The Wolf and the Man 11-?
By Shamenka

As Ares and the others waited for Iolaus to bring Hephaestus to them, the sun  inched ever higher towards dawn.

In their cabin, in their bed, Sunshine and Nicus continued to plan their trip  to the swimming hole, snuggling up together.

"So, do you want to go swimming before breakfast, or after?" Nicus rolled  over slightly, so he could see Sunshine's face easier.

Feeling Nicus' warm, supple body squirming over his own brought a frissons of  sexual desire, and a deep ruby blush to almost all on Sunshine's body.

"Ah, now might be an idea." Sunshine whispered, never taking his eyes from  Nicus' face, watching as realisation dawned.

"Right..." Nicus whispered back, then he deliberately wriggled over  Sunshine's body once more, pausing to look into two brilliant blue eyes.  Right before he kissed him. "You'd better follow me then, wouldn't want to  have you get lost." He whispered once more, then wriggled out of bed. All  Nicus grasped was a blanket and a couple of strips of cloth to use as towels.

"Lead on!" Sunshine grabbed two beakers and a skin of wine as he followed  Nicus out the door. His eyes never leaving Nicus' temptingly swaying hips,  the image going straight to his cock as he got harder than ever.

It took Nicus only a few minutes to lead the way the swimming hole. He put  the blanket down, carefully, and just dumped the strips of cloth for drying  themselves with on the blanket. Then he stripped off what few items of  clothing he was wearing and Sunshine saw the catalogue of scars that criss  crossed Nicus' body. All leading to his slightly rounded buttocks.

Sunshine couldn't help it, his next breath was dragged in over tight drawn  lips. Someone had worked his young companion over brutally, and if he ever  found them, he'd make sure they suffered.

Nicus dived in and immediately surfaced, facing Sunshine, gasping for breath.

"Come on in, the water's freezing!" And he grinned, so wantonly, so  mischievously that Sunshine couldn't help laughing and stripping off. He too  jumped into the water and gasped at the shock as the chill hit him. It  certainly reduced his 'burning' desire to a more manageable smoulder.

"Damn, but it's cold in here." Sunshine's teeth chattered as his over heated  body adjusted to the cold, and parts of him even tried to hide from the  freezing cold water, quite unsuccessfully too.

Swimming around did bring the feeling of warmth back into shocked muscles.  While watching Nicus swim brought the proof of his idea, that water droplets  glistening on Nicus' skin was indeed a thing of beauty. The very sight of  Nicus taking the strain of his own weight as he hauled himself from the pool  caused Sunshine to get hard once more. He could not believe the desire he  felt for the young man pulling himself free of the water. It  was simply not  like him, to suddenly fall hopelessly in desire, if not love, with anyone  like this.

"You okay?" Nicus asked the startled Sunshine.

"Erm, yeah!" Sunshine tried to sound confident, and failed, he knew he had  failed, could read it in Nicus' eyes. He could also read understanding, and  something else. Though what that something else might be, he just couldn't  hold Nicus' eyes long enough to fathom it out. Sunshine blushed, deeply, and  turned away. As he did so he felt and heard Nicus' re-entry into the chill  waters of the swimming hole.

"Sunshine?" A soft whisper asked, demanding his attention. "Do you really  want me? Why would you want me? Because you feel sorry for me?" Nicus asked,  keeping all thoughts under strict control.

"No, I do want you, desperately, but not a sympathy f...." He couldn't even  say it, let alone do such a thing. "You are beautiful, do you know that?" He  asked, this time looking on in awe as Nicus blushed crimson.

"Me, beautiful? Have you hit your head?" Nicus couldn't hold Sunshine's eyes,  scared he might see the lie Sunshine was telling him, scared even more that  he might see the truth there too.

"Yes, you, okay you could do with gaining some serious weight, but you have  the most beautiful eyes, such pale, smooth, soft skin." Now that he had  started telling Nicus how he felt, he couldn't stop. "The water glistens like  diamonds on your skin. When you smile, really smile, your whole face lights  up, a world of delight right here, before me, smiling just for me. And when  you laugh, your honest to goodness real laugh, it's infectious, it's one of  the nicest sounds I ever heard." Sunshine drew a finger up Nicus' chest,  chasing droplets of water, and dragging them up over a very responsive  nipple. "You are a delight to hold." Sunshine told him.

Nicus couldn't move, couldn't think. Like a rabbit caught in a snare he was  held fast in Sunshine's grasp, one finger over one nipple, and he was  paralysed with desire.

"So what do you want to do about it?" Nicus whispered, never looking away  from the bluest eyes he had ever seen.

"Nothing, no, that's not true. I want to bury myself in your body and claim  you as mine, I want to hear you scream as I make you come as hard as you  could possibly imagine you could come. I want to claim you as my very own,  and fight off the world to keep you. What I will do, is nothing. You're not  well enough, I would be afraid of hurting you, and I will protect you, even  if that means protecting you from me!"  With both hands on Nicus' shoulders  he held the slender young man away from his traitorous body.

"I'm not that willowy and ready to break. I'm a lot stronger than I look!"  Nicus pulled against Sunshine's waist and hauled their bodies together, true,  Sunshine couldn't resist if he had tried. His body had decided to ignore his  nobler thoughts and seek pleasure and gratification in Nicus' embrace.

Their first real kiss was sweet, slow and wonderful. Nicus framed Sunshine's  strong shoulders, grasping onto him, smoothing his hands up and around  Sunshine's neck. For his part Sunshine held them together, as if he would  never let Nicus go. Not that Nicus minded that idea at all.

The kiss ended. They looked at each other, Nicus smiled, light, laughter  dancing in his expressive eyes.

"See, I didn't break." He grinned at Sunshine. "Please make love to me?" He  asked, almost begging. He walked around Sunshine and back to the side of  their swimming hole, he looked over his shoulder, turning slightly as he did.  "I really want you to make love to me." He whispered.

