AresJoxerCupidStrife - Erin L.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8

Title: Pieces of a Whole
Author: Erin
Rating: NC-17
Fandom: Herc/Xena
Paring: C/S
Disclaimer: Not mine in any way, shape or form. I just play nicely with the boys -- or let them play with themselves. No money made, no infringement intended.
Warning: Mentions of rape.
Summary: Growing up and falling in love, Strife style.
Status: Complete
Series: Yes.
Archive: AJCS, RCoS, my LJ, my site.
Notes: [September 2003] The ending makes it obvious that this is merely the first part of a larger story, however that story has been on hold for months now and I don't know that it's going to be finished anytime soon. However, that story will explain and expound upon many of the ideas and events that take place in this story.
Credit goes to Candace for not only catching a few embarrassing mistakes in this, but for creating her vision of Thanatos and many of the Underworld characters. Obviously I've incorporated a few of those ideas in this story. Thanks go to her for creating such vivid characterizations.
[May 2003] Okay, I've been assimilated. I spent so much time browsing through the AJCS archive that every new story that pops into my head is now C/S. This, and the stories following it, are the results.
This is a much, well, *nicer* Strife than I've written before. I don't think I took away his dark edge completely but I've definitely given him a few soft spots -- plus a whopping inferiority complex. I'm not at all certain this is the right characterization of Strife, given what was on the show, but it's what my twisted imagination dictated so I went with it.
This does break the "good writing" rule of telling instead of showing in a major way, but it seemed appropriate for this story. This does shift between present and past tense, but I think I've made the shifts clear enough. "---------------------" indicates a shift to past and "^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^" indicates a shift within the present tense.
As usual, a better formatted, likely more corrected version as well, can be found on my site. Feedback is lovely and any suggestions/critiques are welcome.

Pieces Of A Whole
by Erin
May 2003
It was said that every person had a soul mate, their other half, the one they were meant to be with. Their...opposite. Generally that tale was only applied to mortals, and there were so many of those running around that soulmate pairings were rare; the House of Love celebrated for months when one actually happened. However, no one ever made mention of it where the gods themselves were concerned. Maybe because it had never happened between any of them. Sure, a couple of the gods had found their perfect mates amongst the mortal population, but never had one god found more than a healthy amount of lust or fond love with another god. It was just assumed that was the way it was supposed to be.
But Strife easily remembered the first time he'd become aware of his cousin.
Only fifteen years old, newly come into his powers as God of Mischief, he was exploring his Uncle Ares' temple on Olympus. His mother had dropped him off there earlier, dismissing him with a, "Don't piss off my brother and you'll be fine." Having heard about Ares' infamous temper, he'd heeded the advice to the extreme, simply avoiding the God of War all together as he looked around. After a few hours though, he figured it was bad manners or something to keep running around a senior god's temple without letting them know, officially, that they had a visitor. So bracing himself for the encounter, he went looking for his uncle.
He heard him before he saw him, in the main room of the temple talking to someone. Not wanting to interfere in what could be official business, thereby attracting Ares' anger the first time they met, Strife stopped just outside of the room. He waited there, out of sight, for the other visitor to leave, and in the process he listened.
"I don't really care *how* you do...whatever it is you do, just keep it away from my warlords, got it?"
Strife figured that had to be his uncle. He sounded just as dangerous as his reputation.
"Look, Dad, I got a job to do, same as you. We can be cool about it, just do our own thing -- or you can get in my way and your love life can take a total dive. *You* get it?"
But who was *that*? The voice was deep and smooth, lovely to listen to, but who would dare talk to the God of War like that?
Ares' laughter surprised Strife. He'd thought that threats would make his uncle angry, but Ares actually sounded...pleased?
"Good to see 'Dite's side of the family hasn't totally ruined you. You've still got some of me in you, son."
"Yeah, and don't forget it, Dad." The tone was serious, but there was amusement there as well.
Then there was the sound of displaced air and Strife realized his uncle was now alone. Taking a deep breath, he worked up his courage and stepped inside the room.
Some time later Strife had learned, from his Mom, that the visitor had been Ares' first son, Cupid. He and Strife were cousins, but sworn to opposite Houses in the pantheon.
"He shows up like that sometimes," Discord had told him with a shrug. "Don't worry about it. He's only there to see Ares; you don't have to have anything to do with him. That side of the family is just...strange." The shudder she'd given then spoke more than words about her opinion of the House of Love.
Strife had tried to put his cousin out of his mind and do his new job, but he'd been curious. Anyone Ares sired couldn't be all *that* bad. Well, okay, Deimos and Phobos were pretty twisted, but they had to be for their jobs, so for War they weren't all that strange.
If you ignored their fashion sense anyway. *That* had definitely come from the House of Love. So what was this Cupid guy like? He'd sounded cool enough. Strife just couldn't help wondering.
It'd been years before he had a chance to satisfy his curiosity, almost twenty. By that time he'd been firmly settled into the House of War, working along side Discord for Ares. He'd also figured out in that time that he and his mom really didn't work all that well together. But the God of War wanted all his subordinates together where he could keep an eye on them, so Strife and Discord had learned to tolerate each other, even if their growing mutual dislike made them screw up more than was healthy for any god in Ares' service.
Strife had also grown used to his uncle's way of dealing with failure. He'd hated being thrown around like that, but he'd learned to duck pretty quickly and really, his reflexes were much better for it all. Besides, the perks he got working for the God of War had made it worth it.
No one in the pantheon wanted to mess with someone from the House of War, not even a minor god like Strife. It'd taken a while to figure out, but Strife had eventually realized what others already knew: even something as small as a little trouble inserted into someone's life could lead to major problems. He had power. And then everyone had been right to be wary of him. Oh, he knew he didn't have real respect from anyone, but fear was just as good.
By the time Strife had come to a better understanding of just who and what his godhood made him, he and Discord had been helping Ares with a new project: find a way to off Zeus' current favorite bastard.
Nearly all of the gods had bastard children floating around Greece. Some were more into the whole "parent" thing than others, but Zeus had never been all that responsible. His "stepping out" pissed off Hera and Ares being her favorite son, he took on her attitude as well. Besides, there wasn't a member of the House of War who didn't find this latest divine brat beyond annoying. Hercules was so...*moral*. It just grated.
Both Strife and Discord had always known they wouldn't be the ones to kill Zeus' bastard; that honor was reserved for Ares or Hera, if they could get away with it. But they'd always enjoyed "playing" with Hercules and his friends at the Academy, even when it wasn't officially sanctioned by Ares. Whenever they'd had free time, they'd popped in and entertained themselves, sometimes together but more often not. Of course it hadn't always ended well.
Lying half-buried under a pile of rubble, Strife reflected on the general unfairness of life. Why should one of grandpa's by-blows get the strength of a full god? Couldn't he have just gotten great gardening skills, or a total "knock-em-dead" gift for storytelling? Or even, since he was Zeus' brat, why not just a super sex drive or something? Why waste that kind of sheer physical power on some jerk who would probably spend the rest of his life "righting wrongs" and all that crap?
Jerk. Yeah. Jercules. That sounded good. And Strife figured that just as soon as he managed to pull himself out of the wreckage of the old building, he'd test out that new name. See what "upright and straight-laced" thought of it. And this time he'd duck faster. But it would be a couple minutes because, ouch.
"Whoa! Hold up, Uncle Herc!"
Strife knew that voice, but he couldn't place it because his mind was still pretty focused on the "ow" of his situation.
"Umm...Uncle?" Jercules sounded clueless, but then, how was that new?
"Well, yeah. Ares is my Pop, so you're my Uncle -- and would you stop with the trying to hit me thing! I'm not *with* that side of the family, okay? See the wings? I'm Cupid; you know, 'God of Love?'"
"C'mon Herc, don't mess with the guy! He looks like his statues and I *like* my love life the way it is!" Iolaus there.
"Okay, so you're Cupid. My...nephew. Why're you here? And what's wrong with Lilith and Jason?"
"Don't worry about it, kinda happens sometimes when I'm around -- I think it's the Love gig. They'll stop drooling in a couple minutes. Anyway, you know, I just wanted to meet you. I mean, I don't talk to Dad all that much, but I keep an eye on things and I wanted to check out the guy who could get him all worked up like that. You're pissing off the God of War, dude, and you're still around. That's pretty heavy."
"I don't *want* to fight with him, okay? He just won't leave me alone, him and his...flunkies."
Jercules was gonna pay for that little comment, just as soon as Strife could move again. Ouch.
"Yeah, guess you do got problems if they're after you. So who's that?"
"Ares' nephew, Strife."
"Oh, right. The God of Mischief. Heard about him."
Really? And Strife had thought he didn't have much of a reputation. He would've said something, a round-about "thanks" for the compliment or something, but again with the "ouch."
"He always turns up to mess with me. I can deal with that, you know, but not when he gets my friends involved."
"I get it, and I can really feel the love here. It's good to have friends that care about each other so much."
"Try telling *him* that."
Strife wanted to roll his eyes. Who needed friends? They were just liabilities.
Then suddenly the pressure of the rock piled on top of him disappeared. He still ached all over but the crushing weight was gone and he could breathe again, or gasp, as the case may be. He figured that given a couple seconds, he'd be able to heal himself and then get on with all the things he'd planned for Jercules and his little friends.
"You okay, dude?" That lovely, smooth voice was suddenly right beside him.
"Ow?" was all Strife managed to get out, as humiliating as it was.
"Wow, Uncle Herc, you may wanna start pulling those punches. Think you may've broke him."
"He'll bounce back," Jercules grumbled, sounding petulant. "He always does."
"Maybe, but you could really hurt him, you know. He's just a kid."
"What!" Apparently that had pulled Lilith and Jason out of their lust-induced stupor, because it came from four voices.
"Not a kid," Strife gasped out, but it was too low to be heard. Then strong hands were grasping his arms, pulling him to his feet in a gentle motion the likes of which he'd never experienced before.
"Maybe not in mortal years," Cupid continued, still helping Strife stay on his feet when the other god swayed alarmingly, "but I remember when Discord had him and yeah, for a god he's really young."
It was so beyond humiliating, not just what Cupid had said, but the fact that Strife had to lean against him for support or risk ending up back on the ground. He shook his head hard, trying to clear his mind enough to protest this, all of it.
"He's Discord's son?" Lilith sounded amused.
"Kinda makes sense, huh?" Jason returned the sentiment, and Strife began plotting vengeance.
"But he looks, well, older than us anyway. And how could a kid be as much of a pain in the ass as he is?"
*That* brought Strife out of his daze. "You're gonna learn not to talk about a god like that, Jercules!" he snarled before trying to launch himself in the demi-god's direction. "Trying" being the operative word, because before he'd taken the first step, the world tilted and he would've ended up flat on his face -- if not for the bare, muscled arms that caught him and held him up.
"Cut it out, dude; you're hurt." That voice, so soft and concerned in Strife's ear, sent a shiver through him that he didn't understand -- not just then, anyway.
"Wait, he's not faking?" Iolaus actually sounded kind of worried, making Strife decide not to punish him as much as the others for witnessing this. He had his moments of compassion, but they were internal and not to be seen by anyone else.
"No, he's not." Cupid left one arm around Strife's waist to hold him steady, but he used his free hand to cup Strife's face, tilting it up. "And looks really aren't everything, Uncle Herc. Yeah, he looks grown to you, but he hasn't even hit puberty yet."
And there, Cupid was wrong. Head supported by Cupid's hand, Strife's gaze fell on his cousin's face for the first time -- and he forgot how to breathe.
"Hold still, cuz."
Strife couldn't have moved if he'd wanted to, so he inadvertently obeyed. A small flash of light and Cupid smiled. Strife almost whimpered.
"All better." Cupid released him and stepped back.
Better? But it couldn't be, because wouldn't the world have stopped spinning then? Wouldn't he be able to breathe, wouldn't his body have stopped aching? Then Strife realized that it was a different kind of ache. Yeah, it was a kind of pain -- a *good* kind. And he was breathing, short, panting little gasps as his heart tried to beat its way out of his chest. There was something else though, something...very new. He was hard.
He wasn't stupid or naive. He knew all about sex. Even if Mom hadn't sat him down and explained it a few years back, you couldn't live on Olympus long without getting a front row seat to someone's experiments in exhibitionism. The thing was, it'd never interested him before. Sure, he'd thought a guy or girl here and there was kind of cute, but the whole sex thing had seemed messy and awkward and just a big waste of time that could be spent doing other, way more fun things.
Except...standing there, looking at his cousin -- gorgeous white wings, hard, toned muscles, tanned skin, dark blond hair with matching stubble -- suddenly Strife realized that he may've been missing out on something all these years. Maybe it wouldn't be so...strange to let someone touch him, kiss him, or do other things. Not if they smiled at him like that.
"Hi." It slipped out before he even knew he was going to speak. And then it only got worse as his brain seemed to disengage itself from his mouth. "I'm Strife. You--Your cousin?"
"Yeah, dude. I know."
"I work for Ares. He's your father."
"Uh-huh." Cupid's smile was definitely amused now. "Tell you what, Strife; I gotta bail here, so why don'tchya go back to Olympus and crash for awhile? I think you need some rest."
"Okay. Bye-bye." He waved slightly, a movement he didn't recall ordering his body to make.
Cupid shook his head and disappeared in a shower of gold sparkles.
For a few moments Strife just stood there, staring at the spot where his cousin had been. Then reality came rushing back like a kick to the stomach.
"Oh, Hera's tits!" He dropped his head into his hands with a groan. "Could I've possibly looked *any* stupider?"
Remembering that he wasn't alone, in a vague, detached sort of way, he looked over at the four friends. They were still standing there, all watching him with differing levels of amusement, wariness, and...compassion, surprisingly enough.
"Tell me I used words with more than one syllable!" he almost pleaded.
"Umm...." Hercules looked at a complete loss for what to say.
"Yeah," Iolaus quickly cut in. "Sure, I mean, a couple, I think."
"He must think I'm a total idiot!" Strife wanted to hit his head against something a few hundred times.
"Well, it's not so bad," Lilith put in hesitantly. "You didn't drool. I drooled."
"Definitely major droolage here," Jason agreed with a quick nod.
"You're *mortals*; you're supposed to act that way. I'm *not*!" Strife shut his eyes tightly against the humiliation and let his head hang back, almost hoping that one of Grandpa's stray lightening bolts would head his way and put an end to this embarrassment. "Why'd he have to be so nice, and--and *hot*?" The realization hit him and he opened his eyes as every hint of arousal quickly faded. "He is, isn't he? Gorgeous, I mean."
"Have to say so."
"Oh." Strife frowned. Unconsciously hugging his arms tightly about himself, he looked down at his black-clad feet without really seeing them. Instead, he saw himself -- all of himself.
No, Strife was in no way naive. He knew *exactly* what he looked like, how he compared to most of the Olympians: pale, skinny, and just plain ugly. Hephaestus, with his deformities, still had a great looking face and a semi-hot bod. Even the twins, Deimos and Phobos, for all their resemblance to Strife, still found ways to have the other gods lining up to bed them -- when they wanted *willing* partners anyway -- maybe it was a blond thing on that side of the family. Whatever it was, Strife instinctively knew he didn't have it. There was *nothing* about him that would attract another god, especially one like Cupid.
His cousin had been nice to him, and maybe that was his way. Strife would have to be grateful for that much and not humiliate himself further by thinking he could ever possibly have anything more. He'd just avoid his cousin until this...attraction went away. He knew about lust; eventually it died out if you ignored it. So he would.
A hand on his arm startled him. It was a tentative touch, but he still jumped, startling Iolaus who quickly yanked back his hand. "You okay?" the mortal asked.
And because he actually sounded worried, Strife didn't hurt him for daring to touch a god. "Yeah, 'm good." He made it sound convincing, because he knew eventually he would be good. "Later," it was a promise he directed at Hercules before disappearing, taking himself back to Olympus because he probably *did* need to rest.

Strife was never certain if his sudden push into maturity had come from *what* Cupid was, or if it was because of Cupid himself, but the results had been the same. The lust never left.
Puberty had been rough for a god who couldn't get any. Not that Strife had tried all that hard. Despite successfully avoiding Cupid for most of those difficult years, he was never able to get his cousin out of his mind, or his fantasies. His hands had gotten a workout -- and he'd never been so grateful for being ambidextrous before. When one hand got tired, he just switched; his cock sure never wore out.
Cupid hadn't been the only star of his fantasy life. Other gods, and mortals, played there a time or two -- even Iolaus once or twice -- but it had always come back to the God of Love. And after a while, he'd found that the idea of getting laid by the first person he could trick into his bed had become very unappealing.
He'd been out of puberty by the time he came to that realization. While not completely grown by the standards of the gods, he'd been around what for mortals were approximately his mid teens. Not totally mature, but close enough to realize that something had gone very wrong. Lust didn't last for that long, not with the sheer depth of *feeling* it gave Strife. So it hadn't been lust, or, at least it wasn't anymore. It hadn't seemed possible, only having seen his cousin a few times, but there hadn't been any other explanation either.
Strife had been shrewd enough to hide any sign of that type of weakness from the members of his House. As far as he knew the twins and his mother had never loved, and if Ares had, he sure hadn't advertised it. So Strife had kept it to himself, hidden deep down as far as he could bury it. That way no one, not even Aphrodite herself, could have ever read it off him. Love had no place with War. Especially unrequited love.
But it hadn't stopped the devastation Strife had felt when Cupid married. If he'd had any doubt about his feelings for his cousin, his reaction to that event had stripped them away. He'd deliberately missed the wedding, knowing that it would be impossible to hide just how much he hurt. So he'd taken it out on the mortal populace, spreading destructive mischief everywhere he could until he'd driven himself into exhaustion.
Strangely enough, Ares hadn't ever commented on that waste of energy, he'd just let Strife have a few days off to recover in his natural form. Strife had to assume his uncle approved of the massive outpouring of negative energy since it balanced out the incredible amount of love vibes coming from the new "happy couple." It really hadn't mattered to him though. He'd taken the time off and enjoyed every moment spent in his pure energy form where a god left all emotions behind. Thought ruled there, and Strife really hadn't wanted to come back.
Of course he had. Regardless of what he was going through, he could never abandon the God of War. So he'd thrown himself back into his job, giving Discord herself stiff competition for the position of as Ares' second in command. And he'd eventually won it, an event that had surprised everyone in the House of War, including himself. But he hadn't showed that. No one else had ever needed to know that it wasn't ambition that had brought him there.
When Cupid's son, Bliss had been born, Strife had surprised himself again by actually feeling *happy*. It wasn't an emotion he'd ever had much experience with and he hadn't known what caused it or what to do about it, so what he'd ended up doing had been on the foolish side.
Cupid's temple was so...bright. Not as flamboyant as Aphrodite's, but it still looked like it'd been slapped with the Curse of the Pastels. Strife felt utterly lost in such a resoundingly cheerful environment.
He wasn't even sure why he was here to begin with. It'd been a spur of the moment thing that he was having serious second thoughts about. Of course, that implied that he'd had first thoughts. Which he hadn't, or he would be here at all.
He jerked around at the sound of his cousin's voice. Cupid was standing in the doorway, behind Psyche who held what could only be their son, cradled gently in her arms. They both looked surprised to see the God of Mischief standing there -- or maybe they just looked...frazzled. Strife had heard new kids could be trouble. And that gave him an idea, or at least an excuse for being there uninvited.
"Heya, cuz; Psyche." He greeted Cupid's wife with a nod. In the years since their first meeting, Strife had gotten far better control of himself. He no longer babbled in the presence of the God of Love. He generally didn't say much either, and he knew it made him look withdrawn to the point of being shy, but it gave him time to think before he opened his mouth. "Didn't mean to, you know, interrupt or anything." Not that the two of them looked like they'd had time for anything more than taking care of Bliss' every need. They really looked wiped.
"Nothing to interrupt," Cupid replied ruefully, confirming Strife's suspicions. "So what's up?"
"Well, I kinda had a thought. Figured, new kid 'n all, must be kinda rough, so, if you want, I can, like, look after him for you. For a while." He shrugged nervously. It definitely wasn't his best idea, but he didn't feel that it was a wrong one either.
Psyche apparently disagreed. "That's...nice of you, Strife. Really. But, you' Not that that's *bad* or anything," she continued hurriedly, "but the influence on Bliss...."
Strife nodded. "Yeah, I get it." He gripped his arms tighter, then wondered when he'd grasped them to begin with. He thought he'd gotten out of that "hugging himself" habit years ago. "I'll letchya get back to whatever." Forcing his arms back down to his sides, he focused on the Halls of War where Ares was planning yet another strategy to win Xena back to his side.
Cupid's voice cut into his concentration and Strife lost his focus. "Huh?" He looked at his cousin questioningly.
"It's all right," Cupid said, stepping around Psyche.
"But--" Psyche started to protest as Cupid lifted Bliss from her arms, only to stop when her husband shook his head.
"It doesn't work like that, hon. Bliss' future has already been determined by the Fates; he'll be the God of Passion. There's nothing that can change that, nothing that can influence him in another direction. All the gods are like that. I mean, look at me. Dad raised me as much as Mom did, and I'm all right."
That brought a smile to Psyche's worried expression. "I guess I still don't know everything about the gods that I need to."
"I probably should've explained it before Bliss was born. We really do have a lot of options for babysitters. Just...some I hadn't expected." He turned his attention back to Strife. "You sure about this, cuz?"
"Yeah." And he was. He'd work on figuring out why later. At the moment he was more focused on Cupid who was walking towards him, then placing Bliss in his arms.
"He's a handful," Cupid warned.
"Nothin' I'm not used to," Strife couldn't help smiling as he looked down at the little thing. It was...cute.
"You've babysat before?"
His cousin sounded skeptical so Strife flashed his trademark smirk. "Ares' warlords," he replied.
"Oh, okay." Cupid nodded, reassured. He'd probably been in enough of the war camps to know just what kind of trouble those mortals could be, and what a delicate hand it took to keep them happy without killing them out of frustration and annoyance.
"Anyplace you don't want me taking him?" Strife asked as he studied the sleeping visage.
"Anywhere you'd consider 'work.' Maybe when he's older, but he's too young to get it right now. He'd probably try to 'fix' all the negative emotions or something."
Strife grimaced, picturing the chaos *that* would cause in his House. "'K. I'll just take him to visit my side of the family. Lemme know when you want him back."
"Try half a day first, see if you can deal. After that, we'll see."
Strife nodded and flashed out, moving himself and Bliss to where he'd intended to go in the first place.
To say the God of War was surprised to see him with a baby was an understatement; Strife hadn't thought his uncle's eyebrows could go quite that high.
"It's Bliss," Strife explained, holding the still-sleeping baby out for Ares' inspection.
For a few moments Ares continued to look at him, his expression going from surprised to thoughtful. Then he carefully took Bliss from Strife and began to study him, much as Strife had a few minutes before. He may've been the God of War, but Ares was a wonderful father, and Strife wasn't surprised that it translated to grandfather as well. He wouldn't have brought Bliss there if he hadn't thought it would.
"I think he has my eyes," Ares said in an approving tone.
"Cupid said he's a handful. Maybe he got something from our side, huh?"
"There's always hope." Ares handed Bliss back and Strife took him with a grin.
"Sound sleeper, isn't he? Doesn't seem like much trouble to me."
Ares snorted. "That starts when they wake up. For your sake I hope you've got good reflexes. He'll probably start to fly before he can walk."
Ares' prediction had proved true, on both counts. The first few times Strife had babysat Bliss, he'd ended up so exhausted after just a few hours that he'd had to revert to his natural form. The kid had needed constant attention. Fortunately for Strife, since breast-feeding was a little beyond him, like every other baby god Bliss had eaten ambrosia just as much as his mother's milk. But then there was the burping, spit-up, diaper changes, rocking, and the crying for absolutely no reason; he'd been right: it was just like looking after one of Ares' warlords -- when one of them was one a week-long bender.
But again Strife had ended up surprising himself as much as everyone in his House. He not only managed to care for Bliss, once he'd adjusted to it, he excelled at it. It hadn't been long before the kid recognized him as much as his own parents and he became, by Bliss' own demand, the favorite babysitter. Strife cared for Bliss like the boy was his own. And maybe that was what had eventually clued him in.
He'd known for years now that he'd never have a family of his own, no children, legitimate or otherwise, scampering around underfoot. Even if he'd been plumbed to have them himself, there was only one guy he'd ever been interested in and that would never happen. So no kids. Not even a warm, significant other to come home to.
What he had was possibly the only opportunity that would ever let him remotely close to Cupid: Bliss. He could be useful to Cupid by caring for his son, that way he'd have an excuse to be around. At least, that's how it'd started. But somewhere along the way Bliss had become the child Strife knew he'd never have. He loved Bliss like his own son and he spent as much time, if not more, away from Cupid's temple -- and Cupid himself -- while caring for Bliss.
Ares had never voiced one complaint about the time Strife spent with his grandson. If Strife showed up with Bliss attached to him, the God of War would just raise an eyebrow, then modify his plans so Strife wouldn't have to drag the kid into whatever was going down. Deimos and Phobos had laughed about it at first, but when they realized it was probably a permanent arrangement, they'd just rolled their eyes at what they considered to be their cousin's stupidity and started ignoring it. Discord had been...strange about it. She'd tried to ignore Bliss, but on one of the many occasions he'd escaped from Strife's custody, Strife had found him in Discord's arms being *cooed* over. She'd quickly handed the baby back and the incident was never mentioned, but he wouldn't have been surprised to discover that it hadn't been the first time, or the last. Before they'd been forced to work together, Discord hadn't been all that bad of a mother to him.
When Bliss had started flying, Strife had learned the true meaning of anxiety. Keeping track of a tiny, crawling godling had been bad enough, flying took it to a whole new level. Whenever Bliss had escaped, Strife had been just as likely to find him exploring the temple ceilings as sitting on the floor playing with whatever extremely rare and breakable artifact he'd found. Getting him down had turned into an experience in itself. Strife knew he'd been providing great entertainment for his family, leaping off tables, climbing walls, vaulting off roofs in sometimes vain -- and painful -- attempts to catch Bliss. But in its own way, he'd found it fun. It kept him on his toes and it had made Bliss laugh to see Strife being so "silly."
Bliss did have some of Ares' side of the family in him. He'd caused too much trouble for everyone, not just Strife, for there to have been any doubt. Ares had learned early on to store his favorite weapons anywhere *but* where Bliss was, unless he wanted them ending up as impromptu jigsaw puzzles for the boy. Deimos and Phobos had never fully gotten over the horror of the pink coloring that had ended up in their hair through mysterious circumstances, so they tended to be elsewhere when Bliss was around. No one was ever sure what Bliss had done to Discord, but although she didn't seem to mind being around him, she tended to yelp whenever he giggled.
Not that the House of Love had it any better. From what Strife had overheard, Aphrodite had ordered that no open flames be allowed around Bliss. Her eyebrows had grown back surprisingly fast, but she'd decided not to take any more chances. Cupid couldn't hide it, but neither had he ever mentioned the missing feathers on his left wing, and Psyche spent a few hours each day trying to get some sort of mysterious stain off the nursery walls -- it seemed that every time she'd had it removed, it'd come right back.
Strangely enough, Strife himself had never suffered from any pranks, just the usual routine of trying to keep up with the little Tartarus-spawn -- the twin's nickname for him. He'd never known if it was because he was the God of Mischief, and therefore immune, or if Bliss had just liked him. Either way, it'd given him something to laugh about to himself.
As Bliss had grown, eventually learning to talk, it'd gotten even more...interesting. Bliss hadn't talked to just anyone, only his mom and dad, and Strife. If anyone else had asked him to speak, he'd just shaken his head and stuck out his tongue. The eye rolls that had gotten from Ares had never failed to send Strife into hysterical giggles. It'd been like having a secret, just between him and Cupid -- okay, and Psyche too. But it'd still been a connection of sorts. Of course it hadn't lasted. Any of it.
Cupid was teaching Bliss to transport himself small distances. It wasn't something anyone who'd ever been around Bliss was all that thrilled about, knowing how many more opportunities it would give the young god to make trouble. But, "All gods have to learn sometime," Cupid had reasoned, and besides, it was only *small* distances.
Except Bliss had apparently figured out how to make big leaps, like from Olympus down to the mortal world. And he'd picked the time when Strife babysat him to test it out.
Strife had spent the better part of a day leapfrogging around Greece, following Bliss' power signature. It was frustrating, but at the same time he kind of had to admit that he was having fun. It was "hide and seek" on a godly level. He'd played it himself with Discord when he was still a toddler. At only a little over a year old, Bliss was starting early, but as the God of Mischief, Strife had to secretly approve of the panic this would cause anyone else who babysat him. Or maybe not so secretly. Next time it was Hermes' turn he'd have to show up and laugh his ass off on the sidelines.
He knew Bliss had to be tiring out soon. Older gods could keep this up for days if necessary but Bliss just didn't have that type of energy reserve. All Strife had to do was keep close enough on his trail to prevent the kid from having the time to stop and pull any pranks -- he really didn't want to have to explain to the other gods how their temples had ended up upside down or their worshipers turned into livestock or something -- and eventually Bliss would wear down and stop on his own.
Strife just hadn't counted on where exactly Bliss would end up.
From Corinth to Sparta to Thrace, from the depths of a volcano to Atlantis' final resting place, villages to cities, farms to deserts -- to an open road where Bliss was hovering just a few feet from the ground. Strife didn't stop to think, he just pounced, arms outstretched to catch the little bundle of flying trouble.
He really had forgotten just how hard the ground was, when you met it nose-first anyway.
"Ow," he mumbled into the dirt.
The familiar sound of fluttering wings inches from his head made Strife look up. Bliss was hovering in front of him, grinning.
"Dirty," he said, pointing at Strife's face.
"Yeah," Strife grinned back, propping himself up on his elbows, "guess I probably am. You tired yet, kid-o?"
Bliss' grin quickly morphed into a disappointed frown. "Yes," he admitted. He probably would've lied to any of the others that watched him, but Strife could spot a lie from three leagues away half blind in one eye and missing the other.
"Wanna head home?" Strife sure hoped so. He wasn't exactly tired, but he wouldn't mind a few hours of down time either. But Bliss shook his head.
"Why not? Whatchya got going on?" He wouldn't force Bliss to go back to Olympus, but if the kid had found a flock of butterflies or something Love-like that interested him, Strife would definitely have to find something else to keep his attention.
"Secret," Bliss dropped his voice to a whisper, holding one chubby finger against his lips. "Don't tell Grandpa Ares." Then he grinned again and pointed behind Strife.
Okay, that was never a good sign. Closing his eyes for a moment, Strife took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Whatever it was, well, he wouldn't *act* bothered by it anyway. Wouldn't do any good for Bliss to know he could rattle the God of Mischief. Turning over onto his back, Strife, still propping himself up on his elbows, took a good look down the road he was lying in the middle of. Then he let himself slide back down, dropping his head back into the dirt.
"Don't tell Grandpa Ares. Right." He sighed in resignation and looked up at the boy still hovering near his head. "You've got a real evil streak there, kid -- and that's one of the things I just *love* about you." They grinned at each other for a few moments.
Finally Strife forced himself to sit up. At least Bliss didn't try to fly away or disappear again, he just kept hovering. Brushing some of the dirt out of his hair, Strife smirked. "How's it hanging, Uncle Herc, Iolaus?"
The two men, standing some paces away on the road, just stood there watching him and Bliss with open amusement.
"Bad day, Strife?" Iolaus was the first to speak, although it looked like he was having a hard time holding back outright laughter.
"Nah, just helping Bliss learn about being a god. Oh, hey! You can help." Jumping to his feet, Strife called up a ball of cold, blue fire. "Bliss, check it out: I'll show you how to singe a mortal when they don't know how to keep their mouths shut."
Before he could throw the fire, Bliss was suddenly on him, yanking at his arm, pushing him off balance.
"Nonononono!" the toddler was saying frantically.
Immediately Strife dissolved the fireball and pulled Bliss into his arms. "Okay, okay! I'm not gonna do nothing, see! No more barbequed Iolaus. Now what's up with that, huh?"
Hercules and Iolaus, who'd barely had time to get into any sort of defensive position, were looking at Bliss with equally confused expressions.
"Grandma's!" Bliss suddenly announced with an impressive amount of authority, pointing at Iolaus.
Strife frowned at the mortal, then looked at him again with a sight mortals didn't possess. And there it was, up in the ultraviolet spectrum.
"Well, fuck me sideways," he muttered. Even in his surprise he was careful to keep the comment too low for Bliss to hear. "It explains so much too!" That he said aloud.
"Huh?" Hercules looked at Iolaus.
"Well, who knew?" Strife grinned at Bliss. "Lookie there, kid-o, Uncle Herc and *cousin* Iolaus."
"Cousin? What?" Hercules shook his head in bewilderment.
"Oh, um, guess I never mentioned it, huh, Herc?" Iolaus smiled sheepishly at his friend.
"Mentioned what?"
