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Lost Soldiers

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"Hey, Man, I ain't got no change, Man!" The brown haired man in a linen suit brushed off the over-zealous homeless man and continued walking down the darkened street in the Quarter. He'd been in New Orleans for three months and as much as he loved the atmosphere, he also hated it bitterly. The New Orleans Police Department had been on strike and his lover was after some elusive game. Or maybe he should say prey, either way no one had stopped the God of War yet. Oh there was that time where Xena and Gabrielle had thought they'd captured Ares, but Joxer took action quickly having the dark war god released by Hephaestus himself.

There was something to be said for being the God of Lost Soldiers, Ronin, they were sometimes called, and consort to War. Every living warrior that no longer had an army, gang, or leader to follow was under Joxer's sphere of influence. Ironically enough, his old mortal friends, were they still living, would be among that group, Gabrielle included, for all her preaching of the Way. Joxer smirked at that, more wars had been fought, more bodies massed and more blood had been shed over the Way than anything the world had seen for all their teachings of peace.

Joxer shook off his aggravation and tried to catch up with Discord. She'd cornered him outside the bar in a mortal disguise right before the older black man in a worn out military jacket accosted him. There was something about that homeless guy though. Joxer knew he was one of his and should remember him somehow.

Wait, Joxer thought, he served in Vietnam, US Marine Recon, maybe? No, Douglas Binder was his name, that poor guy had too many demons from the war and separated from his family over twenty years ago. He was killed in the city the night before, which aggravated both Joxer and Ares, for differing reasons. Joxer hated the idea of someone killing his followers even if they weren't aware of him until the end. Ares agreed with Joxer in that the young god should be the only being allowed to kill his lost soldiers. The War God, taking it as a personal affront, also speculated that this was the work of someone with delusions of being a god-- of war, or at the very least, the hunting of men, in particular. He wanted to make the idiot rot in Tartarus or something equally torturous.

Joxer knew Ares was on to something though, before New Orleans they had been in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. Ares had shown Joxer a list of their followers that had been killed in both cities under suspicious circumstances near a major landmark. Here in New Orleans there was always residue of river water in their clothing, on their skin and in their hair. Although Douglas Binder's body had been found in an abandoned building gutted by fire, their senses still picked up river water.

All Joxer's speculation was cut short when he heard gunfire ring out in the direction he had left the homeless man. The man was lying on the ground nearly dead, a broken strap lying next to his waist. Joxer rushed over and knelt in front of the dying man, careful to keep himself invisible to everyone but his charge. Elijah, Elijah Roper, that was his name!

"Elijah? Can you hear me? It's Joxer. Who did this to you?" Joxer held his hand on the man's chest long enough to allow the man to answer before Hades' beckoning call.

"Joxer." Elijah sighed. He was at peace with his god and knew that Joxer was the reason he lived so many years after the service. He drew strength for one last breath to utter his last words, knowing he would have his vengeance and whispered, "He's...he's...find Poe..."

"It's time, Joxer, let him go." Hades had popped in with a subdued flash of light. They'd had this argument before, several times, in fact. Hades wouldn't allow Joxer access to the victims' shades for questioning, saying that the dead deserve their peace and their secrets would remain secrets. Zeus was no better. Strictly on principle, he forbade Ares from visiting the Halls of Time with this problem. He said in his condescending way, that it was about time Joxer had something to do for himself, and that the War God couldn't help the young god unless it directly involved Ares. They both knew that even if Ares was directly affected, Zeus would still forbid them from getting easy answers.

"Fine, Hades, take him. You would think you had enough souls already, without taking this one too." Joxer said dully. He was already regretting brushing the man off as a panhandler when he really needed help. What kind of God of Lost Soldiers was he? A lousy one, by his reckoning.

Hades placed his hand over Joxer's and gave him an all too brief smile, "Why don't you call Ares? If I'm not mistaken you have two more clues."

Two, Joxer thought in puzzlement. He looked over where the God of the Underworld had placed his hand before flashing out. The broken strap was lying underneath it. Upon further examination, Joxer realized the strap had been cut, and he knew just the people to help him.

"Ares! Heph!" Joxer called out with all the guilt and bitterness he held bottled up since first realizing Ares was right about the patterns of death.

Twin flashes of light announced the arrival of the two gods. Ares was wearing a slightly irritated look on his face, but irritation changed to surprise at seeing his brother out of his forge. It seemed that Heph had a soft spot for the young god, not surprising, however, both were generally shunned by the other gods and immortals. "Joxer, what is it? You know I was making trouble in the Baltics."

"I thought it was the Middle East, brother?" Hephestus leaned on the red sports car parked near some place called 'The Billy Club'.

Ares crossed his arms and grinned widely. "You know I don't have to do much of anything there, Heph. The mortals in that area have been bent on killing each other to extinction without my help for millenia. They've been fighting over the Way since Eli began preaching it."

Joxer smirked up at Ares for echoing of his earlier thoughts. They were definitely well-matched. "If you two are done catching up, I have something for you to look at."

Ares uncrossed his arms and knelt in front of Joxer. Heph limped over and stood behind the two gods putting a hand on each of their shoulders. Each looked down on the fallen warrior and mourned his loss silently for a moment.

