Lightning II: Beloved Stranger

By Valentin

The author does not own the characters from the series. They belong to MCA/Universal. We all know that. We're not making any money from this. We're just having fun. Okay?

Thanks to Rudy for allowing me to borrow her worlds.

Hercules dozed fitfully by the embers of his campfire, the distant boom of thunder reaching him in his sleep. He threw his arm across his eyes as another brilliant flash of lightning seared through his closed eyelids. An early enough start would get him to

(Iolausí arms)

Thebes by mid-morning. Heíd enjoyed the visit with his family, but travelling wasnít the same without Iolausí

(mouth hot against his)

cheerful company. Iolaus probably hadnít even missed him; no doubt Maris was

(wrong, wrong for you, Iolaus)

keeping his mind, and other moving parts, fully occupied.

Hercules sat up groggily and poked the fire to life. Wrapping his arms around his drawn-up knees, he rested his chin on them and gazed into the flames. Where were they coming from, these thoughts that crept in like thieves to rob him of his certainties?

Another burst of lightning and another sudden image, so real he reached to it: Iolaus in unfamiliar brown leather, bow slung across his back, hair a wild gold tumble held off his face by two thin braids.

"What are you doing to me?"

The lightning didnít answer. He curled by the fire and closed his eyes, plunging into unsettling dreams of known and not-known, unaware of the hot breeze that whispered through his hair and was gone.

Ares entered his temple silently and watched its lone occupant look over the altarís contents critically, finally selecting an apple and a flask of wine from among the offerings. Leaning his bow against the altar, he mounted the steps to lounge against the godís throne, his hair a curtain of light spilling into the unrelieved gloom. He disposed of the apple in a few ravenous bites, then, grinning, leaned forward and carefully replaced the core in the offerings basket.

"Your reverential attitude really needs work," Ares observed, materialising on his throne.

The flask halted in its path to the other manís mouth. "If you want your boots licked, Iím sure Strife is slithering around here somewhere," he answered without turning around, and drank deeply of the flaskís contents before passing it over his shoulder. Leaning his head against Aresí knees, he closed his eyes and allowed Ares to loose the thin braids that held his hair, sighing as the strong fingers urged the tension from his muscles.

"Do you know what it would do to my reputation if word got out that the God of War was Iolausí personal masseur?" Ares continued, pushing Iolausí hair out of the way as he dropped his head forward to allow Ares easier access to his neck. "Youíre such a hedonist," he chided, passing back the flask that Iolaus reached for.

"I had a good role model," Iolaus retorted, getting up to perch on the arm of Aresí throne. He tipped his head back to drain the flask, and Ares caught the flash of exhaustion that crossed his face as he set the flask on the floor.

"This was a hard-won campaign," he said, and Iolaus nodded.

"I lost almost half my men. Iíve never seen men fight like those barbarians did, Ares. They were outnumbered four to one, and they still almost beat us. The only thing that kept us going was the memory of what theyíd done to the villages at the border." In one village, Gothís bestial army had impaled the entire population on sharpened stakes. The lucky ones had died after a couple of days; Iolaus had personally assisted Thanatos with those who still lived, not wanting his men to have to bear that burden.

"You couldnít let them make further inroads; you did what had to be done. As you always have."

Iolaus snorted bitterly. "Iím sure thatís a great consolation to the widows and orphans of my dead warriors," he said, rising to stare out the window at the forest just beyond the temple. He turned at the weight of Aresí hand on his shoulder, smiling into the black eyes that looked at him with concern.

"I know; I go through this at the end of every campaign, and itís never stopped me from taking on the next one. I just canít help feelingÖ I donít know, that there must be a way to the same end without such a horrendous cost."

He shook off his mood with an effort, and looked around the dim temple. "I donít know how you can stand this place," he groused. "Every time I come in here, I want to slit my wrists."

"My public demands it," Ares answered, smiling. "Where would you rather be?"

Iolaus opened his mouth, then closed it. "Why was I about to say ĎThebesí?" he said, almost to himself.

"Thebes?" Ares repeated, surprised. "Why Thebes?"

"I donít know," Iolaus admitted. "We almost moved there when I was a boy, before I ran away, but my mother wanted to stay near her family when Skouros deserted us. I donít think Iíve been there more than twice in my life. Itís nothing but a collection of huts; somebody ought to do something about that hydra your mother parked there."

"Whoíd be stupid enough to take on my mother?" Ares asked, eyebrow raised. "Come on; Iíve spent all the time I can tolerate in here, too."

Iolaus blinked as they re-emerged into the sunlight, looking past Aresí pointing finger to the large pavilion that had materialised in the centre of the clearing. An entrance appeared at their approach, and Iolaus looked at Ares incredulously.

"Iím a hedonist?" he said as he took in the ornately carved gold tub, the huge bed heaped with silks and the temple handmaidens who welcomed them with trays of exotic delicacies.

"Well, Iíve had centuries to practise," Ares pointed out, allowing a handmaiden to assist him in the removal of his garments and sinking into the water with a sigh. "Although I hadnít truly appreciated the pleasures of bathing before. Itís not something gods need to do."

"Itís something most of the mortals Iíve met need to do a lot more often," Iolaus said, tossing his travel-stained leathers at a handmaiden. "Do we need an audience?"

Ares looked at the women. "Not this time," he told them, cocking an eyebrow toward the entrance. They laid the trays near the tub and glided out of the tent, taking Iolausí clothes with them.

Ares leaned back in the steaming water and watched Iolaus move around the tent, bouncing experimentally on the bed, sampling a sweetmeat from one of the trays, twitching his hair over his shoulder to hold his tongue under the fountain of wine that bubbled gently on a tabletop. This mortal had been by his side for twenty years, more than half the tiny span of his life.

He had been a thief and a hustler when Ares first encountered him, about to lose his hands in the town square for stealing. Crimson oozed through the tatters of his tunic from the stripes theyíd laid on his back; as Ares watched, heíd lifted his head, spat a gout of blood from split lips, and stared disdainfully at the merchant until the man looked away angrily. Intrigued, Ares had materialised at the boyís side. The crowd fell back, murmuring; Ares heard his name whispered as he turned to the small, defiant figure.

"What exactly are you supposed to have done?" he inquired.

"Heís a thief, Lord Ares! He stole a coin from me," the merchant said, stepping forward importantly.

"I earned that coin, you fat flawn, and you know it," the boy had hissed. "It took me forever to get you hard enough; itís not my fault you spilled the second you touched me!"

"Itís a lie!" the merchant said hotly. "Lord Ares, the magistrate has already found this lying little puppy guilty. I demand the sentence be carried out!"

Instantly, the look of amusement on Aresí face had been replaced by cold anger; the merchant quailed.

"You demand?" heíd asked softly, and the crowd around the merchant melted away. "This boy Ė"

"Donít call me boy. My name is Iolaus," the boy interrupted.

Ares turned, and was met by a pair of stormy grey-blue eyes. "This boy," heíd repeated, silencing Iolaus with a quelling glance, "is under my protection. If he loses so much as a tooth, youíll answer to me. Do you understand?"

"But my lord," the magistrate said, trembling, "even if he didnít steal from Iatros, heís been a pickpocket and worse since he was a child. If we donít do something now, who knows what will happen?"

"Mortal," Ares thundered, "my patience is exhausted! Release the boy while you still have hands to do it with!"

He stood impatiently while the magistrate untied the ropes that bound Iolaus, then looked him over critically.

"Well, youíre not much, are you?" heíd asked, amused by the flash of fury that darkened the huge eyes. "Stay out of trouble," he advised, and vanished, the incident immediately forgotten.

Until the day heíd entered his temple to find a scruffy boy helping himself to bread and cheese from the altar, perching on Aresí throne to eat them.

Ares had drawn his arm back to slam the impudent whelp through the wall of the temple when something stayed his hand. He lowered his arm, and his lip twitched.

"Still not much, are you?" heíd said, strolling up the steps and dumping the boy out of his throne. Undisturbed, Iolaus had leaned against the leg of the chair, munching unconcernedly.

"I waited for you, but you never showed up. So Iíve come to you," he said at last around a mouthful of bread and cheese. "I canít serve you looking like this, though, so Iíll need a bath and some clean clothes. Oh, and a place to sleep. And weapons; a servant of Ares has to have weapons. Iíve always fancied a bow, and maybe a sword. Andó"

"You have a lot to learn about being an acolyte," Ares interrupted. "What makes you think Iíll accept you into my service?"

Iolaus swallowed and scrambled to his feet, facing Ares proudly. "I may be small, but Iím strong and quick," he said. "Iím a fast learner, and Iíve never run from a fight. Besides, you said I was under your protection; you have to take me into your service."

"The great thing about being a god," Ares observed, "is that one doesnít have to do anything. Fortunately for you, you amuse me."

"I know," Iolaus murmured, eyes downcast in an unsuccessful effort to hide their gleam.

Three handmaidens appeared in answer to Aresí summons. "Take him away and clean him up," he ordered. "Burn those clothes. Have Maltis fit him for a bow and teach him to shoot."

"But I want you to Ė" Iolaus started.

"Give him a place to sleep, and keep him out of my temple until he can hit a two-inch target at fifty feet," Ares continued inexorably, raising his voice over Iolausí protests. "Then Maltis can give him a sword."

He turned to Iolaus. "Anything else?" he asked threateningly.

Iolaus opened his mouth, then thought better of it and shook his head, glaring at Ares. "Iíll be back before you know it," he said stubbornly.

"Thatís what Iím afraid of," Ares sighed, and left to find a nice, quiet war.

He was brought back to the present by small, strong hands on his shoulders. "Gods donít get tense muscles," he said.

"If Iíd paid attention to all the things youíve told me that gods donít do, Iíd probably still be sleeping in Maltisí barn," Iolaus retorted. His hands continued to move across Aresí shoulders in the fluid, circular motion he knew gave him pleasure. Finally his hands slid down to Aresí chest, threading through the thick mat of dark hair to find and tease flat nipples to hard, aching points. Fingers dipped lower, and Aresí breathing deepened as Iolausí mouth fastened on his neck and his hand caressed his cock.

"Iíve missed this," Iolaus said against his neck, hands at cock and nipple twin flames on Aresí body.

"You could have had it just by asking," Ares reminded him, instantly regretting his words as the hands stilled.

"Weíve been there a hundred times," Iolaus said, straightening. "My forces need to know a man leads them, not Aresí toy, and that wouldnít happen if they saw me getting out of your bed every morning."

"Do you imagine they donít know what you are to me?" Ares asked with some heat, turning to face him.

"Ares, I would never deny what we are. Iím proud you chose me; I always have been. Sometimes I wake up next to you, and I canít believe that you still want me after all these years. But out there, youíre the God of War, and Iím the leader of your army. And the moment that I issue an order and the men turn to you for confirmation is the moment I lose that leadership. And you know it as well as I do."

"Youíre the most stubborn man who ever threw himself at me," Ares told him, face lighting in a reluctant smile.

"If I took Ďnoí for an answer, Iíd Ė"

"Still be sleeping in Maltisí barn," Ares finished for him, and stepped from the bath. He felt Iolausí eyes on him, and his cock hardened further. "Let me show you what happens to a mortal who keeps a god waiting," he said, sweeping a tableís contents to the floor.

"What about my bath?" Iolaus protested mildly.

"Get over here," Ares told him, a dangerous light in his black eyes, and pointed to the table.

"Face down. Now." The surge of heat in Iolausí eyes arrowed through Aresí blood. He would torture Iolaus with denial as he had been tortured since Iolaus left. He would make him beg for his release. This time Iolaus would tell him he loved him.

Iolaus leaned against the table on his elbows and looked over his shoulder at Ares, who pushed him flat against its surface. "Hold the far edge of the table with both hands, and donít let go," he ordered. Iolaus complied, his breath already coming faster, and pressed himself against the table top.

"Oh, no," Ares purred, and moved Iolausí hips to the edge of the table, freeing his erection from its warm prison against Iolausí belly. Thick, soft rope appeared in his hand and he pushed Iolausí legs further apart, bending to tie his ankles to the tableís heavy legs. Another adjustment positioned the mortal so that his upper body took most of his weight, his feet just touching the floor.

"Ares," Iolaus said, and tried to move, but the position rendered him almost immobile. "Ares," he repeated; this time the voice held an almost imperceptible plea. Aresí eyes closed almost to slits as he surveyed the results of his handiwork; Iolausí blaze of hair a tangle on his back, his cock throbbing under the tableís lip, unreachable except by Aresí hand; his hard, muscled ass spread before Ares, awaiting his pleasure.

He poured himself a glass of wine and sipped it, then slowly emptied it over Iolausí back and down his ass. Leaning over the table, he ran his tongue across the spot where it pooled at the small of Iolausí back, savouring the heady bouquet of wine flavoured with Iolausí warm, earthy taste. His tongue followed the trail of wine where it dipped into the cleft of Iolausí ass, and he spread his buttocks further apart to lave the wine-damp, heated flesh. Iolaus was saying his name more urgently now, trying unsuccessfully to push against the tongue that teased him, but Ares had done his work well. Iolaus gave a strangled shriek as Aresí tongue suddenly thrust once, then withdrew.

Ares poured oil into his hand and leaned over Iolaus, pushing his hair off his back to taste the salt tang at his nape as his fingers eased into Iolaus, preparing him. As soon as he felt the muscles relax to his fingers he slid them out, wrenching a moan from Iolaus. This time his name sounded more like a curse than a plea, and Ares smiled to himself as he smoothed the oil along his cock with a few quick strokes.

