Never had Ares felt the touch of a soul as pure as this. It caused feelings to stir within him, unfamiliar, painful but somehow necessary, as if he could no longer exist without them. He was a god, but he'd found something, someone greater. Could he be worthy?
The God of War rose from the field of battle he called his bed with a smug grin. Discord, bruises already fading from her body, curled up among the cushions and furs and smiled back.
"Come back to bed, Ares. We're not finished...yet."
He clothed himself with a gesture and bent to kiss her. "Oh, yes, we are, my dear insatiable one."
She pouted. "But, Ares.."
He slapped her hard. Her eyes glazed and she hissed. "I said we were finished, and we *are*. If you want that to be permanent, just try my patience again." He strode out of his bedchamber, anger replacing all the satisfaction he'd felt moments before.
And right now, no amounts of chains and leather - no matter how enjoyable - could give him what he needed. If only he knew what that was.
Maybe he needed a good battle. Things had been quiet for a bit too long. That was it...he needed to see steel clash and blood flow. He needed to be among the messy and passionate minds of mortals in the throes of both victory and defeat. Xena and his thrice damned half-brother were keeping things too peaceful. Maybe he could stir up trouble some place.
He sat down in a comfortable chair and poured himself a cup of wine. Closing his eyes, he let his Sight wander around the mortals he knew the best, seeking out the places he knew were on the brink.
Ah...yes. Those two cities were always spoiling for a fight. The slightest thing could set them off. Right now, they were trying to resolve things peacefully - Hah! - with a sporting competition, and things were getting heated. Even spectators were calling for blood. He'd seen this before. Yes...
Now, how could he best intervene? The game used neutral marshals to keep things legal...perhaps if he interfered with their perceptions. Yes, that could make things interesting indeed.
Yes, nice and subtle. Nothing that would call the attention of either pair of troublemakers. Besides, the sporting event was a last ditch effort by the two kings to prevent all out fighting - the victor winning trade rights. They were on the edge as it was. The bad perceptions would only touch things off. Yes, very elegant indeed. Ares smiled, tossed off the rest of his wine and dropped to the stadium to see what was going on.
Unseen, he walked along the two sides of the arena, tasting the growing tension as the marshals made error after error, sometimes favoring one team, sometimes the other.
"Blind! You are blind!"
"If you're bribed, *stay* bribed!"
"He had the bladder legally!"
"He was off the field! Use your Tartarus-damned eyes!"
"He was on the field, Beaner!"
"Use your own eyes!"
"My eyes? *You're* blind, *friend*. But maybe *this* will teach you to see!"
Ah, the sweet sound of steel being drawn. And now the sweeter sound of swords clashing filled the air.
Oh, they were ripe for this battle. To his delight, he saw more than swords - women were clawing at each other's eyes, and those with daggers or even broken drinking vessels were using them, usually with less skill than enthusiasm.
Even the players on the field were joining in the fray, which was delightful sight, as this game was played in the nude, with only arm bands to tell the teams apart.
But those armbands made decent weapons and, yes, those toned young bodies were beautiful to watch as they tangled together.
Maybe he'd been spending too much time with Discord...he'd been ignoring the other side of the side of the fence. Ah...blood. Yes...this was working nicely.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the sun glinting off a helmet - a strangely familiar one. What was *he* doing here? Shouldn't he be following Xena and Gabrielle around like a trained puppy?
What was that fool doing? He wasn't from either city and could have no interest in the sporting event. And why was he standing between two men with swords? Didn't he know...
What sort of an idiot was he? What in Tartarus was he trying? Was the man *talking* to them? *Look out, you cretin!*
Joxer jumped back behind the two men, shaking his head, which only made his ridiculous helmet and breast plate more laughable. Why did he wear those?
And why was Ares so relieved that he was out of danger?
He shook that thought away as the fighting began to get serious, and people began to fall. Shouts of pain and despair filled the air - and that fool was right in the middle of things. He'd given up trying to "reason" with the fighters and was down on his knees with the wounded. He actually managed to glare away a man whose sword was still dripping with blood.
This was too distracting. There was a delicious battle raging, and all he could think about was a cowardly fool.
A horn blasted. Two horns. Ah, the city armies were up and ready, finally. Yes, this was indeed war.
And that cowardly fool was...was standing over a group of wounded spectators with his helmet off and his sword drawn, protecting them. Protecting total strangers from a mob out for blood.
There was a look in Joxer's eyes that Ares had never seen before - not puppy love or idiocy, but steely determination, and if his sword was clumsy, it was true.
Ah, the soldiers were wading in to the battle. Good...not so good. They were actually breaking things up! How dare they! What right did those mortals have to stop a perfectly good war before he even began?
He exerted all the influence he could, causing the spectators to fight the soldiers, but it was of no use. There was a circle of quiet beginning at... at the place Joxer was standing and spreading out like ripples.
Faster than the battle had begun, it was over. The spectators actually looked chagrined as those who could helped the wounded out of the stadium and the players on the field sorted themselves out and replaced their armbands. To Ares' disgust, some players actually *traded* armbands, effectively placing themselves on the opposite team. Some players limped off the field, and two needed to be carried.
Those officials who could still walk gathered together, and to Ares' further dismay, decided to declare the game a draw. They walked off the field with their players in one disorganized mass. Soon after, the now-clothed players emerged from their changing rooms and began to help with the field hospital that the army medics had set up.
This entire afternoon was completely wasted. That was the most unsatisfactory battle he'd ever been involved in. And he'd spent what bloodshed there had been worried...worried! about a clumsy fool.
Speaking of...where was he? Ares scanned the field, looking for the tell-tale helmet and breast plate. He looked at first at the triage area, and then where the walking wounded were being bandaged. He wandered unseen through the field of moaning and bleeding victims without taking the time to acknowledge them, or even savor their pain. Joxer wasn't even with the stretcher bearers. Finally, he found him.
