The morning of the day before the wedding of Athenian Duke Theseus and Spartan Queen Hippolyta was a beautiful morning. There were few clouds in the sky, birds were chirping, and there was happiness in the air. However, the day started out better for some than for others.
Dawn found Duke Theseus and King Iphicles of Corinth in a tangle of bedclothes after a long night. In the next bedchamber, Queen Hippolyta and her bodyguard Hermia were in much the same position. Demetrius, the steward, was already up and scurrying through the hallways, trying desperately to explain to Hercules exactly why King Iphicles wasn't in his bedchamber and why his bed was neatly made.
"I'm telling you, I know Iphicles isn't an early riser."
"Well, sir, perhaps he took a walk...?"
"No, he hates walking in the morning. When we were kids I had to throw a bucket of water on him to get him up in the morning."
"I'm sure nothing's happened..."
"Then why is the guard posted outside of his door unaware that he's not inside? People don't just go into rooms and then vanish."
"Um. Perhaps he climbed out the window?"
"It's the third floor. Besides, the man is a king! Kings do *not* climb out of windows!"
"Well, you obviously haven't spent much time around kings.." Demetrius muttered to himself. "Sir, if you could just wait in the inner hall downstairs, I'll go speak with Duke Theseus and let him know King Iphicles is missing. I'm sure we can work something out."
Hercules nodded his assent, running a hand nervously through his hair. "All right, I'll be waiting. Can you send the Captain of the Guard down there also?"
"As soon as I speak with the Duke. I'm sure this will all work out." Demetrius tried to look reassuring, but since his face was perpetually set in a worried expression, it didn't quite work. And so he scurried down the hall to the Duke's bedchambers, wishing that for once he could work for a nobleman who would just sleep with his wife like a normal human being. Reaching the door, he rapped quickly three times. After waiting a moment and not hearing anything from inside, he rapped thrice more. He heard a mutter from inside that sounded close enough to 'what is it' for him to enter. Closing the door behind him, he unconsciously barred it with his body. He saw the Duke in bed, a lump next to him completely hidden by the covers.
The Duke rubbed his eyes and yawned. "Morning, Demetrius. What's the crisis this morning?"
"Well, sir, it's King Iphicles."
"Iphicles?" The Duke poked the lump next to him, which stirred and mumbled something unintelligible before settling down again.
"Yes, it appears that he's not in his bedchambers."
Theseus raised an eyebrow. "Do tell?"
Demetrius looked at his feet. "And his brother came to visit."
"Oh." Comprehension dawned in the Duke's eyes as he shook the lump rather more aggressively. Demetrius was surprised when the King of Corinth's head popped out from under the covers next to the Duke's feet, his eyes bleary with sleep and his hair sticking out all over.
"Wake up, it's your brother again."
"Oh, fuck." Iphicles pulled the covers over his head again.
Demetrius stepped forward. "Your highness, your brother came to see you this morning. He was quite... excited. The guard told him you were in the room, and when you didn't answer their knocking they became worried. They let themselves into the room and found your bed hasn't been slept in."
"I'm surprised that bed isn't covered with dust." Iphicles poked his head out again and ran his fingers through his hair. "So, my brother is assuming I've been kidnapped or something like that?"
"Exactly." Demetrius nodded. "He wanted me to send the Captain of the Guard to see him."
Iphicles sighed as Theseus looked on sympathetically. "Why don't you just tell your brother? I'm sure he can be trusted."
"Oh, he can be trusted, all right. It's just that he's got some strange ideas about sex and I don't want to deal with his hangups."
Demetrius suddenly remembered stories about Zeus and Leda, and fervently hoped that that wasn't quite what the King had meant.
"Strange how?" Theseus looked really interested.
"He believes in true love. You only sleep with someone if you love them, preferably only after you've married them. And they must be of the opposite sex. And adultery is definitely out. I think it's some sort of reaction to his father or something." Iphicles rolled his eyes. "Those are nice ideas, if you're twelve years old. But the rest of us live in a more complicated reality than Herc does. Sometimes I think he doesn't even realize that he lives in a different world from the rest of us. Sometimes I envy him." Iphicles sighed. "But, that doesn't help the current situation. Where have I been all night?"
Theseus pondered this for a moment. "I think it's best to stick close to the truth. The less complicated the cover story the less likely it is to be discovered."
"Agreed." Iphicles nodded, and turned onto his back, pondering the ceiling. "So, exactly who was I in bed with?"
Demetrius cleared his throat as both men looked at him. "This may not be the best idea, but it may work. Last night King Iphicles was flirting with Hermia. Perhaps he could say he was with her all night?"
Theseus looked at his steward in wonder. "Brilliant. And to make it even more elegant, her room's right next door, so if he's seen in the hallway he can say he was over there. Give yourself a raise, Demetrius"
Iphicles snorted. "Great. So much for me trying to hire him away from you. Okay, I was in bed with Hermia last night. Got it." His arm snaked under the bed and began retrieving his clothes. He squinted at his shirt, which had several buttons ripped off of it. "Hm. Looks like Hermia was pretty desperate last night."
Theseus kicked him, provoking a laugh. "Demetrius, please tell Hercules his brother has been located. Just don't specify where. Iph'll be along shortly."
Demetrius nodded his assent, greatly relieved, and left the room. He scurried down the hallways, trying to figure out how best to lie to the son of Zeus. He certainly hoped this wouldn't cause any of the gods to become angry with him. On the other hand, King Iphicles seemed to be in good health and it appeared that he made a career of lying to his brother. He found this somewhat comforting.
Demetrius arrived in the small hallway where Hercules was waiting, pacing frantically in dizzying circles. He was so focused on his worry that he didn't even notice the steward until he cleared his throat.
"Um. Sir? I've located your brother."
The relief on the demigod's face was visible. Demetrius almost felt bad for lying to him.
"Is he okay? Where was he?"
"Well, he was... That is... There was another bedchamber..." Demetrius trailed off dramatically, waiting for the hero to grasp his implication. Frankly, it took longer than Demetrius had thought before he saw understanding dawn in the blue eyes, as his face grew red.
"Quite. He should be here shortly." Demetrius nodded
and backed away, looking forward to having a normal day after this morning.
Others were also starting the day out on the wrong foot. In a small, somewhat seedy inn near the outskirts of Athens, Gabrielle was snuggled into her pillow, enjoying the luxury of sleeping in a real bed with real sheets, in a real inn (albeit a rundown one) with a roof over her head. But she had a problem. Something kept tickling her nose. She wiggled her nose, trying to make it go away, but that didn't work. She tried ignoring it but had no luck. Finally, she opened her eyes, only to find herself nose-to-nose with a certain small flower fairy. She sighed and turned over as Mustardseed jumped on her bed.
"Ugh." Gabrielle groaned and closed her eyes, hoping that her latest hanger-on would take the hint. But naturally, she had no such luck. Mustardseed began bouncing up and down on the bed.
"You should get up it's a really beautiful day and the sun's shining and there's no clouds and the birds are chirping and I don't have to cook breakfast and I went downstairs for food and by the way I took some of your money and they had this stuff called kaffe or something that sounds like that and it was really yummy and I had four cups of it and it was really cool and wow! Look at that sky and up and at 'em girlfriend!"
By this point the flower fairy was using the bed as a trampoline and was all but hitting he ceiling. Watching her bounce up and down and up and down was making Gabrielle faintly nauseous. Luckily it ended when Mustardseed landed a little too hard, sending the mattress crashing through the frame and onto the floor with a loud crash. Gabrielle glared as her companion grinned at her.
"Cool! Can I do it again?"
Gabrielle pulled her blanket over her head.
Joxer, on the other hand, was having a wonderful morning. He slowly drifted up out of his dream, not quite willing to let go and wake up. He could hear birds chirping outside, and feel sunlight on his forearm. Yawning, he snuggled further into his pillow, delighted at the feeling of clean, soft sheets, a soft bed, and a warm body pressed against his back.
He *really* didn't want to wake up. But he definitely remembered that he hadn't gone to sleep in a bed last night. Nope. He had been... on the floor. Sitting with his back against the door. Fighting to stay awake. Why? Was he keeping watch? He felt as if questions were bubbling up from within the depths of his subconscious, but he was missing something important. Okay. He had been keeping watch. And he had obviously screwed up yet again, because even Joxer knew that one simply did *not* keep watch in a bed. It kind of defeated the purpose of keeping watch, after all. So, he had failed in his duty and someone had tucked him into bed and was snuggling with him? Again, this just did *not* make sense. Usually falling asleep while on watch left him tied up or yelled at or smacked around by Gabby, but definitely *not* tucked into bed. Let's back up to the watching thing. He had been keeping watch to... guard against bad guys? Nope, that didn't feel right. Felt like he was watching someone inside the room... a prisoner? Damn. He just didn't want to wake up, but this was as annoying as a loose tooth. He couldn't just leave it alone, he had to wiggle it. Memory began to return as he felt a large hand snaking its way under his shirt.
Which was apparently what his companion had in mind. Big surprise. Even as a mortal he was a walking hormone. Was the God of War some sort of adolescent god? This was a frightening thought. He was distracted from the image of a teenage Ares as the party in question began running a rough finger in circles around his left nipple. He gasped, and felt the bed shift as Ares, behind him, raised himself on one arm and licked Joxer's neck, right where it joined his shoulder. Joxer began to feel somewhat dizzy, and finally gave in and opened his eyes. Ares, apparently taking this as some sort of signal, pulled the smaller man over so that he was lying on his back, and then blanketed the smaller body with his own. Joxer blinked and found himself looking up into a pair of deep black eyes and an entirely too self-satisfied smirk.