He pushed just inside without warning,, biting his lip as he pierced that familiar, humid fastness. He stopped short of the centre of pleasure inside Iolaus, retreating until just the head of his cock rested within him, and began to move shallowly, increasing his tempo until Iolaus was writhing under him, begging him to thrust harder, deeper.

Finally he allowed himself to answer the call and pull of frantic, gripping muscle, and Iolaus cried out incoherently as Aresí cock strove repeatedly against that sweet place within him, his knuckles white as he grasped the edge of the table, Ares fighting for control as Iolaus cleaved to him, helpless and shuddering with pleasure.

This, this was when Iolaus belonged to him completely, and he wanted this moment to last forever. The thought set off the white heat that mounted within him, and he poured into Iolausí silken reaches, shouting his loverís name.

A last thrust, and he pressed himself hard against Iolausí trembling buttocks, sucking in hoarse breaths.

"Oh, gods, donít stop, Ares, Ares, please," Iolaus implored, and Ares began to move deeply within him, drawing a stifled, pleading sound from him with every stroke, until he gasped, "I canít -- oh gods Iím going to die, Ares, if you love me, let me come!"

At last Ares reached for Iolausí cock and Iolaus shouted, flooding instantly, his sheath clenching endlessly, deliriously around Aresí cock. Ares rocked easily into him, matching the gentle, relentless rhythm of his hand until Iolausí body went boneless under him, his hands finally surrendering their grip on the table.

Ares disappeared the ropes, then moved fractionally, half-heartedly; without turning around, Iolaus groped behind him for Aresí hand and pressed it to his softening cock. Finally he levered himself from the table and stumbled to the bed, curling against Aresí side as Aresí hand sought him again. They lay like that until Ares thought Iolaus had drifted into sleep, and he eased his hand away. The movement prompted Iolaus to roll onto his back and stare up at the hangings that swathed the ceiling of the pavilion.

"That wasÖ" he started, then raised himself on an elbow to look at Ares. "What exactly was that?"

"Are you complaining?"

"Complaining? I was just fucked to within an inch of my life. Even by god standards, that had to be one of the great fucks of all time. Itís just that you arenít usually thatÖ vehement."

"Iím not usually left to my own devices for so many months. There was a time when I took my pleasure where I found it. I only seem to find it in one place these days." He rose abruptly and poured a goblet of wine, furious with himself for allowing a mortal so much power over him. Even Aphrodite had warned Ares about the dangers of becoming too attached to one of the ephemerals. Perhaps Strife was right, and it was time to set Iolaus aside.

Perhaps he could just cut out his heart, and be done with it. He steeled himself against this distasteful sentimentality and turned back to Iolaus, who came to stand beside him, his direct gaze permitting no artifice between them.

"Iíve been away for months, working in the service of the God of War. There were lots of times Ė there always are Ė when I wanted nothing more than to have my lover there with me. But you and I both know this was how it had to be."

A slow grin lit his face. "I have wine all over my ass, and I need a bath, food and some sleep. And you." Ares allowed himself to be pulled down into a leisurely kiss; he ran his hands down Iolausí body, and felt it rekindle under his touch. Their bath was a hurried, laughing one of slippery, fragrant exploration, until Iolaus dipped his tongue into Aresí ear, telling him exactly what he wanted Ares to do to him; they towelled each other off quickly and tumbled back onto the bed, where Ares lost himself in the velvet recesses of his mortalís golden body.

He stroked the hard planes of Iolausí back, running his thumb down the deep vee of his spine to the place where he held Aresí cock within him. Slowly, dreamily, Ares began to move inside him again, the sight of his cock disappearing into Iolausí body almost unbearably erotic. Back arched, eyes closed, Iolaus tightened around Aresí cock, almost motionless save for an occasional, shuddering sigh. The slickness, the heat, the clinging pressure drew him to the edge of his orgasm, and he hung there for an eternity, listening to the slow thunder of Iolausí heart. His hand drifted down, touching and caressing with the intimate knowledge of ten thousand such caresses.

They floated in that place, all urgency burned away by the heat of their first joining, until Ares felt Iolausí slow gathering, and allowed the tide of his mortalís release to beckon him to his own.

Finally Iolaus slept, abandoning himself to it completely as he never could on the field of battle; flat on his back, arms and legs outflung, lines of tension smoothed from his forehead. When he slept like this Ares was irresistibly reminded of the young man he had first watched in sleep so many years ago. Then Ares had looked years older than Iolaus; now Iolaus was beginning to look the elder. His death shone from his eyes, as it did with all ephemerals. Tonight Ares had again offered Iolaus immortality, and had again been gently refused. His reason was always the same: whatever the Fates had in store for him, he wanted to see it through.

"Are you trying to seduce me?"

The boy Ė boy no longer, he corrected himself; Iolaus had informed him with no little indignation that he was now 17 Ė favoured him with an incandescent smile, and another slice of peach. He watched with fascination as Aresí tongue flicked over the juice that spilled on to his full lower lip. His own tongue appeared from between parted lips as he reached out, mesmerised, to run a finger down the deep crease in Aresí cheek.

"Youíre so beautiful," Iolaus told him gravely. "And you smell like Ė the sun."

"The sun?" Ares was amused, and stirred, in spite of himself.

Iolaus had remained under Maltisí tutelage until he could, indeed, hit a two-inch target at 50 feet; then, as Ares found himself with more and more reasons to spend time at this particular temple, he gradually took over the boyís training himself. As Iolaus had wanted all along, Ares reminded himself; he was ambitious and driven from the beginning. Who better to train him in the arts of war, heíd argued, than the God of War himself? And what better opportunity for Ares to mould the future leader of his armies? Ares had cuffed him for his arrogance, and taught him to throw a knife.

Of late, however, there had been a shift in their relationship; Ares had begun to find the impudent nuisance strangely compelling. Iolaus had offered himself to Ares the day heíd arrived in his temple, but Ares had told him firmly that he didnít fuck children, and, reminding him that he no longer needed a source of income, forbade him to sell himself any more.

"Warm. The way the air smells under a laurel tree when the sun is hot, and thereís no wind. I donít know how else to describe it. I love you; why donít you want to fuck me? Iím not a child now."

Why, indeed. Iolaus hung impatiently over the arm of his throne; Ares reached out to stroke the fluffy blond hair that dipped over his shoulder. "Your hair is long," he observed irrelevantly.

"I havenít cut it since you told me you liked it. Did you hear what I said?"

"Of course I heard what you said; half of Greece probably heard you. For all your bleating about how grown up you are, youíre acting like a five-year-old. You donít know anything about love, and you know far too much about sex. There are other ways of expressing love than fucking. Why donít you try being polite to me once in a while, instead of wiggling your ass in my face?"

The familiar thunderclouds gathered in Iolausí eyes, and his brows drew together. Just as suddenly his face cleared, and he vaulted lightly over the arm of the chair into Aresí lap.

"If you can kiss me, and then look me in the eye and tell me it didnít mean anything, Iíll never bother you again," he announced melodramatically. Ares sighed, and touched his lips briefly to Iolausí. "I mean a real kiss," Iolaus scoffed, and proceeded to demonstrate. He kissed with annihilating skill, and an equal lack of emotion. Ares pulled away, cored by a vision of when and how heíd learned that dark art.

"This is a real kiss," Ares told him, and lowered his head again. Their lips clung lightly, then Ares slowly deepened the kiss, drawing on a reserve of tenderness long dormant. He cherished Iolausí mouth, ripe as a peach, sweeter than he could have imagined. They kissed until Iolaus began to make wondering little sounds, and Aresí breathing grew ragged with the effort of remaining motionless as Iolaus shifted against him.

He stood up abruptly, sending Iolaus tumbling to the floor. "Next time wait for an invitation," he said. "If you want to continue your training, meet me in the courtyard. Otherwise, get out of my temple; I can pick up a whore on any street corner."

Heíd left then, and paced the courtyard, amazed at the depth of his anger. Had he been wrong about the boy? He had such intelligence, such a flame of life in him that Ares almost wanted to reach out and warm his hands at it. He felt a tightening in his groin, and cursed. If only he wasnít so damnably, diabolically beautiful.

He turned at the soft sound of his name; Iolaus stood stiffly before him, his eyes slightly reddened. "Iíd like to continue," he said, and Ares saw what the words cost him. Where had he learned such pride? Well, Ares didnít want to break that stiff neck, just bend it a little.

"I have a new sword for you," he said casually. He stretched out his arm, and the weapon Hephaestus had forged suddenly gleamed in his hand. Iolausí eyes widened, and he reached for it tentatively, waiting for Ares to nod before he took the blade reverently from his hand. He wove an intricate, glittering web of movement, the perfectly balanced blade an extension of his arm. He looked at Ares with such a flare of naked emotion that the god turned away before those eyes drilled into his soul, and saw the truth that hid there.

"Maltis leaves for Britannia tomorrow with his troops. Youíre going with him," he said abruptly, making his decision as he spoke the words. "Itís time you put your lessons to work. Iíll see you in a few months."

"But I want Ė" Iolaus stopped, and swallowed. "Iíll make you proud of me," he said.

"Just try not to get yourself killed," Ares advised, his dry words tempered by the gentleness of the hand he laid on the bright hair. Then he fled to Olympus before he could change his mind.

He withstood temptation for almost a year, relying on Maltisí reports to reassure himself that the lad was safe. The reports became less regular and mention of Iolausí name less frequent, until finally he could stay away no longer.

He arrived in late afternoon, just in time to see Maltisí bloodied troops break and scatter before the howling horde that descended on them. Iolaus was forgotten; he leapt to the back of a riderless horse and waded into the centre of the battle, his name becoming a rallying cry as the men came to life at the sight of him.

It was full dark before their devastated foes retreated, his warriorsí cries of triumph ringing in their ears. It was not a definitive defeat, but it had bought precious time until fresh troops could arrive. He slipped off his blown horse and tossed the reins to an exhausted, jubilant squire, finally permitting himself to seek Iolaus.

He found him motionless and covered in blood on a pallet in the makeshift hospital Maltis had set up in camp. He snatched the limp body into his arms, swallowing a cry of relief as he felt the life force undiminished in the small, filthy frame. Then those wondrous eyes were blinking into his, and a slow smile dawned as Iolaus recognised him.

"Iím okay," he reassured Ares, who hastily schooled his expression into sternness as he ran his hand over the compact body, looking for the source of the blood. "Really, Iím fine," Iolaus repeated, capturing Aresí hand. "Itís not my blood. Iíve been tending to the wounded, and Ė I guess I fell asleep."

"For the first time in three days," came a weary voice from behind them. Maltis clasped Aresí arm, then indicated Iolaus with a jerk of his head. "He fights like a lion, that one. Stuck to me like glue, right in the thick of it. Finally told him he wasnít any use to me if he was asleep on his feet, so he came back to the encampment. Didnít go to bed, though; came here to help, instead. He did you proud, Ares."

"I expected no less," said Ares. Iolaus suddenly became aware that the sounds of battle had ceased, and struggled to his feet.

"Is it over?" he asked Maltis. At the generalís terse nod, he continued, "Then I have to go; the doctor will need my help." He turned away from Ares, stumbling a little, and Maltis steadied him.

"Gently, lad," he said. "My lord Ares has brought doctors, medicine and supplies, and Hestesí battalion will be here by dawn. I think we can limp by without you for a few hours. We won, by the way."

"Of course," Iolaus said matter-of-factly, and Maltis laughed and saluted him, his mind already on the morrowís confrontation.

Aresí heart had finally slowed, and he looked Iolaus over critically. "When was the last time you had a bath?"

Iolaus grinned. "When was the last time it rained? I havenít had a real bath since we left Greece; theyíre not big on creature comforts around here."

"You smell like a goat," Ares informed him.

"I know; keeps the lice down." He scratched his head ruefully; the matted braids drooped against his back. "If I wasnít so bull-headed, I would have shaved this off, like everyone else."

Ares made a quick gesture. "Donít expect this kind of service on a regular basis," he advised as Iolaus stopped scratching abruptly and revelled in his sudden cleanliness. He unwound his braids and scrubbed his scalp joyfully; freed from months of accumulated dirt, his hair quickly resumed its natural state of chaotic untidiness.

"Come on," Ares said, and strode toward the field that surrounded the encampment.

"Where are we going?" Iolaus asked. Ares noted with no little gratification that he was still smiling, a smile that grew each time he looked at the god. A small, drab tent appeared at the edge of the field, and Iolaus cheered. "Clean! No mud, no lice, no rats, just a clean floor, a clean bed, a cleanÖ"

His jaw dropped as they entered the tent. The space inside was far larger than the tent itself; its floor was thickly spread with rugs and cushions, hanging lamps glowed in each corner, and a simple meal waited at a low table. Iolaus turned to Ares in astonishment, and he shrugged.

"Iím a god, remember? I have no intention of sharing you with your lice, but I donít see any need to announce the fact to Maltisí entire army."

Iolaus dropped to the cushions by the table, popped a fig into his mouth and lay back, chewing with a look of comical ecstasy. "Iím glad youíre here," he said to the ceiling. "I was beginning to think Iíd never see you again."

Ares studied him from the other side of the table. The boy had become a man in the last year. He was painfully lean Ė a diet of mouldy bread supplemented by the occasional purloined chicken, and seasoned with unremittingly hard labour, had had its effect Ė but he was hard and healthy, and carried himself with a confidence that was at a far remove from the arrogance that had masked his self-doubt. This year had been a trial by fire, and he had come through the flames tempered and strengthened by them.

