To Ride The Fire IV-V
By Shamenka

IV: Raking The Ashes

Strife watched his uncle sleep. No, that was wrong. He watched his father sleep. He thought it rather ironic, that his life long search for his father should end where it had begun. It had been Ares' steady confidence in him, as a young God, that had lead Strife to regard himself as every bit as worthy of the appellation 'God' as any of the rest of them. After his self respect was jump started, his need for completion was born. And so his quiet search for his father had begun. Only, he hadn't known it was a fruitless search. Hadn't known that all the other Gods were truly conspiring against him; keeping the truth from Ares, more than him.

He smiled as he realised that sometimes paranoia is actually justified.

Now he knew that with Ares' memories blocked, as they had been, his real father would never have known to search out a missing son. It was so like the rest of the Gods, to do something so brutal. To rip away Ares' realisation that he had another son. One who shared his own nature so much closer than 'him' - the other one. Ares, who worshipped only his children. The rest of creation could simply go fuck their collective selves as far as Ares cared. His children, however, were the be all and end all, of everything. But you really had to know how to look for it. Years of wishing had left Strife with a very keen eye for Ares' emotions. Wishing someone would look at him like that.

Now he would. And all because of 'his' needless attack.

After having spent his entire life playing second lyre to that blonde shit bag of a Love God; Strife finally knew he was on an equal footing with him, if not actually higher. After all, Ares had directly raised him, unlike 'Shit Bag' who had been raised by his dippy mother. Strife never raped, never used it as a means to create mischief, after all Ares would have been livid with him. It had been an early lesson well learned.

And he had never actively tried to make Ares deliberately mad at him.

A tear escaped, rolling unheeded down his cheek. The pain, knowing he was the product of a rape Shit Bag had forced Ares into participating in. Now he was carrying a child, a new God or Goddess, cursed in the same way he had been. The product of  another one of Shit Bag's rape scenarios.

Ares groaned in his sleep, so Strife snuggled him closer. It had been a close run thing. Whether Hercules would calm Ares or Ares would kill the hero first. His mother had been there too. Trying to walk through solid walls without becoming non corporial first. Just to get away from them. It hadn't been an easy scenario to come into. Yet, his mere appearance at Ares' bedroom door had been the catalyst for, of all things, peace. Both uncles had ushered him to Ares' bed. Asking how he was, how he felt, how long had he been awake. Faffing like the finalists in a fussing competition.

That sort of over reaction he expected from his uncle Hercules. He was a blasted hero after all, and it was kinda par for the course with hero types. From Ares, however, it was totally unexpected. As was the confession Ares made when he saw the confusion he had been showing at the War God's apparently aberrant behaviour.

So he had dropped the bombshell.

"We'll get through this, together." He had said, holding him close, stroking his face gently. "You, and me, we'll get by. You'll see. You, me and the baby. Father, son, and grandchild. It'll be all right."

Strife had to admit he did, for a moment, wonder if he had died again and uncle Hades was torturing him in Tartarus. If he were, he would have had to have congratulated him on a well thought out torture.

"We've just found out that Ares is you real father." Hercules held the confused Mischief God's hand. While he had been stuck between the two of them they told him what had happened. About Shit Bag, the arrow, the stripping away of half his Godhood, about Menosyne and how the 'great lie' was born.

All the while Hercules talked, Ares appologised.

It was such a powerful indication to his .. to his father's real state of mind. Ares never said sorry. Never, it simply wasn't in his nature. Yet, there he was, saying sorry over and over again. Lost in the compulsion to make amends for something that was niether his fault, nor was it really apollogable for. If that was really a word. Strife did doubt the word he needed actually existed. His forgiveness, as far as Ares went, went with out saying. But he had to say it anyway, over and over, just like his father.

Strife looked at his sleeping father again, the strain had gone from his face. Just as Hercules had gone from the room. Blessed peace from both sides.

It had been fairly easy to see the affects left by that unresolved Act of Mischief  Shit Bag had done all those centuries before. It was also so easy to finally resolve it. He removed the guilt. That had been part Ares, part the fucking arrow amplifying the natural guilt his father would carry for that particular act. Then he had to build on the words rolling around in Ares' memory from, of all people, his mother. She had spent a long time trying to reassure him that he had been forgiven. That she knew he was not responsible, that they both knew who was responsible, then and now.

That had been the point his mother had left, off to seek her revenge.

"He's in your room isn't he?" That had come as news to Strife. He had sat there, holding Ares, gawking at his mother and then the sudden rush of fear as he envisioned going to his own bed, only to find Shit Bag there. Waiting for him.

He didn't mind admitting, to himself at least, that he had panicked at that piece of news. This was his home, and he wasn't even safe here. He couldn't quite remember, but he was almost sure he'd said as much to his mother. It certainly involved a lot of repeated uses of the words fuck and Shit Bag and bastard and even a possible pussy whipped scum.

The look on Discord's face had been a picture. She very rarely ever did anything for him, but at that moment she resolved to risk Tartarus for him. She'd tore off after 'him' Shit Bag, intent on hurting him in new and creative ways.

In one night Strife had found the father he had longed for, and a mother he had as often wished for.

Hercules had taken off after her, determined to save her from herself. Not really saving Shit Bag. Strife had been told, by Discord no less, that Hercules had punched the bastard when he had offered to help calm Ares.

Strife sniffed up,  it had been Ares' very real distress and desire for oblivion that had finally woken him to life again. He had felt that heart break and had responded to it.. He held Ares tighter, pulling a blanket around his father, protecting him from the chill. Checking that the last traces of that long ago mischief were clearing his system.

Ares was set to sleep out his physical and emotional exhaustion. All that remained was a guilt he could deal with. With his sister and their son to help him with it.

His son eased him down, laying him on the bed, tucking him in. Strife pursed his lips and brushed them, so lightly, over Ares' cheek.

"I got somethin' ta' do. I'll be back, ok?" He eased off the bed, pausing as Ares moaned at the sudden absence of the bodily warmth from behind him. "Shhh." Strife edged his father into a slightly deeper sleep state.

All thinking done, he had one more act to perform before he could even begin to feel free. Not that he'd ever really be free ever again. He rubbed a hand over his belly, and was instantly aware of the foreign life in there. Okay, he amended his list, he had two things to deal with. But first things first.

