Moments of Transition
Joxer had drifted asleep thinking about Ares, as he often did when he managed to find a moment of solitude and quiet to escape into his dreams. Ares' recent visit was still fresh in his mind, lifting his spirits...so long as he didn't start to wonder how long would pass before he would see the god again.
Quite to his most pleasant surprise, he found out when he awoke that he didn't have to wait very long at all.
At first he believed he was simply dreaming, as he slowly became aware of the feeling of a warm body molded against his own. Ares' body. But his dreams were rarely this vivid any longer, and normally nowhere near as pleasant as this. He opened drowsy eyes and looked about, recognizing instantly the familiar setting of the bedroom of the forest cabin. He shifted around in the embrace, finding Ares' waiting mouth for a kiss that was unquestionably the nicest possible way to chase any remaining feelings of sleepiness from his body. He tangled his fingers into the soft, ebony curls, inhaling deeply the familiar, complex scent of his immortal lover. Every time they were together like this, it made him feel alive again.
"Mmm...you're back soon," he murmured, fingers tracing along the thin line of beard on the god's cheek, stopping at the moist, warm lips. He definitely liked waking up like this, already in one of Ares' illusionary little worlds. It made it much easier to pretend that they were really here in the small cabin in the woods instead of the cold, miserable Underworld.
"Guess I couldn't keep myself away."
Joxer frowned a little at the expression on Ares' face. He wanted to say the god looked almost...frightened of something, but he knew that was impossible. Maybe it was sadness he saw in those dark eyes; he couldn't quite tell. Ares never was the easiest one to try to read and understand, so with some trepidation he asked, "Is something wrong?"
Ares simply held his gaze for a long time in silence, then he sighed and pulled Joxer tighter against him, stroking the back of his head and neck with truly uncharacteristic tenderness. Still he said nothing, and an icy fear suddenly gripped Joxer's heart as he thought he understood what was happening: This is it. The last time I'll see him. He came here to say good-bye, didn't he? He couldn't get me out of here.
But before he had long to consider this dread possibility, Ares finally answered him, "What's wrong? Everything. I did the one thing I knew I could never allow myself to do. I fell in love. With you."
Joxer held his breath, not believing he'd just heard Ares properly. The god had called him "lover", had certainly treated him finer than he'd ever dreamed possible, but never had Ares flat out said that he loved him.
"Now I've paid the price for that mistake. And by the gods, Aphrodite had better be right that love is all you need, because right now that's all we have." Ares lessened his grip on Joxer's body and lay on his back, gazing up at the ceiling. Almost casually he added, "Oh, and by the way, you're not dead. Try to steer clear of Harpies this time."
Joxer bolted upright when, several seconds later, those last words sunk in his already numbed brain. "I'm...you mean, I'm not..." He glanced all around the room again in disbelief. "We're really here? No illusion this time?"
"No illusion. Welcome home, Joxer."
"We're really here! I don't...I'm not dead?!" He leapt out of the bed, needing to run to the open windows, to take a deep breath of air-- fresh air, the air of the living world. Yes, he could feel the difference now--how could he have not noticed right away?
"I'm alive, you hear that, world!" He couldn't figure out how to express himself properly and ended up just giving into laughter, mixed in with a good battle cry or two in celebration.
When he calmed down slightly from his initial delight, he jumped back into bed where Ares was waiting, looking as if he found Joxer's reaction to the news infinitely amusing. It had been too long since Joxer had seen one of Ares' rare, true smiles like he saw now, and that was perhaps the greatest gift of all. Joxer's words came pouring out as they always did when he was overexcited. "I knew you'd do it. I knew you would! I just can't believe it right now, you know? It's too much. But how did you do it, anyway? The last time I saw you, you said it was going to be a lot harder than you thought."
"It was. It was harder than anything I've ever had to do before. Hades and Zeus agreed on a price. It had to be very high, considering what I was asking of them. Hades hates to give up any soul once it has become one of his subjects, and Zeus hates doing anything against the rules that were established when the Titans were first overthrown."
"So what was the price?" Joxer asked anxiously.
Joxer stopped bouncing up and down in excitement for a moment and gave him a puzzled stare. "Your sword? But, you told me your sword was the source of your--" he stopped, mouth still hanging agape as for once his brain intercepted and kept him from finishing the sentence. Ares' sword was the source of his godhood. He couldn't have...he would never give up his godhood...for me?!
"...Powers," Ares finished for him. "Sad to say but it's true, Joxer. Say hello to the former god of war."
"Are you...are you telling me the truth?" he asked, numb with what had to be the biggest surprise of the morning, hands down. "Tell me you didn't give up everything, just for me."
