Title: Element of War
Series Order: 2
Fandom: Xena: Warrior Princess
Genre: Alternate Universe
Content Rating: R
Warnings: Character Bashing
Word Count: 22300
Summary: Ares and Joxer’s nuptials on Olympus. What could possibly go wrong?
“You’ve got to be kidding me?” Strife turned around the room slowly. “Ma, Unk, will not go for this.” He shook his head and turned towards his mother-in-law, pleading silently.
Aphrodite looked around the room and smiled. “It’s nice. Not too frilly, not too romantic. It’s perfect.” She nodded decisively.
“It’s white.” Strife threw his hands up. “Unk hates white.”
“It’s a wedding dear.” Aphrodite reminded him.
“He’s right.” Eris looked around the room with a frown. “Ares will hate it!”
“Where is my big bro, anyway?” Aphrodite turned to Strife as if he was supposed to know the answer.
Thankfully, this time, he did. “He’s trying to convince Hera and Zeus that all of Olympus doesn’t need to be invited and that certain relatives who do nothing but blow hot air, aren’t welcome.”
Eris snorted. “He’s wasting his breath. Father won’t agree to a ceremony without at least inviting the pompous ass.” She turned to Aphrodite. “You’re the closest to him. Do you think he’ll come?”
Aphrodite shrugged. “Who knows, but it might make for an interesting family reunion. Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve seen curly.”
Hercules turned to face his best friend. “You aren’t seriously thinking about going, are you? To Olympus?”
Iolaus shrugged. “Why not? Joxer is our friend. He’s getting married. We should go, congratulate him.”
Hercules shook his head incredulously. “He’s marrying Ares. What he needs are our condolences. Besides, he lied to us, to everyone. Gabrielle told me…”
Hercules trailed off as he noticed someone walking towards them.
“…Gabrielle told you?” Iolaus prompted, not seeing the newcomer.
“She said that…she said he isn’t who we thought he was.” Hercules’ voice had dropped to a whisper, not wanting to be overheard.
Iolaus frowned and was about to ask for elaboration when he heard something behind him. He turned around and smiled when he saw who was headed their way.
Autolycus smiled. “Iolaus. Hercules.”
“What are you doing here?” Hercules asked, feeling suddenly nervous to be almost caught talking about the thief’s brother. It brought to mind all the other times they had discussed Joxer in Autolycus’ presence, never knowing of their connection.
Autolycus winked conspiratorially. “I’ve been drafted to make sure you come to the wedding.”
Xena read and reread the scroll for about the fifth time since it had been delivered.
“You’re going to go, aren’t you?” Gabrielle asked quietly from where she was packing up their stuff.
Xena looked up, startled at the sound. She had been so lost in her own thoughts that she hadn’t realized Gabrielle had come back from her trip to the lake.
“Aren’t you curious?” Xena asked, just as quietly. “He’s this whole other person we don’t know. This could be our chance to get to know the real Joxer.”
“What if I don’t want to know the real Joxer?” Gabrielle countered.
Xena frowned. “You don’t mean that.”
“Don’t I?” Gabrielle stood up and walked towards her friend. “The old Joxer was our friend. The other Joxer, the lie. What if I don’t want to know about this new and improved version because it’s not.”
“It’s not what?” Xena asked, confused.
“It’s not new, and it’s not improved. Everything we knew before, everything we saw before was all a lie. He lied to us, deceived us. I liked him before.”
Gabrielle turned away and finished packing up their stuff. “I’ll go, but don’t expect me to be happy about it.”
Xena watched Gabrielle silently and wondered if going to her father’s wedding was really a smart move. Between her own history with the God of War, and Gabrielle’s feelings on not only Ares but also the recent changes in their perceptions of Joxer, it was bound to be a volatile situation. But she had to go.
For several reasons.
She had unfinished business with Ares. And she wanted an opportunity to get to know Joxer. The real Joxer. Even at the cost of upsetting her friend.
Jett peeked around the corner and into the room, his eyes widening at the sight.
“What do you think?” Eris asked, without turning to face him.
“It’s white,” Jett observed.
Eris turned to face the demi-god. “Noticed that did you?” She grinned at him. “What are you doing here?”
Jett continued looking around the decorated hall. “I’m staying on until after the fireworks. I thought maybe you could show me around… to all the places not on the official tour.” He turned to face the goddess and smirked before returning to surveying the room.
“You aren’t planning on using flowers are you?” He asked with distaste.
Eris shook her head. “Ares will have enough trouble with the color. Why? Joxer wouldn’t want flowers, would he?” She asked, suddenly unsure.
Jett shook his head, whether in answer or from the visual of a flower decorated reception area, she wasn’t sure. “Not unless they’re still in the ground.” The assassin turned away from the room and focused on the goddess. “Now, I’m sure there’s something we could be doing other than talking about our brothers.”
Eris grinned mischievously. “I’m sure I can think of something.”
“Is this entirely necessary?” Joxer looked at the robes that had been picked out by his future mother-in-law. He turned to face his lover. “Can’t we just elope?”
Ares chuckled. “That would only delay the inevitable. Besides the ceremony is just for show. So father can walk around with mother and pretend he cares that I’m getting married.
“He doesn’t?” Joxer asked curiously.
Ares sighed. His family always gave him the worst headaches. “In his own way, he cares.”
Joxer raised his eyebrows as he set the robes down across the table in the central living area of Ares’ temple.
Ares caught the unasked question and groaned to himself, knowing he really should explain this more. “Father cares that there’s actually going to be a wedding. That there’s actually a person willing to marry me, for reasons other than their own personal gain.” He smirked slightly. “He cares because mother’s happy and not harping on him about… whatever.” He held his hand out to Joxer and directed him to sit with him on the couch.
“And he cares about having a reason to invite his other son to Olympus,” Joxer added, nodding his head in understanding.
Ares snorted in contempt.
“It won’t be that bad.” Joxer turned to Ares and squeezed the hand he still held while he leaned towards him and planted a kiss on his lips. When he pulled away, he looked into the War God’s eyes. “Besides, it’s a wedding. What can happen?”
“So, who’s left?” Aphrodite looked over her list carefully, trying to remember if there was anyone she forgot.
“Hmmm.” Eris crinkled her nose as she looked at her own list. “Did you speak to Nemesis? Father is insisting she be there.”
Aphrodite groaned. “Do we have to? Every time she goes anywhere near Ar, a fight breaks out. And with Herc coming…” She trailed off, not sure if she was complaining or outlining the day’s entertainment.
Eris, knowing the question was rhetorical, refrained from commenting. She continued to look over her list, her eyes finally coming to a halt at the bottom. “Xena and Gabrielle are still unaccounted for.”
“They’ll come,” Aphrodite answered absently. “Joxie’s gone to talk to them.”
Eris raised her eyebrows at that revelation. “And I thought Autolycus was brave by going to see Porkules.” She giggled slightly in memory.
Aphrodite laughed too, remembering the time her half-brother spent as a pig.
Their laughter was short-lived, however, when a bellow was heard from somewhere behind them. The two goddesses turned around to find Ares glaring hatefully at the decorations.
Joxer crept into the campsite, not sure whether he was disappointed or relieved to find it empty. In all honesty, it was probably a bit of both. He was frustrated because he wanted to get this conversation over and done with. But yet he was relieved because as necessary as this discussion was, he wasn’t looking forward to having to explain himself.
No matter how many times he had told both himself, his brother and Ares that coming here wasn’t about explanations but about a request for his friends to be at the wedding, Joxer knew there was no way around the reasons which were bound to be needed.
He had cleared some of the air between himself and Xena, although he knew there was much more she wanted to know. But he hadn’t seen or spoken to Gabrielle at all since before Sterope’s trial.
Groaning to himself, the demi-god walked towards a small grouping of trees. Joxer leaned against one and took strength from it while he waited.
Xena turned her head slightly at a sound she heard coming from the direction of camp. She dropped the fish, still floundering in her hands. The splash it made as it hit the water alerted Gabrielle who was sitting on a rock, writing in one of her scrolls as Xena caught their lunch.
“Xena? What is it?” Gabrielle turned her head to follow where Xena was looking.
“Somebody’s here,” Xena whispered. “Stay here.”
Xena moved away from the lake and towards their camp nearly silently. Since the noise, which had initially alerted her to a visitor, she hadn’t heard anything further. It took her a moment to recognize what it was she was seeing.
“Joxer?” She asked quietly, not entirely sure it was her friend. She had seen some of what Joxer was capable of when she had been captured by Sterope, but it was still slightly awing.
Xena stepped closer and watched in stunned silence as the form of her friend, leaning up against a large tree, seemed to flow away from the trunk, as if it had literally been connected, and began to shift.
“Sorry.” Joxer looked sheepish at having been caught communing with the tree. “I… I came to see you, and Gabrielle. But, I didn’t know how I’d be received.” He looked around the campsite. “Where is Gabrielle? I… I need to talk to her. I owe her that.”
Xena nodded. “She’s at the lake. We were fishing.”
Joxer stared at his friend for a moment longer before speaking. “I…” He began, not really sure what he wanted to ask. “Ares would like it if you’d come. To the ceremony.” He stepped forward a bit. “So would I.”
Xena smiled, and Joxer couldn’t help but return it.
“I’d like that.” Xena stepped closer and hugged Joxer for a brief second before pulling away. “He’s not who I thought he was,” Xena spoke quietly, but there was no misunderstanding about who she was talking about.
“None of us are,” Joxer told her seriously as he started to walk back towards the lake.
Xena watched him disappear through the bushes and hoped that he and Gabrielle could settle things. She wanted to go to her father’s wedding. Wanted to get to know both her father and her friend.
“Gabrielle,” Joxer spoke hesitantly as he neared the rock the bard was still sitting on.
“Joxer. What are you doing here?” Gabrielle spoke without looking up from her scroll.
“I… I wanted to talk to you. To… I don’t know, explain, apologize.” He paused, and when Gabrielle didn’t say anything, he continued. “I’d like you to come to the wedding.”
Gabrielle looked up then. “Your wedding? To the God of War? What makes you think I would want to come to that?”
Joxer took a cautious step closer, willing his emotions to stay in check. He wanted his friend to come, but he was also keenly aware that there wasn’t much he could say that would redeem him in her eyes. And he wasn’t sure he needed to be redeemed. Yes, he had lied, but was that really what was upsetting her? Or was it something else.
“Gabrielle,” Joxer began looking out over the calm water, trying to gather his thoughts. “We are friends. We were friends. At least I thought we were. Maybe we’re not. Maybe we never were.” He turned to face Gabrielle, waiting for whatever response she would give him, and content with the choices he had already made.
“You lied to us.” Gabrielle’s voice was quiet, but her expression said more than tone ever could.
“Yes, I did.” Joxer agreed solemnly as he stared at his old friend. “But would you have believed the truth?”
When there was no response, Joxer continued, gaining confidence in everything he had done. His voice was even and controlled, and nothing like Gabrielle could remember hearing coming from his mouth before.
“Would you have believed that I was the son of a God? Would you have believed in my abilities? Would you have seen anything other than what you did? The bumbling idiot? The inept warrior? The goofy friend?”
Joxer waited patiently for a response, any response. He knew that he had been right in hiding who he was. He had some guilt about a lot of things that had happened in his life. This was not one of those things.
“No.” The one word answer spoken quietly by Gabrielle was enough to tell him that he had been correct.
“I didn’t think so,” Joxer answered, just as quietly. “And I think that maybe there’s a reason for that.” He stepped back slowly. “Have a good life, Gabrielle.” He turned around and walked away.
Autolycus watched as Hercules left in a snit, unhappy about being pretty much ordered to attend his brother’s wedding. Autolycus wasn’t any more pleased about it himself. He turned to Iolaus. “Is he always so self-righteous? Wait, don’t answer that.” He grinned slightly before turning more serious.
“Look, I’m glad you’re coming. Jox needs all the friends he can get. Especially marrying into that family.
Iolaus chuckled. He could only agree with the sentiment
Autolycus shrugged and turned back to look in the direction that Hercules had stomped away in. Confident they were alone, he faced Iolaus again.
“Does he know?” The thief asked quietly.
Iolaus looked confused for a second. When the meaning became clear, he became serious himself. “That I knew about Joxer? No. It never really came up. It didn’t really seem important.”
Autolycus snorted. That was his opinion too. What his brother was or wasn’t was his own business, and anyone he chose to tell. But he knew that certain people wouldn’t see things that way.
“Hercules won’t agree,” Autolycus commented aloud. “If and when he finds out you not only knew about Joxer’s abilities but that we were brothers, he‘s going to take it personally.”
Iolaus sighed, knowing the truth of that statement. “Well, I’ll deal with that when it happens.”
Autolycus turned away, not really sure what else to say. “Well, I better go. The first ‘official’ dinner is tomorrow, and Hera is still arguing over who should sit where.” He groaned. “I hate weddings. I’m never settling down. Never getting married.”
Iolaus laughed as the thief continued to grumble as he walked away. He laughed out loud.
“We’ll see, old friend, we’ll see.”
“Remind me why we’re doing this again?” Joxer asked tiredly as he leaned against one wall of Ares private quarters on Mount Olympus.
“Because it’s required.” Strife offered with his own brand of excitement as he appeared in the room.
Joxer snorted. “Required by whom? Technically, we’re already married.” He turned his head slightly to face his best friend. “I don’t recall you and Cupid going through all this hassle.”
Strife shrugged. “That’s probably because I’m not the Big Bad God of War, and Flyboy isn’t the demi-god who saved Olympus.”
“You’re exaggerating.” Joxer admonished as he moved away from the wall. “And as far as I can tell, Zeus just wants an excuse for a party. I have nothing to do with it. Neither does Ares.”
Strife chuckled. “You learn quickly.” He looked around the room once more, noting an odd assortment of viney plants in one corner that he knew hadn’t been there before. In fact, he didn’t think he’d ever seen them anywhere before. Not even in Hera’s personal garden.
“You’re adding your personal touch, I see.”
Joxer followed his friend’s gaze to the vines. “They’re…personal.” He shrugged.
