The Challenge of Ate

Chapter 3: And All the Rest

"Cupe, will yer arrows work on a God?" Strife asked carefully.

"Um, yeah, for about a week. Why?" Cupid asked curiously.

"Ah'm Mischief, what'cha think?" Strife said with a grand smile.

"No. It hurts too much... I could never hurt someone like that." Cupid said with a shake of his head.

"Not even Hermes and Apollo?" Strife asked slyly.

Cupid thought about that and was interested enough to ask, "Who do you want to match them up with? A goat, a tree?"

"Naw, but save that fer latah. Ah was thinkin... each othah." Strife said with an expression that meant there was more he was dieing to tell. {Well he'd already done the dieing part, but he was fit ta bust anyway.}

Cupid looked on in confusion and waited for Strife to spill it.

"Where's yer 'dearly beloved' gonna go now that ya threw her skanky ass out?" Strife asked in a leading tone.

Cupid got a look of excitement as he said, "And if they're in love with each other... oh God's that'll piss her right off."

"An tha best part is that you won't be messin with innocents ta get back at her. It'll serve Herm an Pol right for messin with yer wife." Strife said in his devious and cunning voice.

Cupid's eyes went blank for a second, then he said, "She's at the temple of love... I don't know what... or who... she's doing."

"Ah'm gonna go ta tha temple of debauchery and see if I can find a few of tha excellent bottles of wine. Then Ate can give tha wine her special touch." Strife said with a grin.

"Let's do it before Psyche tells them and screws this up." Cupid said seriously.

"Go ahead an call 'em... Ah'll make a grand entrance." Strife said then vanished with an indigo flash and a maniacal giggle.

//Apollo, Hermes, Do you guys have a few minutes to come to the House of War?// Cupid asked carefully, trying to keep calm in his mind/voice.

Apollo flashed in first, then Hermes.

"Hey guys, come on in and have a seat. I have something of an announcement to make and I wanted you to be the first to hear it." Cupid said as he motioned to the sofa.

Apollo and Hermes cautiously sat on the sofa. Both were perched on the edge, as though they were ready to jump and run at a moment's notice.

"What's your big announcement?" Apollo asked, a little impatiently.

Strife walked into the room carrying two opened bottles of wine.

"That would be me. Ah'm back." Strife said happily and sat one of the bottles on the low table between Apollo and Hermes.

"How... you were dead... I mean, hind's blood." Apollo said with wide eyed confusion.

"Come on guys, drink a toast with me to Strife's new life." Cupid said as he produced four goblets.

Strife purposely poured Cupid's wine slowly to encourage Apollo or Hermes to pour the wine from the other bottle.

Hermes was the one to do it and filled his and Apollo's glasses.

Cupid held out his glass and said, "To Strife, may his second time around bring him twice the happiness of his first."

"Thanks Cupe." Strife said shyly as he touched glasses with everyone, then took a drink.

"Oh, this is good." Hermes said in surprise.

"Yeah. I figgahed that comin back from tha dead calls fer tha good stuff." Strife said with a grin.

"You have a point." Apollo said and began to relax back into the couch.

"Come on guys. Once a bottle's open, the wine has to be drunk... you can't let good wine go to waste." Cupid said as he refilled his and Strife's goblet.

Apollo nodded and refilled his and Hermes' goblets.

"So why'd you call us to celebrate? We're not close or anything." Hermes said, not noticing that he was slurring his speech.

"Who else would I call?" Cupid asked, then shot a glance at Strife.

Apollo gazed off into space for a second, then shook his head and shrugged.

"Cupe, what color is Hermes' eyes?" Strife asked curiously.

Cupid looked at Hermes for a second, then said, "Brown, I think."

"Ah think they're dark green." Strife said, looking carefully at Hermes.

"No, I'm sure they're brown." Cupid said, understanding the game.

"Pol, yer, like, the God of Judgment ain't'cha?" Strife asked casually.

"And you're sitting right next to him." Cupid said with a gentle laugh.

"Yeah, would'ja settle it fer us?" Strife asked hopefully.

Apollo looked into Hermes eyes, studying the color.

In that same moment, Cupid produced his crossbow and a love dart.

Wham! Bam! Boom!

"They're brown *and* green." Apollo began to say, then tilted his head and said, "And they twinkle with passion. They have the look of chin silk, the most decadent and forbidden pleasures."

