Her anxiety was noticeable, which Joxer appreciated. He really did. It was about time someone worried over Strife, cared enough to protect him but a small part of Joxer couldn’t help but wonder.
What am I, a brood mare?
He had new sympathy for his mother, who’d often said she was glad all three of them had come along at once, especially since Joxer’s father had been inclined to see her as nothing more than a baby-maker. The way Asyinnitos kept talking over him, acting as though he wasn’t there as she murmured to Strife, was grating on his nerves. It reminded him of Gabrielle and Xena who rarely thought he had a worthwhile idea or opinion. Of his parents who favored his brothers ,seeing them as being more worthy of their attentions, of almost every single person he remembered meeting. Oh, there were exceptions -- Iolaus, Meg, Strife -- but they were few and far between and even then they would from time to time slip into the same behavioral patterns as everyone else.
Joxer touched his belly. Even Strife had used him when it was necessary or the mood took him, Joxer wasn’t so naïve he didn’t know that. Finding themselves on opposite sides, with Strife working against Xena, had made sometimes made that necessary and Joxer couldn’t fault his friend for it. At least the god had never directly attacked him, verbally or physically, and their friendship was unaffected by it. He’d never tried to influence him either, at least, not until now and that was accidental rather than deliberately malicious. The earlier hiccups being the fetus’ accidental influence, before Asyinnitos had a chance to bind its budding godly powers.
Joxer sighed. He wasn’t sure if it was the stress on both his body and mind, from both the Pantheons own chaotic problems and his new role in them, that were causing his usual optimism to fade, or if it was Strife’s dreams and the struggles he witnessed that were making him more jaded. It could even more easily be a pregnancy side-effect that would soon right itself. Joxer certainly hoped it was the last. He didn’t like feeling so put upon, didn’t like the idea of being used. However ecstatic he was about Strife’s return, from the way he was constantly being talked over and his life was being rearranged, Joxer was starting to wonder if he was really needed- or just his body was wanted to nurture and protect Strife. Joxer was almost convinced the gods would be happy if it was a case of ‘the lights are on, but nobody is home’.
I feel like I’m in the way.
The thought depressed him, his eyes flicking to Asyinnitos as she finally stopped pacing and knelt down beside him, her fingers caressing his barely curved belly. Joxer rolled his eyes, screwing them closed as pain flared from his nose. Without saying a word, she kept touching Joxer’s belly, making the mortal both uncomfortable and aggrieved.
She could at least ask. It’s my belly, not hers.
Fed up with constant touching, Joxer started pulling away but the goddess didn‘t even seem to notice as her fingers ghosted upwards, trying to part his shirt further. Joxer squirmed uncomfortably, the goddess's touch was soft, almost a caress, but it was almost too pleasant. Even though he wasn’t attracted to her, Joxer could feel a tightening in his pants. He was about to object but was diverted as she flashed away his shirt, without even asking.
So the gods don’t do common courtesy, who would have guessed?
Joxer clenched his teeth together to avoid saying the sarcastic comment aloud. Pain flared across his face and he gave a muted groan, his head falling back against the pillows. Unfortunately, Asyinnitos took that as a sign of acceptance and traced her fingers up his chest, making Joxer yelp as she ran them over his nipples. Stunned speechless as she rubbed one and than the other, the over sensitive buds hardening and throbbing painfully. Mouth slightly agape at her audacity, his embarrassment was clearly obvious in his expression as she rubbed her fingers together making the stickiness vanish instantly. “No sign of mastitis. That’s good.” Asyinnitos was smiling happily, but Joxer was too put out to smile back and the goddess's smile became uncertain. “I don’t think your ribs are broken, but they might be cracked.” As her hand moved towards his bruised ribs, tracing the red/purple coloration blossoming there, Joxer caught it, more out of fear that she would strip him further than any feeling of pain.
“Maybe you’d like to touch my belly some more to tell me that.”
The tart response surprised both of them. There was a long silence as the goddess pulled her hands back -something Joxer was grateful for- and sat back on her heels, assessing him a small frown on her face. The mortal could only guess she wasn’t used to anyone snapping at her. After all, she’d told him she avoided most people and she was a goddess. On the whole, the deities each had at least touch of arrogance in them.
