Iolaus panted while he rested behind a broad tree in a forest off the beaten path. Damn, that's the third war band this week. Where in Tartarus is Hercules when I could really use somebody at my back? Of course, he knew his partner was coming this way but that didn't help right this moment. At least twenty armed men were out after his blood and he hadn't even done or said anything stupid to piss them off. It was like they'd been looking for him.
His eyes narrowed while he thought about that. Was Herc in trouble and somebody was trying to see that he couldn't come to his rescue? His ears picked up a footstep coming from the opposite direction and he ducked into a shrub and tensed. Just one. But maybe he had some of the answers Iolaus needed.
Almost quivering with the need to pound somebody, he waited impatiently while the footsteps drew closer. From where he was hiding, all he could see was black leather. Silently, he surged out of the shrub and tackled the stranger. He didn't want him calling out to his buddies. But the dark warrior fought back with unexpected skill and soon Iolaus found himself in an arm lock and face to face with ...
"Oh good. Iolaus, I've been looking for you." Joxer's tones were sunny and his smile as warm as ever while he disengaged from their arm lock. Iolaus grinned and took in the figure before him.
From their tussle, he could tell that the young warrior was in better than good shape. His muscles were well defined and hardened. Where ever he'd been for the last few months, he'd been working out. He smiled approvingly. There was a new maturity in Joxer's face as well, lines that spoke of trouble and sorrow. But underneath it all was a happiness that shone forth like the sun.
"It's good to see you, Joxer." Iolaus remembered a tale that had run the gauntlet of the taverns a few weeks ago. Funny, Joxer didn't look like he'd taken to wearing skirts.
"Good to see you too, Iolaus. I've got a message. Somebody needs to talk to you. Can you come now?" Joxer said earnestly.
"Got nothing better to do, unless that war band comes back."
"Has it been very bad, Iolaus?" Joxer frowned suddenly. "I've been away for awhile."
"One fight after another." Iolaus was suddenly weary but he followed alongside of Joxer who was moving confidently to the north. "I've never seen it this bad. Just when we finish with one war band, another pops up. No rhyme or reason to their looting. They are all out for blood instead of property. Weird."
"It's not just here. There are reports from all up and down the coast." Joxer sounded absent minded as if his thoughts were else where. "Hercules not with you?"
"We're supposed to meet in Tanagra if I can get there in one piece. We split up to cover more ground. It'll be good to see him again." Iolaus was swept with a sudden wave of need for his lover that clenched his teeth and tightened his jaw. He really needed to see that long-limbed demigod with the shy smile and the light blue eyes.
Joxer sent him a gaze of commiseration and a rueful smile. "I know the feeling."
Iolaus sent him a appraising look. "Where have you been, Joxer? It's been months since we last met. Greece isn't so big that we could have missed each other completely. Although I did hear a story or two."
Joxer blushed. "Makeup and skirts?" He continued at Iolaus' nod. "Strife had a lot of fun with that one. But the rumors will die down eventually. We have a more serious problem right now. I'd tell you about it but you wouldn't believe me."
They continued in silence for a few moments while Iolaus ran through a dozen scenarios in his mind. Strife? He is on a first name basis with the god of mischief? Something or someone had given Joxer a real shot in the ego. Add the muscles, coordination, decisiveness and air of command and it all added up to one thing.
"Who is she, Joxer? Who's the lover who's taken you in hand and given you such confidence?" Iolaus wondered out loud.
Joxer blushed again and swallowed visibly. "He's someone I met at the Winter Solstice." His eyes unfocused and he sighed, tripping over the next tree root. Catching himself up with an agile twist, he looked ruefully over at the blond warrior. "I guess, I'm not as over the clumsiness as I thought. But then thinking of him, kind of makes me just want to see him. He's the most wonderful warrior in the world."
Iolaus' eyes widened. Joxer and a guy? Not in a million years had he ever considered that scenario. Oh, but the kid had it bad. Most wonderful warrior in the world? Who could it be? He noticed a black and blue bruise on Joxer's neck. He immediately thought the worst.
"Are you shocked, Iolaus?" He asked anxiously.
"No. Well, kind of." Iolaus shook his head. "That's a pretty bad bruise you've got there, Joxer. Are you sure you're all right?"
