The characters belong to MCA/Universal/USA Studios and Renaissance Pictures and were used without permission. No copyright infringement was intended and no money was made.
This story contains explicit descriptions of male/male sex.
Forwards and forewarnings: This is the third story in my Moments of Transition series, directly following the events in Between Sunsets and Dawn.
This is Ares/Joxer slash, but it's a lot more of an adventure/ relationship story than an erotica piece. My apologies for the general lack of smuttiness in what will follow, and perhaps the bizarreness of some of it as well. THAT much I will blame on the flu medication I've been on, and also reading too much Terry Pratchett lately. This story concludes what I guess I'd call the first "book" in the "Moments" series, though I definitely plan on doing more stories in this series in the future.
Many, many thanks to Mimi for beta-reading. Comments, as always, are most welcome.
You can find more stories by sidewinder at sidewinder's page of slash fiction and at The Joxerotica Archives
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
Casualties of War
"Thank you again, Xena, Gabrielle, for all your help bringing peace to our two kingdoms after all this time." King Fermes smiled, relief evident on his tired, elderly features.
"Yes," agreed King Lyonus. "Both our lands have lost far too many good men and women to this war. It has dragged on long enough, and would no doubt have dragged on much longer had you not helped bring us back to our senses. How we could have been moved to such bloodshed over foolish mistakes and petty misunderstandings is beyond me," the younger king continued, his voice tinged with regret, eyes lowered in shame.
"You were both merely pawns in a game only the gods could understand. Ares, no doubt, played you both as he wished to bring this war to a head. Learn from your mistakes, and the way he manipulated you and fed your fears and jealousies, so that this will never happen between your two lands again," Xena cautioned. She caught Gabrielle's smile of approval from across the room, and finished her good-byes to both kings and their royal courts. It was up to these people now to finish resolving their conflict amicably; the warrior princess had done her part and was ready to move on.
"Time to go?" Gabrielle asked when Xena approached her.
The dark-haired woman nodded. "We're done here. And I know I could use a few days' rest."
"I could use a few days' peace and quiet to work on my scrolls--this is going to be quite a story to tell!" Gabrielle enthused. "Uniting two kingdoms after years of conflict and war, saving King Fermes' daughter so she could wed Prince Marcus, her true love...it's an epic in the making!"
"Mmm, I'm sure," Xena remarked distractedly as they made their way out of the castle grounds.
"Is something wrong? Aren't you pleased with the way things turned out?" the bard asked.
"Of course. But I can't help thinking it was a little too easy. Ares must have gone to great lengths to bring about this war and sustain it for so long--his 'personal touch' was all over the place," Xena explained. "Yet he did nothing to stop me from trying to end the conflict. I was wondering when he was going to show his sneering face, but he never did. It's almost as if he suddenly lost interest in the whole affair sometime before we even arrived here. The kings were already beginning to question continuing with this madness before we intervened. Where was Ares to keep their anger raging?"
"Maybe he just got bored with the war?"
Xena shook her head. "Ares never gets bored with war. Not in general, and not any specific war. He doesn't like peaceful resolutions. He's only happy when one side crushes the other in a sound defeat."
"Maybe...maybe Joxer made him change his mind about this war?" Gabrielle was hesitant to make the suggestion, and regretted it for a moment when Xena visibly stiffened at the mention of their former companion's name. "Just a thought," she quickly amended. "You know, Ares used to be around goading you almost constantly. And I haven't seen him in months. Have you?"
"No," Xena answered. "No, it is odd. Something big must be going on...but I'm not ready to believe he's suddenly become some 'kinder, gentler' god of war, Joxer or no Joxer."
Gabrielle let the discussion drop at that. Xena looked understandably tired after the past days' work and Joxer was still a sore point to bring up, even after all these months. The bard knew how betrayed Xena had felt upon learning that their friend had willingly given himself as a lover to Ares--if not the warrior princess' greatest enemy then certainly her most powerful one. Xena had taken Joxer under her wing to try to steer him to a better life for himself, a better path than that of the warrior he had claimed to want to become when they had first crossed paths. And in the end, he had chosen to align himself with the very personification of all that Xena had tried so hard to put behind her in the past few years.
"Well, I'm sure we'll find out soon enough what's going on," was all Gabrielle added on the subject as they neared the stable where Argo was being kept. "Hey, can we get something to eat before hitting the trail?"
"You're not hungry again, are you?" Xena groaned.
"Can I help it if I have a healthy appetite?"
"All right, all right. We need to pick up some supplies before we leave anyway."
The two companions were on the road for hours until nightfall, when Xena was satisfied they had found a good place to make camp and get some rest. The older woman betrayed her exhaustion after this last mission by falling asleep quickly after securing the camp and sharing a simple meal of meat pies and cheese. Gabrielle stayed up by their campfire a while longer, trying to work on her scrolls but finding her thoughts mostly preoccupied with matters besides the stories she wanted to tell.
She never thought the day would have come when she'd feel this way, but she'd found over the past months that she actually missed Joxer being around. Because he was always flitting in and out of their lives, his absence hadn't really hit her at first. He was always disappearing for a while, then coming back full of energy and usually more full of himself than ever...but not now. The last time she'd seen him had been that day only a few weeks after three of them had dealt with Titus, the owner of a shady gaming establishment. Joxer had been beaten almost to his death, and was barely beginning his recovery when he had parted ways with the two women. Gabrielle had been worried enough about him traveling alone in the state he'd been in, but the trouble he'd found for himself in their absence was something she never would have expected...
Gabrielle found an empty table in the tavern and settled in to wait for Xena. The warrior woman had taken off to find a place to board Argo safely for the night, and hopefully some type of boarding for themselves while she was at it.
Gabrielle was looking forward to the next few days. While Xena would be taking care of a local warlord who was stirring up trouble in the nearby countryside, Gabrielle planned to catch up with a few fellow bards in town. They were trying to establish a small library here and were interested in some of her scrolls for their collection. She was curious to see what they'd gathered from other bards since the last time she and Xena had passed through this area--an author, after all, owed it to herself to stay on top of the current work of her fellow artists. Her only pressing question now was deciding which scrolls to donate or copy for the library. Some stories with a lot of adventure, or romance? I wonder if they like stories about Amazons in this neck of the woods... she wondered, leafing through her bag while she awaited the arrival of her friend, and also the food she'd ordered.
She was so caught up in her internal debate that she did not notice the man approaching her table until he called out loudly, in a very familiar voice, "Hey, Gabrielle! What a surprise!"
Well, those few Joxer-free weeks were good while they lasted, she sighed to herself. Not that she really had anything against the man...nothing major, at least. He reminded her of a lot of the boys she knew in her village when she was growing up--always underfoot and looking to impress the girls with crazy stories and laughable fake bravado. Joxer had made a fine art out of the fake bravado part, but he wasn't quite as irritating about it as he had been at first. Either that, or she was just getting used to it.
"Hi, Joxer...Joxer?" She was caught by surprise when she looked up and saw him, the change in his appearance since she'd last laid eyes on him rather startling. For a moment, she wondered if perhaps this was his brother Jett sitting down at the table to join her, given the fancy leather attire he wore instead of his typical hodgepodge of hand-me-down armor. The well-tailored vest and pants, with matching gauntlets and boots, made him look almost--dare she even think it--attractive. A small silver pendant hung about his neck, the design vaguely familiar to the bard though she couldn't recollect exactly where she'd seen it before.
Despite the fine attire, he still wore his standard loopy grin that somewhat marred the overall impressive effect of the outfit, especially as the grin seemed even more lopsided than usual. "None other," he stated in response to her inquiry, though she still harbored some doubts. There were some rumors floating about of another brother besides Jett in his strange family tree and so she remained slightly on guard.
"I thought you were headed towards Corinth."
"I was, but something came up so I was...delayed. Then I decided to see if I couldn't catch back up with you and Xena after all. Hey, let me buy you a drink," he offered as a serving wench came over with Gabrielle's food.
"Uh...sure," Gabrielle agreed, wondering what the story really was here. For someone who a few weeks' past had been barely hanging onto to the world of the living by a thread, he looked in remarkably sound and rested condition now. And had he made another killing at a gaming parlor somewhere, to afford such luxurious attire? "You're certainly looking...better than when I last saw you."
"Oh, well...I had a little...unexpected help," he answered with a snicker, then he snagged a few grapes off her plate before she could swat his hand away.
"Is that 'unexpected help' why you're in such a good mood?"
"Mmm, yeah, I guess you could say so," Joxer answered, finishing with a sigh.
The dreamy-eyed look on his face then was one that the bard understood well enough. "So, is it someone I know?" Gabrielle asked, recalling they weren't too far away from where Meg ran her establishment of rather questionable repute.
"Yep. But definitely not someone you'd expect."
The bard was becoming irritated--not unusual when it came to dealing with Joxer, but still...He couldn't just tell her outright what was going on, could he? No, he was enjoying this little game, trying to get her all curious and worked up over who it could be that had Joxer beaming like he'd just been declared King of Corinth.
The really annoying thing was, Gabrielle was dying to know, if only so she could thank whoever had distracted Joxer from mooning over her for a while. "So who is she, already?" the bard asked, stabbing her steak a little too harshly with her fork.
"I probably shouldn't tell. And it isn't a she."
Gabrielle's eyebrows lifted at that. This was getting more interesting by the minute, especially as her list of suspects had just changed radically. "Really? Come on, Joxer, you can tell me."
"I dunno..." he drawled out slowly. "He didn't specifically say I shouldn't tell anyone..."
"I can keep a secret," Gabrielle encouraged.
Joxer glanced around furtively, as if he was looking about for someone to actually intervene and keep him from talking. "Okay, I guess it doesn't really matter. I mean, you'll find out sooner or later, I guess. It's...Ares."
Gabrielle stared at him for a moment, not certain she'd heard him correctly. Then she started to laugh. "Ares?" she repeated, trying to picture the fearsome god and the hardly fearsome wanna-be warrior together, and only setting herself off in another fit of laughter. "That's pretty funny, Joxer. Now who is it, really?"
He gave her a wounded look, then leaned back in his chair and nodded his head in a superior manner. "It's okay, Gabrielle. I realize how upset you must be to know that I'm no longer available. Men like me are hard to come by, after all. But there's only so much of me to go around..." He let out another sigh and got that dreamy look again. "And Ares sure doesn't leave much to share with anyone else, let me tell you..."
Now she was starting to worry. Joxer was always making up stories about his prowess on the battlefield, but to claim to be the lover of the god of war? I think he's gone over the edge, she mused sadly. Titus' thugs must've clonked him one too many times on the head, and now he really can't tell fantasy from reality any longer.
Joxer continued boasting, "Yep, he's just crazy about me. I think he might even love me--he just isn't ready to admit to it yet, you know, being the god of war and all that. But it's only a matter of time, I know it."
"Ares doesn't know what love is," another voice interrupted sharply. Xena's, Gabrielle recognized, turning around to see her friend standing behind her.
Her tone of voice grave, Xena continued, "You'd do best to remember that, Joxer, before you let him try to convince you otherwise. Ares is nothing but a liar and a coward interested only in his own glory."
Gabrielle looked up at her friend with surprise. She believed Joxer's crazy story?
Joxer insisted, "That's not true, Xena. You just don't understand him the way I do."
"Is that so?" Xena's eyes narrowed. Gabrielle knew that look, and knew that it didn't bode well for anyone who was on the receiving end of it. "A few nights of rutting with the heartless bastard and you're ready to believe any lie he feeds you? You're more naive than I thought. I thought maybe you'd learned a few things from traveling with us. I see I've been mistaken."
"Xena..." Gabrielle started, not liking where this was leading. Even if he was an annoyance sometimes, Joxer was still her friend, and she didn't want to be caught in the middle of a confrontation like this between the two of them.
"It's okay, Gabrielle," Joxer interrupted evenly, his own gaze surprisingly strong as he faced down Xena's icy-blue stare. Standing up, he continued, "I should have known telling you the truth would only lead to this. I thought we could still be friends. I guess I was wrong."
Without another word he walked away. Xena wouldn't sit, wouldn't relax until he'd completely left the tavern.
"Xena, he was only telling one of his ridiculous stories," Gabrielle protested, trying to calm her friend.
"No, he was telling the truth--about becoming somehow involved with Ares."
"How do you know?"
"The pendant he wore, didn't you see it?"
Gabrielle recalled the pendant she'd known she had seen somewhere before. Xena continued, "It's the same design as Ares wears himself. No blacksmith except Hephaestus himself would dare forge a copy. Ares must have them made for his...pets."
"But what could Ares want with Joxer?"
Xena shook her head, looking as troubled as Gabrielle was confused. "Who can say? I can't understand what motivates his actions most of time. I wouldn't even put it past Ares to be doing this to somehow get to me, knowing Joxer is our friend. I don't know what he could have in mind, and I wish I did..."
The call of an owl overhead drew Gabrielle out of her remembrance and back to her current surroundings. Looking at the still-blank scroll in her hands, she sighed and rolled it up to start on it some other night. The muses didn't speak to her when she was troubled about her friends, be they Xena or Joxer or anyone else. She couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong, something serious.
The only marginal comfort she could draw, as she soon after curled up against Xena's side for the night, was that it probably wouldn't be very long before that something caught up with them and she'd find out exactly what it was. Trouble had a way of falling across her and Xena's path whether they were looking for it or not.
Over the following days of relaxation in the countryside, the two women enjoyed taking a break from saving kingdoms and other serious activities. Gabrielle felt satiated and well rested after long hours of writing--while Xena busied herself fishing and taking Argo for long rides in search of green apples--and enjoying other pleasurable activities that the women pursued together. The bard had almost forgotten her worries over Ares and Joxer. The niggling sense of concern was still there in the back of her thoughts, but without any information or clues as to what could be happening except that Ares seemed to be missing-in-action, she focused her attention more on matters of catching up on writing up her most recent adventures with Xena.
On the way to a nearby village where they would refresh their supplies before planning where to head next, Xena commented, "You're awfully quiet today."
"Hmm? Oh, just thinking. You didn't tell me what you thought of that scroll I finished before we left this morning." The bard thrived on feedback, and Xena--being the hero of most of her stories--was the one reader whose opinion she valued the most.
"I know. I wanted to think about it some more before saying anything."
"That means you hated it."
"It does not! Your writing gets better with every new story you commit to parchment."
"You're only saying that. I can take the criticism. Go on. Was it the pacing? The characterizations?"
"Then what was wrong?"
"Nothing! Nothing at all. It was very good."
"But not great."
"I didn't say that..."
They kept at the lighthearted arguing as they made their way into the small town. Gabrielle's stomach was starting to rumble and Xena didn't protest her suggestion that they find a tavern and a nice hot meal as their first priority. As they headed towards the center of town, however, to a loud crowd milling about drew their attention. It was not a particularly reputable-looking crowd, either.
"Wonder what's going on here," Xena commented, stopping on the square's edge to take in the scene from a respectable distance. Most of the men were dressed in typical warrior-gear, as were the few women. Others, who to Gabrielle's eyes looked like villagers simply curious about the impromptu gathering, hung back cautiously from the center of the commotion.
One of the warrior men, dressed in finer attire than the rest, stood upon a small platform and began calling for everyone's attention. "Glory to our master! Glory to the god of war!"
"Glory to the god of war!" the warriors repeated, many raising their weapons overhead. They repeated the cry for several minutes, until all had their attentions focused on the man on the platform.
He called out: "All of you here today, listen to my words well! The time of great change is at hand! Those who join us will reap the rewards only our master can provide. Join us in paying respect and tribute to the new god of war, or be prepared to suffer the consequences." Many of his supporters murmured in agreement, casting threatening looks about at the townsfolk as they did.
Xena stepped forward and called out the same question that was forming on Gabrielle's lips. "What new god of war? What happened to Ares?"
The man on the stage answered, "Ares was outcast, defeated by our new master."
"Hail Strife!" one of the warlords shouted, and his cry was echoed by many of the others in the crowd.
"Strife?" Gabrielle yelled over the din. "But I thought Strife was killed by Callisto!"
"He was, and now he has risen from the dead to claim Ares' throne!" the warlord stated. "That alone shows he is a god above all others--not even death can defeat him. Swear your allegiance to the new war god, show your respect! A great war is coming in his honor, and those who join his forces will rule the land! Those who don't will instead feel his terrible wrath."
"Let's get out of here," Xena muttered, pulling Gabrielle away from the crowd and towards the tavern they had been walking toward in the first place. Many of the villagers were trying to slip away from the unruly mob of thugs without being noticed, or by making a passing show of donating a few dinars or whatever they had to try to appease the warriors and get them to move on.
After taking a table and ordering some food, Gabrielle remarked, "This is crazy, Xena. Strife defeating Ares? I can't believe it." Her recollection of the God of Mischief, from the time he had been involved the death of Hercules' wife Serena, was that he was a bit of a...well...loser. She just couldn't picture him actually turning against his master--turning against him and defeating him, no less.
"It is crazy, but it would explain why we haven't seen Ares for so long," Xena trailed off thoughtfully.
"Do you think...Ares is dead?" Gabrielle asked, though silently she wondered more about Joxer's fate in all of this than the god of war's.
"I don't know. Somehow, I don't think so. The gods are supposed to have a rule about not killing each other, remember? Callisto's killing Strife caused a great upheaval--I think we would have heard something if Ares had met a similar fate. Besides, that man said Ares had been 'defeated', not killed." Xena shook her head. "I don't like the sound of this. And I don't think it will make any sense until we can find out what's really going on."
"It'll probably make even less sense once you do," a familiar voice interrupted. Gabrielle looked up, startled as she had been too focused on her partner to notice that anyone had been approaching them. For a moment she didn't recognize the man standing over them, his face shadowed beneath a hooded cape. Then she saw and immediately recognized his companion, standing a pace behind him.
"Joxer!" Gabrielle stopped herself short before jumping up from her seat to grab him in a relieved hug. Xena was simply sitting there, barely reacting to the mens' presence, and Gabrielle figured it best to follow her companion's actions here as much as possible.
Still, Joxer smiled softly in acknowledgement of her greeting and said, "Hi, Gabrielle. Xena."
"So it's true, then. You've lost you're powers, what...how many times is this now, Ares?" Xena asked nonchalantly.
"I know, I know, it's become more than a little tedious to me as well. But this time it's serious. Strife has to be stopped."
"And you need my help," Xena guessed.
Gabrielle caught Ares' slight grimace at Xena's words, and Joxer's expectant glance towards Ares before he responded. "I'd...appreciate...your help, because this is not going to be easy. But if you want to see this land torn apart at that inept immortal's hands, by all means, say no right now and we'll be gone."
There was a moment of silence, then Xena shrugged slightly and said, "All right. I want to hear what happened. Should at least make for an interesting story for Gabrielle's scrolls," she said with a glance towards her friend. "What comes next...I'll let you know when you're finished."
"Fair enough." Ares pulled over two chairs and he and Joxer joined them at the table. With a sigh he said, "Better order another round of those drinks; this could take a while."
"...and that," Ares paused to swallow down the last of the ale in his mug, "is how I ended up here."
"More or less," Joxer added. Ares shot him a look, and he amended, "The important bits, at least."
