The Measure of a Man
By ValentinThe 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?
For Rudy and Wolf, with love
The woman moved silently toward the clearing, eyes intent on the lone figure who sat hunched at the campfire, back toward her. She froze as some sixth sense alerted him to her presence; he leaped to his feet and faced her, relaxing marginally as the firelight revealed her features.
"Xena!" he exclaimed gratefully, stretching a hand toward her.
"It's good to see you, Hercules," she replied. The smile that briefly softened her intent countenance faded as she searched his face, noting his drawn look with concern.
"I heard you were looking for me -- what is it?" she asked.
"I need your help," he told her. "It's Iolaus. And I don't think I can do this by myself."
She joined him at the fire and accepted his offer to share his dinner. As she ate, she watched his profile as he stared into the fire; it was as though he had forgotten she was there. Finally he stirred and faced her, running his hand through his hair tiredly.
"A couple of months ago, we got a message from King Hesias in Macedonia. His ally, King Menecles, had died, and the new King wasn't interested in maintaining the peace that we helped negotiate between the two kingdoms. Iolaus and I talked it over, and he decided to stay home this time. He knew the trip would take least six weeks, and he still wasn't back to full strength from the sword he took in the side after..."
Xena nodded. It had happened when she and Gabrielle were accompanying Hercules and Iolaus back to the home of Alcmene and Jason following the death of Hercules' second wife, Serena. Angry and grief-stricken over his young wife's murder, Hercules had been unprepared for the sudden, vicious attack mounted by a band of Hera's soldiers. Hercules' stepmother had chosen her time well; Iolaus and Xena had been concentrating on their friend, not their surroundings. As Iolaus sprang to guard his comrade's back, a soldier who had evaded Gabrielle's staff rushed at him, sword extended. Somehow, Iolaus' foot slipped on grass left slick by a sudden rainfall, and the soldier lunged under his guard and thrust his sword into Iolaus' side.
To his three companions, it was like watching a hideously real re-enactment of the duel performed with Xena for Ares' benefit a day earlier, as Iolaus looked disbelievingly at the soldier and crumpled to the ground. The soldier held his bloody sword aloft in triumph, and Hercules went berserk.
When the red haze had cleared from his vision some time later, the field was streaked with gore and not a single soldier still lived. Xena had taken care of two or three with sword and chakram, but most had been torn to pieces by Hercules. It was the first time Xena had ever witnessed the true extent of his strength; it was an image she would see in her dreams.
He stood with head bowed, shaking with the effort of shoring up his precarious self-control. As Xena staunched Iolaus' wound, Gabrielle touched Hercules lightly on the arm. Unprotesting, he allowed himself to be led from the clearing.
Iolaus had regained consciousness quickly; the wound, while deep and bloody, had hit no vital organs. With Xena's help he staggered to his feet, shocked by the scene before him, and followed Hercules and Gabrielle out of the clearing before Hercules could come back for him and witness the extent of the carnage he had wrought.
Iolaus didn't argue when Xena led Argo over to him and helped him to mount. It was a grim and silent foursome who arrived at Alcmene's door that night; Iolaus had been slipping in and out of consciousness for several hours, and Gabrielle had finally overcome her distaste for riding the big horse, mounting behind him to hold him steady.
Iolaus had been pale but cheerful when the two women bade him goodbye the next morning. Alcmene had forbidden him to get out of bed, threatening to hide his clothes if he didn't stay put. Hercules accompanied them as far as the village; he had spoken little since the events of the day before. Gabrielle, responding to a minute signal from Xena, slowly drew ahead of them, leading Argo. When she was out of earshot, Xena turned to Hercules.
"You have to let yesterday go, Hercules," she told him. "Flesh and blood can only take so much."
He laughed bitterly.
"If that's all I was, I wouldn't be surrounded by the ghosts of people who died because of me. I can't lose him, Xena," he said angrily. "I won't let them take any more of the people I love away from me!"
"He's not going anywhere. You saw him; he's weak, but he's going to be fine. Right now, I'm more concerned with you. Hercules, this anger..."
He stopped her with a raised hand.
"I don't want a lecture, Xena. Right now, this anger is keeping me sane."
He had left her then. She had rejoined Gabrielle, hoping that the tightly coiled spring that was Hercules' rage could be contained.
She faced him now, waiting for him to continue.
"...anyway, you know how impossible it is to get Iolaus to stay still. A few days after I left, he said he was going stir crazy, and headed back to Thebes to put in some time at his forge. I got back to Mother's ten days ago, and followed Iolaus to Thebes a couple of days later. He never got there."
Xena's eyes widened. "You mean he's been missing for --"
"Almost two months," Hercules confirmed, and rose abruptly to his feet, pacing the clearing, needing to be doing something, anything.
"There's more, isn't there?" she asked. "You've been looking for him for, what, a week? What have you found out?"
He halted, but kept his back to her.
"He made it as far as Politia. I found the inn he stayed at; you know he wasn't feeling well if he stayed in an inn instead of camping by the river. The innkeeper said he asked for the name of the village healer."
Hercules slammed his fist into the trunk of a massive tree. It shook under the impact. "Damn him!" he said furiously. "Why couldn't he just have stayed at Mother's till he was fit to travel!"
She tried to examine the damage he'd done to torn knuckles, but he shook her hand off impatiently.
"He disappeared outside of Politia. I heard reports that a slave trader had been spotted in the area, and that he'd been particularly interested in good-looking, fair-haired men and women. He'd left the area around the same time that I lost any trace of Iolaus.
"I caught up with the trader outside of Athens two days ago. Iolaus wasn't with him, and he claimed not to have seen him. Of course I didn't believe a word he said, and I checked around the slave markets in Athens. I finally found the vendor who'd bought Iolaus from the lying scum; the vendor said he didn't get much for Iolaus, because they couldn't be sure if he was going to recover, but he was so pretty -- Xena, they sold him to a bath house."
Xena stared at him, stunned by the enormity of what Hercules was implying. "Did you find him?" she asked, not sure if she wanted to hear the answer.
"The head attendant at the bath house thought I was a customer who'd heard about Iolaus. He'd become the star attraction for a certain kind of client -- the kind who doesn't mind if -- the object of his affections -- is less than co-operative. Apparently, all of their other slaves had always broken after two or three weeks, but Iolaus could still be counted on to put up a good fight. Of course, since they kept him tied to the bed, it didn't do him much good."
Xena's face was pale as she watched the anguish in Hercules' eyes.
"Several of their clients began competing to see which of them could win him over, tame him. He was the best investment they'd ever made! Quite an endorsement, isn't it?"
"Hercules. Where is he?" Xena pressed, wanting to touch him but holding back, knowing it would not be welcome, that he needed his iron control more than ever.
"One of the lovesick fools actually untied one of Iolaus' hands and expected to be rewarded for it. Iolaus killed him and managed to free himself, but he was so weak he didn't get far. Of course they had to get rid of him after that. Luckily for them, the very next day a foreigner who'd missed the excitement offered twenty-five times what they'd paid for him. The attendant was reluctant to give me a name, but I managed to persuade him."
Hercules smiled grimly, remembering the look of sick fear on the man's face as he dangled in the air, held aloft by Hercules' hand around his throat.
"That was three weeks ago. The man's name is Tarsus. The attendant couldn't be sure, but he thought Tarsus was from the north. He knew the man was rich, and that was all that interested him. I was able to find out Tarsus lives a week's travel from here; he owns an island off the coast. I'm leaving at first light. Are you coming with me?"
At last she allowed herself to reach for him. At first he held himself stiffly, then began shuddering as she crooned wordlessly to him. He wept for Iolaus, for Serena, for Deianeira and his children, and for his own terror at what he would find when he reached his friend. Finally he drifted, exhausted, into an uneasy sleep.
"Iolaus!" Hercules gasped, jerking awake by the dying embers of their fire. Xena was on her feet, chakram poised, almost before her eyes were open.
He was pale and sweating from the nightmare that had ruined his sleep for the past two nights. Standing with the effort of an old man, he told her, "I'm going to the river to cool off."
"We've got a long trip in front of us, Hercules," Xena warned him. "You're going to need all the rest you can get."
At the river, Hercules knelt and filled his cupped hands with the icy water. Suddenly he stood up and peeled off his clothes, plunging into the river's depths. He pushed hard through the current, trying to wash away the guilt that covered him like a mantle, hoping that he could wear himself out enough to ward off the dreams.
You had to go to Macedonia, didn't you? the angry voice that was his constant companion asked him.
You knew Iolaus was weak, had lost a lot of blood, but you had to go be the big man for Hesias. Never mind that Iolaus was almost killed because of you -- again. If you had stayed behind, you could have kept Iolaus in one place long enough to heal properly. And as if that's not enough, you've actually got the nerve to be angry at him for being easy prey for that trader!
Hercules dove under the water's roiling surface, but there was no eluding the turmoil of conflicting emotions that had battered him for the past two days. His rational mind told him that Iolaus didn't need a baby-sitter, and that his anger was a logical reaction to Iolaus's recklessness in leaving Alcmene's prematurely.
His heart's connection with Iolaus, his instinct for understanding Iolaus as only Iolaus understood him, seared him with images of Iolaus' suffering: hands twisting desperately, vainly, at the heavy bindings that kept him pinned; rage at his own helplessness; contempt and disgust for the men who would use him, bound thus; contempt and disgust inevitably turning inward, becoming a knife in his own torn heart.
And worst of all was the anger born of Hercules' losses and battening on his grief: an anger which, with no other targets in sight, focused first on Hercules' part in the monstrous, unthinkable thing happening to Iolaus, then on Iolaus as the author of his own misfortunes.
It was that which had led him to ask Xena to accompany him: not to guard his back in Iolaus' place, but to help him balance on the knife's edge of his self-control.
As they travelled to the coast, Hercules spoke constantly, almost compulsively, of Iolaus. He told Xena of how they had met as children, each an outsider in his own way, and how it had been as if each was suddenly complete. She heard for the first time of Iolaus' marriage to Ania, and, as Hercules had married Deianeira and had three children of his own, of Iolaus' and Ania's joy when she finally carried a baby to term after years of failures, only to die three days later of childbed fever. Iolaus had told Ania that he would love their son enough for both of them, and so he had, until the child had followed his mother to the Elysian Fields when he was only eighteen months old, the victim of a virulent illness that had swept through Thebes and carried off most of the children under five.
Hercules and Deianeira had feared that Iolaus could not survive this second devastating loss intact. After he buried his son next to his wife, Iolaus sold his farm and journeyed to the East, immersing himself in disciplines of mind and body. When he returned a year later, Hercules saw that the old Iolaus had not survived. The Iolaus who came back to his friend was stronger and more confident, but some essential grounding had been lost with his family and not rediscovered in his travels.
He'd always preferred smithing to farming and scraped together enough money to purchase a forge, quickly garnering a reputation as a master craftsman. He re-established his life surrounded by the people who loved him, but there was a current of restlessness that kept him from marrying again, in spite of Alcmene's and Deianeira's best attempts to interest him in the eligible maidens of their acquaintance.
Then Deianeira and the children were murdered by Hera, and Hercules fully understood for the first time Iolaus' need for distance from the knife wounds that were his memories. Iolaus let Hercules walk away, always a comforting presence when he returned.
Their shared losses tempered their bond and made it stronger, and as time passed Hercules returned to Iolaus more frequently; finally Iolaus laid down his tools and joined his companion on his travels as he had before either of them married. The trip to Macedonia was the longest the two had been separated since that time.
Xena had been largely quiet, content to let Hercules' words wash over her, compelled by his portrait of a man she'd believed she knew. That Iolaus, with his easy grace and boyish charm, had not moved her darker side the way this stranger named Iolaus did. She was suddenly finding it less easy to forgive herself for what she'd done to him two years earlier.
As though he'd read her mind, Hercules began to talk about that time.
"Your timing couldn't have been better for your purpose if you'd planned it," he told her. "The day you met Iolaus on the road was the anniversary of Ania's death. He'd been feeling particularly... unnecessary for a while, and your telling him he was the only one who could help you was just what he needed to hear right then." He stopped and turned to her.
"I'm sorry. Maybe you don't want to talk about this."
"No, it's important," she said. "I've never really understood how Iolaus could have betrayed you so easily."
"Iolaus would never betray me!" Hercules snapped. "He wasn't himself, and I knew it. He was just vulnerable, that's all."
Xena had been astonished and scornful when Iolaus had given her his bed and gone to sleep in his forge that first night. At the time, she had seen it as timidity; she had realised some time ago that it had simply been chivalry. However, he was a man, not a monk, and the next night her invitation was not refused.
He made love to her with a hunger that went past physical need. It was as though, she thought now, he had used the connection of their bodies to reach for some remembered reflection of the connection he'd lost with Ania's death.
She'd sensed his weakness quickly, like the warrior she was, and moved in for the kill. His hunger to be essential to someone again blinded him to her intent, and she used his desire for her to keep him from thinking too much; at least, that was what she had told herself when, in the languor that followed their lovemaking, she sensed some weakness of her own. She'd told Theodorus that anything was better than sharing a bed with Hercules' best friend, and yet there had been a moment, when she watched Iolaus go after Hercules, that her face had betrayed her sudden, quickly suppressed thought that Iolaus might actually kill her hated enemy, and live to return to her side.
Her rage when she watched his love for Hercules sever the ties that bound him to her became buried under the layers of her involvement with Hercules, Iolaus' hatred of her, and finally her truce with him and their tentative beginnings at friendship.
"Hercules," she ventured, "do you think Iolaus has ever really forgiven me for what I did to him?"
