To Ride The Fire VI-VII
By Shamenka

VI: A Bow of Burnished Gold - An Arrow of Desire

"My son is missing?" Ares glared at his father. "How could you leave my five year old Grandson to guard my weakened son? Now Bliss is crying his eyes out on my bed and Strife is gone who knows where!" The War God paced back and forth, turning tights circles in the confines of his father's study. "Bliss doesn't have the sophistication to dream dreams for any one else. Let alone for an adult God like Strife."

"But Ares.." Zeus got no further.

"Don't 'but Ares' me!" Ares yelled. "You want to explain it all away, well get over to my place and explain it there. Everyone is waiting for you." The God of War met his father in a battle of wills, and for the first time in his long, long life, Ares won.

"As you wish." Zeus sighed and made the leap from his study to his son's Olympian home. As they materialised they were surrounded by an anxious sea of faces. Principal of which was Cupid. He had so obviously been pacing, letting his eyes wander and look out the panoramic window to the front of his father's home. Maybe he hoped to see the missing Strife? Or, simply to see the future, and what it held for them all.

"Any news?" His was the first voice to quiz the newcomers.

"Your Grandfather is going to explain to everyone just why they left Strife in the care of a five year old. Weren't you, father?" Ares glared at his father and stood, weight on one hip, arms folded, anger clearly writ large in his demeanour.

"We left Bliss sleeping with Strife, that much is true. But Bliss wasn't 'guarding' him, he was just being with him. Sharing his dream of the future with him. He really wants you and Strife to get together. He was dreaming all of you together. We don't know what went wrong, but Strife seems to have woken up and decided it wasn't going to work. He sent Bliss away and disappeared shortly thereafter himself." Zeus met every set of eyes ranged against him. Almost daring them to question him. Not even flinching when he met Cupid's enraged glare.

"I would marry Strife today. But he wouldn't have me. Couldn't trust me. Not after.." Cupid didn't finish, indeed he didn't need to. "If you've harmed him, or the baby, by frightening him away from home, right when he needs it most I.." The former Love God pointed at his Grandfather, pressing that accusing finger into Zeus' chest. His anger consumed him, coherent thought escaped him. "I..."

"Believe me child, I know just how you feel." Zeus lowered Cupid's hand from his chest and reached instead for Eris and Ares. "Hera ran from me too. Found her sitting on the ocean floor, counting sharks no less." He pulled his children to him, possibly for the first time in either of their lives. It so surprised his dark twins that it was a moment or two before they stiffened and tried to pull away. "Please, we only want what's best." He whispered to his estranged children. Wishing they could have been easier for him to love. If he could have gotten over his own guilt. Things might have gone so much easier for Ares and Eris.

"Has he gone off Olympus?" Ares asked, slipping between his sister and their father. What struck Zeus as most odd was Eris letting him do that, she actively let Ares protect her. Even after he had raped her and Strife had been born, she let Ares defend her. She had never lost her trust in Ares' abilities as her defender.

"No, he has to be here somewhere. We've just got to look harder." He looked at the sea of faces, no longer quite so hostile, still a long way from actually being friendly however.

"Then let's get on with the search." As always Hercules was looking for some direct action he could take. No less so now. Not a frequent visitor to Olympus, even less so a visitor to any of his half brother Ares' temples. Yet, here he was, in Ares' home, defending Eris and Strife, even Ares himself.

"I'll help too." Cupid headed for the door, a physical search of all of Olympus could take a long time, and needed everyone to help.

"Not you." His father's voice halted him before he crossed the threshold. "You've done enough damage around here. You can go sit with Bliss, and wait. Learn some patience."

"But father.."

"No, no but father's, you're as bad as Zeus. No. You stay here and learn to wait. That's all there is to say on the subject." Ares looked from his son to the door that separated the sleeping rooms from the main room they were all standing in.

"What about me?" Hercules asked, unsure of Ares' feeling towards him at that moment.

"Oh you've got no other choice in this. Strife needs a hero and you're elected." Ares pointed out the main door and watched everyone, bar Cupid, leave. His son he watched walk to the opposite door. "And Cupid?" He got his elder son's attention.

"Yes dad?"

"Be gentle with Bliss. And stay out of Strife's bedroom, okay?" He really looked at his son. Guilty of so much horror. Lost, unsure of himself, who he was, what he was, where he was going. Facing a marriage he both desired and feared, unsure if he could ever be trusted again, especially by himself. "And try and get some sleep." With that he turned and walked out of his own home, ready to search for his missing son.

Strife didn't regard himself as missing, mearly not where he had been left. He had a simple theory about hiding. Never stray too far from where they left you. If they found you, they just didn't recall where they'd left you. If they didn't, it was far easier to walk off unnoticed once everyone else was out searching far and wide.

He had chosen to hide in the Hall of Time. He rested against the low balustrade that separated the room from the abyss. The barrier was a recent addition. After Hera had returned from down there Zeus had the barrier raised and reinforced. He had so missed his wife, he didn't want her to fear this room again. Strife looked down into the depths he couldn't see, but could remember quite clearly.

"Hey, down there. You'll never guess. I'm supposed to get married to Cupid. He rapes me, makes me carry his child, and I'm supposed to be so happy to be marrying the maniac?" he whispered. No need for shouting, a voice might carry down there, it might not. It just depended on luck. And shouting would give away his hiding place before he was ready to go back and face the future. Whatever that turned out to be.

He had the suspicion that it'd be a very long wait before he received a reply.

Pushing away from that so tempting edge, he looked at the currently random playing mirrors. He didn't bother trying to command them, there was no point. He'd been locked out of their control for all his life. But at least now he new why. To prevent him finding out about his birth. To help prevent Ares finding out about his birth. Maybe now they could have full control over them? That might be construed as something positive having come out of his situation. Two things in fact. Finally getting control over the Time Mirrors. And finding his long lost father.

Ares was his father. He was himself the result of a rape perpetrated by Cupid. Now he too was pregnant through Cupid's rape.

It all took so much believing. He could believe he was pregnant. The baby, his daughter, had made herself known to him. That in so few days he had moved so far along. About four months worth of energy had gone into the little speck of life currently hiding in his abdomen. A life Cupid put there. Like that. By raping him.

It kept coming back to that same act. To remembering the rape, the falling from the sky, twice no less.

He would have to remember to make sure little... That stopped him in his tracks. He'd need a name for his daughter. A name chosen by him, and him alone. Cupid didn't give him any say in her existence, he would give him no say in anything else to do with her. It was only fair, wasn't it? She would be his, and his alone.

"So, what name shall I give you?" Strife placed a gentle hand on his own slightly swelling belly and wondered what she would look like. An image of her filled his mind. So very small still, so far to grow. She would be dark haired, like him. Green eyed, like Cupid and his monstrous self. She would be wingless. Again like him, and such welcome news to him. No feathery reminders of her other parent.

As before, he got the strong echo of her base feelings. She was alive, safe and growing. Not that she had concepts for such things. But the God of Children did, as her God and father Strife knew instinctively what she meant.

He was so engrossed with his daughter's being he didn't notice he was no longer alone. His hiding place was discovered. Strife almost leapt over the balustrade when a hand touched his face. Opening his eyes he came face to face with Athena.

"Aunty Ath!" He accused his Aunt of everything and nothing in that tone.

"Are you okay? Everyone is looking high and low for you." She smiled, it always looked so wrong when she smiled. Strained, like she didn't really mean it. That smile was no exception.

