Ares slammed back into his home temple radiating bad vibrations. The anger was palpable, running in little silver streaks up and down his body. Not even the familiar homey sights of the table spread with a veritable banquet or their bed still disheveled from their early morning love-making, dissipated the need to vent a little spleen.
"Oh gods, Arry, don't bellow. My head is killing me." The rather plaintive tones from the spa arrowed straight to his hearing.
He stalked into the watery retreat. "I don't bellow. I simply speak very loudly."
"Of course." A thin thread of humor laced Joxer's words. "But not now, please."
The sight of a naked, wet Joxer was beginning to work its familiar magic on the dark god and Ares sighed, knowing that holding on to his anger was a fast disappearing option. "Why are you taking a bath at noon?"
"Because your mother gave me a headache straight from Tartarus after about an hour of her ... instruction." He managed to inflict the word with a full range of frustrated emotion.
Ares' anger disappeared completely. Ever since Hera had decided to train Joxer in his air element, the young god had been in strict learning mode. She watched his diet, told him what he could and couldn't drink, structured every incident of daily living into a lesson about air and generally drove him nuts.
Flicking off his clothes, he slid gently into the tub and tenderly stroked Joxer's temples with a feather light touch. The frown on the usually smiling face relaxed into a slight upward quirk of the firm lips. Ares increased the pressure a bit and brought his fingers down to the spot where his lover tended to get really tense while he gritted his teeth. He felt the muscles begin to relax and he chanced a restrained kiss across the parting lips.
"Achoo!" Joxer sneezed in his face and only his grip on his head kept him in the tub. "Achoo!"
The horrified look on his lover's face broke up the last tendrils of anger that still lurked inside the god of war. His mind made a lightning fast connection between the headache and the sneezes. He hugged Joxer tight and rocked with laughter. The third muffled sneeze against his chest brought his chuckles into hiccuping release. He could feel the bewilderment from the young god in his arms and he fought for the self-control to stop laughing.
"Joxer, it's all right." He managed, pulling back to cup the beloved face in his hands. "The headache and the sneezes are just the symptoms of one of our childhood diseases. Nothing to do with the lessons that Hera is giving you. We call it the sneezing sickness. All of us have it a one time or another. Harmonia went through it when she was ten."
The explanation seemed to make sense to Joxer who suddenly nodded. "Bax was there yesterday to join in my lesson in wind current control. He started sneezing about half way through the lesson and disappeared. Hera cut it short and muttered something about tracking him down and giving him a dose of medicine."
"Oh dear. Well, it is highly contagious in the early stages and once you come down with it, you're pretty much quarantined for the duration."
Joxer pushed himself further away with a horrified look. "Could I give it to you? Oh gods, I sneezed right in your face."
"Sh-h-h, love, it's all right. Once you've had it, you normally can't get it again. We seem to carry a natural immunity in our bodies after we've suffered through it once. Only very, very rarely does a god succumb a second time. And then only lightly." Ares reassured him and pulled him back tight against his body.
"Oh. You're sure? I don't want to make you sick." His voice was tight and Ares couldn't help but wonder at the pain behind his words.
"Love? What bad memory does being sick bring up?"
"Nana died only a month after she nursed me through a fever. What if she caught it from me? That would mean it was my fault she got sick." His voice shook with remembered pain and the memories of the twelve-year old boy raced through Ares' mind.
"Were you ever sick before, Joxer?"
A little sniff against his shoulder told him that his lover had succumbed to tears. "Yeah, I was a pretty sickly baby. Mother always said I was more trouble than I was worth. Only Nana tended me through the spotted disease and the icky one where I swelled up like a balloon and couldn't move my head much."
"And she got through all of those just fine. The icky one is what Asclepius calls the mumps and it can kill you. If she made it through all of those then it's unlikely that a simple fever would do it. You would never have harmed her. Not in a million years." He put all the assurance he felt into his words and the mental touch behind them. "Mortals die everyday of all manner of disease. Someday, Asclepius says, we'll be able to heal everyone but until then, we just have to do the best we can."
Joxer lay unresisting in his arms, his skin temperature rising in the warm water. Ares could feel the fever growing inside his body and he whisked them out of the spa and into the bedroom. Thinking them both dry, he tucked Joxer into bed and threw on some clothes before sending a powerful plea to the healer god.
"What do we have here?" The warm tones sounded behind him and he gave way to the brown haired god with the bright blue eyes who immediately bent over the moaning god on the bed. "Oh dear, the sneezing sickness. Fully developed and ... oh my, here comes another bout."
They both held him down while Joxer sneezed six times in rapid succession, his whole body convulsing on the bed. Ares kept a tight grip both physically and mentally on his lover while Asclepius snapped his fingers and called up a vial of green yellow liquid.
"All right, Joxer. Breathe deeply now. That fit's over for a while. Drink this straight down." He held it to the dry lips and poured in down his throat before Joxer could object. The grimace on his face reminded Ares of the foul taste of the potion. It had been thirteen hundred years since he'd had to take the medicine and he could still remember the sharp burning taste of it.
"Yuck." Joxer's voice was faint and his skin was suddenly slick with sweat. Ares conjured up a dry cloth and tenderly blotted the skin dry.
"I know it tastes rather ... well, let's just say you only have to drink it once a day until the fever is gone. And they usually break within three days. So, you won't have time to get used to it. I can see that it's taken firm hold on all your systems. Ares, have you told him of some of the side effects?"
"No. There hasn't been time. I'll watch him like a hawk until the worst is over." Ares contemplated the effects he knew about and strengthened their mental link. "I can go without sleep for a couple of days without any ill effects."
"Hm-m-m. Perhaps, but you are going to have to do something about the war in northern Greece. I can spell you for short periods until you get that under control." Asclepius reminded him of just why he'd come home in such a bad mood.
"It's time that Strife had a little taste of war." Ares decided on the spur of the moment. "He can take over for as long as I'm needed here. He's been too quiet lately. He'll get into trouble for sure if I don't redirect his energy. They'll keep him nicely busy until I can get back there."
