Worthy of Love

Chapter XIII

This was originally supposed to be the last chapter, but I am posting this now for two reasons. First – this chapter went on for longer than I had intended, so I felt it prudent to split it up into two parts. Second – and most importantly – it has been a long time since my last update, and my muse is still giving me a hard time and I don't know when I will be able to finish the last part, and I honestly don't want to make you wait any longer than you already have, you have been patient enough.

So I figured I would post the most part of what I have already written for the finale, to hold you over until I finally finish this damn story. This chapter is unbeta'd, so if you find any typos, please do not hesitate to alert me so I can fix them. Suggestions and feedback are more than welcome!

o0o0o0o

Hephaestus had dreaded coming here, unable to forget the painful memories of past gatherings, having to watch his wife flirt with others, or being teased by his brothers. His appearances at the gatherings had become shorter and shorter, usually spent in the privacy of his home or workshop while the other gods engaged in their revelries and rivalries.

However, things were markedly different now. Having asserted himself in front of his brothers and giving the God of War a much-deserved comeuppance had changed things for the better. Previously, the lame god had preferred to avoid confrontation, not wishing to get involved in the squabbling his brother seemed to enjoy so much, but now he could not help but wonder if he should have done this years ago. Well, there was a first time for everything, wasn't there?

The older gods had not made the habit of antagonizing him like his brothers and cousins had, but even they seemed to view him differently in light of the current situation. Word of his confrontation with Ares had gotten around quickly, and several gods had pulled him aside, congratulating him for what he had done. Helios had commented that it was about damned time.

It was almost frightening to Hephaestus. He was no stranger to having his work and skill praised, but having himself being applauded was a relatively new experience for him. He even got encouraging nods and smiles from some of the goddesses and nymphs, and if Kabeiro hadn't been a part of his life, he would have found himself responding to the female attention.

"Why are you hiding? From what I have been hearing, you have no reason to," he heard someone ask as he sat in a small grove not far from the event, sipping a cup of wine mixed with nectar. He looked up to see Hades leaning against a tree.

"So many people have wanted my attention. I just wanted a bit of time to myself."

"Say no more." Hades approached the bench and sat down, the younger god scooting over obligingly to make room. "I suppose living in near-seclusion on Lemnos is quite the difference from this."

"Says the Lord of the Underworld," Hephaestus shot back. Hades bowed his head in acknowledgment.

"I am thrilled to hear what you did to Ares. Catching him and Aphrodite in your net was quite the feat, but Ares has never been quick to learn from lessons that didn't actually hurt him." Hades smiled wryly as he remembered how, after repeated provocation from an upstart teenaged Ares, the Cyclopes had ganged up on him and given him a thrashing he was not soon to forget.

"I don't like hurting people. I didn't want to do that to Ares, but I had to do something, and..."

"One should never want to inflict pain, much less enjoy it, but it can be the most effective – and sometimes only – lesson someone can learn from."

"Something that I am sure you and Kampe know well."

Hades shrugged, making no denial. Though he would not voice it out loud, he did take grim satisfaction in condemning a wicked soul to eternal torture, or hearing their frantic pleas for mercy when forced to account for their past misdeeds.

"Where is Kabeiro?" Hades asked after several minutes of companionable silence, the two of them just sitting and drinking their wine.

"Visiting with some of her sisters." There were plenty of nymphs to be had here on Olympus, the Nereids among them. Though he was bothered by the idea of other men trying to gain her attention, he was confident that Kabeiro wouldn't respond to advances. It had been an entirely different matter with Aphrodite, and he remembered all too well the pain of seeing her openly snub him and flirt with other men, flaunting her disdain for him and her role as his wife. This time, he had ignored his former wife, barely noticing her as he socialized with the other gods.

"How have things been at home?" Hades asked. He had not seen his nephew since his wedding.

"Wonderful!" Though it had taken some time getting used to a steady female presence in his house after loving alone for so long, he would not trade it for anything else. It was now impossible to imagine life without his wife, and he could not understand how some men would want to cheat on their wives. Having an affair when he had Kabeiro to come home to was just... downright unthinkable.

"That is the way it should be," Hades replied with a faint smile of approval.

"Is it still like that for you and Persephone?"

"Absolutely."

"You are not even a bit bored?" Hephaestus asked with curiosity.

"Nope."

"How do you do it? Most of the other gods..." Hephaestus shook his head.