"Well, it's not like 'Dite's my *real* mom or anything, I mean I *am* mortal -- I think." He glanced at Strife with a questioning frown. The God of Mischief just shrugged. He really didn't know and wasn't willing to interrupt this little scene even if he had. "She just...well, she's always been pretty fond of me and one day she decided she'd adopt me. It unofficial; sort of."
Hercules groaned. "The things you get yourself into, Iolaus. At least it puts you out of most harm's way where that side of the family's concerned." He gestured towards Strife.
Strife didn't resist the impulse and stuck his tongue out. He figured he may've been spending a bit too much time with Bliss lately, but it did feel good to give in like that.
Iolaus rolled his eyes and Hercules snorted.
"So what now?" Hercules asked. "I'm off limits and apparently so's Iolaus."
"Yeah, pity that. Guess I'll just have to bail 'til Uncle Ares figures out something to do." He started to transport himself and Bliss back to Olympus, but resistance from Bliss stopped him. The toddler was shaking his head. The instant Strife stopped trying to move them, Bliss shot out of his arms and flew over to Hercules.
"Unc!" he exclaimed, settling into Hercules' surprised grasp.
Strife winced; he couldn't help it. He didn't know what was worse: hearing Bliss finally speak to someone else and having it be Jercules, or hearing Bliss call the idiot by the same nickname Strife used with Ares. Bliss had been listening too well whenever Strife spoke with his uncle.
He really didn't want to stay and see Bliss "bond" with this part of the family. "Watch out for him. I'll tell Cupid he's with you," Strife said quietly. But again, before he could leave Bliss stopped him.
"Stay!" For such a young god, he really had a good grasp of command. That was nearly the same tone his grandfather used. Strife was just surprised enough to obey.
"Guess I've been letting you hang with Ares too long," he grumbled.
Seeing that Strife was doing as he ordered, Bliss nodded once, then curled up against Hercules and promptly went to sleep.
"Oh, great." Strife let his head drop. "Now I'll be here all fucking night."
"He's sleeping through the night now?" Iolaus asked, looking closely at Bliss but making no move to touch him.
"Legions of invading Romans, scores of rioting villagers, a herd of stampeding rhinos and Zeus doing the Macarena couldn't wake him now. Congrats, Hercules; you're his bed."
Hercules didn't look all that upset, now that he'd gotten over his surprise. "Well, it's getting close to sunset, but we're supposed to be meeting up with the others in an hour or so. We should push on."
"Others?" Strife looked up at him suspiciously.
"It's who you're thinking," Iolaus confirmed.
"Oh, just...fucking great." Strife threw up his hands in agitation. "If Ares doesn't flay me for being 'round you losers, I'll be the biggest joke in my House for hanging with the lot of you!"
"You could leave now," Hercules pointed out.
Instantly Strife dropped the theatrics. "No. I couldn't." He'd never lied to Bliss, never once promised him something then failed to do it; he wouldn't start now. Even if that meant he had to swallow his pride to do it.
Hercules nodded in understanding and Iolaus gave him a slight, crooked smile. It almost seemed...sympathetic.
"Guess I gotta do something 'bout this." Strife looked down at his dirt-encrusted outfit. His face and hair couldn't have been in much better shape.
A flash of blue light and he was clean again. He was also dressed in brown pants, boots and vest with a white shirt underneath. His hair lay flat against his head and he had to brush it back out of his eyes. He kept it so styled and spiked he hadn't realized it'd gotten that long. Looking at the two men, he narrowed his eyes at the strange looks they gave him.
"Not a word, hear? Not one. Fucking. Word. I just don't wanna attract any attention. Could be dangerous for the little guy." Brushing his hair back again, he started off down the road in the direction the others had been originally heading.
He heard a suppressed snicker behind him and casually raised one hand, middle finger extended.


When they reached the site Hercules and Iolaus wanted to camp at, some two *exceedingly* long hours later, during which Strife had avoided the other two as much as possible while walking on the same road; they found that none of the others were there yet. That suited Strife fine. Maybe they'd stopped somewhere else along the way and he wouldn't have to deal with them.
"Um...problem here."
Iolaus had been setting up the camp pretty much by himself. Hercules had just stayed out of the way cradling Bliss while Strife watched them closely. At Hercules' declaration, Strife was instantly at his side, barely stopping himself from snatching Bliss who still appeared to be asleep.
"What?" he demanded almost frantically. "What'd you do to him?"
"I didn't do anything, Strife." Hercules rolled his eyes again. That was becoming his favorite expression around Strife. Personally, the God of Mischief hoped his eyes stuck that way at some point.
"Then what's--oh." The smell was a big tip off.
"I don't suppose you brought a change of clothes for him?"
Strife gave him a look that said very pointedly what he thought about Hercules' intelligence. "Give 'im to me and I'll fix it. It's a god thing."
The hand off didn't go nearly as smoothly as Strife had hoped. The second he left Hercules' arms, Bliss opened his eyes. When he realized that he was wet, he began to cry. Loudly.
"Zeus and the Macarena, huh?" Hercules said acidly.
Strife would've flipped him off again, but he had his hands full. He had to settle for a quick glare before turning his attention to Bliss.
"Okay, I'm fixin' it already!" All it took was a small flex of power and Bliss was clean and dried. That stopped the crying, but unfortunately it gave the toddler the attention span he needed to become aware of his surroundings.
"Pretty!" Was all the warning Strife had before Bliss took off into the trees beside the road, apparently after what looked to be a firefly.
"Not again!" Strife went after him as fast as he could, Hercules' and Iolaus' laughter trailing after him.
This time Bliss didn't seem to be interested in hopping around Greece; he was after the "pretty lights." But he was getting better and better with those wings and Strife had a difficult time just keeping him in sight, even with the night vision gods possessed. When he finally did catch up with the kid, it was only because Bliss had stopped, having caught one of the bugs.
"You done now?" Strife asked, trying not to make it too obvious that he was out of breath. "Can we go home?"
Bliss didn't reply, watching the bug as it crawled over his hand, to the tip of his finger, and flew off. Then he turned a bright smile on Strife.
"Unc Herc," he said decisively.
Strife hit his head against the nearest tree.
As they neared the campsite beside the road, Strife became aware of far more voices coming from there than when he'd left. He hadn't been gone more than a half hour, so the others had to have just arrived. Great.
"You sure you don't wanna see your mom and dad tonight?" he almost pleaded with the toddler.
Bliss shook his head from where he sat in Strife's arms, and continued to smile.
"You're doing this to me on purpose, I *know* it," Strife said under his breath.
Bliss' giggle didn't help any to clear his suspicions.
Their arrival at the campsite brought a number of different reactions. Actually it took a moment for the three seated around the campfire, other than Hercules and Iolaus, to even realize what the intruders were. Iolaus showed no reaction other than a smirk when Strife dropped down onto a fallen log not a few paces from them. Hercules just shook his head with a quiet, "Knew we should've told them, Iolaus. He's too much trouble to just go away like that and not come back."
Then the others recognized him.
Lulled into a brief, false sense of security by Hercules and Iolaus' lack of hostile reactions to the intruder, neither Xena nor Gabrielle had reached for their weapons. That quickly changed.
"You!" Xena was on her feet, chakram in hand. Eyes narrowed, Gabrielle quickly joined her with her staff up and ready.
Autolycus was a bit slower to react, but then his eyes widened. "Strife?" he nearly squeaked.
Strife grinned maliciously. "Hey there, Auto; long time no see! Steal anything divine lately?"
Bliss flew from Strife's arms back over to Hercules. The demi-god just sighed -- not exactly an unhappy sound -- and gathered his nephew close.
Both Xena and Gabrielle were watching the scene with matching frowns of suspicious confusion.
"Told you we had a strange day," Iolaus said to them with a bright smile.
Xena sighed in exasperation and hooked her chakram back at her side. "Come on, Gabrielle." She pulled her friend down beside her as she sat again. "Whatever this is, I don't think it's a problem we have to worry about."
"So, Auto," Iolaus turned his attention to the thief. "How d'you know Strife here?"
Autolycus, still staring at Strife and looking a bit too pale, swallowed hard before replying. "Oh, well, you know, hazards of the business and all. It was just an ...accident."
"That right?" Strife couldn't quite hold in his giggle. The way it caused Autolycus to flinch made him want to laugh all the harder, but he suppressed the desire. There was too much fun to be had here to risk scaring off the mortal now. "Funny, I'm kinda remembering it different, know what I mean?" He absentmindedly pushed his hair back again. That had started to become a habit. He probably should've just cut it, but he liked how it looked long and spiked.
"Um, nope." Autolycus shook his head quickly. "So, who brought food, huh? I'm starving. No one? How 'bout I go hunt some down." He started to jump to his feet but was immediately yanked back down by Xena.
"I found some edible plants and berries along the roadway today." Letting go of the thief with a warning look, she turned to her pack and started to search through it.
"Nuts and roots. Ick," Iolaus grumbled. "If we hadn't had to stop," here he glared at Strife, "I would've had time to hunt something."
"And you thought it was *so* funny at the time," Strife said with heavy sarcasm, then he snapped his fingers.
The smell of roast meat quickly filled the campsite. A spit now sat over the small fire, three rabbits attached to it.
"Eat up and shut up." Strife slid off the log, dropping to the ground and letting the log support his back as he sprawled.
"Thank you." Xena was surprisingly polite and Gabrielle even nodded to him in a semblance of gratitude. Hercules looked like he was going to say something, but he just shrugged and waited while Xena began to cut off the meat and portion it out. Iolaus wasn't as smart.
"See, Herc; the gods *do* have their uses."
Strife restrained the impulse to blast Iolaus and his sarcasm into the atoms they'd emerged from. "Blow me, Iolaus." He had to settle for base insults, at least until a different opportunity presented itself. Iolaus flipped him off in return -- and Strife was surprised to find himself trying to force back a grin. Was he *enjoying* this?
Before he could examine that disturbing concept any further, Bliss suddenly awoke again. It was probably from the smell of food since he hadn't eaten in hours.
"Hungry?" Strife called to him as the toddler shifted restlessly.
Bliss nodded, frowning unhappily.
"Ambrosia?" It was the usual fare, although Cupid and Psyche had been trying to get him to try solid foods. Apparently that attempt was paying off.
Shaking his head, Bliss pointed at the roasting rabbit.
"Whatever." Strife waved a hand in Hercules' direction. "Your deal, Jercules."
"Do you *have* to call me that?" Hercules asked with a bit too much patience. "It got old twenty years ago."
"Still annoys you though, doesn't it?" Strife sneered. "'Sides, what d'you *want* me calling you? 'Dear, sweet, Uncle Herc,' maybe? Why bother pretending? Gonna hate you no matter what."
"No." There was that commanding tone again. "No lies," Bliss ordered.
Still standing by the spit, Xena stared wide-eyed at the toddler. "He's going to sound just like Ares," she said quietly.
"You noticed," Hercules commented ruefully.
Strife stared at Bliss for a moment, seriously considering his response. If Bliss thought he'd lied about something, then maybe he had and he needed to think about that. He didn't want to hurt the kid. He'd get enough lies and half-truths from the rest of their family, no need for it to start with Strife.
"Okay," he finally said, "truth time." His utterly serious tone drew all eyes to him; he only returned Hercules' gaze. "I don't hate you, Hercules. Don't like you much, true, but you're fun." That really did say it all, for Strife anyway. Maybe Ares and Hera really did hate Hercules, but as annoying as Zeus' brat was, Strife had always found him entertaining. Even when Hercules was throwing him through walls, Strife had never been bored and that was enough to make sure he didn't hate the demi-god.
That really seemed to shock Hercules, but Strife didn't let himself dwell on it, instead looking at Iolaus. "I *do* like you, Blondie. Always did." And that would probably be enough to make Iolaus paranoid for the next year or two. It gave Strife a pleasant feeling. Turning his attention to Xena, he just smirked. "Do I need to say it?"
She smiled back, a chilling expression, but one that just gave someone from the House of War all sorts of warm fuzzys. Yeah, Xena was all right.
"Don't know you two. Well, 'cept for you, Auto, and that was only that one time." He winked at the thief.
"Whoa! No! Nothing like that!" Autolycus quickly protested, looking around at everyone else frantically. "I was just stealing something and he caught me, I swear!"
"Oh, how can you say that, Auto baby? And I thought we meant *so much* to each other!" Strife drawled it out, letting his expression and hand gestures take on a certain...flair. He really didn't want anyone thinking he'd done anything like that with the thief, anymore than Autolycus did. The heavy sarcasm would be enough of a tip off in that respect. There were varying degrees of amusement expressed by everyone but Autolycus, so Strife knew he'd succeeded.
"Not funny." Autolycus glared at him.
Strife blew him a kiss before giving into laughter -- only to have the breath knocked out of him when Bliss landed on him.
"You're getting heavy, kid. Messy, too." He frowned at the piece of meat Bliss held. The grease from the rabbit was smeared all over his mouth and hands, and now over Strife's shirt as well. He didn't bother cleaning it up. Until Bliss was finished eating there was no reason to try to keep anything clean.
"How'd you end up as babysitter?" Iolaus asked around a mouthful of his own dinner. He got a light smack on the arm from Hercules, probably because of the bad manners of talking with a full mouth because Iolaus gave his friend an exasperated look.
"Volunteered," Strife replied, settling the toddler more comfortably against him.
"You don't seem like the...domestic type, no offence," Gabrielle put in.
"He's family." Strife wasn't willing to go into it further than that.
"Somehow I didn't think either Cupid or Aphrodite would want you around Bliss." Hercules had very properly waited until he'd swallowed before speaking.
Strife shrugged. "Cupid thinks it's totally cool."
"But Aphrodite doesn't?"
Glaring at him a moment before replying, Strife thought that one through. "She doesn't disapprove, okay? She's just not wild 'bout some of the things she thinks Bliss might learn from me. But that's a load of crap," he quickly added before anyone could wonder about those "things." "Bliss is gonna be the god he's meant to be and nothin' I do's gonna change that. 'Sides, he spends tons of time with the other side of the family. They're more of an influence than me, right?" He smiled down at his cousin.
Bliss grinned back, an expression that looked disturbingly familiar to Strife. Swallowing his last piece of meat, Bliss pointed at him. "Virgin," he said simply.
Oh yeah, now Strife recognized that grin. It was the one he used when he was about to pull a really good prank. All sounds of movement around the camp had come to an abrupt halt and Strife *knew* everyone was staring at him.
"You really are evil," he said quietly, unable to help the impressed tone despite the situation. Bliss continued to grin at him.
"Oookay," Iolaus said slowly. "Guess 'Dite wouldn't want her grandson thinking *that's* normal. Not that it's a bad thing," he amended when Strife sent him a murderous look. "I mean, if that's what works for you, and you're still really young, right. What, sixteen in god years or something?"
And the humiliations just kept piling on. "Seventeen," Strife said through his teeth. "And you're only getting *one* warning here, Goldilocks, the rest of you too," he spared a glance for the others who were staring at him in open-mouthed shock -- except for Xena who just looked amused. "If I hear one joke about this in the mortal world, I'll know where it came from, and you'll pay for it. I don't have to kill you to make you *wish* you were dead," he added when Hercules looked like he was going to speak.
Hercules was wise enough to nod his acknowledgement and go back to eating, as did everyone else. Iolaus did too, but it didn't stop him from talking.
"Don't have to be so touchy about it," he said around another mouthful.
Strife just *itched* to throw a fireball in that direction. Yeah, he liked Iolaus well enough, for a mortal, but the guy honestly didn't know when to let something *drop*! "One more comment outta you, Blondie, and I'll tell you a story -- it's got a *lotta* detail -- about the menage-a-trois I walked in on in one of Ares' temples --" he waited until Iolaus looked interested before continuing, "-- involving Deimos, Phobos, and Falafel."
There were a number of choking sounds from around the camp.
Strife turned his glare on Autolycus, knowing he was as bad a gossip as Iolaus. "And funny how it's got a lot to do with how I ran into Auto here."
Autolycus went very pale. "Don't feel so good," he muttered suddenly, then was on his feet and heading for the trees.
"Gabrielle." Xena looked from her friend to the direction Autolycus was headed in, pointedly.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes but got to her feet anyway. "He's probably half way to the Aegean by now," she groused, heading after him.
"Then we'll wait until you bring him back." Xena smiled, then went back to her dinner.
Gabrielle's response to that raised eyebrows around the camp. Strife would've voiced his approval of her impressive vocabulary, but he wasn't in the mood.
"Can we get outta here yet?" he asked Bliss, keeping his voice low. Unfortunately it wasn't all that unusual for him to keep the kid overnight, otherwise he could've made a case for Cupid or Psyche getting worried. Of course Bliss was well aware of that and just shook his head. Again.
"Not done with me yet, are you?" Strife guessed, and this time the familiar grin Bliss gave him wasn't such a surprise. "There's some games I'm not gonna play, kid-o, remember that," he warned.
He didn't know how Bliss had known that particular fact about him. The gods in his House probably suspected it, but they didn't care enough to confirm it and Strife certainly didn't advertise it. He had to wonder if he put off some sort of vibe love gods could pick up on. He sure as Tartarus hoped not, that would take visiting Cupid to whole new levels of embarrassment.
Gabrielle returned, an extremely reluctant Autolycus in tow, much sooner than Strife had hoped. Bliss had seemed content to remain quiet, licking his greasy fingers and Strife wanted to keep it that way.
"Wanna try cleaning up?" He certainly wanted to be clean. He just didn't get the fascination kids had with being dirty; he'd never been like that when he was little.
Bliss reached out to touch his shirt and Strife quickly grabbed his small hand. "Not gonna happen, kid." He gently pushed the hand away. "you got the drop on me one time; that's it. Try cleaning yourself up and I'll take care of me, 'k?"
Psyche had started teaching Bliss to clean up after his meals a couple months ago. The problem was, he liked to "redecorate" while he was at it, and that included the people around him. Strife hadn't been cautious enough the first time he'd let Bliss clean after feeding time; he'd ended up in pastel blue leather with daisies for earrings. It wasn't going to happen again.
That didn't make Bliss very happy. A small flash of gold light and the toddler was clean, but he was also glaring at Strife.
"Sorry," Strife said without really meaning it. "Not gonna letchya make me into a joke twice tonight. So if that's all you had planned, we might as well bail."
Instead, Bliss flew out of his grasp and back over to Hercules.
"I think you made him angry," Iolaus watched the toddler with a good amount of wariness.
Strife shrugged. He wasn't about to give Bliss everything he wanted; a spoiled God of Passion was the last thing Olympus needed. Cupid and Psyche wanted a certain amount of discipline and structure in Bliss' life and Strife had no problem with that. The kid would just have to learn that life wasn't always perfect.
Ignoring the sullen look Bliss leveled on him, Strife used a flicker of power to clean up the mess the toddler had left, and also change back into his normal clothes. The other ones just weren't him and since they weren't traveling anymore, he wouldn't draw attention to the group with his appearance. Besides, it gave him the opportunity to set his hair back the way he liked it: out of his eyes.
"Whenever you're ready, kid." The boredom in his tone was deliberate; he had to let Bliss know that mean looks, while cute, weren't going to work on him.
Glancing at his nails while he waited, Strife wondered, in an abstract sort of way, but not for the first time, whether or not he should try that painting thing that Aphrodite did. Oh, he had *no* desire to get in touch with his inner drag queen, but maybe a little black wouldn't hurt? Just for affect and all.
"Strife." That was definitely a pouting tone.
"Hmm?" Looking up from his nails, he raised an eyebrow at Bliss. The look of determined stubbornness on the toddler's face was all the warning he got.
Bliss could be well spoken enough when he felt like it. He *was* a god after all, even if he was young. Usually though he confined himself to one or two word sentences that were fairly baby-ish in nature. But when he was upset about something, that's when he made himself easily understood. Like now.
"Strife's in love."
Strife couldn't help the sharp gasp, or the wince at the announcement. Then he was on his feet. "That's it," he said, hoping to cut off any comments on Bliss' latest little revelation. "We're leaving, Bliss. *Now*."
Maybe something in Strife's tone or the set of his body gave away his complete lack of amusement at the situation. Whatever it was, this time no one made any comments. Even Iolaus made it a point to look away from the scene.
Bliss just continued to glare at Strife, chubby hands locked onto Hercules' arm in what Strife knew from experience was a very firm grip. "*Love*," Bliss repeated forcefully.
Strife almost left him there. Only the fact that Cupid was trusting him to bring Bliss back to Olympus stopped him. "I'm not laughing anymore," he said quietly, barely keeping his temper in check.
He was aware, peripherally, of both Autolycus and Gabrielle slowly drawing further back away from the campsite. Xena's hand was back on her chakram, resting there lightly, but ready to go into action. Iolaus was busy trying to scoot back away from Hercules without being too obvious about it. Hercules was stuck holding Bliss, and this time he didn't look at all happy about it.
Later -- much, much later -- Strife would have to admit that Hercules was only trying to help calm things down. He just mistook the cause of Strife's anger and therefore said the worst possible thing.
"Umm...Bliss, why don't you apologize to your cousin now?" Hercules' tone was coaxing yet still authoritative. "We all know War and love don't mix, so you're just being silly. It's time to go home, okay?"
"What?" Strife knew Hercules was only repeating what everyone, including Ares himself always claimed, but the rational part of his mind was rapidly packing and leaving.
Hercules probably thought he was actually helping Strife, he had no way of knowing the buttons he was pushing. Strife *knew* that on some level but when Hercules opened his mouth again, logic went on its little vacation and didn't leave a forwarding address.
"It's all right, Strife. No one here believes you're capable of love. Hear that Bliss? It's not going to work."
So many things happened then in the space of a few seconds. All the anger, the sheer humiliation of the situation -- it was suddenly gone. A strange sort of calm rapidly spread through Strife until he felt absolutely focused. Everything was clear in a way he'd never experienced before, nothing escaped his notice. Not Xena shooting to her feet, chakram drawn or the way Iolaus practically threw himself as far from Hercules as possible, or the sudden formation of ice crystals on everything around the camp. Even the fire itself was caught in ice, and everyone's breath was now visible, regardless that it was a warm, autumn evening. Strife was very much aware of it all, of *everything*, but at the same time it wasn't really effecting him. He felt as though nothing around him could touch him, not now.
Bliss seemed to have finally realized that he'd crossed a line. He ducked down in Hercules' arms, covering his head, holding his wings tightly against his back. But Strife wasn't even concerned with him at the moment; all of his attention was on Hercules who sat there looking up at him in growing comprehension and alarm. Too little, too late.
"Love? You think I don't know love, Hercules?" Strife barely recognized his own voice, it was so quiet and controlled. It might've frightened *him* if things were normal, it certainly seemed to make everyone else in the camp back away, even Xena.
Hercules quickly got to his feet, Bliss still clinging to him. "Strife--"
"Oh, I know *all* about it," Strife interrupted him. "But do you?" He moved closer as he spoke. "Do you know what it's like, Hercules? Have you spent twenty years wanting someone you're never going to get?" Hercules might have tried to back away, but he seemed almost mesmerized by the way Strife was moving, like an animal watching a predator approach but unable to get away. Then Strife stood before him and reached out; the hand he placed around Hercules' neck was in no way restricting, it just...rested there. Hercules winced, then began to shiver as though chilled.
"Th--Th--That's n--not love," Hercules said through teeth that were close to chattering.
Strife just smiled. Hercules' eyes widened in something approaching fear at the sight.
"No," Strife agreed calmly, "it's not. Love is never saying anything about it so he won't feel *responsible* in some sorta way. It's being his friend 'cause that's all I'll ever get; it's trying to help out so he and his *wife* can have some alone time; it's just being there and *not expecting one. Fucking. Thing* in return." He released his grip. "Now gimme my so--" His lips quirked up slightly, amused in a remote way at his own slip. "My cousin. Hand over my cousin and we're outta here."
Hercules said nothing, he just held out Bliss. Bliss himself didn't try to keep hold of his uncle, he didn't say anything either, he just let himself be handed over. Strife took him and relocated them to Olympus without another word.
He brought them directly to the main room of Cupid's temple, surprising Psyche who looked like she'd just gotten ready for bed, sheer blue nightgown and all. A sight like that normally would've interested Strife, but right then all he did was notice it as a simple fact, the same as the way Psyche's expression turning quickly from surprise to fear was only something to be seen and catalogued; it had no effect on him.
"Oh, Strife...," she whispered in dismay, her breath starting to show in the rapidly chilling air.
At the sound of his mother's voice, Bliss launched himself from Strife's grasp in her direction. She wrapped her arms around him and held him close, but her eyes never left Strife.
"Later," he said, his voice still so unrecognizably cold and calm. Then he turned and walked out of the temple -- actually walked. When he'd spent those two hours in the mortal world walking that day, he hadn't had much of a choice, not if he'd wanted to stay with Bliss. This time he simply *needed* to walk. It wasn't all that unusual; many of the other gods preferred this mortal means of transportation, for small distances anyway, but it wasn't normal for Strife.
He thought that might have accounted for the strange looks he received from the few minor gods and goddesses he passed on his way. He didn't really pay that much attention to it though. He was becoming more and more occupied by his own thoughts; the incredible *clarity* with which they moved through his mind. He'd never been stupid, but he'd never been able to think this well before either. It seemed as though if he were to just stop on one thought, focus on it, he could make it reality, anything he could think of -- and he had so many plans.
The collision with another god didn't startle Strife; it didn't even throw him off balance. It did bring his attention back to where he was, focusing him intently on the tall, blond god stumbling back from the impact.
"Hey, watch where the fuck you're going!" Apollo whined, brushing his tunic off in exaggerated motions that drew attention to his tanned, buff physic. "What's up with you, Strife?" he sneered the other god's name.
Strife just watched him, observed him clinically, noting weaknesses and chinks in the flawed armor of the other god's ego. Attacking wouldn't be a problem; breaking him might not be all that difficult either, Strife decided. One of the twelve or not, any of them could be taken down.
But Apollo's demeanor was quickly changing. His gaze shifting from where Strife stood, back in the direction the younger god had come from, all of the aggression suddenly disappeared from Apollo's stance. Looking back at Strife, he smiled awkwardly, in something approaching an appeasing manner.
"No problem here, dude." Hands held before him, palms outward in a way that showed he was unarmed and uninterested in a fight, Apollo began backing away, still talking. "Guess I wasn't paying enough attention there. My bad. Let's just forget about it, huh?"
"Whatever you want." Strife smiled back.
He'd never seen Apollo cringe away from anything like that before. He noted it for later consideration, then continued on towards Ares' temple.
At the moment Strife was the only one besides Ares living full time at the temple. Deimos and Phobos had rooms, but they spent just as much time over at Aphrodite's temple and Discord had her own, if much smaller temple, not far from her brother's. It was a regular occurrence to find everyone gathered in Ares' temple though, usually because Ares had plans to discuss and orders to give. Strife hadn't been to as many of those gatherings over the past few months because of Bliss, and he hadn't planned to show up that night. Still, his entrance didn't raise any eyebrows amongst the three already there.
Strife stopped just inside the entrance to the main room, taking in what was happening, analyzing it. Three of them were standing around a map-filled marble table. Ares and Discord were arguing loudly about troop positions while Phobos looked on with a slightly insane smile. From what he could see, Strife surmised it was about getting an army around Corinth without Iphicles calling on his half-brother, again. And they were going about it all wrong too. Strife had been in on sessions like this before, but for the first time the answers were just staring at him, so obvious and clear. He was about to say so when suddenly Deimos came running into the room.
"Dad, guys; you all *gotta* see this! Half of Olympus looks like we got hit with an ice age out there!" He almost skidded into Strife as he tried to stop on the smooth black marble of the floor. "Hey cuz," Deimos nodded distractedly at him -- then abruptly focused on his cousin. "*Strife*?" he nearly squeaked.
"*Fuck me*!" Phobos had taken note of where his brother's attention was, and now he just stared, looking ready to bolt at a moment's notice.
Ares and Discord had ignored Deimos' original announcement, still involved in their shouting match, but his change in tone combined with Phobos' explanation finally got through to them.
"What is it now?" Ares demanded, almost snarling as he looked at his nearest son.
Phobos shook his head, his voice dropping to a whisper, "Look."
Strife supposed it was unusual, the way ice had begun creeping across the temple floor, up the sheer marble columns and walls. The ever-present light provided by Ares' power had begun to reflect off of it, but the plain black of the entire temple made the resulting glimmer somehow muted, almost menacing in its effect. Even the stalactites beginning to form on the ceiling started to take on the look of suspended swords, ready to drop at any moment.
Except the fragility was an illusion, as Deimos found when he tried to melt the ice forming around his feet with a small lick of flame. The flame died; the ice continued to move.
Again, Strife's mind simply catalogued everything, every movement around him. Nothing escaped his notice.
"Oh." It was all Discord said. She watched Strife with a level of wariness he would've found pleasing at any other time.
Ares crossed his arms with a deep sigh. "Always has to do things the hard way." It seemed like he was speaking more to himself than those around him. Then he looked at Discord. "Anything you'd like to tell us, Sis?"
She sent him a brief glare before looking back at her son.
"you know, you're doing it wrong there, Unc," Strife said. "I got a better idea." He began walking as he spoke, ice crunching under his feet as he approached the table. He let his finger rest on the spread out map of Corinth, beside the clay figuring representing Iphicles. "Take out the problem before it starts." He flicked his finger, knocking the figure over. "Accidents happen. I mean, Hercules can't do nothing if he can't prove it."
"And if he blames me anyway, takes it to Zeus?" Ares' gaze remained steady on him, something that normally would have made Strife nervous. Now, he just smiled.
"Accidents happen."
"Interesting." Ares looked at him for a few more moments in silence, studying him. Then he uncrossed his arms. "Meeting over."
In the background Strife could hear Deimos and Phobos scrambling to get out as fast as they could, cursing when they slipped and fell. He didn't know why they didn't just transport themselves out, until Discord tried it.
He could feel her concentrating the energy she needed to leave, but she never released it. Instead she stood there looking baffled.
"Ares, I can't transport out of this--"
"I know," Ares cut her off without looking away from Strife.
It seemed like she wanted to say more, but in the end she just nodded and walked out, not slipping once.
"Where's Bliss?" Ares asked when he and Strife were alone.
"With his mother. And that reminds me: Hercules, Xena and their little groupies are all camped out together down there. You might wanna check it out."
"Is that where you were?"
Strife just turned his attention back to the maps. "With Iphicles outta the way, Corinth would need a new king. I'll have to think about that. We gotta know someone we can stick on the throne."
"You think you can figure it all out?" Ares sounded perfectly serious, no sarcasm in sight.
"I can figure a lotta things out now," Strife replied coolly.
"Good. Make me a list. When you're done, bring it to me and we'll see what's worth using."
Strife considered that a moment. It would all be worth using; but Ares couldn't understand that right now, couldn't comprehend just how *perfectly* Strife was thinking at the moment. So he'd get his list.
With barely a nod of acknowledgement, Strife headed off to his room. There'd be nothing there to distract him from his task; then Ares would see.


Strife wanted move -- he *struggled* to do it, but it was just so hard. It was an effort just to twitch a finger. He felt like he was weighted down by a mountain of rock and his eyes were nailed shut, and he *hurt* like he hadn't in years. It wasn't an external hurt; it was internal at the source of his power. He was nearly drained.
It seemed to take an eternity, but finally he managed to open his eyes a fraction, just enough to get a blurry, close-up view of the black sheets on his bed. He didn't remember how he'd gotten there. It wasn't just his vision that was blurred; he couldn't think. Memories were like wisps of bright colors that went past before he could grasp them, and yet it was all so sluggish.
Some time, an eternity or two later, he managed to get his muscles to cooperate enough to push himself up on his elbows. His arms shook with the strain and he felt like something inside of him was slowly unraveling. His vision was still horribly blurry, but he was able to make out the familiar figure in the doorway, leaning against the door itself.
"Unc?" his voice cracked.
"I wondered how long you could keep that going at your age," Ares commented. Pushing away from the door, he took the few steps needed to bring him to the bed where he just stood, looking down at Strife. "If I thought you'd had any control over it, I'd be impressed."
Strife didn't understand the words. Ares' tone was casual, so he didn't think he was in trouble or anything, but he just couldn't grasp what his uncle was saying.
Ares sighed. "You'll learn, eventually. If you don't burn yourself out first."
Hands grasped Strife's shoulders and a sudden surge of energy shot through him. He gasped in shock, the feeling almost painful in its intrusion, but the energy shored up whatever had been loosening inside him and the pain lessened fractionally. It was enough to give him back some control over himself, anyway.
"W--What happened?" It was still hard forming words, and even worse trying to pull himself into something resembling a sitting position, but somehow Strife managed both.
"If you don't know, you should be too young to do it." Ares dropped into a crouch beside the bed, looking closely at Strife. "But something pushed you, didn't it?" he said thoughtfully.
"Huh?" Even with the energy Ares had given him, Strife's mind still couldn't process a basic conversation. Everything was just so...fuzzy.
