Iolaus rolled over in the shade of the palm tree to watch Hercules swim yet another lap in the protected cove. They had it all to themselves while the other two watched over the sleeping gods. The golden hunter mused over the progress that Ares and Joxer had made over the last ten days.
Their breathing was regular and their skin was warm to the touch again. They were still glued together but they'd accepted being turned over so no sores would form. Wanda-ral was keeping an eye on their god-sparks and she had said last night that they were growing stronger. Aphrodite had popped in last week to check on them and gone straight back to Olympus. She'd looked tired but left them all with a cheery smile. All in all, Iolaus smiled to himself, it appeared that their vacation in the sun would soon be over.
Wet drops of salt water flicked over his face and he realized with a start that Hercules was standing in front of him, hands on hips with a silly grin on his face. Iolaus ran a hand up the leg nearest him and watched the light blue eyes darken with passion. Caressing the soft skin of his inner thigh, he drew tiny circles ever nearer the naked groin.
Kneeling up, he flicked his tongue over the crimson head that still dripped salt water. Hercules panted slightly and moved his hands to either side of Iolaus' head, threading his fingers through the silken tangle. Nibbling up and down the rising shaft, Iolaus feasted on the hardening flesh that still retained its unique Hercules' flavor in spite of the salty overlay.
Herc moaned slightly and pressed closer to the opening throat. Iolaus took him deep while his hands rubbed over the firm cheeks to pull him in even closer. Swallowing, he massaged the iron hard cock with his throat muscles and slipped a finger to caress the puckered opening with tantalizing short strokes.
Groaning continuously, Hercules thrust gently into the voracious suction that Iolaus was now applying. The golden warrior grinned and plunged two fingers deep into the spasming channel, sparking Hercules' release deep into the vacuuming throat. A low groan burst from his lips and he trembled on suddenly unsteady legs.
Iolaus slowly mouthed back up to the tip of the temporarily satiated organ and gave it a final rasping lick that sent Herc to his knees before him and toppled them both to the blanket. The demigod buried his face in Iolaus' shoulder, breathing hard. His hot breath gusted against his lover's skin and Iolaus squirmed in sudden need.
Hercules sighed, "Do you know how nice it is to just make love when ever we want to? To know that nobody on this island cares if we're fucking our brains out five times a day?"
"Speaking of fucking our brains out, remember that little fantasy you found so ... invigorating when we were here last?" Iolaus moved out from under his lover and palmed a tempting buttock in a teasing caress. "The one where I take you on the beach in full view of any ship that might be passing by?"
Herc's moan hiccupped and he pushed himself to his knees, gazing back over his shoulder with a sultry look. "Yes. Now, please."
Iolaus grabbed the jar of oil that kept their skin from burning and coated two fingers with it. Kneeling between Herc's legs, he slowly massaged the channel within and without. When his lover was moaning continuously and pushing back for more, he gave his own needy cock a quick coat of oil and slowly pushed inside.
When he was in as far as he could go, he rested on the broad back beneath his chest and wrapped his arms around the trim waist in a loving hug. "Love you, Herc."
"I love you, too, Iolaus." Herc squeezed his internal muscles, surprising his lover with the intimate caress.
"All right, all right." Iolaus began the thrusts angled straight at the internal gland that would give Hercules the most pleasure. "You are so impatient some times..." His oily hand found the hardening cock and gave it a squeeze that brought a strangled shout from his lover. "You need to slow down and enjoy the scenery more often ..." He sped up the pace, pounding into the slick channel that gripped his cock like a leather glove.
When he felt the edges of his sight go blurry, he strengthened his grip and said, "Oh, wow, look ... I think Captain Adad is back."
Hercules gave a start that almost bucked Iolaus off and came in long spurts of salty liquid. The muscles in spasm pulled his lover over the edge as well and they climaxed together. Herc lay limply on the blanket with Iolaus still quivering inside of him and the golden hair tickling his back.
"Damn, Iolaus, that was really wicked. I haven't been that turned on in years." Herc panted weakly.
Iolaus kissed the sweaty back and murmured, "Any time, lover. Turning you on has become my favorite pastime. It has excellent side effects."
Herc snorted and began to roll over. Iolaus eased out and settled on his side facing the demigod who promptly pulled him into a full body hug. "If it wasn't so selfish, I almost wish they'd take another week or two to come out of this coma."
"Nothing says we can't stay out here even after they're healed." Iolaus said before he licked the nearest nipple into a hardened peak.