He pushed Ares' bedroom door open. It had to creak, for the first time he could ever remember that door issued forth an ear piercing screech. He paused for a moment, listening for any activity and heard nothing. He walked forward the few steps from Ares' door to his own bedroom door. He lifted a hand to that oh so familiar door and paused. The hand trembled, as did the rest of him. Behind that door, his door, was a nightmare he couldn't wake from. But one he had to face.

Even his own bedroom door creaked. What was it with Ares' home that it had suddenly developed more creaks than an eighty year old mortal? The second noise had alerted the room's occupant to the door opening.

Strife pushed the door wide to come face to face with his cousin.. . no, his brother, his rapist, the father of the child he was carrying. The urge to run was strong, the urge to throw up even stronger. He resisted both and crossed the few steps from the doorway to face him, it, the rapist.

Slowly, Strife reached up to his own neck and unfastened the chain that had always hung there. It was like ripping part of himself away, unsure if his body would survive the injury, but it was necessary.

"This is yours. I don't want it, you, your fucking job or your fucking kid. But I'm gonna be stuck with one of them, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna be stuck with all of them." He flung the small emblem of Godhood square into Cupid's face. "I quit!" He echoed Aphrodite's words, even Cupid's hearts desire. The urge to quit his appointed Godhood.

Strife about turned and rapidly crossed back to the door.

"Strife, I'm sorry, so sorry.. please, let me.." Those were the wrong words to use and Cupid realised it too late. "Please.."

"Please!" Strife screamed at him, one hand holding the door open, ready to bolt. "What fucking use was please to me? You still raped me, still left me shattered, pregnant. You didn't give a fuck whether either of us lived or died. What fuckin' right do you have to the word please?"

"Strife?" A voice from outside the door attracted his attention, turning he saw Shit Bag's mother.

"Not me lady, I quit, you want that fucker. You're a well matched pair. You can't think an' he won't think." He vanished, not waiting for his aunt's next words.

He was at a loss to know where to go, he had so few friends, so few places to run to. Even Hercules was back at Ares' home. He appeared in his grandparents home and collapsed. Gramps had been right. He had been too weak to leap.

"Gramps!" He called out, just once, before he collapsed on the floor in an ungainly heap.

Zeus found him there, immediately responding to the plea from his damaged grandson. He picked him up, woke Hera, and they fought the long hard battle yet again.

Asclepius, Apollo and Hera fought all night to save him. To save him from his own wish to die. His sudden loss of his primary Godhood was almost as sure a suicide, in his condition, as if he had found a hinds blood soaked dagger and stabbed himself.

In the end, Zeus granted the suddenly much less powerful God a new Godhood. One that would keep him alive until a better solution could be found. Zeus ratified Strife's self appointed position, Protector of Innocents became the God of Children. And that office would include his own child, however unwanted, he was now responsible for that child's welfare, as well as all the other children in their lands.

A proclamation appeared in every temple in all of Greece. Every alter sported a direct dictate from Zeus himself.

A ceremony was to be held in every temple, it was to be attended by all regular worshipers and their children. It was to be held in praise of the God now responsible for those children, and their happiness and welfare. Strife, formerly the God of Mischief was now to be called Strife, God of Children.

As the first rays of sunlight reached the first temples the first prayers began to be given up to the newly established God of Children. Unaware of his new status, Strife slept on. Growing stronger, as did the child.

In his bedroom a mother and son stood and stared at the little piece of Gold nestled in Cupid's hand. Slowly, Cupid reached into a pocket and pulled out his own crushed emblem. The heart he had worn would have fitted exactly over the broken heart Strife had worn all these years. Ever since they had taken it from it's first owner.

The Love God crushed both emblems together and threw them, just as his mother had done. And he too cried out the same words. Echoing Strife's last act as God of Mischief.

"I quit!" He collapsed to the floor, broken, utterly.

"I am so sorry, Cupid. Can I do anything for you, any thing at all?" Aphrodite entered Strife's bedroom and reached for her son.

"Yeah, there's one thing you can do for me." He looked up at her eager face and sneered. "You can fuckin' leave me alone!" He pulled himself to his feet, using the bed end as leverage. "Haven't you done enough? To me, to Strife?" He glared at her, resentful that she was still there. "To our father?"

"But Cupid.." She tried to reach for him, he backed away.

"Don't.." He shook his head, lifting his hands as if baring her way. "Just don't." He took a deep breath, fighting the sickening realisation that filled him. Strife had rejected his Godhood right when his survival depended on it. Silently, the former Love God realised he had just witnessed his brother more or less commit suicide; killing him and their child. He looked up and saw his mother still there, frozen to the spot. "Don't you get it? Don't you realise?" He screamed at her, waking everyone bar Ares. Strife's sleep command was too fresh, too powerful. Their father slept on in blissful ignorance. "Strife rejected his Godhood, in his current state he'll die without it, they both will!"

"Where would he have gone?" Slowly the truth was sinking in. And Aphrodite began to worry anew. If Strife and the baby died she new Ares would never forgive either of them. She knew too, in her heart of hearts, that if they died Cupid would be right behind them. The guilt would destroy him.

"What's happened?" Hercules stood in the door way, again he was physically keeping Discord on the other side, so certain she would have another try at killing both of the displaced Gods in Strife's bedroom.

He didn't like what they told him any more than Discord and Hades did.

The God of the Dead went back to his own domain, checking up, making sure Strife hadn't turned up there. Checking his ever changing record of the dead. He only relaxed when his missing nephew's name continued to not appear on the summoning list.

"Lord?" A soft, gentle voice filled the judgement room Hades was slumped in.

Looking up he saw the gentle face of the ever youthful Thanatos. He was always concerned for his Lord's welfare. Hades smiled, a strained smile, but the effort was well met by the warmth in Thanatos' eyes.

"What's happened? Why are you grieving?" Death sat with his master and took the summoning list from his nerveless hands. "Who is it that you look for?"