Hermes was enthralled as he gazed deeply into Apollo's eyes and said, "Summer skies, waterfalls, winter rain..."

"Guys, do you mind if I send you to Hermes' place now? The kids are playing in the next room and I've got to get them ready for bed." Cupid asked, trying to keep a neutral voice.

Apollo blinked and shook himself, then said, "Yeah, fine. Thanks for inviting us."

"Sure, thanks for coming and making the night special." Cupid said, then transported them to Hermes' temple.

"That was easy." Strife said as he sat back and took a drink of wine.

"Yes... It's funny, seeing them together like that... I kind of hope it works out. They look good together." Cupid said as he relaxed and took a sip of wine.

"Yeah, me too. Ah think they're jus what each othah needs." Strife said from his slumped position.

"I'm a little jealous." Cupid said as he looked into his wine.

"Me too." Strife said as he looked at the ceiling.

"What are we doing wrong?" Cupid asked and devoted his full attention to Strife.

"How you mean?" Strife asked and met Cupid's eyes.

"We're both attractive gods. We're both fun to be with, and yet you haven't found anyone and I found a back-stabbing ex-mortal slut. We must be doing something wrong." Cupid said, then leaned forward to get the wine and automatically filled both glasses.

Strife took a long drink of his wine before saying, "Ah nevah really looked fer anyone. Ah don't know how ta get someone ta notice me like that."

"Yeah, that's the hard part, it'd be easier if you could just whip it out and say, 'See this? It's because of you.' Then you could get a 'yes' or 'no' answer on the spot and not have to waste a lot of time on things like 'Is she interested?' or 'Does he like me?'." Cupid said with a slight drunken smile.

Strife giggled at the thought.

Cupid got a peaceful smile as he looked at Strife.

"What?" Strife said as soon as he noticed Cupid's thoughtful gaze.

Cupid looked at Strife with a half-lidded expression of lust and let one hand drag across the growing mound in his pants.

"See this? It's because of you." Cupid said seductively.

Strife looked at Cupid with surprise, then the surprise gave way to interest, then desire.


* * * * *

Cupid and Strife enjoyed a night of passion and a morning of playing with the children before Strife got a vacant expression and worry filled his face.

"What's wrong Strife?" Cupid asked with immediate concern.

"Joxer... he just caught Xena and tha Gabbs doin it. Gods Cupe, he's hurtin." Strife said with pain.

"Then lets help him." Cupid said simply.

"How?" Strife asked as he looked at Cupid with shiny eyes of unformed tears.

"Bring him here, comfort him, make him feel special and loved." Cupid said with compassion.

"But he don't know he's mah kid." Strife said slowly.

"That's your choice to make. I think you should tell him, but it's not my business. If you want, I can go get him and tell him it's part of my 'godly duty' since his heart is broken." Cupid said speculatively.

"Would'ja? I can't stand ta see him like this." Strife asked hopefully.

Cupid nodded and flashed out of the room.

* * * * *

Joxer was sitting on a fallen tree, crying and wondering what was left for him. He had asked for so little in life, yet he was denied everything he desired. Friends, love, purpose, they were all taken away.

Joxer wasn't blind, he knew that he wasn't a hero, no matter how hard he tried to be. He knew that his 'friends' didn't want him around and only put up with him out of pity. And his love? Yeah right. Gabrielle had been so obvious in her lack of interest, yet he kept trying in the hope that he would gain her affection.

Cupid appeared before Joxer and slowly walked to sit beside him on the fallen tree.

"You feel like talking about it?" Cupid asked quietly.

"Nothing to talk about. She's in love with Xena." Joxer said in a hollow, defeated voice.

"Yeah, she is." Cupid acknowledged.

"Did you do this to me?" Joxer asked as he turned tear filled eyes toward Cupid.

"No, you did." Cupid said honestly.

Joxer looked away, then nodded.

"Would you like to come with me? I think I've got something that will make you feel better." Cupid said in a soothing voice.

"Nothing can make me feel better." Joxer mumbled.

"Okay, then would you like to come with me so you can feel miserable around some people who'll care?" Cupid asked hesitantly.

"No one cares." Joxer said as new fresh tears began to fall.

"Sure they do. Come on, give me a chance. All you have to do is say the word and I'll bring you right back. What have you got to lose?" Cupid asked reasonably.

Joxer looked up at that and had such a hopeless expression that Cupid felt it in his heart.