"It's nice of you to pretend to care. But no one else is here to see you, you can drop the concern." Strife stepped back, out of her immediate reach.

Athena stood still and watched her nephew back away from her touch. Just as everyone always did. She fleetingly wondered why no one liked her. No one trusted her intentions. Was it her fault she had never learned to understand emotions as a child. She had never been a child! Not after Zeus swallowed her pregnant mother.

Strife heard that little prayer. It shocked him to the core. He had clearly heard and understood Athena's dilemma. She had never been anyone's child, or so she thought.

"But you're Zeus' child. As long as he lives you will be his child. Adult or not, that's entirely different from being a grown up. A grown up can be a child, a child isn't the same as an adult. If you see what I mean." Strife took that step back towards the now stunned Goddess before him.

Athena watched Strife approach her, she knew she hadn't spoken, hadn't even mind spoke to her nephew.

"I didn't speak." She whispered, all power gone from her voice.

"You didn't need to. You prayed as a child for guidance. And I guess I'm sort of your God when ya' do that." Strife blushed.

"The God of Children." Athena whispered again, this time in awe. "To all children, including us." She looked back at her nephew, easily meeting his concerned gaze. "And, ironically, they've just made you one of the most powerful God's on Olympus." She laughed. It actually sounded closer to a giggle. "Don't you see?" She nodded, encouraging Strife to think about it. "You can now more than meet Cupid as an equal."

"So, if he ever tried anything, I'd be able to stop him?" Strife needed to know exactly what it all meant. "He couldn't touch me or my daughter?" Again his hand went to cover his growing daughter.

"Exactly. Though you couldn't touch him either." She touched his face again, this time gaining his immediate benediction.

"You are a child any parent could be proud of." He smiled at her, covering her hand with his, gently pulling her away from him.

"I... thank you." Athena looked at the still randomly moving mirrors. "Maybe I can help you?" She looked at several mirrors and they moved, lining up to play the images she commanded. "Come see this." She pulled Strife to stand beside her. She held onto him as he tried to pull away once he saw it was Cupid in the mirror.

"No, don't." She commanded. "Watch, see, this is what happened immediately before he attacked you."

They watched Cupid walk into his home temple. They saw him smile at his son, sitting by himself. They both held their breaths as he slowly pushed open the door. They saw the delight in Psyche's face. They heard her stupid lie.

"Now, this is what Psyche and Apollo had told him a few months before." She played the next mirror. They heard and saw Psyche lie to Cupid again. This time she and her lover were telling the Love God he could no longer father any children. They saw the pain in his face as he tried to face their truth. Facts he had no call to suspect as lies, yet.

"How do you know all this? Why didn't you say anything about it all?" Strife, true to his upbringing, was full of suspicion as regards Athena's motives.

"I only found it all out when Ares made me take up Aphrodite's duties. It's love, it certainly makes fools out of everybody sooner or later. Personally, I'm hoping for later. Much later." Athena  activated yet another mirror. "See, here's Cupid falling in love with Psyche. What can you tell me about that happy event then?"

"The idiot shot himself!" Strife's voice squealed in a mixture of shock and delight.. "So, did he shoot her then? If he did I can't say it took, as it were."

"Nope the fool trusted to love." Athena moved the image on a little. Hercules entered the picture.

"She loved Hercules? So why did she marry Cupid?" He blushed. "Stupid question, it's swinging hormones, honest." He turned back to the images before him. "So that's where the green beast comes from."

"Watch Herc."

"Strong emotion for an older, truer love cured him. Well I never." Strife turned to face his aunt. "I never heard of anyone being cured without a serious counter spell before."

"No one had. But it seems he's not the only one cured." Athena took her nephew's hand and held on tight. "This will be distressing, but watch with me, please." She showed him the attack Cupid had enacted against him. By the time it was over he was trembling, tears were streaming down his face and he wanted desperately to run away.

"Why are you making me watch this?" He whispered.

"Here's why. See? We're following Cupid."

Cupid was huddled in a forest, lost to both himself and the Gods. He removed the emblem of his office as God of Love and crushed it. He pocketed the lump of shapeless Gold and  cried some more. His eyes looked so dead.

"And I was how, exactly, while this was happening?" He looked deliberately at Athena, not the mirror.

"I know how you were. We're watching Cupid, now watch!" She tugged him back to face the image. Subtly reminding him that she was the senior Goddess and he the junior God.

Strife watched Cupid go on his killing rampage.

"But he's a Love God, not a War God." He muttered. He knew that emotion. Burying your pain in a sea of blood and death. "What was he playing at?"

"He thought he had killed you. He was making himself into a War God, to take your place. He had denied your father of a son all your life. He had denied him his nephew yet again, or so he thought. He was going to replace you. To make sure your father's wars didn't suffer. That and he found the pain faded in battle." The Goddess of Love, pro temp, the Goddess of Wisdom and War looked at Strife, openly, honestly. "You know that's a common enough reason for men to go away and fight. It deadens their pain."

"Yeah." Strife muttered. He also rubbed his back, he was getting tired, again. "Can I sit down?"

"Surely." Athena was annoyed with herself, never having thought about Strife's physical comfort. She created a pair of comfortable chairs for them to sit on. A table with food and drink followed in short order. "We've a lot to look at, we might as well be comfortable." She turned back to the mirrors, and Strife turned with her, he was getting interested in this story, despite his staring role in it.

The next set of images were Cupid's confession to Gabrielle, about his guilt, his admission that he could never face his child, not after he had raped her other father. They watched quietly through his confession of love. But no further than that.

"The lying shit!" Strife raged. "The hypocritical scumbag. 'Oh, I love him' he says. Then rapes me, almost kills me and fucks off without a backwards glance. If that's love I'd better be fuckin' glad he doesn't hate me."

"Shh, listen to him." She rewound the images and played them again. This time she reached out and held Strife's hand as he watched.

Cupid's harsh words to the bard struck a cord with the former Mischief God. Cupid really didn't know how to approach him. Never had.

"He's still an idiot.!" Strife informed his aunt, quieter this time, of his unchanged opinion as regards his brother.

"Well, true, but here's a random memory from before you were conceived. What differences do you see?" She played a memory of Cupid laughing, playing a complex trick on someone, and taking an immense amount of delight in so doing. Cupid laughed, it was an almost musical sound. His eyes shone with inner power and joy.

"He wasn't a boring stick in the mud, that's for sure." Strife muttered, still very angry with Cupid. Athena sighed at the uphill struggle she could still see before her.

"And after." She showed Cupid without that sense of mischief. It was like the light had gone out in his soul.

"He's so serious." Strife screwed up his face at the half God they had created from what had gone before. "It's like he's almost dead."

"Watch this." She changed the images again. They were watching Cupid watch the young Strife learning his mischief skills. The younger God played a cruel trick on his victim, unable to moderate the mischief urge at all.

He too was half a God. There was nothing to moderate his vicious streak, just as there was nothing to moderate Cupid's belief in love.

Had he not held such a powerful belief in love maybe he'd have not loved Psyche. Or, if he had, maybe he'd have happily used an arrow on her. That would have saved him a lot of grief. Strife knew this to be true. He also knew that if Cupid had shot Psyche he would have lost all chance of Cupid ever loving him.

The pain, and humiliation was complete.

"Oh, Gods, Aunty Ath - I still love him. I can't trust him, can't forgive him, can't stop loving him." Strife broke down.

