Mortal Coil

by Lori Bush (

Disclaimer: If I owned these characters, don't you think I'd have told y'all by now? They belong to TIIC, who mistreat them badly, but I have no say over that, and I hope no one gets all litigious about what I do have to say. (In simple terms -- not mine, don't sue.)

Rating -- PG, although probably more like G.

Sex: No

Violence: Yeah, somebody gets pierced.

Archive: Sure -- all the mailing lists, Raye, Triple Threat if you guys want it.

Pairing: G/J

Summary: Joxer reveals some family secrets to Gabrielle.

Big thank you to Ruth Kenton for her beta work on this one. She wanted to see some more from me, so she offered to do the work, and I so appreciate it. I'm admitting here and now that I never saw the ep where Eve was born, but Ruth says this sort of plays into it, so I'll take her word. This was written before the whole "Xena's baby will usher in the Twilight" thing was really clear, so there is a sequel that deals with the change in attitude that brought about already written.

Gabrielle stood in shock, watching as Joxer tucked the pelt around Xena and straightened up. "H-h-how did you do that?" she stuttered.

It had begun fairly normally, for a battle with a power-hungry warlord. The three of them had done this sort of thing, with minor variations, so many times they could do it in their sleep. Joxer had developed enough skills that the women no longer worried so much about him as they once did, freeing them to concentrate on their own opponents more fully. They all knew the danger, but they still worked together like a finely tuned instrument, incapacitating more than they killed. Dealing a harsh justice to those who attempted to prey on the less fortunate and the weak of Greek society.

This time, something went wrong, however. Gabrielle turned away from her own skirmish to see Joxer pulling his sword from the back of a dirty soldier, whose own bloodied weapon withdrew from Xena's ribs as he collapsed. The ice blue eyes were wide with surprise, as if she couldn't imagine what had happened, then she crumpled bonelessly into the would-be warrior's arms.

The rest of the attackers had been either scattered or rendered helpless. This was a good thing, since the warrior bard watched with no thought for herself as her best friend's life seemed to ebb from her, staining her clothing and pouring over Joxer's arms in a crimson tide. She saw the young man steel himself, as if a momentous decision had been made, then he appeared to glow a bit and to change. He stood taller, it seemed, his shoulders broader and his head high. He swept the Warrior Princess up in his arms without effort, cradling the pregnant woman to his chest as he strode decisively to their campground. The pair had almost disappeared in the thick foliage before the bard could shake herself out of her trance, sheathe her sais, and scurry after them.

By the time she arrived, he had already spread Xena on her bedroll, and his dark head was bent over her, almost touching the head of another man Gabrielle had never seen before. The stranger appeared to be lean and scholarly, with the look of a healer about him. They were mumbling and pointing, when the unknown healer finally looked at her friend, and said, "I don't know, Joxer. It will take both of us, together, and even that might not be enough."

The stunned bard watched as Joxer raised his head, and she noticed the unusual aura that surrounded him seemed a reflection of the glow that emanated from his obsidian eyes. "Should we call in Ares, or 'Dite?" he asked, his voice even, but pained. "They're the ones who would care the most."

"No," the stranger countered, "we can't wait. It must be done right now." At that, the two men simultaneously stretched out their hands over the mortal wound, both just barely touching Xena's bleeding body. The faint glow increased, enveloping the woman, and as she watched, Gabrielle saw the gaping wound recede into a deep gouge -- enough to cause a great deal of pain, but not life-threatening any longer. There was still a lot of blood, but the color had returned to the Warrior Princess' face, and her ragged breathing had evened out.

"We couldn't heal it completely." The voice of the strange man intruding on her dizzying thoughts almost made Gabrielle jump. "But she will live, as will the child." He fumbled around in the bag by his side, taking out several pouches and handing them to Joxer. "Put the ointment on the wound three times a day. Give her this one," pointing, "for fever, and the other for pain. She can't be moved for at least three days, so don't try and take her somewhere more comfortable, even using your powers. She'll be just fine right here. I'll check in with you tomorrow." The man stood up, seeming to notice Gabrielle for the first time. He gave Joxer a sharp look, and in response the warrior just shrugged. Then the man sparkled and disappeared, in the way of all gods.

