AresJoxerCupidStrife - Georgina


Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Title: In Love's Defense
Author/pseudonym: Georgina
Fandom: Xena/Herc universe
Pairing: Cupid / Strife
Rating: NC-17
Status: 1/? WIP
Archive: Yes – AJCS or ask
E-mail address for feedback:: bc_mystery@yahoo.ca
Disclaimers: Not mine, just borrowing them.
Notes: My first time out… please be gentle. – Thanks to Dane, Christine and Georgina N, for helping me turn a jumble of words into a story. And a special thanks to Dennis who has graciously helped look at the re-writes.
Summary: Cupid makes a horrible mistake and there's a price to pay.


In Love's Defense
by Georgina

Part One

Golden sunlight filtered through a skylight in the temple's ceiling, reflecting off the pure, snowy whiteness of the wings on the small Godling playing on the floor. Aphrodite was busy preparing new potions in her workshop, leaving Bliss to his toys in the main temple chamber.

It was a rare moment of angelic sweetness – silent Bliss – as the Godling bit his bottom lip in quiet concentration as he attempted to figure out the new puzzle, his Uncle Strife had given him.

So wrapped up in his game, young Bliss never heard the hooded figure enter the temple. He never heard the electric hum of energy as a portal opened behind him. He never heard the hiss of the energy ball that was released. He never saw the twisted, satisfied smile of his attacker when he screamed in pain and fell back into the portal, falling to Earth in an unconscious mass of pain and feathers.

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Strife grinned mischievously from his hiding place behind a temple column and watched Xena's little Bard Gabrielle and her actors, as they rehearsed her newest play. It was some drabble about a warlord named Zacron, who saw the "light" and chose the "way". It was so fluffy and sweet; it made Strife want to gag. Instead, he did his best to drive the little Blonde Bimbo batty. So far, he'd made the star of the show forget his lines four times, pushed a few supporting actors into the musicians' pit, and caused the lead actress's dress to catch on a nail and nearly tear right off her. Strife chuckled wickedly; he was just warming up.

He was just about to make the lead actor say "Let's screw in the hay" instead of "Show me the way", when he felt the presence of another God, and great pain. He spun around in time to see little Bliss slam into the ground, broken and bloody.

Strife's heart dropped into the pit of his stomach and he screamed in outrage. He had always loved children, but mischievous Bliss held a special place in his heart. He rushed to the little Godling's side, and gathered the broken body to his chest. Bliss whimpered in pain and Strife shushed him and nuzzled Bliss' cheek, cooing softly in an effort to comfort the boy. He didn't notice the group of actors and villagers who had gathered around. He didn't care that tears were streaming down his cheeks. He most certainly didn't care that the Bimbo Bard's mouth was opening and closing in shock, making her look like a fish (a sight that normally would have made him giggle any other time).

Strife knew what he had to do. He didn't question his actions, nor did he consider the danger. He simply reacted to Bliss' pain. He lay Bliss back down onto the ground and stood over him, concentrating hard. Beads of sweat appeared on his brow, and Strife began to glow. He reached deep inside and brought his own life-force to the surface and channeled it through his hands and into Bliss.

The bystanders gasped in shock and wonder, as Bliss began to heal before their eyes. Bones and wings mended. Cuts and wounds closed and healed without leaving any scars. Bliss' eyes opened and he cried out in fear and called the one name that meant everything to him. "DADDY!!!"

Strife knew he should stop pumping energy into the Godling. He was close to collapsing himself, and had no energy left to transport himself or Bliss in the face of danger. He forced himself to pull his power back inside himself. He felt dizzy and weak, and staggered back a step.

Suddenly, Cupid appeared in a brilliant flash of golden sparks. He took the scene in at a glance. He saw his precious baby boy laying on the ground, crying and scared, his clothes torn and bloody. He saw Strife standing over Bliss, his hands still glowing from energy. Cupid instantly came to the wrong conclusion, and the War side of his heritage came out in full force. He went into a black rage, and with all the power he possessed, he lashed out at Strife.

What had begun as relief when he had first seen Cupid appear, soon became horror when he realized that Cupid believed that he had hurt Bliss. Strife's eyes widened in terror, when Cupid suddenly blasted him with a ball of energy more powerful than any he had ever felt before. In his weakened state, he had no defenses, and he flew across the clearing and smashed into a temple wall. He barely had time to register the pain when Cupid picked him up and flew into the air and then slammed him into the ground again and again. The pain became unbearable, and with what little consciousness he held onto, he prayed for death to come soon.

"No, Daddy! No!! Stwife help Bliss! Please, Daddy! Stwife save Bliss!" Bliss' screams slowly penetrated Cupid's rage. He looked down at Strife's broken body and with a surge of power entered his thoughts. He saw how Bliss had fallen out of the sky. He watched as Strife saved Bliss by tapping into his own life-force. Finally, he heard Strife begging for death. With a sob, he let go of the leather clad God, and backed away, shaking his head in shocked denial. What had he done? What had he done to his best friend – the man who had saved his son??

Cupid sank to his knees and roared, the pained sound echoing throughout the heavens. Aphrodite gasped, dropping the potion she had been preparing, as her son's pain swept through her. She flashed to her son's side in shower of flower petals and wrapped her arms around him. A bundle of feathers rushed into her arms, and she was startled to find Bliss crying and pulling at her. "Stwife! Stwife! Pwease, Gamma – Pwease help Stwife!"

Aphrodite turned and spotted her nephew who lay motionless on the ground. She patted Cupid's back reassuringly, and made her way to Strife's side. Aphrodite gasped and covered her mouth with her hand, as she viewed the horrible state Strife was in. "Asclepius!" She called, and in a flash, God of Healing appeared.

Asclepius was tall, blonde and tanned, with a muscular physique that made mortals and gods weak in the knees. While Asclepius did not possess the arrogance of his father, and genuinely wanted to help people, he was also never one to bother with formalities. He pushed Aphrodite out of his way and went to work on Strife. After a few minutes, he had stabilized the young God enough to transport him, and with a quick word of explanation to Aphrodite, he returned to his temple on Olympus with Strife.

Cupid looked at his mother with a the most lost expression she had ever seen on his handsome face. His son was held tightly in his arms. Bliss had finally stopped sobbing, and warn out from the day's events, settled into a deep sleep.

"Is Strife going to be all right?" Gabrielle asked. Aphrodite was startled, and turned to find the warrior bard stepping forward hesitantly.

"Like you care?" Aphrodite asked, trying to calm her emotions. She didn't notice Gabrielle flushing and hanging her head in shame, silently acknowledging that Aphrodite had the right to question her sincerity. Aphrodite looked around at the bystanders and with a flash, moved her son and his child to one of the bedchambers of her nearest Temple. Cupid placed Bliss on the centre of a huge heart shaped bed, and sat with his head in his hands.

"I don't know what happened, Mom. I saw Strife standing over Bliss, power resonating from him, and I just… reacted. I didn't think! I know Strife loves Bliss more than anything. I know that!"

Aphrodite couldn't't stand watching her son in pain. She knelt before him and took him into her arms. "When our children are involved, we don't always think, Cupie. You made a mistake. A huge mistake, granted, but you have a chance to make things right. Strife will recover, and you can help him."

"Help him?" Cupid laughed bitterly. "I almost killed my best friend. He might still die! Strife won't want me anywhere near him after what I did to him."