As the morning light caught the markings on Nicus' back again, Sunshine knew  his soon to be lover was wearing another's marks on his flesh. And his desire  to kill that person was reborn, angrier than before. It was held, impotent,  in his heart, as he knew any attempt to question Nicus would only hurt him,  physically.

"I really don't think you're strong enough yet. If I took you, I'd hurt you,  and I would never want your body to know pain from me!" Sunshine stood behind  Nicus, smoothing his back, stroking his shoulders, his arms. Nicus leaned  over the river bank, looking over one shoulder at Sunshine.

"Do you want me?"


"Then take me, I'm giving myself to you." Nicus smiled, a warm, welcoming  smile. Full of love and delight.

"Please, Nicus! I'd hurt you!" Sunshine crushed against Nicus' slight frame,  pulling the smaller man's body back against his own. Letting him know just  how much he really did want him.

"There are ways, there are always ways to our means!" Nicus spread his legs,  slightly, then closed them again, trapping Sunshine's erection. Bending over  once more the pressure of his thighs increased. As he rolled his hips he  changed the pressure and friction over Sunshine's cock. His friend gasped and  almost screamed.

"See!" Nicus purred. "Always a way to a means!" he pushed backwards as  Sunshine drove forwards.

"Oh, fuck!" Sunshine gasped. "So good, feels so good." He thrust as Nicus  squeezed his thighs tighter, then slightly slacker, varying the pressure,  driving Sunshine almost insane with the sensations.

"That's it, use me, take me, come for me!" Nicus  braced himself with both  hands on the river bank and enjoyed the feeling of Sunshine's cock between  his legs. He'd much rather it were a little higher up, but he had to agree,  he was not as strong as he once was.

It was the wrong thought. He felt his metal friend begin its inexorable dance  and almost idly wondered if Sunshine or the collar would finish first.

"Oh, oh, oh, fuck!" Sunshine gasped as Nicus lurched upright, pulling harder  on his cock, driving him that little bit further over the top. As Nicus' body  twisted from side to side it pulled against Sunshine's cock harder still.

"Argh!" Sunshine screamed in Nicus' ear as his orgasm was ripped from him,  only to collapse over his lover's inert body.

"What about you?" He asked, reaching around Nicus and almost toppling his  lover's dead body into the river.

"Strife! NO!" Sunshine screamed and crushed that tender, lifeless body to  him. He knew Nicus hadn't been strong enough. He would never forgive himself  for this, never.

Then he noticed the blood on Strife's neck. It had been the collar.

He lifted the dead weight of his precious Strife out of the river, and  crawled out after him. He carried him to their blanket and cleaned the blood  and semen off his lover's dead body. Crying, silently, all the time. Vowing  over and over and over that if he got his hands on either Eris or Hephaestus,  that he would kill them both. Laws or no laws! So he swore to Ares!

For his part, Ares caught the power of Hercules' oath and wondered at it's  cause. Knowing, in his deepest heart of hearts, that his foster son was dead  once more, he risked opening his mind to Hercules.

"Herc? What is it? What's happened?" He couldn't see clearly from his  brother's eyes, they were clouded. As Hercules wiped them he realised his  brother was crying, that both he and Strife were naked, lying on a blanket  and Strife was dead. "What is going on?" He roared his question in Hercules'  mind.

Finally noticing his brother's presence in his mind, Hercules covered  Strife's body, so Ares could not see his nakedness.

"He's so beautiful." Hercules thought to his brother.

"And lonely." Ares gentled his mind voice, as best he could.

"Yes, and lonely." Hercules agreed, rolling Strife over to clean the back of  his neck, and the blood pooling under the hated collar there. In his heart he  felt Ares' mind rage suddenly burn red hot as his brother saw the marks he  himself had seen earlier. "What is it? Who did this?" Hercules knew,  instinctively, that it wasn't Ares' hand that had marked the smooth, pale  skin.

Ares couldn't keep the images of Strife, suffering at Hephaestus' hands, the  images of the rapes and beating that were fresh in his memory, just  discovered facts. As they sat, a hundred miles apart, both looking through  Hercules' eyes at the devastation that had been Strife's back, they knew what  each other knew. Hercules knew what Hephaestus had done, and Ares knew that  Hercules was Strife's lover, protector, and if given the opportunity, his  avenger too.

"Love him, but love him honestly. If you hurt him, use him..." Ares left the  rest unsaid.

"I do love him, honestly, and if you let them away with this torture.." He  too left things unsaid.

"We'll be heading back, ahead of Artemis' schedule. I'd better go.. I can  feel him coming back... be gentle with him, he deserves to be loved..  gently!" Ares' mind voice separated from Hercules.

"I will!" His last words following Ares back to the cavern Bacchus had led  them too for protection.

"Dad? Dad?" Cupid's voice called out to him. "What's going on?" He sounded  upset. Worried.

"What is it Cupid?" Ares slowly swung his head around, to look at his eldest  son in the face? "What's the matter?"

"You were totally spaced out." He told his father, one arm around his  father's shoulders, shielding him from the rest of their group.

"Sorry, I was mind talking with Hercules. Strife was dead again. Herc swore a  death oath, before me, of all of us! And since it was over Strife's body, I  had to answer it." Ares looked over his son's shoulder at Aphrodite, still  pacing, still planing, still nursing her anger into a boiling rage. "Your  mother's not calming down any, is she?" He whispered.

"Not at all. I've never seen mom this mad before, never!" Cupid shuddered.  "What if she kills Heph? Then we'll loose her too!"

"Sh, don't worry, she'll not kill Hephaestus, Hercules has sworn that death  oath!" Ares smiled, quite evilly. "And don't ever tell anyone I said this,  but I'd bet anything on Herc winning when he's set out to kill someone.  Especially when love's involved!" He clutched Cupid's nearest leg and gently  squeezed his son's thigh, reassuring him. "Seems Herc's fallen in love with  Strife." He shared a grin with his son. "Ya know, I'd really love ta' know  just how the rascal does that! Gets us all to love him like that?"

