It was so peaceful here. He sighed happily and wondered what it would be like to fly like the birds he was watching. Feeling warm air gust behind him, he called a quiet greeting, "Good morning, 'Dite."
"Morning, lover." She kissed his cheek and settled down beside him. "I love sitting here and watching the air currents shift and turn like ribbons on a kite."
He looked at her in surprise. "You can actually *see* them? How do you do that? Air is invisible."
"Yes and no, Joxer." She snuggled into his side and he wrapped a long arm around her. "Air is made up of very small particles that dance and move in long chains of like particles. Like ashes that swirl out of a campfire, only very, very small. Once you focus on them, they're quite easy to see."
"Like the glow that I see when I'm focusing on the element of water?" Joxer looked down at her face with its unaccustomed serious expression.
"Exactly. If you've been able to concentrate and see the glow that connects the water drops then you'll be able to focus in and see the air. Want to try it?" She looked up at him hopefully.
"Sure. What do I do?" He felt a twinge of excitement at the thought of adding to his knowledge of the elements.
"How did you first focus on water?"
Joxer blushed hard and tried to think of something to say that wouldn't reveal that Ares had been making love to him at the time. But she just laughed and shook her head.
"Never mind, Joxer. I can just guess. We could recreate that moment ..." she paused suggestively and he tried to think through his sudden panic at having to make love without Ares there.
"Or I can just guide you through the focusing exercise that my old teacher used." Her sly tones relaxed him enough to join in her chortles. "I want you to clear your mind of everything but air. Think about the wind caressing our faces. The clouds up high in the sky. The thermal breezes that those birds are sailing on."
Joxer relaxed and focused on each element that her soothing voice evoked. He felt the shift in his attention as all else fell away and he began to see a faint glow out of the corners of his eyes. Anchoring himself to his center as Ares had taught him, he let go of everything but the elusive element he sought.
He'd already experienced something of air when the Chaos energy had whirled through him. He breathed it in and watched his breath emerge in a puff of moistened cloud, dispersed in the breeze that wafted by them. The scene before him began to change and he noticed a strand of pink float by, twisting in impossible patterns around ...
... a green ribbon, broader and more substantial that curved and danced towards ...
... a deep blue stream of rippling silken wind that soared up and up and up until he could no longer see it. The birds were no longer black silhouettes but creatures of brown and white that flew through the strands of color leaving trails behind their wings of many-hued threads. He marveled at the tangled webs of color and light that flowed before him. If he tried very hard, perhaps he could see the pattern that the shining lights made.
"Joxer!" Aphrodite's voice was harsh and commanding and Joxer looked at her uncomprehendingly, wondering why his cheek hurt. "Whew! Are you back with me now? Don't do that to me. Ares would hurt me badly if you got lost."
"Lost?" Joxer looked around. They were still on the ledge. "What happened?"
"I'm guessing that you tried to see the big picture instead of just focusing on the threads." She kissed his cheek and the soreness went away. "Sorry about the slap but I couldn't get you to come out of your trance. You and Ares really have been working on your control of the elements, haven't you? I've never seen anyone pick up on the technique so fast before."
"He's a good teacher." Joxer said shyly and stretched his aching muscles. The sun had moved at least a handsbreath since he'd started focusing. "How long was I out?"
"A little over an hour. Are you ready to go home? I need to get back and start some heavy duty gloating among the other goddesses. Not to mention, the Solstice is tomorrow and I've got at least six orgies to plan. Love doesn't just happen, you know."
Joxer laughed and stretched again before rising to his feet and helping the goddess of love to hers. In a heartbeat, they were back in her temple on Olympus. Throwing herself in his arms, he had to bend close to hear her whispered words.
"Thank you, Joxer. You and Ares have given me the best Solstice gift I've ever received."
He kissed the top of her golden head. "Your gift is very special to us, too. Something I never thought to have. Thank you."
She sniffed once and moved away, making shooing motions at him. "That's enough of that, Joxer. Go and do godly things before I ruin my image as a frivolous woman of hedonistic pleasure."
He laughed and blew her a kiss before leaving for the long walk back to Ares' temple. Checking their link, he felt his lover in the midst of a mortal argument. Hearing his exasperation, he chuckled and backed out of the mind link, but not before being mentally hugged.
Reaching the temple that had become a second home for them, he realized that he was hungry. The pharins had left him lunch and he sat down to eat while pondering the sudden question of what to get Ares for the Solstice. How could it have been a full year since he'd joined with the god of war? Where had the time gone?
Smiling, he pulled out his favorite memories. The hot springs, Ares surrounded by foamy white bubbles, the first time he'd taken Ares, waking up on the island after the war, the merging in the aftermath of the Chaos energy. Chewing the roasted lamb slowly, he pondered the problem of what to get a god who had everything.
