Series Order: 1
Fandom: Xena: Warrior Princess
Genre: Alternate Universe
Content Rating: R
Warnings: Character Bashing, Canon-Level Violence, Discussions-Murder;
Word Count: 30000
Summary: Deaths on Olympus brings information about Joxer’s family to light, as well as truth about him to the surface.
Xena paused in her preparation of the campfire as she felt a small tremor in the Earth. Looking around, the warrior princess listened carefully for any sounds. However, the chatter of her companions was making hearing anything other than their voices difficult.
Lifting up a hand to silence their talking, Xena waited. Once Gabrielle and Joxer had quieted, Xena listened to the sounds of the night again. It was silent, but only for a moment. Then there was another rumble from the Earth. It started shaking tremendously, accompanied by a loud clap of thunder as the skies shook in what could only be described as pain.
Xena looked up at the darkened sky just as it rolled with thunder and a bolt of lightning was seen flashing dangerously as if threatening the very stars. She scowled as the Earth stopped shaking and the skies became clear once again. Something was wrong. She was sure of it.
When she turned back towards her companions, she noticed that Joxer had disappeared and wondered where he had gone. Shaking her questions off, she returned to the campfire, her mind trying to process what had happened.
“Xena?” Gabrielle came to sit next to her friend. “What do you think that was?”
Xena shook her head as she began to sharpen the blade of her sword. “I don’t know, Gabrielle, but whatever it was, it can’t be good.”
Joxer had left the campsite unnoticed as soon as the earth started its second, more violent tremble. Something was wrong. He could feel it. When he reached a dirt path far enough away from the camp to be sure he couldn’t be seen or heard, the would-be warrior removed his ridiculous `armor’ and continued down the path, straightening his posture slightly, no longer having an audience he needed to play to.
After over an hour of walking, he neared a small building. There were two small stone pillars on either side of the door. Leaves scattered all around, a testament to how few had visited this temple. He entered silently and took a look around. It was like so many other temples paying tribute to this particular god. There was an altar, but unlike in Ares’ temples, no bones or blood littered it, like remnants of long-dead offerings.
He approached carefully and quietly lit the candles and then went to sit down on the cold steps off to one side. He knew it was only a matter of time before the god who ruled this temple would make an appearance.
Eris, Goddess of Discord, stood off to the side of the throne in her brother’s temple and observed him carefully. His irritation was growing by leaps and bounds as more of his worshippers begged for some inane thing or another. She was confident he was going to set someone on fire. And as much as she would have enjoyed that, there were other matters to attend to.
As the most recent of the warlords backed away and left the temple, Eris stepped closer to her brother. “There is talk on Olympus. Mother says it is the work of one of us. She says they have grown weary.” She paused, turning to look at her brother, making sure he was paying attention. When it was clear he was, she continued. “Ares, some do not understand the nature of things. They believe without you, war would be gone. That things would be better… here.” She motioned around the room, indicating to him that she referred to the mortal’s world.
“They would be wrong,” Ares spoke calmly. Too calmly. “I am War. The death of Fright changes nothing.”
Before she could reply, Ares disappeared in a flash of power, leaving Discord alone in the temple.
She watched her brother go and scowled slightly. To some, he seemed indifferent to the death, which had plagued Olympus that day. But she knew that wasn’t the case. It had affected him.
Shaking her head, she disappeared into one her own temples. It had been a long day, and she was positive that this was just the beginning.
Joxer’s eyes were closed, and his head was leaning against the wall next to him. He didn’t acknowledge the presence of the god who had recently entered the temple. After several long seconds, he felt someone sit next to him and only then did he speak.
Strife grinned maniacally. “How could I not? You light such delightful fires.”
Joxer opened his eyes and followed the God’s gaze. The flames of the two candles he had lit had flared and were now touching in a way that could not be natural, especially considering the candles themselves were several centimenters apart.
“What happened?” Joxer asked staring silently at the flames, willing them apart as he did so.
“Phobos.” Strife sighed, his mirth forgotten.
Joxer looked up sharply. “He’s dead? How?”
Strife looked at his friend and shrugged. “No one knows…exactly. Grandmother thinks…she thinks it one of us.”
Joxer stared incredulously at the God of Mischief. “And you? What do you think?”
Strife stood up and walked over to the altar, picking up an offering which had probably sat on said altar for several years if not a few decades. Slowly he turned back to Joxer and tossed the item to the seated man.
“I think she’s right.”
Autolycus looked around the castle wall surreptitiously. He didn’t have time to play a game of tag with the castle guards. His father had asked him for a favor, and as much as he would rather spend the next fortnight in a friendly tavern, or maybe a brothel, Hermes hadn’t sounded as though he was willing to wait.
Jumping to the ground and landing on his feet gracefully, the self-proclaimed king of thieves disappeared into the bushes surrounding the castle. He could make out a series of shouts from the room he had just left and couldn’t help but laugh.
After several hours of traveling by cover of night, he neared the area Hermes had told him he would find his brother. He almost hoped he could find him alone. The king of thieves didn’t relish a run-in with Xena and Gabrielle. Although the two women were indeed friends, whatever was going on in Olympus to cause Hermes to ask him for a favor was probably not something that Xena would want to know about. Nor would the Warrior Princess understand the complexities of his relationship with both his father and his brothers. He barely understood them himself.
Not wanting to think too long or hard about what it was that bound them together, Autolycus made his way towards the campsite. It was late, and he was keenly aware that it was more than likely that they would be asleep. He knew that despite his wish to find his brother alone, it was highly unlikely.
He crept quietly, but he hadn’t stepped more than a few feet into the camp when he heard a crunch behind him and spun around to find himself face to face with Xena. She was eyeing him warily.
“Autolycus?” She asked as if she wasn’t entirely sure that’s who he was.
Autolycus smiled. “The one and only.”
Xena relaxed if only slightly. “What are you doing here?”
Autolycus shrugged, not sure what lie he could tell her that she would actually believe. “I was on my way to Thessaly and heard you were in the area.” Well, that wasn’t entirely a lie.
Xena nodded and motioned over towards the fire, which was nearly out. “I think I still have some stew if you’re hungry.”
Autolycus shook his head. “No, Thanks.”
Xena shrugged and turned back to her bedroll. “Suit yourself.”
Autolycus made a place on the ground on the opposite side of the fire from where Xena was lying and lay down on the hard ground staring up at the night sky.
After nearly an hour of watching the stars, the king of thieves heard movement to his left. He turned his head slightly to see the figure which was quietly sitting up.
“Why are you really here?” Joxer’s nearly inaudible voice spoke in a tone he recognized, but one that he knew that Xena and Gabrielle had most likely not heard before.
“Father sent me.”
Joxer listened to his brother’s words and thought about what they meant. “This is about Phobos.” It was a statement more than a question, but Autolycus nodded nonetheless.
“Hera thinks it’s one of the other Olympians,” Autolycus spoke softly, not wanting to wake up the others in the camp.
Joxer nodded. “Why did you let her see you?” He asked curiously, knowing that his brother could have easily masked his presence to Xena and Gabrielle if he didn’t want them to know he was there. It was one of the gifts he had inherited as a demi-god. Similar to Hercules’ strength or his own ability to manipulate the elements.
“Whatever’s going on is big. I thought I’d stick around.” He grinned slightly, hoping to make his desire to stay seem like less of a worry than it was.
“Do you know how he died?” Joxer asked quietly, remembering what Strife had told him.
“No. Father didn’t know. I assume it was someone pretty powerful.”
“He was decimated from the inside out. His powers sucked from their source until there was nothing left to hold him together.”
“Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.” Autolycus hadn’t known Phobos personally, but he knew that no one deserved that kind of death.
Joxer observed his brother for a second before nodding and closing his eyes. “Get some sleep. We’ll need to tell Xena something tomorrow.”
Autolycus didn’t even acknowledge that the conversation was over. He knew better than anyone that it would have been a waste of breath. Joxer had already fallen asleep, or at the very least shut out the outside world. There would be no more speculation on what might be going on. At least not tonight.
He actually welcomed the silence. He had his own concerns about what might be going on.
Hermes hadn’t known much of anything when he had summoned him. All that he had known was that Phobos had died. Not how or why or who, and just as their father had asked him to find Joxer and tell him what had happened, he knew that whatever had happened was just the beginning.
Hundreds of miles away from the campsite of the two demi-gods, in a valley which had itself been destroyed by recent war, a deity shook with emotions so profoundly seated as to make it difficult to unravel which was more prominent. Equal parts triumph at the victory they had already won, Rage at what had started it all, and anticipation for the death still to come. The deity in question let their mind drift into a haze as they reached out all their awareness, searching for that which would make Olympus quake once more. Fear itself.
Deimos, God of Fear, stretched out on the simple throne in his main temple. The temple itself, like the throne, was simple. Unlike his father, he had no need for elaborate temples, demanding offerings of blood and death. No, he truly enjoyed his job. Instilling fear into the hearts of mortals was a pleasure he almost thanked his father for allowing him to have. Almost. To thank his father would mean he would actually have to speak to him, and unfortunately, that wasn’t likely something that would happen in this century or the next.
Deimos let his mind wander as he thought about his father and how things had changed so rapidly. There had been a time when he and his brother had been inseparable. It was the same time that they literally worshiped their father, the brilliant God of War.
That was a long time ago. Too long. Things had changed. Ares had changed. Or maybe it had been them who had changed. Maybe their cousin was right, and they couldn’t see things the way they were. No. Deimos refused to believe that their crazy cousin understood their father more than he and Phobos did. That was an impossibility he refused to acknowledge.
Deimos closed his eyes, willing away the thoughts, which were now plaguing him. Before he could find a more pleasant train of thought, he felt an unfamiliar presence. Opening his eyes, the God of Fear looked around his temple and found nothing.
Sitting up, Deimos sent out his senses, search for the foreign presence once again. He could feel it, closing in around him, but he didn’t know where it came from or whom it belonged to.
“Who’s there?” He asked as he searched the room in vain.
There was a stillness all around him, and he was about to give up and admit maybe he had imagined it when something… he wasn’t sure what… gripped him, from the inside. It seemed to take hold of his very soul.
For the first time in his entire existence, he felt fear. The same fear he had instilled in others.
That which he strived to cause others to feel. That emotion that took them over in their last moments of coherency. Now it was claiming him in a way he never would have believed possible.
Pushing out against the invading force, Deimos called on every source of power and energy he could access. With each new level of energy he touched, he felt himself getting weaker until there was nothing left but a hollow shell. The mortal body he had kept his form in more often than not. He felt his mind drifting further and further away as the body crumbled and disappeared.
He heard a cackling sound in a far-off distance as his atoms separated at their very core. His last coherent thought was of his father and what they had left unsaid. What now, could never be said.
Ares felt the loss down to his very soul. He knew what had happened even before the first roll of thunder entered the skies, screaming at the loss of another deity. Lightning cracked through Olympus, filling the very air with a static charge.
The whispered word echoed in the silent hall of his Olympian temple.
Jett leaned back against the cold stone wall of his prison cell and closed his eyes. It was almost time for him to leave his confinement. He wondered idly how long it would take the guards he left alive to figure out he was gone. An hour, a day… maybe a week. Not that it mattered. He was just curious.
Before he could think any further about his imprisonment and his impending freedom, he felt something shift in the air surrounding him. He knew what it was immediately, but chose to keep his eyes closed. It wasn’t as though he could alter his destination in any way, and he welcomed the change. It saved him the trouble of escape.
Once he felt himself on solid ground once again, Jett opened his eyes. He seemed to be in some sort of study. Looking around, the King of Assassins took in all that surrounded him. A large desk filled with scrolls and what he presumed were petitions for things he didn’t care about. Behind the workspace, there was an empty chair. It looked somewhat comfortable, especially in comparison to his recent accommodations. Not that comfort was something he bothered himself with. It was a luxury he generally lived without.
When he turned to look around the room once again, he found a man standing at one of the large windows, looking out over a garden.
Jett smiled to himself when he recognized the man.
“Two of my grandsons have been killed.” The man spoke calmly.
“And you think I had something to do with it?” Jett’s voice held a faint trace of amusement.
The man turned around and faced the assassin. “You’re here for two reasons. One, to find out if you were in any way involved…”
“I wasn’t.” Jett eyed the King of the Gods carefully.
“You haven’t even heard who died.”
Jett shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I didn’t kill them. I’ve been… detained, as you know.”
Zeus nodded his acknowledgment. “Hermes tells me you are very… adept at removing yourself from confinement. You could have killed them and returned to your cell.”
Jett chuckled. “That’s true. But I didn’t.” After a moment of silence where the two men eyed each other carefully, Jett spoke again. “And the second reason?”
“I want to know who is responsible.” A new voice spoke, a woman.
Jett covered his shock at seeing her remarkably well. “I don’t do investigations. You’ll have to find someone else.” He stood up and started to walk towards what he believed was the door.
“Stop!” The woman spoke quietly, but there was a fierceness to her tone Jett knew better than to ignore.
“You will find out who did this.” Hera’s voice was like ice. “And you will avenge their deaths.” She paused, hoping to appeal to the assassin. “We will reward you for your services.
Jett turned around and chuckled. “You’re confusing me with my big brother. I kill because it is what I am, not for money.” He sighed, realizing that he would do as she asked, if not for the Gods than for his own reasons. “Very well.”
Before he could comment further, Jett found himself in the center of the Halls of Time, alone.
Shaking his head, Jett wondered where he should begin.
After a small breakfast of fruit and bread, Autolycus told Xena and Gabrielle what he had heard about the previous night’s odd thunderstorms. He explained to them that there had been talk at a few of the temples he had passed that something had happened on Olympus. Something that had apparently angered the Gods.
Of course, Autolycus knew precisely what that something was, but he couldn’t very well tell Xena without explaining where that knowledge had come from. They had lived their lives for so long, keeping their true parentage a secret from anyone who cared to know them that revealing the truth wasn’t something they were willing to do. At least not yet. There was still so much they didn’t know. So many questions left unanswered.
Xena was observing Autolycus cautiously. There was something he wasn’t telling them. Some information he had decided not to share. She wondered how he was involved in whatever was going on in Olympus. The Gods weren’t necessarily something that the King of Thieves dealt with in any kind of regularity. As far as she knew Autolycus refrained from stealing outright from any of the Gods. She hoped that belief was right and her thieving friend wasn’t tied up with whatever was brewing on Olympus.
“We’ll go on to Thessaly and see if we can find out what’s happened.” Xena stood up and made her way over to Argo and began to get ready to leave.
Nearly a half an hour later, the four friends left the campsite and headed towards Thessaly. It was several days travel, and Joxer couldn’t help but wonder who else would die in that short period. He had a terrible feeling.
He didn’t know what had happened since he had left Strife’s temple, but he had woken up in a sweat with the knowledge that another god had died. He feared that it was another of Ares’ children. He didn’t know what it was that made him worry about that.
Maybe it was some sixth sense he had been unaware he possessed. Perhaps it was his own fear that something was hurting the God he worshiped. The God he cared for. Or maybe he just understood something that he wasn’t ready to admit yet.
Either way, he knew it was only a matter of time before Cupid would be on the ever-growing list. And that was something he couldn’t even fathom. Something neither Strife nor Aphrodite would deal with well, not to mention the War God’s reaction to such a crime.
Joxer slowed his walking and turned to his brother. “We should split up. We can’t find out anything with Xena and Gabby around.”
Autolycus grinned, a mischievous glint entering his eyes. “If you insist.” He pushed his brother to the ground before anything else could be said.
“Joxer! You oaf! Watch where you’re going!” Autolycus shouted, drawing the attention of their companions.
Gabrielle and Xena stopped and turned around to see what the commotion was. Joxer was pulling himself off the ground, dusting off his armor.
“I’m… I’m sorry.” Joxer stuttered. “I didn’t mean…”
“No, you didn’t.” Autolycus looked up at the women, an aggravated expression on his face.
“Why is he here?”
“Maybe I should go.” Joxer’s voice was quiet as he picked up his belongings off the ground.
“Best thing I’ve heard all day!” Autolycus smiled slightly as he watched his brother walk away, head down.
“Autolycus!” Gabrielle looked astonished at her friend.
“What? He can’t actually help us.” Autolycus knew that their friends had bought Joxer’s simple routine.
“He’ll probably be safer away from danger.” Xena acknowledged as she turned back around and continued walking.
Autolycus watched his brother disappear around some trees and shook his head slightly. Joxer had been right. They needed to know what exactly was going on. And they couldn’t do that with Xena and Gabrielle watching them so closely. And as much as Autolycus wanted to be the one to get the information they needed, he realized that it was his goofy-appearing brother that had a better chance of success.
Joxer’s relationship with Strife and other assorted Gods would ensure that he would find out what exactly had happened in Olympus and if there was anything they could do to fix it.
Turning back to the road ahead of him, Autolycus hurried after the Warrior Princess and her sidekick, wondering when it was his life had gotten so complicated.
Ares appeared in his father’s study in a flash of angry sparks. He was in a foul mood. The anger radiated off of him as if it was something tangible. He wouldn’t even be here now if it weren’t for the knowledge that declining Zeus’s summons wasn’t really an option.
“You bellowed.” He snarled as he looked from his father to his mother and back again.
“Sit down.” Hera motioned to a chair on the opposite side of his father’s desk.
Ares sat. And scowled. He didn’t know why they had called him here, but he was almost sure it was in direct relation to what had happened earlier.
“We asked Hermes’ son for his unique… assistance,” Hera spoke calmly, but there was a strained edge to her voice.