Asclepius looked at him skeptically and Joxer added his own questioning glance. Ares just smiled blandly back and mentally told his lover that he'd explain everything later. The young god nodded wearily and closed his eyes against the bright lights of the room. Ares snuffed out most of the candles except for the absolute minimum and watched Joxer relax further into the bed.
"Can you watch him now while I go to see Strife?" He asked the healer.
"Certainly. I'm going to start an herbal tea brewing that he can drink to help get rid of the headache and that you can use to bathe him. We absorb more through our skin than most people realize." Asclepius was going into lecturing mode but very softly so as not to disturb the dozing god.
Ares let go of the warm hand in his reluctantly and slipped from the room. Standing in the public room of his temple, he cast his mind out, looking for the energy trace of his nephew, the god of mischief. Ah, there he was, tormenting one of the Muses. Sending a quick call, he felt the small god flash into the room.
"Hey, Ares, long time no see." The dark eyes flashed in anticipation of whatever mischief the god of war desired.
"I need you to take over the northern dispute for me. They're at a standstill for the moment and a little of your ... special touch is needed. I'm going to be busy here for the next few days and we need a watchful eye on those idiots." Ares chose his words carefully.
"A war?" Strife almost squeaked while his eyes brightened. "A real war? You've never let me in on a war before. Why now?"
A volley of sneezes resounded through the air and Ares felt Joxer's presence waver in their bond. Holding hard, he kept him in his body and the body in their bed. A few moments later and the need lessened. Opening his eyes, Ares caught a look of compassion on the usually spiteful features of his young nephew.
"Sneezing sickness?" He barely waited for his nod before continuing. "Bummer. Sounds nasty. Sure, Unc', I'll be glad to take on the warlords for you. Show them what a little spite and mayhem can do to punch up a party."
He surprised Ares into a chuckle. "Be careful, nephew. These guys had me so angry, I could barely see straight when I got back today. So watch your back. They are vicious and could turn rabid at any moment. If they do, I need you to come and get me. Immediately if not sooner. You're still not strong enough to carry that much energy back here."
Strife shuddered, remembering the pain of an energy overload. He'd only stepped out of line once and it had almost disintegrated him as the energy had begun burning him inside out. "Not to worry. Mom didn't raise any dummies. But I've got a free hand until then, right?"
Ares almost laughed again at the hopeful look. "Free hand, it is. Just take care. I can't afford to loose any perfectly good nephews."
For just a moment, Strife's eyes radiated amazement and joy before he cloaked them with his usual Hades-may-care gaze. Ares took him by the arms and flashed them both to the warlords camp, making sure that they remained cloaked to their sight. He pointed out the main players and detailed their vital statistics while keeping part of his mental touch on Joxer's pulse.
Another volley of sneezes broke their link completely and he cut his explanations short. "Any questions? I need to get back."
"Nope. I can take it from here. The energy is already stronger than anything I've ever felt before. It feels great!" He eagerly looked over the milling men. "Oh, um, tell Joxer I hope he feels better soon. But not too soon."
Ares laughed and cuffed him gently before heading back to Olympus. Asclepius was soaking a cloth in a fragrant bowl of hot water and herbs while Joxer moaned through another sweating spell. Ares pulled back the sweat soaked sheets and summoned another cloth so they could work on him together. By the time they reached his toes, the young god had stilled.
Snapping his fingers, Asclepius changed the sheets for nice dry ones and pulled a warmer blanket over the sleeping form. "He'll go through several of these spells until the sickness has worked its way through his whole body. Bathe him with this herbal soak and change the sheets after each episode. Keep him warm even when he thinks he's too hot. We don't want him to get a chill and hamper his speedy recovery."
"It will be a speedy recovery, then?" Ares asked while soothing the lines from the forehead beneath his finger.
"Yes. Although he is rather old to be getting it, so his reactions my be a trifle worse than when Harmonia had it. He's young in god years but late twenties in human years means that his immune system will have to fight a little harder to compensate. But eventually, he'll be fine. I'll post the quarantine notice around the temple so no one comes in accidentally. And I'll go and tell Aphrodite why she can't visit. We can't risk the babies catching it in the womb. It could cause a miscarriage and we don't want that."
"Thanks, Asclepius. I really appreciate your coming right away." Ares sat on the side of the bed and watched Joxer flush yet again.
"I'll stop by in a few hours and see how he's doing. Bax has it as well and I promised Chloris I'd stop by and check on him. I'll send the pharins with more of the white willow bark. Keep a teapot full and hot at all times. Get as much down him as you can. You might also want to fill the tub with the wintergreen herbs and cool the water a bit. Not too hot and not too cold. He'll enjoy the soaking once the initial spells run their course."
Ares nodded and stood to say good bye. "If I've got any questions, be sure that I'll yell for you."
The healing god laughed quietly and winked out. Ares checked the water and heated it up before bathing Joxer again from head to toe with the moist hot cloths. The young god sighed in contentment and his voice threaded into Ares' heart.
"You take good care of me. I love you, Ares." The fever bright eyes opened to gaze up at him.
"Hush now, Joxer. Of course I take good care of you. When you hurt, I hurt. Is this too warm?" Ares gently ran the cloth up the ribs to his shoulder.
"Hm-m-m. Feels good. Where did Asclepius go?" The sleepy murmur grew fainter.
Ares dropped his voice to a gentle whisper. "Had to go and check on his other patients. He'll be back, but until then it's just you and me, love."
A little smile quirked the pale lips and Ares bent down to lick them open tenderly. The kiss stayed gentle and the god of war enjoyed the way the potion had changed his lover's familiar taste. Tart and slightly sharper than usual. "Rest now, love. I'll be right here, watching over you."
