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Strife flashed into the temple and looked around in the dimness. His idiot priests had only two candles lit on opposite walls and the altar was shrouded in darkness. They spent so much time fighting amongst themselves there was precious little left for their temple duties; it was obviously time for another talk. He laughed silently, wondering why he expected anything different from mortals who chose to devote themselves to a god of conflict and dissent.
He turned his attention to his visitor. Although he couldn't see him in the darkness, Strife could feel his essence, the almost palpable shimmer of life energy. There was something wrong, disturbing, though, about it and the dissonance caused him to shiver deliciously. He recognized him; the boy was promised to Ares. Strife moved closer to the altar. The priests had cleared everything away earlier and now the boy's gift was the only thing there. He leaned over to look more closely. It was a small jeweled cup, very pretty, totally useless. Strife levered himself up to sit on the altar and sighed, sending a silent request to Ares to come to the temple.
After a moment Ares appeared and, much as Strife had before, looked around at the darkness. "What are your priests doing?"
Strife shrugged. "Need to have a talk with them." He giggled. "Again."
Ares smirked at that and walked over to the altar. "What?"
Strife nodded at the boy. "He's yours, isn't he?"
"I know him," Ares said thoughtfully. "What's he doing here?"
"Apparently offering himself to me." Strife's voice was casual, but he watched for Ares' reaction.
Ares frowned. "He's early. I figured it'd be a few more years."
"You knew this was gonna happen?" Strife stiffened and his eyes narrowed suspiciously.
Ares laughed at his expression. "Of course."
"This is just weird. What am I supposed to do with one of your worshippers? And why aren't you mad?" Strife's voice began to betray an edge of panic.
Ares laughed and clapped Strife on the shoulder. "I'm not mad because he was never mine to begin with. His father promised him to me, dedicated all his sons to me when they were babies, but the boy himself never did." Ares paused. "I thought from the first that he would eventually come to you."
"How'd you know?" Strife drew his knees close to his chest and rested his chin on one.
Ares leaned against the altar and looked at the boy thoughtfully. "Just a feeling. He's a twin, and his brother is mine, and is very special to me. In fact, this one," he nodded at the kneeling youth, "is one of my main methods of protecting him." Ares laughed again. "You'll like him, Strife. He's already killed three people that I know of, and I doubt you'll find any guilt on his conscience.
Strife raised his eyebrows and glanced at the boy speculatively, briefly wondering about his brother and why he might be so special to the God of War.
"Love and devotion from a follower is rare for gods like us." Ares responded to the unspoken thought. "War and strife are avoided, feared and hated by most mortals. As a rule the ones who follow us don't do love or caring. But every now and again one comes along who really loves. It's just incredible." Ares' voice was low and his eyes half closed. "There's nothing like it, Strife. Nothing comes close."
"And you think that's what's happening here?" Strife asked softly. He remembered the frisson of electricity he'd felt earlier when he'd first sensed the boy's presence.
Ares nodded with a smile. Strife was so young; he had yet to experience the love of a mortal. "Concentrate and you'll feel it," Ares said. "I can feel it and he's not even praying to me."
Strife closed his eyes, letting the boy's prayers wash over him. There was something unusual, an intensity Strife had originally thought due to the strangeness of the boy's mind. The energy was purer, more intense, and vibrated deliciously along his nerves. He slowly became aware of Ares shaking his shoulder. Strife blinked into the dark gaze.
"I thought I'd lost you there." Ares smirked. "You're right, he's not quite sane; the two of you should get along swimmingly."
"Hey!" Strife tried to sound offended.
"I'll leave you alone." Ares grinned and disappeared.
Love from a mortal? The idea had never even occurred to him. Strife stretched out his long legs and rolled over onto his stomach, hanging his head over the edge of the altar near the boy's. Then he made himself visible. Strife had to give the kid credit; he didn't even flinch, merely gazed at him with liquid brown eyes.
"Hi, Jett," said the God of Mischief.
Discord smiled with smug satisfaction. She was finally going to get back at Strife for upstaging her in front of Ares. It had taken a while, but she had found out who the little shit was mooning over - some ridiculous mortal boy, not even fully grown, who'd been hanging around his temple. She summoned a mirror and flashed into her disguise. Uugh. She hated looking so gangly and scrawny, and she really missed the sensation of her heavy hair on her shoulders. She turned to look from a different angle and almost fell over. Strife was so much taller and her center of gravity felt all wrong; she was going to have to be careful until she got used to controlling this simulacrum she'd created. She bit her lip. Did she dare make herself a bit shorter? Better not, she decided.