He watched, and listened as Iolaus told him of the past year, his hands constantly in motion; peeling an apple, slicing cheese, illustrating a story about Maltisí tactical genius, or the bravery and endurance of his troops. He halted a tale in mid-sentence, arrested by the smile that tugged the corner of Aresí mouth. "What?" he demanded.

"I was just wondering what happened to the insolent child whose every sentence started with ĎI wantí," Ares explained, his smile broadening.

Iolaus studied his glass silently. "I hated you for sending me away," he said without looking up. "I nearly ran away a hundred times, but I decided I wouldnít give you the satisfaction."

"That wouldnít have given me satisfaction," Ares said quietly.

"I know." He paused, then continued, "After I stopped hating you I started wondering whether I would live through this. I thought my life was hard; I didnít have a clue, did I? I was an arrogant little bastard, and I donít understand why you put up with me for as long as you did."

"I thought of you as a work in progress," Ares answered. His tone changed. "Maltis told me about Nathaneus; Iím sorry."

Iolaus nodded, his face darkening. "He was a good man, and he loved me far more than I deserved. Maybe if heíd loved me a little less, heíd still be alive."

"Donít waste energy trying to second-guess the Fates, Iolaus. He died because it was his time to die, not because of anything you did or didnít do. Or is it something else? Are you thinking that maybe heíd still be alive if youíd loved him a little more?"

The eyes Iolaus turned to Ares held pain, and regret. "I donít know anything about love. You were right about that, too. I wanted someone to talk to, to make the hard ground seem a little softer, to Ė" He shook his head. "To guard my back. I couldnít give Nathaneus what he wanted, so I gave him what I had. I hope it was enough for him."

How could it have been? Ares wondered. Nothing less than all of this blazing soul could ever be enough. Disturbed by this dangerous thought, he stood abruptly.

"Youíd better get back to your quarters."

Iolaus acquiesced resignedly. He paused at the entrance and asked, not quite looking at Ares, if he would see him in the morning. Ares opened his mouth to say no, then nodded.

The battle was joined just after dawn, and lasted till noon. Hestesí troops turned the tide in their favour, but Aresí presence lent the battle-weary soldiers new vigour. His dark, powerful presence made itself felt everywhere, offering encouragement, counsel and support, and Iolaus was never far from his side. Those who knew the God of Warís golden shadow saw the link between them, and drew strength from it; those who fought them sensed it too, and understood that taking this blond prize would somehow weaken their enemies. They closed on Iolaus repeatedly; it seemed that for every one his blade dropped two came to take his place. His battle comrades saw his plight and moved to defend him, until he was part of a compact ring of warriors who wove a deadly net of bronze with sword and battle axe.

Ares roared at him, ordering him from the field; he shouted a cheerful obscenity and renewed his attack. The men around him cheered his courage, and his name became a battle cry, his flying hair a banner of victory.

It was several hours before Ares spotted that hair again, shining at the centre of a crowd of laughing, exultant warriors. Heíd heard the whispers that Iolaus was the reason for the God of Warís presence, had debated leaving immediately after his lengthy session with Maltis and his lieutenants; had left, in fact, only to return, sneering at his own cowardice. What was one more ephemeral more or less in the lifetime of an immortal? Take him; heís wanted it for years. Just take him, and then you can forget about him.

He shut his mind to any thought save that of pounding fiercely into the body that tormented him, and focused his intent, black gaze on the group before him. Finally Iolausí head came up, and he searched over the heads of his comrades until he spotted the godís waiting figure. Their eyes locked for an instant, and Iolaus began to extricate himself from the celebratory back slaps and hand clasps to make his way to Aresí side. "Hey, Ares, give him one for me," a man muttered, and was hastily silenced by his companions; but Iolaus was aware of nothing but the light in the hooded eyes that met his.

Ares pulled Iolaus roughly to him the instant the tentís hanging closed behind them. Some part of his mind noted that Iolaus had evidently used some of his scarce drinking water to bathe himself again after the battle. He could have disappeared Iolausí gear with a thought, but took savage pleasure in feeling the thick, stiff leather tear away under his hands. Casting the ruined garments aside, he yanked his own tunic off, nearly spending at the sight and feel of the small, eager hands that fumbled with his belt and the fastenings of his trousers.

"Kiss me," Iolaus told him, and Ares complied, diving into the mouth that opened against his. His breath left him in a grunt as Iolaus pressed against him, clutching Aresí buttocks to pull his cock tighter against his belly, and moaning with frustration at the disparity in their heights. He pulled Ares to the bed and fell atop him, capturing his mouth in another voracious kiss.

His almost desperate intensity finally penetrated Aresí own haze, and he caught Iolausí face between his hands, drawing back a little to regard him with some concern. "Slow down, boy," he said lightly. "Iím not going anywhere."

Iolaus hid his face against the curve of his shoulder; Ares ran his hands down the pale back gently, soothing the tremors from his shaking body. "Iíve been dreaming about this for so long," he confessed, his voice muffled against Aresí shoulder. "How you tasted when you kissed me that time. How beautiful you are, and how youíd feel to touch. How youíd feel if weÖ and now you finally want me, and Iím scared to death I wonít please you."

Ares was nonplussed. Iolaus had seemed so sure of himself; it appeared that anxious little boy lurked somewhere still. He cursed the nameless, faceless men that had taken their passing pleasure on that boy for the price of a meal.

"Is that how I seem to you? A customer who wonít pay you if you donít give him his moneyís worth? Is that all you think there is to this?" he demanded, his voice rough with anger. As he spoke, he was aware some line had been crossed with this mortal, and he welcomed it. Iolaus raised his head and looked at him, shocked. "I told you a year ago, boy, if I wanted a whore, Iíd find one."

Iolaus rolled off the bed and glared at him. "Iím not a whore!" he said angrily.

"Thatís what I just said," Ares pointed out. "So stop talking like one. Scared you wonít please me, my almighty ass. When did you start worrying about pleasing me? Youíve done nothing but order me around since the day I found you. Now get that luscious behind of yours back into this bed before I decide youíre not worth all this trouble."

Iolausí eyes snapped dangerously, then he loosed a sudden peal of laughter. "I might as well, I suppose," he said, tilting his head to watch Aresí waning erection begin to stir again, "since you ruined my last set of clean clothes. Iíll be expecting replacements." He climbed back into the bed as he spoke, and his hand closed gently around Aresí cock. "And by the way," he continued, his hand tightening just enough to make Ares gasp, "Donít call me boy."

"Iíve created a monster," Ares murmured, then his head fell back on to the pillow as Iolausí mouth fastened over the head of his cock. He held himself motionless and allowed Iolaus to pull him slowly into that wet heat, hard teeth nipping at him, the soft cushion of his tongue pressing into the division at its tip. Then his thumb swirled there instead, and Iolaus was engulfing the twin ovals of his hard scrotum, rolling them in his mouth until Ares could stay still no more, and his hips left the bed in an involuntary plea.

Iolaus settled between his legs, pulling them over his shoulders, and slid his hands under Aresí buttocks to open them to his explorations, tasting, sucking, nibbling at his thighs, his cock, his achingly tight sac and the tender skin behind it, his fingers brushing Aresí anus teasingly until he ground against them, frantic to feel their intoxicating pressure.

His hands clenched in Iolausí hair as he sucked his fingers, eyes locked on Aresí, and slowly withdrew them, glistening, from his mouth. He ran them over the weeping head of Aresí cock, then touched them to his tongue again, smiling wolfishly at Aresí bitten-off groan.

The world narrowed to his need as that hot, talented mouth closed on him again, and slick fingers slipped into him, sending jagged bursts of pleasure through him. He needed more.

"In me. Now," he gritted through clenched teeth, and Iolaus released his cock lingeringly, then looked around. Ares held out his hand, and a bowl of salve appeared in its palm. "Now," he repeated, and turned over, pulling one leg up and watching as Iolaus caught his lip between his teeth, then stroked the salve on himself in a few hurried movements. He dug his fingers into the bowl and slid them back into Ares, who surrendered to his orgasm with a groan, only to be yanked back by Iolausí hand drawing his scrotum away from his body.

"Not yet, my lord Ares," Iolaus chided, and removed his fingers. His teeth closed on Aresí back as his cock eased past the strong entrance of him, then pressed deeply inside him, moving slowly, inexorably, till Ares felt the tickle of his wild gold thatch against his scrotum, still held firmly in Iolausí grip.

Iolaus rested against him, waiting, and Ares felt, or heard, or lived the otherís heart hammering, his blood rushing through his veins, as if it was his own heart he listened to. "Iolaus," he said, and in that perfect moment he wanted nothing, except to say the name. Iolaus slid his hand from Aresí balls to his cock, moist from Iolausí mouth and his own pearl flow, and Ares again tried to be still as Iolaus moved on him, and in him.

He reached behind himself to grasp a slim hip as it thrust into him; his hand clenched on it involuntarily as he found that jagged place again and could no longer bite back his cries. He tightened around Iolausí cock, wanting to memorise every nuance, every surge and pull, as Iolaus filled him and shattered him with each twist of his hips. His hand on Aresí cock was moving strongly, almost roughly, and Ares heard his voice saying yesyesyes, and that wild crescendo in his cock and his ass burst over him so brightly it was almost pain. Iolausí hand stripped him, his cock suddenly hard and still inside him, and he rode his orgasm against the flesh that impaled him and the flesh that held him, until Iolaus shouted his name and erupted into him. Molten spill, blazing in him.

Ares relished the slight weight that covered him, and debated with himself whether turning over to hold Iolaus in his arms was feasible, given the monumental effort it would take in his current condition. He decided the pleasure would be worth any amount of work, and rolled over heavily, dumping Iolaus to the bed beside him. Iolaus protested drowsily until Ares pulled him into his embrace, then melted against him. "Cover," he mumbled, and a soft sound of contentment escaped him as a silky blanket settled over them. He muttered something else incomprehensible, already deep into sleep, and wrapped an arm and leg around Ares, burrowing into him.

If he granted this ephemeral immortality, they could stay like this forever.

Iolaus moved through the forest, his dun-coloured leathers disappearing against the shadow-dappled foliage. The burdens of his office weighed more heavily on him with each passing year, each battle, and the time between campaigns was a time of renewal for him.

The last few times, though, there had been no renewal; just an increasing sense of exhaustion, and dread at the thought of the next, inevitable contest. He had intended to tell Ares last night that he wouldnít continue as head of his army, but the sight of his lover after so many months had driven all else from his mind. This morning Ares had beguiled him with memories of their first time together, and theyíd ended up making love again before Ares vanished to mediate between two warring kings in the south. Iolaus sighed. Ares was not going to be happy about his decision.

He could hear Aresí retainers to his left, and frowned. The damn fools would scare off any game long before they got close enough to shoot it. Then came the twang of a bowstring, followed by shouts of triumph; maybe they werenít completely incompetent, after all. He moved toward the sound, picking up his pace as they shouted his name.

They were clustered around their prey; they moved aside as he approached, and he saw with cold anger that the target their arrows had found was a man. One arrow protruded from his chest, the other from his thigh; Iolausí experience told him that the ominous froth around the chest wound meant the shaft was lodged in his lung. He cut off their apologies and excuses brusquely. Cernaia was closer than the temple, and the village healer was at least minimally competent. Iolaus wished fervently for the skilled hands of his army physician, but Lukan had left for his own distant home the day before.

Naturally, the healer was attending to an emergency some miles away. Iolaus cursed and reluctantly directed the men to carry the litter to his home, where his unwelcome guest was deposited in his bedroom under the astonished eyes of his housekeeper. He dismissed the men and issued a spate of instructions to her, then turned his attentions to the unconscious man on his bed.

The arrow in his thigh proved to be set shallowly in the flesh; working swiftly, Iolaus cut away his garments, eased it out gingerly, cleaned and bound the wound. He examined his patientís face and was surprised to see that his colour was fairly good, given the amount of blood heíd lost from the chest wound. That chest wound; how in Hades would he get that arrow out? Of necessity, heíd developed some rough-and-ready skills as a surgeon, but his experience was largely limited to removing ruined limbs.

"Pull it out." He glanced up in surprise, meeting pain-filled blue eyes.

"I canít just tear it out, man; itís barbed. Zeus knows what that would do to you."

"Pull. The arrow. Out."

He opened his mouth to protest, but something in those eyes made him grit his teeth, grip the arrow in both hands and yank it from the strangerís body.

It came free in a crimson torrent. Iolaus cast it aside and snatched a cloth from his hovering housekeeper, pressing it heavily against the wound until his fingers cramped. Finally he eased it aside gingerly; the flood had reduced itself to a slow trickle. He sewed and anointed the wound, and held the strangerís unconscious body to allow his housekeeper to wrap a bandage around the broad chest. He could do nothing for the wound that remained open inside his body; the stranger would probably die from bleeding into his belly anyway. He laid his head against the strangerís chest, relieved at the sounds of a strongly beating heart and air entering both lungs. Evidently the gods had chosen to smile on this one.

Iolaus rose and went through what remained of his clothing, hoping to find some means of identifying him. Nothing, aside from a travellerís coin or two; he hadnít even carried a weapon. What had he been doing in Aresí sacred forest? Well, the healer should be back soon.

He was sharing a tankard and a few war stories with some old friends at the inn when his housekeeperís son told him the stranger had developed a high fever. No, the healer had not returned, and his mother was concerned; would the general condescend to look at the stranger himself?