"Well, I'm sure Gabrielle can use her wonderful imagination to fill in the rest," Ares remarked, to which Joxer merely shrugged and pushed aside his also empty mug.
Gabrielle, for her part, was not quite sure of what to make of what she was seeing and hearing. It was all a little...perplexing to say the least. Joxer and Ares together like this, so obviously familiar which each other: Joxer continually interrupting Ares' story to add his own take on things, to which Ares just replied with long-suffering glances-- even, occasionally, a hint of a smile. It was one thing to hear that two people were involved; it was another thing entirely, sometimes, to see it for one's own eyes, so different perhaps than one had imagined.
Beyond all of that, there was this whole other matter of Joxer's rather gruesome death, being sent to Tartarus, and only getting his life back at the price of Ares' godhood to try to comprehend. She could see no signs that this was not the truth of what had happened, that they were trying to deceive Xena and her with their story, but that didn't make it any less impossible to believe. Ares giving up his godhood for a mortal's life? For Joxer's life?
Her eyes lit upon Joxer's for a moment, a thousand questions she wanted to ask running through her head. What had it been like, and how had he held on? Though his outward demeanor did not seem significantly changed, she could see something very different in his eyes from what she remembered. This was not the same innocent, ingenuous young man she had known before.
Before she had the chance to speak, however, Xena started in with more practical concerns and questions. "Does Strife have any idea what you're up to? That you want to take him down?" she asked.
Ares shook his head. "The sniveling worm only ever showed his face to me once since this all happened, and that was months ago. Doesn't mean he couldn't be here spying on us right at this moment, but I think he's convinced he's unstoppable now. Got better things to do with his time than harass me once he believes I'm out of the way. Gods can't be everywhere, Xena, and I can tell you this--being killed or otherwise indisposed is about the last thing any of them usually worry about."
Ares suddenly fell silent and Gabrielle noticed Xena stiffening apprehensively. Moments later she also noticed that a group of the warriors from the square were gathering around their table. She recognized one as the man who had been speaking to the crowd, and he stood at the front of the group, smiling down at them in a rather leering manner.
"Xena, Warrior Princess," he proclaimed. "I thought I recognized you earlier. Won't you be join us in celebrating the rise of our new god?"
"Sorry. I've got better things to do," Xena answered flatly.
"Oh, that's right--you've given up the old ways, or so I've heard. A shame, really. We could have used a woman with your...assets...on our side. What about your friends here?" He walked around the table, casting glances at Joxer and Ares, who for his part seemed to be trying to sink even further into the shadows of his hood under the critical gaze. "These two look like they could be whipped into shape for a good fight. And this pretty little thing..." He brushed his hand lightly across Gabrielle's hair. "Well, the men could use someone for...entertainment purposes, now and again, and she looks right fine for the job."
Gabrielle looked ready to spin around and punch him where it would really hurt, but he stepped back before she got the chance.
"None of us are interested, so why don't you just move along," Xena cautioned.
"Or what?" the warrior sneered. "Come on, Xena. I'd like the chance to take you on almost better than having you join us."
"I'm not here to fight," she insisted.
"Then you must be here to die," the warrior returned. Then, suddenly, he drew his sword with one solid swing smashed their table in two.
It didn't take long for chaos to ensue.
Gabrielle was quick to her feet, swinging her staff about almost on instinct as several of the men swarmed about her. They were ill-prepared for her to fight back at all, let alone with the skill that years of training and battle at Xena's side had instilled in her. All around her she heard the smashing of tables and chairs, grunts and the occasional screams as other patrons of the tavern tried to escape from the melee. She did not let the sounds distract her until she had downed her first wave of attackers. When they were out of the way, she glanced about to see how her companions were handling themselves.
Xena was mostly preoccupied with the leader of the band in a one-on-one sword fight. She'll handle him fine, Gabrielle knew after a quick survey of how the battle was going, and so she tried to find Joxer and Ares. Joxer, to her surprise, was not doing too badly for himself. He'd somehow landed himself on top of one of the few still-upright tables and was holding his own against two brutes significantly larger than himself. He landed a solid kick to one's head, then spun about to stop the other from slicing him in the leg with his sword.
Ares, for his part, was trying his best, but he had six heavily-armed men he was trying to hold off and that seemed to be at least one too many. Though his blows were solid, he was simply unable to keep track of them all as they ganged up on him. One managed to land a solid kick to his chest, sending him crashing into a table. The table cracked under his weight and landed him solidly on his rear amidst the splinted wood.
Gabrielle jumped into action, covering him until he could regain his feet. Between the two of them, they then managed to subdue their attackers within a few minutes.
"Um. Thanks," Ares muttered to her under his breath, clearly not happy about needing to show her any gratitude.
"You're welcome," she replied.
"Just don't mention it. I mean it."
Relative silence then settled upon the room, and Gabrielle observed that except for the distressed tavern-keeper behind the bar, only she and her friends were still standing. Xena towered over the leader of the warrior band where he lay splayed out on the floor, the tip of his sword against his throat.
"You had your chance at me. And you lost. You and your thugs, be out of this village by sundown, or else I won't be so generous in the state I leave you the next time we meet." Satisfied, she walked over towards the others and asked, "Everyone all right?" There were nods of agreement all around.
She went over to the tavern-keep and said, "Sorry about the mess. These men are probably loaded down with dinars they've been 'collecting' for tribute. Take what you need off them to cover the damage." The man nodded dully.
"This is all so sloppy," Ares complained, still catching his breath after the brawl. "Look at what Strife is turning War into: brute thugs threatening and cajoling tribute. No class. No style."
"Earlier this one was talking about preparing for a 'great war'," Gabrielle recalled, pointing to the leader on the floor.
Ares nodded. "I heard, and was afraid of as much. It's why we have to work quickly. A great war would be Strife's bid to build his power base and try to establish himself as a major player with the other gods."
"So what now?" Gabrielle asked Xena.
"You have a plan for how you intend to stop Strife?" Xena asked Ares, who nodded.
"I've been working on it for a while. I think it will work. There's one more person we'll need to pull it off, though, and it might not be easy getting him to join us."
"Hercules?" Gabrielle guessed, a suggestion that rewarded her with a look that proved the former god of war still had more than his share of menace left in his mortal body.
"Don't go there," Joxer whispered in Gabrielle's ear. "Trust me on this."
"No, not Hercules," Ares answered, his brother's name coming out sourly.
"Let's find somewhere a little quieter where we can hear out this plan of yours," Xena suggested. "We'll wait around the village tonight to make sure these thugs pack up like we asked them to."
"So you will help, then?" Ares asked.
"I'll hear out your plan, as I heard out your story." She looked about at the groaning and unconscious men all around her feet. "I don't like what I'm seeing here. At least I can...predict your actions and motivations, Ares. I prefer that in an enemy to the unknown."
"Don't we all," the dethroned god agreed.
It was one thing, Ares supposed, to have been born mortal, to never have known anything else.
It was another thing entirely to have the miserable state of existence forced upon you after having known what living was truly like--living as a god.
Riding on the back of a not particularly well-trained horse, with Joxer bouncing along against his back, he was being reminded of this fact with every step of the horse upon the rocky ground beneath them.
A god never had to bother, first of all, with the tedious process of getting from one place to the next. You simply..."popped" there, as Joxer liked to call it. Thought of where you wanted to be, and pop you were there. None of this nonsense of walking there, or riding there, or Olympus-forbid taking a boat there, all processes which took extremely boring, long and sometimes sickening periods of time. And spending long periods of time on the back of an animal was damn right uncomfortable along with being tedious, especially when one's back and bottom were stinging and sore already from being knocked about a tavern not long before.
All minor discomforts, to be sure, he would admit. But gods never had to deal with discomforts of any significant kind, nor pain. Nor horses trotting along over rocky ground, hour after hour while Joxer clung to him, trying his damndest not to fall off.
To Joxer's credit, he'd only done so seven times since their lunch break. That was a definite improvement over his performance this morning.
Ares wasn't going to be the one to ask to take a rest, though, that was for certain. Still, when Xena finally halted Argo and said, "This looks like a good place to camp for the night," he barely contained himself from sighing loudly, "Thank the gods!"
"Thank the gods?!" he wondered with a shudder. He was starting to think in exclamations as mortals did? What did he have to thank the gods for--besides landing him in the miserable condition he now faced day in and day out?
He was not in a particularly good mood this day, more than anything because he was not enthusiastic about the notion that here he was, coming to Xena for help--again. It was a bad blow to his already hurting ego, and he never would have come to her had he not known that alone, he would likely fail in his mission to take out Strife. True, he was not alone with Joxer at his side, but Joxer was not going to be put in a position of great risk in what would follow, of that much Ares was certain. If he'd had his way, Joxer would he back at home at the cabin, but when he'd dared to suggest as much Joxer had been emphatic that he was coming along.
Ares brooded over all of this and more as the others set up camp for the night, Xena and Gabrielle preparing some food for dinner while Joxer took the horses to a nearby stream to drink. Brooding was something, Joxer had remarked once, that Ares was particularly good at doing. The former god brooded over the way he'd nearly been taken out in the fight yesterday by six barely adequate warriors. Men who, a few months' back, would have been groveling at his feet instead of trying to knock him off of them. Was he that out of condition? Did he have no skill for fight, without his godly powers? He couldn't believe that was the case. After all, Joxer and he had kept up a solid training regimen while he learned to live with his new limitations, and he had not wanted to set off on this mission until he'd felt sufficiently prepared and adapted. But that had been their first real taste of a battle since his...change.
Joxer had handled himself admirably well. And he had landed flat on his ass, needing Gabrielle of all irritating people to come to his aid.
At least she wasn't rubbing it in. There was that much for which to be thankful.
But how could he expect to stand up to Strife, even if his plan worked and he only had to face a Strife with weakened strength and limited powers? The god could still have an edge in the fight to come that Ares would not be able to match.
The thought bothered him greatly. It made him begin to think he should plan for alternatives he would have never before let cross his mind, for they would have seemed utterly ridiculous and impossible to him: What if he failed?
As he sat there, a little ways apart from the women to brood in peace and wait for the food to be ready, he spied a small tortoise crawling along not far from him. On impulse, he grabbed it, almost about to fling it as far as he could just for the slight satisfaction of hearing it go thud. Maybe even crack, and then splat. Splats were good sounds, very satisfying. He could imagine that it was actually Strife's severed head being shattered against a tree or rock, his brains then oozing out onto the ground where the vultures could feast upon the paltry offerings. Yes.
But something stopped him as he held up the defenseless creature by the back of its shell, watching its small clawed feet waving about in alarm. He rotated it about, fixing on its tiny eyes, its beak snapping uselessly at him. "Pathetic little creature. One good bash on this rock here where I'm sitting and you'd be supper. Add you to Gabrielle's stew." He'd heard these things were good eating, after all, not that he'd sunk to the level of trying one out yet. Though he'd heard stories about Gabrielle's cooking from Joxer and wasn't so sure he'd do well to sample anything she'd have a hand in preparing. Still studying the animal, he asked it, "What do you think I am, hmm? Do tortoises believe in gods? If you do, I must seem like a god to you, the way I'm holding your life in my hands.
"But I am no longer a god. Hardly better than you, in comparison. And at least you're stupid enough that you don't even realize how small and insignificant you are."
With a sigh, he put the hapless creature down again and watched it waddle awkwardly away, no doubt already having forgotten its close encounter with death at the brooding former god's hands. Running his fingers through his no-doubt disheveled hair--for he could never get it to look precisely right these days--Ares muttered, "Talking to tortoises now. This is getting out of hand."
What'll be next? he wondered silently. All this time around Joxer, I'll probably start stumbling over things. Making up stories about my skills as a warrior when I can't even hold my own in a tavern brawl.
He declared: "The moment I start singing my own theme song, someone, please, put me out of my misery."
A slap of a hand on his back answered him, along with a too- cheery, "I'm sure they'll be lining up from here to Athens to take turns. Though actually, I don't think I've ever heard you sing before," Joxer commented, sitting down beside him. "I'd like to sometime. I bet you have a nice voice."
"You haven't heard me sing because the god of war doesn't do singing."
"Oh. And former gods mope about and talk to turtles when they think no one is around. Fish cake?" Joxer offered.
"Is it fresh?" Ares sniffed it suspiciously.
"More or less."
Ares sighed and took the food, daring a bite. He'd had worse--either that or he was exceedingly hungry. "It wasn't a turtle; it was a tortoise."
"What's the difference?"
"Tortoises live on land. Turtles live in water. And why are we having this conversation?"
"Because you were having one with the turtle. Tortoise," Joxer amended quickly as picked at his own fish cake.
"Where's the rest of supper?"
"Coming along. I was trying to help, but Gabby didn't agree with my spicing suggestions. I could've sworn those leaves were edible..." Joxer trailed off, and then shrugged.
Ares shook his head and managed a small smile. It was hard to keep up a proper level of brooding when Joxer was around. He always found someway to cheer Ares up, or at least leave him too bewildered to wonder about anything else.
It was also hard, after a long day with no time alone with his lover, to restrain himself from seeking a little more intimate attention from the man while they had a few moments to themselves. Putting aside the fish cake, he reached over to stroke the long curve of Joxer's neck that was so temptingly near to him. Ares had never thought he had such a neck fetish until he met Joxer. There was something so continually erotic about that elegant slope of pale skin that he couldn't help but become aroused whenever he stopped to contemplate it for a while.
Joxer sighed softly in appreciation and arched back against the touch, exposing even more of that expanse of delicate flesh to Ares' fingers. The former god recalled an exceptionally intense evening when he'd made Joxer come just from nibbling, stroking and sucking upon his neck without mercy. It had been quite the interesting experiment in exploring the man's erogenous zones--an experiment Ares told himself he should repeat once this quest was finished and they could get back to some semblance of a "normal life" again.
Once it was finished...and assuming he was still alive...that both of them were...
He closed his eyes and tried to put such thoughts aside for now. Unfortunately he didn't get the chance to continue his contemplation of Joxer's neck or anywhere else for much longer before a loud clearing of the throat warned him that someone was approaching.
"Supper's ready," Gabrielle called to them both from a short distance away, "if you two are still hungry," she added a little more suggestively than Ares cared to hear her joke. "Hope you're hungry because we've got enough stew to feed an army!"
"Why don't we add some of Joxer's 'spices' and give it to Strife's army, then," Ares muttered as he got to his feet. That was a strategy he hadn't considered before...
The four of them settled down around the campfire for dinner, conversation strained and perfunctory when they could find anything to really talk about at all. Ares' plan had been discussed in detail the night before and until they added the final member to their band, there was little more to do about it. Xena, though she'd had some reservations, thought the plan sounded adequate and had so far agreed to go along with it. However, the fact that they were for the moment working towards the same goal didn't mean that they were all suddenly the best of friends.
Ares could live with that. He wasn't used to having very many--if any--friends to begin with, simply people he could use and tolerate for as long as needed. He could feel Xena's eyes upon him, her continual wariness around him that was nothing new. He also thought he could sense some definite curiosity over the events that had led Ares to this place and situation, but she said little, for now.
Ares turned his attention to Joxer and could tell the man was feeling more than a touch uncomfortable with the awkward silence of the gathering. He kept trying without much luck to draw Xena and Gabrielle into some inane chit-chat about their more recent adventures. Gabrielle, slowly, allowed herself to be drawn into a little conversation. It didn't last long, though, for as soon as they were finished eating Xena declared it was time for bed.
"I'm going to check around the camp once more, make sure it's secure," she excused herself as she left the rest of them to clear up the remains of the meal and prepare for sleep. They did so in near silence, Gabrielle cleaning out their cookware and settling her bedroll some distance from the fire. Joxer chose a flat spot on the ground closer to the fire, where Ares was still sitting, poking the dying flames with a stick.
"You coming to bed?" Joxer asked.
"In a while," he answered. He had a few things to think about first and wanted a chance to speak with Xena when she returned.
Wherever Xena made camp, she always thoroughly inspected the area, setting up tripwires and other traps that would signal if someone tried to sneak up on them during the night. One couldn't be too careful about such things, she knew from experience. It had even become a ritual that was comforting in its monotony, something to help her relax before trying to sleep.
Somehow, it wasn't quite doing the trick tonight.
Finished and satisfied with their safety, she then went to check on the horses, to ensure Joxer had secured them properly and to spend a little time fussing over Argo. She was a demanding girl when she wanted to be, never happy if Xena didn't spend sufficient one-on- one time with her every day.
"So what do you think of all this, hmm?" she distractedly asked the mare as she ran a brush through her mane. The horse offered no answer except a soft snort. "A lot of help you are."
The whole situation was difficult for Xena to accept, particularly given her normal suspicious nature and her extreme suspicions whenever Ares was the subject at hand. She'd wondered what his absence had meant these past months, and the possibility that he'd been dethroned or otherwise incapacitated had crossed her mind. There were few if any gods whom she knew of that had so many enemies, mortal and immortal. Still, she hadn't expected Ares' downfall to ever happen under the conditions he had described.
Had Joxer somehow managed to change him, as Gabrielle had proposed to her only a few days back? Had she been wrong in the way she'd reacted when she'd first learned of Joxer's involvement with the god of war? She didn't see how she could have predicted such a turn of events. Nevertheless, the possibility that she'd misjudged both man and immortal turned her thoughts back to that day when she'd first found out about their involvement, and her confrontation with Joxer over it...
Gabrielle had been terribly upset by the scene in the tavern and the news about Joxer and Ares. In that particularly persuasive way that only she possessed, she managed to convince Xena to try to find Joxer before he left the village. "Talk to him, try to reason with him," she'd pleaded. "Xena, he's our friend! We can't just turn him away. You know how manipulative Ares can be, and you know how, well...Joxer can be pretty easy to manipulate." Xena had eventually decided it was worth a shot, once she'd gotten her anger under control and realized Gabrielle had a point. She owed Joxer at least a chance to explain himself, and a chance to hear out her warnings.
It didn't take much time to find Joxer as he had not left the village yet. Xena found him browsing through the marketplace, wandering from one merchant's stall to the next. He spotted her coming towards him, held her gaze for a moment, then went back to examining leather work on one vendor's display with heightened interest.
Despite his glance that had clearly been meant to say, "Don't start with me," Xena came up behind him. In a conciliatory tone, she told him, "I only said what I did because I care what happens to you. Gabrielle and I both do."
"And neither of you trust me to be able to make decisions about my life on my own," he answered sharply.
"That's not true. But maybe in this case I have some experience that you don't. Will you at least give me a moment to hear me out?"
He looked up at her again, still obviously angry, but Xena knew he wasn't quite as ready to throw aside their friendship as he had seemed earlier. When he said nothing more, she put her hand on his shoulder and led him away from the booths. They walked along in silence, Xena leading him towards the nearby stable where she had Argo boarded. It would be a quiet place to talk and she needed to check on her horse anyway.
Stepping inside, and finding a pair of low stools, she took one and waited for Joxer to sit upon the other. "So...care to tell me how this started? It's only been a few weeks since we parted. It did just recently start, didn't it?" she added cautiously.