Sighing, he decided to go shopping. Maybe he'd see something that would appeal to the dark god. Tucking some gold into his side pocket, he stood still and concentrated very hard on the temple in Thrace. The best market in the region had reopened recently and people were flocking there with goods to sell.
Visualizing himself into the secret room of Ares' temple, he wished himself there. Opening his eyes gingerly, he grinned. He'd only done it a few times on his own and it still surprised him when it worked. Ares had taught him well, he decided before heading out to walk the market.
Two hours later, he was cold, tired and disappointed. Stopping at the same tavern he'd visited before, he drank some mulled cider and pondered the problem. Nothing was good enough for Ares. All the things he'd seen were just that. Things. That wasn't what the dark god deserved.
Suddenly, he perked up. How about a service instead of a gift? Offer to give him a back rub for the Solstice with some of that oil of rosemary he'd seen at one of the stalls. Light the herbal candles she'd been selling and pamper him until he was limp. Smiling, he headed back to the market only to find the seller had packed up for the day and gone home.
Questioning the owner of a nearby stall, he discovered that the old woman lived about a mile outside of Thrace. Armed with directions, he set off to find her cottage. She seemed a little surprised to find such an eager customer on her doorstep but smilingly set about emptying his pocket of all his gold. An oxen-haired bristle brush joined a jar of oil, a bar of soap, a pillow filled with sweet smelling herbs, a large bag of herbal bath salts and a dozen candles of various sizes.
She packed them all very carefully so nothing would get squashed or break before he could get home. Lifting the sack over one shoulder, he left with a cheery wave and her 'Happy Solstice' ringing in his ears. Heading back to town, he wondered if he should just leave from there but his fear of being seen disappearing was still too great and he decided to walk back.
It had gotten very dark and he kept to the path only by pulling out the crystal spark that Hestia had given him and letting it hang outside his shirt. He gathered his cloak closer around him and shivered a little. The way was too unknown to hurry much. He didn't dare take a chance on tripping and breaking the jars in the sack. Musing on whether to set up Ares' gift in the Olympic temple or back home in their valley, he almost didn't hear the whimper from the trees.
Stopping, he listened for the tiny sound. There it was again. A weak whine that died off as if the owner was too tired to continue. Setting the sack down on the path, he gingerly stepped into the undergrowth in the direction of the sound. Expanding his hearing, he stopped and listened for movement.
Quickly, he decided to experiment with the air element to see if he could enhance his hearing even further. Weaving his sense of sound to the currents of air that drifted about him in the forest, he was barraged with all the noise of the forest. Even the leaves rubbing against each other threatened to overwhelm him. Clapping his hands over his ears, he waited for the pain to go away.
Not a good idea, he decided and disengaged from the currents, his soft 'ouch' echoing through the trees. His sigh triggered another whimper and he moved cautiously in the direction of the sound. Gradually, he linked back to the currents but this time he tempered their affect by imagining cotton wool over his ears. That seemed to work just fine and he heard the source of the whines before he stepped on them.
Kneeling down to feel for the pulse of the large brown dog, he discovered she was dead. But the small lethargic bundles of fur huddled to her side were still alive. Counting them, he found five small pups shivering in the winter air. Sighing, he looked around and knew he couldn't leave them. They wouldn't last the night and they were too young to fend for themselves even if it had been warm.
Shaking his head, he grinned and removed his cloak. Gently, he picked up each pup and nestled them into the warm folds of the fur lining. They squeaked and trembled but soon settled down. It made an awkward bundle but he carried them carefully back to the path and searched for his other sack. Tucking the light back into his shirt, he checked for any sound of people nearby before concentrating on the cottage in the valley.
The warmth of the room welcomed him and he gently set the cloak bundle on the rug near the hearth before laying the sack on the table. Little whimpers greeted him when he peeled back their wrapping. In the light he could see they were only a few weeks old. Not weaned and very weak. Even in the heat, they were shivering. One didn't move at all and he picked it up very carefully and listened for a heartbeat.
Tears gathered in his eyes and he sniffed when he realized the little female was dead and probably had been for some time. Laying her to one side, he checked the others and found them all still moving. One of them licked his finger and he realized that they were probably starving and he had no milk with which to feed them.
Thinking quickly, he emptied the gifts onto the table and laid the sack to one side. Crossing to the wardrobe, he pulled out a fur-lined vest of Ares' and lined the sack with it. Then he gently lifted each of the puppies into the new nest he'd created. Taking a moment to scoop up the dead pup, he thought-sent her out into the valley deep beneath the dead leaves of his garden compost heap. Pulling on his cloak, he slung it back over his shoulders.
Then taking up the sack, he wished himself to the home temple. Olympus was warm and he laid the cloak aside before carrying the puppies to the temple of Asclepius. He met no one on his journey and the healing temple seemed to be empty when he arrived. Sitting on the steps, he opened the sack so they could breathe and wished very hard for the god of healing to return.