Joxer shook his head ruefully. "He's been working out with me and he wants me to be able to handle anything a warrior might throw at me. I forgot to duck this time. Usually he treats me like a piece of fine china. He'd never hurt me, Iolaus, not deliberately. I'm not a naive boy who's being abused by an older sadist."
Iolaus was a little worried that Joxer had gotten in over his head this time. He'd always thought that the young warrior was looking for someone to love who would love him back. Perhaps he'd gotten lucky. Joxer was such an endearing goofus that he could see where somebody would want to take him in. "So long as he's good to you. I mean, he takes care of you and doesn't take advantage of your kind nature."
Joxer smiled such a sweet smile that Iolaus sighed unconsciously. "He takes very good care of me, Iolaus. And his family has been wonderful. His mother is determined to feed me until I burst. His brothers and sisters have been great. Even his daughter accepts me. She's a great kid. Just turned seventeen and about ready to go out and break hearts. She has her father's eyes. Dark and passionate." Joxer sighed and got a silly smile on his face.
"Good. 'Cause if he ever gives you any grief, you come see me and I'll straighten him out." Iolaus was happy for his friend but curious as a cat. "When do I get to meet him?"
"Soon." Joxer was smiling a secret smile that made Iolaus even more curious.
I wonder if I know him. Widowers. Who do I know that has a daughter? Iolaus mused while they walked, sorting through the men who he knew were even slightly kinked in the direction of male love but who had families accepting of that kink. Well, not so much a kink, more like an exotic taste.
They were walking towards a cliff when they heard the sound of horses behind them. Joxer grabbed Iolaus' arm and hurried him towards the stone face. "Hurry. They'll see us in a moment."
"Joxer! They'll see us anyway. You're heading for a cliff. We need to go to cover." Iolaus was tugging in the opposite direction.
"Iolaus, close your eyes." Joxer was moving one hand along the ivy that covered the rock while holding onto Iolaus' arm. Giving it a shake, he spoke more urgently. "Trust me, Iolaus. Close your eyes."
Iolaus sent up a quick prayer to Hephaestus and closed his eyes. A moment later, he felt his ears pop. Opening his eyes, he saw nothing. No cliff, no ivy, no Joxer. No light, no sound, nothing. He felt Joxer's hand tremble.
"Hey, guys. We could use a light here." He called out quietly.
"Oh yeah. Here you go. See you in a moment." A disembodied voice wafted up from below them and a dancing ball of fire bobbed in front of them.
Iolaus felt Joxer relax and he saw him wipe a sheen of sweat from his face.
"I'm trying to get over it but I really, really dislike the dark." Joxer said shamefaced.
"No problem. It almost freaked me out. Where are we?" Iolaus looked around at the narrow channel that stretched before them. Behind them appeared to be solid rock. This was too, too weird. Had Joxer just walked them through stone?
"It just looks solid. They set it up for mortals to get in and out. Let's go. He hates to be kept waiting." And without another word, he set off down the corridor.
Iolaus reached out gently and watched his hand begin to disappear through the rock. Snatching his hand back, he shook his head. What had he gotten himself into this time? What would Herc do? Follow Joxer and find out what was going on. So, hurrying to catch up, Iolaus stayed right on Joxer's heels.
They walked for a bit before Iolaus noticed the temperature rising. A red glow from up ahead beckoned them on. His eyes widened at the vast chamber into which they walked. He recognized this place. It was Hephaestus' forge. But that was on the other side of the country. Wasn't it? He shook his head free of the cobwebs and focused on the figure beating the metal on the anvil.
The scarred side of his face was toward them and his look of concentration was one Iolaus recognized from his own forge. He was completely focused on the metal bar held in his iron pincers, glowing red-hot from the forge, his other hand wielding a hammer in a steady rhythm of blows. It looked like it might be going to be a sword but Iolaus couldn't be sure.
"Iolaus, good to see you." Hephaestus called out, his eyes never leaving the metal. "Come on over so we can talk. Joxer, could you get us something to drink? 'Dite and Arry should be here shortly and I'd kind of like to have Iolaus caught up on the problem."
"Sure, Hep." Joxer smiled at Iolaus and gave him a little push towards the god of fire.
Hep? What in Tartarus is going on here? Wondering if he'd taken a blow to the head and was just hallucinating this, Iolaus surreptitiously pinched himself and started at the pain. All right, he was really here and there was a problem. He was good at problems.
