Aphrodite to Hephaestus Author's Notes: I had never intended to write a sequel to "Athena from Zeus," but the possibility was mentioned in the feedback I got. The seed was planted. I tossed around a few ideas and then I was trapped at work, ripping tickets (the most boring job to have in a movie theater). I started scribbling some stuff down. Now here I am, a day later, exhausted, but oddly compelled (yet again) to finish the story before I slumber. Spoiler warning for, um, "Surprise" and "Wipeout," really. Oh, and "Destiny." I might write another fic after this, I dunno. I do need another series, as my "Journey" series is just about done. Although I still have to finish my "Savage Garden" Experiment. Whatever. I'll deal with it when my muse whacks me on the writing button again. Feedback keeps me writing!

"Aphrodite to Hephaestus"

It had all happened so fast; yet in remembrance, it seemed to almost take place in slow motion. The sole survivor of a failed ambush, the Skin raised its gun, and she suddenly seemed defenseless. He didn't waste breath crying out, just started running. The gun fired, the sound incredibly loud in the frozen moment. She raised her hand in reflex, trying to shield herself, knowing she just didn't have the strength left. Her fingers touched warm flesh instead.

The only sound to escape from him was a grunt as she staggered back under his weight. She could only stare at the growing pool of red at their feet. Wildly, she started crying out for her brother. The Skin prepared to fire again, but Michael had already started moving toward it when he saw the gun. The Skin sensed the danger and turned to face Michael. Maria cried a warning, and Michael managed to dredge up enough energy for another blast. The power wasn't enough to destroy the Skin, but sent it staggering back, Kyle took advantage of its distraction to land a crushing blow on its release button. They watched as it disintegrated into dust, and then rushed over to their fallen friend.

She had sank to her knees, taking him with her. He was barely clinging to consciousness and they could almost see the life draining out of him. Max was on his knees, unheeding of the blood staining his knees. Liz was behind him, trying to will him her strength. Tess dropped down next to Max and surveyed the damage. Her worried blue eyes met Max's amber ones. If they hadn't just been in a battle for their lives...then Max blinked. Visions of golden light and a leafy canopy fluttered through his mind. Operating on an unnamed instinct, he called for Maria.

Maria exchanged a look with Michael and then bravely went to Max. He grabbed her hand and pulled her down. She tried to concentrate on what he was saying, instead of the wetness that was seeping into the cloth of her pants. His voice was urgent, although his words made no sense.

"You have to help me. You have to wake up, to remember."
"Max, what are you talking about?"

Max knew she wouldn't understand, and he was just about to try it alone, with hopes that the other three would be able to supply him with enough energy. Maybe if they could just heal enough, they would be able to get him to a hospital. But then his sister let out a strangled cry and Max knew that there was no other choice.

The spectators heard Max whisper, "I'm sorry," before seeing Maria stiffen as she stared into Max's eyes. Liz and the other aliens realized that Max had forced a connection. Time seemed to stretch in a repeating loop, never advancing, while the pair remained locked together. Suddenly, Maria exhaled, a great gust of air, and glanced over at Michael, who was startled to realize her vivid green eyes were now heavily tinged with hazel. Maria swung her gaze back to Max, who was watching her with an anxious look. She nodded. They moved as a unit. Maria placed her hand over the gaping wound and Max laid his hand ontop of hers. The shadows of the approaching night were suddenly banished as golden and silver light flooded into the room. The others watched, astonished, as the pair fought to establish a connection.

She watched as her brother and her friend tried to save his life. Somehow this was all her fault. She knew it with an unerring certainty. The poison of the Betrayal from the past had seeped into the present, and would certainly contaminate the future as well. She hated herself at this moment, hated what she had been. And she feared what she would become. Then there was a drop of hope as the flow of escaping blood seemed to dwindle.

He was floating, bathed in an ocean of pure white light. Everything was the same, there was no landmarks to guide him. But it didn't much matter. He had nowhere to go. Then suddenly, two columns of gold and silver light shot through the monotonous white. The columns twined together into a solid braid and it seemed to pulse at him, urging him to follow it down. He floated over to peer down into the hole, but then he was no longer floating. He was falling, surrounded by chaotic colors, plummeting to a ground that must be there somewhere, or perhaps he would fall forever. The gold and silver braid was the only constant in his maddening descent. Without warning, the colors seemed to organize and images were silhouetted against a background of white. They were almost a movie of sorts, and he watched in fascination, then in grim resolve, as he continued to fall. Jarringly, the images cut off and he felt himself hit the ground, heard the crack of his bones as they shattered into fragments that matched the destruction of his heart.

Max felt the wound close onto itself, sealing the hideous escape of blood. He 'looked' to make certain there was no hidden damage to any of the internal organs, but Maria had done a thorough job. Slowly, Max pulled them out of his body. Maria took a moment to compose herself before ripping her hand from under Max's. She staggered to her feet, needing to put distance between them. Michael reached out to her, but she avoided his touch, her golden aura rollicking chaotically around her trembling body. Her eyes were dark with fury as she stared down at Max. He was too weak to do anything but stare back up at her.

