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I've decided to start uploading my fanfic here for backup purposes, but also on the off chance it might attract new readers. So, without further ado, I bring you my very first slashfic evah.

Title: Love Potion Number Nine

Pairing: Ares/Joxer. Yeah, you read that right.

Rating: R, for adult language, a bit of violence, and smut.

Warnings: Um, it's an Ares and Joxer slash fic?

First posted in July of 1998. Revised in August of 2000. Reposted to LJ in February of 2011, and to DW in July of 2011.

A/N: Many, many years ago, a friend challenged me to write an Ares/Joxer love story and make him believe it. This was the result.



"Stay out of this, Aphrodite."

The goddess did not even bother to look up from her primping. Ares knew she could see him quite well in the mirror.

Aphrodite sighed. "You really shouldn't glower like that," she said. "It causes wrinkles."

"I'm serious, 'Dite."

"So am I. You'll wind up with a huge furrow between your eyebrows."

Ares snarled. He walked the few short paces across the room and sat on the table, neatly blocking her view of the mirror with his body. "I have been working on these two families for over five generations," he said. "Five generations. The feud has been going on so long they don't even remember how it started. And they don't care. All that matters is the body count. Half the time they don't even need me to give them a push, they do it all on their own. It's beautiful."

Aphrodite gave a polite shrug. "If you say so."

"I do say so. And I want you to stay the fuck out."

"No can do, Funbuns."

"Aphrodite—"

"Look, the kids came to me on their own. They defied their families to love each other and I'm determined to give them my help. You should see them, all dewy-eyed and goopy about each other, it's so sweet. And they've been making heaps of offerings at my temple—which has been sadly neglected in that part of the world thanks to your little feud, I might add."

"But if they get married, the feud ends!"

Aphrodite smiled her brightest smile, the one that made Ares hard and caused little beads of perspiration to break out on his upper lip. "Them's the breaks," she said sweetly.

Bitch. She was enjoying this far too much. Ares slid off the table and stalked to the door. The heels of his boots rang sharply against the polished marble floor and sent up a satisfying shower of sparks in his wake. "We'll see about that," he tossed back over his shoulder, gathered his power around him and was gone.

+ + +

Joxer had mud in his teeth. It was a fine, rich mud, kind of dark and loamy. Very fertile, he suspected. Joxer was good at identifying different types of mud. The gods knew enough of it had been shoved down his throat to make him an expert on identification by taste alone.

He was also more than familiar with the taste of leather-covered knuckles, usually followed by a chaser of his own blood. And boot-soles. He was often up-close and personal with the bottoms of shoes, very much like the one currently pressing into the back of his head and forcing his face further into the rich, fertile mud. This particular one had a heavy leather sole, designed for walking long distances and worn through in places; he could feel the rough scrape of a poorly stitched patch against his scalp.

Now, if he could just figure out how to breathe while he was face-down in the dirt like this, everything would be just fine.

The weight against his head disappeared and Joxer used the respite to raise his face up just enough to suck in a deep breath of air. When the foot did not return to push him back down again, he made a careful attempt to sit up. As he did, something large and rather heavy slammed into his side and seemed to roll over top of him. A foot. A large, heavy booted foot, kin to the one that had been holding him down. Joxer wiped the mud from his eyes and noted the body of one of his tormentors lying in the mud beside him. The mercenary glared at him and struggled upright, sword still clutched in one meaty hand.

"Joxer, duck!"

Joxer flattened himself back down. He heard a loud whir followed by a very satisfying thud and the rogue fell down again. This time the man landed squarely on Joxer's back, knocking the precious air from his starved lungs and driving him further into the mud.

It occurred to Joxer that he might want to start carrying a hollow reed to breathe through at times like these. Then he considered the possible uses someone else might put such a reed to should it be taken from him (which it most likely would) and quickly dismissed the idea as silly, not to mention potentially embarrassing.

"Joxer?"

That sounded a lot like Gabrielle. "Mmph," he said. "Nngh blargle plfff."

"Hang on, let me get this guy off of you."

Gabrielle—if it was indeed her, though he couldn't think of another person who would be willing to give him a hand—rolled the unconscious body off of his back and he sat up with a spluttering wheeze of relief. His eyes were clogged with muck, but he would have recognized those red-brown boots and the shapely legs above them anywhere.

"Hi Gabby," he said, or tried to. What came out bore more resemblance to a frog attempting to gargle a mouthful of rocks than human speech. He spat out what mud he hadn't swallowed and tried again. "Thanks for the assistance. Not that I really needed it, you know, I was just lulling them into a false sense of security. Another few minutes and I would have had the cowards on the run."

Gabrielle smiled and Joxer's heart did a little flutter. "And I suppose letting them strip you naked and shove you face first into the mud was all part of the plan," she said.

Naked, oops. He'd forgotten that part. "Sure," he said gamely, though he was suddenly grateful for the layers of muck that hid the scalding blush that rose to his face as well as covering other parts of him from view. He folded his hands over his lap, just to be safe. "Um, I don't suppose you know where they put my stuff?"

"Nope, haven't seen it."

"Oh. Well. Um. Maybe Xena's seen it. Where is she, anyway?"

"Chasing the rest of the bandits out of town."

"Oh." The mud was starting to dry on his skin, causing him to itch abominably, but Joxer was loath to stand. He didn't want Gabrielle to see him like this. Well, he did want her to see him naked, but that fantasy involved lots of candles and a very large silk-covered bed, not the middle of a street after a hard rain with half the town looking on. Gabrielle wasn't making things any easier. She was still smiling and while she was not cruel enough to laugh openly in his face, he could see the repressed humor shining in her eyes. Ah well, at least he'd made her smile.

He heard the sound of approaching footsteps and knew without looking up that Xena had joined them. There was a look that came over Gabrielle's face whenever Xena showed up that was unmistakable.

"Did you get them?" said Gabrielle.

"They're on the run," Xena said. "They had horses, and with Argo lame, I couldn't catch up. Something tells me we'll be seeing them again. That kind of professional soldier doesn't lay low for long."

"Hi, Xena," said Joxer.

Xena gave him the look she generally reserved for dung beetles and dirt-covered fools. "Joxer. Aren't you a little old to be playing in the mud?"

"Joxer was just explaining to me how he had everything under control before we showed up," Gabrielle said.