After a long pause, she hesitantly reached forward and tentatively touched his nose, “It's broken, I’m afraid.”
Joxer wasn’t sure he should feel relieved she wasn’t commenting or responding in kind to his sharp comment, or irritated that she was ignoring it.
“I’m sorry, Joxer.”
Asyinnitos’ soft words pulled him out of his contemplation. “I’m just so worried about Strife, I can’t help but be, even if I can sense he’s fine. I failed him so badly before," the goddess said, avoiding his gaze. "I spent so much time forcing him to grow and be well, I just can’t help getting fixated. I completely ignored Eris while she was carrying him, which had to be done. Had I not, had she known I was there, we would have come to blows.”
Joxer hadn’t expected the apology and murmured that it was fine, expecting it was the closest he‘d actually get to one, even she was once again focusing on Strife. Obsessing about being obsessed, that‘s a new one.. The pain in his body soon distracted him from feelings of self pity. Ribs aching, face burning, not to mention a headache that was starting to move behind his eyes. That unpleasant sensation had Joxer closing his eyes.
He winced as he felt her cool hand against his cheek, and cracked open one eye to see her frowning at him- concern lacing her features.
“Male pregnancy in gods causes a huge strain on the body and you’re only mortal, which would cause even more stress. This is completely new to me, unprecedented even, so I can only guess than really know. Being hurt like this…” She bit her lip and then added quietly, quelling Joxer’s sudden surge of annoyance, "I don’t like seeing you hurt, Joxer.”
“You don’t?” The genuine concern and honesty in her eyes made him smile, made his earlier angsts fade a little. Though Joxer caught a flash of hurt in the goddess's eyes before she nodded, smile curving her lips gently.
“I take an interest right from the start and triplet pregnancies aren’t all that common. You were the smallest. Meant to born first, but your brothers pushed you out of the way.” Her eyes took on a far-away look as she smoothed back his hair, “I used to make sure you all got enough of everything. Jett was always the strongest, the first to kick. He used to do that to you and Jayce a lot. Jayce would kick back, but you, you would just rest your head against your mother and close your eyes.”
Her words had Joxer entranced, even if he found what she described a little creepy. It was nice thought, although a small part of Joxer was still uncertain, still insecure enough in himself to doubt her. He’d never considered the possibility that any one really noticed him until he met up with Xena and even then he‘d been dubious. With the exception of Strife, the majority of them had acted as though he wasn‘t there, until they wanted to use him for something; then he was noticed, but only as a tool, a means to an end. He found his mind wandering once more, a small dark thought echoing at the back of his mind, taunting him with how similar to those circumstances this pregnancy was.
No, not just a pregnancy…Strife. My baby, my son, no one else’s. Using me then or not, what does it matter, I wouldn’t have said no if he’d asked.
“I want to call Asclepious.”
Her statement cut into the moment, and a surge of panic hit Joxer. His hands cupping over his belly at the mention of the God of Medicine and Healing, he asked, his gaze accusatory, “Why, what’s wrong? You said Strife was fine.”
“Strife is fine. You, on the other hand, aren’t. And we need you in the best of health possible, for Strife and for yourself.” Asyinnitos answer was soothing, her hands resting over Joxer’s. “Believe me, Joxer, I agree that the less others know the better, but sooner or later either Asclepious or Apollo will be needed and unlike his father and many of the other gods, Asclepious isn’t cursed.”
Joxer frowned, his brow wrinkling, making him wince once more as he considered her words. Apollo, he had no doubt, was cursed. Strife’s dreams combined with what happened in Greece to Apollo’s temples was an indication of that, but Asclepious…
Strife never mentioned him, not once, I don’t think, and he hasn't been in any of Strife’s memories so far. But why wouldn’t Strife go to him for healing, why would he go to Apollo instead?
As if sensing his questions -as well she had, Joxer’s musings being loud enough for Asyinnitos to hear without snooping- she answered him, “Asclepious was never friends with Strife. In all honesty, Asclepious doesn’t have many friends to call his own. Not through fault of his own though.” She said sounding slightly defensive, Joxer noted. “He’s young, barely two centuries, and shy, not to mention coddled by Apollo.” The last was muttered that Joxer strained to hear but she didn’t elaborate-just switched subjects.