Ares licked his lips.
"Morning." The voice was low, purring. Joxer found he couldn't look away from those eyes, even though the smirk was beginning to irritate him. Just who did Ares think he was? (Duh. The god of war, a small voice in his head replied.) Snapping out of this inner dialogue, Joxer realized that Ares' lips were awfully close, and slowly moving closer. The beautiful night-sky eyes were half-closed, which was the only reason that he was able to break the trance. Growing up with older brothers who liked to beat the crap out of him and hold him down had actually proven to be a wonderful learning experience for Joxer. Taking a deep breath, he shifted one leg and wiggled, throwing the bigger man off balance. He then began scooting away, but his leg got caught and the next thing he knew, there was an extremely shocked and disgruntled Ares lying on the floor next to the bed glaring at him.
"What the fuck was that all about?"
"Um. Well, I... that is, you.... I mean..." How was he supposed to think when his neck was still burning, his lips were still anticipating a kiss, and he had the god of war glaring at him? His brain began spinning, frantically churning out words and ideas. He grabbed the nearest one, all but sighing in relief when he found it made sense. "Sparta. We have to get you to Sparta."
Ares was still glaring. "It wouldn't have taken that long."
Joxer raised an eyebrow. "Oh. I assumed it would take quite a while, but I guess I underestimated you." Fuck. His mouth was obviously still pissed about not getting that kiss, because it was trying to get the rest of him killed. Joxer found himself gulping.
The glare grew more intense. It was a positively menacing glare; the kind he assumed would leave him a smoldering pile of charcoal briquettes under normal circumstances. As far as glares went, this one qualified for a throne of its own. Joxer quaked as the former god stood up and brushed himself off, practically growling. Joxer smiled his most ingratiating, yet least offensive smile as he cringed and closed his eyes. They flew open when he felt a mouth pressing against his, a tongue forcing its way inside, and all the air being sucked out of his lungs. He sat, paralyzed, as Ares continued to glare while smirking his trademark smirk.
"We'll see about that."
At least Joxer's mouth was happy. His brain, on the other hand, was down for the count as he found his mouth opening and closing soundlessly. He imagined he looked rather like an indignant fish. Ares leaned against the nearest wall, an extremely self-satisfied look on his face. Joxer stared, suddenly realizing that even as a mortal, Ares still looked like, well, Ares. The self-satisfied look was quickly replaced by confusion which was masked with irritability.
"What? What is it?"
"You still look like yourself."
"What'd you expect?" Ares was obviously not following the same reasoning Joxer was. "Should I maybe look like Aphrodite?"
Joxer had always had a problem with explaining things to people. He tended to make strange leaps and bounds of logic that others didn't, and saw connections between things that were invisible to others. It had always caused him trouble, and not a few beatings in his time, and so he tried to choose the right words to explain this particular leap of logic.
"You're not exactly the most popular god on Olympus."
"So? What do I care?"
"Because you're mortal." He obviously wasn't getting it. Joxer sighed and tried from another angle. "Okay. Lots of people don't like you. Lots of people blame you for bad things. And if they see someone who looks just like Ares, but he's mortal..."
Realization dawned. "Fuck. I might as well put a sign on my back that says 'kill me'."
"Exactly." Joxer nodded, pleased that he had managed to get his point across without any bruises or bloodshed for once.
"Any suggestions?" Joxer was surprised at the question. It was almost like Ares was taking him seriously. He studied the other man for a moment, making some simple changes in the image in his mind.
"Okay. We should cut the hair. But first we need to get rid of the beard. Definitely."
The jaw jutted forward, an obstinate look with a hint of a thundercloud. "No. No way. Absolutely not."
"Because when I don't have the beard I look like someone else."
It took some effort to bite back the 'duh', but Joxer was proud of himself for doing it. "That is kind of the idea, you know."
Ares ran a hand through his hair, idly twirling a curl around a finger.
"I mean, I look like a specific someone else, and I can't stand him."
"Oh. Who?" This was an interesting tidbit. The God of War had a lookalike?
The reply was mumbled, and Joxer was shocked to see what looked like a slight blush from the other man, who was staring at his feet.
"What'd you say?"
Ares took a deep breath. "Ares, God of Love."
"Don't ask." This glare made the earlier glare look like a pussycat. Joxer decided to shut up.
"Okay, whatever. But don't blame me if you get the crap beat outta you." Suddenly, he had an idea. It was low, but how often would he get a chance to lay a guilt trip on a god? The rather more sensible part of his mind screamed at him not to do it, but the rest of him was already committed. He turned on the puppy dog eyes and looked up at Ares through his lashes. "And since we'll be traveling together, I'll probably get the crap beat outta me. But that's okay." He debated adding a sniffle, but decided that would be overkill and went for a shaky insincere smile instead. "I'm pretty used to it. I heal pretty fast, and I'm used to the pain."
It was hard to suppress the smile of victory at the look on Ares' face, but Joxer was proud of himself for doing it. How many people could say they had ever seen Ares look guilty, much less been the source of said guilt? He actually felt a tiny bit bad about manipulating his companion, but rationalized that it was for his own good. Not to mention that it *would* help keep them out of too much trouble.
Ares sighed and grimaced, then closed his eyes. And opened them, a confused expression replacing the scowl. Joxer watched with interest as he raised his hand to his face and explored it with his fingers, still confused. Finally, Ares turned to him.
"How do I get rid of it?"
Joxer smothered a laugh and tried to look serious.
"You shave it off."
"Shave?" The gods obviously didn't know much about everyday mortal life.
"Shave. Like, with a knife." Joxer took pity on the other man and rummaged in his pack to locate the small kit he used for shaving. He hadn't shaved this morning and had some stubble, so he might as well demonstrate. "Here. Let me show you."
Joxer crossed the room to the washbasin and pitcher, and poured some water into the basin. Opening his cloth he shaved some soap off of the small rough ball he had into a mug, then added water until it foamed and applied the foam to his face. The entire time Ares dogged his steps, looking as if this were the most fascinating thing he had ever seen. Well, at least until he took the small knife and began to scrape the stubble off his face - this earned him an expression that was both incredulous and horrified, but quickly masked.
Once finished, Joxer carefully cleaned the knife and handed it to Ares, who spent several long moments staring at it before actually attacking his face.
Suffice to say that the God of War has never been known for patience, nor for finesse. Joxer winced in sympathy and even cringed several times during the operation, which left Ares looking as if he had lost a fight with a pack of cats. Of course, it left him looking very un-Ares-like, which was the goal. The god's eyes challenged him to make a comment, but Joxer wisely held his tongue as he cleaned the knife and hacked at the hair.
Once he was done, Joxer stood back to survey his companion's new look. It wasn't quite what he expected. Without the beard, Ares looked younger, again reminding Joxer of a teenager. And the new haircut could have been better - the curls had a tendency to stick out every which way. On the positive side, they would now look like two wannabes without a clue instead of one, which would make life easier.
And so, ignoring the glare from Ares, Joxer began packing, wondering how it was that he managed to keep stumbling into these messes.
Iolaus was having a wonderful morning. Everyone in Athens seemed to know him, and they all smiled and waved. Being Iolaus, he smiled cheerfully and waved back at them all. He was wolfing down his breakfast when he was joined by an extremely grumpy-looking Autolycus.
"Mmgh." Autolycus watched Iolaus suspiciously. "Why are you so damn *cheerful* this morning?"
Iolaus looked amazed that anyone could even ask such a question. "Look around. It's a beautiful day, we're in one of the finest cities in all of Greece, eating great food at a nice inn. Life doesn't get any better!"
Iolaus shrugged and decided to ignore the thief. He was having much too nice of a day to let anyone drag him down, especially Autolycus. He continued to shovel food into his mouth as Autolycus sat and watched, fascinated.
"How can you eat all of that?"
"That's enough food to feed a small family, and damn but did I just sound like Hercules?"
Iolaus swallowed his food and grinned. "Yep."
The King of Thieves shook his head in despair. "I swear, he's been such a bad influence on me. Next thing I know I'll be robbing the rich and giving to the poor or something." He shuddered. "Speaking of his demigodly self, where is he this morning?"
Iolaus shrugged, having shoveled more food in his mouth. He chewed quickly and tried to speak around the food. "I dunno. He was gone when I got to our room this morning."
Autolycus eyed him calculatingly and leaned closer. "So, you spent the night elsewhere?"
"Yeah. Met a real nice girl, her name's Phoebe. Or maybe it's Lysistrata. I dunno. Anyhow, I spent the night with her."
"And that wasn't a problem for Herc-ola?"
Iolaus stared for a moment. "No. I mean, sometimes he lectures me, but he's mostly given up on that."
Autolycus opened his mouth to clarify his point, but before he could speak, Salmoneus descended upon them, dressed in purple robes and beaming.
"Good morning, everyone!"
"Don't see what's so good about it." Autolycus glared as Salmoneus sat next to Iolaus.
"You gonna eat all that?" Salmoneus indicated Iolaus' still-full plate.
"Yeah." Iolaus looked indignant as the con artist ignored him and began helping himself to the food.
Salmoneus looked around the room and smoothed his hair. "Have either of you seen the ladies this morning?"