This time Athena left him to cry.

"Shh now, one last image, then I'm going to make a suggestion, okay?" She had waited until the younger God had himself more under control. She showed him the scene between Cupid and Zeus, and Ares stopping him from searching for the missing God. "He loves you too, and can't forgive himself either."

"So wha.." Strife's voice failed entirely. He coughed, sipped some fruit juice and tried again. "You said you had a suggestion to make. What is it?"

"I suggest we put a delay on this marriage. I'm afraid Zeus and Hera will impose it on both of you, whether you want it or not. My suggestion is we give you both time."

"Time to do what? Escape to another pantheon?"

"No, time to heal, to really get to know each other and yourselves. We give Cupid back Love and Mischief. You are confirmed as God of Children. We give you both some time to recover. That'll let the child be born and allow the wounds to fade."

"How long do you propose? Forever sounds good." Strife turned a hopeful face towards her. She hated to disappoint him, but as the current Love Goddess she had to.

"A year." She spoke calmly, as she did everything. "He courts you for a year. Chaperoned at that." She smiled as she made that last suggestion.

"He courts me? What d'ya' mean a year. That ain't no time at all!" Strife squeaked again.

"Most assuredly, he, after all is the one who should seek redemption. Not you. Any way, a year and a day is rather traditional, don't you think?" Athena was serious. That much Strife could clearly make out.

"Aunty Ath, remind me to never fall foul of you, okay?" Strife used humour, as always, to shield his capitulation to the inevitable.

"You've got to remember he loves you. He's just got to remember why and how to love properly. He has a lot of hurt to erase, both his from Psyche and yours from him."

"Do I get presents?" Strife's sense of humour couldn't stay crushed for ever. The weak attempt at humour did cheer the Goddess however.

"Damn right you do. Lot's of them." She drew him closer to her, as best she could, and summoned Ares to her side. "Now, let's tell your father."

"You tell him, I'm not feeling that brave." Again Strife laughed. Athena didn't realise how much she had loved that sound until it was silenced.

"Not brave enough to tell me what?" Ares appeared from nowhere and crossed over to his son's side. He reached, hesitantly, for him, concern clear in his face. "You're alright aren't you?"

"I'm fine." Strife tried to evade his father's touch. He had grown used to backhands and the odd fireball from Ares, never this need to touch him, to hold him. To nurture and protect him. It struck the God of Children as strange, that the God of War should be so emotionally controlled by the urge to defend his children. Their current situation must be ripping him apart, one son against another. If for no other reason than to help Ares, he'd agree to letting Cupid court him.

"Then tell me what?" Ares' voice was starting to show the anger Strife associated with him, it reassured the emotionally seesawing God that his senior Gods did as much wavering between extremes as he did in a crisis.

"I have told Strife he must marry Cupid, but I put forward a plan to Strife and he has agreed to follow it." Athena tried to smile at her brother, she saw it simply not work again. As always she got on the defensive side of her confused emotions which triggered a equal defensive pose from Ares.

Strife saw it all for what it was now.

"Aunty Ath has thought up a great plan. One in which I get lots of presents." Strife grinned. He  leaned over to his aunt and whispered in her ear. "You are worthy of people's time, you are worthy of their affections too. Relax and only smile when you know what you're doing. Less teeth more oomph."

Athena couldn't help it. She broke into an actual laugh, out loud. Totally shocking Ares. He had seen that near sneer on his sister's face every time she spoke at him, never had he seen her dissolve in helpless laughter.

"Will some one tell me what is going on here!" He glared at them both equally. "Please!"

"Cupid will court Strife. For a year. Fully chaperoned too. And like Strife said, Cupid gets to ply him with gifts. We give Mischief back to Cupid, Strife stays as God of Children, you get both of them, and Bliss, as house guests. We all get time to see if their marriage will work. And time to work on Zeus and Hera if it doesn't look like it'll work out."

"But Cupid has a perfectly good home of his own." Ares pointed out, in as reasonable a tone as he could manage. He wanted time with Strife alone. Time to really get to know him as his son.

"Ah, well, that has some seriously icky memories associated with it. I certainly wouldn't want to live there. It's getting pulled down and rebuilt. It can be gramps and gran'ma's wedding gift to us. A new home." Strife was on a roll, winging it, helping his Aunty Ath against Ares, for once.

"The amount of power they'd need to expend would be incredible." Ares thought out loud. Athena and Strife could see him coming around to their world view. "That'd teach them for making such blanket decisions."

"Shall we head to the Assembly Hall and make our announcement then?" Athena smiled, naturally. The glee at the mental image of their father's face when she made her idea clear too good to keep to herself. And despite his history with this sister, Ares smiled right back. To Athena it was like having won her victory already.

"That's better." Strife patted her hand and stood up, rubbing his back. He suddenly found himself in a warm embrace, two strong hands rubbing the ache for him. "What the..?"

"Lean on me son, it's what dad's do." Ares smiled, almost shyly. He did have a strong idea of just what a father did, what their children did. The irony being his son was God of Children and his child. Strife relented and decided it was probably safer to put up with Ares' fussing than to fight against it. Wasn't this what he had always longed for? A loving, attentive father? ___

Zeus and Hera didn't take the news too well. They didn't protest too much either. Aphrodite, however, did object to them following a plan from the so called Love Goddess. Athena and herself got into real screaming match. A fight Athena actually won. She knew far more creative insults than her sex crazed half sister. Strife was highly delighted in his Aunt Ath's progress.

"What's gotten into her today?" Zeus muttered, watching Athena behaving like almost anyone else but herself.

"Hey, you should know Gramps, she's your child after all." Strife waited for the flow of emotion to start. Zeus' guilt over his killing Athena's mother. He could have simply never went near her again. Another child he had hurt, another lover he had destroyed. The King of the Gods felt relieved that at least his wife had forgiven him.

He turned to Hera, taking her hand and finding himself agreeing to rebuilding Cupid's home. They watched Cupid's face as the truth sank in. He'd have a year to convince Strife he could be trusted. That he did really love him. A chance to know their daughter. Be a family.

Strife saw the same emotions and wondered why he had agreed to Athena's plan in the first place.

Their first 'date' was a nightmare. Cupid overreacted to everyone and everything. He broke one man's legs because he barged past Strife, knocking him into Hercules' arms.  Hercules had to call on Ares to pull Cupid out of the fight he started, and get Strife to a place of safety.

The following morning Strife had slapped the reunited emblems of  Love and Mischief on to the table top in front of Cupid and demanded he wear them before they ever went anywhere ever again.

By their tenth date, Cupid had stopped hitting people. He was wearing the emblem of his true Godhood, and re-acclimatising to both tasks. Strife had his new emblem too; a tree in full leaf, with fruits of many kinds etched onto its branches. Aphrodite had returned to her normal duties. Once she stopped blushing. She had put Hephaestus' new emblem around her neck and had been assailed by his love, lust and delights.

On their fifteenth date, they went on a picnic. All of them. Ares and Eris, Aphrodite and Hephaestus, Hercules and Iolaus and even Autolycus. Bliss too went along. By the end of it, they were almost going to war. Cupid had to fight the urge to get physically between Strife and everyone else. Including Strife's mother, which was where the war got going. It took the combined efforts of Hercules and Ares to make the love sick young God behave.