“The Thief?” Ares asked incredulously. He had met Autolycus a few times and couldn’t imagine how he could help in this situation.
“No, one of his other sons.” Zeus clarified.
“Other sons?” Ares asked, his mind searching for whom his parents could be referring to.
Unfortunately, his mind was drawing a blank. Hermes’ children weren’t very well known in Olympus, most of them being Demi-Gods and not generally worth the time to get to know, at least as far as the War God knew.
“Jett. He’s an assassin.” Hera told him.
Ares’ eyes widened in surprise. “Jett? He’s Hermes’ son? Are you sure?”
Zeus raised an eyebrow at the question. It wasn’t often anyone dared to question anything he or his wife said. Although, he mused fondly, when someone did question him, it was usually Ares.
“Yes. We’re certain.”
“I have to go,” Ares said abruptly and disappeared in a flash of light before Hera or Zeus could stop him.
Ares reappeared in his main temple in Thrace, his mind swirling from the new information. He couldn’t believe that Jett, whom he had do several jobs for him in the past was a demi-god.
That was quite a shock. But what was more shocking was the realization that if Jett was a demi-god, then so was Joxer.
It was this realization which fueled his rage. Joxer. That annoying little nobody with the hideous armor and the goofy grin was a demi-god. That mortal who had worshiped him his entire life and traipsed around after Xena and the blond bard was a demi-god. That man, the one with the mesmerizing eyes and the quirky lips was a demi-god.
Ares scowled. He hated not knowing things. Especially about people he should know them about. Joxer was his. He should have known. But he didn’t, and that only angered him further.
“Strife!” He yelled into the air, knowing that his nephew most likely had some explaining to do.
Joxer hadn’t gotten more than half a mile away from his friends when he divested himself of the ridiculous armor and leaned against a nearby tree. He was exhausted. The last few days had been more tiring than he was willing to admit to and he needed something to re-energize his body as well as his mind.
Pulling off his shirt, Joxer leaned back against the trunk of the tree, his skin growing sticky from the sap, which leaked from the bark. His body started to shake slightly as his form seemed to melt into the tree. He could feel the tree surrounding him absorbing his own energy just as it infused his now unstable body with its own life force.
After several minutes of this continual exchange of energy, his body reformed, and he was back leaning against the tree. He heard a clapping noise off to his left and stiffened. He had never been caught unaware before, and really couldn’t afford to be found now. Opening his eyes, he turned towards the sound and relaxed slightly.
“Strife. What are you doing here?” Joxer stepped away from the tree and began to put his shirt back on.
Strife leaned back against another tree and waited for his friend to continue dressing. “There’s been another… incident.”
Joxer nodded as he picked up his bag. “It was Deimos wasn’t it?”
Strife looked stunned for a second. An odd expression on the mischief God’s face. “How?”
“I had a bad feeling about it being one of Ares’,” Joxer began as he started walking. “It wasn’t Xena, `cause I was with her last night. And seeing as you’re still relatively sane, it wasn’t Cupid either. That only leaves Deimos.”
Strife couldn’t deny the logic. “You know you’re kind of scary when you think?”
Joxer laughed. Just as he turned to reply, he noticed Strife stiffen. “What is it?”
“Unk. And he’s not happy.” Strife grinned slightly. “Gotta jet.”
“Wait!” Joxer shouted, but it was too late. He shook his head as he continued to walk, feeling refreshed after his brief communion with the tree.
Picking up the pace, he idly wondered how much trouble they were really in. Who had killed two of Ares three sons, and why? And was Xena in any real danger? Unlike the others she was only half-god, but if this were vengeance, would it matter?
Once Strife disappeared, Joxer was at a loss as to what he should do. Logically he should probably try to find more information about what was going on. Maybe find out whether the recent deaths were a result of some sort of revenge against the War God or if something else altogether was going on.
He didn’t have the answers, just a multitude of questions. Questions only the gods themselves could answer.
He thought about going to see his father. Hermes would no doubt have at least some of the answers. However, things were awkward at the best of times between Hermes and himself. He had a good relationship with Autolycus and a semi-good relationship with Jayce. His relationship with Jett was more complicated than any of them could voice words to.
But he was the odd one. He didn’t fit in anywhere, really. He wasn’t an expert thief like Auto. Or a skilled assassin like Jett. Nor did he even have the entertainment value of Jayce. He was nothing, to no one. He had no place, no purpose.
There were times when he was confident that one day he would find that place that purpose. But other times, like now, he wasn’t so sure. He didn’t know why he had the gifts he did. They were completely different from anything his brothers had gained from their godly father.
When he was younger, before he had learned the truth about his ancestry, he had believed himself a freak. He had thought all those things the man he thought was his father had said to him. The lies his mother had told him in the hopes that he would be more like Jett.
It wasn’t until he had left home for the first time and had met his real father that he learned the truth. A truth he hadn’t accepted. Hadn’t wanted to admit as being possible. He avoided his family and tried to become something he wasn’t.
He had practically thrown himself at Callisto’s mercy in the hope that she might kill him, end what he had realized was a cursed existence. It wasn’t until later after he had gotten to know Xena a bit better that he had realized there was more to the world than what he had previously believed.
But by that time he was already living a lie, and it seemed sort of counter-productive to change who they thought he was. The persona he had shown them. He wasn’t a warrior, had never been one. But, he wasn’t a fool either. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was. He still didn’t know and wasn’t sure he ever would.
The years he had spent traveling with the warrior princess, and the blond bard had changed him, somewhat. But more than anything they had taught him things. But not always the things they had tried to teach him.
And if he ever regretted anything about his years with them, the one thing he couldn’t regret was the understanding he gained inside the mind of his God. Ares.
It might seem strange to most people who honestly knew him, but he did worship Ares. Not the way most did. Delivering the dead or dying as sacrifices. Bringing weapons of war and destruction. Begging for a favor from the God of War.
He didn’t do any of those things, but he did worship him. He valued him as a man as well as a God. He had been driven by the desire to know all there was to know about Ares. He had read between the lines during all of Xena’s rambling about the God of War. Listened to what Xena didn’t say as well as took Gabrielle’s hatred for what it was. The misunderstanding of someone who didn’t have a clue what Ares was, what he had to be.
He had listened to his best friend speak of Ares frequently, and more often than not, he had learned things he was not surprised to know. On the surface, he probably knew more about the War God than anyone else who didn’t really know him.
But that was the problem, wasn’t it? He didn’t know him. And he was almost afraid to. He didn’t know what kind of situation he would be walking into if he helped diffuse the present crisis.
Would Ares be angry at the deception? Assuredly. But would he hold it against him? He didn’t know.
Shaking his head from the swirl of thoughts, which were taking root, Joxer looked around him and was only slightly surprised to find himself a few feet away from a temple.
He felt an angry electricity surrounding him, reaching out through the air. It was the same feeling he got whenever Ares was nearby. Taking a deep breath, Joxer stepped forward. He knew what he would find inside and wasn’t entirely certain he was ready for it.
“You bellowed?” Strife asked after he had popped into view in his uncle’s temple.
Ares glared at his nephew and motioned for him to come closer.
Strife eyed Ares nervously. He could tell the God of War was not in a happy mood and wondered how much of his aggression would be taken out on him.
“It has just come to my attention that you haven’t been completely honest.” Ares began.
Strife took a step back. “Who me?” He wasn’t entirely sure what Ares was talking about, but considering how many things he hadn’t been honest about, there was lots of information that Ares could have acquired. None of it good.
“Why is it you never told me about Joxer’s father?” Ares asked, in a level tone, sounding seemingly bored.
Strife froze. He knew that this question would eventually come up, and hadn’t been stupid enough to think he could avoid it forever, but he had hoped that by the time it came up, Ares might have conveniently forgotten anything which would lead him to realize that Strife had had any prior knowledge. It was evident from the way Ares was staring at him that he was expecting an answer. So Strife gave him one.
“You didn’t ask?” Strife cringed as he saw the fireball appear in Ares’ hand and then moved faster than he thought possible when it was unceremonially thrown in his direction.
Ares stood up and glared at his nephew. “How long? How long have you known?”
“It isn’t his fault.” Joxer stepped forward into the room.
It wasn’t a central room in the temple, and Joxer had only found the place by following the flow of electricity in the air. He had stood hidden, for several minutes, before making himself known.
He wanted to gauge Ares’ mood before presenting himself as a lamb to the slaughter.
Ares whirled around. Whatever he was going to say died in his throat as he saw Joxer standing there. He was struck with the realization that this was not the same man he had seen and ridiculed as being a pathetic follower of Xena’s. But he was the same man who frequently prayed to him, about things he had never wanted to think too hard about.
“Joxer. Now’s not really a good time.” Strife was waving for Joxer to leave. He knew his uncle was really peeved, and despite his friends’ demi-god status, he doubted Joxer could survive an attack by Ares.
“Go.” Ares barked at his nephew. Strife didn’t move. “Now!!”
Strife looked at Joxer once more before disappearing in a flash.
“It isn’t his fault,” Joxer repeated.
“And whose fault is it?” Ares asked in a deceptively calm voice. He wasn’t entirely sure who he was mad at or why.
Joxer raised an eyebrow at the question before answering simply. “Mine.”
Cupid popped into his temple after leaving an approving Hephaestus and sputtering Aphrodite after he once again ruined some plan of hers. He chuckled lightly at the look on her eternally beautiful features before frowning slightly.
Something was wrong although he couldn’t really place the feeling. It was something in the air.
A presence he couldn’t identify. He didn’t know what it was, or where it came from, but it did seem slightly familiar to him.
Suddenly the air seemed to grow stale, and he had the odd sensation that he was not alone.
Strife left his uncle’s temple warily. He knew he should have stayed behind. If for no other reason than to watch the fireworks. Ares was furious because he hadn’t been told about Joxer, and Joxer wasn’t about to tell Ares why he had kept it a secret.
They were sure to clash, and it would have been delicious fun to watch. However, Strife knew better than to test Ares’ mood. Plus, he knew the conversation that was no doubt about to begin in the War God’s temple was a long time in coming. Still, he would love to watch.
Shaking his head from his apparent death wish, Strife decided if he couldn’t watch the destruction, maybe there was something else he could do to amuse himself. Without another thought, the Mischief God popped into Cupid’s temple.
He hadn’t been there for more than a second when he realized something was wrong. The very air screamed death. He felt his body begin to shake at the implications. He couldn’t, wouldn’t believe what must have happened here.
Shaking his head in denial, Strife searched every square inch of the temple, looking for a sign, some small thing that would tell him that Cupid was still there, or somewhere, still alive.
He swept through room, after room, after room, and found nothing. No sign that Cupid was there, or had ever been there. He finally lost it when he reached the last room and found it empty as well. Screaming as loud as was possible, the ground shook in uncontrollable tremors, transmitting his fear to any on Olympus, and beyond.
Ares stared at Joxer. He was having trouble reconciling this man with the one he thought he had known.
Joxer nodded and then turned around looking around the room. “Who does your decorating?” He asked casually. “You know there are other colors aside from black.”
“I like black,” Ares answered, allowing the conversation to shift.
Joxer smiled. “So do I.” He turned back around and almost laughed at the odd expression on the War God’s face. “You know what else I like?”
Ares just stared at Joxer, growing more confused by the second. He knew he should be angry about this odd change of subject, but he just couldn’t. Something was intriguing about Joxer. He had always found him entertaining, but now he was noticing there was more to him than he could have ever imagined, and he wanted to know him. More so than he had ever wanted to know anyone else before.
“Well?” Joxer asked patiently, watching the thoughts flit across Ares’ face.
“Well, what?” Ares snapped, if only half-heartedly.
“Would you like to know what else I like?” Joxer asked again, a grin started to quirk his lips.
‘YES!‘ Ares thought, but only nodded imperceptibly.
Joxer opened his mouth to speak but then shut it almost immediately as the ground began to shake.
“What in Zeus!” Ares looked around as the ground continued its violent outburst.
“Strife,” Joxer whispered. He bent down to the ground and placed his palm against the quaking ground. The stone beneath his skin continued its shaking. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the place where his hand and the stone met. Soon the line blurred together as his hand blended into the rock itself.
Ares watched in shock as Joxer’s eyes seemed to glaze over. He wasn’t sure what was happening, and whether or not he should stop it.
“Joxer!” He raised his voice slightly.
Joxer stood up and shook his head from the lingering effect. “Strife’s in trouble. Take me to Cupid’s temple.”
Ares grabbed his hand, and the two disappeared in a flash of sparks. If he had stopped to think about what he was doing, Ares might have wondered at the ease with which he did what Joxer told him to, or the feeling he had as Joxer was pressed against his body when they flashed into Cupid’s temple. But he had thought of neither and was only concerned with whatever had caused the tremors in the ground and what it was Joxer had planned on doing.
Strife was frozen, in that one moment in time when he realized that Cupid was gone. He couldn’t face a reality without him. He couldn’t deal with a world in which he couldn’t sense him. And so he didn’t. He refused to believe that he was in fact gone. That had to explain it. That had to be the reason, that even though he knew Cupid was gone, he could still feel him, inside of him almost. The sensation was weaker than ever before, but it was still there.
Strife heard the voice. It sounded far away. And although it was familiar, he couldn’t place it. He couldn’t really identify it.
The voice spoke again. This time it seemed closer. Strife felt two strong arms wrap around him and pull him to his feet. He was on solid ground although he wasn’t sure how. Everything seemed to shift around him.
“Strife. I need you to look at me. I need you to help me find Cupid. Can you do that?”
The voice was friendly. It was calm and soothing in its comfort. But when he recognized the words, Strife tore himself away from that comfort. “He’s gone. Cupid is gone.” He sobbed. He knew it wasn’t very seemly for the God of Mischief to cry, but at that moment, he didn’t care.
This voice was forceful and compelling, and altogether different from the first. He recognized this one as well.
“Ares, you’re not helping.”
That was the first voice. Strife recognized it. It was his friend.
“Joxer?” He asked cautiously, not sure if he imagined this or not.
“Yes, Strife. You need to help me. I can’t find Cupid without you.” He took a deep breath. “Was he here? Can you still feel him?”
Strife looked up at Joxer for the first time and concentrated on what Joxer had asked him. “Yes. But he’s weak.”
Joxer stood up and looked around the room carefully. “Was he here, in this room?”
Strife shook his head. “No, the garden, outside. That’s where the feeling was the strongest. But when I didn’t find him, I searched the temple.”
Joxer smiled then. A broad smile that neither god knew the importance of. He left the room and made his way towards the garden. Once there, he sat on the ground in the center of a circular cluster of rose bushes. Placing both palms on the ground, where the dirt was fresh, he closed his eyes.
Ares watching in a strange sort of awe as Joxer’s body seemed to merge with the ground and disappear beneath the soil. He turned around to look at his nephew, who seemed to calm down some, but he was still tense.
“Does he do this often?” Ares asked, unsure he if really wanted to know.
“Yes.” Strife couldn’t form the words to say anything further. He knew Ares must have a lot of questions, but it wasn’t really his place to answer them. He wasn’t even sure if he could.
“Will he… be alright?” Ares cringed at the concern he could hear in his own voice.
“I hope so.” Strife whispered.
Autolycus felt the ground tremble beneath his feet and knew that something had happened. Something bad. He looked around him, trying to judge how far away they were from anyone else, and whether telling his friends the truth was smart.
“Autolycus?” Gabrielle stopped and stared in concern at their friend. “What’s wrong?”
Xena looked up from the shaking ground and stared at Autolycus. “What do you know?”
Autolycus debated whether he should deny that he knew anything. As if in answer to his internal debate the ground started to quake more furiously, and he felt this loss within him. As if someone had taken something away from his very soul. But he wasn’t entirely sure what was taken, or how he would get it back.
“Where would you like me to start?” He asked as he met Xena’s cool blue gaze.
Xena arched one eyebrow at Autolycus’ words. “The beginning.”
Autolycus sighed. “I was afraid you were going to say that.”
“What’s going on Autolycus?” Xena stared at the thief, the look on her face clearly stating she wasn’t going to be swayed by a lie, no matter how well constructed.
“It’s about Joxer … and the deaths on Olympus.”
Xena stared at Autolycus for a full minute before speaking, trying to reconcile the words that had just left his mouth with anything she had ever heard or seen that would explain any sort of connection between her bumbling friend and the Gods. She couldn’t find any link. At least not one she could fathom.
“Xena?” Gabrielle’s voice was quiet, not wanting to interrupt her friend’s train of thought.
“Maybe we should make camp. It’ll be dark soon.”
That wasn’t entirely accurate. Sunset was still several hours off, but Xena recognized the need to hear what Autolycus had to say away from the main road. Who knew what one might run into?
Xena nodded slightly and turned to Argo and began leading her off to a side path where they could make camp. She didn’t say anything further to Autolycus, and the king of thieves was grateful. He still wasn’t entirely certain what he was going to tell her or what was going on in Olympus. He wasn’t even altogether sure where Joxer was.
Shaking his head from concerns of his brother, Autolycus followed the two women and began to set up camp. It was going to be a long night.
Joxer could feel his body drifting. Although that wasn’t wholly accurate. Technically he didn’t have a body to speak of. But he felt himself floating nonetheless, through the earth and beyond. Joxer wasn’t sure where he was going, or what he would find when he got there, only following the sense of the Love God that he had. He hoped it would be enough.