"Strife." Hades said, simply, seeing the worry war with the joy in Thanatos' face. Hades remembered that the young dead God had made firm friends with Death while he had languished down here. Languished? Hades smiled at the memory. Strife's soul had been given a sort of half life as soon as he had turned up. He had lived, sort of, a life of luxury in his palace. Helping out, bringing an almost irrepressible sense of life to his dull home. Filling it with his laughter, and that of the normally so quiet Thanatos.

Hades told Death all that had happened on Olympus. Thanatos waited, silently, until his Lord had finished talking before making his own offer of help.

"He is not here, Lord. I would know." He smiled, almost shyly. "I shall look over the mortal realm for him. He has to be somewhere. If I find him, I shall bring him to you, where ever you are." He bowed, slightly, and flexed his dark wings. "You will be on Olympus, with his father, when his father awakes. He should not wake alone to such news." And with that he vanished, travelling over the mortal realm, looking for his friend.

Death had so few actual friends he didn't want to risk loosing one, especially one that brought such an effusive love of life into his otherwise dull existence. There was nowhere Death couldn't go, no single place in the mortal world he could be excluded from. His search was thorough, to the point of ignoring his own duties. Many who were named on the summoning list went uncalled. To some it was a few more hours of precious life, to as many it was a few more hours of soul destroying agony. To some it was even more hunger filled hours to struggle through. To Thanatos it was necessary. His friend's need was so much greater than any mortal's soul.

It was moments after the first blossoming of dawn over Greece that he finally found out where Strife was, and what was happening to him. He lifted a scroll from one of Ares' own alters and read it. Copying the instruction he put his copy back on the alter, after all Ares' priests wouldn't know his script from Zeus' anyway.

Desperate to comfort his master, Thanatos carried the original scroll back to Olympus, and to Hades' waiting hands.

Unfortunately, Hades was sitting with the only just awakening Ares when Thanatos arrived. The look on the War God's face was one Death would long cherish. A memory to share with Strife when he was stronger.

"Oh fuck, I've died." Ares spoke before his brain was properly engaged, making his uncle and his distant cousin laugh, gently.

"Oh no, not yet." Thanatos giggled, squatting cross legged at the foot of Ares' bed. "But I have found out where Strife is and what's happened to him now." He waved his stolen scroll at them before handing it over to his Lord and Master.

Hades took the scroll, read it, smiled, handed it to Ares and sat back relaxed, for once. Ares read the scroll, twice through to make sure he had it right. The deep shuddering sigh he let loose the only indication to his state of mind.

Ares turned his thoughts to his own domain, and that highly inconvenient war in Thessaly. Strife was in the best hands possible, as was the baby. Until they were ready to come home there was little of practical use he could do. Except stop that blasted war Cupid had started.

"Right, feeding time for the animals. Let's throw some meat to the beasts and get them organised and doing something useful." Ares vanished from his bed and appeared beside his guests, fully dressed. "Shall we?"

It was so evident to Hades that Strife's new Godhood was relieving a lot of his nephew's worries. Now all that remained to be dealt with was everything else. What was to happen to Cupid? It wasn't as if he had actually committed a crime in anyone other than Ares' eyes. Not technically at any rate. But since he had also given up his main Godhood, as well as had Aphrodite, the world was now shy three Godhoods, and had a brand new one into the bargain.

"We gotta split up several aspects of the duties no longer being dealt with by any God. Breakfast is as good a time as any to put the worlds to rights."  Hades recalled the fall out on the mortal world when the last such mass desertion by Gods had happened. They still referred to it as the Fall of the Titans. He had to hope Ares had a plan.

"What about me?" Thanatos asked, stretching his long legs as he stood up. Ares watched as the ever young looking God stretched his wings too. He recalled Strife telling him about making friends with the God of Death. Of how Thanatos delighted in helping Strife with his mischief making. Ares grinned at the God.

Thanatos considered running, briefly, before his sense of misadventure kicked in.

"Oh, you come along too." Ares indicated for them to proceed him. "After all your efforts for Strife, breakfast is the least I can offer you."  Ares had been cheered to discover Strife had an actual friend. Even if it was Death Incarnate. Not that Death wasn't a pleasant fellow, just inordinately shy amongst the Olympians, normally. "Anyway, you have to admit the looks on every one's faces when they see you in all your Death Bringer glory will be a picture?"

Thanatos clamped a hand over his own mouth to stop the laughter waking or warning any of the other guests currently domiciled in the War God's home.

"Ares, you're wicked, do you know that?" Hades warned Zeus about the imminent panic signals that would soon issue forth from Ares' home. He finally saw where Strife got it from, straight from his own father's nature and deeds.

"Oh, yeah, I know that all right." He lead the way to the main room and the long table that sat in there. Once arrived he created all manner of foods for his guests, from simple sweetcakes to roast meats and every thing in between..

"Strife told me about them." Thanatos grabbed a sweetcake and bit in to it, savouring the delicately spicy flavour.

They ate, and waited for the others to awaken and join them.

Zeus arrived well before the others did. Ostensibly to give Ares an up date on Strife's condition, and to check up on Ares' reaction to the revelation of the previous day. Although money wouldn't be lost if it were bet that Zeus wanted to see the reaction to Thanatos for himself.

"Thanatos, hmm. You've been steeling my scrolls, haven't you?" Zeus smiled at the shy God and clasped his shoulder. He tilted his head, as if listening to a distant noise, then dropped Thanatos' shoulder and schooled his face into it's gravest expression. "They're coming." He whispered.

Four Gods sat around the table, each looking as grave as the others. Not one of them actively looking directly at the door, yet each one was stretching out with his powers to monitor the other Gods as they each entered the room.

Hercules gave the winged God a quizzical look, not having met Thanatos before he didn't instantly recognise him. He clearly felt something was up, but didn't know what.

Aphrodite entered and stopped in an instant. She stood rooted to the spot, staring at Thanatos as Death sat there, eating breakfast with Hades, Zeus and Ares. She tried her best to believe this was innocent, but her trembling hands gave her tension away.

Discord didn't look up as she came into the room. She had decided that if she didn't actually see either Dite or Cupid she could get through another day without killing either of them. It wasn't until she had make her selection and looked at the table for a place to sit. As she looked up she saw Thanatos and her plate fell from lifeless hands.