By the time their thirtieth date came around Strife bearly had moving room in his bedroom. Everywhere was covered in piles of presents. Some more odd than others. He was still debating why Cupid thought he might need so many lamb fleeces, he had enough to carpet the entire floor space of Ares' home. He had statues standing two deep. He had more jewellery than even Dite could wear. As for toys, the baby had more toys than the average population of any given city. But at least the violence had fully stopped. Cupid had resorted to other means to defend Strife.

The man who had called him a fat slob at the theatre the night before would probably find a new lover, eventually. Once he realised that the statue of Erato wasn't reciprocating his feelings. And after he got out of prison for stealing the same statue.

Their fiftieth date was interrupted when Strife had suddenly crushed Ares' hand. Ares felt the tremors course through Strife's body. His eyes were drawn to his son's distended belly and he saw the muscles tighten as he rode out the contraction.

"Apollo!?" The War God screamed mentally, and physically, on his brother. Cupid glared at the senior God of Healing as he examined the heavily pregnant God.

"That's enough." The Love God growled, pulling Apollo's hands away from Strife's belly. "Don't touch him."

"I'm in labour you idiot!" Strife snarled at his date.

"I know, I'm not an idiot. I just don't trust him. Not after all his lies with her." There was no denying who he meant by her. Strife had to admit to himself he understood Cupid's feelings, but he resented being classed alongside his betrothed's ex wife.

"I am not Psyche. Apollo has never desired me, as far as I know. Now, can we please get home and let me get this over with!?" He glared at everyone.

"Come on. Home with you." Ares picked him up, relocated them to his home and set Strife down on his own seriously cluttered bed. "How many toys has he given you now?" He moved as many as he could, but even floor space was at a premium.

Apollo and the still fuming Cupid arrived. True to his word, Cupid stayed out of Strife's bedroom. He hovered at the door, watching Apollo touching Strife again.

"Pol, I think you'd better hand over to Ace, if you can do so safely." Ares whispered to his brother, keeping a watchful eye on his older son's tension levels.

"Can't, Ace is dealing with an outbreak of plague. Little nameless one will be too vulnerable with him here. He could pass on the infection without meaning to." Apollo was also so very aware of Cupid's looming presence.

"Fuck off the pair of you!" Strife batted away both sets of hands, his distress clearly evident to the frustrated God in the doorway. Ares and Apollo looked at him, perplexed by his attitude.

"What's wrong Strife?" Ares finally asked.

"I don't want you here, either of you. Cupid's not here, he doesn't really care for either of us, he resents this baby. He made her, he doesn't want her, or me. Not really." Then Ares realised that he and Apollo were blocking the line of sight between Cupid and Strife.

"I do too want her, you, both of you. I promised dad I'd not enter your private rooms ever again without a direct invite. I'm here Strife, I'm right here." He shouted over the wailing of the distressed younger God.

"Get the fuck over here then." Strife shouted back. Cupid crossed the short distance in a blink of an eye. What he wasn't ready for were Strife's next words. "You put her in there, you take her out!"

"What?" Cupid gasped, tried to back away, but Strife had a firm grip on him by that point, he was going nowhere.

"Apollo can tell you what to do. You deliver her." Strife glared his would be suitor into submission.

Cupid stood there, looking at Strife, wondering if he ever would win back his brother's trust. Wondering if this was some sort of test. Wondering if he could really do it.

"What do I need to do?" He asked Strife.

"Talk to Apollo, not me, he's the healer around here." Strife met Cupid's eyes, just as yet another contraction tightened his belly muscles around their daughter's form.

For the first time since he had left them in what used to be his bedroom, locked in their act of deceit and passion, Cupid looked at Apollo. He pictured Apollo with Psyche, he couldn't help it. But that image no longer had any power over him. It was the image before him that counted. The second chance Strife was giving him This time he couldn't let him down. If he did, there would be no more chances.

"What do I need to do?" Cupid asked his uncle this time.

"Put your hands here, and feel the flesh as it stretches across the muscle bag holding the baby in..." Apollo took Cupid's hands and directed them to Strife's belly. Showing him what to feel for. Telling him what he was going to have to do.

"Dad!" Strife hissed out his demand. Ares rounded the bed to sit by his side, as best he could.

"Yeah, what is it. What d'you need?"

"You." Strife enjoyed the momentary confusion on Ares' face, right before the War God held out his hand to his son. Strife grasped that hand and smiled at his dad.

A tray of knives and other assorted things the God of Children didn't want to think about appeared at his bed side. Rather than watch what they were doing to him, he looked at his father.

"Now, before you start, load that area with blocking power. You don't want Strife to feel any pain over this do you?" Apollo placed Cupid's hand where it was needed. Cupid let him.

They worked steadily, together. Cupid cut open Strife's belly, easing the blade gently through the bag of muscle that had grown around their daughter. As he did so Apollo mopped up the blood and fluid as Cupid cut. The Love God reached into Strife's body and eased out the baby he had forced it to grow.

She was messy, blood smeared, wet, wrinkled, wearing a membrane around her entire body.

"Gently, break the cowl, the membrane, peel it off her." Apollo started to remove the placenta and made sure the muscle bag was properly empty. Once assured it was, he closed up the gapping wound in Strife's belly. As he did so, Ares clenched his son's hand all the tighter and faced Strife, holding his attention. Strife was aware of their actions, but focused on his father.

Cupid pulled the cowl off the baby, rubbing her dry as he did so. The action stimulating the baby to draw in her first deep breath. Then she let out a lusty scream.

"She's all right, she's fine. Listen to her?" Strife wiped at the tears on his face.

"She sure is." Cupid wrapped her in a towel made from the finest linen and placed her on Strife's chest. "See? She's beautiful."

"You realise your grandmother isn't going to forgive either of you too readily?" Ares pointed out, peering at the red faced little child lying on Strife's chest.

"Why?" Cupid asked, but he didn't look at his father as he spoke, he watched his daughter, snuggled safe on Strife's chest.

"You've got work to do. Muscles to heal and repair." Apollo nudged the bemused Love God's hand and refocused his attention on his task at hand.

"Oh shit!" Strife groaned, getting Cupid's undivided attention once more. "She's missed the birth."

"Oops?" The Love God offered as he finished the healing task under Apollo's direction.

Once they were finished Apollo turned towards Strife and the baby.

"Pass her over here and let me check her over." He picked the baby up, only to have his hands stayed by Cupid's.

"Why? So you can take away someone else from me?" The rage was back.

Sighing, Strife realised he had to finally do something about all the mayhem and strife that Psyche had left in her wake. It occurred to him that Cupid couldn't get his mind around the truth without help. And if he didn't help, then his betrothed would never be free of her. And they would be doomed before they started.

"Cupid!" He snapped, getting his betrothed's attention. "Why was I called Strife?"

"Because you were Mischief. You caused strife, were conceived in strife.." He stopped talking, eyes down cast.

"And What does Ares mean?" he looked from his brother to their father.

"Male warrior... isn't it?" Cupid looked somewhat perplexed

"Ah ha... and Apollo?"

"Destroyer." Cupid definitely looked lost now.

"Psyche?" Strife pushed on.

"Controlling mind.. " Cupid looked at his brother, their father and finally their uncle. Somewhat pleased to see Apollo as perplexed as he was. "So what?"

"Think about it. Before she married you she claimed she was in love with uncle Herc. Then she doesn't just get you as a lover but as a husband." Strife resettled their daughter into a more comfortable position.

