. Joxer sat quietly at his place at the table, his shoulders hunched as he ate. He kept his eyes carefully downcast, not wanting to draw any attention to himself.
Since he was a small child he had been relegated to a spot at the end of the table, which pretty much denoted his lack of importance to the rest of the family and his father's troops. He was rated well below the commonest soldier, and he had long since ceased to care about it except to sometimes feel relieved that as long as they didn't notice him, they wouldn't have a reason to punish him for whatever offense he might have committed.
Swallowing down a chunk of bread, then immediately scooping a spoonful of stew into his mouth, he kept himself to himself, not even letting his shirt sleeve brush against the man next to him. He didn't want to draw attention. That would be a bad thing.
"Joxer, what have you been doing during your days? You have been missing practice. Where were you?"
Joxer shivered at the sound of that voice. He loved his father, he had to love him, but that was a question he really didn't want to answer. He wanted to keep his mouth shut forever and pretend he hadn't heard, but he knew better than that. If he didn't answer, the pain would start, and it would keep going and going until there was nothing left of him at all, not even enough voice left to whimper.
"I was... I was playing with Ares," Joxer said. He saw his brother Jett's wince out of the corner of his eye, but Jett was all the way at the other end of the table with the men of worth. He wasn't weak and useless like Joxer. He was going to make a name for himself someday, though probably not as a hero.
"Who the hell is Ares, and why would someone call himself after the God of War? It's disrespectful to the real Ares. He would not be pleased to know that you've been calling someone else by his name." Jonus glared at his son, his brow lowering in anger. Joxer flinched and didn't know what to do. "Who was the man really? Tell me, and it won't be that bad for you."
The rest of the room fell silent, everyone turning their eyes away, but definitely listening in. He could practically taste their desire to see him get in trouble.
"It was Ares, Father, that's his name. He's my friend and he comes to play with me." Joxer knew he sounded childish, but he couldn't help it.
"How does he play
with you?" Jonus demanded, leaning forward aggressively. "What do you let that bastard do to you?"
Joxer twitched at the look on his father's face. "I... I don't understand what you mean." His brow furrowed in confusion.
Jonus lunged up out of his chair, stalking back and forth next to the table, his hands clenched into angry fists. "Have you been letting some peasant fuck you, Joxer?" He whirled around to glare directly at his son. "Did you let him stick his cock up your ass? Did you?"
Not really knowing why, tears began to trickle down Joxer's cheeks and he shook his head. "I didn't... I didn't let him do anything like that to me," he whimpered. "He's my friend. Why would he do any of that to me?"
It was strange how time always seemed to slow down whenever Joxer knew a beating was coming. He watched the expressions change on Jonus' face and could almost feel the power in those legs as they carried his father around the table.
He barely had time for a yelp of fear before Jonus was on him.
Falling backward off the bench, he hit the floor hard on his back, his father's knee jammed into his chest. He could hear muscles and bone creak beneath his skin and the pain was a terrible thing, making it hard for him to breathe.
Tears burst from his eyes and he thrashed around for a moment, instinctively trying to knock his father off of him. A few smacks to the face and he went silent and still, holding himself limp as his father really got into the groove of the beating. He could feel the eyes of everyone else in the room brushing against him but not holding on. No one wanted to step forward and try to help him. He wasn't worth their risking their own comfort. He was just the lesser son of Jonus of Corinth. He was nothing.
Whenever the beatings got bad, Joxer retreated to a place inside his own mind where no one and nothing could touch him. He drifted in a state of gentle alone, his mind producing wonderful fantasies just for him--dreams of him being a hero, dreams of a family that loved him.
Ever since the time his father cracked his skull open, his dreams had gotten more and more real. He should have been angry about how badly he'd been hurt, but really he was almost thankful. His fantasies were all that he really had, and now they were almost touchably real. How could he be upset about that? Besides, he loved his father and always had.