He knew the goddess was right, he wasn’t built for child bearing. The pregnancy and its side effects were already causing issues, especially when it came to controlling the baby’s powers, but the idea of anyone else other than the select few that already knew, knowing, made him apprehensive. He had no guarantee that Asclepious wouldn’t go and tell the whole Pantheon and the next thing he knew Strife would be ripped out of him and shoved back into Eris in a foolish attempt to do everything over. “Asclepious won’t tell anyone, I promise you that.” Asyinnitos seemed so sure. “He’ll keep this private. I’ll bind him with an oath as both a god and a healer. Besides, Ace isn’t the type to shoot his mouth off. He takes healer confidentiality very seriously.” She added, grudgingly, “In all fairness, so does Apollo normally, but I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. He’s got a too-vested interest in this.”
Uncertainty gnawed at Joxer, seeing her looking at him so expectantly, with such certainty in her eyes, he had to agree. He didn’t know much about Asclepious, except that the god had a very good, if somewhat shrouded, reputation. Besides, he trusted Asyinnitos. He nodded, feeling a little pensive as he considered the risks involved with calling Asclepious. Still, Joxer had to admit he was curious to know what the god looked like. He hadn't not seen any statues of him, not that he went in Apollo’s temples much, which was where he presumed the statues would be.
'Asclepious, would you please attend me?' Asyinnitos sent a mental request to the younger god. The slight niggle at the back of her mind didn’t have time to develop into worry as Asclepious, prompt and courteous as always, flashed in with a burst of green sparks.
Joxer jumped. The God of Medicine and Healing looked nothing like Joxer had imagined. He’d pictured a younger version of Apollo, someone muscular and flashy. The god, however, while very attractive, was very understated. Where Apollo wore next to nothing and vibrant clothes, muscles bulging underneath, Asclepious favored a deep blue sleeveless shirt and dark grey pants. It was unbuttoned more modestly than Apollo’s too, only about halfway down the gods chest rather than the shirtless or open look the others seemed to prefer.
'Father and son, Joxer mused, complete opposites.'
Asclepious eyed Joxer in confusion, assessing the mortal and wondering where he fit into Asyinnitos life. The questions he was about to ask, however, were left unspoken as Asyinnitos ushered him to the mortal's side, and told the mortal to lie back and rest.
Joxer should have felt annoyed by it, would have grown frustrated by being talked over earlier, but now, he felt too tired and bruised to care. His earlier talking had made his face ache even more, from skin right into his teeth and gums. He scrutinized the two for a moment, watching as the god's eyes grew wide, the displeasure on his face making Joxer tense. The whispers had grown progressively louder as the God of Medicine and Healing appeared to be lecturing the goddess. Joxer couldn’t help but wonder at their relationship, their closeness and the touches between them seeming too intimate somehow that they were more than just friends.
Suddenly tired, Joxer closed his eyes, trying to push the pain in his face aside. 'If you can fix me, please fix me. All I want to do is sleep.'
A moment later, a hand pressed against his forehead almost in response to his mental plea and he started. Opening his eyes, he saw Asclepious leaning over him. Unlike Asyinnitos’ touch earlier, Asclepious’ felt warm and comforting. Asclepious was humming and there was something relaxing about it, something that had Joxer going limp. There was compassion in the god’s eyes which were firmly focused on Joxer’s own and the mortal couldn’t look away, mesmerized by them as much as the emotion he saw there. He could see nothing but blue, so deep and bright that he almost got lost in them. Deep blue familiar eyes, Asclepious eyes, Asyinnitos eyes. 'Apollo’s too?'