"Yeah. Right after I last saw you guys. And even I can't believe what's happened, or why it happened." Joxer paused, shrugging after a moment as Xena looked to him to continue. "There's not a whole lot to tell, really. Do you remember that rainstorm, just after I left you guys? It was the worst storm I'd seen in years."
"Well I was out in the middle of nowhere, and I needed to find some shelter to wait it out. By...luck...I found a cave. A shrine to Ares, actually, but I wouldn't have cared whose shrine it was, or even if there was a hydra sleeping inside or anything. I went inside, fell asleep...and next thing I knew I was...somewhere else. With him. And he'd taken care of all my injuries."
"Did he tell you why he'd brought you there?"
"He said he was...curious. Nothing more than that. And then, um...things just sort of happened after that. Really nice things..." Joxer trailed off, the memory enough to bring a smile to his face even now.
Not to Xena's face, however. "First he'll seduce you into his bed, then he'll be seducing you to fight for him. Kill for him. Is that what you want, Joxer? I thought you had decided you wanted something different for yourself from what your family wanted you to become."
"I did--I do! It's not like that, Xena. You wouldn't understand."
Joxer seemed at a loss to try to explain for a while, then he started, "Okay, it's like...I think he likes me because I'm so...not like him. Yeah, he's helping me learn how to fight better, a little bit. How to defend myself, at least. But I've spent more time practicing my music for him than practicing with my sword."
"Your music?" Xena repeated in disbelief.
Joxer shrugged. "He likes me to play music for him. Don't ask me to explain it. Xena, I know what you think of Ares. I know the things he does, and that he's...dangerous. Maybe I'm signing my own death scroll getting involved with him. But right now...for the first time in my life I think I might have found somewhere I belong. It seems crazy but that's the way I feel."
Xena sighed and shook her head. "Joxer, I'm not going to tell you what you should or shouldn't do here, even though all I see ahead for you if you continue with this relationship is a lot of pain. But you've obviously made up your mind about Ares and what I have to say won't mean a damn to you."
"Xena..." he started to protest.
"No, it's all right. Sometimes we have to go ahead and do what we think is best--so long as we're willing to live with the consequences now, and later." She paused for a moment, then continued resolutely, "If you stay with Ares, you can't travel with Gabrielle and me any longer."
She saw the brief shock on his face at this news, but then he seemed to accept it. How could it be any different, really? She couldn't allow him to continue in their company if he was going to align himself with the one god who was constantly trying to undermine her efforts for redemption. And so after a moment, he nodded his head and said, "I understand."
A part of her had hoped, truly hoped, he might have chosen to reject Ares if it would cost him her and Gabrielle's friendship. What had happened to the feelings he'd so obviously had before for the bard? "I'm not saying we're enemies now, Joxer. It's just--"
"--I'm 'sleeping with the enemy', as the saying goes. No, it makes sense, Xena. I only wish....maybe someday things will be different."
Silence had fallen then, the awkward silence of two people with nothing left to say to each other. Joxer was the first to rise, and he looked towards the doors and gathered his things to leave. "Take care of Gabrielle, okay? I mean, I know you do already, I just...I still...well, you know."
She had nodded and answered, "I know. And I will."
He had left the stable at that, disappearing into the crowds of the village. That had been the last she or Gabrielle had seen of him until just the day before today.
Had she been wrong to judge Ares so harshly, then? But when had she ever seen anything except Ares the manipulator, the destroyer...a god who like all the other gods seemed interested in mortals only as tools towards achieving his own greater glory. The story he told now--which all evidence so far pointed towards being the truth--seemed to suggest that her old view of him had to have been wrong, or at least, incomplete. The Ares she thought she knew would have never sacrificed his godhood, all his powers, for the life of one mortal man who seemed the utter antithesis of everything Ares stood for. She had believed that Joxer could have been no more than a passing whim to the god--someone to take advantage of and, at best, toss aside when he grew bored with the mortal's company. At worst, Ares would corrupt all that was good and innocent about him, turning him, perhaps, into an enemy she might have to strike down in battle herself someday.
So far neither grim scenario that she'd expected had happened. Instead, she was faced with a dethroned god who needed her help. Who, though he vowed he needed his title back, seemed more concerned about protecting and keeping Joxer safe, as well as protecting the rest of the country from the inept new god of war.
Once before, she had hoped perhaps that a taste of mortality had changed Ares' view of the world, and she had been mistaken. This time...? The skeptical, cautious side of her wasn't entirely convinced, but those doubts were growing less as this journey continued and she observed the two men together. Perhaps Joxer had seen some spark of goodness in the dark god that was invisible to the rest of the world, and helped it take seed and bring about this change in him. The parallels, if that were the case, to her own relationship with Gabrielle were not lost on the warrior princess. The young bard was, in many ways, her conscience, her constant reminder of the goodness in the world. Gabrielle was the one person who seemed, somehow, to have a faith in her no matter what and to help her from falling back toward the person she once had been.
She supposed it was possible that Ares had found the same in Joxer. Incredible...but perhaps possible. She had to give them both the benefit of the doubt for now, and hope she was doing the right thing in helping Ares in this mission.
Finished tending to her horse, Xena walked back to the campsite, finding on a quick scan that both Gabrielle and Joxer were asleep on the bedrolls they shared with their respective companions. Only Ares was still awake, poking at the fire, his concentration drawn somewhere deep into the flames such that he did not seem to notice her approach until she was standing right across from him.
"You should try to get some rest," she said. "Tomorrow we'll have another long day on the road."
He looked up at her and after a moment answered, "Every day is a long one as a mortal. Rest does little to change that."
"No, but it might improve your disposition."
"The only thing that will do that is sending that bastard Strife back to the Underworld, where he belongs." A soft murmur from where Joxer slept tore Ares' attention away from the fire for a moment. He watched, with obvious concern, as Joxer stirred in his sleep, muttering something under his breath. Ares shifted over toward him, lightly touching his forehead, concern evident on his features to an extent that surprised the still suspicious warrior princess. Ares did not relax until Joxer seemed settled back asleep quietly.
Satisfied, Ares returned to the fire, answering Xena's curious look with a curt, "Nightmare, I think. I know he needs his sleep, even if I can't relax myself." She said nothing for a time, and the silence of her stare seemed to aggravate the former god. "So what is it that you want to say, hmm, Xena? Gloat a little at how the mighty has fallen? Go on, I've been waiting for it. I won't deny you the pleasure."
She shook her head. "Unlike some people, I don't gather my amusement from enjoying the suffering of others."
"Stop. You're making me misty-eyed for the good old days," Ares sighed.
"No. I hate to say it, but I think I may actually owe you an apology. At least, I owe Joxer one." Ares looked up at her as she continued, "I told Joxer to keep away from you, that you couldn't possibly have sincere feelings for him. I thought that the only thing you'd bring into his life was pain and suffering."
"You weren't exactly wrong in that," Ares admitted. "I...I love him, as much as I'd never thought I'd ever say that about anyone. Let alone mean it. And I've caused him more pain than I can probably ever forgive myself for. I could have done things to protect him...but that would have required me admitting how much I needed him." He paused, casting a glance towards his sleeping lover. "My only intentions now are to do what I can to make up for what happened. I did not even want him to come along on this mission, but he insisted. If anything happens to him...I don't know what I'd do. Losing him once was bad enough."
"I never thought I'd see the day when I'd be hearing talk like that coming from you."
"Things change. As impossible as it may seem to you, I've changed."
"I know. And it's not simply being a mortal now that's making you talk like this. It's not out of selfish fear. It's sincere." She paused for a moment. "Are you sure this is the right thing to do?"
"Trying to go back to being the god of war. Maybe you've become too...human...for the position."
The fact that his reaction to her comments was so muted told Xena that it was a possibility he had considered already. "Maybe. I don't know. All I know is that Strife acting in my place is not good for this world. You would be a much better replacement for me than that...miserable excuse for an immortal."
"We've been over that issue before, Ares, and I'm still not interested."
"But what if...if I fail, Xena, would you do it, to save Greece?" Ares asked her. "You have the strength of will and the fire inside you to honor the sword properly. Would you kill him and take the sword, if I don't manage to do it myself?"
Xena was quiet, trying to determine her answer. "I'll consider the possibility."
"Consider it seriously, that's all I ask."
"But right now, I'm going to sleep," Xena said, not wanting to dwell on this conversation any further. Ares did not stop her, nor even say a word of goodnight as she stood and went to join Gabrielle for the night's rest. It was some time later when she heard the sounds of Ares putting out the fire and retiring for the night as well.
The temple was empty, quiet, and the air felt unusually cold. Joxer shivered as he stepped inside, fighting the urge to leave but dismissing it as silly superstition. Ares had told him to meet him here; so what if he'd arrived a little early and the place felt kind of spooky and dark in the god's absence? Ares would be here soon enough, and it wasn't as if he'd never spent time alone here before.
"Ares?" he called softly, just to be certain the god wasn't there. It never hurt to check--Ares might be busy somewhere in one of the back chambers and not have realized he'd arrived.
The only answer he received was the sudden slamming of the temple doors behind him.
He spun around, drawing his sword and taking a defensive stance. Instinctively he knew something was wrong. Really wrong. Sometimes Ares played games with him, but a part of him knew this was no game. He felt an ill presence about the place, unfamiliar and...cold.
"Ares!" he called again, more insistently. He took a moment to clutch at the pendant about his neck, thinking hard about his immortal lover in a desperate attempt to summon him there. Ares had told him it would, if he were ever in trouble and needed to reach him quickly.
Ares, if you can hear me...I need you! he cried out through his mind. But no one answered.
Somewhere above him, under the high ceiling of the temple, the unfurling and flapping of wings echoed down to his ears. It was followed by a shriek that trailed into what he could only imagine was a monstrous imitation of laughter.
Terror seized him, the worst fear he had ever known. He knew what was waiting above if he dared to look up, but he couldn't. And he knew he had no chance of fighting it, not alone. He ran for the large doors, trying to get out, trying to open them, but they were locked from the outside. He was trapped. His desperate poundings against the heavy doors did nothing.
"Ares! Ares, where are you!" he screamed, not believing that it was going to happen again--not again!--as the creature began its descent towards him. He cowered against the door, eyes shut desperately as he awaited the moment when its talons would grip his shoulders and--
"Joxer! Joxer, wake up!"
Ares' voice cut through the terrible vision at last moment, stirring Joxer awake with a gasp. He blinked his eyes in confusion, trying to remember where he was. "Ar...Ares?" he stammered uncertainly, shaking and cold, his body drenched in sweat. He was aware, dimly, of the warm arms holding him tightly, but the nightmare had been so real, so intense...just as it always was. And he couldn't easily shake the terror it placed in his pounding heart.
"I'm here, Joxer. It wasn't real. Just a dream. Only a dream," Ares assured him.
"It was that same one...trapped in the temple...calling for you but you couldn't hear me..."
"Don't think about it. Try to forget about it."
Joxer turned around into Ares' arms, burying himself against his lover's body as he tried to shut out the terrible visions, the way his own body shivered in remembered pain. "I don't think about it, but at night...it keeps coming back to me at night..."
"I know. Not so often as before, though."
That was true. There had been a time when he could barely close his eyes and the dreams would come to thwart his attempts to sleep. Now...now he could usually manage a quiet night or two before they came again. Ares said it was likely all a result of the mortal body and mind not being designed to suffer death and the misery of the afterlife, and then return to the world of the living. That was why the dead, well...stayed dead, except under extreme circumstances. Like his.
"Try to go back to sleep," Ares insisted.
Joxer shook his head. "Not now." Far too often the dreams were quick to return if he fell asleep too quickly after awakening from one.
"All right. I wasn't sleeping very well myself," Ares agreed, one hand loosening his hold slightly to run suggestively against Joxer's back. "So what do you propose we do for the rest of the night?"
Joxer managed a small smile at that. Ares had his ways of making him forget about these dreams that were quite effective. "We'll wake up Xena and Gabby."
"Not if you can stay quiet," Ares said, pulling the blanket over the two of them, the fabric barely muffling Joxer's soft giggles a few moments later.
The young boy ran through the field, laughing as he chased an elusive butterfly through the tall wildflowers and overgrown grass. The simple game was a pleasant diversion from the extended and often boring lessons his mother insisted upon every morning. It wasn't that he didn't like learning, for he wanted to learn about everything. He merely enjoyed having his share of fun as well. A "special" child or not, he was still a child--and one much younger than any casual observer would ever suspect.
To most strangers' eyes, the boy would have appeared to be an ordinary child of no more than six or seven years. They would be shocked to discover that he was in fact barely a year and a half old. His remarkable growth rate was only one of his unique qualities, although his mother tried her best to keep such facts from anyone but her closest, most- trusted friends.
He knew mother wouldn't want him wandering so far from home, but the way back was familiar enough to him. He wasn't going to get lost, not with his memory for detail and directions. She worried about him, which he could understand--he knew he was "different," and that difference could make him a target for undue attention--but the truth was he could defend himself if necessary. In fact, he could do so more capably than his mother suspected.
Mother had fallen asleep watching him play in the clearing right in front of their house, tired after finishing the morning lessons and then trying to do some cleaning around their modest house. He paused for a moment, searching out her presence with his mind. Still sleeping... he could tell from the steady heartbeat that echoed in his head. He would make sure to turn back towards home as soon as he felt her beginning to stir.
Glancing around, he spotted the butterfly once more and took up renewed pursuit. He was so focused that his feet barely touched the ground now, each step lifting him lightly into the air, where he could almost reach up and touch the fragile creature...if he just jumped a little higher...
He missed, and losing his concentration he fell to the ground with a soft thud. Pouting, he watched as the butterfly soared higher, far out of his reach, then disappeared somewhere into the skies above.
He wasn't quite strong enough yet to follow it up that high. But one day...
He wandered about the fields, kicking about a small ball he had when he could find no more butterflies or other wildlife to pursue. He stopped when he sensed someone coming. Several someones, their minds and--when he could see them from across the field, their faces-- unfamiliar to him...except for one. The others lingered behind, while this one slowly walked toward him.
Evander wasn't afraid. His mother had told him, countless times, he should be afraid of this person. Well, not necessarily afraid, but cautious...and never, ever trusting. "He tried to take you from me once," he heard his mother's voice warning him. "Someday, I'm sure he will try again."
"Hello, Evander," the man said, crouching down so he was eye-to-eye to the boy. "Do you know who I am?"
Evander nodded. "You're Ares. My father."
"That's right." Ares smiled slightly as he stroked the boy's dark brown hair. "You've certainly grown, son. When I last saw you, you were so small...just a baby..."
"When you tried to take me from mother. Is that why you're here now, to try to take me away again?"
"Only for a short time," Ares said.
"Get away from him, Ares!" a sharp voice called out, interrupting the reunion.
Ares rose slowly, turning to face the mother of his child. "Hello, Nemesis. Nice seeing you again, as well."
"Evander, come here." The fair-haired woman stood her ground, staring coldly at Ares until the boy walked away from him and took hold of his mother's skirts. Nemesis warned, "I told you once before, I won't have you influencing my son or trying to take him away from me."
"Our son," Ares corrected. "And, though I'm sure you don't believe me, I'm not trying to take him from you...for long, at least. I...need his help, for something very important."
Nemesis laughed, though the humor didn't reach her eyes. "You're right, I don't believe you. What could you possibly want with him besides poisoning his mind, turning him into a monster like you? No, I've spent all this time working to make sure he learns how to use his gifts for good, not evil."
"He will be using them for good, if you let him come with us," another interrupted. Nemesis turned around to find a man and two women closing in on the tense situation.
"Who are you?" Nemesis demanded of the unknown man, lifting her son protectively into her arms.
"Joxer. Xena. Gab...Gabrielle," the boy answered for them, after studying each in turn. "Friends of father. Well...only this one really likes father." Evander pointed towards Joxer, who couldn't help but give a bashful smile towards the boy.
"Xena?" Nemesis repeated, studying the dark-haired warrior woman critically. "I had heard you'd turned away from Ares' influence and your warring ways long ago. Why are you here with him?"
"As surprising as it may be, trying to help him set things right. And to save Greece from a fate worse than having Ares for the god of war."
"Nemesis, I only ask that you hear me...us...out," Ares said. "A lot of things have happened since we last met. Evander's heritage and his talents can help save countless lives."
"That I don't doubt. But you having anything to do with him using his talents for good, or you caring about saving lives, that I do doubt."
"I promise, no tricks, no threats," Ares stated, stepping slowly toward her with hands raised in a conciliatory gesture. "Truth is, I couldn't pull any tricks if I wanted to. Evander's probably the strongest person here right now and I couldn't take him anywhere against his will."
She looked up at him with confusion, then turned to her son and asked seriously, "Is he telling the truth, honey?"
The young boy fixed his eyes on those of his father, so similar in their intensity that Ares found it a bit disconcerting to look into this dark mirror. Then the boy nodded slowly. "Father needs my help. I...don't think it's for something bad...he doesn't think it's bad..."
"I'm sure he doesn't, but I'll be the one to judge that." She put the boy down on the ground and indicated to Ares, "Come inside and you can tell me what you want."
"Thank you," he answered.
"Evander stays out here with the others. I want to hear this first on my own."
Gabrielle and Joxer watched over and played with Evander while Ares spoke to Nemesis. Xena went off to attend to their horses in the meantime. Gabrielle was amazed when, as the ball they were tossing back and forth flew over Evander's head, the boy stopped it in midair, then gently let it fall into his waiting hands.
"How does he do that? And knowing our names and everything else?" Gabrielle asked Joxer. "I thought he was only a half-god, like Hercules." Hercules did have incredible strength, she knew, but not these other mysterious powers of which she thought only full-gods should be capable.
"I don't know. Ares knew Evander was...unique...that's why he tried before to take him from Nemesis before. Gods...tend to leave more than a few half-mortal kids running around, but it's really rare when they actually show any particular immortal traits." Joxer paused to catch the ball as Evander tossed it to him. From the way he staggered back slightly as he caught it, Gabrielle guessed the boy had an impressive throwing arm on top of everything else. "Ares figures that maybe, since Nemesis is a former god herself, Evander must have inherited some of his special traits from her as well and the bloodline is particularly strong. He could very nearly be a full god."
Gabrielle studied the innocent-looking boy across from them, who was distracted already by a butterfly and no longer interested in playing catch. "I can see why Nemesis would want to protect him, then." "But she doesn't have to, not now, anyway. I mean, from Ares. He wouldn't even have brought us here if he didn't think we needed the extra help to make his plan work."
"Joxer..." she started, then stopped, trying to think of exactly what she wanted to ask. The two of them had barely had a moment alone together since meeting up those few nights before, and there was so much she wanted to ask him. Finding Joxer patiently waiting for her to continue, she started over again, "So...you and Ares...you're really happy together?"
From the warm smile that formed on his lips at that, she knew what the answer would be without having to hear it. "Yeah. Who would've thought, right?"
"Hmph!" Gabrielle laughed slightly. "Not me, that's for sure." She paused for a moment, then added, "I worried about you, you know."
Joxer's eyebrows raised and coyly he pressed her, "You worried about me? Really? I didn't know you cared so much, Gabby..."
She punched him lightly in the arm and rolled her eyes. "I worry about my friends, Joxer, get over it."
"I know," he admitted, then added, "I got over it a long time ago."