Iolaus reached the strangerís side in time to prevent him from rolling off the bed in his delirium. Iolaus held him strongly until his thrashing and incoherent cries abated; Zeus, the man was powerful. Even in his weakened state, it was a battle to keep him on the bed. Iolaus was considering tying him down when those riveting blue eyes focused on him again, and there was clarity in their depths.

Once again Iolaus held the man in his arms, urging him to drink the evil-tasting potion the housekeeper had brewed from his supply of herbs. The man drank a little, then grimaced and turned his head aside, but Iolaus bullied him into finishing the cup. The effort clearly exhausted him, and his eyes were already closing as Iolaus laid his head gently back on the pillow. He forced them open again, and Iolaus had to bend to his lips to hear his barely whispered thanks. "I canít keep calling you Ďthat guy in my bedí," Iolaus said. "Whatís your name?"

"Hercules," the stranger answered, and his eyes closed again. Iolaus touched his face, and was alarmed to discover the fever was rising. He stayed by the strangerís side through the night and most of the next day, forcing sips of the tea past his lips and bathing his overheated body. He left the room only to answer the call of nature and get some fresh air; his presence seemed to exert an inexplicably calming effect on the man, who tossed restlessly until he returned.

The fever finally broke at sunset on the following day. Iolaus checked the wound again, astonished that it had remained clean, rebandaged it and fed him a bowl of broth. He kept up an inconsequential flow of small talk through the process, and was rewarded with a slow smile. "Do you always talk this much?" the man asked hoarsely.

"Only when Iím trying to get someone to do something they donít want to do," Iolaus answered cheerfully. "Now go to sleep. Itíll be your turn to talk when you wake up."

He waited until he was sure the man was asleep, then stood up, staggering a little from exhaustion as he made for the pallet his housekeeper had set up by the bed. As he weaved he was caught up in strong arms, and a dry voice said, "So. I leave for two days, and find another man in your bed." Aresí arms loosened as he stared over Iolausí head at the sleeping man, finally releasing Iolaus and approaching the bed to examine his features.

"You know him," Iolaus said. It wasnít a question. Ares nodded.

"Heís one of my fatherís by-blows," he said with an edge of bitterness. Iolaus looked at him incredulously.

"Heís your brother? No wonder heís healing so well. With that wound, he should have died." He glanced at Hercules with new interest, looking for some faint resemblance to his lover, and finding none.

"He should never have been born," Ares responded, and left the chamber. Iolaus followed him into the outer room, his fatigue temporarily forgotten. Zeusí habit of impregnating his mortal conquests had always infuriated Ares, who believed it an outrage against gods and humans alike.

"He seemed normal enough when he wasnít delirious," Iolaus offered. "At least heís not a minotaur or a maniac." Iolaus had not been at Aresí side for so long without having had experience of some of Zeusí half-mortal issue, and he understood Aresí revulsion. Maybe, though, this one was an exception. Iolaus hoped so; there was something about Hercules. Something in the eyes.

"This oneís better than most," Ares admitted grudgingly. "He uses what he inherited from Zeus to help people from time to time. I havenít heard his name mentioned in the last few years. Enough of him," he said suddenly, pulling Iolaus into his arms. "I expect more than one night with you every six months, mortal. Thank you for your enthusiasm," he added with an ironic quirk of his lips as Iolaus tried to stifle a yawn.

"Well, I havenít slept at all since the night before last, and I didnít get much sleep that night, either, youíll recall," Iolaus pointed out, and this time his yawn was huge and unconcealed. He thought longingly of the bed in the pavilion.

"Come back to the temple with me," Ares said, with that uncanny ability of his to sense Iolausí thoughts. He swore it was no godly gift, just his bond with Iolaus, and Iolaus chose to believe him. It still unsettled him occasionally.

"I canít," he said reluctantly. "I sent Retia home to get some rest, and I canít leave him alone. Let me get the blankets from the bedroom and make up a fire. Gods, Iím tired."

"You get the blankets, and leave the fire to me," Ares told him. "Why do you insist on maintaining this hovel when you could be living in a palace?"

"Itís not a hovel," answered Iolaus, stung. "And you know why." Ares could have anything he wanted simply by desiring it; he would never understand how important it was for Iolaus to have something that was his alone, that he had earned and not been granted by a careless wave. He might not spend more than a dozen nights a year in it, but this small, snug house was significant to him.

Ares was sitting on a pillow-strewn couch in front of the fire when he returned. He offered Iolaus a mug of hot mead and Iolaus sipped it gratefully, relaxing against Aresí shoulder. His weariness was bone-deep, but his mind wouldnít disengage. Another son of Zeus. Most people went their whole lives without encountering any gods at all. Or demi-gods, for that matter. And here heíd been thinking that he might have a thing or two to teach Asclepius about medicine. Well, the faster Hercules healed, the faster Iolausí life could get back to normal. Should he tell Ares of his decision now? He yawned hugely again, and shuffled around on the couch until his head was in Aresí lap. Aresí cock stirred under his cheek.

"When exactly do you expect your housekeeper to get back?" his loverís voice inquired from over his head, and he grinned and closed his eyes.

Ares stared into the fire, his fingers moving in Iolausí hair of their own volition, until the flames died to a red glow. Finally he moved Iolausí head gently to a pillow and stood, lighting a candle and silently entering Iolausí bedroom to regard its occupant. Herculesí eyes opened as though the weight of Aresí observation had pulled him from sleep and he tried to lift himself in the bed, subsiding with a bitten-off gasp of pain and returning the godís stare.

"Ares," he said at length. "Iím flattered; I didnít expect a welcoming committee."

"Donít be. Iím here for him, not you."

Herculesí eyebrows rose. "Then thatís General Iolaus whoís been force-feeding me tea and broth? From the stories Iíve heard about him, I expected him to be ten feet tall."

"He is," Ares told him. "What do you want from me?"

Hercules shifted in the bed, grimacing. "Oddly enough, Iím not here to see you, either. I came to find Iolaus. Iíve decided to join his army."

Ares set the candle on a table and summoned a chair, slouching into it and propping his feet on the side of the bed. "Why?" he asked bluntly. "Youíre a do-gooder, not a warrior. Although you donít appear to be doing much of that these days, either. Has rescuing kittens from trees lost its allure?"

"I was off doing good when thieves murdered my wife and children and torched my farm. When I got back, I went after them. It took me two years, but I finally caught up with them. They wonít be killing anyone else." Herculesí face was bleak. "You might say Iíve been at loose ends ever since. Becoming a warrior seems as good an idea as any other, and if Iím going to do it, I might as well join the best. I didnít expect to be almost killed before the interview, though. When was the last time he shot an arrow?"

"He didnít shoot you, he only saved your life," Ares said, and stood up. "Heíll be waking up soon. Try not to need anything until then."

"Well, I do need to piss," Hercules told the empty air where Ares had stood, and looked around for the jug heíd been using since he regained consciousness. It stood just out of reach on the table, where Iolaus had left it after emptying it. General Iolaus, bedpan cleaner. He smiled and pushed off the bedclothes, easing his legs gingerly over the side of the bed. He could do this. He stood slowly, holding his arm tight against his side, and took two halting steps toward the table before measuring his full length on the floor.

The crash woke Iolaus, who bounded through the door to stare at him in astonishment. "Are you out of your mind?" he asked. "Who do you think you are, Zeus himself? Yesterday you were almost dead, and today you decide to go for a stroll?" He scolded Hercules back into bed, complaining about his weight and the unmanageability of his limbs, and removed his bandage to check his wound over Herculesí weak protests. It was already overlaid with delicate scar tissue; if Iolaus didnít know better, he would have sworn the wound was weeks, not days old. The shallow tear in his thigh was completely healed, with only a thin line of red to show there had ever been an injury. He traced the faint scar with his fingers, and Herculesí flaccid sex stirred. Iolaus glanced up, amused.

"Donít take it personally," the demigod told him. "I was heading for the jug when I fell. Healing quickly is handy, but it really takes it out of me. Iíll be up and around by tomorrow afternoon. But in the meantimeÖ" He held his hand out for the jug; Iolaus handed it to him and laughed when he realised Hercules was waiting for him to leave.

"You donít have a body function I havenít cleaned up after," he said.

"I might have gone my whole life without ever hearing anyone say that to me," Hercules responded with a sigh. Iolaus relented and left him alone, returning a few minutes later with a basin of hot water and towels. Hercules watched with some alarm as Iolaus disposed of the jug and tucked several of the towels under his body, finally bringing the basin and a candle to the table by the bed.

"Youíre not planning on giving me a bath, are you?" he asked as Iolaus poured a fragrant unguent onto his hands, working it into a lather.

"You can wait till my housekeeper gets back, if youíd rather," Iolaus responded, and without waiting for a reply, spread the foam on Herculesí beard. "I donít do this for just anyone, you know," he continued, producing a razor. "In fact, Iíve never done this for anyone at all. Ares doesnít grow a beard unless he feels like it. You did say you heal fast, right?"

Hercules realised argument was futile and closed his eyes, relaxing as the razor swept firmly across his cheeks and chin. He wasnít sure what heíd been expecting of the much-lauded General Iolaus, but it certainly wasnít the charming, talkative fellow who was currently shaving him. Hercules had never been a particularly social animal Ė he still didnít know what Deianeira, who was as day to his night, had seen in him Ė and in the months following her death and the deaths of his children he had become morose and uncommunicative, preferring to keep his own company whenever possible.

And yet. Here he was, flat on his back after having almost been killed, being shaved by a stranger whose very intimate knowledge of him should have left him sullen and tongue-tied with embarrassment, and he was feelingÖ cheerful. He rolled it around on his tongue, testing its novelty. That was the word, all right.

He opened his eyes again as a soft towel patted his cheeks dry. He raised an appreciative hand to his chin; he hadnít shaved in days. "For a general, you make a pretty good barber," he said. "Maybe Iíll let you give me a bath after all."

"Thank you very much," Iolaus responded with a soft chuckle. Hercules decided he liked the sound of that chuckle. He shifted slightly, grunting. The fall had been painful and the soapy washcloth moving over his body was soothing, as was the soft tickle of Iolausí hair brushing his chest and thighs as he worked. Gentle pressure on the back of Herculesí shoulder prompted him to roll ponderously on to his side; the cloth swept across his back and over his buttocks, and Iolaus pushed against the back of his thigh. He bent his knee, sliding his leg up to allow Iolaus access to his genitals, rather touched at this nod to his modesty. It would have been easier for Iolaus to have washed him when he was on his back. His cock stirred again at the clothís ministrations between his legs. On the other hand, maybe Iolaus was preserving his own modesty. He grinned at the unlikely picture of that forthright man recoiling in genteel horror at Herculesí growing hardness. For some reason, he was finding the anticipation of the unseen washclothís next destination absurdly arousing.

Finally he rolled back on to the sheets at Iolausí cue, and they both regarded Herculesí significant erection. "I know," Iolaus assured him. "Donít take it personally." He gathered up the towels and basin and told Hercules he would return shortly with willow bark tea for his pain, cutting off Herculesí denials with scorn.

Hercules eyed his cock, and it twitched. "Oh, shut up," he told it, and pulled the covers over himself with a sigh.

He was in a great deal of pain, and Iolausí sharp eyes apparently hadnít missed any of it; he just looked at Hercules until his protests wound down, then supported his head as he drank the tea. "Iím only doing this because it would be rude not to, after all the trouble you went to," he mumbled finally as Iolaus laid him back against the pillows.

"Youíve been a superior guest in every way, as unconscious, bleeding people go," Iolaus assured him solemnly. "Iíll be right here on the floor, just in case you decide to take another walk."

"I donít need to be guarded," Hercules protested. "Why donít you go to bed?"

"Because you take up too much room, and I bet you kick," Iolaus answered, making sure the jug was close by Herculesí bed before settling down on the pallet. "Donít start feeling guilty," he advised in answer to Herculesí stricken look; "thereís a perfectly comfortable couch in the other room, but if Iím not in here Iíll be sleeping with one eye open waiting for something to happen. Itís a nasty habit I picked up on the battlefield. Just stay in bed, and Iíll sleep like a baby." He blew out the candle; Hercules listened till the rhythm of his breathing told him he was asleep.

The sky was lightening faintly, and he turned on his side to watch the slumbering form. So, this was the mortal that had captivated the God of War for almost two decades. He would never have dreamed that his dark brother would have been drawn to a man like this. Iolaus had shed his loose shirt; Hercules studied the broad back and pool of palely gleaming hair, and felt the phantom touch of Iolausí strong, deft hands on his body. Gods knew he could certainly understand the attraction. His hand stole unconsciously to his once again annoyingly erect cock, and he jerked it away as if burned. What in Hades was he doing having carnal thoughts about the consort of a god?

He turned away resolutely, and finally fell asleep with the memory of Iolausí soft chuckle tickling at him.

Ares read the same paragraph three times in the misspelled, grubby petition he held before he lobbed it across the temple in disgust, narrowly missing Iolausí head as he entered. "I got here as soon as I could," he protested mildly, mounting the steps to Aresí throne. "Come outside with me; Iíve been cooped up in a sickroom for days, and itís too nice out to mope around this mausoleum."

Ares scowled at him. "Gods donít mope," he said irritably. "And what makes you think I have nothing better to do than scamper around a meadow with you? Life goes on whether youíre here or not, you know."

He was still complaining as Iolaus pushed him outside into the sunshine and across the field to the pavilion. Iolaus went inside, then came out again and squinted up at the roof.