The explosion of another offering shattered the still silence in the temple where the God of Mischief and the God of War remained. Neither had spoken more than a sentence or two since Joxer had disappeared into the dirt. Strife wasn’t sure what to say. He was terrified Joxer would come back, alone. Or worse yet, not come back at all. And then not only would his lover be gone, but his best friend as well. That thought disturbed him
But at the same time, the knowledge that Joxer was looking for Cupid made him feel better. He had more hope that his lover would be found, safe, than he had since he first entered the temple and found the Love God gone.
Even so, the continual destroying of Cupid’s offerings by his uncle was beginning to grate on his nerves. He turned to look at the War God and almost wished he hadn’t. There was this odd expression on his face. A bizarre mix of anger, terror, and concern. Although he wasn’t sure what emotion was for what.
The anger was no doubt about being lied to. The terror, for Cupid’s safety. Despite what others believed, Ares did care for his children. You’d be hard pressed to get him to admit it, but it was true. Cupid, probably more so than any of the others. He was the one who was so far removed from Ares job, and yet, he was the one who seemed to accept Ares for what he was.
No, the terror and the anger he could understand. It was the concern that mystified him. And Strife prided himself on knowing everything. Especially where Ares was concerned. But, Ares, concerned? For who? Was the concern also for Cupid or someone else? Joxer? It didn’t seem likely. But yet…
“How long have you known?” Ares’ voice broke through the silence. It wasn’t laced with hatred, but a curiosity Strife hadn’t often heard.
“Twenty years.” Strife didn’t think avoiding the question was worth the trouble. Besides, it was probably time to come clean. About this at least.
Ares whirled around. Clearly, he had not been expecting that answer. “Twenty years?”
Strife nodded. “It was during that feud between you and Athena. Armies were spread pretty thin. Mom was helping you do…” he waved his hands in the air, “…whatever it is you were doing. I don’t remember. I was irritated, and bored, so I thought I’d go to Corinth and see what kind of trouble I could cause.” Strife smiled wickedly at the memory.
“I must have been hanging around, for three days, causing all sorts of trouble. I was just getting ready to leave when I saw it. There was this warlord. He was dragging this scrawny little kid by his ears, dragging him into your temple. I followed him. I’m not sure why. I guess I figured it would be fun to watch. I don’t know.”
“Get on with it.” Ares snarled, not seeing what this had to do with anything.
“The warlord was Jonas. I remember you telling me something about him. You didn’t like him but found him easy to manipulate, and you thought he had a couple of sons who could be molded.” Strife laughed then. It was a grating sound, like spiders crawling down one’s spine.
“If that scrawny child was an example of what you could mold, you were definitely losing your touch.” He giggled. “Jonas planned to sacrifice the child in service to you. He said that he could amount to nothing, anyway. To die for his God was an honor, and he should appreciate it.”
Strife laughed again at the memory. “But this child, he started kicking and screaming. He wasn’t a match for Jonas though and was thrown onto the altar.” Strife looked up to find his uncle staring at him, intrigued despite himself. “And that’s when it happened.”
“What?” Ares asked, all his anger had vanished as Strife told his story. It was strange to hear Strife speak about a mortal without the viciousness he usually used, or the insanity, which Ares knew was more act than fact.
“He melted into the altar, literally.” Strife giggled again. “Boy was Jonas pissed. He was embarrassed and started screaming and hitting the boy, or where the boy had been. Eventually, he left the temple, not wanting to embarrass himself further. Once he was gone, the boy reappeared on the altar, almost as if he had never left. The weird thing was, all of his bruises, and scratches, from when his father had dragged him in there, they were all gone.”
Strife shook his head slightly. “I was going to make my presence known when he scrambled off of the altar and ran away. I don’t know what happened after that. It took me nearly a week to find him again.”
“Joxer,” Ares spoke the name softly as if voicing it would somehow disturb whatever the young demi-god was trying to accomplish.
Strife nodded, his face now split into that familiar grin. “Joxer.”
Joxer felt it the moment he stopped drifting. The presence that was undoubtedly the life force of the God of Love. He reached out for it, dragging it from whatever abyss it had been trapped in, frozen, not in death, nor in life. Wrapping his own energy around that of the God, Joxer began to drift back to the surface, back to safety.
Xena looked at Autolycus skeptically. She wasn’t ready to believe anything, which she had just been told.
“Are you telling us, that Joxer… Joxer, the mighty idiot, is a demi-god. I don’t believe it.” Gabrielle was just as skeptical and a fair amount more verbal.
Autolycus was getting exasperated. He had just spent more than two hours explaining how Joxer and his two brothers were fathered by one of the gods, only to be interrupted nearly every five minutes while Gabrielle asked questions he didn’t want to answer. And now, she didn’t believe him, all because she thought his brother was an idiot which according to her disjointed thinking, automatically precluded his being half-God. Autolycus could think of plenty of demi-gods who were far more idiotic than Joxer appeared to be.
“Yes. His father is Hermes.” Autolycus decided to go with simple answers.
“Hermes?” Xena spoke for the first time since Autolycus had begun his explanation, which he was the first to admit, contained enough holes to drive a chariot through.
Autolycus nodded, which caused Xena to raise an eyebrow. “But Hermes is your father.”
Gabrielle’s mouth opened in shock. She was about to speak, but no sound would come forth, so she shut it again. And then opened it. And close it. She looked like one of those fish Xena loved to catch.
By this time Autolycus was losing his patience. Something was wrong, he could feel it. And he didn’t want to waste time answering stupid questions. He needed to find his father and make sure Joxer was all right.
“Yes. I wasn’t aware that there was a rule as to how many half-mortal children a god was allowed to have.” He snapped.
Autolycus stood up. “I don’t have time for this.” He grabbed his small pack and disappeared through the bushes before Xena could even utter a comment.
It wasn’t until a full five minutes later when Gabrielle could find her voice again.
“Do you think he’s telling the truth? I mean could Joxer be a demi-god?”
Xena shook her head. “No. Autolycus was lying. Of that much I’m certain. What I don’t know is what about, exactly, or why.”
Ares at in his son’s throne in his Olympian temple thinking about everything that Strife had said. It wasn’t so much the words or the story he told, but the things he had left out. There was so much that Strife hadn’t told him. So many things about a man he had taken for a fool, things that Strife knew, and he wanted to know.
He could have demanded that Strife tell him everything he could about Joxer. But he didn’t want the information that way. He wanted to learn it the same way Strife had. By getting to know him.
A loud crash interrupted his thoughts. He looked up to find Strife running back towards the garden frantically. The sound had come from out there. When Ares joined his nephew outside, he noticed a giant statue that set on the edge of the rose bushes had been shattered. That was what had caused the noise. But, that wasn’t what interested him. Lying on the ground, not a centimeter away from the shards of stone, were two bodies: Joxer, looking paler than usual, and slightly disoriented, and Cupid, the missing God of Love.
Strife was quick to act and had pulled his lover away from Joxer and enveloped him in a hug just before disappearing a flash of sparkles. Ares assumed they had gone to go see Asclepius.
Ares looked down at Joxer, who seemed to be trying to get his bearings. His hand was palm down in the dirt as if he was trying to commune with it. The War God half expected him to disappear again. However, nothing happened. Joxer’s face was, and he looked as if he could just fade away into nothing. It seemed as if he hadn’t eaten or slept in weeks, instead of the few hours he had been gone. Ares wondered briefly if time moved differently wherever it was the wanna-be warrior had traveled to retrieve his son.
Ares bent down and picked up Joxer off of the ground, almost flinching at the touch of his skin. It was cold. Ice cold. Like nothing, he had ever felt before.
“Sorry.” Joxer apologized. “I’m weak and can’t control the temperature.”
Ares found himself smiling slightly at the soft words. He pulled Joxer into his arms and flashed out of the garden. He had many questions, but they could wait.
Strife paced nervously around Asclepius’ home temple, waiting for the healing God to pronounce that Cupid was indeed fine, and all he needed was a little rest. The flash of energy appearing behind him didn’t surprise him. The sight of his best friend cradled in his uncle’s arms did.
Try as he might, he could not keep the grin from his otherwise distraught features. Despite the fear, he had had for both his best friend and ultimately his lover, the sight of Joxer in Ares arms brought forth a giggle which in turn caused Ares to growl as he set Joxer down on another bed in Asclepius’ temple.
The Healing god turned around at the rumbled sound and straightened up when he realized he had another patient. Having finished his examination of the God of Love, he turned his attention to the newcomer.
“Ares?” He asked curiously. It wasn’t often Ares brought someone for him to tend to. “Who’s this?”
“Joxer. He’s cold.” Ares motioned for the healing god to feel Joxer’s skin.
Asclepius did so and then frowned. His skin felt like ice, literally. He’d never encountered anything like it, in mortal or God. He looked over the patient more carefully and noticed he was unconscious and his breathing was ragged. His skin was ashen. When he attempted to check his pulse, he found it was impossible. The freezing temperature of his skin was making any examination difficult.
“He’ll be all right.” Strife spoke after watching in amusement as Asclepius tried to figure out what was wrong. “He needs to rest. Somewhere safe.” He looked up at his uncle and stared into those dark eyes, communicating silently.
Ares nodded and picked Joxer up once again, not even flinching at the coldness of his skin.
They disappeared in a flash of light and Asclepius turned back to Cupid, who was starting to come around, but only barely.
“How is he?” Strife’s voice had lost some of the tones that most on Olympus were used to hearing. Gone was the cackling and snide voice of the mischief God, replaced by one of genuine concern and worry.
Asclepius smiled at the young God. “He’ll be fine. But, like your young friend, he needs to rest.
“Rest.” Strife repeated, as if there was some hidden meaning in the words, then realizing that there wasn’t a ‘but’ or some other catastrophic meaning behind the sentence, he grinned. That patented, horrifying-to-some, Strife grin. The one that always worried his mother but intrigued his uncle. “I can take him home then?” It was more of a statement than a question.
Strife bent down to his lover and lifted him into his arms, being careful not to damage his wings, and disappeared in a sparkle of energy. They were already in the bedroom they shared on Olympus when Asclepius’ voice sounded through the air.
“I said rest.”
Strife laughed slightly as he laid his lover carefully on the bed. When he was sure he was sleeping comfortably, Strife sat down in a chair at the foot of his bed to watch his love sleep.
He knew he should probably check on Joxer, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave Cupid. And he knew, somehow, that Joxer was perfectly safe with his uncle. Probably safer than he’d ever been in his entire life.
Strife smiled at the thought. The motion on the bed brought him back to his own heart and what he had almost lost.
Ares watched the pale man with the ice-cold skin as he continued to lay, unconscious, in his large bed, alone. He was struck by how beautiful he looked lying there, against the black silk sheets, encased in the War God’s comfortable blankets.
The only thing that hampered the vision was the knowledge that Joxer wasn’t well, and that if he had been, he most likely wouldn’t be lying in his bed, naked, alone. He liked to believe that maybe he would be joining him in that bed, but there were too many unanswered questions.
Too many doubts he had about everything he had ever known, to let this man into his bed, or worse into his heart.
He shook his head, brushing the thought aside, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t taken complete strangers into his bed. Men and women he had never seen again and never given a second thought to. But Ares knew that Joxer wasn’t like that. He was worth more. And for some, inexplicable reason, he wanted to give him more, almost more than he wanted answers.
A moan from the bed brought his attention away from his rambling thoughts and to the object of them.
Safety. That was the one thing, which resonated in Joxer’s subconscious. He could feel it as though it were a tangible thing. And for several long moments, the demi-god swore it was. Like the comforting arms of a loved one who would always protect. Then the haze of his mind began to clear, and he sought out the source of the safety he was feeling.
He opened his eyes and blinked once at the sight in front of his eyes. He was in a room. A bedroom. But he wasn’t sure where or who’s. He closed his eyes and tried to reach out his senses as he sunk further into the bedding, allowing his bare skin to take in all that touched it.
He felt the fabric of the silk caress his skin, and for a moment it felt like the touch of a lover, but then, he started to reach further, to seek out that which he could connect with, and be made whole.
He took in a harsh breath of air when he realized he couldn’t. He was alone, isolated. He began to panic. His breathing was heavy. He could feel his heartbeat quicken. His life force was draining away. He could feel it.
And there was safety. It was back. But this time it was tangible. As tangible as the feel of warm skin along his own. Fingers on his face, down his neck. Calm words whispered reassuringly to calm his beating heart. Slowly, Joxer relaxed. Once his breathing was normal, he opened his eyes, to see the face of his rescuer.
“Ares.” He breathed the word softly. Not so much surprised by the identity of his savior as relieved of it.
“Joxer.” Ares nodded. He hesitantly removed his hands from the man in his bed and began to cover him with the comforter. “You’re cold.” He spoke the words more for something to say than because Joxer didn’t know.
“Thank you.” Joxer pulled the surrounding blankets, knowing it didn’t matter. The comforter would not warm his skin. Only he could do that. And that wasn’t possible, not right now.
Ares stepped away from the bed and just stared at Joxer for a long minute. Then he abruptly turned away, not wanting to see him, lying in his bed, so invitingly. He had so many questions. Too many.
“You’re mad.” Joxer’s voice was weak, but he spoke the words with no hint of hesitation. “You think I lied. That I betrayed…something.” He paused. “Am I right?”
“You DID lie.” Ares pointed out angrily as he turned around. The room shook with the force of his irritation.
Joxer sucked in a breath as his weakened body shook with the tremors the War God’s anger had produced. He tried to sit up and was rewarded by the loss of air in his lungs as he moved too quickly.
Ares moved swiftly to the bed, his anger forgotten. “What is it? What’s wrong.” His strong voice fairly rumbled with concern as he checked Joxer over.
Joxer pushed him away. However, he had little strength, and the move did nothing to free himself from the larger man’s roving hands, checking for some new injury.
“I didn’t lie,” Joxer spoke quietly, solemnly, but with the telltale determination, the War God had often admired in the seemingly hapless warrior.
Ares looked up into Joxer’s eyes and was momentarily lost there. So much so, he forgot what they were talking about until Joxer spoke again.
“I didn’t.” Joxer’s voice was weakened by exhaustion, but pleading in its tone.
“You didn’t?” Ares asked, still not entirely sure what they were discussing.
Joxer closed his eyes, breaking their connection and took a deep breath. “I never lied to you about who I was. I never told you I wasn’t Hermes’ son. I never told you that I was the bumbling idiot you thought I was.” He opened his eyes once more, a flash of anger showing in their depths. “Frankly you never bothered to look past what you saw.”
Ares was taken aback by the words. More from shock than anger. That someone who was so obviously weakened and vulnerable, to say such a thing to the War God was unheard of. He was about to deny what Joxer said, but he couldn’t. It was true, and suddenly he didn’t want to lie to this man.
“No, I didn’t,” Ares admitted.
Joxer took a deep, painful breath of air, his chest heaving from the effort. His eyes closed while his body began to convulse so rapidly that Ares was unable to stop what happened next.
The War God held the body firmly, trying to halt its rapid movements. Suddenly, the convulsions stopped. Everything did. His heart stopped beating, and his breathing ceased until there was nothing left but a still body, the icy skin sending a chill through the God of War’s frame.
Ares was frozen. Time stopped, along with the beating of Joxer’s heart. He stared at the still body, attempting to will it back into working just by staring. It didn’t work.
His fingers traced the path of chilled skin along his chest until he stopped just over where his heart should have beat. It was silent now. No blood rushing through his veins. No rise and fall of his chest as his lungs took in oxygen.
His own large body shook with rage. He couldn’t allow this to happen.
“Hades!” He bellowed.
After a moment of silence, Ares feared his uncle would ignore his call. Just as he was about to try again, there was a flash of light and the crackle of energy. Hades appeared, looking irritated.
“What is it?” He asked with a sigh.
Ares motioned towards his bed and glared at his uncle. “Bring him back.”
Hades walked over to the bed and looked down at the pale man lying in it, unmoving. He reached out his power and tried to call upon a flash of something, anything that would signify the death of the man lying across Ares bed. Nothing came forth. Not even a wisp of information. He frowned and turned to his nephew.
Ares turned his gaze to the still form an odd sense of sadness appearing in his dark eyes.
“He…found Cupid. I don’t know how.”
Hades nodded. He had heard about Cupid’s disappearance and his visit to Asclepius and was glad that another God hadn’t died. He had a bad feeling about those who had. He didn’t know where they went, but they never came to him. And that fact concerned him.
“He was fine. Weak, but fine. Then all of a sudden, he stopped breathing.” Ares continued. “I want him back.”
Hades looked up at the vehemence in Ares words. It wasn’t like him to demand the life of someone returned. The very idea intrigued the God of the Dead. He shook his head at his nephew.
“I’m sorry. I can’t help you.” Hades began.
“Dammit, Hades!” Ares snarled.
Hades held up a hand to still any further outbursts as power began to spark, emanating from Ares’ enraged form. “I can’t help you, because he isn’t dead.”
Ares froze just as the fireball began to form. He banished it with a thought as he turned back to Joxer. “What? He isn’t breathing. There’s no heartbeat.”
“I can’t explain it either. I only know this man isn’t dead; therefore, I can’t help. I’m sorry.”
Ares watched his uncle disappear in a small flash of power and scowled. He wasn’t dead. That was good news. But he still wasn’t breathing. And that was bad.
“Asclepius!” Ares bellowed into the air. He was going to figure out what in Tartarus was going on if he had to call every God in Mount Olympus.
Autolycus was grumbling under his breath as he continued to walk. He had long since ditched the obvious path. He was in no mood to be tracked down by his delightful friends. A part of him realized he was overreacting to their not believing him. They had no reason to, not really.