Twirling around in the flower meadow of his mind, Joxer could almost forget what was happening to his real body. With a blue sky overhead, surrounded by growing green, and with no pain anywhere in him, he could forget that when he woke up again his body was going to be in terrible pain, probably worse than ever before. He had to wonder if maybe he was going to have broken bones again. He didn't want his leg to heal crooked again because he was already too clumsy as it was. Who would have thought that a few bones bent just a little in the wrong direction would make it so hard to walk without falling down? I wonder what Ares is doing. I bet he's waiting for me right now. He's going to be so disappointed when I don't show up to play. I hope he doesn't get mad at me
, Joxer thought. He didn't want his friend to think that he didn't care. He knew how much that hurt.
Closing his eyes tight and breathing in the scents of honeysuckle and growing green, Joxer immersed himself into the fantasy world. He pushed all thoughts of anything else away and just enjoyed his time here. It was so much better than real life.
* * *
Just like all the times before, Jett had to force himself to stay seated as his father beat Joxer until his brother stopped moving. If anyone had tried to stop Jonus, the beating would have been worse. It was a lesson Jett had learned at a great cost for Joxer.
His hand clenched tight around his spoon and he kept on eating, scooping food into his unwilling mouth and barely keeping his body from vomiting it back up again. He hated watching Joxer in so much needless pain. Joxer wasn't as strong as he was, or even as strong as Jace was.
Across the table, Jace was focused entirely on the plate before him. His every movement was a study in nonchalance. He was better even than Jett at pretending not to care for their pitiful little brother.
Jett was desperate to intervene, to protect Joxer, but he held his place until Jonus was done and had stalked out of the dining hall, still filled with angry energy. The man would go and find one of his girls to fuck and hopefully he would wear off some of his energy. Otherwise they would all have a round two of Joxer beating to look forward to in a few hours.
Once Jonus was gone, Jett was up out of his chair and across the room, kneeling at Joxer's side, checking the damage.
Joxer's face was bruised and swollen, his eyes blackening and his lip split. Under Jett's careful fingers, a couple of cracked ribs were discovered. When Jett lifted Joxer's shirt enough to see, he wasn't too surprised to discover that practically Joxer's entire body was changing colors with bruises. But at least Jonus hadn't cracked Joxer's head open again; Jett could only thank the gods for small favors.
The last time Joxer was hit in the head, he had talked funny for days. His pupils had been different sizes and he had to keep being reminded who anyone was, and even then he wouldn't know them an hour later. He'd gotten better, but Jett knew his brother couldn't take that kind of damage again without a permanent affect.
Joxer was just too damn sweet and trusting, that was the problem. He always wanted to think people were going to be ash nice to him as he was to them, and that just wasn't true, not in this world anyway. And his refusal to believe that Jonus wasn't a good father was just going to keep getting him into trouble... right up until he was dead.
Jett sighed and hoisted his brother up onto his shoulder, carrying him out of the room. He needed to get Joxer to bed and think about what he was going to do next.
He didn't want to watch Joxer be beaten again, but he also couldn't stand the thought of leaving his brother behind undefended. He knew that if they stayed, someday Jonus would lose control completely ,and Jett didn't really relish the thought of burying Joxer. We have to leave
, Jett thought. Sudden resolve burned through him as he carried his brother up to the room they shared with Jace.
While some people would have assumed that Jace was the more delicate of the triplets, he really wasn't. Jace could handle a dagger with an unbelievable skill, though he rarely liked to get his hands dirty. He loved playing like he was helpless, but really he could take care of himself. Joxer couldn't.
Joxer was just too dreamy and gentle for his own good. He let people walk all over him without a single complaint. He was anybody's victim, and it was really kind of pathetic. That didn't mean Jett wasn't going to try his damnedest to protect his brother and keep him alive. It just meant that Joxer was kind of a pathetic loser that also happened to be sweet, kind, generous, trusting and innocent. A born victim. Except that he had Jett to watch his back and protect him from himself and everyone else. Don't worry, little brother. Everything's going to be all right.
I'll make sure of that
, Jett thought grimly as he tucked his brother into bed. There wasn't too much he could do about Joxer's wounds, not until Jace came upstairs with the healer's satchel. Jett was better at causing wounds than fixing them.
Joxer may have shared his face, but he wore it more innocently than Jett ever had, and Jett wanted to keep it that way. Nobody hurts my brother but me
. It was a promise he would fight to keep.