He couldn’t quite turn his head but as Asyinnitos stepped forward, her hands resting on Joxer‘s belly, he stared into her face. There was confusion and wondering on his face for moment, but neither she nor Asclepious paid attention they were too focused on the task at hand. Both working together, easily and seamlessly. Closing his eyes as the warmth spread throughout his body and washed the pain away, Joxer found himself panting though he wasn’t sure of the cause. His body tingled, leaving behind a euphoric feeling like he'd drunk too much ale but without the sickness and disorientation. He couldn‘t remember when he‘d felt this good before. When Joxer finally opened his eyes, both deities were sitting in front of him-Asclepious on his knees, Asyinnitos crossed legged. “Wow.” The word was full of awe and Joxer pressed a hand to his face, amazed that there was no pain. He almost went cross-eyed trying to look at his nose, amazed to find it was no longer swollen and sore. He couldn’t help grinning, glancing down at his ribs. The skin was pale and unmarked, without any bruising or pain of any kind to remind Joxer he’d even been hurt. “Thanks.” Asclepious momentarily looked taken aback, though whether it was from Joxer’s appreciation or the way he was grinning, he wasn’t sure. He got over it quickly though, and speaking frankly, he chastised Joxer for not eating enough fruit and vegetables, not eating nearly enough food or water in general, and then told him to take it easy. The god turned to Asyinnitos then. “I know food isn’t as easy to come by in Greece as it is in Olympus, so make sure you bulk him up a bit for the next few days.” Asyinnitos nodded, her gaze flicking towards Joxer, focusing on the leanness of his body and making the mortal blush as she did. “But he can’t stay in Olympus.” Asclepious held up his hand as Asyinnitos turned to protest, “Any more than a few days in your mother’s temple will inflame the curiosity of the others and the last thing we need is for them to pick up on Joxer and Strife. We don’t need a repeat of… what did happen here, anyway?” He looked to Asyinnitos to explain just how Joxer came to be in such a sorry state but she didn’t answer, not wanting to shame Hermaphroditus , especially since she believed the young god’s actions were because of the curse. Asyinnitos had no clue about his real motives and wasn’t likely to either. The god was too quiet, too placid for her to even begin to suspect that he was the real reason Strife had been ostracized As Cupid’s voice rang in her head, Asyinnitos’s eyes unfocussed, as she mentally reassured him.
Joxer gave Asclepious a weak smile, not wanting to be the one to name Hermaphroditus despite the assault the god had rained upon him.
Asclepious didn’t look like he was about to let the issue go though and he started to speak but then paused, closing his eyes for a moment.
“I’m sorry there’s been an outbreak of foot rot among the Athenian soldiers and Athena’s pretty unhappy about it. Why she can’t just keep to threatening dad, I don’t know.” Asclepious sighed, shaking his head. He then turned back to Joxer and reassured him, “Don’t worry, I’ll continue to help look after both you and the baby, and I swear to you I’ll keep all this confidential.” The words had scarcely left his mouth when he grimaced and flashed out, having been privy to some of Athena’s rather colorful mentally-spoken threats.
The comings and goings and flashing around were starting to make Joxer nauseous. Asyinnitos, either reading his mind or his green complexion materialized a mug out of thin air and held it out to him. The smell was delicious. Joxer couldn’t say just what it was as he slowly sipped at it, the rolling in his stomach lessening as he drank the pink liquid.
Joxer looked up at her a moment, and then his eyes moved back to the glass as it refilled itself, “Now? Does he know about Hermaphroditus?”
“No.” She hesitated a moment before continuing, the look in her eyes apologetic enough to make Joxer suspicious. “Joxer, please don’t tell Cupid it was Hermaphroditus," Asyinnitos pleaded, "at least not right away. We were lucky Ares didn‘t blast him all the way to Tartarus. With Cupid still trying to hold onto his emotions, he could be more volatile and do him serious harm.”
“He wasn't worried when he caused me serious harm, and if you hadn’t been there he could have killed Strife!” Joxer said, the indignation obvious in his voice.
“Believe me, I’m furious with him too. I would be taking this farther but everyone here is so volatile and unpredictable, there's no telling what they might do. And Hermaphroditus is still young, not even hit half a century yet, a baby by our standards.” Asyinnitos paused, her fingers stroking Joxer's arm in an unconscious attempt to soothe. “As stupid as it was for him to attack you like that, it was only because he thought you were one of my favorites. I think he must see me as the root of all his mother‘s problems and was looking for both revenge and to appease her. Hermaphroditus has always clamored for his parents’ attention, right up until the time he merged with Salmacis, he probably believes that by getting revenge on you and myself by proxy, he‘s somehow endearing himself more to them. I must admit haven’t seen him much since then, but I assumed he’d have grown out of such foolish endeavors.”