He was sitting on the outskirts of the camp, his helmet and breastplate off and his scabbard next to them, holding the hand of a man about his own age. They were being ignored by those around them.
"I...I just wanted to see a game." The man's voice was weak.
"That's why I was here."
Joxer's voice was gentle. He brushed the wounded...no, dying...man's hair off his face. "I never get a chance to just watch without being on one side or another."
"Yeah. And if the marshals hadn't suddenly...it was a good game. I didn't want to fight..."
"He drew his sword. And...is he all right?"
Joxer bit his lip and looked at a still form to his left. "Yes. He's not hurting."
"At least one of us is...I just wanted to see the game...don't go away..."
"I can't feel you...it's not hurting anymore..."
Ares blinked at his own hand. A little less pain wasn't going to make any difference. But he couldn't just stand there and watch.
"I'm here. I'm not going anywhere."
Ares felt compelled to do what little he could. Another gesture, and the man's shade slipped painlessly and easily from his tortured body and down to Hades.
Joxer disentangled his hand from the slack fingers, and gently closed the man's eyes. He searched in a thin, empty looking pouch until he found something. He placed two copper coins on the stranger's eyes. Ares glanced at the other body. He'd done the same.
"That's a wasted gesture, mortal."
"Ares!" Joxer stood, grabbing and dropping his armor, his sword and his helmet.
"Someone will steal those coins once you leave the bodies alone."
Joxer gave up on his equipment. "Why do you care, Ares?"
Good question. "Folly bothers me."
Joxer blinked. "Why are you here? Do you have something to with this...this debacle?"
"I am God of War. I go where there is fighting."
"There was no fighting, no *hint* of fighting until the marshals...it was *you*, wasn't it?" Joxer looked straight up into Ares' eyes. There was that steel again. "You caused this to happen. Why?"
How dare this fool, this coward, this *insect* question *his* motives? Ares prepared to blast him where he stood, next to the bodies of the two strangers. He pulled back his arm, expecting the man to cringe or even run.
Joxer did neither. He just stood there *looking* at him. No, on closer examination, Joxer was trembling slightly, and sweat was starting to bead on his forehead.
Ares put his arm down. "What's wrong with you?"
"I just want to know why you did this."
"I could ask the same of you. These men, these people - they are nothing to you. You hold no allegiance to either city, you have never fought along side any of them. You could have left the stadium, as I saw others do, and remained safe. What sort of fool are you?"
Joxer shrugged. "I don't know. I know I am a fool, and I know I'm not a warrior like Xena or even Gabrielle, but even a fool can do the right thing, and even a coward can take care of others." He was trembling harder. Ares could taste the fear rolling off him. It was as bitter as old wine, and gave Ares no pleasure.
"Why don't you run?"
"Why did you start this, Ares? What good would a war between these cities be? What territory would be extended, what evil would be toppled? Why did you kill that man?" Joxer glanced at the man whose hand he'd held.
Ares flinched. How did Joxer..."The other man there killed him. I didn't hold the sword or cause him to fight."
"You killed him. And him. And her. And them." Joxer pointed to other bodies laying on the grassy field. "There would not have been a battle if you had not decided to start one. You can blast me if you like. It'll be cleaner than what they went through." Now even his voice was shaking.
"A warrior can't fear war."
"What's that supposed to mean? And are you going to blast me or not? I questioned the great god Ares."
Ares drew back his arm again, but stopped. Instead, he reached forward one hand and touched Joxer's shoulder gently. Joxer flinched. The man knew exactly what he was asking for and was utterly terrified. And yet he stood his ground.
"You're not a coward, are you?"
"Never mind." Ares let go of him. "I don't have to answer to you, mortal. Suffice it to say that I had my own reasons for this battle."
"You have to answer to them, not to me. I know who and what you are. *They* don't know who hit them."
He'd stopped trembling, and his eyes were flashing. He wanted an answer, and Ares had none to give him. And he was ashamed. And impressed. Ares had thought he'd known courage - in himself, his brother, his daughter - but this was something else. Who was this man?
"I will not kill you for your presumption, mortal." Ares returned to Mt. Olympus, his mind in turmoil. He'd just retreated from a mortal - and from *that* mortal. Something was strange.
Something about that mortal. He'd dismissed him in the past as a buffoon, not worth his time and attention.
Discord was still in his bed when he returned, although she was now fast asleep. The bruises were all gone. Just as well. They weren't as attractive as he'd thought. He reached out to touch her, but stopped short.
That hand had touched Joxer earlier.
Where did that come from? He shook his head. Her skin was soft, of course. What goddess' wasn't? And she smelled of ambrosia, just like any other goddess. Joxer...Joxer smelled of fear and his tunic was rough, and his skin was sure to be flawed.
Yet, when he took his hand away from Discord, it felt filthy. It was as if it were covered in slime. He wanted to scrub it clean. Which was insane.
"Up! Get up, woman!"
Discord stretched and moaned. "What time is it...oh, Arry, you weren't gone long." She grinned. She looked hungry, feral - all her dark, sultry beauty was gone. "Miss me?"
"Get out of my bed. Now."
He pulled her out by the arm, his skin crawling at the touch. "I want you out of my bed and out of my home *now*. Here!" He clothed her with a gesture. "Now, go!"
Discord looked at him in confusion. "What's going on, Ares?" Even her voice, which that morning had been sexy and inviting, grated on him now. He pointed to the door. She gave him one last look and left.
He collapsed on his chair and poured himself a cup of wine. He had to think this through. This afternoon had been an unqualified disaster, and he even felt *guilty* about it. He *never* felt guilty. That would imply he was accountable for his actions.
What was that clown doing to him? Well, perhaps he was wrong to start a skirmish at a sporting event. If the two kings were against war, he really couldn't force one. But...he'd never cared about that before.
Why did he care now? Because an idiot with melting brown eyes who couldn't mind his own business asked a couple of tough questions? Because a man with the courage to stay with a dying stranger didn't run away from him?