"Yeah. I guess we're doing this later." With a shake of his head, Ares stood again. "You're gonna be useless for awhile. Get back in your natural form and try to make up the loss. I'll explain when you can look at something without going cross-eyed." And he left.
It took Strife long minutes to think through even a portion of the instructions. Eventually instinct took over where intellect failed and he shifted into his natural form of raw energy. He was able to notice that where he should have blazed brightly in the small room, he could barely out-shine a candle at the moment. It would take days, if not weeks to soak up what he needed to recover from the energy surrounding Olympus.
Whatever he'd done, he'd nearly ceased to exist doing it.
In his natural form, with all emotion banished, Strife could normally think through whatever he needed to with near complete impartiality. His main concern was for himself, of course, but without emotion clouding things he could see other points of view. He'd always loved it; most gods did and some spent most of their time in their natural form. But Strife liked his other form better; he couldn't do his job in the mortal world without it, so he was never too tempted to remain in this state for any longer than necessary. There were always exceptions though, and now was one of those times.
The more energy he soaked up, replenishing his own stores, the more memories came back. Now he was able to focus on them, think through what had happened. Actually, even now he still wasn't sure what exactly *had* happened, just that it probably hadn't been a good thing, no matter how differently he'd thought at the time.
He'd frightened Bliss, Apollo would probably find a way to pay him back for making him look weak, and he'd dared to talk to Ares like they were equals. It was only the first one that really bothered Strife, but eventually he'd have to deal with the rest as well. Things like worry and embarrassment didn't exist in his current form, so dwelling on that didnít sidetrack him, although he didn't doubt that things would change once he got out of this form. But for the moment he could just think about what he'd done and try to find a way to make it work out for him.
Some time later, how many days Strife wasn't sure, he stumbled out of his room. Back in his usual form, he still felt weak. That would fix itself if he hung around Olympus for a while longer, or better yet, if he popped in on a war or two, but he needed to know *now* just what in Tartarus had happened to him. He'd thought it through until there was nothing left to think about and he still didn't get it.
He hadn't felt much of anything during that "incident." It'd been almost like being in his natural form except he had a bad suspicion that he hadn't been thinking nearly as clearly as he'd believed at the time. About the closest explanation he could come to was that he'd been angry, but he hadn't *felt* angry, he'd just felt...cold. Not physically, but inside, like his emotions had frozen over. Something had happened to him he couldn't control and that frightened him.
Ares was back in the temple's main room, polishing and sharpening his personal weapons collection. As a god, he could have easily accomplished the task with a simple thought, but he'd always said that some things just required that "personal touch." He didn't look up when Strife came in.
Strife knew he'd been noticed. Ares had probably known the moment he'd returned to his normal form, but he'd have to wait until his uncle felt like speaking to him. He knew he deserved that, and more, for the way he'd addressed Ares before. So he dropped into the nearest chair without complaint. He really just wanted to close his eyes and sleep while his body continued to soak up all the energy it could, but this couldn't wait.
"You're still exhausted." It sounded non-judgmental and Ares never looked up from his favorite broadsword, but Strife knew better.
"I'm good. Nothing getting out and causing some trouble won't fix." And he meant it. It wasn't false confidence or anything, just to gain Ares' approval. The God of War didn't think much of gods who sat around waiting for their problems to solve themselves and he'd expect more of Strife; Strife had no problem delivering either, because in this case Ares was right. It'd do more for him to get back into the job.
Ares nodded once and Strife knew that was the only sign he'd get that his uncle did approve. ", what happened?" He probably should've waited until Ares brought it up, but he was sick of being confused and frightened by the whole thing.
"Something got you angry -- and wouldn't I love to know how that little 'brother' of mine did it." That last was said almost under Ares' breath, certainly it wasn't something he expected a response to, so Strife ignored it. He was happy to. He really didn't want his uncle to start asking in that direction.
"I don't get it." He went after the first part of Ares' statement instead. "I've been angry before and nothing like that ever happened."
"No, you've been annoyed before. Anger -- true anger -- is different for us; gods," he clarified. "Of course, you're really not old enough to take it to the level you did, so you surprised a few people around here." Holding the sword up, he looked it over critically as he spoke.
"Huh?" That about said it all.
Ares didn't answer for a moment, attention apparently focused on polishing a smudge at the blade's base. When he did answer, he actually put the sword down and looked at his nephew, an appraising stare that made Strife shift nervously in his seat. "We all react differently to true anger; how it manifests depends on what side of the family you take after. Poseidon and the gods in his domain start tidal waves, whirlpools, things like that; you piss off Demeter or any of her get and you wind up with earthquakes and mudslides; Zeus electrocutes everything; me and Discord burn everything in sight; see where I'm going with this?"
Strife nodded thoughtfully. "So, like what happens with all the kids, I mean ones like Deimos and Phobos who're part of two different Houses?"
Ares smiled slightly. "It varies. They didn't exactly get the best end of it -- although there is something fascinating about seeing whole towns burned to the ground by pastel fire. It's just not as terrifying, so they learned to control it early."
Strife had to smirk at that picture. The twins were probably embarrassed by that particular influence from their mother. He'd have to taunt them about it whenever he got his own anger under control. "So how'd I do that? Control it, I mean, 'cause that was *way* out there."
"At your age? I don't know. It shouldn't have happened for another few decades. You just don't have the kind of power it takes to maintain that anger *and* control it. It consumes you."
Yeah, it'd definitely done that. "Why'd it stop?"
"You calmed down. That's why I had you go write up those ideas; I figured it would give you focus and calm you down before you completely burned out."
Strife nodded thoughtfully. "So, um, if your side a the family does fire when you're pissed off, why'd I go and ice up everything?"
"Interesting, isn't it?" Ares looked thoroughly amused. "I imagine Discord thought you'd take after our side so she'd never have to say anything."
"Huh?" Again, that about summed it up.
"It's simple; unless you want your temple turned into a glacier, you don't make anyone from the Underworld angry."
It was extremely rare for Strife to be struck speechless. He had a comment for almost any occasion and thinking on his feet -- or more frequently, off them -- had never been a problem. But this.... He knew he had to look like an idiot, just staring with his mouth open, but even when he tried to make the questions come out, nothing would.
Discord had never discussed his father and although he really wanted to know, Strife had never asked. He'd always gotten the impression that it wasn't a subject she'd talk about, and besides, he'd had Ares as something of a father figure. It hadn't seemed important enough to risk annoying Discord. To have it just dropped on him like this though.... Now it was different.
"I don't know," Ares said, cutting off any questions Strife might've tried to ask. "You'll have to talk to Discord; we have other things to do." After carefully placing the sword back on the wall where it was customarily displayed, Ares held out his hand and a scroll appeared there. "I took a look at the list you made up; now we're gonna go over it and you're gonna tell me why every one of these ideas is worthless, starting with the one you had about killing King Iphicles."
That stung, but Strife wasn't going to argue; he remembered what he'd written down. At the time it'd all seemed so doable, so easy, but little things like using the Spartan army to conquer Rome, and then the known world, just couldn't be as simple as he'd planned it out to be.
"Oh, when we're done, Cupid wants to see you at his place; something about Bliss."
Strife had never felt that before, this...horrified concern. Had he done something to Bliss when he'd been angry? His touch had hurt Hercules; had he hurt Bliss the same way just by carrying him? Strife didn't know how to react. He couldn't imagine hurting Cupid's son, but he hadn't exactly been on the right side of sanity at the time either. He had to know what he'd done.
But Ares was already unrolling the scroll and Strife knew he couldn't cut and run. So far his uncle had been surprisingly tolerant of his erratic behavior, but if he tried to leave in the middle of a lesson Ares thought he needed, Strife had no doubts that he'd quickly find himself broken into little pieces. He had to get through this, however long it took.
As anxious as Strife had been to get to Cupid's, he suddenly found himself unable to go in. After Ares had finished with him -- teaching Strife what real humiliation felt like, having his "plans" picked apart so decisively by the God of War -- he practically ran out of his uncle's temple. He could've just popped into Cupid's temple, but if he'd hurt Bliss, even if it was only an accident, he didn't feel like he had the right to take liberties like that anymore.
He needed to know if Bliss was all right, if Cupid hated him for whatever he'd done, but at the same time Strife *didn't* want to know. If he wasn't sure, then he didn't have to deal with it. Okay, so maybe that sucked, but he just couldn't make himself *move*.
He'd been staring down at his arms, crossed in front of his chest. At the sound of Cupid's voice, his head snapped up and he focused on his cousin, trepidation running through him.
Cupid stood just inside the arched doorway to his impeccably white temple. He didn't look angry or disgusted or anything else Strife had half expected; he looked more confused than anything, and that prompted Strife to speak.
"Is Bliss okay?" The words rushed out and made him sound desperate, and okay, maybe he kind of was.
"Bliss? Yeah, he's fine. I mean, he's pouting full time and all, but he'll learn." Cupid shrugged, not losing the confused look.
Strife had the feeling he was missing something here. "Did I hurt him?" He hadn't wanted to ask so bluntly, dreaded it really.
Cupid just stared at him for a few seconds before speaking. "What did Dad say to you?"
"Um...that you wanted to see me and it had something to do with Bliss."
"Great, Dad." Cupid sighed in obvious exasperation. "I dunno if being the God of War seriously messes up his communication skills or if he just gets his laughs from winding people up -- probably both. Bliss is good, okay? I just needed to see you. C'mon," he motioned for Strife to come into the temple. "I don't wanna be a free show for every god that passes by."
Strife fought the urge to back away and take off running. Bliss was, hopefully, fine and Cupid didn't hate him. He kept repeating that to himself as he forced himself to walk forward.
Cupid stepped out of the way to let him in, then shut the doors behind him. The soft sound of it closing was enough to make Strife flinch. Cupid's hand came to rest on his shoulder and he jerked in reaction, almost pulling free, but the other god's grip tightened just enough to keep him there.
"Dude, chill, okay? D'you think I'm mad or something? Wasn't your fault."
"How d'you know?" He couldn't bring himself to look at Cupid. If his cousin had found out what happened, what had set Strife off, Strife didn't think he'd ever be able to look at him again. The pity he'd get would be too much to deal with.
"I know you, cuz. It woulda taken a lot to push you over the edge; you're not like that."
Strife couldn't suppress the incredulous snort. "What? And I'm normally so laid back and all? Think you've got the wrong god, Cupid. I know I'm high-strung and...touchy, I guess. Still, never saw it coming, you know?"
Cupid grasped his other shoulder. "Look at me a sec, Strife."
He couldn't help giving into that voice. There wasn't much Cupid could ask that he wouldn't do, he just hoped his cousin never figured that out.
Looking at Cupid was always a little like the first time Strife had seen him, his heart still started going a mile a minute and just breathing became an exercise in concentration. He'd learned how to deal with it though and by now he could hide it well enough that he didn't come off looking like a total moron. It didn't make Cupid any less gorgeous, just Strife less likely to trip over his own tongue while looking at him.
Cupid had always seemed tolerant, amused or even fond of his younger cousin. Strife had been too grateful that the God of Love wasn't repulsed by him to ever even hope for anything else. But this time there was something.... He couldn't put his finger on it, but the way Cupid was looking at him made him shiver a bit. Yeah, there was the amusement, and a good amount of concern, but there was something else Strife just couldn't place. It was only there a second though before Cupid smiled and it was gone.
"I don't know what happened, cuz," Cupid said quietly. "Bliss isn't saying much about it. But Uncle Herc is walking around down there with a major case of frostbite. He's not saying anything either, just trying to get one of us to heal it before it turns bad."
*That* surprised Strife. He'd done that? Done some damage to Grandpa Zeus' favorite boy? And he hadn't even been totally *there* when he did it; kinda sucked. Then the other implication sunk in. "Oh, man, Zeus is gonna throw my ass half-way across Greece; I screwed with his baby boy."
"Nah, Zeus is letting it go -- this time," Cupid quantified when Strife showed his surprise. "We all know you weren't exactly in the driver's seat when it happened, cuz. Works like that the first time. 'Course, most of us are way older so we get it under control fast. Don't know how it's gonna go with you. Dad talked to you 'bout that, didn't he?"
Strife nodded. "Can't believe that was *me*, you know? I just felt so *different*, like I had it totally goin' on. 'Cept turns out I was just acting like a jerk." He shook his head in disgust, recalling Ares' mocking tones of just a while ago as they went through all those "perfect" plans Strife had made.
"If it helps any, no one else really thinks so -- well, even if they did, they're too scared to say anything. I mean, I didn't see it, but I saw what you left behind and it was pretty cool. Literally, I guess. Took forever to get the ice off everything."
It didn't help. It just reminded Strife of how Cupid's temple got iced up in the first place. "you telling me everything, cuz? I didn't hurt Bliss when I touched him?" He was starting to think not, but he had to make sure.
"No, of course you didn't! You wouldn't hurt him, Strife, even when you're outta control like that," Cupid insisted, his hands tightening on his cousin's shoulders. "Psyche and I know you love him like he's your own son; we trust you."
If Cupid hadn't had a hold of him, Strife might've run at hearing that. As it was, he couldn't stop the slight widening of his eyes and the way his whole body tensed. He'd never wanted anyone to know how much he cared for the kid. It was one thing to feel it, but to have Bliss' parents know that someone like the God of Mischief saw himself as another father...he'd fully expected them both to be disgusted with him.
"Hey, it's cool, Strife!" Cupid's grip turned firmer, making sure his cousin couldn't go anywhere. "I mean, it's *totally* cool. Why d'you think we letchya baby-sit so much? Bliss knows it; it's why he likes you so much."
They were okay with it? That made Strife's world view tilt a little. "Oh," was all he could come up with for a few moments. Then he remembered how Psyche had looked at him when he'd brought Bliss back. "you sure 'bout that? I think I really freaked out Psyche when I showed up last time."
"Don't you get it yet, Strife?" Cupid shook his head. "She knew, same as I do, that you'd never do anything to Bliss, no matter what kinda stunt he's pulled. Yeah, she was freaked, but only 'cause she knew you were too young to be doing what you did. It coulda killed you. She was *worried* about you; so was I. Try not to scare us like that again, huh?"
And suddenly Strife found himself being hugged. It wasn't something he was used to, in fact, he didn't think it had ever happened before and it surprised a very undignified squeak out of him. He didn't know how to react either; he froze. Everything in him that loved Cupid demanded that he throw his arms around his cousin and hug him back, but that just wasn't *him*. He'd never been all touchy-feely -- mostly because no one ever touched him -- and he just couldn't make himself respond. Then it was over. Cupid pulled back; wearing a fond smile, he gave Strife's shoulders a squeeze before releasing him.
"This mean I can still baby-sit?" It sounded really stupid, but Strife's brain wasn't working all that well in the face of rampaging hormones.
"Yeah, dude; 'course you can. Well, maybe not for a few more days; Bliss is being punished."
Cupid's look turned serious. "I dunno how or where, but he crossed a line somehow with you. I know my son and he probably thought he could get his way doing it. He's gotta learn there're consequences. Since you're his favorite, he's not gonna get to see you for a while, not until he gets that there's some places you just don't go with friends or family."
"'K." Strife nodded. "Just, you know, lemme know when you want me to take him or whatever."
"I'm not trying to punish *you*, Strife."
That almost made Strife wince. Sometimes Cupid read him too easily. "Wasn't totally his fault, cuz. I mean, yeah, he pushed, but I didn't have to open my mouth either. Everything that happened...if I'd reacted differently, maybe not said so much, none of it woulda been so bad then." It wasn't an easy admission to make, but it was true and his cousin deserved to hear it.
Cupid just shrugged. "We all do dumb stuff when we're young. If you're careful -- or just lucky -- it's not the end of the world."
Strife nodded again, mentally kicking himself. Sometimes he let himself forget that next to the God of Love he *was* just a kid. Cupid probably thought of him as a really slow younger brother or something -- which really was a lot more than he had a right to expect, given who he was.
"I'll watch it from now on." It was the same promise the God of War had gotten from Strife earlier, although that had involved a lot of threats on Ares' part and some groveling on Strife's. Ares didn't appreciate his subordinates almost offing themselves, not when he still had a use for them anyway.
"Look, I gotta get back." Strife inched towards the doors as he spoke. "Ares gave me a bunch of shit work to do, said it'd make me 'think before acting' next time."
Cupid cursed under his breath. "No wonder you think this is your fault. Sometimes I think I'd be doing us and the world a favor if I shot his ass so full of arrows that he'd spend all his time composing love sonnets instead of screwing up his family."
Hand on the doors, Strife froze at that, eyes wide. That evoked a "Huh?" on multiple levels. Why in Tartarus was Cupid so annoyed and would he even dare do that to the God of War? He'd seen Cupid threaten Ares before, but there'd always been something of a joke in it, like he was only saying that he *could* do something, not that he would. This time Strife couldn't see any humor in it. Cupid was serious, and it was definitely time to bail.
"I really gotta go." Cupid's sudden change in attitude was kind of weirding him out so instead of using the doors, Strife just transported himself back to Ares' temple. It was draining on his limited energy supply, but it was also got him out of there much faster.
It really was shit work. Running messages between warlords for Ares, checking out potential battle sights like some mortal scout, even cataloguing the prayer scrolls that were left in the God of War's various temples; it all sucked. Strife knew better than to complain though and at least none of the others in his House bothered him about it. Actually, he hadn't seen either Deimos or Phobos since he'd lost his temper -- he really wasn't feeling much of a loss there. He did see Discord, however, but only on a couple occasions and only from a distance; she was avoiding him as much as his cousins were, but undoubtedly for different reasons. Strife *really* wanted to talk to her.
Strife managed to regain his old power levels after just a couple days. Despite the general boredom of the jobs Ares' assigned him, every one of them took him to a place, whether on Olympus or into a battle, where he could soak up whatever energy he needed. Yeah, Ares wanted him to learn a lesson, but he wasn't going to let Strife drain himself again doing it.
Usually when he worked for his uncle, Strife had time to himself to do his own thing. At the moment he wasn't being allowed that freedom and he didn't know when he'd have it again. He'd been punished like this before; it wasn't like he couldn't deal with it, normally. This time he had too much on his mind, too much he wanted to do *now*. He was just impatient and he knew it. His mom's secret had kept this long, another few days or weeks wouldn't hurt anything. He *knew* that, but it didn't make a difference.
The minute he fully regained his powers, he tracked down Discord.
She was obviously surprised when he appeared in her temple. She'd probably thought she was safe there since he was supposed to be playing errand boy for Ares. She was in her bedroom studying her wardrobe. It looked like she'd been at it a while; clothes were laid over chairs and the bed. Strife had never understood why she spent time choosing things to wear; it all looked the same to him. It had to be a girl thing.
He had to resist the strong urge to say, "Surprise!" when he saw the startled look on her face. He only had seconds, maybe less before she regained her balance and then he'd never get through her defenses. Blunt was the only way to go here.
"Who's my dad?" It was a demand, but he didn't shout, that would only make her less likely to answer. "Didn't think some of those guys down there could even have kids, but one of 'em obviously did, so give. Who is it?"
For a few moments he didn't think she'd answer. Discord turned away from him, placing the leather outfit she held beside another one on her bed. "I don't know."
Strife rolled his eyes. "C'mon, the secret's *out* already; everyone knows my pop hangs in the Underworld. I just wanna know which one of them it is; I gotta right to that." He couldn't help the frustration that crept into his tone. And maybe that was what convinced her.
"I really *don't* know, Strife." Discord kept her back to him as she spoke. "It was one of Bacchus' parties; he was serving some kinda new wine. Everyone was wasted in the first hour. Ares didn't come and Bacchus passed out pretty early into it; the only interesting gods there were the ones from the Underworld. The major ones all showed up -- you know how unusual that is -- so I hung out with them. I...I don't remember a whole lot about what happened, but I do know I slept with them, *all* of them, pretty much at the same time. It was the wine, okay? Anyway, I had you nine months later, to the day. So it could've been any of them, or maybe all of them. I just don't know."
That was *not* what Strife had expected to hear. After all this time he'd thought this was it; ask a question and get a straightforward answer. He should've known it couldn't be that simple, not for him. It was something of a disappointment but he didn't let it phase him too much. "Umm...okay, I get the confusion and all, but there *are* ways of figuring this kinda thing out."
Now Discord did turn to look at him, her expression annoyed, bordering on cold. "You think I don't know that? I did what I could, it's just not possible."
Strife seriously doubted that, but he realized that as far as Discord was concerned this was the end of the conversation. He wouldn't be getting anything else out of her. Annoying her further wouldn't get him anywhere either so instead of making any of the many comments that came to mind, he just nodded and left.
He knew Discord probably wouldn't make any mention to Ares' of his little "detour" but Strife didn't dare take any more time out from his assignments, at least not right then. He waited another day before making his next visit. This one would probably take a lot longer and there was no way Ares wouldn't notice his absence, but Strife felt he had to do it. He did have some reservations; it was intimidating, not knowing what to expect and all, but he couldn't *not* make an attempt.
It was the polite thing to do when you showed up in the Underworld, wait in the throne room for Hades to fit you into his busy schedule. Strife had never been all that into social niceties. He had his own way of doing things and it got results -- granted, not always the best ones, but that was all right. More often than not, taking people off guard was the best way to get what you wanted.
There was a good chance that Hades wouldn't be in his rooms, but there hadn't been a major battle lately so his workload couldn't be that bad. There *was* a war Ares had scheduled in the next week or two which would make things pretty busy in the Underworld, hence some of Strife's rush to do this now. Hades would be more likely to make time for him if he didn't have a few thousand souls waiting around to be judged.
For once Strife's luck was good. He wasn't rude enough to pop right into Hades bedroom -- okay, yeah he was. But if Hades was in the middle of something, Strife didn't want to start this off by annoying the god that might have the information he wanted, so he showed up in the room adjacent to the bedroom. It was some sort of study where Hades kept his personal scrolls and anything else that interested him and at the moment Persephone was there straightening things up.
Dressed in a gray robe, stacking scrolls on a desk, Strife's sudden entrance made her gasp in momentary surprise, but a second later she smiled at him. "Hello, Strife. Give me a minute and I'll go see where Hades is. He shouldn't be far; he's been expecting you."
Strife just blinked, not certain how to respond to that. When he thought about it, yeah, it made sense. Word of that little display he'd made on Olympus would have made it down here while he was still recovering. Hades would be prepared for whatever Strife asked. He didn't have a chance of surprising anything out of the God of the Underworld now. That was a let down, but he could still work around it.
Persephone must have mistaken his silence for concern of a different sort because her smile turned even friendlier. "You don't need to worry about anything, Strife; Hades has really been looking forward to seeing you."
He'd believe that when he saw it. Strife had never dealt directly with Hades before, hadn't even been to the Underworld. He'd only seen Hades occasionally during the aftermath of a battle and they'd never acknowledged each other. Now he had to wonder why Hades didn't say something to him. The only reason he could think of was that Hades didn't *want* to say anything. He'd had plenty of time to see how Strife turned out after all; Strife sure wouldn't blame him for not wanting a son like the God of Mischief.
Even if Hades wasn't his father, Strife had seen all of the Underworld gods at one time or another and they hadn't ever spoken to him either. It was like none of them wanted anything to do with him. If that was the case then he was asking for trouble by being down here. This was a mistake. Not knowing was better than total rejection.
"I gotta get outta here," he whispered to himself. The sound of his own voice startled him and Strife realized that he'd been so into his thoughts that he'd tuned a few things out. Like the fact that Persephone was gone. She was nice. Maybe he'd apologize for bailing if he ever saw her again, but he really had to get out of here now.
"But you've only just arrived."
Strife spun around with a surprised yelp. There was a doorway behind him he hadn't noticed when he first popped into the room. Where it led he couldn't see because Hades was blocking it.
The God of the Underworld had always looked intimidating from a distance, close up wasn't much of a change, even if he did look different. When Strife had seen him, Hades had always been wearing some form of black armor, usually with a helmet or a crown. Now he just wore a simple dressing gown. But what should've made him look less threatening...didn't.
Strife knew he couldn't just stand there and stare. Hades probably didn't have much patience with someone who'd interrupted what looked to be a relaxing evening or something. But he wasn't sure what to say to get himself out of this. Strife had always thought of Hades as an uncle and now he wasn't sure how to address him. He decided to play it safe and not use any title.
"I'm not s'pposed to be here; I gotta go." Okay, that sounded pathetically desperate. Strife really wished he had more control over what came out of his mouth sometimes.
He might've left then, but Hades' expression stopped him. The Lord of the Underworld was...smiling? There was no malevolence or cruelty there, only plain amusement.
"Sit down, Strife."
And just like that Strife obeyed. One second he was standing there, the next he was sitting in the nearest chair. He didn't remember doing it either. He blinked in confusion, looking down at himself like it wasn't his body. "Huh?"
"Well, I suppose that makes it official." Hades still sounded amused.
"What's going on?" Strife was almost afraid to ask. His life was screwed up enough lately, he really didn't want any more surprises.
"The gods in my House answer to me, Strife. More so than anyone in the House of War answers to Ares. If I give an order, anyone born to this House has to obey. It was as good a test of your parentage as any -- not that there was much doubt after what you did on Olympus."
"But...." How could he express it, this utter confusion? "I--I belong to War." That was one of the few things he'd been certain of his whole life. He wasn't sure he could deal with that being taken from him.
"Only in the sense that Deimos and Phobos do. They share Houses; Love and War."
"War and Death," Strife whispered, still not quite comprehending it.
"It's not a bad mix, if you think about it." Hades walked towards him slowly as though he were taking care not to startle Strife. That was probably a good idea because Strife felt like he'd shatter with any sudden movement.
This just wasn't *happening*! He'd come down here to try and find his father, not to have his life redefined. When he thought about that though...maybe he'd been naive. Deliberately so. He *knew* what it meant to be born into a House, how it defined your loyalties and your place in existence. He had to have known that coming here might very well alter him in some fundamental way. He just hadn't wanted to face it. Now there was no choice.
"What's it mean?" Strife asked, sitting back in the chair with a resigned sigh.
"Probably nothing as drastic as you're thinking." Hades stopped beside the chair, looking down at Strife. "I don't care to fight with my nephew for your custody -- and Ares would fight, birthright bedamned -- besides, there really isn't much for you to do here. But, if you like, I could make a case for you to come down here whenever you'd like, no permission needed from anyone. Zeus would grant that over any objections Ares might have."
"Why?" Strife couldn't help the pleading tone. It sounded like maybe Hades wanted him around and he needed to be wanted, even if he never admitted it.
"There're a few...things none of us can be certain of, but we would like to see you. If you want to be here." Hades reached out, seeming to hesitate for a moment before gently brushing a lock of hair away from Strife's forehead.
Strife looked up at him, still too confused to make much sense of anything. "We?" It was the only thing he could focus on.
Hades dropped his hand with a sigh. "Did you talk to Discord?" When Strife nodded, he continued. "Then you know it was...confusing that night. We -- Morpheus, Phobetor, Phantasus, Hypnos, Thanatos and I -- we tried to find out who'd sired you. The Fates couldn't help us. They said the threads were too tangled that night to make any determination. The best guess anyone can come up with is that it was all of us that made you. It would make sense, considering what was in the wine that night."
The rueful tone caught Strife's attention and he raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"Bacchus only told us it was a new recipe of his, he didn't tell us that Aphrodite had a hand in it," Hades explained. "She wanted to test out a new potion of hers before she gave it to one of her followers. Apparently it was a fertility spell."
That did explain how Hades or Thanatos could have a child at all when it hadn't been possible before.
"She tricked you," Strife said softly, thoughtfully.
"Yeah. That's one of the main reasons she and Discord don't speak anymore."
"A deception." He looked up at Hades. "The God of Mischief born from a deception."
"It does seem like one brought about the other, doesn't it? Or maybe that's just how things were meant to be." Hades smiled affectionately.
Strife didn't get the way Hades had looked at him from the moment he'd first spoken. The only one who'd ever shown him this much...fondness was Cupid and something told him that was different. He wanted to ask what Hades saw when looking at him, but he was so frightened of the answer.
"The bitch finally let him go, I see."
The unfamiliar voice jerked Strife's gaze from Hades. His eyes widened when he saw the gods standing in the doorway. Thanatos had been the one to speak, but Hypnos and Morpheus were right behind him, peering over his wings.
"Be nice, Than," Hades cautioned. "Discord raised him well enough."
Thanatos sneered at that.
"Don't mind him," Hades said to Strife. "He's never forgiven Discord for not letting us see you."
"What?" Strife looked at back up at him. "She didn't--? But, I thought none of you wanted...." His voice trailed off as it suddenly made sense. Discord had never let him go anywhere when he was younger unless she was with him. She'd always steered him clear of anywhere other gods might be. It'd been years before he'd met any of his relatives outside of War, and he'd only managed that because Ares had sent him out on errands. He'd been sheltered, and yeah, he'd always known that, but he'd also thought it was due to his looks and what he was. None of the gods in the House of War had ever said or done anything to correct that impression.
"You really wanted to see me?" He looked sharply from Hades to the other three gods, all sense attuned to any hint of a lie that might be forthcoming.
"No," Morpheus drawled, and Strife's heart sank. "We wanted to help raise you. You belong here with us as much as with those idiots in War."
The change in emotions that statement provoked was so abrupt that Strife couldn't say anything for a few moments. He'd never felt anything like this before. It gripped him, clenching in his chest and almost forcing a true smile from him. He thought it might be...happiness. He managed to control his expression -- years of training under Ares couldn't be forgotten, even if he'd wanted to, and he'd been taught to hold back as much of himself as possible. He hadn't been the best student in that respect, but the conditioning was kicking in now. Even if this all sounded wonderful, he knew what happened with things that were too good to be true and he wouldn't let himself be led into a trap.
"Why'd you let Discord make that kinda decision? If you really wanted me here, you coulda found a way." He wanted to believe them so much but he had to cover every angle. It was bad enough he'd started to let himself hope; if this turned out to be some sort of elaborate set-up for Ares or someone else in War, he'd be hurt enough without throwing himself head-long into the belief that these gods -- almost strangers to him -- actually wanted him here.
"Zeus," Hypnos said cryptically, his sneer a match for his brother's.
Hades explained further. "When we heard that Discord was pregnant, I went to her and asked her to allow you to spend half of your time down here. She said she'd think about it." His tone had turned bitter.
"Yeah, she *thought* about it all right," Thanatos said acidly. "Next thing we knew, she'd gone to Zeus and demanded that we stay away from you when you were born."
"Indeed." Morpheus picked up the story, his own bitterness just as obvious as that of the others'. "Apparently once the Fates determined what domain your godhood would cover, she decided that you belonged to War alone. She got Zeus to agree."
"She always could smooth talk the old man, when she wanted to," Hypnos commented.
"My brother has his...problems with us," Hades touched Strife's hair again, bringing the younger god's attention back to him. "I suppose it's more to do with me, really. So he didn't need all that much convincing. He forbade us from contacting you, or even letting anyone know our connection to you."
And if Strife hadn't lost his temper, or if he'd taken more after the House of War, he might never have known whom his father--fathers were. He didn't know why Discord had done it, but he could guess. It must've been a blow to her pride and reputation, having slept with six gods at once; she wouldn't let humiliation like that go unpunished. Aphrodite may've been at fault but it was these gods who Discord had woken up with, and Strife didn't doubt that she'd figured he was the best thing to use against them.
He never had felt completely at home in War. He'd always assumed that it was his fault somehow, that maybe he wasn't trying hard enough or maybe he was just too slow to learn everything Ares expected of him. But to find out that all this time none of it had been his fault.... He wasn't stupid or wrong in some vital way, he was just *different*, the same way Deimos and Phobos were. Ares never expected complete War-like behavior from them, and he never should've expected it from Strife either. But he couldn't have known. Only Discord or Zeus had been in a position to say anything, and they never had. They'd let him go through misery, hating himself as he struggled uselessly to be what Ares wanted, thinking he wasn't good enough because he couldn't be perfect. And all because Discord and Zeus wanted petty revenge. He'd suffered for nothing more than *that*.
"Strife!" Hades' tone sounded urgent, but Strife really couldn't focus on it. It seemed so trivial in comparison to what he'd just figured out, what his mind was still working through.
But the hands gripping him, the coolness of that touch penetrating through the leather covering his arms, that began to force his concentration away from his thoughts. The calm, insistent voice so near him finished the job. "Look at me, child. Do you see me now?"
Dark, almost black eyes set against a pale face, framed by thick black hair that hung down below a slim waist. Thanatos was crouched in front of the chair Strife sat in, his long fingers tipped with those sharp nails, curled around Strife's upper arms. He looked so serious and maybe...worried?
"'M not a child," Strife said the first thing that came to mind, and was surprised at how hard it was to speak. His voice sounded raw, as though he hadn't used it for a while. "Everyone's always calling me that, you know, but 'm not a kid." And he was babbling too. He really felt so *fuzzy*, like he'd been drugged or something. What the fuck was happening?
"Perhaps not. You are maturing rapidly."