"You're right... I've got nothing, so I've got nothing to lose." Joxer said in despair.

"Come on." Cupid said as he stood and offered a hand to Joxer.

Joxer took Cupid's hand and as soon as he was standing, Cupid transported them to Olympus.

* * * * *

"Here's a room for you Joxer. Why don't you change out of your armor, you won't be needing it here." Cupid said quietly.

"I... um... don't have anything else to wear." Joxer said timidly.

Cupid looked at Joxer closely, then produced a toga of fine linen.

"There you go. I know you probably aren't used to togas but they're really comfortable and fairly common on Olympus. No one will notice." Cupid said gently.

"I... um... I need to clean up first. Is there a lake or stream nearby?" Joxer asked, keeping his eyes downcast.

"There's a bathing room out this door and to your right at the end of the hall. Go ahead and take your time. Whenever you're ready, we'll be in the lounge at the other end of the hall." Cupid said and walked toward the door.

"Thanks Cupid." Joxer mumbled.

"No problem Joxer. Get cleaned up and try to feel better." Cupid said and left the room.

* * * * *

Joxer found the bathing room easily and enjoyed a long and relaxing bath. Afterward he put on the toga and was surprised to find that he actually felt better.

He walked hesitantly into the lounge to find Cupid and Bliss plus a few people he didn't know.

"Hey Joxer, Ah'm glad you made it out of the bath." Strife said with a smile.

"Thanks." Joxer mumbled uncertainly.

"We're just about to have lunch. Do you know everyone?" Cupid asked in a friendly, yet casual, tone.

"No, just you and Bliss." Joxer said as his eyes darted around the room.

"Well this is Strife, and Ate is over there by the window playing with Bliss." Cupid said with a serene smile.

"Strife? Aren't you dead?" Joxer asked unsurely.

"Ah was, now Ah'm not." Strife finished with a shrug.

"Oh, I guess if Iolaus can be resurrected, why not a god." Joxer said, thinking out loud.

Strife giggled and couldn't fight the impulse to pull Joxer into a hug.

Joxer got a wide eyed, shocked expression as Strife hugged him.

"Don't worry Joxer, Strife is just friendly that way." Cupid said with a gentle smile.

"Only with tha people Ah like, an there ain't too many of them." Strife said seriously as he released Joxer from the hug.

"Most of them are in this room." Cupid observed.

"Come on, we're gonna have lunch now. Ate's gonna make tha mashed potatahs." Strife said with a look at his sister.

Ate bounced up from the window and hurried to the dining room.

* * * * *

Joxer had enjoyed lunch and found that Ate was enjoyable, and slightly bizarre, company.

"Come on Jox, why don't ya tell us what yah'd like ta do?" Strife asked as the group walked back into the lounge.

"What do you mean?" Joxer asked hesitantly.

"Ah mean ya got yer whole life ahead of ya, what would make you happy?" Strife asked as he sat forward in his seat, awaiting Joxer's answer.

"Are you saying that if I ask for something, you'll grant my wish?" Joxer asked in confusion.

"Naw, it don't work like that. Besides, ya gotta watch out fer wishes." Strife said as he glanced at Cupid.

"Unless it's Hades' granting them." Cupid said with a smile.

"Yeah." Strife agreed, then turned his attention back to Joxer.

"I don't know... I mean, I thought I knew what I wanted... but I don't know anymore." Joxer said in a lost voice.

"Fair enough. Why don't you stay with us a couple days and figure it out? Bliss and Ate like you and we'd enjoy having you here." Cupid asked with a smile.

"Okay, I guess I could do that." Joxer said cautiously.

"Ate, would you like to show Joxer the garden?" Cupid asked gently.

Ate perked up and hurried to join the men at the couches.

"Ate can show you around and then if you need time to think, you can go out there and have some privacy... it beats sitting in your room." Cupid said with concern showing in his eyes.

"Yeah, that sounds good... and thanks Cupid... and Strife. I, I don't know what I'd be doing right now if you hadn't come. But I'm pretty sure I'd be a lot more miserable than I am." Joxer said brokenly.

"We care bout'cha Jox. Remembah that." Strife said seriously.

Joxer nodded, then gave in to Ate's tugging on his arm.

* * * * *

"Dagger, Arrow, Chalice, Dart. Smirk and Smile..." Ate challenged from beside Joxer in the grass.