"You mean you and Strife...?" Cupid whispered in a hushed roar.

"NO, I love the rascal, but like I love you, you're both  my sons, I love you  equally.." Ares suddenly stopped speaking when he realised what he had said.  "I don't tell either of you often enough, do I?" He asked his beaming son.

"No, but it's nice to know! And dad, we love you too!" Cupid hugged his  father, and for the first time in too long a time, Ares hugged him back.

"That's good to know too." He whispered. "Come on, let's see about stopping  your mother doing something she'll have to explain to Hercules, I don't think  she's in the mood to share!"

"What about you dad? Who do you want to kill?" Cupid asked, as he stood and  offered his father his hand as assistance to rise.

"Only Zeus, he's responsible for all this shit after all!" Ares took the  pro-offered hand and got to his feet.

"Is this going to rip us apart? Is this granddad's infamous Twilight of the  Gods?" Cupid asked, genuinely worried.

"Not if I can help it, don't worry I'll think of something." He smiled at his  son, his back to the entrance. He noticed Cupid looking up and over his  shoulder.

"Better think fast then dad, here comes Iolaus, and he's got Heph with him!"  Cupid ran to intercept his mother, Ares hot on his heels.


"Is this going to rip us apart? Is this granddad's infamous Twilight of the Gods?" Cupid asked, genuinely worried.

"Not if I can help it, don't worry, I'll think of something." He smiled at his son, his back to the entrance. He noticed Cupid looking up and over his shoulder.

"Better think fast then dad, here comes Iolaus, and he's got Heph with him!" Cupid ran to intercept his mother, Ares hot on his heels.

Chapter 12

They didn't quite make it, Aphrodite got one blast off at her husband before her son and his father reached her. Holding her close to them, not giving her the room to gather her powers and focus at all.

"Mother!" Ares snapped. Knowing that if any Goddess could contain his beautiful and raging sister it would be his own mother.

The Queen of the Gods approached the tight little group, standing between the rest of the group and the new comers.

"Come child." She commanded obedience, Ares and Cupid could feel it, they could feel Aphrodite losing the urge to fight with them for her freedom. Slowly, they released her, letting her go to Hera. Leaving her erstwhile captors to turn and face Hephaestus and Iolaus.

Ares could feel his gore rising, the urge to continue what 'Dite had started, almost too strong for him to fight. Cupid no less angered at his step father's treatment of his adopted brother. They had grown up together, been in and out of all sorts of trouble together, always together. And Strife had never told him what had happened between him and Hephaestus.

A sudden touch on his shoulder distracted the God of War, a gentle touch that lent him a modicum of control, sorely needed as he looked upon his cowed brother.

"How are you doing, Ares?" It was Joxer, the War God looked on at the mortal he now knew had suffered the mortal equivalent, if not more, for longer, that his own precious Strife had suffered, all those centuries ago.

Ares couldn't speak, he tried to smile, but it looked so very strained, he nodded and shrugged and looked not at his brother but at Joxer instead.

Finally he turned back to his brother and managed to fight the urge to strike out, to hit him, and keep on hitting him until his own hands bled. Taking a deep breath he felt his body respond to his tension, he began to shake.

Iolaus had dumped the Fire God and moved to stand beside Autolycus, leaning into him for comfort. Comfort that was more than readily given.

"Why?" Ares finally asked. As the God's voice touched Iolaus the mortal man shivered and buried himself even deeper into Auto's embrace.

"I gotcha' Curly!" Auto lead his friend away from the Gods and towards a quite corner and a welcome bed there. Iolaus was exhausted, he needed rest, but he needed the companionship of someone who might understand his very mortal reaction to what he had had to face, alone.

Hephaestus turned to look at Ares, after all those years of hiding and silence he now had to face exactly what it was he had done.

"You hurt me, I wanted to hurt you too. Then, when I realised what it was that I had done, I was so scared. But you never said anything, not a word, I didn't think about it, didn't realise until Iolaus said, that you didn't know. Strife had kept it so very secret, even from you." Hephaestus rocked forwards, on his knees, holding his stomach, fighting fit after fit of dry heaving. "He's so strong, so brave, so strong. I never knew he was so strong." The Fire God stopped talking but he continued to rock back and forth, making an odd ululating sound, keening to himself.

To every eye present it looked like the Fire God's grip on reality had finally slipped, even Ares saw the guilt his brother carried as just that, a prison he had created for himself, causing his self imposed outcast status, keeping him apart from his family all those long centuries. Yet, it was Joxer who moved them on, making a simple, but powerful statement.

"We are all certain it happened just as Hephaestus and Apollo remember it, aren't we? There's no possibility that Discord might be messing with their minds in some way?" Every eye, God and mortal, turned to the inept warrior. Joxer blushed and cringed backwards, away from the Fire God and Ares, right into Cupid's arms infact.

"Ace?" The Love God turned to his cousin. "Do you have any recollection of your dad dealing with these events? You're even older than Strife.." His voice broke, recalling the time scale. Strife was a couple of centuries older than he himself was. They hadn't really grown up together, Strife just seemed to have waited till he was born before he reached for any degree of maturity. Could these rapes have happened?

"Actually, I have no recollection of Strife in our Halls, not with those kinds of injuries. Maybe it was all make believe."

"It wasn't make believe." Apollo told his son. "I didn't treat Strife in our halls, nor his hall either. We weren't even inside Greece itself. Strife insisted, he wanted complete secrecy, and as my patient he was entitled to it. It happened all right."

"How could anyone not realise Strife was missing for six months, then however long his treatment took? What? The best part of a year and no one bothered to say, 'hey, where's Strife these days?' I can't believe you Gods!" Joxer recalled his own treatment at his families hands, he remembered every assault perpetrated by his father, his brother.. one of his brother's.. the other one was almost as much a victim as he was. They just dealt with it differently. The skinny, would be hero turned back to face the Fire God once more. "So did you rape anyone else or was it all saved for Strife?" It was possibly the most brutal question anyone had ever heard from the young mortal's lips.