"I'll say." The muttered comment drew Strife's attention to Morpheus who now stood well within the room, a few paces from where Thanatos was crouched. The senior dream god was looking around with raised eyebrows, an almost admiring expression on his face.
Then Strife saw the ice. It coated everything in a light, glittering layer. Frozen proof of the fact that he'd lost his temper, again.
"Fuck." Disgusted with himself, he let his head drop forward -- inadvertently resting it on Thanatos' shoulder. He hadn't noticed the God of Death moving that close.
"Twice in less than two weeks," Hypnos observed from somewhere still near the doorway. "Impressive, if a bit uncontrolled."
"You may not be a child anymore, Strife, but you're still too young to be doing this." Hades' hand came to rest on Strife's shoulder, making him look up at the Lord of the Underworld.
"Not like I mean to, you know. Just happens." Were his words slurring? His confusion must've shown this time because Hades smiled reassuringly.
"We'll work on that. We have a lot to teach you, but not right now. I think you'll need to rest for a while before doing anything else. You should be able to regain energy here just as well as on Olympus. You'll certainly find it quieter here, anyway."
No doubt about that. But as tempting as it sounded, Strife knew it wouldn't happen. "Can't. S'pposed to be doing stuff for Ares. Gonna knock me into the next decade when he finds out I'm down here."
"I seriously doubt that, child." Thanatos released his grip and sat back on his heels. "War can be impulsive in nature, but Ares knows when to think before acting, and he'll understand the concept of a losing battle well enough."
Strife wanted to protest being called "child" again, but he was starting to think that would be pretty futile. Thanatos obviously didn't mean it as an insult and apparently it was just his way. But Strife still didn't buy that Ares would just "let it go" or anything.
"You don't know him," he insisted. He felt so sluggish and drained. But he couldn't risk staying here and he had to make them understand. He wasn't bailing on them, he just had to get out before he got them in trouble or something. "I'm, like, his property, 'k? He's not gonna let me go."
Morpheus snorted, a thoroughly amused sound. Hypnos and Thanatos both smiled. The brothers were similar in appearance, tall, slim and pale with black, feathered wings, but Hypnos didn't have the claws or razor sharp teeth Thanatos was displaying now.
"Cool," Strife whispered, distracted by how bright and shiny those deadly implements were. Thanatos' smile just widened.
"He has no choice, Strife." Hades said, still standing next to him. "You're mature enough to make your own decisions and quite obviously you don't belong entirely to the House of War. Besides, even if my nephew does decide to make an annoyance of himself, there are other ways."
Strife looked up at him, eyebrows raised in question. Hades returned the look with a crooked smile. "Do you like pomegranates?"
It was hard for Strife to recall the last time he'd laughed out of pure humor, untouched by anything malicious. It felt good.


Strife was used to grabbing sleep where and whenever he could. Ares expected his underlings to get their jobs done, he didn't give a damn whether or not it cut into their beauty rest. Gods didn't need sleep the same way mortals did, or rather, not for the same reasons. It was a good way to recharge though. If you were inactive then you could soak up and store much more energy than being on the go.
He could tell that he'd gotten far more rest than he normally ever did at one time, unless he went back to his natural form. But he always had preferred sleep to that. There wasn't much to do in that form but think while he regained his strength, and spending that much time going through his own mind, reviewing his actions and the reactions of those around him -- usually he was pretty depressed the moment he returned to his normal form. With sleep he could accomplish the same thing -- as long as he wasn't too drained -- and he didn't have to spend a moment thinking. In fact, his dreams had always been nice, at the very least. Most of the time they were pretty wild and way more fun than his normal life. He always woke up feeling refreshed and in a good mood, this time wasn't an exception.
Of course, now he realized whom he had to thank for that. Having all of the dream gods as fathers would definitely explain things. They had tried, in their own way, to do something for him all these years. He could appreciate that, especially now when he felt more like himself. Without opening his eyes, Strife stretched his limbs out, tensing his muscles to their limits, holding it a few moments before relaxing again into the soft bedding.
Persephone had brought him here to what she termed his "room" after breaking up the meeting with his fathers. Apparently she'd been waiting not too far away, giving them some privacy but still keeping an ear tuned into the proceedings just in case she was needed. In the aftermath of Strife's little brush with anger she'd decided to step in and let him get some rest. She'd explained it to him as she led him away from the rooms she kept with Hades.
"If I didn't get you out of there, they probably would've let you keep talking until you slipped right into your natural form out of exhaustion. I rather like that room unsinged, so I'll take you to your room so you can get some rest."
"Room?" Strife had looked at her in confusion, too wiped out to process much.
"Yes." Persephone's smile was warm as she placed a hand on his shoulder to guide him. "Hades always hoped you'd come home some day, so he set aside a room for you. It's right over here."
Home. Funny, now that Strife thought about it, he'd never really considered Ares' temple as his home, Discord's either, for that matter. He had rooms in both temples of course, but they were only places to stay, somewhere to crash when he had some down time and nowhere else to be. They didn't hold any level of comfort or even fondness for him. He didn't really have a home. But here he was being offered one. He hadn't known if he'd accept it when Persephone mentioned it, and even now that he'd rested he wasn't sure about that; it was nice to have the option though.
The room itself was only across the hall from the rooms Hades and Persephone kept. It was plain, undecorated, save for a bed and small table by one wall with a chair. There were a couple windows though and Strife could move in whatever stuff he wanted to.
"None of them were sure what you'd want," she'd said of his fathers. "I'm sure they have things they'd like to give you, in time, but this is yours to decorate as you'd like."
She'd had the servants make up the bed for him. Used to black everything from living with Ares, Strife had found the blood red sheets slightly amusing.
"Kinda like sleeping on a battlefield. Cool," he'd commented.
Persephone had shaken her head, her ever-present smile turning amused. "You definitely have much of Thanatos in you. He always was pleased with how you turned out." And she'd left him, shutting the door behind her.
Strife had wondered, still did, about how his other fathers saw him. Did they approve of what he'd become too? Or was he a disappointment? He'd been too tired before to worry about it much, but now it wouldn't go away. None of them had *seemed* to think he was worthless or useless or any of the other things he'd always been called, he just couldn't convince himself that it was a sure thing. He had to see them again, talk to them before he'd truly believe it.
But first he had to deal with whoever had been watching him since he woke up. It'd probably been longer than that, but that's when he'd first felt it.
Strife opened his eyes -- and immediately tensed. His guard went up, slamming into place, wiping away any expression. "Hey, Unc," he said cautiously as he sat up. He'd tossed his clothes over onto the chair before going to bed and now he wished he'd just slept in them. He felt vulnerable enough around the God of War as it was, he really didn't need to be naked on top of it. In what he hoped wasn't too obvious of a move, Strife pulled the covers further around his waist.
Ares was leaning back against the closed door, arms crossed over his chest, watching his nephew. He didn't look annoyed or pissed off in any way, which was what Strife had expected. He'd disobeyed direct orders, after all. Blowing off instructions from the God of War had never been good for his health in the past and he fully expected to pay for it now. Except Ares' expression, his entire stance, just didn't *feel* threatening. He seemed more...contemplative, than anything else, and that wasn't a look he wore very often. Strife didn't know what to make of it.
"She never said anything."
The announcement surprised Strife. "I know," he responded, unable to keep a bit of confusion out of his tone. It'd been obvious from Ares' reaction to Strife's display of anger that he'd never suspected Strife belonged to any other House besides War. So why bother mentioning it?
"No, you don't." That tone clearly said, "shut up when I'm talking," and Strife knew better than to ignore it. Once Ares seemed certain he wasn't going to be interrupted, he continued. "I asked her about the father, but you know Discord." He shrugged.
Oh yeah, Strife knew her all right. Not only would she have refused to answer, she'd probably also found a way to make Ares pay for even asking. Strife himself had certainly paid, finding out just what she'd taken from him by keeping his fathers away. She'd probably counted on just how much it would hurt him, revenge for him for wounding her pride by surprising some of the truth out of her.
"Discord and I have always had something together -- it's an off and on thing; it was on then, when she turned up with you. She never said anything but she let me think you were mine."
That made Strife frown. One of the only things he'd ever been certain of when it came to who his father might be, was that it *wasn't* Ares. He couldn't say why, but it just hadn't ever felt right. He was surprised Ares had thought differently. Okay, maybe he did look like a darker, paler version of Deimos and Phobos, but Discord was Ares' twin and it wasn't all that surprising that she'd turn out a kid that looked like the God of War's own sons.
"No, it *didn't* feel right," Ares answered Strife's expression, a trace of annoyance coloring his voice. "She asked me to train you -- implied that you were my 'responsibility' -- and said you belonged to our House. She knew that was enough to make me think my feelings were wrong."
Strife nodded. They'd both been played, and it explained why Ares had never given up on him, regardless of how badly he screwed up. Ares was too good of a father to neglect anyone he thought he might have sired, even if that person turned out to be a disappointment.
"Hades told me what happened. All of it. I guess you'll have to stay down here a while, until you learn how to control that temper better anyway, and there's nothing I can teach you about that. But don't think you're getting out of this either." He pushed away from the door, uncrossing his arms. "You disobeyed me, coming here instead of delivering that message to my warlord."
The hard edge in Ares' tone almost made Strife shudder, but it was kind of a relief as well. His whole life had changed in a matter of days, but some things would always be the same. He just nodded again, acknowledging his guilt.
"Good." Ares seemed satisfied enough with that. "You'll be doing a lot of things you'll hate, but I'm not gonna 'knock you into the next decade,' Okay?"
Strife winced. Hades really *had* told him everything.
"I've got things to do; wars to start, people to kill, a sister to 'talk to,'" Ares said that last in a deadly tone, and that was enough to make Strife speak up.
"She's mine," he insisted, utterly serious.
Ares studied him before responding, "Maybe. But you aren't getting anywhere near her until you can quit losing your temper. You'd only end up freezing yourself out of existence. I'll leave enough of her around for you to have your turn."
That was all Strife would get and he supposed it would be enough. He *really* wanted a shot at Zeus as well but that just wasn't realistic. Not yet. Maybe there was a way to plan for it, something could always "happen" a few years down the road.
"Six fathers," Ares muttered to himself as he opened the door. "Those guys really *are* the only way to explain you." He shook his head and started to walk out, then paused. "Strife," he didn't look at his nephew, "if I'd known, I would've done things differently."
"I get that, Unc," Strife responded quietly. It was nice to hear though, and it was probably the closest thing to an apology he'd ever get from his uncle.
Ares closed the door behind him, leaving Strife alone once again.
Persephone was waiting for him when Strife left his room some time later.
He knew dwelling on what Discord and Zeus had done to him was a good way to lose his temper again, but he hadn't been able to stop thinking about it entirely. He just felt so *cheated*. He should've grown up here as well as in War; his life never should have been as screwed up as it was now. They had a lot to answer for.
Strife had forced himself to get out of bed and get dressed before his thoughts had him heading towards anger again. Hades seemed to have more patience than Strife had ever thought he would, but he doubted Hades would care much for having a...kid around who couldn't control his temper better.
He'd always protested that he wasn't a kid, but as with Cupid a few days before, Strife now realized how stupid that was. Maybe he was growing up -- faster than he ever had before it seemed -- but to the gods of the Underworld, he was little more than a baby. They'd been around for millennia. He'd have to keep that in mind and try not to let his inexperience annoy them.
Strife was surprised to find Persephone waiting for him. Dressed in a floor length gray dress, she just smiled and placed a hand on his shoulder as she had before and led him through the strange hallways.
"Hades is in the throne room. We've had an influx of new souls and it's getting a bit busy. He wanted to see you when you woke though."
Strife just nodded.
Persephone frowned slightly. "Ares didn't say anything to upset you, did he?"
That made Strife grin ruefully. "Think you woulda noticed if he had. Kinda hard to miss the ice and all."
"I know he didn't anger you, but did anything he said or did upset you in any way?"
Something in her tone made Strife study her more closely than he had before. She looked calm. Too calm. It suddenly occurred to him that even a goddess of nature could cause major damage, even if she wasn't truly angry. Ares would find it pretty hard to conduct a war if the battlefield was abruptly converted to a jungle.
"No, he was cool," Strife answered truthfully. For Ares, that conversation had been way cool. It wasn't often he just talked instead of using physical violence to get his point across.
"All right." Persephone seemed to accept that, her smile returning.
"Um, why's it matter?" Strife wasn't sure he should ask, but he wanted to know.
Persephone moved her hand, letting her arm slide around Strife shoulders. It was a loose, completely friendly hug that Strife had to actively talk himself out of yanking away from. Being touched in any positive way was just so *foreign* to him. It wasn't like it felt wrong, it simply didn't feel normal and he instinctively wanted to get away from it. But he managed not to do more than cringe slightly and he hoped she didn't notice that; he didn't want to offend her. She really *was* nice.
"*You* matter, Strife. I've heard so much about you since I married Hades," she explained. "They couldn't contact you, but all of them kept an eye on you, one way or another. They're all quite pleased with you, you know. Of course, they would have preferred to have a hand in raising you, but I don't think there's much they'd change about how you are now."
That sounded sort of good. But Strife couldn't help thinking that she'd said there wasn't *much* they wouldn't change. So what was it about him they didn't like? Could he fix it or was he just too fucked up? Then they entered the throne room and he was immediately too distracted to think about it any further.
The place was packed with souls. Just a quick glance around showed that they were mostly soldiers, mercenaries, that type. There was the occasional non-military soul wandering around, women, a few children and some young men, all looking too dazed to have fully comprehended their deaths yet. They'd probably gotten caught up in the middle of the fighting, or been victims of soldiers looking for a good time.
Some, the military ones mostly, talked amongst each other. The civilians were doing a lot of moaning, crying and wailing, although a few of them just stood silently, looking lost. The sound was enough to fill the cavernous room with a cacophony of noise, but at the same time that noise seemed...distant somehow. It was almost as if the dead could only make an imitation, an echo of the sounds they'd made in life. It was eerie -- and kind of cool, too.
"Guess Unc got that battle going," Strife observed with a smirk. He'd always taken a strange sort of pleasure in death itself, either causing it or watching the souls stumble around afterwards before they were taken to the Underworld. Even Deimos and Phobos had thought that was weird and they weren't exactly poster boys for normalcy. Ares had tried to break his interest in it -- usually by breaking *him* -- but nothing had ever worked. And now it really did make sense. He wasn't strange, he just had a connection to the House of Death.
"Yes, the House of War keeps us quite busy." Persephone guided him through the milling souls to the twin thrones set against the back wall of the cavernous room.
Hades sat there, dressed in his formal armor, robes and crown. He looked so serious and intimidating, almost *looming* there like that. No real expression on his face but the look in his dark eyes so alert as he took in everything. Strife probably never would have dared approached him without Persephone's arm around his shoulder moving him forward.
"Strife." Hades' eyes settled on the young god and a small smile graced his solemn, pale features.
"Um, hiya," Strife responded uncertainly as they stopped in front of the thrones. He still didn't know how to address Hades, or any of his other fathers, for that matter.
"He had a nice visit with Ares," Persephone said, squeezing Strife's shoulders slightly.
"That's good." There was that dangerous edge to Hades' tone that Strife had heard in Persephone's earlier. But it was gone when Hades next spoke. "Do you know what goes on here?" He indicated the souls with a slight inclination of his head.
"Well, yeah, I guess." Strife glanced at the mass of souls before returning his attention to the Lord of the Underworld. "They're getting judged and shipped off to wherever, right?"
Hades' smile took on a touch of amusement. "In a nutshell, I suppose. Do you know how it's accomplished?"
Actually, he didn't. Not really. Strife had always assumed that Hades took care of it, but he could see now that it worked differently. Hades wasn't interacting with the souls at all. In fact, it looked like there were a couple of other gods somewhere near the middle of the room who were the main focus of attention. It was hard to see over the souls, to get any idea of what was going on.
"Here." Persephone walked up the dais to the thrones, pulling him with her. She removed her arm so she could sit in her own throne, but instead of letting him go entirely, she wrapped one hand around his wrist lightly.
Strife could've pulled away easily, at least he thought so, but if he did he'd probably take off running and that would be on the humiliating side. Instead he let her hold him in place as he watched what was happening.
It seemed that one the two gods was interviewing each soul while the other judged them. Each soul was then escorted off by a rotating series of other gods. It was like a mass production line or something.
"I'm only here to settle any disputes," Hades explained. "They don't come up very often -- Hypnos' boys do well enough on their own -- so I mostly just sit here looking intimidating."
That almost surprised a laugh out of Strife, but he was quick enough to hold it back. He didn't want the kind of attention that would attract, even if it was from dead people. It was bad enough that he was getting the occasional strange glance from the dead military ones. They probably recognized him from whatever battles he'd shown up at with Ares and were wondering what business he had down here. Strife was starting to wonder that himself.
Hades had already said there wasn't anything Strife could do here, no job waiting for him or anything. So other than hanging around, bothering the gods who did have jobs to do, what could he possibly do here? He didn't know how to ask either.
"They're Hypnos' kids?" he asked instead, watching the dark haired gods working with the souls.
"A few of them. He gets around, so you have a fair number of brothers. No sisters though."
"Aren't Morpheus, Phobetor and Phantasus, Hypnos' too?" Strife frowned, considering that for the first time.
"Yes," Hades confirmed.
Great. So three of his fathers were also his brothers. No, that wasn't at all screwed up. And he'd thought the Olympian families were whacked. "Does my family tree fork at any point?"
Placing a hand over her mouth muffled Persephone's laughter, but Hades didn't bother. The sound of the Lord of the Underworld laughing out loud was apparently rare enough make everyone stop what they were doing, gods included, and stare. Strife resisted the urge to cringe away when some of the focus was directed at him.
"We're gods, Strife. What does it matter?" Hades asked when he finally stopped laughing.
Right. He'd obviously never seen Deimos on a bad day, or a good day, for that matter. There was living proof that while Ares had lucked out with Cupid, he shouldn't have temped fate a second time. When it came to sanity, Strife knew he wasn't exactly a shining example either. He wasn't as bad as a few gods he could think of, but he could definitely get...strange sometimes. His opinion of the subject must have shown on his face because Hades sighed and reached out to grasp Strife's free wrist. As he drew the younger god towards him, Persephone released her hold. They really made a great tag team.
"You turned out just fine, Strife," Hades assured him. "Granted, you can't say the same of some of the other gods around these days, but it's nothing that you need to worry over. If there were...problems, they would've shown up by now. I think you ended up with some of the best things in all of us."
"You have Thanatos' love of death, Morpheus' sense of humor, Phobetor and Phantasus' talents with shape shifting -- yes, we've all heard about your adventures in that respect -- you have Hypnos' control, whether you realize it yet or not, and his calmness, when you need it, and from me, I think you inherited your cleverness and intelligence. Maybe that's bragging on my part, but yes, you *are* intelligent."
Strife hadn't intended to argue with Hades' pronouncement, but yeah, he didn't really agree with it either. He was quick enough, he knew that. Maybe he was even clever, but intelligent? He wasn't sure about that. What he had was a sort of animal cunning,
a natural instinct that kept him one step ahead of most people, divine or not. Was that intelligence? He didn't know.
"Remember that you're still very young, Strife," Persephone said, touching her fingers to his hand to gain his attention. "You can't expect to have reached your full potential yet. Given a century or two I think you'll be quite formidable."
It was nice to hear, but it didn't mean he believed her anymore than he did Hades. He gave her a slight smile though as thanks; she was just too nice to blow off.
"Hypnos wants to see you today," Hades changed the subject but didn't release his grip on Strife's wrist. "I imagine he'd like to work on your control a bit. Not that you didn't do well enough yesterday, reining it in like that, but you have plenty to learn. He'll want to introduce you to Phobetor and Phantasus as well."
That distracted Strife from worrying about his abilities, or lack of them. He'd wondered about his other two fathers, why they hadn't come with their brother Morpheus. Of course he knew about Phobetor and Phantasus, who they were, what they did and all, but he'd never heard anything about what they were like on a personal level. It actually made Strife nervous, wondering what they'd think of him, what they'd say. Again, if Hades hadn't been holding on to him, he'd probably have bolted.
Then Hypnos was there. Strife hadn't seen him approach, but the God of Sleep stood at the foot of the dais, smiling at him. It was a crooked type of smile and it was a second or two before Strife recognized it as an expression found fairly often on his own face.
"Ready?" the winged god asked.
"Uh, sure." Distracted by the feel of Hades finally releasing him, Strife glanced at the Lord of the Underworld. Hades just smiled. Before Strife could try to figure that out, his wrist was gripped yet again, yanking his attention back to Hypnos who now stood right in front of him.
"This is a lot to take in, I know, but you don't have anything to worry about. My boys are really looking forward to seeing you. Morpheus hasn't heard the end of it since his brothers found out he sneaked off to see you before they could."
Strife grinned slightly in response. He hadn't exactly gotten to talk to Morpheus, but he'd liked the impression he'd gotten of him.
"We have to transport there; you can't just walk into the dream realm. Technically it's part of the Underworld, but it kind of exists in its own place."
Before Strife could ask any of the many questions that brought up, he felt everything *shift* and the throne room and the distant noise of milling souls, and a still-smiling Hades, abruptly disappeared.
"C'mon, you won't even *think* about it?" Strife knew it was bordering on whining, but that was half the fun. He couldn't have gotten rid of the wide grin on his face if he'd wanted to, and he didn't. "I mean, I *know* her; Iíd do a *seriously* kick-ass job."
"Forget it," Phobetor and Phantasus chorused, although they were both obviously fighting the urge to match Strife's grin.
They weren't twins, these shape shifting dream gods, but they did closely resemble each other. Both shared Hypnos' thin frame and dark hair, but there was none of the calm serenity that their father projected; they were actually kind of hyper in the way they constantly fidgited, even while seated. Strife could relate.
"I have no doubts whatsoever that you'd do an excellent job," Morpheus said dryly. "However, I don't care *how* inaccessible from the mortal realm we are here, Xena would find a way in and 'express her displeasure' with us, vehemently."
"I can't even toss out some suggestions?"
"Well *you're* no fun." Strife deliberately pouted as he slumped down in his chair. He deliberately didn't think about the chair he was in, he'd learned early on not to do that. It wasn't real. Not in the sense he was used to anyway. Nothing here was real.
It looked like they were all sitting around in a wooden cabin of some sort -- Morpheus had created it. There were chairs, most of them empty, a couch that Morpheus sprawled on, and a table where his brothers had seated themselves. There were what looked like portals on the walls, but Strife didn't look out any of them. He'd done that, once.
A few years ago Demeter had shown up at Apollo's birthday party with something "special" she'd grown in her private garden. Strife didn't remember much after that, just the occasional flash of reality as he knew it turning itself inside out, along with his mind. None of the gods at that party had been "right" for weeks afterwards. Strife hadn't liked it and didn't want to experience that kind of weirdness again, but when he'd looked out one of the portals in this room, it'd been a bad trip all over again. He kept his gaze firmly on his fathers, ignoring everything else.
He'd figured out -- by landing on his ass a few times -- that if he concentrated too much on anything around him, including his chair, the simple thoughts the objects were formed from were disrupted and the objects vanished. Everything here was little more than thought, the substance of dreams, and it was flimsy stuff.
But Strife had learned a lot about control. Hypnos had taught him a few things before dropping him off here to see his other fathers. Strife didn't know how long he'd been with Hypnos, checking out the rest of the dream realm, but it seemed like a while and during that time, the winged god had given him some practical advice.
Control, as far as his anger was concerned, could be as simple as distracting himself. He'd actually done that during his conversation with Ares. He could avoid getting angry like that. But there were ways of *using* that anger, of deliberately calling it up and keeping it simmering instead of full-blown so he could still think clearly. That was a matter of self-discipline and it wasn't nearly as easy as avoiding it all together. Strife still had a lot of practicing to do with that.
For now though, he just wanted to hang with the other three dream gods until Thanatos came for him. The death god wanted to show him how souls were released and collected -- Strife just wanted to see people die. Hypnos had rolled his eyes at that, but promised that Strife's attitude would please Thanatos to no end. There was not telling when the Reaper would show up to collect him, death came in his own time, after all, so Strife just enjoyed getting to know these three.
Morpheus was the senior god when it came to developing the dreams. Phobetor and Phantasus created the dreams themselves, taking on any shape needed, but Morpheus put all the images together, fashioning them into the format in which they'd be delivered. Hypnos did the delivery himself. He was off doing that now.
"I dunno how you guys pull it off," Strife commented when the laughter his pouting caused had died down. "I mean, there's a few thousand mortals out there and you gotta make dreams for them. Aren'tchya getting backlogged just from sitting here talking? We've been at it like, hours."
Morpheus just raised an eyebrow. Phobetor glanced at Phantasus, the glance they exchanged unreadable. Then Phantasus laughed. It was a high-pitched giggling sound that Strife had been startled by at first. It was like hearing himself, after all, but he was used to it now.
"Don't you get it?" Phobetor asked over his brother's laughter. "There *is* no time here. Not like you're thinking anyway."
"Uh, nope. Not getting it." Strife sat up with a shake of his head. This was the first he'd heard of anything like this.
"Here, time passes as quickly or as slowly as you think it does," Morpheus explained. "It can stop all together, or even run backwards. It's all in your perception. If you want hours or days to pass, they will. But if you want to return to the mortal world seconds after you first came down here, just think about it and it'll happen. Reality is in your mind in the Underworld."
"*All* of the Underworld?" Strife wondered aloud.
"Yep," Phantasus confirmed. "Gods like you or Hades that deal with mortal concepts of time tend to see it as more linear than it really is, so even when you're down here you're still thinking that time is passing. It doesn't have to. Same on Olympus, but they're all really into the whole linear thing there so it doesn't work as well."
"It's different here," said Phobetor. "We all *know* time is just a concept. Make it what you want."
Strife had to think about that one. Okay, yeah, he knew time wasn't as linear as mortals thought it was, but he hadn't thought it was that flexible either. It made sense though. Why *would* time pass here? There was no way the dream gods could do their jobs if it did. There simply wouldn't be enough time. If it were limitless though, or just non-existent, then everything and nothing could be done.
"Wow," he muttered as his mind wrapped itself around the concept. He looked up at his fathers. "Think I could test that out?"
"How?" Morpheus looked suspicious and Strife couldn't blame him. He *was* the God of Mischief after all.
"Just a little trip up to the mortal world. Someplace deserted."
"If you'd like." Morpheus shrugged.
"Try staying for an hour or something," Phantasus suggested, "then come back here the moment you left. It's kind of tricky, but you should be able to handle it."
Strife nodded slowly, thinking about it. "Could work," he agreed. "Be back then."
Standing on the old, deserted battlefield, Strife grinned to himself. This had possibilities.
A thought, little more than a slight manipulation of reality, had brought him here mere seconds after he'd originally left Olympus for the Underworld. To his mind, used to thinking in more linear time, that had been days ago, but had it really? Phantasus had mentioned that time didn't work the same on Olympus either, not like here in the mortal world anyway. But how different was it? Could he spend days or weeks on Olympus and have no time pass here, or were the other gods too focused on the concept of time passing for it to work there? He had to run a few tests.
Okay, so maybe he'd kind of implied that he'd be staying in the mortal world for an hour or so, but he had to check this out. A little side trip to Olympus couldn't hurt -- well, just so long as he stayed out of Ares' way. In fact, to play it safe he'd probably have to try and "time" this visit so Ares wouldn't be there. That meant another small manipulation of time. He figured a day should do it.
He quickly found it wasn't as simple as that.
He chose Hera's gardens as his destination. He was more familiar with the place than most would suspect. Filled with multitudes of trees and flowers, colors in every shade imaginable -- and some mortals wouldn't think of, scents blending together perfectly to create a scent mortal women would kill to wear; it was so beautiful in all aspects that it just wasn't somewhere that anyone in Strife's House would think to look for him, and that made it a good hiding spot. In the past it'd given him a place where he could think without being disturbed, figure out ways to do jobs for Ares, or how to pull off tricks and other things on his own time. He suspected that Hera knew he spent time there -- it *was* her garden and she kept a close eye on it -- but he didn't mess with anything so if she did know, she left him alone. Now he needed the relative privacy for a little experiment.
Except he didn't get that far. The instant he appeared on Olympus he realized something had gone wrong. It wasn't the one-day difference he'd expected from the mortal world. He could sense that it was two days, almost three later. The exact amount of time he'd *thought* he'd spent in the Underworld before learning about time manipulation.
"Well, fuck," he muttered. It wasn't going to work. If thought determined reality on Olympus then, as far as time was concerned, all the gods here thought that it passed the way it did in the mortal realm. There was nothing Strife could do to change that, not on his own anyway and this was one trick he didn't feel like sharing. Besides, it wasn't a total loss, even if he couldn't make this work on Olympus, he could always pop into the Underworld whenever he needed that kind of time manipulation.
And that reminded him that he needed to get back. He was pretty sure that Ares was still involved in a battle and that usually meant that everyone from the House was with him, but it wasn't a good idea to risk it. If one of the others saw him and reported his presence to Ares, Strife didn't doubt he'd be back running errands, probably for the next decade. He wanted to put that off for as long as possible.
The disembodied voice made Strife curse. Just a second or two later and he would've been safe! But right on the heels of that thought was the realization that the voice didn't belong to anyone in War, in fact, he kind of didn't mind this visitor.
When Cupid appeared moments after his voice, a few paces in front of Strife, the God of Mischief couldn't help the slight smile he greeted his cousin with. It was good to see him. Then he took in Cupid's harried appearance and raised an eyebrow. He hadn't seen his cousin looking this, well, frazzled since before Strife had started helping to look after Bliss.
Right on cue, Bliss appeared. Hovering between them, Bliss took one look at Strife, yelled happily, and then threw himself at his cousin. Strife automatically caught the flying bundle of energy, but a protest was already forming on his lips. "Cupid, I can--"
"Great!" Cupid cut him off, a look of almost comic relief on his handsome face. "All of the other gods are busy but I knew I could count on you, Strife. I'll be back for him in a day or so." He disappeared in a shower of gold sparkles, not giving Strife a chance to say anything.
"Oh, fu--" Strife glanced down at Bliss, "darn." Bliss grinned up at him, then hugged him hard.
"Miss you," the toddler said, his grin switching to a pout.
Strife, used to the fast mood changes just shook his head. "Yeah, kid, missed you too." He sighed in frustration. "Got some bad news for you though; this ain't gonna work today. Not that I don't wantchya," he added quickly, seeing the familiar wide-eyed look that usually proceeded a crying fit. "You know I like hanging with you, Bliss. It's just that I can't take you with me today."
"Wha?" Strife frowned down at the toddler, then made the connection. "Oh! About whatchya said last time?"
Bliss nodded, looking like he really did regret it.
"Thanks, kid. Sorry if I scared you too. Didn't mean for none of that to happen," Strife admitted. "But it's got nothing to do with why I can't take you with me today. I'm not angry with you, okay? It's just -- has your dad said you could visit the Underworld yet?"
The winged toddler shook his head.
"Didn't think so." Strife sighed again. "Don't think I woulda broughtchya if he had. You're not really ready to meet Thanatos -- not sure most gods are. Think I'm only dealing 'cause he's one of my dads." Bliss was looking confused and it was a cute look on him, but Strife wanted him to get it so there wasn't a chance of a temper tantrum or something later. "It's like this, kid: where I'm going, if I took you with me, you'd be scared. Nightmares, okay?"
Now Bliss looked like he understood. He nodded solemnly.
"Good." Strife ruffled his short blond hair. "But I gotta figure out where to stash you 'till Cupid can take you back. If all the gods are busy, that's not leaving a lotta choices. Who's your dad or mom usually leave you with?"
"Strife." Bliss grinned.
"Yeah, that I got." Strife rolled his eyes. "I mean, when you're not with one of us gods, who would your dad wantchya staying with?"
That had the toddler thinking. Strife waited as patiently as possible, keeping his senses alert for any sign of another god. If Cupid had found him then there was every chance of someone from War finding him as well. He couldn't stay here much longer.
"Unc Herc!" Bliss said triumphantly.
Strife stared at him a moment, hoping he'd heard that wrong. When Bliss just continued to smile at him, he closed his eyes with a soft curse. Not soft enough. His eyes snapped right back open when Bliss repeated the word.
"Cupid's gonna kill me," he muttered to himself as the toddler continued to say the word. "Hold up a sec, Bliss," he ordered quickly. When Bliss stopped speaking and watched him attentively, he continued. "I know, much as I wantchya to, you're not gonna forget that word and you're probably gonna say it where your mom and dad can hear you, but do you think you can do me a favor?" Bliss nodded, earning a grin from Strife. "Good. Whenever anyone asks you where you learned that word, or any other bad ones, I wantchya to tell 'em that Great-Grandpa Zeus taught 'em to you, 'k?"
"Grandpa Zeus," Bliss said.
"Close enough. Just remember that. Now I s'ppose I gotta getchya to Hercules." Strife sighed, his smile disappearing at the thought.