"Sweetie, you and Strife have been friends for a long time. I'm not saying this is going to be easy, but you have a chance to regain his trust. If you don't try, you'll always regret it."

"You're right, Mom. Strife means too much to me. I'm not going to give him up without a fight!" He grinned with new hope and kissed his mother gently on the cheek. "There is, however, one other thing we need to deal with." Cupid's face darkened suddenly. "Someone tried to kill my son. We need to talk to Dad and we need to make sure Bliss is protected until we can figure this out."

"Get some rest, Cupie. We'll figure this out in the morning." Aphrodite tucked her son into bed for the first time in over 300 years. She stroked his hair off his forehead and kissed his cheek. She moved to the other side of the bed and cuddled next to her grandson, and after putting up her most powerful protection shield…she let herself drift to sleep.

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Part Two

In a long forgotten temple, a figure cloaked in black paced, muttering obscenities in a decidedly disturbed manner. "So close! So CLOSE! Everything I ever wanted was almost in my grasp. But no, that damned Strife had to ruin everything. Oh, but I'm not going to let him get away with it." A cruel smile lit up crazed features. "I'm going to add you to my plans, Strife. I hope you enjoy what I have in store for you. I know I will." With a laugh that bordered on a cackle, the figure stormed out of the temple, leaving destruction in its wake.

Strife cautiously opened his eyes, blinking in the brightness of the room. He tried to move and groaned as every muscle and bone in his body seemed to scream *Pain, Pain, Pain*.

Asclepius rushed to his side, and ran his hands over Strife's body, assessing his condition with his power.

"Lay still, Strife. Moving now will only undo everything I've accomplished so far". Asclepius smiled, "Finally – we have a legitimate reason for making you stay still for longer than 10 seconds at a time."

"Yeah, well don't get used to it!" Strife muttered with a grimace, but allowed Asclepius to push him back down on the bed. "Asclepius? What happened to Bliss? Is he okay?"

Asclepius smiled down at Strife and took his hand gently. "You saved him, Strife. Bliss doesn't even have a scratch on him. Of course, you almost killed yourself in the process, so what do you say – let's leave the healing up to me and Apollo, `kay?" Strife grinned, and closed his eyes, exhaustion overwhelming him. With a sigh, he let himself slip into Morpheus' gentle arms. Asclepius made sure his patient was sleeping soundly, then went to gather more healing herbs for his medicines.

Strife's peaceful slumber didn't last long, and was interrupted when he was hauled roughly from the bed, and slammed up against the hard temple wall. He opened his eyes and stared down into the furious eyes of his Grandfather.

"Did you think that I'd go easy on you, Strife? Did you think that just because Cupid roughed you up a bit, that I'd forget the fact that you attempted to kill a God?" Zeus growled, shaking Strife, making his head bang against the wall.

"Please – Grandfather – it was a mistake!" Strife managed to gasp, but it was no use. When Zeus was in a temper, rarely could he be reasoned with.

"The mistake was yours, Strife. You were always a useless God, but even I didn't think you'd go this far." With one hand he held Strife against the wall, and with the other he raised the lightening bolt that had suddenly appeared, the white electric glow and the ever present zapping sounds made Strife cringe in fear. "Hear me, Olympians! For the crime of the attempted murder of Bliss, God of Happiness, I here by punish Strife, God of Mischief to life as a mortal. Blind and deaf, I render him as helpless as his intended victim!" With his words, a surge of power flowed through Zeus, and struck Strife, forcing screams of pain from him. Blood poured from his eyes and ears, his Godhood stripped forcibly from him, and in a flash he disappeared.

Half a second later, Asclepius appeared in the temple behind Zeus. "No! What have you done?"

"I would have thought that you, of all Gods, would have wanted him to suffer for his crimes." Zeus said, confused as he watched tears fall from Asclepius' eyes. His own eyes filled with tears and horror as Asclepius filled him in on how Strife had actually saved Bliss, risking his own life.

"What have I done?" Zeus moaned, sitting heavily on the bed, and burying his face in his hands.

"Can't you just bring him back?" Asclepius asked, tentatively laying his hand on his Grandfather's arm.

"You don't understand. I made a decree as King of the Gods. It can't be overturned. I was so angry when I found that scroll on my desk." Zeus sighed.

"Wait a minute, what scroll?" Asclepius asked, sensing there was far more going on than anyone could suspect.

"There was a scroll left for me. It told a horrible story of Strife attacking Bliss, and savagely ravaging him before tossing him to Earth, following him to do more damage, and being intercepted at last by Cupid. I never questioned it's origin, since it was with my other daily reports." Zeus fell silent, disturbed by the thought that he had been so easily deceived.

Neither God noticed the figure in black slipping from behind it's hiding spot, and out of the temple, an evil smirk on it's face.

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Part Three

Cupid and Aphrodite woke with a start; Zeus' decree ringing in their ears. Cupid quickly looked for Bliss, relieved to find him snuggled between them, still fast asleep.

"Mom - I need you to take Bliss to Dad and tell him what happened. I need to know that Bliss is safe while I sort things out." His gut tightened painfully as he thought about Strife helpless, and alone.

Aphrodite hugged her son tightly. "Don't worry, Sweetie. Heph, Ares and I will keep Bliss safe. You do what you have to." She kissed his cheek and gathered Bliss into her arms. "Let us know if you need anything." With that, she disappeared in a flash of pink sparks.

Moments later, Cupid flashed into his Grandfather's throne room. Zeus looked up and sighed as he took in his Grandson's angry expression.

"He saved my son's life, and you rewarded him by making him helpless and a prisoner in his own body. You just couldn't wait to hear the whole story, could you?" Cupid's face was red and he shook with anger.

"I'm sorry Cupid. I was lead to believe Strife was guilty, and I made a horrible mistake." Zeus explained how he had found the scrolls pointing to Strife's guilt on his desk. He and Asclepius had torn his office apart searching for the scroll, but it had vanished.

"Gramps, something is seriously wrong here. First someone attempts to murder my son, and then Strife is conveniently framed for it." Frustrated, Cupid looked up at his Grandfather, "I don't know what to do. I want to help Strife, but we need to find out who's behind all this!"

Zeus awkwardly patted Cupid's shoulder and smiled. "You figure out a way to help Strife, and leave the rest to us."

Cupid hugged the Sky God, and then flashed away to the three Gods who could possibly help him - the Fates.

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The first thing Strife became aware of when he rematerialized was the agonizing pain in his ears and eyes. He moaned and fell to his knees and gripped his head, feeling the unmistakable sticky wet warmth of blood.

With sudden clarity, he remembered his Grandfather's decree. "Geez Gramps - talk about overkill!" He knew he said the words, but there was nothing but aching silence. The lonely forest road echoed with manic laughter, which tapered off into heart rendering sobs.

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Cupid materialized in the Temple of the Fates, and called their names. The three sisters appeared and gifted Cupid with rare smiles. The Love God had always been a favorite of theirs.

"You seek the knowledge of the Mischief God's restoration", Atropos, the eldest sister said, before Cupid could utter a word.

"Yes. Is there a way?" Cupid asked, feeling a spark of hope for the first time since the entire ordeal started.

"Heed our words, Cupid - God of Love, the way is fraught with danger and not for the faint of heart" Clotho, the youngest of the sisters said, her voice a childish melody.