"Iolaus, I'm only a demigod." Hercules pulled the blond head away from his chest. "Even I need a little recovery time. Not to mention it's almost time for our watch shift." He paused and the tiny frown that had disappeared for almost ten days returned. "I'm a little worried about what's happening on the mainland."
"I know. Although I'd bet money that Jason recognized the signs of impending trouble and got Alcimene to safety." Iolaus stroked the strong arm in a soothing rhythm. "But I know what you mean. Others may not have been so fortunate. This place seems like it's right outside of time and space."
Herc sighed and leaned over for a kiss. Soft lips parted and tongues caressed languidly in the late afternoon dusk. No sun had been seen since the explosion and every once in a while, the wind from the east brought a smell of brimstone and toxic fumes. The days were gray and the nights pitch black. But Iolaus felt as if all the days had been sunny while they loved away the time.
"Sooner or later, we'll have to go back to the real world and resume our responsibilities. But right now, we need to clean up and get back to camp to relieve Xena and Gabrielle." Hercules stole another quick kiss before rolling away and to his feet. Reaching down a hand, he pulled Iolaus up and they strolled down to the water for a quick swim before returning to the camp site.
Harmonia sat listlessly on the steps of her mother's temple, looking out over a barely recognisable Olympus. The grounds had been torn by explosions of power that would take weeks to mend. If there had been anyone with enough energy to mend the upheavals. Three temples within eye sight lay in scattered ruin. The fighting here had been fierce between three Ate supporters and the gods who hadn't followed the others to the island.
"How you doing, sweetie?" Aphrodite sat down beside her and handed her a goblet of nectar.
"Okay, Mom." Harmonia shrugged. "I wish Daddy and Joxer would wake up. I keep thinking about them and worrying."
"I know. I do to." Her mom sighed and hugged her close. "But when I checked, they were doing much better. Should be any day now."
Harmonia leaned against heavily against her shoulder and gave her own sigh. "I just wish ..."
"That everything would go back the way it was before the battle?" Aphrodite kissed her head gently. "That Hestia hadn't died?"
Fighting back a sob, Harmonia nodded.
"I know. We've been lucky, sweetie, that you've never had a death in the family before. Now, there's been Joxer and Hestia." Aphrodite's voice had a longing note in it. "If only, Hestia could come back like Joxer did."
"Has anybody gone back to the island to see if maybe ..." Harmonia couldn't figure out how to say what she was feeling. "What if she's there but, like, trapped in the lava?"
The goddess of love hugged her tightly. "Hermes took a quick look when he passed over the island. Hep has been monitoring the River of Fire to see if any anomilies show up. But none of us are back to full strength yet so it may be a while before we can check out everything."
Harmonia hugged back. They sat in silence and finished their nectar. A tingling nudge in the back of her mind sent the young goddess upright. The buzz grew in intensity and she tightened her grip on her mother's hand. Then with a burst of feeling, she felt her father come awake.
"Mom! It's Daddy. He's awake." She was on her feet and tugging Aphrodite up right. "Let's go."
"Whoa! Let me tell your grandparents first." Aphrodite took a mental deep breath and closed her eyes. Nodding at the answer, she smiled a full grin of relief. "They felt it too. You and I get to be the ambassadors for the family."
Hugging each other in glee, Aphrodite zapped them to the island. Harmonia took a quick look around at the overcast sky above the cheerful camp fire in the rather untidy clearing but then her eyes went straight to her father. He was propped up against a mound of blankets and he looked thinner than she'd ever seen him. When he saw her, his whole face lighted up with a grin and she flung herself into his open arms with a sob.
His arms folded around her instantly but the hand that stroked her hair trembled. He must have lost pounds! She tried to stop the tears but knowing he was alive and hearing his heartbeat under her ear released the fears she'd been trying to hide. His voice was a soothing murmur in her ear and when she reached out a blind hand for Joxer and felt his warm grasp, she hiccupped and finally stopped crying.
Getting her voice under control, she sat up and wiped her eyes. "Boy, are you guys in trouble. When Grandmother sees how much weight you've lost, you're going to be eating ten meals a day."
Joxer groaned and shook his head while Ares laughed quietly and tenderly stroked his arm. "With any luck, we'll put some of it back on before she sees us."
She started at his husky voice, barely raised above a whisper. Joxer just nodded resignedly.
"We noticed they might need a little something." Xena's voice came from over her shoulder along with a plate of savory fish and vegetables.