He'd hoped not to have to see Hercules for a long time. He wasn't sure he was ready for it this soon after what had happened; the humiliation from what Bliss had revealed was still a little too fresh. Not that he thought Hercules would be stupid enough to even open his mouth around him for a while. Hercules knew enough about gods to recognize true anger when he saw it, Xena too for that matter, and didn't *that* present a whole other set of chances for humiliation. There'd been way too many witnesses to Bliss' little revelations and there wasn't anything Strife could do about it. Killing any one of them would piss off *some* god. He'd just have to hope they had sense enough not to go telling tales around Greece, especially Autolycus and that annoying blond bard of Xena's. Xena was smart, she'd probably do what she could to control Gabrielle. There was no one controlling Autolycus but he hadn't gotten to be the King of Thieves without an instinct for survival. Hopefully that would kick in and he'd keep his mouth shut.
Still standing there, Strife realized he was just stalling. Better to get this over with. Letting his mind touch the mortal plane, he sought out the familiar feel of Hercules' presence. It was only the work of mere seconds to find it and lock on to the location. Then he transported himself and Bliss there.
Hercules and Iolaus were in the middle of fixing dinner. They'd set up camp a clearing some distance from the road they must have been traveling. There was a stream only a few yards away and most of their clothing was hanging on various low tree branches, drying. It looked like they'd been here some time, actually. One look at Hercules explained that.
He really didn't look all that healthy. Sitting slumped on the ground near the small campfire, he looked pale and tired. A white bandage was wrapped around his throat and Strife immediately understood. Cupid had said Hercules had a bad case of frostbite. Obviously the wound had gotten infected and it was slowly eating away at Hercules' strength. If he'd been mortal it would've already killed him. Cupid had also mentioned that Hercules had been trying to get the other gods to heal it. The problem was that no other god *could* heal it. Strife had done the damage in anger and only he could cure it.
"Damn," Strife muttered, knowing what he'd have to do now.
He hadn't appeared directly in their camp, or where he could easily be seen. He'd wanted to take stock of the situation first before deciding how to proceed. He stood some ways away, concealed by trees and shrubbery. On a normal day he didn't doubt that maybe Iolaus and definitely Hercules would've either sensed him or spotted him within seconds of his appearance, but they were both too distracted by Hercules' illness for much of anything else to register. Sloppy, in Strife's opinion.
Bliss picked that moment to prove that Strife wasn't immune to sloppiness himself. He'd made the mistake of taking his attention from the toddler for more than a second. Bliss used that opportunity to disappear.
"Fuck!" Strife hissed, knowing that he'd be very lucky to pick up Bliss' trail now. He didn't have a lock on the kid when he escaped and Bliss was becoming good at hiding his own power signature.
Then his problems were solved. A small flash of light and Bliss was hovering in front of Hercules, frowning at his uncle.
Iolaus nearly dropped the pan he was frying their dinner in. Fortunately traveling with Hercules seemed to have allowed him to become used to sudden godly appearances because he recovered from his surprise before the fish could spill out into the fire. Hercules just gave Bliss a rather sickly looking smile.
"Unc Herc?" Bliss seemed to realize something wasn't right. Not surprising; the vibes coming from the camp were far from bright and cheery.
"Hi, Bliss. Shouldn't you be with your mom or dad?" Hercules asked tiredly.
Bliss shook his head. "What's wrong, Unc?"
Iolaus was the one who answered, carefully setting the frying pan aside at the same time. "Herc's kinda sick right now, Bliss. But don't worry, he'll be fine." He didn't sound all that convinced and Bliss picked up on that, his frown growing.
"Uncle Apollo!" The toddler suddenly announced triumphantly.
Iolaus and Hercules traded meaningful glances. "Yeah, sure. We'll try asking Apollo. Thanks, Bliss," said Hercules. Quite obviously Apollo was the first one they'd gone to. Bliss apparently realized that as well because his expression turned to disappointment and he dropped down to sit beside Hercules on his uncle's bedroll.
Still standing there, watching, Strife realized that there wasn't really anything he *had* to do now. He'd intended to heal Hercules so he'd baby-sit Bliss, but the toddler had simply taken matters into his little hands and now it looked like Iolaus and Hercules would watch him regardless of Hercules' health. Strife didn't have to get involved at all. Granted, at some point he'd probably get a message from Zeus ordering him to heal his favorite son, but that wouldn't be for a long time, not until it became obvious that Hercules might die from infection or something. At the moment it could go either way so it was possible that being a demi-god, his body would eventually shake it off and Strife would never have to deal with him.
That sounded great to Strife. He was all for staying away from those two after the embarrassment of last time. So he couldn't explain why he found himself moving away from the concealment of the flora and walking towards the camp. He didn't really *want* to be doing this at all, but something somewhere in him was telling him that he needed to.
Hercules saw him first but Iolaus was right behind him. He'd been getting out eating utensils but immediately dropped everything, standing quickly to face what he probably saw as an approaching threat. Hercules stood as well, most likely doing his best to appear steadier than he looked. Bliss just watched it all with an open expression of interest.
Ignoring Iolaus, Strife walked right up to Hercules, stopping just inches from him. He had to give Hercules credit there, even with Strife invading his personal space he didn't flinch or back away. Hercules may have been taller than Strife but there was *no* way he could come out on top of a fight in his condition, he still wasn't going to show any weakness though. Strife approved.
He continued to watch Hercules' expression carefully, not saying anything and not really certain what he was looking for. There was wariness and suspicion, of course, but no fear, not even the slightest hint of it. Strife raised a hand and with a slight motion, barely more than a flick of his fingers, made the bandage around Hercules' neck disappear. Hercules didn't react and Strife was watching him closely enough to catch even the faintest twitch. Impressive.
Strife let his gaze drop down to Hercules' neck and it was he that reacted, eyebrows raising in surprise. It wasn't just a simple case of frostbite; gangrene had set in and was progressing despite Hercules' semi-divine state. But that wasn't the interesting thing. The original patch of frostbite was still easily visible, a large, black area in the shape of a hand. Strife's hand.
"That's gotta hurt," Strife commented with a slight smirk. Hercules would've had to show that to every god he'd asked for help. It was visible proof of how dangerous it was to get Strife angry, which would be a lot more impressive when Strife actually learned better control over that anger. He had some idea of how to do that now, but not enough. Still, it was pretty cool. "Wouldn't wanna be you with that."
That got a reaction. Just a very slight clenching of the jaw, but Strife caught it and his smirk widened. Sometimes pushing Hercules' buttons was more a matter of persistence than artistry, but it was fun either way. Strife really didn't have time to stand around and see how many reactions he could get though. Well, okay, maybe *time* wasn't the issue as such, he was just impatient to get back.
It was disappointing and he knew that showed, but he still reached out and grazed the tip of his finger over the frostbitten skin. A surge of power -- more of a drain than he would've liked, but the infection was also more advanced than he'd thought -- and a few seconds later the wound began to slowly heal.
Hercules didn't even bother to hide his reaction this time, gasping, eyes widening in shock as the healing continued. In a matter of moments the infection cleared and the skin began to return to its normal, healthy color.
That was all Strife could do. Any physical energy Hercules' body had expended trying to heal itself was beyond Strife's ability to restore and he wouldn't have done it anyway. That much Hercules could do on his own and Strife wasn't interested in making life any easier for him than he had to. He'd only done this much because.... Well, he wasn't sure why he'd done it, exactly. Wasn't all that interested in thinking about it either.
"You've got Bliss for the night. I can't take him. Cupid doesn't know the kid's here so you'll haveta yell for him when you wanna give the little guy back. Just try to make it a few hours, huh?" Strife said, stepping away and putting some distance between them. Suddenly he was a bit uncomfortable being that close to Hercules.
He looked down at Bliss, intending to tell the toddler to behave so his mom and dad could have a break, but Bliss' expression stopped him. The kid looked excited, almost vibrating with energy where he sat. That might've been just a result of his getting to spend time with "Unc Herc," but he also looked amused. Strife had only seen that expression when Bliss had pulled a good trick on someone.
"you set me up," Strife nearly whispered in shock. As unlikely as it seemed, every instinct towards mischief he possessed was suddenly screaming at him that that's exactly what had just happened. He just couldn't figure out *how*. A quick look at Hercules and Iolaus showed utter confusion there; they didn't have clue one what he was talking about. Asking Bliss would be useless; the kid could keep a secret when he felt like it. He was on his own here.
Apparently Bliss had wanted him to heal Hercules, that's why they'd come here in the first place. But was he in on it alone? It was possible he'd done it just to "make things right" or whatever, but Strife had the feeling there was more to it. And there was someone else in on it too. If Strife couldn't spot the con right off, then it was too complicated for just Bliss to have thought it up. That only left one logical explanation: Cupid was behind this. But *why* and for what? What did Cupid get from this? Obviously Bliss was in on it so this wasn't any sort of lesson for the kid -- or maybe it was, in a way, and Strife just couldn't see it. Like he couldn't see what the point behind this whole set-up was. He'd have to just swallow his pride and ask Cupid. But later. He had other things to do right now.
"Watch him," Strife ordered Hercules and Iolaus, pointing towards a smirking Bliss. Focusing on the Underworld, pinpointing the Dream Realm, Strife locked on to it and transported himself there.
Appearing back in the same "chair" he'd been sitting in before, Strife slumped down in it with a groan. The other gods were right where he'd left them. Morpheus was watching him with a raised eyebrow. Phobetor mirrored the expression but it was Phantasus who spoke.
"Two minutes, by mortal reckoning. A little sloppy there."
Strife just shook his head. "That's all? Two minutes? Fuck, you wouldn't *believe* the afternoon I had."

Eventually Strife did have to leave the Underworld. Not that he'd wanted to; all the gods there were totally cool. Morpheus, Phantasus and Phobetor were more like really bitchin' older brothers, the kind Strife wished he'd had instead of Deimos and Phobos. Hypnos and Hades had felt more like actual fathers with the whole authority figure thing going on. Strife had been cool with that. He'd liked them, even Hades who'd intimidated him at first. Just so long as Hades didn't order him around.
With Ares Strife could choose to obey or not, whatever suited him if he felt like dealing with the consequences; with Hades he didn't have a choice. Hades said "jump" and Strife couldn't even ask "how high?" he just had to do it. Fortunately Hades had seemed to get that Strife really resented someone having that kind of control over him so he hadn't given Strife another order since that first time.
Thanatos had turned out to be Strife's favorite though. He and Death incarnate had *seriously* clicked. Granted, Strife didn't have Thanatos' flair and artistry where causing mortal death was concerned, and he probably never would, but that wasn't what had mattered. He *got* Thanatos. He'd totally understood where the other god was coming from, how Thanatos *was* his job.
Other gods weren't always like that. In fact, most of the pantheon viewed their jobs as just that, a *job*. Sure, they spent a good part of their daily lives doing it, but they had other interests. Hey, even Ares had hobbies. But not Thanatos. He *was* death. It was his existence and he reveled in it. Strife was right there with him.
Strife had always lived his job. He'd really never had any other interests which had been one more thing making him stand out as totally weird in his House. Even his fascination with death had grown out of a need to find new ways of causing trouble. Of course now he'd realized that the whole death thing was genetic but that didn't change the fact that it still meshed with making mischief. Nothing better than a few strategic deaths in an enemy camp to throw them into chaos. A creatively desecrated corpse showing up in the market square of a town that had displeased the gods was always good for sending a message. Whenever Ares or anyone else on Olympus really wanted a mortal dead and they couldn't or wouldn't do it themselves for some reason or another, word had gotten around that Strife would be more than happy to take the job. It was just one more way he'd been able to spread, well, strife.
Thanatos had seemed to understand Strife just as well. They'd certainly done some major bonding anyway. Bonding over severed limbs, exposed viscera and shrieking soon-to-be corpses, but they'd bonded. It'd all been good to Strife.
And they'd all wanted him back. Every one of them had made a point of telling him that not only was he very welcome in the Underworld, but they'd expected to see him there on a regular basis. Hades had assured him that Ares wouldn't stop Strife from coming to visit frequently and after that little "conversation" with his uncle, Strife had been starting to believe it. Even Persephone had really seemed to want him around, always smiling at him, *hugging* him and making sure he was completely comfortable there. He'd never experienced *anything* like that before.
All the attention, the acceptance, it should've scared him. And maybe on some level he did freak out, unable to process *that* after a lifetime of not fitting in, but the rest of him had been well on its way to believing that this was really happening. He'd had more of a family than he'd thought and they wanted him. He wasn't strange, just another god from mixed Houses, like so many others. If he'd wanted it, he could probably have had a home in the Underworld. All of his fathers, and Persephone, had offered it to him in one way or another. just hadn't felt completely right. Yeah, he'd loved hanging out in the Underworld and he'd probably keep going back, he'd been *wanted* there after all. But home? Nope. Close but not quite there.
That had kind of worried Strife. If he couldn't feel totally at home in either House he'd been born to, then just where was home for him? Was he going to spend the next few eternities bouncing back and forth between War and Death, sort of satisfied but never totally content or even happy? Strife hadn't wanted to think that, but what else was there? Maybe he'd just have to enjoy what he had. He'd *finally* found his fathers and that'd been more than he'd expected. He'd found out so much about himself, what had made him who he was, and that was way more than some gods ever got. It'd just have to be enough.
When he'd returned from the Underworld, Strife had received the welcome he'd expected. Basically a whack upside the head from Ares accompanied by a, "Why in Tartarus did you have to *heal* Hercules? He could've suffered for *months* before Zeus made you do it!" Of course Strife hadn't had a good answer for that, he still hadn't figured it out himself, so Ares had just rolled his eyes and had given him a pile of shit work to do. Double punishment for running off and healing Ares' despised half brother.
Strife was content enough to do what Ares told him to. Before they'd found out he was part of Death, Ares would never have been satisfied with a simple punch, he would've spent a good half hour at the least bouncing Strife off various hard surfaces. But in the Underworld Ares had told him he would've done things differently if he'd known about Strife's true parentage, and now it seemed that Ares was intending to handle his nephew more like he did Deimos and Phobos: a short, to the point lecture, a couple slaps and some crap work as a reminder that when Strife worked in War, he had to keep his mind focused there and not on anything else.
Strife had found that he rather preferred this method, even if it did mean he had to spend all of his time running errands. The only thing he'd ever learned from Ares' beatings was how to duck and how to resent his uncle and everyone in War who loved seeing others on the receiving end of the God of War's temper. This way he'd be able to spend time thinking instead of trying to heal himself enough to carry out the errands. He'd learned to appreciate that over the days when he was given more errands but received no physical punishment, and he'd been grateful. Not that he'd been foolish enough to say anything. He'd learned early on from Ares that some things were understood and words were unnecessary. This new treatment from his uncle had fallen under that.
He hadn't seen much of anyone else from War since coming back from the Underworld. Deimos and Phobos hadn't done more than give him a nod or two in passing and Discord had simply been anywhere Strife wasn't. Strife had suspected Ares of deliberately keeping them apart, but that wasn't a problem. He'd known he wasn't really ready to talk to her yet anyway. Maybe in a few months, once he'd learned how to control his anger better.
He'd had plenty of other things to worry about anyway. Playing errand boy for Ares was a temporary thing and he'd wondered just what his uncle had planned for him now. It wouldn't have surprised him if his duties in War changed due to his new circumstances, but he hadn't been able to figure out just how that would work out. He'd been happy enough killing, maiming and causing general mayhem for War, so how would Ares change that? Strife hadn't been able to think of much of anything, so what Ares had finally decided on had taken Strife completely by surprise.
"What?" That was the only response Strife could come up with to what he'd just heard.
When he'd gotten yet another summons from the God of War, he'd shown up here in the main room of Ares' Olympian temple expecting yet another load of messages to deliver from one end of Greece to another. He hadn't expected...this.
Slouched down in his throne, Ares sighed in exaggerated patience. "How old are you, Strife?"
"I dunno, sixty, seventy, something like that." Standing near the throne, Strife shrugged. What did it matter anyway? A god's age rarely said anything about how old they were mentally. Ares knew that -- and suddenly Strife began to understand where this was going. "Twenty-two, maybe a couple years older in mortal terms," he amended, now knowing that was what his uncle was looking for, not his age from birth.
"Yeah." Ares threw a leg over the arm of his throne, settling himself more comfortably before continuing. "You've grown up these past few weeks. Not bad. Thought it would take you a few more decades to get this far."
Strife couldn't help a small smirk at Ares' idea of time. He'd spent a lot longer than just days down in the Underworld, if you wanted to calculate it in linear time. But Ares might not appreciate the joke so he quickly schooled his expression to something more serious as the God of War continued to speak.
"The point is, you're old enough -- mature enough -- to be on your own. I've been keeping an eye on you because the last thing the world needed was a kid made for causing trouble, running amok. You don't need a watchdog anymore and frankly I've got better things to do."
"So...what now?" Strife got it, but not totally. He was feeling a little lost. "Do I gotta find somewhere else to hang? Are you kicking me out? What?"
Ares began drumming his fingers on his leather-clad thigh, a sure sign of growing annoyance. "Don't be a complete imbecile, Strife. You're part of War; you belong here as much as...down there. You just have more freedom now."
Freedom? And that meant what? "But you're the head of War. Don't I gotta obey you or something?"
This time when Ares' sighed his expression showed rapidly diminishing patience. "Go do what you want, within reason. Clear anything big with me first and when I have something I need you for, you'll know about it and I expect you to show. *Now* do you get it? Or should I try for words of less than one syllable?"
"Nope, all good here, Unc." Strife held up his hands in reflex, backing away. Maybe Ares hadn't smacked him around much lately, but habits were ingrained and Strife thought it was a good idea to listen to his and get out of range.
Another roll of Ares' eyes, but the drumming of his fingers stopped and he lost that look that promised pain for whomever got too close. "Strife," he hesitated and Strife frowned. If he didn't know better, he'd have thought Ares regretted slipping back into old, threatening habits. But there wasn't much the God of War regretted and scaring his nephew wasn't anywhere near making that short list.
Flipping a stray black curl off his shoulder, Ares looked away from him, focusing on the collection of bright, deadly weapons displayed on the walls. "Get outta here." There wasn't a hint of even slight annoyance there. It wasn't even an order, more like a fond farewell, almost. It was the strangest thing Strife had ever heard from Ares.
Strife didn't say anything, couldn't even think how to respond to that. He just nodded.
"Oh, Strife?" Ares didn't look at him but fortunately that strange tone was gone. Now he sounded fairly business-like which was a relief.
Strife raised an eyebrow in question, knowing he didn't have to respond verbally. Ares would know he had his nephew's attention.
"Stop by Cupid's temple before you go running off. He's been a pain in the ass lately, something about Bliss again."
For a brief moment Strife verged on panicking. He hadn't heard from Bliss since he'd dropped the kid off with Hercules and Iolaus. What if something had gone wrong? What if he'd been hurt somehow? What if -- he was being totally played.
Yep. It wasn't easy to see but looking closely, Strife saw the slight upturn at the corner of Ares' full lips. The God of War was amusing himself.
"Why do you gotta do that?" Strife asked in annoyance, crossing his arms. "Like you'd be all laid back and chilled out here if something was up with your grandkid."
Ares' smirk grew. "You're learning. Good. You are fun to 'wind up' when you're clueless."
Strife rolled his eyes and, yes, he'd picked that up from Ares years ago. "I'm on to you now, Unc. you got me once and it's not happening again."
Now Ares' laughed aloud, a short, sharp bark of laughter that was almost surprising for its pure humor. "Strife, you're still completely clueless where it matters. Now go see Cupid before he parks his feathered ass in here again and starts sharpening arrow tips."
Strife just blinked, trying to process that. He was certain he'd just been insulted but he couldn't figure out how or if it was anything more than his uncle's admittedly weird sense of humor. Finally he just shrugged and flashed out of the room.
This time, pretty certain that all was well where Bliss was concerned, Strife just appeared in the main room of Cupid's temple. Unlike Ares' temple, Cupid didn't use his for gatherings of his House, so the room wasn't nearly as big or as official looking, and Strife had always appreciated that. Despite the glaring white and gold of the decor, it had a comfortable feel that Strife rather liked. Not that he'd ever admit to that.
This time there was no one around to greet him. The few times he'd shown up directly inside Cupid's home, there had always been someone here or someone had come in a few seconds later to see what he wanted. After standing around for a couple minutes, Strife realized that either no one had noticed him yet or they were too busy to deal with him. He already knew everyone was home, he could feel their familiar presences somewhere in the temple, but he wasn't about to go looking for them. He'd never been invited anywhere except the front entrance and the main room and he was pretty sure they wouldn't want someone like him wandering around their home with no supervision. He couldn't just leave either. If Cupid wanted something from him badly enough to bother Ares about it, then Strife needed to hang here until he knew what it was. But just standing there got pretty boring.
Strife was active by nature. He could sit still when he had to but he didn't like it. He didn't "fidget" either, that was a bad habit he'd broken early on when he realized it gave him away whenever he was trying to hide. He preferred to be moving, doing things. Even in official meetings he didn't stay in one place for long. A bored God of Mischief was a very scary prospect to most people, even in War, so other than an occasional roll of the eyes or exasperated sigh, no one commented on his constant movement.
Now Strife began a slow stroll around the room, checking out every tiny detail in a way he hadn't before. He'd never had the opportunity. He didn't touch anything, yet; he just looked. Not everything was gold and white, despite his initial impressions. The furniture was made out of regular wood, a lighter type that blended with the decor. The cushions on the chairs sitting against the walls were mostly white or gold, but there were a couple purple ones and one pink. There were potted trees in the corners, some sort of tropical species from the islands off the coast of Greece. They added some much needed color variation as did the light green pots that held them. There were no murals on the walls like in Aphrodite's temple, but there was some nice scrollwork. Patterns of lines, curved and straight, carved into the white marble, outlined in a rusted gold. It was actually pretty cool.
Strife touched one of the carved lines, tracing it with a finger as it curled up the wall. There wasn't a single rough edge to the carving, or a single wrong cut, and yet he could sense that this wasn't godly work. Cupid had brought a mortal here to do this. Frowning, Strife turned to look at the room again. What else here came from mortal hands?
The furniture, apparently. Running his hands over the backs of chairs, the tops of decorative tables, the arms of benches, Strife felt that a mortal carpenter had done it all. And yet it was up to godly standards. He hadn't realized mortals could be so talented.
Having started to touch things, Strife couldn't stop. He was too tactile by nature to just stick his hands in his proverbial pockets and stand in a corner until someone came to talk to him. He touched whatever was near him. The smooth columns supporting the ceiling, the leaves of the trees in the corners, the delicately carved door frames, and the pillows resting against one of the walls.
He stopped there. Mortals hadn't made everything here, not the temple itself certainly, and not these pillows. Actually, the one he held felt like a mix of Cupid and Psyche. He picked one up off of the pile to examine it, let his hands run over the soft, pale gold fabric. Now he dropped to his knees beside the pile, curious how the others felt. He went through them one by one and was intrigued, and a little amused by what he felt from them.
Either Cupid or Psyche had created most, but a couple were from Aphrodite -- the utter pinkness of them was more of a giveaway than the feel. There was a pale yellow one from Hermes, one sewn from real gold thread from Apollo and one with a brown embroidered stag from Artemis. A blue-green one was from Hera and Zeus, and there was one from the fates, sort of multi-colored although Strife really couldn't pinpoint what to call that. The ones that made him smile though were the gray and black one from Hades and Persephone and the jet black one from Ares.
It was nice to hold something made in the Underworld; it reminded him of how much he'd enjoyed his stay down there. He'd have to pop back in sometime soon. The one from Ares made him smile mostly because he could feel how much caring went into its creation. Yeah, Ares had a heart, he just didn't display it for anyone outside his immediate family and even they had to look hard to see it.
All of these must have been gifts for when Bliss was born. It didn't make sense otherwise. These weren't the type of gifts given for a marriage but Bliss would likely enjoy these, especially the gentle emotions that could be felt from them. They'd be soothing. Strife certainly felt much more at ease here. He hadn't been too comfortable, poking around Cupid's home, but he hadn't been able to help himself either. The welcoming feel of these pillows though, well, it made him kind of relax a bit more than normal. Drop his guard a little. Unusual for him but he was safe enough here. There wasn't anyone who would take advantage of him and it was so peaceful....
At some point the feeling of a cover being pulled over him awakened Strife, but only slightly. Just enough to feel the brush of lips over his cheek and to hear Psyche's familiar voice.
"Go on back to sleep. I just wanted to make sure you were comfy."
"Sure, 'k, thanks," he muttered without much comprehension of the situation, then he slipped back into soft, welcoming darkness.
The sound of Bliss' delighted shrieks woke Strife. He realized, as he surfaced from what had obviously been a very deep sleep, that the sound had been going on for some time. It wasn't in the same room as him, it was loud enough to carry throughout the temple.
"Sweet Zeus in spiked heels; that kid can scream!" Strife said aloud, voice still thick from sleep.
"Yeah, think he gets it from Dad's side."
That was Cupid. In the same room. Talking to him.
Strife immediately pushed himself up with one hand, rubbing at his eyes with the other. The light was too bright for just waking up and it took a focus he just didn't have after sleeping that deeply to adjust his eyes to it.
Another shriek echoed through the temple and Cupid chuckled. "Don't know why he likes baths so much. I used to hate them. Wet feathers are a major drag."
That pun made Strife smile slightly. Until he realized that he wasn't sitting on the floor. He distinctly remembered kneeling on the floor of the main room, examining the pile of pillows there. If he'd gone to sleep there, he should've woken face down in the pile with his legs still on the floor. So what in Tartarus was he sitting on?
Eyes finally starting to focus, he squinted at his surroundings. Then his eyes widened, blurring the picture again, but it didn't matter. He was in a bed. From the scent and the feelings he was getting by touching it, it was Cupid and Psyche's bed.
The sound Strife made at that point would have been called a horrified squeak on someone not from War. As it was, Strife knew something as undignified as that couldn't come from him. That "eep" was more of a dismayed exclamation, not a squeak. At least that was what he told himself as he scrambled out of the bed. He nearly tripped himself up on the covers before shoving them out of the way and getting his feet on the floor. His bare feet.
Strife forgot to breathe for a moment, then he realized that he still wore his pants and shirt and he nearly gasped in relief. Getting caught in their bed was bad enough, being naked would've made him die from the embarrassment, or at least give it a good shot. He looked up at Cupid then, wide eyed and ready to beg forgiveness for the intrusion -- only to have the words die unspoken when he saw how his cousin was grinning at him.
"Don't think I've ever seen you move that fast, Strife," Cupid said with open amusement from where he was leaning against the wall opposite Strife. "Thought you were gonna end up flat out on the floor."
"But--" Strife looked back at the bed, then at Cupid. "What's going on, cuz?"
Cupid shrugged, a movement that made his wings rustle. "Couldn't leave you sprawled out on Bliss' throw pillow collection like that."
"Oh. Yeah, sorry 'bout that. Didn't mean to mess with his things." Strife looked away uncomfortably. Great, he'd sacked out because Ares had run him around with no rest for days and that may've just screwed things up here.
"C'mon, Strife. You know Bliss'd let you use anything of his. We just didn't think you'd be comfortable there. You were obviously totally wiped and it's a big bed, so we moved you here."
Strife nodded, not really feeling any better about it since that presented another problem. "Right, well, um, sorry for putting you and Psyche outta your bed then. Next time I'll just, you know, get some down time before I show up, 'k?"
Cupid groaned, a mix of amusement and frustration that made Strife look up at him curiously. Cupid had leaned his head back, letting it rest against the wall, eyes closed. He wore a strange smile, it seemed almost, self-mocking in some way that Strife couldn't pinpoint. It was all kind of disturbing.
"Believe me, Strife, you in no way 'put us out' of our bed. Tartarus, Psyche's never gonna let me forget that she was right about this." The last bit Cupid muttered to himself, but Strife heard it well enough.
"Tell her I'm sorry for...." he motioned vaguely towards the large, round bed with its white sheets in disarray.
"It was her idea -- and I agreed," Cupid added quickly, "so you don't have to keep apologizing. 'K?"
Strife just nodded again, not trusting himself to find the right words to say anything else.
"So, how's Dad been treating you lately?" Cupid asked, opening his eyes and pushing away from the wall.
Still on dangerous ground then. Strife hadn't forgotten his cousin's threat against Ares and Strife didn't want to be responsible for the God of War turning into the God of Bad Poetry, so his reply was very cautious. "Real good. He, um, he cut me loose."
"Really?" Cupid raised an eyebrow as he walked towards Strife.
Strife resisted the urge to back away, looking down at the floor instead. "Yeah, said I was old enough to take care of myself, didn't need him holding the leash, stuff like that."
"He's right."
The absolute certainty of that statement surprised Strife, but he couldn't bring himself to look at his cousin. He just felt so...uncomfortable here in this situation. He didn't know how to deal.
"You've really grown up, Strife."
Warm fingers under his chin, pulling his head up. Strife supposed he could've resisted, he wanted to, but it was Cupid touching him and if Cupid wanted him to look up then he would.
His cousin was standing close to him, close enough for Strife to make out every speck of green in those hazel eyes. He was just so gorgeous this close up and Strife had to swallow hard to keep from babbling something totally inane.
"I thought it was an accident when you got angry, but you proved me wrong," Cupid continued, his eyes never leaving Strife. "You're much more mature than I'd thought, which is a very good thing."
That triggered a previous suspicion. Eyes narrowing, Strife studied his cousin. "You set me up, didn'tchya?"
Apparently Cupid wasn't on the same page there because that seemed to take him by surprise. "What?" he asked with a frown.
"That thing with Hercules, it was a total set-up. Not stupid here, cuz."
"No, just apparently very innocent," Cupid replied, dropping his hand with a frustrated sigh.
"Huh?" Now it was Strife's turn to wonder what in Tartarus was actually being discussed here. Innocent? In what alternate universe? He killed and loved it, he could beat Hermes any day in a contest for the best liar and he caused more problems for mortals than the furies could dream of. So what was Cupid's deal?
"Yeah, I set you up," Cupid admitted. "Question is though, did you figure that out before or after you healed Uncle Herc?" He crossed his arms as he spoke, the movement displaying his muscles impressively. Strife managed not to get lost in that sight only due to years of practice at ignoring it so he'd stay relatively sane around his cousin. He tore his gaze away from the hard, rippling muscles and looked over at the other side of the bedroom. There was something to Cupid's question besides simple curiosity and Strife needed to think about that, which meant not looking at his cousin.
"After," Strife finally replied. He couldn't figure out Cupid's angle which *really* bothered him. He'd have to ask and that made him feel like a complete amateur. "I don't get it, cuz. What's the game here?"
"You aren't completely War, or I wouldn't have bothered. Since you're part of Death and I know the majority of them have a sense of right and wrong, I wanted to see if you'd inherited it, and if you'd grown up enough to understand it."
"I *know* right from wrong," Strife pointed out wryly. "So does everyone in War. We just don't care."
"No, most of them don't. But obviously you do."
Strife's gaze snapped back to Cupid, his eyes widening in horror at the realization of what his cousin was implying, and the fact that Cupid wasn't wrong. Strife had been wondering just what had made him heal Hercules like that, now he knew. He'd done it simply because it was the right thing to do. He really didn't hate Hercules, just disliked him a lot. Hurting him wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but Strife hadn't wanted to do it like that. Not when Hercules didn't have a shot at giving back as good as he got. It was more fun that way and that's the way things were supposed to be between them.
"Oh fuck," Strife whispered. "I got a conscience. No wonder I always screwed up with Ares."
"Hey, I don't think it's that bad." Cupid gave him a concerned frown. "I mean, you're not gonna turn into Greece's next big hero or anything. I think it's pretty small, as consciences go anyway. You just know what's right and sometimes maybe you can't ignore it." He started to reach a hand out in the direction of Strife's shoulder, but Strife quickly moved away, taking a few steps towards the only door in the room, which stood open.
It was tempting to leave, but there were some things that needed settling first. "Didn't know you could read me so well," he said, careful to keep the worry out of his tone. He thought he'd kept so much concealed from Cupid, but if his cousin was seeing things Strife didn't even know about himself....
"I'm starting to think I can't read you at all." The frustration was back in Cupid's tone and that drew Strife's attention.
Cupid wasn't looking at him. Staring at the wall, he looked as frustrated as he sounded. In fact it was bordering on annoyance, something Strife hadn't ever seen in his cousin. Before he could ask what he'd done wrong, Cupid seemed to shake it off. His expression turning back to amusement.
"Forget it, Strife. I'm just beginning to wonder if I'm the right god for my job."
And didn't that evoke a big "what the fuck?" Strife didn't say it because he was utterly lost now, not knowing what Cupid was talking about and strangely reluctant to ask. Instead he just changed the subject, feeling that was the safer way to go.
"So what'd you wanna see me 'bout? Unc said you'd been wanting me for something, but I guess that coulda just been him trying to be funny. He thinks I'm clueless."