"Goodness, Joxer. What patients do you have for me tonight?" The warm voice came from the back of the temple and Joxer looked up to see Asclepius yawning on his way to them.
"I found them near Thrace. Their mother was dead and one of the pups also. I don't think they're weaned." He watched while the smiling god ran a gentle finger over each small head.
"Hm-m-m, three weeks old today. Some bronchial congestion and what sounds like very empty tummies." He straightened up and produced a scroll and quill pen with a snap of his fingers. He talked while he wrote. "Keep them warm. Feed them this gruel mixture as often as they'll eat. They need a bath. Put in flea powder unless you want to have more guests than four." He smiled at Joxer and handed him the list.
"Thank you, Asclepius."
"No problem, Joxer. They were very lucky to find you. I'll tell the pharins to bring the gruel ingredients to Ares' temple. Does he know about them yet?"
Joxer gulped and shook his head. The god of healing chuckled. "Well, it will be a nice surprise for him. The very best kind of Solstice gift."
The young god thought a moment and looked down at the squirming little bundles in his lap then up at the bright god. "You're right. Life is always a very precious gift."
"Go on with you, young man. Get them fed and bathed before he comes back." He sniffed delicately. "They'll be a lot more appealing if they don't stink."
Joxer grinned and agreed. But instead of heading back to Ares' temple, he detoured to Aphrodite's. With four pups, he decided he needed a little help. Harmonia was charmed to be asked for her aid and the goddess of love conjured up a baby bottle to help in the feeding process and waved them both out the doorway. They spent an hour bathing the little puppies and hand feeding them the thin gruel the pharins had brought.
Harmonia held the last puppy to be fed and coaxed a few more drops into the little mouth. Tickling his throat, she got him to swallow the last of the gruel before he fell asleep. "Look, Joxer, he's done. How are the others?" She whispered.
Joxer had found a large pottery bowl and lined it with the fur vest for their bed. "Asleep. Let me have that one and I'll put him with his brother and sisters."
"I kind of hate to give him up." She held the tiny brown pup in one hand while stroking his head with a gentle finger. "His fur is so soft and he's just so little. I've never had a puppy before. I wonder if Mom would let keep this one."
"Well, it's all right with me. But he's going to take a lot of care for the next few weeks. Asclepius said to feed them whenever they were hungry and I'll bet they're going to be hungry a lot." Joxer tried to point out the drawbacks. "You'll be kind of tied to his feeding schedule. Which means no parties or extended trips."
"Bax would help. And so would Mom when she gets back from her Solstice orgies. Joxer?" Harmonia looked at him and then away.
He went cold. Did she know about the twins? Clearing the lump from his throat, he found himself concentrating on the sleeping puppies. "What, Harmonia? Is there something I can help you with?"
"Um, Mom's pregnant again. I know it's not Daddy Hep because he can't have children. And ... and ..." her voice faltered and she looked at him with wide eyes.
Joxer said a silent prayer to the universe and answered. "Aphrodite came to Ares and I a few days ago and asked us to ... help her out. We all three made a commitment to each other and now she's carrying our twins."
Harmonia's eyes couldn't get any wider and she said a silent 'wow' before finding her voice. "Both of you?" It came out more of a squeak than she wanted because she coughed and tried again. "One baby from each of you? Oh, wow! That is like, so cool. I'll get to be a big sister to two of them. I won't be the youngest anymore. Wait until I tell Bax."
"So, you're okay with it?" Joxer felt a little lightheaded with relief.
"Sure. I was afraid of who she'd pick. I didn't want her to hurt you by picking Daddy or Daddy by picking you. She can be very persuasive when she puts her mind to it. This is, like, the best of both worlds. So long as you're both all right with each other." Harmonia smiled and touched his hand. "You're good for Daddy. And I like having you in the family."
"Thank you, Harmonia. I like being part of this family, too." Joxer whispered over that reappearing lump in his throat. They sat quietly by the fire each lost in their own thoughts until with a whiff of rose petals, Aphrodite appeared.
"How are the little guys?" She hugged Harmonia and brushed a kiss over Joxer's cheek.
"Mom. I asked Joxer about the baby and he told me what happened. Twins are way cool. Can I have one of the puppies?" Harmonia was too excited to keep any of the last few hours in order.
Aphrodite rolled her eyes and shared a grin with Joxer before answering. "Ares and Joxer and I created some beautiful babies. Yes, twins are going to be fun. And you may keep one of the pups if you promise to take care of him with no whining or forgetting that a life depends on you."
Harmonia grinned. "I promise. I think I'll name him Ajax. He just looks like an Ajax to me."
"Whatever, sweetie. We'll get another bottle for Ajax and have the pharins deliver more gruel to both our temples." She petted the brown ears gently. "But if he has fleas, you both sleep on the front porch."