Iolaus looked up in surprised at Joxer's tone, only to feel like crying once more when Autolycus gave him the edited highlights of the previous nights revelations.

"I raped no one else. Just Strife." The Fire God whispered, still crumpled on his knees, so very obviously in pain at that action, so very obviously not caring what harm he did his own body.

"Don't you have laws about this sort of thing? Shouldn't he face some kind of trial?" Joxer pleaded with Ares for some form of justice, a legal retribution, not the rage he knew the War God was feeling.

"We do.. the principle Godly rule isn't don't kill Gods, it's don't get caught. We have codes of behaviour, if you are popular, and one of father's favourites, then you fall under his protection. If you are not his favourite, and Strife, me and Hephaestus aren't anywhere near his favourites, then he doesn't give a damn about us. If Apollo had been raped, then he'd have searched the world within two days of his disappearance. I was left captive for almost two years, it almost killed me. He knew full well where I was, but he didn't give a fuck! I still don't know why he finally sent Hermes to let me out of there!" Ares blinked, filled with ages old pain at his father's hatred for him.

"He got you out because I threatened to lock up each and every one of his precious golden children if he didn't!" Hera informed her son. "But I had an ally." She looked at her daughter in law, who still sat with the Queen of the God's arm around her, calming her.

"Yeah, to make sure he listened, I made him impotent." 'Dite told the astounded Ares.

"I was freed just so he could fuck again?" Ares had never know how little his father valued him, but now he did.

"I thought father didn't know where Ares was?" Artemis put her two dinnar's worth in. "I kept asking, he kept saying he would free Ares if he knew! Why did he lie?" She was genuinely puzzled, her world was not the cosy afternoon hunt she had always thought it to be.

"Because I raised Strife.. no, oh fuck!" Ares remembered his dates exactly. His face showed clearly his desire to throw up. "Oh mama, oh fuck, I'm gonna kill him!" He cried out, anger pouring off him in palpable waves.

"What is it?" Joxer asked, gently.

"While I was out of the way, he stalked Eris.. finally he raped her... then she had Strife...If I had been free.." He left the rest unsaid, after all it didn't need words to tell its story.  The look in his eyes was eloquent enough. "Strife was born after my release... not before it. He didn't resent my raising Strife, he just resented me!"

"I was too late." Dite whispered. "If I had been quicker, made him impotent the sooner.. I could have saved Eris so much..." Dite turned into her mother in law's embrace and wept, finally her own guilt surfacing, realising what her delays had cost her sister.

"I want to capture Eris, alive. She has suffered enough, so too has Strife. Father, however... I just can't think of a punishment vile enough, potent enough. Nothing!" Ares kicked a rock from the cavern floor and watched it shatter against the wall, receiving no satisfaction from that act what so ever.

"How can Autolycus unlock the collar if Eris has thrown away the key?" Joxer asked the sobbing Fire God. His dramatic change of subject drew every eye, especially the thief and his companion's.

"He can't. But, I can make a new key." Hephaestus exerted his powers and a small, intensely hot flame burned before him. Small versions of his tools and benches appeared on the floor, and he got to work. No questions asked, he didn't even rise, even though he was in immense pain, everyone could see his pain, in every line of his face.

"Surely, if  Eris enjoyed hurting Strife, or Zeus did, or whomever it was that enjoyed hurting him, they'd have known he was missing and wanted to prevent him escaping their hurts and games?" Joxer whispered, to no one in particular, but Ares and Apollo both heard him, both shared a look and turned towards Joxer and the Fire God, crouching in the dirt behind him.

"It was out of character." Apollo whispered.

"It certainly kept him from Olympus for long enough!" Ares whispered back. "Joxer!" Ares called out to his skinny follower.

Joxer crossed over to stand even closer to Ares, wondering what his God wanted of him, if it were in his power, he'd give him anything he asked for.

"I want you to come on a little journey with me." The War God told him. "A mental journey... we're going to go have a look around in Hephaestus' memories. See who or what was going on in there." Ares led him back to the beds, selected two fairly close together beds and pushed them even closer.

Joxer caught on real quick, he wasn't as stupid as his clumsiness sometimes made him look. If this was how best to serve his God and his God's adopted son, then so be it. He lay down, after taking his armour, such as it was, off and leaving it on the floor at the foot of his chosen bed.

"Ready when you are?" He informed the Gods, his voice a hoarse whisper with nerves. Both scared of what they might find and of what they might not find. The mortal couldn't figure out which would be the worse out come. That Hephaestus was manipulated into his actions, or that he was not!

Just as Iolaus and Autolycus fell into a deep natural sleep close by, Ares and Joxer fell into a deep unnatural sleep. While one pair dreamed healing dreams, the other pair went on a hideous voyage of discovery.

Part 13

As Ares and Joxer were drifting into a near death, Strife was waking up from his latest death. As always Sunshine was sitting with him, cleaning his neck and face. He woke wrapped in their blanket, warm, comfortable, protected, with his memories of Sunshine loving him.

"Did...." He coughed, his throat still a little raw. Sunshine poured him a beaker of wine and let him rest against his chest as he sipped it, moistening his mouth and throat. "Did you, you know, come?" Nicus blushed, a deep, all over red. Despite his embarrassment and unexpected shyness, he never dropped his eyes from Sunshine's face. Tipping his head right back to see his lover.

"Yes, I did. Thank you, you are a truly generous lover." He kissed the top of Nicus' head and held him closer, if that were at all possible. Sunshine let his feelings show in his eyes, not his negative, vengeful ones, but the calm loving ones.

"We aim to please!" Nicus managed a brief laugh, before he coughed.

"Are you ready for breakfast yet?" Sunshine asked, changing the subject in case either of them might say the wrong thing.

