The main difference between getting drunk in a cheap tavern and getting drunk in a high-priced inn is that in the fancy place, they throw you out before you start breaking furniture. I was drinking my way through my take from that haul in Athens, and I'd started out this particular binge in some of the priciest establishments the city had to offer. But once you reach a certain level of drunk, the ambiance doesn't matter.

I tell a lie. Ambiance did matter. I wanted to get into a good, chair-smashing, pitcher-flinging, table-splintering brawl, and the seediest dockside wineshops were exactly what I needed. I was looking for the kind of violent distraction that was just not to be provided by some fucking group of well-to-do fops swilling high-priced wine and singing "My Mother Was The Keeper of the Hestian Light".

The Brazen Wench had seemed exactly what I was looking for. The taproom was crowded with sailors, street toughs, and out-of-work mercenaries. The mood was surly, and I was sitting in a corner, nursing a stein of something as strong as it was vile, waiting for a fight to break out. No singing here.

And as of yet, no fighting, either. I drained my mug and got another. If a brawl didn't shape up soon I was gonna start one.

I was just deciding which unwashed thug to hurl a barstool at when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up, into a pair of magnetic dark eyes.

"Hey," I mumbled. "Jus' who I wanna see. Wanna help start a fight?"

Ares pulled me up by the coarse fabric of my shirt. "Jasne," he breathed in my ear, "As charming as that sounds, I've got something even more entertaining planned." He wrapped his other arm around my waist and walked me into a shadowed corner. "There's someone who'd very much like to see you."

I wasn't drunk enough not to be put on edge by THAT little comment. But what the fuck was I supposed to do about it? "Want another drink."

"Later." He turned me around to face him. He was staring at me. He looked totally serious. On any other night I would have been scared sober by the calculating look he was giving me. "Time to go, Jasne."

"No- "

But it was too late, of course. He let go of me, and I staggered, not quite falling, but it probably looked pretty damn funny.

So. Stay vertical. Right. Ok. Where the fuck am I, and what's going on?

Where the fuck I was, was almost familiar. Stone walls. Stairs in one corner. If it was the same room, though, it'd been remodeled. The rack thing was gone. There was a big pile of cushions on the floor. Strife was kneeling on the floor, next to them. He didn't look so hot. He kinda had the air of someone who's just been in a fight and lost, big time.

In the center of the room was a metal pole, running from the floor to the ceiling. A way up it was bolted a length of chain sporting a pair of manacles. I really really didn't want to be here.

"Why darling, you shouldn't have." I knew that voice. Oh was I ever fucked. I didn't want to turn around, didn't want to have to know for sure... but I'm just not that smart, even when I'm not thoroughly drunk. I turned around.

Discord. Of course, Discord. Grinning like a 'friend' who's just turned you in for the reward money. Holding a wooden practice sword. Advancing on me with WAY too much spring in her step.

"He always brings me the sweetest gifts when he's trying to kiss and make up." The closer she got, the bigger that damn grin got. She poked me in the chest with the wooden sword. I looked to Ares. He was sprawled on the pile of cushions, gripping Strife by the hair, whispering in his ear.  This just kept getting worse and worse. It couldn't be real. I mean, it just COULDN'T. I closed my eyes and waited to wake up.

Big fucking mistake... but I'm sure you guessed that already. The hand on my collar hauling me backwards kinda clued me in, and the cold metal manacles clicking shut around my wrists pretty much confirmed it.

"You're not gonna get any bonus points by making it easy for me, you know." Damn, but she had a vicious little voice.  "Look at me when I'm talking to you."

I couldn't open my eyes. The room was spinning enough as it was.

CRACK! At first I couldn't figure it out My mind wouldn't make the connection, wouldn't let me see the link between the dull thudding noise and the sudden pain across my shins. It did get me to open my eyes, though.

"If I didn't want you to see what I was doing, I'd have gouged out your eyes already. Disobey me again and I will."

So she WAS pissed off at me. I stood there, just looking at her. The chains held my arms at an awkward angle. It was really uncomfortable. I tried to come up with something to say that wouldn't provoke her any further.

"Stupid little mortal bitch," she muttered, more to herself than to me. She bent down and pulled something shiny out of her boot, holding it up for me to see. A sharp-looking little knife. I had to fight to keep my eyes open as she leaned up close to me and laid the blade along my collarbone. "Touching me, actually TOUCHING me with those grubby little paws of yours. I ought to cut them off. Make you eat them."

She grabbed a handful of my shirt and slashed at it with the knife, then tore it the rest of the way off. Had it been this cold in here last time? It didn't really matter. She flung down the knife and the rags that had been a cheap but serviceable shirt. She raised the practice sword again, and hit me across the ribs. The impact slammed my back into the metal pole I was chained to, and strained my aching shoulders.

"Dumb little bitch. Stupid mortal cunt." Each insult was punctuated by another blow from the wooden sword. Each blow slammed me into the unyielding metal. After a while she stopped saying anything. I guess she was saving the energy to hit me harder, or maybe it just felt harder by then. I slipped, and hung from my chained wrists. That REALLY hurt. Discord was in mid-swing, and wherever she'd been originally aiming that blow... well, it got me in the head.

Things got a little fuzzy after that. I thought I heard someone shouting, a long way away. My hands felt like they were about to snap off. Discord had stopped hitting me. Why? I peered blearily around. Oh yeah. Because Ares was screwing the shit out of her over on that pile of cushions. I tried to get to my feet. Everything would be ok if I could just get to my feet. But my legs wouldn't move. I think that's when I blacked out.

I woke up slowly. It was like my brain wouldn't let me wake up until it knew things were safe. The first thing I was aware of was that I was lying on something soft. Somewhere nearby a fire was crackling contentedly to itself. Something was touching my face. No... someone was touching my face. Stroking it or something. I couldn't remember anyone touching me like that. I opened my eyes.