"I am not afraid. Tell me what I must do!" Cupid was, after all, the son of War, and though he belonged to the House of Love, he also had a warrior's heart.

The three sisters gazed at him for a long moment. He felt as though they were measuring him - sizing him up to determine if he was ready for the challenge. He regarded them with steely determination. Finally they seemed to come to a conclusion.

"You will face the Trial of the Elements. Strife must accompany you, for it must be his hand that retrieves each item, and during each test, you will not be able to use your Godly powers." Atropos turned to her sister, Lachesis, the middle of the three, who nodded in agreement.

"First - there is Earth. You must make your way through the Caves of Bacchus and find the Bacchai Chalice." Lachesis said in her eerie otherworldly voice.

"Second - there is Wind. Go to the Giona Mountains and Climb to the peak of Mt. Vermio, where you will find the Scrolls of Hecate, the Goddess of Magic. The Scrolls will be suspended in a vortex where the Four Winds converge." Something in Clotho's voice made Cupid think that would be far more to the second quest than what was said.

Third - there is Water. In the hills, which surround the Valley of Corinth, you will find the Sacred Waters of Athena. The waters are well guarded. Two vials of water must be collected." Atropos materialized two silver vials and handed them to Cupid, who carefully placed them in a supple leather bag, which hung from his belt.

"Fourth is Fire. Journey to the Temple of Hephaestus deep in the Fire Marsh. Once there, pray to the Fire God and offer him one of the vials of Sacred Water. If he is pleased, you will be rewarded. That reward is your final item. Remember - you must complete these tasks as mortals. Your Godly powers and connections cannot help you there." Lachesis spoke without emotion, almost as though she were in a trance.

Clotho stepped forward and placed her hand on Cupid's head. Bring us the four items and the God of Mischief will be restored. Go with the blessing of the Fates." With that said, the sisters disappeared with black and silver sparks, leaving Cupid to contemplate the tasks laid before him.

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Strife's sobs finally subsided and instinct, born of years as War's first Lieutenant kicked in. On his knees, he felt the ground around him. From the ruts and lack of vegetation, he knew he was on a road. He breathed deeply and smelled the unmistakable scent of the forest. He crawled to the edge of the road and felt around until he felt the base of a tree.

You can do this! Strife thought to himself. Hell, Ares had done worse to him. Of course, he'd always been able to recover because he was a God. Strife refused to dwell on that last point. It took way more than an old goat like Zeus to bring down Mischief.

With a sigh of determined resignation, Strife felt around until he found a long branch. He pulled out his boot knife and carefully peeled away the bark and sharp spots until the branch became a long, smooth staff.

Strife took stock on what he had with him. Besides his knife, he had two daggers tucked in his belt, a full wine skin, and a soft leather bag filled with dried fruit he liked to munch on while in Greece. He figured he'd be able to survive - at least for awhile.

He stood on shaky legs and breathed deeply again, forcing himself to become calm and still. He felt the sun on his face and could smell water nearby. From the heat of the sun, Strife figured it was about mid-day. Using the staff to help guide him along the side of the road, and to keep him from stumbling into anything, he headed down the road in a Northerly direction, praying he wasn't going to walk into the middle of something ugly.

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After letting his parents know he'd be away for some time, and making sure Bliss was safe and happy, it took Cupid the better part of the day to locate Strife. When he found him, Strife was doing what he did best - getting into trouble.

As he watched through his magic mirror, Cupid's heart dropped to the pit of his stomach as four large, muscular men step in front of the blind former God. One man groped Strife, while another tried to force him into a kiss. Strife smacked them away and crouched, his staff ready.

Cupid threw his mirror against the wall, and transported himself to Strife's location in an angry burst of pink and gold sparks. He arrived just in time to see Strife knock three of the men into the dirt, using only his sense of smell, and feeling how the air around him moved in order to guide him.

Cupid turned and saw the fourth man raise a dagger to throw at Strife's back. Without rational thought, Cupid called his crossbow to him and shot the man through the heart, a place he was used to aiming at. This time, however, the arrow wasn't magic, and the man was dead before he fell to the ground.

Slowly, Cupid approached Strife. He knew that his cousin would think that he was the fourth attacker, so he approached with caution, ready for anything. He was almost close enough to touch him, when Strife struck out at him with his staff. With reflexes only one with Godly blood could posses, Cupid grabbed the staff and pulled Strife into his arms in one quick movement, and wrapped his wings around them both.

When Strife felt the shadow fall over him, and smelled the stench of unwashed bodies, he knew he was in trouble. He was proved correct when a beefy hand grabbed his crotch and another pulled at his head, greasy lips and bad breath brushing over his face. Everything he ever learned about self-defense flooded into his mind and he instinctively struck out with his staff. He quickly discovered he was facing four men. He took out three with ease, but couldn't sense the fourth anywhere. It was just so damn quiet and dark!

He could feel beads of sweat form on his forehead, and his breath began to quicken with panic. Where WAS the fourth man!?! Suddenly he was there. Strife could feel the shadow and with all his strength, he swung the staff in that direction and hoped that it would connect. The staff was grabbed in midair and Strife suddenly found himself in a tight embrace.

At first, Strife fought the arms around him, trying to free himself. Slowly, he became aware of a warm cinnamon and apple scent, and felt soft warm feathers wrapped around him. He paused and gasped in disbelief. "Cupid?" he whispered. His answer was a soft hand brushing his cheek. The same hand took his and led it up to touch soft, spiky hair, and a stubble-rough cheek. Strife ran his hands over the broad shoulders, and down the soft skin that covered a muscular back, and found the soft down-covered base of Cupid's wings. "IT IS YOU!" Strife cried in joy and wrapped his arms around Cupid, burying his face in Cupid's neck and fought to hide the tears of joy and relief that made their way down his cheeks.

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Part Four

Cupid clung tightly to Strife as he sobbed. He ran his hands up and down Strife's back in a soothing manner, his heart breaking with each of Strife's sobs, knowing it was he who brought Strife down to this level, with his blind anger.

Strife suddenly pushed away and clutched at the leather harness that criss-crossed Cupid's chest. "I didn't do it, Cupe!" he said, in a voice hoarse from crying. "I didn't hurt Bliss…I couldn't hurt Bliss. I love him as though he were my own son." Strife's voice took on a pleading tone, hoping against hope that Cupid believed him.

Strife was surprised when Cupid pulled him back into his arms and held him so tightly, Strife could hardly breathe. He didn't care if he never breathed again, so long as this meant that Cupid believed him.

They held each other for a long while, until Cupid pulled away, pressed a soft kiss on his best friend's forehead, and led Strife to a spot a short distance away. Cupid sat Strife down on the soft grass, and took a cloth from the bag that was tied to his belt, and got it wet in the crystal clear stream that glowed past them, just a few short feet away. He returned to Strife and gently washed the tears and grime from his friend's face. He rinsed the cloth, and washed Strife's hands and arms while he was at it.

Strife felt wonderful being clean again. Being a God, he had never had to worry about getting dirty. A wave of his hand had been all it took to stay fresh and clean. I guess those days are over now, he thought with a wistful smile.