Joxer glanced at Heph and Ares, "His name was Elijah Roper. He served in the Vietnam War for the US in the Special Forces. He asked me for help, but I was distracted by Eris at the time. I should've been there for him, but I told him I didn't have any change! He was one of mine and I couldn't even give him an American dollar!" Joxer visibly straightened and pulled himself together.

"Jox, what do you need from us?" Heph glanced kindly at one of his best friends.

"Here," Jox handed Heph the strap, "Hades made sure I saw this when he came for
Elijah's soul and reminded me I now had two clues, I think he's trying to help in his own way without attracting His attention. This was cut by some kind of knife, I was hoping one of you might know what did it and if it'll shed some light on who is doing this."

Heph glanced at the edges of the cut material. "This was made by a pocket knife with jagged edges from the Netherlands."

Ares took the strap from his brother's outstretched hand, "I agree. It looks like it was part of a utility belt," he tossed it from hand to hand while thinking of what it could've been used for. Elijah obviously didn't have any weapons so it wasn't used for that. He had an idea and smelled the strap to confirm it. He glanced over at his lover sharply. "Money and river water. Its another one of that idiot's kills."

Heph had a thoughtful look on his face. "You said two clues?"

"Yes, Elijah's last words were to find Poe when I asked who did this to him, but I don't see how it all fits yet," Joxer replied already trying to place Poe, a Dutch pocket knife, a utility belt, money and river water into the puzzle of deaths.

Ares stood up careful not to jostle his brother and brushed his clothing off. "Well, then, let's find this Poe, and persuade him to tell us how it all fits."

***

"Ares, you think Chance is in town?" The youngest god stood and brushed his knees off, absently mimicing his lover.

Ares rubbed his goatee in thought. "Strife's boy? He's been looking for work in the area since he threw his captain off his ship for smuggling opium."

At Heph's questioning look, Joxer continued the explanation, "Chance Boudreaux was a great kid. He was just like his father though, always getting into trouble. Strife didn't tell him about his paternity though; left him with his Uncle Douvee, and visited him as a boyhood friend named David Gautreaux. He's a great tracker and was a great soldier too. Boudreaux won the Silver Star while in the Marine Force Recon. He's been one of mine for few years now."

Heph nodded. "I believe you would know where to find him then?"

Joxer took the question as the statement it was meant to be, closed his eyes and focused on Chance Boudreaux. He touched his family and flashed all three of them into a large warehouse efficiency. The paint was peeling a window or two were cracked. The furniture was minimal. Boudreaux had a table with a few chairs, a sofa with clothes thrown over it, a large steamer trunk about a foot in front of the sofa, dresser with attached large mirror, and a bed on a raised level.

Chance was hunched over on his sofa, elbows on his knees and a warming beer in his hand. He did not look good. He had a cut above his right eye and looked pretty warmed over. There were at least four more empty bottles splayed out on the steamer trunk.

Joxer didn't think Chance looked like he'd trust them any time soon, and not at all if they just popped into his place. Not that Boudreaux could hurt any of us, Joxer thought, but it would be annoying.

"Strife!" Joxer called out.

A flash of light announced Ares' nephew, "Yo, Joxie, Uncs, What's up?" Strife looked around the place and noticed his youngest son. "Hold it! What's going on here? Why are you three at my son's place and why didn't you tell me something was going on with him earlier?!"

"Wait, wait, we don't think he's involved with anything. As far as we know he was in a harmless bar room brawl." Joxer tried to placate the agitated god. "We want you to ask him a few questions about a man named Poe that would deal with homeless veterans that have gone missing. He's not going to trust us, but he will trust you, just remember to age yourself a little. We'll keep ourselves invisible unless you give us a signal."

Strife nodded and popped outside the apartment window and tapped gently while making a few birdcalls. Chance immediately hit the floor in between the sofa and trunk, impressing the War God with his reflexes and set the half-empty bottle on the floor. He made a birdcall, received the correct one in response, and relaxed. Chance got to his feet and flung open the door. "Gator?! What are you doing here? Last I heard you were with that hunting group, guiding green hunters through the trails west of Uncle Douvee's place." Chance motioned his old friend through the door before closing it.

"Just thought I'd drop by and see my old pal Chancey." Strife threw his arm over Chance's shoulder and walked to the kitchen table. "You got any beer?"

"Sure. I get one for you." Boudreaux walked to his fridge and pulled out two fresh beers allowing Strife the opportunity to wink at his uncles and Joxer.

Strife twisted off his beer cap and started flipping it over his knuckles like a magician. "They've given me a break until I take some stupid hunting course, like I ever needed a class to track gators! Meanwhile I have to work to be able to be able to pay for the damn class so I can work! It sucks, ya know?"

"I know what you mean. I was reinstated with the Union, but can't ship unless I pay my dues, and how I'm gonna pay dem til I ship out?" Boudreaux opened his beer and took a long swallow.

"Why were you black-balled from the Union, I know it must've been good," Strife asked, earning a glare from his unseen famiy. Strife just smiled at them innocently, allowing his son to think he was imagining the trouble the demi-god had gotten into.