Joxer fell asleep still smiling and Ares got up to take care of the needed preparations. The next three days passed slowly with Joxer getting sicker and sicker until Asclepius came and didn't leave one evening. Ares could count his lover's ribs through his tightly stretched skin. The weight loss was instantly noticeable, the pounds melting away in the aftermath of the high fevers.
The liquid in the vial this time was a blue green color and the healing god poured it between the parched lips and stroked the long throat to get him to swallow. The change in his posture was immediate. The thin body relaxed completely and his heart rate slowed dramatically.
"What was that?" Ares' blinked and laid his hand on the barely moving chest.
"His body is wearing out. This should give him the hours he needs to completely rest and begin the healing process. I don't know why he's sinking so fast. Or why the sneezing spasms keep racking his lungs. It's as if he's refusing to accept the healing." Asclepius rubbed his eyes and checked the young god's pulse.
"He feels guilty about the death of his old nurse. She nursed him through a fever when he was twelve and then died of a fever a month later. His parents refused to send for a healer and he always felt he should have been able to do more." Ares lay at his side, holding the frail body in his arms. "How do we break through to him and get him to accept the healing?"
"He has to want to. It's as simple as that." Asclepius sighed and rubbed his eyes. "I wish I could get inside his mind and give him a reason to want to heal. Or better yet, you could reach him and remind him of your love."
Ares stilled and looked at the tired god. "Why don't you take a nap, Asclepius? I'll watch him while you catch some healing sleep of your own."
"Yes. I could use a little shuteye. Give a shout if you need me." The healer winked out and left the two gods entwined on the bed.
Ares pulled him up over his body and blanketed himself with his lover. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and slowly meshed his spirit with Joxer's. The last time they'd been so intertwined was during the Chaos energy explosion. They hadn't tried the complete link since but he was amazed at how easily he sunk into Joxer's mind.
Opening his mental eyes, he looked around at the landscape spread out before him. A garden. A rather sinister dark place with towering trees that blocked the sun and cast shadows over the drooping plants that grew in lackluster clumps. He couldn't see Joxer but felt his presence like an ache in his soul. Heading for the deepest shadows, he found his lover curled up in a small ball between the knotted roots of an old tree.
"Joxer. Come back with me." He knelt by his side and watched him flinch. "What is this place, lover?"
"Home." Joxer's voice was very small and hesitant. "Safe place. Don't want to leave."
Ares settled back on his heels and pondered the childish tone of his lover's voice. As if he'd traveled back into his past and was reliving part of his childhood. He gentled his voice further, "Joxer. Can you look at me? It's Ares. I need you to look at me."
One bright eye opened and swiveled to dart a quick glance at him. His face registered uncertainty. "Ares? You've never been here before. Why aren't you at your temple?"
"Because I needed to find you. It's very lonely in the temple all by myself. You make me laugh and bring me joy." He tried to keep it simple.
Both eyes were on him now but the disbelief was strong. "Laugh? I make you laugh? Because I'm so silly?"
"No." Ares caught himself and ventured a brief caress to the arm closest to him, ignoring the flinch that froze Joxer into immobility. "You're not silly, Joxer. You sing funny songs that make me smile. You care about people and that makes a nice change from the people who visit me with hate in their hearts. You bring me peace in an insane world."
Joxer relaxed and uncurled to sit up gingerly. "Hate is really nasty. I don't want to hate anybody but sometimes it's hard."
Ares thought quickly. "What's happened, Joxer? Why is it hard not to hate?"
Tears ran down the pale cheeks and the god of war was hard pressed to keep from reaching out to gather Joxer into his arms. "Nana is dead. I think it was my fault. Father wouldn't call the healer and I didn't know what to do to help her. I don't want to hate Father but ..."
Ares gave into the need to hold his lover, rocking him back and forth. "Nana is now in the Elysian Fields where she's free from all pain. She loves you very much and she doesn't want you to be unhappy. Or to think guilty thoughts. She always loved to see you smile."
He hiccuped once and wiped his eyes, looking up shyly. "She liked to tickle me until I laughed out loud. You really don't think it was my fault?"
"I know it wasn't your fault and so does Asclepius. Fevers kill people sometimes and no one knows why. Not even the gods."
"That's not fair." Joxer pouted and Ares felt his heart melt.
"I know, love. But bad things happen to the people we love and all we can do is try to help and love them as hard as we can."
Joxer thought about that and when he looked up again, a more mature man looked out of the brown eyes. He gazed around at the gloomy place and frowned. "Ares? Where are we?"
The god of war closed his eyes in relief and pulled him into his arms for a hard hug. "You retreated into your past when the sickness took hold of your body. I was afraid that you might leave me forever, so I followed you."
"So, we're in my mind somewhere? How can we do that?" Joxer returned the hug.
"We all have past memories that live with us forever, love. But the sickness trapped you here and you were too weak to come back to me. If you want to come back to me?" He put an uncertain note into his voice and watched his lover carefully. Joxer had to want to leave in order to come back to the real world.
"Of course, I do." Joxer sat up and glared at him. "I'm tired of being sick but I'm not *dead*."
"Then you'll leave here and come back with me? I promise to give you a back rub with the rosemary oil you gave me for the Solstice. Not to mention what kind of a fuss that Ebony and Night will make when we return. You'll have to endure being licked to pieces."
"Oh wow! The little guys have been neglected for days now." Joxer laughed and yawned.
"Nope. They've been visiting Ajax at Harmonia's. Aphrodite is going to be way pissed if we don't get back and bring them home." Ares watched Joxer fall asleep in his arms and he sighed, preparing his mind to travel back into his own body.
He came to with a start and a fearful look down at the god in his arms. But Joxer's color was rosy instead of pale and his breaths were deep and regular. Ares felt an unaccustomed tear roll down his cheek and he thanked the Universe for the return of his lover.
"Hey." The voice was a bare whisper and he opened his eyes to see Joxer looking wonderingly up at him. "What happened?"