Strife stared at the vines a second, thinking about that response. Although he was probably closer to Joxer than anyone, save Autolycus, there was still so much even he didn’t know.
Things he couldn’t even begin to ask about.
“So… is Xena coming?” Strife asked instead, sensing a need for a change of subject, though he wasn’t sure why.
Joxer looked away from his vines and back to his best friend. “Yes.” He smiled. “She even seemed happy about it.”
Strife nodded, not too surprised at that news. “What about her friend?”
“Gabrielle?” Joxer frowned. “I don’t know. She doesn’t want to come or have anything to do with me, or Ares or anything else related to our wedding, but I can’t see her letting Xena come on her own either.”
“That’s about how it stands for Iolaus too,” Autolycus added from the doorway, where he had just entered in time to hear the last comment. “Hercules seems to share Gabrielle’s feelings if the conversation I overheard is anything to go by.”
“Oh?” Jox sighed wearily for a second, not wanting to have to spend the entire time at his own wedding celebration, making explanations for himself, where none should be required.
“And is Hercules going to deign to make an appearance anyway?” Strife questioned with a snort.
“But of course. He couldn’t allow the chance to complain about our family to slip through his fingers, now could he?” Autolycus grinned slightly before sobering at the thought of the reason he had come. “But that’s not why I’m here.”
Strife looked from demi-god to demi-god, neither looking terribly happy all of a sudden. He could sense their need for privacy. “I gotta run, Jox. See you around.” He disappeared in a flash before Joxer could even acknowledge his words.
Joxer instead turned to his brother. “What’s wrong?”
“Father keeps asking about you. Don’t you think it’s time to go and see him?”
Joxer averted his eyes for a minute, not wanting to see his brother’s exact thoughts reflected from his eyes.
“Joxer…” Autolycus began, reaching out to touch his favorite brother’s shoulder.
Joxer shook his head. “No, you’re right. I do need to see him, talk to him, but…”
“It’s hard.” Autolycus finished for him.
Joxer smiled at the way his brother seemed to know certain things about him, know what he was sometimes thinking. He didn’t guess anyone else had ever been able to do that.
“Let me think about it,” Joxer said finally. “So, tell me how did the meeting with Hercules and Iolaus really go?”
Autolycus shrugged, but there was amusement in his eyes. “About as well as expected.”
Joxer sighed. “Sometimes I don’t know if all this is worth it.”
“What…bonding to Ares?”
“No…that, that I’m sure about…but all this other stuff…the wedding…Hera and Zeus…Hercules…Gabrielle…”
“It wasn’t so long ago that you considered them your friends,” Autolycus said quietly. “Hercules and Gabrielle haven’t really changed.”
“No, I guess not.” Joxer admitted, “but before…I guess I just hoped that should they ever find out the truth…”
“It wouldn’t matter?” Autolycus smiled.
“Yeah.” Joxer nodded and then looked up at his brother, his eyes hesitant. “Was that too much to hope for? Should it really matter that much?”
“No, it shouldn’t.” Autolycus hugged his brother tightly. “But sometimes it does.”
Joxer pulled away, embarrassed. “Yeah, I know. Come on. It’s about time for dinner.”
“Let’s go.” Joxer motioned towards the doorway that led outside.
Autolycus nodded and turned to the door he had come through earlier, only to stop when something caught his eyes. Some green plant life that seemed out of place in the darkly decorated room.
“I see you’ve brought some of your…friends.” He smiled slightly, thinking about the vines and what would happen once they were genuinely acclimated to their new location.
Joxer grinned at the twinkle now in his brother’s eyes before turning and leaving through the doorway, waiting for Autolycus to follow so they could do something that was bound to be awkward.
“Mother.” Ares tone held a warning.
Hera smiled at her oldest son. “Ares. You worry too much.”
“Or not enough,” Ares muttered.
“Now, son.” Zeus began reprovingly.
“Yeah, I know, any of the Twelve to wed must follow the correct procedures.” Ares sighed, knowing there really wasn’t any way out of the three-day nuptials.
“Your marriage to Joxer was unexpected, and unusual, to say the least, and even though Gaia approves of the match that doesn’t mean you are immune to the rules,” Hera explained patiently.
“I know, Mother.” Ares sighed again. “But this is so…new, and Joxer is…”
“Special?” Hera asked softly.
“Yes, he is,” Ares admitted softly.
“Everything will be fine.” Zeus clapped his son on the shoulder. “Tonight’s dinner is just for the immediate family. The other guests won’t arrive until tomorrow.”
Ares nodded, his shoulders slumped, fearing what would happen when those other guests did arrive.
Hera smiled reassuringly and led the way to the dining hall.
Joxer looked around the table warily.
This was weird. Really, really weird.
The table was rectangular and huge. The King and Queen of the Gods sat on either end, with various family members filling in the sides. Eris was on Hera’s right with Strife sitting next to her and Cupid on his right, followed by Hephaestus and Aphrodite. Hermes sat between Aphrodite and Zeus at the other end.
Ares sat to Hera’s left, next to Joxer. His brothers, all three of them filled out the remaining end of the table.
At the moment various conversations were surrounding the table. Cupid and Strife were whispering amongst themselves while Eris spoke quietly to her mother while trying not to appear as though she were watching Jett.
Autolycus was catching up with Jayce, the oldest of the triplets. Hermes had rounded him up earlier in the day and didn’t give Jayce a chance to decline the invitation. Jayce didn’t appear too upset by this, though he had refused his father’s suggestion of a change of clothes. His gown was a deep midnight blue and made his skin seem paler and his eyes huge.
Joxer knew everyone at the table. Had met them at some time in the past. Some he knew better than others. Hera and Zeus he’d only met once, and strangely that was before his joining with Ares. Eris he’d gotten to know rather well in the past few weeks, and Aphrodite he knew more from his travels with Xena.
Of course, Strife was the one person at the table, except for his brothers, he knew extremely well, and through Strife, Cupid.
Oddly enough, his own father was the one person he was least comfortable around. There were things between them. Things that couldn’t be ignored, but that weren’t ready to be brought out in the open yet.
Jayce and Jett were estranged from their father as well, but their relationship with Hermes seemed less tense, more easily fixed. Autolycus held anger for their father, but Joxer knew it was mostly on his behalf.
That reason alone was why Joxer wanted to try and come to some sort of understanding with Hermes. Maybe it was time to start healing old wounds. If not for himself, than for his brothers.
Joxer cleared his throat, getting everyone’s attention. When all eyes were focused on him, he stood up.
“I wanted to thank everyone for coming.” He began, though the dinner wasn’t his idea. It was Hera’s.
“Nonsense, child,” Hera spoke into Joxer’s pause. “It is we who must thank you, for putting a stop to Sterope’s madness.” She turned her gaze to her winged grandson, “And preventing the loss of another of our grandchildren.”
Joxer was stunned into speechlessness, which Hera took full advantage of. She looked around the table at the guests, passing Aphrodite with only mild distaste. “We are here tonight to begin the celebration of my son’s marriage to Joxer, son of Hermes.” She motioned for Joxer to sit, which he did. “Tomorrow, more guests will be arriving, and the festivities will get underway. But tonight, tonight is for family.” She waved her arm, and the table was filled with food.
Meat and bread dominated much of the table, with fruit, cheese, and vegetables breaking up the large platters.
Hera and Zeus raised large wine goblets and made a toast. “To Ares and Joxer.” They said in unison, for once entirely in sync.
“Well, that was bizarre,” Joxer muttered to himself as he looked around Ares Olympian temple, looking for a safe haven in this strange place.
Dinner was…entertaining for lack of a better word.
The food was excellent, unsurprisingly, but the conversation boarded on the unbelievable.
Jayce and Jett didn’t argue once, no weapons of any kind were leveled against anyone else. Aphrodite and Hera appeared to get along like they were the closest of friends. Jett and Eris seemed to have some sort of non-verbal conversation going on, and to make matters worse, Ares got called away during the middle of it all by some emergency in Thrace, leaving Joxer to muddle through on his own.
The demi-god was glad it was over, but he knew the real trial would begin tomorrow when his other friends showed up.
Ares was still away in the mortal world, and the night’s festivities, if one could call them that, had utterly drained Joxer.
He noticed his vines had grown rapidly and now covered every inch of wall space, obscuring some of Ares antique weaponry.
Joxer touched a leaf near him and smiled fondly. “How are you guys doing tonight?”
The vines moved to entwine around Joxer’s fingers. “What do you think of this strange place? Is it home yet?”
As if in answer the vines detangled themselves from him and returned to their space along the wall.
Joxer sighed wearily. “I’m glad one of us is happy.” He moved away from the wall and towards the garden in the back, seeking to commune with nature and find some peace.
Joxer sunk into the loose earth in Ares garden, his body losing its corporeal form. His mind soared deeper and deeper through the levels of Earth into the soul of the planet. He let his mind drift, freeing himself, seeking his peace.
Before he had realized where he was going, or how far he had traveled, Joxer felt the pain pass through him. The utter despair washed over him, bringing with it the memories that belonged to people long since dead.
He approached the surface and felt reality descend on him again, his body reforming around him.
As normal vision returned, he recognized the cave he was in. He wasn’t surprised; he somehow always ended up here, even without conscious thought.
The cave didn’t look any different than the last time he was there. He could feel echoes of Sterope’s rage and under that all the death and pain that had gone before.
Sterope had been driven crazy by the loss of her child. A child who had died in battle long ago in this very valley. She had allowed her pain and grief to fester, and eventually, she couldn’t stay away.
Her rage was not the only pain existing here. The death in this place had existed for centuries. War had decimated this valley long ago. The pain and torment in this place was still tangible for those who could sense it. Even the insensitive would be driven to despair.
For this reason, this valley was off limits. Gaia alone was permitted here. The whole planet was her domain, and she alone could heal this place of its ghosts, in time.
Joxer was drawn here like a moth to flame. He’d first found the valley by accident on one his first trips through the Void. He had been young and experimenting with his ability to become one with the Earth when suddenly everything fell away.
Nothing began, and nothing ended, and for the first time, he knew peace.
He had followed the feeling until finally, it led him here.
Even now, all these years later Joxer couldn’t find this place on a map, or by any mortal means. Only through the void could he get here, and only through the void could he leave.
Until Ares, Joxer had never brought anyone with him into the Void. That only led to madness.
The demi-god had found out, the hard way that none could travel there. Not and remain sane. It changed a person, whether mortal or God, or something else entirely. It took something of you and gave something of itself back.
It was not a fair trade, for most. The few, who had tried it, never recovered.
Sterope was such an example. Her grief had somehow led her to the valley, her anger had caused her to ignore Gaia’s rules surrounding the sacred place, and her pain sparked a chain reaction inside the void.
Her vendetta against Ares and his offspring would have only been the beginning. Joxer knew that. Still, he felt saddened by her loss.
He didn’t know why he was immune to the effects of both the Void and this special place. He only knew that he was somehow connected to it, just as he was to all of nature. This place called to him, like a moth to flame.
It tempered him, and he, it.
He had shared this with no one, until now.
He had brought Ares into the Void, if not the Valley, and had known, almost instinctually that it was the right thing to do. What he didn’t understand was how or why.
“Some things take the fullness of time to understand, child.”
Joxer turned around and watched as Gaia rose slowly from the decimated Earth. “Grandmother.”
Ares returned to his home temple expecting Joxer to be there. He needed to apologize for leaving the demi-god alone at dinner.
With his preoccupation with Joxer and everything that had brought them together, he’d neglected a campaign he’d been planning for three decades, and had almost let it get out of control. Thankfully, all was not lost.
It had taken nearly seven hours, but disaster had been averted. Now if his nuptials would only go as planned.
The God of War turned around in a circle, noticing the changes to the main room of the temple. Joxer’s plants had spread out along the walls, and if he didn’t know any better, he’d swear they were watching him.
“Somehow I knew I’d find you here,” Gaia spoke softly, her warm brown eyes twinkling, her earthy scent comforting. “What troubles you so?”
Joxer didn’t answer, instead sitting on the cold Earth. “Will this place ever give life again, Grandmother?”
“In time, young one, in time.” She answered sitting next to him. They sat in silence for several minutes before the Earth Goddess spoke again. “You worry about your future. Your bonding to Ares, and what it means for the future. And you are conflicted over what do about your father.”
“Yes.” Joxer nodded. “How can this work out Grandmother? We are nothing alike. We don’t even know each other, and most of what we do know is all surface, lies propagated by things beyond our control.”
“Do you love him?” Gaia asked simply.
“Yes,” Joxer answered without hesitation.
“Then all will work out.” The Goddess promised. “As for your father…”
“I know, I know.” Joxer nodded. “I’ll go now.”
Without another word he returned to the Earth and followed his own path back to Olympus, and what awaited him there.
Hermes paced around his home temple uneasily. Autolycus had promised he would try and get Joxer to come and see him. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. On the one hand, he was ecstatic that Joxer might come and see him, speak to him, without being dragged, or forced in any way. On the other hand, what would he say to his son? What could he say, really?
“Father.” Joxer’s voice sounded from just inside the main doors.
“Joxer,” Hermes spoke quietly as he turned around, only mildly surprised that they were alone.
“Autolycus went to see about some of the guests.” Joxer offered, accurately guessing his father’s thoughts.
Hermes nodded. “Good. Your friends are coming?”
“No, they aren’t, or you don’t know yet?” Hermes offered a concerned question. After everything that happened, he didn’t want Joxer to be disappointed by friends who didn’t turn out to be friends after all.
“They’re coming, I think. But whether or not they’re actually friends is another matter.” Joxer sighed as he came entirely into the room.
“You want to talk about it?” Hermes offered.
Joxer was about to deny that he did, but something, although he didn’t know what, caused him to nod. “I guess.”
“Come, sit.” Hermes offered a chair near a stone fireplace. When Joxer sat, Hermes continued. “Tell me about it.”
Joxer looked up at his father, their eyes locking, searching for something that would tell him what he needed to know. Finally, he nodded.
“Ares’ daughter and her friend, Gabrielle…”
“The Amazon?” Hermes asked.