"Well, then, Ares was good for something after all," Gabrielle mused. They both looked to each other and laughed. It was good to be able to clear the air and get back on familiar territory with Joxer. However, the bard couldn't help but continue with the other questions that plagued her thoughts. "Ares seems so different, from what I remember of him. I always wondered what you saw in him--I mean, besides physically which of course I have no problem at all understanding, but--"
"Was there always this side of him?" Joxer guessed her question. "Or did he change after becoming mortal? Or somehow because of me?"
Joxer seemed to consider for a while, then answered her slowly, "I...I don't really know. At first, I mean, it was all just a big thrill to me, y'know, I wasn't...worrying about trying to figure him out. Here I was, Joxer, stupid clumsy Joxer, and the god of war decided he wanted to fool around with me. I didn't have a clue why or even particularly care. But from the start, he always treated me great, always made me feel like I was someone special." He paused, then continued, "I guess...I think this part of him was there all along, even if it was hidden under everything else. He can still be a bossy, arrogant pain-in-the-ass when he wants to be, believe me, but I think there was always another part of him...even if he didn't want to admit to it. A lot of things had to happen before he would do that."
"Most of those things happened to you," Gabrielle added, to which Joxer said nothing. "It must have been terrible...I can't imagine what it was like." The details Ares had provided of Joxer's death and time in the Underworld were sketchy at best, and she wasn't sure that she should press for further details, unless Joxer wanted someone to talk to about it.
Apparently, he didn't. "No, you can't imagine, Gabrielle," he answered her softly, and with words that left a chill down her spine, he added, "Be glad that you can't." With that, he walked off toward Evander.
Glancing towards the house, Gabrielle noticed Xena had finished with the horses and was heading to the house. Maybe she figured Ares would be in need of a little extra support by now. Ares, changed man or no, still seemed to need to learn a few things about the fine art of making friends and influencing people.
Gabrielle gave Joxer a few minutes alone with Evander before heading over to join him again.
"This story is ridiculous," Nemesis insisted.
"I agree," Ares said. "Utterly insane. Nevertheless, it's true. Would I make something like this up?"
"Yes, but that's beside the point. Let's take it for granted, for the moment, that I believe that you actually gave up your godhood because you discovered 'true love' and it was the only way to get your boyfriend out there back. A concept that I find quite impossible to accept but, for the sake of argument I'll pretend that I do. Now you think I'll agree to let you use Evander as bait? To draw the attentions of a god even you say is crazy, so you can get your position back? No. Absolutely not!"
"Evander will be at the least risk of any of us. As was my right I ensured he was given the same degree of protection that Zeus granted Hercules when he was born. No Olympian may kill him."
"But one could poison his mind, as you would have and now claim you no longer wish to do. I do know Strife, remember, Ares? I was one of you, once. I don't want that psychopath anywhere near my son."
"Do you want that psychopath to continue as the god of war? If you do know him, you know how dangerous the prospect is. At least I was born for the position, Nemesis. Strife has inherited it through deceit, and out of spite against me by Zeus and the others. There's already talk of a great war he wants to stage to boost his strength. If he builds up enough momentum to do so before Zeus can stop him, he won't be able to control the chaos he unleashes. As one familiar with the ways of the gods yourself, you must understand the truth of what I'm telling you here." He paused, and added, more gravely than before, "And what of Evander's future if we don't stop Strife soon? I never mentioned his existence to Strife...but Discord knows, and there's certainly no love lost between her and me these days.
"You want to protect him, fine. So do I. And that means getting rid of Strife now before the danger only becomes greater. To everyone in general...and Evander in particular."
She dropped her head in her hands for a moment and sighed. "Ares, you're asking me to trust you with the one thing that means everything to me. Trust you, after everything you've done..."
Xena interrupted softly, "I know it's a lot to ask you, Nemesis. You don't know me, so my words may not mean much to you. But despite my own...problems, to put it mildly, with Ares, I believe we have to help him regain his former status. A god of war is necessary whether we like it or not, to control and harness man's inherent destructive urges. A god of war who is as unstable and unpredictable as Strife seems to be is a situation I don't like to think about.
"If you don't trust me, because of my past, ask Hercules to confirm my good intentions. He saw me at my worst...and helped guide me towards the person I am now instead. Gabrielle and I have agreed to help Ares with his plan, and will act as protection for Evander. We'll accompany him to ensure his safety. We'll be with him-- either right at his side or watching from as close as we dare. If there is any sign of trouble, we'll intervene on his behalf."
"It has to be done, Nemesis," Ares insisted. "If I knew of another way to do this...but I can't think of any, can you?"
Nemesis considered for a long time, clearly uncomfortable with every aspect of what she was being asked to agree to. Finally, she said, "All right. But I'm coming along, with Xena and Gabrielle."
Ares glanced at Xena, who offered no signs of protest. Nemesis, he knew, could hold her own in a fight and so he told her, "I can live with that."
"And you promise me this, Ares; promise on your precious Joxer's life if he really means something to you: That you will never, ever have anything to do with Evander for the rest of his life after this. That you will leave him alone to lead his own life, not to do your bidding for you."
He had to pause to think about this--not so much, he realized, because he regretted he would lose the chance he'd wanted to use Evander to strike at his half-brother Hercules. No, oddly enough he thought he simply didn't like the idea of losing all contact with his son.
But if that was what it would take..."Very well, if that it the way it has to be."
"Yes, it is," Nemesis emphasized.
"Do we even know Evander is capable of doing what we need him to do?" Xena asked. "Can he remember a complicated set of instructions, hide his true intentions from Strife, and make his way through these complicated traps you say will be waiting for him?"
"Will he even want to, for a father who has not been involved in his life at all, except coming now to seek favors?" Nemesis added.
"I guess I'll have to ask him that myself, won't I?" Ares mused. "May I?" he asked, standing up to leave and find his son.
Nemesis nodded, but said nothing more.
Ares watched his son playing with Joxer and Gabrielle for a time before interrupting. "Evander," he called. "Come for a walk with me? Your mother says it's all right."
"Okay," Evander agreed, stepping over to his father's side. "And I know she said it's all right. I wouldn't come with you if she didn't."
"Smart boy. Good with that mind reading, are you?"
Evander shrugged. "It's not hard, with most people. Especially mom and you." Evander raised his head and studied his father critically for a moment. "Except you're different than I remember. Your thoughts, I mean."
"You remember the last time I saw you?"
"Sure. I mean, I was just a baby then, so I couldn't do much. Except watch, and listen. I didn't like your thoughts, then. Or that other woman's...Discord?"
"Her mind...it was all dark, so...evil. I didn't really understand what evil was then, but I knew I didn't like the way she made me feel. She was a bad woman. Mom always said you're bad too, and that was what I remembered of you."
"So what's different now?" Ares asked, stopping to kneel down in front of his son. "What do you feel?"
The boy bit his lip and thought, then spoke carefully, "I don't understand all of it. But there's...sadness. And love. There's still a darkness in there, just not like before. Before it was so strong there was nothing else there to feel. Now...it's not so different from what I feel inside me, sometimes."
Ares nodded in understanding. "You're the son of the god of war, Evander. That darkness is in your blood--my blood--and you must take care in learning to control it."
"I know, that's what mom always warns me about. So what is it you need my help with, father?"
"I came here because the world is going to be in a lot of trouble if we don't stop a very bad man who now holds my former position. You remember that...bad feeling you got from Discord? Her son Strife is no different. Only now, more powerful. Too powerful."
"How can I help stop him?"
"If your powers are as strong as I sense they must be, you can help lead him to a place where he will be weakened. You will be weaker there, as well, but by then it won't be important. The final battle, to take Strife down, that will be mine alone. I won't lie and tell you it's not going to be dangerous, because it will be. How good is your memory?"
"I know most of the works of Socrates and can recite them to you. I know and can redraw a lot of maps, too. I like doing that sort of thing."
Ares blinked. "And your coordination? Ability to manipulate other objects?"
"Not bad. Getting better every day." He looked over to where Joxer and Gabrielle were now joined by Xena and Nemesis, watching them cautiously from afar. "I could lift all four of them off the ground from here, hold them there for a while. Not sure I could bring them all over here to us, though."
"Well, I think that will more than suffice." Ares sighed as he took in Nemesis' sour expression. "I suppose we should head back. I think your mother doesn't like my being alone with you for so long."
"I know she doesn't," Evander agreed.
"Then let's get going."
They walked back slowly to where the others waited. Nemesis said to her son, "What do you think, Evander? You don't have to do anything for him if you don't want to."
"I know, but I want to help. It...sounds like fun, maybe."
"Fun. We'll see about that," Nemesis answered, casting Ares a displeased glance.
"Hey, I didn't say anything about it being fun," he argued. "I can't help it if he has a taste for a good fight in his spirit."
"It's your spirit, and I'd be a lot happier if I could forever rid him of every last touch of it," she replied.
"Damn," Joxer said as Nemesis then sharply turned away from them and stormed into the house with Evander in tow. "When you said she wasn't gonna be happy to see you, you weren't kidding."
"On the contrary, this is the nicest I can recall her being to me in a very long time," Ares observed. "I must be wearing her down."
Grudgingly Nemesis offered to put Ares and his companions up in her home for the night, as the former god needed time to explain to Evander his role in the plan and test him to see if he understood everything. The two were hardly seen all afternoon after disappearing into the boy's room, although Nemesis couldn't resist checking in on them frequently.
"He's not going to hurt him, or try to steal him from you again," Joxer offered, trying to help make peace. Xena and Gabrielle had headed into town for a while, leaving Ares' one-time lover and his current one in the rather awkward position of keeping each other company.
"I'll believe that when Tartarus freezes over."
Joxer corrected her, "Actually, parts of it already are. You'd be surprised."
She put down the knitting with which she'd been trying to stay distracted and studied him critically. "You really did die and go there because of him? And he gave up his godhood for you?"
"Uh huh. Why don't you believe me?"
"Because you're with him, and I never believe him. Learned that one the hard way."
"Well, Evander believes him, and he can do the mind reading thing and all that."
"I know, I know, it's just...look, nothing personal, all right? After all the time I've known Ares, I'm finding it more than a little difficult to accept this sudden 'change' of heart. Or the fact that he even has a heart." She paused, then questioned, "If he really has changed, why does he still want his godhood back so desperately? When I was expelled from Olympus and learned about love after having Evander, I never wanted to go back to that old existence again. That's why I doubt the sincerity of Ares' motives here so much."
"I don't know what to say to that. I've never been a god, I don't know what it's like, if it's good or bad, or just...so different you can't really call it one or the other. I only know...I don't think Ares will ever feel complete without being a god again. And more than that, he wants to get back at the others for what they did to me. To the both of us."
"To enact his own private justice against the gods?"
"Yeah. Something like that."
"Hmm. I suppose that is something I can understand."
There was the sound of laughter from the other room, both the young boy's light giggles and Ares' deeper laugh. The sound startled both Joxer and Nemesis, lulling them into silence for a time. Joxer then dared, "After all this, it might not be so bad to let Ares...at least visit from time to time. A boy should have a chance to spend time his father, you know? I didn't get to see much of mine as a kid...he was always either out on some campaign, or in jail...and when he was around he rarely had much time for me."
"No. It's too dangerous, especially if Ares goes back to being the god of war. The temptation to exploit Evander's powers...I couldn't risk it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to prepare for tomorrow." With that she got up and left the room, ending the conversation abruptly.
There were only so many beds to be found in the house, and with Evander and Nemesis in one and Xena and Gabrielle getting the other through virtue of not being Ares, that left the living room floor for the men.
"At least she didn't make us sleep outside in the stable with the horses," Ares remarked, slipping into the bedroll where Joxer was already waiting.
"You did say you were starting to wear her down."
"Mmm," Ares agreed, lying down with a sigh. Joxer curled up against him, a familiar reassuring warmth in these unfamiliar and uncertain surroundings.
"So, you think Evander is going to be able to pull it off?"
"I'm certain he will. Amazing child. His mind is so clear and focused for one that young, I know he understands everything I've told him."
"Do all immortal children grow up like that? I mean, so fast."
"Every one is different, you can't predict. Some gods are even born fully grown."
"Ouch, that's gotta be painful for the mother."
"Sometimes they're even born from the father."
"Double-ouch! How do they...no, I don't think I want to know."
"You forget that gods don't feel pain like mortals do. Their bodies...it's a completely different kind of thing."
"Everything seems to be completely different for a god. Is it all better? Or are some things better as a mortal?" Joxer asked.
Ares considered the question for a while. "Mortals...feel more. You'd think it would be the opposite, when a god has such enhanced senses and strengths. Perhaps it is the effect of time, the endless time of an immortal's life...a god either seems to forget how to feel anything, or grows bored with it all...or they start to reach out for further and more extreme ways to fulfill their desires and seek pleasure."
"Doesn't actually sound that nice to me," Joxer observed.
"I suppose it doesn't. But it doesn't have to be that way." He kissed the top of Joxer's head, nuzzling against the familiar silky hair. "Sometimes it takes a mortal, though, to remind a god how to feel things again."
"What're you feeling right now?" Joxer asked teasingly, fingers creeping over Ares' waistband.
"Besides a pesky hand trying to get me out of my pants? Hmm, I'm feeling like having you at least once before calling it a night."
"I think you ought to go with that feeling," Joxer agreed. "'Cause that's about how I'm feeling, too."
A hasty removal of the necessary garments followed, quietly and carefully as it was a small house, after all, and it was difficult to tell if the others were asleep. This sneaking about and being cautious about their affections was rather irksome to the former god, who was used to the privacy of their home and being with Joxer anywhere and anytime he wished. For some reason that sort of thing wasn't exactly good manners, particularly when you were spending the night in a former lover's home--and with an overly-sensitive child resting somewhere nearby.
Joxer shifted on top of him, covering his face with kisses, some soft and gentle, others much more insistent. "Love you, Ares," he whispered softly. "Always. No matter what. God, mortal...I love you."
"I know. And I you, my love." He savored every touch and caress this night, as he had every night since they'd begun this journey and neared what could be the end. They didn't talk about it as such, but he thought he could sense the extra urgency in Joxer as well. To speak of losing each other, the fear of being separated again...no, it was not something to be mentioned.
Instead, he would focus on savoring and burning into his memory these precious moments, images and feelings. The soft glow of the moonlight on Joxer's pale skin...The way Joxer's lips and hands felt against his own flesh...The way nothing ever felt more right than being inside him, bodies joined as one if for only a few fleeting moments.
No matter what happens, don't take him from me again, Ares silently pleaded to the Fates, or whichever forces might actually be out there to listen to the prayers of a fallen god.
The newly-erected temple was a sufficiently impressive structure from the outside, and all gleaming, bright surfaces within. There had been, to the resident god's dismay, too little time for the appropriate rituals and sacrifices to properly bloody the walls and floors. But that would all come in good time, he knew. Other work needed his attention first.
The diminutive god narrowed his eyes and critically studied the work lined up for inspection. "No...no...definitely not...mmm, too small...too ugly...so last week...no...no no NO!"
Each verdict was accompanied by a sharp explosion, the god casting forth quick bolts of lightning at the unacceptable craftsmanship, blowing the works to ashes. The artisans responsible for each rejected statue or bust cowered in fear, expecting to face a similar fate as their offerings had in short order.
As he approached and examined the final sculpture for a moment, his expression lightened somewhat. "Well, this one's not bad. I suppose."
"T-thank you, m-my lord." The artist bowed deeply in relief.
"It could be better, though," Strife decided, destroying the marble sculpture in his likeness with a final burst of lightning. As the ash and rubble settled he told them all, "I want nothing but the best for my temple, don't you idiots understand?!" After a pause to sufficiently savor the terror he'd instilled in their hearts, he sighed and with a wave of his hand said, "I'll give you losers one more shot and then you're history if the goods ain't cool, you got that?"
They all bowed, mumbling their thanks for his consideration and patience before making a quick exit to the outside world. The god of war, exasperated at the artists' ineptitude and lack of anything resembling talent, raised his hands towards Olympus and called out, "Why is it so hard to find good help these days?"
Frustrated, he flashed over to his throne, and settled in for a good sulk and to figure out what to do with himself for the rest of the day. He could use a break, he decided. Maybe go terrorize his generals for a while. Of course terrorizing the temple girls could be fun, too, but he'd save that for the evening. He was still expecting some tapestries and other offerings for his new home-away-from-Olympus this afternoon. It was probably worth hanging around to see if any of it would be better than the miserable work the sculptors had come up with. If not, he could have a little fun punishing those who assumed he would accept sub-par workmanship.
"Damn Uncle Ares anyway for trashing the old temple before he left," Strife pouted to himself. "The place was nice and lived-in, and he had so much cool stuff..." It was hard work trying to make a name for himself as the new war god--especially with Zeus and Hades trying to tie his hands and keep him from doing the things he needed to do (lots of pillaging, bloodshedding and all around nastiness among them). Having to bother with the reconstruction of the main temple in Corinth was a headache he really didn't want to be bothered with while in the middle of trying to win the fear and loyalty of his uncle's old armies.
Nope, being a major god was no picnic in Elysia, that was for certain. But it sure beat being Unc's little toadie, his personal punching bag whenever he got pissed off and needed someone to take the blame for everything that went wrong with his dumb plans. And it sure beat being dead. Hades had been such a drag, always bitching whenever Strife had tried to have a little fun playing with the other dead. So he'd gone and freed one of the Titans one day to stomp about Tartarus for a while. As if the damned dead mortals didn't get a good chuckle out of seeing some of Hades' torturers get ripped apart and roasted up for a brimstone barbeque.
And so he'd let a really foul-tempered dragon spirit loose on the Elysian plain another day to watch all the righteous, happy spirits get a taste of how the other half of the dead had it. He'd tried to show Hades he could keep things a little...livelier in the Underworld, if he let Strife have some leeway. Instead, all he'd gotten out of it all was punishment guard duty on the gates to Tartarus while Erinyes got to take a holiday. What kind of gratitude was that?
"Eh well," he sighed, pulling out the sword that now belonged to him, running his fingers lovingly along the blade. That was all behind him now anyway, thanks to Uncle getting himself all wrapped up in some stupid mortal and getting sloppy on the job. Of course, that was exactly what Strife had been waiting for, all these years while taking Ares' abuse--and rare affections. Unc could enjoy his brief time wallowing in mortality with his precious Joxer. Strife had better things to do than meddle in his life any longer...at least for the time being.
The god was drawn out of his ruminations as he noticed someone entering the temple and looking around. A small boy, of all things. What could he possibly want except a good dose of trouble, coming in here? Strife watched, invisible to the young mortal's eyes, as the boy took in the surroundings slowly with wide dark eyes that seemed vaguely, uncomfortably familiar. Then, the boy started walking toward the offering table.
"Try to take anything and you're toast, kid," Strife growled, almost hoping the boy would so he could dole out some proper punishment.
Instead, the child fished out a small pouch from his pants pocket and untied the laces at the top. He reached into the pouch, and then pulled out a glowing gem almost as large as his palm.
"Well well well! This is getting interesting," Strife exclaimed, eyes widening with curiosity. Still he waited and watched to see what the boy was going to do next.