Joxer had only shown them his bumbling persona, and not the personality, which hid behind it. But, Autolycus had hoped that two of the only people whom he called friend in the mortal world would have been able to see more. See past his facade, to the real man. But they hadn’t. And the truth was, they hadn’t even tried. They had taken him at face value and didn’t look any further.
His walk had not curbed his irritation, and he felt himself on the verge of losing control. He also realized that part of that was due to Joxer himself. Something was wrong. He could feel it.
Even though he wasn’t one of the triplets, he was closer to Joxer than either Jayce or Jett and had some sort of sixth sense where he was concerned. And right now it was in overdrive. The problem was he had no way of finding out.
Unlike his brother, he had no connection to the Gods to rely upon. No friendships he could count on when there was trouble. There was only Joxer. He could call Hermes, but the idea was squashed before his mind could firmly wrap itself around the thought.
“Am I so bad?” A voice spoke from nowhere just as the God in question popped into view.
“Father.” Autolycus nodded.
“You found your brother I see,” Hermes spoke carefully.
“I said I would,” Autolycus answered with a shrug. He was prepared to walk past and forget he had even spoken to the man who had fathered him, but his fear for Joxer halted him in his tracks. “Is he alright?”
Hermes avoided the direct question, not knowing for sure about Joxer’s health, having only come from a meeting with Zeus and hearing the news second hand. “He’s with Ares.” He paused, “He saved Cupid, and was weakened by the strain.”
Autolycus nodded at his father when a thought occurred to him. “Weakened how?”
Hermes sighed. “I really don’t know. I was with Zeus when I heard about what happened. Asclepius assured me that he seemed fine, and just needed rest.”
Autolycus took in the words, wishing them to be true but somehow knew they weren’t. “Father, Joxer is… unusual, in case you’ve forgotten. Would Asclepius even know what to do with him if something was wrong with him?” His words were pointed and held none of the humor that he usually spoke with.
Hermes hesitated as he realized what his oldest son was saying. “Come on.” Before Autolycus could even protest, he was grabbed, and they disappeared in a flash of light.
Asclepius appeared in Ares bedroom with a frown on his features. “What is it now, Ares?” He asked patiently.
Ares pointed to the bed. Asclepius stepped forward and looked at the still form.
“What’s wrong with him?” The Healing God asked as he turned to Ares.
Ares glared. “You’re the healer. You tell me!”
Asclepius turned back to the pale man. He reached out a hand to touch his face and found the skin was colder than he remembered it being before. Sending tendrils of his power, the Healing God searched for Joxer’s vitals. After a moment he pulled away and turned sadly to Ares.
“He’s dead, Ares. I’m sorry.” Asclepius’ tone was apologetic.
“I don’t want to hear ‘you’re sorry’!” Ares hissed. “He is NOT dead!” The God of War began pacing around the room in frustration. He was silent for several long minutes as he tried to calm down. He realized that he was taking out his anger on the wrong person. Taking a deep breath, he turned back to the healer. “Uncle Hades was here. He said he wasn’t dead.”
Asclepius turned back to Joxer at this surprising information. He sent a wave of power out, searching the body lying silently on the bed. He could feel nothing. No beating heart. No oxygen moving through his lungs. Absolutely nothing. And yet, there was something. He wasn’t sure what it was exactly. The body didn’t feel like any living mortal he had ever tended to before, nor did his body feel of death.
Asclepius shook his head. “He’s dead, but yet he’s not. I can’t explain it.”
“Try,” Ares growled the words.
Asclepius nodded, understanding the War God’s need for answers, even if he didn’t know why this particular mortal was so important. “He isn’t alive, at least not like any mortal I’ve ever seen, but…”
“But what?” Ares was growing impatient.
“But,” Asclepius continued patiently, “He isn’t dead either, not completely. I can feel a faint hint of his life-force.” Asclepius watched as Ares sat down on his bed and placed his hand against the icy flesh and sighed softly to himself. He’d never seen the War God so concerned about anyone, especially not a mortal man.
“Ares, he’s getting weaker. If we can’t figure out what’s wrong, or how to fix it…” He let the words hang.
Ares turned blazing eyes to the God of Healing. “Then what? He’ll die? That’s not an option! Fix him!”
Before Asclepius could protest the demands, or explain any further the crackle of energy alerted them to the presence of another God. Ares spun around and was only slightly surprised to see Hermes and Autolycus in his bedchamber.
Autolycus pushed his way past all the Gods in the room and made his way to his brother. Feeling his chilled skin, he took in a deep breath. “He’s weak. You need to get him out of here. He’s dying.” Autolycus looked around the room, first to Asclepius, then to Hermes, searching for some understanding, something to help him explain what Joxer needed to survive.
“Outside?” Ares’ voice was quiet, as he tried to understand the thief.
“He cannot survive, isolated like this, not when he’s this weak.” Autolycus’ eyes found Ares, and he smiled at the understanding he saw there.
“The earth.” Ares nodded as he bent forward and picked the limp body up. They disappeared in a flash, leaving two confused Gods, and one relieved King of Thieves in their wake.
Ares flashed in with the pale, still, bundle in his arms. He looked around the empty cave, searching for the best place to lie Joxer down. The floor of the cave was thick with dirt and still held the footprints from the last time it had been occupied.
There were remnants of a long dead fire in the center, and a chill from the outside air wafted through the cave’s opening. Joxer’s skin had gotten paler if that was even possible, and Ares began to grow worried. Autolycus’ words echoed in his mind, and he was aware of his own desire to do anything necessary to keep Joxer from dying.
With this knowledge firmly in his mind, the God of War set his bundle down, gently on the dirt ground. He wasn’t entirely confident what would happen, or even if anything would. He stood up slightly and watched and waited.
Joxer’s still body lay along the ground. He was dressed in the robe Ares had materialized for him when Asclepius was summoned for the second time and wrapped further in a thick blanket. Staring at the demi-god carefully, Ares thought about why it was he needed to be here to heal, instead of in his temple.
With sudden insight, Ares kneeled down next to Joxer and began to strip the blanket away, followed by the removal of the robe. He had to pull Joxer into his arms again to facilitate striping him, without injuring his body.
Once he was completely naked, Ares gingerly lay Joxer into the dirt and watched in stunned shock, as the ground seemed to tremble beneath him. He was still holding onto him with one hand as the demi-god’s body began to lose cohesion.
Ares knew he should let go. Knew he should let whatever the Earth was doing to him, happen. But, for the first time in all his centuries, he was frightened. He didn’t know what would happen when he let go. If Joxer would just disappear, and then he’d lose him forever.
He didn’t know what acknowledgment of this feeling meant, but he did know that he was willing to do anything to keep Joxer alive, no matter what the cost. His grip tightened on the arm that was fast losing anything resembling solidity.
And then it was over. Ares’ mind grew hazy, and he was unable to see anything. There was no sight, no sound, no taste and no sense of smell. There was only touch, but unlike any touch, he had ever felt before.
Ares reached out trying to access a spark of power, something to ground himself in this strange new sensation. But the power was gone, his power was gone. He couldn’t access it, and for a brief second, he felt panicked, trapped. But almost as quickly as it had come, it vanished as a wave of reassurance envelope him.
He didn’t know where it came from exactly, but he knew what, or who was responsible. Joxer. He could feel him.
But not how most would ‘sense’ another. Not by the sight of his body. Not by the sound of his voice. Not even by the feel of his mortal body touching his. No, he felt him. His presence, his essence, all around him, in a way, even as a God, he had never imagined possible.
And for the first time in all his centuries, he felt at peace.
Autolycus paced around in circles. He desperately wanted to leave. To get away from his father and Mount Olympus. However, his need to make sure his brother was okay kept him there. He felt eyes on him and turned to face Hermes.
“What?” He asked with only a slight hint of irritation.
“Come with me.” Hermes held out a hand to his son and held his breath as he waited for Autolycus to take it. He feared that his request would go unanswered.
The King of Thieves looked up into his father’s eyes, hesitatingly at first, searching for something, although he wasn’t sure what. Finally, he nodded and took the God’s hand.
In an instant, he found himself in another temple. It was much different from Ares. It seemed cheerier somehow. Not as dark and gloomy as the God of War’s temple. Although to be fair, he had only seen Ares bedchamber, but he doubted the rest of the temple was any different. And it wasn’t really a clear difference from the temple he was now standing in. The furnishings were primarily made of wood, and the fabrics mostly a pale blue, which was a vast difference from Ares black leather. But it wasn’t just that difference which struck Autolycus, but the feel of the room itself.
He felt his father release his hand as he continued to look around. He knew, without a doubt that this was his Father’s home temple. The one he lived in, worked in. This was a place that was home to the God, and it brought out so many feelings he couldn’t contain them all.
“I’ve never been here,” Autolycus spoke softly as his eyes trailed over every object.
“That was your choice.” Hermes reminded him.
Autolycus turned around. “Was it? Was it really?” He paused, waiting for the answer to his question.
Hermes stared at his son for a long moment, trying to figure out what exactly it was Autolycus was asking. His eyes held an emotion he’d never seen in the oldest of his children before.
Turning around to face a far wall which held a tapestry that he had made decades previous, he spoke.
“It was. You have known who you were for nearly thirty years. I have never denied you anything. Not my life, my possessions, or my love.” He turned around to face the king of thieves. “Of all my children, you are the one I am most proud of. You are the one who understands the essence of what I am, at least partially.” He paused as he took a step closer. “You are also the one who wishes to deny what you are.”
Autolycus found his eyes gazing at the tapestry which had held his father’s attention only minutes before. He stared at it, transfixed as his father’s words wrapped themselves around his mind.
There was truth to what the God said, but there was also much that wasn’t mentioned. Much that probably never would be. “I deny nothing.” He spoke softly. “I am the King of Thieves.” He spoke the words without the arrogance he usually used. He turned around to face his father and looked into his eyes, eyes that were very much like his own.
“I am a thief. Not because that is what you made me. Because that is what I am.” He turned away from his father and started pacing circles around the room. “When my brother died, I was so angry, so filled with this need to pay Tarsus back for what he had done. I became a thief to avenge Malechis’ death. He was good. He didn’t deserve to die.” He stopped speaking and took a deep breath. “It wasn’t until later that I realized that it didn’t matter why I became a thief, the fact was, I am a thief.”
Autolycus turned back towards his father. “I knew who you were before I could walk. I knew what I was and what I would become even if it were a subconscious kind of knowledge. For years, I fought it. I wanted to be what Malechis wanted me to be. I tried to make him proud.
But once he was dead, it no longer mattered. I realized that I had been fooling myself.” His eyes bore into Hermes’ as he spoke the next words. “I do not deny what I am, father. I merely deny you.”
Hermes stood, frozen for several minutes as the words reverberated inside his head. His son. His oldest, most loved son did not want to be his son. The pain that that realization brought out was palpable. But somehow, he managed to ask the question that could bring both insight and unimaginable suffering.
Cupid stirred to consciousness slowly. It took him several long minutes for him to realize where he was. He felt the comfort of his own bed and the familiar arms around him as well as the chest his head was pillowed against.
Then it all came back. The odd feeling he had had in his temple. The cold chill that had run down his spine and the presence, surrounding him, enveloping him, suffocating him. And then nothing.
Nothing but the pain. The screams that shattered the silence inside his mind. The feel of death as it gripped him, separating him from everything he knew and understood. And finally safety.
The cool icy fingers of a savior he couldn’t name. The soothing balm of one who reached in a pulled him from the very jaws of death.
Opening his eyes, he turned to look at his bedmate. Strife was smiling at him.
“Hey Flyboy.” Strife’s voice held a note of amusement, but Cupid could see the relief in his eyes.
“What happened?” Cupid turned slightly, trying to move, but found that his arms weren’t cooperating, and his wings were like a dead weight on his back. He turned his body slightly, hoping that if they were unobstructed, they would regain their mobility.
Strife placed a hand on his back, covering a mottled area of feathers. “Don’t.”
Cupid looked up, fear etched in his youthful face. “What’s wrong? Why can’t I move?”
Strife pulled him tighter against him and fought the urge to make a joke to lighten the mood. “Asclepius says you’ll probably get better after you get some rest.”
“Probably?” The one-word question was filled with fear.
Strife wanted nothing more than to assure his lover that everything would be fine. That the feeling would return, and his wings would be as good as new. But he couldn’t lie. Not to Cupid. Not now, or ever.
So, instead, he told him the one thing he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt. “I love you.”
Cupid swallowed his fear and relaxed into Strife’s arms. “I love you too.”
Autolycus stiffened his shoulders, preparing to ignore the question, and any that followed it. His mistake came when he turned his head slightly and looked into his father’s eyes. They were the same eyes he had seen earlier in the day, but now they were filled with pain. A deep pain he thought never to see in the eyes of a god.
He relaxed his shoulders as he sighed deeply and walked away from his father. But unlike his movements a few minutes previous, his intention wasn’t to escape the questions but to get comfortable before he laid himself open like one of those hens the village people were always cooking for solstice dinner.
The King of Thieves began to pace around the room. It wasn’t a frantic, worried pacing, but one that spoke of his internal struggle as he tried to gather his thoughts. Finally, he stopped and sat down in one of the heavy wooden chairs. He leaned forward and placed his elbows on his knees and looked down at the floor, thereby avoiding his father’s gaze.
“Thirty years.” His voice was soft but easily heard in the silent room. “I have known about you for thirty years.” He looked up and met his father’s eyes, this time ignoring the pain and confusion. “He has known for less than half that time.”
“I don’t understand.” Hermes voiced his confusion. He was desperately trying to figure out what his oldest son was trying to say without reading his thoughts and emotions. He knew that would be a breach of trust that he couldn’t afford.
Autolycus laughed slightly. It was a brittle, hollow sound. “No, you don’t. And that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? You don’t understand. You never have, and maybe you never will.”
“Autolycus, son, help me understand.” Hermes’ voice was pleading.
Autolycus stood up and stared at his father for a moment, briefly debating whether he could explain it. He finally nodded. “Do you remember the day you came to me and told me who you were? Who I was?”
Hermes nodded. He could never forget that day. Autolycus had been very young. Too young, almost, to understand what he was being told, but he had. In fact, the young boy had not been surprised, and even more so, he had told the God what it was he would become.
Even now, decades later, he never understood what exactly had happened. How that small child could have been so insightful. He never questioned it though, just happy that it had happened the way it did. Years later, when Autolycus had left his home, and made his feelings known, Hermes had always been saddened and confused over the reasons. He hoped that now he would finally understand.
“Do you know what else happened on that day?” Autolycus’ voice held the hint of a long-buried pain.
Hermes tried to think back, tried to remember what else could have happened that day, to cause his favorite son so much misery. He shook his head sadly, not remembering anything significant.
“That was the day he was born. The day they were all born. Do you know so little about the other children you fathered that you can’t even remember the day of their birth?”
Jett looked at the event playing out before him and smiled. It wasn’t a friendly smile, or one anybody with any sense would ever want to be directed at them, but a smile nonetheless.
“You’ve found something?” A voice behind him startled him. The assassin swirled around pulling an ornate but deadly dagger out of a hidden pocket. The weapon was thrown before its intended victim even had a chance to blink much less move.
Eris looked down and saw the weapon sticking out of her chest, just below the rib cage. She pulled it out and examined the hole left by the dagger.
“You ruined a perfectly good piece of leather.”
Jett grinned. “Sorry. You can always take it off.”
Eris grinned in return. “I just might do that, if you’re lucky.” She tossed the weapon back to him and nodded her head towards the display which had, only moments before, been showing the view which had caused the assassin to smile in the first place.
“What have you found?” She asked as she took a step closer.
Jett shook his head. “Not so fast, Discord. I’ve heard about you.”
Eris pretended to be shocked. “You have? What have you heard?”
Jett stepped closer. “Wicked, wicked things.”
“Really?” Eris closed the gap between them and ran her fingers over Jett’s leather lined chest. “What kind of things?”
Jett leaned in and nibbled on her ear, right around her lobe before speaking, his breath tickling her skin. “Maybe some other time, we can go a couple of rounds.”
He pulled away and disappeared before the Goddess could even register he’d gone. Eris stamped her foot angrily and glared at the now empty room. She didn’t even get the information she had come for. Flexing her power, Eris disappeared in a flash, determined to track down the assassin and show him a thing or two.
As soon as she was gone, Jett reappeared in the same spot he had disappeared from. He grinned slightly and shook his head, thanking his father, not for the first time, for his little gift.
Turning back to the now empty display, Jett thought over the information he had gained and tried to decide the best course of action. He was still missing several of the pieces and wasn’t sure if Joxer was in any condition to explain, so he made a decision to do something he rarely did.
Ask questions first and kill second. Having decided that, Jett left the halls of time and went in search of a way to return to the mortal world. He had a little more information to gain, and not much time to do it, if what he had learned so far was any indication.
Joxer felt the peace surrounding him, enveloping him as his body recovered from its wounds. He could feel the mending of his very being, as the earth did its magic, stitching him back together as it had done so many times before, although never to this extent. He had never been that far into the void before, had never faced the heart of evil which resided there. He had never had reason to before now. And he hoped he never would again.
He could feel the chill etched into his very soul at the memory of what had happened there.
The feel of the souls which had been taken and destroyed. The earth was cleansing him, erasing the pain of suffering he had endured, but he would never forget, could never forget.
And that was good.
Reaching his mind out the demi-god sought the unfamiliar presence, which had followed him home. It took him no more than an infinitesimal span of time to locate the life force of the unexpected visitor.