"Something that Poseidon told me a long time ago, just before I married Persephone. Do not expect of your spouse what you would not hold yourself to."

Hephaestus stared at him for a moment before nodding slowly. In the time he spent with the King and Queen of the Underworld, he had noticed that Hades treated his wife with dignity and respect. Hades did not expect his wife to be meek or submissive, and sometimes they would even jibe at one another. Nor did the Lord of the Dead expect her to seclude herself in the company of women when he wasn't around. It was clear that Hades trusted his wife, and Hephaestus felt the same way about his own wife.

"What about..." Hephaestus hesitated. "I mean, yes, respect is important, but you never... feel the need to wander?"

Hades let out a short laugh. "I am not like my youngest sibling. Or even like Poseidon. Persephone is the one for me – she has truly ruined me for all other women. I will say one thing – absence does make the heart fonder. When my wife comes back to me after her time in the surface world..." He trailed off with a faint smirk.

"Duly noted." There were times where he would spend days in the forge, absorbed in the detail of some project, and it felt good to set it aside and enjoy the attentions of his wife. He looked down at his wine, staring at his reflection in the rippling surface of the liquid.

o0o0o0o

Kabeiro had been chatting with several nymphs that she had not seen in a while. Naturally, her sisters and cousins were curious about her being with Hephaestus, and she found herself peppered with questions about him and what she was doing with him. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell them that she was married, but she didn't want to make such an announcement at an occasion like this.

She felt a hand touch her arm, and turned around to see an Aurai, tall and slender with an solemn expression on her face. She did not recognize the nymph, but then, the nymphs of the sea did not often meet with the nymphs of the air.

"Hera wishes to meet with you," the taller woman said. Kabeiro raised an eyebrow with curiosity but nodded, excusing herself from the others to follow the Aurai.

"What's your name?" Kabeiro asked.

"Sryope."

"What does Hera want with me?"

"The affairs of my lady are not my own," Sryope replied taciturnly. Kabeiro shrugged and let the other woman lead her to a secluded balcony that looked out on the countryside, the view impressive from the lofty perch. The Queen of the Gods awaited her, seated primly on a divan. She had seen Hera but a few times before, but always from a distance. Even then, the Queen of the Gods had impressed her, even more so now that Kabeiro was closer to her than she had ever been.

Sryope retreated, leaving her alone with her mother-in-law. Hera sat with a straight back, her attire and jewelry modest and immaculate, her hair pulled back in a graceful coif that framed an elegant set of facial features. Kabeiro squared her shoulders, remaining on her feet.

"You wished to see me?" the younger goddess asked.

"Come closer." Hera lifted her hand, beckoning gracefully. After a moment of hesitation, Kabeiro took three steps closer before stopping, keeping herself well out of Hera's reach.

"Sit down," Hera said, waving her arm to the seat closest to her. Though her voice was calm and pleasant, there was an undeniable edge of command to it. However, the younger woman shook her head, holding onto the slight advantage of looking down at the Queen.

"You summoned me here for a reason," Kabeiro countered evenly. Hera regarded her with several moments of silence before giving a brief nod.

"What is the exact nature of your relationship with my son?" Hera asked.

"Perhaps you should ask him" Kabeiro stared at her calmly.

"I am asking you."

Kabeiro allowed herself a small smile. "Hephaestus is a grown man who is more than capable of deciding his own affairs."

"That is not what I asked."

"I know." Kabeiro could not help but be impressed by Hera, but she refused to kow before the Queen of the Gods. It was hard for her to have any personal respect for the woman who would throw away a baby and then deny that she was mother of said baby. "What Hephaestus does is his own business, and I am not a gossiper like so many in our family are. You will not be hearing any stories from me."

Hera stared at her appraisingly, her lips set in a small, polite smile. It was not hard to see why she had a reputation as a formidable Queen, and she certainly fit into that role.

"It is my business if you are carrying my grandchild."

Kabeiro was unable to hide her shock. It was said that Hera did have the uncanny ability to know things, which was how she kept finding out about Zeus' martial indiscretions. But her pregnancy wasn't visible, and unconsciously, her hand fluttered to her lower abdomen. She swallowed thickly and raised her chin, quickly collecting herself.

"It is my child, not yours." With that pronouncement, she spun around and walked away, her heart pounding.

o0o0o0o

After spending some time with Hades, Hephaestus felt ready to go back to the others. He was pleased when his brothers welcomed him, slapping his back and telling him stories and jokes, or ogling passing nymphs. He said nothing when his brothers did the latter, glancing away and wondering where his wife was.