Xena's eyebrows rose. "Really. Well, in that case I'm sure he doesn't need our help. Come on, Gabrielle. We need to get Argo to the farrier if we want to be back on the road by tomorrow. We're behind schedule as it is."

Leaving. They were leaving him sitting bruised, muddy and bare-assed in the middle of the street. "Xena?"

The warrior looked coolly over her shoulder. "Yes, Joxer?"

"Um. I don't suppose you might have a spare blanket or something? I seem to have, ah, misplaced my armor."

Joxer could tell she was going to say no, but Gabrielle gave her a stern glare and she visibly deflated. Xena walked away a few paces and returned with a shabby length of cloth, probably torn from the awning of one of the market stalls during the fight. "Here," she said, tossing the cloth at him. "Why don't you go down to the river and wash up. I'll see what I can do about finding you some spare clothes."

"Thanks," he said, and meant it.

"Don't mention it. Gabrielle, let's go."

The small crowd that had gathered to watch the spectacle slowly dispersed. A few trailed after Xena and Gabrielle, but most simply went back about their business. Not one bothered to come over to where Joxer knelt, carefully wrapping the rough cloth around his waist. Not that he expected them to. They had better or more interesting things to do than waste their time on a clown like himself. That was the way the world worked and getting angry would do him absolutely no good.

Once he was sure he was as covered as the ragged scrap of fabric would allow, he gingerly rose to his feet. His whole body was one giant ache, and he was sure that once the layer of mud was gone, his skin would be mottled black and blue from the rough handling he'd received. Whistling cheerfully off-key, he headed down to the river to wash.

+ + +

The mortals were late.

Ares leaned back against the rough bark of a tree, absently picking at his nails with the point of his favorite dagger. One would think that a summons from the God of War would be cause for promptness, but apparently he was mistaken. Ah well. Mortals were hardly known for their reliability, and this would give him a good excuse to play the angry and vengeful god. Enough earth shaking and flashes of lightning and the silly twits would fall over themselves to beg his forgiveness. Being a god had its perks.

The sound of footsteps approaching from the east snapped him out of his reverie and he straightened up. Wouldn't do to have the mortals see him slouching, he had an image to uphold, after all.

Then he heard the whistling.

It was very loud, and off-key enough to make him wince. This was not one of his pet mercenaries, then; that was a decidedly unmusical group. Not that the shrill noise counted as music, but still. Ares closed his eyes a moment and gave a little inward flex of his power that rendered him invisible. When he opened them again it was to the sight of a large dirt-covered shape crashing through the undergrowth. At first he thought it might be some type of earth elemental heretofore unknown, but then the creature tripped over its own feet and landed with a thud in the leaves near Ares' hiding spot.

"Oh, darn," it said.

Ares knew that voice: Joxer the Mighty Idiot. He wondered how the silly mortal had wound up in such shape, then remembered the mercenaries he was supposed to be meeting and put two and two together.

The gangly mortal struggled to his feet, brushing ineffectively at the leaves and twigs plastered to his filthy skin. He really did look like some kind of forest spirit, perhaps one of the elusive Green Men that lived in the wilds of Britannia. Except they had far more native grace in their smallest toenail than this fool could ever hope to have.

It amused Ares to watch the man struggle valiantly through the brush, though he did wonder at the frequency of Joxer's tumbles. He'd never seen a perfectly healthy mortal have so much difficulty with something so simple as walking. It was almost as though the very earth disapproved of Joxer's steps upon it.

He followed silently in the mortal's wake. Joxer was heading in an obvious path to the river, and Ares was curious to see what would happen next. He was convinced the silly fool was going to wind up drowning himself, or come close to it. That was another of the curiosities of this man; he was blessed with both good and bad luck in equal measure. Well, the gods looked after Fools, or so Aphrodite told him; he must've slept through that meeting.

About half an hour later, Joxer finished the ten minute trek to the water's edge. There was a bend in the river here and the water was deep and clear. There were even a few large rocks situated along the bank, perfectly suited for diving. Ares settled on one of the smaller boulders and watched as Joxer climbed up a large stone formation. The mortal stood quietly for a moment, surveying the water before him, then dropped the scrap of fabric tied around his waist and leaped.

Ares anticipated an awkward belly-flop followed by a large undignified splash and was stunned when Joxer's body made a graceful arc through the air, disappearing beneath the surface of the water with barely a ripple to mark his passing. Dives like that were difficult and required an amount of skill he never would have expected someone like Joxer to possess.

He moved closer to get a better look, bemused and more than a little entranced by the fluid ease with which the mortal moved. The lanky body, so awkward on shore, took on a strange elegance in the water. It reminded Ares of an otter, sleek and lithe and joyous in its freedom.

It was a distracting thought, almost as distracting as the sight of those long, pale limbs moving beneath the water. Joxer kicked back up to the surface and pulled himself onto the rock where Ares sat, eyes closed and arms spread wide, a smile of pure sensual delight curving his thin lips.

Ares stared down at the long back before him, the fair skin beaded with droplets of water that reflected the sunlight like a thousand tiny diamonds. Oh yes, this was more than distracting. An hour ago if someone had told him he would be sitting on a rock and contemplating the loveliness of this particular mortal's wet skin, he would have laughed. Now all he wanted to do was bend down and lap up each individual drop of water with the tip of his tongue.

But not today. He had things to do, and Joxer would have to wait. It would be a reward to himself, he decided, once the matter of the feud was settled. Ares stared a moment more at the mortal drowsing oblivious beside him, then allowed himself an indulgence and bent forward to brush his lips lightly against the nape of Joxer's neck. When Joxer shivered but did not open his eyes, Ares went with his first impulse, flicking his tongue gently across Joxer's shoulder and up his neck to the tender skin just behind Joxer's ear. This time the mortal moaned, a soft exhalation of breath that fired Ares' blood even hotter. Oh yes, this would be a good reward.

"Later, Joxer," he said, and disappeared in search of his missing mercenaries.

+ + +

Joxer snapped out of his doze with a start. His heart pounded wildly against his ribs and he was almost painfully aroused. He'd been dreaming —something. He wasn't sure exactly what, only the sensation of warm lips against the back of his neck and a voice, heavy and dark and burning with need. It had been a man's voice, of that he was sure, and oddly familiar. It made him feel scared, but elated at the same time. And very, very turned on.