"Pull up a bench and listen, Iolaus. I need you to help us out."
"Us?" Iolaus straddled a nearby bench and listened expectantly. What he heard widened his eyes and sent his brain reeling. Rogue gods, wars, death, elements of power ...
A goblet appeared in his hand and Joxer guided it to his lips. The first gulp of the icy cold spring water shocked him to full alert and he nodded jerkily at the young warrior. Hephaestus thrust the iron bar back into the glowing coals and laid down his tools. Joxer took him a goblet and the scarred god accepted it with a smile of thanks.
Limping over to the bench, he joined Iolaus. His dark eyes smiled on the golden warrior. "A lot to take in, I know. But the gods can't be everywhere and we need eyes and ears on the ground. Joxer's supposed to be dead so we have to use him sparingly where word can't get back to the rogue."
Joxer leaned against a nearby table and he shrugged at Iolaus' inquiring look. "She stabbed me at a party. Arry got me away and ... uh, I healed." He looked uncomfortable and cast a helpless look at Hephaestus.
"The important thing is that you don't tell anyone about this." Hephaestus told him solemnly.
Iolaus bristled immediately. "I can't promise that."
Joxer broke in on Hephaestus' in-drawn breath. "He doesn't mean you can't tell Hercules. In fact, Aphrodite is talking to him right now."
Iolaus paused, disconcerted at Hephaestus' grin at the young warrior. "Yeah, the wife hunted him down this morning. Sorry, Iolaus. We're talking to the mortals we can trust. Hermes is telling Autolycus. Tyche is taking care of Salmonius. Hecate is tracking down Xena and Gabrielle. There are others but you know those four."
"But what do you need from us? You already know that the world is heating up, battle-wise." Iolaus took another long drink from his golden goblet.
"We need to know where the rogue hangs out. Her home base, as it were." Hephaestus frowned. "The gods have always turned a blind eye towards the others' power storage. We thought that everyone deserved one place where we can just relax and rest up from our duties. Normally, it's a place that responds to our first element. But it's really important that we find Ate's nest. She's been storing an ungodly amount of energy that she'll be able to draw on when we join in battle."
Iolaus looked from Joxer to Hephaestus. They wore identical grim looks that made him shiver. For a moment, the young warrior looked like a hardened veteran. "Of course, I'll help. What do you need me to do?"
"Her activity seems to be centered on the coast. That means she's using a cave or a mountain. Her first element is earth but her second is water so that kind of makes sense." Hephaestus mused out loud, his eyes straying back to his forge.
"I still think it's an island." Joxer said mildly.
The god of fire shot him an amused look. "Poseidon is checking that out along with all the wind gods. Still got the bet with Hestia on that?"
"She offered me 10 to 1 odds." Joxer smiled and quirked an eyebrow. "Of course, I took her up on it."
Iolaus wondered why the eyebrow made him nervous. Hestia. The virgin goddess of fire has a bet with Joxer? What is the world coming to?
Joxer stiffened and his eyes went unfocused. A tender smile crossed his face and he stood up straight and looked expectantly beyond the forge. Iolaus followed his gaze in time to see Aphrodite wink into view with Ares behind her.
"Hephae!" She called and flung herself into the arms of the quickly rising god of fire. A long passionate kiss ensued that almost melted Iolaus to the bench and would have if he hadn't been keeping a wary eye on the smirking god of war. Although, actually it was more of a smile than a smirk. A smile directed at ... Joxer.
Iolaus felt his heart sink and all his protective instincts come to the fore. It couldn't be ... Joxer couldn't have taken up with the dangerous god of war. And what was in it for Ares? He'd always been impatient with slowness. What could he want with an amiable klutz like Joxer? Oh gods, how could he rescue the young warrior before it was too late?
But now, Ares was by Joxer's side and they touched briefly before pulling back to stand side by side. The dark god's eyes were glowing with fire, a look that Iolaus couldn't believe in even though he was seeing it. Joxer simply looked content as if a missing piece had been returned to him. Iolaus felt his heart break with the knowledge that it was probably too late to save him. He just hoped that Joxer wouldn't be too devastated when he learned of Ares' true nature.
"Iolaus." Ares' deep voice acknowledged his presence, while his hand slid into Joxer's for a brief caress.