"Damn you! You had no right to do that! This is what got Zan in trouble all the time, remember? This idea that you know better than everyone, that your decisions are always on the path of righteousness-"

His voice was cool as he cut through her wrath with a single question, "Would you rather he died?"
Before Maria could gather her thoughts properly to respond, there was a low groan from their patient.

She couldn't stop the sweet relief that flooded through her body anymore than she could prevent herself from gently caressing his face as he struggled back into the land of the living. Slowly, his eyes cracked open. For a long moment, he stared up into her worried eyes. Then he was moving, tearing himself away from her, pain radiating from his body. She could hear Maria's cry of protest as she watched him remove himself from her presence. He twisted around again to meet her eyes, and she caught her breath at the accusation and betrayal she saw written there, in his gaze. He spoke, in a hoarse voice, in the manner of one who has seen too much, "I remember now. Vilandra."
Agony ripped through her and her field of vision narrowed until the rest of the world seemed to fall away.

They said she was all beauty, no brains. That she cared more for jewels than her studies. He alone knew the truth, that it was all a carefully crafted mask she wore. He was the last son of a minor lord, from the Eastern lands, and he pledged himself in service to the Crown on his tenth birthday. He often considered it his best birthday as that was the day he met her. The day her safekeeping was entrusted to him. It was a gift he would always cherish.

For her, he would stay awake late into the night, practicing his skills in the hallway outside her door. For her, he would learn to read their world and its nature until he could predict the absolute best day for riding. For her, he honed his sharp wit and his irrepressible sense of humor so that he could amuse her when she was tasked with boring matters of court. He became a shadow, his entire world revolving around her. He never strayed very far from her. There were times when he almost believed she saw him as an equal, as a friend at the least.

Then came the dawning of her twelfth birthday, when he was a lad of sixteen. It was also the day of her betrothal to Lord Rath, a longtime playmate of her brother's. On the morrow, they would travel to the young Lord's home in the North to foster. He stood off to her right as she pledged herself to Rath, his hand convulsively clenching the hilt of his sword. He could no longer ignore the truth now. She would always be above him, out of his reach. His destiny was to be in front of or behind this woman, never by her side. He wasn't worthy of that. When the day ended and the new night fell, he did something he hadn't done since he arrived. He beckoned a guard over and bid him to stand watch outside the Princess's door. Then he filched a small flask of spirits from the kitchen and traveled outside to drink away the last of his dreams. No longer did he have the hope of being a husband, a father. What woman could compare to her? No longer would he spin idle imaginings about the future. His future was set. He would continue to guard her until he died or she released him from her service, in which case he would be as good as dead anyway. When the flask was finished, he bent over a bush and vomited. It was his only display of emotion. Then he returned to stand watch in front of her door again. He would never abandon his post again.

He was there when she learned that her fledging beauty, once an asset, now clouded male minds, making them regard her as a pretty doll. He was there when she ranted with fury over some sly comment from a courtier and when she collapsed in tears because of some catty slight given by a jealous peer. She did not allow Lord Rath to see her vagaries of mood. Only he was allowed the privilege. And therefore, he was the only one to realize she had fallen in love.

She had met her lover at the masquerade ball, celebrating her brother's new betrothal to the Lady Ava, after Lady Amaris had been banished to the country. Lord Rath had taken to keeping to his rooms after the Lady's departure and he did not attend the ball. She felt free to spread her wings a little, to flirt harmlessly. He watched helplessly as she was swept into a dance by a mysterious man. He hated the man on sight. He perhaps tolerated Lord Rath because he knew the Lord did not love her; indeed, he had his own suspicions regarding the father of Lady Amaris's unborn babe. But this stranger had the power to touch her as no man had done before. And he somehow danced his way into her heart.

Their affair continued for years. The stranger was not even of their world, but from a neighboring planet. Still, she was blinded to the flaws, as her lover was clever. He paid court to her mind, telling her that her beauty was the least of what attracted him. He whetted her hunger for compliments, for love. He bolstered her lagging self-esteem by choosing her over all the females of his own race. After her marriage to Rath, their relationship deepened to a sexual one. He even convinced her to regularly drink a potion to prevent conception, by telling her that a half-breed would be noticeable and their affair would be exposed. She would do anything to keep from losing him. And her faithful bodyguard could only watch it all.

There were many times when he wrestled with himself over telling Rath of his wife's betrayal, especially as war between the two worlds seemed imminent. He debated over whether or not to drop a hint to the King's Advisor, an intelligent woman who he knew he could trust. But when it came down to it, he was still a servant and his loyalty would always belong to her first. Then the War started.

He was astride next to her when she first rode into battle. He was next to her when she vomited up the ugliness of death, of having blood on her hands. He was besides her when she paced endlessly in her room, awaiting for some word from her lover. He was besides her in the army encampment when they received news of the bombing of the Palace and the deaths of her nephews. The bomb had been deployed aerially, carefully aimed to hit the nursery. Only one who had walked the halls frequently could have given the coordinates so precisely. She had been betrayed. But as it is with the vagaries of love, she thought that if she could end the War, she would be reunited with her lover and everything would be explained. She only had to make Zan see reason.