The child considered the stone for a moment, then lifted it up in both his hands. In a loud, confident voice, he called, "Strife, god of war, I call upon you today to hear my prayer. Will you accept my offering?"
"Depends on what that shiny hunka rock is, little man," Strife answered, flashing into view with a sufficiently dramatic burst of white fire and snatching the gem from the boy's hand. "Pretty pretty, but I'm not one for baubles. That's Aphrodite's department."
"It's not your ordinary gemstone, my Lord Strife," the boy told him. "Listen to it."
"Listen? Listen to a rock?"
"Go on, close your hand around it and listen," the boy insisted in a calm, confident voice.
Strife rolled his eyes, wondering where this little nutcase had come from. Still, he gave it a shot. And after a moment, he was surprised to hear what sounded like whispering voices coming from the gem as it glowed brighter in his palm. Although he strained, he could not hear them clearly, only making out the odd word here and there. "Hmm, a bauble that babbles, but I can't understand a word it's saying. What good is that? And why should I listen to what a rock has to say?"
"It is not just any 'rock', my lord. It is the gem from the Ring of Coeus."
Strife blinked, and glanced back and forth between this suspect gem and the increasingly suspect boy. This was getting more interesting by the minute. "Coeus? The Titan?"
The boy nodded. "The Ring of Coeus is said to possess all knowledge known to the Titans. The secrets of the Universe, of Creation...of the laws that govern both gods and mortals. Unfortunately, without the ring itself, the stone is useless--the setting frees the voices of knowledge so they can be understood clearly by he who holds or wears the ring. But I know where to find the setting, and many other treasures of the Titans that were lost during their war with Zeus."
"Oh really? And where would that be?"
"The Caves of Nomea, of course."
Strife snorted. "No one goes to the Caves of Nomea, kid, unless you've got a death wish. There's like, serious bad mojo for gods in that area. And no mortal would be stupid enough to try to make his way through the traps in there." During the late days of the war between Zeus and the Titans, when the Titans knew they would be defeated, they had gathered what they could of their treasure and weapons and hid them within the Caves. If they would be denied their uses and pleasures, they'd reasoned, Zeus and the other Olympians would not be given the chance to use them, either.
"Many mortals have tried, and died trying to reach the treasure, but at least one man did succeed, some time ago. He gave this stone to my father and told him the way through the traps. My father, in turn, told me. He would not enter the caves himself, being of Olympian blood-- and a coward. But he told me the way."
Strife had been wondering about this boy's heritage, having sensed the strong mental blocks in place that kept the god from probing his mind for the truth of his story. Only one with immortal blood in them, someone who was part-god at least, could do that. The kid also seemed way too articulate for the average boy of his apparent age. "Care to spill the beans on who your father is?"
"Ares! Is that a fact..." Strife trailed off, his curiosity as well as his suspicions now rising. "Now what would a son of Ares be doing coming to me, and offering me this? He and I, you know, aren't exactly on the best of terms these days."
The boy stepped forward, his gaze intense as he insisted, "My father is a coward, like I said. And weak. You proved that by defeating him. I've come to you, Strife, because I want someone of strength to guide me and teach me."
"Why?" Strife asked skeptically, pulling out his sword and pointing the blade toward the child's chest. "Why should I do anything for you, or teach you anything. So that you can someday defeat me? Revenge your father and become the new god of war yourself? Give me a good reason not to strike you down right here and now, boy."
The child held his ground and did not flinch in the face of the god's doubt--nor his sword. "Besides the fact that I'm protected by Zeus? Go ask him if you don't believe me. But I have no interest in usurping your position, Lord Strife. I am not a full-god. I could never defeat one as strong as yourself even if I wanted to. However, I do have powers, and abilities, that I could use to serve you well. In some ways, the fact that I'm half-mortal could make me a very useful ally."
Strife knew this was indeed true. Half-breeds didn't have to play by Zeus' stifling rules and as such could get away with things that full- gods couldn't. Things like...killing gods, for instance. Strife imagined the possibilities with growing enthusiasm. True, it was hard to find things that would kill gods, even if you had a license to do as much--but perhaps if he had that Ring of Knowledge, he might just be able to find a thing or two to do the trick. Not to mention it might help him find other little useful treasures hidden in the Caves. Lowering the sword, Strife asked, "So you know the way around this cave, do ya, junior?"
He answered affirmatively, "Father told me, because he figured with my mixed heritage, I could pass through the cave the easiest of all. Stronger and more adept than a mortal, less likely to be affected by the traps set for the gods."
"Interesting..." Yes, it sounded possible, Strife thought. He could see Ares being too much of a coward to try to enter the Caves himself, even if he knew the way, wanting to send his kid in instead. Strife seriously wondered about how much of the mumbo-jumbo he'd heard about the Caves was for real anyway. Maybe Zeus had made up a bunch of lies about the place, not wanting any of the other gods to go mucking about looking for the treasure they could use to overthrow him. Bastard wanted to keep it all for himself if he needed it, more likely. Most of the gods were too chicken to try to find out for themselves.
"So you're offering to run in and grab the goods for me, right? In exchange for letting you hang around with me."
"Works for me. Only I'm coming, too. Who's to say you wouldn't go in there and pocket something good for yourself? Or all of it?"
"It will be dangerous for you," the child warned.
"Yeah yeah, so I've heard. Think of it as a way of proving how...useful...you can be for me. Who knows how much of that nonsense about the place is true, anyway."
"All right," he agreed. "That shouldn't complicate things too much."
"Better not," Strife answered, carrying the stone with him as he strolled back over towards his throne.
As he settled in, the boy asked him, "So...when shall we leave, my lord?"
"In a while. I can't just drop everything for ya, junior. I got other things to take care of first. We'll leave soon enough; you can chill out with the gals in the back 'till I'm ready to go."
"But first, a little test of your loyalty, just to make me happy." Strife snapped his fingers and out of nowhere a bloodied, shackled man appeared on the floor at the child's feet. "This here was one of your father's favorite generals. He refused to give his allegiance to me for some silly reason. I've been trying to explain to him the error of his ways, but he just won't listen to reason! Ain't that the way it is, Hogarus?"
The shackled man said nothing, merely glared at the god with his one remaining eye.
"You see? Won't even answer a simple question for me." Strife shook his head sadly. Then, with another snap of his fingers, a dagger appeared in the boy's right hand. It was small enough for the child to hold, but its blade was still sharp and deadly. "You ever killed anyone before...uh...what's the name, kid?"
"You ever kill anyone before, Evander?"
"Perfect!" Strife rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "Then prove to me you're not pulling my chain here, junior. Kill him for me. This place needs an inaugural blood sacrifice, anyway."
The god waited in anticipation, hungry to feel the glory of not just the sacrifice of the prisoner but of the boy's blood-innocence also--if Evander was serious about wanting to serve him. A part of him wished that he could have Ares here on the floor instead, to really put to the test the boy's loyalty. But that blasted airhead Aphrodite had asked for protection for Ares and Joxer and Zeus had granted as much. For now.
The boy stood before the wounded soldier a long time, his dark eyes fixed upon the man though his face showed little fear or uncertainty. Strife could hear that Hogarus was silently begging the boy to kill him, no less, which slightly soured the mood for the god. It wasn't quite as much fun when the sacrifice actually wanted to be dead.
"C'mon, boy, I haven't got all day. Do it or get outta my face," Strife urged. He was almost certain that the boy wouldn't be able to do it, not after taking so long. But then--
Oh, yes...Yes! Strife arched back in almost orgasmic delight as the boy suddenly grabbed the man by his hair, pulling his head back and then ripping the blade across his neck. Blood spurted and flowed freely, over the spasming body and onto the marble floor. Evander let go of the man's hair and the soldier fell to the ground, dead seconds later.
Blood still dripping from the dagger's blade, the boy stepped away from the man's body and asked, "Have I passed your test, Lord Strife?"
"You are a cold-hearted little bastard, aren't you?" Strife laughed, and stood up to clap the boy soundly on the back. "Very nice, junior. Now, go run along and play with Alestra and the other priestesses 'till I get back. Just don't hurt 'em, too much, you understand? Took me a while to find a decent bunch of girls to keep this place amusing." Strife was feeling so good right now, to Tartarus with waiting about to see what stupid offerings those fool mortals brought in this afternoon. He'd just received his best offering yet and wanted to hit the nearest battlefield to go celebrate, crack a few skulls with his own hands. Then he could check out these Caves with the boy. This turn of events, if it played out, could prove even more beneficial toward cementing his position and power on Olympus than the great war he'd been trying to instigate covertly.
As Evander walked off towards the back chambers Strife pointed to, the god cast one last look at the dead soldier on the floor before blasting the body to ash.
Now the place was starting to look properly lived in.
Laughing in hysteric glee, Strife disappeared in a burst of white fire.
A short distance away from the temple, three woman sat watching and waiting for any signs of activity or trouble within.
It had taken two days of hard riding to make it to Corinth this quickly; Ares and Joxer were headed to Nomea and should have arrived already to begin setting the trap. The roads to Corinth had been more treacherous than usual, proving the former god had been wise to ask for Xena's and Gabrielle's help to escort Evander up to this point of the plan. They'd slipped past one army of men on the march south and had to fight their way through another small band of warriors harassing people on the road for "tribute", similar to the first group they'd encountered days' before. Even though Evander could have helped during the fights, Xena had insisted he stay out of sight and out of the action, in case any of the soldiers reported back to Strife about what had happened before they made it to the temple.
But now, much to Nemesis' chagrin in particular, the plan was up to Evander and he had to go in alone. The women had barely spoken a word to each other since he'd entered the temple, all too tense with worry and apprehension. The tension only grew worse as time stretched on, until by Xena's estimate they had been waiting at least an hour. When she then saw several men enter the temple, and then leave a short while later, she remarked, "It looks like Strife must have taken the bait--Evander would have come out or sent the signal by now if he didn't show or there was trouble."
"I suppose you're right," Nemesis said. "I just wish there was some way we could know for certain."
"I'll go down to check things quickly. Then we've got to head on to Nomea ourselves," Xena said, standing and leaving the others to wait for her. Though the god could transport himself and Evander directly to the Caves, by Ares' estimate it would take them at least a half-day to make their way through the winding, tricky passageways. At top- speed, the women could be there in time to meet them on their way out of the Caves--Evander, with Ares and Joxer if the plan succeeded.
If not...well, they would be there to salvage what they could.
As they waited for Xena's return, Gabrielle tried to reassure Nemesis with a gentle hand on the shoulder and a soft, "Evander's going to be fine. You have to have faith in that."
"Faith in who? The gods?" Nemesis laughed. "I lost my faith in them a long time ago, Gabrielle."
"No, faith in yourself, and your son. In all of us that we will succeed, because with that faith nearly anything is possible."
"Learned that from Xena, did you?"
The bard smiled. "Yeah, I guess so. Traveling with Xena, you start to see that nothing is impossible. Including defeating a god. Maybe on the road I'll tell you about how we defeated Bacchus not too long ago."
A few minutes later, Xena rejoined them. Gabrielle immediately noticed something in Xena's expression that worried her--something subtle that only the bard would pick up on from knowing the warrior woman as well as she did.
"Evander's not there, at least not in the main chambers. We'll have to assume everything is going according to plan. Nemesis, get the horses. We should leave immediately."
Nemesis nodded and took off to the nearby stables. Gabrielle reached for Xena's arm and asked, "What's wrong? You saw something in there you didn't like."
Xena frowned and in a soft voice answered, "There wasn't any sign of Evander, or Strife, but...Gabrielle, there was a pool of blood before the offering table. Freshly spilled."
"By the gods..." Gabrielle whispered, unconsciously gripping Xena's arm tighter. "You don't think--"
"--I don't know what to think," Xena cut her off. "It could mean a lot of things, and we can't make assumptions. I just don't want to say anything to Nemesis about it."
"Of course," the bard agreed, trying to compose herself as Evander's mother was already on her way back. Still, as they took up on their horses and headed out on the road to Nomea, she couldn't rid herself of the fear that this battle had already seen its first casualty--and if so, more were perhaps soon to follow.
"So this is it?"
"Yes. The Caves of Nomea." Ares looked across to the gaping mouth of the cavern, which was revealed now as they reached the edge of the surrounding forest. A chill passed through him at the sight, thanks to some part of him that still retained echoes of his Olympian heritage. The stories were true about this place, he did not doubt--any Olympian who set foot anywhere in the Caves' proximity knew he was far from welcome here.
"Doesn't look like very much to me," Joxer commented.
"To you, it wouldn't. But none of my family would go near here willingly unless they had a very good reason for it. The Caves are filled with traps for both mortals and immortals. But together we should be able to pass through unharmed, with the information I have on how to avoid the worst of it."
"How did you find out how to get past all the traps, anyway?"
"One time, I offered generalship of my armies to the man who could make his way past the traps and find out what treasures could be found inside. Took about a hundred years or so and I don't know how many men tried before one succeeded. He brought back the gem that I gave Evander to prove he'd made it."
"And the soldier became the leader of your armies?" Joxer asked, wondering if he would recognize the man's name. One thing every child in his family had learned while growing up was the names and histories of nearly every famous warlord or general in recent history.
"Certainly not. I killed him once he told me the way. I couldn't let a man with that kind of knowledge run around on the loose," the former god answered nonchalantly.
Ares started walking at a brisk pace across the clearing toward the entrance, so Joxer picked up his pace to follow alongside. About halfway across, however, Joxer froze, unable to continue. Somewhere up above, he had just heard a familiar shriek...and the flapping of very large wings.
"Ares..." he managed to squeak out as he grabbed the other man's arm. Not daring to look up to confirm he was right, he continued slowly, "You...you didn't say anything about..."
"Don't worry about them, Joxer, they won't bother us," Ares tried to assure him. "They serve their former masters to protect this place from the Olympians only, not mortals. They just can't resist making a big show whenever anyone approaches."
The shrieks grew louder, nearer. Whether or not they were interested in the two of them, it certainly sounded that way to Joxer. "Ares, I don't think I can do this..."
"Yes, you can. Ignore them. Come along before they decide we might make good sport, immortal or not." In softer tones, and taking Joxer's hand firmly in his own, Ares promised, "I'm here, this time. I won't let them hurt you."
It took a few moments for those words of assurance to get past Joxer's terror. It was true that in his dreams--nightmares--he was always alone when they came for him. But Ares was here this time, telling him it would be all right. Believing that, and holding tightly onto Ares' hand, he somehow found the strength to continue on.
Still, the brisk-paced walk to the Caves was without a doubt the longest few minutes of Joxer's life. Once they were inside, the strength he'd found to get him this far completely left him and he collapsed against the wall, shaking and trying to catch his breath.
"Easy, Joxer," Ares tried to soothe him.
"Easy. Easy for you to say." Joxer pushed away the hand that was reaching to comfort him. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, trying to get his body and emotions back under his control. Could he help it if he never wanted to have anything to do with Harpies for the rest of his life? "Damn it, don't do something like that to me again, all right? Give me some warning next time!" he shouted angrily.
He hadn't meant it to come out so harshly, but he was shaky and not entirely in the best of moods at the moment. "Sorry," Ares apologized. "I thought the best thing to do was not let you know so you wouldn't be worrying about it the whole time. ...Can we go on, now? I have a feeling that for you, at least, that was the worst of what we will have to face here."
After a while, Joxer managed to find his feet again, his pulse finally beginning to slow. From outside the mouth of the cave, he could still hear the faint echoes of the Harpies' screams. The sound was enough to make him ill. "Yeah, let's go. The faster I get away from those things, the better I'll feel."
"All right. Follow right behind me. Step only where I step; this place is riddled with traps," Ares instructed as he lit a pair of torches and handed one to Joxer. With a smile he patted Joxer on the back and said, "Congratulations."
"For what? Freaking out at the first sign of danger?"
"No, for yelling at me like you just did. It's the first time you've done that. I was wondering how long it would take."
The passage through the Caves was slow and difficult to say the least. All around them, the place was littered with the bones and other remains of countless others who, over the centuries, had tried to claim a portion of the Titans' treasures for themselves. Usually a pile of bones was the only sign to Joxer's eyes, in the soft light of their torches, that a particular trap lay ahead. Sometimes they had to step only along the walls, to avoid tripwires that fired arrows or poisoned needles from the ceiling of the cavern. Other times, they had to time their steps just so, to avoid, Ares told him, the fate of having the entire ground shift away and drop them into a near bottomless pit. There were intersections that offered dizzying choices of paths to follow and Joxer had long ago lost all sense of direction, but Ares proceeded ahead though each one with no uncertainty. Joxer took strength from the assurance of his lover's steps, and found that the level of concentration he needed to follow Ares' instructions kept him from panicking and thinking about how many times they were barely avoiding assured death during this journey.
"Besides those...guys outside, what other traps are here specifically for the gods?" Joxer asked when after a time they finally paused in what Ares claimed was a safe spot. "Couldn't a god just, you know, pop right in here past everything?"
Ares shook his head. "No. There's a kind of...energy field about the place. Any god who tries to 'pop', as you put it, into here from outside would find their atoms scattered from here to the moon. Getting yourself together after something like that would not be pleasant."
"What's an atom?"
"Basically, the stuff that makes up everything--you, me, the Earth, the stars--don't worry about it. Mankind is probably a few thousand years away from understanding what atoms are and how to manipulate them. But besides that, there are spirits about this place..." Ares paused, as if listening to something when Joxer could hear nothing but the far away sound of running water. "...I can barely hear them. They don't like my being here; they must be screaming to try to get my attention but now it sounds like nothing more than a gnat buzzing at my ears. However a god would hear them, oh yes. Voices screaming and whispering threats and promises and lies... They are the spirits of many who served and are still loyal to the Titans and they would just love the chance to try to drive an Olympian mad if he dared pass through here."
"Not a pleasant place, all and all."
"No. Not a pleasant place. The energy field, it not only makes it impossible for a god to 'pop' in here past the traps, but it weakens their powers once inside its perimeter. No god likes to feel that vulnerable, even if the effect is not strong enough to kill him. Zeus basically declared this whole place off-limits. But if Evander played his part right, Strife should be tempted enough to give it a try."
"When they get here, what do you want me to do?" Joxer asked.
"Besides staying out of my way? Make certain Evander is safe. I don't want him caught in the crossfire--especially since he will be my way out of here just as he escorted Strife in."
Joxer nodded in understanding. "It's quite a plan."
"I thought as much." Ares fell silent, and after a moment Joxer felt his lover's hand lifting his chin, caressing his cheek softly with his thumb. Ares' expression in the faint light was serious as he said, "Joxer, be alert. Remember everything I taught you. If something were to happen to you during this, defeating Strife and getting my godhood back will mean nothing, you understand?"
Joxer said, "I know. I'll be careful."
"And if...anything should happen to me...don't do something stupid, all right? You have to go on...as I said, make sure Evander gets home safely. I did promise as much to Nemesis."
Joxer didn't particularly care for the way this conversation was going. He knew that should something happen to Ares, there would be no more reason for him to go on. No one to love, or to love him...no one to be there when the nightmares came. But he did the only thing he could that he knew would satisfy Ares which was to tell him, "All right. I understand."