Ares. He had followed him in. In to the earth and into things he couldn’t possibly understand. The War God’s emotions washed over him, in this place, where bodies were not necessary, and souls had no boundaries. He saw things that no one else had ever seen. He understood things no one else had ever glimpsed.
Feeling Ares panic at the loss of his powers, Joxer wrapped himself around the God’s soul, blanketing him with reassurance, as they drifted further and further into the source of Joxer’s power.
Ares felt his mind drifting. He didn’t know anything anymore. Where he was, who he was. None of it mattered. He didn’t know where he began and Joxer ended. Everything seemed to be weaving in and out, joining them together, and then separating them, while joining parts of them with other things that Ares didn’t recognize enough to name.
Through it all though, he felt Joxer, caressing his very soul in a blanket of safety, and trust, and love. All things he had never felt directed at him before. It was as if these very emotions were created just for him, by this man he had never understood before. He had never even begun to understand the complexities that were Joxer.
But now, everything was different. He saw things that he knew no one else had ever seen. He saw the life of this precious creature unfolding inside his mind. He saw the pain, and the hurt and betrayal. He saw the love of two brothers and the amusement of a third. He saw the understanding of a man who knew that he was not what people believed him to be but allowed them their ignorance.
And he saw love, for him, in the truest, and purest form. Not the love for a God by a worshipper, but the love of a man, for a perfect match. And with this final feeling, Ares, God of War, knew he had found home.
Hermes leaned back in his own chair as he processed what Autolycus had said. He shook his head. “No. That’s not right. They were born…” He hesitated, calculating in his head. When he reached the answer, he looked over to Autolycus and stared into his eyes, begging him to understand. “I…I didn’t know. Didn’t realize.”
Autolycus began walking around the room again. “You know, I could live with that. I mean, it isn’t as if you ever had any contact with any of them is it? I mean you only fathered them, you didn’t actually raise them.” He turned hard eyes to Hermes. “But do you know who did?”
Hermes looked down at the ground, not wanting to answer the question.
“I see. You do know. Jonas. He was a bastard, even for a warlord. Ares won’t even deal with him. What does that tell you? And their mother? She was a piece of work, I’ll tell you that.”
“Jayce was the mother’s favorite. She could mold him into whatever she wanted. Her little dress up doll.” Autolycus smiled here, a true, fond smile, like the one you give to indulge a child. “But that was okay. His gifts were limited, and he enjoyed the attention. He needed the love, craved what she gave him.”
“Jett was the perfect son for Jonas. Adept at any weapon you can name. Invisible when he needed to be. He was Jonas’ pride and joy. Anything and everything that a warlord could want. He enjoys killing and, like me, excels at what he was born to do.”
Autolycus stopped here, shaking his head sadly as his mind dredged up memories, better left forgotten. “But Joxer. He was special. He wasn’t like the others. He couldn’t placate his mother or honor his father. He could only be what he was, like us. However, he wasn’t like us. Was he father?”
Autolycus’ eyes bore into Hermes as he waited for an answer. Hermes shook his head. “No, he’s not.”
Autolycus nodded. “Did you know, that he doesn’t breathe like we breathe. He has no lungs to speak of. His pores suck in the oxygen, like a plant. His heart, it isn’t really beating. It’s just a simulation. He has spent his entire life pretending to be something he is not. And why? For you. For the love and acceptance you have given me, and never even offered to the one who deserves it.”
Autolycus sat down, suddenly weary. “I do not hate you, or blame you. But he is my brother.” He pleaded with Hermes to understand. “Here in Olympus that may not mean anything, but down in the mortal world, in my world, it’s everything. I failed one brother. I will not fail another.” He stood back up and headed towards the door, stopping just before reaching it.
“Father, if you truly want to understand Joxer, I suggest you speak with Great, Great Grandmother. She knows his soul. She has shared in it.”
Autolycus walked out of the temple, leaving Hermes to think about everything that had been said.
Autolycus left his father’s temple and found himself… well he wasn’t entirely sure where he was. He looked around at dozens of unfamiliar buildings and sighed. He had no clue how to get back to the mortal world and an even less idea as to where to go to find out.
“Looking for me?” The all-too-familiar voice spoke from somewhere behind him.
Autolycus spun around and peered at the empty air around him. Reaching out a hand, he grabbed what would look to anyone who was watching to be a handful of air but was, in fact, the collar of a leather wrap around vest.
“Jett, old boy, you know that never works on me. Why do you keep trying?”
Jett appeared in front of the thief and removed himself from the older man’s grip. “I can’t help myself. One day, you won’t be paying attention and then…”
“And then what? You’ll kill me?” Autolycus asked with amusement.
Jett looked aghast although his eyes held their own trace of amusement. “No dear brother, what would Jox say?”
“Say? I don’t think he’d say anything.” Autolycus stepped around his brother with a wry grin. “But you are aware that he can get inside you…and make you like him,” Autolycus whispered the last word, leaving no doubt as to what he was referring to.
Jett visibly shuddered. “He wouldn’t do that.”
Autolycus came around to face him once again. “Probably not. But, you never know.” He smiled at the confused look in Jett’s eyes for the split second before he realized Autolycus was baiting him.
“You know that I would never do anything to hurt Jox.” The words sounded indignant, but the thief could see the truth in his eyes and smiled in return.
“I know. Which is why, I assume, you’re here, and not rotting in some island prison? Or murdering someone famous, or infamous as the case may be.” He paused slightly, letting a grin appear on his features. “You know we were really disappointed in you with that whole Cleopatra thing. I mean really? Jayce could have done better.” Autolycus put emphasis on the ‘we’ to let him know that he was speaking not only of himself but their beloved brother as well.
Jett refused to rise to the bait. “Do you want to help me get out of here, or not?”
Autolycus smiled again. “Oh, so you need my help? I thought the King of Assassins was above asking the King of Thieves for help?”
“He is. But I’m not above asking a brother for help, in saving another brother.”
Autolycus looked up at that. “You know who did this?”
Jett shook his head slightly. “Not exactly. But I know who the next target is, and…I have a plan.”
Autolycus rolled his eyes. “You have a plan.” He repeated and snorted as he walked away.
Jett stared after him for a moment, not sure whether to be shocked or disappointed that Autolycus was leaving, when the brother in question stopped and turned around.
“Well, leather boy, are you coming, or not?”
Jett ran to catch up with his older brother. “I hate you.” He hissed when they were standing side by side.
Autolycus smiled. “Of course you do. The feeling’s mutual.”
The two brothers continued to walk side-by-side along the unfamiliar but numerous walkways of Olympus, completely oblivious to the eyes, which followed them.
Xena pushed the beans around in her cup and sighed. She’d been doing that every few minutes for the past hour. Finally, Gabrielle had had enough.
“What’s up?” Gabrielle asked after watching her friend move her food around once more.
Xena looked up, distracted. “Hmm?”
Gabrielle sighed in aggravation and took the cup out of Xena’s hand. “What’s wrong?”
Xena looked away from her friend, not certain how to voice what it was that was bothering her.
After several minutes she looked back to Gabrielle. “Where do you think Autolycus went?” She asked instead of what it was she was thinking about.
Gabrielle shrugged. “Maybe he went looking for his brother.” She said the word with disdain, clearly expressing what she thought about what Autolycus had told them.
“You don’t believe him?” Xena asked.
Gabrielle opened her mouth as if to speak but then thought about the question and hesitated. Finally, she shook her head. “No.” She stood up and walked around the camp. “Why wouldn’t Joxer tell us the truth if that was true? Why would he lie?” She turned back to Xena. “But…why would Autolycus lie?” She looked at her friend closely. “You do believe he’s lying. Don’t you?”
Xena shook her head and picked up her sword off of the ground and began cleaning it, mechanically as she thought about everything Autolycus had said and then everything that Gabrielle had said.
What bothered her most were the things that hadn’t been said. For everything that Autolycus had told her, there were things that she had been keenly aware he had left out. But if he had been lying, what was it, he had failed to mention? If he had been telling the truth, what wasn’t he saying?
“I don’t know.” Xena finally spoke. “If he lied, where is he now. For that matter where is Joxer?”
“Are you sure she’s the next target?” Autolycus looked at his brother appraisingly, silently wondering if he really did have a screw loose like everyone was always saying.
Jett turned to glare at his brother. “Why is it when I tell you something you automatically question me, but when He tells you something you take it as fact?”
Autolycus snorted. “Maybe because He never has any ulterior motives.” He emphasized the word, just as Jett had done.
It was Jett’s turn to snort. “No? What about that time he talked you into helping Jayce out with that problem of his? Or that stupid plan of his to keep me from killing Cleo?” Jett’s voice dropped an octave as he spoke the name of the Egyptian queen. “You don’t seriously think that he didn’t know what was happening, do you?”
Autolycus’ face changed from that grin that told Jett he was humoring him to the look that meant he was seriously considering what his brother had said, and then finally to the look that said he didn’t like what he had come up with.
“Are you trying to tell me, that he knew who you were going to kill, and didn’t say anything? Even after Gabrielle decided that we would come to the rescue of your target? That he allowed me to go in there, and play savior, and pretend that I couldn’t tell the difference between you and him? I don’t buy it. Why would he do that?”
Jett laughed. It was long and loud, and if they hadn’t been invisible, it surely would have alerted their prey to their presence. “You don’t get it, do you, Auto?” Jett emphasized his brother’s nickname. “He has you so wrapped around his fingers, you don’t know what’s really going on. Just like the rest of us.” He snickered and then turned his attention back to the people he believed were next on the hit list.
“Ooh, look, big brother, they don’t know what to believe.” Jett grinned mischievously. “Can I play?”
Autolycus narrowed his eyes at his brother and then turned back to the reason they were outside, hiding in the bushes like some sort of peeping demi-gods. Well, they were peeping demi-gods, but that wasn’t really the point.
“Come on, Auto!” Jett groaned. “If they are the next targets we can’t really protect them from back here and do you really think they’ll let us anywhere near them if they know who I really am?”
Autolycus realized the truth of his words and nodded. “Fine, but behave.”
Jett put on his best innocent face. “I always behave.”
Autolycus tried not to roll his eyes but failed miserably. “Just do it.”
Jett turned away from his brother since the look on his face was breaking his concentration. He ran his hand, palm facing him, down the length of his body, and slowly his brother’s mismatched clothing replaced his customary leather. When he was finished, he looked down at the illusion he was putting off. “Does he actually wear this crap? I realize he has an image to maintain and all, but this is ridiculous.” Jett cringed as the imaginary armor clanked.
Autolycus raised an eyebrow when he heard the sound. “Ooh, you’ve improved. It used to be only visual illusions. Now there’s sound too. I’m impressed.” He smirked slightly at the scowl which now covered Jett’s features.
Jett tried to play off Autolycus’ words as if they didn’t mean anything, although, despite the smirk, Jett could recognize the truth to his words. He tried not to let his brother’s approval affect him, but it didn’t work very well. He had always admired Autolycus and couldn’t imagine what the past few years would have been like without him.
Autolycus had always supported him, in just about everything, despite the different ways in which they sometimes saw things. Despite all the people he had killed. Despite the way their relationship appeared to outsiders, they were still brothers. And he loved him.
“You ready?” Autolycus asked, bringing Jett out of his thoughts. Jett nodded, and Autolycus grinned. “Don’t forget to trip over your feet every once in a while.”
Jett glared for a moment then replaced the expression with Joxer’s patented goofy grin. He felt their invisibility fall away as they moved towards the camp, getting ready to do their duty as ‘concerned friends’ to a couple of people they weren’t that interested in protecting at that particular moment.
Ah, the things they’d do for their brother.
Joxer felt his mind regain focus. He reached out and grasped the presence that was still so much inside of him that he could barely separate its life force from his own. Its power was mingled so fiercely with his own, he was reluctant to return to the world outside this place. This place which comforted him and sheltered him and healed him like nothing ever had.
He felt the presence inside his mind as he journeyed back, through the earth, to Ares’ world, and away from his own. He recognized the separation of mind, body, and soul as his body began to reform itself in the familiar image known to everyone, including his inadvertent companion.
His vision was still slightly distorted as he watched the earth tremble and even out beneath Ares body. He smiled slightly at the confused expression on the War God’s face.
“Joxer?” Ares asked, relief coloring his voice. “You’re alright?”
Joxer nodded. “I’m fine. Thank you.” He stood up and helped Ares to his feet. “You saved my life.”
Ares regained his footing even though he was still a little weak from the experience he couldn’t explain. He looked around and recognized the cave he had brought Joxer to. “What happened?”
Joxer stepped back and turned around in the cave and placed a hand along one of the cave walls, feeling it tremble slightly under his fingertips. He felt the peace inside the dwelling. The safety of this place the God of War had brought him to. He smiled as he turned to face Ares.
“Welcome to my world.”
“Your world?” Ares asked. His mind was fuzzy, still trying to understand everything that had happened.
Joxer nodded again. “Yes, my world.” He held out a hand to Ares. The God took it, and Joxer smiled back, pleased at the War God’s trust. He led Ares over to the opposite side of the cave, feeling the walls with one hand while grasping Ares’ hand in the other.
When he reached a point in the wall, he found acceptable he moved Ares’ hand and placed it flat against the dirt along cave’s interior. He could feel it trembling under Ares’ hand. It was as if it was humming, speaking to him, through its vibration.
“Do you feel that?” Joxer asked softly, searching Ares face for some signal that he did indeed feel it. When Ares’ eyes widened, ever so slightly, Joxer grinned, thrilled that his God could share this with him. “This is me. What I am, what I have been, and shall always be.” He paused for a second watching as Ares felt the change in the vibrations as the earth communicated something to the War God.
“Long after the others are dead and buried, I will still be here. Long after the world has died and been reborn, I will live on.” He moved his hand from Ares and stepped back. Bending down to the floor of the cave, Joxer spread his hands along the ground, smoothing it. In a sudden thrust, he inserted his hand into the ground and closed his eyes, searching for something.
Ares watched in stunned comprehension as he felt the cave vibrate rapidly as it felt the joining between body and soul. Felt Joxer merge with it. His eyes widened as he saw Joxer remove his hand from the earth, curved in the shape of a cup.
Joxer walked towards the War-god. “Close your eyes.”
Ares did so without hesitation and was surprised when he felt Joxer’s hand at his lips, and the taste of pure fresh water that he was holding in his cupped hand. He drank the liquid, swearing mentally that he had never tasted anything so fresh.
“This is my world, and now it is also yours,” Joxer spoke softly as he removed Ares hand from the wall.
Ares stared at the demi-god, confusion in his eyes, even as some small part of his heart understood all that Joxer was trying to tell him.
“It’s time to go.” Joxer placed his hand in Ares and closed his eyes as the War God flexed his power and took them away from the cave, and the special place where they had shared something that had never been shared before.
Hermes sat in his temple for a long time thinking over everything that his son had said, trying to make sense if it. Trying to find some rationalization for the anger he had felt from him. Some sign that would tell him that he had misunderstood something. Some way to understand things.
He found no sense, no rationalization, no understanding. And the idea that he had so wronged his children hurt him deeply. How could he have gone so wrong? How could he have missed so much?
“There is a time in every parent’s life when they must realize their children are no longer children. Just as there is a time in every child’s life when they must acknowledge that their parents are just people. No more. No less.”
Hermes smiled as the voice drifted through his temple. He could not see its owner, but he couldn’t mistake it for anyone other than who it was.
“What happens when the parent has done too much damage to the child, to ever be understood, or forgiven?” He asked softly.
Gaia appeared in her great grandson’s temple with barely a ripple to show her entrance. She had never been fond of flashy uses of power for no substantial reason. Placing a hand on his shoulder reassuringly, the Earth goddess spoke softly.
“You take too much blame upon yourself, child.”
Hermes turned around and looked into Gaia’s warm eyes. “Do I? I don’t think so.”
“What is it that troubles you so?” Gaia asked, having a good idea of the answer but needed to hear him verbalize it.
“Autolycus says that I have neglected my other children. I have forgotten them. Left them to fend for themselves against mortal parents who never wanted them, never loved them, never understood them, or showed them the support and love they deserved.” He paused and turned to look away. “If this is true, I have failed them.”
Gaia laughed, causing Hermes to turn around sharply, not understanding the humor. “Child, you take too much burden on yourself. Your sons have not suffered because of your absence, but thrived from it.”
Hermes frowned, confused by this statement. “Thrived? How?”
Gaia stood up and waved her hand over the floor, opening a viewing portal. Inside, he could see a young Jett in a fight with an older and much larger warrior. Hermes watched in shock as the assassin pulled a knife out of his boot and stabbed the warrior in the heart, ending his life.
“Seventeen years ago that man nearly beat Jayce to death. In an act of retribution your son killed him, thereby ensuring that no more threats would befall Jayce, and getting his first taste of death.” She turned her head towards Hermes. “He was barely thirteen.”
Waving her hand again, the image changed, to a scene in one of Ares temples. An angry and snarling Jonas was dragging a kicking and screaming Joxer to the altar, attempting to offer him as a sacrifice. Hermes watched the scene unfold, fear filling him as he saw the hate in his son’s adoptive father.
His eyes widened as he watched Joxer literally melt into the stone altar, thereby angering the warlord further. Jonas left the temple in a huff and Joxer re-emerged from the altar and ran out of the temple. But the image didn’t stop there. Gaia pointed to a figure standing in the corner, hidden from mortal eyes.