"Yeah, so, she came here, had Bliss and started on her affairs.. Hermes, then.." Cupid tried to remember.

"Poseidon, then me." Apollo whispered.

"Right!" Cupid stared at his uncle.

"But who was the longest?" Strife asked. He talked now with Apollo, looking at him, not Cupid. The now wingless Love God was left looking at his father for a cue as to how to react. Ares was fascinated, he always was when Strife actually used his brain.

"I was, why?"

"You are the Destroyer... she used you to break Cupid's spirit. Did you really want to?"

Apollo looked at Cupid, then at Strife.

"No, not really, I just got swept up in her game."

"And you Cupid. How did you react?" Strife looked at him, holding their child close to his heart, stroking her tiny face with one gentle finger tip.

"I  lost my temper and you know what I did? Better than anyone, you know I raped you, made her. I ... I couldn't stop myself.. " Cupid looked like he would either throw up or pass out.

"What triggered it? When you looked at me you changed, what did you see?" Strife was finally going to know the reason his little one was created.

"The love of a mortal. It reminded me of her. She had been a mortal. My jealousy had made me that beast when she was mortal. You had been loved by a mortal." Cupid was jealous, everyone could see it.

"Cupid, it was the love from mortal children. They were starving, I fed them. I know how that feels, an empty belly." Strife struggled to sit up a little.

"She played with my mind!" Now Cupid's rage was directed at the real cause for all their troubles.

"Well, stop letting her away with it. She's gone, you've got to put her behind you and get on with your life. Start with the real truth and get on with things." Ares was getting annoyed with Cupid's lack of direction. He knew that his newest grandchild needed her two fathers, if Cupid didn't realise the truth he was going to lose out, and the biggest loser would be that little scrap of a girl.

"I love you Strife. Always did, and not through any arrow. I guess she found out and resented you and me both for it." Cupid looked at his betrothed, and their child. "Can you forgive me?"

"Can you forgive yourself?" Strife countered the question with one of his own.

"I'll try." Cupid promised.

"I'll try too." Strife finally looked away from Cupid. "Will someone please send for Grandma' before she busts a gut?"

"Mother, come see.." Ares summonsed his parents, halting the heavy emotional outbursts. Enough was enough, for one night. Lifting the baby from Strife's arms he welcomed her to his family. "Hello, little one, welcome to your home." He kissed her forehead, tenderly. It seemed she had her own little agenda regarding her fathers.

She might just win too.  But time ran out for speculating about her plans and schemes. Hera and Zeus had arrived. They cooed over the newest member of their family and had the privilege of asking the one question everyone had been wanting answered for months now.

"So, Strife, what name did you finally decide upon?" Hera asked, having handed their great granddaughter to Zeus, she leaned over and kissed Strife's cheek.

"Do you have any idea just how many girls names mean 'pure' huh?" Strife sat up, assisted by Cupid who went on to tuck in the blankets again, hiding Strife's body from them all.

"Where's my mother? And Aunty Ath?" Strife went off on a tangent, but to humour him Zeus summonsed the two Goddesses he wanted there. Although he couldn't imagine why he would request Athena's presence.

Eris smiled at the child and groaned at the title grandmother. Athena, however, lifted the child to her heart and hugged her.

"I was so worried you might be damaged little one.  But you are perfect." She blew a kiss to the baby unaware of the shock on Cupid's face.

It had never occurred to Cupid that his throwing Strife to the ground that second time might have caused actual damage to the child he had compelled his brother to carry.

"I never thought.." He rambled to a standstill.

"Yeah, get over it, we've already reached that conclusion, remember?" Strife was getting more than a little bored with his brother's well worn guilt.

"But she could have been damaged, you could have been damaged.." Cupid was interrupted by a now furious Strife.

"I was damaged, you idiot. Apollo and Asclepius took several days piecing me back together. Ace would never have managed it on his own. You were off starting wars and killing people, remember?" Strife glared at Cupid. The love and Mischief God had the grace to blush then pale as the truth sank in.

"You saved Strife, and the baby. And you let me behave like an idiot all these weeks?" Just when Apollo thought he was about to get a misplaced apology he got his face punched instead. "You could have said something, you prick!"

Despite everything Eris and Strife started to laugh. As the former Mischief God wriggled he dislodged the cowl the baby had worn when born.

"Voleta!" He announced, smiling at the drying layer of skin.

"Pardon?" Hera did wonder if he mean the baby or the cowl.

"The baby, she came in to the world in that cowl, Voleta, vailed one, it fits." Strife blushed, afraid the others would laugh at his choice of names.

"It's a beautiful, and fitting name." Hera reassured him.

"Voleta.." Cupid tried out the name, and smiled. "It sounds delicate, just like her."

And Strife realised something else. He had kept his last promise to Voleta, before he was talked into the year of courting. He had named his daughter himself, without any input from Cupid.

"Good, now clear out all of you except for Grandma'.. shoo!" Strife ushered them all out and indicated Hera to sit beside him. Which she did, and she waited quietly until he was ready to speak. "How did you forgive Zeus?" He was blunt in his question, as always.

"I realised something pretty damn amazing." She smiled at his eager expression. "I'm a Goddess, a devine being. Forgiveness is a devine act. I just let myself forgive him. It's a skill I've gotten a lot of practice at over the years. Try it, it works." She smiled again, and stroked the baby's cheek.  "She is beautiful, little one, and deserves both her fathers in her life. Forgive Cupid, no one ever said you had to forgive Psyche, now did they?"

She helped Strife feed the baby, showing him how to hold her right, how to produce the bottled milk at just the right temperature. Reminding him that breast feeding was all well and good when one was a Goddess, but he should take advantage of Cupid being able to spell him in the late night feeding if it were bottles she was getting.

Strife was easily persuaded.

Their sixty-seventh date was a big turning point. Strife fell asleep, leaning against Cupid's shoulder before the play was even half way over. Not that it was a bad play, he was just so exhausted looking after Voleta and all his other little charges the world over, in Greece at least.

Ares helped Cupid take him back to their home. The War god pulled back the blankets, Cupid vanished Strife's outer clothes with a thought. They both tucked him in, but as they turned away, Strife reached out and grabbed Cupid's wrist.

"Don't go." He mumbled, pulling him down to lie beside him, on top of  the blankets.

Cupid lay down. It was a start, at the very least. He couldn't suppress the grin he wore if he actually tried, not that he did.

"Good night, both of you." Ares whispered from the door. "And I'm just over the hall, so no fighting."

"Good night, dad, and thanks." Cupid knew a warning when he heard one. Then he noticed that Ares hadn't actually closed the door. Either Strife's or his own. Well he'd just have to show them all, himself included, that he could be trusted.

Holding Strife, as he had so longed to do, Cupid eventually joined him in sleep. ___

VII: On A Chariot Of Fire

The first hint of a grizzle from Voleta woke Strife, as it always did. He was so attuned to his daughter's needs, so much so it always amazed him how deep their link was. He pushed the arm holding him down off of himself. He shuddered as he felt his skin crawl as he climbed from his bed. He looked back, briefly, at Cupid lying there, sleeping soundly, grinning like an idiot at some dream or another. Totally uncaring about Voleta's impending discomfort and distress. The occasional grizzle had become a niggly whine. He had to wonder if he'd been like this while Bliss was a baby. Somehow, he suspected that he had been.