Cupid reached into the bag that hung from his belt and pulled out a shell about the size of a child's hand. The shell glinted in the sunlight, the pearly colors on the underside gleaming. A leather thong necklace was attached to the shell, and gently, Cupid placed it around Strife's neck.

There was a flash of pink light, and Cupid smiled. "Can you hear me Strife?" he asked.

Strife gasped in shock as he `heard' Cupid's words. "How…what did you do, Cupe?" he asked, grinning.

"I've imbued the shell with a bit of my power. Whoever wears it will be able to hear me. It doesn't matter if you're deaf. You'll always be able to `hear' me in your mind."

Strife reached out and grabbed Cupid in an awkward, yet heartfelt hug. "Thank-you Cupie! You have no idea how the quiet can get to you. It was driving me crazy…well crazier than usual, that is!" Strife giggled his trademark "mad-man" giggle, causing his cousin to break out in a relieved grin. Maybe, just maybe, things will work out. After all, he had the help of the Fates themselves. Thinking of the Fates, reminded him of the trials Strife and he would have to face.

Cupid sat down next to Strife with a deep sigh, and began relating the events that occurred up to, and after his punishment, including telling him of the trials the Fates had placed before them.

"So let me get this straight…someone tried to kill Bliss, and used my helping him as an opportunity to frame me. Now I have to go to the most dangerous places on Earth, retrieve a few things from the holiest places of some of the most powerful Gods, or I'll be stuck like this forever?" Strife chuckled madly. "Piece of cake! When do we leave?"

Cupid's jaw dropped in amazement. "Do you understand what we'll be facing Strife? Any one of these things could kill us, especially since we'll both be rendered mortal once we enter them.

Strife stopped giggling. "We, Cupid?"

Cupid shook his head ruefully. "Damn right, `we'! I got you into this, and there is no way I'll let you go through this alone. You're my cousin, my best friend, and you were the one who stood by me when I found Psyche screwing Apollo in my bed." Cupid grabbed Strife's hand and held it tightly. "It was you who got me through the divorce, and kept me sane.

Strife laughed and carefully stood. "Well then, it's you and me, Cupe. Just imagine the look on the old Goat's face when we get my Godhood back. Not to mention Unc's face when we tell him we stole one of Athena's sacred objects."

Cupid laughed, imagining the God of War's pride and down right astonishment if they could pull this off. WHEN they pulled it off.

With a sense of renewed hope and determination, Cupid flashed he and Strife to the place of their first challenge – The Caves of Bacchus. The entrance to the caves was dark and foreboding. Two unlit torches hung on either side of the entrance, attached seemingly to the very rock itself. Thick green vines hung everywhere, almost concealing the way, and a dark, rich scent of decay permeated everything.

Strife could sense Cupid's unease. He reached out, and fumbling, took his hand. "Don't worry, Cupe – it's just a Bacchai-filled labyrinth. Nothing to it!"

"Yeah, right." Cupid muttered. He flashed into existence some wooden stakes, and a large bottle of florescent liquid. They would have to not only survive the Bacchai and retrieve the Bacchai Chalice, but they would need the florescent liquid to guide them back out of the caves – or risk being lost forever.

With a deep breath, Cupid grasped one of the torches that hung by the entrance. It came away from the rock easily and suddenly lit itself. He reached out and took Strife's hand. Together, they entered the Caves.

Once inside, Cupid felt a sharp pain, and fell to his knees as his power was stripped away and he became mortal. Strife wrapped his arms around Cupid – supporting him the only way he knew how. He knew intimately what Cupid was going through, and hated that his cousin had to experience it too.

After several minutes, Cupid regained his senses, and petted Strife's arm appreciatively. "Thanks, Cuz." He said, and got to his feet. He handed Strife the torch and readied the bottle, and took in their surroundings.

There was a cold breeze that flowed through the caves that made your hair stand on end. Instinctively they knew it wasn't natural. Cupid could hear the squeaks and squeals of small animals echoing through the caverns, and had the feeling they were being watched.

Together they set out through the caves, keeping ever vigilant of traps, and the looming threat of Bacchai. Cupid used the florescent liquid to mark their trail as they went. Soon, they entered a large cavernous room. It was as though it was carved from solid crystal, and four different caves lead from it.

Strange glyphs covered the tiles that made up the floor. Cupid took a step, only to find that the tile he stood on sank down an inch, and a flaming arrow shot out hidden holes in the walls. Cupid barely managed to duck in time, the sizzling arrow almost grazing him.

"Strife – stay still!" Cupid yelled, concentrating on keeping his balance. Strife froze, muscles twitching, ready for action.

"Talk to me, Cupe – what's going on!?" Strife hated feeling so helpless. He was a warrior – trained by War himself, and he didn't like not being able to protect and care for himself.

"I'm fine – Zeus, that was stupid. I knew there would be traps, but I just walked right in." Cupid said, and slowly, he stepped back to stand beside Strife. "Okay – we've got a crystal cavern with four passageways leading out – not including this one. On the floor, there're three different glyphs – one on each of the tiles on the floor. Above the entrances to each of the passageways, there's a large precious stone – a ruby, a diamond, an emerald and a sapphire."

Strife thought for a minute and then grinned. "We need to get to the Ruby passageway – red for the wine of Bacchus and the blood of the Bacchai."

Cupid hugged Strife and ruffled his hair, earning a giggled protest. "You're a genius, Strife!" he said, pulling back to stare into Strife's beautiful, yet sightless blue eyes. Gods, he's gorgeous – Cupid thought, and felt a strange tugging in the vicinity of his heart, and found himself suddenly breathless.

"Uhhh…Cupe?" Strife asked as the silence stretched out. "Something wrong?"

Cupid gave his head a shake and patted Strife's arm reassuringly. "Nah – just thinking, Cuz."

"Okay – so since you so brilliantly discovered one of the glyphs that shouldn't be stepped on – we've gotta figure out which of the other two is safe." Strife said, steering them back on track.

"Fifty-fifty…not bad odds." Cupid said, and Strife raised one eyebrow in sardonic disbelief. "Okay, so they're not great odds, but I've seen worse." He sighed as Strife's expression remained the same. "Give me your damn staff."

Strife smirked and unclipped his staff that he had been carrying strapped to his back while Cupid had been leading him through the caves. He handed it over, and wisely remained silent. There was nothing he liked better than to ruffle the Love God's feathers. He looked so sexy all ruffled up, Strife thought with a small shiver. Oh yeah – very, very sexy.

Cupid took the staff, muttering under his breath about know-it-all mischief Gods, and made sure Strife stood back and as close to the wall as possible. He reached out with the staff, and as carefully as possible, used it to press down on one of the remaining glyphs. There was a roaring sound, and Cupid hit the ground as a ball of fire shot out and nearly incinerated him – turning the staff into ashes.

Strife felt trapped and scared, an emotion he wasn't comfortable with. He had been raised by the God of War – fear had not been tolerated. Lately, though, he had felt more fear than he had ever felt before. He felt a rush of air, and a blast of blistering heat. Suddenly, he smelled burnt feathers, and he panicked.

"Cupe?!?" Strife yelled. "Please, Cupid, answer me. Don't leave me!!" With a sudden rush of clarity, Strife realized he loved his feathered cousin, and had been in love with him for as long as he could remember. He couldn't even tell when it had happened. His heart was breaking, at the thought of losing him, just when he realized how much he needed him. "Cupid!" He whimpered, sliding down the wall to sit on the floor, crying and reaching out blindly.