"My captain was smuggling opium. We had a misunderstanding that caused him to break his jaw and fall overboard. It really wasn't my fault, Gator." Boudreaux smiled at the memory.

"Yeah, he just broke his jaw himself and decided to hop overboard into the open sea?" Strife had to chuckle, "I'm sure you were a great guy and threw him a life preserver, or maybe ya felt really generous an' gave him an inflatable raft, right?"

"We weren't that far from land, Gator." Chance defended himself.

"So you came out pretty good, how you gonna make your dues?" Strife went to the refrigerator and pulled out two more beers.

/Strife. We don't have time for this. Get to the point!/ Ares thought hard at his nephew.

/Hey, he's my son, and I'm gettin' there alright, Unc? Just chill, ok?!/ Strife sent back and handed his son a new beer.

"Well, this girl came to town looking for her pappa. She was gonna pay me 217 dollars to help her find him." Chance looked intently at his unopened bottle. Strife watched several emotions run rampant across his son's face with resignation and determination urging him to continue, "but he was dead. Her name is Natasha Binder. Her pappa was passing out flyers for Randal Poe. Now I'm gonna find his killer, that girl don't deserve to lose her father. No one deserves to be without a father." Chance twisted the cap off and took another long swallow of beer. Strife looked guiltily at his son.

Joxer saw the guilt and cursed Eris silently. He knew the only reason Strife had left Chance with Douvee was for the boy's own safety. Discord had known Cupid was jealous of Strife's one-time lover, never mind the number of lovers the God of Love had in the name of duty or the fact that they'd talked about it being a one time thing so Strife could have a child of his own.

Eris thought she could get by with killing the mother and child pinning the blame squarely on Cupid's shoulders. Luckily, Joxer thought, Strife arrived in time to save Chance, but sadly enough, not the boy's mother. When Cupid's parents got wind of the situation, Ares *and* 'Dite both kicked Discord's ass from one side of Olympus to the other for that stunt. Joxer using his his bumbling idiot skills pretended to be sympathetic and manacled her with a few chains donated by Hephestus.

After Strife had Chance safely settled with Douvee, he found his mother gift-wrapped in his home temple on Olympus. He spent several pleasant years of alternating between time with his son, godly duty of Mischief, and torturing his mother. Eventually he did let her go, but before she flashed to her own temple, she received a promise from Ares. It was something about the past few years, cake walks, and picnics if she ever went near Chance again. Eris didn't take the time to listen; she already knew exactly what he meant. All she wanted involved lots of sleep and healing, and maybe some chocolate.

/Its ok, Strifey, we know you did your best, you were your son's best friend and Douvee did a great job raising him./ Joxer thought at Strife.

He brightened at that and began listening again to his son praise the virtues of the fair Natasha. "Someone's got a crush!" Strife interrupted.

"I do not. I am too old for schoolyard crushes." Chance tossed the now empty bottle into the garbage.

"Do too, and you're never too old for a crush unless you're dead." /and Cassandra still has a crush on Herc/ Strife thought silently, causing a few snickers from his invisible relations before continuing out loud, "So this Randal Poe, he good for much cash, where's he at?" Strife picked up his own bottle, walked over to the steamer trunk and picked those up as well, tossing them all into the garbage.

"You always were too neat for your own good. He's about four blocks northeast of Cafe Du Monde, but don't be getting any ideas. He don't pay much and we think he might be involved in Binder's death." Chance was adamant that his best friend not become involved.

"Perfect."

"I thought I was going to have to gouge someone's eyes out."

"Let's just go before we lose Poe, ok, Arry? No gouging til we get there," Ares eyes lit up at the prospect and Joxer continued, "but only after we get the information we need."

"Spoil my fun, why don't you?"

***

"I'm sure we'll have plenty of time for fun, brother--" Heph started, but paused when Joxer touched his arm and motioned towards the slightly intoxicated demi-god.

"Look, Gator, why don' you try someplace else before you try him. He pay enough for a few bowls of bad gumbo, but not more dan dat." Chance grabbed his last two beers out of the fridge and handed one to Strife.

"Yeah, but I don't need to pay for food, I know I can hunt for something outside of town." Strife twisted the cap off and practiced more sleight of hand tricks. "So what really happened to your face? I know that isn't left over from accidentally meeting the captain's feet when he decided to jump, right?"

Chance shook his head a little to keep his grasp on consciousness. "No, Van Cleaf's apes rough me up a little, to throw me off the trail of Binder's killer."

"Van Cleaf? He from around here? Ya think he's the money man?" Strife nudged
Boudreaux.

"Poe tol' me he wasn't American, but I'd bet my rent money that he's the reason Binder is dead. He came in Poe's place when we first went to see him. Didn't look like money, but he's dangerous though, dat's why I don' want you near that slob Poe. Fighting 'gators is one thing, Van Cleaf is another." Chance leaned his head against the side of his beer, practically bending his body in half over the table. Strife stopped his son's beer in mid-fall, spinning the bottle in lazy circles without spilling a drop. Chance slumped into his forearm and studied the tabletop intently, completely missing the sideshow his disguised father was providing.