“This was the day Strife first saw Joxer. It was this event which led him to search your son out. To befriend him. It was his friendship, which helped Joxer to understand himself. And Ares. He will need that understanding. Now more than ever.”
Gaia waved her hand, and the image changed again and continued to evolve, showing Hermes several different events. People Joxer had helped, both with Xena, and alone. People Jett had killed; some of which were people who barely had a right to exist in the first place, mortal and immortal alike. People who had killed and maimed and tortured, and would have gone on doing so, if Jett hadn’t ended their lives.
“Your sons have lived their lives, as they were meant to. They have done as they should have done. And they have done so, not because of what you should have done for them, but because of what you didn’t.”
“But Autolycus.” Hermes protested.
Gaia waved his words away. “Autolycus is young. He doesn’t understand things. Yet. He doesn’t fully grasp what Joxer is. Where he has come from; where he will always go.” She stepped closer to Hermes and turned him to face her.
“You do not understand either. You too are very young. Too young to know what your son is, what he will always be.”
“What is he?” Hermes couldn’t help but ask.
Gaia smiled. “He is the beginning. And the ending.”
Jett walked into the camp, clunking his ‘armor’ as loudly as humanly possible. He saw Xena look up at the noise and tripped over his own feet, just for good measure.
“Don’t overdo it.” Autolycus hissed into his ear. Jett tried not to smile outwardly since Autolycus was still hidden behind an invisibility shield.
“Xena! Gabby!!” Jett rushed forward and tripped over a twig on the ground. As he picked himself up on the ground, he looked down at the wood, which had caused the accident. “I wonder who put that there?”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, and Xena smiled indulgently.
“Joxer. Where have you been?”
“Why? Were you worried?” He grinned goofily and then looked around the camp. “Where’s Auto?”
Gabrielle looked up at the question. “You mean your brother?” Her voice was laced with disbelief.
Jett allowed his features to visibly pale at the words. “Who, uh, who told you that?” He whispered as he took a step backward.
“I did.” Autolycus came strolling into the campsite.
Jett spun around. “You? Why?” His voice had risen slightly, and it appeared that he was somewhere between angry and fearful.
Autolycus stepped closer and pulled Jett towards him, ostensibly away from the women. He spoke quietly, but loud enough for Xena to hear, if she was eavesdropping, which of course she was. “Xena’s in trouble. I spoke to father.”
“What?” Xena asked as she stepped forward. She turned Jett towards her. “Are you telling me it’s true? You’re a demi-god?”
Jett turned stunned eyes to Autolycus. “Just how much did you tell them?”
“I don’t believe it!” Gabrielle interrupted Autolycus’ reply.
The two brothers turned to Gabrielle. “What?” Autolycus asked, trying to reign in his irritation. “What don’t you believe?”
“He isn’t a Demi-god. He can’t be!” Gabrielle took a step closer to her friends and reached out a hand to tweak Joxer’s nose. It took all of Jett’s willpower not to react.
Jett stepped backward, out of Gabrielle’s reach and rubbed his nose tenderly, counting silently to keep his temper in check.
“Prove it.” Gabrielle stood there staring from one demi-god to the next.
“What?” Autolycus asked. How were they supposed to prove they were demi-gods? It wasn’t as if they went around announcing their parentage like some muscle-bound hero they could name.
“She’s right.” Xena sighed. “What are your gifts?” She quirked an eyebrow at them. “Every demi-God has at least one. Hercules’ is his strength.”
“What’s yours?” Autolycus asked, bringing Xena’s own Godly parentage into the conversation. She ignored him and looked pointedly between the two sons’ of Hermes.
Jett looked to Autolycus. /Tell me she’s kidding, brother./
/Afraid not./ Autolycus answered the mental statement. /Just do… something./
Jett turned back to his brother’s friends. “Ooh, I got a really cool trick.” He turned to Gabrielle and grinned at her. Placing a hand behind his back, he removed a piece of his illusionary armor and changed the illusion. When he brought his hand back, there was a single flower in it, or so it appeared. “This is for you.”
Gabrielle took the illusion and looked at it carefully. She inhaled deeply and stared at Jett, her eyes wide, shock evident in her voice. “Joxer? You made this?”
“No.” All four eyes turned to face the new voice. “Joxer doesn’t do parlor tricks. Does he, Jett?”
“So, this is where you Godly types come to hide away from us mortals?” Joxer looked around the War God’s home temple.
Ares looked at him skeptically. “You’re one of us.” Ares reminded him. “You’ve been here before.”
Joxer shook his head slightly. “Nope.”
Ares raised an eyebrow unbelievingly. “Really? I would have thought Hermes would have brought you here.”
Joxer walked in slow circles encompassing the entire room. “Father and I… don’t understand one another very well.”
“Oh?” Ares walked behind the demi-God, who he could sense was still weak, though not nearly as much as before. “Why not? He gets along with Autolycus well, from what I understand.”
Joxer took a couple of steps backward, nearly bumping into Ares. “Ah, the prodigal son, perfect in every way. Except one.” He turned around and found himself in Ares’ arms.
“What way is that?” Ares asked quietly as he pulled Joxer closer to him and slowly moved them towards a comfortable couch near the stone fireplace.
“He loves me.”
“I can understand that,” Ares replied as he sat them down. With a flex of power, he lit the fire and watched the flames steadily build and warm the room.
“Can you?” Joxer twisted around so that they were facing each other. They were sitting so close to one another they were touching if only barely.
“Yes.” Before he could change his mind, Ares bent forward and placed a tender, chaste kiss on Joxer’s forehead. Almost as quickly, it was over, and he leaned back against the leather couch, bringing Joxer to lie against his chest. “Tell me.”
“Tell you what?” Joxer asked, as his body soaked up the heat from Ares’ body, allowing him to slowly raise his own body temperature.
“Tell me about yourself.”
“What would you like to know?” Joxer asked as he tilted his head slightly. He wasn’t sure what the War God wanted to know, or if he were ready for the answers, he would get if he asked the right questions.
“What exactly are you? What makes you special?” Ares finally said after several moments of trying to think of what it was he wanted to know. There were so many things. Things that he got vague echoes of since they had re-emerged from the Earth. Things that his mind was dredging up, without knowing why.
Joxer chuckled. “I could take that the wrong way, you know? What if I told you there’s nothing special about me? I’m no different from anyone else?”
Ares growled into his ear and pulled him tighter against his chest, ignoring the fact that their position could easily be misconstrued as something other than it was. There was nothing sexual about their contact. It was a simple comfort, between two people who had shared something unimaginable.
“You would be lying.” Ares’ voice was quiet but deadly serious. He knew his words to be true.
Joxer sighed. “Great, Great, Great grandmother says that I am all things. The alpha and the omega.”
“The beginning and the ending.”
Joxer nodded and turned around to face his God. “Have you ever understood something so completely that it is a part of you, and you are a part of it? You understand why it exists and why it must always exist? Know that without it, there can be nothing?”
Joxer’s eyes locked with those of the War God, pleading with him to understand what he was saying, to know the kind of simplicity he spoke of. He knew the moment understanding was reached. There was something in Ares’ dark eyes, which spoke of a deep communication that couldn’t be trivialized with words.
Joxer kept his eyes locked on Ares as his right hand reached towards the fireplace, seeking out the energy the flames were giving off. Soon there was a small fireball in the palm of his hand, swirling around. Joxer placed this other hand on one of Ares’ wrists, bringing it towards him. He turned the palm up and searched in the War God’s eyes, silently asking him for something.
Ares understood, and a blue ball of energy began to form in the opened palm. When the two balls of energy were roughly the same size, they moved towards each other, melting into one another. Becoming one.
War was silent as he watched his own energy mix with Joxer’s like they themselves had done not too long ago. “It’s…” He couldn’t even express what he was feeling with words.
Joxer understood. “I know. It’s… us.” He looked away from the swirling energy and back into Ares’ eyes. “Does that bother you?” He looked away from those dark, penetrating eyes, not wanting to force anything on the God. He didn’t want his own feelings to have any kind of impact of what Ares said.
“Should it?” Ares words were softly spoken but laced with an honest question.
Joxer reached out to the swirling mass of energy, which had tripled in size during their quiet conversation. “You don’t understand.” He pulled the energy towards them. “This, is … impossible.” Bringing the mass closer to the War God, Joxer literally allowed it to absorb into Ares skin.
Ares shook with a jolt of energy so utterly foreign to him it took several seconds for him to recognize its presence. It was like what he had felt in the void, with Joxer, only it was different, stronger, filled with the thread of another presence, one he recognized as his own.
Ares took a deep breath, trying to gather his thoughts before he spoke.
Joxer moved towards him, imperceptibly closer as he covered the War God’s lips with his fingers. “Shh. Do you understand?”
Ares nodded, once. Joxer smiled. “That is all that matters.” He leaned back against Ares, twisting his body so that his back was pressed against Ares’ chest. “I need to rest. It won’t be long before another is claimed.”
Ares wanted to ask the demi-god what exactly he meant, but he could sense Joxer’s weariness. He moved them to his bedchamber and lay down in the soft bedding, and followed the demi-god into sleep, his own mind seemed to be drifting on the edge of Joxer’s consciousness.
Cupid woke up from an uneasy sleep to find that he still couldn’t move his wings. He could barely recognize that he even had wings, much less what to do with them. He turned slightly in his bed to find Strife watching him silently.
“Feeling any better?” The Mischief God asked quietly, already knowing the answer.
“What’s wrong with them?” Cupid asked, just as quietly.
Strife shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m going to go see Unk. Maybe Joxer can…I don’t know…maybe he knows what happened.” He climbed out of bed.
“Don’t.” Cupid’s voice shook slightly as he spoke.
Strife turned around, and for the first time in a long, long time he saw a real vulnerability in his lover’s eyes. Something that he was used to seeing in others, but never Cupid.
“Don’t… leave me.”
Strife nodded. And flexed his own power, reaching out to find his uncle and his best friend, hoping they had an answer. In a split second, there was a loud thump followed by a familiar bellow, both coming from outside of the bedroom. Strife followed the sound and found his uncle where he had appeared in the temple…alone.
“Where’s Jox?” Strife asked as he looked around. “Wasn’t he with you?”
Ares growled dangerously. He didn’t like being woken up from the first peaceful sleep he had had in who knew how long by his favorite nephew and his misuse of powers.
“But he’s not now?” Strife asked, growing slightly panicked at the look of pure rage on Ares’ face and the realization that Joxer wasn’t where he should have been.
“Jox?” Strife called to the air in general as he looked around the room frantically. He headed back towards his bedroom and stopped cold at the scene which greeted him.
Ares entered behind him and breathed a sigh of relief at seeing Joxer. It was short lived as he saw the look of pain on the demi-god’s face as he turned to face him.
“What’s wrong?” Ares asked, stepping further into the room and seeing the look of absolute anguish on his son’s face.
“He’s in pain. A lot of it.” He placed a hand on one of the damaged wings. Little flashes of light started to shoot out of his hand and into the wing, but it didn’t seem to be doing any good.
“I’m not strong enough. Ares, come here.” Joxer kept his eyes trained on the wounded God.
Ares made his way to the bed quickly. Strife was too stunned by the events and his own fear to even notice how Ares listened to the Demi-God without a second thought.
Joxer reached out his other hand to Ares. When Ares clasped it with his own, the flashes of light emanating from the first hand became stronger and changed color. “It’s working.” He whispered, more for Strife’s benefit than Ares’.
After several long minutes, the newly repaired wing fluttered slightly, seemingly of its own accord. Cupid’s eyes were glazed as he was lost in a hell that few could imagine. Joxer moved his hand to the other wing and healed it just as he had the first.
Once it too began to flutter, Joxer stepped away from Cupid, his one hand, still tightly clasped in Ares’. He turned to Strife. “I need you to come here. Anchor his body here while I go and retrieve what was left behind.” He looked into his best friend’s eyes. “You can do this Strife. It’s just like before, remember?”
Strife nodded his understanding but then froze. “Before? No, Jox. Not again. You go… and you won’t come back.”
Joxer smiled reassuringly. “I will.” He knew that was a lie. There was an excellent chance he might not come back, but he had to try. Cupid’s life depended on it.
“Jox.” Strife began. He didn’t know what to say. If Joxer didn’t go, didn’t return to the void and bring Cupid’s presence back, he would lose his lover. But if he did, it was likely he’d lose his best friend. “What if you don’t come back?”
“Then you’ll survive.” Before anything further could be said, Joxer moved the hand that was clasping his own, Ares’ hand, and placed it over his heart. He lifted Ares’ other hand and placed it over the first, both feeling the tremors as his body began its decent.
Ares held the demi-God tightly in an embrace and nearly gasped when he felt Joxer go right through him. It felt as though he had sunk into Ares’ very soul. The body he was clutching began to dissolve right under his grip.
/Don’t let go./ He heard in his mind.
“Never,” Ares whispered back just before he was gone.
Ares turned dark eyes to his nephew. “He’s coming back.” He told him fiercely, not even fully understanding what had happened, but knowing his words had to be true. There was no other choice.
Joxer drifted through the void, searching for some sign that would lead him to Cupid. He could feel the presence just out of his current range and cursed his weakness.
Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have any trouble locating the Love God, but his recent exertion had limited his abilities somewhat and made it more difficult to navigate through the void.
As he drifted farther and farther away from the real world, he drew closer and closer to the sense of Cupid he could detect here. He could still feel Ares anchoring him. It was unlike anything he had ever experienced before.
He had never before needed to be anchored to the ‘real world’ before. But in his weakened state, it was the only way to ensure that he would return. And even then, it wasn’t guaranteed.
Just when he thought he couldn’t go any further in the void, everything shifted, and he was surrounded by darkness. It was a complete and incapacitating darkness, cold and unforgiving.
Joxer submerged himself in it, hoping that it wasn’t too late.
Autolycus groaned to himself as he turned to face the voice.
“Sterope.” Autolycus turned back to face his brother, unsure of what exactly they were supposed to do now.
“What are you doing here?” Jett asked the goddess coldly, abandoning all pretense of his brother’s personality. The woman’s presence here validated his theory on who was responsible for what was happening on Olympus.
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” Sterope asked with a smile which didn’t reach her eyes. She moved her gaze from Jett to Autolycus and back again. “Surely, these mortals have nothing that you want?”
“Mortals?” Jett asked with a feral grin as he stepped forward. “We can be honest, can’t we? I mean, we’re all Olympian here, aren’t we?” He turned to look at Gabrielle for a second. “Well, almost all. But she doesn’t really count.”
Autolycus had to bite back the laugh which threatened to come forth despite the severity of the situation.
“What’s going on here?” Xena demanded after watching the exchange for a minute.
Autolycus turned to his friend. “Sorry. Xena, Gabrielle, meet Sterope, one of the Pleiades.”
Gabrielle’s mouth opened and then closed and then opened again. After interminable seconds in which Autolycus was attempting to keep from laughing, she finally spoke.
“Excuse me. Did you say one of the Pleiades? That’s…not possible.” Gabrielle looked to Xena for some sort of confirmation of her belief.
The warrior princess took a long hard look at the newcomer. “Sterope?” She asked with a hint of disbelief. “What do you want?”
Sterope grinned. “You.” She reached out a hand and grabbed Xena, and in an instant, they were gone.
No flashy power surges, or large sparks, just gone.
Autolycus turned to his brother. “That went well.”
Jett shrugged and turned away from the empty spot where Xena had been standing. “Now what?”
Autolycus began to walk away from the campsite, and Gabrielle, waiting just a few yards away for Jett to catch up with him. “We need to find out where she’s taken her.”
“What makes you think she’s taken her anywhere? Xena’s probably as dead as the others.” Jett grinned at the thought. He really didn’t like his brother’s friends.
Gabrielle ran after them and stopped them in their tracks by grasping their arms forcefully, stopping anything Autolycus was about to say. Both men, having nearly forgotten about her, turned around.
“What?” Jett scowled as he took one hand and removed Gabrielle’s grip from his arm. “Don’t touch me.” He hissed, his eyes glaring dangerously.
Gabrielle let go of both Autolycus and Jett and stepped back, her eyes wide. “Jett.” She whispered. Turning towards Autolycus, the bard shook her head, trying to get a grip on what had happened.
“Autolycus?” She asked in confusion.
Autolycus’ eyes were expressionless as he stared back at her. He knew what she wanted him to tell her. That everything was fine, and Xena wasn’t in any danger. Maybe she wanted an explanation, but he couldn’t bring himself to care about what she wanted. His primary concern now was for Xena, and his other brother. Neither situation would be helped by anything he could tell Gabrielle.
“Where is Xena?” Gabrielle asked looking from one demi-god to the other.
Jett turned to Autolycus. “We don’t have time for this. Every second we waste…”
Autolycus waved his hand to quiet his brother. “I know, I know.” /Maybe we should take her with us./
Jett returned his gaze back to the bard. /Maybe we should kill her./
Autolycus almost laughed. Despite the grin Jett was wearing, he knew the assassin was dead serious. “We’ll take her with us.”
“Excuse me?” Gabrielle stepped forward and stood between the two brothers. “What exactly is going on here?”
Jett locked eyes with his brother. /Fine. We bring her, but she so much as thinks about tweaking my nose again, and they’ll be finding her body in pieces./
Autolycus nodded his agreement to their internal conversation as Jett disappeared from view. “Come on, Gabrielle. We have work to do.”
Gabrielle stared at the spot where Jett once stood with wide eyes. “Where’d he go?” She allowed herself to be dragged, without resistance away. “Where are we going?”