He smiled faintly.
"You still don't understand him, do you? He forgave you for that a long time ago. He knows you didn't do anything to him that he didn't let you do.
"What took him a lot longer was forgiving himself, and forgiving you for what you tried to do to me."
Week's end brought them to the coastal village that lay closest to Tarsus' island. Hercules was drawn tight as a bowstring, his anxiety written in the lines engraved beside his taut mouth. No-one in the village would discuss Tarsus with them; no amount of persuasion or cash could secure a boat. They waited till dark and stole a fisherman's sloop, leaving enough money on the dock to pay for it several times over.
The trip across to the island took less than two hours. To Hercules it was an eternity. He tried to lose himself in the physical labour of their trip, but always in front of him, as they had been waking and sleeping for the last three awful weeks, were tousled blond hair, vivid blue eyes and engaging grin. As their boat finally scraped against the rocky shore of the island he thought that, for all the talking he had done in the past seven days, he hadn't begun to describe to Xena what Iolaus meant to him.
They crouched in the darkness, waiting for the patrol to pass them again. They had been there long enough to get a rough idea of how much time they had to scale the castle wall before it returned. The sounds of music and laughter reached them faintly from within. When the patrol was out of earshot, Hercules moved forward; Xena stopped him.
"You don't need me to tell you that we haven't a snowball's chance in Tartarus of getting out of here with Iolaus undetected," she said softly. "Are you going to tell me your plan?"
He turned to her, and the look on his face was one she'd never seen there before.
"I plan to find Iolaus and take him home. If I can do that without killing everyone on this island, so be it. If not..."
He pulled away from her and started up the smooth stone wall, finding hand- and footholds that were invisible to her, seeming to pull himself up by sheer force of will. Xena moved around the side of the keep, looking for a careless guard.
Xena pressed herself against the wall of the hallway, alert for any approaching sound. She'd left two unconscious guards trussed up behind the kitchen door, and was making her way toward the origin of the sounds they'd heard outside the castle. Presumably that was where Tarsus would be found, and with him as hostage, they'd have a better chance of retrieving Iolaus and leaving the island in one piece. By now, Hercules was searching the rooms in the upper levels of the castle.
She peered cautiously around the doorway into the great hall, looking for the man who matched the description of Tarsus given her by the guard after she'd cut off the flow of blood to his brain. The room was lined along three walls with tables laden with food and drink; there must have been a hundred people in the room. She examined those seated at the raised dais at the far end of the room, and her eyes narrowed.
Slumped in the chair to the right of Tarsus was Iolaus.
The long-sleeved, high-necked robe he wore did not disguise his thinness, or the tremor in his hand as he raised the wine cup to his lips. Without looking at him, Tarsus reached out and grasped Iolaus' hand, forcing it back to the table without effort. The look of loathing Iolaus shot him was palpable, but he released the cup and toyed with the food on his plate, finally pushing it away.
She turned her attention to Tarsus and instantly thought of Ares; he had the same dark good looks, the same aura of ruthless power. This man, though, would tower over even Hercules; straight black hair fell past massive, black-clad shoulders, and the hand that had caught Iolaus' had covered it completely.
Turning from his conversation with the woman on his other side, Tarsus looked down the length of the hall into her eyes.
"We have an unexpected guest," he said, his deep voice causing a hush in the crowded room. Xena cursed her carelessness and strode up to the dais.
"Don't worry, I won't be staying," she told him. "I just came to pick up something that doesn't belong to you."
Iolaus had been staring dully at the table. At the sound of her voice, his head jerked up, the blood draining from his already pale face. He whispered her name incredulously and searched the hall for another face, his eyes finally resting on her again in puzzlement.
"On the contrary, my dear Xena," Tarsus answered her, laying a proprietary hand on Iolaus' shoulder. "He cost me a great deal of money. He belongs to me, make no mistake about it."
Iolaus shuddered under his caress, and Xena had to force herself not to look away.
The guests had begun to murmur amongst themselves. "Perhaps this conversation would be better carried out in private," Tarsus said to her, gesturing to a tapestry hanging behind his chair. She vaulted over the table to stand between him and Iolaus.
"My job, I think," she told him, blocking his hand as he moved to guide Iolaus from his chair.
"As you wish, my dear," he told her pleasantly, and led them through a doorway hidden by the tapestry. The library they entered was exquisite in every detail, from the luxurious appointments to the few carefully-chosen works of art.
Turning back to her, Tarsus said, "I must attend to my guests. Iolaus will play host while I'm gone, won't you, Iolaus? I won't be long. Perhaps Hercules will have joined us by the time I return."
He smiled at her carefully blank expression. "Excellent effort, my dear. But I've been expecting him for several days."
Xena turned to Iolaus as the door closed behind Tarsus. He reached for her arm with the first sign of life she'd seen in him.
"Xena, you've got to get out of here now," he told her urgently. "Find Hercules, get the hell off this island, and don't look back. Knock him out if you have to, just get him away from here!"
"Without you, I suppose?" she scoffed, grasping his hand warmly. "What do you think are the chances of that happening?"
"Forget about me," he told her, turning away. "There's nothing else Tarsus can do to me. I'm dead already."
He flinched as she turned him to face her; she noticed for the first time the faint smear of blue in the shape of giant fingers that lay along his jaw like a shadow. She reached for the clasp at the top of his robe. He pushed her hand away, but she touched the clasp again, waiting for his permission. This time he allowed her to slide the robe from his shoulders.
She pressed her lips together as the robe pooled at his feet. His neck and chest were dotted with half-healed bites; welts and bruises adorned his inner thighs and buttocks, and his wrists and ankles bore the gouges and burns of rope marks. She looked more closely; the wounds had all been treated, and none was fresh.
"These are souvenirs from the bath house," he told her bitterly as he pulled the robe around himself. "Tarsus doesn't need to tie me down; he's got me right where he wants me, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it except die."
She regarded him without comprehension; then she looked at his eyes, huge and shadowed in his thin face, and swore viciously.
"It's opium, isn't it?"
"Did you know it only takes a week to get hooked?" he asked her conversationally. "I didn't even know it at first; it's tasteless when it's dried and turned to a powder. Then he left it out of my food for a couple of days, just to make sure I understood what he'd done to me. It started with a headache that I thought would burst my skull open. Then came the shakes and vomiting. When I started to hallucinate, he forced more opium down my throat, and the pain went away just like that. I stopped eating -- it doesn't leave you with much of an appetite anyway -- but it didn't matter. All he has to do is wait for me to start withdrawing and give it to me forcibly.
"But I guess me being too weak to resist temptation is no news to you, is it, Xena?"
"Maybe you'd like to tell me how you could have stopped any of this from happening," she said sharply, knowing the last thing he needed or wanted was her pity.
"Anyway, Hercules will be able to..."
She stopped, not knowing what she thought he could do.
"Hercules! Do you think I want to bring this to Hercules? Do you remember..." his laugh was like a sob, "...a hundred years ago, when you told me I didn't have the stomach to kill Hercules? You said you could do it, if you had no other choice."
He lifted her hand to his neck, placing it over the pulse that beat under his translucent skin.
"Kill me, Xena," he said simply. "You could do it so fast, I'd barely feel it. Do it now, before Hercules gets here. Don't let him see me like this."
She pulled her hand away angrily. "You think I'd kill you to spare your pride?"
"Pride?" he echoed. "This isn't about me, Xena. You have to do it for him. I don't want this to be what he sees every time he closes his eyes. He's already lost so much; I don't know how much more he can take. You can tell him I was dead when you found me."
"You're not getting away from me that easily," said Hercules from the room's other entrance. Three quick strides, and he was embracing Iolaus fiercely.
For a moment he just stood there, eyes closed, inhaling the familiar scent that was uniquely, heartbreakingly Iolaus. He could feel Iolaus' heart hammering against his chest, and his own leaped to meet it. Then time started again, and he became aware of how much flesh had melted from the trembling body he held in his arms.
Keeping his voice steady with an effort, he said lightly, "The only thing I couldn't take is never hearing that ridiculous giggle of yours again. Let's go home, Iolaus."
Iolaus leaned into him for a moment, then stiffened at Tarsus' voice.
"Iolaus won't be going anywhere with you, Hercules. I think you'll find he prefers to stay where he is."
Tarsus held out a commanding arm to Iolaus, who pulled himself away from Hercules with an effort and crossed the room to him. Iolaus turned back to them at the door.
"You should have done what I asked, Xena," he told her, and left them.
Hercules started toward Tarsus; Xena stood in front of him, forcing him to a stop.
"Don't be a fool, Hercules," she said urgently. "Not even you can fight a hundred guards at once. You'll be dead, and Iolaus will still be trapped here. We'll find our chance."
"Wise words, my dear," Tarsus said sardonically. "Although I wouldn't count on that chance.
"Allow me to offer you my hospitality for the night. Perhaps in the morning we can pick up where we left off." He paused, then added, "I suppose there's no point in asking that you remain in your suite?"
"You can ask," Xena told him, and he laughed.
Hercules paced the huge common room of their suite; with a calm she wasn't feeling, Xena poured a goblet of wine and offered it to him. He took it from her and stared at it for a minute, then with an oath dashed it against the wall.
"Why didn't you let me kill him?" he asked her furiously. "Are you so cold-blooded you can send Iolaus back to that monster's bed without a second thought? Don't you have any feelings about what's happening to him?"
She told him coldly, "I can't afford to, damn you, and neither can you. Get hold of yourself, man! Iolaus has lived through the last two months, and he'll live through tonight.
"I know Tarsus in my gut, because I used to be him. This isn't about Iolaus, it's about power, yours against Tarsus'. He's been expecting you; he knew who Iolaus was when he bought him, and everything he's done has been groundwork to whatever he's got planned for tomorrow.
"Use your rage well, Hercules," she added more gently. "Tap into it, and let it sharpen your instincts and strengthen your resolve. Don't, for Iolaus' sake, let it weaken you."
He drew in a deep breath and released it slowly, then faced her again.
"Ever the Warrior Princess," he said with the ghost of a smile.
"Believe it," she advised, and stretched out on a divan, leaving Hercules to his thoughts. They were not thoughts he wanted to be alone with. He had hoped against hope that Iolaus' sexual thrall had ended when Tarsus had taken him from the bath house; one look into Tarsus' bland black eyes had told him his hope was in vain. Iolaus had simply traded many assailants for one, the bondage of ropes for that of addiction. Hercules' anger threatened to overwhelm him again. He drained a cup of wine in a gulp, hoping it would drown out the images of Iolaus and Tarsus, refusing to acknowledge the ugly, angry voice that suggested Iolaus might be happy with the trade, that asked why he had not tried to get away.
The next morning a servant escorted them to the terrace where Tarsus awaited them. He gestured them to seats at the table.
"I gather you opted for a quiet night, after all," he observed. "I trust you rested well?"
"Where's Iolaus?" Hercules demanded.
"He's... indisposed," Tarsus answered. "No doubt he'll be joining us later."
Hercules' eyes narrowed, but he kept his seat. "Then he'll be wanting to see me," he said.
"Oh, I don't think so," Tarsus said idly. "In fact, I'd venture to say you're the last person he wants to see right now."
He's playing with you, Hercules, Xena thought. Don't give him an opening.
Hercules' mouth tightened briefly, then he relaxed, leaning back in his chair to peel a peach.
"Perhaps you're right," he said.
Tarsus smiled. "Very good, Hercules," he said appreciatively. "I almost believe you."
He turned his head, and a servant hurried forward. "Take Hercules to my suite," he said. As Xena rose, he told her, "Some reunions are better without witnesses, don't you agree? and this will give us the chance to get to know each other better."
She sank back in her chair as Hercules left the table without a glance at her.
A guard let Hercules into the suite and closed the door behind him. A dark-haired boy came out of the bedroom, flashing Hercules a hostile look that barely registered. He entered the darkened room; his nostrils flared at the heavy odour of sex. Pulling back the curtains, he opened the balcony doors, looking reluctantly toward the bed, and the naked form that was sprawled on its tangled sheets.
It was Hercules' first look at the physical toll the last two months had taken on Iolaus. He'd thought Xena had prepared him.
He was wrong.
The hard, sculpted physique that had drawn so many hungry looks had metamorphosed into the slenderness of Iolaus's youth. Crowned by its halo of gold curls, the once-powerful form looked ethereal now, almost otherworldly. Traces of semen glistened on his thighs, and the healing wounds that marred his skin burned on Hercules' own body like brands.
"Iolaus," he said, forcing down his nausea, and sat on the bed, placing a gentle hand on his friend's shoulder. Iolaus turned his head toward the sound without opening his eyes.
"I guess I've had enough," he sighed. "You sound just like Hercules."
"I always have," Hercules answered, brushing the hair out of Iolaus' eyes. "Look at me, Iolaus."
Iolaus opened his eyes and frowned up at Hercules, focusing on him with difficulty. His pupils were huge, the irises reduced to narrow grey rings.
"Too bright," he protested, burrowing under the pillows.
Hercules partially closed the curtains again, then returned to the bed, pulling the pillows off Iolaus' head. "Sit up and look at me, Iolaus," he commanded.
"Go 'way," Iolaus responded, clumsily putting his hands over his ears. Hercules finally pulled Iolaus into his arms. Iolaus' head fell against Hercules' shoulder. He giggled softly, and the sound broke Hercules' heart.
"You die for this, Tarsus," Hercules said under his breath.
"Good idea," Iolaus agreed, half-opening his eyes. "Hercules would do it, if he was here." His eyes closed again.
