joxer. I do. Not. Need. A. Sidekick. Understand?" She realized immediately that he didn't, as the familiar mule-like look came over his face. She told herself that it was be extremely bad for her karma to kill Joxer, no matter how tempting it might be.

"I know you care about Gabrielle, but let's get real here. She's useless to you. In fact, she's a liability at this point." Joxer ignored the black look on Xena's face and pressed on, hoping to make her understand. "If a bad guy wants to get to you, all he has to do is grab Gabrielle. It used to be that if they tried to grab her, she'd whap them a few times with her stick and they'd slink off with their tails between their legs. What's she gonna do now, tell them to feel the love?" Xena and Joxer both turned to look at Gabrielle, who was standing on a corner attempting to hand flowers and small scrolls about peace and love to passerby who scurried past her, avoiding her eyes. Xena sighed. Much as she hated it, he did have a point.

Joxer could see it in her eyes, he almost had her. He closed in for the kill. "But if you had Joxer the Mighty for a sidekick, and someone tried to grab me, well, I'd grab my trusty sword," he attempted to unsheathe his sword, but it snagged on the bottom of his shirt, ripping a hole in the thin material. Damn. This wasn't working quite right. "Um, I'd grab my trusty sword and I'd attack them," he cried triumphantly, waving his sword wildly in the air as Xena winced and ducked, "and send the survivors off to tell everyone to beware of Joxer the Mighty!" He finished with a flourish, already knowing it was hopeless. Xena smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"I'm sorry, but I just can't imagine my life without Gabrielle." She watched as Joxer visibly deflated. "But I heard Hercules and Iolaus are in town for the Duke's wedding. Maybe they know of someone who needs a sidekick. Or someone who could be a sidekick for you." She walked off to gather Gabrielle and her small pile of flowers and scrolls and Joxer stared after her. If she had turned back, she would have been surprised at the uncharacteristic look of intelligence and understanding on his face.

"Yeah, right." Joxer turned and walked in the opposite direction.

Act 1 Scene I : Duke Theseus' Palace, Athens (Courtyard)

Theseus and Iphicles strolled through the courtyard, nodding and smiling politely at the various dignitaries who were trying to unobtrusively obtain information to use to stab each other in the back. Theseus watched two lifelong enemies greet each other with ebullient smiles and hug warmly. "Fucking vultures." Theseus shook his head at the sight. "So many of them are so consumed with politics and backstabbing and petty personal vendettas that they just can't see the big picture. It's a wonder the nobility has survived as long as it has."

"That's why people like us end up in power - so many of them screw up and as a result new blood creeps in." Iphicles replied to his old friend, remembering their many philosophical debates during their Guard days. "Of course, sometimes the new blood isn't any better. Or the new rulers are just too naïve and get eaten alive or turned into puppets. Look at Egeus over there," Iphicles nodded toward a florid man who looked as if merely standing up was an act of sheer will, "His advisors have him by the balls. They run the show and use him as a figurehead. If he causes problems, no one will be surprised if he suddenly dies of heart failure in the middle of the night."

Theseus shook his head. "That's why I'm grateful to have Demetrius. If it wasn't for him I never would have survived. When my uncle's family was killed and I inherited the throne, Demetrius stood by me and helped me through the shark-infested waters. Not that I have to tell you that - you were lucky to inherit a good bunch from King Jason."

"Definitely," his friend agreed, "But I've never had to deal with a marriage of state. At least not yet, thank Zeus. How are you dealing with all of this?"

"Pretty well, I think. Or so Demetrius tells me." Theseus laughed. "I've met Hippolyta. Frankly she's a bitch. She was raised by Amazons and doesn't like the idea of being forced into marriage. But she said that as far as men go, I'm less of a pig than most."

"Sounds like true love," Iphicles commented dryly. "Speaking of the blushing bride, isn't that her over there?"

Theseus craned his neck and saw Hippolyta and her ever-present bodyguard Hermia. He nodded gloomily. "Yes, that's them. Suppose I should greet them. I wouldn't want to give the palace gossips any more ammunition than they already have."

Iphicles looked at him, trying to keep a straight face. "If you were worried about the gossip, you really shouldn't have yelled at the top of your lungs last night."

"Fuck you."

"Later. Unless you really want to give the gossips a taste of Elysium."

The two men made their way toward the women. Hippolyta was a tall woman, regal in bearing and elegant in dress, who was a perfect physical match for the Duke. Hermia, her bodyguard-cum-handmaiden, was obviously an amazon warrior, dressed in revealing leathers and carrying a fighting stick, her long brown hair pulled back into a thick braid and her deep brown eyes always in motion. Hippolyta smiled a fake smile at Theseus as Hermia glared at the two men.

"So, my Duke, it's four days until the blessed event." She looked around and saw that they were the center of attention, and so she took Theseus' hand and began to lead him away as Iphicles and Hermia followed at a not-quite-discreet distance. "I don't supposed you have any illness that could cause you to suddenly drop dead in that period?"

"No, I'm afraid I don't. Do you?"

"No." Satisfied that they were out of earshot of the crowd, Hippolyta continued to smile and hold Theseus' hand, but her voice was one of ice. "Duke, you know my position. I'm being forced into this wedding against my will. Despite my bloodline, I was raised an Amazon, and I don't like being bartered like some brood mare!"

Theseus stepped back, surprised at the venom in her voice. Iphicles stood forward to help his friend, but found his way blocked by Hermia and her fighting staff. Hippolyta looked at both men with contempt. "And you should keep your boy-toy on a leash before he gets hurt."

Iphicles stood quite still and stared at Hippolyta with a blank look on his face. When he spoke, his voice was quiet. "My lady, perhaps you don't understand caste, being an Amazon and all. You see, I'm a King. Theseus is a Duke. This means I outrank him. So, in point of fact, *he* is *my* boy-toy." With that, Iphicles turned and stalked away, as Theseus followed him, trying hard not to laugh.

"You're right, she's an incredible bitch."

Act I Scene II : Athens, a Small Inn

Gabrielle sat on the floor in the lotus position, breathing deeply and chanting softly to herself. "Inhale the light. Exhale the dark. Inhale the life. Exhale the death. Inhale the beauty. Exhale the ugly. Inhale in the peace. Exhale the hate." Xena, sitting on the bed, found herself sharpening her sword almost hypnotically to the rhythm of Gabrielle's voice. Once she finished her chanting, Gabrielle went into her morning sun salutation, a series of stretches that Xena very much enjoyed watching, since they showed off Gabrielle's impressive curves. She settled back on the bed, happy to have a quiet morning with no danger looming. Of course, it couldn't last. There was a loud knock at the door, and a familiar rattle in the hall. Gabrielle stopped in mid-stretch and glared at the door. "Morning guys!" The inevitable happened. The door opened and there was Joxer, his smile bright enough to light up several houses. "I brought breakfast. Did you guys know Felafel is here for the wedding?" He plopped himself on the bed next to Xena, ignoring her warning look. "This is going to be such a big shindig. It's really amazing. I don't think I've ever been to such a big party before. Anyhow," he puffed out his chest, "when I told Felafel I was with you guys, he gave me these."

"Joxer, you are not 'with' us." Gabrielle said through gritted teeth, as Joxer leaned forward to hand her a strange object. "What is this?" Xena was also looking at hers suspiciously. "It has a hole in the middle."

"Yeah. It's supposed to. Felafel said they're called 'bagels'. He learned about them from some woman traveling from east of here. They're really pretty good."

Xena tried hers cautiously as Gabrielle looked on. "Hm. Not bad. Kind of chewy. I wonder how well they travel?"

"Felafel said they're supposed to be eaten with some sort of fish and cheese, but that just sounded kind of…" Joxer shuddered delicately as he devoured his bagel. "So, what's the plan for today?"

Both women looked at the wannabe and then at each other. Xena looked at Gabrielle hopefully, but Gabrielle clenched her jaw and looked away. Xena sighed and turned to Joxer. "We've decided to leave town before the wedding. While it's been nice seeing Hercules and Iolaus and everyone again, we both want to get on the road again. I'd like to go visit my mother."

Joxer looked as if someone had just told him his dog died. Suddenly the room seemed a lot smaller and gloomier. "Oh. Can't you wait a while? The wedding's in four days. That's not too long."

Gabrielle looked up and her face softened. "Sorry Joxer, but you know how Xena is with crowds. They make her twitchy. And I'm itching to hit the open road too. You know how that is. Wanderlust, the desire to always see what's over the next hill, what's in the next town, what adventure lies ahead."

The wannabe mustered up a small smile with a great deal of effort. "Yeah, sure. I know exactly what you mean. Gallivanting around the country, righting wrongs, singing songs, all that stuff."

"Yeah, all that stuff." Gabrielle playfully punched him on the shoulder.

The smile got brighter, and Gabrielle winced internally as she saw what she had dubbed 'the deluded Joxer look' (which was different from 'the insane Joxer look' and 'the idiotic Joxer look', among others) come into his eyes. "You know, I'm kind of tired of staying in town too. I could use a little adventure. Why don't I come along? You know what they say: Three warriors are better than two!"

Gabrielle glanced helplessly at Xena, knowing that yet again she had somehow managed to lead Joxer on. Xena, taking pity on her, leaned forward. "But you just got through saying how excited you were about this wedding. We know you've really been looking forward to it."

"Well, that's true. But…"

Xena pressed her advantage. "And how often do you think you'll get to see a real royal wedding? This is a once in a lifetime opportunity."

"And we'd both feel horrible if you missed it because of us." Gabrielle chimed in, her best hurt puppy dog look on her face. "You've been so excited about it, I'd feel really guilty."

Joxer, being Joxer, immediately felt guilty at the idea of making Gabrielle feel guilty. He scrambled to his feet. "No, that's all right. I mean, you're right. You're both right. This is history in the making. And maybe something will happen. Something horrible. And I can help save the day!" The 'deluded Joxer' look was on again, but somehow this time it made Xena smile. "You're right Joxer. Anything could happen."

"Yeah!" Joxer shook his head enthusiastically. "I guess I should go then… You two have a safe trip, and say hello to your mom for me, okay?"

Xena smiled. "I'll be sure and do that."

Both women breathed a sigh of relief as he bounced out of the room.

Act I Scene III : Back Alleyways of Athens

Ares was pissed. First, he was mortal. Second, he was in Athens. He hated Athens. The Athenians were a bunch of play-writing, poetry spouting, peace and love promoting wusses. He much preferred Sparta. Now there was a bunch of people who knew what it was all about. To add insult to injury, Athens was swarming with people. Happy people. It was enough to make him sick. Of course, nothing could compare to the humiliation he would have to face if he had to ask his brother for help. He had no idea where to find Hercules, but had a distinct feeling that if he asked, people would tell him. Cheerfully. And then he'd be forced to kill them, because he hated cheerful people. There had to be another way. The former God of War continued to prowl the dark alleys, avoiding people, a virtual thundercloud following him.

Act I Scene IV : Streets of Athens

Hercules stood in the hot sun, wondering for the hundredth time why he had let Iolaus talk him into this. Iolaus paced, full of energy as usual, as he watched passers-by, looking for familiar faces. Suddenly he spotted someone and began to call out and wave.

"Salmoneus! Over here!" The small man had to all but hop up and down to be seen through the crowd, so Hercules took pity on him and began to wave also. Salmoneus spotted them easily and fought his way through the crowd to the small courtyard in front of a tavern where the two friends stood. Reaching them, he hugged both men as well as he could, since his arms were full of scrolls.

"You know, I can't believe you're both willing to do this. This is so wonderful!" Salmoneus was practically salivating. Iolaus brushed his hair back and grinned. "Well, you know, I always wanted to be an actor. In fact, back at the Academy we put on a few plays and I always got to be the lead." Hercules refrained from mentioning that this could be due to the fact that no one else wanted to be in the plays at all, much less be the lead. But Iolaus was obviously excited, and Hercules was always happy when Iolaus was happy. His friend's good moods were contagious. "So, did you find a play and some other people?"

Salmoneus nodded vigorously. "The play's by a new, up and coming playwright. His name's Nonymous. I think he's going to be the next big thing. And I ran into a very nice pair of women who said they knew you, Hercules." Hercules nodded and hoped that they weren't some of the many women whose goal in life seemed to be to tear his clothes off. "They should be here any… Look! There they are!" This time Salmoneus began to hop up and down and wave. Hercules saw a familiar figure through the crowd and his face lit up as the young brunette pushed her way into their little clearing.

"Althea!" Hercules ran forward and hugged his old dance partner. "Look at you! What're you doing here?"

Althea returned the hug with interest. "Everyone in Greece is here for the wedding. I ran into Salmoneus here, and he said you needed some help with a play. Since you've done so much to help me, I figured…" She shrugged somewhat helplessly and blushed. Meanwhile, Hercules finally noticed Iolaus making "who-is-that" gestures at him and turned Althea around.

"Althea, I'd like for you to meet my best friend, Iolaus. Iolaus, this is Althea. She was my first dance partner, and she's also a brilliant fashion designer." Althea held out her hand as Iolaus bowed and kissed it gallantly. She giggled, then quickly covered her mouth in horror and turned bright red. "I thought I could help with costuming for the play."

"And so you shall," Salmoneus swooped up from behind her and put his arm around her shoulder as he began to gesture dramatically. "I envision a grand play. Epic scenery, lush costuming, and lots of skin showing. Think you can do that?" Althea nodded, somewhat dazzled.

Suddenly Hercules remembered something. "Salmoneus, you said there were two women. Where's…" He broke off as he heard a familiar falsetto "Yoo hoo!" and saw a parasol begin to punch its way through the crowd. There was a chorus of ouches and various curses interspersed with "Excuse me… Lady coming through… So sorry, but if you had moved your large body… Oh, sir, did I really touch your behind? So sorry, complete and total mistake, I assure you…" Hercules found himself standing open-mouthed, as usual, at the latest entrance of the Widow Twanky as she glided into their midst with her usual grace, straightening her bodice and appraising all of the men. She fluttered her eyelashes at Iolaus as she approached Hercules, her arms open.

"Hercules," she sighed dramatically, as she hugged him. Hercules returned the hug, not at all surprised to find her feeling him up. He sighed. He loved Althea, but why did the Widow Twanky always seem to appear when she was around? More importantly, why did the Widow Twanky always appear when *he* was around? She let go of him and stood back, an appraising look in her eye. "Have you been eating lately dear? You look a mite," she paused and licked her lips, "peaked." Hercules always felt like a schoolboy around the Widow, and so he shuffled his feet and said nothing. Luckily for him, her eyes fell on Iolaus, and she turned back to Hercules and said archly, "Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?" Hercules stepped forward and weakly gestured. "Iolaus, may I present the Widow Twanky. Widow Twanky, this is my friend Iolaus." The Widow offered Iolaus her hand, and as he stepped forward to kiss it he hesitated at the frankly predatory look in her eye. Who exactly was this woman? In back of him, Althea chimed in, "The Widow Twanky is a brilliant dancer, one of the best in Greece," she sighed. "And I'm sure she's as good an actress as she is a dancer."

The Widow Twanky fluttered her fan in an impressive display of faux modesty. "Well, my dear, I was an actress early in life." She sighed dramatically. "But my career was cut short. I was in a play, as the romantic lead, and I fell in love with my leading man. He was handsome, debonair, charming…" she inserted a well timed pause as Althea looked on, eyes wide, and Hercules sighed to himself, "He was my third husband." This time Iolaus looked at Hercules in shock and mouthed "Third?" as Hercules replied with a "You don't want to know" look. The Widow continued. "The poor boy, he had such dreams. We would continue to act together. Our off-stage passion would translate onto the stage so well. But then," she raised a hand to her forehead as she lowered her voice, "he was struck down." She stifled a sob as Iolaus stepped forward and placed his arm around her shoulders. "He was killed?" he asked gently. "No, no, silly goose! By the critics! He was a terrible actor, just terrible. But he was a wonderful dancer. So we turned to dancing. He was killed when he fell off the stage. A tragedy, but the show went on." She shook off Iolaus and twirled around before sitting in a chair. Hercules tried not to laugh at Iolaus' slack jaw. He decided that a change of subject might be best.