"Wine and Heart." Joxer finished and giggled.

Ate bounced with happiness.

"Chakram and Leather, Curley and Scroll. Princess and Hero..." Joxer trailed off and waited expectantly.

"Friend and Hole?" Ate asked with raised eyebrows.

Joxer laughed and said, "Yeah, that works."

"Joxer?" a voice said from behind.

Joxer turned to see Ares standing over him.

"Ares... I mean, Lord Ares... " Joxer stammered in fear.

"Just call me Ares, what are you doing here Joxer?" Ares asked in a curious, but friendly voice.

"Cupid brought me here and said I could stay a few days." Joxer said hurriedly.

Ate stood and hugged Ares.

"It's good to see you too Ate. I've missed you the past few days." Ares said warmly, then turned his attention back to Joxer.

"I guess I can leave if I'm in the way..." Joxer began to babble.

"Nonsense. You're a guest. Stay as long as you like. I was just surprised to see you here. That's all." Ares said as he pulled Ate to sit with him in the grass beside Joxer.

"Um. Okay." Joxer said hesitantly.

"Relax Joxer. You're welcomed here." Ares said with a gentle smile.

"Are you the same Ares that Xena talks about? Or are you the one Hercules met when he fell through that swirley door thing?" Joxer asked curiously.

"Ares, God of Love?" Ares asked with a delighted chuckle.

Joxer sat silent, waiting for an answer.

"I'm neither of those. The Ares that Xena talks about is a monster who only exists in her own mind. I've done a few things to perpetuate that image, but here, in my home, I'm just me. My family and a few choice friends get to see past the 'God of War' and meet the real me." Ares said with a smile.

"Oh... okay. I guess I'm kind of like that too." Joxer said in thought.

"You mean 'the Mighty'?" Ares asked without any derisive tone in his voice.

Joxer nodded.

"Do you do that on purpose?" Ares asked, really interested.

"Not exactly. It just kind of happens when I'm around people who treat me like a fool... I kind of live up to their expectations... or down." Joxer finished with a shrug.

"That's exactly the way it is with me. My public persona is formed by the opinions and expectations of those around me. When I'm on a battlefield or in a warlords tent, I'm expected to behave a certain way. If I were to behave any other way, there would be anarchy... which would spoil my ability to conduct the war." Ares said as he gazed off into the blue sky.

"Yeah, if I stop being the fool, they do something to put me back in my place... I don't think they even know their doing it... at least I hope not." Joxer finished with a dark look.

"No, I don't think they do. The mortals have such closed minds that they can't accept anything that falls outside their preconceived notion of the world." Ares said absently.

"Um... Ares? I'm mortal." Joxer said hesitantly.

"Well, present company excepted, of course." Ares said with a friendly smile.

"Of course." Joxer said, and began to smile too.

Ares got up off the grass and said, "I need to check in with Cupid and let him know I'm back. I'm going to have a meal, would you two like to join me?"

Ate immediately took hold of Ares elbow and leaned her head on his shoulder.

Joxer smiled at the scene and automatically followed.

* * * * *

"Strife?" Ares asked in wonder as he walked into the lounge.

"Unc. S'good ta see ya." Strife said happily.

Ares walked immediately to Strife and pulled him into a hug.

"How did this happen?" Ares asked, refusing to release Strife from the hug.

"Well, Psycho's been screwin Hermes and 'Pol. Cupe found out an got all depressed an shit. He was in mah room when he said he wanted ta die..." Strife trailed off.

Ares shifted so he had one arm around Strife and the other around Ate.

"And any god who wishes for death in the underworld will have his wish granted." Ares said as he looked at Cupid with worry.

"Tha next part is where it gets confusin. I guess in all tha mess of tryin ta talk Thanatos and Hades inta not killin Cupe, he offah'd his life fer mine." Strife said in thought.

"But he didn't want to take it, but I finally talked him into it for Ate's sake." Cupid added.

"Yeah. So  when Hades tried ta kill Cupe an give me his life, somehow, he did sumthin that made us both alive." Strife said happily.

"I'm glad to have you back. This place has been far too serious without you." Ares said with a tender smile.

"It's good ta be back... and there's one othah thing..." Strife trailed off and looked at Cupid in question.

Cupid smiled and nodded.

"Me an Cupe's a couple now." Strife said quietly.

"Really?" Joxer asked in surprise.

"Yeah. Since last night." Cupid said happily.

