- Character Bashing
- Discussion - Murder
- Violence - Canon-Level
- Alternate Universe
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.