Strife grinned, /Hey guys? Looks like Van Cleaf is your man. I'm gonna stay here if that's ok with you./ The Mischief God was betting that his son didn't have the ability to stop his beer from spinning, let alone finish it before falling asleep, and was courteous enough to help him with that problem.

Joxer smiled at Strife's antics, /That's good Strife, fair warning though, your mom's in town./

/Let me know if she gets anywhere near Chance, ok? I made her a promise almost three decades ago and I plan on keeping it, nephew./ Ares shot Strife a serious look.

/You got it Unc', I'll let ya know, 'k? I plan on keeping my boy in tonight. He looks trashed and doesn't need any more trouble./ Strife paused for a moment, meeting the smirks of his three relatives, /Did I just say that?/

/Yes, you did, and in front of witnesses, don't think you'll ever live it down either. Wait til I tell Cupid!/ Joxer's grin grew even wider.

/You wouldn't dare! I'd have to bring out that certain juicy deal you made with Heph, I'm sure Unc would *love* to know all about it!/ Strife sent to Joxer privately.

Joxer's eyes widened a fraction, if Strife hadn't been looking for it he would've missed it altogether. Strife knew he had the younger god's silence, for a few more days at least, /Fine. Fine. Be that way. But don't come crying to me when Heph or Ares spill, and you know they will,/ Joxer smiled.

/Yeah, but I've got stuff on them too!/ Strife grinned mischievously and then sent to all three, /besides, don't you guys have a wannabe god to find?/

Ares barely overheard the words "juicy deal" and "Heph" from part of the private
thoughts Strife sent Joxer, and watched his lover's face for signs of guilt. 'There!' Ares thought silently as he saw Joxer's eyes widen.

Ares knew that his consort and the Forge God had been friends even before Joxer became a god, and suddenly wondered if there had been more between them than he first thought. It had been almost two millenia since Ares had named Joxer his consort. He couldn't have missed something for that long, could he? He was away often starting and overseeing wars, but Joxer had his own duties as well.

Ares shook his head, cursing his momentary insecurity, he'd have time to deal with this later. He had a mortal to find and punish if his suspicions were correct.

/Wannabe god?/ Joxer asked, effectively closing the subject of telling tales on Strife.

/Yeah, I figure this Van Cleaf guy has to think he's a god, having the life and death of former soldiers in his hands during a combat situation, yep, God Complex for sure!/ Strife grinned maniacally.

Ares stalked over to Strife, gripped the hair at the base of his skull and lifted him into the air, /Wait one minute! How do you know all that?/

Strife smiled down at his uncle's face, /Don't you read, Unc'? There was a story written several decades ago where this rich guy hunts combat veterans and other extreme types for sport. Rich guys have been trying it for years. Remember Bellerophon when he went after the Amazons? And he was the son of Artemis! In the here and now, Poe has to be working for Van Cleaf and Binder was passing out flyers for Poe when he was killed. Van Cleaf sent goons to rough up my boy for looking into Binder's death. It all fits./

/And three plus eight could equal twelve. Binder could've just been mugged while he was on the street working, and killed for a few nickels./ Ares snarled and let Strife back down.

/But why send the muscle after Boudreaux if it was only a simple mugging?/ Heph pointed out.

/Elijah mentioned Poe too and he was killed by Van Cleaf, or someone working for him./

Joxer contributed, his mind working furiously to come up with a way to thwart Van Cleaf without losing any more followers.

/Enough!/ Ares had finally reached his limit. Placing his hand on Chance's forehead, Ares took Poe's exact location out of the mortal's sleeping mind. With that information, the God of War flashed into Poe's office with Joxer, leaving Heph behind.

/Ares! You left Heph! That wasn't nice at all!/ Joxer reprimanded.

/Don't worry, Jox. I'll find 'Dite and go back to my forge later. I had a couple of projects going when you called. Let me know if you need anything else./ Heph's voice reassured Joxer.

Ares began to pace the darkened office. He knew that he was being irrational about his brother. Ares knew that Heph was as devoted to 'Dite as he had been thousands of years ago. The War God also knew that Joxer was just as devoted to him as the mortal had been before his change. So why was he having issues about Joxer all of a sudden? The deal, Ares thought, Strife must've let him overhear those words, the little shit!

/I'm the God of War. When am I ever nice? It's not in my nature. All that talking was getting on my nerves. I want to kill something and Poe seems like a good enough target./

Ares stopped pacing and looked around. The office was dark, with the windows covered by boards it would've been dark during the day as well. There was money lying on the ground. Poe was slumped in his chair with his face in his hands. His ear was bleeding half-heartedly.

"A wound re-opened after a day's worth of healing, a war trophy maybe?" Ares speculated.

"Didn't think anyone but serial killers were into cutting people's ears off for trophies anymore, I mean, some of your warlords that Xena and Herc massacred, sure, but now?" Joxer responded.

"You'd be surprised at the tributes I still receive. Do you want to scare Poe and start blasting before the questions?" Ares looked to his lover, hoping he wouldn't have to be considerate to make up for slighting Heph much longer, it was annoying.