Joxer nodded. “Yeah. They’ve agreed to come, but things are…tense.” Joxer stood up and made his way around the temple quickly, searching for something to ease his tension. “Xena doesn’t know what to think. Everything she’s ever believed about Ares has been thrown into confusion. She doesn’t know what to believe…what she wants to believe, or what she should believe.” Joxer finally leaned against the stone mantle above the fireplace. He could feel the energy emanating from it, and it calmed him slightly.
“And Gabby…she thinks I cheated her, lied to her.”
“She’s bitter.” Hermes offered, relaxing slightly as he saw his estranged son do the same.
Joxer turned abruptly. “No! You don’t understand. I did lie to her. About who I was…who I am. She just needs time.”
“Does she?” Hermes asked carefully, not wanting to upset his son further. “And after she has…time, will her opinion change?”
Joxer didn’t answer, and after a while, Hermes continued. “I don’t think so. You were right to keep the truth from her.”
Joxer narrowed his eyes at his father. “What do you know about it?”
Hermes sighed as he stood up. “Only what your brother tells me.”
“Which one?” Joxer asked curiously, knowing it didn’t really matter. Either way, the result would be the same.
“Both,” Hermes answered honestly. “Jett tells me she wasted no time in trying to have him arrested or worse.”
Joxer nodded. He couldn’t deny that.
Hermes continued. “And Autolycus seems under the impression, your Gabrielle doesn’t think too highly of you.”
“That’s true.” Joxer conceded the point. “What does Jayce say?”
Hermes shrugged. “Jayce doesn’t say much of anything.”
Joxer acknowledged this. Of all of Hermes sons, he was the least concerned with Olympus and anything surrounding it. He had come to the festivities, but in all honesty, Hermes hadn’t given him much choice. Plus as far as he knew, Jayce hadn’t actually met Gabrielle so his knowledge would have been second or third hand at best.
“And Ares?” Hermes asked, steering the conversation away from the oldest of the triplets.
“What about him?” Joxer asked curiously.
“The world has a very…limited view of him.”
“I know, father.”
“And your Amazon…does she understand this as well? Or does she see him as a monster?”
Joxer thought about his answer very carefully before responding. “Does it matter? Ares is what he is, just as I am.” He locked eyes with his father once again. “Just as you are, and isn’t that what this is really about?”
Hermes didn’t have an answer to that, so he just sat down and thought about the question.
“I’m not going!” Gabrielle reiterated for what must have been the fifth or sixth time.
Xena stared at her calmly for a second then shrugged almost imperceptibly. “Fine. I’ll go alone.” She turned and began to walk back towards their camp and away from the bard.
“What?” Gabrielle looked stunned. “You can’t be serious. You’d go… without me?” She sounded hurt.
Xena stopped for a second, wanted to reassure her friend, but there was no denying that she had to go to the wedding. If not for Joxer, then for the chance to get to know her father. There was no way Gabrielle would understand that, and there was no use in trying to make her.
“I’m going. You can stay here, or not… it’s up to you.”
Another voice sounded from the direction of camp before Gabrielle could reply. “Xena? Gabrielle?”
Xena turned toward the sound with a smile on her face. “Hercules! Iolaus.”
Iolaus returned the smile, and a hug, while Hercules scowled silently behind him.
“What’s wrong with him?” Xena asked quietly.
Iolaus cast a glance towards Gabrielle. “The same thing as her, I’d wager.”
Xena nodded in understanding. “But you’re going?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” Iolaus smiled.
“Good.” A new voice sounded from through the bushes. “I thought I was gonna have to tie you up and drag you to Olympus.” Autolycus grinned as he came through the trees.
Iolaus and Autolycus hugged briefly before he took a look at Hercules and Gabrielle. “Are they coming?”
Both Iolaus and Xena cast questioning looks to their respective partners. Hercules grumbled while Gabrielle sighed.
“Looks that way.” Xena turned back to Autolycus just as another form materialized behind him.
“Let’s get this show on the road.” Strife giggled at the unpleasant expressions passing everyone’s face at his arrival.
“Well, how’d you think you were gonna get there?” He cackled again before whisking them all to their destination.
Joxer looked out across the room at the assorted guests. He was mildly surprised that a fight hadn’t broken out yet.
The ceremony wasn’t actually until tomorrow, but the Olympians seemed to do things differently and held a two-day reception before Hera and Zeus would bless their union.
Hopefully, no one would die or be seriously injured between now and then.
The room was large; large enough to allow for various little groups to break off into separate corners.
Most of the gods and goddesses were separated from the few mortals who were in attendance.
Zeus and Hera hadn’t made an appearance yet but were no doubt observing the festivities.
Eris was in a small group near the middle of the room talking with Jett, Strife, and Cupid.
Aphrodite was near one of the far doors, talking with Hephestus and Electra, one of the Pleiades. Judging from the serious looks on their faces, the conversation was no doubt about Sterope.
Xena stood off to one side and appeared to be engrossed in a conversation with Hermes. Joxer found himself smiling softly at that. He hadn’t settled anything with his father, but he felt they made progress.
Jayce was nowhere to be found but moving his gaze around the room, Joxer discovered his oldest brother. Autolycus was leaning up against one wall, his gaze very focused to a spot along an opposite wall. Joxer let his eyes roam and found the object of his favorite brother’s interest.
Hercules and Gabrielle were standing about as far away from everyone else as they could possibly get, their faces set in unpleasant scowls.
Joxer sighed and made his way over to Autolycus.
“Are they really that entertaining?” Joxer asked quietly, drawing the thief’s gaze away from the judgmental heroes and onto himself.
“I don’t trust them.” Autolycus nodded his head towards the pair again. “They don’t want to be here, in Olympus with all these Gods, and Demi-Gods.”
Joxer nodded. “And that comes as a surprise to you? Hercules hates the part of himself that comes from these people and Gabrielle…she doesn’t understand us, and won’t take the time to try.”
“So why come?” Autolycus asked pointedly. “If they were close friends or even friends at all, I could maybe understand it. But they’re not.” He pierced Joxer with his dark eyes. “They weren’t your friends before, and now that they know the truth?”
Joxer shrugged. “I know.” His body language conveyed that he didn’t care why they were there, but the look of pain in his eyes told Autolycus the truth. “They’re here because Xena and Iolaus are here. No other reason.”
Before Autolycus could comment one way or another, their attention was drawn to the large double doors set into the east wall of the large room. The doors opened, and Ares strolled in, his dark eyes searching the room.
Joxer’s eyes met his, and he felt a strange sort of lightheadedness. He wasn’t sure if that was actually connected to seeing Ares, enter the large room, dressed in his leathers and looking as though he’d really rather be somewhere else having them taken off or if it was because the large group of their families, gathered together, supposedly peacefully. He kept waiting for the fight to start.
Before Ares had gotten more than a few feet into the room, the doors opened again, this time, the entire room became silent as the King and Queen of the gods entered the room.
Joxer watched as his in-laws made a circuit around the room, thanking various people for coming, and avoiding others. Xena separated herself from Hermes and approached her father.
Hermes took the opportunity to make his way over to his two sons, cautiously.
“How did things go earlier?” Autolycus asked quietly, his full attention on his brother, almost forgetting about the two heroes he had been watching.
Joxer shrugged. “Good I think, but, it’ll take time.”
Autolycus chuckled. “Time seems to be something we have a lot of.”
Hermes smiled as he reached his sons and looked around at the crowd. “You had a nice turnout, and no one’s died.” He grinned.
“Yet.” Joxer grinned back, feeling more comfortable around his father than he had in a long time.
Autolycus’ eyes swept back against the far wall, noticing Hercules and Gabrielle were gone. He wondered if he maybe shouldn’t mention it. However, seeing how comfortable father and son seemed to be, he didn’t want to break the moment.
Gabrielle backed out of the small doorway set into the side of the wall. She closed the door silently and turned to her companion, sighing in relief.
“That was getting to be a bit…”
“Much?” Hercules offered, nodding his agreement. “I can show you around if you want.”
Gabrielle looked around. They were in a darkened hallway, silent but for their breathing. Her first response was to say she wasn’t interested in looking around Olympus, but the truth was she’d always been curious.
Back, when she was a child before she’d left Potedia and found out the truth about the gods she’d always dreamed of coming here, of the scrolls that were waiting to be written in a place like this.
Even though she now knew how evil and self-centered the Gods really were, she still found herself curious, and with Hercules as her tour guide, why shouldn’t she take a look around?
She reached out and linked her arm with his. “Great. Where do we start?”
Xena shifted her weight from one foot to the other, somewhat awkwardly.
“I’m glad you came,” Ares spoke softly.
Xena looked up, surprised by the sentiment, as well as the tone. “Yeah, me too.” She paused. “I, uh, wanted to be here. For Joxer. And…for you too.”
Ares dark eyes bore into his daughter’s seeking the truth of that statement. He saw a lot in her eyes, some of which he was only able to guess at.
“I…I was wrong about you.” She told him, finally.
Ares wasn’t exactly sure how to take that, or what to say in response; finally, he settled on the truth. “Not always.”
“Joxer isn’t who I thought he was.” Xena continued as if her father hadn’t spoken. “He said no one ever is.” She paused again, bracing herself for her next words. “I think he’s right, and I think I made a mistake, with both of you.”
Ares blinked, unsure if he had heard correctly, but somehow knowing he had. “You do?” He asked cautiously.
Xena nodded once, firmly. “Yes. I’d like the chance to get to know you. Both of you.”
After a few moments of silence, Ares spoke. “I can’t speak for Joxer, but I’d like that.”
Xena’s response was cut short as two people she had never really expected to meet in the present setting joined them.
“Mother. Father.” Ares nodded to his parents. He turned to his daughter. “Xena? Have you met your grandparents?”
Zeus nodded slightly at the warrior while Hera embraced her in a hug she wasn’t quite prepared for. “I’m so glad you joined us.”
Xena pulled away, stunned to near speechlessness. “Me too.” She smiled tightly, unsure what else to say.
Zeus turned his attention to Ares and nodded across the room. “Your sister seems quite taken with Jett.”
Hera turned away from her granddaughter and towards her daughter. “Yes. They would be a good match.”
Ares rolled his eyes. “Mother. Eris doesn’t need any help finding a match.”
Xena followed their gaze and scowled slightly at the assassin standing close to the Goddess of Discord. She wasn’t fond of either of them but was coming to realize that perhaps they weren’t what she thought they were either. She excused herself and decided there was no time like the present to find out.
Once she was out of earshot, Hera turned back to Ares. “The Amazon, and your…” She turned to frown slightly at her husband, “…brother were seen near your temple. You might want to keep an eye on them.”
Ares turned around, his eyes sweeping the room, coming to a stop on the wall that he had seen Hercules and Gabrielle at earlier. They were gone.
“I’ll take care of it.” He mumbled as he left his parents in search of Joxer.
He found his husband talking to his Hermes and Autolycus.
Joxer saw Ares headed his way with a determined stride and excused himself. Joxer reached Ares and allowed him to maneuver him out of the ballroom and into the cooridor.
Once the door clicked shut behind them, leaving them alone in the silent hall, Joxer found himself pressed against the stone wall, his lips covered by Ares’.
The two kissed passionately for several long seconds that turned into minutes. Breathing seemed more of an afterthought than anything else.
“Are you sure we can’t elope?” Joxer asked against Ares skin.
Ares chuckled. “What and miss the bloodbath?”
Joxer sighed and pulled away, leaving a few inches between him and his husband. “What’s wrong?” Joxer asked recognizing that they didn’t leave the party for a quick grope in the hall.
“We have a couple of strays wandering the halls,” Ares growled.
“Hercules and Gabrielle?” Joxer made a guess as he began walking down the hall, out into the main walkway. He sighed heavily.
In the time it would have taken him to walk through the doorway to the outside garden, Joxer found himself instead in the small yard outside their own temple.
The demi-God turned and glared at Ares. “I hate it when you do that!” He grumbled, not used to flashing in and out of places without any warning.
“Get used to it.” Ares chuckled as they popped into the central living area.
Joxer had the sudden desire to laugh out loud. It wasn’t funny, not really, but…it was.
Gabrielle was pressed up against the south wall, about three centimeters off the ground, vines surrounding her body, and pinning her to the wall like the trespasser she was. An unusually thick vine was wound around her throat, keeping her from uttering a sound.
Hercules was in a similar state not too far away from her.
Ares burst out laughing.
Joxer wanted to apologize, for either Ares reaction, or the state they were in, or both, but the truth of the matter was that if they weren’t in a place they didn’t belong, none it would have happened.
Joxer came closer, an apology on his lips. However, when he saw the look in Gabrielle’s eyes, he bit his tongue.
“Release.” He spoke quietly.
The plants began to unfurl, dropping the two intruders to the ground unceremoniously.
Ares continued to laugh, garnering hateful glares from both victims, which only made him laugh harder.
“What in Tartarus are those?” Gabriel shrieked, having regained her equilibrium.
“Plants,” Joxer answered, stating the obvious. “What are you doing here?”
“We were…sightseeing.” Gabrielle offered, suddenly nervous.
“Our home is off limits,” Ares growled.
Hercules scowled, but didn’t say anything. Ares turned to Gabrielle, waiting for a better explanation, but not really expecting one.
“It wasn’t our fault.” She snapped. “We were just walking around, and these…plants,” She motioned to the vines near the main entrance. “They pulled us in here.”
Ares raised an eyebrow in question, wondering exactly how stupid she thought they were.
“We’re sorry.” Hercules offered stiffly.
Joxer wasn’t sure what exactly they were apologizing for, trespassing, or being caught. It didn’t matter though.
“You’re guests here,” He started. “You don’t want to be here, either of you. I get that, but you agreed to come, so now you have to follow the rules.” His eyes swept past Gabrielle and fell on Hercules. “Zeus may have given you something of a free pass, but it doesn’t apply here, not in our home.” He nodded his head towards the vines, which now looked completely harmless along the walls. “You could have been seriously hurt, or worse. The Velepia vine is a highly dangerous plant, not to mention extremely territorial. I suggest you think twice before going where you don’t belong.”