The man had gone, and she turned her concentration to Joxer once more. He seemed much as he always was, no godly glow or strength altering his familiar frame. But what she had seen just moments ago gave her pause. As he rose from the side of their wounded friend, she had to ask the question, although she feared the answer.

The tall warrior grinned his goofy grin, but his answer indicated he knew she was no longer fooled by his appearance. "I don't suppose you want to know the exact procedure we followed, do you?"

Still gaping in wonder, Gabrielle shook her head slowly.

He led her over to a fallen log, where they could keep an eye on Xena, but a quiet conversation would not disturb her. The bard had questions and half formed ideas racing each other around her brain, each vying to be the first thing out of her mouth. Finally, she chose an easy one. "Who was that man?"

"Asclepius," Joxer responded.

"The god of medicine?" Gabrielle struggled to get her mind around that concept, although it did fit with all she had witnessed.

"Yeah. I called him while I was bringing Xena back here, so he was waiting for us when we arrived."

"And he came when you called because...?" Her mind was forming an idea that a part of it just couldn't accept. "Joxer, when Xena was hurt, you...changed, somehow. Was there a god in your body?"

He lowered his head into his hands, and his shoulders began shaking. She wasn't sure what had made him cry, but perhaps it had been a painful experience, somehow. She scooted closer, hoping to offer comfort, when the sound coming from the man beside her drew her up short. "Joxer! What are you laughing at?" Her pity turned to irritation, and for a moment she forgot how stunned she had just been by all that she'd seen.

The warrior tried to pull himself together, wiping at the tears that had formed during his mirth. "I'm sorry, Gabby," he gasped, still tickled, "It was just the way you said that. 'Was there a god in your body?' I love it! That's one way to put it, I suppose."

What was it about this man, she wondered, that managed to so annoy her, even when other feelings seemed to be working their way to the surface? It was the main reason she had never said anything after he had told her he loved her -- she would start to soften, and then something he said or did would irritate her, and she would shut it back down. Here she was, dealing with something she could just barely comprehend, something she felt would change her whole perception of the man beside her, maybe even of the world as she knew it, and all she could think of was how annoyed she was becoming. She took a deep breath, bringing into play the control techniques she had learned in India. She still had to grit her teeth. "Joxer, what do you and the gods have to do with each other, and what was going on after Xena was injured?"

Just then, a sparkle of lights caught her attention, and she looked up into the face of a nearly panicked god of war. "Joxer," he called out, concerned, "Where is she? Is she all right? Asclepius told me what happened, and I came right away."

"She's going to be fine, Ar. She's right over there." The young man stood and pointed to the resting Warrior Princess. "Don't wake her, okay? She needs the sleep to heal the rest of the way."

The war god turned on the other man, anger dancing in his eyes as if it were a living being. "Why didn't you call me? The three of us together could have healed her completely."

Joxer shrugged, unfazed by the look that would have turned most men to whimpering idiots coming from the most violent god on Olympus. "Doc said there wasn't time."

Ares glared at the clumsy mortal, who stared right back, never backing down. Finally, the dark god turned away, mumbling, "I'm gonna go check on her."

Joxer sat back down beside Gabrielle, watching her mouth working like that of a fish recently beached. Sound finally managed to emerge. "Ares?" Any further words either wouldn't come out, or seemed unnecessary.

"Yeah," Joxer agreed cheerfully. "He always has had a thing for her. He's just not too good at sharing his feelings."

This was the last straw for the never entirely patient bard. She began to sputter. "So far, you have just shown more than a passing acquaintance with two gods, as well as taking part in an apparently supernatural healing on my best friend. Would you mind telling me what in Tartarus is going on here?" Her voice contained a touch of hysteria.