Although he had finally gained a position next to his beloved, he was well aware it came by default. She was using him as a substitute, only concentrating on a way to end the War. When he learned of her intention to travel to the country to plead with the Lady Amaris to return, his control of nearly thirty years snapped. He spoke harshly to her, berating her for her foolishness. She looked at him with shock, never having heard him speak a single unkind word. The shock soon turned to anger and they had a blazing argument. In his anger, he left the room, and she took advantage of his absence to ride out that night. By the time he realized his folly and returned, she had been gone for hours. He would have rode after her, but the Palace was unexpectedly attacked.

The attack had been a distraction, he realized that later, much too late. He had been so consumed with thoughts about her, he had been unable to think of little else until she returned three days hence. Her brother summoned her to the Battle Room in the Royal Wing, where the rest of the Royal Four waited. She did not wait for her brother to speak, but rounded on her husband and told him what she had found in Lady Amaris's household. A daughter. A young woman of sixteen who looked almost exactly like Rath. Zan had exploded, consumed with old hurts and the normally mild-mannered Queen had also become angered, tired of living in another woman's shadow. The arguments between the Royal Four had become so fierce, only he noticed a small portion of the wall creaking open. The Palace was riddled with secret passages, intended to provide escape in case of siege, but which could also be used to allow forbidden lovers to pass undetected in and out of the Palace.

He cried a warning, but then the hidden door swung fully open. Twenty of the Enemy flooded into the room, but they did not seem intent on attacking. One of them tossed an oddly shaped package on the table and then they proceeded to flee for the door, facing the occupants of the room. It took him precious seconds to realize it was a bomb. He lunged for the table, but one of the attackers lifted its sword and swung at him. As he was unprotected, intent only on the Royal Four, it pierced his stomach and he fell to the floor, his fingertips grazing the edge of the table. He heard her beloved voice shrieking his name as she realized all too late the truth about her lover. Then there was only a horrible burst of sound, along with raging clouds of fire. And then, then there was only light.

She snapped back into her body, with a cracking sound. It took her a moment to realize it was her heart. She relived a lifetime of love, only to be ultimately betrayed. How could she have been so blind? How could she have not known? She stared at him, her eyes wide with fear. He had warned her, he had told her the trouble Kivar would bring, but she had not listened. Would he leave her now? Would he turn his back on her? He turned away from her, to look up at Zan-no, Max, and she quickly felt the chill of being alone.

Maria was looking down at him, a look of puzzlement on her face. He had not been duplicated, there was no explanation for his presence here. Max noticed her confusion and said, "The Ritual of Return."

Maria nodded, comprehension spreading across her expressive features. Her golden aura was still visible, but Michael was disturbed enough by the unspoken communion between the two to lay a hand on her shoulder. Maria looked up at him, a second lifetime of love visible in her eyes. It took him a moment before he was able to speak. "What's the Ritual of Return?"

Maria snuggled back against him, craving his touch. He automatically wrapped an arm around her waist as she explained, "The Ritual of Return is this kind of chant that is said over the dead or dying. The basic gist is that the spiritual essence is encouraged to move to the next plane for rejuvenation and then return to this plane in a new host."

Max interjected, "More specifically, it encourages the essence to reunite with its loved ones on its return."

Liz had been in an almost state of shock at seeing one of her best friends mortally wounded and then seeing her other one heal him. She managed to clear her head enough to comment, "So what you're saying is that it's like reincarnation, where familiar souls or essences are continually reunited with each other?"

Maria nodded, and then added, gesturing to their friend, "He lived before, back on our homeworld. He was her bodyguard. The old Queen would have ordered the Ritual said over all of the bombing causalities."

Maria's aura dimmed as she remembered the awful time after the bombing. Knowing Rath was dead, fearing for her daughter. She felt Michael brush his lips against her hair, in an effort to comfort her, and then Maria realized she had to take her own advice. Amaris's life was not her own. Things were different now.

Every pore in his body was crying out for her. Despite everything, he still wanted her. At least in this life, he had tasted her lips, had shared her dreams. In this life, he had earned the place by her side, even if it had again been after a lifetime of watching her. Maria's explanation regarding the Ritual had been slightly flawed. It was indeed love that drew essences to each other, but only a strong, deep love. Soulmate love. At the feelings his thoughts evoked in him, he couldn't help but turn around to face her.

Electricity crackled between them as sky blue eyes met chocolate brown. She was huddled, hugging herself tightly, as if a winter wind was sweeping through the room. He searched her face and she bit her lip, struggling to control the urge to beg, to plead, anything to make him forgive her. She had been right. It was all her fault. Not only had her mistakes caused the destruction of her family, it led to their last moments together being spent in anger. Something in his gaze softened, and slowly, he reached a hand to her. She latched onto it before he changed his mind. They stayed connected for a moment, enjoying the skin to skin touch. United. Together. Finally. Always.