Joxer stepped back and motioned towards the door. “You don’t want to be at the wedding, then don’t go, but if you stay, it’s your decision.”
Hercules started to move away from the wall but stopped just before he reached the door. “If it’s so dangerous, why keep it around?” He asked, partly curious, partly just trying to figure out what made this person he thought of as only a bumbling fool tick.
Joxer smiled slightly and shook his head, not able to come up with a way to explain the connection between him and his plants to someone who couldn’t possibly understand.
Hercules turned and walked out, followed by Gabrielle. Once the two were alone again, Ares shook his head, still angry. “Those two are going to be a problem.”
Joxer shrugged and stepped closer to the War God. “Now that we got a reprieve from all those party guests, what do you say we make the best of it?” He grinned slightly and held on as Ares moved them into the bedchamber.
His clothes had disappeared somewhere between the main room and the bedchamber, Joxer enjoyed the feeling of Ares’ skin against his own, of Ares tongue bathing him, giving him pleasure in a way that had been foreign to him until recently.
He groaned as he felt Ares’ erection against him, pressing against his body. He felt his own body release its form as Ares prepared him to enter him. Ares growled as their bodies began to shift.
They continued to shift, their solidity in a state of flux.
They moved together, their bodies forming into one cohesive unit briefly, as their souls mixed together, their minds were too far gone to process coherent thought, not that it was needed.
When their release finally came it was more than just sexual; it seemed to encompass everything they were. Afterward, the two men, now both completely solid, lay against each other.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.” Ares rumbled as he ran his hand through Joxer’s hair.
“Then you’ll never be bored.”
Ares’ chuckled, and then sighed. “We should get back.”
“Yeah.” Joxer agreed sadly.
Cupid watched as Hercules and Gabrielle re-entered the room, speaking quietly and frowning at whatever they were discussing. He nudged Strife. “There’s trouble waiting to happen.”
Eris stopped talking and followed Cupid’s gaze. When she saw the two heroes, she snorted.
“Already happened,” Jett commented. When the other three turned to him, he shrugged. “They were caught in Ares’ temple, strung up by some of Joxer’s plants.”
“How do you know? They haven’t been gone that long and you’ve been here the whole time.” Eris asked in confusion.
Jett smirked. “Aside from the sour look on their faces? You see that pattern on her throat? It’s very distinctive. To leave that kind of mark, she had to have been held pretty tightly.”
After looking at the bruise forming on Gabrielle’s throat Strife snickered. “They deserve worse. Still, I would have loved to have seen the look on their faces.”
Jett laughed, imagining it himself, then turned back to Eris. “You wanna blow?”
“Blow what?” She asked with a smirk.
Strife rolled his eyes as his mother, as she and her new playmate wandered off.
He turned back to his lover, a frown on his face. “I don’t like them being here.”
“I know.” Cupid continued to stare across the room. “Me either. We’ll keep an eye on them.”
Autolycus looked up at the sky. It was weird, seeing it from Olympus, as opposed to the mortal ground, but not unpleasant.
Autolycus turned around, startled. Xena was standing a few feet away, a small smile on her face. “Hey.” He turned back around as Xena came closer.
“I never thought we’d be running into each other here.”
Autolycus laughed. “And not for my brother’s wedding to your father.”
Xena shook her head and sighed. “He’s not who I thought he was.”
“My brother, or your father?”
“It’s not too late,” Autolycus said quietly.
“I know.” She said. “But…”
“You’re worried about Gabrielle.” He guessed.
“Yeah. She and Hercules are not happy about being here.”
“Then they can leave. They won’t be missed.”
Xena turned to face her friend, slightly surprised by his vehemence. “You don’t like them very much do you?”
Autolycus thought about his answer carefully before responding. “Not really.” He wanted to say more but wasn’t really sure if she could understand. She was beginning to realize things weren’t as they appeared, but she still didn’t completely grasp the magnitude of how things had changed.
“Why not?” She asked, really wanting to know. She had always liked the thief, but hadn’t really had the opportunity to really get to know him, which was probably a good thing, she mused.
Had she gotten to know him before now, it most likely wouldn’t have been the true him, given the secrets he was keeping.
“It’s been hard for him. Joxer never really fit in anywhere. He couldn’t truly make his own way, like Jett, but he couldn’t be allowed to be himself either. He created this persona for himself, and people were so willing to believe it, I think sometimes he believed it himself.” He stopped for a second. “Iolaus and I were the only people who knew the truth. Everyone else treated him like…an idiot, an imbecile who couldn’t even keep his ridiculous hat on straight.
“Hercules wasn’t much better. Iolaus had told him about Hercules, what a wonderful friend he was, a great hero, but when they actually met.” Autolycus shook his head. “They may both be demi-God’s, but they’re nothing alike.”
“And Gabrielle?” Xena asked, knowing that the thief spoke the truth.
“She was the worst. She mistreated him, on so many occasions that I’m surprised he kept coming back for more.”
“It was partly his fault,” Xena said, in her friend’s defense.
“You think?” Autolycus turned and stared into the warrior’s eyes. “Sure, he made himself out to dumb, and clumsy, but even if that was who he really was, did he deserve to be treated the way she treated him? I witnessed it first hand when she ran into Jett, thinking he was Joxer.” He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter now. He’s home.”
“You don’t think they’ll come around?”
“Do you?” Autolycus asked with a raised eyebrow.
Xena didn’t answer. She didn’t need to, and for the first time since the weirdness had started, she wondered if maybe in her quest to redeem herself, she had overlooked some significant things.
Like people. True, selfless people.
“I can’t believe you made me come here.” Hercules griped as he lay on the bed staring at the ceiling.
Iolaus barely acknowledged him as he lay down on his own bed. They were sharing a room in Aphrodite’s temple. The bedding was an obnoxious pink. But it was either that or stay with Cupid, and Hercules had no desire to remain under the same roof as Strife, so pink it was.
“Are you even listening to me?” Hercules asked in annoyance.
“Yes,” Iolaus answered as he turned to face his friend. “And you didn’t have to come.”
“Is that all you have to say?” The demi-god asked.
“That and you should have known better.”
“Excuse me?” Hercules sat up.
“Even I can tell you not to go sneaking around temples on Mount Olympus, least of all temples belonging to the God of War.” He snorted. “Serves you right.” He said under his breath as he rolled over and tried to get to sleep.
“There’s something weird about those plants,” Hercules said, ignorant of Iolaus blatant attempts to get him to shut up.
“There’s nothing weird about them,” Iolaus said quietly, losing patience. “Those plants have been around longer than Zeus, and were only doing what they were supposed to.”
“And what’s that?” Hercules asked, wondering what Iolaus knew about it and how.
“And why would he need protection?” Hercules leaned closer. “And how do you know so much about it?”
Iolaus rolled onto his back and sighed. “He told me.” He took a deep breath before plunging on. “He’s told me a lot.”
Hercules thought about that statement for a second, and when its significance hit him, he opened his mouth to speak but couldn’t find any words, so he shut it. After a minute he opened it again. “Are you telling me, that you knew about Joxer?”
Iolaus didn’t like the tone of his friend’s voice and stood up. “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m telling you.” He left the room and headed to the one place he was sure to get some sleep.
Hercules lay back in the bed, feeling betrayed and wondering what else Iolaus had lied to him about, and if he was the only one.
Cupid and Strife were just going to bed when they heard a heavy knocking on the front door to their temple.
Cupid climbed out of bed, leaving Strife to hog the blankets and went to see who was roaming around Olympus. Opening the door, Cupid wasn’t really surprised to see Iolaus standing on the other side looking both confused and pissed off.
“Can I come in?” He asked tentatively.
“Sure.” Cupid opened the door wider to let in his visitor.
Iolaus came inside and looked around. He’d never been to Cupid’s temple before and wasn’t sure what to expect. Cupid and Strife seemed like polar opposites and expected it to show. It didn’t.
Their home looked normal. Comfortable furniture, various weapons adorning the walls, both knives and bows and arrows and the stray item here and there that indicated a young godling was in residence.
“You mind if I stay here tonight?” The blond hunter asked quietly.
“No. Did something happen?”
“Hercules.” The Love God guessed.
“He…” Iolaus began then shrugged again.
“Don’t worry about it.” Cupid smiled and let the mortal to a spare room. “You can sleep here, but I warn you, Bliss wakes up pretty early.”
Iolaus nodded once and sat on the bed. “Thanks.” When the winged God started to leave, Iolaus stopped him. “Cupid? Can I ask you something?”
“This thing with Ares and Joxer…how do you feel about it?”
Cupid sighed and came and sat on the bed. “You’ve been friends with Joxer a long time?” Iolaus nodded. “Known the truth about him a long time?”
Iolaus smiled. “Yeah. I actually knew he was a demi-god before we met.”
“Really?” Cupid sounded surprised.
Iolaus smiled in remembrance. “Do you know how Auto and I met?”
“You were arrested for something he stole, right?”
“Yeah.” Iolaus chuckled ruefully. “A few moons later we ran into each other again, in this tavern two weeks travel from Corinth, where I’d left Herc. Auto was drunk, really pissed off about something. I wasn’t particularly fond of him, but I wasn’t anxious to see him get into any trouble either. So, I got us a room and tried to sober him up. He passed out halfway up the stairs, and I had to carry him the rest of the way.”
Cupid laughed, picturing the events as Iolaus told his story.
“He woke up in the middle of the night, still half drunk, still pissed off. It seems his brother had gotten into some trouble, and his other brother had tried to help him out of it, which only landed them in more trouble, and Autolycus had just come from trying to sort the whole mess out without involving their father.
“I didn’t get what the big deal was until he mentioned that his father was the messenger of the Gods, of course, so he knew just about everything that was going on everywhere, or so he’d like you to believe. The rest of the story didn’t make much sense until he’d sobered up and explained it all in detail after realizing the cat was out of the bag, so to speak.
“Jayce had gotten into some trouble with a patron to one of his shows and had been attacked in a jealous rage. Jett had come to his rescue, which happens quite frequently, apparently, and Auto was worried that it would draw Hermes attention, which apparently was not something any of them wanted.
Iolaus stopped talking and looked up at Cupid, not sure why he was explaining all of this. “After that we became friends. I’d heard all about all three of his brothers by the time Herc, and I ran into Joxer, who was traveling with Xena and Gabrielle. I knew almost immediately who he was, and what he was…I also knew that I couldn’t say anything to my friends without breaking the trust Auto had put in me.”
“And now that the truth is out?” Cupid asked quietly, wondering where all this was going.
“I knew eventually it would all come out, and it would be pretty unpleasant, and now that it has, I’m afraid I’m going to have to choose between my friendship with Herc and my friendship with Joxer and Auto.”
“And if it comes to that?” Cupid queried.
“Then my oldest friendship is over.”
“You’d choose Joxer and Auto over Hercules?” Strife questioned from the doorway, stunned.
“A real friend wouldn’t make me choose.”
Joxer lay awake in the bed he shared with Ares, contemplating the day’s events.
He wasn’t sure what was more insane. Trying to survive three days with his relatives, or trying to feel anything but nervous about his relationship with Ares.
He felt his vines shift on the bedchamber walls and smiled at them. They didn’t usually acclimate to being indoor this quickly, but they apparently felt at peace in their new environment.
Climbing out of bed, Joxer made his way through the temple, trying not disturb either his husband or his brother sleeping in a spare room down the hall. He could feel the ever-watchful eyes of his plants and wanted to be as comfortable in this new place as they were.
He wanted to feel the freedom of the void, but not as he had known it for years, how it had felt to be merged to Ares in that secret place. But he wasn’t sure he could take the War God there again. He wasn’t sure he should.
Joxer sighed again and placed his palm against the nearest vine. He felt the energy from the plant soak into him, warming him the way nothing else could, letting it reassure him.
Maybe there was trouble ahead, but perhaps he was finally home.
Hercules awoke slowly. Even with his eyes closed, he could tell it was dawn, and the room he was in was brightly lit. But more than the light, it was the smell of rose petals that brought the demi-god’s awareness back.
He remembered coming to Mount Olympus with Iolaus and getting caught snooping in Ares temple with Gabrielle by some very odd plantlife.
He also remembered getting in a fight with Iolaus and the implication that maybe Iolaus had known more about Joxer than he had let on.
Where exactly did that leave him?
Mostly confused and wondering why Iolaus didn’t tell him the truth.
“So, you’re the great Hercules?”
Hercules started at the voice. He turned and frowned at the sight which greeted him. A man, who looked suspiciously like Joxer, was sitting in a nearby chair, staring at him.
Though the resemblance was remarkable, Hercules knew it couldn’t be Joxer. For one thing, the look on his face was…well not like any look Hercules had ever seen on Joxer’s face. Second, and the more obvious reason, was that he’d never seen Joxer wear a dress.
Hercules shook his head and sat up, trying not to notice how the colors in the dress matched the pink room eerily well.
“What do you want?” Hercules asked warily.
“What no introductions, no how do you do…no comments about my attire?”
Hercules sighed. “You’re not Joxer, and you’re not Jett…I guess that makes you Jayce.”
Jayce clapped his hands together in mock approval. “Very good, Son of Zeus. Now, why do you suppose I’m here?”
Hercules just stared at the man for a second then shook his head again. “I have no idea. Why don’t you tell me?”
“Okay, I will. My brother is marrying your brother. You don’t like it. I don’t like it. I think maybe we have something in common…maybe we can help each other.”
Hercules blinked. Huh? “Excuse me?”
Jayce stood up, his dress winding around his hips in an unusually alluring way. “This marriage is…a bad idea. Joxer does not belong with the God of War, of all people, and you know it. Your little friend doesn’t seem to agree with me though.” Jayce looked around the room, noticing its complete lack of Iolaus. “I think we can help each other.” Jayce moved towards the door but stopped just before reaching it. “Think about it.”
Jayce was out the door before Hercules could even formulate a response, leaving the Hero staring at the empty doorway wondering when he’d walked through a portal to an alternate dimension.