“To find out where Sterope took Xena.” Autolycus hoped that would be enough of an explanation because he didn’t have time for anything else.
Ares felt cold. Unbelievably cold. It was unlike anything he had ever felt before. It seemed to come from inside of him, and he couldn’t shake it. The chill was almost incapacitating, and he had this intense desire to just let it go, to just push it away.
But even in his minimal understanding, the War God knew what it was he would be pushing away. So he didn’t. Instead, he focused all of his attention on his young nephew, who was cradling his son in his arms, as if this would be the last time. For all either of them knew, it would.
“This has happened before.” It wasn’t a question.
Strife turned his head slightly from where he lay on the bed, wrapped around Cupid’s body. He eyed his uncle carefully, not entirely sure how to answer. There were so many things he had never told Ares. So many secrets he had kept hidden and almost all of them had something to do with his best friend.
How much of those secrets could he tell his uncle without breaking the unspoken vow he had made Joxer? How much was he willing to share with the War God? How much would the War God even want to know?
“Strife?” Ares’ voice was calm, calmer than Strife ever could remember hearing. And it was that fact more than anything that made his decision.
“Yes.” Strife maneuvered his body slightly so that he could face his uncle and still be cradling his love.
Ares waited patiently for his nephew to continue. He wasn’t entirely certain what it was he was supposed to do. Joxer had told him not to let go, which of course he would never do. However, there wasn’t actually anything for him to hold on to. At least not physically. But he could feel Joxer’s presence inside of him, and held onto the presence fiercely, hoping that it was enough.
Externally, he appeared to just be sitting on the edge of his son’s bed, doing nothing. But it was so much more than it seemed. And from the look Strife was giving him, he knew it too.
“About three years ago, Joxer had come by my temple. We were…hanging out, talking. It had been a while since we’d seen each other. His visits came less and less once he started hanging out with Xena. I don’t even know what that was about.” Strife snorted his disapproval of Joxer’s friends. “His brother got into some trouble. He was beaten up pretty bad. I guess he had been unconscious for a couple of days and the healers didn’t think he would be coming out of it.” Strife looked away from his uncle, his own memory recalling events which seemed to be a lifetime ago, yet, as clear as if they just happened.
“What happened?” Ares asked after the silence seemed to drag on.
Strife shook his head from the memories. “Joxer went in after him. He was gone for hours. I swear, if I didn’t already know what he was capable of, I would have thought he was dead. The others…they thought he was dead. But Auto, and I. we knew better. Still, knowing and waiting to be proven right…it was a long day.” Strife grinned. “But he came out of it, Jayce recovered, and everything was fine.”
Ares nodded as he thought about what his nephew had said. There was something he hadn’t mentioned. Some information that he wasn’t giving him and the War God wasn’t sure it was information he really wanted.
After nearly an hour of silence between the Gods, Strife spoke, as if he had never stopped. “It was different then though. Jayce was his brother and wasn’t lost in the Void.”
“The Void?” Ares asked, breaking the second silence.
Strife shrugged as best he could with his entire body wrapped around Cupid’s. “I don’t really understand it. It’s what Jox calls this ‘nothing’ place. Nothing solid exists there. Just sensation. A void. He’s tried to explain it a few times, but without going there myself, I don’t really get it, ya know?”
Ares nodded. “I’ve been there.” He whispered.
Strife was about to comment on the whispered statement when the body in his arms began to move. Cupid’s wings began to flutter more frantically than ever before. His eyes opened and stared up into Strife’s face.
“Cupid? Are you.alright?” Strife asked cautiously.
Cupid sat up carefully. “Yeah.” He looked around the room, spotting his father, his eyes widened. “Where’s Jox?”
Ares didn’t have an answer for that question and couldn’t bring himself to voice the obvious answer. He could still feel the chill, down to his very bones, but refused to acknowledge what that obviously meant.
Sterope paced angrily around the cavern, stopping every once in a while to glare at her latest victim. Things had not gone according to plan. Not at all. Now Ares would know who had been responsible and if she weren’t careful, he would try to stop her before the last was dead.
Try being the operative word.
Her plans were too far gone to back off now. There was too much which still had to be made right. Too much pain that Ares was responsible for, for her to just give up.
“Why are you doing this?” Xena’s calm voice broke through the angry silence.
Sterope glared at the demi-goddess. “Your father.”
Xena wasn’t entirely sure why but that answer sent a chill down her spine. There was some part of this situation she was missing. Something she should know, but didn’t.
“What about him?” She asked cautiously, trying to for ignorance. “He’s dead.”
Sterope snorted. “Little girl, don’t play with me.”
Xena stopped whatever she was about to say when she heard the maniacal edge to the voice and changed tactics. “Why? What’s he ever done to you?”
“What hasn’t he?” Sterope asked as she resumed her pacing. “He’s a killer. Sure, he cloaks it all in the name of his job. But he does it just for fun. He does it because he likes to watch people suffer.”
Xena couldn’t really comment about that. She had believed much the same thing herself, so she couldn’t really disagree.
“He doesn’t care who it is.” Sterope continued. “Even family. He’d watch his own son die without as much as a pause in the fighting.”
Xena looked up sharply at that. She wasn’t sure she could believe it. Sure Ares was a bastard who didn’t much care for mortals or people in general. But she wasn’t ready to believe he’d kill his own children.
“You think I’m wrong?” Sterope asked, noticing the odd look on Xena’s face. “I’m not. He didn’t care about Oenomaus’ death. He didn’t even shed a single tear when Deimos or Phobos died.”
Xena listened to Sterope’s accusing words as she tried to work her way out of her confining restraints. However they weren’t budging, and she had a sick feeling that maybe these weren’t your typical manacles.
“Don’t bother,” Sterope commented in a pause from her tirade on the evils of Ares. “Those were forged by Hephaestus.” She continued walking around the cavern, listing off every lousy thing Ares had ever done.
Xena relaxed her efforts and began to listen to Sterope more closely. As she listened to the accusations, she began to realize that maybe she had been wrong about her father after all.
She only hoped she lived long enough to tell him.
Joxer felt his body begin to reform as it pushed its way through the damaged soil. He could almost taste the charred remains of what had once been healthy earth, filled with life and the promise of the future. Now it was nothing but death. Death and the memories of screaming victims. Of dying bodies and tainted pain.
That was all that was left.
It was the sort of place that made Joxer ache in a way that no one but his great, great, great grandmother would understand. It was the end of something beautiful. Something few would understand and even fewer would have the capacity to fix.
As he came back to himself and regained his footing in this world, he could sense the emotions rolling from the blackened earth. They pained him almost more than the dead soil did. He could feel the sorrow and the pain, and above all of it, the hate, which still lived here.
He stood up carefully and followed the hate down a path that would take him where he needed to go.
“You don’t think he’s… dead. Do you?” Strife asked after several moments of Ares’ continued silence.
Cupid sat up and looked over at his father, hoping for some sort of explanation.
Ares shook his head. “No. He isn’t. He’s…” He trailed off, not knowing exactly where he was, but knowing that he spoke the truth. “He’s safe.” He frowned, feeling some odd sort of connection with the demi-god, which he hadn’t noticed before.
“What is it, Unk?” Strife stood up, and after propping Cupid safely against the pillows of their bed, he walked nearer to Ares. “Is something wrong?”
Ares shook his head, trying to free his mind and his body from the odd sensations he was being overcome with. “I feel… odd. I can almost… sense him, his emotions.” Ares whispered, more to himself than to the other two gods.
Strife turned back to Cupid and arched an eyebrow. Cupid shrugged. /He’s your best friend. You tell me./
Strife grinned at his lover. /Yes, but this somehow never came up. I wonder why that is./ He giggled at the strangeness of the recent situation, despite the danger his loved ones had been in.
All of a sudden something clicked in his brain, and he turned back towards Ares. “Unk? You said he took you to the void?” When Ares nodded, Strife began to walk around the room, excitement lacing his movements. “Then that’s it!” He exclaimed.
“What’s it?” Ares growled standing up and looming over his nephew.
Strife held his hands up placatingly. “Chill out, Unk. It’s not that big a deal.” He frowned, realization dawning. “Unless of course, you think it is.”
“Strife,” Cupid warned, recognizing the signs of an impending Ares explosion.
“Sorry.” Strife giggled before walking animatedly around the room. “Jox told me once about the Void and the power it had. It’s not made for normal mortals. Or God’s either. In fact, it’s pretty dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” Ares asked, wondering what about that nothing place that could be considered dangerous.
“Dangerous?” Cupid echoed, growing concerned.
“It’ll make you crazy.” Strife cackled, as though he himself had lost what was left of his mind.
Father and son looked at each other, not sure if Strife was being serious or not. When the look on Strife’s face sobered, they both realized he was entirely serious, in his bizarre Strife way.
“Crazy? Joxer told you this?” Cupid asked incredulously. He wasn’t sure if it was that he didn’t believe his lover, or he just didn’t want to believe him. But he should have known better. Strife was a lot of things, but where Joxer was concerned, he usually didn’t like to play games. Joxer was the only mortal or demi-god for that matter that Cupid had ever seen Strife show genuine concern for.
Strife grinned slightly at the tone of Cupid’s voice. “He told me once that once you enter the void, you’re forever changed.” He turned away from Cupid and looked at his uncle. “Whatever happened to you in there, you can’t undo it. If that’s what you want, you’re stuck.” He walked around the room for a couple of minutes in silence before speaking again. “But I gotta tell you, Unk. I think that sucks!”
Strife spun around and glared daggers at his uncle. “I realize you’re the God of War, and you have this rep to maintain and all, but Jox… Jox is special. He isn’t like those other mortals or gods that you use. And you can’t tell me you don’t see that. You can’t tell me that you don’t feel the difference.” He dropped his voice a notch. “And I know you aren’t the way everyone else sees you. I know it. You know it. And Jox knows it. And if you try to walk away from this thing between you, it’ll be your loss.” He took a step closer to the War God, “And don’t think I’ll be at your disposal. Not anymore. Not after this.” He whispered and disappeared in a flash of angry sparks.
Ares was stunned. He didn’t have a clue what in Tartarus his nephew was talking about, but the mere fact that Strife had spoken with such emotion, and feeling was cause for alarm. And the threat of basically walking away from his duties as Ares right hand was nothing to ignore either. Whatever it was, Strife took it very seriously.
“Dad? I, uh…” Cupid hesitated, not entirely certain what to say. He had never heard his lover so upset about something so personal. “I… don’t know what to say.”
Ares waved him off, not wanting to hear an explanation for something he was sure Cupid didn’t understand any more than he did. He turned back towards his son. “Will you be alright? By yourself? Until Strife comes back?” He could sense that he was still connected to Joxer and that he was still anchoring him, and it didn’t matter where he was, physically, so long as he maintained that connection, he would continue to do so.
Cupid stood up for the first time since his return and began to move his wings around. He felt good. Better than good. Perfect, rejuvenated. He hadn’t felt this good in… ever. “Yeah, pops, I feel groovy.” He grinned.
Ares couldn’t help but smile at his son. He hugged him briefly, thankful that he had recovered, and then disappeared in a flash of power.
Strife paced angrily in his temple, his heavy boots scraping the floor in furious sweeps. How dare he? That thought kept swirling inside his brain over and over again.
He loved his uncle. He truly did. Except for Cupid and their mothers, Ares was probably the only God he did love. But sometimes he just wanted to blast him into the next world.
Ares’ life was hard. It always had been, and Strife knew that. Just as he knew that Ares gruff personality, while true to a point, was mostly for show. Unfortunately, he showed it more often than not.
But to be taken to the Void. To be shown that, to be given that, and to accept it, as Strife knew he had to have done for Jox to have taken him there. To do all of that, and then, just toss it away, as if it were nothing. As if Joxer were merely another mortal to be toyed with. NO! That didn’t happen. Wouldn’t happen. Strife wouldn’t allow it. Not by his uncle, or anybody else.
He cared too much for his best friend to see that happen.
Joxer, despite his awesome powers, and strong heart and soul, had been weakened by pain and betrayal, and the lack of acceptance he had received from virtually everybody. He loved too quickly, which caused him to be hurt too easily as well.
But he had never given anyone the gift. He had never taken another soul to the Void. For him to have done that, for Ares, meant that his best friend had found his soul mate. And if Ares didn’t recognize that, didn’t accept it, well then his uncle wasn’t as smart as he had always thought he was.
Drained from his swirl of thoughts, Strife sunk down into his throne, on his rarely frequented temple.
“Care to share?” A soft voice appeared just before the presence of another God was known.
Strife smiled sadly to himself, strangely glad for the new, welcomed presence. “Ma.”
“Where are we going again?” Gabrielle asked for the fifth time in under an hour.
Autolycus groaned, and Jett ground his teeth together.
“We’re going to the valley,” Autolycus answered for the fifth time. He was trying not to be too specific about which valley, but it seemed the bard wanted specifics.
“Where is this valley?” Gabriele asked, again.
Jett stopped, his temper skirting the edge. “Look, you don’t have to be here.” He told her as he spun around to face the annoying blond. “No one wants you here. I don’t want you here. My brother doesn’t want you here.” He nodded slightly to Autolycus. “And I’m sure if Jox were here, he wouldn’t want you here either.” /Of course, that would most likely be because it’s dangerous, but we’ll leave that part out./
Gabrielle turned back to Autolycus. “Is that true?”
“Joxer probably wouldn’t want you here. The valley can be a dangerous place.” Autolycus told her honestly.
Gabrielle waved his concern away. “No, I mean about you not wanting me here.”
Jett rolled his eyes. “Look Blondie, let’s get something straight.” Jett took a step closer to the bard. “We,” He motioned from himself to his brother and back again, “Are the Demi-Gods. We have a lot more at stake here than you do. Our Brother is in some serious trouble. If we don’t find him, and fast, he could die.”
Gabrielle’s eyes widened at Jett’s icy tone, but she didn’t say anything.
“You may not care what happens to Jox, but we do!”
“What… what about Xena?” Gabrielle finally managed to speak.
Jett took one more step closer to her and reached out to wrap a hand across her throat. He squeezed until he could feel her contort with the effort to breathe. “Listen here. I don’t give a rat’s ass about Sterope or Xena, or anyone other than my immediate family. If you want to live to be able to find your friend, I suggest you keep your mouth shut and do what you’re told!” Jett let Gabrielle go and then started walking away.
Autolycus shook his head as Gabrielle began to rub at the tender spot on her neck. “Piece of advice?” He asked and then continued before she had a chance to reply. “Jett’s a bit short-tempered, and he doesn’t like you. I don’t know what Jox told you about our family or Jett, but trust me when I say he wouldn’t think twice about killing you, or Xena, regardless of your friendship with Joxer.”
After a moments silence, Autolycus also walked away, leaving Gabrielle to think about just what kind of mess she’d gotten herself involved in.
By the time Joxer had made his way through the dead land and into the hills which housed the caverns, he felt much stronger than he had in days. His strength was returning tenfold since his time in the void, and he could even now feel a tug on his connection with Ares.
Something was wrong there, but he didn’t have time to question it, and their connection was still too new for communication, so he blocked it out and concentrated on the land before him and the caves which awaited him.
He could feel small amounts of energy and life returning to the land, but it would be a long while before this land was anything more than a wasteland. Fortunately, he had time.
However, Ares’ children did not.
And that was what had brought him here. His last trip to the void had given him a lot of information, which he had been cut off from before. He now knew who was trying to kill the God’s and why.
And more than that, he knew what she did not.
Her time on this world was limited.
Soon, the madness would be beyond anyone’s capabilities to fix, if it wasn’t already.
Sterope walked circles around the cave floor. She had stopped speaking nearly two hours ago and refused to answer any more of Xena’s questions. Now the warrior princess was growing more and more concerned.
The goddess seemed to be losing a shred of sanity if she had actually ever had one, to begin with. For the first few hours, Sterope talked non-stop about Ares and how he had wronged her.
Then she spent a good portion of their time together regaling Xena with stories of all the other things Ares had done to hurt humanity in general.
It had only served to make Xena realize one thing. Well, two things really. The first, more obvious thing was Sterope was insane. The second, less obvious and utterly unbelievable to her own mind, was that Ares was necessary.
War was necessary. It wasn’t the waste she had tried to get herself to believe to make herself, and her new life more comfortable to live with. The fact was that war, in all its brutalities, death and pain was something that had to exist. If it didn’t, well, that wasn’t likely to happen.
But even more than war’s necessity, Xena had come to believe that without someone to watch over the conflicts, things could, and would be far worse. And judging from some of Sterope’s remarks, it was a thankless job.
It didn’t seem as though she were the only person to misunderstand her father’s job. The God’s themselves hated him. Something for which she had always found amusing and fitting. Now, with this new understanding, she only found it sad.
Her father was alone. Completely and utterly.
Xena vowed that if she actually survived this encounter with the insane goddess, she’d make every effort to acknowledge her father and maybe begin to rebuild some sort of relationship with him.
“You don’t belong here.”
Xena’s inner musings were cut short as another voice entered the cave. It was so dark, she couldn’t see who spoke, but there was something infinitely familiar about it.
“What are you doing here?” Sterope hissed, stopping her pacing. “YOU don’t belong here.”
“No, Sterope, I’m the only one who does.” Joxer stepped out of the shadows of the cave, giving his body an eerie light, thanks to the fire that was dying out.
“Joxer?” Xena asked, shock in her voice.
Joxer smiled at his friend, taking his attention away from the goddess for a second.
Unfortunately, it was a second too long. Sterope lunged for the demigod, pushing him to the ground.