Weird. He'd never really thought about men before. Well, not like that, anyway. Even so, he knew with deadly certainty that if he ever found the owner of that voice—and he was quite sure it was someone he knew—he'd be on his back before the man finished saying "Your place or mine."

If the man was even interested in him. Joxer was well aware that dreaming a thing did not make it so in the waking world. Look at Gabrielle. He had been trailing in her wake for the gods knew how long and had diddly to show for it.

He certainly had something to show for this, even if it was just a dream. Joxer pushed off from the rock and treaded water for a moment, trying to decided what to do. What he really wanted was to find a nice, shallow spot in the river where he could kick back and fantasize for a while about that voice. However, he knew as soon as he did so Gabrielle was bound to show up. That was just the kind of luck he seemed to have. And for the bard to see him taking matters in, er, hand...well. That just did not bear thinking about.

Instead, he swam for a while. It helped. Swimming always helped. No matter what the problem, if he could just find someplace quiet to go and splash about for a while, he felt better. Joxer didn't know why that should be, but he'd learned not to question it. It was the one constant in his life and he was not going to give it up for anything. Or anyone.

He dove under and skimmed along the riverbed looking for neat rocks to show Gabrielle. After a diligent search, he found an especially nice one, smooth and round with a perfect hole in the center and small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. He hoped she would like it; rocks like that were supposed to be lucky. Smiling to himself, he kicked back up to the surface to deposit his prize safely on the shore only to find Xena waiting impatiently at the river's edge.

"I was about to dive in after you," she said. "You were under a long time."

Joxer blinked in surprise. It certainly hadn't felt that long. "Really? Wow, that's really nice of you to be so concerned about me, and all. Not that I was in any danger, I can stay underwater even longer than that if I want to."

"Right," said Xena. "On top of being a mighty warrior, you're also part fish."

Wonderful. The one time he wasn't exaggerating and she still didn't believe him. "No, really," he said. "I'm serious. I do it all the time. I can show you if you like."

"Some other time." Xena untied a small sack from her belt and dropped it unceremoniously on the riverbank. "I found you some clothes. Gabrielle's trying to track down your boots. She thought she spotted them stuck up in a tree." Xena did not wait for his reply, but turned and started to walk back the way she had come.

"Thanks," Joxer called to her retreating back. "And, um, I guess I'll see you guys back in town."

If Xena made a reply, Joxer did not hear it.

The clothes were clean and neat if heartlessly plain, probably bartered from some poor farmer in exchange for a loaf of bread. The tunic was tight across his shoulders and too short in the sleeves and the trousers threatened to slide off his narrow hips, but at least he was dressed. With any luck Gabrielle had found his boots, though he could probably kiss his armor good-bye. He had a sneaking suspicion that Xena would see to that no matter what, though maybe she would let him keep his sword. It wasn't a very good sword, the quality of the metal was poor and it was badly balanced, but it was still his.

The walk back was a long one. It seemed no matter how hard he tried, he was forever tripping over exposed roots or rocks or nothing at all. By the time he reached the town, he was sweaty and tired and beginning to wish he had stayed by the river. All he wanted was to curl up in a ball and sleep, and he fervently hoped Gabrielle and Xena wouldn't mind if he shared their fire tonight. What little money he possessed had been stolen along with his clothes so there was no way he could afford the corner of someone's hayloft, much less a room in an inn.

He found Xena and Gabrielle camped out in the farrier's stable, with Argo happily munching a bucket of oats in a nearby stall. The women were discussing something in hushed tones and hastily shut up at the sound of his approach.

"Mind if I join you?" he said.

"We've been expecting you," said Gabrielle, pointing to the opposite corner of the small room with her hand. There, tucked against the wall, were his boots and, wonder of wonders, his sword and scabbard.

"Oh, wow, you found them. Thanks, Gabby." He was so happy he wanted to hug her, but was afraid she would hurt him if he tried.

Joxer slid down into the straw beside his boots with a sigh of relief. He knew the women had placed his meager belongings as far away from them as possible for a reason and decided, for once, he would get the hint and stay there. He really did not feel up to dealing with Xena's disapproval tonight, and there was something about the set of the warrior's jaw that told him he'd be better off not pushing his luck. Come to think on it, Gabrielle did not look particularly happy, either.

"You two've really got your daubers down tonight," he said.

"'Daubers'?" said Xena. "That better not mean what I think it means."

"It means you look upset," he said hastily. "Is there anything I can help you with?"

"No," said Xena.

"We're trying to get to a wedding," said Gabrielle, ignoring the warning glare Xena gave her. "Argo threw a shoe this afternoon and pulled up lame, so we're kind of behind schedule."

It was then that Joxer noticed the small box sitting in the bard's lap. It was a beautiful piece, made of polished rosewood inlaid with mother-of-pearl. "Is that a present for the bride?" he asked.

"Yes," said Gabrielle.

"No," said Xena.

He raised an eyebrow and the women exchanged a look that was almost guilty. "Right," he said. "Want to try that again?"

"It's for both the bride and the groom," Gabrielle said at last. "It's a special kind of anointing oil to be used in the wedding ceremony."

"Which we are never going to make in time if we have to stay here until Argo heals up," snapped Xena.

"Then I'll go on ahead," said Gabrielle.

Xena shook her head. "It's too dangerous."

"Hey, I can take care of myself. I'm not helpless, you know."

"I said no, Gabrielle, and that's final."

"Then you carry the stupid box."

"I would, but the priestess charged you with its keeping."

"Oh, so now it's all my fault."

"I didn't say that."

"You implied it."

"I can stay here with Argo," Joxer said.

The women stopped arguing and turned as one to stare at him.

"It's no trouble," he said. "Besides, I kind of got the hint that you don't want me with you this time. I may be inept but I'm not stupid."

Xena frowned and Gabrielle had the decency to look embarrassed, so Joxer gave them his best big-eyed earnest puppy look for good measure. It was one of the few tricks in his arsenal that actually seemed to work, though he hated to use it because it traded on his reputation as a pathetic wannabe. Granted that reputation was mostly deserved, but a man had to have some pride.

"It would be a big help," Xena said, forcing the words out slowly as if they pained her. They probably did; she would not be happy about owing him a favor.