Jayce left Aphrodite’s temple as silently as he had entered it. Stealth was not a job requirement for him as it was for his brothers, but on occasion, he found it useful. Now was just such an occasion.
He walked down the sunlit walkways until he reached another temple. This one was just as large, and just as lavishly decorated, though in a completely different style.
The front doors opened to him without him having to knock, and he entered the main room, unsurprised to see the temple’s occupant waiting for him.
“Well? How did it go?” The blond God asked.
Jayce shrugged. “We’ll see. He seemed…intrigued.” The demigod sat down on a plush couch across from his host, his dress covering his feet.
Jayce arched a perfectly sculpted eyebrow. “What do you have against Hercules anyway? You never said.”
“He’s pompous and arrogant.”
Jayce laughed and leaned back in the cushions. “Tell me again, ‘Pol, how that’s any different from you?”
Apollo grinned. “It’s not.” He frowned slightly. “Still, I don’t trust him…or that bard Xena brought with her. There’s trouble waiting to happen.”
“That seems to be the general consensus.” Jayce agreed.
“Artie told me she watched them sneaking into Ares temple yesterday. She had a bad feeling and followed them. She didn’t see what happened to them. Only that not long afterward, they were leaving, and pretty pissed off.”
“Okay, we’ll do this your way, but if he doesn’t take the bait by the time I leave, you’ll have to think of something else. I’m not sticking around this madhouse any longer than necessary. I have that show next week.”
The sun god looked at the wiry man, remembering exactly what part Jayce was to play in the show, and made a mental note to make a personal appearance. “If Hercules doesn’t take the bait by then, it’ll be too late.” He winked at the demigod.
“And Gabrielle? What are we going to do about her? She’s one of your followers, isn’t she?”
“She was.” Apollo nodded. “But I think her own curiosity will take care of her, and if not, I may have an idea or two.”
Hera stood overlooking her gardens and smiled. So far, everything had gone beautifully. If they could only survive the next day and a half, all would be well. She so wanted Ares’ wedding to be a success. He, of all her children, deserved the most and received the least. His job was so hard, and he did it so well. He was hated universally in the mortal world and worshiped mostly by people filled with nothing but hate, and yet, Ares had so much love to offer.
She closed her eyes and thought sadly of her dark son’s long life.
“What troubles you so?” Gaia asked quietly from behind Hera.
The queen of the gods turned and found the Earth Goddess sitting on a stone bench, her bare feet touching the earth of a newly planted flower bed.
“Are you concerned for young Ares?” Gaia asked. “You needn’t be.”
Hera sat down next to Gaia, waiting quietly for the older woman to speak. “Tell me, granddaughter, you don’t seem surprised by Ares choice.”
Hera shrugged slightly. “I knew one day he would marry. You yourself told me so. If it had been to another God, one of us, it would have happened by now. Though I must admit, I had nearly given up hope. He has been alone so long.”
“His is a hard path to follow.” Gaia agreed. “But Joxer’s life has not been easy.”
Hera nodded. She had been to the Halls of Time and watched the life that young man had lived. She watched as he was abused by his adoptive father, ridiculed by his friends, and misunderstood by even his brothers. It was his friendship with Hera’s own wild grandson that seemed to make a difference and seemed to help him begin to understand himself. She turned to her grandmother. “He is immortal, truly?” She asked quietly.
She had gone back and reviewed the time spent between Hermes and the triplets mother, had watched through the woman’s pregnancy. She had even gone so far as to visit the fates and discovered something unusual. Joxer had not so much been conceived and born as he had evolved. According to the Tapestry, initially there were only to be twins, but somehow a third grew, out of what was unclear.
Gaia nodded and waited for Hera to continue.
“He isn’t like us, is he? Not like the Gods, or even the Titans?”
“He will never die, regardless of what happens to the Gods…and if he hadn’t found Ares, he would be forever alone.” The thought saddened her.
Gaia nodded. “Alone perhaps.” She said quietly.
“Not as you would think of them, no, but The Velepia vine was born of his creation. It is, in effect, his child.”
Xena was just fastening up her breastplate when Gabrielle grunted and sat up in bed. The Warrior Princess looked over at her friend. “You better get ready, or you’ll miss the brunch.”
Gabrielle scowled. “I’m not going.”
Xena shrugged. “Suit yourself, but if you stay here, stay here.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Gabrielle asked as she climbed out of bed.
“Just what it sounds like. Don’t go wandering around in places you don’t belong.”
“You sound as though you think that was my fault.”
Xena leveled a look at her friend. “It was.”
“Excuse me?” Gabrielle frowned. “I am the victim here. I was attacked!”
Xena snorted. “You should know better than to go snooping around Olympus, especially into Ares temple. You’re lucky nothing worse happened.”
Xena walked out of the room they were sharing before Gabrielle could complain anymore. She’d spent the better part of the evening whining and complaining about how she and Hercules were nearly killed in Ares’ temple. Frankly, Xena had had enough. She couldn’t imagine what they were thinking. One day Gabrielle’s curiosity would get her into something the Warrior Princess would not be able to get her out of. Hercules wasn’t much better. He should have known better as well.
She sighed and left the temple. Late last night she had decided to take Joxer’s offer of a tour. Maybe they’d have time to talk.
Hercules stared at the ceiling, trying to figure out what that was all about. Why would Jayce want to stop his own brother’s wedding? It didn’t make any sense.
He climbed out of bed and got dressed. He thought he heard Xena and Gabrielle up and about in the room next door. They probably knew Joxer’s family better than he did, maybe they could explain it.
Before Hercules had actually made it to the door though, there was a flash behind him. The demigod stopped and turned around. His father was standing in the middle of the room, staring at him.
“Hercules.” He motioned to the bed. “Have a seat.”
That clearly was not a request, so Hercules sat.
“I heard about what happened yesterday.” Zeus began. Hercules stiffened, and refused to be backed into apologizing, so he said nothing.
Zeus stared at his son carefully before sighing. “You know, son, I may have to admit I made a mistake.”
“In allowing Ares to marry Joxer?” Hercules guessed, hoping his father wouldn’t bring up the unfortunate incident again.
“No. In suggesting rather forcefully that you be invited.”
Hercules blinked. He wasn’t sure what to say to that. Admittedly he hadn’t spent much time in Olympus or around his father, but he had always been under the impression he was the favored son, and that Ares was somewhat hated, by all on Olympus, except for Strife and Discord perhaps. But at the party the day before, no one seemed incredibly cross towards the War God. Then again it was his party. People couldn’t very well be rude.
However, he never imagined Zeus would feel anything but irritated by this marriage business. And to Joxer of all people. It didn’t make any sense. Hercules always believed Ares was War, and War couldn’t love. Even if Ares had taken a consort, he assumed it would be a marriage of convenience, another of his brother’s power plays, but what could Joxer have that Ares would want? Even allowing for Joxer’s demigod status, it didn’t seem like a practical match, for anyone.
“I didn’t know your…friend before.” Zeus interrupted Hercules thoughts. “I know him only as the man who stopped any more of my grandchildren from dying in a desperate act of revenge. Desperate, but senseless. Sterope’s madness would have only escalated, eventually putting all of Greece in danger.”
“But…” Hercules hesitated. “Is marrying Ares some sort of reward? It seems like more like a punishment than anything else.”
Zeus laughed. “Their wedding is incidental. It is neither a reward nor a punishment. They love each other. Ares is happy, Joxer is happy. That is all that matters.”
Hercules opened his mouth and then shut it again. “You sound as if…you love Ares. As much as…” He trailed off not knowing what else to say. Apparently, his perceptions of his brother’s relationship with their father were wrong. Maybe. “I had always thought…”
“I love all my children equally,” Zeus said quietly. “But Ares is…”
“Ares is what? A cold-hearted bastard?” Hercules couldn’t seem to stop himself. His anger and hatred for his brother were so intense. Most, if not all, of the pain and the suffering in the world, was Ares fault, in his opinion. Though logically, he knew this couldn’t be the case, he couldn’t help but be reminded of all the senseless death war caused.
Zeus turned to his youngest son. “Bastard is one thing Ares is not.” He said pointedly before sighing. “Ares is my firstborn. He’s the heir to the throne of Olympus. He will be King of the Gods one day. You’d do well to remember that.” Zeus disappeared in a flash before Hercules could say anything else.
Hercules frowned again, feeling like nothing made sense anymore. He stood up and walked out of Aphrodite’s temple and into the garden outside, deciding to talk to Xena and Gabrielle later. He looked out across the expanse of Olympus and could see a woman walking through the marble pathways. She walked with leisure as if she didn’t have anywhere pressing to be.
Hercules frowned as he followed her. He hadn’t expected to see her here. Once he caught up with her, he reached a hand out to stop her. She turned and looked up at him.
She smiled. “Hercules. This is a surprise.”
“I thought you’d given up on the Gods?” Hercules asked the former Goddess with more than a little disappointment in his voice.
Nemesis sighed. “I did.”
“Why then are you here? Surely you don’t care who Ares marries.”
“No, I don’t but Evander is his son, and as such should be here.” She looked up into Hercules’ eyes. “Why are you here?”
Hercules opened his mouth to answer but then abruptly shut it. The truth was he was no longer sure. “I don’t know.”
Nemesis smiled again. “I understand.”
And Hercules could tell from the compassion in her eyes that she did. “So, what have you been up to?”
Xena stood in front of the temple doors, staring at the wrought iron archway. Her father’s temple was darker than most of the other temples she’d come across. The marble was gray, not white. It was definitely darker, but not dreary, or even particularly ominous.
She did notice there was unusual plant life woven into the iron. She’d never seen any kind of foliage like it. Some of the leaves were flat, others curved. Some were large, others small. No two seemed to be alike. Some of the larger leaves had what appeared to be veins running through them. The threads were of various color and thickness.
She raised an eyebrow, as the plants seemed to shift slightly, as if in a breeze, though Xena could feel no wind. She turned around, looking about the clear Olympian pathways, feeling as though she were being watched.
As far as she could see, there was no one there. It could have been a god, but who would be watching her here? Shrugging off the feeling, the Warrior Princess knocked once on the door.
It opened beneath her knuckles to reveal Cupid standing on the other side. “Hey, sis.”
Xena blinked. She wasn’t used to so openly acknowledging her parentage and everything that went with it.
“Cupid.” She nodded to him as he stepped aside to let her in.
“Dad’s taken Bliss to grandmother’s garden to pick some flowers.” He swallowed for a second. “They’re for Phobos and Deimos.” The love god closed his eyes briefly, his wings fluttering behind him. Taking a breath, he opened them again. “Joxer should be around somewhere.” He looked to where the front door was still open. “You’re alone?”
There was a slight tension to Cupid’s voice that Xena didn’t miss.
“Yes. Gabrielle decided to stay at Aphrodite’s.”
“That might be best.”
Xena turned to where Joxer was standing near a wall where he appeared to be petting the vines that hung along every available space. She noticed the plant was the same species as the one outside and seemed to be vibrating in response to Joxer’s attention.
Xena raised both her eyebrows before the corners of her mouth twitched. “These are the vicious plants then?”
Joxer chuckled. “Come here.”
Cupid watched as his half-sister came close to the wall and slowly reached out a hand as if trying to calm a frightened animal, or allowing one to catch her scent. A long leaf moved away from the wall and wrapped tendrils around her first two fingers. Then it started to vibrate slightly, and there was a subtle humming noise.
“Huh,” Cupid said, moderately surprised. “They like you.”
Xena turned to face her brother. “You sound surprised.”
“They are rather picky,” Joxer admitted ruefully, almost like an apologetic parent.
Cupid snorted. “You could say that.” He tilted his head slightly as if listening to something no one else could hear, causing Joxer to look at him questioningly. Cupid turned to Joxer. “Tell dad to drop Bliss off with Aunt ‘Tia. There’s something I need to do.” He disappeared in a flash before Joxer was even finished nodding.
“So…you want that tour?” He asked. “I’d offer you breakfast, but if we don’t eat at breakfast, heads are going to roll…literally. You really don’t want to piss off the women of this family.” He smiled, and Xena smiled back.
Almost as if it had been following the conversation, the vines detached themselves from Xena and returned to their place on the wall.
“I can’t believe Ares is really getting married.” Nemesis shook her head. “I never thought I’d see the day. He’s had long-term liasons, even a few who considered him their personal property, but nothing really official like this.”
“It is kind of weird.” Hercules agreed.
“So why are you here?” The former goddess asked. “I don’t recall hearing about a reconciliation between you two.”
Hercules chuckled. “No, but Joxer…the man he’s marrying, he was a friend of mine.”
“Was?” She asked curiously. “You speak as though he’s dead.”
Hercules sighed. “Maybe he is. Or at least the person I thought I knew is dead…or maybe he never existed.”
Hercules began to tell his former lover about everything that had happened to change his view of things. Nemesis listened, and occasionally asked questions, and offered an objective viewpoint.
Hercules listened and for the first time since this all happened began to see how conflicted Joxer must have been.
“You know where Aphrodite’s temple is.” Joxer pointed to his left. “Cupid and Strife live over there with Bliss and Pandemonium.”
“Pandemonium?” Xena queried.
Joxer smiled. “She’s about three months old.”
“I didn’t know they had a baby.” She smiled slightly. “So…I’m an aunt?”
Joxer laughed. “Yes, I guess you are.”
“Does this mean I may have a brother or sister in the future?” Joxer’s confused expression made her elaborate. “Are you planning on having children?”
Joxer stopped walking for a second, a small frown on his face. “It’s not possible.” He said quietly. “Normally, it’s only possible between two full gods, and I’m only half, but…” He hesitated.
Xena placed a hand on his shoulder. “You can trust me. I want…to know the real Joxer.”
He smiled again slightly. “I’m not like other demigods. Not like you and Hercules, or even Auto, and Jayce and Jett. Generally, demigods receive something from their godly parents. Hercules’ strength, Jett’s power of illusion, your abilities. Even so, it doesn’t change who they are…they can still be sick, and bleed, and die, usually, but…for me, it goes deeper than that. I’m connected to this world in a way I can’t explain. I can’t procreate like most people. The earth is a part of me, and those vines are the closest thing to offspring I will ever have.” He spoke gravely, but without too much regret.