The faint but unmistakable scent of Aphrodite met his nose before he saw her. It was part of her Gift, this sweet musk that drew men to her like moths to a flame. Back then, he had been no different from other men, his maleness responding to that feminine odor. Even after she had mistreated him, her scent still had its allure, which was one of the reasons why she could get away with being cruel to other men. They just kept coming back for more.

But that had been a long time ago. That odor now elicited nothing from him, not even the faintest stirring. With a mere cursory glance, he regarded the approach of his former wife. She wore the girdle he had especially created for her, the gold hugging her slender waist and emphasizing the swell of her breasts and hips. All of this held only passing interest for him, no more attention given to her than he would any woman besides his wife. He turned away, thinking that she wished to talk to – or flirt – with one of the other men.

"Hephaestus, how nice to see you again!" Her voice, once like music to him, now simply grated on his nerves. It was just too damned sweet, and he found himself wondering how he could have ever been attracted to her once upon a time.

He glanced at her over his shoulder, giving her a brief nod. Having acknowledged her greeting, he turned around again, taking an stuffed olive from the platter of a passing nymph. Suddenly, he felt her fingers brush against his shoulder delicately, and he jerked away slightly with surprise. During their marriage, Aphrodite had been rather unwilling to touch him, and he turned to look at her.

"Are you not happy to see me?" she asked with a smile.

"No," came the blunt reply. As he noted the shock in her eyes, Hephaestus was fully aware of the fact that a long time ago, he wouldn't have said that. There was once a time where he had done everything he could to please her, though these efforts had come to naught. He could not muster up even one bit of admiration, having seen too much of her inner ugliness to be fooled by her outward beauty. In a way, she had done him a favor by being so disdainful of him during their marriage, neglecting to establish a foundation on which he could even respect if not love her.

Her smile had already had a plastic quality to it, but now frozen was the only way Hephaestus could describe it after his pronouncement. As he made note of the state of her smile, he became aware that those around them were now looking at them, eager to see the outcome of the exchange between the two of them.

"How could you be so rude?" she asked, her eyes widening. They were blue like Kabeiro's, but Hephaestus found no allure in them. He took a deep breath before he spoke.

"With all the things you have said and your actions towards me in the past, you are hardly in the position to complain if I do not express delight upon seeing you."

"Oh, but that is in the past!" she replied airily, flipping her hair over her shoulder and giving a giving a grand shrug as if what had happened between them was nothing more than a light quarrel.

"Sure. Tell yourself that." He took a swig of his wine, feeling a refreshing sense of clarity. Yes, Aphrodite had hurt him greatly in the past, but he now had an happy marriage and a comfortable home. He had found his own place, and was content with that. If Aphrodite did not wish to acknowledge or apologize for past misdeeds... well, what could be done about that? He was not going to worry himself over it when he had much better things to do. As he glanced over his goblet, he noticed Apollo give him an amused smirk.

"I saw what you did to Ares," Aphrodite commented, quickly changing the subject. It had been quite a shock to see a burn on Ares' bare chest, and even more so when he grudgingly confessed where he got it from. It was also odd to see Hephaestus looking so... relaxed and confident, laughing and talking with his brothers. His hair and beard were neatly combed and trimmed, and his clothing flattered his appearance, his leggings and sandals hiding the twist in his legs. He wasn't handsome, but come to think of it, with the right touches, he wasn't too bad-looking...

"He had it coming to him," said god gruffly responded. This was met with a murmur of agreement from those around them, and Aphrodite smiled faintly. While she did find Ares' raw masculinity appealing, sometimes he could be extremely rude and boorish, and she would punish him by giving her attentions to someone else.

"You would not be the first one to think that," she replied cheerfully. Hephaestus raised his eyebrow, but chose to say nothing as he shrugged, determined to maintain a calm demeanor under the eyes that were fixed upon him and his former wife. To his surprise, she sat down next to him, fitting herself within the gap between his body and the arm of the divan. She had never deigned to sit so closely to him before!

"What is it?" he asked, certain that she wanted something. Was she going to demand some new trinket from him?

"I thought I would grace you with my company."

Hephaestus stared at her for a moment before rising from the seat and walking off. Hermes let out a soft snicker as he looked at his sister.

"Funny, before it was you who could not bear his company. Now that you wish to give it, he does not want it. Of course, Kabeiro treats him better than you ever did."