"Nope." Iolaus barely paused in his eating, as Autolycus, still glaring, shook his head. Salmoneus looked disappointed.
"Oh. I had hoped to run into the Widow Twanky. I was hoping we could do some sightseeing, maybe see a play or something..."
Autolycus cranked his glare up a notch. "After last night?"
Salmoneus looked thoughtful. "You know, you're right. She's starred in a play, she'd probably be mobbed by autograph seekers at a theatre." Iolaus perked up at this, but continued eating. "Maybe we could just go for a walk." He sighed, his eyes focusing somewhere off in the distance as Autolycus looked at him in amazement.
Before anything more could be said, the Widow Twanky herself descended upon the table, Althea in tow.
"Ah, what a glorious morning!" Although she was inside, the Widow twirled her parasol with verve as Salmoneus beamed at her and Iolaus looked as if he were contemplating diving under the table. Autolycus found himself smiling at Althea, who was watching every move the Widow made, obviously sucked in by the older woman's energy. "Since the feast is tonight and the wedding is tomorrow, Althea and I were planning," she paused dramatically, "to go shopping!"
Salmoneus' eyes widened. "What a wonderful idea! Perhaps I could accompany you lovely ladies?"
The Widow beamed at him, and he beamed back. He extended his arm and she took it, and the two strode off, still beaming, not noticing Althea tagging along like an excited puppy.
Autolycus watched them go, gaping. "Man, does he have it bad."
Iolaus, looking relieved, resumed eating. "Better him than us."
Autolycus had to agree with that one.
Iphicles, clad in a clean tunic and pants, strode down the hallway to the room where his brother waited. He took a deep breath and smoothed the tunic, fighting yet another fit of giggles at the thought of Hercules playing a lion. He'd been fighting these giggles through the entire damn castle, and constantly losing. If he didn't bring it under control the servants would soon believe that the King of Corinth was quite mad. At the door, he took a deep breath and thought of mutilated bodies, long sessions with his council, and discussions on taxes. He opened the door with a sober look on his face, but when Hercules turned to face him he suddenly found himself bent double with the damn giggles again.
Hercules blushed, mortified. It seemed like everyone in Athens was getting a case of the giggles when they saw him this morning, but at least they had the decency to try to hide it. Iphicles wasn't even doing him this courtesy. He tapped his foot, impatient, as Iphicles gasped for air and looked up at him.
"Are you finished?"
His brother nodded and made an attempt to straighten up, but the moment he opened his mouth still more giggles escaped until he was forced to clutch the back of a chair for support. Hercules reviewed his mental list of ways to kill Iolaus, not to mention the plan to move to some foreign country, change his name and become a hermit.
Iphicles looked up, tears streaming from his eyes as he gasped for breath. "Sorry. I'm sorry about that." A few giggles punctuated the sentence, but on the whole the king seemed to be regaining his self-composure. He sat, wiping the tears from his eyes with the heel of his hand, and indicated the chair across the small table from his, motioning for his younger brother to sit. The demi-god sat and rested his chin in his hand, his eyebrow raised as he gave his brother a chance to recover. He poured a glass of water and pushed it across the table.
"Thanks." Iphicles drank the water, only snorting once. "Really, I'm sorry. Last night must've been..."
"Humiliating? Mortifying? A nightmare?"
"Yeah. And it's all Iolaus' fault." Iphicles was surprised that his brother actually sounded rather angry. Normally Herc was able to take this sort of thing in stride.
"So, what happened?" Hercules rolled his eyes.
"You know Iolaus, he loves being the center of attention. When this started out, he was going to be in the play and I was going to help out backstage. But there weren't enough people, and I got dragged into being on stage, and then I got stage fright. It was horrible." He ran his hand through his hair, looking so upset that Iphicles really felt badly for him. "I figured we were so bad we wouldn't even have to go on, but for some reason we ended up being the first ones out there, when everyone was watching." Iphicles neatly avoided his brother's eyes. "I still can't believe this. I'm considering moving to some foreign country and changing my name. Any idea how Gaul is?"
"I hear the weather sucks. Cold and wet."
The brothers sat in silence as Hercules chewed on his lip, staring off into the distance. He started when Iphicles began to speak.
"So, why're you here this morning? In the palace, I mean."
Hercules shook his head, clearing the cobwebs. "Oh, yeah. That. There may be a problem."
"Problem?" With Hercules, a problem could mean anything from a peasant with farm trouble to a fire-breathing dragon heading for the city.
"Yeah. Last night I heard several people say they saw someone who looked just like Ares in Athens."
"Ares? Here?" Iphicles frowned at himself as his voice squeaked slightly. King's voices did *not* squeak.
"Yeah." Hercules nodded, suddenly focused. "My bet is he's not too happy about this wedding, and will try to stop it any way he can. The idea of peace between Athens and Sparta has to be pissing him off something fierce. And with you here too, and you being my brother, there's a good chance you're a potential target too."
"Oh joy. Any ideas about what he might be up to?"
"With Ares, I haven't a clue. I don't know how his warped mind works, and I really don't want to. I suspect that you, Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta may be in danger."
"Great." Iphicles settled lower in his chair. So much for the vacation.
"You should stick close to the Duke, keep an eye on him."
"I can do that." It would be his duty. Yeah. He'd stick very, very close to the Duke. Hercules noticed his brother's grin and changed the subject.
"So, I guess I kinda caused a problem, barging in this morning?"
"No problem. Just a little embarrassment. Nothing compared to what you had to deal with." He couldn't help himself; he had to get just a little dig in there.
"Should I ask where I can find you in the future?"
"Um. Ask Demetrius, he can get me if I'm not in my room. I guess I should tell you," he contrived to look embarrassed, lowering his gaze to the floor and lowering his voice suitably, "I kinda met Queen Hippolyta's bodyguard, Hermia..." he decided to trail off suggestively and hope his brother was capable of making the requisite leap of logic. Luckily he was.
"Ah." The demigod blushed slightly. "Hermia, huh?"
"Yeah." Iphicles thought of Theseus and managed to leer, but cringed inwardly as his brother's face grew serious. "C'mon, no lectures, okay?"
An innocent look from the big blue eyes. "I wasn't gonna lecture, Iph. It's just that you're a king now. People watch everything you do. You have to be careful."
"Tell me about it." Iphicles shuddered as he thought of the secret passageways between his quarters and the Duke's.
"Look, just be careful, okay? Like I said, I'm sure Ares is up to something and knowing him it probably involves lots of violence."
Ares was planning to kill someone. He wasn't quite sure who he would be killing, but he really wanted to do some damage. His father was definitely at the top of the list, followed in no particular order by most of his family. He was trying to decide whether to kill them in alphabetical order or in order by age or rank. In any case, just trying to mentally count and sort them was giving him a headache.
The headache, though, was the least of his problems. Much as he hated to admit it, Ares was beginning to think that this particular mortal body wasn't quite living up to its advertisement. He and Joxer had been walking all morning, and while Joxer was still bounding along with a spring in his step, Ares was dragging himself behind the wannabe and sustaining his pace with willpower alone. The sun beat down mercilessly, and Ares found himself glaring at the few puffy white clouds suspended in the blue of the sky, wishing they'd just move their fluffy selves in front of the sun for a while so he could have just a little bit of shade. The road was dry, and each step kicked up small clouds of dust. He was hot and sweaty, which meant that the dust clung to his skin like a set of armor made of dirt. He was caked with a light film of it, and was frankly disgusted.
Sweat was something he'd never dealt with before in such an intimate manner. In fact, the sweat was what convinced him that although his clothes looked damn good, they were about as useful as a dart in the middle of a full scale battle. The tight black leather, which looked so good when one was standing in a temple full of adoring worshippers, was binding when wetted by his sweat. His knees felt like they were being constricted in a slimy vice of some sort. And it didn't dry out; it just clung to him wetly, like a disgusting piece of seaweed. He was beginning to feel such revulsion that he was ready to offer to trade clothes with Joxer. And the metal ornamentation that also looked so nifty-keen normally was heated by the sun so that if he accidentally brushed against it he was burned. Because of this, he had to move his arms in an unnatural rhythm, which was making his shoulders sore. Plus, as if that weren't enough, his arm kept whacking the hilt of his sword, which was a duplicate of his real sword and therefore quite large. He kept adjusting the sword belt (which was also wet and constricting around his waist), but this had merely resulted in his repeatedly tripping himself with his own sword and going down face-first into the dust of the road, adding more dirt to his collection.
And not to be left out of the misery, his feet were sore from all of the walking. He was a god; gods never walked long distances. Ares was forced to admit that from a practical, long haul point of view, Joxer was in better shape than he was. Of course, as far as he was concerned, the honey on top of this particular honey cake was the smell. The sweat, the wet leather, the dirt, the little gifts left along the road by passing livestock, all served to create a stench that made him want to throw up, despite the fact that he was ravenous. At this point he wasn't sure he'd be able to eat even if food were available, which it wasn't. And he had a sneaking suspicion that he wouldn't be able to escape the stench, since a particularly strong odor seemed to be wafting from his armpits.
Not only did mortality suck, it stunk.
Ares continued plodding doggedly along in Joxer's footsteps, occasionally tripping over his sword and trying not to notice Joxer's backward glances of concern, which the little man was trying to hide. At least Joxer was allowing him some dignity, which was more than he had expected from the warrior wannabe. Ares took a moment to thank the Fates for placing Joxer in his path instead of his brother and Iolaus, who would never, ever let him live this down.