This was insane. Fine, he was off of women. That had happened before. There were any number of handsome warriors who could fulfill his needs - and all he had to do was crook his finger. With a little more effort, he could probably even get that blond bedmate of his brother's.
He absolutely didn't need some foolhardy...man with a goofy grin who spent his time lusting after that annoying little bard. He downed his wine, poured himself another and drank that down.
Plenty of men down on Earth. Plenty of strong, handsome men who know how to use a sword - in every meaning of the word. Ares chortled at that and poured himself yet another cup. None of them would ask dumb questions or stand in the middle of someone else's battle, either.
Ares spilled a little wine as he poured another cup, and spilled even more as he drank it.
The jug was empty. Time to get some more...might as well kill two...humans with one stone.
He knew just the tavern, too. It was just on the outskirts of Thebes. Some of the most delicious wine...and some of the most delicious warriors, too. Yes. The Poked Pig was exactly the right place.
He stood somewhat unsteadily and tried to walk to the door. It took him a couple of tries, and several more to open the door, but he was soon walking in Mt. Olympus' clear, cold air.
He gestured clumsily. Nothing happened. He blinked, concentrated and gestured again. Ah, yes.
The sun was just setting over Thebes, and the barracks were emptying out. Pairs of men poured to the taverns that serviced them, while unpaired men moved towards the ones they favored.
The biggest of those went to the Poked Pig. And big was what Ares wanted.
It didn't take much effort to disguise his Godhood, even as drunk as he was, which was drunker that he'd cared to admit. He staggered into the tavern, tossed a gold coin on the bar and demanded the best wine in the place.
The barkeep took one look at him, bit the gold piece, filled a pitcher and poured him a mug. Ares tossed it down and began to look at the available goods. Yeah, he was definitely in the mood for men right now, and these were just his type.
He liked the big men, with heavily muscled backs and arms, and legs like tree trunks. The real warriors who fought hard with no thought for anything but the battle and *maybe* their brothers-in-arms. Who thought of no one *but* their brothers-in-arms afterwards. Ares chortled.
Ah...there was one now - a huge redhead with bright green eyes and a face covered in freckles. His armor fit him like a glove and showed off lovely muscles under more freckles. Ares like them exotic, and this was about as exotic as he'd ever seen. He looked up and caught the pretty boy's eye.
Green eyes smiled and sidled closer to him. "Are you wishing to speak to me, man?"
Ares grinned. The man had a truly delightful lilt to his voice. He was about as far removed from the common, ordinary..."Could be. My name is...Arry."
"Is it, now? Well, they do be calling me Padraig." He eyed Ares up and down.
"I've not seen you about."
"I'm new. You aren't from Mycena, are you?"
The man laughed - a big, happy laugh that filled the bar. "And why would you be thinking that, I wonder? Aye. I wandered down from Eire. Would you be looking for a partner, now?"
Ares smiled. "Depends on what you want the partner for. I'm not in the mood for...fighting."
"Ah. I've had my fill of fighting for the day." He poured himself a cup of Ares' wine and tossed it down with a charming grin. "I believe there are rooms in back..."
"I believe so." Ares caught the eye of the bartender.
"Two coppers for an hour, my lords. One for each additional, and I'm closing at midnight."
"And what would we be getting for that sum? Bare pallet?"
The bartender scowled. "Three coppers gets you sheets and oil if you're so delicate."
"Done!" Padraig tossed the man a silver coin. The man then gestured to one of his potboys, who led the two of them to a small room behind the kitchen. The lad then went to fetch sheets and a small pitcher of oil. He made up the pallet and lit a small lamp, and then stood, shaking as much as that buffoon had.
"What do you want, boy?"
"M...master said I should ask if...if you want anything more from me?"
The God and the man exchanged glances. "You couldn't have a hair on your body, boy! Out you go and tell your master I'll speak to him when I get out."
"Boy! This is for *you*, not your Master." Ares handed him a large gold coin - large enough to keep him for several weeks. The boy's eyes grew wide. He grabbed it and ran off, and, Ares hoped, right out of that tavern.
"That was most generous, Arry. I do not like this use of children here."
Ares had never thought about it before. He preferred size and strength in all of his partners, male or female, but tastes differed and boys and girls were ubiquitous. Then again, this boy was scared and he had pale skin and dark hair and eyes, and reminded him of...
He closed the door behind him and grabbed the big man from Eire, who filled his arms quite thoroughly and willingly. Padraig's lips were chapped, which Ares ignored for the delights of his tongue.
Ares wasn't used to undressing his partner manually, but this time it was a pleasure. Each layer of leather and wool revealed more of the man's beauty to both his eyes and his touch. As for Padraig...Ares didn't need Godlike perception to know just how aroused the man was.
They tumbled together on the pallet, hands and mouths and bodies exploring each other. How could Ares have denied himself the pleasures of a man's body for so long this time?
And pleasure it was. Padraig had put his journey to Thebes and his time there to good use. Ares found himself doing things he'd only imagined before, with Padraig's superbly muscled body wrenching out every dram from him.
Finally, as the Eireman pounded his length deeply into his body, Ares shouted his final release loudly enough to reach Olympus itself, and then collapsed on the now drenched pallet.
Padraig slowly withdrew. Ares could picture his shaft, long and thick, covered with transparent, freckleless skin and gleaming with oil and fluids.
He sighed and pulled the man closer to him. "Why doesn't a man like you have a swordmate yet?"
Zeus, the man actually blushed. Ares wouldn't have believe anything could make this man blush...not after he'd done *that* with his tongue.
"Well...it's not like you know the man. He's in my unit, and a better fighter you never did see. A brave man, too...not one to ever back out or run. He's given me the time of day and more, but he could have his choice of partners, and wouldn't be wanting the likes of me."
Padraig held Ares closer as he bit his lips in thought. "As to that.. .I couldn't say. Not like you, bonny man that you are. He looks like himself and that's all I can say, but I'd never tire of it."