"Not yet, I gotta kinda sore throat this morning." Nicus laughed, gently, and looked up, again, to see Sunshine's face. "Mark you, you could always kiss it better for me?" He teased his lover.

"Always, anything for you.." Sunshine lowered Nicus to the blanket and twisted around to lay partially over his slender lover. He started with Nicus' cheeks and traced a path of kisses all over the prone man's face and neck. Letting his free hand stroke all over Nicus' body, beneath the thin blanket that enshrouded the slender figure before him.

Nicus was purring, a deep, throaty sound of sexual desire, and it fired something in Sunshine's blood. His desire to know the body below him, to love it and protect it. He rolled away, dragging in a deep, ragged breath. It was a mark of his own strength that he could infact halt things like that, but it was only just, a single kiss more and it might have been entirely different.

"Feeling any better?" He asked Nicus, his voice little more that a whisper itself.

"Oh yeah!" Nicus writhed, stretched, arched his body off the blanket and Sunshine watched every muscle twitch intently. He memorised his lover's body, ready to explore what his eyes saw, when he felt his body wouldn't hurt Nicus further.

Unable to fully resist the delights of the slender body in front of him, Sunshine covered one, pert, nipple and gently sucked on it. Nicus almost bent double at the suddenly ticklish sensation. It was a revelation, that something as simple as tickling Nicus would produce such an entertaining response. When Nicus was reduced to laughter, so to was Sunshine.

Their laughter was therapeutic, clearing the air between them, both acknowledging Nicus' vulnerability.

"So, now are you ready for breakfast?" Sunshine asked again.

"In a little while, I promise, but if you feel the need to eat, go ahead." Nicus shrugged, sort of indicating the direction of their cabin.

"Okay then, I'll have to eat my meal alfresco, won't I?" Sunshine stroked his finger nails up and down Nicus' thighs, getting the desired response from the prone man before him. He covered the re-awakened erection with his mouth and began to lick, suck and enjoy getting to know his lover's responses intimately.

As Nicus' reactions to the sensations increased, so to did his need to say something, anything, and that was something that might get him killed, again.

That thought sobered Sunshine and he broke off from his actions and reached up to hug his lover. Nicus was biting his own lip, drawing blood and focusing his eyes and mind on nothing but Sunshine. The intensity of Nicus' look sobered Sunshine instantly, that he would risk so much, just to ensure Sunshine was satisfied, happy, that degree of giving humbled the hero.

"We'll finish this later, okay?" Sunshine stood up and reached down to Nicus. He lifted his lover and carried him, their blanket and belongings back to their home and their bed. Neither of them mentioned what might have been, neither of them let themselves think about what might have been. Nicus just held on and snuggled closer to Sunshine's chest.

"Ah, this is the way to travel." His irrepressible good humour resurfaced and he nuzzled Sunshine's neck, making Sunshine tremble with a suppressed giggle fit.

"Quite that, or I'll drop you!" Sunshine threatened. Or at least he tried to sound threatening, whether he succeeded would always be in doubt. Nicus did submit to his wished, although reluctantly.

"If I must!" Nicus sighed, deeply and lay back slightly in Sunshine's arms.

Finally, they reached the cabin, and Sunshine used Nicus' shoulders to push the door open, once inside he deposited his precious bundle on the bed and turned to prepare them both breakfast. For his part Nicus got dressed and took Sunshine's clothes over to him.

"Your turn." He told him, kissing him at the base of his neck, where it joined his powerful shoulders. Nicus kissed his way around Sunshine before finally taking over the preparation of their meal. Sunshine hurriedly dressed, then rejoined his lover at the cooking range. Relaxing as Nicus put an arm around his waist, Sunshine hugged right back, sharing a deep kiss.

Meanwhile Ares and Joxer were finally inside Hephaestus' mind, looking around, checking out the Fire God's memories. The War God admitted to himself that he didn't really know quite what he was looking for. He could also admit, only to himself, that he dragged Joxer  along because the mortal had the uncanny habit of seeing things just as they are. Godly subterfuge just didn't seem to affect him, so much so in fact that Joxer could see what was hidden from other Gods, and out of all mortals, Ares found it easier to trust him than any other.

The defences around Hephaestus' memories of that time were intense. All manner of horrors met them as they tried to break into those images. Whereas Ares would have spent a day or more battling each creature, the mortal saw through to the heart of the matter. Each creation, screaming,  flying around their heads, had focused on Ares, attacking him even as he attacked them. For each creature he cut in two, each half grew and created another monster, or combining with other parts of other creatures they created new, unnamed horrors. All intent on defeating the War God, the noise, the images, getting too much for Joxer to tolerate. As mortals always did in these situations Joxer closed his eyes, only to realise that when he didn't acknowledge them by looking at them, they seemed to no longer exist. All he could hear was Ares' reactions to the creatures he remembered having been there, and the faint whisper of hidden horrors. That gave him an idea.

"Oh shut up!" He shouted at the creature that was currently screaming around Ares' head. "You are nothing more than the figment of someone else's imagination, now leave me alone!" Joxer closed his eyes, tight shut, and simply wished to be left alone, somehow. Realising that the mortal was not a God seeking information, the phantoms backed off. This also meant that to get passed them Ares had to snuggle up close to Joxer for protection. Actually hiding in Joxer's state of disbelief.

The War God's face was beet red with embarrassment, depending on the very least of his avowed warriors, he hoped no other God could see what he was reduced to!

Slowly they inched forward, passed the first level of defences.

"I never realised Hephaestus had such a colourful imagination." Joxer whispered over his shoulder to the God pressed close to him, eyes still tight shut, he relied on Ares, in his turn, to guide them on the correct path. A task Ares was only too glad to perform.

"He doesn't... shit, he doesn't! What in blazes is going on here?" Ares looked back over his shoulder at the phantoms, driving themselves into a frenzy looking for him. He grinned, maybe being protected by Joxer wasn't so bad after all, at least they were beyond those screaming demons trying to drive him either deaf or insane.