"And what would *ever* give him that idea?" Cupid's tone nearly dripped with sarcasm, sounding eerily like his father for a moment. Then it was gone and Cupid was smiling, his normal, welcoming expression that always put Strife a bit more at ease. It worked just as well this time, even proceeded as it was by that strange comment.
"I do wanna see you," Cupid confirmed. "Actually, I have a proposition for you."
Strife's eyebrows went up. His life just got stranger by the day. "You wanna work with *me*? How and definitely *why*? I mean, isn't it gonna cramp your style or something?"
Cupid's smile suddenly turned into a full grin. "You're the best, you know that, Strife?"
Strife, coping with a case of near breathlessness from seeing that beautiful expression, took a moment to form his reply. "Huh?"
"You're one of maybe three gods -- no, three *beings* in existence who doesn't think I mean sex when the word 'proposition' comes outta my mouth. That's just totally cool."
"Oh!" Strife got it now, and it made sense. Most people, mortal, immortal, whatever, *would* think the God of Love wanted them if he mentioned something like that. But Strife knew better. "No prob, cuz. You don't gotta worry 'bout that with me. I know your standards aren't *that* low." It kind of hurt to admit, but Strife didn't like lying to himself and he did want Cupid to know that he wasn't holding on to any delusions or anything.
Cupid did look all that reassured though, in fact he looked about as confused now as Strife had felt just a minute or two before. "Say what?"
"No! Didn't mean it like that or nothing!" Strife hurriedly explained, realizing how he could've been misunderstood. "I know you don't have low standards of *any* kind, I mean I've *seen* some of the chicks and studs you've been with and they're fine in a major way. I mean, look at Psyche, total babe there." Knowing he was starting to babble, Strife cut himself off and rushed to find some way of saying it better before he dug himself into too deep of a hole. "Look, all I'm saying is I'm not gonna assume something like that when you're talking to me. I mean, c'mon, you're *you*; what the fuck would you ever want with something like *me*?" He shook his head with a dismissive snort.
Strife really hoped he'd been convincing. Not that it wasn't all true, because it was, every word. But he didn't want Cupid thinking he'd gotten ideas above himself or anything, even if maybe he had, just a little. But only because everyone dreamed. He knew the score, knew what reality was all about and he wasn't fooling himself at all.
Cupid didn't look confused anymore, so maybe that was good. Except now he looked shocked. No, more like completely and utterly floored.
"What?" Strife frowned. Hadn't he made it clear enough? He knew Cupid was smart, not the airhead some other gods thought he was. So what was up?
"I'm an idiot," Cupid said in a near whisper. "How'd the pantheon end up with a total idiot for the God of Love?"
"What're you talking about?" This was starting to worry Strife. They weren't on the same page again, he could feel it. They weren't even looking at the same book.
"Psyche was more with it than I was here." Cupid was still talking to himself, although he was looking at Strife. Strife found it kind of creepy.
"I think I'd better, you know, go, or something," he said, starting to back away towards the door. "Lemme know whatchya want later."
He didn't get far however, because suddenly Psyche was there, holding a naked and dripping, giggling Bliss.
"I think he's enjoyed the bath enough for today," she announced from the doorway, startling Strife with her cheerful tones.
Glancing at her, he saw her normally well-kept hair was hanging down in unruly curls and she was nearly as wet as Bliss. Her white gown was plastered to her in places, especially where she held the toddler against her. Strife suddenly realized she wasn't wearing anything under the gown, a fact clearly evident where the water had made it nearly transparent. He quickly looked away, hoping he didn't start blushing or anything else that stupid. But she really did look hot all wet and mussed like that.
"Strife!" Suddenly Strife's arms were full of wet, wiggling toddler. Bliss had thrown himself at Strife. His wings were too sodden for flying so he'd just used them for balance as he launched himself from his mother to his cousin.
"Hey-ya, kid-o." Strife grinned down at him. "Having fun?"
Bliss nodded enthusiastically. "Water's cool!"
"I always liked it," Strife agreed.
"Are you gonna live with us now?"
And there was just no good reply to that other than, "Huh?" which Strife said without having to put any thought into it. Did the fates not like him or something? Was that why his day was turning into a twisted mirror version of reality?
"Come on; now isn't the time." Psyche was there, plucking the toddler from his unresisting arms. "Did you sleep well, dear?"
It took a moment for Strife to realize that she was speaking to him. He just nodded, unsure if it was safe to say anything.
"That's good. Ares shouldn't work you that hard." She reached out with her free hand and tucked a stray strand of hair back behind his ear. "It's always good to have you here, you know. Now we'll let you and Cupid get back to things."
Instead of leaving though, she walked over to where Cupid stood still looking shocked. "Well?" she prompted, standing in front of him, easily keeping hold of a squirming Bliss.
"You were right, okay?" Cupid sighed, running a hand back through his thick blond hair.
"Uh-huh." Tucking Bliss under one arm, Psyche used her free hand to give Cupid a good whack on the shoulder. It didn't look gentle but there wasn't any malice there either. Then she turned and left the room, giving Strife a lovely smile as she passed by him.
"I seriously deserved that," Cupid muttered.
"What the *fuck* is going on here?" Strife finally found his voice, but he hadn't really meant to say anything quite like that. Fortunately Cupid seemed to find it amusing.
"Don't worry about it, Strife. I just need to learn to listen to her more." Cupid smiled at him again. "I still need to talk to you. Up for it?"
Strife really didn't think he was. Any more strangeness and there was a real possibility he'd run out of here screaming. But Cupid was asking and Strife couldn't deny him, so he just nodded as he had with Psyche, not trusting words.
"Cool. Let's walk. Oh, wait, guess you'll want these." A small flash of light and Cupid was holding Strife's boots. That was something of a relief. Strife had wondered where they'd gotten off to.
"Psyche doesn't like shoes in bed," Cupid explained as he walked over to Strife, holding the boots out.
"Oh," was all Strife could think to say as he took them. A little flex of power and they were back on his feet. He didn't realize until that moment just how vulnerable he'd felt standing around barefoot. Strange. But then, what wasn't today?
Then Cupid slid an arm around his shoulders and Strife froze. It was utterly companionable, nothing weird about the action itself, but there was that touching thing again and Strife just couldn't figure out how to deal.
"What d'you know about Love?" Cupid asked, the pressure of his arm urging Strife to step forward.
"Umm, I dunno, hearts and flowers?" Strife obediently began walking. They were the same height so when Cupid matched his steps there was no awkwardness at all. "Poetry and mushiness?" He continued when Cupid didn't say anything. "Mortals, and gods I guess, getting all sappy and weepy over each other." Strife was just saying what came to mind, the impressions he'd picked up in War over the years. But once that was out and Cupid just raised an eyebrow, waiting for him to say more, Strife thought about it. "Love's all about softness and happiness and all that., jealousy and obsession too. I mean, it happens, right? There's spite and malice and possessiveness and can't that all come from love?"
"Oh yes," Cupid agreed, his smile showing approval now. "Love comes in different forms and not all of them are bright and cheery, know what I mean?"
"Yeah, I get it." Strife smiled back, starting to like the direction this conversation was taking.
"Love isn't always pretty, Strife. Actually, it's usually kinda twisted. You've dealt with it before, you just didn't know. I think you're mature enough to get it now though. I think we could work together. Maybe not all the time, but on a couple jobs here and there. There's a lot of mischief in love, and I think you'll be surprised at how much love there is in mischief."
That sounded...well, okay, pretty strange, but not totally out there either. They'd walked out of the bedroom and down a softly lit white corridor, now Strife saw a familiar room through an approaching doorway. They were reaching the main room, which had to mean this discussion was ending. He wanted to think about this proposition a bit more, but if Cupid needed an answer now then he'd have it.
"What're you thinking, exactly?" Strife really didn't want to jump into this without some sort of idea of what would happen.
"You know that Deimos and Phobos help me sometimes, right?"
"Yeah, they're your brothers from your House. Thought it was in their job description or something."
"Maybe it is, sorta, but not like you're thinking. They aren't really influenced much by Love, but they know how to use their 'talents' to make my job easier. Pain and fear are good motivators for some mortals to get together. Deimos and Phobos provide the catalysts and I seal the deals. It all works pretty smooth." Cupid pulled him to a halt just inside the doorway to the main room. "See, I could do my job by myself, with no help. I'm designed for that. It's just that sometimes things are easier with a bit of help. Besides, I like the company -- or I would if I was working with a god I liked to hang with. My brothers are okay, but they've got serious problems and we don't really mesh. You though, I've been waiting for a long time for a chance to work with you, Strife."
"Really?" Strife hoped he didn't sound as pathetically desperate as he felt. Cupid wanted him around for more than just babysitting. It was like some sort of totally excellent dream.
"Oh yeah. You've got talent in all kinds of things. Dad knows we'll be cool when we team up, he just wanted me to wait until you had more control. He letchya go, so he thinks you're ready. I'm thinking so too."
It was just...way too cool to be true. But Strife still couldn't stop the grin from working its way onto his face. "So what d'you want me to do?"
"Let's test some things out first, see where we're gonna do the most good together."
"Now?" Strife had expected that they'd talk about this, then Cupid would send him off until a job came up or something.
"Why not? Or do you got something else going on?"
"No! I'm totally free here." And yeah, that really did sound both pathetic and desperate. Cupid's smile just widened though, so Strife guessed he hadn't made too big a fool of himself.
"Then follow me." A flash of light and Cupid was holding his crossbow and quiver of arrows. Another flash and he was gone.
Strife quickly locked on to his cousin's signature and followed after him, firmly telling himself that he was *not* acting like an obedient, eager-to-please puppy.
"Okay, see that dude there?"
They were standing invisible beside a tavern in the middle of a small town. Cupid had his crossbow loaded and was pointing into a crowd of mortals with his free hand.
Strife narrowed his eyes and tried to follow his cousin's line of sight. It was apparently market day here or something because there were a fair number of mortals milling around, male and female, and it was hard to figure out just which dude Cupid was talking about.
"The one with the blue hat standing by the fish stall," Cupid said helpfully.
"Oh, yeah. Got 'im." Strife nodded.
The mortal looked to be just hanging out there, gabbing with the girl who was apparently working at the stall. They were both kind of on the good-looking side, dark haired and dark eyed, nice tans and all. They'd probably make good-looking kids, Strife figured. "He s'pposed to hook up with the babe there?" He asked speculatively.
That got a chuckle from Cupid. "That's his sister, Strife. Mortals, outside of isolated villages anyway, don't tend to intermarry like we do."
"Maybe they're onto something there," Strife muttered ruefully.
"Yeah, I heard 'bout that, your fathers, I mean," Cupid said with a quick grin. "You don't got anything to worry 'bout though; you turned out good. Congrats, by the way, on finding the other half of your family. Forgot to say that earlier. It's pretty cool."
"Thanks." Strife grinned back. "It's kinda hard to believe sometimes, you know? But it's so, I dunno, awesome, cool, *something*. I mean, they totally *want* me there." He shut up, knowing he was starting to babble again. He really had to watch himself around Cupid, something about his cousin just made Strife want to confide everything and that was a seriously bad idea.
"Of course they do, Strife. You're you. A lot of people want you around. If you look, you'll see that." Cupid's grin softened into one of his breathtaking smiles for a few, brief moments, then he turned his attention back to the mortal before Strife could ask any question. Not that Strife even knew what the questions were. About all he could do was classify that under another 'strange moment' for today and move on.
"That dude, Hektor, he's supposed to fall for the daughter of the town smith, Thalia. Problem is, she's promised to this other guy who's so totally wrong for her. I gotta fix that."
Strife shrugged. None of that mattered much to him. "Okay, so where do I come in?"
"You get to stab someone." Cupid was really grinning now and Strife couldn't help an answering smirk. Now *that* was way more his style. "With this," Cupid added, holding up an arrow.
Strife's eyebrows went up. He'd stabbed mortals with a variety of things before, most of them unconventional, but he'd never used an arrow. Sure, he'd fired a bow before. He was trained in every weapon known thanks to Ares, but he generally used them in their proper way. You shot someone with an arrow, you didn't stab them with it. Of could work. It wasn't a mortal made arrow after all, chances were it wasn't going to break from the force of the impact -- and just how much force was Cupid talking about anyway? His confusion must've shown.
"I know, sounds totally out there for someone from War, but trust me, 'k?" Cupid said, handing him the arrow. "You're not trying to kill the guy so you don't haveta aim for anything vital or stab him hard. Just make sure that gets in him somewhere -- not too creative, okay Strife? An arm or shoulder will do."
Oops. His thoughts really were showing. "Okay," he agreed somewhat reluctantly. "But an eye would be kinda fun."
"No." Cupid was still smiling in amusement, but that tone was firm. "Deimos and Phobos do that enough. I'd like to try it without the targets screaming in agony today."
"No prob." And it wasn't. Strife wanted to be better than his air-headed cousins so he'd do it like Cupid wanted. "So, where do you want me and when do you want it done?"
"Keep up with Hektor there. When Thalia falls into his arms, stab him."
"Falls into his arms?" Strife's eyebrows were going up again.
"Trust me, it'll happen." Cupid winked at him, then flashed out.
Strife shook his head with a chuckle. If he wasn't so totally in love with Cupid he would've liked his cousin anyway. The guy was just cool.
As he stepped out into the crowd, Strife considered getting his cloak. It was a bright, sunny day and he'd never been all that fond of bright anything. But this job probably wouldn't take very long, or at least that was the impression he'd gotten, so he didn't bother. He didn't want to distract himself in any way from his target. He didn't know how things worked in Love, but in War sometimes the slightest distraction could make everything go to Tartarus.
Weaving his way through the mortals with the ease of long practice, Strife sidled up to the mortal, Hektor who was still hanging with his sister. Strife kept a firm grip on the arrow as he stood next to his target, his gaze constantly flickering from the mortal to the crowd before them, waiting for whatever would come next.
It happened fast, but then things usually did in his line of work so Strife was prepared and reacted accordingly. The crowd parted slightly, making way for a large, heavy-set man with a young redheaded woman by his side. A few mortals followed them, armed men and a prune-faced old woman, probably and escort for the younger one. It had to be Thalia and the guy she was getting hitched to -- oh shit. Strife knew that guy.
Before he could take that thought any further, Cupid was there. In a familiar and surprisingly well-executed move, the God of Love hooked one leg between the mortal man's and yanked back, sending the man down hard. In the same instant Cupid grabbed hold of Thalia and shoved her into a very surprised Hektor's arms. Right on cue, Strife jammed the arrow straight into Hektor's shoulder. At the same time, and arrow embedded itself in Thalia's back. Both arrows vanished in a small shower of gold sparkles and the mortals just stood there, in each other's arms, gazing at each other with wide, love-filled eyes.
Strife didn't stop to admire their handiwork or to congratulate himself. The mortal Cupid had tripped was already moving, and so was Strife. Leaping over the fallen mortal who'd gotten to his hands and knees, taking a brief second to shove him back to the ground with a kick to the ass, Strife landed face-to-face with Cupid. As gorgeous as his cousin was, for once Strife didn't have that foremost in his mind. He grabbed hold of the quiver Cupid had slung loosely over his broad shoulder and looked intently at the arrows, hand hovering indecisively over the lot.
"Which one's Obsession? Quick!" He snapped when Cupid seemed to hesitate. He knew well enough that Cupid carried arrows for every type of love, but they were all color-coded or something and Strife didn't know which one was which.
"Grey fletched," Cupid answered, his tone neutral.
Strife grabbed the first one he saw and turned back to the mortal who was up on his knees now, glaring murderously at Hektor and Thalia. A crowd had formed around the little group. The armed men were working to keep them back while the old woman was looking at Thalia in disbelieving horror. Ignoring everything except his new target, Strife launched himself at the large man. Grabbing hold of the back of the mortal's brown leather vest, Strife wrenched him further up, then forced him to turn slightly, enough to put the fish stall in his line of sight instead of the two love-struck mortals. Satisfied with the view, Strife stabbed him in the back with the arrow.
When the arrow disappeared in a cascade of what looked more like gray sludge than sparkles, Strife released the mortal and backed off, watching closely to see if it'd worked.
For a moment nothing happened. Then the man pulled himself to his feet with a mutter of, "Fish," and staggered towards the stall.
"You!" He snapped at Hektor's sister who'd been watching the whole scene with wide-eyed fright. The man's commanding voice made her squeak in terror, but she snapped to attention anyway, seeming to recognize authority when she saw it. "I'll take everything you've got," the man continued, almost drooling over the display of fish in the cart. "And tell me where the nearest lake is! I need more fish."
Sighing in relief, Strife let his head fall back for a moment, enjoying the feeling of disaster averted.
"Well done." Cupid's voice was right beside him.
"Are you ever gonna stop setting me up?" Strife asked without looking at him.
"Oh, please." Crossing his arms, Strife turned a half-glare on his cousin. "There's *no* way you didn't plan that. You had to know that guy wasn't just gonna let his girlfriend run off with another man. I'd even bet you know just *who* that guy is." He nodded towards the leather-clad man looming over the fish stall.
"One of Dad's warlords," Cupid confirmed with a shrug. "I needed to see how exactly you thought on your feet, Strife. Deimos or Phobos would've just killed the dude."
"That's 'cause they're idiots. That guy, Melas, isn't one of Unc's favorites, but he's got his uses and Ares woulda been seriously pissed if I offed him. A fish obsession'll be annoying, but it's nothing Unc can't work around."
"It's only temporary anyway. I didn't bring anything permanent with me other than those two love arrows."
Strife didn't know whether to glare harder or laugh. Cupid had planned every step of this and really it was...impressive.
"What?" Cupid smirked at him. "You thought I just jumped into these kinda things, no planning or anything?"
"Actually...yeah," Strife admitted.
"I'm the God of War's son, Strife. One of the first things Dad taught me was strategy, and how to read people. We're gonna work out fine, you and me."
Strife didn't have time to register the surprise of hand grazing his cheek affectionately before Cupid disappeared, leaving him standing there in open-mouthed shock.
Of *course* Cupid knew how to plan things. Love was probably just as hard to arrange as War, in its own way. He'd always known his cousin had brains, but he'd just never given Cupid enough credit for just how intelligent he really was. Now Strife felt like an utter moron.
Cupid was indeed War's son. The move he'd used on Melas was one Strife recognized from his own lessons in War and he didn't doubt that Cupid could do a lot more than just trip a mortal up. For the first time Strife realized that those gorgeous muscles his cousin displayed weren't just for show. Cupid was dangerous in his own right. He'd probably come out on top in any hand-to-hand fight against Strife, and maybe not just barehanded either. Cupid knew how to use that crossbow, and what was to say that was the only weapon he'd learned to use? If he knew about stabbing with arrows, then why not daggers or swords? For all Strife knew, his cousin, the God of Love, was every bit as deadly as Ares himself.
Strife knew two things then, first, he didn't know or understand nearly as much about Cupid as he'd assumed he did. Second, realizing all of this about his cousin had *seriously* turned him on. He was already hard, but the thought of watching Cupid pull more of those kind of moves made him just ache.
Slowing his breathing down from the fast-paced gasping it'd started to become, Strife concentrated on getting his body back under control. If he was going to be working with Cupid -- and it sure looked like his cousin was all for it -- then he needed to get a grip. Maybe in a more literal way *after* their jobs were done, but while they were together, he just had to be a friend and coworker. The last thing Cupid needed or would want was his twisted eyesore of a cousin drooling over him in public. There was no way Strife was going to either embarrass him or freak him out like that. He'd play it cool. He could do that.

Things had turned out better than Strife had anticipated. When Cupid had needed him, he'd left word with Ares who'd passed it on to Strife, usually with a roll of his eyes as commentary. But Ares had never given any real sign that the partnership bothered him. Of course by his own words he'd given up control of Strife's life, so what he thought really hadn't mattered anyway.
Cupid had turned out to be even more impressive than Strife had first thought. Love wasn't all about hoping from one target to another and just shooting arrows, Cupid had shown him it was more about cunning and strategy, just like War. And Cupid himself had been totally with it. Strife did indeed get to see more of those moves that had caught his attention the first time. Cupid had apparently learned nearly as much from his father as Strife had learned from Ares, right down to the weapons.
Strife had finally asked about that, never having seen Cupid use anything other than a bow. His cousin had surprised, and greatly impressed him with an impromptu display of fast dagger work which had started with him grabbing Strife's nearest dagger before Strife could stop him, and had ended mere seconds later with the same dagger pressed to Strife's throat. Strife hadn't been able to do anything but grin in absolute awe and amazement and hope his leather pants weren't too tight to hide his response to the beautifully deadly moves his cousin had shown.
Ares had called him for a job right after that and of course he'd wanted to know why Strife was walking around wearing a grin that was more insane than usual. His response to Strife's excited retelling of Cupid's actions was just a disgusted shake of his head and a scathing, "Of *course* he can do that. Do you really think I'd ever have a grown son who *couldn't* kick the ass of anyone in this pantheon?"
That had made Strife think because hadn't Ares thought of *him* as a son all these years? So did that mean that since Ares had cut him loose, he thought Strife was good enough? A quick glance at his uncle had answered that. The God of War had been wearing his, "*Must* I spell it out, you idiot!" expression. Strife had just nodded and continued to grin. That had gotten him the patented "Ares eye roll" as a response and things had gone back to normal.
Strife had still made the time, so to speak, to make a few more visits to the Underworld. He'd figured out during that first visit that if he kept his mind attuned to the fact that time didn't necessarily have to pass down there, then he could stay as long as he wanted and only be gone from Olympus for seconds, if that. That way he hadn't had to worry about missing out on something with Ares, or especially Cupid.
There was a subject he'd wished he could talk to someone about, simply because it'd been just so cool to him. But no one in War had ever cared about what Strife did on his own time and no one in Death had any interest in Love. Except for Persephone who'd listened with a patient, even slightly interested smile whenever Strife had mentioned his jobs with Cupid.
Encouraged by that, Strife had started to tell her more, about how much he and Cupid had clicked when they got going, how they'd really started to be totally in sync when things got tense on the job. Cupid had obviously already been able to read him, but Strife had started to do the same. He'd begun to predict some of what Cupid would do in a given situation, and it hadn't made the job any less interesting or at all routine. Being able to sense where Cupid was or what he'd do had actually made things much more exciting. Strife had found that with knowledge of each other's basic actions and thoughts, he'd been able to start to...improvise. It'd made the job much more than just a job, it'd become something of a game.
From simply arranging "accidents" to make the boy and girl stumble into each other, to starting full scale riots to give Cupid the opportunities he'd needed to get multiple couples together, Strife had really started to have fun. It hadn't been all about working with Cupid either, although that had definitely been the main attraction; now he'd found that mischief really could excel where love was concerned. In fact it'd turned out to be one of the major driving forces, along with pain and fear.
Not that Strife had ever been around when Deimos and Phobos helped out. Cupid hadn't ever called him to any of those jobs and Strife hadn't been at all interested. He'd started doing this because Cupid wanted his help but mostly because it gave him some together time with his cousin. He hadn't wanted in any way to share that with Cupid's moronic brothers. Fortunately that hadn't ever come up as an issue. Maybe Cupid had realized that too much of War could make a disaster out of Love.
And then there'd been Bliss. Strife had some new things in his life, the Underworld and working with Cupid, but he'd also been released from the God of War's strict control, so that'd left him with much more free time than he'd had before. As he'd been before all of that had started, he was still happy to take Bliss whenever Cupid or Psyche needed a break. He'd still been reluctant to bring Bliss down to the Underworld, but he'd also been starting to think that a quick visit with Hades and Persephone wouldn't be a bad thing. Persephone had certainly seemed agreeable enough about it.
"I've only seen Bliss once, the day Cupid presented him to everyone on Olympus," Persephone said from where she knelt, carefully tending to the plants she'd been growing around the castle. "Hades took me there and I remember how absolutely adorable little Bliss was!" She smiled as she pruned a rose bush. But then her smile faded. "Mother showed up just a few minutes after we got there and we had to leave. She was just impossible. She always is."
"That sucks," Strife commented. He stood, leaning back against the hard gray stone of the castle wall, watching her work. He was still amazed she could get anything living to grow here, but he supposed that was part of her nature. "I'd kinda like to bring him with me sometime, but I'm not sure Cupid or Psyche would be up for that, you know? Than and the other guys are so totally cool, to *me*, but I don't think Bliss could deal."
"What about Hades and I?"
"That's just it," Strife crossed his arms with a small sigh. "I think he'd love you two, and you guys would totally go nuts over him. But bringing him down here is just so risky. Don't wanna freak the little guy out when he's so young."
"It *is* strange down here, for an Olympian," Persephone commented, brushing dirt from her dress before she stood. Strife was reminded then that she was an Olympian. As much as she fit in down here now, it wasn't her original home. She got it, why bringing Bliss here wasn't the best of ideas. But maybe she had a solution too.
"So what d'you think? Got any ideas?" he prompted.
"Well, I think the best solution is for Hades and I to visit Cupid and Psyche, but of course there's always the problem of mother."
"Think I can cover you there," Strife said with a wink and a grin. "God of Mischief, at your service. Lemme know when you want Demeter to have a few 'problems' and I'll set it up."
That got him a soft smile and a moment later when she stepped towards him, a pat on the cheek. "You're so sweet, Strife. Of course we'll take you up on that. But it's not always going to be the best solution." She stepped back and bent down to gather her gardening tools.
Sweet. It wasn't a description Strife really liked attributed to him, but coming from Persephone, it wasn't all that bad. He didn't comment on it anyway.
"I think we'll need to ask Cupid when he and Psyche think Bliss might be ready to risk a visit down here," Persephone continued. "From what you say, he's a bit more mature than a mortal child his age."
"Oh yeah, the kid's a big faker," Strife confirmed. He didn't offer to help because he knew she wouldn't accept. This gardening was her thing, all of it, and she liked to keep it that way. Strife got it. Sometimes mischief was like that for him. "He may be going on two, but his mind's going on ten. He's gonna be like Apollo and Hermes, not end up slow like me. Good thing for him."
Persephone sent him a sharp look. "You're just fine the way you are, Strife. You're very intelligent; you know that."
Yeah, he did. He was smart enough. But it had taken him so damn long to get to a point where he could use it. Youth had made him reckless and too careless at times; he hadn't had the knowledge then to use his intelligence. He did now, but it was still hard looking back on what was literally just a few months ago and see how immature he'd been.
"I'd better get going," he said, changing the subject. "Everyone's kinda busy down here and I wanna work on some stuff now that Unc's let me out on my own."
Persephone nodded. He knew she had more gardening to do and she preferred quiet when she did it. She'd never tell him to get lost, but she was too nice for him to enjoy bothering her.
"I'll check on the Bliss thing for you," he promised, then transported himself back to Olympus.
Even with Ares having given him his freedom, Strife spent a fair amount of time hanging out in the God of War's Olympian temple. He just really didn't have anywhere else to be other than the Underworld. Here, surrounded by War, he could think about his job, plot things to do. Now that he didn't have to clear every little thing with Ares, it was way more fun.
He wasn't working on anything big yet, not just because he didn't want to have to take it up with his uncle -- he was really liking the freedom of not having to do that too much to go back to it so soon -- but because he was busy enough with other things. Cupid's jobs sometimes bordered on large and what he was learning with Thanatos, Hypnos and the others had him doing a lot of thinking. He'd have time for big, complex plots in the future. No need to jump in the deep end when he was still learning and there was so much fun to be had doing smaller things.
So far he'd stuck to the basics, framing mortals for various crimes, misplacing important items in other gods' temples in the mortal realm, killing a few mortals in creative ways, that type of thing. It wasn't anything big but he did get a small power charge out of it and it let him keep in practice.
He did have a few half-formed ideas about things he wanted to do. He wanted, in the long run, to see just how disruptive he could be for a minor god. Could an appropriately directed amount of mischief send a kingdom into political collapse, for instance? Could enough strife make an entire nation fall? Strife had a theory that it could, but he knew he wasn't ready to test that out yet. And he really didn't think Ares would be willing to let him loose with that goal in mind just yet. He didn't doubt there would be a time for it though, and maybe he'd have to work with others in War when that time came, but he didn't think he'd fail in any way.
"Strife!" His musings were interrupted by Ares' disembodied voice ringing through the temple.
Well, Strife supposed if he was going to hang out in his old room here, he'd have to be prepared for Ares to take advantage of his presence. That was probably why so many of the others had gotten temple of their own, so they wouldn't have to be under Ares' thumb day and night. Lyssa and Maniae, goddesses of madness in its different forms, had been the last to move out, but Deimos and Phobos were showing signs of restlessness. They weren't spending nearly as much time hanging out here as they had in the past. Strife expected they'd build their own temple soon and move in together. It wasn't like they'd ever stand being separated.
Strife knew he couldn't stay here forever either. His freedom was a new thing and he was just starting to learn to live it. Eventually being here at Ares' beck and call would start to chafe and he'd have to take his freedom a step further by moving out entirely. He just didn't know where he'd end up. He couldn't ever stay in Discord's temple again. Even if they managed to have a civil conversation, that avenue was simply closed. He didn't think he'd ever be able to stay that close to her. The Underworld just wasn't completely comfortable for him; it was too far removed from Olympus and the mortal realm around which Strife had built his life. A whole temple for himself though...he just couldn't see it. Maybe if he had a family to share it with -- but that wasn't ever happening, so no point in thinking it. He'd find a way around the problem eventually. For now though he had a summons to answer.
Strife could've just walked, or even strolled down the long set of corridors separating his room from the main one of the temple, but that would piss off Ares. Not too long ago he might've done that, if he'd had the freedom he did now and the knowledge that his uncle probably wasn't going to hit him, but now that just seemed petty and immature to Strife. There were some things that were worth doing simply because he *could* do them, but annoying the God of War wasn't one of them. He just transported himself from his room to the main one where he knew his uncle waited.
"Yo, Unc. you bellowed?" he asked casually as he appeared near the throne.
Sprawled in his throne, Ares didn't answer verbally. He just motioned to something behind Strife with a negligent wave of his hand, then he went back to reading a scroll filled with what looked to be supply lists from some battle or another. Strife was naturally curious about what old battle, or potential one Ares was studying up on and why, but that apparently wasn't why he'd been called here. Turning around, Strife saw the reason.
Cupid was lounging in one of the chairs near the large table Ares kept in the room for the House meetings. His wings were spread out to avoid being crushed by his weight leaning back against the wood, their tips were brushing the ground. Cupid's crossbow and quiver lay on the table near him, along with a very wicked looking dagger.
"Hiya, cuz!" Okay, so maybe that sounded overly cheerful and Strife couldn't get the stupid grin off his face, but hey, the day was looking up here. Cupid was light years better than planning regular mischief.
"Hey, Strife. Up for some fun?" Cupid had taken to calling the jobs they did together "fun" because, well, they really were.
"Totally." Strife's grin widened despite his best efforts to tone it down.
"Got something a little different today. Think you'll like it though. It's good with you, Dad?" Cupid glanced over at Ares. Strife followed his cousin's gaze long enough to see Ares give that same negligent wave.
"Cool." Cupid gathered up his weapons and stood, his wings rustling, then rearranging themselves to lay flat against his back once more.
Strife was seriously curious now. What were they doing that Cupid wanted to clear it with the God of War first? Cupid didn't answer to his father, but he did keep in contact and Strife knew sometimes, if it was big enough, Cupid would talk a job over with Ares. Was this one of those?
"Ready?" Cupid was looking at him again.
Nodding, Strife suddenly realized that he was nearly vibrating in place. This sounded *good*, whatever it was. He was so ready for this. He started to walk over to Cupid, wanting to ask so much before they did this. He liked to know what he was getting into and Cupid knew that.
"*Goodbye*, Strife."
"Have *fun*, Strife."
"Tell us *all* 'bout it later, Strife."
Those sneering voices along with their matching inane giggles, could only come from two gods. Strife stopped where he was and looked to his left to find Deimos and Phobos standing in the shadows near the wall, watching him with open insane amusement. He didn't know why, but Strife had the feeling that even if he didn't get what they were making fun of, he needed to kick their asses anyway.
He didn't get the chance.
"Hold this." Cupid was suddenly there, shoving everything into his arms, crossbow, quiver and dagger. Strife automatically took it all, watching in confusion as Cupid walked past him towards Deimos and Phobos.
The twins abruptly lost their grins. In fact they started actively backing away as their brother approached them. They might've flashed out, but Cupid reached them first. He dropped his arms around their shoulders, pulling them in close. Strife could tell Cupid was talking to them, he could hear a low murmur, but he couldn't make out the words. He'd never seen either Deimos or Phobos turn that particular shade of white though.
Then Cupid gave both of them a companionable pat on the shoulder and released them. His smile was completely normal when he turned back towards Strife and began walking back in his direction.
"Good to go?" he asked when he reached Strife.
"Yeah, sure," Strife replied distractedly, still looking at his exceedingly pale cousins. "What'd you say to them?" He had to ask. He'd never been able to get that kind of reaction out of the moronic duo before.