"Why? If I'm nothing but a pathetic mortal like you, do you no longer want me? Was it only my power you loved?" Ares asked sharply.
"No! No, of course not! I meant that I can't be worth that much, not to you. Not to anyone."
"Joxer, trust me, this is not the kind of talk I need to be hearing right now. What's done is done. I'm feeling humiliated and miserable enough and could use a little reassurance that I had some good reason to bring you back."
Joxer wondered if it was possible to die simply from too many emotional shocks to the system. Probably not, otherwise he was certain he would be dead again any minute. He had known that the god (former god?!--that was going to take some getting used to...) enjoyed his company, but to love him this much? To sacrifice so much just for him? How could he even begin to express what this terrible knowledge was doing to him? How could he feel so wonderful and so awful at the same time? His joy at being released from the Underworld was suddenly mixed with such sadness, knowing how much it had cost the one person who meant more than anyone else to him. He never would have asked this of Ares. Never.
He wiped a hand across his suddenly wet eyes, struggling to fight back the tears that were threatening to fall. That was probably something Ares didn't need to deal with right now, either. He lay back down in Ares' waiting arms once more, trying to chase away the tears with long kisses, filled with more love and longing than he'd ever felt safe to express before.
"My life belongs to you. Forever..." he vowed when he could finally find words again.
"That's right, it does. But mine belongs to you, as well, Joxer. I couldn't go back to who I was before you came along, to wall myself away from ever feeling the things you made me feel. If this was the price I had to pay, then I had no choice but to do it."
"Can you...is there any chance they'll change their minds, let you be a god again?"
"We'll see. There's always a way to get things done. Nothing is impossible. If I can't have my sword, there is always Ambrosia."
"Did you find out who did this?"
"No. Not yet. I will, though. In fact I'm sure it's only a matter of time before the fucker steps up to gloat over this."
"I'll kill the bastard myself if I can. For what he's done to you."
"You're the one who went to Tartarus, not me. Not yet, at least. And I do the killing in this relationship, remember?"
"Okay. Just promise me you'll let me watch you take him down. I want to at least get in a few punches."
Ares chuckled and promised, "You'll have a front-row seat, love. I wouldn't dream of denying you that." Then he sighed and rolled over on top of the lighter man, obviously finished with talk for the moment. Joxer understood and shared the sentiment entirely.
Hands rediscovered well-loved curves and sensitive places, almost as if they were completely new to the touch. Joxer tried to reconcile what he felt and saw with the knowledge that Ares was just a man now, no longer a god. The only thing that betrayed Ares was his eyes--the vulnerability there that Joxer had never seen before. In some ways it hurt, knowing he was responsible for its being there. He would make certain to find someway, someday, to properly repay the debt he owed Ares after this.
Neither man could wait long for release. There would be plenty of time later for leisurely affections. Too much had separated them for too long. Joxer looked up in anticipation when, after a few more fevered kisses, Ares took position between his spread legs. As fantastic as being a lover to a god was, there was something to seeing Ares, usually so focused, calm, and in control, looking almost unhinged by his carnal desires. No longer did distinctions of "god" and "mortal" separate them. They were just Ares and Joxer. Two men who wanted each other...needed each other.
"I love you," Joxer said, stating the fact without any trace of apology as he used to feel was necessary, for the god of war had no use for love. At least, that was what he had believed.
"I love you, Joxer."
Joxer winced in unexpected discomfort. Ares paused, giving him a confused look until he realized what was missing. "Oh. Sorry. This is going to take some...getting used to. Um..."
"You and me both. Let me help..." Joxer lowered his legs and urged Ares up towards him, until his tongue could meet the other's cock. He laved it slowly, lovingly, thrilling to each moan that followed his deliberate strokes.
"Now..." Joxer sighed after a short while, knowing he could not hold out any longer and sensing Ares couldn't either. This time when Ares entered him with greater ease, Joxer forced himself to keep his eyes open, to watch and savor his lover's reactions, even as his own senses rebelled against any attempt to maintain control. With every movement, every plunge deeper inside him, he felt closer to Ares than ever before. He marveled at the thrill of watching Ares make love to him as if the newly-mortal man had never experienced physical intimacy before.
"Joxer..." Ares groaned, his own eyes wide with confusion, need, and wonder.
"Tell me...what are you feeling..."
"So different...I can't...I can't control myself...Joxer...!" Ares cried out and pushed hard against him, bringing Joxer over the edge to completion just from the pleasure of seeing how overwhelmed Ares had become.
A few minutes later, Joxer dared to joke lightly, "So...was it still good for you?"
"It was...strange. Nowhere near as good, yet somehow a thousand times better. I couldn't explain it to you. You wouldn't understand."
"Later, maybe..." Ares yawned and asked irritably, "Damn, why do I feel so tired all of a sudden?"