"Salmoneus, is this everyone? Salmoneus?" The salesman was staring at the Window Twanky, obviously entranced. The Widow, however, was batting her eyelashes at Iolaus. Hercules waved his hand in front of Salmoneus. "Hello. Greece to Salmoneus."

"What?" The salesman finally snapped out of his trance, although he slipped several glances at the oblivious Widow. "Oh, the play. Actually, we need one more person. Other than that we're ready to go."

Iolaus was still staring at the Widow Twanky, looking like a small rodent caught in the gaze of a cobra. Hercules took his arm and dragged him over to Salmoneus, and the small group formed an informal huddle. Salmoneus, ever the consummate salesman, quickly took charge.

"Okay people, like I was telling Herc, this play is by an up and coming new writer." He paused in case the Widow had any bawdy stories about late husbands who were writers, but she merely twirled her parasol. "This play has everything : Comedy, drama, passion and pathos. We'll make them laugh, we'll make them cry. It's just so beautiful." He dabbed at the corner of his eye with the sleeve of his robe. "The name of the play is," he dug around in the pile of scrolls he had dumped on the table, "Ah, here it is! It's called 'The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby'."

Hercules stopped for a moment to consider this. Then, with great consideration he looked at Salmoneus. "I don't understand. How can a comedy be lamentable?" Salmoneus looked at him like he was an idiot. "Don't worry about it. It's artistic license." Hercules wasn't sure, but Salmoneus was distributing the scrolls. "Here's everyone's parts. Hercules and Althea, I know you want to stay backstage, but we're a little short on people, so I gave you both very small parts." Althea looked paralyzed with fear. "Small parts? How small?" she squeaked as Salmoneus hurried to reassure her. "Just a few lines, that's all. Trust me." He grinned, which somehow didn't reassure Hercules and didn't seem to reassure Althea either.

Salmoneus was now in director mode. "Everyone, gather round and I'll tell you your parts. Now Iolaus, you're one of our stars. You play Pyramus." Iolaus looked excited. "So, tell me about Pyramus. Is he a valiant warrior? Or a lover? Oh, wait a minute! Is he a tyrant? A king?" Salmoneus shook his head. "Pyramus is a lover. He kills himself for true love. It's really very sad."

Iolaus stood for a moment. "Okay, I can do this. I'm the tragic hero. The victim of true love. I can do this!" He began pacing excitedly, not even noticing the Widow Twanky's lascivious gaze. "I'll make the audience cry their eyes out. There'll be mass suicide before I'm done with this. They won't know what hit them!"

Salmoneus stared. "All righty then. Your paramour, your true love, is Thisby. Thisby will be played by the Widow Twanky." The Widow Twanky walked up to Iolaus and carefully ran a well-manicured nail down his chest as she all but purred, leaving Salmoneus gaping at her. Iolaus gulped and turned to his friend. "You know, I could play Thisby and Herc could play Pyramus. I bet I could do a good woman. It would be a challenge." He raised his voice by several octaves, trying vainly to imitate a woman. "Pyramus! Pyramus, my love! It is I, Thisby!" He stopped as Salmoneus shook his head. "Sorry, but you're completely unconvincing as a woman. Next, Hercules." Hercules looked uncomfortable. "Listen, I really don't want a big part here." Salmoneus smiled. "Not to worry, my friend, not to worry! You get to play a lion!" The demigod looked surprised. "A lion?" Salmoneus looked quite proud of himself. "A lion. I figure Althea can make you a really good lion costume. All you have to do is roar."


"No, no. Put some heart into it. Breathe from your diaphragm. Project. Think lion. Think huge cat. Think king of the jungle."

"Okay." Hercules shuffled his feet, plotting ways to get back at Iolaus for this one. Taking a deep breath he let out a highly unconvincing but loud roar. Salmoneus was not impressed.

"Okay, you keep working on that. Althea, you're Pyramus' mother. The last part is Thisby's father. No, that's still not it, Herc. You need to sound more fierce. Keep trying." He frowned, as the demigod turned to him. "Look, I'm just not sure I can do this. I mean, what's my motivation?" Salmoneus stared at him in amazement. "You're a lion. What kind of motivation do you need?" Hercules thought for a moment. "Right. Good point." He began to walk in circles shouting "Roar!" at various sound levels, as people on the street stopped and stared.

One of the people on the street was a certain black-leather-clad, former God of War. Ares had heard some familiar voices and pushed his way through the crowd to check it out. He found his brother walking in circles roaring to himself, surrounded by the idiot Salmoneus, the ever-present blondie, a young girl who looked like she was ready to faint and had one of the most bizarre hairstyles Ares had seen in his life, and an older woman who appeared to be chasing Iolaus in circles. This was too much. Ares turned away. No way in Tartarus was he going to ask for help from Herc now. He'd just have to find someone else. As he walked away in a hurry, he didn't notice that he'd been noticed, and was being followed.

Meanwhile, Salmoneus was developing a headache and a crowd was gathering. He motioned his cast to huddle. "All right people, we need someplace private to rehearse. What say we meet tonight in the forest? We'll meet at the West gate of the city and see if we can find a nice quiet clearing where we can have some privacy. And I'll see if I can round up another cast member."

With that, the group departed.

Act I Scene V : Streets of Athens

While he wasn't altogether used to being mortal, Ares had always had a healthy dose of paranoia in his nature. Something to do with half his family wanting him dead, he supposed. And so he easily determined that he was being followed. Of course, he mused, with all the noise Joxer was making, even a small child could tell they were being followed. He ducked into a convenient alley and waited for his victim. And waited. And waited. No Joxer. He couldn't have managed to shake the idiot, could he? Ares shook his head in amazement. It's not like he wasn't conspicuous. Big, black leather, even a vegetable would notice him. And he managed to ditch Joxer without even trying. Leaving the alley he noticed a confused-looking Joxer a few streets ahead. Okay. So much for subtlety. He followed Joxer until the wannabe was next to yet another handy alley (good street layout they had here in Athens, he mused. Lots of convenient dark alleys. He filed this information away for future use.) and grabbed him, one hand over Joxer's mouth, and dragged him a decent distance into the alley. Satisfied that they hadn't been followed, he turned the terrified Joxer around.

"Why were you following me?"

Joxer made a few incoherent squeaking noises and looked like he was going to hyperventilate. Ares shook his head, which was beginning to ache. This was a total waste of time. He crossed his arms over his chest and gave Joxer his very best 'impatient and very likely to get violent soon' look. It worked. Joxer gulped.

"I wasn't following you, you were following me! I mean, you're the one who dragged me into this alley!" Ares lifted an eyebrow in surprise. The little man actually had the balls to sound indignant.

"You were following me first. I managed to lose you, then I came after you."

"Oh." Joxer just sort of stared, not noticing that he was in a dark alley with a god who was looking more and more pissed off.

"So. Why were you following me?"

"Well, I saw you in the street, watching Hercules, and I thought maybe you were plotting something, so then I decided to follow you and see if I could stop you."

Ares wondered yet again what had happened. Joxer came from a good family, but obviously there was something really strange swimming in that particular gene pool. He unconsciously adopted the same tone of voice that Xena used when addressing Joxer. "You're saying you decided to follow me because you wanted to stop me from doing something bad, am I with you so far?" Joxer nodded. "And now you're telling me this? You couldn't come up with something better than that? You are so totally pathetic."

Joxer looked crushed, and for a moment Ares almost felt bad for the little man. Until he opened his mouth and began to whine. "Great. Just great. First Xena and Gabby dump me, now you're picking on me…" He didn't get a chance to finish his whine, as Ares turned to him and slammed him against a wall.

"Xena? Xena's here?"

"Yeah, well, she and Hercules and Gabby and Iolaus had to slay this gorgon. Actually, it was her and Herc and Iolaus. Gabby kept trying to tell it to be nicer, and throwing flowers at it, and telling them it had a right to be there too since this is its natural habitat. At least, that's how I heard it. Anyhow, they killed it and got invited to the big wedding. But then Xena and Gabby decided to leave early."

Ares, who was still trying to process the previous few sentences, stared at Joxer. "They left?"

"Uh huh. Not too long ago."

"Fuck." Ares stared at the wall, wondering what to do now. Every time he thought about going to Hercules, he felt like he was going to throw up. Being a god, he wasn't used to this sensation, and he found he didn't like it. Fuck. He was so lost in his own thoughts that he didn't notice when Joxer kicked him in the shin.

"Ow! That hurt!" Surprisingly enough, it had. He reached for Joxer and lifted him by the throat. "Why did you go and do that?"

Joxer tried to answer, but he was a little too busy gasping for air. Ares finally took pity on him and let him down. Joxer rubbed his throat and coughed a few times, but Ares saw a look of triumph in his eyes. "You're mortal." The wannabe managed to gasp.

This was just not going according to plan. He was developing something that made him feel like his skull was going to explode. Mortality sucked. How in Tartarus had Joxer guessed that? The little man was obviously at least a little bit smarter than people gave him credit for. But Ares wasn't feeling very charitable as Joxer looked at him with an extremely self-important look.

"You know, if you want Xena, I can take you to her. I know where she's going."

It was a lousy situation, but one that meant not going to Hercules. Ares decided to grasp this particular straw and hope for the best. He shuddered as he realized that he was depending on Joxer, of all people.

"All right. Take me to Xena."

Joxer straightened his armor proudly. If this worked out, he'd be Ares' sidekick, and wouldn't that show Xena!

Act II Scene I : Forest Outside Athens

As has been mentioned, the Court of Faerie is a nomadic court. This doesn't mean, however, that anything less than the best will do for the royal couple and their retainers. And so, in addition to the fawning members of the Court itself and the personal attendants of the King and Queen, there travels with them a large group of support fairies. In other words, servants. And these lower-class fairies like nothing better than to get together, drink and gossip, and party like there is no tomorrow, much like mortal servants. This particular night the servants had appropriated a small cave and turned it into an impromptu party. Satyrs danced with dryads while nymphs cavorted with bogles. A small group of musicians had formed and were playing a bawdy ballad about two flower fairies who had become involved in a turf war of sorts over a particular field and had been forced to find a creative way of settling their differences. Some of the fey danced, others tried to but failed due to extreme inebriation. Others had shed what few clothes they had and were writhing in abandon with anyone they could find (and one tooth fairy in particular was going to be extremely sorry the next morning). And so, with all the noise, the heat and the press of bodies, no one noticed two new beings enter from different doorways. One was a flower fairy, who was obviously very unhappy. Spotting a convenient victim, she crossed the room to him and began her tale of woe, never mind his obvious lack of interest.

"Yo! Yeah, you there! The cute one." Puck sighed and rolled his eyes. What was it with flower fairies? Give them a little to drink and they become the most crude, foul-mouthed creatures in this plane or any other. They lived to gripe. Best to play along and try to get her drunk, then escape when she passed out.

"Howdy-do. What's up?" He put his feet up on the table, preparing for a long diatribe. He wasn't disappointed.

"What's up? What's up? The fucking Queen is up. Again. Sheee-it. She has us running all over the damn place. Fucking Oberon following her like she's some bitch in heat. She has us running over hills and dales, through bushes and briars, trying to ditch him." She elbowed Puck at this point. "Not that going through a little bush ever stopped Oberon, you know what I mean?" She laughed at her own pun, as Puck winced. This particular flower fairy must have been a sailor at some point in time. "Bitch has us going over park, over pale, through floods and fires, and let me tell you that ain't no picnic, buddy. She has us going every fuckin' where. Do you have any idea how tired I am? My wings are aching, my feet are swollen, my eyes are puffed up from lack of sleep. And every time we stop, we have to make everything oh-so-perfect for her royal snootiness. Dewdrops here, pearls in the flowers, decorate your ass off. And of course, she sleeps through all of it. And as soon as we get things set up and get ready to call it a night, what's she do? She decides to move on in case Oberon catches up with her!" She leaned close to Puck and whispered conspiratorially. "You know what? She snores. Like a mule. I swear, if Oberon finds her it's cause all he does is follow the snores." With that she leaned back and put her swollen feet up on the table. "Anyhow, Hurricane Titania's a-heading this way. Me, I'm thinking of deserting. Jumping ship. There's gotta be a better gig around here. By the way, where are we? Any clue?"

Puck, thrilled to get a word in, told her. "Greece, babe. Greece is the word." He paused, thoughtful. "Hm. I like that. Maybe set it to a catchy tune, you could have something there." He shook his head. Like the Queen's Court, Oberon's flunkies were also suffering from sleep deprivation. "But, I hate to break it to you, but Oberon's on his way here too. He got some inside information she was heading here and decided to cut her off at the pass, as it were. Take my advice - try to keep her away from him, cause he's in a really pissy mood. Hasn't been getting enough lately, if you know what I mean. He says he's ticked off cause of that foster kid of hers, but if you ask me, Obie's hot for the kid himself."

The flower fairy looked at him, her eyes opened wide. "No way, dude." Puck smiled. He loved getting the scoop on the other gossips. "Way. He's pissed that not only is she getting it, she's getting it from the kid."

The flower fairy almost glowed. This piece of gossip would get her free drinks for quite some time. Suddenly, she looked at Puck and recognition dawned in her eyes. "Waitaminnit. I know you. You're that guy. Oh shit, what was the name? Puck. Robin Goodfellow, right? Professional strength practical joker? Milk curdled, maidens frightened (and de-maidened), no-alcohol beer, lure folks off the path, that kind of thing?"

Puck grinned. It was nice to have a reputation. He doffed an imaginary hat to the lady. "Guilty as charged. Also, sidekick to Oberon. Combination wise man and court jester. My mom wanted me to be a leech breeder, but I ended up here. And you look familiar too. Your name is Mustard-breath?"

The fairy punched him in the arm. "Mustard *seed*. Pleasedtameetya." They shook hands. Puck regarded her for a moment. "Didn't you used to hang out with Spiderweb? How's she doing?"

Mustardseed shook her head sadly. "Poor Spidey. She cracked. About three stops ago, I think it was Nepal. She was in charge of getting all the spiderwebs for decorating, you know? Anyhow, one night she just started yelling and crying. Said there were no spiderwebs anywhere, just cobwebs, and how was she supposed to work with cobwebs? She's certified in spiderwebs, she worked hard to specialize, and there's no spiderwebs. Peaseblossom and me, we found her some spiderwebs but she kept crying and pushing them away, insisted they were cobwebs. Anyhow, we have a new kid now. Name's Cobweb. She's still young and excited by all this. I can't even remember being that young." She sighed, and with that the two drinkers saluted each other with their tankards.

A strong wind blew up outside, howling with fury. Puck stood. "Well, it's been nice talking to you, but heeeere's Oberon. Better take care of him before he blows his top."

Mustardseed also stood. "It gets worse. I just heard Titania arrive. Someone better batten down the hatches."

Outside, the Courts had arrived. Oberon and Titania stood a fair distance apart, and if looks could kill, both would be dead. Quite slowly and painfully. With lots of blood involved. Oberon spoke first, anger apparent in his voice.

"Titania." The word seemed to echo in the clearing.

Titania looked at him haughtily. "Oberon." Her voice dripped with venom. She reached over and began to caress the thigh of a scantily-clad Indian boy who stood beside her. Her touch was possessive, and she looked Oberon in the eye as she did it, enjoying watching his mounting fury.

"Do you mind?"

Titania smiled to herself, but her voice showed no sign of her amusement. "What, are we jealous, dear? Just because you're not getting any?" She motioned to her retinue and fluttered a hand. "Get my bed ready. Let's set up over there." She pointed to an area as far as possible from where Oberon's crew worked and began to walk away.