"I'll hold it, Daddy. You and Joxer just eat." Harmonia took the plate with a smile for her big sister. The fish and greens had been cut up into small bite sized pieces and the god of war ate slowly, watching the others around the camp fire. Every once in a while, Joxer would intercept the piece he'd been going for and they'd share a smile. Then Joxer would feed it to him or Ares would feed him.
Harmonia got the impression that they were talking to each other without having to use their voices. Was that possible? But that reminded her of something her grandmother had said.
"Congratulations, Joxer." She said quietly, beneath the hum of the conversation between her mom and everybody else. "Grandmother told us what she'd done. Making you a god and all."
"The women ... of this family ..." Joxer's voice was rough and hoarse.
"Yeah, pretty good, aren't we?" She said impishly.
They both chuckled before an identical look of sadness crossed their faces. She knew what they were thinking. Hestia. The one woman of the family who wasn't here and never would be again. A mist of tears crossed Harmonia's eyes but she determinedly sniffed them away and smiled brightly.
"When everyone is feeling better, I want to go back to the island and ... say" she clenched her hands tighter around the plate "say good bye to her."
"That's a good idea, Princess." Ares' voice was getting stronger. "Give us a week or so and we'll take the whole family over to say farewell. Now, tell us what's been happening since we collapsed."
Harmonia sat a little more straight while she gave a report on the state of Olympus. Describing the destruction and naming the dead, it took her a little while to cover the last two weeks. Only when she was nearing the end, did she realize that her's was the only voice talking. Everyone was listening to her, her voice faltered and she felt suddenly shy.
"How is everyone coping?" Hercules' deep voice wondered. "They're not used to war on home turf."
Aphrodite shook her head from where she sat cross legged at Joxer's other side. "Some better than others. The energy levels are so low right now that they're having to do some manual labor if they want things fixed. I saw Fortuna out with a spade yesterday, trying to get her perennial borders back in shape. Luckily, Chloris came along and helped her out or I'm afraid those poor plants would have been goners, for sure."
"And the coastal towns and islands, how are they faring?" The golden haired warrior asked.
Harmonia shared a long look with her mother. The death toll was devastatingly high and still mounting. No one had heard from the island of Crete and shipping was still restricted to coastal waters only. Quakes rumbled earth and sea bed every few days and the debris washing ashore was deadly. The goddess of love sketched the details of the last few weeks.
Silence fell over the group before Aphrodite remembered to tell Hercules that his family were all right. Gabrielle asked about the Amazons and Harmonia was able to reassure her about them. When she noticed Ares looking a question at her, she blushed.
"I've been helping the Muses keep track of what's going on. The reports have been coming in much faster since some of the gods are getting their strength back and going out to their temples."
"Good for you." Joxer's voice was a little smoother since he'd eaten. "How long before the energy comes back?"
Ares met Harmonia's glance. "We took a pretty heavy dose of Chaos Energy. It could be several months before either of us is back to normal."
Joxer's eyes widened in dismay. "Months?"
Harmonia watched her father look straight into Joxer's eyes and she was sure they were talking to each other when Joxer blushed and smiled happily. She caught her mother watching them too and they shared a grin.
"We need to get back to the mainland." Hercules was pacing back and forth by the fire. Harmonia watched Iolaus follow the tall figure with smiling eyes. "Now that you two are awake, we're needed else where."
"Vacation's over. We need to get back, too." Xena's even tones came from Gabrielle's side.
"No problem, guys." Aphrodite smiled. "Captain Adad is due in tomorrow morning with the tide. He's agreed to take you back to Piraeus and drop you off." Her gaze switched to Ares and Joxer. "You two are going to stay right here for a while until you're strong enough to come home. Agreed?"
Ares nodded. "We'll take it easy and anyone who wants to come and visit is welcome." He paused and smiled at something Joxer thought at him. "Just so long as you announce your visit in advance."
Aphrodite giggled. "No problem, my loves. Come on, Harmonia, let's go give everyone the good news."
Harmonia gave them both a hug, hesitated a moment and crossed the few feet necessary to hug Xena and Gabrielle. The bard returned the embrace with fervor while her sister hugged quickly and stepped away. She smiled though and nodded.
Aphrodite finished hugging everyone, saving Xena for last and it was all Harmonia could do to keep a straight face at the warrior's stiff posture while the goddess of love snuggled close.