Ares kissed him gently and spoke through their link. //Do you remember retreating to your home garden?//
A look of intense concentration and Joxer's eyes widened. //Yeah. I felt as if I was little again. But you came and got me. Reminded me that I belonged here. With you.//
//That's right. And don't you ever forget it.// Ares smiled into his mind, pouring his love into Joxer with all his might.
Joxer purred and absorbed the energy with a little sigh of relief. //I love you. I love you. I love you.// He chanted over and over while he soaked up Ares' love like a sponge.
Long moments passed until the stream equalized between them and Ares drew away to take another good look at his lover. Joxer was smiling and his eyes sparkled with returning joy. "We need a bath. It seems like a very long time since I've seen you wet and naked."
Joxer laughed and tried to sit up. The look of surprise on his face made Ares chuckle while he whisked them both into the bath. He held on tight until Joxer could sit up by himself. Grabbing the soap, Ares lathered him up and washed away the fever-sweat.
"I seem to remember being promised a massage." Joxer was purring again as Ares' long fingers lightly stroked his scalp clean of the suds.
"Really? I guess I could." Ares felt a tremble in their link and took a good grip on his lover.
Joxer sneezed three times in quick succession, the look of horror on his face sending Ares into silent laughter.
"Oh no! I thought it was over." Joxer wailed.
"The bad part *is* over, my love." Ares reassured him and got them out of the tub and back into the warm bedroom. "The fever is broken and won't return. But the sneezing will continue for a week or two."
"Why do you hold me so tightly when I sneeze?" Joxer allowed himself to be dried while he watched Ares with a puzzled look.
"There's a small side effect to the sneezing that can be a little disconcerting." Ares changed the sheets with a snap of his fingers and put Joxer back to bed, noting his sigh of relief. "Whatever you're thinking of when you sneeze is where you transport yourself."
"What? You mean if I'm thinking of the cottage then I'd find myself there when I sneeze." He looked up curiously while Ares sat by his hip and reached for the massage oil.
"Exactly. You could wind up back on the island or on the smoking ruins of Thera or in Zeus' study. Anywhere you've ever been before as I explained when we started your teleportation lessons. It can be dangerous so that's why I watch and hold you while you're sneezing. With touch, I can over-ride your natural inclination to transport yourself." He began the massage with light strokes over the too thin chest, watching Joxer close his eyes and sigh in contentment.
"So I need to be careful while I'm healing up." He murmured. "I can do that. I'll just think of the cottage or here and that way I'll always be in a safe place."
"Good. If I'm not here then I know you'll be all right." Ares rubbed gently at Joxer's temples and watched his face relax into a doze.
He continued to soothe and watch the blood return to the pale skin under his hands. Smiling, he listened to the little snores that meant his lover was slipping into a deeper healing sleep. Another day or so and Joxer would be well enough so he could go and check on Strife. Part of his mind wondered how the god of mischief was doing but the majority of his brain was content to watch his lover grow stronger with every breath.
Life just didn't get better than this. The worst was over.
Joxer felt another sneeze coming on and braced against the oak table, filling his mind with images of the temple bedroom. "Achoo ... achoo ... achoo!"
One of the Muses had invented a cloth to blow your nose on and Joxer pulled one out of his sleeve and blew hard. This runny nose stuff was just not funny. His ears were ringing, each in a different key and he winced at the disharmony. Shaking his head, he squinted his eyes and heaved a sigh of relief that he was still at home. The last time he'd sneezed himself to the hot springs in the valley because of a stray thought about the bubbles.
He'd had to wait for Ares to come and get him because, except for the sneeze transfers, he was unable to move himself until this sickness ran its course. Luckily, the god of war had tried the valley first because the other side effect was that they couldn't feel each other with their mental bond. Hera had explained the first in detail when she checked on him. They hadn't told anyone about their bond, except Aphrodite. Sighing, he got out the scroll he'd been reading when the last attack hit.
While Ares was away with Strife working with the border war, he was filling in the time with the Chaos scrolls from the Muses archive. Starting at the beginning, he was rather enjoying the history of Olympus and Greece from the start of the world. He'd just gotten to the part when Zeus was born, five thousand years before. It made history seem more real somehow when you knew one of the participants, he decided.
Night whimpered at his feet and he reached down to pick up the growing puppy for a quick cuddle. A small pink tongue licked his chin and he chuckled while the alert black eyes watched him. A bark then a lick then another bark.
"Okay, I get you. Meal time and how about some more chicken?" He rose and called for Ebony to come and eat. The sound of puppy nails against the marble floor sped up and soon the matching black dog careened around the corner to flop panting at Joxer's feet. Putting Night down by his brother, he fixed a plate of food for each of them and set them on the floor under the table. Watching them dig in, he patted them fondly and set about fixing his own meal from the choices the pharin had left.
He couldn't really taste anything yet, with his taste buds overwhelmed by the sickness, but his stomach was growling so he must be hungry. He was kind of surprised that Hera hadn't popped in to check on him yet today. They couldn't have lessons until he was over the sneezing sickness but she still worried about him and had spent a great deal of time lately making sure he was all right.
"You know, guys, it's funny." He mused out loud to the puppies. "Hera is the Queen of the Gods and one of the most powerful goddesses on Olympus and she still takes the time to nag me about eating and exercising and taking care of myself. I was kind of afraid that yesterday when she brought over that eucalyptus oil for the bath that she was going to strip me right there and then and give me a bath, herself." He chuckled at the picture of the small goddess washing behind his ears. "She's spent more time with me in the last few months than my 'mother' gave me in my whole life. You know, when she calls us 'her boys', it gives me a warm feeling. Even though she's real stern when she teaching me, I think she really wants me to succeed. She's just not the kind of woman who hugs you at the drop of a hat like Aphrodite or Harmonia. She's more reserved but when she puts her hand on mine and says 'well done, Joxer', I feel about ten foot tall."