"Good." Ares stood up then and asked, "Ready to go? Not much farther to the chamber now."
"Yeah, I'm ready," Joxer answered, though inside he felt little except uncertainty and fear for what the near future had in store for them both.
The voices were really starting to piss him off.
/LITTLE GOD, LITTLE GOD, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING HERE?/
/WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?/
/YOU'D BETTER LEAVE WHILE YOU CAN. THIS PLACE IS NOT FOR YOU./
/DO YOU KNOW WHAT WE DO TO LITTLE GODS WHO DARE DISTURB THIS PLACE? IT'S NOT PLEASANT. WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE?/
"Shut up!" Strife hollered, his voice echoing down the dark passageway.
"I didn't say anything," Evander said in a much softer, damnably calm voice.
"I wasn't talking to you, junior. I was talking to them. The voices. Don't you hear them?"
"No. I'm too busy watching where I'm going. Step here, careful. Now to the right."
/HE LIES. THE BOY LIES TO YOU, LITTLE GOD. HE HEARS US, ALL RIGHT./
You're the liar, Strife answered the voices in his head. I've heard about you. Here to drive any god who tries to take your treasure nutso. I don't believe a word you say. Any of you!
/BELIEVE WHAT YOU WANT. IT WILL BE YOUR FUNERAL./
Go to Tartarus. Strife was so ready to kill someone right now. It had been bad enough trying to get past those stupid Harpies outside. Even with Evander backing him up, using his albeit dampened powers to hold them off, they'd barely made it to the entryway without getting their eyes scratched out. If he didn't need the damn boy to lead him through this nightmarish place, he'd blast him to dust right now for the small satisfaction of it.
/KILL THE BOY IF YOU WANT. GO ON. YOU'RE GOING TO DIE ANYWAY BEFORE THE DAY IS THROUGH./ The laughter of a thousand similar spirits echoed through his head.
/POOR LITTLE GOD,/ one of them taunted. /DIED ONCE ALREADY, TIME TO DIE AGAIN. SHOULD HAVE BEEN HAPPY WITH HIS FATE. SHOULDN'T HAVE TRIED TO BECOME A BIG GOD./
"Ungh!" He tore at his hair in frustration, which was already standing more on end than usual. Maybe I should kill the boy. Maybe he's the one putting these voices in my head, Strife mused with growing paranoia.
/THAT'S RIGHT, DO IT. WE'LL ENJOY IT. AND THEN WE'LL ENJOY TORMENTING YOU THROUGH THESE CORRIDORS FOR, OH, SAY A THOUSAND YEARS OR SO BEFORE LETTING YOU DIE. PERHAPS./
/YES. WE COULD SO USE A SMALL...DIVERSION./
Damn it. What the Tartarus was he doing here, anyway? Oh, that was right, he reminded himself: Greed. Greed for power. If he could just stop letting the voices get to him and follow Evander to the chamber, he'd be in possession of the complete Ring of Knowledge. He'd be smarter than Zeus and all the other Olympians combined, no doubt. He wouldn't need the blasted boy any longer, for the Ring could guide him past all the traps to the other chambers of treasure left here by the Titans. He'd not only be god of war, but he could challenge Zeus and become King of the Gods himself if he wanted to. Think big, wasn't that what Ares had always said?
/SUCH BIG THOUGHTS FOR SOMEONE ABOUT TO DIE! UH OH, BETTER WATCH YOUR STEP THERE.../
"Yaaah!" Strife jumped back a step, suddenly finding that he walking through a river of thick, congealing blood. It somehow was solidifying around his feet, trying to trap him here... The more he struggled to free himself, the worse his situation became until--
"Strife! Stop it! It's just an illusion!"
"Illusion?" The god blinked several times. The blood was gone. His legs were free, though his stomping seemed to have unsettled some of the rocks around them and dirt and dust flew up into his face.
"You were going to cause a cave-in if you kept that up," Evander warned. "Ignore what you see, unless I tell you it's there."
/HE'LL LEAD YOU RIGHT INTO A TRAP IF YOU DO THAT. DON'T LISTEN TO HIM./
Why aren't you bothering him? Strife whined.
/HE'S PART MORTAL. MORTALS ARE OKAY. BETTER THAN YOUR KIND, AT LEAST./
He's still part god. A son of Ares!
/DOESN'T MATTER. YOU'RE MORE FUN TO BOTHER./
/BESIDES, HE'S HERE TO KILL YOU. LIKE US. LIKE THE OTHERS./
Others? What others?!
/THEY WAIT...WAITING FOR YOU. WAITING FOR THE KILL./
Who are they?!
/POOR LITTLE GOD./
Lies, Strife insisted to himself. There could be no one waiting for him beyond more of these fucking annoying spirits.
/THAT'S WHAT YOU THINK./
Then tell me who they are!
/OH NO, BECAUSE THE LITTLE GOD STRIFE DOESN'T BELIEVE US. LITTLE GOD STRIFE IS GOING TO DIE./
/LITTLE GOD STRIFE IS GOING TO DIE.../
/LITTLE GOD STRIFE IS GOING TO DIE.../
The singsong chant picked up volume, echoing repeatedly through his head. No no no! he silently screamed back at them. Lies! All of it! He didn't believe their taunts. He wasn't about to run away.
Still...he ran his hand lightly against the weight of his sword in reassurance. Let someone be waiting. After this torture I'll be looking forward to meeting them...
He had lost any sense of how long they had been traveling through the winding corridors, how many horrific visions and words of fear and terror the spirits had tried to inflict upon him. All he knew was that, now, finally, they had reached the opening into a large chamber. It was illuminated eerily by large, luminescent gemstones of many colors and shapes, hanging from the ceiling or resting upon marble podiums. The voices had suddenly, blessedly fallen silent.
"Is this it? Are we there yet?" Strife asked hopefully.
Evander nodded. "This is what I was told I would find- -the Chamber of Coeus' fortunes. The ring, I think, should be in that chest in the center, over there."
"It better be," Strife said, stepping forward past the boy and ignoring the rest of the precious items scattered about the room. He fixed his attention on the simple-looking wooden chest in the middle of it all. "No more tricks here, right?" he called back to Evander before he dared to touch it. He didn't exactly care for the idea of going through all of this to get here and then slipping up at the last minute by missing some secret lever or password or something.
"No more tricks, Strife," a voice answered him, but not the one he was expecting.
Strife spun about in alarm and couldn't quite believe his eyes. "Ares?! Well, you're the last person I'd expect to see here. Or are you just another one of those damn hallucinations?" He cast a quick look about for the boy Evander, but could find him nowhere.
Ares smiled at him, but there was nothing except menace in his grin. "Why don't you step over here and find out?" he beckoned.
Strife couldn't help but laugh. "Pul-lease. Do you really have a death wish, Unc?"
"No, but I do have this. Look familiar?" Ares reached inside his vest and pulled out a dagger--the hind's blood dagger.
For a moment, fear seized the god as he remembered his previous death thanks to that blade, but then he forced himself to shake it off. "Oh, like I'm so scared. You really think you've got a chance in Tartarus of kicking my ass? C'mon, Ares, get real. I was gonna leave you alone. Now you're gonna make me get ugly. Even if this place messes with my powers, I can still take you down."
"We'll see about that," Ares answered, stepping closer and drawing a sword from his scabbard with his free hand. "I've been waiting for this moment for a long time."
Strife shook his head and sighed. "I really hate these family squabbles, ya know? But if that's the way it has to be..." he trailed off, and a second later he charged.
After the exchange of the first series of blows and strikes, it was apparent that the match was quite evenly met. Strife wielded the sword of war savagely, but Ares blocked his blows with his own sword, grasped in one hand while he kept hold of the dagger in the other. Strife had two things working against him that were keeping him off-balanced: the dampening of his godly powers thanks to the cave, and having to constantly keep an eye on the dagger. Even the slightest prick by the blade would, he knew, send him right back to Hades' doorstep.
"The boy was in on this all along, wasn't he?" Strife asked, ducking a wide swing of Ares' blade. "Shouldn't have trusted the little bastard at all. Don't worry though, I'll make sure he's...properly taken care of after I'm done with you."
"All he did was...lead you here...thanks to your own greed. You never knew when enough was enough, Strife. ...Always wanted more. More than you deserved."
"Yeah, well...you had everything handed to you, Unc. You never had to work to make a name for yourself. Born into the sweetest position any of us could have. Then you just wasted it!" Strife jumped over the other's head, landing easily on the ground behind him and then landing a hard blow to Ares' side. The former god stumbled and grunted, but to his merit didn't fall. He only glared back angrier than ever as Strife taunted, "Wasted it all for your pretty boy Joxer. Is he really that good of a fuck? Maybe I should give him a ride to remember, once I'm done with you here today."
Ares could never handle his temper properly, and that remark sent him right over the edge. He launched in at Strife harder than before, putting all his weight behind each blow, even managing several good ones that sent Strife flying back and tumbling over a pile of loose rocks on the ground. Nevertheless, as the fight continued, Strife began to realize one thing he had on his side. Even with his powers weakened, keeping him from frying Ares with any lightning bolts or using any other tricks, he still had more stamina than his mortal opponent did. Ares was looking as enraged as ever but as the fight continued and dragged on, he was starting to obviously tire as well.
"You can't keep this up forever, Unc," Strife taunted, managing an unblocked kick that sent Ares stumbling back against the wall. "You can't win this fight. You trained me, remember? I know all your moves." He spotted an opening against his dazed opponent, spun and kicked Ares' arm--the one holding the dagger. There was a grunt of pain and the former god's grip loosened, sending the dagger skittering across the ground.
"Now," Strife sighed, "we can get this over with!"
From their hiding point behind a large chest in a dark corner of the chamber, Joxer and Evander watched the fight unfolding. Joxer's apprehension increased with every passing minute. He sucked in his breath as he saw Ares lose his grip on the dagger, the weapon flying far from where the fighting men stood.
"No..." he protested under his breath, watching Ares continue to struggle to hold his own in the fight but only losing ground with each passing moment. Glancing to Evander, he asked desperately, "Can't you do something--anything!--to help him?"
Evander closed his eyes, obviously trying to call upon his talents, but then he exhaled and shook his head. "I can't...this place won't let me do much of anything...I can't even move the dagger toward them."
Joxer saw the blade lying still on ground, for the moment ignored by Strife and Ares as it was too far out of reach. Not far, though, from where he and Evander where hiding...if he dared step out from behind the chest to try to retrieve it, and catch Ares' attention...
He stopped himself from going for it. Ares had made him promise to protect Evander above all else. Yet, he reasoned, if Strife already knew Evander had betrayed him, and if Strife won this fight...Joxer knew his chances of getting out of here alive with the boy in tow would be less than slim.
"C'mon, Ares, you can do it..." he urged softly, his eyes darting back and forth between the still-raging battle and the dagger. Ares had to win this fight...the alternative was unthinkable, even though it seemed to be growing more inevitable with each passing minute. Maybe if Xena were here, he thought morosely, maybe she would have been able to do something to help...
Xena, however, was completely oblivious of the fight going on inside of the Caves. Indeed, she was knee- deep in a fight of her own on the road that led into the small village at Nomea not far from the Caves.
"We really don't have time for this!" Gabrielle called to her friend, as she jumped to avoid a soldier's low- sweeping sword, then clunked him hard on the helmet with her staff.
"Tell that to these guys!" Xena yelled back as she tried to plan a chakram throw that would take out a few of their opponents. Spotting a nearby tree that was at the proper angle from the warriors' battlewagon, she let the round weapon fly. It hit the tree, then ricocheted off on one warrior's chest plate. Then it flew over to the battlewagon, hitting the side and finally spinning around to lodge itself in another man's throat.
"I'll take that back, thanks," Xena said as she pulled the chakram free and then tried to check on the other two women. Another one of these damned roving bands of soldiers had gotten between them and the Caves--not only that but their wagon was full of women they'd rounded up from the nearby villages to sell into slavery or use for their own "pleasures". Though the battle was costing them time, Xena couldn't let a situation like that slide by without acting.
Gabrielle had subdued several of the men and was heading to the back of the wagon to try to free the women. Nemesis had climbed one of the trees and was demonstrating to all that she had not lost her touch for precision when it came to aiming an arrow with deadly intent.
Eventually the men--the ones who were still conscious or alive, that is--realized that if they wanted to stay that way, they had better turn and run. "The god of war will punish you for this!" one of them shouted before he fled. "You insult him with this attack!"
"I'll do more than insult him if I have to!" Xena threatened the fleeing men. When all were subdued or gone, she went over to join Gabrielle in freeing the relieved women.
"Thank you for saving us! I thought we were all going to die."
"I thought we were going to meet a fate worse than death," another woman put in.
"Can you make your way back safely to your villages?" Xena asked. They really didn't have time to play escort for these women if they wanted to make sure to be at the Caves to meet whoever would be leaving them.
"I...I think so," one of the other women answered. "I doubt those men will be giving us any more trouble, thanks to you and your friends."
"Good," Xena sighed. "Because I'd love to stay and make sure you do, but we've got to be moving ourselves. You can take the wagon, and there are probably some weapons inside--in case you do need to defend yourselves again."
"Oh, b-but wouldn't the god of war be terribly angry if we steal the weapons of his soldiers?" another woman asked fearfully.
"Trust us," Gabrielle answered. "If all goes well, a few stolen weapons are the last of the god of war's troubles right now."
Xena hoped Gabrielle was right.
Ares could barely afford the quick glance to the floor, trying to see where the dagger had landed. Dammit! he cursed to himself, but then he had to jump back to avoid Strife's sword as it passed a little too close to his neck. Have to concentrate...got to think...stay alert!
He had known this fight would be the worst battle he'd ever face. He had expected that his rage, his determination to avenge Joxer's murder, his knowledge that he was supposed to win this fight, would carry him through to victory. But perhaps in the end that wasn't enough. Perhaps he had trained Strife better than he should have, or the god had spent more time observing and scheming against his "mentor" than Ares realized. He wasn't simply a stronger opponent--he seemed able to predict Ares' blows, his moves, and mirror some of them too damn well.
Ares' arms were growing heavy as the rest of his body tired, one arm stinging incessantly thanks to the blow from Strife's boot. He swung recklessly with his sword, missing his target and only opening himself in turn to Strife's attack. He managed to twist his body away at the last second, but the tip of the sword still glanced his side, the sharp pain making it even harder to concentrate than before.
"Get with it and give it up, Unc. You can't win. And you know, I really don't feel like killing you, and it's gonna be a major pain in the ass dealing with the other gods if I have to. We were good together...when you'd actually let me have some fun." Strife paused to duck a blow, but then one swing of his fist impacted with the larger man hard enough to send him staggering back.
Ares tripped on a rock he hadn't seen was right behind him. He fell to the ground, dazed, in pain, gasping to catch his breath. It was particularly hard to do with Strife's foot pressing down on his chest.
"This was all so uncool of you," Strife sighed, shaking his head. "And you know what's worst of all? Now you won't get the chance to see what I'm gonna do to this world, with all you taught me. I was gonna make you proud, Unc."
"The chance of that happening...died a long time ago."
"Oh well. Now it's your turn to die." With that, the god raised his sword high, preparing for the final blow and obviously savoring the prospect. His eyes glistened in manic delight as he declared triumphantly, "Say good-night, Uncle Ares. It was fun, once. Now, I'm just doing my job. I'm sure you understand."
Ares closed his eyes, too tired and beaten to even attempt to struggle at this point. He'd risked everything, and he'd lost. In the end, not even the best plan had been able to succeed. With regret, he thought sadly, Sorry, Joxer...let you down...let everyone down...
Then he heard a gasp when he expected a cry of triumph, and after a few moments dared to open his eyes. Strife stood frozen in place in front of him, his foot still pressing down on Ares' chest but not with as much force as before. An expression of shock and pain had replaced the triumph on his face. His arm was still raised high but the sword was no longer there, as if ripped from his grasp. Behind him stood...
No... Ares couldn't believe it. He refused to believe it.
Strife staggered back and sideways...to reveal Joxer standing behind him. One hand grasped the sword he'd pulled from Strife's hand. The other hung empty before him.
Strife managed to turn around, slowly, to see who had stabbed him, revealing to Ares the hind's blood dagger lodged deeply in Strife's back.
"Of all the...oh...this SUCKS!" Strife struggled to gasp out before then falling down to the ground.
"You'd better stay dead this time, you little prick," Ares managed with a sigh of relief. He was just turning back toward Joxer when he noticed the sword in the mortal's hand beginning to glow. The words he'd not long before told Joxer echoed back through his ears:
"If the seated god of war were ever to be killed, the person who murders him inherits the position as reward."
Oh, Tartarus. What trouble have I just gotten the world into now? Ares thought, relief quickly turning to dismay. This was about the last thing he'd been prepared for, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
Joxer seemed barely aware of what was happening, unable to draw his eyes away from Strife's lifeless body on the ground. The glow started at the tip of the sword, accompanied by a soft, resonating hum. It spread, with increasing speed, up the length of the blade, then over Joxer's arm. At this point Joxer finally seemed to notice that something was happening and his eyes went wide in fear. He started to look toward Ares, but then the glow enveloped his entire body in a blinding flash, the light so bright it momentarily blinded Ares.
When he could open his eyes again, it was over. The transformation was complete.
Joxer was now...a god.
And not just any god--no, far from it.
He was Ares' latest replacement.
Ares was getting a headache just contemplating the idea.
But then again, he realized, perhaps this was the best revenge against Zeus and the others. It was simply going to take a bit of time for him to get used to the idea.
Probably a good hundred years or so, at least.
Joxer blinked and looked down at his hands, utterly bewildered. He glanced at the weapon in his hand, the weighty sword that Ares knew would now feel as light as a feather in his grasp--as if it simply belonged there. In effect, it did.
Joxer looked again at Strife, at the sword, and then at Ares, who was just managing to get to his feet. "Uh oh," Joxer said, seeming to finally get a clue as to what had happened.
"Uh oh, indeed," Ares echoed. "Well. This is certainly a turn of events I wasn't expecting."
"Am I...I'm not imagining this, right? I'm..."
"You're a god now, Joxer. I told you I'd see to that happening someday. Though this wasn't exactly what I had in mind."
Joxer protested, "Ares, you know I didn't mean to...I don't want to be a god! At least, not the god of war. That's, that's..."
"Utterly and completely insane?"
"Yes!" Joxer agreed. "You're the god of war, not me."
"No, I was the god of war. You killed Strife. I didn't. The sword is yours now, whether you want it or not."
"I don't want it. I can't do this." His gaze fell upon the dead body on the floor once more and he shivered. "I can't do this," he repeated, his voice barely above a whisper this time.
"You have to." Ares wrapped an arm around the shocked man's body, taking a moment to study Strife's body as well. Despite everything, he still felt a tinge of regret at the death. There had been a time when he'd thought of Strife as one of his few true friends, companions... His first death had been painful enough. His betrayal had been sickening. Now...now it all felt like such a waste. Ares could barely summon up the anger he'd felt earlier toward his nephew.
"Stay dead this time, Strife," he said softly. "It will be best for all of us."