Slowly stepping away from Ares, Joxer checked to see if they could separate and walk like normal people. When he discovered that they could he laughed.

"What's so funny, mortal?" Ares' voice told Joxer he had better not be laughing at him. Hades had no torture greater than a defensive God.

"Well, see, I was trying to see if we could walk separate from each other, like normal people. Then I thought, we're a God and a mortal, and we're wandering around in the mind of yet another God.. first, define normal!" He couldn't help it, he laughed again.

Slowly Ares processed the information, slowly he started to smile, he giggled, that led inexorably to a cleansing belly laugh. Once assured that he wouldn't be fireball on principle, Joxer joined in laughing, unaware of how much he really needed that release until he started. Finally they pulled themselves together, ready to move on to whatever else lay before them.

"Let's go see what else Hephaestus has in store for us." Ares headed off, deeper into the memories the Fire God was trying so desperately hard to protect.

"If it is Hephaestus!" Joxer agreed, stepping up beside his God and facing forward, if that were a direction in Hephaestus' mind.

"Yeah, if it is him. But who else could it be?" Ares looked off, into the distance. "Other than Eris, and this is just not her style. She'd kill, like she's doing to Strife, rather than bother with bug eyed monsters." Ares glanced at his travelling companion and shrugged. "Guess the answers are in here somewhere."

"Yeah, so let's go find out." Joxer stepped forward, indicating for Ares to join him. "So who does like to play with ... what you said? Bug eyed monsters?" The description was so apt it made the mortal giggle. It occurred to Ares that the sound of Joxer's giggling was almost a touchstone to reality.

"Titans.. but they were mostly bug eyed monsters." Ares too giggled at his own image.

"Who counts as the first non Titans? You, and your generation, or your father, or his father's generation? I mean, couldn't some one who knew Titans, create Titanesque creatures as deterrents for those of you that didn't know Titans. Does this make any sense to you?" Joxer looked at the totally dumbfounded expression on Ares' face, and feared the worst, the War God viewed him as nothing but a fool.

"My father .. Hades ... Poseidon ... mother ... Hestia ... Hecate ... Demeter ... but it was my father that was guarded by Titans; still is infact! He's definitely had most contact, other than Hades, he has them guarding the Abyss .. keeping the other Titans inside." Ares fell silent, walking along, shoulder to shoulder with Joxer, the mortal kept his own council. "Has to be father, has to be!" Ares' face closed in even tighter, his rage, directed at his father stronger, more palpable than ever. Joxer felt a wave of sympathy for the War God, he too knew what it was like to discover that your father was worse than even your own worst nightmare. At least Ares didn't seem to think he was a fool, that reassured Joxer somewhat.

As they moved on Joxer took Ares' hand, squeezed it gently, lending support, but quietly. Ares briefly squeezed back before letting Joxer's hand fall to the mortals side. Nothing more was said for a long while. Nothing more needed to be said, they understood each other, that was enough.

In Bacchus' underground temple The Fire God continued to sit on the floor, silently making the new key, unaware of what was going on in his own subconscious. To Apollo it looked almost like Hephaestus was unattached to the portions of his memories Ares and Joxer were currently battling through. As he watched the Godly Smith work he became peripherally aware of the others in that cavern with him. Aphrodite continued to glare at Hephaestus, still ready to hit out at any chance she got, still held at bay by Hera's arm thrown, almost casually, over her shoulders. Iolaus continued to sleep, held safe in Autolycus' arms. Safe from the world, both of them. Cupid was slightly defocused, obviously taking messages for his father to deal with on his return. They all waited, waited for something to happen, all unsure what, but something, anything!

Sunshine and Nicus were finally finished with their breakfast, and were lying outside once more, enjoying the sun, and each other's company. Kissing, touching, very slow, gentle, love making. Always stopping before things got too intense, and the wrong thing might be thought or said. Twin looks of happiness shone from them, even the forest around them seemed to quieten down, granting them peace.

Ares and Joxer faced a new, nastier monster, and it seemed to be immune to Joxer's mortality. They had to find a way around this horror before they could go another step forward. Ares had identified it as one of the hundred handed, normally set to guard the gates to the Abyss. Yet, this one seemed to actually be there with them, somehow. How could they defeat that embodiment of violence and rage? Currently they were stalemated, facing off against the creature, keeping far enough away as to remain outside its strike range.

"I think I've got it!" Ares smiled at Joxer, the look of delight, and mischief giving the mortal fresh hope that they could finally move on.

"So, what do we do?" Joxer asked.

"Listen, learn, feel free to take notes." Ares laughed, the idea that danced in his head was an obvious source of amusement.

Part 14

"So, what's the great idea then?" Joxer asked his God, not actually looking at him while chiding him none the less.

"Oh, I think this'll be more fun for you to watch, than if I tell you." Ares whispered, right behind the mortal, clasping the man to his chest in a tight embrace. "Now shush, let me work here."

As he stood frozen to the spot, Joxer was too shocked by Ares' action to move. His mind couldn't even begin to fathom out a question, let alone ask one. Not even if his life depended on it, which in their current fix, it just might. Out of the corners of his eyes he saw a light glowing around Ares' arms, then he changed his mind, the light wasn't glowing from Ares' arms, it was his arms. The War God was changing into a creature made of pure light.

When Ares had completely encapsulated Joxer in his light, his being, he studied him, every facet of Joxer's memories, personality, hopes, dreams and desires were known in intimate detail to his God. Just as thoroughly as Joxer now knew his God.

Suddenly the light dimmed, Ares reformed, arms still around the now embarrassed mortal.

"See, there, behind the beast." Ares released him, pointing into the distance, an army was advancing on their opponent. Fifty Joxers, equally matched by fifty Ares'. "One for each hand, now lie down, and watch and wait." Ares pulled Joxer into a slight fold in their surroundings as they watched the approaching army.

Battle was joined.