He sighed. "I knew this day would come. I was just hoping I'd have more control over what you found out and how you found out about it." He paused a moment, his expressive face frowning in concentration. Finally he looked at her, reading clearly the impatience in her features. "You asked me earlier if there was a god in my body," he began. "There was. There still is. Me."

Gabrielle didn't know whether to laugh at him or believe him. She decided that for once, the best move would be to keep her mouth shut. Her face still reflected doubt, however.

"I wasn't always a god. Wasn't born to the position like Ares or Apollo, or made immortal through love like Psyche. About five hundred years ago, I was as mortal as you are. A young man, with a simple, childlike trust in the gods. They noticed." He smiled slightly, lost in the memory. "There had been a number of problems, due to a lack of trust among the people. Warriors wouldn't fight as armies because they couldn't trust one another. Healers couldn't do their work because their patients didn't trust them. Lovers especially suffered for the lack of trust. A meeting of the gods was called, and they declared a need for a new deity - a god of trust. Several of us were brought to Olympus and interviewed. I was chosen, fed ambrosia and golden apples, then trained for my position. Zeus and Hera chose to adopt me formally, so technically, Ares and the others are my brothers, and many of the goddesses are my sisters, or aunts or cousins." He stopped, perhaps feeling this had been explanation enough, but the bard felt he had barely started.

"So who is 'Joxer the Mighty'? Why do you seem so clumsy, so weak and vulnerable? Didn't you nearly die when those casino thugs beat you? If you' re immortal, you can't die." She felt the last statement was her trump card, the fact that would expose this foolish ruse of his, waken him from this fantasy world.

His smile was gentle. "I am mortal, Gabby. At least, this body is. The only way I can really do my job is to live among the mortals every once in a while, to both demonstrate and inspire trust. Every couple of generations, people forget my influence, and I have to return to earth to be born, grow up and die as a mortal, so that trust will dwell again among men. Not too long ago, I was added to a set of twins to be born, the last of an unexpected set of what became then triplets."

Gabrielle interrupted. "But I've seen Jett, and you look just like him. And there's another one? You never told us that."

He waved his hand dismissively. "You'll meet him soon enough, and you'll know why I never mentioned Jace. Trust me on that one. And they look like me, Mother arranged it that way." It was with no small shock she realized that he was talking about the queen of the gods, Hera, goddess of childbirth.

He went on. "The mortal family I was born into this time was even more dysfunctional than the Olympian one I had been adopted into. Next time, I'll do better research first. Anyway, it wasn't until I met you and Xena I was able to really start doing what I came here to do, building and offering trust. I trusted you both fully, and Xena began to trust me. I'd like to think you did, too. But then it all fell apart. That damned Dahok."

Gabrielle saw for the first time the pain her death had brought to him when she had tumbled into the firepit with her daughter in her arms. She touched his hand, offering comfort. He looked at her, accepting the gift.

"I wouldn't speak to Ares for a long time after that. He knew I loved you, yet he was able to do that, to use you that way. I almost stopped trusting him, which would have meant the end of my useful life in this form. But I held on, and you came back." His smile of gratitude filled her with warmth. Then she voiced the question that had begun to nag her.

"How long had you loved me?"

"From the moment I saw you the first time, I knew. Sure, I was trying to take you to Callisto, but I thought I would save you too. I didn't do very well. I would have dropped the whole act, stopped being mortal if I had to, just to save you. Zeus really gave me a piece of his mind about that one. I had to be more careful after that. I had to," he paused, gauging his words, "trust you to take care of yourself, or Xena to take care of you. The thing with Perdicas was hard, but he made you happy, so I had to just trust again. I hated how his death hurt you, but I had almost screwed up once, so I couldn't do anything."

He could see her mind working as she sifted the information. "Then why did you step outside of your mortal self when Xena was hurt?"