"I was only trying to protect you," Joxer started. "I couldn't let him kill you. I...I saw the dagger lying there...was going to try to get it to you, but then he had you on the ground...I wasn't even thinking, I just did it..." he trailed off, sounding utterly miserable about it all.
Ares rested his hands on Joxer's tensed shoulders, trying to find the words to say that would make any of this easier. It was difficult, for this was certainly never a position he thought he would find himself in: trying to console someone after taking a life. He'd watched and savored so many losing their innocence, drawing their first blood. It had always been a cause to celebrate...until now.
Now, he knew why he had protected Joxer from this moment for so long. Though he knew the damage was done and there was no turning back, he insisted, "Put it behind you, Joxer. You did what you had to do, to save my life. Would you rather you'd done nothing, and let Strife kill me?"
"No, of course not!"
"Then don't punish yourself. You weren't even acting out of revenge, to get back at him for what he did to you--as had been my intention."
"I feel sick."
"It's the shock, perfectly normal reaction. After all, you've just had your first kill and become immortal, all in the span of a few minutes. Never mind the fact that this place doesn't like immortals so you're probably feeling the effect of that."
Joxer turned around in Ares' embrace and implored him, "Take the sword, Ares, it's yours. It doesn't belong to me. I can't be the god of war!"
Ares sighed, wishing--desperately--that he could do as Joxer wished, but knowing he couldn't. "I can't take it, Joxer. It's bonded to you now, become a part of you. To enact a transfer would require the intervention and approval of the other gods--and they're not about to do that for my sake."
"You could kill me and take it," Joxer said with complete seriousness.
"Never. Don't ever suggest such foolishness in my presence again."
"Sorry. I'm just...oh, I feel strange."
Joxer looked about ready to pass out so Ares increased his grip around him and soothed, "It will pass. Give it time. You have much to learn now. I'll be here to help." Suddenly, his thoughts turned to alarm as he remembered, "Evander! Where--"
"Here, father," the boy answered, stepping out from the shadows where Ares remembered seeing Joxer lead him to hide before the fight. "I'm fine."
"Thank the gods," Ares let out with relief, not even flinching at the exclamation. He let go of Joxer to sweep up his son into his arms and hug him tightly.
"Did I do all right?" Evander asked.
"You did fine, son. Just fine. Made me very proud."
"We should leave soon," Evander said. "The spirits want us to go. They say they won't bother us, if we leave the gem behind. I think Strife still has it. Joxer isn't of Zeus' blood, so they don't mind him too much. As long as we don't take any of the treasure left here with us, they'll let us pass in peace." Evander paused, as if listening for something. "I think they're busy welcoming a new spirit into these Caves right now anyway."
"We won't take anything. I just want to get out of here in one piece," Ares said, looking towards Joxer. For the first time, he really noticed the change that had taken place through Joxer's transformation-- and how magnificent a god his lover made. His pale skin seemed almost luminescent, the contrast sharp to his dark attire, the fine warrior gear that now covered his body. His hair, for once, was not standing up in multiple directions but instead lying flat, golden-tinged and perfect. He ached to touch him, kiss him, to find out exactly what other changes he might find in his now immortal lover...but there would be time for that later, once they got out of here, out of this place of death.
Still carrying Evander in his arms, Ares walked back over to Joxer. "Shall we?" he asked.
Joxer cast one last pained look back at the body on the ground, and then nodded his head. "Yeah. I'll be glad to get out of here, too." After a pause, he continued, "This is gonna be kinda interesting to explain to the others, don't you think?"
Ares sighed and shook his head. "Interesting...that's one way to put it."
The journey out of the labyrinth of the caves was not as difficult and slow as the way in had been. The traps were still there and they had to proceed cautiously, but the three of them had made their way through here once and knew what to expect.
Except for confirming directions and instructing each other which way to move, they remained mostly silent. Ares had a great deal to say to both Joxer and Evander, but this was neither the time nor the place for it. His adrenaline had worn off some time ago, and the pain of his bruises and injuries was intensifying. Getting out of the caves in one piece was demanding most of his concentration.
Eventually the darkness around them began to lighten, the mouth of the caves that led to the outside world in sight. Ares paused as they approached the exit, turning back to Joxer to ask, "You do remember..."
"Like I'd forget them," Joxer replied, not looking pleased with the prospect but quite aware there was no getting around another encounter with the Harpies outside. "Well, I suppose I got past them once, I can do it again...oh, but won't they be, like, really after me this time?" He looked a paler shade of his normal pale as he realized this. "Now that I'm a...a god?"
"They might not bother you, since you're not directly of Zeus' relation," Ares tried to reassure him, "if they're smart enough to realize that. Besides, Evander, you held them off with Strife all right, didn't you?"
The boy nodded. "It was kind of hard, but I did it okay. The energy field doesn't really affect my powers outside of the caves. But I think the Harpies will leave Joxer alone, just like the spirits said they would."
"I hope so," Joxer added, and Ares shared the sentiment. He didn't think any of them were up for a fight against a band of bloodthirsty Harpies at the moment. Joxer was clearly still in shock from everything that had happened, and Evander...Ares thought his son was starting to show the strain of the past days' efforts also.
"Well, I guess there's nothing to do but go out there and find out. Hold on to your torches, though," Ares advised. "The fire should help keep them back if they do decide to attack."
Evander and Ares led the way outside, with Joxer waiting inside until Ares could judge what sort of reception they were going to receive. The ugly winged creatures descended from high above almost immediately. Their screeches and calls were clearly aggressive, but the Harpies hovered in a circle well above them, even when Ares cautiously waved for Joxer to follow them. They shrieked a little louder than before at this, but either Evander was putting all of his remaining energies into trying to keep them away, or he was right that they had decided not to attack Joxer because he was not seen as an "enemy". Ares glanced back at Joxer as they crossed the clearing between the cave and the nearby forest, to make sure he was holding out. Joxer seemed to be trying his best to ignore the creatures above. He met Ares' eyes briefly and attempted a weak smile to show he was all right.
As they made their way quickly away from the caves, Ares saw that Xena, Gabrielle and Nemesis were there waiting for them, according to plan. When the women, in turn, made out who was leaving the cave, their expressions of relief were evident although they stayed alert and ready to fight until the men were out of danger and the Harpies had flown away.
"Evander!" Nemesis called out, her tears coming as she rushed to embrace him. "Oh honey, I'm so glad you're all right. You are okay, aren't you?"
"I'm fine," the boy answered, squirming about in his mother's tight embrace. With a yawn he added, "Sleepy, that's all."
Xena and Gabrielle were in turn focused on Joxer and Ares, quite obviously realizing that something was not quite right from the men's expressions. Ares figured that his disheveled, bloodied appearance had to be clueing them in that something hadn't gone as planned.
"What happened?" Xena asked.
"Strife's dead," Ares answered, "but not at my hands."
"Then who..." Gabrielle started, then she stopped and took a good look at Ares' companion. "You don't mean...Joxer?"
"I had to do it," Joxer answered plaintively.
"It was my fault. Strife was still too strong for me to handle alone," Ares explained. "Joxer did it to save my life--and Evander's."
"...And the one who kills the god of war..." Xena started but then trailed off, looking only slightly less shocked than Gabrielle.
"...becomes the new god of war, yes. I think you're both getting the picture," Ares finished.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Gabrielle interrupted. "You're not saying that...you mean that Joxer is the...Joxer is the god of war?!" The end of her question came out almost as a squeak.
"Frightening, isn't it?" Ares remarked.
Gabrielle focused her disbelieving eyes on the hapless wanna-be warrior-turned-god-of-all-warriors. Shaking her head, she mumbled, "Oh, whoa, I think I need to go sit down for a minute..."
Gabrielle stumbled over to where Evander and Nemesis were sitting and catching up, while Xena recovered her composure with admirable speed and asked, "Are you okay with this?"
Ares answered firmly, "Yes" just as Joxer answered even more firmly "No!"
Both the warrior princess and Ares turned to Joxer, who sighed miserably, "But it's not like I have any choice in this, right? I killed Strife, so now I have to take his place. That's what Ares says."
"Unfortunately he's right, Joxie," another voice confirmed. A bright flash of golden light and rose petals then announced Aphrodite's presence. The goddess stepped up to her brother and remarked with a frown, "Jeez, Ar, you look like Tartarus warmed over."
"That's what tends to happen when you get your ass kicked, sis," he replied dryly.
Apologetically, she said, "I'm sorry, Ar, I know this isn't exactly what you intended."
"Strife is dead, and Joxer is all right--the rest can be settled later," he dismissed. "The truth is, I wasn't sure that even if I did kill Strife myself that the other gods wouldn't intervene and prevent me from reclaiming my sword, calling up some loophole or other bullshit to stop me."
"I'm sure Hades would've tried...he's going to be cheesed off enough to have to deal with Strife again! Serves him right, as far as I'm concerned. Listen, boys, I'm real sorry to have to butt in at a time like this, but you know how fast news spreads on Olympus. The death of a god always makes serious waves. Zeus wants to speak to Joxie pronto."
"Z-Zeus?" Joxer stuttered.
"Get used to it," Ares sighed, patting him reassuringly on the shoulder. "You're part of the family now. One more dysfunctional apple for the tree."
Aphrodite added, "Don't worry, Joxie, you earned this position fair and square. Dad can't take it away from you, not without violating his precious rules. But a lot of responsibility comes with that thing," she paused to waggle a finger at the sword he now carried, "and he wants to make sure you understand that."
"Oh. Yeah. Of course."
The new god turned to Ares, who could only urge him, "Go ahead with sis, I'll be fine."
'Dite slipped an arm around Joxer's shoulders and said, "You'll be fine, too--I wouldn't bring you to Zeus if I didn't know that." She gave a quick wave to everyone and before Joxer could say or do anything in protest, they both disappeared.
Xena turned to Ares and remarked, "If you want to make sure you're going to be fine, we're going to have to take a look at your injuries. That gash on your side in particular. I'm sure if we head on to the village near here we can find a healer."
"...And a place where we can all get some rest," Nemesis added, nodding towards her boy, who already looked as if he was asleep.
"This is just too weird," Gabrielle insisted from where she sat on the ground, still shaking her head in disbelief. "How can Joxer be the god of war?! Joxer as the god of anything is scary enough, but war?! Oh, I can see it now, and it's not a pretty picture." Looking to Ares, she continued, "You can't tell me that Zeus is going to let this happen."
Ares shrugged. "If Dad and I were on better terms, maybe he'd make an exception here. But the way things are now...who knows? We'll just have to wait and see."
How he'd gotten here he didn't quite understand; he'd done as Aphrodite told him, focusing on the image she shared with him in his mind and then picturing himself there. Ares had taken him places in the past this way but he'd never had to actively participate in the act. It felt stranger and seemed to take an awful lot longer than he remembered, but suddenly he'd felt the world come back into focus around him, and he stumbled, nearly falling before he regained his balance.
Aphrodite caught him and giggled, "Whoa, slow down, sugar! That wasn't too hard, was it?"
"Uh, guess not. Don't know exactly what I did, but I'm here, so I guess it worked."
"Just remember this--you can basically do whatever you want to now, simply by thinking about it and imagining it happening. You don't have to understand how that works, at least not yet."
"Oh. That's good. I think."
"Yeah, but it'll still take you a lot of practice to get the hang of things. But look at it, Joxie, isn't it something?" Aphrodite was practically bouncing up and down in her enthusiasm. Actually, certain parts of her were bouncing quite nicely, Joxer noticed, but then mentally slapped himself and tried to concentrate on what she was saying. "This is not only Olympus, but the very heart of it all--Zeus' Temple. Pretty hot stuff, wouldn't you say?"
Joxer looked all around and he had to agree: the vision before him was enough to leave him breathless. He'd seen the interiors of some of the richest kings' castles, and prayed in the largest temples in Greece, but none could compare in the least to the amazing structure they now stood within. Everything was marble and gold, and huge. He walked over to the balcony and gazed out over lush gardens as far as his eye could see. Here and there, other beautiful temples, spires, and structures stood out from the greenery, places he guessed had to be the homes of the other gods.
"It's...it's really just...amazing!" was all he could say as Aphrodite joined him to take in the view. "Ares tried to describe it to me...even tried to recreate it once or twice, at least his chambers in his temple here- -that one, over to the right, there, isn't it?"
"Wow. I never could imagine it was so...wow." He sighed, his excitement passing as he thought sadly, "I wish I could take some time to explore and see everything. I wish Ares could be here with me."
"I know how you must feel," she sympathized, "but there'll be plenty of time to explore later. Make Zeus happy and get this little meeting over with so he'll leave you alone for a while to get used to things." With that, she put an arm around his shoulders and started leading him down the long corridor.
"I don't suppose I'd get anywhere if I asked him to give Ares his godhood back, that I really didn't want this?" he asked hopefully.
"You can try, but I doubt he's ready to admit he was wrong about taking it away from Arry to begin with. Don't give up on that, though, okay? You 'n me, we'll work on him and the other gods together," she said with a warm smile and a wink. "I can be pretty persuasive when I want to be, you know."
They eventually stopped in front of one doorway that was larger and more elaborately decorated than the others they had passed. "Dad's waiting inside. It's your show from here on, Joxie. I'll wait in the atrium downstairs. You can come find me when you're done and we can go over a few things before getting you back to Arry."
"Thanks, Aphrodite." She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and then disappeared, leaving him alone to face Zeus.
"Okay, no problem," Joxer tried to convince himself, taking a few deep breaths before proceeding. "We're just talking about meeting the King of the Gods here, no big deal. Why should I be nervous?"
This was also, lest he forget, his lover's father, and the very person who agreed to sending a band of Harpies after him and letting him die a particularly painful death not that long ago. Of course, thinking about such things really wasn't helping at the moment, and neither was standing here, trying to delay the inevitable. Bracing himself, he gently pushed open the door. He stepped inside, already too awed by the opulent surroundings to gape much more at the sight of the King of the Gods' private chambers.
Zeus was standing by a large window that looked out over the same view Joxer had been admiring before from the balcony. He turned around as he heard Joxer approach and greeted him with a completely neutral voice, "Welcome, Joxer. Please, have a seat, make yourself comfortable."
Oh, sure. I'm feeling perfectly comfortable here, Joxer thought. Still, he did as he was told and took a seat in an ornate armchair near the window. He didn't speak, figuring silence was his best approach until prompted to specifically say something. His mouth tended to have a hard time stopping once it started, especially when he was nervous.
Zeus took a seat across from him, a soft sigh escaping the elderly god's lips as he patted down the folds of his golden-trimmed, flowing robe. Joxer felt the critical gaze of the god's eyes upon him, though Zeus' expression was unreadable. After a brutally uncomfortable time under the intense study, Zeus finally said, "Well, what...interesting conditions for me to finally meet and speak with the man who has had such an influence on my son. Most unexpected. Of course," he continued after a pause, "little that has happened since Ares became involved with you has gone as I expected. Ares had never before revealed that he had the capacity to love, or to even understand what love is. Certainly, he has never shown anything beyond contempt--or at most a grudging tolerance--toward his fellow gods. That he should finally have learned to love through a relationship with a mortal...it has certainly been a curious revelation to me. Very curious."
Zeus paused, still examining the increasingly anxious Joxer with his cool gaze. "Well, none of that is particularly important at the moment. I did not expect Ares to give up his godhood for your life, but he did. He of course attempted to reclaim his sword...and failed. Now you, a young mortal I am told was not even a particularly skilled fighter, are rightfully the god of war. Joxer, do you understand the immense responsibility you have taken upon yourself?"
Joxer figured he had nothing to lose by being completely honest. "Sir," he started carefully, "I only understand what I have learned from being with Ares--the things I saw him do and what he told me about. Becoming the god of war was never my intention; I only did what I did to protect Ares...he should have been the one to kill Strife, not me, but--"
"--but he didn't, and you did," Zeus interrupted. "There is no going back to change what has happened. You must be prepared to take on this responsibility, and to do so quickly and efficiently--or else you may meet the same fate Strife did. Be thankful, Joxer, that you have Ares to guide you through what you will need to do now...but don't make the same mistakes and enemies that he did."
"He's your son, how can you...how could you do all of this to him?" Joxer asked before his brain could get into gear and stop the words from coming out. But King of the Gods or not, Zeus was largely responsible for everything that had happened to Ares and himself. He couldn't help but feel angry, and that anger was demanding a voice.
Zeus responded calmly, "I did nothing but force my son to abide by our rules. Ares was the one to abuse his power, not I. I tried for millennia to talk reason into him, to teach him to respect the other Olympians, yet he always considered himself completely superior to everyone else--even myself."
"But...you have to know that he's changed. He's changed so much," Joxer argued.
"I won't argue that fact. I realized that something had changed inside him the moment he told me your life meant more to him than his godhood. I have kept an eye on him since, and seen the way he has learned not only how to love you but to begin to finally develop respect for others, a sense of humbleness."
"Then if you know he's changed, why not let him have his godhood back? He won't make the same mistakes he did before, I'm sure of it. Even...even if he can't be the god of war again, couldn't he be the god of something else?"
"It is a possibility. But not a decision I can make lightly--nor without the consent of the council of Olympus. And considering Ares' reputation and the fact that many others are less willing than myself to consider that his 'changes' are indeed real and permanent...well, it would be a difficult argument to make that he deserved any second chance."
"Oh," Joxer answered simply. He understood that what Zeus said made sense...but it didn't make his and Ares' plight suck any less, as far as he was concerned.
"I'm not saying it's impossible, Joxer. I just want to make sure you properly understand the...complications inherent in this situation. Now, if you prove capable of handling your position, then in time, I suspect the council would be more willing to hear you plead Ares' case than they would be today."
"In time..." Joxer repeated. "Like, what sort of time are we talking about here? A few years? A few decades? Centuries?"
Zeus very nearly smiled. "I see you've learned quite a bit already from Ares about the way we gods think."
"I know that what seems like a short amount of time to an immortal could be nearly a lifetime to a mortal. Or several lifetimes." How long Ares had to live as a mortal, Joxer had no way to judge...but he had a feeling that compared to the amount of time a god like Hades might hold a grudge against the fallen god, it would not be nearly enough time.
"I can understand your concern," Zeus said, seeming to have heard his thoughts. Then he stood, and walked over to the window for a time, appearing deep in thought. Turning back to face Joxer, Zeus declared, "That concern, at least, can be dealt with without too much difficulty. Ares is my son, and though he might not believe as much, I do care about his fate. He gave up immortality and power just to grant you another chance at life. You, in turn, sacrificed your innocence to prevent his death and I believe you are willing to take on the responsibility of your new godhood, even if reluctantly. I owe you both something, because of the way I doubted the depth of your commitment to each other."
Zeus then explained his offer to the new god. "It's not what you were hoping for, I know," Zeus finished, "but it is all I can do for now."
"Oh, wow, I mean--no, that's great! Thank you," Joxer answered, trying to contain his excitement. "That'll make things a little--a lot-- easier, I think."
"Good. Then it is done."
Joxer blinked. "Just like that?"
Zeus then, finally, granted him a full smile. "Yes. Just like that. I am King of the Gods, after all, capable of at least the occasional small miracle."
Aphrodite was thrilled when she heard how the meeting with Zeus had gone. "You see? I told you not to worry, Jox. You've already won over dad; the rest of the fam'll be a piece of cake."