Xena didn’t really know what to say. She’d seen what Joxer could do. Witnessed him communing with the elements, but this…was more than she expected.
“Come on, let’s go see what the muses have planned for the days’ entertainment.”
While the demigods were exploring, Gabrielle was doing some exploring of her own. Though most on Olympus would call it snooping.
She had been through every room available to her in Aphrodite’s temple and though she found some interesting potions, nothing that really interested her.
Finally wandering outside, Gabrielle walked around, not sure where she was heading exactly. She and Hercules had seen quite a bit both before and after the incident with the crazy plants. Her path took her towards Apollo’s temple, where she thought she might try and speak to the healing God. He was the closest thing she had ever had to a personal God, and her understanding was that Apollo and Ares weren’t exactly close. Maybe he could help her.
Just before reaching the marble road that led to Apollo’s brightly lit temple, she was stopped by someone who looked incredibly familiar, but she didn’t know all that well.
Joxer’s brother bowed slightly. “Gabrielle.” He motioned towards the sun god’s temple. “Going to see Apollo?”
“I was thinking of it.”
He nodded once. “That might be a good idea. “He seems to be the only sane person around here…not going wild over this wedding nonsense.”
Gabrielle looked a little surprised. “You’re not happy about this wedding?”
Jayce snorted. “Of course not. Joxer’s special…a little naïve. He doesn’t need the kind of influence Ares would give him.”
Jayce noticed the look in her eyes and smiled inwardly. “I have to go. See you at the ceremony?”
“You’re not going to the brunch either?” She asked, again surprised.
“I have something to do.” He said somewhat mysteriously before walking quickly away, his dress moving in the breeze his pace caused.
Gabrielle smiled and walked up to the door to Apollo’s temple. She knocked once, but when no one answered, she decided to try and turn the heavy gold door handle.
The door opened easily, which might have been her first clue something wasn’t right. The temple appeared to be empty. Magnificent tapestries were hanging on the walls and beautiful plush couches.
She spent a few minutes just staring at everything. It was amazing, everything she would expect, and yet so much more. The bard wandered over to one corner of the room where an alcove sat, almost a room in itself. There was a large ornate desk filled with scrolls and what appeared to be potions.
One, in particular, seemed to draw her attention. The bottle was a vivid blue and held a label containing one word.
She stared at the bottle for a long second before picking it up, feeling almost compelled to do so. Gabrielle slipped the bottle inside her shirt, almost without realizing she was doing it, or why.
Seconds later a bright flash heralded the arrival of one of the Gods.
“Well, well… what do we have here? If it isn’t Gabrielle of Potedia.”
Gabrielle turned around, startled, almost as much at being caught as at the sound of his voice. It was almost musical.
“Apollo.” She whispered.
He smiled, the act itself seeming to brighten the room. “What brings you here?”
“I uh…” She didn’t know what to say.
He smiled again, waving his hand and offering her a tray of fruit and juice that he had just materialized. “Come, eat breakfast, and tell me how I can help.”
Strife and Cupid stood with Autolycus in the shadow of a large birch near Apollo’s temple. The thief narrowed his eyes. He had followed Gabrielle out of Aphrodite’s temple and was troubled by what he’d seen. Both by her encounter with his unusual brother, and by her visit to Apollo.
What possible reason could Gabrielle have for visiting Apollo? It was no secret how Gabrielle felt about the Gods.
More disconcerting was Jayce’s appearance. He had apparently been both heading somewhere and coming from somewhere, not aimlessly wandering. Of all of Hermes children, Jayce had the least contact with Olympus and everyone who lived there.
Their more…entertaining sibling avoided all of the Gods. His arrival here was rare enough, though explained by Hermes not taking no for an answer. His walking around Olympus as if it was a regular occurrence was something else altogether.
“That girl is trouble, and not the good kind.” Strife said, smirking slightly at his lover.
“I agree.” Cupid nodded. “So, now what?”
“Stay here and keep an eye on her. We’ll go get Jox.” Autolycus said, stroking his mustache absently.
Strife grabbed Autolycus’ shoulder and flashed away, leaving Cupid to observe.
He was glad that Aunt Hestia was still looking after Pandemonium. He wanted his kids as far away from this mess as possible.
Gabrielle left Apollo’s temple feeling much better than when she’d entered. The Sun God seemed to agree with her about the current nuptials and almost seemed to approve of her plan if you could call it a plan. Not that she’d told him what she was actually going to do.
But was that really necessary? The God’s could read minds, couldn’t they? And surely Apollo’s request for her to come and visit again before she left Olympus had to mean something. It was his way of telling her he approved she decided as she noticed the eerily abandoned Olympian pathways.
She knew that Hera’s brunch was supposed to be that morning, but the bard couldn’t imagine the entire pantheon was going to be there? She thought that Ares was something on a non-entity, even among the Gods.
Taking the quickest route she knew, Gabrielle went straight into Ares’ temple, slightly surprised there were few locks. Though who would dare steal from the God of War? Even here on Olympus? She made her way into the dining hall and stayed far away from any of the perilous vines that covered almost every wall, while she looked for something she could use to dispense the concoction she’d stolen from Apollo’s temple.
The label had said Truth. It must be some sort of potion to encourage the telling of truth. Perhaps she could finally find out the truth behind Joxer’s identity, and why Ares really wanted to marry him. There had to be more to it than they were telling.
She spotted the perfect thing for her little truth serum, never noticing the watching eyes of the Velepia Vine. Even if she had, would the bard have believed them capable of more than watching?
Apollo popped into his stepmother’s brunch with his usual tardiness and settled at his usual spot with the muses, and his stunning, if cranky sister, while his father was in the middle of one of his infamous speeches. The Dining Hall was filled to capacity, as was expected. They hadn’t had an event on this grand of a scale since Athena had declared a consort and ended nearly two millennia of virginity. But that was a wild party. He smiled in remembrance as he took a look around the room.
He caught Jayce’s eye and winked before turning to his sister. “What did I miss?”
“Nothing. You know how father plans these long-winded speeches of his around your consistent late arrival.”
Apollo grinned. “But better late than never.” He nodded his head towards the central table, which housed Joxer and Ares and their immediate family. “I notice your Amazon has not arrived, late or otherwise.”
Artemis did not so much as turn to look at her twin, but there was a definite edge to her voice. “Careful brother dear, you know as well as I that…child is no Amazon. Rite of Caste or not. She does not follow the code, she honors no tribe. Whoever heard of a queen running all over Greece while her people fight amongst themselves?” She finally turned to look at Apollo and noticed the twinkle in his eyes. She sighed. “You do that just to agitate me.”
“It’s working.” Apollo pointed out.
Artemis narrowed her eyes. “What are you planning? What have you done?”
Apollo kissed her cheek in a manner not familiar in so public an arena. “Don’t worry, Artie, Ares will get what he so richly deserves, Grandmother will get her rest, and for once Hera will have nothing to say.”
Artemis scowled. She wanted more information, but centuries of aggravating experience had taught her she would get no more. Unlike many Olympians, she knew her brother was far more devious than he was given credit for.
She finally sighed and turned back to the central table, most of which seemed happy, or at the very least not bored senseless. All but one. She turned back to her devious brother. “And does this plan of yours involve Hercules?”
Apollo shrugged. “I was just baiting him really. If he takes it, great, that bastard needs a good ass-kicking, and I’m tired of seeing Ares get all the fun.”
“And if he doesn’t?” Artemis asked coolly.
“Then he remains safe.”
She snorted. “From whom?”
Apollo chuckled. “Father. If Hercules makes an error now, there will be no reprieve.” Artemis nodded, satisfied, for now. Her eyes trailed to the lavishly dressed man who bore a striking resemblance to one of the grooms, and she had seen him more than once in Apollo’s various temples.
“And him,” She motioned towards Jayce, “You trust him?”
“As much as I trust you.” He admitted quietly.
“Good enough.” She whispered as Zeus had finally finished and the food was actually served.
“By Zeus, I’m glad that’s over!” Ares said to his oldest surviving son as they entered the War temple. Joxer had gone to talk with his father, and Strife tagged along for moral support, so at the moment they were sharing some of their own quality time while Bliss was with his grandma Eris.
Ares noticed absently that the plants had seemed to further acclimate themselves to their new environment and seemed to be…weaving. “Wine?” He offered Cupid from the decanter that always sat at the table in the dining hall.
“Sure, pop,” Cupid answered materializing a backless chair to sit in that wouldn’t cramp his still tender wings.
“Your mother told me you have a houseguest,” Ares said casually, thinking about how much trouble Hercules would have to be in for Iolaus to seek shelter with Cupid and Strife.
Cupid nodded. “Did you know he knew about Jox before they even met?”
Ares arched a brow. “No, but…it makes sense. Iolaus and Autolycus are friends right?”
There was an odd note to the War God’s voice, and the plants moved slightly towards him in reaction to it.
Cupid smiled as his father continued to pour the wine. “She’ll be fine.” He said referring to his half-mortal sister.
Ares handed a glass of wine to Cupid and drank down his own. “How did you know…” He trailed off, not sure what he was asking precisely.
Cupid’s grin got wider. “I’m a love god. It’s my job to know.” His smile turned to dismay as a strange look passed over his father’s face just before he lost consciousness.
Xena strolled through Hera’s personal gardens. The gardens themselves were legendary, even in the mortal world, and more than just a garden. Plant life of all types grew here. Plants, trees, flowers, vegetation.
It was kind of funny, considering her grandmother was considered to be one of the evilest and vengeful gods on Olympus, but the woman hadn’t seemed so dangerous when she had accosted Xena after the brunch and insisted that she explore Olympus, at her leisure. Apparently, she hoped that Xena would return often.
Xena still had trouble wrapping her mind around that one. Even though her experience with the furies was aimed mostly at besting Ares in that particular tangle of webs, Xena had to admit all the pieces fit. Her agility, and ability to sense when Ares was around. Her fighting skills had definitely been hard won, but even the best warrior couldn’t fight the God of War to a standstill if they were mortal.
Though the Warrior Princess often wondered if she did, in fact, fight Ares to a standstill…at any time. Ares was devious, of that, there could be no question, and recently she had discovered depths to him previously unimagined.
Shaking her head to clear her mind of the swirl of thoughts, Xena continued to look around the splendor. Typically, flowers weren’t really her thing, but she had learned to appreciate beauty in all its forms recently. And truth be told, she was rather enjoying this trip to Olympus.
Her family wasn’t quite what she expected, and that was a pleasant surprise. An added benefit was the respite from her near constant companion.
She cared for Gabrielle, maybe even loved her, in her own way. Though Xena had long suspected that the bard had deeper feelings, and Xena wasn’t ready to deal with that. She knew she didn’t feel that way about Gabrielle. Their relationship was too complicated, too fraught with their own inner demons, and history, not all good.
She couldn’t deny that Gabrielle had touched her life, in monumental ways. She had changed her, shown her things, parts of herself she both didn’t know existed, and parts she had always tried to ignore, repress.
Gabrielle’s appearance in her life had changed her in ways she couldn’t begin to express, but sometimes, like now, the warrior wondered if she wouldn’t have made some of those changes herself, in time.
“Xena. We have to quit meeting like this…my father will talk. He is the biggest gossip on Olympus, you know.” The familiar drawl brought the demi-goddess out of her thoughts and made her smile.
“Autolycus.” She said as she turned around, surprised, but pleased to see him.
He bowed slightly, always the gentlemen. She knew much of his charm had an ulterior purpose most of the time, but she couldn’t deny that he did have appeal, not to mention she knew the thief had a much bigger heart than he liked to let on.
“I didn’t expect to find you here.” She admitted with a slight twitch of her lips.
Autolycus smiled and approached a plant that appeared to be a bush with thick leafy vines and oddly rainbow colored flowers. He touched one finger gently to a single flower, and it bloomed at the attention. He laid his hand flat, and the flower bulb fell into his hand as if it had been snipped by invisible shears.
“These are a sort of…hybrid, of several different species, one of which is the Velepia Vine. When I come home, I always bring a few with me to take to Joxer. They seem to soothe both the vines and Joxer.”
Xena continued to watch, strangely entranced as he repeated the procedure and three more flowers ‘fell’ into this outstretch palm. They looked delicate enough to break but didn’t. Xena raised an eyebrow at both the odd sight and the way Autolycus mentioned home.
“You consider this your home?” She asked curiously.
Autolycus shrugged. “Things with father are…complicated, but the past ten years or so I have called this home. I travel a lot, but when I’m not, yeah…” He paused. “What about you? Will you be returning, now that you know…everything?”
Before she could answer, Autolycus shuddered briefly, his face going pale. “We have to go.” He grabbed her hand and ran towards Ares temple, sensing something was wrong with Joxer.
Left alone again the hybrid plant seemed to settle back into the roots even further as a tremble went through its viney leaves.
Joxer was sitting awkwardly at his father’s temple, watching idly as Strife sat on the edge of a table and tossed some glass object back in forth in the air. It was hard to tell what the object was supposed to be. Joxer guessed either a bird or some sort of serpent.
Hermes was talking, and though Joxer was listening, was trying to make an active effort to get through this awkwardness between them, something was distracting him. Something other than his best friends behavior. Something was off…he felt strange.
“I’m sorry.” Hermes abruptly said. It was apparent he had stopped talking about whatever his original conversation was and just blurted the two words out.
Both Strife and Joxer turned as one to the God of Messengers, Liars and Thieves. “What?” It would have been comical if someone else were watching.
Strife spoke first, his words edgy, and lacking his usual mania. “Sorry for what?”
Hermes continued as if the Mischief god hadn’t said anything. What he had to say was really for his son’s ears only, but if Joxer felt more comfortable with Strife here, so be it. “I thought you would be better off.” He paused, “All of you.” He raised his head and looked across at Joxer, seeking some kind of absolution. There was none he could find.