His eyes grew hard. "Nothing can happen to that baby. The child is special, and all Olympus knows it. Even Father would risk everything for Xena's baby."

"Your father was very proud of you. He asked me to tell you." A beautiful red-haired woman stood before them, smiling sweetly.

"Mother!" Joxer jumped up and she folded him in her arms. "Ares is with Xena now."

"I know, son. I just came to check on the baby." She looked Gabrielle over critically. "So this is the girl, hmmm?" The bard's face wore an expression that was a cross between fear and hatred.

"It's okay, mother. She knows Herc, and you have to admit, you were pretty hard on him before."

"We've been over this already, Joxer," the goddess stated coldly. "I know you like him, and I've agreed to leave him alone for your sake, but he will never be my favorite person." She kissed the young man on the cheek, and her expression softened. "I love you. Now let me go check on the baby." With that, the queen of Olympus made her way over to the still sleeping Warrior Princess.

Gabrielle's head was spinning so hard now, she was certain she was close to mental overload. Joxer pulled her to her feet. "C'mon. Xena's being well cared for right now. You look like you need to take a walk to clear your head." She followed him obediently, clutching his hand like a lifeline.

As they walked, the bard processed the overwhelming amount of information she had received. This would explain why he seemed to survive in spite of all the odds against it -- surely the gods watched over their own. It would make more sense for a god in a mortal body to know Orpheus than for the simple fool she had then thought Joxer to be. And it would explain why he held the position of guide for her in Illusia, just as the goddess Callisto and the god Ares had for Xena. He smiled as he watched her face, knowing what was coming. More questions.

"Why don't you have a temple, then? Don't all gods have temples, and worshippers, and priests and the like?"

"Actually, that was one of my ideas, not to have that. How could men trust a god they had to ply with gifts in order to placate or influence? It didn't suit my job. The god of trust doesn't need mankind to worship him, only to trust one another." He turned to her, taking her chin in his hand and tilting her eyes up to meet his. "Few humans even know I exist, Gabby. You are unique just knowing that much." His face sprouted a mischievous grin. "Of course, I trust you not to tell anyone." In spite of herself, she grinned back at him, and nodded.

"So you're really a god, and you really love me?" She couldn't keep the wonder out of her voice.

"Yup. Like Cupid did Psyche, like Ares does Xena. Gods have loved mortals for eons, but only recently have we figured out how to do it the right way. Zeus made plenty of mistakes for all of us to learn from, but we've all made our own, as well." He saw the question, unspoken, but evident in her eyes. "Don't ask," he answered sadly. "It was a long time ago."

Gabrielle noticed they had returned to their campsite. She stopped, seeking something in his eyes. "So you plan to get it right with me?"

Pulling her into his arms, he buried his face in her hair, staying still there for a moment before answering. "I hope so, Gabby. This time, I really hope so." Tenderly he kissed her, and her eyes slid closed, just savoring the feeling.

She awoke in her bedroll, her heart pounding as she felt on her lips the kiss that, she now realized, she must have dreamt. Looking around the camp, she saw Xena first, the white bandage wrapped around her all but glowing in the dark. She must have passed out or gone into shock when Xena was injured, losing track of herself in the dream until now. Groping for her boots, Gabrielle pulled them on and moved quietly over to Joxer, sitting at watch by the fire. She rested her hand on his shoulder, and he looked up at her smiling face. "You should sleep now. I'll take watch."

He nodded, and she sat down beside him. They sat in silence, each lost in thought. Finally, the bard spoke again. "I had the weirdest dream. It did help me realize how much I care for you, though. Tomorrow sometime we need to talk." She leaned over and kissed his cheek, and he grinned and hugged her quickly. Then he stood up and made his way to his own bedroll.

Thanks, Morph, for covering for me.

You owe me one, Jox. But I did win the bet with Hep. He didn't think you'd tell her at all, even with our plan.

Joxer almost laughed out loud at Morpheus' words. That's okay. I won mine with 'Dite, too. G'nite.