"Give it a chance, Padraig. You're...bonny yourself." Ares kissed him on his forehead.
"I will. And you talk to yours, Arry."
"You shouted a name at the last. Jacka or the like. It's then that the heart speaks. It does what it wants sometimes."
There was a knock on the door. "Closing time!"
Ares pulled Padraig close for one last kiss and then they both cleaned themselves off and got dressed.
As they left, the bartender stopped them. "You owe me for the room, and for the boy you let run off."
Padraig tossed him a silver piece. "That should cover the room. As for the boy..."
"Don't beat the next one." Ares gave the man a small pouch. "I will come to check." For an instant, he allowed the man to see him as he was.
They left him cowering in the corner of his bar. Ares stopped to kiss Padraig on the cheek as they went their separate ways. "May you always fight strong and may you and your shieldmate know only glory and honor."
Padraig blinked, not knowing that a god had blessed him. "May you also be given honor and love, Arry. Fare you well!"
The big red-head wandered away into the night. Ares watched him. Having sex with Padraig had cleansed him of the sliminess he'd felt with Discord.
Everything about the man...barely a man, as he was only about twenty summers, but not a boy...had been open and honest, and above all, happy. There was nothing hidden, nothing dark, and there was no more evil about him than any other human. Just touching him and his soul was freeing.
Ares leaned against the tavern wall. His body was sated, but not...something else.
He'd gone there thinking he'd find the warrior of his fantasies...big, nasty, punishing, the sort of man it was a pleasure to dominate, to put in his place.
Padraig loved to fight. He loved the clash of swords and feeling he got during and after a long battle. But after a fight, he'd be perfectly happy to take his foes for out for beer and bed, and never mind the cleanup, the wounded or the dead. He'd never go beyond sword-fodder.
And that was a shame because Padraig was so sweet and, despite all the blood on his hands, so innocent. As innocent as...
But Joxer wasn't innocent. He'd seen battles and death and helped mop up afterwards. He had blood on his hands himself - it just wasn't blood he himself had shed, other than by accident. And not that he stayed away from the thick of battle.
Why had he thought of Joxer as a coward? And why had he cried out his name? What the hell was he doing?
He needed more wine...no, he'd had too much of that. And he'd had the best of lays. And today's battle had certainly fizzled out. And all because of that...very well. Where was the buffoon anyway?
He cast his mind out searching. There is was, a light shining brightly in the moonless night. There were two others nearby. This was a familiar scene indeed. Why did he always end up with those two women?
Getting up, he moved the hundred or so miles that took him to Joxer and the others. There was a single campfire. Xena and that annoying blonde bard were lying in each other's arms in its light.
Normally, daughter or no, he would have stopped to enjoy that sight, but this time it only irritated him. Where was Joxer? Ah...a few yards that way. He had his armor off again, and his bedroll laid out beside a tree. There were the remains of a rather skimpy meal - crumbs of bread and cheese and a flash of water.
Joxer dropped the armload of branches he held onto a small pile and settled down onto his bedroll, which he wrapped around him like a cloak against the chill in the air.
Ares made himself visible. "Why don't you light a fire, or even join those two?"
"Ares! What do *you* want?" Joxer leapt to his feet and pulled out his sword. His grip was so clumsy that he couldn't hold the weapon straight. Who let him hold a sword in those hands?
"Just some information. There is a nice warm fire only a few steps away, and you have enough wood here to keep it going all night long. And put that sword down before you hurt yourself."
Joxer did as he was told, and collapsed back on the ground. "Why are you asking these questions?"
"Is it so strange that I might actually be concerned?" Ares sat back on his heels.
"Well, actually, yeah. I didn't even think you knew I existed."
Ares shrugged. "I'm having an off-night. Humor me."
Joxer shook his head. "This is too weird. First today at the stadium and now here. Xena and Gabby...are happier when we sleep apart. It's not like I haven't done it before. And one fire is dangerous enough. Two...I'm fine."
"You are *not* fine. You are shivering."
"Well, pardon me. The God of War has dropped down on me without warning and he's wondering if I'm all right. Of course I'm shivering."
"I'm not going to hurt you. Here." He snapped his fingers to produce a furlined cloak. He held it out.
Joxer reached for it tentatively, but when it showed no signs of biting or even of teeth, he wrapped it around his shoulders with a sigh.
"You were cold."
"Yesterday, I might as well have been an insect."
"Maybe yesterday, I was a fool." What was he saying? Didn't he even have control over his speech?
"I don't even want to know. Why are you here, Ares? And why are you being *nice* to me? What do you want me to do?"
"Just talk to me. Answer my questions."
Ares couldn't keep the anger out of his voice. Joxer flinched.
He sighed. "Please?"
Joxer inched back further. "Are you possessed? What's going on here?"
"Please...don't go. I'm serious."
Joxer stopped where he was. "What do you want to know?"
"Just...why? Why did you get mixed up in all that today? And why are you taking care of those two now?" Ares glanced at the pile of branches. He knew those branches were destined for *their* campfire.
Joxer shrugged inside the cloak. "What else was I supposed to do? Not even try to stop them? Let the injured get trampled? Let that man die alone? "
*That's what a sensible man would have done.* Yet Joxer made it sound like *he'd* taken the only real action.
"This doesn't make any sense. You got no reward and you could have gotten killed."
Joxer only shrugged.
"Even Xena...why are you helping them?"
"They're my friends. They help me...once in a while. And...there's Gabrielle."
"You're in love with her." Why did that hurt to say?
Joxer bit his lip. "She's not in love with me. She's in love with Xena. Anyone would be."
"So why are you with them? Why are you torturing yourself?"
"It's not torture. I get to be with them, with her, and I know she's happy." Joxer shrugged.
"You are the most...incomprehensible person I've ever met. You're worse than my *brother* - at least he has muscle behind his do-gooding. Keep the cloak. I'm going." Ares took himself back to Olympus. That was the most...why was he obsessing about him?