He smiled happily and reached for the salt bowl. It was about the only spice he could taste and he really seemed to be using a lot of it lately. Chewing his own chicken, he checked to make sure the puppies were doing okay. Night had finished and was stretched out on Joxer's boot, doing his imitation of a foot warmer. Ebony was chasing his tail a little further away. Joxer smiled at the hyperactive little guy and wished, not for the first time, that he could borrow a little of that energy.
"ARES!" The shout echoed through the temple and made both the puppies yelp. Joxer jumped up and hurried out to the main room to see what was wrong.
Poseidon stood hands on hips, glaring about the room. "Well, little man, where's the god of war?"
Joxer gulped and tried for composure. "He's busy with a border dispute in the north."
The god of the oceans sneered down at him. "I'll just bet he is, the lying bastard. Well, call him back or is that too difficult for you, boy?"
Joxer stood still and tried to fight back the terror that seeped into his veins. "Sorry, sir, but I can't ..."
Poseidon didn't let him finish. "Of course, you can't. You are the poorest excuse for a god, I've ever seen in all my long years. What in Tartarus Ares ever saw in you is beyond my imagining. You're a weak man, a terrible warrior and a piss poor imitation of a god."
Joxer felt as if each word was a blow right to his stomach. Suddenly queasy, he held on to his meal by concentrating on the trident around the god's neck. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a streak of black heading out the door. He really couldn't blame the puppy for trying to get away from this shouting god, he wished he could. But the tall graying god just moved closer to him and jabbed a finger into his chest with each statement.
"Fancy yourself a god of water? I don't think so. Not in my oceans. Not in my lifetime. You can play in the puddles on land all you want. But you'll never be good enough to work with salt water, I don't care what Tethys says."
"Yes, s-s-sir. Ares will be back later. Do you want to leave him a m-m-message?" Joxer stammered out. Damn, he hadn't done that since he was a kid.
"What in the Nine Hells gave him the right to turn that little piss-ant Cycrops into one of us?" Poseidon was practically breathing fire into Joxer's face and he held his ground with difficulty, remembering how he and Ares had laughed about the god of the ocean reaction.
*Surprise!* He thought grimly and held onto his blank face, the one he'd perfected as a child after Nana died and left him alone without anyone to care.
"Something's going to be done about the random selection here. I don't care how many gods died in the war, nothing says we have to take any little boy toy or idiot to fill the ranks."
Joxer wondered which one he was and which one fit Cycrops. He was probably the idiot although he knew several of the gods still considered him Ares' boy toy. *I'm not either one. I'm not, I'm not, I'm not.* He chanted in his mind while letting the rest of Poseidon's diatribe wash over him. *Funny, you never forget how to tune out bad words.*
"Poseidon, they can hear you all the way down to the Elysian Fields." Hera's cold tones cut through the invective from the doorway. Joxer could see Ebony peering around her skirts and sent him a relieved 'thank you' look. "If you have a problem with selection than you should have come to me. I was the one who decided that Joxer was ready for his godhood."
The god of the oceans turned away from Joxer and began yelling at Hera. Joxer slowly backed away until the table stopped him and he leaned against it. Words battered at him in Hera's soprano and Poseidon's bass while they argued with each other. It was all too familiar, both the tones and the words. Contempt and ridicule, sarcasm and anger, all so very familiar it made him sick to his stomach. Suddenly he was thirteen again and forced to listen to his mother and father batter at each other and at him.
"Stupid." "Incompetent." "Dim-witted." "Failure." They made him want to hide under the table with Ebony. Maybe they were right, he wasn't a very good god. Just like he hadn't been a very good warrior or a lover or a son. He could feel himself curling tighter and tighter inside until he just wanted to vanish to stop the voices outside and inside.
The sneeze caught him by surprise.
Hera was the first to notice that Joxer was gone. Replaying the last few moments in her head, she remembered the sneezing and then the sudden cessation of sound. *Oh, dear. I hope he was thinking of someplace nice. But I wouldn't bet the temple on it.*
"Enough, Poseidon. We can talk about this later. I would like you to leave now. Come back when Ares can be here. Your complaint is with him." She sent a steely gaze up into the blustery blue eyes and pointed to the door with a glint in her eye that subdued him into leaving while muttering all the way. *Idiot. Now to find Joxer.*
She searched the temple and didn't find him. Calling in Harmonia and Athena, she had them search all the likely places that they could think of. Waiting in her son's temple, she hesitated calling him back. He would be so angry with Poseidon and since he and Joxer didn't share a blood link, he wouldn't be able to find him either. So he'd only worry unnecessarily.
Aphrodite. Hera sighed and called in the goddess of love. Who popped in, dressed rather conservatively for her in an opaque dress of blue silk with her tummy bulging through the soft silken folds. At three months along, she was half way through her pregnancy with the twins and Hera nodded grudgingly at the care she was taking.
"Joxer's disappeared. Poseidon and I were having an argument when a sneezing fit carried him off. He's not in any of the usual places."
"Oh, wow! Not good. I'll see if the twins have any idea where he's gone." Aphrodite caught on immediately. Sitting down on the bench by the fire, she laid her hands on the babies outlines and concentrated. A golden glow flowed over her abdomen and settled pulsing between her hands.
Hera watched, holding her breath and feeling the waves of focused thought between the goddess of love and her unborn children. The glow slowly faded and Aphrodite suddenly looked tired and just a little worn.
"Home. That was all I could feel. You don't think he went back to his childhood home, do you?" Her blue eyes looked apprehensive.
"Oh dear. Of course, the arguing and the loud voices would remind him of his youth. Do you know where they are?" Hera traded wary looks with her daughter-in-law.
"Nope. And the baby is too young to be able to link to him like Harmonia can link to Ares. I don't think even Ares has been there. Except for Strife, I don't think any of us has."
"Strife." "Strife." They spoke in unison.
"But he's with Ares and I really don't want to disturb him. He's going to be so angry." Hera rubbed her hands together, just short of wringing them. "Who can we send after Strife to bring him back?"
"Cupid, sweetie. Your mother needs you." Aphrodite called into the still air.