The little man was clanking along quite cheerfully, and while Ares hated cheerful, he couldn't help but find it endearing in Joxer. This dichotomy alone was enough to drive him over the edge. He stopped in the middle of the road and yelled at Joxer.
"Okay, that's it! I'm taking a damn break!" He glared, daring Joxer to say anything. Instead, the younger man cheerfully clanked toward the shade of a tree at the side of the road. The two sat down in the shade, Ares glowering at life in general as Joxer fished around in his bag, triumphantly holding up two apples.
"Ta da!" He continued to grin as he took a swig from his water skin.
"Ta da?" Joxer ignored the fact that the voice was dripping with sarcasm.
"Yeah, ta da. Lunch!" He held out an apple to Ares, who glared at it as if expecting it to bite him.
"You call this lunch?" In love or not, Ares just didn't have a very good disposition. And at the moment he was tired, sweaty and hungry and could probably eat an entire orchard. "This is a snack."
Joxer merely shrugged and bit into his apple, his tongue flicking out to lick up the juices, which promptly caught Ares' attention. Noticing this, Joxer stopped and began taking tiny utilitarian bites, avoiding his companion's gaze all the while. Ares gave up and began eating, although the small apple did little to fill the empty void in his stomach. Grabbing the waterskin from Joxer, he swallowed a large amount and choked slightly, water running down his chin, before lying back to rest against the reassuring and cool bark of the tree trunk.
"How do you do it?"
"Do what?" Joxer had laid back, his head pillowed on his arms as he watched the clouds.
"How do you live like this?"
"Like what?" The reply was merely curious, not sarcastic or challenging, which came as a relief. Ares still kept expecting Joxer to turn on him and take his revenge for all of the slights, all of the snarky remarks, and all of the downright nasty things that the god had done to him over the years.
Ares spread his arms. "Like *this*!" He grew frustrated at Joxer's blank look. "It's hot. It's dry. I'm hungry, I'm thirsty, I stink to Olympus from all the sweat, I'm covered with dust from the road, my clothes are sticking to me, my feet hurt, I'm bored and this is only half a day! How do you do it, day in and day out?"
Joxer smiled. "Actually, it's not that bad."
"Not that bad? Hades could get some great ideas here!" Oops. Not too loud. At this rate he'd be sampling Tartarus soon enough, and he didn't want his uncle making things any worse down there than they currently were.
The smaller man shook his head. "Nope. This isn't bad at all. Look around you - the sky's clear, the road's straight and flat, there's plenty of food growing nearby, and I can hear a stream. This is the good life." He frowned as he sat up and looked at Ares. "But you're right about your clothes. They look good but they're not real practical."
"I'm the God of War. I don't need to be practical." Ares leaned back against the tree and crossed his arms over his chest defensively. Just because he agreed that didn't mean he wouldn't argue about it.
"Fine. But if your feet hurt now, imagine how they'll feel after a few days of this." Joxer knew he'd scored a point by the grimace on the god's face. "And it *can* be boring sometimes. There's things you can do to keep from being bored though."
"Like what?" The other man was plainly suspicious.
"Let's hit the road again and I'll show you."
Joxer sprang up with only a slight clatter and crossed to the road, a spring in his step. Ares, on the other hand, was stiff and sore from his break. It took him a few minutes to catch up with Joxer, and he noticed that his feet hurt even more than before they had stopped.
"One good way to pass the time is to talk."
"What do we have to talk about?"
There was a moment of awkward silence. "Good point. Okay, there's always singing."
"The God of War doesn't do singing."
Joxer looked surprised. "Why not?"
This time Ares was the one who gaped, making motions in the air. "Because I don't!"
"Oh. I just figured, you being a god and all, you could do anything you wanted." Joxer smirked inwardly at the challenge. Needling Ares made him feel guilty, but it was so much fun.
"I can. I mean, I could sing if I wanted to, but I don't want to."
"Is there anything in your vocabulary other than the words 'why not'?" Ares regretted snapping as he saw Joxer's mouth tighten.
"Sorry. If you don't do singing, there's always games."
"What kind of games?"
"Well, one I like but Xena and Gabby don't is where you name something you see and you have to do the alphabet."
"Huh?" Ares mentally kicked himself - he was saying 'huh' and 'what' way too much lately. Gotta maintain that "all-knowing god" image, even if Joxer knew better.
Joxer sighed. Didn't the gods do anything fun? "Okay, I'll start. I say something like, I spy with my eye something that starts with alpha. And you have to figure out what it is. Then you do beta, and I do gamma and so forth."
There was an expectant pause.
"Maybe we can think of something to talk about."
Joxer sighed. No one ever wanted to play games with him.
The streets of Athens were awash with color. Merchants had set up stalls in every square and along every road. The air was filled with the scents of spices and flowers and the sounds of laughter and music. Which, Xena reflected, made their situation even more frustrating. It was peacetime, there were no villains in sight, yet she and Gabrielle were reduced to running flat out, ducking and weaving among pedestrians, until coming to a halt behind a clothing stall. Gabrielle stood next to the warrior, breathing deeply, her face flushed as she looked around in panic.
"Did we lose her?"
"Sorry," she lowered her voice,"Do you think we lost her?"
Xena fingered her chakram and looked around, searching the crowd. Finally she relaxed and nodded. "I think we lost her."
Gabrielle leaned back into her companion's arms. "Oh, thank the gods. Any gods, I don't care who. The first shrine we pass, I'm leaving an offering."
The only response was a snort. "Even if it's one of Ares' shrines?"
"Even if it's one of Ares' shrines. At this point I'm kinda hoping he'll show up and... and... step on her!"
Xena smothered a laugh and tried her best to sound serious. "That doesn't sound very peaceful. Maybe you should meditate, relax, and try to enjoy her company. Maybe this is a test of some sort."
"I *tried* to meditate. This morning. Have you ever tried to meditate when someone is bouncing up and down on your bed and making little 'yippee' noises? Let me tell you, it's impossible." She shook her head, frustrated.
"Maybe that's why you're in such a foul mood. Look, just relax, we managed to lose her and now we can spend the rest of the day having fun. And you can meditate tonight."
Gabrielle sighed, letting the tension flow out of her body. "You're right. I need to get something nice to wear for the wedding. And so," she turned to Xena, a wicked gleam in her eye,"Do you."
"Me?" Her voice fairly squeaking, Xena managed to look both offended and indignant. "What's wrong with what I'm wearing?"
"Xena! It's armor!"
"Armor never goes out of style." Xena crossed her arms defensively. "Besides, I hate getting dressed up. Every time I get dressed up I end up getting in a fight, ripping up the nice clothes and wishing I was wearing decent shoes."
"Come on, it'll be fun." Xena knew better than to argue with Gabrielle when her friend got that gleam in her eye. Sighing, she resigned herself to an afternoon of tedium as the smaller woman began to drag her away from their small oasis.
They had only taken a few steps when they heard a voice behind them. Xena winced as Gabrielle's face turned red and a vein began throbbing in her forehead.
"Guys! There you are! I lost you in the crowd!" Mustardseed was still bouncing, a bundle of limitless energy.
"Darn. But you found us." Xena spoke in a flat voice, noting Gabrielle's clenched teeth. "How'd you find us, anyhow?"
"Oh, flower fairies are great trackers. My dad, once he tracked a mortal through a river and a mountain almost two seasons after the mortal had gone that way. We have a very keen sense of smell, better than dogs even!" Gabrielle made a strangled noise. "So, if you guys get lost, it won't take me but a few minutes to find you, so don't worry about me! In fact, I was kinda slow catching up to you cause I made a few stops."
For the first time, Xena noticed that the fairy was carrying several bundles. "I see. What's that?"
Mustardseed glowed. "I got us all matching gowns for the wedding, see?" She pulled out three gowns, one in pink, one in purple and one in sea foam. All were flowing, covered with bows and frills. Xena grimaced as Gabrielle looked nauseous. "And I can do all of our hairstyles so they'll match too! We'll put flowers in our hair, and bows and lace! This is gonna be so cool! Hey, what's wrong with Gabrielle?"
Xena turned to see Gabrielle wandering off, muttering to herself about karmic retribution and looking for Ares.
"I think she's having second thoughts about her path in life."
The flower fairy shrugged. Mortals.
While the streets of Athens were humming with activity, the castle was a veritable cyclone of energy. People were dashing every which way trying to deal with last minute arrangements. Demetrius, ever cool, glided nonchalantly through the frantic activity toward the great dining hall. Opening the doors, he entered the small glade of sanity and quiet, namely, Theseus, Iphicles and Hippolyta having a simple lunch.
Theseus looked up as the massive doors clanged shut. "Demetrius! The cook's looking for you!"
The steward nodded. "I've taken care of the problem."
"Taken care of."
"Taken care of."
"Demetrius, why am I the Duke and not you? You run this place!" Demetrius didn't respond, merely giving the Duke a cool look. "So, is there anything *I* need to do?"
"Merely show up for the wedding tomorrow." This was followed by a pointed glance at Iphicles, who was nibbling the Duke's ear.
"What?" The king managed to look offended. "He'll be there!"
Demetrius continued to glare, as Iphicles looked baffled. "Sire, it's your brother."
"Again?" Theseus looked amused. "At least we're not in bed this time."
Iphicles just shook his head in frustration. "Didn't he leave?"
"No sir. He's with the Captain of the Guard. They're going over security. I gather he's driving the captain quite insane."