Why was he so angry at Xena and Gabrielle for treating him like dirt that he could happily blast either of them then and there.
Because he was. They were taking advantage of him, of his feelings towards both women, since he was clearly worshiping Xena as his personal hero. And it was obvious that they knew. They probably thought it was cute rather than funny, but they knew.
He was worth ten of either of them. He was trying to beo what they were, with neither grace nor skill nor strength, things they had in abundance. All Joxer had was...a heart that held more bravery than any ten men.
Even any ten laughing redheads from Eire.
It was time to pay a call on his sister. He thought about getting more wine, but decided that he wanted his mind as clear as he could.
"Aphrodite! Where are you, you little...!"
"Stop that shouting, Arry. A girl needs her beauty rest, you know." Aphrodite popped up, wearing a transparent negligee.
Ares noted this last fact without any reaction. "How's Hep?"
"He was just *fine* a moment ago. We were *right* in the middle of...well, you know." Aphrodite grinned. "Now, I want to get back to my cuddlebug. So, give."
He motioned her to a seat. "Did you put a spell on me? Or your son or that grandson of yours?"
Aphrodite blinked. "Give a girl a chance to breathe, why don't you?"
"Well, you *are* in a hurry." Ares grinned for a moment. "Well?"
"Okay, okay. Let me check you out." She closed her eyes. Then she giggled and opened them again. "Sorry, big guy. It's the real thing." She giggled again. "And *you* have got it *bad*."
He sat down hard. "I'm really in *love*? I've...that's impossible! And with...Joxer?"
"Oh, wait'll everyone hears *this*. The God of War in love with 'Joxer the Mighty' - isn't that how his little song goes? This is, like, too cool!"
"What's so funny? He's...good. He's...he's the bravest mortal I've ever known." Ares stared in horror at the words he was saying...and meaning. "The joke would be if he fell for *me*. He *hates* me."
Aphrodite was still giggling. "If you dare tell me to keep *this* to myself, I'll...you wouldn't. This is the most delicious thing *ever*."
Ares barely heard her, nor did he do more than notice when she disappeared. He was in love with that...that buffoon, that clown, that inept fool...
Who was none of the above. Behind the very real clumsiness and puppyishness were steel and honor, strength and compassion. Why did no one else see that?
Because no one tried. Because...because for some reason, no one ever tried to get close enough to see them, even those who called themselves his friends.
Aphrodite was right. He had it *bad*. Now the question was, what did he do about it? His sister would be no help - while this was in her purview, it was all his problem. Besides, she was just too happy over it.
He could...he could let the whole thing die. Except that just thinking that way made it difficult to breathe. So that was out. He could make Joxer fall in love with him. He could take him to Olympus and shower him with gifts and make love to him until ...
That wouldn't work.
No matter how *good* he was, no matter how he made that experience, it would still be rape unless Joxer came to him willingly.
And he couldn't do that. He couldn't hurt this man. If he couldn't forget the man, and he couldn't *make* him fall in love on his normal terms, he had to find another way.
Zeus! So far as Ares knew, Joxer had never had a single moment's thought about another male. How was he going to overcome *that*?
He could change himself into something...more acceptable...no. He didn't just want Joxer's body - actually, he was rather surprised that he wanted it at all, let alone so much - he wanted Joxer's love. And he wanted Joxer to love Ares, God of War.
For that, he had to be worthy of Joxer's love, no matter how it manifested. He had to be the sort of person Joxer could love. Ares sat in his chair staring at the rising sun and contemplated an impossible task.
Ares strode unseen among the combatants. This war began without his active help...in fact, in the past couple of months, the only time he'd instigated fighting was to help encourage the overthrow of a tyrant in a city near the Mediterranean, and that was after the rebels had tried every other means.
But now that this was a full-fledged war, Ares knew he had to be there. This time, though, he faced a different challenge than before. Before, he would have encouraged more fighting, letting it spread beyond the soldiers and making it more violent as he a absorbed the energy it created.
Before, he wasn't trying to see if he could still be God of War without that.
The war had to be fought, and he still absorbed much energy, but he could do it without hatred...he thought.
The key was honor. Not honor as he'd thought it...of not running away, of challenging as many as possible, of defeating all around. Honor as Joxer had taught him.
Ares stood behind a Spartan soldier who propped up his injured Athenian opponent and left him with a skin of water before he found another skirmish.
Elsewhere, he knew that wounded were being treated and guarded and that non-combatants were safe for a change.
The odd part was that the fighting was just as fierce and just as satisfying as in any other battle he'd witnessed, even if the death count was lower. Indeed, because honor required men to fight only those who could take them, the fighting was *better*.
Where was Joxer? He'd been busy with this coming war, so he hadn't been able to see or talk with him for days.
And he missed those talks more than he'd ever thought he'd miss anything.
He'd gone down to that campsite the next morning, hoping to talk to the man, but he was gone. The only things left were various broken branches and, rolled into a little ball, the fur and wool cloak.
He was about to blast the garment in anger. But, no. He was not going to be hurt because his gift was rejected...not yet. He picked it up. It hadn't been fully rejected...Joxer had slept in it. It smelled like him.
He held it to his nose again. Then he sent it to his bedroom. One day, he'd give it back to Joxer. That day hadn't come yet.
He watched the man from a distance for a couple more days. He had to stand back and let Joxer trip over his own feet and flail around with a sword, and take too much from his companions. Ares also watched him quietly give away half his food - food he needed badly himself - and whatever money he came across. He fell out of a tree trying to rescue a little girl's kitten while the kitten itself looked perfectly happy where it was.
Finally, he could stand it no more. He had to at least talk to Joxer. At this point, it would have been enough if the man stopped cringing in Ares' presence. That was enough to twist his guts up in a knot.