"Actually Ares, I have a better idea. Follow me but give me a bit of room to act." Joxer flashed them both outside Poe's office door.

Ares lifted an eyebrow at Joxer's taking control of the situation. The God of Lost Soldiers was taking this a bit more personally than he was letting on. Ares squelched the automatic need to reassert himself. Joxer needed to take care of this situation for his followers sake, if not his own. Ares would allow Joxer the driver's seat for as long as necessary.

Joxer reached over, pulled Ares flush to his body kissing him soundly. Joxer let go before their bodies had too much of a reaction, "For luck."

"You mean lust," Ares mumbled under his breath.

Joxer made himself visible and nudged Ares to do the same. He glanced at their clothing and decided to change it. He kept Ares in the black leather pants because he loved the way it molded against his ass and other attributes, but changed the leather vest into an ebony silk button up, with a long black duster to hide the shoulder holster with accompanying .45, wrist sheathes and throwing knives. He gave himself black jeans with a black t-shirt and battered leather jacket over it to hide his own set of identical armament. They were both wearing matching combat boots, and each had a matching ring on the thumb of their left hand. He smirked at Ares, "It'll work better this way."

"Not from where I'm standing. It'd work much better if you were over here," Ares began muttering again, but kept it to himself for the time being.

Joxer knocked on the door and entered Poe's office for the second time upon hearing a muffled 'what' from the door. He smiled innocently, "Hello. My name is Jock Mitel, and this is Arris Marshall. We were wondering if you could help us? We're looking for Randal Poe. Elijah Roper said he would give us a hundred bucks a piece for filling out an application. Do you know where we could find him?"

The red flags, sirens and train whistles went off in Randal Poe's head when the two well-dressed young men walked into his office. They were oozing sex and violence, in that order. He knew they would probably mean his death at Van Cleaf's hands if he let them become volunteers for Fouchon, but Poe thought maybe he could visit his Mama in Biloxi. He could always say she was sick. He smiled at the young men, knowing that he wouldn't see another dime from Fouchon, but didn't really care as long as no one came after him.

Poe handed the applications Fouchon had made up to each young man. "So, you boys from around here?"

Ares smiled in a way that made Poe reach for a cigar with shaking hands. "No, we're passing through."

Poe decided that he was definitely leaving town tomorrow. "So you got family in town or something?"

Joxer smirked at the greasy man's obvious attempts at information gathering. "Yeah, Arris' nephew and his son are in town, but they don't live here."

Ares raised an eyebrow. "Combat experience? That's an interesting way of asking about military service."

Poe paled slightly before recovering. "It's just a standard form I had made up. It's supposed to say military experience." Poe was really beginning to get flustered. With their clothing, he knew he was asking a foolish question, but was irritated enough to disregard his common sense. "Look, do ya want the hundred bucks or not?"

"Of course we do." Ares smiled menacingly. The War God could feel the fear coming off Poe in waves. /Didn't even have to start blasting, any preferences on combat experience? I doubt our entire combat experience would interest him./

/Yeah, I'm sure he cares that I've been in every war since before the fall of Rome, never mind that you started countless more than that before Rome even existed. Although, my actual wartime experience is limited to fighting for soldiers separated from your armies./

/Don't forget all the skirmishes that just *happen* to find your followers when there's a cause you believe in at stake. You've been busy the past two thousand years./ Ares loved teasing Joxer about his need to fight for causes. The War God knew that although he had the edge when it came to large scale wars and group work, Joxer had the advantage when it came to a few against the many. 'Must be all that travelling he did with Xena and Gabrielle in his mortal years, and his Godhood just reinforced it,' Ares thought, smirking at the glare he caught from Poe for taking a long time with the applications.

/There's nothing wrong with fighting for a cause, fighting wars for fighting's sake is part of your domain,/ Joxer smiled inwardly at his lover. He thought for a moment. /Perfect!/ he smiled, /Just put Panama, Desert Storm and then Ares' Shadow./

/Ares' Shadow? I like it already. What are you planning, Jox?/ Ares smirked inwardly, finishing his application with a thought and handing it to Poe.

/Well, *Ares* you remember that stuff with Noriega, and how you instigated that situation by convincing Iraq to invade Kuwait? Those were just stepping stones compared to Ares' Shadow./ Joxer handed his finished application to Poe with a smirk that rivaled the God of War's.

Poe read over their applications. 'No home address. No relatives listed. Contacting them is gonna be easy though,' he thought, 'they have the same wireless phone number listed. No previous work experience unless ya count their military experience. Ares' Shadow? What the hell is that? Nevermind, I'll send these over to Van Cleaf and then I'm out of it. Let Fouchon and Van Cleaf deal with it.' Poe smiled and handed each of the young men a hundred dollar bill which vanished with a speed born of experience. "Thank you for your time boys, I'll give you a call if work opens up."

"Roper didn't say what kind of work it was," Joxer trailed off in his best innocent mortal voice. Joxer, not feeling innocent in the slightest, was inviting Poe to comment.

Poe leaned in and smiled ingratiatingly. "It'll fit your line of work, boys. I'll give you a call later." If Fouchon and Van Cleaf don't take these guys, Poe added silently, I'll eat my tie.