Maybe it was the soft caress soothing away his anger or the reluctant pity he felt thinking of Hermaphroditus as a baby rather than an adult but whatever it was, Joxer found himself agreeing to keep Hermaphroditus’ identity a secret.
“All right,” Joxer muttered grudgingly.
The words were scarcely out of his mouth, when there was yet another flash. He was starting to get used to the constant and sudden comings and goings of the gods, Joxer mused, even though their sudden appearances still made him see dots. What did make his head spin was when the God of Love bent down, Bliss held on his hip with one hand while the other scanned over Joxer, concern and worry in his eyes.
'Well of course he’s concerned,' Joxer mentally chided himself. 'This is Strife we’re talking about. His ex-lover. '
“Are you okay?”
Joxer blinked as troubled green eyes peered at him, Cupid’s hand now resting upon his shoulder. “Strife’s fine.”
He could have sworn Cupid’s eyes flashed a darker green for a moment, “I know Strife’s fine, Asyinnitos told me. I’m asking how you are, Joxer.” He raised an eyebrow, settling back on his heels as he looked the mortal.
Bliss looked back from one to the other, hands over his mouth as if shushing himself.
"I'm fine," Joxer blinked.
Cupid nodded. “I heard you had a run in with my brother.” His tone was too neutral and Joxer couldn’t help glancing briefly at Asyinnitos. “Which one? Demios? Phobos? I know it wouldn’t be Anteros-”
“Does it matter?” Joxer tensed slightly at Cupid’s frown but continued nonetheless, “Strife's fine, I'm fine.”
“What about the blood? Dad couldn’t just create that. You must have been bleeding quite a bit but there’s not a scratch on you.” Cupid said, his eyes narrowing as his gaze turned towards Asyinnitos.
“It was just a nose bleed and I’m fine. Ares dealt with the…with the perpetrator.” Joxer’s cheeks flushed at the half-lie, hating that he felt he had to tell it. Hating the added deception, when it was deception that had originally created all the chaos.
“It’s because of my protection mark, despite Zeus’ assurance that no one should seek retribution there are a lot of cunning and disgruntled people out there,” Asyinnitos chimed in, arms folding over her chest as Cupid tossed her a glare.
“What’s with all the secrecy? Demios, Phobios, Himerus? Who was it?” Cupid looked annoyed enough to actively seek out each one of his godly siblings and Bliss squirmed in his arms a little, tetchy, as he stuffed his fingers in his mouth.
“When you’re calmer, I’ll tell you.”
Joxer closed his eyes for a moment, wincing at Asyinnitos’ tone. He knew the goddess disliked confrontation but her words could be interpreted so many ways and when he opened his eyes and looked at the scowling love-god, who wore an expression he’d seen so often on Ares’ face, Joxer knew he’d taken it as patronizing.
“Are you aiming to piss me off today?” Cupid scowl deepened, his hold on Bliss involuntarily tightening as he looked at her.
“Hey, I didn’t even know he was your brother. He just did the whole poof, appear looking all pretty and sparkling thing.” Joxer managed to smile at Cupid, distracting him away from both his annoyance and questions, the forced goofy grin becoming more genuine as the god’s scowl lessened. Whether he accepted the role of fool that Joxer was playing or if Bliss’ agitated movements convinced him, Joxer wasn’t sure.
Setting Bliss down, Cupid‘s scowl completely petered out into a slight smile as his son, toddled to Joxer, small hands resting upon the man’s thighs before he half flew, half climbed into his lap.
“Ares knows,” Asyinnitos’ murmur caught both Joxer and Cupid’s attention, the love-god making a sound of disproval though Joxer said nothing. Instead he diverted most of his attention to Bliss who was staring up at him, placing him from before possibly, from when he‘d shot Joxer with one of Cupid‘s arrows all those months before.
“Mine?” The baby sounded uncertain, Joxer holding up his hands to press against Bliss‘, playing a game his own grandmother had taught him and capturing Bliss’ delight and attention all at once.
“Joxer,” he nodded, then repeated his name once more slowly for Bliss to copy.
“Jorrer.” Bliss blew a raspberry as he tried to pronounce Joxer’s name, finally settling for Jodder when his frustration got too much.