As her plate crashed down Cupid came in the room and looked up, he saw his aunt fixated on Thanatos' presence. Then he realised, Thanatos, and Strife had given up his Godhood the previous night.

The realisation that it must mean that his brother, and their child, had died hit him and chilled his heart. He had killed them, him and his stupid reactions to Psyche and Apollo and his mother.

"Oh no!" He whispered. "Please, no." He looked at no one but Thanatos. "Not Strife, not the ba.." He swallowed, began to tremble and shake his head. "Can't you take me instead? Please, please..?" Finally dragging his eyes from the Death God he looked at his father, not sure what he wanted to see in his father's face.

"Thanatos was good enough to search for Strife last night. He's here to eat breakfast, not collect more souls for Hades." Ares couldn't move, part of him wanted to protect his son, part of him wanted him to suffer for what he had done to him, and his brother. "Strife lives, as does the child you forced on him."

Zeus put a restraining hand on Ares' wrist. He looked at his son, and his grand son.

"We had to give him a new Godhood last night. Seems he'd given his up. To you I believe. And you then gave yours and his up. I'm beginning to wonder if anyone is doing their allotted tasks around here?" he filled every mind with the new title and duties Strife was facing.

"Herc's being heroic." Ares offered. Hercules laughed softly at the observation, and nodded his head, agreeing with him.

"There is that." Zeus agreed. He smiled gratefully at Ares, thankful for his dark natured son's odd sense of humour.

"And I have a war still going on in Thessaly that needs ending. Xena and co aren't having much success." Ares glared at the still trembling Cupid.

Cupid had finally sat down, a single sweetcake before him. He nibbled on it, unable to swallow any food any way.

"What can we do to help?" Cupid asked, realising it was his turn to offer his help to his father. His brother had already rejected him, it would be fitting if his father did too.

"Stop the bloody war you started." Ares spoke slowly, as if explaining the obvious to a simpleton. He saw the guilt in Cupid's eyes, and knew that emotion. Yet, his own guilt and pain at his long past actions had only just began to fade. It was too soon to accept Cupid's apologies, even if he knew his elder son did really believe his own words.

Cupid sat looking at his father, his mind drawing a blank as he tried to come up with some way to halt the war he had aggravated.

"Hey, I can help there." Thanatos cleared his mouth, not wanting to talk round a mouthful of food. Every eye in the room turned to him. "We can go put the fear of me up them." He grinned at his own choice of words, flexing his black wings as he did so, looking every inch Death Incarnate, which he was, until the grin split his face open in glee. With an effort he controled his smile, loosing thehumour in it until he looked quite feral. That grin was such as it would put the fear of him into the strongest heart, just like he suggested.

"I can see why you and Strife get on so well. You're both sick!" Ares teased the Death God and smiled gently. He had worked with Thanatos, sort of, for a long, long time, yet, he was wondering why it had taken Strife's troubles to bring them together as almost friends. Conspirators at the very least.

"Just glad to help." Thanatos finished eating and took Hercules and Cupid to Thessaly and the war that wouldn't end. Ares had sent a long list of instructions  as regards what to do, where and when to do it. And if need be, to whom it was to be done.

Discord was sent out to do Strife's usual duties. Ares thought that if she could expend some of her stronger emotions in starting a war where he actually wanted one, it might calm her down a bit.

Aphrodite wandered over to Zeus and Hera's home. It was past time that she made her peace with Strife. Even if she had to make him listen by force. She had an idea just how to reach him. At least she felt she could help one of them, Cupid was still beyond her reach. She had to prove, to herself at least, that she had some function other than creating mayhem.

V: Like A Phoenix Born

"Oh fuck, not again!" Iolaus almost screamed at the sight of the Death God's sudden appearance. He just looked up and saw him standing there.

"I take it you've met Thanatos then?" Hercules stepped around the young looking God and grinned at his friend.

"Hey, Iolaus, not seen you in a while. You stayin' alive or just dying elsewhere?" The Death God grinned at the unfortunate mortal, making him pale even more.

"Oh, we've met a few times now." Iolaus smiled, somewhat shakily, back at the hero. Then he turned to the Death God. "What brings you here, if not me?" He turned back to Hercules when Thanatos looked in his direction, wide grin splitting his face.

Hercules laughed quietly and grasped his friends wrists right before he pulled him close and hugged him.

"Well, Thanatos is here to help us stop this war, Ares sent him, and the instigator of this blood bath, to stop it." He turned from his friend to glance briefly at his nephew. "Isn't that right, Cupid?"

"What happened to the wings?" Iolaus asked the Love God. He giggled at his own remark; he did not see the tightening around Cupid's eyes, the thinning of his lips. He most assuredly did not see the fist that shot out and hit him.

He did see Thanatos and Hercules pounce on the angry God.

"Enough!" Hercules roared at his nephew, slamming him against the ground.

"Leave me alone!" Cupid screamed, pushing his uncle off him, easily. Thanatos, however, was harder to evade. The God of Death held tight, he dragged them both to their feet, then launched them both into the skies. "Put me back down." Cupid slapped fruitlessly at the arms holding him, struggling for his freedom.

Just like Strife had done.

"Will you fall if I drop you? Or is your focus really so much better than your little brother's?" Thanatos flew higher yet. "Shall I rape you? Shall I leave you carrying my child. Like you did your little brother?" Thanatos  gained yet more height. "Will you do all your father's bidding? Finally?"

And finally Cupid realised Thanatos meant honouring his father's no rape rule, as much as his command to stop the war he had started.

"Yes." Cupid whispered, right before Thanatos let him down, by opening his arms.

"Thanatos - no!" Hercules screamed just as the Death God dropped Cupid.

"Yes - Thanatos!" Eris screamed just as loudly. She grinned as Cupid tumbled in the sky. Her smile faltered as she watched him gaining his focus and then he just disappeared.

As he reappeared before the assembled onlookers, Eris finally got her chance to strike back. She pushed out with fist and power and struck her nephew just below his ribcage. He shot forward only to crash against the trunk of a tree, jarring him with the force of his impact.

"What is going on here?" Xena stood over the downed God, chakram at the ready. She glared at everyone, especially at Hercules who didn't even move to assist his nephew. "Why won't you do something here?" She demanded of her former lover.