He had chosen his night carefully. Joxer was wandering by himself for a change, so he'd built himself a fire. There was a hint of moon in the sky, but not enough to drown out the stars.
He waited until Joxer finished his dinner - a rabbit he'd trapped and some roots he'd grubbed because he'd given everything else away - before becoming visible.
"Why did you throw away the cloak?"
Joxer jumped. "What are you doing here?"
This was not going well.
Ares thought and then squatted by the fire. Even though he didn't feel the cold as such, it was pleasant. "I'm just curious, Joxer. You...make me curious."
"About what?" Joxer moved a little further away, and his eyes kept shifting back and forth.
"Just...you. I'm not going to hurt you. I promise."
Joxer peered at him through the smoke. "You promise? Why should I believe you?"
"I don't know. I've given you no reason to believe me or trust me. I just...hope you will."
He edged closer, the fire dancing in his warm eyes. "And if I do trust you...what then?"
Ares shrugged. "We talk."
"What about?" Joxer was still wary.
"You, maybe. You gave away all your food today."
"You were watching me?" He sounded almost angry, and very confused.
Ares thought about his answer. He could tell him he'd deduced it from the poor dinner Joxer had made. "Yes. I've been watching you."
"Why...why me? What did I do wrong?" Joxer's eyes were wide.
Taking a chance, Ares slowly moved around the fire and touched Joxer's arm. It was cold and he was shivering again.
He looked at Ares' hand with confusion, as if no one had ever touched him with gentleness before.
A wave of emotion nearly overwhelmed Ares - pain, anger, frustration, love - but with great effort he held it in check, and just continued to stroke Joxer's arm. "You did nothing wrong. I'm following you because...there are things about humans I need to understand."
"Why not you? You're as human as anyone else. More than some."
"I'm not wise or brave or talented. I'm...I'm just a buffoon who has tolerant friends."
Ares wanted nothing more than to wrap Joxer in his arms and let him know he was safe and warm and valued. He tried to channel all those feelings into the hand on his arm. "You are more than that. Joxer, tell me why you gave away all your food today?"
Joxer bit his lip and shrugged. "That family was hungry, and there was no work or money to be had. I had plenty, and I knew I could find more here. I don't need much anyway."
"So, you gave it all to some vagabonds? Strangers you met once and will never see again?"
"Maybe I will. Maybe someday I'll need the help, and that little boy will be there to give it. Or, maybe all they needed was another day to get on their feet and then they will help someone else. But I couldn't eat if I knew they were hungry. Who could?" Joxer sounded confused at the thought of someone not caring.
"You were the only one who helped."
Again, Joxer shrugged. "Maybe I was the only one who could."
"But you're hungry now. And they aren't."
"They probably are. It wasn't really enough for a family."
"That's not your fault, Joxer. And, if you eat now, it's not going to make them less hungry."
"I ate." He indicated the remains of his meal.
"Well, *I'm* hungry." Ares wasn't, but he had to do something. He magicked up a simple meal instead of the feast he really wanted to create - bread and meat and cheese with a pitcher of beer. And, as he continued to ask Joxer questions, it sat there. Joxer looked at it now and again, but he refused to touch it, and...and Ares couldn't eat a bite knowing Joxer was hungry.
"Why won't you touch this?"
"It's...yours. It's not real. Ares, do you know why that family was homeless?"
Ares shook his head.
"Their village was overrun during a battle. A battle between two cities who had been ignoring each other. An army marched through, took everything they owned and torched the entire place. He's a blacksmith, but none of his tools survived. You made them homeless, Ares."
Ares sat back on his heels, unable to take his eyes away from Joxer's.
"This happens. I...the soldiers have free will. If their commanders are bad or have no control or even lead them on this destruction...I cannot take responsibility."
"Who started that war? They'd been ignoring each other, the blacksmith said."
Ares thought back. "No. They hadn't been. It had all been diplomatic and quiet until someone hurled an insult. I had no part in that, no more than usual."
Joxer nodded. "Could you have stopped it?"
Ares wanted to shout that it wasn't his job, but didn't. He thought. "No. It couldn't have been predicted."
"Hmmm." Joxer seemed to consider his words. "Is that possible? You're God of War. Surely you have a hand in all the wars you fight?"
"No, any more than Aphrodite has a hand in all the people who fall in love. She does for some, of course, just as I *have* instigated battles. You've seen that yourself."
"The sporting event."
Ares nodded. "Sometimes it's necessary, so I have the power. And it can be so much *fun* to use."
"But you don't do it all the time?" Joxer seemed to be looking for something.
"No. Even the God of War has to control himself. I don't start wars, I don't finish them. I...support those who pray to me and...I need to be there." He never actually thought about his role in battle before, other than how he could make it more fun for himself. To his shock, he said as much to Joxer.
"Maybe you should." Joxer moved closer to the fire. He absently picked up some bread and meat and began to chew.
"Maybe." Ares kept his smile to himself, but just seeing Joxer eat his gift was more than he'd expected.
"So...if I hadn't interrupted, who do you think would have won?"
Joxer smiled around his food and began to describe the event enthusiastically. Ares barely listened to the words. He was too absorbed in watching Joxer's eyes brighten in the glow of the firelight. The sliver of moon was high before Joxer finally wound down to find his bedroll.
"Sorry, Ares. I can't stay awake any longer."
"Sleep, then. I'll...keep watch."
Ares shrugged. "Who better?"
"I suppose. You don't have to. I'll be fine."
"It's not a bother. Just sleep."
To Ares' surprise, Joxer smiled and nodded. He crawled between his blankets, spread his worn cloak on top of them and soon drifted off.
For a moment, he wondered how amusing the other god found this - that he was happy because a mortal had let him stand guard for a night. Then he decided it didn't matter - the fact remained that he was happy, and that was something to savor all by itself.
And Joxer was beautiful as he slept. His face became peaceful - he looked no older than Padraig. All the silliness, the buffoonery was gone, leaving only the sweetness and a touch of intelligence that all that had hidden.