"Ah, Mom. I was right in the middle of something. Hi, Grandma." Cupid appeared in a flash of golden light.
They explained to him why they needed Strife and he disappeared with a nod. Hera looked quizzically at the goddess of love.
"I know. Kind of an odd friendship. Love and spite. Who knows why opposites attract? They've been buddies since they were kids. Cupid always looked out after him. Strife was such a little guy and always getting in trouble and Cupid just kept bailing him out and protecting him." Aphrodite shrugged and held out her hands.
A double flash proceeded the gods return and Hera looked approvingly at the young god of love. "Well done, Cupid. Strife, do you remember how to get to the home of Joxer's parents?"
"Uh, yeah. Sure." He looked confused. "Why?"
They explained hastily and he nodded. "Sure I can go look. But I've been using a lot of energy lately. I don't know if I'll have enough to bring him back if he's there."
Hera nodded decisively. "If he's there, come back and get me. I'll take care of any trouble."
"Yes, Ma'am." Strife looked positively terrified of her and she hid a smile.
"And me. I'm not leaving the poor love there. Besides, I've got a thing or three to say to that mother of his." Aphrodite was looking rather grim and Strife nodded to her as well before winking out. "Cupid, sweetie, follow him right now. I don't want him to be the only one who knows how to get there and back."
"Yeah, yeah, Mom." He rolled his eyes and winked out.
"That was an excellent thought, Aphrodite." Hera managed a small smile at the annoying woman who'd entangled both her birth sons and even ensnared the newest son of her heart, Joxer.
"Thanks, Mother Hera. I want him back just as much as you do."
"What is it about him that creeps into your heart and takes root? His gentleness. Or perhaps his kindness to others." Hera joined her on the bench.
"I think it's the way he accepts any attention like it's a gift he'd never received before. I am *really* looking forward to saying a few words to his mother." Aphrodite managed to look militant.
"Yes. I too, have the urge to do a little chastising of my own. Babies are precious gifts, given in joy, and not to be abused even with words. Too bad she's past the age of child bearing." Hera exchanged a matching look of grim humor. A good, long, hard childbirth had been known to knock a woman down a peg or two.
Just then the two gods flashed back into view, shaking their heads and sighing in unison.
*Oh dear. This doesn't look good at all.* Hera stood up and shook out her skirts. *Time to rescue Joxer.*
Strife winked back to the family compound with Hera gingerly held in his arms. He kept an invisibility shield up so no one would see them except for Joxer. But the young god wasn't looking for help, the dazed expression on his face showed him to be overwhelmed by the conversation going on around him.
"Who's who, Strife?" Hera tugged at his sleeve, her face a grim mask of judgment.
"Tall guy with the beard is his father, Janus. The woman on the bench is some kind of ladies maid for his mother. She's the buxom one in purple pouring the tea, Jocasta. His older brother, Jace is brooding by the maid." Strife couldn't help but grin when he remembered taking on his shape and trashing his reputation with the women.
"Hm-m-m. Funny, I don't remember Jocasta praying to me before any birth but Jace's. Odd." Hera's face went still. "What's the name of the ladies maid?"
Strife thought back to his time here. "Um, I don't know if I ever heard her name. It was always, 'Fetch this, you fool.' Or 'Don't be an idiot, you know I hate red.' Kind of a nameless punching bag for the old lady, I guess."
"Really." Hera tilted her head and appeared to be pondering something. "Wait here, Strife. I'm going to pop back to Olympus and check on something. Don't let them hurt him."
He opened his mouth and then closed it in resignation. *Like the Queen of the Gods is going to listen to me. Hey, I could do a force field around him so they can't touch him.* No sooner did he think it then it was done. Leaning back against the wall, he folded his arms and settled in to wait. *Too bad I can't do anything about the words.*
Sighing, he listened to Janus harangue his son while Joxer just stood there, pale faced with his hands locked together behind his back in a white knuckled grip.
"Most inconsiderate, Joxer. But then I've come to expect that from you. No trade like your brother Jett. Not willing to work for the family like Jace here. Just footloose and fancy free, out enjoying the world while we work and slave to build up the family fortunes." He shook his graying head and stroked his short salt and pepper beard judiciously. "How we managed to bring up such a wastrel is beyond me. Eh, Jocasta?"
"Quite right, dear. Joxer, I am very disappointed in you. Have you no concern for your family?" She pinched her lips and frowned, her bosom heaving with a deep sigh. "It's time you settled down and made a contribution. Our neighbor, Syrus, has a daughter who would be just right for you." She eyed him critically. "You seem to be in good shape. She's very nice really. Reminds me of myself at that age. As for the squint, well, it's barely noticeable."
"Mother. I don't ... I mean I can't get married." Joxer was practically wringing his hands behind his back but from what Strife could see from the shadowed corner where he stood, his composed face stayed that way. "There's, um, there's something wrong with me."
"Not infectious?" She drew back in alarm and Strife silently chuckled at the looks on everyone's faces. Except for the maid who leaned forward slightly and widened her eyes.
"No, ma'am. Not now but I have other obligations. So I can't get married." Joxer held his ground.
Janus' eyes narrowed and he stepped forward, tapping Joxer on the chest with his forefinger. "There are no higher obligations than family, young man. Not that I expect you to understand that. You've never followed through on anything in your life."
"I'm sorry, Father but I've made a vow to Ares, the God of War." Joxer stood a little straighter and looked his father in the eye.
"Ha, like he'd take a vow from a failure like you." Jace was snorting his amusement.
"He took it, Jace. And I'm learning to be a better warrior for him." Joxer held his head up and looked his brother straight in the eye.
"Oh, dear. I was hoping that nasty rumor wasn't true." Jocasta was frowning over the teacups. "When warriors get together, they say that they forget about women."
"Yes, Joxer. We heard some interesting rumors about your lifestyle that rather shocked your mother." Janus was back to stroking his beard.