Strife was looking at me. It took me a moment to decipher his expression. It wasn't one I was used to, at least, not on people looking at me.

"You look worried." Fuck, was that my voice? It sounded like a wet cat. "I though gods weren't supposed to worry about anything."

You already know, don't you? I'd said the wrong thing. Again. His face did that turn-to-ice thing, and the hand that had been stroking my face and hair grabbed me hard my the throat. "You're right. We're not." His grip on my neck tightened with each word. "What do you recommend I do about it?" I was starting to gray out.

But as soon as it started, it was over. He jumped to his feet, letting go of me as if I were forge-hot metal.

"Jasne, I--- " He sounded so uncertain! "I mean, I'm..." He sat back down. "Get some more sleep. I'll be here when you wake up."


I seemed to have taken to waking up gradually.  Once more, I seemed to be slowly working my way back to conciousness. At first, all I knew was that I heard voices. Ok. I can sleep through that. One of them was Strife. Well, yeah. No reason to get up. Then the words started making sense.

"-within an inch of her LIFE. I really think she was trying to kill her, Cupid. And Ares... well, he wasn't doing anything to stop it. And it was all my fault. And then, well... I already told you what I did then. She probably hates me by now. If she didn't already Why am I so damn stupid?" He sounded so upset. I just couldn't understand it.

"Look. First off, it wasn't 'all your fault'." That was the other voice. Cupid? "Second, I very much doubt she hates you. I'll talk to her, ok?"

More information was reaching my brain. That didn't feel quite like a pillow under my head. Also, someone had put a shirt on me. There was also a hand resting in my hair.

"Hey." That was right in my ear. I opened my eyes. Strife had his face bent right over mine. It was his lap my head was lying in. Also his hand in my hair. Oh. "You wakin' up?"

"I guess so." I didn't want to. I felt stiff and sore all over, and my head hurt. But I couldn't just sleep forever.

He smiled. Not a smirk, or a grin, but a genuine, sweet, shy smile. "Well... um. I'm gonna find a safe place for you to be while I get this shit with Discord ironed out."

Well, what the fuck? I didn't need THIS. I'd been taking care of myself practically since I could walk. I didn't need him or anyone else fighting my fights for me. I started to sit up to give him a piece of my mind....

...and couldn't. I mean, my muscles just wouldn't work! I think I moved maybe an inch, and it woke up little pockets of hurting in places I didn't even know I had.

Strife stood up slowly, gently easing my head down onto the bed instead of letting it slam down. It still sent a wave of queasy dizziness through me.

"Cupid's gonna keep an eye on you while I go talk to... someone who might help. You'll be ok."

I tried to sit up again, and failed even more miserably than before. When my eyes focused again he was gone.

"He is absolutely stuck on you, you know."

That would be Cupid. I tried to get a look at him, but realized I'd have to move my head to do that. Too much work. "Yeah, right." The very idea was ridiculous. Wasn't it?

"No, I'm totally serious." He'd kindly stepped into my field of vision.  Blond hair. Fluffy white wings. Kinda cute. "He stood up to Ares over you, you know."


"Yeah. Ares told him to go fetch you `cuz Discord was feelin' frisky, and he said 'no way'. So Ares pounded the snot out of him and snagged you himself. I didn't say he was clever about it."

I didn't know what to say to that. I tried moving, just a little, without sitting up. It hurt, but I found that if I kept my head still it wasn't too bad. I realized I was wearing that black linen smock I'd seen Strife wearing that other time. It smelled like him. That was... kind of nice.

I glanced up again. Cupid was peering down at me.

"She really did a number on you, didn't she?"

"Uh, yeah." No shit, blondie.

"Brace yourself, I'm gonna flip you over."

What the fuck? True to his word, he rolled me over onto my belly. Then he sat down on the bed.

"So, what hurts most?"

"My head." Not surprising, since I'd been doing my best to drink all the beer in a good sized port city before getting thoroughly thrashed by a whacko goddess with a wooded sword.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when I felt his fingertips on my scalp.

"Relax," he chuckled. "I'm good at this. Honest."

He was, too. By the time he was through gently massaging my temples I could move my head from side to side without starting to retch. Then he started in on my neck. I hadn't realized how tense it was until I felt the knotted muscles loosening under his light touch.

"You ARE good at this. Maybe I should let that horse-toothed cunt smack me around more often."

"THAT is what Strife is trying to figure out how to prevent." He started on my shoulders. Oooohhhh, that was nice.

"Can take care of myself," I muttered.

"Yeah, you're doing a really fantastic job so far." He rubbed gently down the length of my spine. Even through the linen smock, his hands felt warm. "Remind me to stay out of your way when you start kicking ass."

Smart-mouthed bastard.

"Don't worry about it. You can't do anything if you get yourself killed in the next day or two, right?"

Dammit. How dare he have the audacity to talk LOGIC to me while plying me with an utterly splendid massage? "Yeah. Whatever."

That was when Strife came back. I'm not sure how I knew... I didn't see him or anything. But I knew he was there even before he said anything.

"Hey, Jasne. Do you think you could sit up?"

Surprise, surprise... I could. Damn, but Cupid gives a mean backrub.  Strife sort of half-squatted by the edge of the bed, looking me right in the eye.

"I talked to someone who's willing to put you up for a bit, someone Discord won't fuck with. Shit, someone Ares won't want to fuck with." He grabbed one of my hands, a little awkwardly. "I'm not gonna let that happen to you again."

Now, what the unholy fuck could I say to that? I tried to smile. It was easier than figuring out the hundred things racing around in my head.