"Oh, not much really. Just asked how things were hanging, how their love lives were, if they wanted any help in that area; that kinda thing," Cupid said dismissively, collecting his crossbow and quiver of arrows from Strife.
"Uh-huh." Strife was sure he was missing something here, but he decided it'd be better to just let it drop. Something told him that despite the pleasant expression on Cupid's handsome face, his cousin was very dangerous right now. Besides, Cupid looked ready to leave, but he hadn't taken all of his stuff from Strife.
"You forgot this." Strife held out the dagger.
"No I didn't. That's for you."
"Huh?" It was Hephaestian, Strife could easily feel that. He felt a lot more though, like how absolutely perfect it seemed in his hand, how the metal itself felt like it *belonged* in his grasp. A weapon this special couldn't be meant for him. But Cupid's words said differently.
"I had Heph make that for you. Your daggers are pretty cool, but it's about time you had something more...personal to use."
Strife's weapons were all from his Uncle Heph, of course, but they were just general things. Daggers that Hephaestus had made in quantity without any special properties to them. Ares had picked up a few dozen of them some years back for use in weapons practice and he'd let Strife choose three from the pile.
This dagger, it was most definitely not one of many or general in any way. There was no fancy decoration to it, just a set of wicked prongs near the base of the blade that would do major damage when twisted in a wound. They weren't large enough to hinder any slashing motions though. It would be a beauty to use. And it already felt like a part of him, just from being held a few minutes. The metal seemed to speak to him on some level, like the weapon was almost sentient in some way. It would respond to him far better than any blade he'd ever wielded, every instinct told him that. It was perfect.
"Thank you," he said quietly, letting a finger slide up the blade. He didn't wince when his skin was sliced open, just watched in fascination as his blood began to drip down the blade. It was the proper way to greet such a lovely weapon, to make it his. He knew that from his connection to War. Bringing his wounded finger to his mouth, he licked it once to seal the wound, then sucked on it a bit to remove the excess blood.
Eyes still on the blade, on his blood coating it, he didn't see Cupid, just heard his sudden in-drawn breath. Alerted to something outside of his new, absolutely wonderful blade, Strife looked up. He'd thought to find the twins causing problems again or something that might've concerned Cupid, but he didn't see anything wrong. In fact, Cupid was watching him. His cousin's hazel-green eyes had darkened considerably and his gaze was so intent it snapped Strife out of his focus on his dagger.
"What's wrong?" he asked curiously. Cupid had enough of War in him that he'd probably done the same thing when he got his crossbow, so what was so weird about Strife doing it?
"Believe me, Strife, there's absolutely nothing wrong with you." That tone was strange, deeper than normal and it sent delightful little shivers straight through Strife.
Fuck. He couldn't let Cupid see what his voice alone could do. Looking away, back down at his blood stained dagger, Strife somehow conjured up one of his usual smirks. "Cool that you think so, cuz. And thanks for this. It's just...perfect." He carefully wiped the blood from the blade onto his leather pants. It wasn't a proper cleaning, but it wasn't meant to be either. He had a feeling the dagger would be seeing use soon and the first time he wielded it, it should be with traces of his own blood still on it. "So, we ready?"
"I keep thinking so, but seems like I'm still in a different reality here."
Strife looked up at him with a frown. Cupid had lost that strange expression and now he just looked kind of frustrated. What was going on? Strife heard a low chuckling from behind him and realized that Ares was finding something very amusing. This was weird and it was time to clear out.
"Where're we going, cuz?" he prompted, sliding the dagger under his belt.
Cupid shook his head with a long-suffering sigh. "Little skirmish, just outside of Eion."
Eion? That wasn't all that far from Amphipolis, Xena's hometown. Did that mean this had something to do with her? That would certainly have required clearance from Ares. Before he could ask though, Cupid disappeared. Strife quickly followed, Ares' chuckles still sounding in his ears.
Well, there was no sign of Xena or her annoying little blond. The only thing going on was a very minor skirmish, more of an overgrown tavern brawl really. There couldn't have been more than a dozen men in the field a league or two away from Eion, and they weren't even doing a proper job of trying to kill each other. There was hardly an edged weapon in evidence; the men were going at each other with bare fists.
"What the fuck is this shit?" Strife asked aloud, incredulously. "I've seen five year old girls fight harder than this!"
"It's not a real battle," Cupid commented from beside him. They both stood on a small knoll overlooking the action. Since there wasn't much action to see, it was pretty good viewpoint.
"Duh, you think?" Strife replied in disgust. "Ares would incinerate these wimps just for being so pathetic!"
"I meant, it's not motivated by any malice or anything political," Cupid said in clarification, his tone patient. "Actually, it's just a lot of UST."
"What's that?" Strife hadn't heard it before so it couldn't be a War term.
"Unresolved sexual tension," Cupid translated. "These dudes here are just reacting to their leaders' problems." He pointed with his crossbow over the heads of the combatants to where two men were fighting it out alone. Suddenly Strife understood. At least partially.
"Oh, those two." He crossed his arms with an exaggerated sigh. "Onias and Meles. They're really not bad warlords, you know? It's just that Unc could never get them to keep their hands off each other's throats. We've been keeping 'em separated for years -- and wait a sec. Aren't they supposed to be half a continent apart right now?" His eyes narrowed. "I *know* Ares ordered Meles down to Attica and Onias is s'pposed to be over near Epirus. Fuck! They did it again! They're always sneaking off to try and kill each other like this!"
"Does it really look like that's what they're trying to do?"
"Well, yeah. I mean, why else would they be pounding away on each other like that?"
Cupid's laugh startled him and Strife looked away from the two dark haired mortals to focus on his cousin. "What's that for?" he asked.
"You really do say the best puns and double entendres, Strife. You just don't know you're doing it!" Cupid continued to laugh while Strife mentally reviewed what he'd said.
"Okay, get your giggles outta it. Didn't mean it like that and you know it."
"Yeah, I know." Cupid stopped laughing, although he continued to grin. "Okay, so here's the deal: you've already said that even Dad can't control these two. He knows that, it's just taken him a few years to get annoyed enough with them that he's willing to admit I'm right. Those dudes don't hate each other; they're totally in love and they just don't know how to deal."
"*Them*? In love?" Strife stared at the two heavily muscled warlords currently in the process of trying to remove each other's internal organs with bare hands. "Are you *totally* nuts?"
"Haven't you learned to trust me by now, Strife? I *do* know my job."
That made Strife wince. "Okay, sorry. Yeah, if you say so then I'll believe it. It's just...I *know* those guys and all they ever talk about is offing each other."
"Yeah, total obsession. They can't stop thinking 'bout each other. Thing is, they're so used to war that they can't recognize love even when it's slapping 'em in the face. We're gonna fix that."
"How?" Strife looked at him again speculatively. There had to be more here than just hitting mortals with arrows.
"I've gotta concentrate on getting those dudes to work things out. It may take an arrow, may not. I dunno. They might just need a nudge instead of an arrow in the ass. But I can't let them get interrupted before I'm done. That's where you come in." Cupid looked closely at Strife. "All these guys smacking each other around here? They're not gonna be too thrilled when it looks like their leaders are starting to kiss and make up. Stop them from interrupting us, 'k?"
"Got it." Strife nodded. He could already tell this wasn't going to be easy. If Cupid's plan worked, Onias and Meles would be doing the horizontal hustle within plain sight of their men and *that* wasn't going to go over well at all. Strife would have to keep the men distracted somehow or risk having to kill all of them, and that just wouldn't work. Even if Cupid pulled off a miracle and the warlords started planning a honeymoon or something, they'd stop whatever they were doing the instant their men started dropping dead. This called for creativity and maybe a little subtlety. Strife just hoped he was up to it.
Cupid was already flying off, over the little kiddie fight, in the direction of Onias and Meles. That left Strife to deal with these morons. He realized immediately that he was in the wrong position. He needed to start of with himself between the fighting and the warlords. He transported himself, arriving on the other side of things with Cupid and the warlords at his back. Fine. Now he just had to keep an eye on the eleven or so men rearranging each other's faces while Cupid did his thing.
This wasn't what Strife had expected. Yeah, it was a bit different than what he normally did with Cupid and it did involve mortals he usually wouldn't see outside of his work with War, but it just wasn't as exciting as he'd hoped. He'd dealt with much larger crowds and general riots already while working with Cupid -- granted, that usually involved panicking the crowd and starting the riots, not controlling them, but how hard could that be?
The first sign of trouble came when two of the nearest combatants abruptly stopped hitting each other and turned to stare incredulously at Strife. Since Strife knew he was invisible, that could only mean that Cupid was making progress and it was time to get these two interested in something else.
A quick zap of power, letting it touch both of them, and they were immediately fighting it out again. Whatever spectacle was occurring behind Strife forgotten as they focused on doing their best to maim each other.
That hadn't been any problem at all. Actually, it was pretty routine for whenever Strife worked a battle with the others in his House. One of his jobs was keeping the combatants' minds on the fight and not on whatever might distract them.
It wasn't long before another two mortals saw what was happening with the warlords and Strife had to "reinterest" them in some violence. And then another. And another. And when Strife found himself zapping the same mortals he'd just taken care of minutes before, he started to see where the problems were going to come from. His power wasn't enough to keep them fighting when it was obvious that their leaders weren't fighting anymore either.
A look behind him showed Strife that indeed, the last thing on Onias and Meles' minds was violence. They were half naked and groping each other, trying to suck each otherís tongues down their respective throats. Cupid stood rather close to them, observing with a seriousness that would've been funny except that this was his job and he did have to get it right. Strife couldn't tell if his cousin had been forced to use an arrow yet or not, but he didn't think so. Cupid looked too intent on the warlords' actions to be relying on the power of one of his arrows.
"What in Hades' name is *wrong* with Meles?"
"*Meles*? You mean what's wrong with Onias! What in Tartarus is going on here?"
Oops. Strife had gotten distracted himself, watching Cupid work. Looking back at the fighting he quickly found that, well, there wasn't any fighting. Every one of the men had stopped to stare at the show and mutter with increasing discontent. Strife quickly zapped the nearest mortal, a "suggestion" contained in that flash of power for the man to find fault with his nearest neighbor.
"Hey! Quit dripping your blood on me!" The mortal shoved the man next to him hard enough to make him stumble.
"Knock it off, Atys. I think we've got bigger problems." The man on the other side of him grabbed his arm and shook him. He was shorter than Atys but much stockier and obviously respected enough to be listened to because after one last glare at his neighbor, Atys returned to staring at the warlords. Although it was really more of a glare, one matched by most of the men now. None of them looked at all happy with this turn of events.
"I signed up to fight, not to watch a floor show," one of the mortals griped from the back of the group. There was a general murmur of agreement from the other men.
"Someone needs to go knock some sense into them. A knife in the leg oughtta do it," commented another man. The sound of various weapons being drawn showed that the rest of them were liking the idea.
Oh shit. Strife didn't bother zapping anymore of them. It was a waste of power and he could see that now. They'd all found something to agree on, a common problem that bound them together and mob mentality wasn't something easily dispersed. He'd have to find another way here before -- fuck!
One of the taller men standing on the left side of the group, lifted a dagger, hilt first, and took aim. Strife didn't think, he just reacted. His own dagger in hand, he was on the man in seconds. Hand over the mortal's mouth because despite what most people thought, victims of this really were noisy, he slit the man's throat. For a moment he was distracted by just how well the dagger handled. It slid through flesh without a hitch, never once slipping in his grip. It was a beauty.
Strife looked at the other mortals as the one he held bled out. As he'd hoped, they were too caught up in what the warlords were doing to notice one of their number dieing mysteriously. Letting go of what was now a corpse, Strife saw that he'd only come up with a very temporary solution. One man dead was fine and not very distracting, but too many of them were starting to hold their weapons with purpose and he couldn't off every one of them, not if he didn't want to mess with what Cupid was doing.
The judicious application of mischief and strife wasn't going to work anymore, Strife got that. But what the fuck was he supposed to *do* then? If his natural talents were no longer a solution, then where did that leave him? He didn't know, but the remaining ten men were starting to fidget, their muttering getting louder as they prepared themselves to go deal with what they were obviously starting to see as a betrayal by their leaders. If they killed Onias and Meles -- which was obviously where this was headed -- then not only would Ares lose two good warlords, which he could rightly blame on Strife, but Strife would've let Cupid down. He couldn't do that. He had to come up with an answer and he had to do it *now*.
Looking over at the warlords again, starting to feel more than a little desperate, Strife suddenly had an answer. It was by no means either a sane or logical one and he didn't even know if he could pull it off, but it was all he had.
Focusing deep inside himself, at the source of his power, he drew on his reserves. This would take everything he had, assuming he could get it to work at all, but he'd do all that he could. The instant he'd gotten hold of every trace of power he could spare and not risk reverting to his natural form, he released it. Every bit directed at the mortals before him who were just starting to move forward en mass to "take care" of their problem.
"Hera's tits!" The whispered oath from beside him drew Strife's attention.
He sat -- sprawled rather -- on the ground where he'd fallen after releasing his power. He didn't remember much of anything after that, just falling on his ass and somehow managing to stay in his normal form. Whatever went on around him had been too much for him to process in his weakened state, until he heard Cupid's voice. Strife was pretty certain that even if the world around them ended, he'd still listen to whatever Cupid wanted to say to him.
"Huh?" was about all he could manage in response though. His eyes were open but completely unfocused. He really didn't even know how he was managing to stay upright.
"This is really fucking impressive, Strife."
Cupid didn't curse nearly as often as he did, so that clued Strife in that something seriously out of the ordinary was going on. He forced his gaze to focus, a process that took the better part of a minute, and took in the scene before him.
"Oh. It worked," he muttered emotionlessly, too tired to really react in any way to the bizarre site. Strife had never before in his life attempted something so completely outside his nature. It had obviously worked, but it'd also cost him in a major way.
The men that just minutes before had been ready to attack their leaders, were now naked and doing their best to screw each other into the ground. Weapons had been cast aside and all hostilities forgotten in favor of pure lust. Harsh groans and the slap of flesh against flesh filled the air along with the scent of male sex. Normally Strife might've appreciated the show, but he just wasn't in any condition to do much except stare uncomprehendingly.
"I honestly don't think I could focus this amount of power outside of my nature. You're good, Strife." Cupid had been standing beside him, watching the mortals, now he crouched down next to Strife, his wings fanning out for balance.
The right wing touched Strife and even through the leather of his shirt Strife could feel that brief contact. If he'd been much more aware he probably wouldn't have leaned back into it the way he did. It wasn't really a conscious movement, he just liked the feel of the wing behind him and his body automatically moved towards the pleasant feeling. Unfortunately he just didn't have enough control to keep himself from completely falling back once he started going. Oh well, at least the grass would probably be comfortable, he thought. Maybe he'd just sleep there for a while.
Suddenly a strong, muscled arm was behind him, supporting his back and holding him up.
"You're barely holding it together," Cupid whispered in realization, his deep, soft voice so near Strife's ear now. "You aren't made to do this; I shouldn'ta let you. Here."
Suddenly Strife felt warmth flowing through him, energy. It wasn't the *right* kind of energy; this was all love and light and he needed something much harsher, darker to recharge, but it was something and latched onto it gratefully. It was enough to make him coherent again even if it couldn't do much more.
"Cuz?" He looked up at Cupid in confusion. He was practically draped over the God of Love's arm with Cupid watching him in open concern.
"I'm sorry, Strife. I'll call Dad to come get you and take you back to his temple so you can crash."
"'K," Strife agreed. He probably would've agreed to anything at that moment, with Cupid's face so near to his.
"I knew you'd find a way to deal with them, but this...." Cupid glanced at the writhing mass of mortals again before returning his attention to his cousin. "I never meant for you to hurt yourself; I didn't want that."
The hand stroking his hair was a complete shock to Strife. Fingers slowly combed through the spiked strands, the motions repeated again and again and still Strife couldn't get that it was really happening. Why was Cupid touching him at all, let alone like *that*?
"Cupid?" Strife didn't know what was going on or how to ask.
Cupid smiled at him, an expression filled with so much warmth and caring that Strife was still trying to comprehend it when Cupid's lips came down on his.
A shocked yelp froze in Strife's throat as utter and complete shock took hold of him, stiffening his body in Cupid's arms. His mind was suddenly blank, all of his attention focused on those warm lips pressed against his, that handsome face so impossibly close. He noted, in an abstract way, that Cupid closed his eyes when he kissed, and he had very long eyelashes. Then Strife's thought process abruptly kicked back in.
What was *happening* here? He didn't get it. He just *didn't get it*. *Why* was Cupid doing this? What was his cousin *thinking*? Was he under some sort of spell? Had he hit his head or something?
Cupid's lips pressed harder, obviously looking for a response, but Strife just couldn't give one. He was stunned to his core and far too confused to do anything except finally get his hands on that tanned, broad chest and *push*. There was no strength to the shove, Strife didn't have near what it would take to force his cousin away, but he didn't need it either. Immediately, Cupid drew back, looking down at him with a small frown.
"What the *fuck*?" Strife summed it up quite nicely, he thought.
"Strife, I--"
A bright flash of light next to them cut off whatever Cupid had been about to say and suddenly Strife found himself looking at a familiar pair of black leather boots.
"This better be good, Cupid. That little mental 'summons' of yours interrupted an important meet--what in Tartarus?"
Fortunately Ares' attention wasn't on the little drama happening between Cupid and Strife, or Strife might never have heard the end of it. The God of War was staring at the mortals still grinding away on each other just yards from the gods.
Grateful for the interruption, Strife quickly gathered what strength he had and pulled away from Cupid. Somehow he managed to get to his feet although the world was spinning around him, and staggered the two steps it took to get to Ares' side.
"Get me back to Olympus, Unc." It wasn't an order, it was more along the lines of a desperate plea, punctuated by Strife abruptly collapsing against him as his energy drained again.
Ares caught him on reflex. "*You* did *this*?" he asked incredulously.
"Later, 'k?" Strife nearly begged. He had to bail *now* and it wasn't entirely due to lack of energy. He couldn't cope with what Cupid had just done, couldn't even begin to process it. Maybe once he'd restocked his power stores he could think straight, but it wasn't happening now.
"Strife, wait! You--"
Strife never heard what Cupid might have said. The words were cut off as Ares transported them to Olympus, leaving Cupid to get back on his own.
When they appeared, Strife sensed immediately that they were in Ares' temple, which was something of a comfort. It was familiar anyway and it was possible he'd get some rest here. Of course if he'd been in any shape to think, he would've called Hades or one of his other dads to take him to the Underworld where rest was assured. Too late now and maybe it didn't matter anyway. He could crash in his room here just as well as down there.
"You idiot!" Ares, hands holding Strife's arms in a bruising grip, shook him hard. "I taught you better than that! You *never* try to do another god's job; it's not in your nature and it drains you!"
Another hard shake and Strife had to fight to keep his head from falling back and his body from going completely limp. Ares was absolutely right and Strife had to acknowledge that, that meant paying attention and not collapsing. "Gottchya," he managed to say, although it sounded slurred.
Ares made a sound of disgust, then shoved Strife backwards. Without hands supporting him, Strife immediately fell -- right into a chair. At least Ares hadn't let him drop to the floor.
"Crawl back to your room if you can, but don't interrupt us again," Ares ordered.
It was at that moment that Strife noticed they weren't alone. More than half the House was standing around the table where maps and miniature figures were set up. Strife had seen this many times, it had to be a last minute meeting before a battle commenced.
Erita, Apatis and Ate, Goddesses of Hate, Deceit and Delusion, respectively, were standing around the far end of the table, talking together in low tones, occasionally pointing to something on the maps. Ate wasn't usually seen on Olympus after that little fall-out with Zeus, so this had to be big for the Old Man to let her back up here. Lyssa and Maniae were seated near each other but not talking. They just sat there, studying everyone and everything with a light in their eyes that bespoke the madness that was their godhoods.
Strife's gaze stopped on the other end of the table where Oizys, misery, was listening to something Eris was saying. Eris: Discord. His 'beloved' mother. Fortunately for all present, Strife just didn't have the energy for anger. The sight of her made him grind his teeth, but he couldn't do anything else. She seemed to realize that -- after Ares' little announcement, who wouldn't? Discord spared him one glance, although it did appear to be a cautious one, then turned her attention back to Oizys. Strife looked away from them all together, not wanting to deal with the emotions brought up by the sight of her. He had enough to process right now without that.
"You're looking down, cuz."
"Totally bummed."
The voices came from right beside him. When had Deimos and Phobos showed up, and why hadn't he noticed? His cousins were crouched beside his chair, Deimos on the right, Phobos on the left, and both watched him closely. There was nothing hostile in their unwavering gazes, yet Strife still had the distinct feeling that he was they prey here. But that wasn't unusual with these two.
"Cupid kissed me."
*Fuck*! Now Strife knew he was wiped out. There was no way he *ever* would've said that if he'd been his normal self. But it'd already slipped out and now all he could do was damage control.
The twins traded an unreadable glance, then Phobos stood and leaned closer, bracing his arm on the back of Strife's chair. "That's all?" he said conversationally. "'Course he did, cuz. That's what he does."
Knowing he'd probably regret it, that he should just end this now and stagger on back to his room, Strife nevertheless raised an eyebrow, indicating that his cousin should continue.
"It's simple." It was Deimos that picked up the explanation, standing and linking his hands behind his back. "you did something, didn'tchya? Something dealing with Love?"
Strife just nodded. Ares had pretty much announced that to everyone in the room anyway so there was no secret to keep.
"So there was a lot of Love floating around and Cupid felt it, probably got a major charge outta it."
"You know what it's like, cuz," Phobos continued. "When there's a lotta Mischief vibes floatin' 'round, doesn't it make you kinda hyper?"
Again, Strife nodded. He usually bordered on perky and bubbly when that happened and they knew it. It happened with all the gods when they soaked up energy that resonated with their godhood.
"Same with Cupid, only he reacts kinda different."
"He's the God of Love, man," Deimos said. "What d'you think he's gonna do when he's that high on Love?"
Oh. Well that definitely explained it. All of the mortals had been...busy and Strife was family. He *had* been the most logical choice to use in that situation.
"Thank Zeus," Strife muttered, finding a surprising amount of relief in the explanation.
"Huh?" Phobos said, but both the twins were frowning at him. What, had they expected him to cry over it or something? They obviously didn't know him well at all.
"Thought he'd totally lost it there," Strife said. Instinct told him to shut up but he was so damn tired and his mouth had decided to work on its own since his brain wasn't up to providing direction. "Got whacked on the head or something."
"Oh! Okay, yeah. I gettchya." Deimos nodded, flashing his brother a wicked grin.
"Totally." Phobos returned the grin, then looked back down at Strife. "Don't worry 'bout it, cuz. It only happened 'cause of the situation. Although, he might try it again."
"Huh?" Now it was Strife's turn to look confused.
"You're obviously not his type." Deimos looked at Strife critically. "He's got, you know, better taste and all, but you did turn him down, right?"
Strife nodded. Under normal circumstances he might've backhanded his cousin across the room for that little insult he'd given, but he also knew Deimos was right. Strife had nothing to offer someone like Cupid; he wasn't worth a second look.
"See, our brother might like the challenge," Phobos continued. "You're kinda on the pure side there and you played hard to get. Could be fun for him. But it'd just be a conquest thing, you know?"
Oh, great. So apparently everyone did know he'd never gotten laid before. And if Cupid knew that.... Well, it did make a certain kind of sense. Cupid was part of War, even if only by birth. He probably would get a thrill out of debauching one of the only virgins left on Olympus.
Wonderful. That put a major crimp in the way Strife had planned his life. He'd *enjoyed* working with Cupid, they made a great team. But if Cupid was going to be looking to get into his pants just for fun, then that would have to change.
It wasn't that Strife didn't want to sleep with him, it was just that he didn't think he'd be able to do it, knowing that it meant nothing to Cupid, and still survive. Cupid meant far too much to him for Strife to just have some one-night stand, or even let himself be used as some sort of fuck buddy. He couldn't *do* casual with Cupid. It'd kill him. If not in fact then inside, where it mattered.
All Strife had ever really hoped for was to have his cousin as a friend, and he thought he had. He'd considered Cupid his best friend for years now. Bliss was like his own kid and even Psyche had turned out to be pretty cool after that first misunderstanding she'd had about him. They were kind of like the family Strife would never have. He'd felt, if not totally a part of them, then at least like he could hang around sometimes without being viewed as an intruder. But if Cupid had decided he wanted to fuck Strife, then all that was over. Strife knew he'd rather never see Cupid again, make a clean break of it as still friends, then to let himself be used and have his world utterly destroyed when Cupid got tired of him and tossed him away.
Strife was yanked from those depressing thoughts by the feel of a hand sliding around the back of his neck. Phobos was now seated on one arm of Strife's chair, smiling down at him. Deimos, still standing beside the chair, was the one who was "caressing" Strife's neck, for lack of a better term. Although Strife wished he could've found a better one because that touch just made his skin crawl, as did the two brothers being so close to him.
"you know, cuz, you may not be Cupid's type, but you're definitely ours," said Deimos, his voice lower, much more sultry than normal. It made him sound like he had something stuck in his throat.
"Oh, most definitely," Phobos agreed, his lips near Strife's ear. It was probably supposed to sound like a purr, but it was more like nails on a chalky surface.
Strife clenched his teeth against their voices and their nearness -- and they were getting closer still. Deimos now sat himself on the other chair arm and Phobos was leaning against Strife's shoulder. Strife tried not to show how they were effecting him, but he had a feeling they knew. In fact, it wouldn't have surprised him if how repulsed he felt was actually a turn-on for them.
"Hold up, bro." Phobos said to his twin as he suddenly drew back a bit. "You look totally wiped out, cuz." That he directed at Strife. "Maybe you should go crash in your room like Dad said; we 'bout this later."
"Works for me." Deimos shrugged.
Riiiight. Apparently they thought that just because Strife was exhausted and his mouth was running away with itself, that also meant that his survival instincts were off-line. They really didn't know him at all, but he knew them *very* well.
If Strife were stupid enough to go to his room and sleep now, he'd wake up in probably a couple hours -- too soon for him to have gotten back enough energy to fight -- restrained in some way while the twins took turns violently raping him. He knew they'd done it before to countless mortals and if rumor were true, to a few gods as well. Pain and Fear got their kicks that way. But they'd forgotten just whom they were dealing with here.
Strife was younger by decades, but just by his nature alone he'd always been far shrewder and craftier, and he was certainly far more intelligent than both twins put together. They really didn't know the meaning of "subtlety," else they might've actually had a shot at trapping Strife. As it was, the hunters were about to learn what it felt like for the prey.
"you know, you gotta point there. I'm really out of it." Strife didn't have to feign tiredness, he was utterly exhausted. He stretched his arms and legs, working out lingering soreness from the misuse of his power and hearing the pop of muscle and bone. He kept the smile from his face at the look of hunger the twins couldn't quite hide. They were probably imagining what it would sound like when they began breaking every bit of him they could.
Reaching out, Strife slipped an arm around each of their shoulders. Smiling at both of them in turn, he just let his arms hang there, his fingers barely brushing the skin of their necks over the high collars of the brown leather shirts they wore. Obviously from their triumphant expressions, they didn't have the first clue of the danger they were in.
"I don't think I'll be wanting later, boys," Strife said conversationally, deliberately mimicking Phobos' earlier words.
"Then what would you want to do, cuz?" Deimos asked, trying for a purr but meeting with no more success than his brother had.
"Oh, I think I'll be hanging with my dads for a while, see what Than's up to and all. But there is something I wanted to letchya know about before I go." Strife gently curled his hands around the backs of their necks.
"Hmm?" It came from both brothers, their eyebrows raising in unison in what they probably thought was a seductive look. It made them look more like a pair of surprised fish.
Strife let his smile morph into a smirk. "Your shielding has always sucked." His hands clamped down hard as he reached *into* them simultaneously and began to *feed*.
They shrieked, a piercing sound of absolute agony that echoed jarringly throughout the temple. They might've tried to struggle but it was impossible with what Strife was doing.
It was nothing less than a form of internal rape. One god could share energy with another and there was no pain, it could even be enjoyable, but to simply reach into another god and rip the energy from them created pain on a level even the God of Pain himself couldn't find pleasure in. A fact attested to by the way Deimos continued to shriek and writhe in Strife's grasp, tears now falling sliding down his rapidly paling face. Phobos was no better off; sounds that might've been pleas fell from his lips, but he couldn't stop screaming long enough to make any sense of them.
With Strife mentally locked onto them, *into* them, they couldn't pull away without ripping themselves into irreparable pieces. They could only endure as Strife continued to drain them as slowly as he possibly could, wanting draw out the agony.
"You two really are morons," he said calmly, watching their tortured faces. "I never coulda done this if you'd bothered to keep your internal shields up against other gods. Just 'cause we're all family here doesn't mean you're safe. But wait a sec! You two know that!" Strife said with false surprise. "You had something planned for me, didn'tchya? Thought it'd be fun to do your 'poor, defenseless' cousin?" Strife tightened his grip, physically and internally, and drew in more of their energy. To them it would feel like something vital was being sucked from them; their shrieks instantly became louder, higher-pitched, and Strife's smirk turned to a maniacal grin.
Accustomed to obeying that voice and it's commanding tone, Strife immediately began withdrawing his internal hold on the twins. It wasn't a process that could be rushed; he'd imbedded what amounted to psychic "hooks" into their power sources and to just rip them free might end up destroying the brothers. That wasn't what Strife intended with this little "lesson," so he was careful in his retreat.
"I told you I didn't want any more interruptions." Ares' tone was low, deadly as he stood over Strife and the twins.
"Sorry, Unc, just had to fix a problem," Strife replied, finally releasing his physical hold on the brothers.
Deimos and Phobos collapsed to the floor, involuntary shudders coursing through their bodies as the continued to whimper and cry in pain. Standing, Strife looked down at them impassively. Ares' look, however, was filled with a wealth of contempt.
"Get up, you complete imbeciles!" the God of War snapped. He kicked each of his sons in the ribs when they were too slow to respond.
Slowly, still trembling from their ordeal, the twins began to get to their hands and knees.
"Dad?" Deimos squeaked hesitantly.
"Don't even *think* of complaining," Ares warned. "You idiots brought this on yourselves. There's a *reason* Strife is my second in command and you should've remembered that. You got what you deserved."
Using the chair for support, the twins managed to pull themselves upright, an obviously painful process.
"You." Ares turned his attention to Strife. "If you're gonna stay and help with this war, fine; keep it *quiet* from now on. If not--"
"Not," Strife answered, cutting him off. It was risky, interrupting the God of War, but when Ares hadn't smacked him for causing the disturbance in the first place, Strife had realized that he was being treated like any adult god in War. That gave him a bit of leeway and he used it. "I'm too tired to do anything useful; I'm gonna go crash in the Underworld." He didn't add that it was much safer down there, but he didn't have to either.
Ares just nodded once, then grabbed his sons by their short hair and dragged them away.
Strife didn't stay to see what would happen. Since Deimos and Phobos were technically adults, their punishment wouldn't be all that severe. That they'd be punished wasn't in doubt; they'd just screwed up far more than Strife ever had; but Ares probably wouldn't do more than give them the worst jobs he could find, or make them stay out of the war. Strife had given them all the physical punishment they'd be able to absorb for a while, so Ares wouldn't add to that. Hopefully they'd even learn something from this, but Strife wouldn't bet on it.
Eight days, and counting. Yeah, that was thinking linearly, but at the moment Strife wanted it that way. He'd never spent this much time in the Underworld before and he wasn't going to fool himself, he knew he was hiding down here. He just didn't know how to deal with what he'd find back up on Olympus.
He'd spent most of the first day in the Underworld, sleeping. The energy he'd stolen from his cousins had only been enough to keep him on his feet as he'd transported directly from Ares' temple to his room in Hades' castle. He'd promptly collapsed into bed and hadn't gotten up until the next "day," that being a relative term in a place where the sun never shone.
The next couple days he'd spent hanging out with Hypnos and his sons, checking out the new dreams Phantasus and Phobetor were creating and trying to convince Morpheus to let him help make one "tiny little nightmare" for Hercules. Strife was pretty sure he'd be able to wear Morpheus down sometime in the next century or two.
Strife had spent four days straight following Thanatos around simply because the Reaper was just so *cool*. Thanatos wasn't letting him help out yet, but Strife never tired of watching him work. Besides, there was something therapeutic in watching mortals croak in multitudes of different ways. He didn't want to get in Thanatos' way for too long though, so he'd been hanging out with Hades and Persephone. Or rather, just hanging out in general.
He'd spent a lot of time exploring the castle, checking out just how Hades had constructed it. He hadn't been sure what to expect, maybe traps and hidden rooms and all that -- and he *had* met up with all that along the way -- but the main impression he'd gotten was a lot of very tastefully decorated empty space. The place seemed so *big* for just Hades and Persephone. Sure, some of the other Underworld gods came to visit and hang out, but mostly it was just those two living here.