Discord passed her hand across the mirror, searching for the boy. She found him easily, coming toward the temple just as she had hoped. No, there were two of them, identical twins. Dammit, which one was he? Then she mentally smacked herself and laughed. Who cared which one he was? She'd kill them both, arrange them as an offering on Strife's altar, and let him figure out which one was which. The priests would freak! She laughed with delight at her plan.
She passed her hand over the mirror again and looked critically at her reflection, trying to ignore the little voice that demanded to know if she was really planning to kill two boys just to get back at Strife for embarrassing her. She transported herself to Strife's temple and tried to shake off the unwanted thought, but it refused to go away. Okay, maybe she wouldn't kill them after all. Maybe it would be better to let Strife's little boy live. She'd make him very sorry he'd ever heard of the God of Mischief. Discord smirked. Poor little Strife. No more visits, no more offerings, no more worshipper. She smiled grimly.
The priests were obviously surprised at her appearance; Strife was cooking up political dissent in Thrace and wasn't due to return for days. With a glare she challenged them to question her. "Leave me," she snarled and jumped a little at the sound of Strife's voice, for a panicked moment thinking he had returned and caught her. She took a deep breath to collect herself and watched as the priests scurried away. Then she triumphantly draped herself over Strife's throne, tapping her fingers impatiently as she waited for the boys to enter the temple.
After a while Discord began to get antsy. They should have been here by now; where were they? She closed her eyes and reached out searchingly. She found they had already entered the temple and were in a private back room. What were they doing back there? Ah, no matter. She rubbed her hands together in anticipation and transported herself with an extra bright flash.
"Is he here?" Joxer whispered nervously, glancing around at the whips, chains, and other scary looking paraphernalia hanging on the walls.
Jett shook his head. "He's going to be gone for at least a couple of days. That's why he wanted me to take care of this errand."
"What is it?" Joxer asked, nodding at the package in Jett's hands.
Jett shrugged. "Dunno," he said without interest, noting Joxer's look of exasperation. Jett knew his lack of curiosity drove his twin crazy, but he just didn't care about the same stuff Joxer did. Besides, Joxer was curious enough for the both of them.
Suddenly, Strife appeared in a blinding flash of light. "What are you doing back here?" he snarled menacingly.
"Delivering the package you asked me to bring... back here," Jett said slowly. He glanced quickly at Joxer, who looked scared to death, and wondered what was going on. Strife had never spoken to him that way before, and he wasn't even supposed to be here. He protectively stepped closer to his brother.
"Tut, tut, tut." Strife shook his head in mock dismay and his eyes glittered spitefully. "Now is that any way to address a god? First trespassing and now this? I think I need to teach you some manners, and I think I know the best way to do it." He grinned nastily and reached out, plucking a whip from the wall.
Trespassing? Jett raked his eyes over the god appraisingly. It looked like Strife, and sounded like Strife, but the words and actions were all wrong. "Do you really think Ares will let you get away with this?" Jett asked challengingly. It was both a test and his trump card; Strife had told him that Joxer was special to Ares.
Strife laughed out loud. "Riiight. What makes you think the God of War gives a shit about you?"
"We were both promised to him when we were born." Jett's eyes narrowed. This wasn't the God of Mischief. It had to be someone else, maybe another god impersonating him. He'd heard stories about that.
"So?" The god said harshly. "Almost every boy in Greece is brought to Ares' temple at one time or another. Do you really think that makes you special?" He raised the whip and studied it with a thoughtful expression. "I think I'll start with this one. Then we'll move on to the next," he gestured to the wall, "and we'll keep going until you've gotten a taste of them all. I wonder if you'll have any skin left by then?"
Jett turned slightly and caught Joxer's eye, then minutely nodded toward the wall of manacles. Joxer would know, the way he always understood his brother's thinking, that he wanted to get the god against that wall. Then, once he was trapped, Jett would find out what had happened to the real Strife.
Joxer nodded slightly and took a deep breath. "You really are making a mistake, you know. We both belong to Ares and I don't think he'd appreciate another god messing with his followers." Joxer spoke boldly, but couldn't stop himself from stepping back when Strife turned on him furiously.
"Why, you little shit," the god snarled, slowly advancing on Joxer. "I'm really going to enjoy this."