"Iolaus," Hercules said, shaking him. "Iolaus!"
"Save your breath, Hercules," Tarsus said from the door. "He doesn't know you're in the room. He'll be coherent again in a little while."
He crossed to the bed and took Iolaus from Hercules' arms. Hercules' grip tightened for an instant; he heard Xena's voice, warning him to pick his battles. He released Iolaus to Tarsus, who picked him up as if he weighed no more than a child. Laying Iolaus down on the bed, he stroked a bare flank absently before pulling the sheet over him. Turning back to Hercules, he said, "You know, he really looks much better now than he did when I acquired him. I'm afraid Iolaus was treated rather unkindly at that bath house."
"Are you waiting for me to thank you for rescuing him?" Hercules asked him.
"I feel sure you won't," Tarsus answered. Fathomless black eyes on Hercules, he continued, "He still had an amazing amount of spirit left, though. It was quite inconvenient; I began to fear that he might escape before you could find him. And unlike the patrons of his last place of residence, I find defiance rather tiresome. So I calmed him down a little.
"You know, most opium addicts find that they have quite enough to do just to get through the hours till their next pipe. Iolaus actually killed two guards and got out of the castle. Of course, he didn't get far; the only way off the island is by a boat that comes twice a week. Have you ever seen an addict after two days without a fix? Poor Iolaus. And that was after he knew what to expect. I'm afraid he's less entertaining now than he was, but he's a great deal more malleable."
He saw the fury in Hercules' eyes with satisfaction, and gave him a feral smile.
"By the way, that boat just left with the last of my guests. And unfortunately, the one you arrived in met with an accident. Shall we talk?"
Xena was waiting for him when he returned to their suite. She started to ask about Iolaus, but Hercules' face told her all she needed to know. Instead, she reported on her conversation with Tarsus. He had persisted in casual small talk, deflecting all her attempts to provoke him into revealing something of his intent. When he'd left the table he'd told her that although she had not figured into his original thinking, her presence offered excellent possibilities which he would be delighted to explore with her when the time was right.
"He challenged me to a duel," Hercules told her bluntly.
Xena raised her eyebrows.
"The man's obviously arrogant, but he didn't strike me as anything close to a fool," she said. "Even as big as he is, what kind of chance does he think he stands against the son of a god?"
"I wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth," Hercules said. "If he wants to fight me for Iolaus, I'm game. We may get out of this more easily than I thought."
Their attention was drawn to the door as it opened to admit Tarsus and Iolaus. As Iolaus saw Hercules, something flared in his eyes for an instant, then was gone.
"You're really here, then," he said. "I was hoping I'd dreamed it."
"I thought you'd like to know what the stakes are," Tarsus said to Hercules as Iolaus dropped onto a divan. Xena sat by him, almost but not quite touching him, and turned her fierce blue glare on Tarsus.
"This is better than I dared to hope," Tarsus said to her. "You know, I wasn't sure you'd still be here this morning. I knew Iolaus would be a hostage for Hercules, but it seems he's one for you as well. Apparently that little interlude with him affected you more than you choose to admit."
"We all leave, or none does," Xena replied, ignoring his taunt.
Hercules stood at Iolaus' other side and looked steadily at Tarsus.
"The only stakes I'll agree to are that I take Iolaus and walk out of here," he said.
"If you win," Tarsus agreed. "And if Iolaus will leave with you. But what if you lose?"
"I won't," Hercules said grimly.
"Indulge me," Tarsus smiled. "If you lose, you choose who stays with me, and who goes with you. Either Iolaus, or Xena. Interesting conundrum, isn't it? On one hand, Iolaus is as much a part of you as your arm, and leaving him behind would be like cutting your arm off. On the other hand, who knows if the Iolaus you love so well still exists after the last two months? And as for Xena -- you were lovers for a time. But in the end, she's not Iolaus, is she."
Their response was to draw subtly closer to Iolaus and say nothing.
He looked from Xena to Hercules, and his smile grew wider.
"Better than I dared hope," he repeated. "I'll be back for Iolaus in the morning." He closed the door as he left; Xena immediately swung it open to check for guards. There were eight stationed outside their door, and ten more at either end of the hall.
"Well, at least we make him nervous," she said as she closed the door.
"Hercules, what was he talking about?" Iolaus asked.
"He thinks he can beat me in a fight," Hercules answered. "I just don't understand what he's waiting for."
Xena looked at Iolaus, who gave his head a small warning shake. "He might as well know, Iolaus," she told him. "It's only a matter of time."
Hercules turned from Xena to Iolaus impatiently,
"He wants you to watch me go through withdrawal, Hercules. I guess that's part of the stakes.
"And that's not all of it, either. He's a Titan."
"That's impossible," Hercules said flatly. "All the Titans are dead or entombed. They're also a hundred feet tall. He's only a man, Iolaus."
"He's no more a man than you are, Hercules," Iolaus answered. "I've been with him night and day for more than a month, and I'm telling you he was banished from the Titan stronghold thousands of years ago. They gave him the appearance of a mortal when they banished him, but he thinks and acts and has the strength of a Titan. He's had millennia to learn about human nature. And he's followed every move you and I have made since we were teenagers. Don't underestimate him, Hercules. You won't get the chance to do it twice."
He caught Hercules' arm, looking up at him pleadingly. "Please, please get out of here. You and Xena could make it. You'd be taking him by surprise; he's sure you're going to fight him for me. You can't do it, Hercules. He doesn't kill your body, just your soul. You're his final revenge on the ones who banished him; the favourite son of the King of the Gods, son of Cronos. He can't let you win."
"I can't let him win, either," Hercules said.
"Don't be a sentimental idiot," Iolaus snarled. "You think you're going to do me a favour by turning me into a spoil of war? Hercules, my personal champion. Have you bothered to ask Xena how she feels about being a prize in the big boys' game?"
For an instant, Hercules looked as he had in Xena's encampment when Iolaus struck him; then he smiled.
"Nice try, Iolaus," he said.
"I don't need you or Hercules to speak for me," Xena told him. "I'm not going anywhere without you. And since you obviously aren't in any shape to do your fair share of the fighting, it looks like Hercules is our best bet to get out of here. I recommend that we forget about all this nobility and use the time to learn all we can from you about Tarsus. Hercules will need every advantage he can get."
Except for the silent servant who brought them their meals, the three had seen no-one since Tarsus had left them. By the time the moon was high in the sky, Iolaus could no longer hide his illness from Hercules and Xena. He recoiled from Hercules' concerned touch and stumbled into a bedroom, curling into a foetal position on the bed. An hour later he was drenched with sweat and shaking uncontrollably. By dawn he was cowering in a corner, covered in vomit and shrieking in terror at the visions that assaulted him.
Tarsus had filled the corridor with guards in the early part of the evening, creating a barrier that was impenetrable even to Hercules. He had shouted himself hoarse, first ordering, then begging Tarsus to come and help Iolaus. He thought he'd go insane; he couldn't bear to watch Iolaus, and he couldn't bear to leave him. As the hideous night wore on, only Xena's calm strength kept him from rushing at the guards in an attempt to get to Tarsus that would have been sure suicide.
He'd wanted to knock Iolaus out, but Xena stopped him, afraid that Iolaus would choke on his vomit if he was unconscious. Until the hallucinations began, Iolaus had not spoken since he'd opened clenched teeth to tell Xena to keep Hercules away. As if Hercules would have obeyed, Xena thought, watching him as he sat on the edge of the bed, head in his hands, his helplessness eating at him.
She crouched in front of Iolaus, who hid his head in his arms and whimpered. His stomach had emptied long ago; she was less concerned with his choking now than with his hurting himself. She sought the pressure point in his neck and struck swiftly, easing him to the floor as he collapsed.
Hercules looked up in sudden alarm as Iolaus went quiet. When he saw what she'd done, he took Iolaus from her and laid him gently on the bed. He was stripping Iolaus' filthy clothes away when she left the room for water.
Hercules wouldn't let her touch Iolaus; he bathed him carefully, as if Iolaus might break apart under his hands. He's stronger than I thought, Hercules, Xena said silently. Maybe even stronger than you know.
She left them, feeling like an intruder. When Hercules came out of the bedroom, she told him, "With luck, he'll be unconscious for a couple of hours. If you're going to fight Tarsus today, you've got to rest. I'll wake you up if anything happens."
He nodded wearily and made for the second bedroom. When she was sure he was asleep she lay down beside Iolaus and touched his clammy face; even in unconsciousness he wasn't still, twitching and muttering from the depths of whatever corner of Tartarus Tarsus had consigned him to. She fell into a light sleep, waking instantly as he regained consciousness and putting him under again. Doing it a third time would be risky; he might not wake up at all. She closed her eyes, hoping Tarsus would return before she had to make that decision.
She awoke as a dark-haired boy slipped into the room; eyes slitted, she watched as he approached the bed. Iolaus was conscious again, lips tight against the sounds of pain he could barely suppress. The boy sat lightly by Iolaus's side and carefully wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead. Tears gleamed on his cheeks in the pale light as he brought Iolaus' hand to his lips. Iolaus brushed the boy's tears away with a shaking hand, and gave him a fractional smile.
"Don't worry about me, Ariston," he said quietly. "I've gotten through this before, and I'll do it again. I'm not about to let that bastard beat me."
The boy started as Xena sat up; eyes flashing, he bent over Iolaus protectively. Iolaus laughed weakly.
"She's not as scary as she looks, Ariston. Most of the time, at least. This is Xena. She's a friend of mine. She came with Hercules; they're going to help us get out of here. You can trust her like you trust me. Whatever happens, you do what she and Hercules tell you, all right?"
When Ariston would have protested, Iolaus gripped his slender hand.
"Promise me, Ariston," he commanded. Ariston nodded wordlessly, and Iolaus slipped into unconsciousness.
Rising from the bed, Xena confirmed that Iolaus was breathing shallowly, but steadily. She gathered Ariston with a look, following him out of the bedroom.
As he turned to face her, she saw in the stronger light that he was older than she'd thought, perhaps 19 or 20. He was about Iolaus' height, but in every other way her warrior's instinct for assessment told her the two were a study in contrasts. If Iolaus was gold, this eerily beautiful young man was cast in bronze. Ariston's thick, shoulder-length hair was chestnut, his eyes hazel flecked with green. He was as slender as Iolaus was powerful (had been powerful, she corrected herself), with the long musculature of a dancer. Like Iolaus, he moved with a dancer's controlled grace, but without Iolaus' confidence.
"Don't let him die," he said to her, fresh tears standing in his eyes. He dashed them away with an angry hand.
"Why did you have to come here?" he asked her furiously. "Why did you have to bring him here? Everything would have been fine if you had just left us alone. Tarsus would have gotten tired of Iolaus eventually, maybe even stopped paying attention, and we could have escaped. Now he's dying, and it's all your fault -- and his!"
He gestured to the bedroom where Hercules slept.
"Such a great man, such a loyal friend. Iolaus worships him. Where was he when Iolaus needed him?"
Xena took Ariston by the shoulders, forcing him to look at her.
"You don't believe anything you just said, do you?" she asked, watching his eyes. "You know everything wasn't fine, you know we had to come, and you know none of this is Hercules' fault. Iolaus isn't Hercules' puppet, or Tarsus' either; he's a strong man who makes his own decisions. How do you think he'd feel if he heard you talking like this? He needs us to stand together now. Are you with us, or not?"
He pulled out of her grasp and sat on the divan, avoiding her eyes. Finally he sighed and said, "All right, I'll do it for Iolaus." Then he raised his head, and the look in his eyes was the same one she'd seen in Hercules' outside the castle.
"But if you let anything happen to him -- either of you -- I'll come after you myself."
Xena looked at the love and terror shining in Ariston's eyes, and thought again that she had underestimated this man that Hercules, and now Ariston, valued so highly. Iolaus had accused her of seeing him only as Hercules' jester. At the time he had been right; later, her need for Hercules' death had not allowed her to see him as anything else. Since then their infrequent encounters had been wary, each one mindful of their history, Xena's feelings still coloured by some remnant of her contempt and her anger, Iolaus unwilling to let down his guard to her again. And yet, she mused, Gabrielle had seen Iolaus' heart immediately; Xena had dismissed it as a young girl's crush on a charming older man, but the bard's instinct, as always, had been true.
Ariston saw the question in her eyes.
"I met him the first day he arrived here," he told her. He shook his head, saying, "That was only a month ago, wasn't it? and yet I can't remember how I lived before he came. I've always been a slave; my mother was one. My first master had me trained as a dancer, taught to read and write, and my life was much easier than it could have been. I was good, and I was rewarded with easy tasks and rarely punished.
"When my master died six months ago, we were all sold. He had been kind to me, but he was an old man, and sought an old man's pleasures. Tarsus excited me; he has an aura of power and danger that is very seductive."
Ariston looked at Xena keenly.
"I was watching you with him, in the library and yesterday at breakfast," he told her. "I know you feel it too."
Xena felt a rush of fury at this boy's temerity; then she gave a reluctant nod. Something in the buried core of her had responded to Tarsus, even admired him on some dark level. It wasn't something she wanted to examine too closely.
"At first things were as I would have wished. I shared Tarsus' bed with a barbarian girl from Brittany. When Tarsus wasn't there to translate, she and I made do with hand signals and played games that didn't require words. I was glad to be with her, because I'd missed the boy who was my lover in my old master's house.
"Then one day she wasn't there, and I learned that Tarsus had sold her to one of his guests. I never found out why. Tarsus stopped inviting me to his bed and became obsessed with a project; strange men came and went at all hours of the day and night and he was constantly on edge. Then, over a month ago, he received news that pleased him immensely and the castle was thrown into a frenzy of preparation for a trip he was taking.