"Bye, everyone! Take care of yourselves." Aphrodite said gaily and gathered Harmonia in for the journey back to Olympus.
Harmonia smiled and hugged her mom close. The world was suddenly a much happier place.
Joxer swam a little farther out to observe a yellow and blue fish darting through the swaying fronds of sea kelp. The brilliant coloration of the small fish fascinated him and he followed it quickly until it swam into pile of rocks to hide. He wondered what the little guy had thought of the big two-leg who shared his waters. Grinning, he kicked effortlessly through the salt water back to the cove where he'd left Ares.
The dark god was soaking up energy from the sand where he was buried. Joxer broke the surface of the water and looked for him, his mind connecting first with the lazy thoughts of his lover before his eyes found the small sand pile that marked the spot where Ares had burrowed in. Casting his mind back over the last two weeks, he smiled contentedly.
//Hm-m-m-m. How's your energy, Joxer?//
Joxer grinned and strode out of the surf. //High, Ares. Very, very high.//
The god of war chortled and white sand exploded away from the emerging tanned body. His laughing eyes found Joxer with a look that quickly went sultry. One hand came up to welcome the warm wet body, pulling him down to cover him completely while the other guided their mouths together in the most tempting kiss of the day.
//You taste of salt, beloved.// Ares slowly stroked up and down over the long muscles in Joxer's back before coming to rest on the tender skin of his waist.
Now it was the warrior's turn to hum while his tongue slid into an intimate dance with its slippery mate. //Peaches. Why do you taste like peaches, Arry?//
//You were gone for over six hours, Joxer. I had a little snack while I waited.// Ares smiled and rolled them over so he was on top. His body settled in like a heavy blanket of earth warmed muscle over Joxer's yielding form.
"That long?" Joxer looked up in surprise and reached to brush aside that lock of hair that was always falling on Ares' forehead. "It seemed like no more than an hour. It's so fascinating out there. There's so much to see and learn. The colors and shapes are so different under water than on land. There must be fifty species of wildlife in just the few miles of sea bed that I covered."
Ares laughed out loud and kissed the end of Joxer's nose. "At the very least. The deeper you go the more different the life forms become. Poseidon showed me some incredible creatures when I was a lad. When things get back to normal, we'll find you a guide to take you deep beneath the surface. It can be dangerous but by then you'll be able to protect yourself."
Joxer sighed and wriggled just a little, anticipating the wonders still to come. Ares caught his breath and pressed his groin a little harder into his lover. Grinning, Joxer pushed up and moved his legs to either side of Ares' so he could settle more firmly against him.
"I am not making love in the sand again. The damn stuff gets into everything." Ares chose speech over thought and raised up to his hands and knees, swooping in for a quick breath-stealing kiss before sitting back and bringing Joxer with him. "Let's go get some dinner and clean up before we expend any of this energy we just absorbed."
"Oh yeah!" Joxer breathed against that full lower lip so tantalizingly close to his. Ares nipped him lovingly before raising them both to their feet.
Joxer sighed contentedly and strode with him back to the camp site. Their routine varied little while they rested and absorbed all the natural energy they could. It had been almost a full month since the death of Ate ... and Hestia. He still couldn't believe that he'd never see the cheery features of the little goddess or hear her voice tease him into a blush. It just wasn't fair.
"Life isn't fair, Joxer. It just is. We're lucky we had her as long as we did." Ares stopped near the fire and feathered a caress across his cheek and down his throat to above his left nipple. "She's in your heart and always will be. And in mine."
Joxer mimicked the gesture and felt Ares' heart beat slowly beneath his fingers. "We are so lucky. How did we survive?" His eyes met the beloved dark gaze so like his own and he projected his wonder at their escape when so many gods had died.
"Together." Ares said simply. "I should have died but you wouldn't let me."
"I should have been fried by the Chaos Energy but you shielded me from the brunt of it." Joxer moved into Ares' arms, needing the warmth of his touch.
"You're stronger than you realize, love." Ares held him tightly. "I wanted to protect you but I had no reserves left to push you away. You pulled me to you and accepted the Chaos Energy as well. It flowed through us and out to the ship and the sea. Iolaus said something about us being surrounded by golden sparkles. He said he felt really good as the sparkles washed over the ship."
Joxer thought about it for a moment. "Did we change it when it entered us? Like ... like milk in a churn changes to butter?"
Ares laughed and shook his head. "I haven't a clue if it was something we did or didn't do." Sadness filtered through their link. "Hestia was right. We do need to study it, maybe in a hundred years or so. After we've rested up from this bout."