Oberon tried to control his rage, but failed. "Hold on there, you hussy! I'm your husband! I'm your lord!"

Titania turned, hiding her triumphant smile. She loved getting his goat. And while she wouldn't admit it to anyone, Oberon was really hot when he got into his dominating moods. "Why Oberon. How nice of you to remember. But you know, it seems to me that you were the one who recently spent all of his time chasing after that little tart Phyllida. Ring any bells? What happened dear? Did she dump you? Did you not perform up to her expectations?" She watched as his face got redder and redder. This was just so much fun! She pressed on. "And what about that babe Hippolyta that you were so obsessed with? I heard that not only did she turn you down cold repeatedly, but now she's getting married. Hm. Golly gee whiz, she's getting married in the next town over. Isn't that a hoot?"

Oberon felt his temper giving way. Bitch. She set him up. She arranged for them to meet here so he could watch Hippolyta get married! Well, two could play at that game. He took several breaths. "My dear, are you aware who Hippolyta's marrying?" He saw by the look on her face that she didn't. Finally, he had the upper hand. "Remember Theseus? Your Theseus, the one you lured away from Perigenia? The one who dumped you for the king of Corinth?" Ha! Take that, bitch.

Titania was not one to be easily defeated, and her temper was rising. But still, she did want to make up with Oberon. She just had to make him take the first step. And grovel. She wanted him to grovel. She shivered, remembering several past instances in which they had made up. But, time to play the Good Queen. She stood up straighter. "Never mind any of that. In case you hadn't noticed, Faerie is a mess these days. And it's because of our fighting. We're causing a civil war."

Unfortunately for her, Oberon was still mad. He spoke with false sincerity, smiling at his wife. "True. We should consider the good of the land, and the people. So if you'll just hand over the boy, I'll forgive you and take you back."

Unnoticed by the angry couple, in the background various fairies were quickly placing bets. Titania placed her hands on her hips and glared at Oberon. "Forget it! This boy is the son of my very good friend! I promised her I'd take care of him after she died. I won't break that promise!"

"Take care of him? Is that what they call it these days?" Oberon replied snidely. "How long do you plan to stay here?"

"Until after the wedding. I'm willing to call a truce, of sorts. If your people can be civil, I see no reason why we can't all get along here. If not, you leave us alone and we'll leave you alone." With that, Titania turned and joined her court, leaving a fuming Oberon and a worried Puck. He didn't like the look on Oberon's face. It usually meant something bad was going to happen, and Puck knew he would be right in the middle of it. Oberon sat on a rock, and thought for a few moments, before his face lit up with an unholy glee. Puck stood back. This one was going to be bad. Really bad.

"Do you remember one time I showed you a purple flower called love-in-idleness?"

Puck searched his memory. "Um. Yeah. Grows in the mountains, right?"

"That's it. I want you to go get me some of that."

"You want me to go pick flowers?" Puck wondered if his boss had cracked.

"Exactly. You see, good Puck, this isn't any flower. It was enchanted by the Greek god Cupid. If you squeeze the petals, then put the juice on the eyelids of someone who's sleeping, they'll fall madly in love with the first living being they see when they wake up."

"Huh." Puck made a mental note to pick lots and lots of these flowers. This had great potential. He looked up from his reverie to see Oberon making a shoo-ing gesture. "Go on. Take off. Go fetch the flower and bring it back, fast. I want to use it tonight."

Puck nodded. "You got it, boss." With that he vanished, leaving Oberon chuckling to himself. "Titania, you bitch, you won't know what hit you. I hope you end up fucking a bear for the next week."

Oberon continued to chuckle to himself at the various mental images he conjured. But he soon heard noises, and so he made himself invisible and sat back to watch. Mortals were so amusing sometimes. He began to smile as the two noisy mortals entered the clearing. One was big. Very big. And buff. Very buff. Wearing lots of black leather. Oberon made a mental note to himself to make sure that this particular mortal was far from the clearing when Titania woke up. If she fell for him, the entire plan could backfire. The other mortal, though, had a great deal of potential. He was small, and wearing what appeared to be a collection of scrap metal. He was also bounding around the bigger man like a mosquito that smelled blood. The bigger man looked as though he'd like to taste some blood himself. He settled back to enjoy the show.

Ares was sure he had seen this clearing before. He was beginning to think that Joxer had actually lured him out into the woods as part of an inane plan to help Hercules or something. He was going to be led around in circles by this yipping little man until he died. Which would frankly come as a relief at this point. His head was pounding, he had been scratched by multiple thorn bushes (Joxer had assured him that there was a path, and it was true - if you were six years old you could pass through unscathed) and had even managed to get splattered by quite a bit of mud. He was sweaty and itchy and he smelled. Tartarus was starting to look good in comparison. And Joxer kept babbling on and on.

"You know, I'm pretty good with a sword. And Xena offered to let me be her sidekick. Yeah, Gabby's just out of the sidekick business completely, and Xena offered me her job. But I felt sorry for Gabrielle, so I told Xena to stay with her. They've been together for so long now, I didn't have the heart to break them up. Xena begged me, but I just couldn't do it." Joxer took another breath to continue, but was cut off when Ares turned on him, his face black with fury.

"Joxer. If you don't shut up, I will kill you. Right here, right now. And no one will ever know. No one will ever miss you. No one will care." Joxer blinked, looking hurt, but Ares continued. "Now, little man, you said you'd take me to Xena. You said you knew where she was. Now that we're completely lost, I realize that you're even more spectacularly incompetent than I had thought. I've met goldfish with more intelligence than you have."

"I swear, I can find them! They said they were going to see Cyrene, Xena's mom. That means they had to leave through the West gate, which means they had to follow this path. They're around here somewhere, they have to be."

"That helps narrow it down. We're in the middle of the forest, and they're somewhere around here. Oh, wait. They're behind a tree, right?" Ares' voice dripped sarcasm strongly enough that even Joxer could pick up on it.

"Hey, why don't you tell me why you're looking for her? It's about this mortality thing, isn't it? I can help! Give me a chance. I make a great sidekick. I can cook…"

"I heard you once gave an entire army food poisoning."

"It was an accident. One time thing. And I'm organized…"

"Oh, I can tell from your armor."

"And I'm brave."

"When faced with a hamster for a foe."

"And I'd just make a really good sidekick."

Ares had had it. He began poking Joxer in the chest.

"Listen to me little man. You are incompetent. You are an idiot. You are a failure. You're an insult to warriors everywhere. You are a waste of protoplasm. Do you understand me? You will not be my sidekick. You will never be anyone's sidekick because no one will ever be that desperate. So I'm giving up here. I'm going to find Xena myself. You can stay here and rot for all I care." Ares stalked off, leaving Joxer behind nearly in tears. Joxer started to follow, but stopped at the growled command, "And don't follow me or I'll gut you and see exactly how long your intestines are!"

And so an extremely dejected Joxer came to sit on the rock next to the still-invisible Oberon, tears running down his face. Oberon felt somewhat sorry for the little man. But even more than that, he saw an opportunity for fun. When Oberon was suffering, he enjoyed causing trouble and watching others suffer. He grinned. That warrior could use being taken down a peg or two, and once Puck got back, he'd have the perfect tool. Joxer sighed and got up, brushing himself off, and walked off in the opposite direction from his companion. Oberon looked after him and softly said, "Don't worry, little man. Before the night is over, he'll be begging your forgiveness and will do anything to keep you with him." His smile was not a nice one.

He had that same smile on his face as Puck arrived, somewhat out of breath, clutching a bouquet of purple flowers. "Here ya go boss. Didn't know how many to get, so I grabbed a handful."

Oberon took the bouquet, and laughed a malicious laugh. "Good work, my Puck." Puck preened under the attention. "I'll use this on Titania, and once I'm done with her, she'll be begging to come back to me!" Puck wasn't so sure about this, but he knew when to keep his mouth shut. The King and Queen had a pretty kinky relationship, too kinky for him to accurately predict what would work. Who would've guessed that the incident with the whip would lead to a previous reconciliation? Oberon plucked one flower from the bouquet and handed it to Puck. "I have another job for you. One I think you'll like." Puck's ears perked up. "As I stood here waiting, two mortals passed through here. One was a warrior. The other was… not. Frankly I don't know what he was. Maybe a farm boy or a slave. But he wants to be a warrior, or at the very least a sidekick. He seemed to be a few stalks short of a haystack, if you know what I mean. The warrior, on the other hand, didn't want to have anything to do with him and ditched him here. I want you to find this warrior. I want this warrior taken down a peg or two."

Puck nodded his understanding. This sounded good. "You want me to use this on the warrior and make sure haystack-boy gets to be a sidekick and more, am I right?"


Act II Scene II : Same Forest Outside Athens

The flower fairies had outdone themselves decorating their lady's sleeping bower. Cobwebs draped the bed, dewdrops and pearls sparkled in every flower, and ivy trailed carelessly over the clearing. In one of the darker corners of the bower, Mustardseed and Peaseblossom filled cups made of gold-gilded acorn with a rich wine, yawning hugely and hoping for a decent night's sleep soon. They were nearly finished when they heard a rustling. The two flower fairies looked at each other apprehensively, but relaxed when Puck appeared. He bowed to the two fairies and grinned.

"Good evening ladies. How's the head doing, Mustard-Breath?" Mustardseed glared as Peaseblossom giggled. Mustardseed set down the cup she had been drinking from and placed her hands on her hips. "Not bad, Fuck." Peaseblossom fell to the ground and rolled around, giggling and pointing. Puck mimed an injury to his chest. "Alas, the lady hath wounded me! Touche. Can we call a truce?" Peaseblossom tried to stop her giggles as Mustardseed looked at Puck, plainly suspicious.

"What do you want?"

"My goal tonight is to help all of you lovely ladies get the rest and relaxation that you so richly deserve. Not to mention take care of a little payback."

"Uh huh." Mustardseed was plainly still suspicious, so Puck decided to get radical and tell the truth.

"Okay, here's the deal. The Wicked Witch of Faerie is driving you gals bonkers, am I right? And I bet you're just sick and tired of all her bitching and whining and making you go over hill and dale and all just to satisfy her every whim, am I right?" Mustardseed nodded. "Go on."  Puck continued, picking up speed and sounding more like a used-chariot salesman than ever. "Well, I have a solution here that will get you gals a good nights sleep, and will also give you a chance to give a little something back to that snooty bitch." Both flower fairies looked interested. Puck reached into one of his many pockets and pulled out a small pouch filled with powder. "This here is a simple sleeping powder. Nothing dangerous, nothing painful. It just puts folks to sleep. Now then, you may be wondering who you'd want to put to sleep and why. And I'm going to answer you. You want to put the ladies-in-waiting to sleep, that's who. And as for why, well, that's a doozie. Ya see, Oberon has a plan that will make Queenie over there look like a Class-A idiot. But in order for this plan to work, he has to be able to sneak in and put something on her eyelids. Again, nothing dangerous, nothing painful. Just a simple love spell." He saw understanding dawn in the eyes of his audience, and smiles tug at the corner of their mouths. "So, like I said, he needs to sneak in to do this, which means the ladies in waiting need to be very soundly asleep, or he'll get caught. So, if you two sweethearts would put a pinch of this powder in their wine, everything should be copacetic. Are you in?" The two servants looked at each other, then reached for the bag as Puck took off to take care of the second part of his mission.

Titania, dressed in a white diaphanous gown of spider-silk, stretched and yawned delicately. She clapped her hands, and the members of the Court immediately focused on her, as she crossed to the front of her sleeping bower. "Ladies, it's time for bed. Sing me now to sleep." The ladies-in-waiting, all chosen for their melodious voices, began singing as two lower-class flower fairies began passing out cups of wine. Once it was apparent that Titania was asleep, the ladies drank their wine and settled into their own beds, not noticing all of the giggling coming from the working fairies.

Soon thereafter, the clearing was filled with a chorus of snores, the loudest of which came from Titania's bower. The servants toiled on, washing clothes and preparing food for the next day's breakfast, until Moth noticed a shadow skulking just outside the clearing. She squinted, trying to make out who it was, then her eyes widened in recognition. She looked around until she saw Peaseblossom and Mustardseed, and pointed out the figure to them. All three nodded and smiled. Then, Mustardseed began speaking, pitching her voice so that it could be heard by the shadow. "Forsooth, but I'm sleepy. Yes, I am quite sleepy. I'm so tired, a herd of elephants could walk right by me and I'd never know. Yes, I think I'll just lie down right here and catch me a little shut-eye." All three women yawned theatrically and lay down, feigning sleep. After a few moments, Oberon left the shadows and advanced stealthily toward the sleeping bower, stepping quietly over the three fairies. Reaching the bower, he quickly rubbed the juice from the flower onto Titania's perfect eyelids. He smiled and gently stroked her hair. "Titania, my wife, my love, I hope you fall in love with the most vile creature ever to walk this planet." He smiled maliciously before retreating. Once they were sure he was gone, the three fairies erupted in giggles.

"Did you guys check out his butt?" The trio decided to stay on the ground until the giggles passed, and hoped that this would be a good show, not to mention payback. It looked promising already.

Much as she hated to admit it, Xena had to face the fact that she and Gabrielle were lost. She knew she had seen this clearing before, in fact, she thought it was possible that she had seen it more than once before. But she refused to give up. Gabrielle, however, had different ideas.

"Xena, we're lost."

"No, we're just… temporarily misplaced."

"That means lost."

"We're still on a path. It has to go somewhere."

"Yeah, in circles. Look, I know I've seen this clearing before."

Xena sighed. Gabrielle was right. "All right, all right, so we're a little bit lost. Once the sun comes up and there's a little more light we'll be fine. Meanwhile, let's make camp here."

Gabrielle threw down her sleeping roll sulkily, then sat down with a thud. "You know, this is all Joxer's fault. If it wasn't for him we'd still be in that inn, getting real food cooked by someone else, sleeping on real beds with real sheets in real rooms with real walls and real roofs."

Xena looked at her quizzically. "I thought you wanted to leave Athens.  I mean, we discussed it and I know you weren't too thrilled, but then when you talked to Joxer you sounded so excited to be leaving…"

Gabrielle sighed. "I sounded excited cause I wanted to get rid of Joxer." She shuddered. "Anything would be better than being stuck with him. I wanted to stay, and I was going to argue about it some more, but then it sounded like a good way to ditch him, and then you got all macho and dragged me off."

"I'm sorry. I just thought you really meant it. I wish you had said something." Xena looked upset and Gabrielle felt guilty immediately for hurting her friend. "No, I'm the one who's sorry. It's not your fault." She sighed in exasperation. "It's just Joxer. I don't know what it is about him, but he pushes all my buttons. I can think about peace and love all day, but after thirty seconds with him, all I can think about is various ways to fold, spindle and mutilate him. It's not that I hate him, and I feel bad about being mean to him, but he's like fingernails on a chalkboard. He drives me insane." She began preparing her bed for the evening. "But, at least he's back in Athens, and we're out here. Wherever, exactly, here may be." She smiled and snuggled into her pack, which she was using for a pillow, but then looked up at Xena's intense expression. "What's wrong?" Xena looked at her and deadpanned "I could swear I just heard clanking nearby." Gabrielle looked around in horror, then relaxed as Xena burst out laughing. "Gotcha!" Gabrielle snorted and turned onto her side, grumbling.

Xena was still chuckling to herself as she removed her sword and armor and placed them on the ground between her and Gabrielle. She laid back and watched the stars for a while, but couldn't seem to relax. It always took her a few days to unwind after being around large crowds. She decided to find someplace private to answer the call of nature, and wandered off.