Joxer shrugged, letting the little boy tap at his hands. He’d been called worse and sometimes rude enough names in the past and his was one that was hard for any child to pronounce. He remembered Jayce had steadfastly kept mispronouncing it, up until they were of a training age and later covered his difficulty and lisp with his odd accent.
Cupid’s groan caught Joxer’s attention and Bliss’ too for a moment, the mortal’s hands mimicking Bliss’ movements when the baby turned back to the game though he was listening to Asyinnitos response. “Don’t you think it’s a bit much?”
“Ares discovered it himself, he was bound to Cupid. He’s by no means stupid and he wouldn’t have believed Joxer was Strife’s offspring for much longer. Besides he was helpful when Joxer was attacked.” Asyinnitos flushed a little realizing her mistake as she knelt beside Cupid.
“Attacked? I thought it was just a nosebleed.” His voice was silky smooth but Joxer had no doubt that when he wanted to, Cupid could have quite a temper on him. Had seen the monster within him, close enough to know he didn’t want to see any other bad side of the god.
Asyinnitos, for her part, ignored the question, her gaze slipping to Joxer and Bliss as she continued. “Asclepious needed to know.” At least she didn’t elaborate and explain just why he needed to know so soon, though Joxer could almost see Cupid putting everything together. The slight tensing in his forearms, the way his gaze narrowed on Asyinnitos, making her cheeks pinker. “We would have needed him sooner or later and with it being sooner, the better health he can keep both Joxer and the baby in.”
Bliss giggled, drawing Joxer’s gaze downward. The patting game forgotten, the baby god was throwing colored sparkles onto the floor, pulling them from thin air and looking expectably at Joxer as he did.
“That’s really pretty, Bliss.” The giggle of pure joy the small godling gave, the way he fluttered his fingers and bounced on Joxer’s lap brought a smile to the man’s face. He didn’t even notice the divinities exchange looks before they stood up and moved a little away.
Just holding Bliss, feeling the wriggling warmth on his lap, made Joxer think on how Strife would be once he was born. Firmly ignoring the ‘how’ that Strife’s birth brought to his mind, Joxer concentrated on the baby that sat with him, babbling both nonsensical and intelligent words to him.
“I told Psyche.” Cupid rubbed his head, shoulders tensing as he waited to be rebuked, defensive though Asyinnitos didn’t say a word.
Her eyes were on Bliss and Joxer, she could hear the baby’s questions, was surprised-though she was more amazed at herself for feeling that way- by Joxer’s patience with the child. Given the depression Bliss’ innocent escapade with Cupid’s arrows had caused, she would have expected the mortal to be rigid and a little off with the baby. Even if the act itself wouldn’t have been deliberate, she would have expected some kind of unconscious resentment from Joxer.
“She’s not sleeping, really unhappy, sorta swinging from clinging to Bliss and wanting to stay well away from everything. She’s totally furious with mom and we’re both starting to wonder if she wasn’t drugged up like I was.” Cupid paused. “It’s like she’s only just now realizing about Strife being her dad-even if he was forced to be- you know. She was so taken and wanting Hercules, she doesn’t remember when that stopped and she wanted just me.”
“Everything she’s ever known, all of her beliefs have been rocked and shaken to the core.” Asyinnitos looked at him, gaze tearing from the mortal and baby. “In some ways she’s just as much a baby as her son. Had any of us been thinking and not just reacting, we would have wondered why Aphrodite made Psyche a goddess right away. Usually it takes years for such a thing and they’re made immortal first to give them time to get used to it.”
“She’s not getting involved till we know everything, says she can‘t get used to one god being her father when she loves the mortal one she has and she now finds it, in her words, completely ick that she‘s been sleeping and married to her supposed-father’s lover.” Cupid made a face. “I’m not enjoying it too much myself, thinking she’s Strife’s, but hers is more from a mortal hang-up than anything else.”
Asyinnitos nodded in understanding. “Mortals do have different rules to ours, they may revere us but that doesn‘t mean they agree with everything we do. Some may, but not all. You need to give your wife time, not dissolve your marriage right away.”
The last thing Psyche needed was nothing to cling too; to be thrown into the deep end with no one to guide her. Yet Asyinnitos knew Cupid wanted nothing more than the both of them to be free and concentrate on Strife’s return but he was responsible for her, he had to be. And Strife’s birth was in no way going to be a quick fix and nothing more. They all had to learn, including the gestating god.