A hundred years, Joxer thought while he licked his way down Ares' neck, enjoying the silky texture of the tender skin just above the hollow at the base of his throat. Time still threw him when he thought about the future. //We've got eternity. Amazing.//
//I promised forever, barring rogue gods and cataclysms of nature.// Ares head tilted back to give him more room and he shivered slightly when Joxer bit him then licked the reddened spot. His arms closed tighter around his waist and one hand began to stroke the spot above Joxer's hip that made him moan.
//You know me too well.// Joxer slid his hands up Ares' chest, enjoying the crinkly texture of the dark curls under his fingers.
//Never, love. When I can't tell your body from my own, then ... perhaps I'll know you well enough.// Ares thought settled in Joxer's soul like a warm balm.
Long moments passed in touching and tasting before Ares slowed his hands and Joxer caught an echo of another's thought. Listening in with his lover's permission, he caught the message.
//There's a slowdown in the eruption. Hopefully, the next few days will show a break in the cloud cover. The particles in the air seem to be less than even a week ago. The lava flow has slowed to a steady stream with none of the exploding projectiles in the last three days. Tethys says the underwater channel has healed itself. Hephaestus says the River of Fire has gone back to its normal path.// Zeus finished off with a sigh.
//Full moon tomorrow, Father. Hestia always loved the full moon. Maybe it's time for us to gather and say a last good bye.// Ares' thought was hesitant and his dark brown eyes looked a question at Joxer.
Joxer nodded silently, not wanting to break into their talk. It felt like unfinished business, somehow. Even though he knew with his head that no one could have survived the destruction of the island, his heart persisted in feeling that Hestia couldn't be gone forever, not Hestia.
"I feel it too, Joxer." Ares interrupted his musings and Joxer realized with a start that Zeus was gone from their link. "Tomorrow at moonrise, we'll meet the others at the island. It's not that far and our energy reserves should see us there and then back home."
"Good." Joxer kissed him hard and let him go to head for the bathing pool. "I miss the cottage and the gods only know what happened to all those poor plants I left there."
Ares laughed and joined him in the warm waters. "Harmonia has kept them watered. It was supposed to be a surprise for you. She's grown up so much."
Joxer ducked himself before soaping his hands and beginning to wash his hair. Ares took over massaging the wet, soapy strands and Joxer hummed and closed his eyes in enjoyment. "She's going to be a great goddess. What is she the goddess of?"
"She hasn't decided. I don't think she's going to follow Aphrodite or Cupid's path. She's air and earth so there's quite a bit of leeway there." Ares dunked him to rinse out the soap and Joxer took the opportunity to tease his rising cock.
//Yes-s-s-s.// Ares sighed and lightly held Joxer's head in place, thrusting gently into the warm mouth. Joxer let his throat muscles relax and took the entire cock down to the root. Swallowing, he massaged the hardened organ until the dark god slowly released his pleasure down his throat.
Joxer pulled back enough so he could taste the creamy fluid, swallowing it with relish and sucking gently on the tasty organ. Ares tugged him to the surface, framing his face with his strong hands and licking the water from his cheeks. //You are entirely too good at that. What would you like?//
//You.// Joxer ran his hands down the broad back to the slim hips. //I always want you.//
//Good.// Ares laughed gently and turned to brace himself against the pool's edge. //You must have read my mind.//
Joxer leaned against him and sank easily into the heated channel that seemed to have been made for him alone. Pressing their skins together, he rested deep inside Ares. Content for the moment to simply feel their connection both mental and physical, he breathed in the humid air and the scent of Ares.
//Eventually, you're going to have to move, lover.// Ares' thought caressed his mind while his inner muscles clenched in little ripples all up and down his cock.
Joxer shivered and ran his hands up and down Ares' chest in teasing little circles that approached but never touched his hardening sex. The dark god groaned and one hand came back to hold Joxer's hip with an almost bruising grip. Joxer laughed out loud and finally began the long slides in and out of the warm sheath that would please them both.
They took their time to delight each other with the knowing touches that would bring the most joy, coming together with a long, slow pulsing pleasure. Enticing smells from the campfire reminded them that dinner was ready and they separated their bodies to finish cleaning up. Their minds stay nestled together, as they had since they first woke to the aftermath of the war of the gods.