Maybe if he tried, Ares could have resisted, but he didn't bother. He moved over to Joxer, as silently as only a god could, and gently kissed his cheek. Joxer didn't even stir, to Ares' mixed relief and disappointment.
He settled back to watch, using his powers to keep the fire burning until the sun rose. He wanted to be there when Joxer awoke.
Ares was grateful he didn't have to worry about Joxer now as he continued to stroll across the battle field. He'd seen him only a few days ago, on the other side of the country. He missed him, of course, but it was better than worry. Over the past two months, Ares and Joxer had had more of those talks - sometimes at night, sometimes in a sunny clearing, once after Joxer had spent a day helping to clean up after a fire had ravaged a village.
Ares still shook his head at that one. He had found himself helping along side of everyone else, using his hands instead of magic. No one, not even Joxer, knew who he was, but he couldn't just watch. And that night, Joxer was so dirty and tired that he accepted a hot bath out where no one could see him, while Ares sat by the side of the tub and they talked some more.
To Ares' delight, Joxer had been getting more comfortable with him. They were sitting closer together in their talks, and one night the man leaned against him, too exhausted after trying to keep up with Xena and Gabrielle to sit up by himself. Even the night of the bath, though, Joxer had modestly kept his body hidden. Ares wanted to see it, wanted Joxer to know it was nothing to be ashamed of, but, and it took more will power than he knew he had, he resisted.
There were other signs...Joxer was visibly upset when Ares was gone more than a couple of days without explanation, so he made it his business as well as his pleasure to not let much time pass. And he accepted more of what Ares' offered - still not that cloak or anything of value, but Joxer no longer went hungry, and he even allowed Ares to try to teach him to use his sword better.
There, Ares would have despaired, except that it gave him more opportunities to touch him. He still would have stopped if he'd had any sense that Joxer thought he was better than he was, and would endanger himself needlessly. Mortals lived such a brief t time - he wanted Joxer as long as he could have him. It was difficult to tell him that he'd be busy the next few days, that a war was brewing and he *had* to be there at all times. To his surprise, Joxer didn't argue with him.
"Those two are always at it, aren't they?"
Ares nodded. "Nothing can stop them."
"You have to be there?" Joxer sounded forlorn.
He felt that way himself. "I do. And I have to stay there until it's over. I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry, too. I'll miss you." Joxer smiled.
Ares could only nod.
Then, to his surprise, Ares felt a pair of wiry arms surround him. Something relaxed deep inside of him as he wrapped his own around Joxer and held on. "I know it's silly to worry about you...but you'll take care of yourself, right?"
No one had ever done that before. "I will, Joxer. If you keep yourself warm and eat properly."
Joxer's eyes widened and he nodded. Then, as if he were taking a great chance, he laid his head on Ares' chest. Ares sighed and, taking his own risk, touched his head with his lips. Reluctantly, he let go then and, with one final glance, took off for Sparta.
Even now, he could feel the warmth of Joxer's arms around him and smell the wood smoke in his hair. It carried him through the lonely nights.
He brought his mind back to the battlefield. The day was drawing to a close, and what skirmishes were still going were winding down. The dead were being gathered up and sorted by nation and unit. A day or so ago, several mercenary companies had joined the fight on both sides. Ares had never been certain about those, but this time he'd watched them fight.
Some might as well have been fighting for their own cities, and others were at least professional - not taking foolish risks, but giving their best. And others...they fought the way he thought wars should be fought.
And it had no purpose. It didn't advance the battle for either side or change the odds. All it did was ensure bloody weapons and bloody grounds.
And they offered their victims to him, which sickened him.
There were no more swords clashing. The sun was starting to set so fighting had to cease. He wandered near where they were sorting the dead. All of these men had prayed to him, and to the god or goddess of their city, to strengthen their arms and given them victory.
And that wasn't enough - brave young men and cynical older ones were lying on the ground while priests took charge. He noticed that while most were sorted one by one, lying a pace apart from the others, there were some who were placed in pairs. These were Thebans or the like, who had fought and died with their shieldmates. They were lucky.
He'd seen Thebans who'd survived their shieldmates. They wandered like the lost souls they were until someone struck them down or the battle ended and they were taken home, some to find another and others to just waste away.
He tried to imagine Joxer lying there, lifeless and empty after a battle, all his sweetness and beauty drained away. His mind wouldn't let him.
He forced himself to complete his new nightly ritual...looking at the faces of all the men and those few women who had died during that day's battle and committing them to memory. He might not have killed them, but they had prayed to him.
He moved closer to the paired ones. As he did, he caught a flash of red curls. He felt his heart freeze in his chest. There couldn't be that many redheads fighting with the Thebans.
He forced himself to approach the shieldmates. There was a cloth over their faces, but that hair was unmistakable. He could still remember how it smelled, how it felt against his cheeks. He moved the cloth. That face laughed even in death, with those freckles stark against the pale skin. The green eyes, which had once danced with sheer joy at living, stared blankly at the man by his side.
That man was smaller and darker, with battle scars on his face and arms, and his eyes were closed. He was no one Ares recognized, but somehow he knew this was the shieldmate Padraig had wanted, that they had indeed become lovers.
His vision blurred as he touched both bodies, seeking some trace of who and what they had been. There wasn't much, but he could feel the strength of their love and the happiness they'd had in such a brief time. And he could feel Padraig's sheer joy in fighting - fighting honorably - and the other man...Panocus...his joy in Padraig and his pain when his lover had been cut down next to him - and his relief when he was mortally injured moments later.
What good were his blessings?
Taking a deep breath, he gently closed Padraig's eyes and covered both his and Panocus' with copper coins.
As he did so, something broke inside of him and he cried - deep, wracking sobs that hurt his throat and tears that burned his eyes as they flowed. He'd known Padraig one night, but his laughter and delight in everything, his joyful abandon; all of these things were part of him, and the world felt barren.