"Uh, Cupid. I'm... I mean, I don't know how to...."

"Don't worry about thanking me. You could pay me a visit sometime, though." Cupid grinned down at me with a gleam in his eye. "Under better circumstances. And bring the redhead."

Strife smiled weakly. "Uh. Sure." He turned to me. "Ready to travel?"


I couldn't walk. I could stand, but that took concentration, which made my head hurt. Strife carried me, which felt really weird. The last time I'd been carried, it had been by a pair of city guards, and I'd been struggling all the way.

"So, you're taking me where?"

"An old friend. Well, not exactly a friend. The sister of a friend." He sounded a little tense. "She's got a shrine in Sparta."

I kind of lost track of our trip. I do know he didn't just blink us there. I don't know why. It didn't take too long, though. I don't think it did, anyhow. I didn't really notice anything until he put me down to open a heavy wooden door. It looked like the back door of a temple. I've snuck through one or two of those before. Inside was a homey little room, with a pair of low, wide couches and a hearth. Wood had been laid in the hearth, but it wasn't lit. Strife set me down on one of the couches. It was long enough to stretch out on, and comfortable enough to sleep on. Better than most places I've slept. I watched, blearily, as he paced around the small chamber. He looked nervous. I wondered why.

But when SHE stepped into the room, I didn't think anything at all.

She was a goddess. She just couldn't not be. Tall . . . even for a man, she'd be tall. Her skin was dark, so deep a brown that the abstract black tattoos covering her body were difficult to make out. The pale gold of her eyes, and of her close-cropped hair, was a stunning contrast. She was naked, like an athlete in the Games, and muscled like one. Oh, and the wings . . . they weren't fluffy and white, like Cupid's, but sleek-looking, speckled brown, gray, and cream. A hawk's wings, not a swan's.

"Nike," Strife chuckled a little, uneasily. "You're looking well."

She looked at him, stern and calculating. "Strife. You little weasel."  She laughed then. I think it was the most beautiful sound I'd ever heard. "Last time I saw you, you were putting snails in my sandals."

He fidgeted like a little boy. "Aw, Nike, that was five hundred years ago!"

 "Might as well have been five days. I don't think you've grown up half as much as you should have." She was still smiling, though. "Why should I do you any favors?"

"Come ON, Nike!" He was whining, and sounded maybe eight years old. "Me and your kid brother, we were like," he held up two fingers pressed together "this, doesn't that make us... well, something?"

"You know what it makes us, Strife? Nothing. Absolutely nothing." She was shaking her head a little, but she was still smiling. I hoped that was a good thing. "Anyway, when's the last time you hung out with Zelos?"

"Ok, so we kinda grew apart... he got all serious an' shit. But, hey, old times sake, y'know?"

"Old times, my ass." She reached out and grabbed him by the hair, holding his face inches from her own. "This is the first unselfish thing I've ever seen you do. Of course I'll help you out, you little twit." She gave him a quick shake before letting go of his hair. Then she turned to me, and my breath just stuck in my throat. Sky and cloud, she was impressive! "So, you're the magician that's given Our Strife a backbone."

I blinked at her. I know, somewhat less than brilliant, but I was having a bad day.

"Well, I'm Nike. You can stay here for a while, but don't be any more hassle than you can help, or you'll wish it was Discord that had ya. Ok?" Her friendly grin took most of the sting out of her words.

"Um. Yeah, of course. Thank you."

She turned back to Strife. "Manners! Why didn't you tell me she had manners!" She shot a look at me. "If you can teach some of those to him, I'll consider us even, girl." She glanced at the wooden door we'd come in through, and narrowed her eyes a little. The door blurred and vanished, leaving only a smooth stone wall. "I'll leave you guys alone for a bit, but she is to get some rest. REST, you hear me?" With that, she was gone.

Strife sat down on the edge of the couch I was lying on. "I knew I could count on her."

"You knew, huh?" I left it there, though. No need to remind him he'd been all but pissing in his shiny black pants a few minutes ago.

"Ah, Nike's cool, she's a little intense, that's all."

"Intense, yeah." I lay back. The couch was really comfortable. I didn't exactly feel like sleeping, but I didn't want to move, either.

Strife stroked my face with the back of his hand. He looked so serious now, not at all what I was used to from him. He looked away. "It's my fault. I shouldn't have pissed Ares off. If I hadn't done that he probably wouldn't have let Discord go so far." He looked almost as if he might cry. What the fuck? "I'll get you out of this as best I can, and then I'll leave you alone. I'll try and keep Ares off your back. I won't let Discord get at you."

"But....I mean, that's not..." Shit shit shit. What was going ON here? "I..." I looked at him. This was hard. This was really hard. Why the unholy fuck was this so hard? "I want to see you again."

He stared at me like I'd started spouting prophecy or something, and for a moment I was afraid he WOULD cry.

Then he kissed me. Not a deep, wet, sexy kiss, but a soft, gentle, tentative kiss. Nobody had ever kissed me like that before.


He just sat there for a long moment, staring at me, stroking my hair. When he eased his hand inside the waistband of the cheap trousers I was wearing, I reached for him, but he pushed my hand away.

"No. Just... rest." At least he was smiling again. I lay back, a little cautiously. "Nike made us promise you'd rest, remember?" His thumb brushed my clit, and I moaned a little, spreading my legs a bit wider.  "I never said  I would rest."

He slid two fingers inside me, and I automatically started pushing up against me.

"No," he shook his head, slightly. "You're supposed to be resting."

Resting. What-the-fuck-EVER. But when he started grinding his thumb on my clit, and thrusting his fingers at JUST the right angle, I forgot to sulk. Shit, he was good with his hands! I lay back, relaxed, and let him touch me. I didn't have a choice...whenever I tried to DO anything, the little prick smirked and told me to 'rest'. I couldn't keep still for long, though.