"Oh and one more thing," Ares smiled viciously, "we work together, or not at all."

Joxer's face echoed the death in Ares' smile, "Try to split us up and someone dies...slowly and painfully."

Poe had never been more glad to see anyone leaving his office, at least anyone that hadn't tried to physically hurt him. He rubbed his ear gingerly, before picking up the headset of his phone to call his employers about the new paperwork he received.

After he finished speaking with Van Cleaf, he called out into the hall, "Darnell! Get in here!" He sealed the applications in an envelope and handed it to the young man in cycling gear. "Take these papers over to Oak Alley. Van Cleaf'll meet you there. You've got twenty minutes to get there and back here. If you make it, I'll give you fifty bucks, if you're a minute late you only get ten. Now move it!"

***

Van Cleaf looked over the paperwork Poe had provided. Nothing seemed interesting until the tracker read over the two new prospects' last military operation. It meant nothing to him, and he wanted to know why. He also wasn't sure about doing a dual hunt. They would have to involve more than one hunter possibly and depending on what Ares' Shadow was it could be quite a bit more profitable. If he presented things to Fouchon in the right way, appealing to his vanity as a hunter, they could be quite a bit richer. Van Cleaf could finally drop his insane partner and strike out on his own.

It had been several years since Van Cleaf had been taken from his special duties as a consultant with British Intelligence in Copenhagen. His time with Fouchon was extremely profitable albeit irritating. As the years went by and their finances grew, Fouchon developed an even more massive ego than when they'd first met. Fouchon honestly believed he was the greatest hunter of men between Heaven and Earth, greater even than the God of War, himself. Pik Van Cleaf had no doubts that the God of War existed. There were too many wars going with such precise amounts of give and take that Van Cleaf couldn't afford doubts. Some would say coincidence, but Pik didn't believe in coincidence. He never prayed to War because he stopped being a soldier long before he realized the truth.

"Well, Fouchon, here are the newest volunteers Poe's sent over," drop the line, the tracker thought, "I'm wondering what Ares' Shadow is. It's something neither of us have heard of," bait the hook, Van Cleaf continued, "He says they'll only work together though," and now tug the line, Van Cleaf thought, "an impossible hunt, no?"

"Nothing's impossible, Pik." Fouchon smiled widely, but the smile never reached his eyes. "I took the liberty of finding out more about Ares' Shadow before you hung up with Mr. Poe. I'm getting information now." Fouchon reached for the pages spewing out of his printer. "I had to push every button on nearly every contact we've made in the past three years for this one. No one wanted to spill, but in the end, everyone has their price, Pik."

Fouchon read over the information silently for a few moments before speaking again, "Ares' Shadow is a group of mercenaries led by Arris Marshall and Jock Mitel. Neither trained in specific military backgrounds, but both were cops in various cities before training specifically in anti-terrorism at Quantico. Seems the Quantico-types were impressed. Ares' Shadow was formed to go in when Black Ops failed. Search and rescue, extraction, assassination; anything Special Forces couldn't handle. Johnson from the Green Berets says they tell spook stories to the rookies about them, how they have to be careful or Ares' Shadow will be sent for clean up."

Fouchon dropped the papers on his desk. "Finalize the deals, take no less than seven hundred fifty thousand per hunter and get rid of Poe. It appears we'll have one last hunt after all, eh Pik?"

***

Joxer and Ares walked through the cool night air to the Half Moon Utility Company restaurant. According to what Ares pulled out of Chance's mind and shared with Joxer, the gumbo was bad, but the coffee was tolerable. Joxer knew Ares had some energy to burn and decided to give him an opportunity. Joxer motioned Ares through the opened door, apparently the establishment didn't have air conditioning. They took seats in the far left-hand corner of the bar and waited for their waitress.

Joxer had kept their attire the same to invite any attention the mortals in the run down neighborhood decided to give. Each god scanned the room for possible trouble spots.

Both noticed the obnoxious foursome seated near the door. The men were obviously used to people cowering for their benefit. Their waitress hadn't even bothered to give them a tab, even though their table was full of food and drinks. The mortals, huddled in an intense conversation, kept glancing over at the martial gods, but neither bothered to read their thoughts. A cook, two waitresses, and two couples completed Joxer's visual scan.

The three employees were currently behind the bar, and the two couples were at the tables on the far right wall. Good, he thought, all the non-combatants are out of the way.

Joxer didn't think the rowdies would be foolish enough to start anything inside the place, but it was always his policy to keep the relatively innocent out of the fray. Joxer knew the guys at the table near the door would notice them as potential mugging victims or possible threats to their territory; either way the Ares' need for violence would be satisfied.

"Arris Marshall? Jock Mitel? Those names are awful," Ares grimaced. "What were you thinking?" Ares started incredulously but then smiled at his second thought. "Although, I do have to admit a certain admiration for the name Ares' Shadow."

Joxer began to respond but the graying waitress finally finished cleaning the opposite end of the bar and shuffled over.

"What'll it be, hon?" She asked tiredly still retaining that friendliness common to people who actually enjoyed their work.