"Ares." Iolaus tried to keep his voice neutral but knew he hadn't succeeded when Joxer's eyes went dark and he stepped forward to place himself slightly in front of the dark god. He's protecting him!
"It's all right, Joxer. Iolaus has only ever seen the worst of me. He's right to be wary." Ares' voice sounded tired, as if he'd fought this battle before.
Iolaus paused, disconcerted by that thought. Ares was just manipulating them. Wasn't he?
"No matter what you think you know about Ares, could you please just put it aside until we solve this problem?" Joxer asked quietly.
"Hi, sweet cheeks." Aphrodite had ended her clinch with her husband and had turned to give him a hug. "Listen, Iolaus, we really need your help. I got a hold of Herc this morning and he's on his way to Tanagra now. He's agreed to help so it would be really nice if you signed on too."
For once, her laughing eyes were serious and Iolaus put her at arm's length, a wary eye on Hephaestus who just grinned back at him. "I'll help. It will just take a little getting used to. Working with the god of war."
Ares stepped forward and Iolaus just knew that his hidden hand was on Joxer's back. "If it's any help, you'll be working with 'Dite and Hep. Joxer and I will be in the background keeping a low profile until it comes time to confront Ate. For once, you won't have to worry about me interfering."
Iolaus nodded slowly and bent his head to listen to Aphrodite tell him about her meeting with Herc. But one ear was trained behind him at the two warriors who stood so closely together. They spoke softly but something in the acoustics of the room brought their whispers straight to his ear.
"There was danger this morning, love." Ares' deep voice caressed the endearment.
"Just a little, Arry. Iolaus was the one in the fight earlier. We left just ahead of the war band." Joxer spoke softly but firmly.
A soft kissing sound and Iolaus suddenly felt like a voyeur.
"I worry." Ares sighed.
"I know. I wish Iolaus understood."
"It's not something that we want the average mortal to know about us, Joxer. Look how long it took me to explain about our elements and the energies involved to you. And I love you." Ares sounded muffled and Iolaus desperately wanted to turn and see what he was doing. He couldn't have said 'I love you', could he?
A silver shield on a nearby pillar caught his eye and in its highly polished surface, he saw Ares gentle a kiss under Joxer's ear, his arms tight around the young warrior. Iolaus was reeling under the shock of a tender Ares. He felt like his world was tilting on its axis and he was sliding into a place where everything was turned upside down. He watched in dismay as they kissed.
"Iolaus." Aphrodite waved her hand in front of his face. "I know it's a bit of a shock but you're just going to have to live with it. They're in love and that's not going to change."
"He'll hurt him, Aphrodite. What does Ares know about love?" Iolaus spoke softly.
Her eyes went flint hard and she gripped his arm. "Like Joxer was never hurt before. When his mortal 'friends' called him a goof-ball and treated him like a child who's incapable of taking care of himself. When the girl of his dreams walks all over him and uses him for her own purposes. When his fellow warriors treat him like a puppy instead of trying to teach him how to be a better fighter."
Iolaus opened his mouth to refute her hissed comments but a sudden memory of his reaction to one of Joxer's comments was a roll of his eyes and a shrugging off of his suggestion. He blushed and stopped his protest. "They're really in love?"
"Just a much as you and Herc, Sweet cheeks." Aphrodite patted his cheek at his sudden flush. "Like you could keep that a secret after using Cupid's Grotto. I'm very proud of you two, but you have no idea what those two have been through to be together so don't be a judgmental ass. Herc can take that role when he finds out."
Iolaus gulped. He wasn't looking forward to that scene.
Aphrodite's eyes were contemplative. "I've always wondered what went wrong between them. When Herc was growing up, they were best buddies. I always thought he looked up to Ares. Then, something happened and boom! Nothing but contempt and dislike on Herc's part. I could never get him to tell me why. It was before Harmonia was born so whatever went wrong, it's more than past time to fix it." Her eyes refocused on Iolaus. "That's your job, sweetie. Get him to talk and soon. This has festered long enough."
Iolaus shrugged unhappily. "I'll try, Aphrodite."
"Good. We're all on the same side here. Any divisions could be used against us. And Ate will if she can." Aphrodite shivered. "Stick close to Hercules. This is not a time to be parted from your loved ones."
"Everything all right, 'Dite?" Ares' husky voice came behind Iolaus' shoulder and the golden warrior tensed then deliberately relaxed and turned to meet the brooding gaze.