"I can't imagine. Okay, I know he's annoying but he means well. And, much as I hate to admit it, he knows Ares. I mean, admittedly he tends to see Ares behind every tree, but he's usually right. And if he's right this time, and Ares plans to do something to stop this wedding, having Herc around could come in handy."
Demetrius nodded. "So, what shall I do about the Captain of the Guard?"
"Give him a raise and tell him he can take a nice long vacation once this is over." Theseus dismissed the steward, who glided back into the hallway.
"Do you think we're really in danger?" Iphicles gave Hippolyta a frank look.
"It's possible. With the gods, who knows? If there's one thing I've learned from being around my brother it's that the gods are capricious." With that he returned to nibbling Theseus' neck as Hippolyta sighed.
"I wish Hermia were here. She's had some dealings with Ares in the past and might be able to shed some light on this situation."
"Where is she, anyway?" Theseus made a half-hearted attempt to dislodge his lover, who merely renewed his attack.
"Shopping." The word fairly dripped with contempt. "Apparently someone told her leather wasn't appropriate for the wedding so she went to purchase a gown."
Both men looked up at this. "A woman who doesn't like shopping?" Theseus was definitely amused, but Hippolyta's glare quickly killed his laughter.
"We're not all like the vapid women you have here in your palace. Believe it or not, many of us have concerns past what we wear, what we look like and who we can attract."
Iphicles stepped between the two almost-hissing spouses to be. "Look, he didn't mean any offense. I know you're an Amazon, but as of tomorrow you're going to be a Queen, like it or not. You and Hermia are going to have to adjust, just like we did." Hippolyta continued to glare. "It's not going to be fun, and it's going to drive you nuts for a while. The people around here are used to a ruling class that's completely helpless."
"He's not kidding." Theseus broke in. "After my uncle's family died and I inherited the throne, I was ready to just walk away. Or throw myself off the battlements. I had people who insisted on cutting my food for me, on bathing me, on waiting on me hand and foot."
Iphicles leaned forward, licking Theseus' ear. "My servants were shocked when I actually dressed myself and insisted on wearing sensible clothing."
Hippolyta moaned. "This sounds like Tartarus." Theseus patted her hand, ignoring the jealous look from Iphicles.
"At least you'll have me to help."
The Queen sighed and stood, stretching. "This is so depressing. I think I'll go take a nap and hope it's all gone away when I wake up."
As soon as she left, Iphicles grabbed Theseus and kissed him with a passion that left them both breathless.
"I should flirt with my bride more often."
Iphicles ran a finger down Theseus' chest. "Don't even think about it. There are things I can do," he leaned forward and unbuttoned two buttons, licking the exposed flesh,"That she's probably never even heard of."
Theseus shivered, but quickly straightened himself as a servant entered and began clearing the plates. Standing, he leaned over and whispered in Iphicles' ear. "My room, fifteen minutes."
The King nodded his assent and tried to look innocent as he popped a few grapes into his mouth.
Lysander, the Captain of the Guard, was in Tartarus. Oh, he had heard of the exploits of the mighty Hercules. He'd dreamed of meeting the demigod. But now he just wanted to do his job without being pestered regarding every minute detail related to castle security. He knew what he was doing and being constantly challenged wasn't helping his temper, despite the whispered offer of more money from Demetrius. He took a few deep breaths and turned to face the demigod, who was, as usual, looking helpful.
"And you have how many men delegated for the ceremony itself?"
"A full garrison, sir. With two others on standby, just in case." The answer had been the same the last three times he'd been asked the question. Lysander was beginning to wonder if the demigod was dense or just not paying attention.
"I see. And you'll have bowmen ready?"
"Yes sir. And chickens. We'll have chickens ready."
Yep, the demigod was definitely not paying attention. He was staring off into the distance, a look of intense concentration on his face. It looked like helpful concentration, though. He paced, rubbing his chin, suddenly stopping in mid-pace and turning on Lysander.
Lysander looked around, puzzled. "Secret passageways?"
"All castles have secret passageways. This is a castle, so it must have secret passageways."
Lysander nodded, thrilled to see signs of logic from Hercules. He'd really begun to worry for a few minutes there.
"We have several secret passageways." He hoped he wouldn't have to give a tour.
"I want to see them. If there's going to be a surprise attack, people could be in the passageways."
Lysander sighed and refrained from telling the hero that the only person in the secret passageways of late was the King of Corinth.
"Follow me, please." Lysander grabbed a handy torch and neatly twitched aside a tapestry, revealing a door. He opened the door and led the demigod into the small, dusty corridor.
"Not very clean, is it?" Hercules reached up and brushed at some cobwebs that had tangled themselves in his hair.
"Well, sir, it would defeat the purpose of having secret passageways if we were to send in the cleaning staff on a regular basis."
"Good point." The two men meandered through the corridors as the guard pointed out various exits and Hercules looked extremely...helpful. They were nearly at the end; both covered with dust and cobwebs, when they saw a shadowy figure at one end of the corridor. Hercules stiffened.
"You! Wait!" He took off running, shoving an indignant Lysander out of the way and caught the figure in a flying tackle. Lysander hurried to catch up, sighing, as he had a good idea of who had been tackled.
All Hercules knew was that he had tackled someone big and male, who was kicking and struggling to get up, and putting up rather a decent fight. He grabbed the flailing arms and pinned them to the ground as he saw Lysander advancing with the torch.
"All right, who are you and what are you doing... oops." Hercules broke off, chagrinned, as the light shone on the fact of his big brother. "Iph! What're you doing skulking around here?"
Iphicles face went blank as he tried to think of an explanation. "Hermia! I was going to visit Hermia!" He ignored the snort from Lysander. "Now what in Tartarus are you doing, running around and tackling people?"
"Sorry about that." Hercules offered his brother a hand up, and both tried ineffectually to brush the dust off their clothing. "Just trying to check out security." He put on his most helpful face, which merely made Iphicles sigh as he felt a headache coming on and the mood definitely dying."
"Yeah, well, it's safe, okay? Go check out the garrison or something."
"I'm really sorry." It was obvious that he meant it.
"It's okay. Just quit worrying so much. Oh, and that way's out." Iphicles pointed down a different corridor; the order barely disguised as helpful information. Lysander took the hint and pulled the demigod down the hallway as Iphicles waited until they were out of sight before proceeding to Theseus' room. He was cursed. His brother was determined to destroy his sex life.
He was cursed. This was one thing Joxer knew for a fact. Here he was, walking to Sparta on one of the most beautiful days he had ever seen in his life, and he was cursed with a whining, complaining, horny former God of War who was probably going to kill him once they reached their destination. He sighed. This was just so totally on par for his life to date that he would laugh, except then Ares would grouse at him for being cheerful. The scary part though, was that either the love spell or mortality had really improved the guy's disposition. And it was still pretty bad. He heard a scuffle behind him and knew it was Ares, tripping yet again (he was starting to wonder if his own clumsiness was somehow contagious; another reason for Ares to turn him into a lump of charcoal later) and deliberately ignored it. If the God of War tripped over his own sword, Joxer did *not* want to be a witness. He was in enough trouble as it was.
"How much further do we have to go?" Well, at least this time he was definitely ticked off. It beat the whining he'd been doing for most of the afternoon.
"We should be getting to a town soon. We'll pick up dinner and see if we can find an inn."
There was a definite sigh of relief from back there. Ares probably wasn't used to sleeping on the ground. Now Joxer just had to figure out how best to keep his companion out of trouble. And how to continue to refuse his sexual advances. It wasn't that he wasn't interested, but his instinct for self-preservation told him in no uncertain terms that if he actually slept with Ares he would definitely end up dead once the god came to his senses. Promise or no promise, Ares would be too humiliated to let him live. He'd given serious consideration to trying to ditch his burden, but had come to the conclusion that he just couldn't do it. It would hurt the lovesick man, and Joxer was intimately familiar with that kind of pain; he couldn't deliberately inflict it on someone else, not even to save his own life. Plus, the gods obviously had no clue about how to survive as mortals. Ares would probably get himself hurt or killed, or even worse, and Joxer knew his conscience wouldn't let him live with that. He wondered how he had managed to get such a loud conscience when the rest of his family obviously had none. Must be part of his curse.
He sighed again, and was surprised to hear Ares' voice, much closer than before.
"What's wrong?" Joxer jumped.
"Nothing." He walked faster, leaving a confused Ares behind.
"You look upset." Oh yeah. He'd forgotten how stubborn Ares was.
"Just wondering about what we'll find in the next town." Like could he afford two rooms at the inn? Or, even better, one room at one inn and another room at a second inn?
"Think there'll be a bath?" The former god definitely sounded hopeful.
"I hope so." Which was true - his companion was becoming rather odiferous. Joxer hadn't realized how strong wet leather smelled. No wonder Xena wore a short skirt.
They lapsed into silence, Joxer ignoring the stumbles and muffled curses as best he could and working very hard at not laughing at Ares' misfortune. Luckily he soon began to see signs of civilization, and a cluster of buildings ahead promised a small town. He sped up, Ares trotting behind him.
The town was small enough that calling it a town would be somewhat of an exaggeration. It was a cluster of small buildings and vendors' stalls, but it was the closest thing to civilization they had seen all day. They walked into the town square and headed immediately for the well, Joxer trying his best to keep Ares from cutting to the front of the short line. Joxer took a long drink and filled their waterskin. Ares dumped an entire bucket of water over his head, whooping at the sensation, as the smaller man laughed.