"Ares? Are you there? Are you all right?"
Joxer's voice. What was *he* doing there? Ares made himself visible, tears and all.
"H-how?" He couldn't make him say more.
"I can *feel* you now. And I could hear you cry, sort of. Did you know him?"
Ares nodded. He took a couple of deep breaths. "I knew the...the redhead. He...he was the last person I...I made love with. Before he met...he met his shieldmate."
Joxer dropped down next to him and wrapped his arms around him. Ares turned to him blindly and buried his head on Joxer's chest. Long moments passed while the God of War sobbed his grief. Joxer quietly stroked his hair and let him finish.
Finally, Ares pulled himself together and sat back so he could look at Joxer. "Not the way I'm supposed to be."
"He meant something to you. He looked...the *last* person?"
Ares nodded, smiling a little at Joxer's bemusement. "Yeah. That was the first night I ever came to you - just before I came to you."
Joxer sat back, never letting go of him. "And since then...? Why?"
"Because...because the only person I wanted to make love with was you, and I wasn't willing to settle for any one else." Ares, his vision now clear, looked right into those warm eyes.
"Me? But...I'm a clown, not a warrior."
Ares shook his head. "You aren't a warrior, but you aren't a clown, and I would gladly kill the first person who called you that. You are the bravest, *best* man I've ever met and I love you, even if you can't stand me."
"Can't stand you? No. I was scared of you...but it's been so different...that's why I'm here. I had to be where you were. It...hurt to be someplace else. I don't know how I dare say this to you, but you said it first. I love you, Ares. Not as a god , but as a man."
"I wish I were a man so I could prove I was worthy of you, Joxer."
Joxer shook his head. "Then you wouldn't be Ares." With that, he pulled Ares closer, until their lips met.
At first, Ares' world was those lips - soft and gentle and then insistent and passionate - but he pulled them apart. "Not here, my love. Not when they cannot." He indicated the Theban pair.
Joxer nodded once. "Where ever you want to take me. Wait, though." Joxer knelt beside the bodies, and covered their faces once more. He touched each forehead in silent prayer, and then stood.
Ares reached out a hand and Joxer pulled him to his feet. He took Joxer's hand and together they looked at the remained faces. Then, with one motion, Ares transferred them to his home on Olympus. He led Joxer to his bed chamber, where the couch was spread with silks and velvets, and one wool and fur cape. Joxer looked at him, remembering.
"It's yours. It was something I could use to keep you close." Ares spoke quietly. Joxer nodded, his eyes wide. Then he reached out his hand.
Ares took it and drew him closer to the couch. Then Joxer was in his arms again and they were kissing passionately. Ares thought about making their clothes go away, but thought better of it when he felt Joxer's hands remove his vest. They broke apart long enough to slowly strip the other down. When he was finally naked, Joxer made a move to cover himself with the cloak.
Ares stopped him. "Don't."
"But...I'm..." Joxer looked down at his pale body.
"You're you. And therefore beautiful. Please, don't hide."
Joxer lowered his head and blushed. "Not like you. You're perfect."
"It doesn't count. Come..."
He looked at the bed. Joxer smiled and joined him there, and all modesty was forgotten as they explored each other with hands and tongues and lips. Joxer filled Ares' senses with his humanity and his mind with a brave and pure soul, one that left him not just cleansed but joyous.
And as they held each other, Ares heard and felt Joxer weep.
He touched a tear. "Why?"
"All my life, I've wanted to touch someone, anyone, like this, to be held like this. That it's you, that *you* want me...I can't hold it, I can't believe it."
"You've never made love?"
Joxer shook his head.
"Not even with women?"
"No. None would have me."
"Fools. All of them." Ares had to control the brief flash of anger. "I want you. But...not if you..."
"No...I want you...it hurts how much. Please...show me how."
Ares nodded and began to kiss Joxer again. He let his hands roam over his body, until he felt Joxer's penis, hard and dripping, and began to stroke it gently. Joxer moaned.
Ares smiled. He kissed and sucked both nipples until his lover writhed with his touch, and then gently turned Joxer to his side, to part his lovely buttocks and reach between. Joxer tensed and then sighed. Ares reached for a vial of oil and coated his fingers. He carefully prepared him, stretching him as gently and thoroughly as he could. There would be no pain if he could help it - never any pain. Finally, when he felt Joxer was ready, Ares coated himself with more oil and carefully slid inside, moving in and out of the man until, with a joint sigh, Ares was fully sheathed. They moved together in a sweet rhythm utterly unlike anything Ares had ever felt before. He reached in front to grasp Joxer again.
They'd joined more than bodies. He could feel all of Joxer's pleasure and somehow, he knew Joxer could feel his, and they fed back upon each other and it grew.
And when release finally came, Ares could do nothing more than weep as he held his lover, his love, close in his arms.
Epilogue: 50 years later
Ares carefully lied down beside his lover in the bed Joxer so rarely left these days, and stroked his hands.
"Feeling a little better?"
Joxer's voice was a quavery remnant of his earlier strong tones. "Now that you're here. Tell me, how is the world?"
"Quiet. You need me more. I wish..."
"No. Don't." Joxer reached a papery skinned hand to touch Ares' firm face. Ares nodded. Joxer had refused immortality and godhood, and Ares knew he was right. Instead, he'd lived a long life as he'd chosen, happy and useful and, finally, beloved instead of ridiculed. All Ares had been permitted to do was love him.
And right now, that was all that was left to do. "I'm going to miss you."
"Shh, you'll just make yourself sad. I want to see you smile."
Ares thought of the years they'd had...too brief, but so joyful, and he did smile as he gathered his lover into his arms as gently as he could. "I'll never forget you, brave one. Braver now than ever."
Joxer just smiled, and slipped away.
Ares held him for just a little longer, tears running down his face. Then he closed those eyes and placed two copper coins on them.
Copyright 1999 Debra Fran Baker and NightRoads Associates
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