---------------------------


Part Five

Strife sat with his arms wrapped around his knees rocking back and forth, tears streaming down his face, and sobs wracking his body. He was surrounded by darkness and silence, the smell of burnt wood and feathers permeating the air.

A few feet away, Cupid lay dazed on the floor. The fall and the heat had knocked him out. He could feel blisters forming at the base of his wings, and with the scent of burnt feathers in the air, knew that he had barely escaped with his life. He raised a shaking hand to his aching head, and slowly, ever so cautiously, he sat up.

He heard sobbing, and it took him a moment to pull his thoughts together enough to realize it was Strife. He was flooded with relief and concern – relief that Strife was unharmed, and concern when he saw the emotional state that Strife was in. Cupid dragged himself over to Strife, and took him in his arms. For a moment Strife froze, and then gasped his name and clung to Cupid as though making sure that Cupid wouldn't get try to slip away.

"Cupe! Cupe! Zeus – I thought I'd lost you!" Strife sobbed, running his hands over Cupid's face and over his chest and arms, reassuring himself that Cupid was okay.

Cupid took Strife's face between his hands, and stared into the pale sightless eyes. With a need he couldn't begin to resist, he brushed his lips against Strife's. After a moment of hesitation, he kissed Strife harder, his tongue licking at the shocked Mischief God's lips.

When he first felt Cupid's lips brush against his, Strife was quite certain that he was hallucinating. Then those soft, hot lips were back, pressing harder, and a wet, silky tongue began licking his lips like he was a piece of candy to be savored.

Shock turned to desire, and Strife wrapped his arms around cupid and opened his mouth, allowing that amazing tongue entrance. Kissing Cupid was unlike anything he had ever experienced. Cupid's tongue searched Strife's mouth as though determined to explore and taste every texture and every flavor. Strife's tongue began a duel that left both of them panting and shaking with need.

Cupid pulled back with a gasp. His heart was pounding and he was filled with a love so strong that what he had felt for Psyche was like a school-boy crush. "Strife…Baby… listen to me. We can't do this here. It's not safe. As much as I want you right now, we are not doing this on a slimy cold floor in a cave filled with creatures determined to kill us."

Strife let his head fall to Cupid's shoulder and a mad giggle escaped him. "You're right Cupe, but when we get out of here, all bets are off!" Cupid grinned and with a final peck to Strife's lips, he helped Strife to his feet.

"You've got yourself a deal, Baby." Cupid said, and then turned to face the cavern again. Since he had oh-so-cleverly discovered which tile was safe to step on, he now had to figure out how to get both himself and Strife across safely. It would be next to impossible to talk Strife across; the tiles were too far apart and the path too twisted for a blind man to follow. If Strife couldn't go by himself, then he'd just have to carry him.

"Strife, you are going to have to trust me. I need you to hop on my back, wrap your arms and legs around me as tight as possible, and let me get us across." Cupid said, stroking Strife's face gently.

"You know I trust ya Cupe, but are you sure? Getting my Godhood back isn't worth your life." Strife said, leaning into Cupid's touch, and shuddered, remembering how close he'd just come to losing Cupid forever.

"Trust me, Strife", Cupid reiterated, and turned around, guiding Strife's hands to his shoulders and bracing himself as Strife hopped onto his back, wincing a bit as Strife inadvertently rubbed against his fresh burn and blisters. While Cupid always knew Strife was slight of build, he was still surprised at how light he was. He waited until Strife was settled soundly, with his legs tightly around him, and he refused to even let his mind drift there, before he took a deep breath, and stepped out onto the first tile.

They both let out the breath they held when nothing happened. Cupid felt a renewed sense of hope, and letting himself forget everything but the goal, he hopped, stepped, jumped, and shimmied his way across the floor, until with a final leap, they came to the other side, safe and whole.

The cave was again dark, slimy, and the squeaks of rats could be heard along with the incessant sound of the unnatural wind which blew through the caverns. Strife slid off Cupid's back, and without a word, the started forward again. They got about 10 meters before Strife grabbed Cupid's hand and sniffed the air. The faint smell of decaying flesh permeated the air. "Cupid? Remember those stakes you made? Well…get ready, `cause you're about to need them."

Cupid had just pulled out the stakes in question, when a screech echoed through the caves, and a long haired Bacchai flew at them, hands out like claws, ready to maim and kill. Cupid pushed Strife behind him against the wall, and deftly ducked under the un-dead creature's arms, and plunged the stake into her heart. She clutched her chest and then exploded into dust. Before he had a chance to relax, more Bacchai appeared, and began to swarm them. Cupid used every trick he had ever learned from his father. He may be the God of Falling in Love, but he was still War's son. With a flurry of kicks, punches, and stabs, he made short work of most of the Bacchai, when one managed to get through his defenses, and in an instant, she had him up against the wall, her fangs against his throat. This is it, he thought, this is the end. Just as the Bacchai's fangs touched his throat, she exploded into a shower of dust.

Cupid looked up to see Strife clutching a stake. "How did you..?"

Strife smiled his signature cocky smile. "Ares made sure that his lieutenants could fight in any condition, even deaf and blind. I just never thought I would ever be in the position for it to be handy, what with being a God and all." Cupid laughed and threw his arms around Strife and held him tightly.

"Let's find that chalice and blow this popsicle stand!" Strife laughed, and together they went down the corridor until they came to large stone door, inscribed with ancient writing.

"Only That Which is Life, May Open this Door". Cupid read aloud, his brow wrinkling in confusion.

Strife thought about for a minute, then reached out and ran his hands over the door, smiling grimly when he felt a sharp edge which when he traced it, turned out to form the outline of a cup. Without giving any real thought to the danger, he pressed his open palm against the sharp edges, cutting his hand and letting the blood flow down the front of the door.

"Strife! What are you doing??!" Cupid yelled, and tried to pull Strife's hand away from the door, but Strife shrugged him off, certain that what he was doing was right. His convictions were confirmed when the stone door shuddered and began to crumble. Cupid finally was able to pull Strife away, quickly wrapping his hand and stanching the blood, as the door magically crumbled to dust.

"Strife! What in Tarterous were you thinking? You're human now, you can't just.." Cupid's rant trailed off as he looked up and saw what lay beyond the door. There, in a flood of light, was the Chalice of Bacchus. "Oh Zeus, you did it, Strife! You did it!" Cupid's wings fluttered in excitement, and he was suddenly grabbed and pulled into Strife's arms.

"No, Cupid. WE did it!" Strife used his finger tips to trace Cupid's lips, then kissed him hard. "Now, lets get that cup and get out of here."

Cupid smiled, and patted Strife's hand, then cautiously entered the room, and approached the cup. Amazingly enough, Cupid was able to pick it up without any traps or beasts attacking them. Not one to tempt the fates, he quickly sent a prayer to his fellow Gods, thanking them for his good luck, grabbed Strife, and following the trail of phosphorous he had left behind, he led them from the caves and into sunlight and bright sunshine. As soon as they left the mouth of the caverns, Cupid moaned in pain as his Godhood was suddenly restored. He gathered Strife to him, and with a flash, disappeared.