More, unfortunately, for the crazed goddess, was the fact that the soft earth chose that moment to open up and devour them both. Strangely though, it only opened up just below them, as if it knew exactly where it was needed.
Xena shook her head, thinking maybe her time in this cavern had wilted her brain.
After a couple of long seconds, Joxer reappeared, with a slightly more subdued Sterope. They were covered with soft mud, and Sterope was glaring angrily while Joxer just looked sad.
“This is a sacred place, Sterope. You know that.” He turned to Xena who was still tied up. “She does not belong here.” He turned back to the goddess, his voice more forceful than Xena had ever heard. “You do not belong here.”
“I am a Goddess.” Sterope hissed angrily as if that made some sort of difference.
“Yes, you are.” Joxer nodded sadly, loosening his grip on her. “But a goddess who has broken rules set down by Gaia herself.”
The Earth began to tremble, slowly at first, finally giving way to violent shakes. Xena could feel the tremors in her very bones. Sterope was shaking slightly, a fear etched in her features. Only Joxer remained standing perfectly still. Although he was not immune to the tremors, but they seemed to pass through his body, as though that was the most natural thing in the world.
Perhaps it is. Xena thought.
“You won’t get away with this.” Sterope’s voice was tight. “Your lover still has to pay for his crimes.”
Joxer shook his head somewhat sadly. “Ares has no crimes to pay for. If you understood anything about the nature of our existence, you would know that. And those you killed would still be alive.” Joxer’s own voice was tinged with pain.
Before anything further could be said, the tremors stopped, and in their wake, stood a woman Xena had never seen before.
“Grandmother.” Joxer smiled. The woman wasn’t his grandmother, exactly. More like his great, great grandmother, or great, great, great, great grandmother, depending on how you looked at it. Either way, it was much simpler to just call her `grandmother.’
“Joxer.” She smiled broadly at the demi-god and then turned her gaze to the goddess, standing completely still next to him. Her eyes darkened as she felt the wash of rage and hate coming from this woman. This Goddess, whom Gaia was also a great, great, great grandmother to, was responsible for the deaths of several fellow Olympians.
“I see you’ve found our assassin.” Her voice was hard, nothing like how it had been when she spoke Joxer’s name.
“Gaia, you must listen to me! It’s his fault!” Sterope scrambled for a reprieve by turning her hate onto Joxer. “He came here, he tried to kill me.” She lowered her voice slightly as though she were about to impart a dangerous secret. “He took me below ground.”
Gaia raised her eyebrow and turned to her favorite grandson. Joxer shrugged, not at all concerned. Gaia turned back to the goddess. “You have been to the Void. You know that is forbidden.”
Sterope stood up straighter. “You choose him over me!” She snarled, her face twisting into pure fury. “He, who is bonded to my husband!”
Gaia took a step back, partially because of the anger and violent emotions radiating off the young Goddess and partly because of the news. “Is this true?” She asked Joxer.
Joxer nodded. “Yes.”
Gaia stared at him for a moment longer. “Ares? I…” She hesitated for a second before nodding. She knew they were growing closer, but this was unexpected. “It is a good match. I approve.”
Joxer grinned. “It hasn’t been accepted yet.” He warned her.
Gaia waved the concern away before turning to face Sterope again. “Your marriage to Ares was over long ago if you can even call it that. What he does, and with whom is no concern of yours.”
Before any further protests or vile comments could be made, Gaia disappeared, followed by another bout of the trembling earth. When the ground stopped moving, Xena looked around and discovered that she was alone with Joxer.
Joxer walked over and began undoing the tight bindings, to set his friend free.
“What will happen to her?” Xena asked as she rubbed the raw spots on her wrists tenderly.
“Here, let me see.” Joxer took her right wrist in his hands, and covered them, the warmth spreading out from his fingertips as they sunk into her skin, soothing the pain away. He repeated the action with the other wrist before checking the rest of her body over. When he was sure she was not injured any further, he stood up and answered her question.
“She’ll be taken back to Olympus, for trial. Once they find her guilty, she’ll be taken back to the scene of her crimes and Grandmother will watch her be consumed by the Void.”
Xena looked up at the man she had thought of as a friend for the past few years, realizing that she knew nothing about him. Had never known anything about him. He seemed so utterly calm with the words he spoke, no sign of the dorky person she had associated Joxer with.
“You seem sure of her fate. How do you know they will find her guilty? Don’t the Gods protect their own?” Even as she asked, she knew it wasn’t wholly accurate.
Joxer laughed. “Do they?” He shook his head slightly and began walking towards the entrance of the cave. “My family is more complex than you can imagine, as I’m sure you know.” He stopped at the entrance and waited for Xena to follow him. “We do protect our own, but not when they go against everything that they are supposed to stand for. Not when they break our own rules. Not when they have murdered us.” His voice had grown weary.
“Not when they’re the God of War?” Xena asked calmly, testing a theory.
Joxer looked up sharply and studied her carefully, trying to read her. Finally, he sighed. “No. Your father has the worst job. But he’s the only one qualified to do it.”
Xena nodded. “So, it’s true then? You and Ares?” She shook her head. “Never would have believed it. But then I never would have believed a lot of stuff I’ve learned these past few days.”
“Do you mind?” Joxer asked quietly, wanting to know if he had lost a friend.
“No. I don’t.” She smiled wryly at him. “Although I don’t think Gabrielle will understand.”
Joxer laughed for a second and then cocked his head. He was silent for so long, Xena began to get worried.
“We have to hurry. Gabby’s with my brothers.”
Xena nodded, now knowing what she knew, she understood just how dangerous a situation that could be.
Joxer grabbed Xena’s hand and began running, dragging the warrior princess behind him, hoping to meet his brothers halfway, before some sort of Jett-induced tragedy occurred.
Gabrielle was walking along, muttering under her breath to herself, trying to keep from angering Jett any further. It wasn’t that she was terrified of him, but she didn’t want to take any chances. He had been pretty dangerous before she had found out he was a demi-god.
And since then he had been precariously close to killing her several times, so she held her tongue.
“We have to go,” Jett announced suddenly, interrupting Gabrielle’s thoughts.
Before Gabrielle could comment, both Jett and Autolycus disappeared, leaving her alone, on the slope of a massive mountain which appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. Refusing to be detoured in her search for her best friend, Gabrielle continued the trek up the mountain, hoping that when she reached the top, she’d find some clue of what to do next.
About three-quarters of the way up, she saw movement. At first, she thought it might be some sort of animal, but then she heard the voices. Both familiar, and friendly, despite the strangeness of recent events.
“Xena?” She called, barely able to contain her relief. She picked up her pace and ran the rest of the way to the two people she could now recognize.
“Joxer?” She took a good long look when they had reached one another. “You are Joxer, right?”
Joxer laughed. “Yeah, Gabby, it’s me.”
“Good.” She told him sincerely before hitting him squarely in the chest.
Not expecting the hit and still somewhat exhausted from the past few days, he fell to the snowy ground and began to feel his body shift underneath it, flowing immediately into his natural shape. Almost instantly, Joxer realized what was happening, and got control of his body, and picked himself off of the ground.
“It’s good to see you too.” He told her slightly sarcastically.
“Where are Jett and Autolycus?” Xena asked, hoping to forestall an argument.
“I don’t know,” Gabrielle answered honestly. “They just disappeared.”
“The trial.” Joxer offered. He cocked his head slightly as if listening to something no one else could hear. Before either woman could ask, Strife appeared in a flash of sparkles.
“Jox? You’re alright?” He completely ignored both Gabrielle and Xena.
“Yeah. I’m good.” Joxer hugged his best friend tightly. “How’s Cupid?”
Strife grinned. “Good as new. Thanks to you.”
“Ares?” Joxer asked, feeling that the War God was all right, but needing to hear it.
Strife frowned. “He’s fine.” He answered tightly. Before Joxer could ask what was wrong, he changed the subject. “You’re needed. Hera needs you to testify.”
Joxer nodded and turned back to the two women he hoped were still his friends. “I have to go. But we’ll talk. Soon, I promise.”
Xena nodded and watched as Strife took Joxer away in a flash of power.
“You’re just going to let him go like that?” Gabrielle asked incredulously.
“Yeah, Gabrielle, I am.”
“Okay. Out with it.” Joxer nearly growled after he was finally left alone with his best friend.
It had been about three days since the beginning of the trial, and he was utterly exhausted, but Strife seemed to be getting moodier, and moodier, especially where Ares was concerned.
“What?” Strife tried to play it off with a bewildered expression. An expression that looked undoubtedly out of place on Strife’s face.
“I don’t know who you’re fooling, but it isn’t me. We have known each other for too long.”
Strife sighed, knowing that it was inevitable that he tell Joxer the truth.
“It’s Unk. I think you should think about having the bonding…” He hesitated and then decided to just plunge ahead. “Ask grandmother to rescind it.”
“What?” Joxer stood up a little straighter. He had expected some bad reactions, but not from his best friend. Not from Strife. “I thought you knew me better than that. I thought you trusted me. What, you trust me, but not enough to be mated to Ares? Is that it? Because if it is…”
“Whoa, whoa, you got it all wrong.” Strife held up his hands in defense. “It’s not you. It’s Ares.”
Joxer seemed to lose his steam as Strife’s words sank in. “Ares? Did he… say something?” He asked quietly, knowing there was every possibility that Ares could have said anything or that Ares didn’t want the bonding. Or any number of other things. He hadn’t actually spent more than a few minutes with the War God since Sterope had been captured, so he had no way of knowing what Ares reactions would be, or even if he understood exactly what had happened.
“No, he didn’t. But, Jox, you took him to the Void. The bonding is complete… almost. Even if he accepts, and Grandmother agrees to it, which you know she will. It won’t be right, not if he doesn’t understand. Not if he doesn’t truly care about you.”
Joxer sighed, his feet giving out underneath him. He sank to the ground, his body losing some of its cohesion. He didn’t much care at that point. He was so very exhausted. He couldn’t seem to grant himself the energy needed to sustain form.
“I need to be alone.” He whispered before his body completely dissolved.
Strife nodded. “Yeah, I know.” He flashed out and back into the home he shared with Cupid.
Cupid was there, talking with Aphrodite and Discord, of all things.
“How’s Joxie?” His mother-in-law asked.
It was right on the tip of his tongue to lie and say he was good, wonderful in fact, but at the last minute, he chained his mind. “He’s drained.”
“You’re wrong, you know,” Cupid spoke quietly, only to his mate, ignoring their mothers for a moment.
“Am I?” Strife asked, not pretending to misunderstand. “I hope you’re right, Cup, I really do.”
“Well, I feel it’s my job, as both the Goddess of Love and as Ares’ ex, to tell you that you’re worrying about nothing.” Aphrodite stood up. “Come on, Er, I think we have a wedding to plan. I heard our brother’s getting married.”
Aphrodite disappeared, and Eris turned to her son. “She’s right, Strife.” She grinned then. “You think Joxer’s brother will be at the wedding?” And then she too disappeared.
“Mothers.” Strife grumbled good-naturedly just before he pounced on Cupid and proceeded to block out all thoughts of Joxer and Ares.
“Where is he?” Autolycus hissed under his breath.
“You’re asking me? You’re the one who claims he’s closer to him than anyone else in this crazy family!”
“Yes, but you’re the one who claims you can find him anywhere!”
“Shut up! Both of you. I’m right here.” Joxer spoke wearily as his body began to shift and form. He had sunk into some sort of wood altar.
“Are you alright?” Jett asked, showing more concern than most would believe him capable of.
“I’m fine. Just… tired.”
Autolycus looked at his brother carefully. His skin was almost blue in its coloring. “You haven’t completed the binding.” It wasn’t a question.
“Maybe I was wrong.” Joxer’s voice was growing weaker.
“Maybe. But to end it… like this. That isn’t the answer.”
“They’re right.” Ares booming voice interrupted whatever Joxer was about to say. He turned to the other two demi-gods. “Go!”
After a minute of contemplation, Autolycus dragged Jett out of the temple, leaving Joxer and Ares alone.
“You weren’t going to talk to me about this?” He motioned to Joxer’s weakened condition, knowing it was because their binding hadn’t been completed. Yet.
Joxer sat up a little straighter from the place on the floor. “What’s there to say? I did something I shouldn’t have. I began the bond without asking. I took what I wanted, and I deserve whatever it is that will happen to me now.”
Ares laughed, which brought an odd look to Joxer’s face.
“Don’t sound so over-dramatic, Joxer. I may not have fully understood what it meant to be taken there, but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have gone if you had told me. It doesn’t mean, I don’t want to be bonded to you.”
Joxer’s eyes widened. “Really? Do you know what’s at stake? What I am? Do you fully understand…now?”
Ares nodded. “I know that you will exist long after, we as gods, will. You will be here, long after those that worship us, cease to do so. You will be here, alone, one with the land, and by extension to the people.”
“Until the rebirth.” Joxer nodded. “But not alone. If you accept the bonding, you too will be here, with me.” He stood up and walked over to Ares. “You too will survive our destruction and our rebirth. You too will be one with the land and by extension, the people. You will be one with me and all that I am.”
Instead of replying and adding to the words already heavy in the air, Ares placed the most tender of kisses on Joxer’s lips, stealing the weak demi-god’s breath away.
There was no more need for words, or anything else except the two of them, flesh meeting flesh, heart meeting heart, soul meeting soul until they were not two separate people, but one.
With each affirmation of their powerful connection, Joxer’s strength increased, infused with the power that was Ares.
Soon, the spiritual power of the act gave way to passion, as each man sought to devour the other, neither caring who was successful first.
Joxer wasn’t entirely sure when their clothes disappeared, and he couldn’t really bring himself to care when he noticed that they were in Ares’ bedchamber, on Ares’ bed.
He licked a path down the War God’s body, paying close attention to every patch of skin, every hair was thoroughly soaked by his cool tongue, feasting on everything that was Ares.
When he reached the War God’s rather impressive erection, he had lost coherent thought, drowning in taste and texture and swallowed him whole, an impressive feat in and of itself.
The moans and groans coming from the War God’s lips, spurred him on, his talented fingers, caressing Ares’ balls as if they held the secrets to the universe and needed to be cared for properly.
Ares knew that he wouldn’t last long, not with this incredible attention to detail Joxer seemed to observe. He felt himself close to the edge, closer than he had ever been before, with any partner, male or female. And for the first time, in all his centuries, the idea of losing such utter and complete control didn’t scare him. He welcomed it.
Joxer continued to work Ares’ cock, his cool mouth a contrast against the warm flesh. When he felt the first explosion of taste, he sucked harder, demanding all that Ares had to offer.
Ares sagged against the cool sheets of his bed, his body sated and sweating from probably the most intense orgasm of his life, which considering how long he had been alive, was saying something.
Joxer crawled up his body, making a path of kisses until he reached his mouth, sharing an Ares-flavored kiss.
The kiss quickly turned passionate as Ares got his second wind and flipped his lover over so that he was towering above him. He decided to make his own study of the skin under his own and nipped and licked his way down, amazed by the cool temperature and the quivering response.
Joxer’s skin almost seemed to weave in and out as his tongue traced patterns across it. It made the act itself seem that much more exciting. The lack of knowledge of what it was he could be invoking.
He had seen Joxer literally dissolve into other, organic substances, would the same thing happen when they made love? Would Joxer melt into him as he took him?
“That depends on whether you want me to,” Joxer whispered in a husky voice, as Ares tasted him, almost as if he had read Ares mind.
Ares groaned at the implications of that simple statement and flipped Joxer over, eager to test out a theory.
He prepared his lover quickly, but gently, starting with two fingers and then graduating to three and even four. When he was sure Joxer was ready, he entered him, intending to be gentle and slow. However, Joxer’s desire to be taken swiftly was making slow and easy an improbability.
When Ares was entirely in, he stilled his movements, waiting for Joxer to adjust. When Joxer started moving, pushing back against him, he knew it was time. He began a steady rhythm and was met thrust for thrust by his lover, whose sounds alone were causing Ares to lose all coherent thought.
Joxer’s entire body was on fire, which considering his natural body temperature was close to freezing, was a feat in and of itself. He had never felt anything like this. This union of body and soul. It was almost like the flip side to their journey through the void. And the pleasure. It was reaching unimaginable proportions. He was sure he was going to fly apart at any moment.
Keeping his body solid was almost too much for him, but he couldn’t let go, not yet. Soon though, soon. He felt both himself and his lover growing closer to that point. Ares was trailing bites and kisses along his neck, and one of Ares’ hands was stroking his cock in time with their thrusts.
It was more than he could take. With a howl, he came, harder and more quickly than ever before, his body losing all cohesion, and taking Ares with him over the edge.
Joxer’s body, as it flowed in its natural state, in and around his lover, was unlike anything Ares could ever express. It was like the very essence of love itself surrounding him, protecting him, claiming him.
Ares sunk into that feeling and consciousness fell away as he was wrapped in that feeling.
Joxer’s body reformed an indeterminable amount of time later. He didn’t know how long he had been floating. It could have been hours or days, and he realized it didn’t matter.
As soon as he was solid again, Ares strong arms wrapped around him, almost as if they knew exactly where he would be and when he would recover enough to reform his mortal body.
“Sleep, love,” Ares whispered, his own mind drifting in and out of sleep. “We’ll figure everything out later.” He squeezed Joxer’s body closer to his own. “Much later.”
Joxer drifted into sleep, his naturally cooler body being warmed by Ares comforting heat.
[wptab name=’Cast Pictures’]
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