"You don't need to worry about me, Father. I'm fine and I haven't forgotten anything."
"Darn right, you haven't, sweetie." Aphrodite's dulcet tones came from the doorway. Strife shoved a hand over his mouth to keep back the laughter struggling to get out.
The others watched in shocked amazement as the beautiful woman, so obviously pregnant came through the door to link arms with Joxer. She smiled sweetly at them and Strife could see her petting the young god into a more relaxed stance.
"Joxer, why don't you introduce me to your family? I'm just so eager to know the grandparents-to-be."
"Um, sure. This is my father, Janus. And my mother, Jocasta. And my eldest brother, Jace. And mother's maid, Meral." Joxer took a deep breath. "Folks, this is ..."
"Dite." She broke in before he could announce her full name. "It's such a pleasure to meet all of you. I've heard such interesting stories about you all. Janus, you must be a really wonderful man to support the Goddess of Love's temple so well. And helping those young lovers elope was just the sweetest thing I've ever heard."
"What?" He sputtered while Jace laughed from the bench.
"And Jace, I hope you found a healer to take care of that nasty little problem you had." Aphrodite's sweet tones brought an angry flush to his face.
"Dite." Joxer raised her hand to his lips and shook his head slightly. "Let me get you a chair. You shouldn't be standing so much. It's hard on your back."
She kissed his cheek and laced her hands over her bulging stomach. "He's so sweet and takes such good care of me."
Jocasta sat upright in her chair, her dark eyes flashing and two dots of red high on her cheeks. If Strife remembered correctly, that meant she was way pissed. "Well, this is certainly a surprise . . . Dite. And just who might your family be? Do we know them?"
"You might. We're kind of a loose knit bunch of characters. We travel around a lot, performing for the populace. Thanks, sweetie." She sat down gently on the cushioned chair that Joxer had brought up. Waiting until he retrieved a stool so he could sit by her side, she continued. "I like to think that we bring a lot of joy into people's lives. And Joxer has such a beautiful singing voice, he's a real asset."
"Performing players?" Janus sounded appalled.
"Oh no, not mere players, Janus. Artists. Each and every one of us has a specialty. Why my nephew, 'Ife, is a master conjurer. He's somewhere about the place right now, looking over this fine property."
"Jace! Why don't you go and find him and bring him in for tea?" Janus tried not to sound alarmed but Jace jumped up and headed out.
"Now isn't that sweet of you?" Aphrodite cooed, fluttering her eyelashes at Janus. He swelled up like a bantam rooster and managed a smile while his wife looked on disapprovingly.
"And when do you expect your child?" She said stiffly.
"They'll be Solstice babies." Aphrodite smoothed a hand over her stomach fondly. Strife watched while she and Joxer exchanged a quiet look of complete agreement then he tenderly kissed her other hand. He noticed that the maid had tears in her eyes while Jocasta looked as if she'd just tasted something sour.
Strife felt a tingle and an urgent summons to come outside. Vanishing, he met Hera and Cupid near the front door. Quickly, he filled them in on what had already been said. She suppressed a sigh at Aphrodite's whimsical tale but nodded in agreement. He wondered what she had gone looking for but from the smug look on her face, he figured she'd found it.
"Cupid, wait out here but listen in. Way-lay that impudent brother if you have to. But quietly. I'm going in to join the *loving* family. 'Ife, you'll escort me."
Strife rolled his eyes at Cupid but held out his arm for her. Wistfully, he wished he could stay with his friend. They didn't get much time together these days especially with Psyche and the baby around. But as they walked in through the door, he admitted to himself that he was curious what little explosion Hera had in mind for this dysfunctional family.
"There you are, dear. What a ... picturesque ... little property you have here, Joxer." Hera sailed in with disdaining hauteur.
"M-m-mother!" Joxer leapt to his feet and looked scared to death for a moment.
"Dear boy." Hera's eyes softened and she patted his cheek. "You had us worried there for a moment. I don't like to have my children out of sight for so long. I know you're a big strong man who can take care of himself but those of us who love you can't help worrying a little."
Strife pulled up another chair and she sat down graciously and surveyed the frozen figures on the other side of the tea table. The only one seemingly not phased by her entrance was the maid who was busy with the tea set. He could see Jocasta's appraising eyes noticing the rich silk of her visitor's gowns and the tasteful jewelry that adorned neck and wrists.
Introductions were gone through again except Hera's name was never mentioned. Just Mother. Now Joxer sat between the two strong minded goddesses and looked resigned to whatever they had in store. Strife managed to sit off to one side and tried to look harmless. He'd perfected that look over a couple of centuries of self-protection. Jocasta reminded him a lot of his mother, Eris. He'd learned early on to be a quiet little mouse when she was on a tear.
And the words were slinging back and forth across the tea table. The men were relegated to onlookers while the women volleyed back and forth over their teacups. Property, clothing, babies, they all sparked the tinder. One particularly cutting remark from Hera about the gardens made the maid get up to get more cakes while trying to hide a grin. Strife found himself watching her while she unobtrusively made the rounds with the teapot and then again with the serving tray.
She was small and fair skinned with raven black hair threaded with gray. Her features were small and regular with a dimple whenever she smiled. Her dark brown eyes twinkled at him when she served him and she made sure he had two cakes.
"You are too thin, little one. Take two. I made them myself." She whispered quietly.
"Thanks. They're really good." He whispered back and she patted his hand in thanks with small callused fingers that had seen a lot of hard work in her life. He decided then and there that she was the only one worth saving if Hera decided that this crew was history.
Bringing his attention back to the word battle, Strife watched Jocasta getting steadily angrier while Hera grew sweeter in her insinuations about their estate. Janus was watching his wife with a worried little look that said plainly, he was out of his depth. The explosion wasn't going to be pretty when it came.
An uncomfortable silence fell after a rather scathing comment on Aphrodite's dress and it's immodesty. Strife saw Joxer's pale face harden and he rose from the stool with a swift movement that almost over-set it.