"He summoned me to his bed again that night before he left. It was as if he was possessed. He terrified me. That was when I began to understand how... unhuman Tarsus is.
"When he returned, it was whispered he'd brought a new favourite with him, that I was no longer valuable to him. My position as his favourite had caused a lot of ill-will among the other slaves and guards, and there were many who were eager to rejoice in my bad fortune. I was relieved; the Tarsus I'd seen that last night was not the same indulgent tyrant who'd joined my barbarian and me in our games.
"I'd begun to pay the price of my new status when Iolaus found me. There was a guard... I didn't want him, and he was... well, it wasn't the first time it had happened to me. When you're a slave, you learn how to separate your soul from what happens to your body. If you want to make it to the Elysian Fields with a soul, that is.
"I was waiting for Kirios to finish when he was pulled off me. I heard a crash as he slammed into the wall. I turned around to see a stranger with his hands at Kirios' throat. Even with his face distorted with fury, he was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. His eyes were blazing with it; for a second I thought he was some god seeking vengeance. Kirios never had a chance against him."
Ariston didn't tell Xena that, even after Iolaus had snapped the guard's neck, he continued to pound the dead skull against the stone wall, stopping only when his breath was coming in painful gasps and the back of the guard's head was gone.
Iolaus staggered and would have fallen if Ariston hadn't caught him. He leaned against the wall and, still breathing heavily, asked Ariston if he was hurt.
Ariston smiled a smile of such radiance that Xena caught her breath.
"It had been so long since anyone asked me how I felt," he said, almost to himself.
"A slave can't afford to care about anyone else. It's too easy to lose them, to the trader's block, or the whip, or some disease that isn't worth treating. Even my lover, and the little barbarian, had never been part of my heart.
"But this magnificent, tortured man had just killed for me without caring about the consequences. When the guards came, he told them that Kirios had attacked him, and that I was just walking by and had nothing to do with it. They fell on him and would have killed him if Tarsus hadn't stopped them. I don't think he would have stopped them if they'd been killing me."
Over Ariston's shoulder, Xena saw that Hercules had entered the room and was listening silently.
"Tarsus let me stay with Iolaus. I've only been apart from him when Tarsus has shut the door in my face. I didn't know anyone like him existed. He didn't tell me what happened to him in the bath house -- he didn't have to -- but I know the horror of it will be imprinted on his soul to Hades and beyond.
"When he was screaming from a nightmare, I was the one who woke him and soothed him back to sleep," he told her angrily. "When they brought him back after two days in the woods, nearly dead from the torture of his withdrawal, I was the one who bathed him and held him down while Tarsus give him the opium that stopped his torture."
His mouth quirked in self-contempt. "I didn't have the courage to run with him. My fear was more important to me than being with him. At least, it was until I thought I'd lost him. Nothing will ever take me from his side again."
He looked at Xena with his longing naked in his eyes.
"I'd die for him," he told her simply. "All I want is to be allowed to stay with him, and maybe, just once, to have him look at me the way he looks at -- him."
With a cold look at Hercules, he went back into Iolaus' bedroom and closed the door.
Xena watched Hercules. His normally expressive face was blank; she wondered what he was thinking. As he went out to the balcony, grasping the railing as though it were the only thing keeping him upright, she wondered if he was allowing himself to think at all.
Tarsus entered the suite, greeting her pleasantly, and moved to the bedroom door. Xena moved in front of him, legs braced, and shook her head.
"You're not taking him again, Tarsus," she warned him.
"Don't be absurd, my dear," he told her, capturing her gaze with obsidian eyes. "I could squash you like a fly."
As if to demonstrate, he suddenly picked her up and moved her out of his way. It was not given to many men to make Xena feel petite, but the ease with which he had physically and emotionally overwhelmed her left her more than a little shaken, and with a new respect for his power. In his weakened condition -- even at the top of his form -- Iolaus could not have withstood the Titan.
Ariston was once again by Iolaus' side, holding his hand. Iolaus was moaning, a wrenching, guttural sound that forced an answering sob from Ariston. Tarsus gathered Iolaus' sweat-soaked, unresisting body into his arms, and said to Xena, "Tell Hercules to be ready in two hours."
Hercules appeared at the door as Ariston stood up.
"I'm ready now, you bastard," he grated, reaching for Tarsus, halting as he saw Iolaus cradled in the Titan's arms. The sheet twisted around his loins was hardly paler than the skin stretched taut over his ribs, and Hercules thought that in spite of Iolaus' intimate acquaintance with Death, he had never before looked fragile. A freshet of rage coursed through him again as he watched Tarsus' hands on Iolaus' body.
"Don't worry, Hercules," Tarsus said, drawing Iolaus closer to his chest. "I won't let anything happen to our little playmate. I've become quite fond of him, myself."
His mocking laugh echoed in the room as he left the suite with Iolaus.
Iolaus stared up at the ceiling of the small room he shared with Ariston during the times when Tarsus left him alone. Up to now, he had kept up the pretence of fighting Tarsus when the Titan forced the opium on him; although the bigger man's physical domination of him was complete, it suited the few remaining shreds of Iolaus' pride to make the attempt.
Now, though, he knew that he would be useful to Hercules only if he stayed aware, and that wouldn't happen without the drug. He'd worry about the consequences if they ever got off this Tartarus on earth.
The euphoria that accompanied the initial ingestion of the opium was wearing off. Although the physical withdrawal was bad enough, Iolaus had already learned to crave the release that came with the euphoria; he feared that craving far more than any hallucination. An image that had nearly driven him mad the night before rose to his mind, unbidden: that of Tarsus tearing Hercules apart as Hercules had torn apart Hera's soldiers in the clearing. Iolaus pushed it to the back of his mind, to crouch there till his next descent into hell.
Iolaus had gotten very good at building boxes in his mind. The bath house was firmly sealed away, as long as he didn't catch sight of his naked body in the mirror. There was another box; that one was where Iolaus went when Tarsus summoned him to his bed. The opium helped with that box.
And a third box, which Iolaus had built soon after he woke up in the bath house with a faceless, grunting beast rutting on him. Hercules was in that box. And as long as Iolaus didn't think about Hercules, he could get through each day.
And each night. Ariston had helped shore up that box, although he didn't know it.
The door opened, and Ariston peeked into the room.
"Iolaus? Are you - may I come in?" he asked, uncertain if his words registered.
Without turning his head, Iolaus held out his arm to the young man.
Ariston's face lit up. He crawled on to the bed beside Iolaus, drawing as close as he could, relishing the contact of their bodies. Ariston's head lay pillowed on Iolaus' shoulder; he stroked the gleaming hair absently, letting Ariston's comforting, inconsequential babble wash over him.
"How much time?" he interrupted, and Ariston stiffened.
"Almost an hour," he said sullenly, and turned away from Iolaus.
"All the time in the world," Iolaus murmured in his ear, and took Ariston's earlobe gently between his teeth. Ariston's breath quickened; he began to turn toward Iolaus, who stopped him with a touch, helping him to wriggle out of his tunic.
Again Ariston tried to face Iolaus; again the older man pressed him gently against the bed. Compliant, Ariston lay on his stomach, stretching like a cat under its owner's caress.
Iolaus knelt above Ariston, his hand tracing the planes of the flat back, cupping the satin skin of Ariston's hard buttocks, gliding down the almost hairless legs. His mouth began where his fingers stopped, tongue turning Ariston's nerve ends molten, pausing at the sensitive place behind Ariston's knees, trailing fire up his quivering thighs, lingering almost to madness at the cleft of his buttocks before his teeth nipped at their firm flesh as his fingers opened Ariston, gliding into him, Ariston's almost soundless cries humming along his cock as the opium flowed like honey through his blood.
He should have no more desire for sex than he did for food. His cock hadn't heard that rumour. Well, his cock wanted to live, even if the rest of him had stopped caring. He supposed that was a hopeful sign.
Then he stopped thinking as Ariston turned and locked his legs around Iolaus' waist, impaling himself with one smooth motion.
Gratefully, he sank into the mindless pleasure of Ariston's mouth against his, Ariston's hands clenching convulsively on his buttocks, Ariston's hips rising eagerly to welcome each thrust, Ariston's tiny sighs of pleasure matching their quickening rhythm.
Then there was, indeed, all the time in the world.
Hercules entered Tarsus's suite impatiently.
"What am I doing here?" he demanded. "What are you waiting for? If you want to fight, let's fight!"
Tarsus lounged in a chair; he was so perfectly proportioned that it was only in relation to everyday objects that his massive size was evident.
"I just thought you'd like to see for yourself that your beloved Iolaus was back to normal again," he told Hercules. "However, if you'd rather not bother..."
Hercules strode to the large bedroom and yanked open the door.
"That's my room," Tarsus informed him. "Iolaus sleeps over there -- from time to time."
He pointed to a smaller door across the room. Hercules shot him a glance and moved to open the other door.
Iolaus lay on his side, facing away from Hercules. As the demigod moved further into the room, he realised that Iolaus was not alone.
He was curled around Ariston, one leg hooked over Ariston's bronze thighs. The younger man's buttocks were tight against the curve of Iolaus' groin, hands cradling the arm that held him against Iolaus' chest. Before Hercules turned away, he saw that Iolaus' sleeping face contained the closest thing to peace he had seen there since he reached the island.
Don't think about it, he told himself. Just get this over with and we'll go home, and everything will be the way it was.
He closed the bedroom door with exaggerated care and faced Tarsus. With a dim sense of pride, he knew that no-one who looked at him now (save, of course, Iolaus) would see the rage seething just under the surface.
"All right, I've seen him. Are you ready to begin?"
"Subtlety is not your strong suit, is it, Hercules? We began the minute you stepped on to my island. So far, you've parried my thrusts well. But I think it's time we moved the game to a more physical plane."
He raised a hand, and another silent servant appeared, holding a tray containing a white cloth.
"Your wardrobe," Tarsus said, gesturing to the tray.
"Don't be ridiculous," Hercules said with contempt.
"How mean-spirited of you," Tarsus sighed. "But perhaps you'd prefer the Spartan method - naked and oiled? It could be arranged."
He looked at Hercules and the mask slipped; for possibly the first time in his life Hercules felt a cold wave of fear.
"My game, Hercules," Tarsus said, and his voice was ice. "My rules."
Hercules paced in the empty Great Hall, clad in the white breechclout, the sound of his breathing loud in his ears. Once again, Tarsus had left him to his thoughts. He's right about my lack of subtlety, Hercules thought. I've always left that up to Iolaus.
Iolaus. His mind turned away from the image of what had caused the sheen of sweat that had lain on his lucent skin. Instead he was visited by a resolutely buried memory of their adolescence.
He had been seventeen, Iolaus barely eighteen; he awkward and uncertain as a half-grown puppy, Iolaus all piercing eyes and white-blond hair, lithe and alluring. Hercules was still a virgin, terrified his strength would be some unwary woman's undoing. Iolaus' sexual prowess was already an underground legend in their village, thanks to the expert and enthusiastic tutelage of Thebes' most desirable - and hitherto unattainable -- young widow.
"C'mon, Herc, let me try one more time before you grow completely out of my reach," Iolaus had said.
They had just reached the crest of the hill that led to Hercules' house. Iolaus stopped and pulled his tunic over his head, beckoning to Hercules, white teeth flashing in an impish grin.
"I'm not going to fight you, Iolaus," Hercules repeated. "I won't risk hurting you, and besides, you know you haven't got a chance against me any more."
"Come on and prove it," Iolaus growled, eyes alight with laughter. Sighing with resignation, Hercules reached for Iolaus, who ducked easily under his arms and leaped to his back.
"Hey, no fair," Hercules protested, straining to catch first an arm, then a leg as Iolaus eluded his grasp, roaring with laughter. Iolaus dug his toes into the backs of Hercules' knees, collapsing him to all fours as Iolaus locked his legs around Hercules' waist.
"Haven't got a chance against you, hmm?" Iolaus said into his ear, and the warmth of his breath against Hercules' neck sent a strange shock through the younger man. Reaching back with both hands, he found the ticklish spot under Iolaus' ribs and began to torture him.
Iolaus protested and pounded Hercules' back, giggling himself breathless, to no avail. Hercules felt Iolaus' hold weaken and pulled him off his back, pinning him to the ground, one hand holding Iolaus' wrists together over his head, legs capturing Iolaus' thighs. Iolaus' chest heaved under Hercules' as he tried to catch his breath, still giggling. Suddenly, Hercules' free hand seemed to move of its own volition, laying itself flat on Iolaus' chest, thumb and fingers spread to encompass the hollow at the base of his throat. Iolaus' laughter stilled, and his vivid blue eyes darkened to navy as he stared up at Hercules, still breathing quickly.
Suddenly there was nothing else in the world except the stiffening in Hercules' groin, and the answering hardness that met it, and Iolaus' eyes on his. His hand slid up Iolaus' cheek to bury itself in the tumble of silken white curls, and he bent toward Iolaus' parted lips as if hypnotised.
Then the world came back with a rush as his mother called to them. Hercules released Iolaus with a sense of loss, and the two never spoke of the incident again.
Other pictures came to him.
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, asking if he could love a woman the way he loved Iolaus.
Iolaus, dead in his arms not once but twice, the agony of watching the light fade from those incandescent eyes unbearable, intolerable; Hercules prepared to tear Olympus apart stone by stone to feel that heart beat against his again.