"Shhh, little one, daddy's here." He reached into the crib and gently lifted Voleta, resting her against his chest. He turned towards his bathing chamber and headed for a warm bath. Sparing one final look for the sleeping Love God on his bed, he felt certain he could now make his case stick and finally get things to go his way.

Voleta enjoyed her bath, she always did. She kicked and splashed and made little giggle type noises. Once she was clean she was placed on one of the innumerable lamb fleeces Cupid had given Strife. The fleece lined the floor of a playpen on legs, keeping it out of any spilled water. There Voleta lay, still kicking and chuntering away in the fashion of all babies, as her daddy got himself washed.

She loved her daddy. A fact that constantly amazed Strife. That someone could love him so unconditionally.

Once dressed they went off in search of breakfast. Strife noted in passing that Cupid was still asleep. He also noted that his bedroom door was still open. Recalling the previous night he smiled. No doubt Ares was just being hyper paranoid, as always. As he went passed Bliss' room he noticed that that door was open too, and the room beyond was empty.

Pushing open the door that lead into the main room in Ares' home Strife heard a tell tale sound that had been missing from his home since Cupid's stupid attack. Ares had a 'guest' with him. If his suspicions were right it'd be fun to witness the look of utter disbelief if Cupid woke up in time to see their dad with one of his lovers.

"Morning dad." Strife greeted Ares, looked at the back of the head belonging to the man straddling Ares' lap and kissing the War God to within an inch of his immortal life, and added, "Morning Joxer, long time no see." He recognised that body, no matter what it wore, or didn't. He proceeded to pile a plate high with all his favourite breakfast foods. He had a long day ahead of him and didn't count on having the opportunity to grab any lunch.

Voleta grumbled, daddy was feeding himself first not her. A single cry was all it ever took. The merest hint that she was going hungry and her daddy dropped everything and fed her.

"Oh, sorry 'Leta. Got distracted there." Strife created a bottle of warm milk and offered the tasty treat to his hungry daughter. She drank and watched and smiled as best she could. Her daddy was watching her, and just her. It was so good, drinking the milk, drinking in the love too.

"Strife!" Joxer broke the kiss to exclaim in surprise at the sight of the young God and his daughter sitting beside them.

"Nice of you to notice us, eventually." Strife grinned at his father's lover. "So, where ya' been? Ya' been avoidin' us or somethin'?"

"No, I was with Xena and Gabs, they've buggered off to India, of all places. I did wonder if it wasn't a bit too far, just to get away from me, but hey, maybe I excelled myself?" Joxer climbed off Ares' lap and headed for the table filled with choicest offering of breakfast fare.

"You weren't there, or here, last night. I distinctly remember it not being a double date. So, when'd ya' get here?" Strife paused in feeding Voleta and sat her up, supporting her head and neck, he gently rubbed her back until she belched in such an unladylike fashion. Then he proceeded to feed her some more.

"After you and Cupid had gone to bed and to sleep. I got lonely and received a very welcome prayer just when it would do most good." Ares laughed, joined Joxer by the food and made a quick selection of dishes. "Where's sleeping beauty?"

"Sleeping. If you mean Cupid. I've no idea where Bliss is. His room's empty." Strife blushed slightly, as he realised he hadn't even checked to see where his nephew was.

"He's with Dite. I sent him there when he burst in on us at first light this morning." Ares smirked knowingly at Strife making his son giggle and blush.

"I see." Strife had evidently finished with Voleta's breakfast, he vanished the bottle and burped the child once more. "You gonna settle and let daddy get some breakfast?"

"Here, you eat, let me hold her." Joxer put down his fork and reached for the now very sleepy baby.

"Thanks Jox." Strife smiled at his favourite amongst his father's lovers.

Joxer sat there, picking at his breakfast, being fed choice morsels from Ares' fingers, cuddling the little Goddess. Strife ate like a God possessed.

"Slow down. You might well be a God and all, but it'll still sit like a brick in yer belly. Take some time and eat properly." Joxer lifted Voleta to a position in which she could see her daddy. "You tell him darlin' - he's eatin' like a starving pig."

Ares laughed, stroking Voleta's chubby cheeks. His smiled told the whole story, if like Strife you knew how to read the War God. He was so happy to have his favourite lover back with him. They made a devastating pair, when they worked in harmony. Strife did wonder why Ares had sicced Joxer on Xena and Gabs anyway. Especially in that hideous bumbling persona he adopted around them!

Strife watched his dad take Voleta from Joxer's arms and snuggle her close, telling Joxer to eat his fill, as a mortal he was more in need of feeding than either of them. They being Gods and immortal beings and all. Strife always wondered if anyone else ever got to see the warm, family orientated side of the viscous God of War?

Their happy family moment was rudely shattered when Cupid staggered in and glared round the room, eyes falling on Joxer's presence and Voleta in Ares' arms.

"Joxer? What on Earth is he doing here?" The Love God sneered at the startled mortal. What he didn't expect was Strife standing up to him.

"If ya' must know, Jox is dad's lover. Has been fer years, he keeps an eye on Xena and blondie fer us. Keeps them on the straight an' narrow an' all that." Strife had suddenly realised just what Ares was up to sending an apparent innocent out with psychobitch herself. She'd protect that innocence to any and all extremes, having lost her's she'd go to any length's to keep Joxer's intact. That was sneaky.

"What?" Cupid looked at the hapless mortal his mother enjoyed playing with from time to time. Like the time she belled the poor git. "Joxer is mom's toy!" He stated what he knew as fact.

"No, he isn't. He's no one's toy. He's a free being who can freely choose to believe in any one of us. Or not as the case may be. You just remember that sunshine." Ares glared at Cupid, his tone and expression distressing Voleta. "Hush, little one, granddad's not cross at you, just him." He nodded his head in Cupid's direction. Reminding his elder son that without mortals to believe in them the Gods would be nothing.

"What's got your Godhood in a twist anyway?" Ares demanded, quietly, an explanation of his elder son's behaviour.

"I woke up and Strife had gone." Cupid looked at Strife, his eyes displaying such an open hunger towards his brother.

"Tough." Strife answered around a mouth full of breakfast. His face didn't show anything but his physical hunger for breakfast.

"Why did you leave me?" Cupid piled his own plate with food and sat down beside Strife. Watching him all the time.

"We were awake, and wanted somethin' ta' eat is why." Strife was getting steadily more and more annoyed at Cupid, a fact the Love God had seemingly totally failed to notice.

"We?" Cupid challenged Strife, looking at Joxer once more.

"Yes, we!" Strife shouted, pushing away from the table. "Me an' Voleta! The daughter you so kindly gave me, remember her?"

Cupid immediately turned to face his father and his daughter nestled in his arms.

"Oh, her. How is she this morning?" He didn't reach for her. He did look at her though, with such an intensity it was scary to witness.

"Absolutely fine." Strife walked around his brother to reclaim his daughter from Ares' protective arms.

"Good." Cupid added and started eating

"I'm going over to see Gramps and Grandma' this morning. I'll probably go see Aunty Ath too, okay?" Over both his lifetimes he had become accustomed to telling Ares where he was going, who he would be with. It had originally been to keep him safe from his less than stable mother. It had rapidly become a habit neither God was willing to break.

"Okay, you want Jox to look after Voleta for you?" Ares turned to smile at his lover. "I'd offer, but I got wars to start, men to kill, the same old drill as usual."

Joxer laughed at Ares' tone and description. When he did so Cupid glared at him.