Back in the empty chamber deep in the bowls of the earth, Bacchus appeared, stepping into the light that once guarded the chalice. Had he not intervened, Cupid would have been fried when he picked up the cup while it was in the pool of light. There was a flash, and a scroll dropped to the floor. Bacchus smiled and picked it up. There was one word written in Ares' hand. "Thanks". The scroll burst into flames as soon as it was read. Bacchus didn't need the paper. Just knowing the God of War owed him was enough.

---------------------------


Part Six

Cupid flashed Strife to a small house he had in the mountains. He'd never told anyone about this place, leaving it as his own personal sanctuary. Wards were up against anyone detecting him, allowing him to come and go without ever being traced or bothered. Oddly enough, having Strife there didn't bother him in the least, making him think more than ever that he and Strife were meant to be.

He led Strife to a table and sat him down, taking his hand and healing it in an instant. He gasped in shock as he discovered that despite his power, the wound left a scar, a perfect cup-shaped scar on the palm of Strife's hand. He brought the hand to his mouth, kissing it gently, smiling as Strife flushed.

"Cupe, are you sure? Are you sure you're doing this because you really want to, and not just because I saved Bliss or because you feel sorry for me?" Strife asked, showing uncharacteristic self consciousness. It broke Cupid's heart to realize that beneath all of Strife's bluster, he really felt unworthy of love. Why hadn't he seen it before? As a Love God, he should have sensed it right away. He felt disappointed in himself to find that he had been just as blind as all the other Gods, constantly discounting Strife, never looking beneath the surface. Well, he thought to himself, that was going to change.

Cupid slid his hands up Strife's arms, and over his shoulders, drawing Strife into his arms. He kissed him softly, letting Strife get used to his touch, before gently probing his lips with his tongue. Cupid was determined to give Strife all the gentleness and loving that he could, so that Strife could feel and taste the love in every touch and kiss.

Gathering Strife into his arms, lips never leaving his, Cupid carried Strife to the bed, their clothes disappearing in a flash of power.

Strife moaned as he felt Cupid's hot, smooth body slide on top of his only seconds after he had been deposited onto the lush softness of the bed. He couldn't believe that it was finally happening. That Cupid, beautiful, sexy Cupid could possibly want him. That Cupid could possibly love him. That dark secret place inside him whispered to absorb and enjoy all he could, because it wouldn't last long. No one had ever wanted him for more than a night or two. Hell, even his own Mother hadn't wanted him.

Cupid's mouth on his nipple jerked him out of his thoughts. His hands came up and cradled his beloved's head, arching into the pleasure of the soft sucking pull. He gasped as Cupid suddenly nipped the sensitive bud, before kissing his way across Strife's chest and plying his other nipple with the same delicious torture.

Strife's hands threaded into Cupid's hair, and his hips arched up, causing a moan of aching pleasure as Strife's cock slid against Cupid's hardness, the smooth sliding, almost making him cum.

Cupid pulled back, and ran his fingers gently over Strife's face, loving the look of wonder he had placed on Strife's face. "What do you want, Baby?"

Strife was silent for a minute, and then smiled. "Cupe, I know it sounds dumb, but could we.." He broke off and turned away with a blush.

"What, Baby? What do you want? You don't have to be shy." Cupid whispered gently, then leaned in to kiss Strife's soft lips.

"Do you think we could wait to really do it until I'm back to normal?" Strife said, quickly, as though the words were pushed out against his will.

Cupid grinned. "How about we finish this way?" With that, he pushed his hips against Strife's and started to rhythmically rub their cocks together, intermittently kissing and stroking Strife, gorging himself on his lover's body.

"Yeah, Cupe… YES!" Strife moaned, and lost himself in the pleasure. Soon they were moaning and sweating as they rubbed and writhed against each other, reveling in finally being able to be like this together. Cupid took extra care to make sure he wrung every ounce of pleasure out of Strife, trying to make up for years of Strife believing no one cared. Eventually it was too much, and they came, almost at the same time, fingers entwining, and lips meeting as desperation slowly turned to sated happiness.

Cupid slid to Strife's side and pulled him close, whispering loving nonsense to him, while running his hands over Strife's skin. He frowned as he encountered scar after scar, his heart breaking at the thought of Strife having to face so much pain in his life, and do it all alone. Never again, he thought. Never again. He nuzzled Strife's neck, and closed his eyes, letting the stress of the day go. Neither of them felt the scowling Presence as it flashed into the room.

And once again, Cupid gets everything he wants. Once again, he thinks he can ruin my plans. Let him have this moment. Let him think "love conquers all". He'll find out in the end. With an evil grin, the Presence disappeared, leaving the lovers in peace. For now.

*************************

Morning came far too early, leaving Strife looking tired and haggard. Cupid was never more aware of his godhood until then, and while he wished he could suggest they terry a little longer, he knew they had to continue on. The sooner they got Strife back to normal, the sooner they could figure out who was behind all this mess…and why.

Packing proved interesting, as passionate kisses steered them from their tasks more than once. Amazingly, it was Strife who finally pushed Cupid away and got them moving. "Are you sure you're ready for this?" Cupid asked, holding Strife's hand.

Strife smiled. "I'm going to have to be, if we're going to be together. I've really got incentive now!"

Cupid laughed, and then flashed them to the Giona Mountains, to the base of Mt. Vermio. Even at the base of mountain, the winds whipped at their clothing and hair. Cupid snapped his fingers, and both he and Strife were suddenly dressed in warm clothing, good hardy boots on their feet, and a pile of climbing gear sitting next to their packs.

"This is going to be tricky, Strife." Cupid said, "The Fates were pretty vague when they told me of this trial. I don't think it's going to be as straight forward as it sounds."

Cupid was surprised by Strife's laugh. "You're lucky you're with me, Cupe. Ya see, I hang with a lot of Gods, that the big twelve don't like to acknowledge. You get to hear a lot of stuff. You see, this mountain is infested with Harpy, and dragons. Climbing it isn't going to be the problem. Making sure you don't step into a Harpy nest, or onto the snout of a sleeping dragon…now that is the problem. Not to mention the winds that will get increasingly stronger as we climb. My being blind is not going to make this a picnic. You sure you still wanna go for it?" Strife looked down at his feet, guilt and shame apparent on his face.

Cupid grabbed him and held him close. "Just you try to leave me behind! What's a few dragons and harpies? You're the god of Strife and Mischief. You telling me that it wasn't you and not your powers that came up with all those pranks?"

Strife laughed and kissed Cupid hard. "Okay, Bird Boy! Let's climb!" Cupid quickly got Strife hooked up in a harness and secured the other end of the line to himself. He reached out to grab the first hand hold, and felt his powers leave him again. This time, he was prepared for it, and after a brief pause, he began to climb, talking Strife through each foot and hand hold. It was a long and hard process, but gradually they started to make some headway, stopping periodically to sip some water or eat something, but always forging on.

Strife smelled it first. He pulled on the line connecting them, and Cupid stopped, looking down quizzically. Strife sniffed the air, and pointed in the direction the putrid, rotting smell seemed to come from. Cupid looked over and his eyes widened in horror, as he realized he had almost climbed into the nest of a harpy. A rotting corps of an unfortunate warrior lay in the nest, half eaten, and Cupid became extremely aware of how much danger they were in.