"So... that's not just gossip?" Aphrodite asked with surprise.

"Not at all."

"Really now." Aphrodite stared at him for a moment before giving a brief nod and rising to her feet.

As Hephaestus worked his way around the crowd, giving nods of acknowledgment and a greeting here and there, Aphrodite was close at his heels. Despite his limp, he could move fast when he really wanted to. She finally caught up with him, grasping his upper arm, feeling a small surge of excitement at the muscles she felt under his skin.

She was bored, and had had sex with nearly every god on Olympus. Hephaestus was one of the few exceptions, and even though she still didn't think him handsome, she could not help but wonder how he might be in bed. She had not given him an opportunity to prove himself during their marriage, after all. If she didn't like how things were once she got started with her former husband she didn't have to go through with it.

He continued walking, acting as if he had not felt her touch. She poked him sharply on his shoulder, and he finally turned around.

"What do you want?" he asked bluntly.

"I just want to talk to you."

"About what?" He seemed uninterested in hearing what she had to say.

"Could we talk privately? Please?"

He seemed about to say no, but her 'please' had apparently worked in her favor, since he gave her a curt nod.

o0o0o0o

Feeling unnerved by her encounter with Hera, Kabeiro decided to seek out her husband for company and comfort. Hera's comment about the baby reminded her that she hadn't told Hephaestus yet. They hadn't seriously discussed having children, and though she was confident that he would not attempt to discard the child, she had no idea if having a baby around would actually make him happy.

It took a while to find him, and she stilled when she saw her husband with Aphrodite, the two of them walling to a quieter part of the palace. Her husband hadn't wanted to come here, but she had pushed him to it. Was this her punishment? With trepidation, she followed them, staying out of sight.

Aphrodite led him to an alcove overlooking a fountain, and Kabeiro remained behind a pillar. To her relief, Hephaestus didn't seem too interested in her. He had his arms crossed as he leaned back against the wall.

"You have never stood up to anyone like that before. I had no idea you were ever capable of doing that!" Aphrodite purred.

"There is much you do not know about me," came the cool reply.

"I certainly know that you are skilled with your hands! What woman could say that of her husband?" She gestured to her girdle.

"You may have forgotten, but I am no longer your husband. And during our marriage, I do not recall you speaking so kindly to me..." He raised his eyebrow, "at least, not unless you wanted me to make you something," he added cynically.

"You have made me a lot of pretty things in the past..." She batted her eyes at him coquettishly, "I suppose I haven't given much in return, have I?"

Hephaestus had no response for that, and shrunk back a bit as she closed in on him, running a finger down his arm.

"I know I didn't give you the opportunity before to be a proper husband, but better late than never, right?" She pulled back her shoulders, emphasizing the curves of her pert breasts under the thin linen that hugged them. Hephaestus' gaze flicked down to her chest, registering only a passing interest – the same kind of interest any red-blooded, heterosexual male would have upon seeing a pair of breasts – and nothing more.

"I did my best to be a proper husband. I cannot say that you ever made an attempt to return the favor."

"Oh, are you going to start talking about the past again? Please! Take joy in the present!" She pouted, batting her eyes again.

"Do you really think that offering to take me to bed will somehow undo all the things you have said and done in the past?" he asked with a faint note of incredulity.

"Yes."

Kabeiro smiled to herself as her husband let out a snort of disbelief.

"What's the matter? Haven't you always wanted to bed me?" Aphrodite asked sweetly.

"There was once a time where I would have thrilled at that prospect." He ran his fingers through his hair, trying to collect his thoughts. This was just too surreal! Aphrodite, the very same person who had openly disdained him and mocked his ugliness was now offering to bed him. What was with this change of heart?

...Was she jealous of Kabeiro? Aphrodite enjoyed making men cheat on their wives. Though she certainly enjoyed being with unattached men, she was sometimes in the cruel sort of mood to exercise her advantage over the members of her own sex. As that realization dawned upon him, he looked at the Goddess of Beauty with a cynical eye.

"Are you sure I am good enough for you? I am surprised you're even able to look upon me, since you just abhor the sight of ugly things," he commented.

"Oh, did I say that?"

"Many times." His patience was wearing thin as he looked at the woman he had once admired. "You know, when Father was looking for a husband for you, I didn't even submit my name to the list of candidates. I was just as surprised as you when he chose me to marry you."

She stared at him, shaking her head with disbelief. He smiled wryly.

"But why would he...?"