"Take it off," Iolaus interrupted.

"Take what off?" Ares asked, diverted.

"The roof. Wait; come inside first." He pulled Ares into the structure, then gestured impatiently at the ceiling, giving Ares a delighted grin as it vanished. "Perfect! Sunshine and privacy."

"You have no feeling for the subtleties of classic architecture," Ares chided him, completely mollified by Iolausí obvious pleasure at seeing him. "I was beginning to think youíd decided to give up your career to become a nursemaid. What is it?" he added as he watched Iolausí face grow suddenly serious.

Iolaus stared at his clasped hands for a long minute, then looked up. "When I was a boy in the streets, I did a lot of things I hated just to survive. I decided back then that when I grew up, I wasnít going to spend my life doing something I hated. When you picked me up out of the gutter and gave me a chance to make something of myself, I knew the gods were telling me I was right."

He looked out the window, pushing his hair off his face in an automatic gesture. "Iíve been fighting in your service for close to twenty years, at the head of your army for ten. Weíve made a lot of progress in those years and Iím proud of what Iíve accomplished as your general. But lately each battle has taken a little more from me than I can afford to give. More than Iím willing to give, any more."

He drew in a deep breath and turned to face Ares again.

"Ares, Iíve made a decision. This battle was my last one. Iím stepping down as head of your army."

Ares stared at Iolaus, dumbfounded. Heíd known for some time that Iolaus wasnít completely happy, but had remained silent, trusting that the mortal would come to him in his own time, as he always had. He could tell Iolaus was finally ready to talk when he returned two days ago. Of all the possibilities Ares had considered, this one had never entered his mind.

He raised a hand in a helpless gesture of bewilderment, then dropped it again. "I donít understand. How does this happen? Do you wake up one morning and decide youíre not a warrior any more? Iolaus, being a warrior isnít what you do. Itís who you are. You canít change that by walking away from your life."

"Iím not walking away from my life." Iolaus grasped Aresí arm, willing him to understand. "Iím tired, Ares. Iím just a mortal, not a god, and we get tired. Tired of good men dying in our arms, tired of killing other good men whose only crime is being on the other side, tired of never coming to the end of it. Believing youíve won a war is just a sad, sick joke. Thereís no such thing. Thereís only trying to outlive your enemies until the next time. I donít want a next time. Iíve been grooming Paleus; heís more than capable of stepping in, or you can choose someone else. But Iím finished."

Aresí hand shot out and gripped the arm that rested on his. "How dare you," he hissed. He could feel the fragile bones move under his fingers; how easy it would be to crush them, to crush him. He released Iolausí arm abruptly and turned away. "Leave me," he snapped.

"No," Iolaus said simply. He stood just behind Ares, waiting. "Try to be happy for me," he said at last, and Ares turned to look at him.

"Youíre moving out of my world. How do you expect me to be happy about that?" he asked. Aphrodite had been right. Ephemerals were fickle creatures with fleeting, deadly desires. A god could only be grateful that they were ignorant of the extent of their power. He flinched as Iolaus came closer, cupping his face in small, commanding hands.

"I donít need pity from a mortal," he snarled, and stepped away from his touch while he still could.

"I donít dismiss that easily, and I donít feel the least bit sorry for you," Iolaus told him. "Iím not 16 any more, Ares. More of my life is behind me than in front of me. Time has become my enemy, and Iím not going to waste a second of it arguing with you on this magnificent day. Iíve been thinking about trying blacksmithing. Do you think you could talk Hephaestus into letting me hang around his forge a little?"

Ares was struck by a sudden image of the taciturn God of Fire being harassed by an incurably curious, incessantly talking Iolaus, and he smiled in spite of himself. Perhaps heíd been hasty. If Iolaus wasnít constantly risking his neck in some pestilential corner of the country, Ares might see him more often. "What exactly do you plan to do with your new-found freedom?" he asked, and was rewarded with a slow, hot smile.

"Well," said Iolaus, unbuckling his belt and letting it drop to the floor, "I was hoping youíd be able to help with that." Freed of its restraint, his shirt hung open and Ares slid his hands beneath it, watching it drift from his shoulders. He reached for his own tunic but Iolausí hands were there first, unfastening each buckle with maddening slowness. At last Iolaus moved into his arms, and he wove his hands into his mortalís bright curtain of hair and bent to his mouth, savouring it. Their tongues touched with exquisite delicacy as they relearned each otherís taste, until Ares could no longer resist the siren song of Iolausí soft moans and swept him up, carrying him to the bed. He pushed his trousers down over his hips, taking pleasure in Iolausí burning gaze on him, and caressed himself, sinking his teeth into his lush bottom lip. Iolausí eyes fastened on it and he licked his own lips unconsciously, opening his trousers and pushing his hand inside them. Ares kicked his own trousers aside and peeled Iolausí off; he loved the sight of that beautiful, heavy cock, and he loved to watch Iolaus pleasure himself. But right this moment Ares had plans for Iolausí pleasure, and his own.

He stretched out on the bed beside Iolaus and lifted his hand, palm up; it cradled the bowl of a shallow golden goblet heaped with glittering crystalline stones. He chose a small one and slipped it between Iolausí lips.

"Ice," Iolaus said with some surprise.

"Ice," Ares agreed, and chose a larger piece, licking it lazily before bringing it to Iolausí mouth. His tongue touched it, then Ares slid it over his lower lip, bending forward to catch its droplets on his own tongue. He drew the jewel of ice down Iolausí throat and the shallow channel of his breastbone, moving first to one side, then the other to ring each nipple to hardness.

As each crystal melted on Iolausí body he replaced it with another, gliding in circles over his abdomen, dipping into his navel, idly scribing his name across Iolausí tense, quivering stomach, then drawing back to admire the red tracks against his pale flesh. Finally he held the last piece of ice between his fingers, and Iolaus watched him suspend the melting shard above his cock. The first drop of icy water struck, and he cried out. Another, and another, splashing against his heat, trickling down to caress his scrotum. And just as it was almost too much, Aresí mouth, like being thrust into a furnace.

Then Iolausí hands came down to fasten themselves to Aresí shoulders, and he saw the livid handprint on Iolausí wrist.

He sat up abruptly, sickened by this evidence of how easily heíd surrendered to his anger. "Ares?" Iolaus said, puzzled by the sudden shift in his mood. Ares reached behind him without looking and pulled Iolausí arm around him, closing his hand over the fingers that moved automatically to spread themselves across the swell of his pectoral. Iolaus rose to his knees and pressed against Aresí back, reaching over his shoulder with his free hand to enclose Ares in the circle of his arms. Ares leaned into him for a long moment, then raised Iolausí bruised wrist to his lips. "Is that what all the fuss is about?" Iolaus asked gently. "I know you wouldnít hurt me on purpose." His voice became teasing. "I could be persuaded to torture you for a while, if itíll make you feel better."

"Gods canít be tortured," Ares returned promptly, turning Iolausí hand over to lick the ticklish spot in his palm. This mortal was a constant wonder. And at the same time delightfully predictable; Iolaus could never resist a challenge.

He allowed Iolausí hands to urge him back against the bed. Iolaus leaned over him, his hair tumbling over his shoulder to rest against the dark mat that covered Aresí chest, and kissed him with all his consummate skill. Aresí deflated erection stirred and filled, and Iolaus smiled knowingly against his mouth. "Turn over," he commanded, and sat up, handing Ares a pillow. "Youíll need it," he said, his voice a growl. "To stop the screams."

Ares lifted an eyebrow and shifted to his stomach, wrapping his arms around the pillow and watching Iolaus over his shoulder until a hand covered his eyes. He closed them obediently; a pulse of excitement shot through him and he pressed his hips into the silken coverings, waiting.

He felt the brief tickle of Iolausí hair against his back, then pulled a shocked breath through his teeth as some multi-tendrilled thing laid across his shoulders with stinging force. It came down again, and again, and he realised he was being lightly, rhythmically whipped with Iolausí waist-length hair.

The very outrageousness of it jolted him with arousal that was almost liquid in its intensity, and he moaned involuntarily as his tormentor set his buttocks and the backs of his thighs aflame. He found himself struggling blindly to his knees, burying his face in the pillow, spreading himself before Iolaus in a wordless plea, and the plume of Iolausí hair curled between his legs to paint its fire on his rigid cock and lick his aching balls. It went on forever, until he was sure his skin was crisping and peeling from his body, until his nerve ends were flayed, until he was screaming into the pillow. Then Iolausí fingers were suddenly deep in his twitching, blazing ass, and then oh yes oh finally his cock, heavy and hot and perfectly punishing inside him, and Ares wanted to reach for his cock but couldnít make his arms release the pillow. Iolaus drove into him hard, hard, tight gold curls at his groin crackling against Aresí fiery skin, then his cool hand was cradling the flame that was Aresí cock, and he came in huge, suffocating waves, until Iolaus stiffened against him, his hips jerking with each spasm of Aresí ass around him.

Aresí legs refused to hold him any longer and he tightened against Iolausí cock one last time then slumped to the sheets, his back and thighs still humming. Iolaus sank back on his haunches, sucking in gulping breaths, and finally held out his hand to Ares. "Ice," he said.

Ares groaned. "I canít take any more," he protested, but the ice appeared in Iolausí hand. He held his breath, jumping at the first cold touch against his buttocks, then relaxing under the gentle, sweeping strokes. When the ice was gone and he lay boneless against the pillows Iolaus stretched beside him, grinning smugly. Ares reached out a languid hand and snagged a handful of blond waves. "I had no idea you possessed such depths," he said with respect. "Iím a humbled man."

"Youíll get over it," Iolaus assured him. They dozed for a while in each otherís arms, then Ares conjured up a meal and they talked and ate, and finally made love again. The shadows in the pavilion had lengthened considerably when Iolaus got up and fished his trousers out from under the bed. If Hercules was really well enough to get up by this afternoon, Iolaus felt it was only right that he at least look in on him. Ares argued, but grudgingly conceded when Iolaus pointed out that if Hercules had come to join his army, as Ares had said, then Iolaus owed it to him to tell him he was retiring. "I could always bring him back here for dinner," Iolaus pointed out. "Who knows? You might like him if you got to know him."

"For some reason, Iím less than warmed by that prospect," Ares said dryly. "Will you come back here tonight?"

"Are you still going to Gaul at first light?" At Aresí nod of assent, he shrugged. "Then Iíll stay at my place. Iím not going anywhere, remember? Weíll have all the time we want when you get back. Give Nemecles my best, and donít forget to tell him Ė" He issued instructions, warnings and advice to pass on to the battalionís captain until he caught Aresí amused look and subsided. "All right, all right," he said with a reluctant grin. "Old habits die hard, I guess. Stay away from golden hinds, and donít be gone longer than a week. Iím an impatient man."

"Yes, my lord Iolaus," Ares said with a deep bow, and caught Iolaus to him for a last hard kiss.

He brought down a brace of ducks on the way back to Cernaia. Retia met him at the door, hands planted firmly on her substantial hips, eyes narrowed in frustration. The man was impossible; heíd been roaming around the house dressed in nothing but a sheet for hours, asking her when she expected the general back. Heíd finally threatened to leave the house wearing only what he was born in if she didnít find him some clothes; none of the generalís fit him. Well, of course the generalís clothes wouldnít fit, sheíd told him; the general wasnít a great oaf of a man, unlike some. Iolaus deflected her in mid-sentence by thrusting the ducks into her hands and heading for the kitchen, asking her what was for dinner.

He inhaled the rich aroma of roasting meat appreciatively, burned himself trying to snag a slice from the spit, and was about to ask Herculesí whereabouts when Retiaís son burst through the back door, begging his motherís help at his wifeís childbirth bed. "Go," Iolaus said instantly. "Weíll be fine."

The sound of her voice had barely faded when Hercules appeared in the kitchenís doorway. "That woman is impossible," he snarled, hitching at the sheet wound around his waist. "She burned my clothes, can you believe it?"

"No, she didnít. She burned some bloody rags that used to be your clothes before I cut them off you," Iolaus told him, handing him a bundle. "I borrowed these from one of my warriors." Hercules reached for them with a glad cry, dropping the sheet. "Hold it," Iolaus snapped, snatching back the bundle. "First I want to have a look at you."

Herculesí lips twitched and he spread his arms wide, turning in a slow circle. "Very fetching," Iolaus told him as he completed his turn. "Now let me see the part under the bandage. How do you feel?"

Hercules had almost removed the bandage around his chest that morning, knowing it was no longer necessary, but decided it would be much more entertaining to wait for Iolaus. Now he moved with alacrity to sit in the chair his host indicated. "Like a million dinars," he answered. "Like eating a horse."

He had spent the day trying not to look too closely at his reasons for looking out the nearest window every time he heard footsteps approach. He was bored and naked. What a lethal combination. A man should never have to be naked and bored at the same time. He made a mighty, but unsuccessful, effort to banish these absurd thoughts. What was happening to him? He was rapidly regressing from cheerful to giddy with Iolausí return.

Iolaus shook his head over the faint pink line on Herculesí thigh, then carefully unwound the cloth. "You do good work," Hercules commented, peering down at his chest. "I wonít have a scar."

"You barely have one now," Iolaus retorted. He had knelt by Herculesí side, and now leaned over his thigh, pulling his hair over his shoulder, to press his ear against Herculesí chest. "Take a few deep breaths," he ordered. His belt buckle dug gently into Herculesí hip, and Hercules felt the warmth of his body through the fine linen of his tunic. "Amazing," Iolaus said as he listened to the clear, steady lung sounds.