"Ahhh... coming..." Yeah, I know, I'm just a bundle of eloquence. Fuck you.

Strife's eyes never left my face as I shuddered through an explosive climax. Then he kissed me on the forehead. "Now I think you should rest some, for real."

"I can't sleep. I've hardly done anything BUT sleep."

"You don't have to sleep, but if you try to get up, I'll tie you down." He grinned. "Actually, that's not such a bad idea."


Well, I didn't sleep. I'd slept so much lately, I wasn't sure I'd ever sleep again. I didn't exactly hurt anymore, but I felt... weak, I guess. Like I'd spent the past week moving furniture around or something. It was a good chance to lie back and just think, which was exactly what I DIDN'T want to do.

And Strife, well, Strife was cradling my head in his lap like I was a pet or something. Just looking at me, and stroking my hair every now and then. If I just relaxed, it was nice. But if I started thinking, I got nervous. What, precisely, was going on here?

But for the most part, I just lay there. It was calm, and comfortable, and no one was chasing me. Strife's hand in my hair felt nice, and if I didn't want to think too hard about what that wistful look in his eye might mean, well, I'd earned some rest, hadn't I?

I don't know how long we stayed there like that. I think it was more than an hour, but not much more. I glanced up at a soft rustle from the doorway.

I had to blink to be sure I wasn't seeing double. Ok, so the pair of young men I was looking at weren't completely identical. One had a narrow braid in his long, blond hair framing the right side of his face. The other had a braid on his left. Apart from that... they had the same delicate faces, dominated by wide green eyes, the same lithe, muscular little bodies, the same warm, golden tan, and the same skimpy, silky loincloths. They each carried an armload of towels.

"I'm Toren." That was left-braid.

"I'm Koren." Right-braid. "Nike sent us to fetch you."

They had an air of... detached obedience, I guess would describe it. They kept their eyes lowered when they weren't speaking.

"She's having a feast tonight and"

"and she thought you might like a bath first."

A bath... now, there was an idea.  Both of the feline-looking blond guys stepped forward to help me stand, but Strife had already lifted me to my feet. They led us into a steamy room with tiled walls and floor, dominated by a huge sunken pool. One of the blond guys (Toren?) stripped off my clothes with a kind of straightforward efficiency. Looking down showed me just how much of my skin was covered in dark bruises, so I tried not to do that. I glanced over at Strife; the other one (Koren?) was doing the same to him. They were quick about it. Guess they had a lot of experience taking people's clothes off!

The water was just barely not too hot. It felt great. There was a kind of ledge, all along the edge of the pool, at just the right height to sit with just my head out of the water. Beside me, Strife sighed contentedly, and lay his head on my shoulder. I let my eyes drift mostly closed. Strength seemed to seep into my weary muscles with the warmth of the water, chasing out the sore stiffness lingering there. I felt almost human again. I felt... Strife, nibbling not-quite-gently on my neck.

"Hey, lazy," he murmured, "Time to get clean." He grabbed a flask of something from the ledge behind him, pouring some into his hands. He started rubbing it into my hair. It smelled a little herby, a little bitter, and it tingled ever-so-slightly on my scalp. The stuff lathered up real quick, too,  as I realized when a thick drift of foam covered my face.


"Shhhhh." He worked the soap onto my skin with firm, caressing strokes. It wasn't until I cleared the suds out of my eyes that I noticed he'd maneuvered us into the middle of the big pool. The water was a little cooler here, but still nice and warm.

Well, he wouldn't have gone through all this shit just to drown me, would he? Not that I could do anything about it if he decided to. Yeah, I know, cheerful, but it helped me relax, because after all, why worry about something you can't change?

Anyway, it was kind of nice to have someone bathing me. I couldn't remember ever being taken care of like this. I let myself float in the water, the last of my aches and tension melting away under Strife's confident touch.

"Feeling better?"

"Mmmmm." I didn't want to rouse myself enough to form actual words.

"Oh, goooooood." His voice had a wicked little edge to it.

I chuckled slightly. "As a matter of fact, I'm feeling sooo good that-"  I dove under the water, grabbed Strife around the knees, and yanked. He hit the water with a very satisfying splash and I began to swim off, but he grabbed my ankle and pulled me back.

"You'll pay for that, girlie-girl."

"Oh, will I no-" That was when he started tickling me with his free hand, the little jerk, and anything I would have said fading into helpless giggles. I tried to kick, but he was still gripping my ankle.

"Laugh while you can, girlie..." he slid the hand clutching my ankle up the length of my leg, and grabbed ahold of my butt. Hard.  "You won't be laughing for long." He pulled me close to him.

"And whaddaya mean by that, eh?" I scowled at him.

"Oh... just a little of..." he pressed his mouth against my stomach, and blew. Fuck, that tickled! I thrashed around, or tried to, anyway. He had a pretty tight grip on me.

"That... isn't gonna... stop me from.... laughing!" I gasped around a fit of convulsive giggling.

"I'll just have to try harder, then." He slipped a hand between my legs and started grinding his thumb against my clit. "Let's see you laugh now, wiseass."

"Wiseass, was I? "Ha. Ha. Aaaaaaaaaaaah..." Ok, so I don't have a smart answer for EVERYTHING. Especially as he slid first one, then two fingers inside me and started pumping. I writhed a little, and moaned.

"That's more like it," he said with a sniff. But he was smiling, which was a good thing... or was it? "But maybe I should, like, make SURE you've learned your lesson."