They quickly found that there was no inn, which depressed Ares to no end. Joxer, on the other hand was thrilled that he wouldn't have to worry about sharing a bed. If they were on the ground he at least had a chance to escape. Luckily there was a tavern, and so Joxer went in to haggle over some food, leaving Ares outside with strict orders to stay out of trouble.
Ares sat on a bench and leaned back against the building, just happy to give his aching legs and feet a break. This was the closest he had come to a good mood all day; he was resting, he'd washed off some of the grime from the day's travels, and there was going to be food for dinner. He'd been hungry for most of the day and didn't like it. Relaxing, he closed his eyes and began to bask in the sunlight, his breathing becoming deep and even as he drifted off slowly...
"Hey mister!" The voice was high-pitched, a tone that would probably be heard by more canines than humans. Opening his eyes, Ares found himself being faced by a grubby child with a predatory look in his eye.
"Mister, what's that?" Ares looked around, wondering who the creature was addressing, when he realized it was pointing at his sword.
"It's a sword." Well, that was blatantly obvious. He closed his eyes again.
"Can I see it?" He opened his eyes. Yep, it was still there.
"No." He growled, hoping it would take the hint, and closed his eyes again.
"Why not?" The child was sounding petulant, the whine in his voice setting Ares' teeth on edge. He didn't like humans when they were in the larval stage.
"Because I said so." This time he gave in and kept his eyes open, watching the child. The boy first wiped his nose with the back of his hand, leaving a smear of slime on his face, then took one finger and gravely probed his nostril as the War God looked on in amazement. The child proceeded to stare intently at the prize on his finger, and then reached toward Ares' sword belt.
"Hey!" Cringing, Ares batted the boy's hand away. This resulted in a wail that would have done a banshee proud. A woman came running, nearly colliding with Joxer, who had easily deducted that his companion had failed at the 'stay out of trouble' part of the rest stop. The woman skidded to a stop in front of her son, holding his head protectively, the slime from his nose absorbed into her skirt. Joxer stood behind Ares, wondering what exactly was happening here.
"You! What have you done to my precious Thaddeus?"
"Me? Do to him? Lady, that brat was trying to take my sword!"
"Well, why didn't you give it to him?" The boy gave Ares a smug grin.
"*Give* him my sword? Are you insane? It's bigger than he is! Besides, he'd probably cut his own foot off or kill himself. Not that that'd be a great loss." Suddenly Ares saw an upside to this, but the woman didn't appear to take his comment very well. She hugged her son closer, as his expression became more self-satisfied.
"If my son wants your sword, you should give it to him. We never say 'no' to him."
"That's obvious." Joxer chimed in with his opinion and received a glare in response. He shrugged; Ares' glares were much more impressive and he'd developed an immunity to them.
"Let him see your sword."
Ares stood up, looming over the woman, his good mood completely gone.
The woman looked up and took a step backwards. "My child is a precious gift from the gods."
"Yeah? Which god, lady? Cause I'm gonna have a little talk with them in a few days..."
The woman gave up and fled as the people in the square burst into spontaneous applause.
The pair found themselves showered with enough free food to make even Ares happy.
A very tired and worried Hercules left the castle and headed back to the inn where he and Iolaus were staying. He'd been over the castle from the top of the towers to the bottom of the dungeons, and nothing seemed wrong. He’d found no traps, no menacing and suspicious looking new servants, nothing but his big brother sneaking toward an assignation with a lady-in-waiting. But he knew Ares had to be up to something and was becoming more nervous as time passed and nothing happened. It was the proverbial quiet before the storm, and his nerves couldn't take much more of it.
Unsurprisingly, the room he shared with Iolaus was empty, and so Hercules headed toward the nearest tavern hoping to find his friend there. Where there was food, there was usually Iolaus. This time all he found was Autolycus, slouched in a bench in a far corner of the room. Upon spying Hercules the thief raised his tumbler in greeting and motioned to the other man to join him.
"Where've you been all day?"
Hercules sighed. "At the castle. This morning several people said they'd seen Ares skulking around the city, so I figured he'd be working on sabotaging the wedding. I've spent all day going over security at the castle, and I can't find anything."
"Uh huh. Um, you don't think he's still pissed about that chicken incident, do you?" Autolycus slouched even lower, looking somewhat paranoid.
"I dunno. On the one hand he did say you were even. But then again he lies, so who knows? I've never met anyone who can hold a grudge like Ares."
"Great. Just great." Autolycus took a deep sip of his wine.
"Any idea where Iolaus is?"
"Found a waitress. Said to tell you not to wait up."
Hercules rolled his eyes toward Olympus. "Why am I not surprised?"
Autolycus leaned forward, elbows resting on the table. "So, doesn't his, shall we say, loose behavior bother you?"
It took a few moments for the demigod to answer; Autolycus seemed abnormally intense about this issue so he wanted to give the man an honest answer. "It doesn't bother me that much anymore, not really. But what bothers me is when he comes running in with a brother or husband or father behind him and I have to protect him, even though I agree that what he did was wrong. It also bothers me when he insists on giving me details for days."
"But the sleeping around, that isn't a problem? I mean, it doesn't cause problems in your relationship?"
"Nope. Except when he goes on and on and I finally tell him to shut up and then he sulks." This was becoming puzzling but it seemed to be what Autolycus was looking for, as he leaned back and put his boots up on the table, an appraising look in his eye. Hercules decided to change the subject before this got any more surreal. "Any idea where everyone else is?"
"Shopping." The word all but oozed disdain. "This morning the Widow Twanky proposed a shopping expedition and Sal practically tripped over his own tongue begging to go along. And Althea just followed the two of them like some lost puppy." He looked into the distance. "You know, now that I think about it, they looked like some bizarre little happy family." He shuddered, then cast an appraising glance at Hercules. "So, what're you planning to wear to the big shindig tomorrow?"
"Me?" The demigod was somewhat off-balance. "I was going to wear this." He indicated his usual clothes as Autolycus pulled a face. "What? What's wrong with this?"
"Big guy, it's a formal occasion. You know, kings, queens, dukes and all. You have to dress up."
"Come on, Autolycus. Everyone's going to be looking at the royal couple. No one's gonna be looking at me."
Autolycus sighed. Sometimes this modesty of Herc's could be a real pain in the patootie. He decided to speak slowly. "First, you're Hercules. People're gonna be looking at you, like it or not. Second, if you don't wear formal clothes they'll definitely be looking at you because you'll stick out like a sore thumb. So, what say we go get you something new to wear, okay?"
Hercules opened his mouth to refuse, but found himself following the thief out of the tavern and into the dizzying chaos that was the streets of Athens. For a few moments he thought he had lost Autolycus, but an arm suddenly grabbed his and pulled him into the crowd. He followed, helpless, as the other man led him unerringly through the mass of people to the nearest clothing stand.
"So, do you ever wear anything other than yellow?" Hercules merely gaped. "I'll take that as a 'no'. Okay, let's get to work here." Autolycus began sifting through silks and linens, shirts and pants, earth tones and jewel-like colors, before pulling out a yellow shirt with green embroidery. "Okay, let's give this a try." He threw the shirt to Hercules, who caught it neatly but just stood there, staring. "Come on, we haven't got all day! Try it on!"
The demigod stared doubtfully at the shirt. He liked it, and had to admit that Autolycus had great taste, but he wasn't sure about taking off his shirt in public; especially with that look Autolycus had in his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he turned his back on the thief and untucked his vest and removed it and his undershirt, trying to ignore the indrawn breath behind him. He put on the new shirt quickly, fumbling with the buttons in his haste.
"It fits, let's buy it, let's get outta here."
"Hold on, hold on, there's no rush. Turn around and let me see it."
The demigod turned around, hoping his face wasn't as red as it felt.
Autolycus stepped closer, appraising the shirt.
"What?" He turned around, shaking off Autolycus' hands.
"The first thing you tried on fit. That never happens to me."
Hercules shrugged. At least he didn't have to deal with shopping. He preferred hydras to shopping. "We're done, let's get out of here." He was stopped by the look on Autolycus' face. "What?" Why was he saying that so often today?
"We need to get you pants." The look in his friend's eyes made a few shivers run down Hercules' back. Nope. No way. He wasn't sure exactly what was going on here or if it was all in his mind, but he definitely wasn't taking off his pants in front of Autolycus right now. Especially since a certain body part seemed to be developing some ideas of its own.
"No pants." Something in his tone of voice must have conveyed his desperation, because the thief didn't argue but merely nodded. Hercules quickly pulled off the new shirt and threw on his old vest as he hurried to pay for the clothing and escape the suddenly claustrophobic tent. In his rush he didn't notice someone coming in as he was running out, and so he bumped into her and sent her flying, much to his chagrin.
"Oh, no. I'm so sorry. I wasn't watching where I was going. Are you okay?"
The woman glared at him, and he realized she looked familiar. "I'm fine, thank you." She ignored his outstretched hand and climbed to her feet, dusting off her leather armor.
"I'm really sorry. Really." Recognition dawned and he continued to stare at her. "Excuse me, but aren't you Hermia? Queen Hippolyta's lady-in-waiting?"
She gave him a condescending look and tossed her hair. "What of it?"
"I'm Hercules." She merely raised an eyebrow as he mentally kicked himself, thinking he sounded like he was waiting for praise or adulation. "Iphicles' brother. And I owe you an apology. For this morning. And this afternoon."
"Excuse me?" She looked completely lost.