"Thank you," Hercules answered, looking down at the blond head that leaned against his chest. "Breathing is one of the things I do best, if I do say so myself." Get hold of yourself, Hercules. The manís going to think youíre a lunatic.

Iolaus stood up and handed him the clothes heíd brought; he dressed in them eagerly and made for the door, anxious to stretch his legs after three days of enforced idleness. A quickly stifled giggle brought him up short. "What?" he demanded.

"Well, the clothes arenít exactly a perfect fit," Iolaus explained, struggling not to laugh again. Herculesí shoulders threatened to burst out of the shirt, his wrists dangled below the sleeves, and the trousers were several inches too large in the waist. The boots fit him well enough, and hid the pantsí other shortcomings. That waist wouldnít survive a fast walk, though. He drew Hercules into his bedroom and used his knife to remove the shirtís sleeves, then rummaged around in a trunk until he found a belt. "At least our waists are roughly the same size," he said, handing it to Hercules, who cinched the shirt over his trousers with it. He felt Herculesí eyes on him. "What?" he said in his turn.

"You giggled," Hercules accused.

"I donít giggle," Iolaus said automatically.

"Yes, you did. General Iolaus, head of the armies of the God of War, gigó"

"Not any more," Iolaus said casually, and left the room.

Hercules followed him outside, barely noticing that they were heading out of the village. "Tell me you mean youíre not giggling any more."

"I donít giggle. And I donít run Aresí army any more, either. I told him this morning."


The anger in Herculesí voice raised Iolausí eyebrows. "What difference does it make? Iím sure whoever takes my place will be more than happy to offer Aresí brother a significant position. My leaving shouldnít affect your plans at all."

Because we only just met and I need more time. Hercules pressed his lips together, trying to decide how to answer that without sounding like a petulant child. "As a matter of fact, I think my plans have changed. Being almost killed by Aresí soldiers doesnít bode well for my life expectancy if I were to actually join his army, does it?" Maybe Iolaus wouldnít notice he hadnít actually answered it at all.

"Those cretins," Iolaus snorted. "If they were any good, theyíd be on a battlefield somewhere, not guarding a temple no-one would dare to raise a hand against. They wouldnít last five minutes in one of my battalions."

"Nevertheless, Iím going to stick to what I know. What about you?" he asked, following Iolaus to the river. Iolaus drew off his boots and sat on the bank, dangling his feet in the water, and watching with some surprise as Hercules stripped.

"Are you sure thatís a good idea?"

"Unless you plan to keep giving me sponge baths," Hercules suggested, easing into the water. Turning on to his back, he kicked just hard enough to stay in place against the current. Iolaus stood up and untied the thongs of his shirt, and Hercules was suddenly grateful for the waterís chill as he watched Iolaus skin out of his clothes and dive into the river. He really had to go somewhere and have a serious talk with himself. "So what are you going to do now?"

"I havenít got a clue. Fish for a while. Travel. Iíd really like to visit someplace that Iím not attacking. Damn, this waterís cold." He climbed back up on the bank, leaning back on his elbows and tilting his face toward the last rays of the afternoon sun. He was remarkably beautiful, but Hercules knew he wasnít trying to be provocative; he was simply completely unselfconscious about nudity, displaying the same matter-of-fact manner he had when he was bathing Hercules.

Even the frigidity of the water wasnít proof against that particular memory. Hercules sank under the water and swam briskly for a few minutes before venturing out to drop to the ground by Iolaus. He was breathing deeply, and Iolaus sat up to put a concerned hand on his chest.

"Iím fine, really; just overdid it a little, I guess." In truth, he was more tired than he wanted to admit. The wound was healed, but his depleted resources had not yet had time to renew themselves. He shivered a little, and Iolaus rubbed him down briskly with his shirt, cursing himself under his breath for letting Hercules swim in the first place. "As though you could have stopped me," Hercules scoffed, drawing on his pants and boots and standing to fasten the belt around his waist. He leaned against a tree as Iolaus dressed quickly, using his now-damp shirt to towel his hair, then tucking it into his belt.

They started back to the village in the deepening dusk, Iolaus keeping a cautious eye on the man at his side. It was very odd; he wasnít accustomed to feeling so at ease with a total stranger. Iolausí acquaintances were legion, but he wasnít in a line of work that left much opportunity for developing close friendships. Ares had been everything to him -- father, teacher, mentor, then finally companion and lover Ė almost since the day he changed the course of Iolausí life.

Heíd never felt the need for anyone else. Then again, heíd never had the time for anyone else, either. Maybe it was because he was already feeling a little at loose ends and taking care of Hercules gave him something to do. Or maybe he felt some artificial connection to him because he was Aresí brother. They were certainly nothing alike. Well, they were both decent men with commanding, charismatic personalities, but Iolaus had a hard time remembering Hercules was the son of Zeus. With Ares, one never forgot it. Behind closed doors Ares had a wry humour about his godhood; Iolaus knew without being told that it was a face that Ares had never shown a mortal before. Ares. Iolaus hoped he would finish his business and return quickly. No wonder Ares was always so testy when Iolaus first got back from a campaign. And that was after months; Ares had been gone less than half a day, and Iolaus was already feelingÖ restless.

He had never taken a lover from the ranks of his own men, but there had been others besides Ares in his bed over the years, when he had been far away, and the nights had been long and cold. A woman, lush and willing, who caught his eye in a tavern. A man; never a soldier, a farmer, perhaps, who could remind him that men could nurture life as well as end it. Not a large number when he did the sums, but large enough, frequently enough, to help dull the sharp edge of his loneliness. They came to him strangers, and they left him the same way, and that was how heíd preferred it.

He stole another glance at Hercules, but could no longer make out his features in the gloom. Hercules was making no secret of the fact that he found Iolaus desirable. In another place, another time Iolaus would have responded without thought. Now, however, he was troubled.

What did Hercules want from him, exactly? To ingratiate himself with Iolaus as a means to reaching Ares? You donít get yourself into someoneís good books by trying to seduce their lover. Well, maybe it was the opposite, then: maybe Hercules was striking at Ares through Iolaus. No, that felt wrong. He knew nothing about Hercules, but he trusted his instincts and they told him this man was an honourable one. Hell, heíd had a narrow escape from death; maybe he just wanted to celebrate under the nearest bush with a conveniently warm body.

Well, be that as it may, they werenít off in the middle of a war somewhere. No-one but Ares had ever shared his bed under other circumstances, and he wasnít about to change that with Aresí own brother. When Ares got back, Iolaus would make sure he got to know Hercules. Iolaus would be pleased for Aresí sake if they became friends.

It didnít occur to Iolaus to wonder why he took it for granted that Hercules would stay.

When they reached his home Iolaus found himself a dry shirt and poked around the kitchen putting a meal together. Hercules flatly refused to return to bed and pulled up a chair in the kitchen, and the two chatted companionably over Retiaís only slightly dried out spiced mutton and fresh bread, accompanied by an odd assortment of vegetables that Iolaus had picked in the dark garden and tossed into a frying pan with garlic, olive oil and some generous squeezes of lemon. They washed it down with several glasses of wine from Iolausí own vineyard, finally pushing themselves away from the table and moving to the couch in the common room. Iolaus lit some candles, rekindled the fire and went back into the kitchen, reappearing with a bottle of what he declared to be the finest brandy in the province. Also from his grapes, of course.

The gravity with which Hercules proffered his glass to be filled told his host he was less than perfectly sober. He tossed the contents off in a single draught and held out his glass again. "Philistine," Iolaus sneered, refilling it.

"Another man would take it as a compliment," Hercules protested, savouring the first sip of his fresh glass. He watched the play of light and shadow in Iolausí hair, and longed to bury his hands, his face in it. He stood abruptly, staggering a little. "Iíd better leave," he said gruffly. He was pleased to see that Iolaus was completely astonished.

"Leave?" he repeated. "What for? Where are you going?"

"Well, I canít keep taking advantage of you," Hercules pointed out. "Iím a stranger, after all, and I donít need any more nursing. Youíll be wanting your bed back."

"Youíre not a stranger, youíre Aresí brother," Iolaus answered. "And besides, you havenít got enough money for breakfast, never mind a room. And donít tell me youíre going to sleep in the woods," he said before Hercules could interrupt him. "Itís cold out there, and the ground is damp, and I wonít have you undoing all my hard work with a bout of pneumonia. Besides, you owe me."

It was Herculesí turn to look taken aback, and Iolaus smiled. "Iím not really all that crazy about fishing by myself," he said. "And I canít have you walking off in Marcusí clothes; youíll have to be fitted for new ones, and that will take a while. I havenít ridden my property in six months; if you come with me, I wonít have to drag Retiaís son from his new family. And then thereísÖ"

Hercules finally raised a weary hand. "If Iíd known being rescued by you was going to mean permanent servitude, Iíd have told you to leave me in the forest," he complained. "Iíd better get some sleep if Iím going to be driven like a mule tomorrow. Iíll take the couch."

"Donít be ridiculous. Youíre six inches too tall for it. Go to bed and stop arguing with me. Donít you ever just do what youíre told?"

Hercules frowned, considering this. "No," he said at last, and stretched out on the couch, grinning. "Itís not in my nature. Must be a half-god thing."

After several moments of fruitless argument during which Hercules stubbornly refused to relinquish the couch, Iolaus headed off to bed. He was right, of course; it was too short for Hercules, and he and his blankets were on the floor in front of the fire in very short order.

Although he had fully intended to leave Ė not even the wine could smother his sudden surge of guilt at the way he had been taking advantage of Iolausí generosity and good nature Ė he had been relieved when Iolaus had stopped him. For the first time in two years, he wasnít looking forward to being alone again.

Heíd nearly gone mad with grief and anger when heíd gone home on that hideous day to find his familyís charred bodies huddled in the burnt-out wreckage of their house. Heíd buried them, then crawled into a bottle and stayed there until one morning the fog of his hangover was pierced by the hot need for vengeance against those who had taken his life away.

He tracked them, solitary and relentless. Sometimes heíd waste weeks following a cold trail and having to retrace his steps. From time to time, if it didnít hold him up or take him out of his way, he could be prevailed upon to help someone in need as he had in the old days, but he did it out of habit now, shrugging off thanks with indifference. Heíd finally come across his familyís murderers by accident; heíd received word that theyíd been seen near Plinth some weeks earlier and was headed there when he was begged to help out a village being terrorised by a band of outlaws. He almost hadnít gone; it was out of his way, and he hadnít wanted to take the extra time.

It was the kind of anticlimax that would be booed off a stage in Athens. The culmination of two yearsí single-minded effort was a five-minute showdown in a muddy village square, surrounded by gaping peasants and the odd sheep. There were five of them left of the original band of eight; he snapped four necks in methodical, unemotional succession, leaving the fifth alive long enough to find out that he didnít remember Herculesí family; didnít remember one house out of many, four deaths out of dozens. Hercules sent him to Tartarus, dropped his corpse into the dung-strewn road and walked out of the village, not stopping, not thinking until the sun had come and gone twice and he was filthy, scratched and unable to walk any farther. Heíd used most of his precious hoard of coins to purchase a bed and a bottle of wine in a cheap inn, but had fallen asleep before he could open the bottle. The next morning heíd traded the bottle for a bath and a shave and considered his options, still in that eerie state of calm. He had no interest in living; his only consideration was exactly how to die.

Heíd already tried drowning in a sea of alcohol, and it was too damn slow. He could fall on his sword, but he didnít have one. So maybe heíd do the next best thing: charge into overwhelming odds and die a warriorís death. Heíd spent some time making inquiries into the whereabouts of Iolausí army, and arrived in Aresí sacred forest just in time to be mistaken for wild game. His last, bitter thought as the arrow tore into his chest was that he was getting what he deserved for the arrogance of thinking his death should mean more than this.

But somewhere between then and now, heíd discovered that he wanted very much to live. Not just to keep breathing, but to really live again, as he hadnít since his family died. And he wanted to do it with Iolaus at his side.

"What are you doing to me?"

He didnít realise heíd spoken the words aloud until he felt Iolausí presence, and opened his eyes.

"Hercules? Whatís wrong?"

Head pounding, he mumbled an apology for waking Iolaus.

"I wasnít sleeping," Iolaus confessed. He grabbed one of Herculesí blankets and curled up on the couch. "Herc," he said finally, breaking the silence, "Why were you going to join my army, anyway?"

"What did you call me?" Hercules asked, surprised.

"What did I call you?" Iolaus cast about in his mind. It hadnít been conscious, whatever it was. "Herc! Does it bother you? Sorry; I wonít Ė"

"No, I like it. Nobodyís ever called me that before." He liked it very much. There was something intimate about a nickname. Herc. He smiled in the darkness, and then he told Iolaus, bluntly and without apology, why heíd wanted to join his army. Iolaus was quiet after heíd finished the story.

"You said earlier youíd changed your mind. Does that mean I didnít waste my time patching you up?"

"Itís funny how almost dying can change your mind about killing yourself," Hercules agreed. That, and waking up to find a blond, blue-eyed reason to live bending over your deathbed, he thought.


He smiled again, and went to sleep.

The crash from the kitchen had Iolaus on his feet, blinking wildly around the sunlit room, until he focused on Hercules poised apologetically in the kitchen doorway. "Sorry about that," he said cheerfully. "I dropped a pot or two."