Jett began to move toward the edge of the room, trying to get closer to the manacles that were hanging from a brace in the wall. He knew he was taking a risk; if he got trapped himself he'd just be making it that much easier for "Strife" to whip the flesh off his body. But Jett thought it was worth a try. There were several sets, but Strife had told him that one set had been made by Hephaestus. They were attached to longer chains and were lying on the floor, rather than hanging against the wall. He'd get one chance to spring the trap. The god was getting closer and closer to Joxer, facing away from him now, and he quickly grabbed the open manacle and held it behind his back. He winced at the clinking of the chain over the stone floor, but the imposter was too absorbed with Joxer to notice.
"You're not the God of Mischief," Jett said loudly and scornfully. The dark head whipped back around to him.
"What did you say?" the god hissed, and to Jett's knowing eyes he appeared shaken. Now, to provoke him to attack...
"You're not Strife." He made his voice taunting. "I'll bet you're not even really a god. We ought to teach you some manners," Jett said with a sneer.
The god rushed him, knocking Jett backwards and slamming his head against the stone floor. His attacker held him down by the neck with a choking grip, and hit him repeatedly in the face. Jett could see Joxer over the god's shoulder, and he struggled to breathe, to remain conscious. He was dimly aware of Joxer's hands on his ankle, pulling a dagger from his boot. Light glinted off the polished blade as Joxer raised it high and plunged it between the god's shoulders. "Strife" froze for a moment in shock and pain, and the glamour fell away, revealing a furious goddess. Discord. Jett grinned inwardly; he couldn't wait to tell Strife about this.
Discord shrieked with rage and turned to grab Joxer. Jett fought the blackness creeping into the edge of his vision and blindly reached for her. She was rising, now focused on Joxer, who was trying to back out of harm's way without leading her out of Jett's reach.
"Oh, you're going to pay for that, you little bastard!" Discord hissed. "Did you really think you could kill me with your puny knife?"
"No, ma'am." Joxer shook his head frantically. "I just couldn't let you keep hurting my brother. I'm really sorry."
Discord sneered at his apology. "Oh, you're going to be very sorry by the time I've... aarrrrggh." She howled and whipped around as Jett closed the manacle tightly around her ankle. He immediately began to scramble out of her reach and Joxer leaped forward before the enraged goddess could act, grabbing Jett's arm and hauling him backwards.
Joxer's eyes never left Discord as he dragged his brother all the way to the far wall. "Jett," he hissed. "We've got to get out of here. Can you walk?"
Jett tried to shake his head and was assailed by a wave of nausea. "Uugh. No, no, I need to sit a minute. I feel like I'm gonna throw up."
"She's going to come after us as soon as she gets loose." Joxer was calm, but there was an edge of panic in his voice.
"No." Jett almost laughed. "Hephaestus made those chains. She's not going anywhere." Discord had evidently reached the same conclusion; a string of vicious curses echoed around the room.
Joxer lowered himself to sit with his back against the wall and settled Jett between his legs, protectively cradling him in his arms and cautiously feeling around his head. Jett winced when fingers found the painful spot where Discord had slammed him to the ground. "Sorry," Joxer whispered. He stopped his examination and merely held Jett tightly. Such a good brother, Jett thought as he closed his eyes and rested his head on Joxer's shoulder. He began to pray to Strife.
Discord was livid. Her plans for revenge had been a total failure and now she was stuck here in Strife's temple until he, or someone with a key, or Hephaestus himself, came to free her. And she was truly trapped. If she removed the ban she'd placed around the temple, Ares and Strife would hear the boys' prayers and would know what she had tried to do. If she didn't remove the ban, nobody could get in to unchain her from the wall. Every breath emphasized the dull, aching presence of the knife in her back, and with her powers dampened by Hephaestus' magic she couldn't even get enough leverage to pull it out.
She glared at the twins through narrowed eyes, her face a tight mask. How could two wretched mortals have done this to a goddess? The one she'd come for, the one who'd chained her, was blearily praying to Strife, but he was rapidly slipping into unconsciousness. Maybe if she waited long enough the little bastard would die, she thought spitefully. The one who'd stabbed her was praying to Ares. As if the God of War cared about the prayers of a...
Discord's mouth dropped in shock. He was praying for her. Praying that he hadn't hurt her, praying that she would be okay. Discord sagged as her rage dissipated, leaving only a cold, empty ache; she hugged her arms tightly around herself and fought the urge to cry. Then, before she could change her mind, she took a deep breath and dropped the ban.