"What if she needs feeding?" Strife asked, still not comfortable with leaving her with someone else. It was bad enough leaving her with Hera when he and Cupid had to go on one of their stupid dates, but during the day too? This was almost too much to ask of him.

"Easily dealt with." Cupid waved a hand and a row of three bottles appeared on the table. "They'll stay at the right temperature till you need them." He went back to eating, it was something Strife would have to get used to. Leaving the kid with baby-sitters. After all, he'd not be with her twenty four hours a day once they were married. "You might as well get used to leaving her with sitters now."

"Why now especially?" It was Joxer who questioned the Love God the other two Gods were too dumb-struck to speak.

"Because she'll be with sitters all the time when we're married. We've both got jobs ta' do. An' afterwards, we'll need time ta' ourselves, t' unwind ya' know?" Cupid did look as if he were explaining day to a moron.

"She'll be with us." Strife stated, simply.

"Hardly. She'll be with Bliss, and his sitters. Take it from me, parents need a break from their kids." Cupid reached for Strife but the other God backed away from him.

Strife really looked into Cupid's mind and heart where Voleta and bliss was concerned. What he saw reconfirmed that his earlier idea was right. The course of action he was about to set in motion was the right one for everyone. Especially Voleta. Cupid resented her, he resented her survival. Oh, he was also glad she had survived, that she hadn't been permanently damaged, like Hephaestus. But he resented the reminder she was to Strife. Reminding him, as if he could forget, just how she was conceived.

"I'm not going to marry you. Like ever." Strife met Cupid's eyes as he spoke. He didn't see disappointment, he saw fury in them. Contained, held in tight check, but it was still there.

"What?" The Love God whispered. "Then what was last night about?"

"Seeing if I could feel safe around you on my own. That's all." Strife let his own feeling show, his anger, his fear, his rage, his resentment. "See, I went along with it all. I couldn't prove why I thought it a fuckin' stupid idea. Not till now. You resent her. You made her. You wanted her, then, for that spilt second while your cock was jammed up my arse." Strife was trembling. So much so that Ares took the child from him once more.

"I'm sorry. I've apologised time and time again. What more do you want of me?" Cupid stood up, his rage boiling off of him. Leaving him empty and afraid.

"I want nothing from you. Nothing what so ever." Strife met his brother's confused gaze.

"But we're to be married. You won't get Zeus to over turn his own edict" Cupid whined. It was so uncharacteristic it took everyone by surprise.

"Cupid, I don't want to marry you." Strife tried explaining it slowly, calmly. He only outraged Cupid more.

"Why not? What's wrong with marrying me?" The void in his heart was once more filled to overflowing with anger. The spoiled, not getting his own way anger of a child.

"You raped me. You almost killed me. You left me pregnant and buggered off on some stupid quest to become a War God. Of all the stupid shit to pick you picked that one." He took a steadying breath and again looked directly into Cupid's eyes as he spoke. "You violated me, in anger, I was powerless against you. And you think I should lie down and spread my legs ready to let you take me again? Can't you understand the very idea of having you in me makes me sick?" Strife did look very green around the gills, not that Cupid noticed.

"Then you fuck me!" Was his suggestion.

"I can't.. I just can't.." And Strife vanished from the room, from Ares' home entirely.

"He hates me?" Cupid sounded so confused, lost that Ares' anger was tempered with concern for his older son.

"You've destroyed his trust in you certainly. Why should he want to be tied to you for life? He isn't 'in' love with you. Maybe he might have been once, but after your attack, it'll be a very long time before he loves anyone else. If he ever does." Ares looked from Voleta, nestled safe in his arms, to his confused son. "Except for this little one, her daddy loves her totally." He smiled at the baby and exerted a little power, sending her over the edge and into sleep.

"What did it feel like? To be in him like that. To come in him, whether he wanted you to or not? To force his body to carry your child like that? Total domination. Then to throw him down again? What did it feel like?" Joxer asked his brutally blunt questions and waited for either death or an answer.

"Watch your mouth mortal!" Cupid snarled, lover or no lover of Ares, he would kill Joxer for his comments.

"It felt that good, eh?" Joxer pushed himself away from the table but didn't stand up. "Killing me won't silence the truth."

Cupid snarled, formed a fireball and had it detonated in his face as his father's greater power overrode his impulse.

"I suggest you go talk with someone on this subject. I'd recommend Apollo, seeing as how he specialises in mental heath these days. But I guess in your case, maybe not." Ares was calm, a sure sign of his tightly controlled rage.

"But I want Strife, I love him.." Cupid whined, only to be cut off by his father once more.

"No, the truth was the first part. You want him.  Why do you want him? Do you think he'd be anymore faithful than Psyche? Or that he'd have fewer affairs with Hermes or Apollo?" Ares glared at his wayward son, sure in his heart they'd not be in this mess if the council of twelve had let him raise him as he had asked to. He'd raised Strife and he was by far less prone to sexual violence.

"Apollo's never looked twice at Strife, you're being ridiculous."

"Am I? I'm not the one who thinks loving Strife means raping him, am I?" Ares took Joxer and Voleta and left Cupid sitting there, thinking about his actions and the consequences of those actions.

Cupid's body remembered the feel of Strife's much slighter frame against him. Of being buried in that compliant body. Compliant because it was already broken. And his heart and soul wondered what it would have felt like, to make love to Strife. To really love and be loved by him. He lay his head on his arms, against the edge of the table. No tears came. He'd cried them all out. He had lost Strife. No, not lost, he'd never had him to lose him. He'd lost all chance of being with him. That was much closer to the truth. Although it didn't make it any easier to accept.

In Athena's sitting room a tearful, angry Strife paced up and down. He put his case to his aunt, point by point. How he knew now that he could trust Cupid not to rape him every time they were alone. But the idea of being touched, in any sexual context, by Cupid made his skin crawl. He pointed out that forgiveness didn't rebuild trust. And only time would do that. He shared his memories of Cupid's resentment towards Voleta, the fact that she survived. It was there he was finally stopped.

"But Strife, I do believe lots of  father's resent their children. All the time their wives and lovers devote to the children rather than to them. Cupid might not so much resent her conception as much as her birth and survival. He wanted you separated from your child,  you resented that. I do believe it's very common. Isn't that why those hurt and lost children have you now?" She smiled, reminding Strife on yet another cause for Cupid to resent children everywhere.

"If he resents his own daughter and his son, then what would he do to those poor little beggars?" He cast his thoughts out towards his lost children, his little street kids. Knowing they were fed and relatively safe, he was momentarily reassured the world was going right, then he refocused on his aunt.

"Exactly." She didn't smile, she did reach a hand to rest on his arm though. "Maybe in time, lots of time, he'll change, grow."

"I don't want to be trapped with him, waiting for something that in all probability wouldn't happen." Strife covered her hand, not pulling away this time. Over the last many months, since Voleta had been conceived, they had formed a deep friendship. It totally shocked and surprised the rest of the Pantheon. But Strife had discovered a fellow lost soul in his aunt, and one of the strongest advocates for his cause, apart from Ares. And Athena had found someone who actually understood her, on an emotional level if not an intellectual one. She had a friend.

"Nor should you be. Let me talk with father. I'll see what I can do. You go see to your lost ones." She smiled at him. Strife had introduced her to some of his lost children, she could see what drew him to them, even before being made God of Children. They were so eager for any scrap of affection, much like Strife had been, and if she were honest, herself too.