Joxer swallowed thickly and nodded his head. “What’s done is done.” He stood up, suddenly weary with all the talk of the past and apologies, and regrets.
“That’s it?” Hermes asked, standing up as well. “You’re not going to give me another chance?”
“I didn’t say that,” Joxer said as he grabbed the object Strife was still tossing. “I’m not going anywhere. My place is here now. I’m not guaranteeing anything, but…we’ll see.”
Hermes nodded and was about to say thank you when Strife reached out a leather-clad arm as Joxer started to fall, one word passing his lips. “Ares.”
Hercules arrived at the War temple amid chaos. Cupid and Strife were standing in one corner holding on to each other, watching a jumbled mass of bodies on the floor. At first, he just noticed the two gods. There was something about the way they clung to each other that suddenly hit him, and the demi-god realized that they did love each other, no matter how hard it was to believe, and they were terrified by whatever was going on.
The last thought drew Hercules attention to the mass on the floor. Asclepius and his father stood over two bodies lying in the middle of the room, both deathly still.
Xena and Autolycus stood on the opposite side of the room from Cupid and Strife, and looked just as worried, though not quite so…close. Hermes paced back and forth in the corner of the room, trying not to get in the way.
“What’s going on?” He asked finally.
“We don’t know,” Asclepius answered. “Ares and Joxer collapsed at apparently the same time. Ares was here, with Cupid, and Joxer was with Strife at his fathers’. They brought him here, and called me.”
“Apollo?” Hercules asked quietly. Everyone noticed the nervous tone of voice but were too preoccupied to say anything.
The Sun God stood up. “I can’t figure it out. It looks like something was put into his wine.” He held the decanter up.
“He was poisoned?” Hercules asked, a suspicion forming in his mind.
Apollo turned and glared at his half-brother, “As I was saying, but that’s not what caused this.”
“What was put in his wine?” Strife asked, noticing there had been two glasses out, meaning Cupid could have drunk that same wine.
Before Apollo could answer, Hercules spoke up. “Jayce did it.”
Autolycus turned towards the hero, his dark eyes narrowing as Hermes stopped his own pacing. “Excuse me?” He stepped around the bodies on the floor and walked up to Hercules. “How dare you come in here, and accuse my brother of…what? Trying to kill Ares, an act that you may not be aware of, but would ultimately mean that Joxer would…” He stopped and looked away. “He wouldn’t recover.”
A gasp was heard from the doorway, and all eyes turned towards the newcomer.
Gabrielle looked at all the faces and the still bodies on the ground. “What’s going on?”
Jayce lounged against a comfortable couch in Apollo’s temple, waiting for the God to return. They had had plans for this afternoon. Plans that didn’t include Apollo being anywhere but in a large bed. He idly wondered what the emergency was.
//We have a situation.//
The words, serious in tone, alerted the more flashy of the triplets that perhaps there really was an emergency.
//What’s going on?// He asked back.
//Hercules just accused you of poisoning Ares//
//What? And risk hurting Joxer? Why would I do that?// Jayce stood up and started making his way to where he could feel the communication was coming from.
//Lookee here…I think I know what might have happened.//
The connection cut off, and Jayce stepped up his pace.
Gabrielle had just entered the temple full of Gods and Demi-Gods alike when she was grabbed. She turned to see who held her, only to see thick leafy vines instead of arms.
“Let me go!” She shrieked.
Apollo stepped up to the bard. “You were in my temple earlier. How long were you there before I arrived?”
Gabrielle’s eyes went to Xena, pleading for some kind of assistance, but Xena was looking at the still form of her father and Joxer.
“Not long.” She said quietly, refusing to look anyone in the eye.
“What did you steal?” Apollo pressed on.
Cupid abruptly let go of Strife and stepped in front of Gabrielle, moving Apollo out of the way. “What did you do to my father?”
“Nothing!” She said. When no one moved, she sighed. “It was just a truth potion. I wanted him to admit…” She trailed off as everyone’s attention was once again diverted as Jayce entered.
“What in Tartarus?” He asked. He moved towards the still bodies and felt for a pulse. Ares body was of average temperature, but Joxer’s was approaching freezing. His eyes turned first to Hercules, then to the trapped bard, then back to Hercules.
“I didn’t do this!” Hercules exclaimed. “I thought you did.” He stared down at the demi-god. “I was going to tell you to stuff your offer. I’ve changed my mind about…everything.”
Jayce nodded once. “Good choice.” His eyes turned to Gabrielle.
“You stole something from Apollo’s temple.” His eyes narrowed. “How much did you use?”
“All of it,” Gabrielle whispered, her eyes downcast. “It was only a truth potion.”
The vines tightened around her, weaving themselves around her throat, cutting off speech.
“Are you sure, girl?” Apollo walked back towards the prone bodies. “Get some of that Flouridien suppressor, and give it to Ares.” He told his son who disappeared in a flash and then reappeared with a small flask.
As Asclepius was tending to the War God, Apollo turned to Jayce and Autolycus. “Take your brother to the gardens.”
Cupid and Strife followed the three, knowing they were too angry right now to be in the same room with anyone who had caused this.
“What now?” Hermes asked quietly.
“Now we wait.”
“What’s Flouridien?” Xena asked after she had returned from helping to move Ares unconscious body into his bedchamber. Eris and Jett had shown up after leaving Cupid’s offspring with a worried Aphrodite but decided they’d rather keep an eye on the War God than get in the middle of the chaos in the main hall. Though Jett had been quick to assure anyone who wasn’t aware that if either Ares or his brother didn’t recover from whatever this was, someone was going to die. Maybe several someones.
“It’s an herb.” The voice was accompanied by the arrival of Hera.
Xena arched her brow at her grandmother, getting used to the odd, and sometimes spontaneous arrivals and departures of the God’s. She turned to Apollo, who she assumed would know, since apparently the substance in question was taken from his temple. She wasn’t ready to address Gabrielle’s actions or her motives, not yet.
“What sort of an herb?”
The healing God sighed heavily and nodded his head at his stepmother.
“Most of the plants and flowers in my gardens are unique hybrids. You won’t find them anywhere else, either in the mortal world or here on Olympus. Some of the hybrids come together naturally; others need a little coaxing.” The corners of her lips turned up slightly as she approached one of the vines, her fingers lightly touching it. To her, they seemed very agitated, but she was exceptionally sensitive to plant life, after centuries of cultivating her garden.
“Every once in a while, a plant can become…overzealous. It grows too fast, becomes too strong, overtaking everything around it.”
“Like these?” Xena asked noticing, not for the first time, how the vines had covered almost every available surface. Not just the walls, vines were climbing up the ceiling and through the archways leading down the halls into other rooms.
“No, these are special.” Hera smiled softly, an expression which surprised only Hercules, whom she was ignoring. “Many plants are a lot like people. They need food, water and sunlight to survive, they breathe, after a fashion, and some even secrete hormones.”
“The potion Gabrielle stole was liquid Flouridien,” Jayce said beginning to pace in agitation, his long dress making it difficult but not impossible. “Flouridien is a plant hormone that counteracts another hormone called Velepezine, secreted by only one plant.” He waved his arm at the abundant greenery. “These vines.”
“So, my father was poisoned,” Xena said, looking at Gabrielle for the first time. The bard was still being held captive by the vines, which had a will of their own apparently.
“She said it was a truth serum.” Hercules pointed out suddenly, avoiding Hera’s unusual eyes.
Apollo nodded. “Yes. Normally it’s harmless, to both mortals and gods alike, except…” He trailed off, looking to his lover to explain the rest.
“It hallucinogenic,” Jayce said shortly, his accent and flamboyant appearance gone. “It gives you visions, helps you find your own…truth.” He smiled slightly before turning to Gabrielle who seemed to be struggling even more.
Jayce nodded once, and the vines receded slightly. They still held her firmly in their grip, but now left her free to speak, if she wanted to. Clearly, she did.
“I only wanted…” Gabrielle stopped, gulping in some air.
Hercules looked carefully at the girl and realized in dawning horror that this could have been him. If he’d taken Jayce up on his offer of coercion, which the demi-god now recognized must have been some sort of test, anything could have happened. The hero himself wasn’t even sure how far he might have gone, considering his perhaps judgmental feelings for his brother.
“What were you trying to do?” He asked softly.
“I wanted to know why,” Gabrielle admitted. “Why Joxer lied…why Ares was really going to marry him.” She turned to Apollo. “I thought you understood. I thought you approved.”
Hera turned to her stepson and nodded once. “Perhaps you should explain things to her.” She walked away, heading towards the bedchamber to sit with her son.
Autolycus gently lay his brother down in the soft dirt, near where he and Xena had been talking earlier, the oddly colored flowers moving slightly as if they were trying to reach for him. The thief looked up at the two gods. “Can you get rid of his clothes?”
With a flash, Joxer was naked, his back and legs flesh with the soil. Cupid’s eyes widened as Joxer started to sink into the earth, disappearing from sight.
“Don’t worry, Cupe,” Strife petted one wing reassuringly. “Happens all the time.”
“Where’d he go?” Cupid whispered.
“The Void.” Autolycus and Strife answered together, just as quietly.
“Explain what?” Gabrielle snapped, not liking being held so tightly, and feeling much more comfortable with only Xena, Hercules, Apollo and Joxer’s weird brother to deal with.
Jayce’s eyes narrowed. “Watch it, girl. You’re in a heap of trouble.” His voice was deadly calm, and suddenly the bard realized that though he looked and acted flamboyantly, he was just as dangerous as Jett, maybe more so.
“Babe.” Apollo’s voice was soft, but not soft enough to be unheard by both Hercules and Xena. All three demi-god’s turned to him, but his eyes remained on the man in a dress. “Not now. Why don’t you go see how Joxer’s doing? Find Artie for me.”
Jayce continued to scowl at the blond girl and then shimmered away.
Gabrielle’s eyes widened. “He can…”
Apollo shrugged. “Everyone with more than a third of godly blood has gifts. Some more than others, it all depends on their parentage, the amount and strength of blood. Hermes boys tend to get abilities that enable them to move in ways that mortals can’t. Jett’s illusion is a part of that. Auto has a sort of…invisibility effect. Jayce can…shimmer.” He shrugged again.
“About what Hera said?” Xena prompted, not waiting for Gabrielle to get out of her stupor and start asking more questions she probably didn’t need the answers to.
The sun god grinned a little sheepishly, staring more at Hercules than anyone else. “We’re an enigma…the Gods, I mean. We have these volatile relationships…huge fights, we’re just…scary.” He smiled slightly again.
“But you’re not, right?” Xena guessed. “Mostly you’re just…like everyone else.”
“Family.” Apollo nodded.
Gabrielle snorted, and Hercules felt as if he was being played with, but he didn’t want to discount it out of hand.
“Our jobs…our godhoods, they sort of define who were are to the world, but there’s more…there is always more.” Apollo turned to Hercules, looking him dead in the eye. “Most people know Hera as a revenge-happy, jealous crazy goddess, killing people at random. You personally have much experience with that. I’m not saying she isn’t jealous, because she is, and I’m not saying she can’t get crazy, because believe me, she can. Zeus’ infidelity hurts her in ways I can’t tell you. Despite what you may think, she loves him, and when he does that…” He trailed off, shaking his head. “The point is, there is more to us than mortals see; more than most demi-gods who live in the mortal world see. I’m a bastard of Zeus, just like you, Hercules, but mostly Hera doesn’t blame me for that. Maybe mother gets a little wrath, but the kids…we’re just bystanders, and though the world at large doesn’t know it, Hera is the Goddess of Childbirth for a reason. She likes kids.”
“So what you’re saying,” Hercules tried to wrap his mind around this concept. “Is that the Gods aren’t crazy?”
Apollo laughed at that. A loud, musical sound. But before anything else could be said, there was a shriek from Ares bedchamber, and the Sun god and two demi-gods disappeared, leaving Gabrielle trapped with the Plants from Tartarus.
By the time Apollo arrived in Ares bedchamber with his niece and half-brother, Eris was scowling, trying to look like she had not just shrieked like a schoolgirl.
“What happened?” The god of healing asked the three who were obscuring Ares bed.
Hera stepped aside so that Apollo could see the bed. The empty bed.
“He disappeared.” Eris supplied helpfully.
Apollo cocked his head to the side slightly. He didn’t look particularly concerned, which calmed both Hera and Eris.
//Are you in the gardens yet?”//
//Jox’s gone.// Came the expected reply.
//Thought so, Ares too. Did you talk to Artie?//
//She’ll be there soon if she isn’t already.//
//Good. Gabrielle needs watching.//
//Gabrielle needs killing.// Even Jayce’s mental voice sounded pissed.
Apollo didn’t comment but turned to the occupants of the room. “Jayce says Joxer disappeared. He’s probably trying to fight off the infection.”
“And brought Ares with him.” Jett nodded, understanding.
“Infection?” Hercules asked. “I thought you said it was harmless.”
“Normally it is, but Flouridien acts as a sort of poison to…” He nodded towards the ever-present plants, “These vines.”
When Hercules still looked confused, Jett snarled, much to both Hera and Eris’ amusement. “The Velepia Vines are connected to Joxer. They are a part of him, as he is of them. They are the closest thing to offspring my brother will ever have.”
“You mean that…potion poisoned Joxer like it would these plants. He absorbed it through his connection to my…to Ares.” Xena guessed.
“Very good, Granddaughter.” Hera smiled.
“Could this have killed Joxer?” Xena asked quietly, thinking of what Gabrielle could have inadvertently done.
Artemis flashed into the temple of War and looked around. She hadn’t often had reason to come here, but she was confident the extreme abundance of plant life was a new addition. It was everywhere, covering every surface, filling the room with oxygen and a strange kind of tranquility the goddess didn’t recall feeling in this place before.
She had been told it was urgent that she come here, but not why. That wasn’t uncommon. Over the past few years, when Artemis had occasion to engage in conversation with Jayce, which was not often she admitted, she had learned that he only spoke when he had something to say, at least to most of the Olympians.
She had heard that he had no use for Olympus, and especially no use for his father. How he ended up with Apollo was a mystery better left for others. Though she supposed the adage that opposites attract might somehow fit in this instance.