"Because he deserved it. He did just that, and more, to Strife a few days ago, only he knew Strife can't focus his powers in free fall." Hercules glared at his nephew, hate showing clearly in his face.

"So?" Xena faced him, meeting him eye to eye. "Nothing could be bad enough to do to Strife. After all, he's Ares' second in command and is responsible for a lot of so called mischief in the world. He's a God, he can't be hurt."

"Cupid shattered every bone in his body by throwing him to the ground. Like I said, he knew Strife couldn't escape. Then he took him up again and raped him. Sound familiar, ever happened to anyone you know? Then he forced Strife's body to carry a child, his child, a product of his rape. Finally, he threw him back to the ground again. He didn't even wait around to see if his brother lived or died. And all because Strife tripped over and made Aphrodite tear a dress strap." Hercules looked at Xena, and at Gabrielle. "Tell me, do you know anyone who was forced to carry a child? By a God by any chance?" He saw Gabrielle bow her head, memories crowding in on her. "Why should it be any different for Strife? Why shouldn't I defend him, just as I would have defended you?"

"I, we didn't know." The bard murmured.

"No, you so frequently don't know. But that never stops you stating an opinion or passing judgement where you have no rights to make it." Hercules walked away from them all, towards the continuing battle. "We've got a war to stop, let's stop it and go home."

"Is all that true?" Xena looked at the felled God at her feet.

"Which part?" Cupid vanished only to reappear standing beside her. "That you make pompous judgements where you have niether legal nor moral authority, or that I raped and almost killed my brother? That I forced his body to carry my child? That all he did was annoy my mother?" He glared at her as she failed to answer. "Why, I do believe they're all true." Cupid turned and walked away. Leaving Iolaus looking at Xena.

"See, we told you, but you simply refused to believe us. Just how could you think this was all some twisted plot by Ares? And to get you back in his service no less? Is it always to be about you?" He walked off too, Autolycus following him, and Eris and Thanatos bringing up the rear.

Finally it was just Xena and Gabrielle, facing each other.

"What do we do now?" The bard asked.

"We either leave, or we help stop this war." Xena pointed out.

"Which do you want to do?" Gabrielle looked from her friend to their friends and Gods. "Leave or stay?"

"Yes." Xena whispered.


"I want to leave, I want to stay." The Warrior Princess admitted the truth to her friend, if no one else. "I want this to never have happened."

"You and Strife both, I would suppose." The blonde recalled her own dark horror, carrying Hope, fighting Hope, her own role in the destruction of Hope, of her own daughter. "Only, it doesn't work that way, does it? Even your soldiers raped. And you can't blame it all on Ares and Strife." She too walked away, towards the others and the peace that the War God had demanded.

"No one said if he lived or died." Xena mumbled to herself. "If he's Cupid's brother he could be my brother too, and no one said if he's alive or dead." She walked forwards too, following her friends and family. "If he's dead, I'll help Aunt Eris next time." She looked at the retreating backs of the Gods and heroes as they went out about their peace mongering ways. "They should have told me it all, up front. You should have sent a more believable messenger than Iolaus and Autolycus, it's all your fault Ares!"

"It's not, he lives, he's still pregnant, and you're just going to have to get over yourself." Ares' voice filled her head then left her alone, aware of how angry he was, of how desperate for a solution he was. If all she could offer was peace, so be it, peace he would get. Even if she had to kill the leaders to do it.

It never occurred to her that that action would defeat the entire purpose behind the peace Ares wanted.

Back on Olympus, Ares was dealing with even more Godly petitions, posting most of them on walls all over the place, asking for suggestions as to how to solve the petitioners stupid problems. It was keeping almost all of the more junior Gods and Goddesses busy, and out of his hair. He sent for several middle range Gods, he allotted one research task to each of them and sent them to the archives. That would take care of the rest of the petitions, barring those horrors he'd put aside for his father. It finally left him free to deal with the lack of God and Goddess of Love, and Strife's absence too of course.

He had left for a brief visit to Lemnos and Hephaestus' forge. He had several commissions to put before his brother. And a request that he come to Olympus and deal with his wife. She'd gone to see Strife and he'd almost leaped out on them just to get away from her. Only Zeus' superior power held him there. Hera had seemed to particularly enjoy dragging the former Love Goddess out of the room, however. So he might view her actions as not a total loss.

And there was Bliss. He was the only Love God left, and he was five years old. Far too young to actually work in his allotted field. And after all he had lost lately, his mother, his father too for that matter, his grandmother, he felt it too much to expect the child to under go forced maturity, just to fill in the gaps. Hephaestus didn't have any answers either, but he had had several design ideas for emblems for Strife's new Godhood. Seeing his brother was going to be busy at his forge, Ares had returned to his father's study and his grandson, playing quietly before the fire that tried to warm the chill from the War God's heart.

As he sat watching Bliss play in front of Zeus' desk, he had an epiphany. He felt sure he could have Dite back at work by the end of the day, if he got a little co-operation from his sister. Whether she wanted to help him or not. He smiled at the idea forming in his mind.

He sent for Athena.

She was reluctant, as always, to respond to his command. She had long felt that she, and she alone, was capable of commanding the Gods. The fact that Ares delegated and she never did was a constant thorn in her side. Ares removed the mystique behind the role of King of the Gods, she would occlude it further.

"What?" She demanded, she ignored her great nephew too, she didn't even look at her brother, but out the window at the wing of Zeus' palace currently housing Strife, if she but knew it.

"You are going to take over Aphrodite's duties. Effective immediately, not subject to appeal to a higher authority. I am the highest authority around here, currently. Get on with it then!" He enjoyed the look on her face as realisation that he was both right and serious sank in. He sent a politer version of his declaration and plan to Zeus as he watched his sister fail to find words to fit the occasion for possibly the first time in her life.

"I agree with your solution, son. Simplicity at it's very best." Zeus arrived a moment after his words. He looked at his elder daughter and scowled at her. "You're still here? Why?"

Athena took the hint and set off to do the Love duties, very reluctantly.

"Now what?" Zeus asked, sitting beside his empty desk. "What did you do with the petitions?"