"I suppose you will have to ask him that," Hephaestus replied. He suspected that Zeus had made this decision for dual reasons; firstly, to do his son a favor and reward him for his humility, and secondly, to punish Aphrodite for her vanity. He did not relish the idea that he had been used as a tool to try to teach Aphrodite, especially because that certainly hadn't worked! "You might be pretty, but I learned the hard way just how ugly you are capable of being."

Aphrodite took a step back, her soft pink lips parted in a soft gasp. She quickly collected herself, her features twisting into a scowl. "There is only one reason you would reject my offer! You are as impotent as you are ugly!"

That was it! Kabeiro stepped into sight, advancing towards them and giving Aphrodite a hard shove.

"I suppose it would never occur to you that a man would reject you for a good reason!" the sea-goddess commented acidly. She dodged Aphrodite's lunge. Growing up, she would wrestle with the other Nereids, playful wrestling matches that invigorated the girls as well as teaching them some fighting skills. She had further honed this ability by watching the men in Poseidon's guard fight, and on occasion, spar with them.

Aphrodite spun around, and this time Kabeiro allowed contact, grabbing her and letting her flail for a bit. As the blonde deity flailed, she grabbed a handful of Kabeiro's dark hair, giving it a vicious pull.

Hephaestus could only gape for several moments, watching the two women struggle with one another, Kabeiro gaining the upper hand. He had no illusions about Kabeiro being a meek woman, but it was still a bit surprising to see this... although it was also thrilling. It gave him no small amount of pleasure to know that his wife would stand up and even fight for him.

Finally, Kabeiro shoved Aphrodite to the floor, but not before she managed to wrest the girdle away from the other goddess' waist.

"That thing won't fit you, you fat cow!" Aphrodite spat out as she pulled herself off the floor. Kabeiro simply smiled and raised her arm, holding it aloft as Aphrodite tried to grab it, but as the raven-haired woman was nearly a head taller, these efforts were for naught.

"Wow, Hephaestus was right, you really can be ugly."

"Ugh!" Aphrodite hissed at her, trying to shove her before she resorted to grabbing Kabeiro's necklace. A thick, strong hand encircled her slender wrist, giving it a painful squeeze.

"Let go," Hephaestus said in a low snarl as he stared at his former wife. Slowly, Aphrodite unhooked her fingers from the necklace that he had made for Kabeiro, staring at him with open disgust. He maintained his grip as Kabeiro backed away several steps.

"It really is too bad that you couldn't appreciate him while you were married to him," Kabeiro commented with a smirk.

"Bah! What could he ever offer you? Did he convince you to stay with him by getting that necklace?"

Kabeiro backed away from Aphrodite and sidled up to her husband. "Hephaestus is a very skilled man, with an excellent... command of his fine tools. Not all of these tools are to be found in his workshop, though..." She batted her eyes at him, leaning her head against his shoulder as she looked at him adoringly. "I can't wait to get home so you can use your long, thick, hot tool..."

"Kabeiro!" He gave out a short chuckle. Aphrodite's eyes flicked down to his groin, wondering if what Kabeiro had said was true, but his tunic covered him all too well. Hephaestus did not miss this, and snorted quietly.

"Give me the girdle, please," he asked his wife. Kabeiro acquiesced, and he stared down at it for a few moments. At the time of the girdle's making, it had represented some of his finest work. He had spent days in the forge, meticulously going over every detail, wanting to give Aphrodite something that would truly please her, and hopefully cause her to look upon him more favorably. She had given him a few honeyed words of thanks, but the next day, was already off traipsing with one of her lovers. But her affection for the girdle was clear due to how often she wore it despite her personal distaste for the man her father had married her to. Over the years, it became clear to him that out of all the pretty pieces of jewelry and accessories she owned in her extensive collection, this girdle was her most prized possession.

"Strange how you thought it was nice that I stood up to Ares when you always chose his company over mine," Hephaestus said contemplatively as he glanced at his former wife before looking down at the girdle. "Now I'm standing up to you." With these words, he twisted the belt, bending the gold out of shape before giving it several rough jerks, ensuring that it would never fit around Aphrodite's waist again.

He dropped it to the floor, and with a wail, Aphrodite fell to her knees, grabbing the now ruined accessory.

"Why would you do that?" she demanded.

"I could ask the same thing of you regarding the way you have treated me." He shrugged and turned around, stalking off. Kabeiro shot her one last glance, her eyes filled with a mixture of contempt and pity.