Xena wasn't the only being wandering around the forest that night. In fact, anyone with an aerial view would be amazed at how busy that particular area was at that time. One wanderer was becoming increasingly pissed off. Puck had been all over the place and couldn't seem to locate the warrior Oberon had sent him after. He had found the wannabe easily enough (he clanked enough to wake the dead), but no sign of the warrior. He was beginning to consider giving up and heading back to hang out with Mustardseed when he spotted a figure on the ground ahead.

"Whoa. This must be the mysterious warrior." He moseyed closer, in case the warrior had the stereotypical warrior instincts and might wake up swinging a sword. But the figure didn't stir. In the moonlight he could see that it was a young woman with short blonde hair, who was sleeping next to a very large sword and some armor. She didn't look like a warrior, but there was the armor and the weaponry, and other than the wannabe, who she had obviously ditched, she was the first mortal he had encountered all night. So, he thought to himself, she had to be the warrior. It was simple logic. He shrugged and squeezed some of the flower juice onto her eyelids. He bent over and whispered in her ear, "I hear you're going to get something you richly deserve," before taking off to meet up with his new drinking buddies.

Joxer clanked determinedly through the forest, sighing to himself. He knew it was stupid. He knew that having anything to do with Ares was incredibly idiotic, even by his standards. But he had just wanted someone to be his friend. He mentally kicked himself. Yeah, and the God of War was absolutely perfect. Everyone knew how open and friendly Ares was. Not. Let's face it, Ares was probably voted "God Most Likely to Torture, Mutilate and Kill Mortals Just for the Heck of It" on a regular basis. And so now he was stuck wandering through the forest in the middle of the night, lost. To make matters even worse, there was a probably homicidal and definitely psychotic former god (who was incredibly big, bad-ass and lethal even as a mortal) also wandering around said forest who would love to let off some steam by pulling his feet off via his mouth. And who could forget the fact that there was a chance that he'd trip across Xena and Gabrielle, who had ditched him, and who would not be happy to hear that Ares was stalking the woods. With his luck, the three of them had already met up and were planning ways to get back at him. He pictured Xena, Gabrielle and Ares all roasting marshmallows over a fire and discussing methods of torturing and ditching Joxer the Mighty Idiot. He sat down, dejected. No matter what he did, he screwed up. He should have learned that lesson by now, it had been beaten into his head (and the rest of him) enough when he was a kid. His parents always told him he was a mistake, and that no one could stand him, and he'd tried so hard to prove them wrong, but he had to admit that it looked like they were right. He didn't have any friends. He was alone. He was tired. His feet hurt. Even Gabrielle, the nicest, sweetest person he had ever met couldn't stand him. He was ready to settle down for a good sniffle when he heard a faint snore. He fervently hoped it wasn't Ares. Then he found himself wondering if gods snore. He knew Aphrodite did, at least when she was mortal. But he didn't recall Ares snoring. Of course, he had been sniffling a little when they parted ways, so the former god could have picked up a cold, which could have made him snore, but somehow this sounded like a feminine snore. Joxer had a strong feeling that he was going to regret checking this out, but considering all the regrets he had he didn't think one more would be a big deal.

Joxer crept into the clearing and quickly spotted a lone figure lying on its side next to a very familiar sword. Moving closer, he recognized the sleeper. He bounded forward, happy to see a friend, completely forgetting his previous depression, not to mention the fact that Gabrielle loathed being woken up.

"Gabrielle!" Joxer all but pounced on her and tried to shake her awake. He briefly wondered where Xena was, but chalked it up to "woman things" (although a small voice in the back of his mind wondered if it was "real-warrior things") Gabrielle slowly opened her eyes and he tried his best to smile his least-stupid smile, although it was difficult because Gabby always seemed to bring out his goofiest grin.

Gabrielle had been sleeping soundly, dreaming happy Joxer-free dreams. In her dream, she and Xena had been bounding through a field, chasing butterflies in slow motion. With Ares. She wasn't sure how or why, but she had convinced Ares to become the God of Peace and Butterflies, and so he was also bounding after butterflies and picking flowers and making daisy chains of them. And he wasn't wearing a shirt! And so she became quite irritated when, in mid-bound, she heard the hated voice call her name from the heavens. She tried to ignore him, but she was already half awake, and knew it was impossible. You could do many things to Joxer, but you couldn't ignore him. Yup. There it was. He was shaking her. She gritted her teeth and opened her eyes, prepared to lash out at him for interrupting her dream.

And she found herself looking into the most beautiful eyes she had ever seen. Joxer sat next to her, smiling and radiating pure happiness. He almost glowed with it. She reached out to touch his face, noticing for the first time just how nice it was. She smiled as her heart swelled.

Joxer, on the other hand, was looking around and trying to figure out what was going on. He had known that interrupting Gabby's sleep was a very bad move, but he had been so happy to see her that he just hadn't been able to stop himself. He had once called her "Crabby" when she first woke up, and she twisted his nose so hard that it hurt for two days. When she opened her eyes he sat up on his heels preparing to run away if she looked like she was going to hurt him, but she smiled and he cringed as he saw her hand reaching for his cheek. But instead of slapping him, she caressed his face. Now he was really spooked.

"Um. Gabby, sorry I woke you up, but I've got something important to tell you and Xena." Gabrielle continued to caress his face and look at him as if he were a complete stranger. A complete stranger she didn't hate. It felt good, but he was becoming paranoid here. His paranoia grew as she looked into his eyes and whispered "Do you know you have beautiful eyes? They have this little band of gold, right around the outside."

She leaned closer, her lips close enough to his that he could feel her breath. He fell backward, trying to escape. "Gabby! Do you know who I am?"

"You're Joxer, silly. Now come here and let me kiss you." She leaned forward again, and Joxer scrambled to his feet.

"What's going on here? What's gotten into you? Are you still asleep?"

Gabrielle looked puzzled and hurt. "Joxer, I just had a revelation. I just realized how much I love you. Come here, and let me prove it to you." Her voice had lowered to a seductive whisper, and Joxer took a step forward before mentally twisting his own nose. Something was wrong. This was not the Gabby he knew. The Gabby he knew couldn't stand him. Then, he had a horrible thought. He spoke in a very small voice. "Gabby? Why are you doing this? I…you're not making fun of me, are you?" Gabrielle shook her head. "Joxer, I'd never make fun of you, you manly man you. You brave, virile warrior." This was too much for Joxer. He didn't know what was going on, but he had a feeling that he was again going to be the butt of some great cosmic joke. He stumbled away as fast as he could, blinded by tears, as Gabrielle gave chase.

Soon after they left the clearing, Xena returned. Her little walk had helped her relax. But as she looked over at the bedroll, she saw that Gabrielle was missing. Considering that Gabrielle had literally slept through an earthquake once, this worried her. She resolved to give her friend a few minutes, in case it was a simple call of nature, and then to start looking.

Act III Scene I : Same Forest Outside Athens

Hercules, ever-punctual, found that he was the first of the players to arrive at the clearing they had decided to use for rehearsal.  He tried waiting patiently, but he was feeling conflicted.  He hated being the center of attention and acting on stage was one of his worst nightmares.  Yet he had allowed Iolaus to talk him into doing this.  Why?  Why was he doing this?  Because, he concluded, he was a wimp.  He was simply unable to say no.  Everyone around him seemed to be able to say it, why couldn't he?  It was a simple word.  It was short, monosyllabic, two letters, easy to pronounce, but he just seemed to lack the ability to say it.  He sighed. He was too nice.  Too helpful.  Why couldn't he be more like Iphicles?  Iphicles was decisive.  Iph was able to say no, and still sound regal and authoritative while saying it.  Maybe all he needed was practice.  So, he walked up to a tree, stared at it, and quietly said "No".  There.  That wasn't so bad.  Let's try adding a little emphasis.  This time, he quietly but decisively said "No" to the tree.  So far so good.  He tried it a few more times, getting a feel for the word.  This was working out just fine.  He decided to go for the gusto.  Standing back and glaring at the tree, he did his best imitation of Ares' growl and said "No."  Okay.  Doing good, Herc, he thought to himself.  He went for a variation - this time he glared and all but yelled "No!" at the tree.  He nodded to himself.  This would work out.  The next time Iolaus or anyone else asked him to do something he didn't want to do, he'd use his newfound ability to say no on them.  Minus the Ares imitation, of course.

Hercules resolve held until Iolaus came dashing into the clearing, slightly out of breath.  "Herc!  You have to help me!  She's after me!"

"What?  Who?"  Hercules was having trouble talking to his friend, who kept hiding behind him.

"The Widow Twanky!  She's right behind me!  Look, I'm going to hide in the woods until everyone else gets here.  Distract her for me, will you?"

"Okay."  Hercules mentally smacked himself upside the head as Iolaus ran off.  So much for the big 'no' hero.  He sat down on a convenient rock to wait.  A few moments later a winded Twanky arrived in the clearing.  She smoothed her wrinkled bodice and patted her hair into place as she sauntered over to Hercules.

"There you are are, darling.  Have you seen your little blonde friend Iolaus?"

"Nope.  Haven't seen him." Hercules replied sulkily.  The Widow looked surprised, but sat down next to him and cleared her throat.

"Well, I don't know about you, but I'm nervous as a schoolgirl about my return to the stage."

"I'm not really all that into it.  I'm kind of, well, let's just say I'd rather be fighting another gorgon than performing on stage."

The Widow leaned closer, until her lips brushed his ear.  "My late husband gave me one valuable piece of advice."  Hercules winced in preparation as the Widow's voice dropped to a suggestive whisper.  "Imagine.  Your audience.  Naked."  She nodded and sat back, whipping open her fan and fanning herself at a breakneck pace.

Luckily for Hercules, Althea arrived quickly.  As usual, she was in a hurry and had managed to snag her dress repeatedly, she almost lost a shoe and her hair was sticking out all over.  She was followed almost immediately by Iolaus, Salmoneus, and Autolycus.  Salmoneus beamed at them as he shoved a very upset looking Autolycus forward.

"Look who I found!  The last member of our merry troupe!"  Autolycus sulked as Iolaus sprang forward.

"Auto!  Good to see ya buddy!  Have you met the Widow Twanky?"  Iolaus practically shoved the thief at the Window, who began to preen as Autolycus looked at her in disbelief.  Out of the corner of his eye, Hercules noticed Althea staring open-mouthed at Autolycus.  This was very not good.

Salmoneus, as oblivious as ever, was bustling around.  "So, is everyone ready to rehearse?  Do you all know your lines?"  The Widow Twanky sidled up to Iolaus and nudged him.  "I think I'd like to work on the love scenes.  They just aren't flowing for me."  Iolaus looked around, terrified.  "So, Sal, how'd you manage to get Autolycus involved in this?"

The con artist grinned and put his arm around Autolycus, who stiffened and glared at him.  "When I told my good buddy here about this play, he just fell all over himself to volunteer to be in it.  He was so -" Salmoneus was cut off by Autolycus, who was still glaring.  "He blackmailed me."

Salmoneus, looking injured, backed away from the thief.  "Blackmailed?  I don't think that's quite -" He was again cut off as Autolycus advanced on him.  "Okay.  So I blackmailed him."  Salmoneus managed to look both sheepish and cheerful at the same time.  "But what's it matter?  We've got all our parts filled, right?  So, let's rehearse!"

The players gathered around as Salmoneus continued to play cheerleader.  "Herc, how's the roar doing?"

"Roar."  It wasn't a very big roar - he was much better at this when people weren't watching.

Autolycus yawned.  "Yeah.  That's a scary roar ya got there, big guy. You know, if you roar like that you might scare the delicate flowers of femininity in the audience."

Salmoneus looked perturbed.  He began pacing.  "He's right.  We don't want to scare the ladies."  Autolycus rolled his eyes and Hercules cringed as Salmoneus straightened up.  "I know!  Herc, you'll come out and *tell* them you're not a lion.  We'll write up a prologue for you, and you'll introduce yourself as Hercules and tell them not to be afraid!"

The demigod opened his mouth, but instead of the 'no' his mind was yelling, he heard, to his horror, his mouth say "Okay."  He stifled an urge to bang his head against a tree.  Iolaus, meanwhile, was pointing and laughing at him as Althea chimed in.

"It says in the script that the lovers meet by moonlight.  How do we do moonlight?"  The intrepid crew looked at each other, completely at a loss, until Autolycus jumped in.

"Hello?  The play gets performed in four days, right?  Well, the moon's almost full tonight.  It'll be full four days from now.  We'll just leave a window open for the light to shine through.  Duh!"

The Widow Twanky advanced on Autolycus and ran her hand down his chest, murmuring, "I like a man with brains to go with his brawn."  Autolycus stepped back with a quick, "Whatever."

Althea still wasn't finished.  "Okay, it also says that the lovers stand and talk through a wall in the garden.  What do we do for a wall?  Stages don't have walls."

Iolaus sprang forward.  "Why don't we dress someone up as a wall?  Althea can make a costume to look like a wall, and they can hold their hand out and make a hole with their fingers, and that'll be the chink!"

Salmoneus beamed.  "That's a great idea!  Okay everyone, let's do a quick run-through.  Iolaus, you go first.  When you finish your soliloquy, you walk over there," he motioned to a spot just past the clearing, "until you hear your cue, okay?  So, people, work with me here!  Places!"

The players scrambled for the sidelines as Iolaus advanced to the center of the clearing and cleared his throat.  Like the others, he didn't notice that they had picked up an audience of somewhat besotted fairies.  Peaseblossom, Mustardseed and Puck watched, concealed by the shadows, as the intrepid actors began their play.  Puck had always enjoyed watching mortals, but this was one of the stranger groups he had seen.  Mustardseed watched in fascination and horror as the rehearsal began, wondering if this was some strange local custom.  Peaseblossom didn't much care what the mortals did as long as they didn't spill her drink.

Iolaus took a deep breath and began.  "Thisby, the flowers of odious savors sweet -" He was cut off by an indignant Salmoneus "No, no!  It's *odors*, not odious!"

"Sorry about that."  Iolaus fidgeted and continued.  "Wait!  I hear a voice!  Wait here for a while and I will come back and join you!  How was that?"

Salmoneus almost growled at his leading man.  "That was fine, Iolaus.  Now you exit the stage, okay?  Come back at your cue."

Iolaus walked into the shadows, not noticing the three tipsy members of his audience.  "Gods, I used to like acting.  Now I just feel like an ass."

Puck and Mustardseed looked at each other, feeling a brilliant idea coming on.  This would just be too good.  Puck waved his hand and said a brief spell, and Iolaus was transformed.  His head was changed into that of an ass!  Mustardseed clapped Puck on the back, as Peaseblossom giggled and swayed, then passed out.

Back on stage, the Widow Twanky was trying to say her lines.

"Is it my turn yet?  Am I on?  How do I look?"  She patted her hair and smoothed her bodice nervously.

A bedazzled Salmoneus spoke to her gently.  "You look beautiful, my dear."  The Widow preened.  "Now just get up there and say your lines and bewitch us all."

Twanky made a pooh-poohing gesture with her hand, but began.  "Oh Pyramus, my beautiful Pyramus, wherefore art thou, Pyramus?  I'll meet you, my love, at Ninny's tomb."

"That's 'Ninus' Tomb'."


"'Ninus' Tomb, not Ninny's."  Salmoneus hesitantly corrected the Widow, but upon seeing her crestfallen expression, he relented.  "But what the heck!  It's not like the audience'll know the difference!  Ninny, Ninus, big deal!  Now then, that was Pyramus' cue.  Pyramus!  Where'd Iolaus get off to?"

Iolaus crashed through the bush, complete with his new head.  The Widow Twanky took one look at him and nearly swooned, only to be caught by Salmoneus.  Autolycus, somewhat paranoid, began looking around.  "Um.  Ares wouldn't happen to still be pissed off over that chicken incident, would he?  If so, I'm outta here."