Hmmm.  I didn't have to wonder about what he meant by that for long, of course. With one slow, firm stroke he guided his soap-slick cock into my ass. He didn't let up his pressure on my clit for a moment, and thrust a third finger into my twat. I wrapped my legs around his waist and closed my eyes. It was too much, too much sensation. I took a deep breath and plunged my head back, under the water, and gave myself over to it.

The water swirled around my head, loud in my ears. I shuddered, floating. My world had narrowed to Strife's cock, sliding in and out of my ass, his hand, filling my cunt, and the relentless grind of his thumb against my clit. And, of course, my lungs screaming for air. I needed to breathe. I needed to come. I held out as long as I could, on both counts. It wasn't long enough, of course. I came hard, shaking with the force of it, just as I broke the surface, gasping for breath. Strife stiffened against me, and I felt the hot spurt of his seed.

"So, what was up with that, some kinda drowned Rat trick?" That's another annoyance about screwing gods. THEY don't have to wait to catch their breath.

"Picked it up from a river nymph I used to know, in Thessaly."  Nilae. It had been a while since I'd seen her.

"Forgive us for interrupting but-" Oh yeah. Those blond guys. I'd forgotten they were still in the room.

"---it's time to dress for dinner."

 Part 5:  PARTY LIKE IT'S 1999....B.C.

Toren and Koren dressed me in some wretchedly girly gauzy blue thing and fussed over how 'impossibly short' my hair was. I hadn't gotten around to cutting it for a while, and it almost reached my shoulders. Damn stuff kept getting in my eyes, and these two pretty-boys were whining that it wasn't long enough to 'do anything' with. For a while I was afraid I would have to resort to violence to stop them from weaving some flowers (flowers!) into it. I agreed to a little piece of blue ribbon just to shut them up. I absolutely refused when they wanted to paint me up with some of those damn cosmetic powders, though. I know what they put it that crap, and if you did, you wouldn't want it on your face, either.

So then they led us into this huge room, all bright light and shiny white marble. There was a slew of big (white!) cushions on the floor. Looming above them was a big chair, almost a throne, thickly padded and covered in (yes, you guessed it, WHITE!) soft leather.

"Make yourselves comfortable,"

"The other guests will be arriving soon."

Fuck, but it was annoying, those two finishing each other's sentences like that all the time. I was glad when they flitted off to wherever. Of course, that left me alone with Strife, which was enough to put me on edge. I tried to hang on to being irritated, since it was better than being scared.

"So. Would this be a good time to tell me more or less what the fuck's going on?"

Strife smirked at me as he flopped down on one of the big cushions. He wrinkled his nose at me, which only made him look like some kind of deranged shiny black rabbit. "We're waiting for the party to start."

"I'm serious."

"Well, we are. Nike throws really bitchin' parties, too, we're gonna have an awesome time."

"Not if you don't tell me what the fuck is going on. Okay?"

He rolled his eyes at me, the little prick. "All right, chill. So. Discord's got this itch to put a major hurting on you."

"Which of course makes no sense."

"Easier to be mad at you than at Ares. I mean, she pulls that High Queen Wicked Badass shit on mortals all the time, but if she tried it on him she'd be toast in, like, no time." He grabbed me and pulled me down onto the cushion with him. "So, while Uncle Ares was, uh, distracting her, I brought you here."

I leaned back, resting on one elbow. The cushion was really soft... I couldn't feel the floor through it. "Here being, precisely?"

"Sparta. Nike's temple."

"And this is good because?"

"Nike's got, like, major clout." He rolled over onto his belly, propping up his chin in his hands. "She's the goddess of victory, so Ares doesn't wanna get her pissed off at him, especially now."


"Oh, shit, yeah, you wouldn't know. Uh, ok, stuff mortals would know... Athena."

"Goddess of Wisdom, right?" That, at least, I knew.

"Yeah, only she's decided she wants to branch out."

"So what's the problem?"

"She's branching out into war stuff. Tactics, mostly. Not really a new thing, but she's been putting in kind of a push lately. Been makin' nice with a bunch of generals. So, Ares is cheesed off at her bigtime." He snickered. "Not that they ever got along."

"Oooookay," I stretched my legs out. It felt great. "So how does Nike fit in?"

"Well, Unc's not always the most, uh, diplomatic guy..."

Well, I couldn't NOT laugh at that. "Thought you were telling me things I didn't know."

Strife rolled his eyes. "I'm getting' there, `kay? Anyhow, so he's not always on the best of terms with Nike, and..."

"And Athena is, right?" Figures. Why would god politics be any more rational than human politics?

"I knew you'd catch on."

I glanced up at a barely perceptible noise, to see Nike striding into the room. I tried not to stare. I don't think I did a very good job. She was still naked, but there were now heavy gold rings adorning her nipples, and a flash of gold peeking through her pubic hair. I swallowed, hard. If she noticed, she ignored it.

"Strife. If you misbehave at this gathering, you will regret it. Understood?" I barely made out the words, I was so busy listening to her voice.

"Who, me, misbehave?"

"And as for you," Oh shit! She was talking to ME! "You're getting a rare honor. The only other mortals at this feast will be my servants, and some captives that have been offered to me as tribute. If you cause any trouble, you'll wish you were one of them."

I don't think she was expecting an answer. I hope she wasn't, because I wasn't really able to speak at that moment. About then, the rest of Nike's guests began to arrive.

Now, I'm not usually the shy type, but this was different. Not only did I not know anyone, chances were that anyone I ticked off could blast me into oblivion, or make me wish they had. Or at least curse me with bad breath or something. It sure didn't help when Strife caught sight of someone he wanted to talk to and took off, leaving me to fend for myself. I practiced being inconspicuous, and listened to what snatches of conversation drifted my way. By the time a familiar face came to my rescue, I was damn near desperate.