"Two coffees, black, for now," Joxer read her nametag, "Jeannette," and smiled at the waitress.

"Sure thing, sweetie," Jeannette reached in front of each young man turning the previously disregarded cups over on their saucers and went to the back counter for the coffee. 'I might be old but I'm not dead, those young men look good enough to eat. They're definitely not from the crew around here.' She grimaced at the jerks that had been at a table in Mandie's station for the past three hours, before picking up the caffeinated coffee decanter. Jeannette returned to their spot at the bar shortly and smiled as she poured their coffee, "Let me know when you need something else."

"You got it," Joxer said with an answering smile. He waited until she walked back to the opposite end of the bar to resume his conversation with Ares, "I know the names are awful, but I couldn't resist the Ares/Mars, Joxer the Mighty connection. So what do you think of my plan?"

"Well," Ares took a sip of coffee and smirked at his lover, "since you haven't *told* me your plan, I can only guess at what you're doing. I'm assuming you believe Strife's story and want to do a little hunter-turned-hunted. You've told me about the names, and I use that term loosely, where does Ares' Shadow fit in?"

Joxer lifted his own cup and inhaled the aroma, definitely chickory, he thought, before answering. "Ares Shadow is a mercenary group whose reputation I've been cultivating for a few years, with those personas in place from the beginning. I was just waiting for the opportunity for us to use them." Joxer loved the coffee in New Orleans. Even the worst coffee in New Orleans was better than some of the alleged brew he'd had in Columbia.

Ares was beginning to get frustrated again. He loved the God of Lost Soldiers, but really just wanted to get on with it and get back to their normal lives. Normal for us anyway, he thought. They were so close to the fight Ares could taste it, but Joxer wanted to wait and let his plan unfold. With reluctant patience the God of War took another sip of his coffee and placed the cup back on its saucer with a soft clink, "Go on."

Joxer knew his lover was visibly trying to keep his agitation from showing, but after two thousand years he knew the signs of the dark haired god's impatience. Ares could plan a war painstakingly well with nearly infinite patience, but when it came down to the wire, he was hard pressed not to start things early. Normally he'd distract himself by sparring with Joxer or another god, or even demi-god if one was handy. If Ares couldn't find any available sparring partners, he'd generally find a group of humans with a suitable temperament, preferably lacking any compulsions about fair fights, for his needs. As a last resort Ares would, and had on several occasions, flung bolts of power around, smashing whatever caught his attention in their home temple on Olympus.

Joxer hadn't planned to redecorate any time soon, and knew the skirmish he was inviting would do the trick nicely. "Actually it's been fun building our reputation. Obviously, no one's been in direct contact with the group. I've been using the friend-of-a-friend method to pass on our exploits. Ares' Shadow goes in when the usual specialists aren't able to take care of things, search and rescue, extraction, infiltration, assassination, clean up, that type of thing. It's not affiliated with any particular government, although we're supposed to be ex-cops trained in anti-terrorism at Quantico with the Quantico-types being involved in our group's formation."

Ares smiled, visions of death and destruction dancing in his eyes. "So we're the merc version of the bogeyman? I love it! Wait," Ares eyes grew thoughtful, "if we were cops, were never in the military and then turned merc, where did Panama and Desert Storm come in?"

Joxer finished his coffee. "Just a cover so that Poe wouldn't dismiss us out of hand. Van Cleaf will know we were involved with Panama and Desert Storm as Ares Shadow."

Ares was genuinely pleased with the way things were turning out. Joxer was wonderfully devious when he set his mind to it, giving Strife and Eris plenty of competition in the trouble making business when it suited his purposes.

Joxer glanced up sharply when out of the corner of his eye he saw the cook shake the younger waitress by the shoulder. He focused in on their conversation.

"I don't care if they've been harassing you all night, Mandie! They're my customers and I expect you to serve them when they call," the cook whispered harshly, "and you'd better not let them walk out of here without paying again, or it'll be your job!"

Mandie shrugged out of her boss' grasp. "But Stan, they've been in here the past three nights in a row. Can't we just throw them out?"

"No. Go see if they want something else." Stan turned back to his cooking until Mandie turned away, then watched her as she picked up the tab. Joxer wondered how on earth he kept in business, and as if on cue, the two couples on the side wall chose that exact moment to quickly exit through the open door leaving money on their tables.

Joxer glanced back at Mandie. 'Amanda Lynn Pritchard, US Army '91-97, she's mine,' Joxer thought, 'now let's see about him, Stan Kenner, oh,' a fierce look crossed Joxer's face, 'a draft dodger, and not because he had a problem with violence, a conscientious objector, or even was afraid of dying. He was just lazy and thought it'd be too much work to be in the military. Oh, and even more of an idiot, leaving his paperwork lying around.' Joxer watched as Mandie squared her shoulders and walked purposely to the table in question. 'Time to make changes around here,' Joxer decided and sent his information to Ares.

Ares caught the cook's eyes and glared, promising retribution at a later point in time. No one backed out of any of his armies due to laziness without retribution from the God of War. He knew that not everyone was cut out to be a soldier, but a draft put each mortal directly into his sphere. Before Joxer, Ares might still have killed the peace-lovers and cowards, but now he just reserved his punishment for the lazy slobs. Ares might not catch them all at the point of refusal, but he did catch them eventually.