Joxer pondered that link while they toweled dry and dressed casually in linen pants. They seemed to have merged when the Chaos Energy hit them, melding them together into one being. Oh, they were still separate entities with their own thoughts and actions but on a lower level, they shared ... everything. Memories of Ares' past were now as much a part of Joxer as Joxer's were to his lover.
Joxer cut open some fresh lemons while Ares dug out the leaf wrapped baked fish from under the fire. They settled side by side with the potpourri of steamed vegetables and flaky white fish on their wooden plates. Squeezing the lemon over the tender meat, Joxer licked his fingers clean while he continued to think about what this new linkage might mean to their relationship.
"If it bothers you, love, we can erect walls between each other that will keep us separate unless we want to be together." Ares popped a slice of tomato into his mouth.
"I don't think so." Joxer shook his head. "I like having you inside me. This way I get the whole picture when a memory from your past surfaces. I still don't completely understand some of them. Especially the nightmares."
The corners of Ares' mouth turned down and he dropped his eyes. "I told you that my past was full of death and destruction. There's an allure to the dark side that I hope you never understand."
Joxer stopped eating and touched him with hand and thought. "I love you. We've both done things that we regret. But we learned from the mistakes and we grew stronger. You're the god of war and you'll eventually have to go back to business. Just don't shut me out ... even if you think I'll be upset."
Ares' dark eyes glowed with love. "I love you, too. I promise to always keep you in my heart. Even if I try to protect you from myself."
"Okay, but I'll find out eventually." Joxer shared a smile with Ares and went back to eating. Aphrodite had left them several bottles of wine and they shared the single goblet. Joxer remembered the night so many months ago when they'd first made love at the cottage. He knew now that the vineyard was in the Elysian Fields and not even that knowledge phased him anymore. He shook his head at how far he'd come in the time they'd been together.
//Still got a ways to go.// Ares' amused thought joined with his.
//Together, we can go anywhere we want.// Joxer sighed contentedly and leaned his head against the broad shoulder, watching the small flames dance in the camp fire.
//Together it is.// Ares flicked away the empty plates and gathered him into a gentle embrace. //Sleep now. Tomorrow we say good-bye to an old friend.//
Ares waited patiently for Joxer to be ready. He hadn't even thought about what to wear to the memorial service. His black leathers had gone on like a second skin, supple and form fitting. But Joxer couldn't make up his mind and was on his third outfit. It didn't help that Wanda-ral was egging him on. Ares had a sneaking suspicion that she just enjoyed seeing Joxer naked.
But then, he enjoyed seeing his lover naked so it really wasn't any hardship to sit back and watch the different combinations come on and off. It was, however, coming up on moonrise so maybe he'd better take a hand in the fashion show. Rising to his feet, he strolled over and brushed away Joxer's hands. Leaning in for a kiss, he laced up the soft leather ties on the white shirt.
"There. Wear your black vest and every woman there will be drooling over you." Ares feathered a caress down Joxer's tanned cheek.
"They'd better not." Joxer grinned at him. "Your mother and daughter will be there."
"Oh yeah, I guess you'll just have to settle for looking good enough to eat." Ares hugged him close, realizing yet again, how close he'd come to losing him.
//Never happen, love.// Joxer kissed him gently, thinking about the one they did lose. //Even if we're physically apart, we'll never be without each other. I carry you with me in my heart, just as you said we do with Hestia.//
//I know. It's the old 'my head knows' but 'my heart still feels the fear'.// Ares sighed. //Ready?//
Joxer nodded and they disappeared from their island only to reappear on a small shelf of hastily created stone at one side of a seething caldron of bubbling lava. Zephyrus and his children were keeping the steam from overwhelming the gods but the smell was still enough to make their eyes water. Joxer was immediately mobbed by the tiny zephyrs in a constant stream of well-wishers.
Ares looked for Bax and found him at Harmonia's side. He'd grown another six inches and he gleamed a shiny silver in the flickering yellow light. He saw his mother motion them over to the other side and with a touch on the elbow, he got Joxer's attention. //Come over when you can.//
Joxer nodded distractedly while trying to answer each little zephyr's exclamation of concern. Ares smiled and made his way over to Hera's side. He realized as he hugged her that she looked older, the silver in her hair more pronounced and the lines around her eyes deeper. She'd lost weight as well and felt very slight in his arms.
"When this is over, Mother, why don't you and Father get away for awhile? Hephaestus and I can look after Olympus for a few weeks while the two of you get away for some relaxation. Joxer and I haven't done much for the last few weeks but eat and sleep." Ares suggested gently.