"Dealt with them." Ares smiled, looking forwards to the fireworks he felt sure Zeus would throw off when he discovered his system for dealing with the petitions and the petitioners.

"Fine. Strife is awake, again. Stronger. And your mother and I think he and Cupid should be married." He let his voice quieten as he spoke the final part of his speech.

"What?" Ares shouted, he'd heard it all right.

"They should be married, like your mother and I were. Like always happens between Gods and Goddesses in cases like this."

"It didn't happen to me and Eris, did it?" Ares didn't like the notion that he might be wed to his sister and totally unaware of it.

"No, it didn't. Yours was a different case altogether." Zeus looked at his furious son. "At least think about it. Okay?"

"Think about it? What's to think about it? You and mother fight like maniacs half the time, what's to stop Cupid raping Strife again and carrying on regardless?"

"We can inhibit his abilities in that field, rape I mean. Don't worry, it doesn't last forever, only until you fall properly in love with each other."

"You're trying to tell me you and mother love each other? If that was ever so, then why all the mistresses?"

"Of course I love her. I won't force your mother against her will, I simply go find someone willing instead."

"Father, your solution, and your reasoning, sucks." Ares got up, glared at his father, cast his mind about for Aphrodite and relocated, taking Bliss with him. His loud shout of  "I say no!" Ringing in his father's ears as he vanished.

"That went well." Zeus smiled and relocated to his wife's side. "Well, the study is still standing." He informed her. He noticed that Strife had made a liar out of him, the young God was sleeping, again. This time it looked like a natural sleep. Perhaps the coma's were over? The King of the Gods was wary of hoping.

"A good meeting then. " Hera agreed, unknowingly, with Zeus' earlier statement. "He'll come round to the idea, you wait and see." She sat back and watched her grandson as he once more slept. "It's the best way all round."

"It is. It is." Zeus agreed with her and they sat close together, holding hands, worrying about their children and their children's children. "They will be so good together." Zeus added. "Eventually."

Aphrodite paced around her own home. Not too sure what news was more upsetting. That Ares had given Athena carte blanche to mess with Love, a subject the cold hearted bitch new nothing of. Or that Zeus and Hera were going to force Strife to marry Cupid. After all she and her son had caused to happen to Strife, it was a move guaranteed to end in some sort of blood bath. And she, for one, wouldn't blame Strife if he started it. She tried to think of some way around it, some way to show that marrying Strife to Cupid wasn't a sane move.

"Does Cupid even know he's divorced from Psyche?" She asked, finally.

"I don't think so. I suppose someone should explain it all to him." Ares looked at his son's mother. "I wish you well with that task. It'd be better if that news came from you." He looked around for a reason not to do it himself. "Anyway, I'd better go see how Heph's getting on with his commissions."

"How am I supposed to get there?" Dite whined, sounding just like her old self too, it cheered Ares whereas it normally irritated the life out of him.

"Here, let me!" He displaced her, from Olympus to the ex-battlefield. Once there she looked around, trying to spot Cupid.

Bliss played at his grandfather's feet, listening to the adults talk, understanding far more than they gave him credit for. He thought that Aunty Athena was a great choice for Love Goddess. She simply didn't have any in her soul, so it would maybe show her what she lacked. And it would show grandma what she needed to do. He also loved the idea of his dad marrying Strife. Strife was far more fun to be around than his boring old dad. And when the baby came, he'd already be part of the family. His family, his ideal family. The one he had sought after since he first met Strife. It was only a pity that his mother had to be removed for it all to come about. But, since he had never spent that much time with her in the first place, he didn't think he'd miss her too much. Not when he'd have Strife to replace her.

Bliss vanished, leaving the knowledge in his grandparents minds that he was going to see his gre'grandma' and knowing he'd be safe with Hera they went about their own tasks. Ares did so happily, Aphrodite did so with a growing sense of trepidation.

Bliss climbed into Strife's bed, the God of Children might be called his God now. He was a child and needed the comfort of his God. Now his family was splitting up, leaving him abandoned to the tender mercies of his grandparents. He could put out all the Love Arrows his dad could, but he knew there were better, far longer lasting ways of getting his own way.

And making it the target's own idea was possibly the best way, ever.

Hera and Zeus watched Bliss climb into bed beside Strife, they watched the sleeping God accommodate the tired child that sought comfort there. They saw the fine tendrils of power Bliss was stretching out towards Strife. They saw too that Bliss would be their strongest ally in resolving things their way.

"Don't push so, child, you'll defeat your own purpose if you waken him. He'll react badly to waking from such a dream." Hera smiled at the shocked look on the child's face. "Sweet Bliss, I've encountered more five year old Gods and Goddesses than you can imagine. And they all thought they were more powerful than us." She ruffled his hair and chortled softly. "If he wakes and is alarmed or upset, or tries to leave, call us." She saw the child nod, fully understanding what he was being asked to do. Then she and Zeus left him to it. They were both almost exhausted. The two fights for Strife's life had exhausted their reserves. A good, sound sleep was called for.

"I didn't mean for him to be hurt like this. I didn't make daddy do it." Bliss shared his greatest secret with his great grand parents. He had wanted his dad to want Strife, he hadn't wanted his dad to hurt him. He had been so shocked when it had all happened. Worried his wishes and dreams had made his father's feeling turn to hate.

"We know, child, it was all locked up in Cupid's own heart. Everything will get sorted out. You'll see." Hera reached down and kissed the child's forehead. "Pleasant dreams." She whispered, kissing the still sleeping Strife too.

"Gently, little one, gently." Zeus ruffled his hair and smiled. "And don't base anything on a lie, only the truth. Look for the seed of truth and help it grow." He too kissed both God's gently, and together he and Hera left the room. Holding hands once more.

If only they could convince Ares, and the other's no doubt, that Strife and Cupid would eventually fall in love, then things might be easier.

If only they knew exactly why Cupid had chosen such a punishment for Strife's very minor transgression? Then, perhaps, they would have a seed of truth of their own.

They climbed into their own bed and fell asleep, wrapped around each other, as always, between their many fights.

In Thessaly, Thanatos had indeed put the fear of himself into the hearts of the warring armies. The leaders had been harder to convince. One look from the less than fully sane Cupid did wonders for their attentiveness. Once they were listening Hercules, and even Xena, had been able to convince them the war was over. And that the Persians would be an even greater threat than each other ever could.