Joxer couldn't help but smile. "I'll try to explain that later. Right now I think we could both use a little rest."
It was a rare event indeed--Joxer finding himself wide awake while the god of war was fast asleep. No, not the god of war any longer, he had to keep reminding himself. Ares. Just Ares now. Just a man, like me.
Hours had passed and he still couldn't quite believe it. It had been difficult enough to accept the idea that Ares had taken him as a lover months ago, that he had wanted Joxer with him whenever he was not preoccupied with the business of being a god. Now, to accept the fact that Ares loved him--and loved him enough to give up everything simply to give Joxer his life back, a chance to earn a place in Elysia next time he died instead of Tartarus...? No, that was impossible.
Yet that was exactly what had happened.
Now he was the one who was, oddly enough, in the position to lead, to teach. The responsibility frightened him. At the same time, he felt stronger and more sure of himself than ever. He had faced death, and had faced the prospect of eternal suffering, and had come back with relatively few scars. Surviving mortality day to day in this world seemed like nothing in comparison--though he knew Ares would probably not see things that way for a very long time.
Joxer didn't particularly want to leave Ares' side but he was restless. He was becoming horny, too, sitting there watching his beautiful, sleeping lover. He resisted the urge to wake him; there'd be time for more of that later. His excitement over being alive again was too much and he needed to step outside, to see the sun and feel its warmth on his skin, to feel soft grass beneath his bare feet. He found some clothes and made his way silently out of the house to revel in the beauty of the woods, all the little things he was certain he would never take for granted again. He ran towards the stream that etched its way down through the mountainside, to drink in some of its sparkling clear water and try to wash away the memories of the dark rivers of Tartarus, their foul smells and currents that chilled the soul.
He lay on the grass, staring up at the clouds and thinking for a long time. He knew this wasn't going to be easy. So many obstacles lay ahead for them both. He knew perfectly well Ares had more than his share of enemies, mortal and immortal. He would be a target to anyone who recognized him as the fallen god of war. Even Xena and Gabrielle might be a danger to Ares now--after all the grief he had caused them, could Joxer convince them that Ares had changed? Xena, after all, had reinvented herself, thanks to Hercules. Though only a mortal, she had found a path to redemption that most would not have believed the warrior princess ever could aspire to. Maybe she could understand, then, the change that had taken place in Ares.
But what about Hercules? Joxer had never particularly cared for the way Ares was so intent on causing his half-brother so much misery. Was there some way he could figure out to reconcile them? Or would Ares be too resentful now that Hercules was more powerful than he?
So many questions, so much to think about...still, no matter what it sure beat being stuck in Tartarus! Eventually he picked himself up and headed back towards the cabin, looking forward to starting on this new path through life, no matter what difficulties lay ahead for them both.
Something dark and distinctly malevolent chased him through his dreams. He knew he recognized its evil presence from somewhere, but fear kept him from stopping long enough to turn back and look at his pursuer. He just kept running, racing through the fog, trying to escape it, trying to escape the mirthless laughter of the creature trying to catch him...then he tripped and fell to the ground and--
Ares jerked awake, disoriented and finding his heart pounding rapidly from the terror of the nightmare. He tried to will it to slow down to normal, baffled for a moment when it failed to respond to his command. Why...oh, he remembered. Can't do that now. Can barely do anything now. He sat up and rubbed his face with his hands, feeling shaky and ill and wondering how he could have forgotten how utterly wretched it was to be mortal. Had he blocked these memories from his mind? These feelings of helplessness, of separation? The world seemed so dull and flat to his diminished senses, no longer able to feel the vibrations of energy and life that coursed through every living creature, no longer able to tune those vibrations to suit his will. The only time he had felt anything like his former self was while making love to Joxer, and even then he had been scared by the lack of control he now had over his body and emotions.
Did I make the right choice? he wondered, knowing it was a question he'd likely be asking himself quite often from this day forward. Not that it made a difference; the deed was done. No turning back. This cabin, this place, was the only thing they'd left him, the only remembrance of his past existence. Where once he had pondered petitioning Zeus to consider granting Joxer godhood, now he wondered how he might ever hope to reclaim his own status as such.
He'd given it all up for a few precious years--a few decades, if they were extremely lucky and avoided the fatal perils that mankind faced in this world--with a mortal.
Have I gone mad?
Very probably, he answered himself, adding, and where is that damn fool, anyway? as he noticed Joxer's absence. You'd think he'd have the courtesy of not wandering off on me after everything I've done for him.
Before he could go storming off searching for the errant man, he paused, feeling a peculiar prickling along the back of his neck. He knew what that feeling meant, even if it was dulled and just a trace of the sensitivity he used to possess. Another--a god--was near. He shivered involuntarily, suddenly remembering the dream...that presence that had chased him, laughed at him...