Hercules reached for an image of Serena, but her sweet, trusting face was already less clear to him than it had been a month ago. What remained was deep regret. He was desperately sorry he had surrendered to the temptation to bask in the warmth of her need for him (as Iolaus did with Xena, a small voice whispered). He had been responsible for her death, just as he'd told Iolaus. (But you didn't go back for her, did you? asked the voice. What would you have done for Iolaus, if the dagger had stilled his heart again? What wouldn't you have done?)
Hercules rested his hot forehead against the coolness of the stone wall. His anger and confusion frightened him far more than anything Tarsus might be capable of.
"Hercules, are you all right?" came Xena's concerned voice from behind him.
"No," he muttered. "Nothing is all right anymore."
Xena pulled on his arm till he turned to face her. She cupped his flushed face in her hands and searched his eyes, worried by his obvious abstraction.
"Focus, Hercules," she said sharply. "This isn't some barroom brawl. Tarsus is capable of winning this without any help from you."
Hercules seemed to return from a long way off. His blue eyes sharpened as he looked down at her, and she gave a silent sigh of relief.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," he told her wryly, and his face lightened a little. She nodded once and released his arm, stepping away from him as Tarsus strolled into the hall. He was wearing a black clout, and Xena's eyes widened involuntarily. Clothed, he was formidable; naked, his physical presence was overwhelming. For the first time, she began to have serious doubts about the outcome of the battle before Hercules.
Tarsus barely glanced at her, his attention focused on Hercules.
"Take her back to the suite," he commanded a guard. She raised her hands to fend off the guard; Hercules shook his head at her, his eyes asking her to go quietly. She left with the guard, stopping at the door for one last look at him. Hercules smiled at her.
"Don't worry about me," he told her. "Everything's going to be fine." He hoped he sounded more confident than he felt.
Turning to Tarsus, he said, "I want Iolaus here so I can be sure you keep your end of this deal."
"Hercules! You wound me," Tarsus answered genially. "Iolaus will be brought here presently. It seems he's taking another bath. It's a behaviour I've seen in most rape victims in my time. Perhaps if he'd been rescued from that bath house a little sooner... but you had other priorities, didn't you?"
With a roar, Hercules launched himself at Tarsus, who blocked his wild swing easily.
"Careful, Hercules," he taunted. "I don't want this to end too quickly."
He backed off and watched as Hercules fought for control. Finally he raised his head and stared at Tarsus, his face a mask of hatred.
"This ends now," he said, and swung a blow that might have taken Tarsus' head off had it connected. Instead, it whistled harmlessly by the Titan's ear as he stepped to the side and, using Hercules' outstretched arm as a fulcrum, sent him flying through the air to crash to the ground several feet away.
Hercules was on his feet instantly, crouching to meet Tarsus' approach. He feinted to Tarsus' jaw with his left hand, then straightened as he buried his right fist in the Titan's solar plexus, rejoicing as he felt a rib give under his hand.
Tarsus bent reflexively, hands over his rib as he gasped for air. Hercules lifted Tarsus over his head and threw him against the wall. The Titan gave a muffled grunt as he staggered to his feet, leaking crimson from a laid-open temple. He swiped at the wound and stared at his blood as though he'd never seen it before.
"First blood, Hercules," he said. "You impress me."
Pressing his advantage, Hercules closed in on him again, this time reaching for his neck with both hands, eager to feel Tarsus' throat under his fingers. Tarsus drove the flat of his hand against Hercules' nose, shattering it. The pain was liquid; it drowned him.
He gagged on the blood that ran down his throat, and spat.
Once, twice, Tarsus sank his fist into Hercules' belly, almost lifting him from the floor with the impact. Hercules tried to suck air into his lungs, choking on the blood from his rapidly swelling nose. Tarsus moved quickly behind Hercules and twisted his arm behind his back, forcing it up until ligaments popped. He pushed Hercules against the wall, hand against his neck, grinding his cheek into the rough stone. With blank horror, Hercules felt Tarsus's erection throbbing against him. Tarsus ran his hand down Hercules' rigid back to cup his shrinking testicles through the clout.
"I wonder if you really understand what Iolaus has suffered," Tarsus said softly in Hercules' ear, hand moving between his legs. Hercules struggled against the massive body that pinned him to the wall like a butterfly. Bile rose in his throat as Tarsus pulled the clout aside to caress him. Freeing his erection from the confines of his own clout, Tarsus sank his teeth into Hercules' shoulder as he forced Hercules' legs apart with his knee and pushed a finger into him.
Hercules shuddered at the assault, twisting frantically against the body that held him immobile, flattening himself against the wall. Tarsus laughed low in his throat and withdrew his finger. Running his hand across the blood that splashed Hercules' chest, he used it to moisten himself and prepared to thrust into Hercules.
Hercules felt, rather than heard Iolaus enter the hall. He turned his head painfully and saw Iolaus running toward them, face white with panic and horror.
"Gods, please, Tarsus! Not to him!" Iolaus begged, pulling uselessly at the arm that pinned Hercules so effortlessly. Iolaus slipped to his knees beside the two men.
"Please," he repeated, looking up at Tarsus through brimming eyes.
Tarsus looked down at Iolaus with interest.
"What do you offer in trade, then? What do you have that I haven't already taken without your permission?"
Iolaus met his eyes steadily.
"Anything," he replied calmly. "Everything. My co-operation. For as long as you want me. My soul, if that's what you want."
"Iolaus..." Hercules said hoarsely.
Iolaus looked at him, and the blaze of love and sorrow in his eyes nearly blinded Hercules.
"Don't you see, Hercules?" he said. "I couldn't live with what this would do to you. How this would change you. It doesn't matter what happens to me, now. Iolaus is dead. Long live the ghost of Iolaus."
"Well, well," Tarsus said. He released Hercules and stepped back, pulling his clout carelessly over his shrinking erection. Unmindful of shrieking muscles and torn ligaments, Hercules dropped to his knees beside Iolaus and gathered him into his arms, revelling in the scent and feel of Iolaus' still-damp hair against his unwounded cheek.
"I think we can all agree on the victor in this little contest, Hercules," Tarsus said. "Now choose, or they both stay here with me."
"You haven't won anything, Tarsus. Hercules doesn't need to choose. I'm staying, and Xena and Ariston are leaving with Hercules," Iolaus said. He came to his feet with the feline grace that he seemed to have been born with, and incredibly, there was triumph in his eyes.
"Oh, no, my lion-hearted little man," Tarsus said silkily. "This isn't one of Gabrielle's David and Goliath stories. The power of love won't send me slinking away with my tail between my legs. I thought you would have known me better than that by now."
He twisted Iolaus' hair around his fingers and bent to his mouth, devouring it in a punishing kiss. Iolaus struggled instinctively for a second, then moulded himself pliantly to Tarsus' body, sliding his hands up the corded arms, pulling Tarsus' head down to deepen the kiss. Finally Tarsus drew back, and the look in his ebon eyes was inscrutable.
"You astonish me, Iolaus," he said at last. "Perhaps we can strike a compromise after all."
"Leave him alone!" came a shriek, and Iolaus could have wept as he saw Ariston hurtling toward them, dagger raised above his head. Tarsus turned, eyebrow canted in amusement.
"You seem to inspire loyalty of quite epic proportions, Iolaus," he tossed over his shoulder as he watched Ariston, face white with fear, threaten him with the dagger.
"Don't be foolish, Ariston," he said with contempt. "Your hand is shaking so hard you can barely hang on. What do you have to gain by killing me? If Iolaus leaves this island, it's all over for you. Do you imagine that he'll want to be pursued by a lovesick rent boy for the rest of his life?"
He watched the conflicting emotions chase themselves across Ariston's face, and turned away disdainfully. Ariston looked at Iolaus, and his face cleared. Gripping the dagger in a suddenly steady hand, he crept toward Tarsus' back.
Iolaus sprang toward him, knowing Ariston was committing suicide, knowing he couldn't possibly reach the boy in time. Tarsus turned back to Ariston, caught the hand holding the dagger, and forced Ariston's hand inward. Even as Iolaus shouted a desperate, useless warning, Tarsus casually plunged the dagger into Ariston's chest and dropped him to the stone flagging.
Iolaus lost awareness for a moment, then. He found himself facing Tarsus, grasping a heavy broadsword in both hands, the brackets that had locked it to the wall dangling, broken. Hercules had removed the dagger from Ariston's chest and was trying to stop the endless flow of blood.
Iolaus was empty of emotion, his blood ice in his veins. He looked at Tarsus and his face was utterly still.
"You've lived far too long, Tarsus. Someone should have killed you centuries ago," he said. He hefted the broadsword, his hands instinctively finding their grip on the unfamiliar weapon. They slipped a little, and he noticed without caring that he had torn them when he broke the locks. He wiped first one, then the other on his tunic, gripping the broadsword more firmly.
Tarsus threw back his head and laughed in genuine amusement. "Better men than you have tried and failed, little one," he said, still chuckling. He held out his hand.
"Enough of these absurd theatrics, Iolaus," he chided. "If you want another tender little boy to worship you and make you feel like a man again, I'll buy you one for every day of the week. Or would you prefer a girl this time? After all, one collection of orifices is much like another, don't you find?"
A slight flaring of his nostrils was the only sign that Iolaus had heard Tarsus. He watched the Titan's eyes carefully. He was motionless, waiting.
Tarsus' eyebrows drew together, and he gestured impatiently. "My benevolence has limits, Iolaus," he said. "You should know better than to test them."
"You know, I almost feel sorry for you," Iolaus said to him suddenly. "You and your kind ruled the world. Well, the other Titans knew how to make a graceful exit. Their time was gone, and they went with it. And yet here you still are, playing childish games with mortals, clinging to a dwindling, meaningless life. How did you come to this, Tarsus? What would it take to make you feel like a man again? Or isn't that possible any more?"
"Don't push me too far, little one," Tarsus said dangerously.
"Iolaus," gasped Ariston, and Tarsus' attention wavered for a split second. It was all Iolaus needed.
His arms were a blur of motion as he swung the sword above his head, and with inhuman strength born of anger, grief and hatred, struck Tarsus' head from his shoulders. Blood jetted from the severed neck; the body hung there, swaying, as though it had yet to realise it was dead, then finally fell heavily.
Iolaus dropped the broadsword and walked unsteadily to where the head had fallen, a look of blank astonishment still in the open eyes. He stared down at it for a moment, and his fists clenched as rage flooded through him again. With an oath, he kicked the head away from him.
"Come back from that, you son of a bitch," he told it, and ran to Ariston.
Hercules looked up at Iolaus. He'd tried to staunch the wound with Ariston's tunic, but the boy's lifeblood left him with every beat of his heart.
"I'll go get Xena," Hercules said to Iolaus. "Maybe she can help him."
Iolaus gave a short nod, his eyes never leaving Ariston's face. He took Hercules' place beside Ariston; the boy was horribly white except for the crimson blooming on his chest and covering the floor around him. Iolaus lifted him into his arms, biting his lip as Ariston gasped with pain, and settled him comfortably against his chest, tucking Ariston's head against his shoulder.
"How many times have I told you to let me fight my own battles against Tarsus?" he asked Ariston, tears running down his cheeks and dropping onto the boy's shining chestnut hair.
Ariston raised his head with an effort and looked at his love. "I was brave, wasn't I?" he asked. "I never did anything brave before I met you. Is Tarsus dead now? I couldn't stand to die and leave you behind with him, you know."
"Yes, he's dead," Iolaus answered.
Ariston was cold, so cold; he touched Iolaus' hot cheek, and his extraordinary lover took his hand, warming it with his breath. Ariston tried to stay awake. He didn't want to miss a look, a touch. "Kiss me, Iolaus," he whispered, and sighed as Iolaus' mouth warmed his icy lips.
His lover raised his head and looked at him, and Ariston was saddened by the grief in the brilliant blue eyes. Hercules will make him feel better, Ariston thought, vaguely surprised by his lack of jealousy.
"I'll say hello to Ania for you if I see her," Ariston told Iolaus.
Iolaus smiled, dazzling Ariston anew.
"Just don't ask her to fix you dinner," he told the boy, tracing the side of his face with his thumb as he had so many times before.
"I love you, Iolaus," Ariston gasped, struggling for breath.
"I love you, Ariston," Iolaus answered, his heart breaking.
"You're a terrible liar," Ariston panted. "Live forever, my love."
At the hall's entrance, Hercules and Xena silently turned away as Iolaus rocked Ariston's still form in his arms, shaking with the force of his sorrow and regret.
They buried Ariston on the far side of the island, out of sight of the grim edifice that had been his last home. Tarsus' body was wrapped in hangings torn from the walls and dragged into the courtyard; there Iolaus doused it with lamp oil and set it alight, watching it with expressionless eyes as it was reduced to a smouldering heap.
He started as Xena, who had been watching him closely, put her hand on his shoulder.
"You have to decide what you're going to do now," she told him. He wiped the sweat from his face with a shaking hand, and nodded.
"I'm not staying on this island a second longer than I have to. And I won't be going anywhere if I'm in the middle of withdrawal when the boat finally comes. I'm not willing to risk that."
He sighed, and the sound held a note of despair that Xena had not expected to hear. "It's almost over now, Iolaus," she said to him, a little puzzled.
"In some ways, it's barely begun," he answered, and looked past her to Hercules, who still stared at the huddled, smoking thing that had been Tarsus.
"Don't let him come after me," Iolaus told her, and made his way slowly back into the castle.