"Thanks Ath. You're the best, ya' know?" He kissed her cheek and smiled at her, a smile that reached his eyes and warmed her.

"Armed with logic and good old fashioned emotional argument, I can't lose." She kissed him back and they both vanished. One to the mortal world and those children that really needed hope in their lives. And one to change a mind that had not gone back on a decision for thousands of years.

Cupid search for Bliss with his mind. He found his son with Aphrodite and relocated to join them.

"Hi Cupes, you look down, what's wrong now?" Dite ushered her grandson off the  couch he was sprawled on and pulled Cupid down to sit there in his place.

"Everything." He buried his head in his hands and tried to scrub away the memory of that morning, to return to the hope he had felt the night before. "I spent last night sleeping with Strife." He looked up, saw the hope and joy in his mother's face then dropped his bombshell. "This morning he told me he would never marry me. Didn't want me to touch him, sexually, ever."

"Can't you just shoot an arrow at him and be done with it?" Dite really didn't see why Cupid didn't take the easy way out of his troubles, she would.

"No, I can't. I need to win him over despite what I did to him. Not compound it with another assault.  Even if he wouldn't be able to be resentful of the second one, I'd know he only loved me because I shot him." Cupid tried to make his mother understand. All his life she had taught him to take the line of least resistance, to take what he wanted and damn the consequences. That was all well and good when he was dealing with mortals, but Strife was a God, his equal. His brother damn it.

"Then win him over. At least try to win him over. Don't just sit here whining about it." She was well aware of her own guilt where Strife was concerned. But she didn't have any solutions to her own sorrows, let alone Cupid's. Not even a possible quick fix, the likes of which she was advocating her son use.

"What? More presents he doesn't want? More dates he doesn't really want to go on?" Cupid glared at his mother, wondering what it was that Ares had ever seen in her self absorbed, shallow nature.

"No, you idiot. I mean just be there. Share the baby duties.." She saw Cupid wince at that advice. "Tell me you didn't?" She looked at him, remembering what he had been like until Bliss had gotten old enough to talk to. "You didn't let your annoyance with babies show did you?" She watched him blush. "You utter idiot!"

"I wish people would stop calling me an idiot." Cupid mumbled.

"Then stop acting like one!" His mother snapped. "Little Voleta is very important to Strife, as are all lost and rejected children. You just slapped him in his Godhood and wonder why he's so bloody pissed with you?"

"What can I do?" Cupid slumped, something else that was so much easier with out his wings.

"Live with it, or go talk to Apollo. Figure out why you dislike babies so much. And if you can't do that, then learn to live a very lonely life."

Cupid sat and looked at Bliss as he played. He hadn't even been aware that his son was missing from Ares' home, until he saw him in his mind. Playing quietly with Dite.

"I'll try. I'll try and talk to Apollo. I'm not promising anything other than that I'll try."

"It's all I'm asking you to do." Aphrodite took Bliss' hand and stood before her son. "We'll be around, somewhere, when you're ready to rejoin the grown up world." And they vanished too. Just like his father had done with Voleta. Two parents, two children, all telling him to talk with Apollo, both taking his children away from him.

Cupid was standing in the vestibule to Apollo's Olympian home. Neither going in nor coming out. Unable to move in either direction. It was there he received the message from Zeus telling him his betrothal was officially over. Strife would not be forced to marry him. Soon everyone on Olympus would now Strife was a free agent again. Maybe one of them, like Thanatos, Strife's friend, would make a move, offering to comfort him.  Awash with rage at something that simply hadn't happened, Cupid found the strength he needed. It might never work. He might never win Strife's heart and soul. But he could at least help himself deal with his children. His beautiful children.

Slowly, he walked forward, pushing open the door to find Apollo standing there, waiting for him.

"You knew I was out there?" Cupid accused the elder God of Zeus alone could know what. His anger needed a focus and Apollo was their, and had a sizeable share of the guilt.

"Yes." The elder God whispered, gently.

"Why didn't you say something?"

"It had to be your choice Cupid. What do you want of me?" Apollo lead the younger God forward, sitting him down in the public area of his home. "What can I do for you?"

"Help me!" Cupid demanded. "Help me.." He begged.

"Help you how?"

"Help me win Strife, help me love my children. Help me put it all to rights."

Apollo looked at his nephew, so very aware of his own guilt. Yes, he had been a victim of Psyche's mind games, but he had gone willingly into her trap.

"Describe Voleta to me." Apollo asked totally unexpectedly, he rather enjoyed the confused look on Cupid's face. "What exactly does she look like?"

"She has dark hair." Cupid tried to pull a picture of his daughter to mind, and failed. All he saw was a fuzzy image, a confused mass of feelings and memories.

"Okay, describe Bliss to me." Apollo got a longer answer to that one, but Bliss was older. The senior God of Healing knew they wouldn't solve Cupid's troubles in one day, or possibly even one year. But given time, and hard work, they could help solve each other's problems.

At the end of a hard day, Strife headed home to find Cupid and Bliss had moved out. That Joxer was possibly the greatest baby-sitter the world had ever known. And to find out that Ares was indeed once more hip deep in the throws of the war business. Killing soldiers, culling populations, creating his own brand of mayhem. He had little doubt  that Ares was thoroughly enjoying every minute of it. Life was getting back to some semblance of normality. Finally.

He created an evening meal for himself and Joxer, finding some odd enjoyment in the domestic tasks he had had to do since Voleta had been around. As always he sent a gentle mental trailer out to his daughter, she was warm, full and asleep. Smiling he relaxed into his evening meal with Joxer. After all the mortal was usually good company.

"So, you got out of it? The marriage I mean?" Joxer asked between bites of his meal.

"Yeah, sure did. Aunty Ath's the greatest at getting round Gramps." Strife turned back to his meal, his face a little shuttered. Almost as if he was unsure if anyone would approve his bid for freedom.

"How does it feel? To be free of Cupid?" Joxer reached out, nudging Strife's hand, getting his attention. Letting him see that he was on his side. Not that he had any pretensions that a mortal's opinions counted for much.

"I feel safe. For the first time since this all started, I finally feel safe. Ya' know what I mean?" He had looked up at Joxer's soft nudge,  and was relieved to see understanding there.

"Yeah, I know what you mean. You've got control back." Joxer's eyes looked shadowed, briefly. "Next you'll fall in love for real. With someone who'll love you and Voleta equally. But it won't take away your control over your life. Yeah, I know all right." Joxer grinned at him. A happy grin, whatever had upset him was clearly before Ares, that much Strife was certain of. That Ares had somehow returned control over Joxer's life to him.

"I hope so Jox, I really hope so." And it wouldn't necessarily have be with Cupid, Strife thought, as he hurried through his meal. He was eager to go see his daughter sleeping, or waking, just eager to see her. It was almost as if he'd come alive again. Been returned to life after Cupid had killed his hope and dreams. He giggled. He'd been so angry for so long, the happiness he felt was almost alien to him.

He finally understood what Ares had meant when he told him to ride the fire of his anger and rage. He meant to harness it! Like a chariot and a powerful stallion. To make it work for him, not he work for it. He had harnessed that anger and rage when he had convinced Ath to help him. She had harnessed her own anger and used it to make Zeus agree to her terms. Even Joxer had done as much at some point. If it was easy enough that mortals could do it, so too should Gods be able to do it.

Maybe one day Cupid would do as much for himself?

It startled Strife to realise that if that ever happened, he'd be on the sidelines cheering his brother on.

The End