Hercules was back in familiar territory.  His best friend being turned into a monster, this was something he could cope with.  "You're right.  This smells like one of Ares or Discord's sick jokes to me."  He began looking around and yelling.  "Ares!  Discord!  Show yourselves, you miserable cowards!"

Puck recognized those names.  This mortal was trying to summon some of the local gods.  This would spell trouble with a capital T for the Court.  Thinking quickly he cast a quick sleeping spell and all of the members of the troupe fell asleep immediately, with the exception of Iolaus, who was looking rather panicked.

"Okay, what's going on here?  Guys?  Herc?"  He began stumbling around in circles.  Mustardseed cocked her head, suddenly noticing that something had changed.  It took her a moment, but then she realized that the Queen's snoring had stopped.  The mortals must have awakened her!

Titania was not happy. She had been awakened from a most pleasant dream involving several nubile young men, and a feast in her honor.  She sat up and looked around, her eye drawn to a motion near her.  She squinted, and could make out the shape of a mortal man running in circles.

"Hello?  Who's there?"  Iolaus heard a voice above him, and looked up just as Titania looked down from her bower.  Their eyes locked, and Iolaus suddenly found himself staring at the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.  Her long blonde hair cascaded down her back, her eyes were the blue of the deepest ocean, and her dress made Aphrodite's look downright modest.  In fact, her cleavage actually made Aphrodite's look modest!  Iolaus began to feel a little faint.
Titania looked at him, lust rising in her eyes, and climbed down from her bed.

"Well, well, well.  Who might you be, you handsome mortal?"

"Um.  My name's Iolaus."  Iolaus stammered, unable to pull his eyes away from her bounteous cleavage.  Titania drew him close, until his nose was buried in her chest.

"You, my love, are about to experience things you've only dreamed of."

"That's what I was afraid of."

Act III Scene II : Forest Outside of Athens

In a quiet glade, far from prying eyes, Oberon, King of Faerie, sat by himself.  As he sat, he thought of his relationship with the beautiful Titania.  He looked up at the stars in the sky, and queried them, "So.  I wonder what hideous beast my darling wife is rutting with tonight?"  But the stars remained silent.

Luckily Puck soon arrived in a whirlwind of noise and motion, cackling maniacally.

"Puck.  What's happened?"

Puck took a few minutes to catch his breath, as he was bent nearly double with laughter.  "Oh, man, you should see it.  This was great.  Totally great.  I mean, you would not believe this one."

Oberon glared as Puck tried to order his thoughts to report to his king.

"Okay, so the Queen's sleeping, snoring away, right?  And what happens?  A bunch of moronic, and I mean really moronic mortals stumbles into the clearing.  There's this big guy who keeps talking to himself, a little guy running away from a nympho, a crazed cheerleader, a girl with hair that's just… unique, and a guy who's being blackmailed.  Turns out this bunch of incompetent boobs is putting on a play that they want to present for the wedding.  So, they're rehearsing, and it stinks.  I mean, it totally reeks.  And then, the leading man walks by and says he feels like an ass.  So, this is like divine inspiration here, right?  And who am I to refuse divine inspiration?"

Oberon tilted his head and began to smile.  "You didn't."

Puck nodded.  "Yup.  Gave him an ass's head.  You shoulda seen it boss, it was beautiful."

"And this is the one Titania saw when she woke up?"

"Yeah.  I'm a genius."  Puck settled back, looking quite self-satisfied.  "One small, teensy little problemo, though."

"What's that?"

"Well, the big mortal, when he saw what I did to his buddy, started yelling at some of the local gods.  I don't think it means much, I mean, why would the local gods care about some mentally-challenged rube yelling at them?  But just to be safe I whacked them with a sleeping spell."

The king considered this for a moment.  "You're probably right.  But better safe than sorry.  We don't want to piss off the local deities.  Which ones were they trying to summon?"

"Ares and Discord."

Oberon shuddered.  "Good thing you put them to sleep.  Those are two of the locals I would definitely not want to mess with.  Ares is known for having a lousy temper, and his twin is just as bad. I don't want to end up on their shit list.  So, what about the other assignment?  The warrior and the wannabe?"

"The wannabe was clanking through the woods, heading straight for the warrior.  I found her, put the goop on her eyes, and that's all she wrote."

"What do you mean, *her* eyes?"

"Her.  Female of the species.  Short, blonde, big sword.  Warrior chick."

Puck began to get a bad feeling as Oberon stared at him.  "You idiot.  The warrior was a man, not a woman."

The bad feeling got worse.  "Are you sure about that?"

The king glared.  "Trust me, I'm sure.  Big, black hair, black leather, lots of muscles.  Of course, the beard was a definite clue."  His voice dripped with sarcasm.


The two fell quiet upon hearing a crashing through the brush.  Both looked up as Ares and Xena appeared.

"That man, that's the warrior I wanted to have fall for the wannabe."

"Whoa, hot mama."  Puck was staring.  The leather, the muscles, the hair, the leather, the muscles…  His mouth hung open and his eyes glazed over as Oberon smacked his head.

"Yeppers, I screwed the pooch on this one.  But for what it's worth, this looks like a good show."  The two cloaked themselves in invisibility and settled back to watch.

Xena was furious.  First Gabrielle had disappeared, then Ares had grabbed her with his usual lack of manners and demanded that he help her get to Sparta.  All in all, this was not turning out to be a nice walk in the woods.  And the fact that Ares was dogging her like a maniacal pit bull wasn't helping matters either.  She was having trouble
concentrating on her tracking.

"Look, Xena, Gabrielle's probably found a group to preach peace and harmony to.  She's fine!"  Ares was definitely not happy to hear a trace of a whine in his voice.  Gods did not whine.  Another one to add to the "why mortality sucks" list.

"I swear, if you've done anything to her, I'll make you pay.  If you think you've known pain before, that's nothing compared to what I'll do to you."

"I didn't do anything!  I'm perfectly innocent!  I know better than to hurt Gabrielle if I want your help!  How stupid do you think I am?"  Xena turned and glared, letting him know how little she thought of his intelligence.  Meanwhile, Puck whispered to Oberon "He may look good, but the big guy sure does whine a lot.  I'm wondering if maybe he's related to the other big lunk I saw earlier."

Xena stood still and yelled "Gabrielle!  Gabrielle!" as Ares rolled his eyes.

"Xena, she took off.  Maybe she's bored.  Heck, maybe Joxer tripped over her and she's off killing him."

While this gave the warrior princess pause, she shook her head.  "No.  She would've been louder if that was it.  I think it's more likely you had her kidnapped by some of your men to use as leverage against me."

Ares sighed.  "What men?  Do you see any men?  Do you see an army?  No.  It's just me.  And I'm not using Gabrielle for leverage, or threatening her, or asking for ransom, I'm just…" he gritted his teeth as he forced the words out, "Asking for your help here."

"You're not getting it until I find Gabrielle."

"Fine.  Go find Gabrielle.  But I'll be right behind you, and when we find her next to Joxer's corpse, I'm going to laugh and say I told you so."

Xena glared.

While he was amused by this exchange, Puck perked up as he heard something.  He poked Oberon's arm.

"Listen.  I hear clanking.  Wanna bet it's our wannabe?"

Oberon smiled.  "This is your chance to set things right.  I want tall, dark and whiny there to fall for the idiot.  Think you can do that right this time?"

"You can count on me."

Puck cast a quick sleeping spell on the two figures in the glade, and took off as Oberon grabbed his trusty flower and squeezed some juice on Ares' eyelids.  He was back quickly.

"Okay, I found the tin man and herded him this way.  He should be here any second now."  The two fairies dashed for cover as Joxer stumbled into the glade, looking terrified, quickly followed by a fawning Gabrielle.  Joxer tripped, obviously at his wits' end, as Gabrielle closed the distance between them.

"Joxer, I don't understand!  Why don't you believe me when I say that I love you?  Look at me - I'm crying and hurt because you keep rejecting me!  I want to be with you, I want to travel with you, I want to fight by your side.  I want to sing with you, I want to dance with you - why can't you believe this?"

"Oh, and what about Xena?  You and Xena belong together, everyone knows that.  Even me.  Just yesterday you all but told me to get lost, now today you love me?  Gabby, I don't know what this is, but it's not real.  Please, go away and leave me alone."

"I'm so sorry, I don't know what I was thinking when I was trying to avoid you."

"And I don't know what you're thinking right now, unless you're thinking this is a great way to ditch stupid ol' Joxer forever."  His voice broke, and his eyes filled with tears that he refused to shed in front of Gabrielle.  Why was this happening to him?  All Joxer wanted was to escape.  He thought he saw a break in the trees through his tear-blurred
eyes, but he suddenly found himself tripping and falling.  He dimly realized he had tripped over a leg.  A big leg.  A black leather clad leg.  A familiar, big, black leather clad leg.  Ares' leg.  Fuck.  Oh well, at least now he'd die and this whole mess would be over.

Ares woke up.  Which was strange, because he didn't remember falling asleep.  In a dim corner of his mind he began to suspect that something was going on here, but as he was mortal, his sleep-fogged mind immediately lost that particular train of thought.  Especially when he realized he was staring into the most beautiful pair of eyes he had ever seen.  His breath caught in his chest and his heart began racing.  It took him several seconds to drag himself from the depths of those eyes and zoom back onto the rest of the face.  He realized Joxer was sitting on the ground next to him, looking pale and terrified.  Ares reached out toward Joxer, prepared to stroke his face.

Joxer sat on the ground and shivered.  This was it.  He was going to die.  What an epitaph.  He literally tripped to death.  He saw Ares reaching out toward him, and squeezed his eyes shut.  He was planning to pray for the death to be quick and painless, but then he realized that he usually prayed to Ares, and somehow that just didn't seem like it would work.  So he sat there and flinched as he felt Ares' hand stroke his face and a finger tilting his head up.

"Look at me."  Joxer didn't want to do it, but even as a mortal, Ares sounded commanding.  He opened his eyes slowly, dreading what he would see.  Ares leaned closer to him, and he could feel the former god's breath on his face.

"Do you know you have beautiful eyes?  They have this little band of gold, right around the outside."

Something inside of Joxer snapped at that moment, and he rose to his feet.

"All right, that's it!  I have had it!  Enough!  I can't believe you would sink this low!  Oh, wait a minute, yes I can!  This is… this is…  This is really mean of you!  Both of you!  Look, I know I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed, and I know I can be irritating, but I thought I was at least kind of a friend!  Now I see I'm not, 'cause if we were friends, you wouldn't be doing this!  If you hate me, then at least be up front about it, and don't make fun of me!  What is this, some sort of
plot?  You're both crazy about Xena, and everyone knows it!"  Joxer whirled on Ares, who was stunned by this display.  "You, you've been obsessed with her for years, and you know Gabby's your rival for her.  Do you two think ganging up on me's going to somehow help you get her?  Or is this just 'pick-on-Joxer' night?"

Gabrielle steeped forward, nearly in tears, and glared at Ares.  "He's right, you know.  Everyone knows you're obsessed with Xena.  Well, now you can have her.  I love Joxer, and I'm going to be with him forever."

"I can't believe this."  Joxer grumbled.

Ares stood and glowered at Gabrielle, standing close and towering over her.  "You can keep Xena, I'm over her.  I love Joxer, and he's staying with me."

The two stood toe to toe, the black-clad warrior towering over the small woman, their glares all but igniting sparks between them, as Joxer looked for a way to escape.  He saw another sleeping form, and quietly shook Xena awake, hoping she was sane and could help.

Xena awoke immediately and looked at Joxer, who stepped back.

"You don't think my eyes are beautiful, do you?"  Xena looked at him like he had lost what few marbles he had.

"Joxer, are you feeling all right?"

Joxer sighed in relief.  Xena was here.  Xena was sane.  Xena would save the day!  He opened his mouth and took a breath to explain what was happening, when Xena spotted Ares and Gabrielle's glaring contest and jumped up.

"Gabrielle!  You're okay!  I was so worried!  What happened?  Why'd you wander off?"

Gabrielle tore her gaze from Ares, and gave Xena a calculating look.

"Why should I stay with you when I could be with Joxer?"

Xena's mouth dropped open.  "Huh?"

"Xena, I'm in love with Joxer.  Why should I travel with you when I could be with my beloved hunk of man meat?  He's Joxer the Mighty!  He's everything a woman could want.  So go away, and take tall dark and hairy here with you."

Xena turned on Joxer, who was looking very much like a lost puppy.  He tried his best helpless look on her.  "Xena, I swear I don't know what's happening.  They're *fighting* over me."  Xena looked skeptical, which wasn't the best move in the world, since Joxer wasn't really thinking all that clearly.

"What?  You aren't in on this too, are you?  Of course!"  Joxer hit himself in the head, "You're part of this too, aren't you?  You're part of the 'let's pick on Joxer club', aren't you?  What are you going to do now, beat me up?  Are you going to play along with this?  What's the plan here?  I can't believe you guys are doing this to me."  Xena tried to reach out to Joxer, but the would-be warrior brushed her hand away as he sat, defeated, on a nearby rock.

"You know, you're my hero.  I just wanted to be like you.  I thought if I hung around you long enough, maybe some of your heroism would rub off on me.  I know I could never be as good as you, but I thought maybe if I could help people, they'd like me.  And then I could make my family proud of me."  He stopped and sniffed for a moment, not noticing that
both Gabrielle and Ares were watching him sympathetically.  "Not that there's a snowball's chance in Hades of that happening, but maybe they'd respect me, you know?  But now, I mean, I thought you and Gabrielle were my friends, and I know I irritate you both and you ditch me a lot, but I can't believe you'd be so mean to me."

"Joxer."  Xena tried to get him to look at her, but he refused, instead insisting on contemplating the toes of his boots as if they were the most fascinating objects in the world.  "I'm not making fun of you here, and I'm sure they aren't either.  There's something going on, we just need to figure out what it is."  She kept her voice low and smooth, as if she were talking to a skittish horse.   "Will you help me try and figure out what's happening?"

"I don't know."  His voice was low and quiet, and trembled slightly.  "I know you guys have made fun of me before.  How do I know this isn't a trick?"

Gabrielle lunged forward, sinking to her knees in front of Joxer.  "Joxer, I love you.  I love you more than life itself.  I swear, by everything I hold dear, that this is true.  In fact, I have an urge to compose a sonnet to you.  How's that for proof?"

Joxer raised an eyebrow, clearly skeptical.  "Oh, great.  Let's see, it could start something like 'There once was an idiot named Joxer' -"

Xena placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.  "Gabrielle, that's enough."

Ares strode forward.  "Yeah, Blondie, that's enough.  Look Joxer, I love you more than she does.  Give me a chance to prove it.  I can give you everything you've ever wanted, everything you've ever dreamed of.  Just give me a chance."  Joxer felt himself sinking in those deep brown eyes, but pulled himself back.

Gabrielle, meanwhile, had been glaring at Ares.  She shook Xena's hand off her shoulder, stood up and advanced on the former god and began poking him in the chest.

"Look, buddy, I saw him first.  He's been after me for years."

"Oh, yeah?  Well then how come he's always in my temples, huh?  He's been after me since he was a kid!"

"He's just attracted by your power, not by you."

"Did you ever think maybe he's attracted to you because of your incredibly shrinking sports bra?  Huh?"

"Oh, that's low.  Xena, give me a sword.  I'm gonna hack a piece off him.  Let's see how he does in a fight when he doesn't have an advantage.  He's nothing but a big coward."

"Really.  Well bring it on, babe."

Ares unsheathed his sword as Gabrielle lunged for Xena's sword.  Luckily Xena grabbed Gabrielle and held the bard, who was kicking and punching the air, at arm's length.

"Gabrielle, calm down!  What happened to the Way of Peace?"