Slowly, and constantly on alert for any arriving harpies, Cupid lead them in a different directly, still climbing, but well away from the next. Now that he knew what to look for, he was able to avoid several nests, each one sending a chill down his spine, and putting his feathers on end. He was able to use his wings as balance, but since he was rendered mortal, he couldn't fly. They were within sight of the peak, when trouble struck.

The winds suddenly picked up and Strife was blown from his perch against the rock, the wind snapping him around like a flag on a pole. Cupid clutched at the mountain with all he had, and tried to pull both himself and the floundering Strife up onto a ledge. Blood dripped from his fingers as they dug into the sharp rock, making his grip slippery and just as he was about to admit defeat, the winds died down enough for him to scramble up over the edge, and pull Strife up as well. They pulled back against the mountain, panting and holding each other in desperation. Cupid had tears on his face, the reality of almost loosing his Love struck him to the core.

They were so into each other, they almost didn't hear the first growl. They froze, as still as statues they sat, still clutched together, as another growl sounded and a puff of steam ruffled their hair. In horror, they realized that they had been resting against the muzzle of a sleeping black dragon. Cupid gripped Strife's hand hard, knowing he had to make sure his mate wouldn't make any sudden moves.

The dragon's eye opened a sliver, it's reptilian eye looking right at them. Cupid knew they had been seen, and without even questioning what drove him, Cupid pushed Strife behind him and yelled, "Please, Oh Great One! I plead for my mate's life! Do with me as you will, but please spare him!" Strife's cry of despair was drowned out by the roar of the dragon as it lumbered up and looked down at the couple.

The dragon stared at them for a moment, and then they heard a great voice, echoing in their minds. "Only one of the House of Love could plead so passionately for his mate. Yet you are without powers, young Godling. How did this come to be?" Cupid stammered out their story, while the fierce yellow eyes of the dragon looked upon them, as though it were able to look into their very souls.

"For a thousand years, I have slumbered upon this mountain, waiting for the chosen ones, those who would be worthy of Hecate's Scrolls. Never did I expect Godlings without their powers. Such is the will of the Fates – always a surprise." With that, the dragon leapt into the air, and grabbed the couple with it's talons, and flew up at a dizzying speed. Within seconds, the pair were dropped onto the ground, and found themselves at the peak, the Vortex containing the scrolls mere meters away.

"You showed me true love and courage this day, Love Godling. For this, I have granted you your lives and shaved time off your journey. Be aware, though. Your trials here are not yet over." With that cryptic message, the dragon roared, and leaped into the sky and faded into the distance before either of them could say a word.

"Sometimes I think it's the world that's crazy, and not me," Strife said, giggling his signature crazed laugh. Cupid silently agreed, and slowly got up, flapping his wings free of dust, and helping Strife up. He turned around and faced the Vortex, and swallowed dryly.

The Vortex was a violent twist of winds, like a compact tornado; roaring and writhing, like it were alive. It went straight up into the air, farther then the eye could see. Deep inside, the heart of the Vortex, Cupid could see the Scrolls of Hecate, with their eternal magical glow. Cupid reached out to take the scrolls, only to recoil in pain, as the winds burned his hand.

Strife heard Cupid cry out in pain, and reached out for him. He sighed in relief and Cupid's hand grasped his. "The winds are too strong! I can't grab the scrolls!"

Strife shook his head in amazement. "Cupid, Hecate is the goddess of magic. No doubt there's a pillar or monument near that has some cryptic message that we have to decode. You never just grab things she protects."

Cupid felt his face flush red. He couldn't believe he missed it. Right there, to the left of the Vortex, stood a huge obelisk, with ancient writing on it. Well, duh! He stepped forward and read the words "He who seeks the wisdom of the scrolls must release his fears, letting them fly with the wind, into oblivion." Well, that was no help at all.

He was still puzzling over the words when he suddenly realized that Strife was no longer with him. He looked up just in time to see Strife step into the Vortex. "NOOOooooo!" Screamed Cupid, as the winds roared like a crazed beast.

There was a huge explosion, and Cupid felt himself flying through the air, only to land scant centimeters from the edge of the cliff. His skin felt raw, as though he had been laying out in the hot sun all day. He scrambled up, and saw Strife lying on the ground, the Vortex was no more, and the scrolls were clutched in his hands. As he watched, the Scrolls glowed brighter and in a flash, disappeared. Cupid ran over to Strife's side, and grabbed at his hands, shocked to find a small outline of a scroll carved in Strife's other palm. Strife gasped for breath, and Cupid almost cried in relief. He grasped Strife to him, holding him tightly to his chest. "Why?? Why did you do it? How did you know?" Cupid asked, still in shock over yet again almost losing Strife. Damn it, it was happening far too often for his peace of mind.

"I feared Oblivion more than anything, Cupe. To disappear from this world and never be with you again is a thought that tortures me. I had to face that fear and `let it fly with the wind'. The only way I could think to do that, was to step into the wind itself. It just seemed so clear to me." Strife closed his eyes and drifted off in Cupid's arms, exhausted by the crazy events of the day. Cupid felt the warm buzz of his Godhood being returned, and flashed them both back to his cabin, to recover for yet another trial, and another way to lose each other.

---------------------------


Part Seven

As soon as Cupid got Strife back to the cabin, he healed his burns, made sure he ate, and then tucked him into bed, holding his hand as Strife fell asleep instantly. There was a flash, and Cupid turned to see Ares, God of War standing watching them. Just seeing his father pulled emotions from Cupid that he had been hiding since this all began. He stood and they stared at each other silently for a moment before Cupid flung himself into his Father's arms. Ares held his son tightly, whispering his love and his pride for his son, rubbing Cupid's back and wings, much like he had done when Cupid was little.

"I thought I lost him, Dad!" Cupid sobbed. "Each time we go, I feel like my heart is going to break. He's going through this because of me. Because I let my anger overwhelm my sense of reason. I knew he'd never have hurt a child. Especially Bliss. Why did I let this happen?"

Ares pulled back and flashed a handkerchief into existence, gently wiping his son's face. "You love him, don't you?" Cupid looked up with astonished eyes, and Ares laughed. "Don't look so surprised. There's a fine line between love and hate; peace and war. I'm hardly a stranger to strong emotions."

"You're not angry?" Cupid asked, going back to take Strife's hand as he tossed and muttered in his sleep.

"Cupid, if Strife is who you want, then I'm happy for you. It won't always be easy. Strife has had a lot of pain in his life, and the past may rear its ugly head from time to time. Try not to hurt him, okay?" Ares walked over to the bed and stared down at his nephew. It was amazing how far the two of them had come, and he was proud of Strife for remembering and using all that he had taught him.

"I can't stay. I just wanted to let you know that you aren't alone. IF you need me, call me. Zeus' decree be damned." Ares brushed his lips over Cupid's brow, and stroked Strife's hair. In a flash he was gone. Cupid curled up with Strife and fell asleep.

Once again, morning came all too soon. Cupid told Strife about Ares' visit as they readied themselves for the journey ahead. When they were packed and ready, Cupid flashed them into the hills by Corinth.

"So. The Sacred Waters of Athena, huh? Why do I have the feeling that it won't be as easy as diving for dinars?" Strife asked, smiling his trademark wicked smile.