The God of War glanced back over at the table near the door, watching as one of the lowlife mortals, obviously the leader, smacked the younger waitress on the behind and dropped a few dishes from the table. The others laughed and jeered at her as she bent to the floor to pick up the pieces of the broken plates. The leader knocked her to the floor causing her to cut her hand in the process.

Joxer stood up suddenly causing the wooden chair to scrape noisily across the floor purposely catching the thugs' attention. He produced a wad of cash from his pocket. Joxer pulled off several bills and threw them on the counter.

"Arris," Joxer said loudly causing the scum to eye his money greedily, "why don't you help these gentlemen out the door, I've already paid their tab. I'll join you outside shortly."

The four mortals grinned at the audacity of the young man paying at the counter. They stepped away from their table around the waitress cradling her bleeding hand in her lap, and stood in front of the door. Four against one were great odds as far as they were concerned and it showed in their stances. Ares duster billowed behind him as he quickly stalked over to the jerks. This might not be the specific damage Ares wanted to inflict, but it was still damage, and would definitely be satisfying until Joxer's grand event.

Ares paused about two feet in front of them. "Eeny, meeny, miney, mo," Ares said, stopping at the nearest thug. The War God picked him up by collar and belt and threw him to the sidewalk outside. The other three men overcame their surprise and rushed Ares. He easily overcame them, throwing each of them out into the night before following them of his own volition.

Joxer walked over to the young waitress struggling to get off the floor without cutting herself any more. Whether she realized or not he was her god, and he was about to help her find her way. He put his plan into motion and helped her up, stopping the pain without healing her hand before letting her arm go. She was lucky the plate shards didn't become embedded into her hand. "You ok," Joxer asked.

"Thanks." Mandie smiled shakily. "I'm fine now. It doesn't even hurt, although I don't think I'll have a job after this. At least your friend threw them out the door instead of through the window. There's no way Stan can dock my pay this time."

Joxer helped her back to the counter and seated her in the chair he had vacated,
"Jeannette, can you do two things for me?" At her nod he continued, "bring me a wet cloth first and then that ammunition box Stan keeps under the register." Veterans put their very lives on the line for the safety and ideals of the country they served and for someone to disregard that so callously made his blood boil. He grinned, 'This is going to be fun.'

"You wait just one minute, boy!" Stan came rumbling out of the kitchen, "you can't go orderin' around my help like that!"

Joxer stood up to his full height, but spoke calmly, "Sit down and shut up, Stan."

Jeanette returned to the counter with what he needed, "Open the box and read the top piece of paper, would ya Jeanette?" Joxer began wiping the blood off Mandie's hand as Jeanette worked the clasp on the metal box. She read the paper silently first, her eyes widening as she went along.

"Honey, is this for real?" Jeanette looked at Joxer fear and hope warring in her eyes.

"Yes, the place goes to you both, free and clear, if one of you is injured by a patron or patrons, as the case may be, that you've specifically asked to be removed from the premises. It's all nice and legal, signed by all concerned parties, with the exception of yourselves. All you both have to do now is sign in the bottom right hand corner and you'll be partners. I'll take care of the rest of the details when everything else opens for normal business hours."

Joxer glanced over at the former owner who was imitating a fish with its mouth stuck open on a hook. Joxer dropped the wet cloth onto the counter and stood up, brushing the nonexistent dust off his pants.

Stan regained his composure, "Now see here! I didn't sign nothing. You can't do this! I'll sue!"

Joxer glared at the worm that didn't deserve to be called human, "I said, shut up, you lazy bastard! You did. I can, and good luck trying." Joxer looked like he'd just gotten away with eating all the cookies out of the cookie jar and hoisted Stan up by his hair. "Ladies, I would suggest you close everything down for the night and go home. I'll take Stan the Slug for a little trip outside to join my partner."

He watched as the women clamored to shut everything down as quickly as possible.
After they finished, he followed them out pulling Stan by his hair through the door. He watched them hurry down the street towards their respective homes. Joxer smiled leaving them one last surprise in the ammunition box before throwing Stan to the ground, "I don't want you ever catching my attention again. Run while you still can."

"Took you long enough, Jox. I got bored with the four inbred bikers and let them crawl away five minutes ago. What took you so long?" Ares looked up at his lover from his spot lounging on the curb with his legs hanging into the street. Ares hadn't even broken a sweat with the losers, but it did look like he'd burned a bit of excess energy.

"I was reassigning ownership of the property and left the ladies a nice sum of cash. We're still going to have to wait to hear from Poe. I know it'll take at least another half a day before Van Cleaf can confirm deposits and have the hunters flown into New Orleans." Joxer grinned lecherously at the languid pose Ares was subconsciously presenting. "You still have energy to burn?"

"Depends on what you have in mind," Ares looked up at the expression on Joxer's face, "ooh, I like how you think." Ares hopped to his feet without the benefit of his hands, and latched onto Joxer's elbow flashing them both home before Joxer could even think about replying.