"Y'know, Red, you're a whole lot cuter when you're not bleeding internally." Cupid was giving me this kind of wry grin that was almost a smirk. Standing next to him, with an arm curled loosely around his waist, was this tall, skinny chick with big green eyes and an inhumanly thick mane of curly black hair.

"So, C, who's the mortal?" She raised one too-perfect eyebrow. "She's not yours, is she?"

Cupid made a face at her. "Yeesh, Peitho, rude much?" He turned to me. "Jasne, this lovely but regrettably ill-mannered damsel is Peitho. Peitho, this is Jasne. She's here with Strife."

"Strife? You're shitting me, right?" She certainly sounded surprised, but at least she didn't seem hostile. "So. Jasne, that's not a Greek name. Scythian?"

Wow, she was actually acknowledging that I could talk. "Yeah. Pazyryk."

That seemed to get her interest. "So, you're a long way from home."

"Oh, I was born in Corinth... my grandmother, she came to Greece with her sister when they were pretty young." This was really weird, making small talk with some minor deity at feast thrown by Nike. Not that it was any weirder than anything else in my life these days.

Actually, hanging out with Cupid and Peitho was kind of fun. Listening to them gossip was neat even though I didn't know the people... mostly, the GODS!... they were sharing dirt on.

"So apparently she really wants a kid, and he CAN'T." Peitho grinned smugly as she related her newest tidbit.

"Well, duh. I mean, she knew all along Hades was lord of the underworld. Gods of the Dead can't father kids, it's, like, natural law or something. Like Osiris." That from a violet-eyed youth who I hadn't actually been introduced to, but Peitho had addressed him as Himerus.

Cupid sighed. "Yeah, Persephone's never been overly bright, but I do feel sorry for her."

"Well I don't." Peitho sniffed. "She's always thought she was so perfect, it's about time she found out she can't always get her way."

"I don't get it," Himerus said. "If it's Hades who can't, why doesn't she, just, you know..." He giggled like a damn 12 year old. What is it with gods and immaturity, anyway?

Peitho chuckled. "Oh, but she WON'T. She's... uh... monogamous."

"No way!" Himerus stared at her. "Demeter's daughter? DEMETER'S daughter doin' the 'one and only' bit? That'd be like Big C here being monogamous!"

Cupid snorted. "Yeah, like Psyche would stand for that. If I was, SHE'D have to be!"

About that time I could feel someone standing behind me. Strife. I didn't even have to look, I just knew, somehow.

"Hey, what're ya filling her ears with that drivel for?" Yep. Definitely Strife.

"Well what did you expect, leaving her with the kissy-face squad?" Now, that voice I didn't know.

I tipped my head back. Strife was standing over me, looking down and grinning.

"Hey Jasne, I wanted you to meet my old friend Zelos."

Zelos. Oh yeah, Nike's younger brother. He looked it, too. Shorter, but with the same wiry build, same dark skin, similar black tattoos. His hair was silvery white, though, and hung in shaggy locks, hiding his face.

About then I started feeling weird, like the hair on the back of my neck was standing on end. Something was going to happen. I didn't have anything rational to base this on, but I couldn't shake the feeling.

That was also when Nike's servants started bringing in the food. Now, I thought I had some idea of what to expect there. I've seen the kinds of feasts rich folks have, and the sort of food they serve there. When I'd been posing as a servant I'd helped prepare a ghastly dish consisting of a squab, stuffed into a chicken, stuffed into a duck, stuffed into a goose. Not to mention the heavily seasoned sauces, sticky sweet desserts, greasy little fried things, and too-strong wine.

The food being brought out by Nike's loincloth-clad servants couldn't be more different. Bread, crusty and still warm. Olive oil of the highest quality, green and rich-smelling. Grape-sized knobs of mild white cheese. Peppercorns, whole, and a mortar and pestle. Roast lamb, fragrant with rosemary. Sweet-smelling peaches and peeled sections of oranges.

Strife reached for some bread with one hand and put the other one around my waist. "Sorry to ditch you like that," he breathed in my ear, " but me `n Zelos go way back, and we haven't talked in like, AGES."

The food tasted even better than it looked or smelled. I would have enjoyed it more if I didn't still have that feeling, like something big was about to happen. Not so much a foreboding as just expectation, but still, preoccupying, and getting stronger every moment. I stayed quiet, and did my best to listen to the background noises rather than the blur of conversation. I heard... something?... and even as I turned to look, I recognized it as the tread of someone in heavy boots.

And I knew, of course. Glancing over my shoulder just confirmed it Ares didn't seem surprised that I knew he was there. He met my eyes as he spoke.

"Nike," he drawled. "I believe you have something that belongs to me."


"Really, Ares. Even you have better manners than this." All of the small conversations that had been whirring about the room ground to a halt. Nike was very still, but did not get up from her chair. Her voice was calm and firm. She sounded like my great-aunt Jilat reminding me to use my napkin, not my sleeve, to wipe my mouth. "This is a festive occasion, and my hospitality is freely offered, but it would be unwise to abuse it."

 "Now, now, Nike," he purred, making his way towards her with a leisurely stride "You know I'd never do anything like that." I was thoroughly disgusted with myself when I realized I couldn't take my eyes off of him. Even from across the room I seemed to feel the heat of his presence and every breath he took echoed in my chest. As he approached Nike, one of her loincloth-clad servants, a tall, broad, densely muscled woman, rushed to her side. Ares grinned at the sight of her. "You may want to call off  your watchdog."

"Tog go bog e, a Shile," Nike laid a hand on the woman's shoulder, not taking her eyes off  Ares. I didn't know the language but the meaning was clear.

Ares dropped to on knee and took one of Nike's hands in both of his own. He raised it to her lips and I gulped, hard.  "Please, accept me as your humble guest." He didn't even try to keep the sarcastic tone out of his voice.