"Great, then it's settled," he said before either Xena or Gabrielle could argue. "Just leave it to me and I'll make sure Argo gets the best of care."

"You don't have to make sure of anything," said Xena. "I've already spoken to the farrier, he knows one of us will be staying behind. All you have to do is feed and groom the horse, maybe walk her a bit if the farrier says it's ok. You know how to do that, right?"

He nodded. "Yeah, I grew up around horses, my father is nuts for them. Especially war horses. His favorite was this big grey stallion named Phoebus. I think he was some kind of a Moorish breed. Anyway, he's really huge, and boy did that horse have an attitude problem. I've got this scar—"

"You'll do just fine," said Xena, interrupting him. "If you have any questions, ask the farrier. His name is Pilib."

"Pilib, got it."

"We shouldn't be gone more than a week, ten days at the most. We'll head right back as soon as the ceremony is over."

"Will I be able to stay here? In the barn, I mean?" Joxer tried ineffectually to keep the anxiety from his voice; he didn't want to tell Xena he was broke unless he had to.

Xena nodded and her expression was almost gentle, as if she knew what he was thinking. "It's all taken care of. All you have to do is eat, sleep and watch Argo. Besides, you look like you could use the rest. Those mercenaries beat you up pretty bad."

Joxer felt a blush stain his cheeks and looked away. "I could have handled them," he said. "They just surprised me."

"Joxer—"

"I could have handled them."

Xena sighed. "Whatever you say, Joxer. Gabrielle and I have to be on the road early if we want to make up for lost time, so don't be surprised if we're gone by the time you wake up."

"Oh, I'm sure I'll hear you get up," he said airily. "A warrior has to remain alert at all times, and sleep with one eye open. You never know when you might get ambushed."

Xena shook her head. "Go to sleep."

When Joxer awoke the next morning, the women were gone and the sun was already high in the sky. Someone had laid a blanket over him during the night, and his head was pillowed on what turned out to be a rolled-up traveling cloak. The cloak was made of the same plain brown homespun as his borrowed clothes and much mended, but it was soft and warm and Joxer knew he would be glad of it if the nights turned cool. He found a small leather bag tucked inside the hood of the cloak that made a suspicious jingle when he shook it. Inside was a handful of coppers, a few bits of silver and a note written in Gabrielle's neat hand informing him that the money was to pay for Argo's board and any further expenses she might incur in Xena's absence. Joxer knew full well that the farrier would have demanded payment up front and that this was a polite way of gifting him with coin that wouldn't seem like charity. Stowing the bag carefully inside his left boot, he headed off in search of breakfast.

It was a bright, clear day so Joxer set a slow, rambling pace through the woods. It was safer that way, as well as more scenic. He'd passed some wild strawberries in a clearing the day before and thought he remembered where they were. When he still had not reached the spot after an hour of diligent walking, he realized he was lost.

Wonderful. To the best of his recollection, the town was to the north. Trouble was, he was not entirely sure which direction was north from his present location. He decided to walk in the direction he thought was north, until he considered that was exactly what had gotten him lost in the first place. Therefore, the most logical answer seemed to be picking the direction he thought was north and then heading the opposite way, thus foiling his negative sense of direction once and for all.

After about twenty minutes of walking south, he stumbled upon the mercenaries' camp.

It was the same bunch that had tormented him in town the day before. The air around the camp was heavy with raucous laughter and the sour-sweet smell of cheap wine and Joxer realized they were celebrating something. It had to be something spectacular or they would not be so far into the wine this early in the day. His curiosity piqued, Joxer slunk forward carefully, trying to get a better look at the camp.

He spotted the box sitting on a stump near the fire. The same box that had instilled Xena with so much urgency that she left Argo behind in his care. Gabrielle's box. Oh, gods, how could these men have taken it? Something must have happened, something bad.

Joxer edged closer to the camp. The fact the mercenaries had not heard him trampling through the undergrowth like a small elephant was a pretty good indication of just how drunk they were. Maybe he could sneak into the camp and steal the box back? No, they'd notice it missing fairly quickly and start looking for it. And if they rode into town drunk and furious.... He shuddered. Not a good idea. Besides, it wasn't the box that was important but what was inside of it.

Then he had an idea.

+ + +

Ares arrived in a flash of light at the broken, moss-covered stone altar that was all that remained of the shrine to the God of War in these parts. Idiots. He'd make sure to stir up a border war in this area as soon as this business was through. That would teach the local rabble to neglect his worship.

This time the mercenaries were waiting for him, ranged on horseback about the shrine in a loose semicircle. That was as it should be, men waiting on the pleasure of their god. Ares beckoned with one hand. The lead mercenary dismounted and approached with a swagger that set Ares' teeth to grinding, but he held the box in his scarred hands, so Ares decided to be lenient. Lessons in proper deference to a god could wait for later.

"I have brought what you asked, Master," said the mercenary.

"Put it on the altar," said Ares.

The mercenary complied, then stepped back. Ares reached out and flipped open the lid of the box. Shut it. Opened it again.

Nestled inside the velvet-lined interior of the box was a small, perfectly round rock with a hole in the center.

"Is this supposed to be a joke?" he said.

The mercenary looked confused. "Master?"

Ares grabbed the man's arm in a grip tight enough to flatten the metal studs of his armor and forced him on his knees before the altar. "That," he said, pointing to the box. "What in Tartarus do you call that?"

"Uh, a rock?"

"'A rock,'" Ares mimicked. He grabbed the back of the mercenary's head and smashed him face first into the altar, crushing the man's nose with a satisfying pop. "It's not supposed to be a rock. It is supposed to be a small glass bottle filled with liquid."

The mercenary struggled upright, blood streaming from his shattered nose. "The bottle was there when we took it, I swear!"

"Well, it's not there now." Ares fought back the urge to keep slamming the idiot's head against the altar until his brains coated the stone. It would make him feel better, but it wouldn't retrieve the missing bottle.

He let the man drop in disgust. "Go," he said through gritted teeth.

"Master—"

"Go!"

The mercenary finally seemed to realize that he was getting off lightly and fled, his men scattering after him. Ares watched them go, still too angry to do more than stand by his altar and seethe.

He looked down at the box, then reached in and took out the rock. Clever. Whoever had pulled this off was quite clever.