"Well, when I came to the castle this morning and he wasn't in his room I got worried, and they told me he was in your room, and then this afternoon I kinda ran into him when he was coming to visit you..." He trailed off as her glare took on a life of its own.
"Are you insinuating I'm sleeping with your brother?" She practically hissed at him, prompting the demigod to take a step backwards. Unfortunately for him Autolycus was there and yelped as his foot was trampled.
"Sorry." This was addressed to the thief, who was hopping up and down on one foot. He turned back to Hermia. "And yeah, I guess so. I mean, I was told..."
"You were told wrong. I am not sleeping with your brother, nor would I ever sleep with him. And if you tell anyone I am, son of Zeus or no, I'll make you pay!" She made a truly dramatic exit, leaving Hercules both speechless and clueless. He stepped outside, his thoughts in a jumble.
"So? Exactly was that all about?" Autolycus was limping but following close behind. Good dirt on the royals - this had potential.
"I'm not sure." Hercules’ forehead was creased in puzzlement. "This morning I went to see Iphicles in the castle and he wasn't in his room. The steward found him and told me he had been in bed with Hermia."
"Hermia being the snake lady back there, I take it."
"Maybe the steward was confused. Maybe Hermia had just bitten someone and they had to suck out the poison so he had her on the brain."
Hercules shook his head, knowing he was close to something he really didn't want to know. "No, because later, I ran into Iphicles in the secret passageways. He told me he was going to see Hermia, but she's obviously not who he was visiting."
"Maybe there's another Hermia."
His mind latched onto that idea. Could be. Except... "The passageway he was in when I found him, the Captain of the Guard said it led to only two suites of rooms. The Duke's and the one Hermia shares with..." He stopped in the middle of the street, mouth open, as Autolycus bumped into him and knocked the breath out of both of them.
"What? Something just clicked, I heard it!"
Hercules turned around, mouth agape in shock. "Autolycus, Hermia
shares a room with Queen Hippolyta. My brother's sleeping with the
Morning sun lazily meandered across a meadow, past a stream and into a small glade, illuminating two sleeping figures. They both lay, unmoving, until a deer darting past them woke one of the men. The other slumbered on.
Joxer yawned and stretched his arms above his head, hearing a satisfying pop from his joints. It looked like a beautiful day ahead, and he was hoping to make good time on the road. He carefully stood, stretching first one leg and then the other and working the kinks out of his neck as he contemplated his still-sleeping companion. They had found the clearing just as the sun was setting, and Ares had nearly collapsed, seemingly asleep even before his head hit the ground. He still wasn't moving so Joxer moved slightly closer, his shadow falling across the sleeping man.
In sleep, Ares' face was relaxed, holding none of the menace and
darkness that seemed to define it when awake. He had a dark shadow
of stubble, and Joxer shuddered at the idea of repeating the shaving incident.
He moved slightly, his shadow with him, and the sunlight streamed across
Ares' face. He twitched and his eyelashes fluttered, but he didn't
awaken. Joxer, however, took a deep breath at what he saw, and began
to wonder if Ares was catching his curse. He initially reached for
the other man's shoulder, but hesitated before placing his hand on the
"Ares." He whispered, desperately trying to figure out a diplomatic way of dealing with this problem.
"G'way" It was a mumble, but a menacing mumble. His eyelashes fluttered once more but he didn't awaken. Joxer tried again.
"Ares. You have to wake up."
"Go 'way". This time it was more forceful, and as the sunlight hit his eyes, Ares raised his forearm to cover them. This was when he discovered what had been worrying Joxer. "Ow!" His eyes flew open and he stared at his arm. "What the fuck is this?" He tried sitting up and winced in pain as every muscle protested.
Joxer found himself sighing. "You have a sunburn. A really, really bad sunburn."
"What's a sunburn?" The god sounded near panic.
"It's when too much of your skin gets exposed to too much sunlight and it, well, it burns." He indicated the bright red hue of Ares' arms. "Like that."
Ares stared at his arms, which were a bright angry red, as was his neck, part of his chest and his face. "It *hurts*" He didn't even care that he was whining.
"I know. I'm sorry." Being fair-skinned, Joxer knew just how much a sunburn could hurt and this one looked particularly painful. Even the tops of Ares' ears were red. He shook his head in sympathy. "I've got some oil in my bag that'll help, but it's still gonna hurt for today, maybe tomorrow."
"I'll try anything." The god looked like he was about to give up.
Joxer rummaged in his trusty bag, reflecting that it must be strange
to suddenly be thrust into a body and a world that didn't operate the way
you expected. He wondered if he'd cope with a god's body any better
than Ares was coping with a human body. Not that he wanted to know;
the mere image of Joxer the God was enough to give him the creeps.
He'd probably end up as the God of Bad Luck or something like that.
Grabbing the bottle of oil, he
"You know, this is really," he paused, searching for the right word, "sucky. Your lives are so short and miserable, I don't see why you even bother."
"Maybe they aren't short and sucky to us." Joxer removed the stopper from the bottle. "Maybe we're just too stupid to know we're supposed to be miserable. Now take off your vest and lie down."
Ares looked suspicious but did as he was told, wincing and biting back profanities as he slowly levered himself down to the ground. "Has anyone ever told you you're sexy when you're forceful?"
Joxer merely snorted. Ares just wasn't going to give up. He examined the other man, trying to figure out how best to position himself so as to get the oil onto all of the affected areas. There was one obvious solution, but it would mean leading Ares on. Of course, how often would he get a chance to tease a god? Joxer grinned to himself as he straddled Ares, sitting on his ass. Ares merely moaned in response.
"I'm going to start rubbing this in. It'll sting at first,
but then it'll feel better, okay?" He kept his voice carefully
Of course, there was one drawback to his plan to tease the god, Joxer reflected, namely that he was getting pretty turned on here himself. He squirmed, knowing Ares could feel his erection through the leather. He didn't know why he was surprised when Ares squirmed back, rubbing his ass against Joxer's hardness. He bit back a moan of his own, wondering if this had been such a good idea after all.
Taking a deep breath, Joxer leaned forward, inadvertently pressing his erection even further into the cleft of Ares' ass and causing more wriggling under him. Gasping, he reached for the hand he had been working on and this time poured some of the oil onto the forearm, gently rubbing it in, feeling the smooth slippery skin beneath his hands. He worked his way up, past the elbow, until he was sitting up straight and rubbing the oil into Ares' shoulder and the back of his neck. His plan was backfiring and in a big way. He wanted to feel more of the god's skin, to see more of the beautiful body. He began massaging the War God's back, working the oil into the skin, watching the sunlight make the oil-slicked glisten and shimmer.
Mentally slapping himself, Joxer somehow managed to focus his attention on the task at hand. He reached over and oiled down the right hand and arm, in more of a hurry than the left. Finishing, he climbed off of Ares, provoking a sound of disappointment. He wasn't sure how he did it, but Joxer was proud that his voice was steady.
"Turn over." And Ares did, looking up at him and licking his lips seductively. More than anything this passivity was arousing him, knowing that this was Ares, God of War, obeying him. Joxer shivered. This time he looked Ares in the eyes as he straddled his waist, and watched as the dark eyes closed briefly and a smile played across the beautiful face.
He made a show of carefully, slowly dripping oil onto Ares' chest, watching the glistening droplets roll across the smooth muscles and pool in the valleys. Leaning down, he began to massage the oil into skin, teasing lightly with his fingertips, avoiding applying too much pressure despite the fact that Ares was writhing beneath him, wanting more contact. He could feel a large, hard cock pressed against his, and he occasionally moved just enough that they rubbed together for a few seconds, prompting moans from below him.
Steadily ignoring the mute pleas for more, he began to work his way up toward Ares' neck, caressing the depression above the clavicle, gently running along the jugular, feeling the pulse quicken below his hand. Reaching his face, Joxer poured some oil into his hand and began gently rubbing it in circular motions, first along the smooth forehead, then the high cheekbones, his fingers working busily near the full lips but skillfully eluding the tongue that kept trying to lick them. He continued to shift his weight, rubbing their hardness together, until Ares was whimpering incoherently, the night-sky eyes begging for more.
This really wasn't going according to plan. The more rational part of his mind screamed at Joxer to just stop right now, before it was too late. Another part whispered that it was already too late, so he might as well enjoy it while he could. Ares was going to have to kill him after this, so why not just go for it?
He gave in. Bending down, Joxer finally kissed Ares, feeling the god's tongue enter his mouth like an invading army, sucking the breath out of him and leaving him weak in the knees. Forget War; Ares should have been God of Kissing. Strong arms wrapped carefully around him, a large hand on the back of his neck pulling his head closer for another mind-ripping kiss that nearly killed him. He felt Ares' pelvis thrusting up, rubbing their hard cocks together, the rhythm matching their tongues, the dual sensations leaving him wanting more but afraid that more would kill him.
He felt the hand leave the back of his neck and somehow insinuate
itself between them. It took a few moments for Joxer to realize that
Ares was trying to undo their clothes, but once he caught on he quickly
participated. Within a few minutes both were naked, clothing strewn
haphazardly around them. Throwing back his head and gasping for air,
Joxer found himself looking down at the body beneath him. Even as
a mortal, Ares had the body of a god. He
Reaching for the oil bottle, Joxer poured some on his hand, then reached down and rubbed their cocks together, coating both with oil. He barely registered Ares doing the same until he felt the larger hand closing around his, pulling their oil-slicked erections even closer together. He thrust, feeling the heat, the moisture, the friction, not wanting it to end. He could feel the soft skin covering the hardness of Ares' cock rubbing against him, the skin moving and pulsing, throbbing to a pulse that might have been his, might have been Ares', might have been shared. He felt Ares hand on his head, drawing him down into another kiss, which pushed him over the edge. He cried out in the other man's mouth, feeling himself spurt into their hands, and a second later felt Ares muscles stiffen under him as he also came.