What had Hades been thinking when he built this? He had to have known, even way back then when this place was built, that living down here would alter him so he'd never have children -- Strife notwithstanding. So if not for a big family, why all the space? None of it looked very lived in either, except for the set of rooms where they slept, of course. None of the rooms were used for storage space either, or at least not that Strife could tell. There were various items hung on the walls from weapons to mirrors to old tapestries, but that seemed more like decoration than anything important being displayed.
Strife didn't get bored exploring though. Whenever he was on the verge of that dangerous state, he'd stumble over something hidden. Sometimes it was a switch that opened a secret door or passageway or whatever, but just as often he'd trip some sort of alarm and spring a trap. After that first day he'd been scorched, punctured and had three fingers ripped off, but they'd grow back and he was really having fun.
He'd continued his explorations until a staircase led him to the top of the castle. He was stopped there now, just for a while, so he could sprawl on one of the outer walls and look out over Hades' dominion. He was lying in a precarious position, on his back with his head propped up on a loose stone, fingers drumming on a leather-clad thigh in a mostly unconscious motion; he could see just fine though and it was comfy enough. And there it was, Asphodel, in all its glory. Glory that included a drab, gray, barren landscape, the murky Styx in the distance and a bunch of harpies flying overhead. Strife had seen better views.
He knew there was a lot more out there than what he could see from here. There was Elysium and Tartarus yet to explore, plus the darker levels where the Titans were kept. Hades had already "suggested" he not go down there, but that only made Strife more eager to see it. He'd have to try and find his way there when he'd finished with the castle.
"Here, I think you dropped these."
Strife looked away from the "view" to find Hades standing beside the wall, holding out something. A moment later that something was dropped onto his chest.
"Hey! Thanks!" Strife grinned at him, then picked up the three fingers he'd "misplaced" earlier. "How'd you find me?" He asked as he stuck the fingers back in their proper positions. A small surge of power had them reattached in moments.
"Even if I wasn't aware of everything in my domain, I just had to follow the trail of blood," Hades responded wryly. "Have fun in the castle, did you?"
"Yep." Strife flexed the fingers to make sure they were working properly. "Not sure I get it though. It's a totally huge place, but there's not much here, you know?"
"Well, what did you expect?"
"I dunno." he shrugged. "The secret switches and traps, of course -- and those were awesome, by the way -- but I really didn't know what I was gonna find. That's why I went looking."
"And that's why you didn't find anything, except those switches and traps, of course. This place is designed to give you what you expect to see. The basic castle itself will always be here, but whatever resides in it comes from your own mind."
"That's *cool*." Strife was smirking now, eyes lighting with all sorts of fun ideas.
"I'm sure. But you can play with it later; I have a few messages for you." A number of scrolls appeared in Hades' hand. "Hermes brought them by about three days ago but I thought you needed some time to yourself. However, there is time to oneself and then there is hiding, and I think it's time you dealt with the upper world again." He held out the scrolls.
"Yeah, I know," Strife agreed with a sigh. Sitting up, he took the scrolls after a moment's hesitation.
"I also had an unusual visit when you were with Hypnos and his sons." Hades leaned one hip against the wall, crossing his arms as he looked out over his dominion. "Many of the gods come down here for one reason or another, usually some sort of favor." His lips twisted briefly into a smirk before resuming his normal, deceptively calm expression. "I'm not, however, accustomed to receiving visitors whose only wish is to express gratitude, nor have I ever seen one of the Muses down here."
That made Strife raise an eyebrow. Strange, yes, but why tell him about it? "Which one?" he asked because Hades seemed to want him to.
The muse of flute playing? What would *she* want down here? Music of any kind wasn't exactly a huge priority amongst the dead.
"Actually, she came to see me because, in her words, 'the circumstances make the giving of thanks difficult, however warranted they may be.' She was talking about you."
"Me? Why would she wanna say anything 'bout me? I don't even know her." Strife was frowning now, confused and not seeing where this was going.
"It wasn't anything about you, I believe she wanted to thank you."
"She wasn't exactly clear on that matter. You know the muses, twenty words where one will do just fine. Somewhere in there though, I think I caught a reference to the God of War's sons. That mean anything?"
Oh yeah. *Now* Strife got it, and he couldn't help a wince of sympathy for Euterpe. If she thought she had to thank him then she'd probably been one of the gods that had gone through what Strife had escaped from. "Deimos and Phobos," he said quietly. "you heard the stories 'bout them?"
"Pain and Fear. I know of them." Hades nodded.
"But you haven't heard the gossip, or you woulda got it when Euterpe first said something."
"Are you going to tell me?" From Hades tone, it was obvious that he wasn't either ordering or expecting Strife to reveal anything. He'd listen if his son was willing to talk but he wouldn't push.
Strife smiled slightly, appreciating the thought and maybe a bit more willing to talk because of it. "They got a game they play, mostly with mortals but sometimes with gods, if they can trap them. They find a way to keep the victim helpless, then they torture and rape them, and they're *good* at it. Mortals don't survive it -- you've prob'ly seen their shades down here, just didn't know what happened to them -- and the gods probably wish they hadn't."
"You talk like you've had some experience with this." Hades watched him closely with a frown of concern.
"Some, but I got away. See, I did some thinkin' bout that. I was wondering why they didn't try it on me before a few days ago. It was the day I came down here, they tried to get me alone so they could bang me and I couldn't fight back, you know? Anyway, I know they did it then 'cause they thought I was too weak to twig to what they were plannin', but why then and not any other time?"
"They're afraid of you," Hades said quietly.
"Well, yeah, kinda." Strife gave his father an approving look. Hades was following his thoughts rather well, which was usually a challenge for most beings. "I don't think they got much of a survival instinct though, so it's not really fear, more like wariness, if that makes sense?" He waited for Hades' nod before continuing. "Thing is, I think they do know that I'm smarter than them; even when I was younger and way more foolish, I woulda seen them coming a mile away. I think they were hoping that they could jump me when I was exhausted and I wouldn't know what hit me."
"Anyone who thinks that is either very deluded or extremely stupid," Hades commented with a half-smile.
"Yeah, you get it," Strife agreed, smirking. "But they didn't, still don't, probably. Even on my worst day I'm ten times as smart as they could ever hope to be, but that's my nature. I gotta *think* to do my job and they really don't. They're impulsive and, worse, they think they're a lot smarter and more seductive than they really are. you know, I'm thinking Ares let them play their games 'cause he knew eventually someone would beat them at it. I'm starting to wonder if he was planning on it being me all along."
"Wouldn't surprise me. My nephew is quite well suited for his job, and that includes long-term strategic planning." Hades reached out to place a hand on Strife's shoulder. "So how did you deal with them?"
That touch was actually comforting, Strife found. He was surprised to realize that it helped soothe something in him he hadn't known was troubled. He'd have to explore that later. "I let them trap themselves. They were getting all into my space and shit and they thought they had me. I let them think that, then I grabbed them and drained 'em." He shrugged.
"Well done. I don't know that those two are capable of learning anything, but that sort of pain does tend to leave a lasting impression."
"That's what I was going for. I left right after that 'cause no way was I staying there to sleep -- aw, shit." Strife let his head drop forward. Sometimes he wondered if he *was* an idiot.
"What's wrong?" Hades squeezed his shoulder slightly, encouragement and more comfort.
"I can't *ever* sleep there now. Don'tchya get it? Those two are morons, but they're *dangerous* morons. If I stay in Ares' temple, they'll find a way to get me. I'm not safe there anymore. Fuck!" Strife wanted to hit something, blow something up. He'd cut himself off from one of the places he'd felt safe and he didn't have so many of those that he could afford to toss one away like that. "I'd been thinking 'bout it earlier that day, you know? I mean, I *knew* I'd havta move outta Unc's temple sometime, but I'm not ready! I wanted to stay there longer 'cause I *like* it there! But unless I wanna be the main attraction at a gangbang, I can't ever let my guard down there again. Deimos and Phobos are gonna spend the next eternity or two trying to figure out a way to make me pay for what I did. I screwed myself over. Just fucking great."
"You can always stay down here," Hades offered.
"I know." Strife sighed, looking out over Asphodel. "And that's totally cool, it's just...."
"Not home? I know. But you are safe here."
"No, it's not really home, but neither was Ares' temple. I don't have a home yet, just safe places. Now I guess I only got one of those: down here. At least it's something."
Giving his shoulder one last squeeze, Hades released him. "Try reading those scrolls, maybe there's something there that'll cheer you up."
"Why, you read 'em?"
"And have Hermes after me for reading private messages? I think not. But one of them bears Cupid's seal and he always seems to improve your mood."
Cupid. Just what he *didn't* want to deal with right now. "Wonderful," he muttered, looking at the scrolls he held. There were two with War's seal, one of those with Ares' personal symbol on it. The third didn't bear Love's seal, just Cupid's personal symbol, denoting it a private message instead of an official ones like the ones from War. Strife opened those first.
The one without Ares' symbol was pretty straightforward:
"All gods affiliated with War:
You will report to the God of War's temple in three day's time for a briefing on upcoming naval phase of the current war. Ideas on how to keep Hercules out of it will be accepted.
By order of Ares, God of War."
That meant the meeting was in just a few hours. Great.
The next one, bearing Ares' symbol, was even more to the point:
"Strife; vacation's over. Get your ass back up here for the meeting. Don't make me ask twice."
Strife rolled his eyes. If he'd had any thoughts of ditching that meeting, they were gone now. "Guess I'm leaving. Think maybe Unc's reigning in the leash. I kinda wondered if he was really gonna let me go." With a flash of power, the scrolls burst into flame, disappearing in seconds.
"I think it's more likely he's trying to force you out of hiding -- and you *are* hiding down here, aren't you? Might it have something to do with why didn't open that first?" Hades taped a finger on the scroll still sitting in Strife's lap. Cupid's scroll.
Strife considered that. Did he really want to talk about it? Obviously Hades was offering to listen, but this wasn't the kind of thing Strife liked to "chat" about. He'd been raised with the idea that love was a waste of time and certainly no one in War would care in the slightest about something like this. Was it different in Death? Hades *was* married, and he so obviously loved Persephone. Maybe things weren't as strict here.
"Is 'love' a four letter word down here?" It was blunt, but he didn't know how else to broach the subject.
"If you mean, 'do we have a problem with it,' then no." There was a touch of amusement in Hades' tone but that quickly disappeared. "Love is very precious to most gods, Strife. We have an eternity to exist and that's a long time to be alone."
Strife nodded slowly, grudgingly acknowledging that fact. "Was Persephone always so into you, or did you haveta talk her into it once you got her down here?"
"Oh, I'm happy to say that mutual lust quickly led to mutual love." Hades smiled slightly.
"So what would you've done if she just wanted a good time, then wanted to forget it and leave?"
That wiped the smile from Hades' face. "Oh, I see. You really think Cupid would do that to you?"
Yep, Hades was on the ball all right. Strife just smirked, a twisted expression of self-disgust. "I dunno what the fuck to think. I'm nothing to someone like him, and he goes and kisses me."
"That was so terrible?"
"Fuck, yes! He's my best friend! I don't wanna lose that, you get it?" Strife wanted to throw the scroll as far from him as he could, anger, frustration and confusion warring in him to a point where soon only violence would calm him. But he couldn't seem to get his hand to release the scroll. It was like some part of him -- a severely masochistic part, obviously -- wanted to hang onto anything that Cupid had touched.
"Love does not preclude friendship," Hades said. "Sometimes the two work wonderfully together."
"He doesn't love me. All he wants is a shot at one of the only cherries left on Olympus." He snorted in contempt, although strangely it felt more focused on himself than Cupid.
"I think you know better than that, Strife." Hades sounded very serious, and that made Strife look up at him. "You're attributing the callous attitude you deal with in War to someone who I doubt is even capable of it. Cupid is the God of Love; I don't think the kind of heartlessness you're describing is *anywhere* in his nature."
Instead of just mouthing off with the first thing that came to mind, Strife kept his mouth shut and actually thought about that. Cupid *was* Love, to an extent. He'd always immersed himself in his job description the way, well, the way Strife or Thanatos did, really. Even his hobbies -- if you could call having a family a "hobby" -- had everything do with love. Love for a wife, a child, a stable home -- in which there was no place for something like Strife. But...even that wasn't totally true. Strife had felt welcome for some time now, by the entire family. He knew Bliss loved him and Persephone was nice enough to him, and Cupid had always shown him the caring one gave a close friend. Wasn't that a kind of love? Was it in Cupid's nature to toss away a friendship just to score?
"You're right," Strife finally admitted. "He wouldn't do me like that. But I still can't do what he wants."
"And what do you think that is?"
"Casual sex. Guess, from his perspective and all, that wouldn't screw up our friendship. He's the God of Love, prob'ly thinks it'll make things even better between us or something."
"It wouldn't?"
Strife looked back down at the scroll, noticing for the first time that his fingers were slowly moving back and forth over the parchment. "It'd kill me," he whispered.
This time Hades didn't say anything, he just slid an arm around Strife's shoulders and pulled him into a half-embrace. Strife surprised himself by leaning against his father, seeking any sort of comfort he could find. Eyes closed, he automatically stopped any tears that might've tried to fall. He didn't cry, that was the first lesson he'd been taught in War and he always remembered it. Nothing was worth the weakness of tears.
"Love isn't always easy, but sometimes it isn't as hard as we think either." There was some humor in Hades' tone when he released Strife long minutes later. "I was all set to play the martyr and give Persephone back to Demeter, you know."
Strife looked at him with a raised eyebrow. He hadn't heard that before.
"I thought she'd be better off up there in the daylight, that this place would destroy her beauty and laughter." Hades chuckled, shaking his head. "I believe her response to that was, 'Hades, please hand me that candlestick so I can use it to knock some sense into your head.' The pomegranate was her idea."
That got a faint grin from Strife. Yeah, he could see her doing that. Persephone was one tough goddess; she probably had to be with Demeter as a mom.
"Things aren't always what we make them out to be in our own minds, Strife, especially when it comes to love. Read the scroll, then I'd suggest having a talk with Cupid. I think he'll surprise you."
Not likely, but Strife nodded anyway. He really couldn't keep hiding down here, hoping that things would solve themselves. He was grown now and he had to deal with his problems like any other adult god. Of course, depending on the god, that could be anything from mass slaughter to running away screaming in the opposite direction. Personally, Strife thought he'd try facing things and see if he could come out of it emotionally intact before trying the screaming and fleeing thing. Not that it wasn't tempting. For some reason the scroll, small as it was, looked more foreboding than Hera after finding out about another of Zeus' flings.
Then Strife curled his lip, disgusted with his own trepidation. He was the God of Mischief; very few things could scare him and some little piece of parchment definitely wasn't one of them. Abruptly, in an almost violent move, he broke the seal and pulled open the scroll.
Please come see me before you go to Dad's meeting. We have some things to talk about and I don't think it's something that should be put off. I've done too much of that and it's only brought us here.
I'll understand if you don't show, but I hope you'll trust me enough to come.
After rereading the message a couple times, Strife was still frowning in confusion. Was it some sort of code or something? What did they need to talk about? Cupid wanted something Strife wasn't going to give and that was the end of it. And what did he mean by "brought us here?" Where? The Underworld? Or was that a kind of metaphorical thing? He wasn't much good at reading Cupid; whether his cousin spoke or wrote, Strife had yet to figure out how to see the meaning behind the words. Love was just...indecipherable to him.
"Fuck," he muttered in resignation, letting the scroll roll itself back up. He didn't burn it like the others, instead tucking it under his belt. Maybe he could toss it back to Cupid and get him to explain. Because he *was* going there. He didn't really have much choice. Cupid's words, regardless of the medium by which they were delivered, were something Strife always listened to.
"Persephone wants to know about Bliss, she said you discussed it before?" Hades asked pointedly.
"you don't gotta push, I'm going," Strife said tiredly, hopping down from the wall, back to the walkway.
Hades nodded once, a slight hint of approval showing. "You're always welcome here, Strife, never doubt that. Just don't try to hide from things down here."
"Getting the feeling you ain't gonna let me do that," Strife hesitated for a moment, then added, "Dad."
That brought a smile to Hades' face. He didn't say anything, just reached out to ruffle the top of Strife's hair in an affectionate gesture before walking away.
Strife was smiling as well as watched Hades leave. What was with his hair? Everyone was always messing with it. It'd probably be easier if he just let it lay flat, but he liked it spiked and styled. Reaching up, a quick run-through of his fingers made sure the strands were still where he wanted them. He absently noted that it was getting a bit too long for that look. He'd have to trim it, maybe tonight.
He dropped his hand with a sigh. Time to quit stalling. There was enough time before the meeting to work this out. Work it out? Yeah, right. There was enough time to tell Cupid that some things just weren't happening and he had to get over it before their friendship was wrecked. It probably wasn't going to be a pleasant conversation, but Strife didn't see any way around it.
Bracing himself, he left the Underworld.


It wasn't unusual to find Cupid in the main room of his temple. He used it as sort of a family/business room where he spent just as much quality time with his family as he did reading the petitions left at his temples in the mortal realm. He didn't spend all of his time there, but it was still the best place to start looking if you knew he was at home. It was, however, unusual to find him there pacing in obvious agitation.
Strife had a brief moment to notice his cousin's mood when he appeared, then Cupid focused on him and went completely still.
"Thank the Fates," Cupid muttered, relief obvious in his voice even if he still looked tense.
"Got this." Strife kept his voice and outward attitude calm, bordering on cool as he pulled out the scroll. He tossed it onto the nearest chair, the yellow of the parchment clashing with the purple cushion. "What d'you want?"
Cupid actually winced and Strife felt a brief moment of regret for his abrupt, rude tone, but he quickly shoved the emotion aside. He had to do this, had to show that he was in control here and wouldn't be talked into anything he didn't want.
"Forget that for a sec," Cupid said after a few seconds. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. Why wouldn't I be?"
"I heard about what happened, with my brothers; the rumors about it started making the rounds a couple days ago but they aren't real clear 'bout everything. I didn't know about it when I sent that," he spared the briefest of glances for the discarded scroll, "or I might've come to see you myself."
"You wouldn't have found me," Strife pointed out. He hadn't wanted to see anyone, especially Cupid, and there were endless places in which to lose oneself in the Underworld.
"I know, but I still woulda tried."
"Thought it just wasn't your kinda place." He really hadn't thought Cupid would ever come to the Underworld. It seemed so...dark for a god like him; totally wrong vibes down there.
"I visit, every now and then." An twitch of one wing betrayed Cupid's growing impatience with the subject change. He quickly brought the conversation back to where he apparently wanted it. "Strife...I know Deimos and Phobos paid for what they did, but are you hurt?"
That was a lot more blunt than he was used to hearing from Cupid, way more to the point, and -- oh. Oh! "Wait, you think I'd ever get trapped by *those* two?" Strife sneered in contempt. "*Puh-lease*. I was sucking their power reserves dry before they got through putting the moves on me."
Cupid closed his eyes with a relieved sigh, some of the tension draining from him. "Thank you, sweet Gaia," he muttered.
That surprised Strife, and almost against his will thawed through the shield of emotional coolness he'd built up for this. He knew he had to keep his distance here but it was just so hard to act like Cupid was an adversary, especially when he obviously cared so much. Strife had to force himself to stay unmoving where he was, next to the wall, instead of simply dropping into a nearby chair or bench and letting the facade fall away. He hated to see his cousin upset, but he couldn't risk dropping his guard either. Then Cupid surprised the fuck out of him and it no longer mattered.
"If they'd touched you.... Maybe Zeus wouldn't let me kill them, but I know how to make them wish for death." Cupid's tone, his whole attitude was so *deadly*, and his voice -- oh, fuck, that sounded so much like Ares!
Strife realized belatedly that he was staring, agape, his composure utterly shattered. "What?" It was little more than a high-pitched gasp, slipping out before he could close his mouth.
"You still don't get it, do you, Strife?"
Cupid started walking towards him and Strife found himself trying to merge with the wall at his back. He didn't know why or how, but suddenly his cousin was every bit as intimidating as the god who'd sired him. But it *was* Cupid, the God of Love, not War, and there wasn't any reason to be nervous, or so Strife told himself as he forced himself not to cringe away and instead meet his cousin standing upright and confident -- or at least as much as he could fake.
Stopping well within reach of Strife, Cupid just looked at him for a moment. His whole manner was more serious than Strife had ever before witnessed and Cupid's gaze was so focused on him, so intent that Strife found it an exercise in self-discipline to meet his cousin's eyes.
"I've tried everything I know," Cupid said quietly. "Either I'm completely wrong for my job or Psyche's right and I'm missing something totally important here. I'm gonna guess it's the latter one."
Strife could only shake his head, completely lost. *What* was going on here?
"Yeah, subtlety does seem to be wasted on you, but we'll work on that. Right now, I give up. I wasn't exactly tactful last time, but I guess it wasn't enough. If I haveta be totally blunt, even crass here, then fine. We'll do it your way. But I'm not lettin' you go again, Strife."
*Now* Strife thought he had enough reason to be nervous, maybe even to panic. But then he was being kissed and his mind did its best to shut down.
This wasn't the light pressing of lips against lips he'd gotten last time, this was hard and bruising, forceful in a way that was shocking coming from his cousin. Cupid wasn't looking for a response here, he was *demanding* it. And Strife gave it without meaning to.
He didn't realize the soft moan he heard came from him until he felt the tip of Cupid's tongue brush over his.
What the *fuck*?
Strife's eyes snapped open -- and when had he closed them? Maybe the same time he'd parted his lips to let Cupid's tongue in, because he sure didn't remember doing *that* either.
"*No*!" Strife gasped it out, the word both a denial and a refusal as he pushed Cupid away. "Not happening!" He would've transported himself to Ares' temple then, but hands grabbed his upper arms and *slammed* him back against the wall.
"That's right, you leaving is *not happening*." Cupid's voice bordered on a growl and it sent an involuntary shiver through Strife as he stared at his cousin in shock.
"Lemme go, cuz." The warning in Strife's tone would've sounded much more impressive if his voice hadn't been audibly trembling.
Cupid just tightened his grip. The look on his face, determined and so dangerous...Strife didn't know whether to be frightened or *really* turned on. He didn't want either, but apparently his body decided both were acceptable and reacted accordingly. He quickly decided that getting hard while trying not to hyperventilate with panic weren't sensations he particularly liked.
"This ain't gonna happen." Strife forced his voice to something resembling a firm, steady tone. "You're not gonna use me to get off, call it a good time and walk away."
"No, I'm not," Cupid agreed seriously. "I think someone's been feeding you the wrong ideas, and I'm gonna deal with them later."
That was a promise, and the way he said it, like someone was going to be in major pain when he got through with them, it nearly made Strife moan. Cupid was exhibiting more of his War heritage than Strife knew was possible for a Love god, even one with a technical affiliation with War. It was a mesmerizing, frightening, *beautiful* thing and Strife felt the conflicting urge to both submit and run away as fast as he could. The confusion tore at him and he could only continue to stare at his cousin in open bafflement.
Cupid's voice softened on his next words, but his tone remained utterly serious. "I know you love me, Strife."
Suddenly it was impossible to breathe. Strife thought he could actually feel his world cracking at the edges, starting to crumble as he realized what that meant. Cupid was *never* supposed to know, never supposed to have to deal with it on any level. Strife couldn't blame him for being upset by it; who'd want someone like *him* in love with them?
"I'm sorry," Strife whispered, knowing he'd just lost everything. He could forget being welcome in this home or babysitting Bliss, he'd be damn lucky if Cupid ever even spoke to him again after this. It was everything that meant anything to him and he'd lost it.
His apology, as admittedly lame as it was, didn't seem to calm Cupid any. In fact, Cupid's eyes narrowed and he *growled*. Strife gasped involuntarily, unwanted arousal shooting through him at that incredible sound, the low reverberation of it making him achingly hard. But that reaction had to be the last thing Cupid would want, and he couldn't have failed to notice it either. Instantly Strife was babbling, trying to salvage any shred of their former friendship.
"I didn't mean to, Cupid, I'm sorry! I'm so totally sorry! Just lemme go and I'm outta here and you never gotta deal with me again, okay? I'll stay away from Psyche and Bliss and I won't come nowhere *near* your temples or nothing! I promise! I'm so fucking sorry, just don't hate me!" He'd crossed the line from babbling to begging and he didn't care. Anything to save even the tiniest piece of what used to be his life. "Please, Cupid! I'm just so--"
"Shut up, Strife." Cupid's voice was even softer now, but there was such a wealth of suppressed emotion there that Strife instantly closed his mouth, unwilling to risk provoking true anger from his cousin.
"You...." Shaking his head, Cupid let the sentence die unspoken. He took a deep breath, and as he let it out, his grip loosened fractionally. It wasn't nearly enough for Strife to pull himself free but it wasn't as bruising either. "I've never figured out whether you're deliberately this clueless or you're just plain naive. Psyche says I'm just as clueless and I guess she's right, 'cause I just can't get through to you! I've got one word for you, Strife: 'soulmates.' Do you know it?"
Strife nodded. He'd heard the term once or twice, but only in passing. Of course he knew what it meant, what it referred to, but it had no application in his line of work so he'd never concerned himself with...with.... Oh, fuck. No. There was no way Cupid could mean.... But there wasn't a snowball's chance in Tartarus.... They were *gods* for fuck's sake! That stuff didn't apply to them! It didn't! Did it?
His dawning understanding and disbelief must have shown because the corner of Cupid's mouth turned up in what could only be described as a smirk.
"Yeah, Strife. I mean us. I knew it the first time I looked into your eyes, and so did you. You've just done the best job of denial I've *ever* seen over the past few decades. But I'm not lettin' it go on." Cupid took that final step closer, the one that brought them flush against each other, chest to chest, hip to hip -- and oh, sweet Fates, Cupid was *hard*.
Strife whimpered, he couldn't help it. This was simply beyond reality. Surrealism at its best. Soulmates? *Them*? In what alternate universe? And Cupid wanting him, hard for him? Things like that just didn't happen to Strife. Dreams didn't come true, wishes weren't fulfilled and long-held desires weren't granted, not in his world, *never* for him. He wouldn't know what to do if they did. He didn't know now.
"You're the *only* god in this pantheon who hasn't figured it out," Cupid said, lips almost touching Strife's, breath ghosting over his pale face. "I did everything I could think of to get you to catch a clue. I tried it all, romance, seduction, presents, even simply tossing artistry and skill to the wind and just kissing you -- *everything*, Strife. Everything 'cept this: I love you. I'm *in* love with you. I've been in love with you for years, I was just waiting for you to grow up so I could do something 'bout it."
This...wasn't real. Couldn't be real. Cupid, the God of Love, his incredibly handsome, *perfect* cousin would never say something like this to him. Strife wasn't worth it. He *knew* that and Cupid had to know it too. So why was he saying all this? Was he possessed or something?
"*Believe* it, Strife." Cupid was bordering on growling again, but fortunately for Strife's little remaining sanity he didn't quite make it. "Ask Mom if you don't wanna take my word for it -- *later*." His grip tightened again when Strife tried to pull away. "You're not going anywhere right now. We're not nearly done."
Strife had to get out of here. Something was seriously wrong with Cupid, either that or he'd accidentally fallen into an alternate reality at some point. It really didn't matter, he just had to get the fuck *away* from his cousin before this went any further. "I've gotta get to a meeting in War," he said, the breathlessness of his voice betraying his desperation. "Ares--"
"Can wait!" The growl was back. Strife would've moaned at the way that sound went straight through him, but Cupid shoved him harder against the wall and it knocked the air out of him. "You're not gettin' outta here 'till you understand, Strife. I've waited *decades* for you to be ready for this; I let you keep pushing me away even when my instincts told me to just take you. I wanted you to feel comfortable enough to come to me, but that's not gonna happen, is it?"
Strife shook his head, completely and utterly out of his depth, so confused he was on the verge of yelling for someone from the Underworld to come get him out of here. "But Psyche--"
"Is my wife. I love her dearly, Strife, but she is my *wife*. *You* are my soulmate, my other half, what makes me *whole*. Do you get it yet?"
His voice was barely audible, but Strife forced it out, knowing Cupid wanted an answer. "No." In so many ways no. He couldn't even begin to comprehend this.
It wasn't a growl this time, it was more of a snarl, bared teeth and all as Cupid somehow moved closer to him. Strife hadn't thought there was any room left between them but Cupid proved him wrong by removing it. They were almost crushed together now, no room to breathe, certainly none to move, at least not for Strife. Cupid was moving just fine, settling his hips against Strife's in a smooth grinding motion that made Strife shiver against him.
"Lemme put this in terms someone raised in War will understand," Cupid said softly, something that made him sound even more dangerous. "I have a claim on you that not even Zeus would challenge. You're my soulmate, a part of me, and that makes you *mine*, Strife. You. Belong. To. *Me*." He enunciated each word clearly, starkly.
Strife didn't say anything, he couldn't. How could he be expected to form a reply to *that*? But it didn't seem that Cupid was looking for one either. This time when Cupid kissed him, Strife didn't try to push him away, or fight at all for that matter. If Cupid was that certain he had a right to this then Strife would submit. It wasn't right, not in any way. If Cupid wanted someone other than Psyche then Strife was the *last* person, god or otherwise that should fill that spot. He wasn't anywhere near being good enough for Cupid, but he also didn't think he had the right to question his cousin's decision. Of course thinking at all was becoming increasingly impossible with Cupid kissing him like that.
When Cupid's tongue flicked wetly across his lips, Strife obediently parted them, deepening the kiss. The feel of Cupid's tongue sliding over his accomplished two things, it made Strife an abrupt and completely willing participant, and it shut down his mind. Every logical thought he had suddenly scattered and all that was left was the feeling of Cupid's body against his, Cupid's tongue tasting him, exploring every inch of his mouth.
Strife found himself returning the kiss, doing his best to copy his cousin's actions, suddenly wishing he'd had more experience to draw on so he didn't seem so awkward in his attempts. He didn't know if he was doing it right; it was all so new, and wet, and messy and, oh, so fucking *good*.
Moaning now, trying to somehow get closer to his cousin, Strife could only manage a slight rocking motion, his hips against Cupid's. The reaction that brought was instantaneous.
Without breaking the kiss, Cupid's hands left Strife's arms, sliding down his sides. Shivering at the feel, even through his clothes, of Cupid touching him like that, Strife used his new freedom to wrap his arms around his cousin's neck. He could've kissed Cupid for hours, or forever maybe, but a few moments later Cupid's mouth left his and instead brushed across his cheek, then down further. The new sensations, lips and tongue moving over the sensitive skin of his neck, distracted Strife so he didn't realize there'd been a point to Cupid moving lower. Not until strong hands clasped the back of his thighs and yanked him upward. Gasping in surprise, Strife automatically locked his legs around the first thing he could to maintain his balance, Cupid's waist. That had, apparently, been the point.
Cupid's tongue traced the outside of Strife's ear, drawing another shiver from him. "Hang on," Cupid ordered softly.
Strife still wasn't prepared for it, the sudden, almost violent thrust against him. It crushed him back against the wall, knocked the breath from him and ground their cocks together in a way that he could feel clearly even through the layers they wore. It was *incredible*. Another, equally hard thrust and Strife groaned, eyes closing, teeth sinking into his bottom lip as his entire focus centered on his aching cock.
In a vague sort of way he was aware of Cupid's echoing groans, of lips continuing to kiss his neck, the warm wetness of a tongue flicking across his skin, but it couldn't compete with the building tension much lower. Every movement Cupid made, each wonderfully hard, grinding thrust sent that tension, the almost painful ache, just that much higher, until Strife was near to begging for it to end -- or not to end -- he didn't know *what* he wanted. But he couldn't voice it either way. The only thing he could manage now were short, sharp gasps, skirting the edge of high-pitched moans.
Then the tension broke...and so did he.
Jagged fingernails digging into the back of Cupid's neck, Strife bit hard into his lip. The bitter taste of his blood a sharp contrast to the exquisite pleasure jerking him convulsively in his cousin's arms as he came harder than he ever had by his own hand. It gripped him, wrung every bit of sensation from him, then left him lying limp in against Cupid, head resting on Cupid's shoulder as he tried to find a way to breathe again.
Cupid, still rocking into him harder with each slam of his hips, suddenly went still, gasping almost breathlessly in Strife's ear. For long moments he didn't move save for the clench of muscles under tanned skin, then he seemed to relax utterly. He still held Strife up, but now he was leaning against him, pushing them both into the wall for support.
"Perfect," Cupid murmured, kissing Strife's neck.
Perfect. Yeah. Perfect insanity.
Eyes still closed, Strife said nothing. He didn't know how to respond. His world had been ripped from its foundations and turned upside-down. Dreams were becoming real and reality was twisting into something unrecognizably surreal. What sanity he had left felt like it was rapidly deserting him. His mind frantically searched for some way to make sense out of what had happened, groped for some shred of understanding -- but there wasn't any sense to be made, nothing he could understand. It was pure chaos. And that was all he had left.


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