But not clever enough. Ares was a god, and gods had ways of finding things out that mortals could only dream of. He closed his eyes and focused his power on reading the life-force of whoever had last held the rock. A picture slowly formed in his mind, blurred then came sharply into focus.

Joxer.

Ares smiled and closed his fist around the rock, crushing it into powder.

+ + +

Joxer stared at the small bottle of translucent pink glass in his hand. He'd done it, he'd actually done it. He'd come up with a plan, executed it and it had worked.

It was a strange feeling, kind of like when Aphrodite had enchanted him into being a true warrior, except this time it was all his own doing and not some cosmic joke at his expense. Well, that and he actually remembered doing it. Xena always insisted that Aphrodite's spell had simply unlocked the potential that was already inside him, but Joxer never really believed her. He'd always suspected she'd told him what he wanted to hear in an attempt to cheer him up after he'd reverted to his usual bumbling self. Now, he wasn't so sure. Maybe there was hope for him after all.

He tucked the bottle carefully inside his shirt and started the long trek back to town. He tripped twice but did not fall, which only fueled his enthusiasm. Yes, this was a shining moment in his life, and he could not wait to tell Xena and Gabrielle about it.

The thought abruptly sobered him. The bandits must have taken the box from Gabrielle, which meant that Xena had failed to protect her. Joxer's mind had trouble wrapping around that concept. Xena did not fail, especially where Gabrielle was concerned.

Still, it was a chance for him to prove himself in their eyes. Joxer had succeeded where Xena had failed, how often did that happen? Maybe now they would take him seriously.

Joxer was not terribly surprised to find Xena drawing water from the central well when he finally made it back to town. He had stumbled across the mercenaries around midday, so Xena and Gabrielle could not have gotten very far before they were attacked and the town would be the closest and most logical place for them to recoup.

He grinned. "Xena! Boy, have I got something to tell you."

Xena turned and the look on her face could have stopped a hydra dead in its tracks. "I haven't got time for stories, Joxer," she said.

Joxer's smile disappeared. Bad. This was very bad. "What happened? Where's Gabrielle?" Oh, gods, let Gabrielle be all right.

Xena picked up her bucket and headed for the farrier's. "Gabrielle's been injured, a head wound."

"How bad is it?"

"She's pretty addled, but I think she's going to be ok." A cold, hard look settled over Xena's features. "If she's not, there will be Hades to pay."

Joxer followed Xena back to the barn where Gabrielle lay resting on a pile of blankets and furs while the farrier's plump wife carefully wrapped a length of clean bandage around her head. Her eyes held a fuzzy, unfocused look.

Xena knelt in the straw on Gabrielle's other side and held up a hand in front of her face. "Gabrielle. How many fingers am I holding up?"

"Fish," said Gabrielle.

"She's improving," said Xena.

Joxer shook his head. "What happened?"

"We were ambushed just a few miles outside of town by the same mercenaries who attacked you yesterday. Gabrielle was wounded in the fight and they stole the anointing oil for Odelle and Soterios' wedding." Xena stood and walked to Joxer's side. "Joxer. While you were out walking this morning, did you happen to see or hear anything that might lead me to where these scum have headed?"

"Well, actually, that's what I wanted to talk to you about. I was out looking for some strawberries, right? Well, I got lost and while I was trying to find my way back, I ran into the mercenaries' camp."

"Do you remember where this was?"

"Yeah, a couple of miles to the southwest. But—"

"Did they have the box?"

"Yeah, but—"

"That's all I need to know." She pushed past Joxer and headed for the door. "The bastards are going to pay for hurting Gabrielle."

Joxer grabbed her arm. "Xena, wait."

"I don't have time for this. Every minute I waste means less of a chance of picking up their trail and recovering the oil."

"But that's what I'm trying to tell you. I—"

"Joxer, I know you mean well and you want to help, but I can't have you tagging along and getting in the way. These men are seasoned fighters, you wouldn't stand a chance. Let me take care of this, and we'll talk about it when I get back, ok?"

Joxer let go of her arm, hurt and beginning to get angry. "Fine," he said. "You go do what you have to do."

Xena hesitated a moment. "You're a good man, Joxer. I hope you understand."

Joxer shrugged. "Whatever. If you need me, I'll be down by the river."

Once at the river, Joxer removed his boots, sat on a sun-warmed rock and dangled his feet in the cool water. Just when he was starting to feel better about himself, Xena came along and swatted him back down again. Damn. He'd really wanted to do her proud, show her he was worth something more than just comic relief, and she wouldn't even listen to him.

It hurt. A lot. He'd thought he had no pride left to bruise, but apparently he was mistaken.

"Feeling pretty sorry for yourself, huh?"

Joxer jumped, overbalanced and fell off his perch into the shallow water. Warily, he picked himself up and turned to find Ares standing behind him, all black leather and dark, brooding good looks. He knew he should be afraid, but right now he was just too pissed-off to care. "Great," he said. "It's not enough that Xena has to run me down, now the gods are getting into the act."

Ares chuckled, a rich sound that sent little shivers down Joxer's spine. "Joxer, Joxer, Joxer. You misunderstand me. I'm not here to insult you, I'm here to congratulate you on your recent foray into thievery."

Joxer looked up, startled. Ares smiled, his teeth sharp and white against the darkness of his beard and Joxer suddenly knew how a worm on a hook must feel just before getting hit. "You know about that?"

"I'm a god, Joxer. I know everything." Ares held out one broad, callused hand. "Give me the bottle."

"Why?"

Gods, had he actually said that? What was he thinking? This was Ares, God of War. You didn't talk back to Ares.

Apparently Ares had the same thought because a look of absolute incredulity came over his face. "What did you say?"

Joxer opened his mouth to apologize and beg Ares not to kill him for his impunity but his tongue had other ideas. "I said 'why'. Why should I give it to you? What's so important about that bottle that Xena, those mercenaries and now you are interested in it?"

"It doesn't matter why. I'm a god, you're a mortal. If I say give me the bottle, you give it to me."

Joxer shook his head. "I don't think so." He felt strangely calm, the ebb and flow of the river rushing around his legs cool and soothing. He reached into his tunic and pulled out the tiny bottle, holding it up to so that it glowed with rose-tinted fire in the sunlight. "I could smash it on the rocks. Then none of you would have it."