"I know." Hera sighed and leaned against him. "There's just so much to do and repair on Olympus. Not to mention the poor mortals who have been so devastated by this catastrophe that some of them are only now beginning to rebuild. The babies that I've had to usher into the world with little more than a roof over their heads ..." she shook her head and closed her eyes.
"Did I ever thank you for the ambrosia, Mother?" Ares decided a change of subject was in order, while making a mental note to get to work immediately as soon as this last duty was done.
She smiled and raised her eyes to his, the sparkle at least temporarily back in the deep brown gaze so like his own. "Well, I couldn't wait for you men to decide he was worthy. Anyone could see that he was more than ready for the next step. It takes someone special to keep up with you, dearest."
Ares blushed and cleared his throat. "Thank you. He probably saved my life by halving the Chaos Energy and pulling me out of here." Gesturing at what was left of the devastated island, he shook his head.
Hera shuddered delicately. "I can hardly bear to think of it. Thank the Spirit you both came out of this intact."
"Ma'am, may I say thank you as well?" Joxer appeared at their side and garnered his own hug from Hera.
"Of course, dear." Hera smiled at him and patted his cheek. "You must call me Mother as well. Ma'am is so formal."
Joxer gulped and nodded. Ares had to turn away to hide his smile. //It will get easier with practice, love.//
Harmonia came over to greet them and Ares noticed again, with
a small pang, how mature she'd become. She greeted them gravely,
her eyes slightly reddened and she sniffed rather endearingly while she
hugged them both. Bax swirled slowly at her side.
"Ares, Ares. Joxer, Joxer. Sad, sad."
"Are you coming home soon, Daddy?"
"Yes, it is sad, Bax, and yes we are, Princess. Joxer and I are all rested and ready to help with the clean-up effort." He held her close and breathed in the perfume of her hair, so like Aphrodite's.
"Good. We can use all the help we can get." She nodded decisively and for a moment, looked just like her Grandmother. Although, he was careful not to tell her that. Joxer smiled at them both and murmured something comforting to the little whirlwind.
Zeus cleared his throat and gathered all eyes to him. Ares looked closely at him, noting the new lines in his face and the slight tick by the right eye. That alone made him determined to send he and Hera off for a well-earned vacation. A mental hum from Joxer confirmed his agreement to help.
"We are gathered here to say good-bye to those who gave their lives to defeat one of our own. They bravely fought to protect our world and the mortals who depend on us." He began to name the dead in the order in which they died and Ares listened with a feeling of anger at the waste of life and experience.
Zeus invited each of them to approach the edge of their temporary platform to say a few words of farewell or drop in a token of memory. Ares watched as a wan Athena dropped in a white rose for her mother, Metis. She wiped away a tear and disappeared. Tethys followed her with a white sea shell for her grand daughters, Bia and Halie.
Each of the others slowly made their way to the stone edge, speaking softly or throwing in a small piece of their lives. Zeus and Hera approached together and Ares saw the toll the last few weeks had taken when his mother threw in one of the fire roses, beloved of her sister. Zeus hugged her close and steered her away from the edge.
Hephaestus, Aphrodite and Harmonia approached the edge ahead of Ares and Joxer. The young goddess knelt at the edge and held something in her trembling hand.
"I miss you, Aunt Hestia. I love you so much." She stopped to brush away the tears. "I'm not afraid of the dark anymore. So, I'm sending back the crystal you gave me. Fire to fire."
She couldn't go on and Aphrodite helped her up with strong arms that cradled her. Hephaestus held them both and led them away from the edge with a sad shake of his head at Ares. Joxer stepped up with him to the searing heat of the boiling cauldron of lava.
//It's beautiful in its own way. Deadly, but beautiful.// Joxer thought sadly.
//Each element has the same beauty ... and the same danger if carried to the extreme.// Ares hugged him close.
Joxer dropped in a pine-cone from their valley. "Good bye, Hestia. Thank you for all your care and thoughtfulness, not to mention my life. I'll miss you."
Ares sighed and merged his mind with the fire, feeling Joxer link with him to experience the heat and flame. //I love you, Hestia. Where ever you are, in what ever form you find yourself, I hope you're at peace.// He sighed and remembered the pixie smile whenever she was about to do something outrageous. //Or better yet, raising Hell in your current dimension. We'll miss you.//
The fire cradled their consciousness like a warm blanket. Ares felt Joxer give a mental wriggle of delight at the feel of flickering, all pervasive heat and a tingle of power that spread like wild fire through their minds and bodies. The god of war basked in the sultry wash of liquid light that fueled their energy levels to heights not felt since before the last battle.