Nike narrowed her eyes, and I tensed up; this could get WAY ugly real fast. But the only smiled, a blatantly condescending smile. "Well, do try and behave yourself for a change," she sniffed, "I'm trying to have a good time."

Ares bowed mockingly, then sauntered over to where Strife and I were sitting. "Well, if it isn't Idas and Marpessa," he growled.

Peitho sneered at him. "Ares, knock it off. I've met Apollo, and believe me, you are no Apollo." He bared his teeth at her and she giggled and blew him a kiss.

 The frozen hush that settled over the room thawed into renewed chatter. Ares glared at Cupid, who scooted over obligingly, then sat himself down next to me on the broad cushion. Strife tightened his arm around my waist, pulling me close to him.

Ares rolled his eyes. "Oh, will the two of you just RELAX!"

Strife didn't seem reassured... at least, he sure didn't 'relax' his grip on me. "So what exactly do you meant by  'Something that belongs to you', Unc?" He sounded different, real quiet but resolute.

Ares stared pointedly at the medallion around my neck, the one that wouldn't come off.

Himerus gasped, chuckling. "Oh, Ares, you DIDN'T!"

Peitho burst out laughing. "Oh that is so... so totally like you, man!" She peered at me more closely. "Oh shit, you DID!"

Zelos sniffed. "That's rotten, even for you, dude."

Oh, I was SO hating the sound of this! I leaned closer to Ares. "What's 'rotten even for you'?"

Ares grinned. "Oh, don't worry, it's an honor for you, really. And it's not as if it weren't too late for you to complain... after all, " he smirked, " 'Uh… Ares, I'm sorry I killed one of your worshippers. Um. Well, I suppose I'm not all that sorry that I killed him, but I'm sorry if it offended you. Anyway, here's his medallion, and I'll try and make it up to you somehow.'.... I don't recall you setting any conditions."

Ohhh... throwing my own words back at me was obnoxious enough, but he did it IN MY VOICE. Asshole.

 But before I could start insisting upon an explanation, Nike was on her feet making a speech.

"As you all... well, ALMOST ALL,"she amended, with a glance in my direction, "know, this is the time when My worshippers vie  the most desperately for My favor." Knowing laughter rippled through the assembled guests. "The offerings they render unto Me can be quite impressive." She gestured towards the still-heaping platters. "I'm sure those you have already reviewed have met with approval?" Hoots and cheers indicated that they had. This whole interchange had a ritualized feel, as if this went on in the same way year after year. "Then shall I bring forth the cream of the crop?" By the applause and catcalls I guessed that this was everyone's favorite part. Nike fluffed out her wings, smiling.

Apparently this was a cue of sorts. A few of Nike's servants dragged naked, bound captives into the room. The burly woman who apparently considered herself Nike's bodyguard led a chained shaven-headed scar-faced guy with muscles like a gladiator. A dark-eyed servant I hadn't seen before dragged a struggling blonde woman, soft and curvy, her wrists bound with coarse rope. Even Koren and Toren were doing their part, carrying a tall, skinny, pale guy who looked too scared to put up a fight. There were around ten people brought in. They all seemed to be in various degrees of shock and fear. Not that I could blame them. Nike walked up and down, looking them over. "I'm sure you're all very frightened," she said, in a completely unreassuring tone. "After all, you've all been defeated in battle, taken captive, and sacrificed to a Goddess of questionable mercy." She sure was showing a lot of teeth. "So, friends, what shall I do with them?"

"Sell `em to the Romans!"

"Cook `em in a stew!"

"Turn them into lawnchairs!"

"Make `em scrub the public latrines with their tongues!"

"Share them with us!"

"Share?" Nike made a show of appearing to consider it. "How many of you want me to share?"

Everyone cheered. Damn, even I cheered. Guess I was getting caught up in the moment.

"Wellll...." she drawled, "There's only a few of them, however will I do this fairly?"

One of the guests, a voluptuous woman with wine-colored curls, stood up. "Why, the same way we always do, Nike... we let me settle it." She made her way leisurely to where Nike was standing. As she did, I could see that although her teal gown was made of rich, heavy velvet, the hem was tattered and threadbare, and she wore battered, ancient-looking boots. "For when all is said and done, you are all at Fortune's mercy."

"Not that you have, any mercy, Tyche," Nike chuckled.

Tyche? So THIS was Lady Luck? She moved like a showoff, but there was a lot of stagger in her swagger. She looked like a gutter tramp who'd made a few good scores but on the whole had seen better days. I liked her already.

"I may not have any mercy, but I've brought enough astragali for everyone." Tyche opened a pouch at her belt and grabbed a handful of something. You... bookends... let's do your guy first."

As Toren and Koren led their nervous charge forward, Strife leaned across my lap. "Hey Unc, isn't that Xena's pissboy?"


Well, I wasn't sure what an astragalus was, either. What Tyche passed around to everyone (well, almost everyone... I wasn't given any) were these little bone four-sided dice. I peered at Strife's. Instead of numbers, they had these little symbols... a goblet, a star, a dagger, and what looked like a stick of some sort. Weird.
Tyche went up to the guy Toren and Koren were holding and cupped a hand under his chin. "Our first prize, a real cutie. What's your name, cutie?"

He looked at the floor and mumbled something unintelligible. Tyche slapped him, lightly. I couldn't help but notice (and I'm sure no one else could, either) the way his cock began to fill out at that.

"So everyone can hear you."


Tyche grinned lazily. "I'm sure you can do better than that."

He took a deep breath and looked straight ahead. "My name is Joxer, Ma'am."

Tyche chuckled and whispered something in his ear, then kissed him on the cheek. He relaxed visibly.