"Go ahead," said Ares. "You'd be doing me a favor."

"Really? Then maybe I should hang onto it. You know, give it to Xena when she gets back from busting heads."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you," said Ares. "You think it will make her respect you. Well, I've got news for you: She won't respect you. Xena will never respect you, no matter what you do."

Joxer shrugged. "You're probably right. Besides, I'm kind of mad at her right now, anyway. So, maybe I will give it to you, after all."

Joxer mimed tossing the bottle to Ares and was surprised when the god flinched and took an involuntary step backwards. "Now, that's interesting. Ares, God of War, afraid of a little glass bottle."

"You would be too, if you knew what was in there. Look, I'm losing patience here, Joxer, and I guarantee you do not want me angry with you."

"I'll take it under advisement."

There was a flash of light and suddenly Aphrodite stood on the riverbank beside Ares.

"What are you doing here?" said Ares.

"The mortal said he'd take it under advisement," said Aphrodite. "I'm here to advise."

Ares snorted. "Oh, that's rich. We wouldn't even be in this situation if it wasn't for you."

"Bite me, Leatherboy."

"Don't tempt me."

"As if! Been there, done that, wasn't impressed."

"Bitch."

"Cock-sucker."

"I thought that was your department."

"In your dreams."

"Hello," said Joxer, waving a hand to get their attention. "Remember me?"

Aphrodite smiled. "Of course! How've you been, Joker?"

"Joxer."

"Whatever. Now, look. The bottle you have is mine, so it's only logical that the being you should return it to is me. You do understand the concept of logic, don't you?"

"Good one, 'Dite," said Ares. "Your powers of persuasion just continue to amaze."

Aphrodite rolled her eyes. "Oh, like your approach was so much better. 'Give me the bottle or I flatten you into a little gritty paste on the riverbank.' Brilliant strategy, Bro."

"At least I have one. All you've got is jiggle and bounce."

Joxer was at the end of his tether. Here were two of the gods whom he worshipped standing before him, and what did they do? Bickered like a pair of adolescents.

"Hey!" he shouted. Ares and Aphrodite turned to look at him in surprise. "You know what I think? I think you should just settle it amongst yourselves." And with that he threw the bottle at the pair of them.

Aphrodite blinked out with a squeal and a shower of rose petals. Ares, who was standing directly behind her, caught the bottle right between the eyes. It shattered against his forehead in a burst of iridescent pink shards and the oil within splattered across his face, dripping from his eyebrows and down his nose to pool in his beard.

The god stood there for a moment, his dark eyes gone big as houses. Then Ares seemed to gather himself up, the air around him crackling and popping with power, and Joxer knew he was seconds away from becoming the little gritty paste on the riverbank Aphrodite had mentioned. All his instincts screamed at him to turn and dive for the protection of deeper water even though he knew he would never make it in time; if a god wanted you dead, you died.

He tried anyway, and suddenly Ares appeared in front of him, moving instantaneously from the bank to the water in one of those blue-white flashes the god was so fond of. Unable to stop his forward momentum, Joxer crashed into Ares' chest and Ares took a step backwards against the unexpected force of it, the god's hands grabbing Joxer's biceps in a grip sure to leave bruises, each individual finger burning like a white-hot brand even through the rough cloth of his shirt. Then they were falling and as the river closed over their heads, Joxer thought, somewhat hysterically, that it was nice to see someone else lose his footing for a change.

Even underwater Ares never loosened his grip on Joxer's arms and Joxer wondered if the god intended to drown him. But then Ares stood, those strong hands pulling Joxer inexorably with him, forcing him upright. Those eyes, those terrible, beautiful, black eyes stared into his, their faces so close he could feel the god's hot breath on his cheek.

He was shaking. Gods. They were both shaking, and Joxer wondered, in the small part of his brain still able to function, what could cause the God of War to tremble so.

Ares lifted one hand from his arm to grab a handful of his hair, yanking his head back to expose the tender skin of his throat and Joxer thought this was it, Ares was going to rip out his throat with those sharp, white teeth and bathe in his blood. Joxer shut his eyes, tight, so frightened he was on the edge of tears. And when he felt Ares' mouth cover his in a fierce, bruising kiss that seemed to suck the very air from his lungs, the tears broke free, rolling silently down his cheeks to join the river flowing around them.

Joxer couldn't think, couldn't breathe, his whole world compressed down to this, to Ares kissing him, the god's tongue in his mouth, moving against his own. Even the fear faded, burned away in the crucible of Ares' mouth only to be replaced by a wave of desire so strong it seemed to turn his bones to liquid inside his skin. And just when Joxer was sure he would faint, or come, or both, the kiss ended.

He opened his eyes to find Ares vanished and he was alone in the river. There had been no warning, not even the god's signature flash of light. Ares was just—gone.

Joxer sank back under the water, not sure if he was relieved or disappointed and more than a little disturbed that he couldn't make up his mind which. Why couldn't his life ever be simple? He was a simple kind of guy, he didn't try to make things difficult, but it seemed that everything he did went completely awry.

Like this. All he'd wanted was to help Xena. Ok, and impress Gabrielle, but there was nothing wrong with that, was there? It was a natural thing to want. Joxer knew he had a snowball's chance in Mount Etna of winning Gabby away from Xena, but if he couldn't have her love, he'd settle for her respect, no problem.

Anyway, that's what he'd been hoping for, getting some respect. And what happened?

Well. That was a good question, actually.

Aphrodite had mentioned logic, so Joxer decided he would look at the problem logically. He knew that the bottle contained some kind of anointing oil for a wedding, and that Ares had wanted it smashed. Then again, maybe Ares only said he wanted the bottle smashed; the god was very capable of lying when it served his purpose. Joxer shook his head. Better to stick to what he knew.

Ok. Ares wanted the bottle destroyed, probably to stop the wedding from taking place. Ares struck Joxer as an anti-commitment sort of god, so that part didn't really surprise him. That was when Aphrodite showed up and started fighting with Ares about the bottle, so she was probably on the side of the lovers. Then Joxer had pegged Ares between the eyes with the bottle and it broke and then Ares had tried to kill him but suddenly changed his mind...

Wait. Stop. Back up.