As the last soldier left the field, heading for home and peace, Gabrielle turned to face Cupid. Risking her very life, she had to have a question answered. And he was the only one who could answer it.

"Why did you do it?" She asked, knowing full well that he knew exactly what she was referring to. "Like Hercules said, I've been there. I was forced to act as Dahok's brood mare. I pity Strife. Had I known what Hope would be, I'd have aborted her, if I could. Your child will be a God or a Goddess, so Strife doesn't have my 'could have been' option, does he?"

Cupid looked at her, he thought about killing her, thought about what Thanatos or his father would do if he did. Thought about not answering her, thought about what he could say to answer her.

Looking around, he spied a wide bodied tree with a leafy canopy, making it well sheltered and quiet. He took her hand, a little rougher than he really meant to, and dragged her to the tree.

"Sit!" He commanded. She duly sat. He paced, tight little arcs, too and fro. Looking at the sky, at his feet, anywhere but at her. "I don't know why I did it. I knew full well of my, our dad's feelings about rape and rapists. He hates it and them, did you know that? He doesn't feel there's a torment too vile, too base that can be laid at the feet of a rapist." He paused, looked above her head, at the shapes and patterns in the trunk of the tree. "I wonder what torment he'll create for me. It's ironic, I always found his choice of torment he played against Xena almost childish. I can only hope he lets me off as lightly."

"Xena? Why? She's not a rapist, she's a hero, she does good in the world." Gabrielle felt the pit of her stomach freeze over. She knew, on some gut instinct level that Cupid wasn't lying.

"She made a good few men please her, shall we say, or else she'd kill them. Oh, she did it with a certain flair and subtlety I grant you, but she still did it, it was still sex in exchange for their lives." Cupid finally met her eyes, and she didn't like what she saw there. Cupid clearly believed what he was saying.

"Name one?" The bard challenged. She sat with her head held high, daring the God of Love, as was, to do his worst.

"Caesar!" Was all Cupid said. Was all he needed to say. As soon as the name left his lips the bard's head drooped, looking away from what she was sure would be a victorious glee. Had she held her gaze she'd have seen him take no comfort in his facts. It was a guilt he and his mortal half sister shared, now. "And the irony is - she fell in love with that one, but not he with her."

"Oh." Defeated, Gabrielle sat quietly, thinking about Ares' so called attempts to get her back. Then she realised, he wasn't trying to entice her back, he was driving her away. Away from war and its temptations. Preventing her from doing it again in his own subtle way.

"You're right you know. I will have a child from this. One I can never look in the face ever. I can imagine what Strife will tell him or her. How evil their other father is. How everyone they ask will confirm what he says. I can only hope he doesn't treat that child like his mother treated him." Cupid stopped pacing and sat down beside Gabrielle, slightly around the tree from her position. Looking out over the now quiet battlefield.

"What did she do? Why did she hurt him?" The bard knew she was about to hear one of the secrets of the Gods, and it frightened her. Of all the hate and violence she had faced in her life with Xena, this seemed so much worse than all the rest put together.

"I hit Ares with a mischief arrow. I used to have Strife's job, was Mischief as well as Love. I made my father rape his sister. Strife was the result. She couldn't love him. Not after he was fathered on her through rape. She'd leave him alone for days on end, and being a God, he couldn't die, not of the cold, the hunger, any one of the so called 'accidents' she claimed he had. Not even from the beatings she subjected him too. They were all my fault. I created him, he suffered, I lost half my Godhood and nothing more. Doesn't seem fair, does it?" He ripped a blade of grass from the ground and split it into tiny strips, those he absently wove together. "Dad couldn't handle knowing what he'd done. It almost killed him, so gramps and some of the others got together and they changed his memories. He thought he had been a prisoner in that fucking brass jar. He found out the truth last night." He looked at the woven grass stalks and handed them to the bard. "Strife removed the last vestiges of the original act of mischief. Healed the guilt that would have taken him again. Then he quit. It almost killed him." By the time he finished speaking Cupid was rocking back and forward. Gabrielle had seen that kind of shock before, but in a God, she couldn't even imagine how to begin to treat it.

"Almost?" Gabrielle whispered her question, unwilling to risk speaking louder. Of reminding him he had a mortal audience.

"Zeus and Hera gave him a new Godhood. Saved him and the baby again. Made him God of Children I think. He always loved kids, would do almost anything for a kid."

"How do you feel about him?" The Bard asked, hoping she got the answer she wanted.

"I've always felt responsible for him, for his very life. Tartarus, I am responsible for his very existence. I've watched him grow up, I've watched him die." Cupid's voice caught in his throat, Gabrielle had no trouble hearing his despair, it was clear in his face. "I saw him born, buried and ... and returned. I've watched him play and I've watched him fall in and out of love, as any young man would. I've watched his heart being broken, time after time. I've watched him play with his special, forgotten children." Cupid sighed, deeply, recalling all those special memories.

"You've watched him a lot." Gabrielle stated the obvious, quite deliberately. "I guess you really care about him, to watch him like that."

"I love him." Cupid finally admitted. He finally sank to the ground, curled in a ball. "I have always loved him, but how could I go to him and say, hey, I had dad rape your mom. Seeing as how I made ya' how's about we fuck then?"

Gabrielle reached out and touched the foetal God.

"You could have simply said, 'Strife, I like you' and taken it from there." She lay down, holding the damaged God, as best she could. "You've got to let go of that ancient guilt too, you know. You'll never have a future while you're still trapped in the past."

"How did you get so wise, little mortal?" He lay with Gabrielle spooned up behind him, holding him. For the first time in too long a time he felt safe, understood. He felt almost at peace.

"A gift from the Gods, I suppose."

"Well it couldn't have been a gift from this God. I've never been that wise. Doubt I ever will." Cupid laughed, bitterly. He rolled away from the bard and on to his feet. "I gotta' do something. I just don't know what." He did indeed look lost.

"Have you tried saying sorry? Have you appologised to him? To your father?" She looked so hopeful the former Love God hated to burst her bubble.