Iolaus followed him to the kitchen, surveying its wreckage with dismay. Hercules waved his hand dismissively at the mess and seated himself at the table, gesturing Iolaus into the other seat. "I hope youíre hungry," he said, passing Iolaus a platter of eggs and thickly sliced toast, and pouring him a steaming cup of tea. He snapped his fingers and jumped up from the table, returning with a pan of savoury-smelling sausage.

"I could eat," Iolaus said warily, spearing a slice of melon from the bowl in front of him and adding it to his heaped plate. "Whatís the occasion?"

Hercules paused with his fork suspended in front of his mouth. "Occasion? I donít need an occasion to be domestic. Iím a pretty damn good cook. Havenít done it in a while, of course. I just felt like cooking this morning, thatís all."

Iolaus took a cautious bite of the eggs, then chewed appreciatively. "Eggs are all very well, but the real test is what you do with fish and an open fire."

They continued their debate about methods of campfire cooking as they finished their meal, cleaned up the kitchen and packed saddlebags with essentials for their journey. Iolaus took Hercules to the home of the seamstress to have new garments commissioned, and Hercules found himself filled with absurdly proprietary pride at the respect with which Iolaus was greeted by the villagers. One of a cluster of men lounging outside the tavern looked Hercules over carefully, nodding to his companions.

"Thatís the fellow they was talking about, all right," he said sagely. He turned to Iolaus. "Couple of nasty customers came by last night looking for your friend, here. Didnít say why they was lookiní for him, but Iíd watch my step if I was him."

Iolaus looked a question at Hercules, who shrugged. "Iíve made some enemies over the years," he said. He asked for and received a description of the men who were looking for them, and shook his head. "Who knows," he commented indifferently. "If they want to find me badly enough, they will."

"Youíre a friend of the generalís. They wonít hear about you from anyone around here," the man answered confidently, looking to his friends for confirmation.

"I had no idea I was keeping such exalted company," Hercules murmured to Iolaus as they continued to the village stables.

"I had no idea I was keeping such dangerous company," Iolaus shot back. "Are you safe to be around?"

"Absolutely not." Hercules smiled brilliantly at him, and Iolausí eyes widened. "Oh, youíre talking about bad guys? Iím sure itís nothing you canít handle."

Theyíd been riding for about half a day when the clouds began to gather overhead. Hercules squinted up at the sky, guessing that the storm would be upon them before nightfall, and Iolaus concurred. "When will we reach your land?" Hercules asked him.

Iolaus looked surprised. "Weíve been on my land for hours," he answered. "Thereís a farmhouse attached to the vineyards that weíll reach late tomorrow, but for tonight weíll have to hope the storm holds off long enough to get us to the system of caves that lies about three hoursí ride from here. Otherwise weíll be getting mighty wet."

"Oh, youíll be dead long before that happens."

Iolaus wheeled his horse about, seeking the source of the voice, and was knocked out of the saddle by a pair of boots planted in the small of his back. Gasping for breath, he scrambled to his feet to be roughly restrained by several pairs of hands. More men materialised from the woods and swung down from branches overhead, until the two were surrounded by at least twenty of them. "Hercules, get out of here," he shouted, and his head was forced up by the point of a dagger under his chin.

"You have five seconds to get off your horse," the weaponís owner told Hercules. He pressed the dagger a little harder, and Hercules dismounted.

"We donít have any money," he said, moving slowly away from the horse, eyes on the dagger and the thread of bright blood that ran down its length.

"You know this isnít about money. This is about you watching him die slow and ugly, and then you dying after." The dagger moved to Iolausí cheek, and he flinched as it flicked close to his eye, opening a welling cut below his eyebrow. His eyes closed, and tears began to seep from beneath his lashes.

"Please donít kill me." The voice was so soft Hercules barely heard it. He stared, stunned, as Iolausí voice rose to a shrill scream. "I donít know anything! Iíll give you all the money he paid me if you let me go! Iíll do anything you want, just donít kill me!"

His knees began to buckle as he wept, and Hercules came out of his paralysis as Iolaus used the arms of the men holding him as a springboard to launch both feet into the midriff of the leader, who had backed away from Iolaus in instinctive revulsion. A quick back flip twisted him out of his captorsí grip, allowing Hercules to bang their heads together, pick up the leader and slam him against a tree. The two crouched back to back, facing the men who circled them.

"You might want to consider a career on the stage," Hercules flung over his shoulder.

"Scared you, didnít I?" Iolaus asked with a chuckle, and the men were on them.

The two fought silently, surely, as if they had been fighting together all their lives. The odds were absurd; they shouldnít have had a chance, wouldnít have without Herculesí semidivine gifts. And yet he would not have survived if heíd been alone. If Hercules fought like a bear, subduing his attackers by strength and reach, Iolaus battled with the speed, courage and tenacity of a pit dog.

When it was over, the leader and several of his gang lay dead, the rest unconscious or gone. Hercules still had no idea who they were or why they had attacked him; he regretted that the leader had died before his questions could be answered. He had, as heíd said in the village, made a number of enemies; this one could have been the brother or lover of someone heíd been forced to kill, or simply an outlaw whose reign of terror heíd thwarted. He worked his shoulder cautiously, wincing; someone had gotten in a good lick with a heavy club before heíd wrenched the weapon from the manís hands. He decided he was really getting tired of being abused.

Their horses, frightened off by the battle, had returned at Iolausí sharp whistle, and the two remounted, groaning at the strain on already stiffening muscles. They rode in silence for several miles before Iolaus spoke.


Hercules, who had nearly fallen asleep, grunted.

"That wasÖ Nothing like that has ever happened to me before. Fighting like that, I mean. Like we were reading each otherís minds."

"Me, neither," Hercules said thoughtfully. "It wasÖ exhilarating, wasnít it?"

Iolaus nodded, and gave Hercules a searching, almost puzzled look before lapsing back into silence.

By the time they reached the caves, thunder and lightning were beating an aggressive tattoo across the sky, although the threatening rain had held off. They built a fire inside a roomy cave with a natural overhead vent, collected fodder for the horses and tied them inside the caveís mouth, and spitted a rabbit Iolausí arrow had found about a mile from the cave. There was a stream running through the back of the cave, and they refilled their waterskins before finally settling down in front of the fire.

Hercules poked at the fire, poked at the rabbit, and finally rose to his feet and paced around the cave, waiting for Iolaus to say something, anything. He started to break the silence more than once, but wasnít sure he wanted to hear what Iolaus was thinking. The charged air was almost palpable, from the lightning storm and the building tension between them. Enough, he thought suddenly, and resumed his place beside Iolaus at the fire.

"We canít keep pretending nothingís going on here," he said. "I was willing to keep quiet as long as I thought it was just me, but you feel it too. Itís not just a question of wanting you, although the gods know I want you. Itís a simple question of basic need. Thereís been an empty place inside me my whole life that nobody, not Deianeira, not my kids, were ever able to touch. Itís not there any more. I canít, I wonít believe that the Fates would show me what that feels like, then take it away from me again."

Iolaus gave an angry snort. "That has to be the most arrogant statement Iíve ever heard. Yeah, we fight well together. What do you want from me, Hercules? Do you imagine I need to be rescued from Ares, or my life? Without him, I wouldnít be here."

"Fine. Then tell him thank you very much, and be with me."

"I canít Ė "

Hercules finally allowed himself to touch Iolaus, pressing his fingers lightly against his lips. "Yes, you can," he said simply. "Yes. You can."

Iolaus reached for his hand and Hercules turned his touch into a caress, running his thumb along the curve of Iolausí lower lip. "Life is pretty simple when you see everything in black and white, isnít it?" Iolaus asked, pushing his hand away. "You wake up one morning, decide weíre made for each other, and the hell with me and what I want."

"Not at all. You want the same thing I want, you just canít admit Iím right. I understand about Ares Ė"

"You donít understand a damn thing." Iolaus jumped to his feet in frustration and strode to the front of the cave, leaning against its entrance to stare at the lightning that sizzled overhead. Maybe heíd be able to think more clearly without Herculesí eyes blazing at him. Get a grip, he told himself sternly. Youíve spent all of two days with him, when he was conscious, at least. You donít have a clue what heís actually like, and youíre not naïve enough to think that it doesnít matter.

"I barely know you, but I know you so well."

He said the words without volition, so quietly he hoped Hercules hadnít been able to hear them.

"You take my breath away."

The voice was as low as his own; he shivered in spite of the hot wind that blew his hair into a tangle around his face.

He must be out of his fucking mind.

He returned to the fire and began to talk. He told Hercules about his short, brutal childhood on the streets, the things he knew that no child should have to learn, his face stony as he recited the details of his rape by a street gang, and his years of stealing and selling himself. He talked about what Aresí presence in his life meant to him, then and now, and he spared Hercules nothing. Let him say he wants me now, he thought savagely as he stared into the flames. Part of him prayed Hercules would get up and walk away so everything could be the way it was.

It was the part that wanted Herculesí arms around him that scared him.

Hercules said nothing, only offering him a piece of rabbit and some of the bread theyíd brought with them. They ate in silence; Iolaus wished fervently theyíd brought wine. He really needed to get drunk. On the other hand, being completely sober, if not completely sane, was probably the only thing keeping him from launching himself at Hercules. Damn the man, why couldnít he have wandered into somebody elseís forest?

Hercules rinsed his hands and mouth in the stream, then lay beside the fire, hands laced behind his head. "If Ares is the man you say he is, heíll let you go," he said at last.

"What if I donít want to be let go of?" Iolaus demanded with a spurt of anger.

Hercules smiled maddeningly, and closed his eyes.

The mounting lightning was bouncing off the caveís interior and Iolaus was sure heíd never be able to sleep, but after a while it became almost hypnotic and he

stared defiantly into Herculesí eyes, then sagged, throwing his blade to one side. "This knife was never meant to draw your blood. Come on, letís get it over with," he said, baring his chest to Herculesí sword.

"Pull. The arrow. Out," Hercules gasped through clenched teeth, and he gripped it in both hands. "This pain is going to be like nothing youíve ever felt," he warned helplessly, and ripped the Archerís arrow from Herculesí side, nearly gagging at the feel of muscles and flesh tearing in the arrowís path.

"Sheís changed!" Hercules stared at him, willing him to understand. "Is that what she tells you when the two of you are rolling around in bed together?" he spat back, his pain and anger blinding, paralysing him.

"Hercules." His voice was reproachful. "You never fall in love. I fall in love all the time. Itís the same thing, in the end, isnít it? Are you going to kiss me? Because I think Iím kneeling on a stone." Hercules bent to his mouth. His hair fell forward and brushed Iolausí cheek and he shivered, trying to pull Hercules closer to his straining body.

"Gods, please, Tarsus! Not to him!" he begged, pulling uselessly at the arm that pinned Hercules so effortlessly. He slipped to his knees beside the two men. "Please," he repeated, looking up at Tarsus through brimming eyes. Tarsus looked down at him with interest. "What do you offer in trade, then? What do you have that I havenít already taken without your permission?" He met Tarsusí eyes steadily. "Anything," he replied calmly. "Everything. My co-operation. For as long as you want me. My soul, if thatís what you want."

On some level Hercules was aware that Iolaus was moving restlessly, mumbling incoherently, but couldnít seem to wake himself up. He fought

Ares grimly, silently, for Iolausí life. No-one would take Iolaus from him again.

"Thereís another Enforcer, worse than the last one. Sheís after you," Iolaus gasped, and his eyes rolled up and set. He stared down disbelievingly at the battered body that sagged in his arms. His mother, Jason touched him, spoke, but he heard nothing. His roar of agony descended into the very depths of Hadesí domain.

Iolaus was panting, whispering something against Diomedesí smooth shoulder, which hunched rhythmically with the pumping of the seerís hand on his own cock. The muscles of Iolausí buttocks clenched and relaxed rhythmically as he rocked inside his lover, and Hercules stifled a curse. He was conscious of a suffocating sense of loss, bitter regret, sharp jealousy. And, a heated rut of desire.

He settled himself more comfortably between Iolausí thighs and ran his hand down the length of his loverís muscular frame. "Youíre mine, you know," he remarked conversationally. "Whatever happens, whoever else youíre with, youíre mine and you always will be."

He sobbed with relief and delight as Iolaus writhed under him, pushing back against his thrusts and arching his slim back. He complied with his young loverís demands, thrusting harder, grunting with each stroke, sweat dripping from his impassioned face to splash on Iolausí back. He took Iolausí erection into one hand and began stroking it, a throaty laugh of joy escaping his lips as Iolaus shouted, trying to simultaneously thrust into the hand stroking him and back against the cock inside him.

A bright spark of triumph surged in him. Iolaus wouldnít leave him. The Fates wouldnít allow it.

He was reaching for Iolaus before his eyes opened, hands moving blindly to push away the impediments of linen and leather. He pulled Iolaus under him and straddled his thighs, fumbling with the fastenings of Iolausí trousers, deaf to all but the imperative to lose himself in the golden body that should have been his years ago.

Iolausí hands circled his wrists, halting his frenzied progress. He could have shaken those hands off easily, almost did; almost used force to make Iolaus succumb to the inevitable. He could make Iolaus understand later that he was only doing what was right, what was necessary for both of them.

"If you take the decision away from me like this, youíll never know what could have been."

Iolaus marvelled at the calmness of his own voice, the steadiness of his hands. He released Herculesí wrists and lay back, hands outspread. He had to trust Herculesí heart, and his own.