He'd hit Ares in the face with the bottle. The bottle that broke. Aphrodite's bottle.

Joxer sat straight up in the river. "Oh, fuck."

+ + +

"Fuck," said Ares. "Oh, fuck!"

"That would seem to be the most logical next step," Aphrodite said brightly.

Ares glowered, and the ground beneath their feet shuddered in response to his anger. Aphrodite just laughed, the cunt. She was enjoying this. Immensely.

"Take it off," he growled.

"What, my dress? Why, Ares, aren't you the forceful one."

"Not your dress, you stupid tart. The spell. I want you to take off the thrice-damned spell!"

Aphrodite laughed again, and Ares wanted to throttle her. "No way in Hades, pal," she said.

"Aphrodite—"

"Give up on the feud," she said, and there was no humor in her voice. "Let Soterios and Odelle be married and their families reconciled. Then, and only then, will I even consider helping you out of your current entanglement."

"Never."

She shrugged. "Then you're on your own."

"But I can't be in, in—" He couldn't say it. It was just too ridiculous.

Angry, he paced around Aphrodite's temple, and not even the sparks that whirled in his wake made him feel better. "I am Ares, God of War, and the God of War does not love anyone. Especially not some silly, annoying little mortal who can't even walk without tripping over his own feet!"

He turned and glared at Aphrodite. The goddess set her pearl comb down carefully on the vanity table and studied his face for a long while.

"What do you know about love?" she said at last.

"Nothing."

Aphrodite smiled and it was not a pretty smile, or even a playful one. It was the kind of smile that made you nervous because you knew it meant something, just not what. And that kind of smile on Aphrodite's lips made it very, very dangerous.

"Well," she said softly. "It looks like you're going to learn."

+ + +

"Joxer?"

Joxer jumped, startled. "Oh. Hi, Xena. How's Gabrielle doing?"

"Better. She's got one heck of a headache, but she's making sense again." Xena walked to the water's edge. "Joxer, look. I know you must be pretty mad at me for not listening to you."

"Yeah, you could say that." He sank down deeper into the water. It felt safer that way. Xena was going to be upset when she found out what happened.

"I should have given you a chance to explain. I'm sorry. I just—I wasn't thinking clearly at the time."

"That's understandable. I was pretty upset by what happened to Gabrielle, too, you know."

"I know you were. It's just, there's so much at stake with this wedding. If anything were to go wrong, there could be a war."

"A war, huh?" That made sense. Ares would love the chance to start a war.

"Joxer, I need to know, where is the bottle?"

"Um, I think you're standing on it."

Xena swore and jumped backwards, staring at the ground by her feet. "There's nothing here but little bits of—" Her eyes grew round. "You broke it?"

He nodded.

"You didn't spill any of it on you, did you?"

"No."

"Well, that's something, anyway. Damn. Damn it all to Hades!"

Joxer felt like dirt. "Xena, I am so sorry."

"It's ok, Joxer. I know you didn't do it on purpose."

He sank down lower in the water. "Uh—"

"You did break it on purpose. Why you little—, I know you're mad at me, but to do something like this!" Her hand fell to her sword in warning.

Great. Now Xena wanted to kill him. "That's not what happened!"

"Joxer, either you broke it on purpose or you didn't."

"Look, would you just let me explain?"

Xena frowned, but nodded. "This had better be good."

"Oh, it is. Well, maybe not good, exactly, but—"

"Joxer."

"Ok, ok. You pissed me off, so I came down here to get away. I figured you'd go out, kick some butt, let off some steam, that kind of thing. Sooner or later you'd have to figure out what happened and come looking for me. Then I'd give you the bottle, but not before making you feel guilty for being such a, uh, so mean to me."

She ignored the implied insult. "What happened to the bottle?"

"I'm getting to that, really. So, I'm sitting here and Ares shows up."

"Ares."

"Yeah. Ares. Seems he wanted the bottle. Then Aphrodite pops by, and the two of them start just screaming at each other, I mean really going at it."

Xena shook her head. "You really expect me to believe this?"

Joxer sighed. Of course she would think he was lying. It was just that kind of a day. "Look, I know sometimes I embellish my stories—"

"Sometimes?"

"—but this time, I'm really telling the truth, I swear. Ares and Aphrodite were really here and they really started to fight over which of them should get the bottle. And that's when I, um, kind of, um, threw it at them."

Xena nodded, smiling the kind of smile you gave to a child you were trying to humor. "And that's when the bottle broke."

"Yes."

"On the ground."

"No."

"No?"

"Yes. I mean, right."

Xena shook her head. "Joxer, just tell me what happened."

"I am telling you. I threw the bottle, Aphrodite went poof, and the bottle kind of smacked Ares between the eyes. That's when it broke."

Xena snorted. "That's the single most stupid thing I have ever heard. Hit Ares with the bottle. You don't even have the faintest idea what was in that bottle, because if you did—"

Joxer's face grew hot and he touched his lips, remembering the feel of Ares' mouth against his own. "It was a love spell," he said softly.

Xena opened her mouth. Shut it. Stared at his face. "Oh, shit," she said. "Ares?"

He nodded, miserable.

"Gods." Her eyes held a look of profound sympathy; Xena knew all too well what unwanted attention from Ares was like.

Except Joxer wasn't really sure it was unwanted, not in his case, anyway. But he wasn't going to tell Xena that.

"Joxer," she said, and her voice was the gentlest he'd ever heard from her. "When you hit Ares with the potion, did he do anything to hurt you?"

"Not really. He looked pretty mad at first, his eyes got really huge and I thought he was going to blast me to bits—"

"That's not what I mean."

"I don't under—, oh." Joxer's face went hotter still. "Um, no. Nothing like that. He just grabbed me and we fell in the water and then he, um, well, um, he kind of, um, kissed me. But that's it. Really. After that he just disappeared. I think maybe he was as freaked out as I was."

"He's going to come back after you, you know that, don't you?"

"Yeah. Xena, what am I going to do?"

"I don't know." She held out a hand to him. "Come on. Let's get back to the barn. We'll figure something out, I promise."

Joxer took Xena's hand and let her pull him from the water.

To Joxer's surprise, Xena did not go charging off into the woods leaving him to flounder in her wake as usual, but chose the easier and slightly longer track that skirted the rocky hills. He suspected she did it for his sake; he would never have kept up otherwise.