Ares and Strife stood together, arguing heatedly, invisible amidst the battle surrounding them. The prayers hit at the same time and the two gods stared at each other, Strife looking sick and confused, Ares going cold and still as comprehension dawned.
"Jett...?" Strife whispered.
"Strife, listen to me." Ares gripped his nephew's arms and forced him to meet his eyes. "I'm going to take us there and I want you to take them home. Take Joxer and Jett home."
"He's hurt." Strife's voice was barely audible. "What happened?"
"He'll be fine." Ares reassured.
"What's going on, Ares?" Strife was desperate to get to Jett and his eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What happened to them?"
"Eris happened to them." Ares' voice was like ice. "And I will handle her, Strife. Do you hear me?"
Strife was rigid with fury. "I'm not just going to let this go."
"Fine. We can talk about it later," Ares relented. "But right now you take the boys to their home and stay with them until I come for you. Understood? I want your promise."
"Fine... I promise." Strife's voice was a cold hiss. He knew Ares would not take no for an answer. Ares nodded and transported them to the temple.
The sight of Jett lying in his brother's arms loosened the tight knot of fear that had gripped Strife and he briefly glanced around, shocked to see Discord. Still at the scene of the crime? Then he saw the dagger in her back and looked closer, realized she had been trapped by one of Hephaestus' chains. He laughed silently. Oh, this had to be good. He couldn't wait until he was alone with Jett so he could find out just exactly what had happened here. The bitch refused to meet his eyes and he resolutely turned away from her, wishing he hadn't promised to leave her alone. Ares was kneeling beside the boys, and Strife felt it when he healed the damage Discord had done.
Jett slowly climbed to his feet and moved close to Strife. "Is it really you?" he whispered softly.
Ahh, she'd used a glamour. Strife's fury ratcheted up another notch. "Yeah, babe, it's really me." He was shocked when Jett put his arms around his waist and pressed against him tightly, squeezing the god in a fierce hug. Strife hesitantly lifted his hands and patted the boy's shoulder; the God of Mischief didn't have a lot of experience with people wanting to hug him. Strife questioningly turned to his uncle, but Ares only had eyes for Joxer.
Ares was running his fingers through the boy's soft brown hair. "Joxer, are you all right?"
"Ares!" The boy's smile was blinding and love shone all over his face. "Is she okay?" Joxer's face clouded slightly. "Did I hurt her? The goddess?"
Ares laughed. "No, you didn't hurt her, Joxer."
"Jett... is he all right? He hit his head..." Joxer glanced at his twin, now wrapped in Strife's arms.
"Everyone's fine," Ares said, his voice teasing.
"I was praying to you," Joxer said unnecessarily, and then a huge smile. "I can't believe you came!"
"I'm your god aren't I? Of course I came," Ares smiled crookedly. "I'll always come, Joxer."
Joxer smiled beatifically. "I love you, Ares."
Ares smiled and gently touched Joxer's cheek. Then he rose to his feet, pulling the boy up with him. Joxer continued his forward motion, raising up on his tiptoes. It looks like he's gonna kiss him, Strife thought wildly.
Joxer did just that, touching his lips to Ares' in a sweet, chaste kiss. For a frozen moment Ares was still, then he groaned and pulled Joxer tight against him, hungrily, passionately, in a kiss turned anything but chaste. Intoxicating waves of energy flowed from the pair.
Strife's senses were reeling, assaulted by Jett's nearness, Joxer's overwhelming response to the presence of his god, and the energy from the blistering kiss. He felt both weak and exhilarated; Jett was trembling in his arms and he hazily wondered if they were all going to spontaneously combust.
Finally, Ares broke the kiss, breathing hard and holding Joxer at arm's length. Joxer looked dazed.
"Strife's going to take you home now," Ares said. Then he brushed his fingers over Joxer's forehead and watched sadly as the boy's eyes closed and he forgot.
Strife reached out and gathered Joxer's unresisting body close. "I know, I know, I'll wait there until you come for me." He gave Discord a long look before winking out with his precious cargo.
Ares folded his arms and strolled over to his sister's side. "What a touching scene." Discord tried for sarcasm, but it fell flat.
"What do you think I should do about this?" Ares asked conversationally.
"What are you playing at, Ares?" Discord's voice was dispirited and he could see there was little fight in her.