“I can understand why Strife would chose him.” Her eyes were on Joxer as she spoke, sadness in her voice as she heard the man quietly mumbling a story about ‘Joxer the Mighty’. She felt like she was intruding by listening and so looked back towards Cupid. “What he had before was nothing short of a travesty of childhood.“
Her cheeks stung with shame, guilt resurfacing as she thought how she should have pushed for Strife to be taken right away from Discord, but seconds after mischief’s birth, Eris had hugged the boy to her-all thoughts of ridding herself of him gone. And Asyinnitos had chosen to agree with Hera, that Strife should be monitored but not taken. Eris had taken special pains to hide anything that would have given away her latter acts of atrocity.
Cupid glanced at her, not furious as she expected, as he should have been-merely resigned. “You knew.”
“I knew.” Those soft words sounded almost final as she locked eyes with him, unhappiness churning her belly as though her own curse was choosing to do more than render her barren. “I worked so hard in those last few months, keeping Discord pregnant,” She bit back a bitter laugh, “and I never saw it coming. For all her faults, Eris never once harmed a child and she used to love caring for you and Anteros when she had the chance. I never suspected she would change so dramatically.”
“She did though,” Cupid shook his head, remembering the change his aunt had gone through- young as he was he’d still been a god and blessed with such a memory. “One minute she was great and so much fun to be around, the next snarling and calling us leeches. Mom said it was just hormones because of St-because of the baby but it never settled down.”
“She literally became the image of chaos she projected, to those who followed and feared her.” Asyinnitos sighed, running fingers through her hair as she looked towards Bliss and Joxer. The baby was lying against him, heavy lidded and barely able to keep his head tilted back as Joxer enthralled and lullabied him.
She’d lost her hold over Strife a long time ago and regretted it deeply now, but second guessing her actions was a waste of time. They all had a lot to regret and make up for, but the guilt was useless now, it was better to focus on helping him and on helping Joxer.
“Things will be different this time.” The fervor in Cupid’s voice was obvious and Asyinnitos eyes were drawn to him as he stared at Joxer, an adamant expression on his face.
“Not right away.“ Asyinnitos paused, she hated to drain away Cupid‘s enthusiasm and wanted to see the god’s own passion directed towards Strife but there was something she had to make clear first. Something Gaea had already told her would never happen.
“When Strife is reborn, he won’t just be coming back as Strife.” Her chest hurt as he glanced sharply towards her, fear flashing in his eyes and she hurriedly continued. ”He will and yet won’t be the god you know. He’ll have his memories as he gets older and he may even have the same godhood and name. But though his soul is the same, he’ll be different.” Hearing Cupid’s breath hitching slightly, she laid a hand on his arm. “He won’t be forced to mature, being reborn in an instant to fix this mess. Childhood is like pregnancy, a preparation of what is to come. It may be difficult but equally so is being overwhelmed with information, being adult in a few days and having to be apart and stand alone. Lonely and always trying to combat that, uncertain, striving to be what you think you should rather then what you could have been. Is it a wonder some of our relatives don’t know how to act appropriately? To socialize and interact? Strife’ll grow up a day at a time and what was once torturous for him will become a pleasure.”
The hope was dimming on Cupid’s face, he was visibly wrestling with understanding and agreeing with her, and his own emotions. Suppressing the feeling deep inside him that wanted maturity forced, that wanted to be selfish and have Strife back. Quickly making up for all he’d said and done.
“Guess this time round he’ll have someone who cares about him, always there.” Cupid was worrying his lower lip, eyes suspiciously shiny as he mumbled the words.
Who worse to feel a breaking heart when it’s your own, than the god of love? Asyinnitos didn’t voice the thought, just carried on talking, watching Cupid sway between the fury he wanted to let loose and the sorrow.
Nether one of them realized Bliss was already asleep, nor that Joxer was watching them as he slowly rocked the baby.
“Believe me Cupid, this is a good thing.“ The goddess wasn’t good at explanations, in fact the talking she’d done in the last few months was more then she’d done almost her whole life. “It gives you the chance to make it up to Strife, to be there from beginning and explain as his memories come back. You won‘t have a hurt and suspicious adult, remembering nothing but pain and wanting it all to stay away-you‘ll have a young, open child. One who may be able to forgive you.”