Hercules loomed over him, the sound of his harsh breathing rising above the thunderís rumble. His hands moved from Iolausí belt to spread themselves over his chest for an instant before he tightened them into fists and stood, stumbling to the cave wall to press his burning forehead against the cool stone. Iolaus rose and followed him, resting his hand on the hunched shoulder, and Hercules turned a tormented face to him.

"Iolaus, Iím sorry. I donít expect you to forgive --"

"Shut up," Iolaus told him, and lifted Herculesí hand to his mouth, pressing a kiss into its palm, then pulling Herculesí arm around his waist under his opened shirt. Hercules stared down at him as he tugged Herculesí belt free and pulled open his tunic to run his hands assessingly over his chest.

"Why do I feel like a used chariot youíre thinking of buying?" Hercules asked, coming out of his daze and tightening his hold on Iolaus, one hand returning to the delights to be had in tracing that delicious lower lip.

"This is a lifetime purchase. I want value for my money," Iolaus explained, his hands slipping down to cradle Herculesí buttocks. Hercules opened his mouth to offer some rejoinder, then Iolaus swarmed up his body to lock his legs around his waist and coherent thought fled at the feel of his ass against Herculesí straining cock, his erection pressing against Herculesí stomach. His knees gave out under him and he slid to the floor, Iolaus in his lap, hands pushing Herculesí shirt from his shoulders, then tossing his own aside impatiently. He wriggled in Herculesí lap, trying to press closer to him, and Hercules let out an agonised groan.

"Iolaus, Iím only half a god. Thereís a limit to how much I can take," he gasped.

"Wuss," Iolaus said complacently, and Hercules had time to wonder wildly how heíd lost control of this seduction before their mouths fused.

There was no hesitation, no awkward search for the right tilt and accommodation; it was the ineffable ease of perfect recognition overlaid with the joy of answering a need not known, but long denied. They swayed together, awash in the sensations of teeth and tongues exploring, tasting, learning, until Hercules gave an incredulous moan and stiffened, pulling Iolaus tightly against him. Iolaus buried his face in the crook of Herculesí neck and allowed his own release to take him, and they stayed like that, resting quietly in each otherís arms, until their racing hearts slowed.

"I havenít done that since I was a teenager," Hercules confessed.

Iolaus gave a soft chuckle into his neck. "How did you manage to have three kids?"

"What have I let myself in for?" Hercules asked the horses, and struggled to his feet, grimacing at the clammy touch of his trousers. They stripped and sluiced in the shallow stream, an operation rendered more complicated by the large number of interruptions. At last they returned to the fire and Hercules stretched out on the blanket in front of it, holding out his hand for Iolaus. Iolaus dropped to his knees by Herculesí legs and began skimming his fingertips lightly back and forth along his thigh.

"I have to go see Ares," he said finally, looking at Hercules with troubled eyes.

Hercules nodded. "Not right this minute, though," he suggested, and held out his hand again. Iolaus lay on his side facing Hercules, not looking at him, and captured his loverís ready cock in his hand.

"I want you to fuck me," he said, and Hercules gently eased himself from Iolausí grip and tilted up his chin, urging Iolaus to meet his eyes. The sadness he saw there struck him with physical force.

He made himself say, "Iolaus, I think it would be better if we waited until you talk to Ares."

"No!" Iolaus turned on to his stomach, averting his face, and Hercules barely heard him say, "I need this. I need you to make this real for me. If you donít, if I canít still feel you with me when I see him, I donít know if Iíll be strong enough to leave him."

"You love him, donít you?"

Iolaus nodded. "Iíve never told him that, not since I was a kid. I thought if I could get him to fuck me, I could control him. He wouldnít do it, did I tell you? Said he didnít fuck children, and I didnít know what love was. He taught me what it was, but I never bothered to tell him. Do you think heíll be pleased to hear it now that Iím walking away from him?" His laugh was mirthless, and bitter.

Hercules stared at his back helplessly. Iolaus had been right; he hadnít understood. It actually hadnít occurred to him that Iolaus might have loved someone before him, might still love him in spite of his feelings for Hercules. He couldnít believe his own stupidity, his arrogance. He laid a tentative hand on Iolausí back.

"Iolaus, I canít ask you to walk away from Ares. If you love him you should be with him, not me. Iíll leave in the morning."

Iolaus turned his head. "Hercules, do you love me?"

He nodded.

"Then can you please stop making decisions for me, shut up and fuck me?"

He steeled himself to argue, but the glimmer of humour in Iolausí brimming eyes stopped him, and he lowered himself between the thighs that opened for him. "Youíre so beautiful," he said, almost to himself, and heard a watery chuckle.

"Itís okay, Herc, you donít even have to buy me dinner. Just ohÖ"

Herculesí saliva-moistened fingers slid easily into him, his muscles relaxing immediately to Herculesí touch. He wanted no preliminaries, just Herculesí cock inside him, Herculesí body anchoring him. "Do it," he ordered.

"Who said romance is dead?" Hercules inquired, and spat on his hand.

Oh gods, that was perfect.

He wanted it to go on forever, the smooth pleasure with its rough edge of pain. Spit made a lousy lubricant. He was too enraptured with this feeling to care. Just this, Herculesí cock moving into him slowly, opening him. Then it stopped, and Herculesí scrotum was resting against his ass, and he savoured that. He tightened his muscles experimentally, and was rewarded with a muffled yelp.

"Charonís balls, Iolaus, have you got a vice in there?" Herculesí voice was indignant.

"Are you complaining?" He eased off incrementally.

"NoooÖ" Hercules said dubiously. "I suppose whatever doesnít kill you makes you stronger." He manoeuvred his legs over Iolausí, trapping the smaller manís thighs between his. His cock suddenly felt enormous, and Iolaus loosed a strangled shriek of his own as it slid slowly out, then back in again, a twist of Herculesí hips bringing it banging against the sweet place inside him.

"I think Iím getting stronger already," he gasped, then stopped talking as Herculesí weight bore down on him, each thrust into his ass pushing his cock into the rough blanket beneath him. He wanted to push back, to match Herculesí rhythm, but Hercules had him pinned so effectively he could only clutch the blanket and let Hercules gorgeously, wonderfully, fuck him fuck him fuck him.

Oh gods, that was perfect.

He wanted it to go on forever.

Iolaus was almost beyond rational thought; he wondered hazily if pleasure could be lethal. Perhaps he would begin to smoke, as he had when heíd been struck by lightning. He would have to remember to tell Hercules that lightning did strike twice in the same place.

Except heíd never been struck by lightning.

The thought was lost as Herculesí cock inside him slid him perfectly, magically into orgasm, and he exulted in Herculesí own hoarse cry as his orgasm burst within Iolaus. He crumpled onto Iolaus, still shuddering, held within the last of Iolausí spasms.

When a pressing need for air finally forced Iolaus to relinquish his hold on Herculesí cock, the demigod rolled off him to stare at his ass. "Itís a work of art on so many levels," he said, stroking it reverently. Iolaus blew him a raspberry and sat up, relishing the warm soreness.

"Iím hungry," he announced, and rooted through their saddlebags, surfacing with the remnants of the spiced mutton, some fruit and a small bottle of olive oil. "Better late than never," he told it, and put it to one side, admonishing Hercules to make note of its location. "Donít look at me like that; Iím completely innocent. I brought it to cook with," he said in answer to Herculesí raised eyebrows.

Since the blanket was hopeless, he wiped himself off with it and rinsed it in the stream, draping it to dry over rocks by the fire. They spent the night curled together on the single remaining blanket, talking, dozing and occasionally making love, until they finally succumbed to exhaustion, sleeping heavily until well into the morning.

They made love again before they parted. Hercules would go on ahead; Iolaus would return to Aresí temple, meeting Hercules at his vineyard in a day or two. Hercules watched him ride away, and wondered for a second if he would ever see him again. He resisted the urge to gallop after him, turning his horse resolutely toward the farmhouse at the vineyard.

Ares was already waiting for Iolaus when he arrived at the temple, as heíd known he would be. "Youíve come to say goodbye," he said without preamble. His face was cold and still, his eyes expressionless.

"AresÖ" Iolaus stopped. There was nothing he could say that would make this any easier for either of them. "I wanted to tell you that I love you," he said at last.

Aresí face twisted. "You love me," he sneered. "Is that supposed to be my consolation prize? ĎIím walking out on you, but isnít it nice to know I love you?í Get out."

Iolaus looked steadily at him.

"If you can kiss me, and then look me in the eye and tell me it didnít mean anything, Iíll never bother you again," he said.

"Donít play with me, mortal," Ares said dangerously.

Iolaus stepped up to him and cupped his face between his hands, letting his mouth on Aresí say everything heíd kept from him for almost twenty years. He kissed him until he felt Aresí mouth thaw and warm under his, until they were both trembling. And yet something had already changed; Hercules was with him, and he knew Ares felt it.

He released Ares finally, reluctantly, and the god glared at him.

"Shit," Ares said. "You really do love me, donít you?" He stalked to his throne and threw himself into it, still glowering. "Why?" he asked finally. "Why him, and not immortality at my side? What can he possibly offer you that I canít?"

"Heís my destiny," Iolaus answered, and the intensity with which he said the silly, romantic words robbed Ares of any desire to scoff. "Ares, I should have told you I loved you years ago. I donít know why I didnít, except that maybe it took Hercules to make me realise it. I will always love you; nothing can change that. But I have work to do with Hercules. Our time together was coming to an end. You said it yourself. Iím moving out of your world, and I chose that path before Hercules came into my life."

Ares stood, and Iolaus saw him come to a decision. He mounted the steps to the throne for the last time and leaned into Aresí embrace.

"We had some wild times together," Ares commented, his chin resting on Iolausí head.

Iolaus chuckled. "Weíre wild guys."

"We made a good team."

"Yeah. We were." Iolaus looked up at Ares, making no effort to hide the tears that coursed down his face. Ares leaned down for a kiss that would have to last an immortalís lifetime. It tasted of salt, and sadness.

"If he ever hurts you, he dies. I donít care who his father is," Ares told him. "Goodbye," he said abruptly, and vanished. Gods didnít cry.

Not where ephemerals could catch them at it.

In the 24 hours since Hercules had arrived at the farmhouse, heíd built a new chimney, re-thatched the stable roof, replaced 73 broken fence rails and re-shod his horse. He had not, however, eaten or slept, nor had he been out of sight of the road that led to the farmhouse. If Iolaus had not arrived by the time he finished digging the new well, he would ride back to Cernaia.

Who was he kidding? Iolaus had admitted he loved Ares. Why would he cast his lot with an itinerant do-gooder who didnít have an obol to his name? Iolaus was wealthy, respected, and loved by a god. Heíd have to be a fool to give that up.

He dug furiously, hoping the physical labour would exhaust him enough to allow him to escape his thoughts in sleep. "I should leave you in suspense more often," came an amused voice behind him, and he leaned against his pick, dizzy with relief.

"Oh, youíre back already? Grab a shovel," he said casually, keeping his back to Iolaus until the tears in his eyes subsided. The pick was pulled firmly from his grasp and tossed to one side, and Iolaus twined around Herculesí large, infinitely comforting form.

"How was it?"

"Bad. Not as bad as it could have been. He was far more generous than I would have been in his place. I hated hurting him like that."

"Youíre hurting too, and he knows it. Heís a god; how can he blame you for following your destiny?"

"You know," Iolaus said, pulling Herculesí shirt open to run his fingers through the hair on his chest, "It occurred to me on the way here that Persephone might just have the right idea."

Hercules lifted his nose from Iolausí hair. "What are you saying?" he asked suspiciously.

"You know. Six months with you, roaming the country righting wrongs, and six months with Ares in the hot tub on Mount Olympus." He studiously avoided Herculesí eyes.


"Iím willing to be flexible. How about eight months and four months?" He could no longer contain the giggle that was bubbling up, and he felt Hercules relax under his hands.

"Ares didnít beat you nearly often enough," Hercules told him. He tossed Iolaus over his shoulder and headed for the farmhouse, ignoring the fists that were beating a tattoo on his back. "We have some unfinished business involving a certain bottle of oil."

The fists stilled. "What did you have in mind?"

"Something along the lines of you returning the favour."

The fists moved down his back to loosen his ill-fitting trousers and slide inside them to clutch his buttocks. "I think I could do that. Up the stairs to the end of the hall."

He stumbled on the stairs as a questing hand moved further south, inspiring another maniacal giggle. "If I drop you down these stairs, youíre not the one who heals fast, remember?"

"You wonít drop me," Iolaus said with confidence, and his hand snaked between Herculesí legs to cup his scrotum.

At last he deposited Iolaus on the floor of his (their, his mind corrected itself) bedroom. "I gave the staff the day off," he said.

"Good thinking. Iím not in the mood to be quiet."

"Gods, I love you," he said suddenly. "Is this really happening? Maybe I fell asleep after all, and Iím having another of those dreams. Did I tell you I saw a world where Ares is our enemy?"

"I canít imagine it," Iolaus said. "Now take your clothes off and kiss me, or youíre going to have more than your dreams to worry about."

Hercules awoke and stretched wearily. He was stiff; the ground had been hard and cold, his sleep sporadic and troubled. He pressed a hand to his aching head, trying to recapture one of the visions of the night before. Nothing, except a vague feeling of dissatisfaction and a need to be with Iolaus as soon as possible.

He hoped Maris was gone when he got there. He thought of Iolaus lying in Marisí arms, and his headache increased.

He scattered the cold ashes of his fire and set off for Thebes. He would be with Iolaus very soon. His mood lightened as the miles fell away under his feet.

The End

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