Pushing thoughts of her brother’s personal life out of her mind, she reached out with her godly senses, trying to detect what was so urgent. She could feel her twin in another room, with five others, but otherwise, the temple was empty.
Except for the bard who claimed to be an Amazon Queen. The girl was being subdued by the plants, and the goddess of the hunt smiled as she watched the girl squirm.
“Can’t talk your way out of this one, can you?” She asked as she stepped closer.
The silence in the room continued until Xena asked again. “Could this have killed Joxer?”
Apollo sighed. “Not directly. Joxer’s immortal in a way not even the gods are. The fates have no say in his lifespan, if or when it will ever end. He can’t really be hurt or killed.”
“But?” Hercules pressed, sensing there was more, and idly wondering how Apollo knew so much.
“But his bonding to Ares changed things, a little. It weakens him. Just as he received the poison through his connection to Ares, if we hadn’t gotten the antidote to Ares is time…Joxer would have shared his fate.”
“Are you saying that if something happens to Ares, Joxer could die,” Jett asked suddenly. He had not thought about this consequence, until now.
“Possibly,” Apollo admitted.
“How is it you know so much about this?” Hercules finally asked, curiosity getting the better of him.
“How else? He is married to one of Joxer’s brothers.” Hera answered for her stepson.
Eris blinked. She didn’t know that. She hadn’t been aware that Apollo had any connection with any of Hermes son’s or any of what had happened recently, and assumed he was here only because, as the primary god of healing, it was his job. She knew the brother in question wasn’t Jett, and Autolycus didn’t seem to be Apollo’s type. Suddenly so much appeared to make sense. She narrowed her eyes at her mother. “How, exactly, do you know that?”
Hera smiled. It wasn’t often one of her children were kept out of the loop. “Who do you think married them?” When Eris frowned in confusion, she elaborated. “It was several years ago when you and Ares were tied up with that campaign that your father was so concerned about.”
Joxer sunk deep into the Earth, bypassing layers of soil and undiscovered life, until he reached what he was searching for. The Earth and all its natural elements were like a haven to him, a safety net, but this place, this absence of all the things the mortal world contained…people, noise, complications and general chaos. Those things were absent here. Here he was safe. Here he found peace.
The demi-god relished in that peace until he felt another presence, a familiar mind.
He felt Ares feelings wrap around him like a warm blanket. In this place, neither of them had form, here it wasn’t necessary.
Joxer could still sense a vague echo of the Flouridien, but it was dissipating. It would be completely gone soon, and they could return to the three-dimensional mortal world. Their family was probably worried.
But for now, they drifted.
Gabrielle’s eyes grew big as she stared at the Goddess. It was hard to tell, but she thought Artemis was pissed. The bard couldn’t figure out why that would be. Ares was himself a God, and would no doubt recover from whatever Gabrielle had inadvertently given him. Besides, regardless of what Apollo said, Gabrielle couldn’t imagine Ares and Artemis being close. Her brow furrowed. On the other hand, Ares and Aphrodite seemed to be unusually close, considering one was a War God and the other a Goddess of Love, two things diametrically opposed.
Before she could think further about the strange relationships of the Gods a powerful flash of lightning appeared in the plant-filled room, preceding the arrival of yet another God.
Zeus appeared and looked around his son’s temple, somehow not surprised in the least to notice his lightning bolt arrival had not injured the plants or anything else in the room. “What in Hades name is going on here?” He demanded.
Gabrielle saw the danger in the eyes of the King of the God’s as he looked from the captured girl to his daughter and back again.
Gabrielle gulped. This wasn’t good.
Hera smiled as she heard her husband’s bellow and turned to the other’s in the room. “Shall we?”
Eris, Apollo, and the three demi-gods followed the Queen of the Gods obediently.
“Husband.” Hera nodded her head regally.
Zeus turned to the group and looked each one over carefully. It was something of an occasion to see Hercules anywhere near his wife, but otherwise, there was nothing extraordinary. His eldest daughter was with Ares’ new brother-in-law, whom she seemed quite taken with. He smiled at the assassin, hoping that maybe Eris could find some happiness as well. It had been a long time. Apollo stood in the back, seemingly in telepathic conversation with someone, probably that husband of his. Next, he turned to the warrior woman. She was so much like her father it made Zeus smile again. He nodded briefly to his youngest son then turned to the unique plants that seemed to be taking over the war temple and were holding a squirming Gabrielle.
“She poisoned Ares.” Apollo offered, stepping forward.
Zeus frowned. “Joxer?” He asked carefully. Since his son’s unexpected union to the unusual demigod, he’d spent some time with Gaia and learned many interesting things about his new son-in-law. One of those things was of the connection between the two.
“They disappeared,” Hercules spoke up. He was uncomfortable. He had never been particularly happy finding out who his father was, nor with any of his subsequent dealings with the gods, yet here he was, on Olympus, in the middle of…something.
Zeus looked carefully at the hero. “Hercules, what exactly are you doing here?”
Hercules frowned. “You invited me.”
The king of the Gods blinked. “No, here in the War Temple.”
“I wanted…” He looked away from everyone and suddenly seemed to find the floor very interesting. “I wanted to apologize, to Ares, and Joxer.”
Everyone was quiet while they digested that piece of information. Finally, Artemis stepped closer. “Herc, why don’t you come with me. We haven’t caught up in a while.” She held out a hand, realizing that if Hercules weren’t aware of what could happen to the bard, maybe he’d be better off not knowing.
Still stunned from his own admission, the hero took her hand and followed her out of the room. Zeus turned back to the girl trapped in the vines. “This must be dealt with before the ceremony tomorrow, Wife.” He said quietly.
“Yes, Father, I agree.” Apollo said, “But perhaps we should wait until Ares and Joxer…return.”
“Do you know when that will be?” Xena asked.
The healing God shrugged.
When Joxer regained awareness, he found himself in the Valley, the death of this place radiating intensely. He looked around, and found Ares, naked and lying unconscious atop some deadened Earth.
“Worry not, young one.”
Joxer turned to the voice and smiled, unsurprised to see her here. “It’s time, isn’t it?”
Gaia smiled softly. “Yes. I must sleep.”
Joxer looked around the Valley, knowing that for the Earth to heal, time must pass, it must rebuild itself from within. “It will be a long nap.” He commented idly.
Gaia chuckled. “I have been awake many years.”
Joxer hugged her tightly. “Do the others know?”
“They know what they need to, anything else will be explained in time.” She hugged him back, the deep smell of earth passing between them.
“What If I…” Joxer trailed off when the older woman placed a warm hand against his lips. “You’ll do fine. Now take your husband, he still needs rest, and if I’m not mistaken, there is a wedding tomorrow.”
He gasped softly as he stepped away and prepared to return. “I almost forgot.” Just as Joxer was about to sink back into the soil, Gaia spoke softly. “Joxer?”
He looked at her, a question in his eyes.
“She must be punished.”
“I know, Grandmother, now sleep.”
Ares stirred slightly as he began to regain consciousness. Joxer turned to the War God and waited patiently for his husband to open his eyes. Ares blinked once and looked around the room.
“Hey.” Joxer smiled when Ares’ eyes focused on him.
“What happened?” The war god asked his memory more than a little fuzzy.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“You and Strife went to see your father,” Ares replied. “I came back here, was going to have some wine.”
“You were…drugged,” Joxer replied carefully, nodding.
“Poison?” Ares asked incredulously, having trouble imagining who would have the audacity to poison him in his own temple, on Olympus. His foggy brain remembered something. “Cupid?”
Joxer smiled softly. “He’s fine.”
Ares nodded, staring at Joxer, knowing there was more. Joxer stood up from the bed and began to move around the room, pacing slightly, the plants along the walls moving in agitation, a response to Joxer’s turmoil. “A vial of Flouridien was stolen from Apollo’s temple and placed in the decanter on the dining hall table. The person responsible thought it was some sort of truth serum…that it would force the truth.”
Ares noticed Joxer careful avoidance of who exactly was responsible, but ignored it for now. “What truth?”
“They wanted to know about…me. Why you would marry me.” Joxer swallowed thickly. “They didn’t know what would happen.”
“What did happen?” Ares asked, sitting up himself. He didn’t know precisely what Flouridien was, only that it was extracted from some plant in his mother’s gardens and Apollo used the hormone as a hallucinogen. That didn’t explain how it could harm a God.
“It was my fault,” Joxer admitted. He sighed, though his breathing was simulated he’d been doing it so long it was a reflexive action. “Flouridien counteracts something Apollo and Asclepius refer to as Velepezine.” He paused in his pacing to look at Ares. “I guess you should probably know about this before the wedding. Velepezine is a hormone produced by my vines.” He waved his hand towards the upset plants. “My vines and the thing that created them. Me.”
Ares blinked and climbed slowly off the bed, walking out of the room and into the bathing chamber.
Joxer let him be, knowing the War God needed to think, and had been given enough information to figure out all the parts he hadn’t explained. If Ares had questions, he would know where to find him.
Xena sat across from Gabrielle and watched the girl sleep. Apollo had given her a sedative and moved her to somewhere safer. She knew her old friend would wake up soon, and felt that she should be the one to tell her what was going to happen next.
“Hey. You okay?”
Xena looked up to see Autolycus standing in the doorway. She nodded. “Yeah. I’ll be fine.”
The thief nodded. “You need anything, you know where to find me.”
She smiled softly and watched him disappear, glad that he was giving her some privacy. This wouldn’t be easy.
“Xena?” Gabrielle’s groggy voice sounded, and the warrior princess turned to face her.
“Where am I?”
“You’re in a lot of trouble, Gabrielle,” Xena told her sadly. “I can’t help you, not this time. You could have killed them. Joxer and Ares. I know that isn’t what you planned, but…”
Gabrielle nodded, and when Xena looked, she noticed there was a sadness in her friend’s eyes. Maybe there was hope for her if the punishment wasn’t too harsh.
“What’s going to happen?” Gabrielle asked softly.
Before Xena could reply, Hermes stepped into the room. A room, Gabrielle now realized, was more a prison than anything else. “Gabrielle of Potedia, are you ready for judgment?”
Gabrielle stood up. “Yes.”
The god nodded once. “Come with me.”
Xena watched the two leave and sighed heavily. She was almost glad that she wasn’t allowed into the proceedings. She didn’t think she could watch.
Joxer leaned back into the down couch that made up a large chunk of Strife’s living room. He always wanted to know where precisely the feathers had come from but was afraid to ask.
“What’s wrong, Joxer?” Iolaus asked as he stepped into the room, fresh from the bathing chambers. He would have thought Joxer would have been excited about the wedding, but he seemed more depressed than anything.
“I’m not sure this is such a good idea,” Joxer admitted.
“The wedding.” Strife answered for him, sitting across from the two. “He’s worried about how Ares will react when he knows everything.”
Joxer shook his head. “It’s not just that…we’re so different, he and I. I’m not sure it could work.”
“Why not?” Iolaus asked. “It works for Strife and Cupid.” He turned to the God, “If you don’t mind my saying so.”
Strife grinned, but it wasn’t the crazed one Iolaus was used to. He turned back to his friend. “He’s right. Ares is perfect for you… you’re perfect for him. Just, give him time.”
Joxer nodded and stood up. “Okay. If Ares still wants to do this thing, I’d better get ready.”
Joxer started to walk towards the door when Iolaus stopped him. “Jox? What’s going to happen to Gabrielle?”
Joxer shrugged. “That isn’t up to me.” He walked away as if he didn’t care one way or the other, but both men knew he did, more than he could say.
“Ares?” Joxer asked stepping inside the bedchamber. “You still want to do this?” He asked plaintively.
Ares turned around from adjusting the earing he had made just for this occasion. His eyebrow was arched. “You thought I would change my mind?”
Joxer looked away. “I wouldn’t blame you.”
“Hey.” Ares lifted Joxer’s chin up, so they were looking into each other’s eyes. “We’re already married, remember? Nothing can change that. This ceremony today is just for show. This is for mother and father, not for us.”
“I know.” Joxer nodded. “But…”
Ares kissed Joxer to quiet his protests. When he pulled away, he whispered against the other man’s lips. “Go get ready.”
Just as Joxer had left the room to bathe, he heard Ares ask, deceptively casually. “You never said who tried to poison us.”
“Joxer.” Ares admonished lightly as he stepped into the doorway to watch his husband undress and climb into the warm water.
“Gabrielle.” The words were whispered but heard none the less.
If Joxer expected an explosion, he was disappointed. Ares sighed, “I expected as much.”
The demi-god looked up. “You’re not mad?”
Ares shrugged. “You deserve better.” He stared at all his husband’s pale flesh half covered in water and shivered involuntarily. Trying to shake his less than pure thoughts he looked away. “What’s going to happen to her?”
“Your parents are judging her. With a little help.”
Gabrielle walked into the room quietly. There was a semi-circle of chairs on the far side of the room. Zeus and Hera sat in the center of the chairs with Apollo and Artemis on either side of them. The mortal girl stopped in front of them, head held high.
“Gabrielle of Potedia,” Hera intoned, “Do you know why you are here?”
“Yes,” Gabrielle answered.
“Very well. Husband,” She turned her head slightly to face Zeus.
“You’re punishment shall be threefold. First,”
“You are exiled from the Amazon Nation, no longer worthy to wear the crown, or welcome amongst your sisters.” Artemis continued where her father had left off.
“Second,” Zeus continued, ignoring Gabrielle soft gasp.
“You are no longer a Bard. Your ability to write has been stripped, your ability to tell any tale worth telling, gone as well.” Apollo continued.
“Finally,” Zeus continued, “You will be known to no mortal, loved by no man or woman, understood by no creature and believed by no one or nothing. Your life, as you have known it, is over.”
Gabrielle’s legs gave out on her, and she slid to the floor.
“Until such time as you have truly understood what you have done.” Hera offered her a small bit of hope before waving her arm and whisking the girl away from Olympus.
The Queen of the Gods turned to everyone in the room. “Now, don’t we have a wedding to go to?”