Xena the Warrior Princess just had too many men in front of her to stop Joxer from getting hurt this time. As usual, she hoped his ability to duck could save him from this ambush of soldiers. Gabrielle was taking care of herself, to Xena's relief and pride. She had to smile as she saw Gabrielle toss two guys into the air one after another, with loud "Oofs" as her wooden staff connected solidly with their midsections.

Then there were just too many—all wanting who knows what. These weren't the normal assassins that worked one at a time or maybe three to a group so they could easily split the bounty. Nor were they warlord's goons who wanted to stop Xena from getting in the way.

As far as she could tell, these were Ares' men. Now, that didn't make any sense at all, because most of Ares' warlords had a healthy respect of Xena mixed with a healthy sense of fear of getting their heads handed to them before they made an impression on Ares and landed the coveted number one spot. Ares had at least ten of them a month.

Soldiers like these were trickier than the average run of the mill thug who was too busy running headlong into her, which left perfect opportunity for her to flip behind them and push her sword through their guts. These were way more disciplined, wary, standing back and waiting for her to throw her chakram and then figure out the best way of getting around it or wait for her to make the opening attack.

Disciplined, strict, and just a bit paranoid.

Like she had thought, not the normal thug.

Which led to the question of why exactly twenty of Ares' men had decided to attack now.

Xena knew it wasn't Ares time to target her. Ever since the whole quill business half a year ago, he had been downright cuddly, only starting wars that she had to stop, never directly appearing and annoying her. He certainly didn't want her dead.

Besides, she thought as she yipped and jumped into the air, using the heads of these men to get up high, and then using the tree branches around to kick off and land in a full body slam. They aren't aiming for me, she thought.

A bit of offense came with that thought. Ares couldn't have given up on her, so what was this, a training exercise?

If it was, Ares was stupider than he looked, as once again, she and Gabrielle made these guys start thinking of new careers, like opening up a petting zoo where the only thing that would kick them would be children. A retreat was ordered without words, as all the conscious goons understood that they had failed, and then they were gone.

"I'm a bit disappointed," Xena said out loud, making Gabrielle wrinkle her nose.

"Xena, those guys were some of the worst Ares has these days. Instead of gathering armies and taking villages, they chose to fight us, and you're disappointed?"

"If that was Ares' all-out attack, he should have sent more. A bit discourteous."

A sudden groan made them turn around to see that Joxer hadn't dodged well, this time.

"Joxer!" Gabrielle yelled and ran over to him. Xena followed, trying to make it look like she couldn't care less, but inside she was cursing. She should have been able to stop this from happening, no matter the chaos around. "I've never seen him so bad," she said, as she cradled him by the shoulders. "We need to get him to a hospice."

Xena agreed. There were multiple bruises on the usually laughing face of their friend, and many lacerations had split his skin. Even when Titus had him beat, he hadn't looked this bad. Xena had a lump to her throat. She had seen men with wounds less than these die. How would she explain this to Gabrielle?

She took the easy way out and didn't. It wouldn't be good to move Joxer, but considering that he would probably die anyway, why not play the game of pretend and let Gabrielle think the hospice would be a good choice. That damned lump in her throat! Why hadn't she stopped this?

With a whistle to Argo, she started pulling Joxer up on the side of her beige horse. Strange . . . Joxer looked a bit better. Maybe she had overestimated his injuries? They were still pretty bad, but he hadn't gotten the lacerations she had thought she had seen. Maybe he just had had a bloody nose.

Her heart leaped a bit at that thought. Maybe she hadn't made the deadly mistake she had thought she had. In about an hour's journey, where Joxer improved rapidly, they were at a hospice with Hestia as the main goddess, which made the building a domed house with soft cushions, warm baths and good if a bit bland food.

They set up Joxer in a bed and decided to let Hestia, who was actually on site for a change, tend to Joxer. Xena would have done it herself, but Joxer was conscious enough to beg Xena to just leave him alone. Still feeling a bit guilty about allowing this to happen, she readily agreed and she and Gabrielle went to enjoy the warm baths which Hestia offered freely.

Hestia was a pretty goddess—all goddesses were, but she had the down to earth beauty, almond colored hair and a round face that fit over a baking oven more than on Olympus. It was no wonder she didn't frequent the parties on Olympus. She was the goddess of hearth and home, and she fit there, not in royal robes. So all she wore at this time was a plain white dress with a beaded overlay.

Alone, Hestia shook her head and took the motherly approach to Joxer's wounds. With a clucking tongue she finally said, "Well, you'll be healed well enough in a few minutes. How long do you want me to keep Xena and Gabrielle away so you can pretend to be deathly ill?"

Joxer glared at her. "Hey, I like pretending that I am mortal, okay? Could you just . . . I don't know give them a diagnosis of me getting better in a month?"

"I have never understood this act of yours. Joxer the Mighty? You could defeat Hercules in battle and go toe-to-toe with Xena. I don't think you'd win, but still. You might make her nose bleed. Still, you go around acting like you can't even fight your way out of a papyrus sack."

Joxer sighed and lay his head back down, even though the bruises had disappeared and his face just looked a little smudged now. "You above all gods should know the pacifist's life," he noted. "This is the only way I have to get back at . . ."

"Your father. I know. So, you allowed fifteen men to use you as punching bag just to get back at him?"

"Three actually. Gabrielle and Xena were taking down the other seventeen." Then he broke into an irrepressible grin. "He thought by sending his best at me, I'd fight back. Ha! I wish I could have seen his face when the first goon nearly slit my throat."

"You're a masochist!" Hestia proclaimed.

"No. You know that the pain lasts maybe five seconds, an interesting sensation actually. I heal faster than anyone even Xena. Maybe once I'd like to see what being near death feels like, but most of the time all those blows . . . well, just tickle. Look at me, Hestia. I'm fine, and Ares lost power and self-respect. Win-win. Good old dad can't take it that I am not fighting back, and every time I don't, he is weaker. I love it." Joxer chortled, feeling better.

Hestia put one hand on his head and felt his forehead. "Half-god or no, you still need rest. Those wounds and healing them has sapped your energy." She hesitated and then glanced at Joxer. "Do you think you'll ever tell Xena and Gabrielle?"

"That I am Ares' son? That this whole 'I'm a clumsy doofus" act is just that? That I have lied to them and everyone else since I met them? No, I don't think so. Xena would never understand and would push me, in her own way without realizing it, back into the service of Ares. Gabrielle might understand, but I can't bear the expression on her face when she realized all the times that I got them into scrapes that I could have prevented it. It's the worst thing I've ever done, Hestia. Because of my way of life, both have nearly died many times, and I could have helped them. How do I ever admit that? No . . . it's best that I stay in their eyes Joxer the Mighty."

Hestia nodded and then was about to leave Joxer to rest when she looked at him one last time. "It's funny how many times you told them the exact truth to their faces, and they never believed it. You are the greatest warrior who ever lived. You have bathed in a tub of blood. I can remember someone calling you Bloody Joxer, and what else?"

"It's easy to tell the truth when you're an idiot. No one ever believes you." Joxer looked sad and closed his eyes. "I will never forget what I was . . . I will always try to atone by being the idiot. Can you leave me, Hestia? I'd like to rest."

"I'll tell Xena and Gabrielle to move on tomorrow," Hestia said and left the room.

Joxer felt a solitary tear slide down his face, as he remembered his history, a history that would make Callisto blush, as the son of the God of War had committed many crimes. Now, he was Joxer the Mighty, desperately trying to be something that was harmless, to help people in his own way.

He'd never let Xena and Gabrielle find out, ever.