"Screw the Way of Peace!  I'm gonna shish-kebab him!  He's not taking my man!  Now let me go!  Get the hell out of here, nobody here wants you anyway!"  Xena let go in sheer shock and watched as Gabrielle grabbed her sword from her scabbard and advanced on Ares, waving it in the air.

"Okay, Mr. Big Bad Attitude, let's go.  Whoever wins gets Joxer."

The two began circling each other as Joxer and Xena looked on, flabbergasted.  Gabrielle made a swipe at Ares, which he easily blocked.  She tried again and was frustrated to find that he had anticipated her move.  It was obvious that Ares was toying with her.  Xena looked around, desperate for a way to distract the combatants and stop the bloodbath she knew would start any moment.  Coming to a decision, she turned to face Joxer and yelled in a shrill voice, "I hate you!  I can't believe you did this to me, Joxer!"  She feigned a few tears for good measure, as Joxer looked on in consternation.  It looked like his last sane ally had just gone over to the looney side.  "I can't believe you stole them both away from me!  I thought we were friends!  How could you do this?"

"What? Me?  I didn't do anything!"  Joxer found his voice was squeaking in a most un-warrior like way.  "Why are you blaming me for this?  How could I possibly be responsible for something like this, huh?"

Xena battled on, her voice rising as she noticed that both Gabrielle and Ares had ceased their battle and were staring at her.  "Is it your manliness?  Or maybe your song?  Your skills as a warrior?  What did you use to lure them away from me?"

Joxer looked hurt.  "Great, now you're making fun of me too.  I know I'm not a great warrior, but you know what?  At least I can say I'm a nice guy.  It's not much, but it's more than any of you can say.  I've never hurt a friend, and I've never picked on anyone behind their back, and I've never deliberately been mean to someone.  You know what?  I've  had it with this little game.  You win, okay?  I'll go back to Athens, and I'll never bug any of you again."

Xena hated hurting Joxer, but it seemed best to get him away from Gabrielle and Ares, who were obviously not themselves, before anyone got hurt.  Straightening up she spoke coldly.  "Then why don't you just get on out of here?  Go on.  Go!"

Joxer turned to go, but looked back for a moment.  "You know, I really thought you guys were my friends.  I'm sorry for being such a pest."

Ares rushed to Joxer's side, an expression of sympathy strangely out of place on his face.  "Don't go!  I'm sorry I scared you, but please don't go!"

Gabrielle also rushed to his side.  "Joxer, I love you.  Don't leave me!"

Oberon and Puck had become rather bored with this little show.  Puck sat up and looked at his king.

"Ya know, this is getting kind of repetitive.  The locals round here just aren't overly creative.  We were off to a good start, but now we're just going round in circles.  All in all, I'd give it about two stars."

Oberon nodded in agreement.  "It had potential, but the warrior babe is determined to be a pest and not let them kill each other."

"Total bummer.  Maybe we could lure them to the other group of mortals by Titania and try playing mix and match?"

"Too much effort.  Here's the plan.  I'll go check on Titania.  You take the spell off of little Miss Peace and Love, but let's leave the big guy alone.  I think he needs a little more humiliation.  When you're done, meet me at Titania's."

"Okay, but I still think the big guy there and the big lunk who was talking to himself are a great match."

"Just do what I told you."  Oberon disappeared as Puck looked sullen.

"Fine.  But I'm telling you, we coulda been talking fun city here."

While the two fairies had been distracted, Gabrielle and Ares had begun arguing again, and Gabrielle had run into the forest, Ares in close pursuit, waving his sword.  Xena, naturally, was close behind Ares.  Puck cast a quick fog spell as well as a spell of confusion to separate the three.  He tracked Gabrielle and Xena and cast a sleep spell on them.  Sighing, he squeezed more flower juice onto Gabrielle's eyelids.

"Well babe, it was fun while it lasted, but a second application's the antidote.  You're gonna wake up in the morning wondering what got into you."

And with that, Puck was off to join his master, leaving Ares wandering the forest and a dejected Joxer sitting on a rock.

Act IV, Scene I : Forest Outside Athens

Iolaus wasn't sure exactly what had happened.  He was, however, sure that Titania knew a number of tricks and positions that he hadn't realized were even anatomically possible.  He reclined in her bed as she fed him grapes, and sighed in exhaustion.  The woman had stamina, that was for sure.  If he hadn't begged for a break and some food, he was sure she'd still be going.  Normally he wouldn't complain, but having spent years hanging out with Hercules, Iolaus had developed a sense for when things were weird, and this was weird.  He kept imagining Titania morphing into Discord, which gave him a severe case of the willies.  Right now his main preoccupation was escape.

Titania had placed a garland of flowers on his head, and was gently stroking his face as she gazed into his eyes.

"Sweet Iolaus, I want you to come with me when we leave this place.  I'll give you jewels and furs, gold and trinkets, silk and satin, things you've never even dreamed of!"

"Um.  Well, thank you very much, but I'm allergic to jewels.  They make me break out in hives.  Bug, ugly, oozing, smelly, gross, disgusting hives.  It's not pretty, let me tell you."

Titania was oblivious, her eyes clouded with desire as she held his hand and began sucking slowly and seductively on each finger.  Iolaus groaned.

"I'll give you a room to stay in, and trinkets to amuse you."

"Wait just a minute!  What do I look like, a hamster?  I happen to have a life of my own, lady!"  Suddenly the idea of Discord appearing seemed more and more attractive.  Discord he knew how to deal with; Titania was clearly out of her mind and unpredictable.

Titania began rubbing her hands in circles on his chest, and Iolaus severely told his body to ignore her, but as usual it ignored him.  He began to resign himself to life as a pet, hoping that someday he'd be rescued.  Luckily for him, he was, although it wasn't quite what he had in mind.  He heard a loud noise from the far corner of the camp.  Sitting up, he saw what appeared to be a drunken riot of fairies.  One hopped rather unsteadily into the bed with them and copped a quick feel of Iolaus' ass and leered at him before turning her attention to the Queen.

"Yo, Queenie.  I'm the dully...er... duly elected represhentative of the support fairies."

Titania stared, her mind obviously boggled by this turn of events.  She looked at the fairy as if she were something the cat had dragged in.

"Who are you?"  Her lip curled in disdain.

"Who'm I?  Who'm I?  Name's Mustardseed, pleasedtameetya."  With that, Mustardseed thrust her hand at Titania, who merely looked horrified.  Mustardseed shrugged and held out her hand to Iolaus, who shook it, which seemed to make the flower fairy happy.  "Okay, on to bushness.  Business.  I'm the elected representative of the support fairies.  And
we're letting you know that, well, we quit."

"What?"  Titania's voice was a shriek that would have made a banshee proud.  "What do you mean, you quit?"

"We quit."  Mustardseed stared down her mistress.  "Look, I been with you for years now and you don't even know my name.  Probably don't even notice poor Spiderweb's gone.  Or that Moth's about to go ga-ga.  And what it comes down to is, we've had it.  We're sick and tired of the abuse, the games, the fights, the roaming all over the damned world.  We
wanna go home to our families.  So, as of tomorrow morning, you can make up your own bed.  You can wash your own dishes.  And you can decorate your own damn bower, cause we are outta here!"  With that, Mustardseed turned to her compatriots, who yelled in encouragement.  "Oh, and by the way..."  She turned to Iolaus and waved her hand, removing the spell.  "You're cuter this way.  See ya."  Mustardseed quickly hopped out of the bower, leaving Iolaus grinning and Titania's mouth opening and closing but no sound coming out.

Iolaus took advantage of this to hop out of the bower himself.  As he jogged out of the clearing he passed Puck and Oberon, who turned to watch him.


"Yeah, boss?"

"Didn't he have the head of an ass?"

"Yeah.  It's gone now."

"I can see that, you idiot!  Why is it gone?"

"Hm."  Puck pondered for a second, then pointed.  "Could have something to do with that."

"What -"  Oberon stopped as he saw the rioting flower fairies, who were tearing apart the cobwebs and smashing the dishes, as Titania sat in her bower, her eyes big with shock and horror.  Oberon dashed to his wife's side and held her head as she sobbed into his neck.

"Obie... they quit!"

He sighed.  "They do that occasionally, you know."

Titania sniffled, and Oberon quickly cast a sleeping spell.  "Well, it looks like it's time to go home."  He gently kissed her forehead and smeared more flower juice on her eyelids.  "This will erase the love spell, and once you wake up we'll work on putting things back together.  Puck!"  There was a long pause.  "Puck?"  A longer pause.  "Dammit, I should have known he'd end up in the middle of this..."

Meanwhile, dawn was blossoming and the cursed night was finally coming to an end.  In yet another part of the forest, four mortals were out for an early morning ride.  Theseus and Iphicles rode side by side in front, followed by Hippolyta and Hermia.

Theseus leaned over to Iphicles and spoke in a low voice.  "I think she's planning to kill me."

Iphicles looked at him.  "Who?"

"Hippolyta, who else?"

The king shrugged.  "I was putting money on Hermia.  She's carrying a bow, after all.  I assumed she was planning a hunting accident."

"Were you planning on mentioning this to me?"

"Sorry.  I thought it was painfully obvious."

"I'm glad to see you're concerned about my well being."  Theseus spoke indignantly.

Iphicles shrugged as they continued on their way, Theseus glaring at him.


"So what?"  The king looked confused.

"So, did you have a plan of some sort?"

"Not really.  I just have half a dozen of my men following us."

"I feel better."

"Of course, I hadn't counted on the bow.  She could probably shoot you before any of the guards could get to you."

"You know, now I remember why you always annoyed me when we had to work together."

There was a noise behind them, and both men turned to face the women.  Hermia had drawn her bow and was aiming.  Iphicles gave Theseus a look that plainly said 'I told you so' as the Duke glared.

As it happened, before Hermia could let loose the arrow she had notched, there came a sudden commotion from the woods.  As the amazed mortals looked on, a troop of rioting flower fairies marched past them, chanting things like "Help, help, we're being repressed!" and various other slogans they had made up.  One stopped and stared at the mortals for a few moments before mooning them and moving on.  The foursome stared as the strange troupe disappeared, their mouths gaping and all plans forgotten.  Iphicles was the first to break the silence.

"Ye gods, Theseus, I hope those things aren't indigenous!"

Theseus shook his head.  "Nope.  Never seen them before."

"That's good."

The silence held for a few more minutes as all four stared at each other.  Hippolyta motioned to Hermia to put down the bow and her bodyguard complied.

"I suppose we should talk."

Hippolyta and Theseus walked off a short distance to talk, leaving Hermia and Iphicles behind.  Both watched the conversation with a great deal of interest, as both parties did a fair amount of arm-waving and head gesturing.  Finally, the almost-married couple rejoined their companions, both looking quite happy.  Theseus was the first to speak.

"We've worked out the rough spots, and we've found the source of the problem."

"Which is?" Iphicles prompted.


"Sex?"  Iphicles definitely sounded hopeful.

"Well, the root of the problem is that Hippolyta isn't interested in men.  Which is fine, because I'm not interested in women.  So, we're going to tell everyone it's an old tradition for the Queen's female bodyguard to share a room with her, that way she and Hermia can be together."

"Fine.  And what do we tell them?  It's an old tradition for the King of a neighboring kingdom to sleep with the Duke when he comes to visit?  I don't think they'll buy that."

"Naturally.  You're stuck sneaking through the secret passageways again."

Iphicles sulked.  "I hate the secret passageways.  Can't you at least get someone to clean them?"

"If you don't shut up I'll let her shoot you."

And so the foursome returned to the castle, much merrier than when they had left.

Act IV, Scene II : The Infamous Forest Outside of Athens

As dawn began to steal through the forest, several figures were revealed lying on the floor of the clearing Titania's Court had recently vacated.  The figures began to stir and stretch, yawning and rubbing their eyes and looking around in confusion.  Autolycus, being the fastest to wake up, took advantage of this by trying to sneak away.  Unfortunately for him, Hercules chose to wake up just in time to spot him.

"Auto."  The demigod yawned as Autolycus froze in his tracks, "Where're you going?"

"Yeah.  Where do you think you're going?"  Salmoneus, like Autolycus, had learned to wake up fast as a survival skill in his chosen profession.  Autolycus knew when he was beat and sat back down, hands up in a gesture of surrender.  "Um.  Nowhere.  Nowhere at all."  He glared at Hercules.

Althea began to stir, stretching and tucking her hand under her chin, a motion which captured Autolycus' attention and resulted in an angry glare at him from Hercules.  The thief shrugged and tried to look innocent and virginal, with little success.

The Widow Twanky was the last to wake.  She struggled into a sitting position, her hand patting her hair into place.  She looked around, confused.  "I hate to be the one to bring this up, but did I do anything last night that was... unladylike?"

Everyone looked at each other, slowly realizing that all of their memories were a little fuzzy.  Autolycus stroked his chin.  "We were rehearsing.  And there was something about a wall, and a moon."

Salmoneus jumped in, excited.  "Yes!  And we started rehearsing, and Iolaus blew
his lines, but the Widow Twanky was simply marvelous!"  Salmoneus beamed at the
Widow, who fluttered her eyelashes at him.

Hercules stood.  "So where's Iolaus?  I remember he walked off, then the Widow Twanky said her lines, and Iolaus came back..."

"And he had a donkey's head.  That was weird," Althea chimed in, helpfully.

Hercules began pacing.  "And we thought it was one of Ares or Discord's little tricks.  But then we all fell asleep.  That's not like Ares or Discord at all.  They like to have plenty of witnesses to their little games and humiliations."

"More important, where's Iolaus?  How can we put on a play without our leading man?"  Salmoneus' voice rose as he began to panic.  The Widow Twanky reached out and patted his shoulder and looked at him with complete confidence, at which point Salmoneus visibly melted.

As everyone looked around for Iolaus, they heard a loud crashing noise, and Iolaus himself bounded into the center of the group.

"Guys!  You would *not* believe the night I've had!  There was this fairy queen, and she fell completely in love with me, and then there was this fairy riot, and it was all just... well, I guess you just had to be there."  He shrugged.

Hercules looked around as Autolycus tapped him on the shoulder.  "How is it that no matter where we are, he always manages to get laid?"

"I wish I knew.  And I hope this queen doesn't have a husband or father or brother who's going to be coming after Iolaus."

"Excuse me?"  Althea looked quite concerned, and was intensely reading the scroll that announced the contest they were entered in.  "I was just reading this scroll, and it says on the bottom that the contest is to be held *before* the wedding."  The players looked at each other in horror as she continued.  "It says the entertainment contest is to be held the day before the feast, and the feast is the day before the wedding, so that means -" she began counting on her fingers "that the contest is tonight!"

"Okay people, we can do this!"  Salmoneus began running around in a frenzy, as the Widow Twanky watched him admiringly.  "We'll head back to town, and Althea will start making the costumes.  Everyone else, we'll meet at the inn and rehearse!  Let's go people!"  As he began to stride toward the city, the Widow Twanky caught his arm and fluttered her eyelashes at him.  "Have I ever mentioned that I just adore a man who knows how to take charge?"  Salmoneus tried to look modest, but failed.

Althea gathered up her skirts and trotted after the pair, with Iolaus in hot pursuit.  Hercules found himself taking up the rear with Autolycus, who was markedly unenthusiastic.

"Ya know Herc, we could always manage to break a leg or something."

"I doubt we'll be that lucky."

"Yeah, you're right."

"Of course, it could be worse.  At least the audience will be full of total strangers.  Xena and Gabrielle left town, so we won't have to worry about making fools out of ourselves in front of friends."

Autolycus shuddered.  "I hate to even think of that.  They'd never let us live this down.  We'll do it, get it over with, and never tell a living soul."

The pair slouched their way toward Athens, sighing and feeling quite sorry for themselves.