"Yeah, niether of them would let me. Not that I blame them." He looked back to the battlefield, something obviously drawing his attention.

"There you are!" Aphrodite's voice drifted over them as she walked towards their refuge. "So, you've been talking with ..." The Goddess made the effort to recall the woman's real name, not the rude ones she usually gave her. "You've talked with Gabrielle, honest son, I hope she could help."

"What do you want mother?" Cupid snarled, as he did so the bard recalled what she had been told about his attack on Strife, how it was at his mother's insistence he be punished for tearing her dress strap.

"I came to warn you, to tell you what's going on." She looked to where the mortal woman was still sitting on the ground. Without any sign of hesitancy, she sat beside her.

"That's the ground your sitting on." Cupid pointed out sarcastically.

"Duh. I know dirt when I see it. Look, will you listen? Silly question, I know, I'll tell Gabrielle and you can eavesdrop. How's that?" Aphrodite was getting even more annoyed. First Ares gives Love to Athena, Athena of all Goddesses. Then he sends her on this fucked before it started mission.

"What's happened?" Gabrielle felt she had to give Aphrodite an opening, she had the feeling Cupid never would. "Is Strife worse?" Out the corner of her eye she saw that question catch the still pacing God's attention. He stopped and stared at them.

"Quite the opposite, he's recovering nicely. His new Godhood suits him so very well. He always was the best of us with kids. What's happened is awful, simply awful. Hera and Zeus have decided that Strife and Cupid will be married." She looked at the bards shocked face. "Like to each other." She added, for clarity's sake.

"But Cupid is married... to Psyche.." Gabrielle was aware of the blond God frantically nodding his head above her.

"Not any more he isn't. Oh boy, but did Hera do a number on her but good!" Aphrodite had almost forgotten she was supposed to be breaking this news gently, to her son. Gabrielle was a much more receptive audience anyway. "She's been stripped of her Godhood and the immortality they gave her when she married Cupie. She's been rendered barren for all time. Seems she was interfering with her fertility and sayin' Cupe's couldn't father any more kids." She  plucked at the grass, just as her son had done, signalling her annoyance and nervousness just as he had too.

"When did this happen?" It was Cupid who questioned her.

"Right after you left, I was sent to see to her and Apollo and Bliss. I sent them to Hera and Zeus. Boy was Hera pissed." She turned to the mortal once more. "I don't think she thought Psyche the right partner for Cupid anyway."

"And Strife is?" Gabrielle had to ask. She didn't think it the best idea she'd ever heard.

"Maybe before this. But now? No, I don't think it's a good idea." Aphrodite looked at her son and realised the truth. "Oh fuck." She whispered. "You love him, don't you?"

Cupid just nodded.

"Well that won't count for much much longer. Seeing as how Ares has put Athena in charge of Love." She glared at her son, he had to go and make things harder than ever to settle. He had to love Strife. Then she thought about it, her son had raped the God he truly loved, no arrows involved. At least she assumed no arrows. And having raped him, he'd never get him to trust him, let alone return his love. "You love him? No arrows this time."

"Not an arrow in sight."

She stood up and took her son in her arms. Each as guilty as the other. All she cared about was his pain, and Strife's pain. And with out her full powers she could do nothing to put things to rights.

"I'm sorry." She whispered.

"I know ma' an' so am I." This time, when the tears fell they fell together.

Gabrielle guarded their privacy. She avowed, in her own heart and soul, this one wouldn't be going in a scroll.

On Olympus Strife awoke. He looked down at Cupid's son, sleeping, or so it would appear, in his arms. He shook his head at the little God's antics.

"Enough now, Bliss. Go, leave me to my own grief." He enjoyed the startled opening of the little God's eyes. "You gotta' remember I'm God of Children, I know what you pray for. It won't happen. Sorry. And all your dream pushing won't help. I was doing that mischief way better than you many centuries before your mother was a twinkle in her daddies pants. So leave it out, ok?"

Bliss realised he hadn't pushed gently enough. He just lay there, and silently counted four. As his plan failed his own heart broke. He had let everybody down.

"But you love daddy. I know you do."

"Did, child, did. A long time ago.  A lifetime ago." Strife saw the heartbreak, but could do nothing about it. It was asking too much.

"But the baby..?" Bliss stopped speaking, he wasn't too sure what he was going to ask anyway.

Strife looked at his nephew, he easily met the child's eyes and saw his very real concerns shining through.

"The baby I can forgive, I freely forgive. Your father, however, is an entirely different matter. Leave it now. And leave me too. Go, please." He shooed the child away and lay down. He realised he had forgiven the baby it's creation. It was no more its fault than it had been his. He wasn't going to repeat his mother's fuck ups. He put the flat of his hand over the area the baby was growing in.

"I forgive you - you at least, are innocent." He felt an odd rush between his hand and his belly. And the God of Children knew everything he needed to know about his daughter. Needing to tell someone he reached out for a mind linked to him and the baby. Touching one he made his announcement.

"I'm carrying a daughter. She likes me." Then he realised with horror, the mind he had touched was Cupid's. Moreover, Cupid loved him. He claimed to love him and had done all that? The irony in the thought that he ought to be glad Cupid didn't hate him then almost made him laugh. It did make him cry.

"Strife's carrying a daughter." Cupid whispered to his mother. He knew she would know the only way he could know that was from Strife. It didn't need explanation.

"Let's go home.  Maybe we can start to sort out some of this mess. After I have words with Athena." Aphrodite asked Ares to take them back to Olympus. In her mind speak she told him the sex of  Strife's baby. She told him of their son's love, and his heart break.

Ares appeared before them both.

"Cupid, have I ever told you just how much of an idiot you are?" He met his son's eyes.

"No father."

"Maybe that's where I went wrong. Son, you are an idiot." He looked at his son, an open, healing look. Putting one arm around each of them, he lent his power to their focus. "Let's go home. And Gabs can tell them where we are, and that I didn't kill you." The exhausted God of War smiled at the bard, and Gabrielle remembered just why she had always had a secret yen for that particular God.

Sighing, she stood up and went to pass on her message to Thanatos and Hercules. Maybe now the Death God would stop teasing Iolaus and head back to Olympus too.

For more of this story, go here.