The hundred handed creature swiped at combatant after combatant, defending itself from attack after attack. It slowly made some little headway, it was all Joxer could do to watch himself die time after time, even Ares after Ares fell to those deadly arms. Yet, Joxer slowly began to accept the image before him, so he was dying, fifty times in total, but he knew it was inevitable, that he would die. He started to become involved with the drama unfolding before them, reacting to every victory or defeat, as if he was merely watching a stage, on which the actors were playing.

He turned to look at Ares, to find the God not watching the battle, but gazing at the growing pile of corpses, growing steadily before them. Unable to understand the odd look in his God's eyes, Joxer turned back to watch the hundred handed beast defend itself some more. Though he couldn't shut out that, somehow, haunted expression in Ares' eyes, no matter how hard he tried.

Once the creature had killed, or removed an opponent from immediate combat, it threw the corpse behind itself, disregarding them, never calling them to mind. Yet, even as it wore down the number of opponents against it, it still seemed to face another group of fresh warriors, time after time.

Finally, it began to make little errors of judgement, it was then that the real Ares urged the real Joxer forward. Urging him forward, on their bellies, crawling around the immortal creature, through the debris of the corpses behind it. Over, through, and around, the mortal and the God had to crawl amongst those, still warm, corpses bearing their own faces. Joxer shuddered, thought he would throw up, but a reassuring hand touched his back.

"Just a little further." Ares' voice sounded as heavy as Joxer knew his own would be. Obviously facing his own death, time after time like this was having some effect on the War God, but for good or bad, Joxer feared looking back and finding out. Until a very quite 'oh shit' whispered out behind him. It was the very gentleness of that voice that alarmed the mortal.

Slowly, so as to not attract any attention, he turned, he came face to face with Ares, as he expected, but Ares with his hand embedded in a dead Ares' chest, his hand obviously over the dead creatures heart. A heart that was still warm, still bleeding, oozing Ares' own blood out between his fingers.

"Ares!" He hissed, quietly. Ares did not respond, he just continued to lie there, looking into his own dead face, feeling his own dead heart in his hand.

"We gotta keep moving." Joxer tried again. Still no response. Slowly, he edged back until he reached the God's side. As gently as he could, he lifted Ares' hand out of the corpse in which it rested. As quickly and as thoroughly as he could, he cleaned it. Looking for somewhere else to put it down he saw blood everywhere, all of it Ares' own blood.

Ares slowly looked away from his own dead eyes, turning to the warmth that held his hand he followed the arm up to reach Joxer's face.

"I never, ever, thought I could die, ya' know? Not really die, not even when I've been forced ta' be a mortal, not me. Sure, I thought I wanted to, a time or two, but to see it, to feel it, ya' know?" Then Joxer knew exactly what was wrong. Ares, an immortal being, was not just looking mortality in the face, he was crawling through it, elbows deep, and it was his own, never felt before mortality at that. Something that life as a God, an immortal being simply couldn't prepare him for. And not just viewed through his own eyes, Ares was also viewing it through his recently acquired memories of seeing with Joxer's eyes; but without a mortals ability to simply accept death as inevitable.

"Look, shut your eyes, don't look until I tell you to, ok?" Joxer smiled, he hoped it was friendly, reassuring, whatever his expression looked like it must have worked, Ares closed his eyes, tight shut. That simple act made the War God look so young, innocent, trusting, and Joxer promised him, in his own heart, he'd not let him down. "Now move this way." He held Ares' hand until the God could put it down on a different corpse. Still an Ares corpse, but at least the God couldn't see it up close. Couldn't feel its heart in his hand, unlike that other one.

Somehow the sight of his own dead, dismembered bodies didn't have the same effect on the mortal. He had lived with the truth, the absolute inevitability of his own death from the second he had been born. Death was nothing new, especially this close and personal.

"We go forwards now. Slowly." He had let the God move ahead of him, guiding the God through that sea of mortality. "More to your right.  Ok, straight on now." He watched their opponent as he dispatched another couple of fighters, both a Joxer and an Ares. Their bodies thudded down to either side of the God, hearing the impacts Ares turned his head as if to look at what had landed.

"No! Keep your eyes shut. Nothing to see, keep moving." Joxer hissed, getting almost instant obedience from the God. Suddenly, a memory, a resent one, entered his conscious mind. Ares telling them of the time he had been left to die, all the while his father was raping his sister Eris. With the God's mind filled with his beloved Strife's deaths, his own near death, his own repeated deaths surrounding him like this, no wonder it was too much. Being so much in the mortal realm had left Ares literally the most mortal-like of all the Gods. For which he was now paying the price, but, Joxer wondered if it were a price the God minded paying, seeing as life amongst the mortals had always shielded him from life amongst the Gods. Knowing what he did now, about Zeus, and the others, Joxer could see the attraction the mortal world would hold for a God like Ares.

Lost in his thoughts, he only just realised that Ares was about to put his hand down into what had once been the God's own face.

"Freeze!" He hissed out, again he was instantly obeyed. The God remained frozen, in what was obviously an uncomfortable pose, while Joxer struggled with the bulk that was the dead Ares' body. Moving it so Ares didn't have to touch it, not there, not like that. "Ok, go forward again." And just as obediently, Ares moved forward.

All through that trek, Ares never spoke, he listened closely to Joxer's instructions, obeying each one with out hesitation, knowing, possibly better than any other God could know, that Joxer wouldn't betray him, not him, never him.

Once they were past the Titan guarding whatever memories were hidden within, they kept going until a fold in that reality hid them from view.

"Okay, I will say this just the once, and if you ever repeat it, I will kill you, you understand?" Ares watched Joxer as he mutely nodded at him. "That might not have been one of my better ideas." Ares admitted.

"It worked, didn't it?" Joxer asked, steadfastly not looking at Ares.

"But only just." The God told him, just as dedicated to not looking at Joxer as the mortal was to not looking at him.

"So, what next then?" Joxer changed the subject.