Joxer found himself sprawling across Ares' chest, unable to move. Raising his head he looked blearily down at the god, who was licking the semen off his hand with a very self-satisfied smirk on his face.
"Next time I'm on top."
Joxer didn't even have the energy to argue. If he was going
to die, at least he was going to have fun.
Dawn's light found Athens holding its collective breath as women dressed in their finest gowns and men groused about taking baths and brushing their hair. In the palace, King Iphicles was making a valiant effort to help Duke Theseus get dressed for his upcoming nuptials but not quite succeeding. In fact, the Duke was making a valiant effort of his own to remove the King's finery and was having much more success. He had most of the buttons on Iphicles' tunic undone and was busy licking at the exposed chest as Iphicles made a few half-hearted attempts to push him away.
"You're getting married." Iphicles tried to sound forceful, but heard the weakness in his own voice.
"I know. And you'll get to fuck a married man tonight." Theseus flashed a wicked smile that made his lover's knees go weak.
"You should be concentrating on the wedding."
"Later." Theseus began nibbling Iphicles' rapidly hardening left nipple while rubbing the right, watching in satisfaction as the king's breath became more uneven. "I can't concentrate on anything right now, not with you looking like this." He continued to unbutton the tunic, finally pushing it down Iphicles' broad shoulders, baring his muscled chest.
"Demetrius is gonna kill us." Iphicles slumped against the wall, bracing his legs so as to stay upright. "He's taking this whole ceremony personally. If anything goes wrong he's gonna take it out of my hide."
"So let him try." Theseus' hands moved down the smooth golden skin, alternately caressing and pinching, as he began to kiss and lick at Iphicles' chest, prompting a moan from his lover. "He can't have you till I'm finished with you."
"Okay, fuck Demetrius." Iphicles gave in and threw his head
back, closing his eyes and enjoying the sensations. Theseus was licking
his nipples, using a slow, maddening rhythm that left Iphicles panting
for more. One broad palm rubbed against his erect cock, and the king
thrust his hips, pushing back, trying to feel more.
"Whatever." At this point Iphicles would have cheerfully agreed to anything. Panting, he let the duke lead him to the large bed, where he was pushed backwards until he fell onto the brocade spread.
Theseus took a moment to watch his lover, copper hair spread around his head like a halo, amber eyes glowing with desire, bronze torso gleaming with sweat. "You're beautiful," he whispered, "always have been, you know that?"
"Yeah, right." The king laughed ironically. "When you met me, I was a scrawny kid with a chip on his shoulder. I don't know why you put up with me."
The duke climbed onto the bed, lying beside his lover, gently stroking the muscled chest, stopping occasionally to tweak a nipple, as he gazed into the king's eyes. "It was obvious you had a lot of potential, even then. You were so...eager." He licked his lips. "And you weren't *that* scrawny." A dramatic pause. "Well, maybe you were, but you got better." He laughed as he began to unlace Iphicles' pants.
They were distracted as they heard a scream of outrage from the next chamber, quickly followed by the sound of glass breaking and numerous curses that made even the two ex-mercenaries blush.
Iphicles levered himself up onto his elbows, looking around for a weapon of some sort as Theseus jumped to his feet.
"Gods, I hope Herc wasn't right," Iphicles muttered, almost to himself as he scanned the room, "Ares can't be in the castle, dammit!" Noticing Theseus' quizzical expression, he shrugged, trying to calm down. "Assassinating the bride just doesn't seem like his style."
Both men were quickly on their feet, clothes thrown on as they prepared
to go next door to investigate when they were spared the trouble.
Demetrius rushed into the room, a cut on his forehead spilling into his
left eye. He
"Highness. I mean, Highnesses, there's a problem. With
the wedding." Iphicles tried to discreetly smooth his clothes, hoping the
steward wasn't going to blame him, but Demetrius was oblivious. "It's
Theseus sighed, a put-upon expression on his face as he questioned the steward. "Did she say what the problem was?"
Demetrius shook his head. "No, she just screamed quite a bit and threw a bottle at me." He indicated the cut on his head. "Luckily Hermia tried to stop her and caused her aim to go off a bit. I was just hit with a piece of flying glass."
The Duke straightened his clothing and nodded to the king.
"Iph, can you take care of that cut? I'll see if I can talk some
sense into Hippolyta." He paused for a moment. "Maybe we'll get lucky
and your brother'll show up
Iphicles snorted as Theseus walked out the door, Demetrius casting
anxious glances toward the doorway. "Do you think that's wise?
Shouldn't someone go with him?" He looked at Iphicles, obviously
concerned, as he let
"Theseus can take care of himself. He was a good mercenary, a good soldier." Iphicles spoke quietly, as if trying to soothe a frightened animal. "In a strange sort of way, he and Hippolyta understand each other. Besides," he tilted the other man's head to examine the wound, probing carefully, "it sounds like Hermia's not too pleased with this either. She'll help out."
The steward sat on the bed quietly as the king efficiently tore strips
from his own shirt to make a makeshift bandage. Dipping a corner
of the fabric into the water pitcher next to the bed, he began cleaning
the blood. The
By the time Theseus returned, Iphicles had cleaned and bandaged Demtrius' wound and even managed to get a cup of wine into the man to settle his nerves. Both looked up as the Duke entered, a grin on his face.
"So?" Iphicles was dying to know what had happened.
"She had a case of pre-wedding jitters." Theseus sounded as if he dealt with this sort of scene on a daily basis, "Hermia and I talked her through them." He turned to Demetrius. "And she apologizes for throwing the bottle at you."
The steward didn't reply, merely looking panicked, as the other two men looked at each other. Iphicles finally broke the silence, offering Demetrius a hand up. "Why don't you have that looked at by someone with a clue about medicine? I'll fill in for you for the next little bit."
Demetrius was about to protest but was cut off. "I may not
be as organized as you are, but I can read your notes and do some of the
easier tasks. Now go." The king gathered up Demetrius' notes
and motioned him to leave,
"Guess we have to wait till after the ceremony." Theseus sighed, leaning against the wall. "Talk about killing the mood."
"Tell me about it." Iphicles chuckled dryly, trying to put the scrolls in order. "So, what exactly did you manage to work out? An agreement that she won't slit your throat on your wedding night?"
"We just reaffirmed the original agreement - no sex. And she's still ranting and raving, but Hermia's working on getting her as drunk as possible before the ceremony. Apparently she's a calm drunk."
Iphicles raised an eyebrow. "My, this sounds like fun. If *I* get forced into a marriage of state, I think I'll take the easy way out and slit my wrists."
"No you won't. I won't let you. If I have to suffer, so do you." Theseus tried his best to sound serious, but the corner of his mouth twitched upward. "Besides, at least it wasn't your brother this time."
"Good point. And I think I scored a few bonus points with Demetrius, so something good's come out of this mess."
The two men regarded each other, shaking their heads. "But tonight, no one better show up..."
Dawn found two women cringing in a small, run-down inn on the outskirts
of Athens. Their expressions were reminiscent of those found on prisoners
condemned to die and left without hope. Prisoners, however, weren't
The lavender gown definitely made her look pink, Xena decided. And the cut and fit made her look big and clumsy, like a country farm girl wearing borrowed finery. Of course, after casting a sidelong glance at Gabrielle, she decided it could be worse. Gabrielle's matching sea foam gown made her complexion look as if she had a case of jaundice, and the drape of the gown made her also look awkward and square.
Gabrielle sat on her bed, awkwardly massaging her sore and swollen feet. She and Xena had spent most of the previous day trying to shake their new friend, but to no effect. They'd tried being rude to her, but she didn't notice. They'd even talked about killing her, but Gabrielle had weakly protested that it would be wrong. She was beginning to reconsider her position.
Mustardseed, dressed in pink, looked absolutely devastating. She was prattling at them, running around and trying to do their hair and nails as Gabrielle's face grew redder and redder and Xena devoted more time to considering jumping out the window and running for it.
"Hm." The fairy was standing in front of Xena, her delicate heart-shaped face crumpled into a frown. "We really need to do something with that hair. It just doesn't frame your face right." She reached out and plucked the band from Xena's hair, freeing it, as the warrior made a perfunctory protest.
The flower fairy began running her fingers through the thick black hair, trying to feather it, still frowning. "What do you use on this? It has *no* body." Her voice was full of condemnation.
"Soap! I use soap!" Xena shook her head, freeing her hair from Mustardseed's grasp.
"On hair? No wonder it's so dull. And look at all those split ends." She sighed a martyred sigh. "Good thing I've got something for that." Reaching into her pouch she sprinkled something onto Xena's hair as the warrior cringed. She'd been sprinkled all the previous day and was now living in terror of fairy magic.
Her hair began to glow, a strange light moving from the scalp to the ends. Once finished, Xena's head was crowned with fluffy, perfect black ringlets.
"Much better!" Mustardseed's voice had taken on the perky manic edge that both women had grown to fear. Xena was ready to cry.
Then the fairy turned to Gabrielle.