It made him feel better knowing he had Xena's sympathies, though he wondered how long that would last if she ever found out just how much he'd enjoyed Ares' kiss. Sure, he'd been terrified out of his wits at first, but there was no denying his body's response to the god's advance. It made him hard just thinking about it, and he gave a guilty glance at Xena's back, afraid she would somehow sense his thoughts. Xena's hatred of the God of War was a long-standing fact.

Still, Joxer had to wonder what would have happened had Ares stayed. He'd been so close to coming, and if Ares could do that just with a kiss...

Joxer tripped over nothing and fell on his face, tearing a hole in his trousers and skinning his left knee badly. It hurt, but the pain was a good thing. It drove thoughts of Ares from his mind which was ok because he didn't really want to think about Ares right now, not with Xena watching him so closely.

"Joxer, you ok?"

"First day with my new feet," he said.

That made Xena smile and she gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze before helping him back up. "We're almost there," she said.

The barn was a welcome sight. It was already late afternoon with twilight rapidly approaching, and Joxer was tired. He really hadn't done very much, but there were other types of weariness. He'd gone through so many emotional ups and downs through the course of the day that he felt as though he'd been wrung out and pounded flat. All he wanted was to burrow down in the hay and sleep for a month. No more worrying about enchanted gods, feuds, Xena or anything else. Just several hours of uninterrupted oblivion.

He was so lost in his thoughts that he walked right into Xena's back. The warrior had stopped in the barn's doorway, still as a statue. She hadn't even flinched when he bumped into her, she was too busy staring at something.

Joxer peered over her shoulder. Gabrielle sat where they had left her in a pile of blankets and furs, but the bandages on her head were gone. She still looked tired, but the color was back in her cheeks and her eyes no longer held that fuzzy, unfocused look.

Seated on the floor beside Gabrielle and doing her best to keep her diaphanous pink robes out of the straw, was Aphrodite.

The goddess smiled cheerily. "Hail, hail, the gang's all here," she said. "Have a seat, dearies, we've got lots to talk about."

Xena said nothing, but she finally moved, heading crisply for Gabrielle's side. Joxer stumbled to the corner of the barn he was beginning to consider his and sank down on his bedroll with an exaggerated sigh of relief. He watched Xena kneel beside Gabrielle, gently brushing the bard's strawberry blonde hair back off her forehead. There was no sign of Gabrielle's wound, all that remained was a sickly yellowish-green bruise and even that faded away to nothing as he watched.

Gabrielle caught Xena's hand. "Xena, I'm ok. Really. Aphrodite healed me."

Joxer looked down, embarrassed by the intensity of emotion that passed between Gabrielle and Xena. Their love was a palpable thing and he wondered if he would ever find someone who would look at him the way Xena looked at Gabrielle.

"That's what I'm here to talk about," said Aphrodite.

"You mean Ares," he said. "That's not real, it's just an enchantment."

Aphrodite shook her head. "It's real unless I say it isn't."

"Now that's a comforting thought," he said.

"Aphrodite has a plan," said Gabrielle. "I think we should listen to her."

"What kind of a plan?" said Xena.

"A plan that will keep Ares off of our backs until the wedding is over," said Aphrodite, smiling seductively at Joxer.

Joxer flushed. "You mean, keep him off your backs by keeping him on mine."

"No way, Aphrodite," said Xena. "There is no way I'm going to allow Joxer to be put in that kind of danger."

"Who said anything about danger?" said Aphrodite. "All I'm talking about is a little romance."

"Yeah, with the God of War," said Joxer. "What's his idea of a first date going to be? A table for two at a ritual beheading?"

"Oh, he's not that bad," said Aphrodite, "and he really is a great lay. I only said he wasn't back at the river to get his goat."

"That makes me feel so much better."

"Did I mention that he's hung like a horse?"

"Nobody said you had to sleep with him," said Gabrielle, glaring at Aphrodite. "You could just keep him occupied. You know, play hard to get."

"I still don't like it," said Xena.

"Thank you," said Joxer. "At least someone here has a little sense."

"Still," said Xena, "it would be a big help knowing Ares was out of the way."

"I can't believe you are actually considering this," said Joxer.

"Think about it," said Xena. "You keep Ares jumping through hoops for a few days while Gabrielle and I head on to Celaenae. Once the wedding is over, Aphrodite can take the enchantment off Ares and everything goes back to normal."

"What's so important about this wedding, anyway?" Joxer asked. "I mean, who are these people?"

"Soterios and Odelle are lovers who want desperately to be married," said Gabrielle. "The problem is, their families have a long standing blood-feud going back for generations and are highly opposed to the match. Each side thinks the other is trying to trick them somehow. The idea was to have the lover's union blessed with a rare love potion called Aphrodite's Kiss; that way there would be no question as to deception."

"With the lovers married, the families unite and the feud ends," said Xena. "But if something happens to stop the ceremony, the feud goes on. Only it will be even worse than before because each side will feel betrayed by the other in a very private and intimate fashion. Wars have begun over less."

"Ares wants to keep the fighting alive," said Gabrielle. "All we need you to do is keep him distracted until the wedding is over."

"That's all noble and stuff, but there's just one problem," said Joxer. "I spilled the oil all over Ares, remember?"

"That's why I'm here," said Aphrodite. She reached down into her bodice and produced a small pink bottle from between her ample cleavage. "I always keep a little extra around, just in case."

"Will you do it?" said Xena.

Gods. He'd been down this road before after Bliss had gotten hold of Cupid's bow and started taking wild potshots with Love's arrows. Gabrielle had loved him for a while, and he still couldn't decide which had been worse: knowing Gabrielle didn't really love him and loving her anyway, or being granted the knowledge of what a relationship with her could have been like and then having it snatched away when she returned to normal. Joxer couldn't even decide how he felt about Ares and here were Xena, Gabrielle and Aphrodite begging him to lead the god on. It was a rotten thing to do to anyone, even Ares, no matter how good the cause.

He looked into Gabrielle's earnest face and sighed. "Ok," he said. "I'll do it."

"Great!" said Aphrodite. "Now, all we have to do is work on your fashion-sense a bit. That outfit is, like, way too plebeian."

Joxer put his head in his hands. "I have to be out of my mind."

Part Two

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