"Well, this has been interesting. I'm sorry to say that we need to be on our way, Father. We have somewhere else we need to be." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm sorry that I can't do what you would like but I've chosen a different path then the one you laid out for me. My new family has accepted that and I hope in time that you'll be able to accept it as well. I'll let you know when your grandchildren arrive."
"Really. Where are your manners, Joxer?" Jocasta huffed. "We are your family first."
"I know that, ma'am. But I've come to realize that family isn't just blood but heart as well. My family has grown to include people who love me for me. Like Nana and Meral here, who protected me while I was growing up." He smiled at the blushing maid who again had tears in her eyes.
"Joxer is the son of my heart." Hera said quietly from where she stood at his right shoulder. "I'm very proud of him."
"Joxer gave me the greatest gift a man can give a woman. We are heart-mates in the very best sense of the word." Aphrodite stood at his other shoulder.
"I have been blessed with more love in the last year than I ever received in my life." He held the goddess of love's hand tightly. "I still make mistakes but I'm learning to do better. Your standards are no longer mine. I'm sorry if that hurts you but it's time for me to move on and leave the past behind." He sighed and suddenly looked as if a great weight had been removed from his shoulders. "I guess it took me this long to grow up. If you ever need me, just leave a message at one of Ares' temples. I belong to him now and it will get to me. Goodbye."
And he escorted Aphrodite out of the room with the maid scurrying behind them. Strife started to leave as well but stopped when he noticed that Hera was eyeing the indignant couple.
"I would accept his wishes in this if I were you. Otherwise, he might need to know just who his parents really are." Her voice was hard as diamonds and twice as cutting.
"Who are you?" Jocasta was on her feet and quivering with anger and dawning fear.
"Someone you really don't want to mess with." Hera smiled, reminding Strife of a feral wolf he'd come across once. "Stay away from him."
They left the silent room and found Joxer and Aphrodite still talking with the shy maid. Strife was trying to figure out just what Hera had been talking about. But the fear he'd seen in their eyes intrigued him. Just what were they hiding? Joxer obviously knew nothing about it but his brave statement made Strife feel sure that it wouldn't faze him nearly as much as it would have just a few hours before.
Strife watched Joxer give Meral a hug while Aphrodite created an illusion of a cart and horse. The goddess of love leaned against him in sudden weariness and Strife beckoned Cupid over surreptitiously. The winged god was still invisible to the mortals and Strife tried to watch him and his grandmother at the same time.
She'd taken the maid aside and was speaking quietly to the suddenly crying woman. She patted her back soothingly and whispered something that made her smile through her tears. Meral nodded slowly and wiped her eyes before retreating into the house when her name was angrily shouted from within.
Joxer was obviously torn between holding on to Aphrodite and the disappearing maid. "Will she be all right, Mother?"
Hera smiled up at him. "She's going to be just fine, dearest. I offered her a job taking care of the babies when they arrive and she said she would think about it. She was your wet nurse so she's got a lot of experience in taking care of babies."
"Good thinking, Mother Hera. Now, can we go home? I really need to take a nap." Aphrodite smiled and yawned.
"Thanks, all of you. For finding me and coming to the rescue." Joxer smiled around the group.
"You were doing just fine, Jox." Strife shrugged away the thanks.
"Strife's right. You did a fine job of standing up for yourself. I was very proud of you." Hera took his arm and motioned for Strife to take the other. "But it's time for us to go home. Zeus will be wondering where we've all gone."
Cupid gathered up his mother and winked out while the rest of them took a deep breath and whisked home to Ares' temple. Barking greeted them and Harmonia rose from the hearth where she was playing with the puppies.
"Well, it's about time you got home. Strife, Daddy wants you, like right now. Grandpa is looking for you, Grandmother. I'll take care of Joxer." She folded her arms and for one brief moment looked like a younger edition of her grandmother.
"Um, Strife. Ares doesn't really need to know about this afternoon right now. I'd like to tell him myself." Joxer looked hopeful.
"No problem, Jox. If he needs me now, that should mean that the war is ready to go full blast. Hopefully, we'll be home in a couple of days." Strife shrugged and winked out.
Appearing in the tent that Ares had made his own, he watched his uncle frowning over a map with two warlords across the table from him. His terse orders brought nods and their departure. Looking up from the map, he glared at Strife.
"Hey, man, it like wasn't my fault that grandmother had a couple of errands for me to run. Uncle Posy was in a real snit about something and she was way pissed when she sent for me." Strife skirted the real issues.
"Poseidon is always upset about something. Did you happen to see Joxer while you were back there?" His dark eyes softened when he mentioned the young god's name.
"He and Harmonia were playing with the puppies while Aphrodite took a nap. Somebody said he'd had another sneezing fit but he looked okay to me."
The sound of a bugle resounded through the camp and a hundred voices lifted in a shout. Ares smiled his feral smile that reminded Strife so much of Hera.
"Show time, nephew. Time to go out and raise a little havoc." He materialized his sword and a dagger for his boot. "Stay back and don't get yourself killed. I don't even want to have to explain your death to my sister. Even if you would heal."
"No problem, Unc. I thought I'd work up to the battle by watching you from a safe distance." Strife felt the comforting heavy leather vest with the chain mail padding settle into place. *Mama didn't raise no dummy. The safest place is right behind Ares. And that's where I'm sticking.*
Leaving the tent, he looked forward to the rush of energy that would come from the battle. For a moment he wondered if Joxer would ever follow Ares into war. He just didn't seem the kind of guy to enjoy killing people. Too polite for one thing. And too aware of what the other person was feeling. He seemed to want to heal rather than wound.
*I guess it's true. Opposites attract.* Strife smiled as he thought about his own opposite before moving into position. First, survive the battle. Second, soak up all the power he could. Third, go see if Cupid wanted to ... share a little energy. Chortling to himself, he followed Ares down to the battle ground.
End of chapter 9