There were no certainties, Asyinnitos didn‘t know if Strife would forgive anyone once all his memories returned. The mischief god may well flash his new father away from them all, not wanting any association. But there was one thought she could voice, one that she knew with all certainty and Gaea herself had even echoed a belief of. “You have eternity Cupid, you’ll have time to prove yourself to Strife, to let him realize that you’re soul mates. You can be there for him when he needs you, when he faces the Pantheon once more, and what’s happened to him. And when Hades eventually comes for the man he’ll call father.” She hated that thought, hated knowing that would happen and wouldn’t have voiced it if she’d noticed Joxer watching. Noticed the mortal pale as he pressed a hand to his belly, to the baby that lay inside as he held the one on his lap closer.
The time would come for them to be together, but right now Cupid needed to sort out his marriage; to give Psyche help and time to adjust to her parentage, godhood and single life as well as both raising Bliss-giving him the attention he deserved. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
“What happens now?“ Joxer’s voice was quiet but the room itself was silent, so it cut into the silence making both Cupid and Asyinnitos jump.
“I don’t know.“ Cupid was unsure, moving closer to Joxer and Bliss, neither he nor Asyinnitos connected that Joxer’s somber mood could possibly come from what they’d just been saying, neither one realizing the man had been listening. “Maybe you could stay with me?” Having Joxer, and Strife by proxy, staying at his temple where he could keep them both safe definitely appealed, but Joxer was already shaking his head, speaking even before Asyinnitos could. Vetoing what he believed would be a bad idea.
“Sounds like you have your hands full there.“ Joxer licked his lips, suddenly apprehensive. “Seems like the tension’s too high wherever I think of.” His belly was already churning at the thought, Olympus not offering the harmony and tranquility he’d always imagined it too.
Asyinnitos was frowning musing, over an idea, Cupid was the one to speak his thoughts aloud. “Assy’s is good for a day of two, then someone will come looking. Same for anywhere else on Olympus. We could put you in one of our temples, or perhaps dad’s, but mom visits mine, still trying to make it up to me and warlords don‘t make for peace and rest.“ His voice held a bitter tinge to it but Joxer could see acceptance and reluctance in Cupid’s eyes. Whatever her faults, Aphrodite was his mother and Cupid couldn’t hate her. It was just blatantly obvious that he didn’t care for her much now.
“The demigods are so out of it, I wouldn‘t trust them to protect a water skin.” Cupid rolled his eyes, adding grudgingly, “besides they’re no match and protection from a god, much as they might try.”
“Nemesis,” Asyinnitos’ soft word prompted Joxer to get to his feet, cradling Bliss against him as the godling shifted and nuzzled into his neck.
“Nemesis?” Both he and Cupid echoed her word, Joxer with confusion, Cupid with something akin to understanding in his expression and tone.
“She’s our best bet.“ Asyinnitos nodded, set on the best course, intent on convincing them, though Cupid needed no pushing.
The god was nodding, though he looked at little rueful as he spoke. “Dad won’t be happy, he’s not allowed near. I mean it’s good none of us really are, means Joxer will be safer there, but you know dad’s got a special interested in Joxer, right?” The look he threw Asyinnitos was blatantly clear in just what that interest was but she merely shrugged.
“He can relax for a few days here and see Ares. Nemesis and Evander are protected by Zeus’ law-no god would dare attack there and entering would need good reason. I can act as a liaison there, mother and I can still visit-Nemesis welcomes us. It‘s just everyone else she doesn‘t want near Evander.”
Joxer had only heard bits and pieces of the entire Nemesis/Ares/Evander issue and now his brain was slowly clicking into gear. He was pensive and unsure about the idea, though he trusted that both of them knew what was best.
Before they could decide every moment of his life for him, Joxer spoke quietly, “I’m happy to rest here a few days if that’s what you want me to, but before I go and stay with Nemesis-if she’ll have me-” he couldn’t help reminding the gods of the courtesy they’d forgotten, “I’d like to see Xena and the others, explain that I’m okay first. Even if I say nothing about Strife.”