It was here.
More than that, he knew who it was, though it was impossible.
The violent flash before his eyes blinded him and he shrunk back in surprise. When his vision returned, he did not believe what his mortal eyes revealed to him.
"Hey Unc. Well, will you look at how the mighty have fallen."
"How can you--you're dead!"
"Correction: Was dead. But you should know how that goes...dead today, alive tomorrow." Strife shrugged as if it were no big deal. His crystal- like eyes glimmered with their usual gleeful mischief as he spoke, looking down at the dethroned god with a surprising air of superiority. "I guess not even Hind's Blood can keep a bad god down."
And then Ares saw it. The shining blade caught the sunlight as it hung snugly at Strife's side. My Sword... It called to his soul and he ached to hold it once more. When his eyes could tear themselves from the weapon, they looked up in shock at his former pupil's face. "No...it was you?"
"'Friad so, Unc. Real sorry it had to be this way, nothing personal, you understand."
"You betrayed me...I was the one who taught you everything!"
"That you did, and I do thank you for it. I mean, if you hadn't..." Strife giggled, "do you think I could have figured out how to pull this off, and convince Zeus to give me your former position if I did?"
"So Zeus was in on this. And Hades, too."
"I knew Hades had it in for you, so I came to him with an idea. Even in the Underworld, gossip makes the rounds. I heard that there was some loser who was turnin' you soft. Zeus wasn't sure you were up for the job anymore. Me, I was driving Hades a little nuts, keepin' in practice in case I ever got a chance to make a break for it. So anything that would get me out of his hair and take you down at the same time sounded groovy to him!
"Hades 'n me, all we did was put you to the test, with Zeus' blessing. And you failed it, Unc." Strife shook his head, appearing downright disgusted by the sight in front of him.
"No." Somehow Ares couldn't summon the anger he thought he should feel, finally knowing the truth. He just felt cold, and betrayed. "I failed nothing. If you and the others can't see that...then I don't envy you. I pity you."
"Have it your way. Well, it's been fun, but I've got a lot of work to do: a temple to rebuild, catching up with mum, wars to start waging...if these mortals thought things were bad with you around, wait'll they see what I've got in store for them!"
And with a peal of laughter, Strife flashed away in a another blinding burst of light.
Ares wasn't sure how long he had been sitting there afterwards, staring off into nothing, feeling practically nothing, when he heard Joxer's voice calling his name.
He blinked and glanced over towards the doorway where Joxer stood watching him, hesitant to approach. He wondered what expression must have been fixed on his face to so obviously disturb his lover.
"Are you okay?" Joxer asked with worry.
What an absurd question. Only Joxer would ask something like that at a time like this. "'Okay'? Okay?! Am I...okay? I've given up everything: immortality, godhood, immeasurable power no mortal could even comprehend. I've been betrayed by my former student and worst of all, by my own father-- not that he ever gave a damn about me to begin with. And you want to know if I'm 'okay'. Yeah, I'm fucking peachy, Joxer, how about you?"
Joxer seemed for once at a loss for words, squirming a bit before admitting, "I...uh...I was gonna ask if there was anything to eat around here, 'cause I'm actually feeling kind of hungry."
Ares was silent for a moment, still glowering. Then he began to laugh. When he saw how his unexpected laughter was only perplexing Joxer further, he couldn't stop himself. He just kept laughing until his chest hurt and tears came to his eyes, and he couldn't for the life of him remember why he was laughing so damn hard. Only that it felt good, for it had been far too long since he'd had anything to laugh about.
"Did I miss something here?" Joxer queried uneasily, looking as if he feared Ares had completely lost his sanity.
Well, at least we're both of the same mind on that subject.
"Yes, but...nothing important. I'll tell you about it later." Ares stood and began searching for something to put on. "Let's see about finding us both something to eat. I asked my servants to leave some supplies behind before they were dismissed."
"Oh, okay." Joxer grinned, apparently relieved, then stepped gingerly over towards Ares and hugged him tightly.
"What's that for?"
"Like you have to ask."
"I do. I can't read your mind anymore, remember?"
"Oh, right. It's for everything. It's good to be alive again."
"Yes," Ares agreed, breathing in the scent of the earth and forest that clung to Joxer's warm skin, not needing anything but his mortal senses to realize how precious was this closeness they shared...the love he had found after denying it for so long.
"Yes, Joxer. It is good to be alive."
:: The End ::
Author's afterword: Please don't hurt me. Under threats so far involving pitchforks, riots, and cans of whoop ass there WILL be a sequel. Feel free to send your own death threats and other such encouragements to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for hanging in there this far.