Act V, Scene I : Forest outside Athens

Daybreak found two shapes, sleeping contentedly in each other's arms.  The taller one awoke first and stretched and yawned, awakening her companion, who mumbled in her sleep.

"Gimme a few more minutes mom - " her words trailed off into a loud snore as her partner studied her face before shaking her.

"Gabrielle.  Wake up."

"I'm awake!  I'm awake!"  Gabrielle awoke with a start, reaching for her Amazon fighting stick which was no longer there.  She looked around in a panic.  "Where are we?"

"Still in the forest outside Athens."

"Oh yeah.  Where you got us lost."

"I did *not* get us lost."

"Fine, you didn't get us lost.  Whatever."  Gabrielle rolled her eyes and stretched, working the kinks out of her neck.

"You know, I had the weirdest dream.  You were in it, and so were Ares and Joxer."

Xena raised an eyebrow.  "Let me guess.  You fell in love with Joxer, and then Ares did too, and then the two of you got into a fight over him."

"Yeah."  Gabrielle was amazed.  "How'd you know that?"  She watched Xena's face and began to realize...  "Wait.  Wait just a minute.   You're not saying -"

"It was real."

"No.  Absolutely not.  No way.  Uh uh.  I refuse to believe this."

"I'm telling you Gabrielle, it really happened.  You called Joxer your hunk of man meat."

Gabrielle covered her mouth with her hand and looked ill.  "Oh.  I'm going to be sick.  Why?"  She looked up in anguish.  "Why me?  Why do I keep getting paired off with Joxer every time some stinking love god decides to play a practical joke?  I swear, the next time I see Cupid I'm plucking his wings."

"We don't know who was responsible, although it's obvious that a love spell of some sort was involved."

"Yeah, well - ick.  That's all I have to say.  Yuck.  Ptui.  Bleah."

Xena gave her an amused look.  "I don't know.  I think the two of you are kinda cute together."

"Xena!"  Gabrielle's voice came out an indignant squeal, as Xena laughed at her.

Both women froze as they heard a noise in the underbrush near them.  Motioning Gabrielle to be quiet, Xena grabbed her sword and crept quietly toward the noise.  Before she could reach it, they heard a voice.

"Oh, fuck.  My head's gonna explode.  Yike!  Get that thing away from me!"  The underbrush near Xena's sword exploded and the women found themselves facing a very small and bedraggled flower fairy who was holding her head and moaning.

"Oh, man. I am so going to puke here."

Xena sheathed her sword as Gabrielle joined her in staring at their new companion.  Gabrielle held out her hands in a universal gesture of peace and friendship.

"Hello.  I'm Gabrielle and this is Xena.  We won't hurt you.  We both walk the Way of peace and love and friendship."

The fairy stared at her as if she had grown antennae, then burst out laughing.  "Whatever.  The name's Mustardseed.  Pleasedtameetya."  She held out her hand for them to shake.  "I used ta be a fairy-in-waiting, but now I'm kinda between jobs.  I'm thinking of being an adventurer.  Whaddya think?

"Um..."  Xena was trying hard not to laugh at the fairy, while Gabrielle merely looked aghast.  Mustardseed continued, barely stopping to take a breath.

"So, I'm thinking I'll do the adventurer thing, see the world at my own pace, ya know?  I think I need like a nickname or something.  Like, 'Mustardseed the Bloody.'  Nah.  Sounds kinda unhygenic.  Maybe 'Mustardseed the Vicious'.  Nope, still doesn't have that ring to it."  She sat, crosslegged, and pondered the issue.  Gabrielle and Xena found themselves sitting down also, fascinated by the fairy.

"Maybe I should go for alliteration.  Alliteration's always good, right?"  The two women nodded their assent and Mustardseed continued on, oblivious.  "Let's see - 'Mustardseed the Mad'?  Nope.  Conveys insane instead of pissed off.  I should have a nickname that conveys strength and power and might.  That's it!"  She jumped up in her excitement.  "I'll be 'Mustardseed the Mighty'!  Or maybe I should go for 'The Mighty Mustardseed'.  Whaddya think?"

The women looked at each other.  Xena finally spoke up.  "I don't suppose you're related somehow to someone named Joxer, are you?"

Mustardseed considered this for a moment before shaking her head.  "Nope.  Not that I know of.  But Daddy did get around, if you know what I mean.  So, looks like we've got a big day of adventuring ahead of us, ladies.  Let's get a move on!"

"Us?"  Gabrielle found her voice was squeaking again.

"Yeah, us.  Companions in arms.  Compadres.  Chicks in chain mail.  Bonding babes.  Us women gotta stick together, ya know.  I'm thinking we'll get to know each other, bond, do girl stuff, maybe do each other's hair and nails between battles and saving innocent civilian types.  It'll be cool.  I'm a whiz at decorating, you know."

Gabrielle looked helplessly at Xena, who put on her best diplomatic smile.  "Well, that's all very nice, but we're not adventuring at the moment.  We're going to Athens.  For the wedding.  For several days.  And there's an entertainment contest tonight we're really really looking forward to.  So if you want to go ahead without us and start adventuring on your own, you're more than welcome."

"Wedding?  There's a wedding?  Oh, that's so cool.  I always cry at weddings.  Let's go!"

With that, Mustardseed began marching off, as Xena and Gabrielle looked after her, openmouthed.

"By the way, are there any good taverns in Athens?  Oh, what am I saying?  Of course there are!  Okay, next order of business.  I'm thinking I need some sort of theme song.  Help me out here.  I need a tune, and I need lyrics.  We'll call it 'The Ballad of the Mighty Mustardseed'.  Or maybe 'The Ballad of Mustardseed the Mighty'."

Gabrielle moaned as she and Xena set off after the fairy, who was even more off-key than Joxer.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, the sun's first beams found yet another sleeping couple.  In this particular case, Joxer was being held in a stranglehold by Ares, and trying to figure out how to escape without waking the larger man.  He tried squirming, but that didn't work.  Then he tried gently pulling Ares' arm from his neck, but he was unable to budge it.  He sighed in exasperation.  Suddenly, he had an idea.  He reached out and plucked a blade of grass.  Then, he twisted slightly so that he could reach Ares, and gently wiggled the grass under the former god's nose.  Joxer watched as Ares' nose wrinkled, and his breath caught.  Finally, it worked - Ares sneezed, letting go of Joxer, who jumped up quickly.  He tried to run off, but his foot had fallen asleep and he found himself tripping over it and landing face-down on the ground at Ares' feet.  Damn.  So much for that plan.  He sighed and looked up, prepared to meet his doom, or at least to face the pissed-off god.

What Joxer was definitely not prepared for was the puppy dog eyes.  Ares was looking at him like a lost puppy that had been kicked.  This was getting more and more surreal by the moment.  Joxer sighed and shook his head.

"Okay, let me guess.  It's morning and you're still in love with me."

Ares nodded, still giving Joxer the wounded puppy look.  He reached out to touch Joxer's face, and Joxer backed away, leading Ares to look even more hurt.

"No offense, but no touching here, okay?"

"I want to touch you.  I want to hold you.  I want to kiss you.  I want to -"

Joxer waved his arms in a 'hold it right there gesture'.  "I get the picture.  But the deal is, no touching."

Ares looked hurt.

"Would you cut that out?  It's really kind of - well, it's kind of creepy."

"Sorry."  And Ares really did sound sorry.  Geez.  Suddenly Joxer felt like dirt.

"That's okay.  It's just that the puppy dog look only works for so long.  Trust me on this one.  Use it for emergencies only.  Otherwise they get used to it and it loses effectiveness.  It used to work on Gabrielle, but now she's pretty much immune to it."

"Really?"  Ares managed to look interested and tone down the look, filing this information away for future reference.

"Yeah, really."  Joxer sighed again and studied Ares.  "You know, you're under a love spell.  This isn't natural."

"Tell me about it."  That was more like it - Ares was beginning to look pissed off.  Joxer took some comfort in this, since a pissed off Ares was much more familiar and somehow comforting than an Ares who went around giving puppy dog looks and declaring his love.

"So.  You're under a spell, and it probably has something to do with this mortality thing, right?"  Ares nodded as Joxer continued.  "And you said to get your godhood back, you need to get to Sparta, right?"

"Athena's temple there."

"Okay.  So here's the plan.  We go to Sparta, we go to Athena's temple, you get your sword and zippedy doo dah, you're a god again.  Damn.  That sounds too easy.  Hm.  Are we likely to run into any traps or anything?"

"No.  When Zeus zapped me down here, he specifically said none of the others were allowed to interfere."  He snorted.  "Dear old Dad doesn't think I have what it takes to make it from Athens to Sparta."

"That's good to know.  The no interfering thing, that is."  Joxer thought some more, so engrossed that he didn't notice Ares advancing and taking his hand.  "Hey!  I said no touching!"  Ares dropped the hand and looked chagrined.  Joxer glared.  "One more thing.  Once you get your godhood back, this spell will probably go away, am I right?"

"Most likely.  It depends on who cast it and what type of spell it is, but the answer's a qualified yes."

"Then I want you to promise me that when you get your godhood back, you won't do anything to me."

Ares looked wounded.  "I wouldn't -"

"Yes, you would.  You're not in your right mind right now.  You're mortal and you're under a spell.  When you get back to normal you're going to be completely mortified.  So, I want your solemn vow that once you get back to normal you won't kill me."

"Okay, fine."  Ares sighed, martyred.  "I won't kill you, okay?"

"And you won't maim, cripple, torture, fold, spindle, mutilate, puncture, gouge, cut, fillet, crush, grind, or otherwise destroy me, nor will you set me on fire or turn me into a little lump of charcoal."

"All right, all right.  I promise, I'll be good.  If you help me out here, I'll owe you anyhow."

"Okay."  Joxer held out his hand.  "We have a deal."

Ares grasped his hand and shook it, then pulled Joxer close and kissed him, hard on the lips.  Joxer froze, then returned the kiss.  When they broke for air, Joxer found himself trembling and gasping for breath as Ares smirked at him.

"We have a deal."

Joxer continued to pant for air, trying to get his brain back in gear.

"Um.  Okay.  Let's start by heading back to Athens."

"Back to Athens?"

"Did you just whine?"  Joxer was quickly going into shock.

"The God of War does *not* whine."  Now Ares was looking pissed.  Good.  Pissed off Ares was good.

"Fine, you didn't whine.  We're going back to Athens because when we left we were headed away from Sparta.  I think."  Joxer shrugged.  "I'm bad at directions.  Anyhow, we'll go back to Athens, find the road to Sparta and just follow it there.  We can spend the night in town, get cleaned up and relax, and leave first thing in the morning.  We'll also need to get some supplies for the trip."

Ares nodded a grudging assent.  "I *am* getting hungry."

Joxer brightened.  "We could look for berries.  I really like berries."

"Can you tell which ones are safe to eat?"

"Well, mostly.  And I've never gotten really, really sick."

"Let's go back to Athens."

And so the two men began to pick their way along the forest path, hoping they were going in the right direction.

"You know, there's supposed to be some kind of entertainment contest tonight.  Maybe we could check it out..."

Act V, Scene II : Athens, Palace of Duke Theseus

The palace of the Duke, which was normally bustling with activity, was a frantic whirlwind of energy due to wedding preparations.  Servants ran everywhere in a tizzy, tempers flared, crockery was thrown and voices were raised in panic.  Demetrius scurried through this maelstrom of energy, seemingly oblivious, as he looked for his lord.  He finally located the Duke and King Iphicles necking in a secluded passageway.  He cleared his throat to get their attention.  The Duke looked up, unperturbed as ever, while the king glared daggers at the hapless steward, who looked apologetic.

"My lords, the Queen awaits the pleasure of your company in the Great Hall.  The entertainment will commence within the hour."  He bowed, satisfied that his message had been delivered, before scurrying off.  Theseus sighed.

"I can't believe I let your brother talk me into this."  Iphicles gave him a sympathetic look.

"Herc has a talent for it.  He's always so enthusiastic about everything that you just find yourself agreeing with him and getting swept along with the energy.  It's only later that you realize what happened.  Sorta like hard liquor.  It's great when you're knocking it back, but you sure pay in the morning."

"Are you comparing your brother to a hangover?"

"Gods no!  There are things you can do to cure hangovers.  There's no cure for Herc."  He smiled wryly as they began to walk toward the Great Hall.

Once inside the hall, the men joined Hermia and Hippolyta, who were both looking unhappy as well as uncomfortable in their formal clothing.  Theseus chastely kissed Hippolyta's cheek as Iphicles bowed and kissed Hermia's hand flirtatiously.  Theseus noted the number of people staring and spoke in an undertone.

"That's it - get all the gossips going.  By next week all of Greece will believe she's carrying your love child."

Iphicles shot him a sidelong glance.  "And by the week after that they'll have a new rumor to feed upon.  Luckily they have extremely short attention spans."

The four settled into their seats as Demetrius rushed up with a scroll.

"My lords, ladies, I have here the list of entertainers and what they will be presenting."  His face was a mask of utter pain and hopelessness.  "I'm afraid they are all, well, shall we say, amateur efforts at best.  I've seen some of them backstage, rehearsing."

Theseus made a gesture.  "Might as well get on with it.  What will we be suffering through?"

Demetrius cleared his throat.  "First, there is an Athenian eunuch who will be playing the harp and singing of a great battle between the Amazons and the centaurs."

Hippolyta made a face.  "If this is the ballad I've heard before, it's nothing but made up lies!"

"Better get used to it." Theseus muttered.

"Well, ah, next we have a play showing the enraged Bacchae tearing the singer Orpheus to bits."  Demetrius looked rather pale at this.  "They seem to have several buckets of chicken blood to use for this.  The backstage area is beginning to smell."

"Let's move them to last.  We don't want anyone slipping on the blood on stage."  The Duke was beginning to wish he'd had more to drink with dinner, as this was sounding more and more painful as time went on.

"The next is a satire by several teachers.  It's titled 'The Thrice Three Muses Mourning for the Death of Learning, Late Deceased in Beggary'.  It's a heavy handed amateur attempt at satire, and I believe is also a thinly veiled way of asking for a raise in behalf of Athenian teachers."

"Let's move that group behind the Bacchae.  Maybe we'll get lucky and the teachers will slip on the blood.  If I have to listen to one more lecture about the youth of today, the violent games they play and the sex and violence in the theater I may well turn violent myself.  Just last week the bloody fools complained because they were upset that their children had been exposed to violence in 'Oedipus Rex'.  What'd they expect?  A comedy?"

Demetrius waited until this tirade was over before continuing.  "The last bit is a brief play.  It's described as 'A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisby; very tragical mirth'."  He sighed again and looked up expectantly.Theseus and Iphicles looked at each other, Iphicles speaking first.

"Pardon my ignorance, but how can something be both merry and tragical?  And is tragical even a word?"

Theseus leaned forward.  "And how can it be both brief and tedious?  If it truly is both, why advertise this?"

Demetrius stepped closer.  "To be honest, my lord, this one is a real stinker.  Worse even than the schoolteachers.  I watched them rehearse, and it boggles the mind to see this.  The play is short, only two scenes, but if you ask me it's three scenes too long.  The play is badly written and the 'actors' are all completely miscast.  It is a tragedy though - Pyramus kills himself for love, and I must confess that it made me cry to see it rehearsed.  Of course, I was crying because I was laughing so hard, but that's completely beside the point.  There is one more small matter though -"

"Yes?"  Theseus looked interested.

"Hercules is one of the actors.  I gather he was forced to take a part in the play.  When I saw him last backstage, he appeared to be looking for ways to break his leg."

Iphicles grinned.  "Oh, this is going to be so good.  Theseus, can we please see them first? Please?"  He used his best puppy-dog look for this, and Theseus acquiesced.

"Very well.  The order for the night's entertainment shall be Hercules and Company, followed by the Athenian eunuch, followed by the Bacchae and then the teachers."