"I'm asking what you think I should do," Ares said with exaggerated patience. "What are Zeus' rules about killing another god's followers out of spite? That was your original intent, wasn't it? Should I turn you over to dear old dad?"
She looked up at him with dead eyes. "I don't care what you do."
"Really," he drawled. "Why did you do it, Eris? Do you really hate him that much?" Ares gripped her shoulder and Discord gasped as he yanked the dagger out of her back. Ares looked at it thoughtfully then handed it to her. "Would it really have made you happy to rob your son of his first real worshipper?"
Discord stared blankly at the knife in her hand. "Why are we playing Twenty Questions? Why don't you just get on with whatever it is you have planned to punish me?" Discord asked dully, then her voice rose, "Better yet, why don't you just kill me? I'm sure you have some hind's blood stashed away somewhere."
"Oh no, my dear." Ares' laughter was mocking. "Nothing so easy for you. I have plans for you. But first, tell me..." He grinned nastily. "How did it feel to be outwitted by a couple of teenaged mortals?"
"You can't make me feel any worse than I feel right now, Ares." Discord rubbed her eyes tiredly.
"What was it that got you, honey?" Ares asked with mock sympathy. "Was it getting stabbed because you were too careless to watch your back? Or was it getting trapped because you weren't paying attention and underestimated your opponent?" Ares walked over to a large wooden chest and retrieved the key to the manacles. He came back and handed it to her, watching as she knelt and released her ankle. His voice became soft, "Or was it Joxer praying for you?"
Discord flinched and was still for a long moment. "Why, Ares?" she breathed, two large tears rolling down her cheeks.
"That's just the way he is." Ares extended his hand and after a moment's hesitation she took it and let him pull her upright. He brushed the tears from her face. "How long has it been since you've felt a mortal's love, Eris? Have you truly forgotten what it's like?" His voice was oddly gentle.
"Nobody loves discord, Ares." Her whisper was barely audible.
"Nobody, Eris?" Ares took her into his arms, cradling her head beneath his chin. "Are you sure?" Discord pulled away and looked into Ares' dark eyes. He pulled her close again and held her as she cried, great heaving sobs of fear, loneliness and regret.
When she'd finally cried herself out Ares spoke. "This is your punishment: As of right now I am making you personally responsible for the safety of those two boys. You will watch over them to the best of your ability and if anything happens to either one of them that you could have prevented you will sincerely regret it." Then, as an afterthought, "And you will apologize to Strife."
Discord's voice was muffled against Ares' chest. "Why are you being so easy on me?"
"Easy? You think this is gonna be easy?" Ares laughed with real humor. "If nothing else, this little incident should've taught you that those two are anything but easy."
Discord softly brushed a dark lock of hair off the sleeping mortal's forehead, amazed at the tenderness she felt for him. She jumped, startled at the appearance of another Olympian, and watched her brother materialize at the foot of the bed.
"Can't help liking them, can you?" Ares grinned wickedly.
Discord shrugged and tried to look nonchalant, but she'd been caught red-handed. Abandoning her act, she smiled broadly. "Ares, do you have any idea how much fun they are? Strife sent Jett to assassinate that troublemaking Senator in Thebes and he was wonderful, as usual! Not only did he do the job, but he's got every faction in the city convinced that all the others are responsible, and the peace talks are on indefinite hold. He's almost better at causing strife than Strife is!"
Ares smiled at her excitement.
"And Joxer..." she looked affectionately at the sleeping man. "The havoc he causes is priceless! I thought Gabrielle was going kill him today. He totally ruined a surprise trap Xena was trying to set up, and he honestly thought he was being helpful." She shook her head. "They really are wonderful."
"Yes, they are." Ares caressed Joxer with his eyes. "Where is Jett?" he asked, looking back at Discord.
She smirked. "He's still in Thebes with Strife... celebrating."
Ares rolled his eyes. "As much time as those two spend celebrating I'm amazed they ever get anything done," he said sourly.
Discord laughed and took Ares by the arm, ignoring his black look. "Something's going on in the Kingdom of Corinth," she said archly. "Apparently, someone highly placed isn't quite as trustworthy as he seems. Wanna go check it out?"
Ares grumbled, pretending reluctance at involvement in her latest intrigue, but he didn't resist as she pulled him close to transport them to Corinth. He spared one last glance at Joxer's sleeping face before they vanished in a blaze of light.