"I hope you're right," he answered. "I can't wait to tell Ares the news."
"I'll take that as a hint you're ready to blow this joint?"
"Yeah...I know I have a lot of stuff I should be learning about and doing..."
"...And Ares can probably help with that better than I can. Come on, sweets, let's go find him and then I'll get out of your hair. I'm the guest of honor at an orgy in Athens and I'm already late."
With that, the two gods left Olympus. Joxer was a little more prepared for the experience this time and managed to land with less wooziness than the first time. It was past sundown, and Aphrodite had brought him to a small house on the outskirts of the village at Nomea. A sign hanging near the door indicated it was home to the village healer, and 'Dite explained, "I checked down here while you were busy with Zeus. Xena and the gals are staying at the inn just down the road; they brought Ares here and he's crashed out inside, looks like he'll be fine."
"No prob, I'll be around in a day or two to check up on how you're doing. Now go on--I think you two have a little celebrating to get to." She winked and stepped back, then disappeared in a brilliant burst of golden light.
Joxer stood outside the door for a minute to gather his thoughts. This was the first moment he'd had to himself in what felt like ages, and so much had happened in that time...he almost wanted to laugh, it seemed so ridiculous. Somehow he was going to have to grip on himself and get over the shock that was still dominating his thoughts; maybe then it would start to feel real.
From somewhere in the back of his mind, a curse from the Chin that Ares had once mentioned came to him: "May you live in interesting times." He thought that he was finally starting to understand exactly what that meant. But whether these interesting times of his life would prove a curse or instead a blessing was something, he realized, would probably only be revealed with time.
With that thought, he finally entered the house. Immediately he was aware--though he wasn't sure how--that there were indeed two mortals nearby. One's presence was unfamiliar to him, and he took that to be the healer. The other...he couldn't quite explain it but as soon as his senses had picked up this presence, he'd known it was Ares. He quickly made his way to a room in the back of the house, curtained off from what looked like the main treatment area. Inside the small room, he found Ares sound asleep on the bed, and looking much better than he had earlier.
Joxer stood in the doorway a long time, simply watching, not wanting to disturb Ares' no doubt much needed sleep. The moonlight was weak that evening, barely casting the palest glow into the room, but Joxer could see him just fine in the dim illumination. Ares lay dressed only in his pants, a bandage wrapped securely about his waist. Other than that, though, no signs of the bruises and cuts he should have been covered with--and no doubt had been until only a short time before--remained. Joxer silently thanked Zeus, taking this as a sign that the king had kept his word and done as he'd promised.
Joxer could even, if he concentrated, hear the soft rhythm of Ares' heartbeat from where he stood. It was a comforting sound...and one that with its steady, droning beat, threatened to lull Joxer sound asleep right where he stood. Well, Ares always said even gods need their rest, he recalled, and it felt to him as if he hadn't slept for weeks. He unfastened his scabbard and laid the sword carefully on the chest near the bed. He decided to give making his clothes disappear a shot-- and sure enough, as soon as he visualized it all going away, he found himself standing there completely naked.
Okay, that worked...sure is convenient. I hope I can remember how to bring it all back when I need it again.
He slipped into the bed at Ares' side, still trying to be careful about not waking him. Joxer ran his fingers lightly through the long, thick hair as he settled in close against the other man, breathing in the ebony strands' familiar, enticing scent. Emotion threatened to overcome him, the events of the day--indeed, this whole journey--at last catching up with him. The final confrontation in the cave replayed itself in his mind, as much as he wished he could forget about it...watching Ares slowly lose the fight, practically feeling every blow to his body as it he were the one out there battling Strife...the rage and desperation that had possessed him, drawing him out to grab the dagger...giving him the strength to pull the sword free from Strife's hand just as he thrust the dagger forward...
He shivered and closed his eyes, trying to force down the memory, the nausea it made him feel. He slipped his arm around Ares' waist and held him tightly, breathing in deep once more the scent of his hair, his skin, feeling Ares' heartbeat against him, under his hands. This was what I did it for, he reminded himself. I saved his life, cheated the Fates one more time so we could stay together. He made his own sacrifices once to keep me alive. Guess it was just my turn to repay the favor.
The tight embrace was finally enough to awaken the sleeping man, who Joxer began to feel stirring under his touch. Ares turned around in his embrace until his still-focusing, sleepy eyes found Joxer's.
"Hi," Joxer managed with a sheepish grin.
Ares raised an eyebrow and replied, "Hi? Gone to Olympus and back and that's all you have to say for yourself?"
"Yeah, well, seen one kingdom of the gods, seen 'em all, right?"
"So it would seem." Ares appeared to notice the improved condition he was in and commented, "Hmm, learning some tricks fast, are you?"
"Um, that wasn't me. Zeus took take of that."
"Really. How nice of him."
"That's not all he did, actually."
"I tried to talk him into letting you have your godhood back. He said that could take some time to happen, since a lot of the other gods are still, um..."
"Annoyed that I'm still alive at all?"
"Yeah, basically. But, since he didn't know how long it might take them to change their minds...well, he couldn't give you godhood but he did give you back your immortality," Joxer explained. "That's pretty good, right? I mean, it's not as good as being a god, but at least it's better than being mortal. And now I don't have to worry now that I'm going to lose you some day."
Ares looked surprised for a moment, then relief was evident as a smile crept over his face. "I think, Joxer, it's safe to say you couldn't lose me even if you wanted to."
"...And that will never happen," Joxer promised, running his palm over Ares' cheek. His hand trembled as he realized he could feel echoes of Ares' desire for him, his pleasure at the gentle touch, echoing and mixing with his own building arousal. It was a dizzying sensation, and all they were doing was touching...he wondered nervously if he was ready to handle what might happen as a result of any more intimate contact.
"Joxer?" Ares asked him with concern.
"Sorry...I'm just...tell me I'm stupid, but I feel...nervous."
"About being god of war? That's not stupid." Ares turned his head slightly until his lips brushed against Joxer's fingertips.
Joxer closed his eyes, his head spinning thanks to the light but incredibly erotic sensation. "No...I mean, yes, I'm nervous about that but right now...I'm nervous about being a god, period. I want to be with you, I want to make love to you... but everything I'm feeling right now is just..."
"It will take time and practice to get used to it all. I can only guess what it is like for someone who has only known the limitations of mortality to try to handle such powers unexpectedly. We'll take out time...I think I'll enjoy watching you learn your way around."
With that, Ares leaned in to claim Joxer's lips, a gentle kiss to start but one that still left the new god breathless. As soon as their lips met, everything else seemed to fade away into nothingness--time, space, everything but their bodies and dimly the bed beneath him. He could feel the very pulse of Ares' life under his fingertips, through his lips; he was aware, somehow, of how every movement he made quickened his lover's heartbeat and heightened his desire. Every pleasurable sensation he elicited with his hands or his mouth echoed back to him. Added to his own delight as Ares' hands caressed his body, bringing him quickly to full arousal, he was becoming positively lightheaded, losing all sense of himself.
"Ares..." he gasped out, needing to break away from the kiss that had rapidly deepened and become more intense than he could endure. He buried his head in the hollow of the other man's neck, drawing in slow, heavy breaths to try to calm himself. Yet every breath brought with it the musky scent of Ares' body...sweat and arousal, a faint hint of vanilla soap in the silken strands of his hair...
"Too much too fast?"
"Mmmph..." was about all Joxer could manage in response. Finally calming down, he continued, "You always seemed so in control and everything when you were a god; why am I having a hard time with this? I feel like I could drown in you..."
"It will get easier with time, I promise...remember, I was born with these abilities and had thousands of years to learn how to use and control them. You're just an infant, in a sense, right now," Ares observed, gently stroking Joxer's back. "You have to learn to distance yourself, not keep your senses fully open all the time."
"How can I do that?"
"Center yourself...I don't know if I can explain it in words..."
In words, he didn't, but Joxer could see the image, the ideas that Ares was trying to show to him through his thoughts. It was a little difficult to grasp the idea at first, but basically it seemed to involve imagining an expanding series of "walls" between himself and everything else...each one serving as an increasingly strong barrier between his mind and the world around him.
"Do you understand that?"
"I think so...kind of strange...oh!" he exclaimed when he realized he must have done it correctly because he felt the intense connection to his lover's mind suddenly lessen. Of course the surprise that it had worked was enough to disrupt the "wall" and he was back to where he'd started. "Damn, I almost had it, I think."
"It takes practice, like everything. There's no need to rush. After nearly losing everything today, I'd be happy just holding you all night if that's all you're ready for."
"Of course, really. It's been a long day for both of us. No need to push things."
"Yeah, I mean, we've got lots of time to work things out, right?"
"All the time in the world, Joxer. All the time in the world."
They ended up falling asleep not much later, giving in to the combined physical and emotional exhaustion of the past days' events. Joxer awoke early the next morning to the sound of a rooster calling somewhere outside the house. He felt significantly better than he had the night before--a little more at ease now that he'd had some rest, and perhaps some time to start to come to terms with everything that had happened.
He could sense Ares beginning to finally wake up also, the rooster too persistent to ignore. Testing the range of his senses, Joxer realized the healer was awakening as well--and would probably be coming in to check on Ares shortly, who would then have to come up with some sort of explanation for his incredibly speedy recovery.
Joxer snuggled tightly against the larger man and sighed to himself, I'd love to be home right now, in our own bed, and not have to worry about anyone or anything else for a while.
He could just see the cozy, familiar bedroom in his mind, and feel the silken sheets against their bare skin instead of this slightly scratchy blanket--
--and then most unexpectedly, everything flashed out of focus for a moment, and when it came clear again...there they were. Home.
"Whoa, gotta be careful with that," he muttered aloud. "Wouldn't want to accidentally think my way into a lava pit or something someday." Panicking for a moment, he sat up, wondering where the sword had gone to...
...and he breathed a relieved sigh when he spotted it there on the floor near the bed, the morning light glimmering softly down its length. Apparently wherever he went, it went, which he supposed was a good thing to know. He swore the thing had some sort of mind of its own, because he could practically hear it saying smugly to him, /Didn't think you could lose me that easily, did you?/
The sudden shift in surroundings was enough to fully awaken Ares. "Where...?" he started, looking around, and then he smiled as he recognized their surroundings. "Hmm, definitely an improvement. Should have done that before we went to sleep though," he muttered, rubbing the back of his neck. "Felt like there were rocks in that mattress."
"Stiff neck?" Joxer asked, settling back down against him.
"Mmm...not the only thing that's stiff," Ares answered, turning to meet Joxer for a kiss.
"I can see what you mean...or at least I can feel it." Joxer slipped one hand between them, rubbing the front of Ares pants, then with a naughty thought making the pants disappear entirely.
"You're enjoying that, aren't you?" Ares smirked, though it was clear he was enjoying it, too.
Joxer only grinned, and then leaned in for another kiss. He felt remarkably more comfortable with his newfound powers this morning, enough to begin to take pleasure from the degree to which he could share in his lover's feelings and thoughts. This mental connection had freaked him out last night, but now that he was rested he felt a little more relaxed and in control of it. He could savor it and open his senses to Ares as he wished, yet he could also pull back at will when it became too intense.
"Mmm, which stiffness should I take care of first?" Joxer asked, continuing to play with the other man's erection.
"I don't have any complaints about what you're doing now...as long as you're managing all right..."
"Yeah...I think I can handle it today."
Ares groaned both at the bad pun and at Joxer's increasingly stimulating touch. Joxer silenced his protests with another kiss, this one unhurried and deliberate. His tongue played against the full lips, tasting, sliding within the welcoming warm of Ares' mouth. The most sensual mouth he had ever seen, had ever felt against his flesh, Joxer thought dreamily. That something as dark and destructive as war should have ever been embodied within such a passionate, seductive form...Joxer didn't understand the logic behind that, but could only eternally be thankful that somehow this particular seductive form directed all of its passions toward him.
He took his time rediscovering Ares body with hands, lips, and tongue. Every curve and muscle, every tender place he knew would elicit a sigh when he touched, or a moan when he nipped it with his teeth. He worked his way slowly lower, feeling Ares anticipation and need building by the moment. "Remember the first time we were here, together?" Joxer paused to wonder, the memory coming back to him unexpectedly. "Remember the first time I did this for you?" He ran his tongue down the length of Ares' hardness, feeling his own cock pulse in appreciation.
"I remember...oh yes, I remember."
"It feels like a lifetime ago."
"Yeah, guess so..." Joxer murmured in agreement, realizing how true that comment was. But he could tell that Ares wasn't particularly in the mood for an introspective conversation at the moment, and neither really was he. He took Ares into his mouth without further teasing, loving the way he felt against his lips and tongue, the tender, soft skin tight over the steely hardness. Joxer's hands glided across the firm muscles of the man's thighs, driven on by the growing sensations of delight he felt radiating from Ares' body.
Usually Joxer found performing this act nearly as satisfying as being on the receiving end of such attentions, being able to watch and hear how his actions could so please the one he adored. However, it suddenly was not enough. As his own desire intensified, as he felt the echoes of Ares' response to his caresses, Joxer felt the need to not simply touch or be touched by Ares, but to claim him. He wanted to--had to--feel the embrace of his lover's flesh. The mere thought of it made his cock throb and threaten to spill itself out over the soft sheets beneath him. He pulled back and looked up into Ares' eyes, his lover's gaze questioning the sudden interruption at first. Then he seemed to recognize the need in Joxer's eyes, and offered no resistance as Joxer urged him with his hands to roll over onto his stomach.
The god tried to gain control this new hunger he felt, but it was a battle he was helpless to win--not with the smooth, tanned skin of Ares' back so appealing to his touch...and his firm, rounded ass so inviting to be fucked. "Tell me you want me," Joxer ordered, as he spread the firm cheeks with his hands and trailed his tongue down to the puckered, tight opening.
Ares gasped, then answered between panting breaths, "I want you. Yes, gods yes, I want you."
Joxer had sensed as much, but he'd wanted to hear the words. He quickly slid up, over the welcoming body, until his cock rubbed against Ares' ass. His saliva had moistened the entry slightly, but he knew it would not be enough to ensure a pleasurable experience. He tried to focus his lust-heavy thoughts for a moment, remembering how Ares had always managed to prepare him without the need to fumble for an always misplaced or near-empty vial of oil. He decided the trick had worked when he heard Ares let out a low moan into his pillow. With a strong, confident thrust Joxer pushed through the tight ring of muscle, the feeling so incredible he nearly passed out when he found himself completely sheathed within his lover's body.
He collapsed on top of Ares, too overwhelmed to support himself. When his sense of balance finally returned, he grabbed Ares by the shoulder and urged him to roll onto his side, never breaking the union of their bodies as they shifted into the spoon-like position. Joxer ran his hand down his lover's side, only thrusting against him gently until he found Ares' still firm erection and wrapped his fingers around it.
"Joxer..." Ares groaned as the young god began stroking him, matching the movements of his hand with his thrusts into Ares' body. This was not the first time Ares had let Joxer take him, but never had Joxer done so with such aggression and force. The thrill of it was intoxicating, Joxer was discovering--the feeling of complete control, of Ares submitting to his will and needs, the slight tinge of...was that fear?...beneath his lover's undeniable excitement and pleasure.
"Fuck!" Joxer exclaimed, panting heavily against Ares' shoulder. He needed to come so hard it hurt, but pounding into Ares' ass felt so good he never wanted to stop. "Fuck, Ares...!" He bit down in frustration on the sweaty skin near his mouth, causing his lover to gasp in pain. He didn't care. The metallic tang of blood hit his tongue, and the taste of it was enough to push him over the edge. With one final, deep thrust, the orgasm shuddered through his body. He clenched harder on the other's cock and within moments Ares cried out as well, coming all over Joxer's hand.
A long time passed before coherent thought returned to Joxer. His softening phallus slipped out from Ares, whose breathing was still heavy and ragged. Joxer then noticed the bruised skin near his mouth and was shocked--had he done that? Then he remembered everything he had just done, reviewing it with increasing distress. What had just come over him?!
"Ares? Are you all right?" he asked with worry.
The other man managed a laugh and assured him. "It takes more than a hard fuck to mess me up, Joxer."
"I'm sorry, I don't know what got into me."
"Don't be sorry," Ares told him, rolling over and smiling reassuringly at the worried god. "It was...interesting, for a change. I told you, it's going to take time for you to learn to control yourself. Your powers, and your desires."
"So that was a god-thing, then?" Joxer asked. "It was so weird...all of a sudden I just needed to take you...like it was, I don't know..."
"Yeah!" Joxer agreed. "Something like that."
"I know. I've been there before, remember?"
"Yeah, I know." Joxer sighed, falling back on the mattress. "This is all so much to try to understand and get used to. It'd be one thing if I'd wanted this...But how can you have a god of war who doesn't want to be the god of war?"
"Actually, the more I think about it, the more I begin to think that maybe that's the best kind of person for the position," Ares said. "I should think it will be interesting to see what happens now that we have a god of war who is nothing if not compassionate, human."
"But...what if..." Joxer paused, looking down to the sword where it still lay on the ground near the bed. Even out of reach as it was, when he thought of it, he almost thought he could hear it singing to him, calling to him...and the song was potent and seductive... "What if I forget those things, and become something else? Look at what happened just now. These new feelings and everything, it totally overwhelmed me." He looked to Ares and confessed, "So much has happened since I became involved with you...you're right, it was another lifetime for me. Am I at all the same person I was before? The person you fell in love with?"
"Yes, and no. But remember, I am not the same person you fell in love with, either...yet that has not changed your feelings for me, has it?"
"And neither have my feelings changed, nor will they ever," Ares assured him, silencing any further protests with a long kiss. Joxer closed his eyes and let the warmth of his love's embrace flow through him as they lay together, passion for the moment satisfied and allowing for lazy, comforting caresses in its absence.
The worst of Joxer's doubts and fears faded away, lulling him nearly back to sleep once more. Then a stray thought crossed his mind. "I bet Xena and the others are wondering what happened with Zeus and where you are."
"Mmm. Probably. I didn't get a chance to say goodbye to Evander, either."
"And there are all those warlords out there running around terrorizing people I should start setting straight soon, right? You said yourself, it didn't look good for the god of war to be condoning that sort of thing."
"Definitely not. You want to build up a strong support base, I'll show you how it's done. If you're going to be the god of war, you're going to be a class act, right from the start."
Joxer sighed. "Sounds like a lot of things we should be doing instead of laying around in bed all day."
"Mmm hmm," Ares agreed, pressing his mouth lightly against Joxer's forehead. "Of course, as you yourself observed, you could use a little more practice controlling your...powers. Might be a good idea to work on that a bit in private before heading out to deal with anything else."
Joxer smiled, getting a very clear image in his mind of exactly what type of practice Ares had in mind. "If we do that, we might not get out of here for days!"
Ares smiled mischievously and assured him, "I'm up for it if you are."
"From birth, through death and renewal, you must put aside old things, old fears, old lives.
This is your death, the death of flesh, the death of pain, the death of yesterday.
Taste of it and be not afraid, for I am with you to the end of time...
And so it begins."
-- J. Michael Straczynski, "The Parliament of Dreams"