Demetrius bowed and scurried backstage to tell the various performers the news.

Meanwhile, the hall was filling quickly with citizens from all strata of Athenian society.  Xena and Gabrielle were close to the front and had a good view.

"This is going to be so much fun!  It's been forever since we've been to see a play, or listen to a musician.  I just love culture, don't you?"

Xena winced.  She hated culture, and sitting still for several hours watching other people make fools of themselves wasn't exactly her idea of fun.

"I saw one of the groups rehearsing in the forest last night."  Mustardseed spoke up, holding her nose.  "They stunk."

"Thank you for the eloquent review."  Gabrielle practically growled at the fairy.

"No, I mean it, they really stunk.  I could do better than they did.  Hey!  There's an idea!  I could go on stage!  I could be an actress.  Or a singer.  Or both!  I could act and sing at the same time!  Of course, what I really want is to direct."  She wiggled excitedly in her seat.  "And I could sign autographs.  That'd be fun.  And I could travel the world, being adored everywhere I went!"

"That's a wonderful idea."  Xena dared to hope they would be able to ditch their latest groupie.  "I think you'd make a marvelous actress.  You have a lot of - energy."

"Why, thank you!  You're such a good friend."  The flower fairy sniffed.  "I just couldn't leave you guys.  You're such pals.  Nope, I'm going to stick with a lifetime of poverty and adventure with you two!"

"Oh, joy."  Gabrielle spoke through clenched teeth.  "You know, Xena, you said she'd be easier to itch-day in the ity-cay."

"Sorry.  She's more - devoted - even than Joxer is!"

"Who's Joxer?"

"He's a friend of ours.  I bet you two would get along really well."  Gabrielle hoped the fairy would take the bait.

"Wow.  You guys are just the greatest.  Already trying to set me up on a date with a friend.  You're so sweet.  But I would never desert my good female buds for a man.  Nope, not me.  Us girls gotta stick together!"

The two human women slouched further down into their seats as the flower fairy continued to prattle on.

The crowd grew thicker.  People in the back were forced to stand as there were no more seats left.  A large, black-clad figure shoved his way through the crowd and found two people who were sitting near the back.

"Give us those seats."

"Excuse me?"  The Athenian nobleman looked up in scorn.  "Do you know who I am?"

"No.  Give us those seats."  Ares crossed his arms over his chest and loomed, emanating an almost visible wave of menace.  The nobleman turned pale and took his wife's arm.

"Let's go, Lovey..."

And Joxer and Ares sat in their seats.  Joxer looked at his companion, awestruck.

"Wow.  That was really cool.  Think you can teach me that?"

Ares returned his gaze, love warring with honesty behind his eyes.


"Oh.  Okay.  I guess.  But this is still really cool.  I usually can't afford to go to plays and stuff, so this is really nice.  Um.  But don't get any ideas.  This isn't like a date or anything, okay?"

"Okay."  Ares was looking innocent again, which really bothered Joxer.  But what the heck - tomorrow morning they were going to hit the road.  He might as well have fun while he could. He settled back in his seat, as Ares stretched his arms and then let one down to rest of the back of Joxer's seat, almost on his shoulder.  Joxer glared, but Ares smirked and left his arm there.

Meanwhile, the backstage area was a textbook example of chaos.  People were flying everywhere, voices were raised in song and arguments, and Hercules felt nauseous.  He kept looking out at the audience, noticing how big it was.  He took a deep breath and remembered the Widow Twanky's advice.  Picture the audience naked.  That seemed to help.  He was beginning to calm down when Salmoneus exploded upon the scene.

"There you are!  We've been looking all over for you!  I just got word - we're going to be the first act!  Now go put on your costume and get ready for your big stage debut!"

Hercules sighed, wishing he had never agreed to this ridiculous play.  But at least he didn't have to worry about anyone he cared about seeing this - he'd never live it down.  He reluctantly followed Salmoneus to their small corner of the dressing area and put on the lion costume that Althea had made him, while Autolycus grumped at Salmoneus.

"Whaddya mean I have to be the moon?"

"You, Mr. Know-it-all, suggested we open a window for moonlight.  Well, there's no window!  Since we don't have any way of getting real moonlight in here, you get to pretend to be the moon!"

"I'm going to get you for this, Sal.  Just you wait."

"Yeah, yeah.  Okay everyone, last minute check - we're on in five!"

And Salmoneus scurried off to check on the audience.

Act V, Scene III : Athens, Palace of Duke Theseus (Great Hall)

The audience fell silent as the great curtain was raised.  Salmoneus stood in the center of the stage, holding a scroll in his hands and trying to control his shaking.  Gods, he was nervous!  His stomach was full of butterflies and his mouth was dry.  He stared at his scroll, trying to keep the letters from jumping around before his eyes.  Taking a deep breath, he began.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are here tonight to present to you the play entitled 'The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby', by the playwright Nonymus, whose scrolls can be purchased at fine scroll-sellers everywhere or backstage for three dinars each.  Um.  We are none of us professional actors, merely adventurous amateurs.  We come here tonight to present this play for your entertainment.  That's our intent.  Um.  So, let me introduce the cast..."

At Salmoneus's hand gesture, a trumpet blatted an off-key note and the cast filed onto the stage, Autolycus, Hercules and Althea each trying to come out last.  Moving to stand behind Iolaus, Salmoneus continued.

"This is our romantic hero, Pyramus."  Iolaus grinned and waved at the audience as Salmoneus moved and placed his hands gently on the Widow Twanky's shoulders.  "And this vision of beauty, this specimen of the best of femininity, this lady of many talents, is our romantic heroine, Thisby."  Salmoneus looked at her adoringly before moving to Althea.  Althea was wearing a flowing white gown with a black pattern of bricks drawn upon it.  Her hairstyle was reminiscent of a Doric column.  "This young lady will be playing the part of the wall, through which the lovers converse by moonlight."  He moved on to a very uncomfortable-looking Autolycus, who was trying to hide his face from the audience.  "Here we have a gentleman who will be playing the moon.  Because, you see, the lovers meet by moonlight at Ninus' tomb.  And there are no windows.  So he's going to represent the moonshine.  And, last but certainly not least, we have the villain of the piece.  This fine gentleman," he indicated Hercules, "plays the lion."Hercules lifted his head and looked at the audience for a split second before returning his gaze to his feet.

In the audience, Xena and Gabrielle both sniggered to themselves.  Xena suddenly thought to herself that maybe culture wasn't such a bad idea after all.

In the back of the room, Ares snorted his drink through his nose.  It wasn't a pleasant experience, but this night was turning out to be full of possibilities.  Joxer merely looked appalled.

Back on stage, Salmoneus continued.

"You see, when they come to meet at the tomb, Thisby gets there first, but the lion scares her away but she loses her cloak, so when Pyramus finds her cloak-"  Iolaus waved again, "he assumes that the lion killed her, and since he loves her he then kills himself, but she's not really dead, you see, so she comes back and finds his body and then she kills herself and they live happily ever after.  Well, not really, but at least it's romantic.  So, without further ado, we will now begin the play."

The group filed off stage, as Theseus and Iphicles stared at each other.

"So, do you think your brother gets many good lines?"

"Have I ever mentioned that I'm adopted?"

They watched in horrified fascination as Althea took the stage and began speaking in a squeaky, trembling voice.

"I am a wall."  She spread her arms and the sleeves, which reached to brush the floor, formed a solid drape to imitate a wall.  "I, the wall that is, have a chink."  She formed a circle using her thumb and third finger.  "Through this chink the lovers Pyramus and Thisby would talk of their love, for they were neighbors but their love was forbidden, so they had to talk through the chink in the wall.  That I am.  Playing, that is."

Theseus looked over as Iphicles elbowed him and whispered "That has to be the most eloquent wall I've ever seen."

The Duke grinned and whispered back.  "Be glad the walls of my secret passageways aren't tattletales like this one!"

Iolaus took the stage, walking dramatically up to Althea.  He began speaking, projecting his voice as well as he could, which resulted in quite an exaggerated tone.

"Oh, grim night!  Oh, black night!  Oh night that arrives when daylight leaves!  Oh night!  Alack, alack, alack, I'm afraid my beloved Thisby will not arrive tonight!  And you, wall, oh lovely wall, oh wall that has witnessed our love, show me your chink, so I may look for my love!"

Althea moved her hand so that it was in front of Iolaus' face.  He pulled the 'chink' to his eye and peered through.

"Thank you, oh wall.  You're a most helpful wall.  May Zeus bless you for being such a wonderful wall."

In the audience, Xena elbowed Gabrielle and whispered, "Don't you just hate it when you run into an uncooperative wall?"  Gabrielle stifled her giggle.

On stage, Iolaus continued.  "But what's this?  She's not here?  Alack, my sweet Thisby isn't here!  Oh wicked wall, you've conspired to break my heart!  May your stones be cursed for plotting against me!"

Ares leaned over to Joxer.  "If I was that wall, I'd be dropping a few stones on his head right about now."  Joxer snorted in reply.

On stage, Iolaus looked perturbed.  "I said, may your stones be cursed for plotting against me!"

The audience heard a muffled "Oops!", as the Widow Twanky hurriedly took the stage.  She rushed to the opposite side of Althea and took her mark.

"Oh, friend wall, how often have you heard my moans, my cries for your parting Pyramus and myself?  My cherry lips have often kissed your stones, stones encrusted with lime and hair, imagining my beloved Pyramus."

In the audience, Mustardseed made a face.  "Ewww.  She kisses the wall?  Yuck!"

Iolaus stepped closer to Althea.  "I see a voice!  I mean, I hear a voice!  Now I will go to the chink and see if it is my beloved Thisby!"  He put his eyeball to the 'chink'.  "Thisby!"

The Widow Twanky also moved her eye to the 'chink', which was somewhat difficult as her high-heeled shoes meant she was slightly taller than Iolaus, and so they ended up each grabbing Althea's hand and trying to adjust it to their own level.  After a brief struggle and fierce glare from the Widow, Iolaus acquiesced.

"Pyramus!  Beloved!"

"Yes, my beloved, it is I!  Your true love.  Never has there been a truer love than ours.  I shall be true to you, my beloved, until I draw my last breath."

"And I to you, like Helen, until my death also."

"Oh, beloved, kiss me through this hole in the wall!"

The Widow pushed Althea aside, grabbed Iolaus and kissed him deeply as the audience hooted and applauded.  When she let him go, Iolaus staggered back a few steps.

"What?  Oh, um - Will you meet me at Ninus' tomb tonight?"

"Yes, my darling."

With that, Iolaus and the Widow Twanky took each other's hands and bowed to the audience before exiting the stage.  Althea put her arms down and thanked the gods that she had her last lines now.  "And so, since the lovers are now going to Ninus' tomb, and there's no wall there, I will now exit."  And so she exited the stage, sitting down and taking deep breaths as soon as she was safely hidden.

Gabrielle was having a hard time controlling her giggles, and even Xena looked like she was ready to burst into laughter.

"Aren't you glad we decided to come back to Athens instead of visiting your mother?"

Xena nodded.  "I'm going to be able to use this for years."

Joxer wasn't sure exactly how to react to all of this.  He liked Iolaus, but watching this made him feel somehow embarrassed.  Ares, on the other hand, looked positively gleeful.  He had also managed to move one hand onto Joxer's knee without being swatted down.

Autolycus now sulked onto stage, carrying a pole with a lit lamp at the end, followed by Hercules in his lion costume.  Hercules tried Twanky's trick - looking into the audience, he imagined them all naked. Until he saw who was sitting next to Duke Theseus.  Upon seeing Iphicles, Hercules turned bright red.  He hadn't known Iphy would be here.  He wondered if it was possible to die from sheer embarrassment.  Iphicles, on the other hand, was wearing a giant grin and appeared to be having a wonderful time.  Off stage, Salmoneus was making little 'get-on-with-it motions'.  Hercules took a deep breath and imagined killing Iolaus very slowly for getting him into this mess.  He stepped forward and spoke quickly, running his words together.

"Um, well, I'm playing the lion but we didn't want anyone to get upset or scared, so they thought I should let everyone know I'm not a real lion or anything I'm just pretending to be one."

Theseus stifled a laugh and looked at Iphicles.  The King of Corinth had slouched down so far in his chair that he was practically on the floor.  One hand shielded his face, which was bright red.

"Did I mention that I'm adopted?"

The Duke choked back a laugh.

In the back of the room, Joxer heard a noise and looked down to find Ares rolling on the floor, holding his sides as tears ran down his cheeks and he struggled to breathe between fits of laughter.

Back on stage, Autolycus stepped forward and spoke in a monotone.  "This lantern here -" he jiggled the lantern in question, "is the moon.  And so I am the man in the moon."

Mustardseed leaned over to Gabrielle and Xena.  "If that's the moon, and he's the man in the moon, shouldn't he be *in* the lantern?"  The women ignored her and Mustardseed began puzzling about how to go about cramming a human into a lantern.

The Widow Twanky took her place upon the stage.

"Here I am, at Ninny's tomb, waiting for my lover.  Tra la la la la.  Eeek!  A lion!"

Hercules let out an entirely unconvincing roar that reduced both Iphicles and Ares to helpless puddles of laughter, then chased the Widow Twanky off the stage, ripping off her cloak on the way.  Once backstage he tore off the costume, vowing to change his name and move to another country far away.

Iolaus wandered onto the stage and looked around.

"Ah, sweet moon, wonderful moon, thank you for giving us light this evening."

Theseus leaned over and whispered in Iphicles' ear, "You know, he sucks up to all the inanimate objects.  That moon should talk to the wall, she'll tell him how two-faced this guy is."

On the stage, Iolaus found the cloak.  "What's this?  Thisby's cloak?  And it has blood on it!  No, it can't be!  Oh wicked moon to show me this horrible sight!"

Theseus muttered, "See?  What'd I tell you?"

Iolaus was raising his voice to convey his passion.  "Oh, cruel Fates!  Oh Furies!  Sever my life thread instead of that of my beloved Thisby!  Oh, evil Nature that allowed the evil lion to attack my beautiful beloved, the fairest woman to live, to breathe, to cheer, I can no longer go on!"

Unsheathing his fake sword, Iolaus stabbed himself.  He fell to the ground.  His feet twitched convulsively.  Then he levered himself halfway up and dragged himself across the stage.  Then he took the sword and did a series of one-handed pushups, appearing to impale himself repeatedly.  Then he fell and rolled around, moaning the entire time.

Ares poked Joxer.  "Ten dinars says he's still not dead."

"I'm not as stupid as I look."

Ares shrugged.

Iolaus continued to twitch, then he pulled himself into a sitting position and declared, "Goodbye, cruel world!", before slumping again.  The audience watched, wondering if the death scene would continue.  Autolycus looked disgusted and left the stage.

Iphicles leaned over to Theseus.  "Does this mean the moon's behind the clouds, or will someone show up playing the sun?"

The Widow Twanky came back onto the stage and crossed to Iolaus and threw her arms around him.

"Pyramus?  My love?  What, are you sleeping out here, you silly goose?  Are you dead?  Speak to me, Pyramus!  Alas and alack, he is gone!  His eyes, the color of leeks, shall see no more.  His lovely lips will kiss me no more."  She kissed Iolaus passionately, as he struggled to escape.  "Stop that now, you're dead!"She pulled out the fake sword and stared at it.  "Oh sword, oh beloved sword, let me out of my misery!"

As she plunged the sword into her breast, Ares whispered to Joxer "Does this mean they're letting us out of our misery and ending this debacle?"

The Widow Twanky collapsed on top of Iolaus, who slapped her hand as it snaked its way under his costume.

"So this means that the wall and the moon survived. Cool.  I love a happy ending."  Xena and Gabrielle glared at Mustardseed.  "Sorry, but I do!  Sheesh."

And the curtain came down, ending the play.

The End