Hercules stood by himself, unable to approach Iolaus, unable to comprehend how he had stayed sane the past two months. His own hatred was a living thing; it was a white flame that consumed him as the pyre had consumed Tarsus. He hated Iolaus for killing Tarsus; perhaps his hatred could have been purged if he had struck the killing blow. He hated himself for being so easily beaten by Tarsus, and for being glad when Tarsus had turned his attentions to Iolaus. (Now we know what you wouldn't do for Iolaus, don't we? said the hateful little voice. You wouldn't do for him what he offered to do for you, without hesitation. Who's the strongest man now, Hercules?)
Shut up shut up he thought, and his shoulder clenched in agony as he raised hands to ears to close out the voice. He welcomed the distraction the pain offered.
"You'd better let me do something about that nose before it ruins your reputation as the best-looking man in Greece."
For a moment, he thought Xena's dry voice was coming from inside his head; he dropped his hands and stared at her, then shook his head.
Don't think about it now, he told himself, and allowed her to lead him to the deserted kitchen.
Some time later, he lay submerged to his aching shoulders in glorious, steaming water, his throbbing head resting against the rim of the stone tub. The heated water was constantly replenished by a submerged hot spring that ran under the castle. Naturally, Hercules thought wearily. Only the best for Tarsus.
He raised his head, instantly alert as the door opened. While not a guard or slave had been spotted for hours, it was obvious from the sounds of revelry that Tarsus' former retinue was taking advantage of his post-mortem generosity, and the last thing that the trio needed was more trouble from any source.
He relaxed automatically, then tensed again as a small figure slipped inside and, back to Hercules, removed his clothing.
"Iolaus," Hercules said, and his voice sounded strained even to his own ears.
"Hercules," said Iolaus. "I didn't see you." He regarded Hercules for a moment; Hercules said nothing. Iolaus began to dress, saying, "I'll come back when you're finished."
"You don't have to do that," Hercules heard himself say. "It's not like we've never sat in a bath together before."
Iolaus hesitated, then removed his clothes again. The candlelight washed warm gold on his skin and glowed in his hair. He stepped into the tub at the farthest possible point from Hercules and leaned back, closing his eyes.
Hercules studied his features in the warm light. He knew Iolaus' face better than he knew his own, had been looking at it for almost thirty years. There were lines across his forehead and beside his mouth that had not been there two months ago.
Iolaus felt his gaze, and opened one eye to look at him quizzically.
"What?" he asked, and in that second was almost the old Iolaus. Hercules started to reach to him impulsively, and grimaced as his shoulder protested. Tarsus had nearly torn it from its socket.
The thought brought back the present with a rush, and he subsided, closing his eyes so Iolaus wouldn't see the anger in them.
He felt the water ripple, and then a small hand curled on his shoulder.
"Turn around," Iolaus told him. "Maybe I can work some of that out for you."
He shifted sideways, keeping his eyes closed, and felt Iolaus sit beside him on the stone bench, thigh brushing his under the water. He braced himself against Iolaus's nearness; slowly, he began to relax as the strong fingers worked their magic on his tortured muscles.
He meant to say, "Iolaus, it's so damn good to be with you again."
He meant to say, "Forgive me for not being there when you needed me."
Instead, he said:
"Which one of them taught you to do that?"
Iolaus' hands stilled on his shoulders. He stood up and left the tub, picking up a towel and knotting it around his hips. Gathering his clothes, he repeated, "I'll come back when you're finished," and was out the door before Hercules could unfreeze his tongue.
(Nice going, hero, the hateful voice sneered. That ought to keep him away for a while. Maybe by the time he forgives you you'll have figured out how to talk to him.)
"I'm sorry, Iolaus," Hercules said quietly, but didn't follow him.
Iolaus leaned against the giant laurel tree that arched over Ariston's grave, watching the shimmering silver path the moon traced on the water. Ariston had brought him there the week he came to the island; it was where Ariston went to be alone with his thoughts. He'd never taken anyone there before Iolaus, not even the little barbarian girl whose name Iolaus never learned.
Iolaus immediately taught Ariston to climb a tree. He smiled as he recalled hauling Ariston, protesting, into the lower branches, and boosting him aloft by main force. Iolaus could still see Ariston's look of wonder as he drank in the lush beauty around him, staring and staring as though fearing it would vanish before he stared his fill.
Finally he turned to Iolaus and blurted, eyes shining, "I love you, Iolaus."
Iolaus had looked at him, astonished, and Ariston blushed and dropped his eyes, clambering out of the tree with less than his usual elegance.
Iolaus had jumped down from the branch beside Ariston, who mumbled something about getting back and started to turn away. Iolaus still didn't fully understand the impulse that had made him reach out to Ariston.
Ariston had examined the small, creamy hand that lay against his brown skin, and raised his eyes to Iolaus'. He touched Iolaus' face tentatively, ready to snatch it back if he had misunderstood Iolaus' message.
Iolaus was not a stranger to physical love between two men. It was a common, even desirable occurrence among warriors of the armies he had fought in. He had taken several lovers in the many years since his own initiation at the skilled hands of the man who had trained him in the use of battle weapons, among them the broadsword.
Like most of his affairs with women, they had been casual, mutually gratifying and short-lived. He had always made a point of not getting involved with anyone, man or woman, who looked at him as Ariston had looked at him that day.
Was Tarsus right? Had he used Ariston?
Iolaus had been drugged into near insensibility during his first few days in the bath house, until the owner realised how valuable he was fully conscious.
The box of memories threatened to open, and he reached inside himself for the calming disciplines. That box would have to open eventually. He just needed a little more time.
He needed. To get away from here, to get to someplace where he felt safe. If that place existed.
At first he had actually been grateful to Tarsus. He had no memory of killing the man who had untied his hand, only recalling the period that followed as the first time in four weeks he'd been free of the unending assaults.
Tarsus had allowed his brutalised body some time to recover, treating Iolaus more like a guest than a prisoner. Until the night when he made it clear to Iolaus just what his status was, and why he'd been brought to the island.
The bath house. He'd been... no. Keep that box closed. At least there he'd been very clear that he played no part in what was happening to him. Tarsus had blurred that line for him. It was rape, just as surely as the bath house had been. But the denizens of the bath house had never caused him to doubt his own body's responses, never left him splattered with his own seed after their assault. It was an involuntary response to unavoidable stimulation. It had nothing of lust, or love, or wanting in it. He knew that. Now he just needed to believe it.
What he needed. The fourth box. The hardest one to contain, the one that perpetually threatened to burst open and inundate him with his needs.
Iolaus had been shocked and a little disgusted when his traitorous body first began to respond to Ariston's undeniable beauty. It's conditioning. It's friction. It's not what you need.
He had closed his eyes, willing himself not to pull away, as Ariston's fingers moved to trace his mouth as gently as a breath. Finally he opened his eyes, and his need blossomed under Ariston's eyes, and the look of joy in them.
They made love for the first time under this tree, and the shattering tenderness of it brought Iolaus back from the edge of the precipice he had been treading since he was pinioned to the bath house bed.
Iolaus knelt by Ariston's grave. "Take care of him, Hades," he said softly.
The icy shadows had shifted on the stones when he became aware of a rhythmic plashing behind him. He smiled to himself as he saw the warrior princess, the planes and angles of her stern face set into high relief by the moon's white light, trying to skip stones across the surface of the lake.
"Your angle's wrong, so's your grip, and the stones are the wrong shape," he told her, coming to stand beside her on the rocky shore. "They're not little chakra, you know. Here, like this."
He found a flat, oval stone and with a flick of his wrist sent it soaring low over the water; they counted the diminishing splashes until it disappeared under the waves.
He turned to her in triumph.
"Fifty-three! A personal best," he said, smiling.
"I counted forty-eight," Xena said, drawing her eyebrows together. Inside, she wondered at the lightness of his tone, and watched him as he collected more stones to more fully illustrate the fine art of skipping.
She was deeply disturbed by her earlier encounter with Hercules. She had been sitting, booted feet propped on the railing, on the balcony of the suite. She was surprised to see a slight figure, hair glowing white in the moon's cold light, trudging across the courtyard and disappearing into the woods. She considered following him.
Some time later Hercules entered the suite, hair still wet from the bath.
"Is Iolaus here?" he asked, carefully avoiding her eyes.
"I saw him go into the woods a while ago," she said. "I think he was going to Ariston's grave."
Hercules suddenly slammed a fist on a marble table, splitting it in half.
"Damn it!" he exclaimed in frustration.
"Damn what, exactly? Or who?" Xena asked. "Iolaus? Ariston? Yourself, maybe?"
"Don't push me, Xena," he warned her, and his eyes were blazing with fury.
"Oh, I'll push you, Hercules," she hissed, coming to her feet and standing in front of him, meeting him stare for stare.
"I don't know what the hell has happened between you and Iolaus since Tarsus took him away from here this morning, but you're going to tell me right now. You're about to explode, Hercules, and since I'm marooned on this island with you, you owe it to me to tell me why!"
He didn't think the words would come, but they burst out of him in an angry flood: finding Iolaus with Ariston, Tarsus' assault, Iolaus' bargain with Tarsus, the ugly words Hercules couldn't take back, wasn't sure he wanted to take back.
Xena looked at him in disbelief.
"Tarsus did that to you, and you still can accuse Iolaus of wanting him? You begrudge him the small pleasure he had with Ariston?"
She paced rapidly; Hercules had never seen Xena so agitated. She finally stopped, and swung to face him again.
"Hercules," she said, making an obvious effort to stay calm, "I know you've suffered terrible losses. I know you're angry, and afraid, and confused. But that you could say that to Iolaus after what he's been through... I used to believe he didn't deserve to be your friend. Now I'm beginning to think it's the other way around."
She walked rapidly out of the suite, afraid she might swing at him if she stayed another second. She needed to see Iolaus, to talk to him.
She watched him sailing stones across the lake, and made her decision.
"Iolaus," she said suddenly. "I want to tell you something."
He turned to her at once, his eyes rendered crystalline by the moon's white glow. She'd forgotten how that disconcertingly direct gaze could make one feel like laying all one's secrets at his feet. Well, good. She needed the motivation.
He waited as she hesitated. Finally she said, "I want to tell you that I know how you feel."
He frowned faintly. "Look, I appreciate the sentiment, Xena. But believe me, you don't have a clue how I feel." He turned away from her and lobbed another stone into the lake with unnecessary force.
"Listen, Iolaus. I'm going to tell you something that no other living person knows, not even Gabrielle."
That got his attention, didn't it. The die is cast now, Xena.
She said to him, looking out over the lake, "You know that my brother was killed in battle, and that had a lot to do with me becoming who I was when you met me. But there was more to his death, much more."
She took a deep breath and faced him.
"My brother was killed trying to stop me from being gang-raped by warriors who had raided and looted our village.
"He died for nothing. They tore into me for hours, sometimes two at a time. They finally left me in the street, figuring I was either dead or close enough to it not to matter. I lay in a pool of blood and semen waiting to die. When I didn't, I crawled to the lake and stayed in the water till my lips were blue and I couldn't feel my feet.
"I took five baths a day for months, and screamed myself hoarse from nightmares every night for over a year. The nightmares finally stopped when I killed the last animal who raped me. What didn't stop was my lack of self-worth, my guilt at having survived, at not having fought hard enough, my depression and my anger. That was what created the Xena who seduced and betrayed you.
"I don't want the same thing to happen to you, Iolaus. You're too good a man for that."
When she finished talking, he bowed his head. When he looked up at her again, the mask was gone, and she saw the agony, shame and despair screaming from his eyes.
"I'm so tired, Xena. I just want it to go away," he said simply, and lay down under the laurel tree by Ariston's grave.
Tears pooled in Xena's eyes for the first time in years. She shrugged out of her armour and wrapped herself around him, hugging him to her tightly. Finally he turned toward her and began to weep, huge, shuddering sobs that racked his body and tore her heart. He cried for a long time, then fell into an exhausted sleep.
She held him for the rest of the night, murmuring to him when he shivered in the grip of a nightmare, stroking his hair as he relaxed against her again.
He woke shortly after dawn, arching his back and stretching luxuriously, and turned a smile of such extraordinary sweetness on her that she actually felt her heart skip a beat. Absurd.
Down, girl, she told herself sternly. We're not going there, at all.
As she strapped on her armour, he took her hand.
"I know that you still feel guilty about what happened between us," he told her. "I want you to know that, if there was any kind of a debt, it's been paid in full."
They returned to the castle in companionable silence.
Hercules watched them approach from the balcony. Everybody was getting a piece of Iolaus, even Xena. His rage washed over him like a tidal wave.
When Iolaus and Xena entered the suite, he was waiting for them.
"Xena," he said stiffly.
"Good morning, Hercules," she responded warily.
"Did you sleep well?" he continued, raking her with a glance, taking in the obvious evidence of Iolaus' and her night under the stars.
"We hardly slept at all, thank you," she snapped. "And now I think I could use a bath. Iolaus, are you joining me?"
Iolaus stared at her, wondering what game she was playing and why she was so angry at Hercules.
"No, thanks. I think Hercules and I need to talk."
"Don't let me stop you," Hercules muttered, glowering at Xena.
Iolaus caught Xena's eye and looked meaningfully at the door. As it closed behind her, he faced Hercules.
"Looks like you two patched things up nicely," Hercules heard the hateful voice say.
"Yeah, I guess we have. You got a problem with that?" Iolaus asked, frowning.
"Problem with you and Xena? Not me. I should be used to it, shouldn't I? And it's not like Ariston is around to object."
Hercules turned an appalled gaze on Iolaus.
"I - Look, I don't know what's wrong with me, Iolaus. I don't know why I'm saying these horrible things to you. Maybe you ought to just go with Xena and leave me alone for a while."