"Son, are you sure this isn't a rebound thing from Psyche?" Ares asked hesitantly.

"No dad. If I was rebounding, it would be with another woman. Strife and I... I don't know, it feels like we've known each other forever. I'm more comfortable around Strife than I ever was with Psyche... and he's better in bed." Cupid finished with a blush.

"I think I need to have a little talk with Hermes and Apollo." Ares said in thought.

"You'll probably find'em in bed togethah." Strife said with a smirk.

"What?" Ares said in surprise.

"We invited them over to celebrate Strife's resurrection last night..." Cupid began.

"Ate threw a little drunken insanity mojo into their bottle of wine..." Strife continued.

"And then I asked Apollo what color Hermes' eyes were." Cupid said with a smile.

"That's when Cupe shot'em with a love arrow." Strife said with delight.

Ares laughed at the thought, then said, "Gives brotherly love a whole new meaning."

"Yeah, well they were both screwing my wife, so it serves them right." Cupid said seriously before breaking into a smile.

"Let's go ta tha halls of time and see if we can find tha moment when Psycho found out... Ah wanna get a picture of tha look on her face." Strife said through giggles.

"You're not hanging the picture where I have to see it are you?" Cupid asked playfully.

"Naw. Ah'll put it in one a mah old dirty shrines... ta keep tha rats out." Strife said happily.

Joxer was laughing so hard that tears were running down his cheeks.

"You okay Jox?" Strife asked with concern.

"Yeah... It's just... Gods, it's funny..." Joxer trailed off and fell into fresh gales of laughter.

Ares smiled and walked to Joxer to ease him onto the couch, before he fell over into the floor.

Somewhere between standing and sitting, the laughter turned into crying.

Before Ares knew what happened, Joxer was holding him close and was shaking with gut wrenching sobs.

Cupid and Strife motioned to Ate to follow them out of the room.

Ate looked back into the room and with a flex of her unstable and unpredictable godly power a bottle of wine and two goblets appeared on the table before Ares and Joxer.

* * * * *

Ares held Joxer close, then noticed the wine on the table. He filled a goblet and handed it to Joxer.

After a questioning moment, Joxer took the goblet and drained it in one drink.

"Be careful Joxer, Olympian wine is a little stronger than what you're used to." Ares said in warning.

Joxer nodded and cast his eyes to the floor.

"Will you tell me?" Ares asked quietly.

"Gabby doesn't love me." Joxer said to the floor.

"Is that really such a bad thing?" Ares asked in a tentative whisper.

Joxer looked up curiously and met Ares' eyes.

"She treated you badly Joxer. Is that really the type of relationship you want?" Ares asked with concern.

"She always said she didn't care what people looked like... or if they were different or weird somehow. She always talked about how everyone was the same inside... I thought I had a chance..." Joxer trailed off.

"Joxer, I'm only telling you this because I don't want you to hurt..." Ares said in prelude.

Joxer nodded and waited.

"She's a two-faced, lying, mean, spiteful, ugly little woman." Ares said with a tiny sneer.

"But how do you really feel?" Joxer asked with a watery smile.

"You're too good for her Joxer. You're honest to the depths of your soul. You have courage and inner strength and beauty that she can't possibly match. I think that's why she always put you down. She was trying to destroy what she could never have." Ares said seriously.

"Too good for her?" Joxer said incredulously.

"Absolutely." Ares said, then poured them each a drink.

"But... I just want someone to care for..." Joxer trailed off.

"You also need someone who cares for you. It only works if it goes both ways." Ares said, then took a drink.

Joxer also took a drink, then asked, "Why are you doing this? I mean talking to me like an equal."

"Because in all the ways that matter, you are my equal. Joxer, the god powers don't mean a thing if the person behind them doesn't have a heart and soul. You have a heart and soul as great as that of any god I've ever met." Ares said seriously.

"Ares... is it wrong... would there be any way... have you ever..." Joxer stammered helplessly.

"Just say it Joxer, whatever it is, just ask." Ares said quietly.

"Could you love me?" Joxer asked, cringing back, expecting to be fried.

"I could. But would you let me?" Ares said as he looked deeply into Joxer's eyes.

"I would." Joxer said with a hesitant smile.

* * * * *

Ate and Strife pulled back from the crack in the door simultaneously.

Strife pulled Ate into a hug and closed his eyes in peace and joy.

The End