"Flea dipped already. But it probably couldn't hurt to bathe him again in about a week." Joxer grinned at his fellow conspirator and Harmonia winked at him. "I appreciate it, guys. Four might have been a little hard to handle by myself."
"Nonsense, Joxer, you did a fine job of rescuing them." Asclepius' voice sounded from the doorway and he joined the group around the fire. "What's this I hear, Aphrodite? You're very quick off the mark. The Chaos energy is barely dispersed and you've already conceived."
"Isn't it great?" Aphrodite dimpled up at him and grabbed his hand, placing it on her stomach.
Joxer could see him concentrate and saw a glow appear under his long fingers. After a moment of silence, he opened his eyes and looked right at Joxer. "Twins. With different fathers. Congratulations, Joxer. Aphrodite, I'll want to see you in about three weeks to check on their progress."
"Of course. You'll probably make me take those horrible herbal pills like I had to when I carried Harmonia." The goddess of love made a face at the god of healing.
"Oh, most assuredly, my dear. You'll probably have to eat liver as well to keep up your iron levels." He said solemnly before bursting into quiet laughter at her horrified expression. Their chuckles woke up one of the puppies that whimpered softly while licking at the fur beneath her head.
Asclepius reached in and picked her up gently. "Well, now. How are my other patients?"
Joxer went to the table to refill the bottle with more gruel. Bringing it back, he watched the god of healing coax the little brown and white spotted pup into drinking almost half the bottle. He watched while the god held her against his chest and absentmindedly stroked her to sleep while carrying on a quiet conversation with Aphrodite.
Casually, he tested the waters during a lull in their chat. "So, Asclepius, what do you think of the little one's chances of surviving?"
"What, this one?" The god of healing looked down at the pup that was nestled against his chest. "Her lungs are still weak. That bronchial condition I mentioned in my temple. A eucalyptus steam bath would help her breathe. Perhaps I should take her with me back to the temple. You're going to have your hands full with the others. And this one appears to be the runt of the litter."
"Well, if you think you could help her, I'd really appreciate it. I'd hate to see her die like the first pup." Joxer shook his head and kept his grin hidden.
The god frowned and cradled her closer. "That won't happen, Joxer. I'll watch her for a few days and make sure she gets over the weakness. Yes, I think eucalyptus will do the trick. I'll just be heading back now. I'm glad you brought them to me. You did the right thing."
Joxer said his goodnight's to all three and watched them wink out with half the puppies. *Yes!* He thought triumphantly. *Four would have been too many but two is just right.* Filling the bottle with gruel and putting it near the fire, he decided that he had a few minutes before they woke again.
Traveling to the cottage, he gathered up his original Solstice gifts and took them back to the temple. Setting out the candles by the spa, he left them unlit for now. The bath salts and brush, he put on the side of the tub to be used whenever Ares returned. The oil he put by the bed for after their bath. The herb filled pillow, he nestled between their satin covered pillows.
Whimpering caught his attention and he settled cross-legged on the rug by the fire to feed the two puppies left. One had finished and was nestled back in his nest when he felt the whisper of breeze that told him someone had popped in. The warmth of the mental caress told him who it was.
"Joxer. What have you been up to today?" Ares dropped a kiss on his head while he knelt by the porcelain bowl with its unlikely occupant.
"Happy Solstice, Arry." And Joxer handed him the little black puppy who'd just finished the bottle.
"Only you, my love, would decide that what I needed for Solstice was a tiny little scrap of humanity who just peed on my hand." Ares shook with silent laughter while Joxer grabbed the towel they'd dried them with earlier and tried to take the puppy back.
"Oh, no, you don't. He's mine, now." Ares transferred him to his other hand and let Joxer wipe off the dampness. "My gift is nowhere near as much fun as these little guys are going to be."
Joxer grinned and kissed him. "They're just part of the gift. If you put him back with his brother and come into the spa, I'll give you the other half."
Ares pulled him into another kiss. "All right. This has been a rather nasty day and you've just made sure it will end better than it started."
Making sure the pups were safely far enough back from the fire and were sound asleep, they walked into the other room, undressing as they went. Joxer tipped the bath salts in and Ares lit the candles with a flick of his fingers. Easing into the hot water, they both sighed in relief and ducked under the surface to get thoroughly wet.
Coming up for air, Joxer noticed Ares' chest for the first time. Reaching out his hand, he traced the new mark above his left nipple. A letter 'J' matching the letter 'A' he carried above his own heart. Lifting his eyes to Ares, he felt tears blur his sight.
"Happy Solstice, Joxer. I love you."
"Happy Solstice, Ares. I love you, too."
"Now, tell me why we have puppies in a bowl on the hearth."
End chapter 8
Happy Solstice, everybody!