"Go ahead and get it out of your system, Hercules. I'm not going to run away this time," Iolaus told him. Hercules was too focused on his anger to notice the film of sweat that overlay the smaller man's features, or the greenish pallor of his skin. Iolaus thrust his shaking hands behind his back and stared at Hercules challengingly.
"C'mon, Herc, don't be shy, " Iolaus taunted. He fought down a surge of nausea; Hercules needed him now, needed to be prodded into releasing the bottled-up emotions that boiled inside him. The trouble was, Hercules had spent his whole adult life sitting on his feelings, putting them aside to let the feelings and needs of others take precedence. Hercules' earlier words had cut deep, but Iolaus knew Hercules had regretted them the minute they'd been uttered. At least, he hoped he had.
Hercules was his safe place, he realised suddenly. He needed Hercules back if he was going to survive the opening of those boxes. He wiped his running nose furtively. Hell of a time for an epiphany.
Hercules clenched his fists. None of this is Iolaus' fault, he reminded himself. You came here to save him, not to fight with him, and you've done a fine job so far, haven't you? He had to save you, instead. Xena's right; he is too good for you. (But not too good for Ariston, the nasty voice smirked.)
"Hercules," Iolaus croaked, then stopped and cleared his throat. The pain was beginning to crescendo. He couldn't wait for Hercules to open up; he had to push hard, and fast.
"What's this really about, Hercules? Who are you really mad at? Tarsus, for forcing you to experience the kind of helplessness the rest of us mere mortals deal with every day of our lives? Ariston, maybe? He was there when I needed him. I wouldn't be standing here now if he hadn't loved me."
Watching Hercules closely through blurring eyesight, Iolaus was startled when that shaft struck home. He shook his head, trying to clear it, trying to hold on a little longer.
"Don't do this, Iolaus," Hercules said through tight lips. "Don't make me say something we'll both be sorry for."
"A little late for that, don't you think? Come on, Hercules. Tarsus is dead; there's nothing you can do to him now. So is Ariston, but he's hardly worthy of your hatred. So that just leaves you and me."
"What do you want from me?"
The words burst from Hercules in an anguished cry. He collapsed on to a divan and dropped his head into his hands. He felt Iolaus sit lightly beside him; a hand touched his knee, then withdrew.
"I want you to stop trying to carry your pain all by yourself. Stop shouldering everyone else's burdens. You were stretched to the breaking point before you got here, Herc. You think I don't know that anger is easier to feel than pain, or grief?"
Iolaus kneeled in front of Hercules and grasped his hands tightly. The compassion in his eyes filled Hercules with shame.
"Let me in, Hercules. Let someone else be the strong one for a change."
He hadn't known how much he needed those words from Iolaus until he heard them. The relief that flooded him was intense, almost physical. He started to ask Iolaus' forgiveness, to explain, and the relief was instantly replaced by guilt and panic as Iolaus gave him an apologetic look and collapsed.
"The boat's back," Xena announced, bursting into the suite. She ran to Hercules' side as he picked up Iolaus.
"I'll find the opium," she told Hercules, heading for the door.
"No!" Hercules said. "This is ending now. I won't let him go through this again. The longer he puts it off, the harder it will be on him. You go with the others. We're staying."
Xena started to protest, then subsided, knowing Hercules was right.
"I'll send the boat back with herbs and medicines that will help ease his pain," she said. "He'll return here every three days until you're ready to leave. I'll be waiting for you in the village if you need me. Be well, Hercules."
She touched Iolaus' face gently and left them.
Hercules undressed Iolaus and put him to bed. Iolaus forced his eyes open and tried to speak; Hercules got the basin under his chin just in time. After the spasm passed, he wiped Iolaus' face and helped him settle. Past speech, Iolaus smiled at him weakly and cradled Hercules' hand under his cheek before falling into an uneasy sleep.
The next week passed in a nightmarish blur. There were times when Hercules feared he would have to beg Hades for Iolaus' life once again. The medicine Xena sent helped a little, when Iolaus was able to keep it down; most of the time, though, he fought his demons alone. Hercules would have given anything to have been able to take Iolaus' place. His anger had passed as though it had never been; there was nothing else in the world except these rooms, and Iolaus' pain.
He started awake as Iolaus' hoarse voice reached into his dreams. Rubbing his bloodshot eyes, he lurched to his feet and stumbled into the bedroom where Iolaus was thrashing. Hercules pressed Iolaus' shoulders into the bed, saying soothingly, "It's all right, Iolaus. I'm here."
Iolaus' eyes shot open and he stared at Hercules in horror, pushing him away with surprising strength, scrambling off the bed to flatten himself against the wall.
"Please, don't," he begged, his eyes filling with tears.
"Don't hurt him, Tarsus. Take me instead. Gods, don't! Hercules!"
He launched himself at Hercules, who ducked a flailing arm and caught Iolaus to his chest, imprisoning his arms at his sides.
He held the thin form tightly and told Iolaus softly, "It's Hercules, Iolaus. You killed Tarsus. He's never going to hurt either of us again."
Gradually the struggling slowed, then stopped as Hercules murmured to Iolaus. He released his breath in a shuddering sigh and pressed against Hercules, arms encircling the taller man's neck. Hercules picked Iolaus up and put him back on the bed, lying beside him when Iolaus refused to loosen his grip. The blond head rested on the strong brown chest, and the two men slept deeply and dreamlessly.
In all, the boat returned three times before Iolaus was ready to escape the island that had been his prison. He leaned against the railing as they moved slowly past the laurel tree that sheltered Ariston's grave, and said a last silent goodbye to the brave and loving heart that had admitted him so freely.
He felt Hercules at his shoulder.
"You helped him discover who he was," Hercules said after a moment. "That's a lot to give someone, you know. I don't think he'd feel that you short-changed him."
Iolaus gave a watery chuckle. "When am I going to stop being surprised that you can read my mind?" he asked Hercules, and turned back to the laurel tree with a lighter heart.
Hercules watched the slim figure, then blurted impulsively, "Iolaus, let's go home."
Iolaus turned to him, puzzled.
"I thought Alcmene's was where we were going," he said.
"Not Mother's - Thebes. Let's go to my farm for a while. Cyrus and Oi-Lan have gone back to her province; the house they built is standing empty. You were right before -- we both have some recuperating to do."
They went to the village inn to find Xena; the landlord reported with an air of long-suffering that she was probably out terrorising the countryside. Xena had waited patiently for three days, and less patiently for another three. The past three days she had given up all pretence of patience and had been attempting to organise the local farmers and fisherman into a militia. She had met with little enthusiasm, but Xena on a mission was not to be denied.
Two sweating men staggered into the inn and collapsed onto a bench, waving their hands weakly at the landlord.
"Ale," one croaked, and the other, looking around with furtive anxiety, nodded eager agreement. They had just raised their mugs to their lips when a shadow fell across the doorway.
"You people are pathetic," Xena growled at them. "You only ran five miles, and you're already sitting down."
"Give them a break, Xena," Iolaus said. "If everyone was a warrior, what would the three of us do for a living?"
He moved toward her, hand extended. She ignored it and gathered him into a fierce hug, then drew back and examined his face. The shadows were still there in his eyes, but the despair was gone, and the trace of humour that lurked in their depths was real, this time. She traced the dimple in his cheek as he smiled at her. Hercules cleared his throat, and she started.
"Well, I guess you two won't be needing me any more," she said. "I'm going to meet Gabrielle in Poteidaia." Behind her, the two exhausted villagers breathed a silent sigh of relief.
Outside the inn, Xena and Hercules clasped hands. He looked down at her for a moment.
"Thanks for everything," he told her. "You're a good friend."
"So are you," she told him, and her words were both an apology and a prediction. They glanced at Iolaus as he stepped forward to take his leave of her.
"Are you going to be all right?" she asked him. "The physical withdrawal is the easy part, you know."
"I guess I can be grateful I was only on the stuff for a few weeks," Iolaus said. "I know the craving will stay with me for a lot longer. But I've got a lot of help to get me through it."
He looked up at Hercules, who was trying to appear interested in the activities of the landlord's flock of chickens.
Xena started to turn away from Iolaus.
Ah, what the Hades, she told her conscience, and surrendered to the impulse to reacquaint herself with the feel of his skin. His eyebrows shot up, then he captured her face between his strong hands and traced her lower lip with his tongue, sliding it delicately into her mouth to torment the underside of her upper lip (he remembered that, she marvelled) and dance against her own tongue. The kiss deepened until they were both breathing in ragged gasps when they broke apart.
"Now the debt is paid in full," Xena said, trying to catch her breath.
"Wow," Iolaus agreed. "By the way, give Gabrielle a kiss for me, okay?"
She looked at him sharply, and he returned it with one of bland innocence. As she walked out of the village, the three men from the inn regarded the small blond man with awe.
The trip back to Thebes seemed to fly by. For once there were no outlaws, monsters or overrun villages, just long, sunny days, clear nights and the best of company. Iolaus grew a little stronger, and a little more himself, every day; he laughingly complained that Hercules was worse than Alcmene with his constant urging to eat and rest more. He still cried out from the grip of his nightmares; Hercules took to sleeping beside him, rather than on the other side of the fire, as was his usual habit. He told himself that it was so he could wake Iolaus up. Iolaus didn't object, after all.
Sometimes he lay awake long after Iolaus' breathing had deepened and slowed, and watched his face, wondering what shape their lives would take after this. Their relationship had changed in some fundamental way, and there would be no going back.
It went past Iolaus' healing. One night, as they lay side by side, he had told Hercules about needing a place to feel safe, and about realising that Hercules was that safe place. He said it tentatively, not looking at Hercules, as though fearing the other man's reaction.
"Safe?" Hercules said a little incredulously. "I've gotten you killed three times. What part of that makes you feel safe?"
Iolaus chuckled. "I'm not talking about that kind of safety. I mean... I can trust you completely. No matter how crazy I make you, because you trust me, too. That makes me feel safe. You know?"
They reached Hercules' homestead at sunset on the sixth day. Iolaus stopped at the crest of the last hill.
"Are you tired?" Hercules asked him.
"No. Well, yeah, I am, but that's not why I stopped. It's just so damn good to be home again, you know? I just want to enjoy it for a second."
Hercules nodded and came to stand behind him, allowing himself the brief luxury of breathing in sun-warmed Iolaus. Sandalwood, and lavender.
"Race you to the house," Iolaus said suddenly, and Hercules watched him fly down the hill for a moment before following him.
Cyrus and Oi-Lan had built the cosy, one-room house beside the stream that ran through the property. It was Hercules' first visit there; inside, he found a note thanking him for his generosity, along with a modest assortment of furniture and kitchen appurtenances. Iolaus hunted around till he came up with a fishing line and went outside to catch their dinner while Hercules built a fire and set the table.
The fire had been reduced to glowing embers, and Iolaus had stifled more than one yawn, when Hercules got up to clear the dishes. Iolaus quickly moved to help him, but Hercules sent him such a ferocious frown that he cringed in mock terror, announcing that he was going to take a bath in the stream before turning in.
Iolaus was wading into the water when Hercules came out with the dishes. His intent had been to rinse them in the stream; instead, he put them on the ground by the bank and watched Iolaus in the starlight.
How many hundreds of times had he seen Iolaus bathe in more than thirty years? Though greatly altered, the sweep of buttock, the curve of shoulder remained achingly familiar.
As he watched, Iolaus ducked beneath the water and rose to his feet again, pushing the heavy mane of wet hair off his face. The water sluiced down his face and chest, and Iolaus licked the droplets from his upper lip.
Hercules felt a tightening in his groin and turned away hastily, dishes forgotten as he stumbled back into the house. What was he thinking? This was the last thing Iolaus needed to deal with. Iolaus, I know you just spent the last two months having sex forced on you, but I was wondering whether you felt like being fucked by your best friend.
Yeah. He was trustworthy, all right. And how could he make Iolaus believe that the sudden emergence of his desire didn't come from some twisted need to use him as he had already been used?
Serena had been gentle and adoring, but he didn't want to be adored. He wanted to be teased, argued with when he got pedantic, laughed at when he took himself too seriously. He wanted what had been right in front of him for most of his life.
He was in bed, back to the room, when Iolaus returned to the house. He feigned sleep when Iolaus said his name softly, and lay tensely, waiting for the smaller man to join him in the bed. Instead, Iolaus took a blanket from the foot of the bed and curled up beside the embers.
Hercules didn't know whether to be relieved or unhappy. He listened to Iolaus' soft, regular breathing for a long time before he fell asleep.
Iolaus lay crumpled at his feet. He sank to his knees in front of the still, bloodied form and gathered it into his arms; Iolaus cried out, and Hercules saw with horror the splintered bone that pierced his chest. He coughed weakly, and a gout of frothy blood welled from his mouth. Hercules smoothed the matted hair with a shaking hand, and Iolaus struggled to open one swollen eye.
"I'll bring you back, Iolaus," he promised, willing the dying man to take another breath.
"Not this time, Herc. Let me go. It's - I can't do this any more," Iolaus answered, and he relaxed in Hercules' arms, breath leaving his body in a soft sigh.
Hercules tried to lift Iolaus, tried to draw breath into his lungs to shout for Hades; his agony burned away his strength. Mindlessly, he pulled Iolaus' vest over the hideous tear in his side. The movement dislodged the knife the two had forged together, and it dropped to the bloodstained sand. Hercules reached for it automatically, and as his hand closed around its hilt he knew with a rush of joy what he had to do.