"I don't know. Those two traps would put off almost all Gods, I don't think Heph ever thought a mortal would be crawling around in here too, so I don't think he'd bother with mortal traps, as it were." Ares laughed, briefly, picturing a string of cages with mortals trapped inside, each with a different bait, sex, money, power, prestige. He knew any Joxer trap would have to be baited with Gabrielle. The mental image of the blond harpy Xena called a bard, in a cage, drove the last few conscious memories of their crawl out of the God's mind, filling it with a much happier picture all together.

"What's so funny?" Joxer asked.

"Oh, just something I thought of. So, Joxer, why didn't you go to India with Xena and blondie?" Ares asked, even though he knew the true answer, he wanted to hear Joxer's version of that truth.

"They never asked me to go." Joxer told him, quite truthfully.

"Just as well they didn't. You're far more useful here, than there." Ares tried hard to sound genuine, reassuring. He was more used to torturing and threatening mortals than comforting them.

Looking back over his shoulder at the now quiet creature, surrounded by a sweet smelling heap of Ares and Joxer corpses, the mortal realised Ares was right. For once in is life, just this once, where and when it counted most, he was the hero, not them, not Xena, not Gabrielle, definitely not Hercules, nor Iolaus, but him, Joxer, he was the hero. And he'd never get to tell a soul, even if he wanted to.

"Let's go see what's up ahead of us this time?" He asked, nodding his head forward, then looking at his God, smiling, quietly. "Don't you worry, Joxer, the Mighty, is here to protect you." He stood up, grinning madly, then started to quietly hum his theme song.

"Mortals!" Ares hissed, sounding somewhere half way between actually annoyed and amused. "He'll be asking me to...." His mutterings were interrupted.

"Have you ever wondered what you'd look like blond?" Joxer ducked and ran ahead as Ares gave chase.

"I'm God of War, damn it! Not a side kick!" Ares easily caught up with the mortal, cuffing the back of his head lightly as he did so. A strange thought playing around in his mind, idly, he wondered if this was what it felt like to have a friend? Not a worshiper, not a lover, not even a common foot soldier, too afraid not to go along with his ideas, but a genuine, dyed in the wool friend.

In the gloom within Bacchus' cave, Cupid was still dealing with messages to and from the Gods protecting the evacuees. The Love God wasn't aware of his mother, and grandmother's eyes, as they followed him as he seemlessly filled Ares' position as the focus for their Godly force. Even though he had only ever faced that one battle, he still saw what his father had seen, the need to starve Eris' army of replacements, the need to gather information, the need to discover Eris' hidden command post. He did his best to supply it, ready for when his father returned.

He knew, from years of following Strife, of watching the Mischief God dodge his own mother, each and every nuance of his Aunt Eris' power signature, in her many moods. Just not normally insane. Stretching out, slowly, gently, he searched for her. Looking passively, first in the now empty villages, then in the deserted farmsteads outside of them, finally, he reached out into the forest, and hit gold.

"Aunt Artemis, can you get into your forest, unobserved, and quietly spy out the hills surrounding that old ruined temple? I've picked up a trace of old Aunt Madness herself there." Cupid looked hopeful at his spoiled, protected Aunt. Always excused real God duties, seeing as she was one of Zeus' very favourite children.

"It's my forest!" She stood taller, knowing she had a lot of ground to make up, if ever she could make amends with her family for their treatment while she had been so sheltered. "It'll hide me from myself if need be." She vanished, quietly, without an ornate show of light.

"Will she be all right out there? Alone?" His mother asked.

"She's an adult Goddess, it's about time she learned what the real world is like." Cupid's voice was so cold, almost like his father, but not quite, her son's voice held a lot less warmth than his father's would. The sight of her son, fulfilling the role of War God, even temporarily, scared the Love Goddess, he seemed to like it too much, the power, the authority, the control over all of them.

"You okay? Cupie?" She reached for him, but dropped her arm before she could touch her son.

"Just fine, Eris has been attacking the evacuees. There's been a few casualties, that's all." He looked at his mother. "Look, you get some sleep, you really look like you need some, know what I mean?" He smiled, 'Dite knew he knew he was being rude, but she could clearly see he was enjoying it.

Turning from her son, she headed back to Hera's side.

"What's wrong with him? Is this Eris' doing?" Aphrodite held Hera's eyes as she waited for an answer.

"No, this was why Ares gave Cupid over to your side of his heritage. The fates told him what would become of your son had he followed his father. He has a flare for War, does your Cupid, an evil, vicious flare for it. How do you think that other Cupid adjusted to being God of War so fully, so readily?" Hera didn't raise her voice, her message didn't need to be augmented, it was horrific enough to 'Dite's ears.

"Is he,  does this mean that, like, Cupe's a War God now?" She whispered, desperate for reassurance.

"Of course not child, it just means he has had his first taste of his father's power. His own power never was Warlike, Ares saw to that. He's just stretching his wings a little, while his father is, otherwise indisposed." Hera looked over to the corner where Apollo sat, guarding the inert forms of Ares and the mortal, Joxer. "When Ares gets back he'll return to his own sweet self once more." She transferred her icy glance to Aphrodite.

"And if he doesn't get back?"

"Then the world will have a new War God and we shall all have to beware. All of us!" Hera pushed her will at Aphrodite, making the younger Goddess feel sleepy, forcing the edges of her exhaustion until 'Dite recognised them for what they were.

"Damn, but I'm tired." She muttered, as she sat on the bed next to Hera.

"Then sleep, child, all will be well when you awake." Hera covered the reclining Goddess with a blanket, ensuring she was soundly asleep. Once certain, she got up and crossed the cave floor to have a word with her other son. She reminded herself, with every step, she would only talk to him, she would not touch him.

"Well, Hephaestus, this is a fine mess to find yourself in, is it not?" Only talk, do not strike, only talk, she repeated her litany, making herself obey it, forcing herself to believe it.