Stretched before them was a rain forest, thick with mist and dark with mystery. Beyond the forest was the Waterfall that fed the Sacred Waters. Getting there would not be fun. Cupid used his powers to make them both water-proof packs, filled with food, dry clothes, and just about anything else he could think of that could make their journey easier. He dressed them both in hiking gear, all as waterproof as he could make it. He once again tied Strife to him, and conjured up a machete.

Taking a deep breath, he entered the forest, his powers leaving him in an instant, as he and Strife began the long, arduous journey. Cupid never realized how much work it was to hack away vines and branches, but after a few hours of it, his arms were beginning to burn. Finally he called a stop and together they sat panting against a giant tree, sipping their water and wiping the sweat from their faces. Once they had rested, they continued on, and a few arduous hours later, Cupid swore and tossed down his machete. They had been going in circles. There before them was the tree they had rested against. All that work, and they hadn't gained any ground.

Strife, sensing Cupid's frustration, pulled him into a tight hug and whispered words of love in his ear, stroking his back, and running his fingers through his feathers in a way that was just this side of erotic. Cupid pulled back, and lead them to the tree, where they settled once more. They sat there for awhile, just holding each other's hands, wracking their brains to figure out how they were going to get out of this mess, when Cupid heard a giggle. He looked around, and heard the giggle again. He was just about to put it down to a bout of insanity, when a beautiful woman stepped out of the tree. Her skin was pale green, and her clothes were made of vines and bark.

"A Dryad" Cupid whispered, and Strife smiled.

"Sweet Dryad, I am Strife, God of Mischief and Strife, and this is my mate, Cupid, God of Love. We are on a quest of great importance, and must complete it without our powers. Can you help us find the way to the Sacred Waters of Athena?" Strife said formally, bowing slightly to show his respect.

The Dryad smiled, and walked forward and took Strife's hand, nuzzling it, then doing the same with Cupid's. "I am Nadira, and this is my tree. I will help you, but I ask for a boon."

"What can we give you in return, Nadira. We don't have much with us." Cupid said, hoping it would be something easily given.

Nadira smiled. "A kiss is all I require."

Cupid pulled Strife aside and quickly explained the situation. "You've got to do it, Cupe. I don't like it, but we'll be stuck here forever if you don't." Cupid quickly kissed Strife.

"When this is all over, we're going to have a talk about that `mate' stuff" Cupid said laughing as Strife went beet red.

He approached Nadira and smiled. "I accept your terms, Nadira." Nadira put out her hand, and stopped Cupid as he stepped closer.

"I did not say the kiss was to come from you, Love God. It is a kiss from your companion that I do seek." With that, she walked over to Strife, and stroked his face gently before leaning up and pressing her green lips against his. There was a flash and Strife gasped in pain and fell to the ground.

"NO!" Cupid yelled and ran to his cousin. He roughly pushed Nadira away and gathered Strife in his arms. "What have you done to him?" He roared, his war heritage clear in his angry visage.

"I felt his pain, and his inherent goodness. I have taken away a part of the curse that Zeus has afflicted him with. He will now be able to hear without the aid of your shell. As promised, the way will now be clear." She handed Cupid his shell that she had somehow removed from Strife, and then turned and stepped into her tree and disappeared.

Strife moaned, and Cupid hugged him close. "Strife? Can you hear me?"

"Cupe? What's happened?" Cupid laughed and hugged Strife closely and explained what he had missed, and then took a moment to simply hold him and whisper sweet words of love into ears now able to hear them.

Finally Strife pulled away and shakily got to his feet. "What do you say we go get that water?"

The turned and discovered a path had been cleared through the rain forest. "YES!" Cupid cried, "No more damned machete!". Strife rolled his eyes, laughed and together they set out for the waters.

It was several hours later when they finally approached a beautiful spring surrounded by flowers and exotic birds. Everywhere there was lush life, and Cupid swore to himself that he'd take Strife somewhere just like it when this entire debacle was behind them.

Cupid took out he vial he had been given by the Fates, and knelt by the water and without thinking, bent to fill the vial. Suddenly a hand whipped out of the water and lifted Cupid up by his neck as a beautiful near opaque figure made entirely of water appeared from the Spring.

"Who dares to disturb the Waters of Athena?" the creature asked, her voice cold and completely devoid of all emotion. Strife shivered and could hear Cupid gasping for breath, and knew he'd have to face this one on his own.

"I'm Strife, God of Mischief and Strife, and you are holding my cousin, Cupid, God of Love. Please, we mean you no harm, but we must collect a small vial of this water to correct a grave miscarriage of justice."

The creature regarded him for a moment, her head tilted slightly, before slowly lowering Cupid to the ground. He fell to his knees and clutched at his throat, as Strife stumbled forward and clumsily laid a hand on his back.

"To take the waters, you must first answer a riddle. Be warned – if you do not answer the riddle correctly, you will both be consumed by the very waters you seek."

"We have no choice. Tell us this riddle." Strife answered, hoping against hope that it wasn't a math question. He'd always hated Apollo, and had avoided his classes like the plague when he was a godling.

Many-manned scud-thumper,
Maker of worn wood,
Shrub-ruster,
Sky-mocker,
Rave!
Portly pusher,
Wind-slave.
What am I?

Oh, great, Cupid thought, it just couldn't be something simple. Suddenly Strife chuckled. Cupid grinned as he realized it was Strife's patented "victory is mine" chuckle.

"Don't you get it, Cupe? It's the ocean. Of course it had to do with water!" Strife chuckled again, and soon the chuckles became roars of laughter, Strife falling to the ground and clutching his sides. "You'd think… you'd think that old Iron Pants would come up with something original!" He stuttered between chorts and chuckles.

Cupid looked at the water creature. "The ocean. The answer is the ocean." The creature nodded, and slowly melted back into the spring, and Cupid quickly filled both the vials and his water skin with the sacred water. He turned and shook his head in amusement at his lover who was wiping tears of mirth from his eyes.

Cupid rolled his eyes and helped his cousin to his feet and they began the arduous journey back out of the forest. They had barely gone ten meters when a rumbling sound echoed through the forest, scaring birds from their perch. Cupid turned in time to see the forest closing up behind them.

He grabbed Strife's hand and shouted "run!" and they took off as fast as they could. Strife tripped several times, slowing them down, and finally Cupid could see the end of the path. He barked out an encouragement and sped up, pulling Strife behind him.

He fell out of the forest, and shouted a victory cry and turned to hug Strife…and found him wrapped in vines slowly squeezing the life from him, only a meter away from freedom.

He quickly conjured a fireball and threw it at the base of the vines, only to have the fireball dissipate as soon as it met the forest barrier. Strife choked and blood oozed from his lips. Cupid screamed and began hacking away at the vines with the machete he had hoped never to use again. The vines reformed almost as quickly as he hacked at them. Without knowing why he did it, he pulled out his water skin and poured the sacred water over the vines. There was a screeching sound and the vines turned black and exploded in a cloud of dust.

Strife fell to the forest floor, and Cupid scooped him up and ran to safety. He ran his hands over Strife, healing him as much as he could, desperately hoping it was enough. There was a flash of light off to the side, and Ares rushed to his son's side. Together they managed to heal Strife's internal injuries and soon he was sleeping soundly, wrapped in a warm blanket and firmly held by Cupid.

Father and son shared a look of anger. When Strife got his powers back, life was going to be made very difficult for the one behind it all. Sooner or later, a mistake would be made. Revenge would be swift.

---------------------------


tbc



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