He heard Iolaus' voice from a long way off, and laid his broken body down as gently as though his spirit still inhabited it. He placed the tip of the dagger against his chest, and began to push. The pain was nothing; his heart had stopped beating already, when Iolaus' stilled beneath his hands.
Iolaus' voice grew louder, and he reached toward the source of the voice. He woke to find himself sitting on the edge of the bed, arms wound around Iolaus, face pressed against the lean chest.
"You're all right now, Herc, it was just your turn to have the bad dream," Iolaus told him. Hercules rose and paced the room agitatedly, finally halting to stare out the door at the river.
"You have to leave here," he said without turning around.
"What are you talking about? I live here," Iolaus said, in that voice he used when he hoped Hercules was joking.
Hercules was silent for a moment as his racing heart slowed. "Why didn't you ever get married again, Iolaus?" he asked quickly, before he could change his mind.
"Why didn't I... Herc, what's this about?"
When no answer was forthcoming, Iolaus finally said, "I haven't met anyone else I wanted to spend the rest of my life with."
"And if Ariston had lived?" Hercules felt Iolaus' presence behind him; his awareness fairly prickled on his skin. Iolaus moved closer, until he was standing directly behind Hercules.
"If Ariston had lived, I would have taken him to Athens and helped him find a patron. He really was a wonderful dancer, Herc; he could have been famous."
"And eventually, when he was ready, I would have said goodbye. He had such a capacity for loving; he deserved someone who could love him that way in return. Hercules, look at me."
He felt Iolaus' hand on his arm and turned, steeling himself.
"I meant what I said, Iolaus. You have to get on with your life. Go far away from Thebes, me and all my insane, murderous relatives, marry the first girl who falls in love with you, and have a dozen kids. Ow! What did you do that for?" he demanded incredulously, his arm throbbing from Iolaus' brutal pinch.
"I thought maybe you were sleepwalking, because I can't believe you'd say anything that idiotic if you were awake. Where did you get the idea that you get the deciding vote in what I do with my life? Don't even start," he warned as Hercules' mouth opened. "You've probably figured out a way to blame yourself for every hangnail I've ever had, haven't you? Well, has it ever occurred to you that by taking responsibility for all the bad things that happen to me, you're also taking credit for all the positive things as well? Shut up for once, and listen," he said furiously, and Hercules subsided, rubbing his arm.
"Whatever happens to me happens because of my choices, not because I'm some - flotsam bobbing along in your current! I'm with you because I love you, dammit, and if that changes, I'll let you know, got it?"
"What did you say?"
Iolaus frowned, baffled by Hercules' tone. "I said, I'm with you because I choose to be, and I'll tell you if -"
"No, you didn't. You said you're with me because you love me." He watched Iolaus' eyes widen, and stepped closer, carefully schooling his features into inscrutability.
"No, I didn't - and even if I did, I didn't mean -"
"You can't unring the bell, Iolaus. Are you in love with me, or not?" Don't quit on me now, Iolaus.
The light of battle faded from Iolaus' eyes; his lips tightened and he looked away, then raised his eyes to Hercules' again.
"Yes," he said almost defiantly, and Hercules smiled.
"Good," he answered, and pulled Iolaus into his arms. Iolaus' mouth on his was a revelation, a blessing, assuaging his hunger even as it fed it. Surely no two mouths had ever fit so perfectly together, no two tongues had ever touched so sweetly, so hotly.
He slid his hands down Iolaus' back to cup his buttocks; Iolaus wrapped his legs around his waist and threaded his hands into Hercules' hair, looking down at him with such fierce love that Hercules had to close his eyes.
Hercules tore his mouth from Iolaus' with reluctance and bent to deposit him on the bed. The room was dark except for the scattering of stars visible from the single window; Hercules threw a log on the fire, and returned to the waiting arms of his lover.
Iolaus caught his breath as the dry wood flared. The golden light danced in Hercules' eyes and across his broad shoulders, licking at his long legs. The straight curtain of Hercules' hair fell forward as he bent over Iolaus, who reached up and hooked it behind an ear, eager to watch the passion he had never thought to see on that cherished face.
"Hercules," he said, cupping a lean cheek tentatively, "Are you sure this is really what you..."
"You talk too much, Iolaus," Hercules told him before reclaiming his mouth with a fervour that left no doubt as to what he wanted.
They kissed for a small eternity, kisses gentle and fierce, tender and demanding, until they were breathless. Finally Hercules moved from Iolaus' mouth to taste the curve of his jaw and the delicate skin beneath his ear, smiling at the soft sound this tasting elicited from Iolaus' parted lips. He returned to them before exploring the curves and planes of his chest, and Iolaus reached for his hand to draw each finger into his mouth, his teeth closing on them involuntarily as his erection strained against Hercules' belly. Iolaus' gasps were becoming more urgent as Hercules reached to snap the side of his breechclout with one hand, tossing it across the room.
He drew back slightly to revel in the firewashed beauty that was Iolaus. Suddenly he could wait no longer to claim that beauty. Gods, where had he thought he would find the strength to let him go?
Iolaus was dizzy with passion, nearly sobbing with it. He reached to curl his hand in the thicket of dark hair that nested the evidence of Hercules' own passion.
"Hercules," he panted, lifting his hips demandingly, his eagerness filling Hercules with joy and fear. Hercules suddenly sat up, moving to the edge of the bed.
"What is it, Hercules?" Iolaus asked him anxiously. "Have you changed your mind? Because if you have, we'll stop now. I don't want to lose your friendship because of one night."
"Never," Hercules said quickly, capturing Iolaus' hand and bringing it to his mouth. "It's just that... Tarsus, and all those animals in the bath house... I don't want to hurt you, Iolaus, or do anything that will remind you of what they did to you."
"Hercules, listen to me," Iolaus said, tilting up Hercules' chin to look into his eyes. "What happened to me in the bath house is going to stay with me for a long time, I won't deny that. I don't know that I'll ever be who I was before. But that - and Tarsus - was violence. It wasn't sex, and it certainly wasn't love.
"Nothing you and I could do together, or be to each other, could be remotely like what happened to me on the island, or in the bath house. I told you, Hercules, you're my safe place; you heal me."
"And I would have walked away from a love like that," Hercules said incredulously, and drew Iolaus back into his arms.
Of course they had to start all over again, with hundreds more kisses, and countless caresses, and finally there was only fevered skin, and unending sensations, and Hercules around Iolaus, and within him, and engulfed by him.
As they lay in each other's arms, drowsing in pre-dawn, post-passion lassitude, Hercules said softly, "Iolaus."
Iolaus rubbed his knuckles gently across Hercules' chest to let him know he was listening.
"Why did you sleep beside the fire tonight instead of getting into the bed?"
Iolaus' hand stopped its exploration. "You were awake?"
"I couldn't sleep," Hercules confessed. "Since I admitted to myself that I wanted more from you than friendship, I haven't been able to think about much else. Especially at night."
Iolaus began to giggle, and Hercules looked at him, a little wounded.
"Hey! I'm serious, here," he protested, unable to keep from smiling himself as Iolaus buried his face in Hercules' chest and laughed. Finally he looked up.
"Do you remember the advice you gave me about jumping into a cold river?"
Hercules nodded suspiciously.
"Well, sometimes it works better than others. I didn't get into bed with you because I had such a raging hard-on that it would have pushed you out of the bed!"
Hercules thought he'd never heard anything as wonderful as the sound of Iolaus' giggle. Then it occurred to him that it might be interesting to find out what other sounds Iolaus would make if Hercules kissed him just there, or stroked him like so...
He had committed quite a few gratifyingly enthusiastic sounds to memory by the time he spoke again.
"Hmm?" his lover answered.
"Your flirting days are over, you know. No more batting those big eyes at beautiful women, no more charming innkeepers into giving us a break on their rates, and absolutely no more kissing Xena."
"Oh, that got you, did it?" Iolaus grinned. "Well, you should know what a good kisser Xena is. Practically sucks your lungs out. I don't know if I'm ready to give that up, unless you can make me a better offer..."
Hercules bent his considerable talents to the subject. The sun was high in the sky before they woke this time.
They passed the days learning from each other, and teaching each other. With Hercules' help, Iolaus' body slowly regained its hard, muscular shape as his strength and endurance returned. The scars inflicted in the bath house faded from his skin, and he shared the disciplines that would lessen the scars on their souls.
They spent time in Iolaus' forge, the heat and labour cleansing them.
They spent hours walking, and talking.
And most of all, they made love.
Their passion was insatiable, their desire endless. It was as though they sought to make up for the past twenty years, to make all the love they could have made had Alcmene not interrupted them on the hill that day. They made love until the borders between their souls disappeared, until there was no telling where one left off and the other began. They made love until they could feel the other's body under their fingertips without touching, and the feel of that body was engraved upon their hearts.
Hercules awoke first. He kept his eyes closed, breathing in the musk of lovemaking that lay on the air, mingling with the Iolaus-scent that was more potent to him than any exotic aphrodisiac. He pulled Iolaus a little closer against his chest, and the sleeping man sighed, pressing back instinctively against Hercules' burgeoning hardness. Hercules ran his hand down his lover's sun-browned body; Iolaus stretched and shivered deliciously before turning over to pull Hercules' head down into a sleepy kiss, hand already reaching to caress him.
Iolaus pushed Hercules back and straddled him, pinning him with his cerulean gaze. Hercules closed his eyes and his head went back as Iolaus rubbed his rough cheek against his belly, nipping gently at the flatness there before moving down to nibble the inside of first one thigh, then the other. He ran his tongue up Hercules' hard length, and smiled at the deep groan it inspired. Hercules' hips bucked convulsively as Iolaus' talented tongue danced across the head of his aching cock, and he pushed into the warm wetness of Iolaus' mouth with a shudder of need. Iolaus' teeth closed gently on him as his fingers dug into Hercules' hard buttocks, lifting him to Iolaus' mouth. Hercules was gasping Iolaus' name incoherently as Iolaus' finger glided into him, and the world fell away as Hercules exploded into Iolaus' mouth in an orgasm so intense Iolaus feared he had stopped breathing. Hercules' body clenched around his finger briefly as he gently withdrew it, and Hercules sighed, wondering how an act that had been brutally invasive when Tarsus had perpetrated it on him could be transformed into something so exquisitely sensual when performed in love.
Iolaus gave him one last caress, then returned to his mouth; Hercules could taste himself on Iolaus' tongue.
"Iolaus," he said suddenly.
"Mmm?" Iolaus said, pushing Hercules' hair away from his ear and setting his teeth gently into his lover's earlobe.
"I want to feel everything you feel when we make love. I want you inside me."
"Hercules, you don't have to -"
Hercules wrapped his hand around Iolaus' cock.
"I want everything, with you," he told Iolaus. "I want to be yours, the way this makes you mine. I want your brand on me this way."
Iolaus leaned forward and kissed Hercules fiercely, then rose from the bed and collected a small bottle of oil and several pillows. Hercules began to grow hard again as he watched Iolaus return to their bed.
He raised his hips to allow Iolaus to put the pillows under him. Iolaus settled on his knees between Hercules' thighs and reached for the bottle of oil, pouring some into his hands to warm it.
He slowly smoothed the oil down Hercules' thighs and over his belly. Hercules' breath came faster as Iolaus grasped his stiffening cock, sliding his hands over Hercules' tightening scrotum, caressing the sensitive skin that lay behind it. He stopped, and Hercules made a sound of protest, then watched as Iolaus' slippery hand closed around his own hard length, coating himself with the warm oil.
Iolaus poured more oil into his hands, then moved closer between Hercules' thighs, pushing his legs farther apart. Hercules began to pant with anticipation as Iolaus slid his hand between his buttocks and pressed against the small aperture. Iolaus gently stroked Hercules' aching erection as his finger slipped inside Hercules. Muscles eased to welcome a second finger, and a third, and Hercules clutched the bed-frame hard enough to splinter it as Iolaus' fingers curved to send waves of pleasure through him.
He was near to exploding again when Iolaus removed his fingers and lifted Hercules' legs to settle them on his shoulders. He pulled Hercules' hips toward him and pushed slowly, steadily, until the head of his cock slipped inside.
Hercules was not prepared for the pain that stabbed him; he grunted and started to pull away, then stopped as he saw the anxiety written on Iolaus' sweat-sheened face.
"Hercules, let me..."
Hercules thrust hard against Iolaus, biting back a cry as Iolaus burned into him. Iolaus' head went back, then his eyes opened, and the look of love, lust and wonder in their endless azure depths filled Hercules' soul as Iolaus filled his body. Iolaus was motionless, waiting for him. This was impossible, he thought, and shifted, and Iolaus' cock pushed against that centre of pleasure that Iolaus had shown him, and this time the bed-frame succumbed.
Iolaus watched his face and began to move inside him, tentatively at first, then more strongly as he felt Hercules soften and open to him. As he thrust, he slid his hot, oily hand along Hercules' cock and pleasure bloomed into fiery, matchless, unprecedented delight, until Hercules shouted Iolaus' name as he poured himself into Iolaus' hand. He had never been so focused on his body; his cock pulsing in Iolaus' hand, his sheath contracting around Iolaus' cock, Iolaus spilling heat into his own heat, his scrotum tight against Hercules'. This was the giving and taking of pleasure of an intensity he had never known was possible.
When the world started again, Iolaus eased himself from Hercules' body and joined him at the head of the bed, pulling Hercules to his shoulder. They were silent for a long time.
"Iolaus," Hercules said.
A sigh was his only answer.
"What was I waiting for?"
The two hearts that met as children were joined at last as men, and would never be separate again.
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