An itch in the back of his mind drew his attention deep into the river of lava that pushed its way up to the surface from far beneath the earth's crust. Curious, he called to his brother.
"Hep, come and look at this."
The god of fire joined them and sank his awareness to depths even beyond where Ares could go. Frowning, he concentrated on the anomaly. "I can't quite make it out. It's fire ... and yet not fire." He shook his head and Ares held his arm to steady him as he leaned dangerously far out over the pit. "Could it be something from the River of Fire that's never come to the surface before?"
"It is rising then?" Ares moved them back from the edge. "Did it feel dangerous to you?"
"No. Do you remember the legend of the Fire Dragon that Father told us when we were kids? We looked in every fire we could find trying to find him. What if the legend was real?" Hephaestus quirked both his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders.
Ares couldn't help a flash of excitement. Joxer looked at him quizzically. //It was always my favorite legend. There's supposed to be one dragon in the world for each element. I was always searching for the Earth Dragon but Hep and I both looked for the Fire Dragon.//
//Do you think it really could be?// Joxer was wide eyed. //Would he be dangerous to humans or gods?//
Ares stopped and thought a moment, turning back to the bubbling lava and casting his mind back into the fire. The itch was stronger now and somehow familiar, like a dish with a new sauce disguising the more familiar flavor. He sniffed the sulfur laden air and caught a whiff of ... roses?
The lava near their platform began to churn and the steam bubbles grew and broke with ever-increasing fervor. Hephaestus and Zeus joined them while the goddesses peered over their shoulders. An orange and yellow shape took form beneath the seething surface of the molten stone.
They watched breathlessly at the darkening spot and the increased activity that would surely lead to an ... eruption of ... something from the hidden depths. Joxer was holding on to Ares' arm hard enough to leave bruises and the god of war had to hold Hephaestus back from his forward lean over the pit.
A spray of red-hot spume sent them quickly back from the edge just in time to see a white shape rise in a mist from the roiling magma and hover just above the surface. It was quite small and shot through with golden sparkles.
//Just like the Chaos Energy.// Ares thought uneasily. But the mist headed for them and they all backed up another step.
It settled in front of them and flickered for a moment as if it couldn't make up its mind what solid form to take. The itch in his mind was an ache that would not go away. Ares shook his head to clear it without taking his eyes off the visitor.
"Well, really. And after all the nice things everyone said about me." Familiar accents rang in the air and the small shape resolved itself into Hestia's body.
Ares froze in astonishment and barely noticed Harmonia breaking through their body shield to throw herself into her Great Aunt's arms.
"There, there, dear. It's very hard to kill a tough old bat like me. Although, I will admit to being a little out of it for awhile." She hugged the young girl tightly, her eyes busy on the group before her. "I forgot who I was until a little spark found me in the River and reminded me just where I needed to be."
Hephaestus struck his forehead with his hand. "The crystal."
"Exactly. So, no more feeling guilty, young lady." Hestia's wise eyes smiled at Harmonia. "Everything works out for the best. It's so good to see everyone again. The River was getting rather monotonous anyway."
"Dearest sister." Hera gave her a hug and sniffed rather hard. "Let's go home to Olympus. We've done what we came for here. The others will be so pleased to see you. Wait until you see the damage ..."
They moved off leaving Ares and Joxer arm in arm, grinning broadly. "Well, she's almost as good as the Fire Dragon." Ares laughed out loud, feeling as if the world just might be on an even keel once again.
"I heard that, young man." Hestia's amused voice floated back to them before they all winked out.
Joxer hugged him hard. "I never thought to have a happy ending to this war, Ares. Except for you, of course."
"You're my happily ever after, Joxer." Ares returned the hug and added a gentle kiss to the smiling lips. "Getting Hestia back is just the icing on the cake. Shall we go join the others before we head home?"
"Home is where the heart is, love, and that's where ever you are." Joxer laid his head Ares' shoulder and nuzzled a kiss under his ear.
Ares stood atop the world's newest volcano and sighed happily. He'd never had a war end more strangely with as many bizarre twists as this one. He wondered what other surprises life with Joxer had in store. While he moved them from the island to Olympus, he decided contentedly that he couldn't wait to find out.
The End of War God