"As you can see, he's eager to please." She sauntered up and down the row of captives. "So, let's see what the roll is! Nike, roll!"

On a little table I hadn't seen before, Nike rolled a single four-sided die. "Swords!"

"All right," Tyche said, "You know what that means. You gotta come up Swords on all four dice to have a shot at this cutie... roll `em, folks!"

Ares nudged my ribs with his elbow. "Blow." v Automatically, I glanced at his crotch. Then I think I might have blushed.

He tried not to laugh and failed spectacularly, snorting and almost choking. "Maybe later. I mean, blow on my dice."

That time, I KNOW I blushed. Peitho and Himerus were laughing their fool heads off, Cupid was barely suppressing a giggling fit, and Strife clamped a hand over his mouth. I tried to act nonchalant as I blew lightly on the quartet of dice in Ares' cupped palm.

Sauntering about the room, Tyche clapped her hands. "Are we ready to roll `em? Everyone... let `em rip!"

The room was filled with the small clicks of bone dice dropping onto the marble floor, and a chorus of disappointed sighs. And one pleased throaty chuckle... Ares had rolled all Swords. Figures.

As it turned out, he was the only one to roll four Swords. Nike looked distinctly pissed. "I was hoping to keep this one for myself." Her smile was obviously forced. "You'd better give us a good show." She nodded to Toren and Koren, who released their grip on the man's arms.

Ares strolled forward, a lustful gleam in his eyes. I didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed that it wasn't aimed at me. The mortal, Joxer, was staring at the floor and trembling slightly, but his cock had been slowly stiffening ever since Tyche slapped him and was now truly a sight to behold. Apparently this sort of thing agreed with him. It certainly held the interest of everyone else in the room. It seemed that wherever I looked, someone was fidgeting in their seat (I know I was!), breathing heavily, or licking their lips. Beside me, Zelos was muttering something to Strife, a little too softly for me to make out.

Ares stood close behind Joxer, and wrapped a hand around his neck, forcing his head up and back. He laid his other hand flat on the mortal's stomach, pulling him close. Someone was tugging at my elbow, but I ignored it; my attention was very much elsewhere, and nothing anyone wanted to say to me could possibly hold my interest while Ares was sliding his hand up Joxer's chest, and closing his teeth not-quite-gently around his earlobe? How dare anyone try to distract me from the taste of this mortal's flesh, salty with fear-sweat, the smoothness of his skin, cool beneath my fingertips, the way he shuddered at my touch, the...

What the FUCK?


I shook my head, trying to get my thoughts straight. Cupid was still tugging at my arm.

"Jasne! I said, have you had any kind of, like, history of prophetic trances, religious instruction, shamanic initiation, something like that?" He looked a little concerned. Well, I was concerned, and more than a little.

"No... well not really, anyway. My great-aunt was some kind of shaman, I think, but she never really taught me anything."

"Hmm... well, those kind of tendencies do run in families, I guess that'd make you susceptible..."

I didn't want to know, I really didn't want to know, but like an idiot, I asked anyway. "What do you mean, susceptible?"

"To, well..." Cupid paused, studying my face carefully. "There's just no way to put this that'll make it sound less creepy."

I wasn't getting as ticked off as I really should have been. I was having a hard time keeping my awareness on the conversation, truth be told. If I let my concentration slip for even a moment, my thoughts were no longer my own, and it kept getting harder to get back under control. "Could you just, like, TELL me?"

"It's just that there aren't any human words for it," Zelos chimed in. "It's not really a human concept."

"Aw, come on," Peitho objected, "What about 'possessed'? THAT'S a human word."

"POSSESSED?" Ok, I was freaking now.

"Well, 'overshadowed' might be closer," said Cupid. "And not even full-time." He frowned. "It's kind of weird, though. Usually the kind of link you're carrying around takes a long time to set up. The only exceptions I've seen were..." His eyes flickered to where Koren and Toren were standing and something must have showed on my face, because he shut up real quick and took a deep breath.

And here I thought I was good at keeping a blank face. Either Cupid was better than most at reading expressions or he was cheating by eavesdropping on my thoughts. If it WAS the latter, I would have forgiven him, for not pursuing the topic. Swallowing hard, I turned to glare at Strife. "How much of this have you known? And for how long? How long has this been going on, anyway?"

Shut up. You're going to cause a scene. And it's not Strife's fault, anyway. Ares. Damn-him-to-Tartarus Ares, talking in my frigging HEAD. You don't know how easy you've had it. I mean, at any time I chose, I could have done THIS.... And... nothingness. I couldn't see, hear, feel, smell, or taste anything. No sensation of movement, no feeling of any part of my body... it totally sucked. I'm not sure how long it lasted, since there really wasn't any sense of passing time, either.

You see? I've been spoiling you rotten. Even as a thought in my head, he sounded so fucking smug. It'll all go much easier on you if you'll just get with the program. I am the god. You are the mortal. Your wishes just plain aren't important, and whining will just piss me off.

I realized that fuming just isn't as effective when you have no arms to cross and no mouth to pout with.

Oh, quit sulking. Ares sounded, not exactly angry, but certainly irritated. It's not like I'm using you to lead a suicidal cavalry charge or anything. You're an extra pair of eyes and ears, a spare pair of hands when I need `em. Speaking of which...

Sensation returned all at once. I wondered how long I'd been 'out'. I certainly wasn't sitting on the soft cushion where I had been. I was kneeling directly on the floor. White marble... OK, so I was still at Nike's party. I looked up, trying to get my bearings... or rather, TRIED to. My head and neck wouldn't move. I couldn't even move my eyes.

Relax, Jasne, I'm driving. Ares actually chuckled. In my damn head, he chuckled. It was really, really annoying. And, oh.... I might need more than your just hands.