"It's fine, Ares." Watching Aphrodite tug Joxer away, he continued in even tones. "Just don't hurt him. He's too good a man for that."
A rueful smile flitted across the dark god's lips. "Too good for me, you mean. Would you be surprised if I said I agreed with you? I do, you know. He's sunshine and laughter. He brings me joy, the like of which I've never felt before. I would die before I ever brought him a moment of pain. He's everything I'm not but wished to be."
Iolaus heard truth in every word. He nodded once and wondered how in the world he was going to try and tell Herc about this. His lover was going to go right through the roof. But he believed the god of war and one look at Joxer was enough to prove that the young warrior was holding his own with the dark god he'd chosen as his lover.
Strange times, indeed. He grinned faintly to himself, watching Joxer and Ares wink out. He overheard Aphrodite tell Hephaestus to go home because as soon as she delivered Iolaus to Tanagra, she was coming home to light a few fires of her own.
Iolaus bit back a snicker at the look on the fire god's face before he disappeared. Aphrodite beckoned him over and in a moment, he was in the barn at the Lion's Inn at Tanagra. She kissed him on the cheek and flashed out. Shaking his head, he headed for the bar and his own reunion with his lover. It had been a very strange day and with a grin, he headed for the one person who could make it all better.
Standing in the doorway of the inn, he let his eyes get adjusted to the dim light. His eyes going unerringly to the tall figure slouched at the bar, he felt his groin tighten and he met the blue eyes with a tender look that had the demigod straightening in anticipation.
"Hey, Herc. Long time, no see."
Hercules lay contentedly with Iolaus blanketing him. He stroked the strong back above him while he glowed with the aftermath of their lovemaking. His lover had been a wild man, all fierce caresses and powerful strength. He could still feel the tender spot inside although the golden warrior had long since slipped from his body. It felt good to be back with his lover again. He'd missed the sex but he'd craved this closeness more.
This wonderful sense of being a part of another heart and soul. Only when Iolaus was with him did he feel complete. Whole. Right now, their hearts beat in synchronized rhythm, slow and strong. He caressed the golden curls pillowed on his shoulder, lacing his fingers through the soft hair in a gentle massage. No matter what was coming, this would never change. Their love was real and here for always.
The flutter of Iolaus' eyelashes against his throat told him his lover was finally waking up. "Hey, sleepyhead. The inn has an indoor bath, complete with a tub big enough for two."
Iolaus stretched like a cat, raising his head and gazing down at Hercules. "Good idea. Much as I'd like to be permanently glued to you, it would make fighting difficult."
Hercules laughingly tickled the ribs so temptingly close and listened with joy to the peals of laughter from his golden warrior.
"No fair, Herc. You don't have any tickle spots." Iolaus rolled off his lover and to his feet with one continuous motion. "Last one in the tub has to scrub the other's back." And he was gone, with a towel slung over one shoulder, his long legs and tight ass disappearing out the door before Hercules could truly appreciate them.
Sighing, Hercules got out of bed and grabbed another towel before making his way leisurely down the hall to the baths. Iolaus was so graceful, he made the demigod feel like a clumsy ox sometimes. The sound of splashing speeded his steps, his stomach clenching with the thought of what he'd see when he went through the door. Iolaus was made for water. He shone like a bright jewel when he was wet and dripping in the candlelight.
Ah-h-hhh! Hercules released the breath he hadn't even known he was holding. A golden merman, sent to tease and torment him with beauty and kisses. A water sprite with an endearing grin and a body to die for.
"Come in and wash my back, Herc. You lost." Iolaus grinned mischievously.
Hercules climbed in the big wooden tub with a hiss at the hot water, his eyes never leaving the sparkling blue gaze of his lover. "Wrong, love. I won. I love washing you."
Iolaus wiggled all over and floated over to Hercules. "I guess I'm wrong, then. It's happened before."
Hercules wondered at the uncomfortable look that crossed his lover's face. Then his arms were full of a warm wet body that caressed his skin like a dozen slick hands. Long moments passed in hot kisses and provocative licks from a raspy tongue. The soap was found and they were both squeaky clean by the time the water began to cool. Wrapped in the towels, they made their way back to their room and the hot meal waiting for them.
They didn't bother to dress, just left their towels slung low across their hips. Hercules liked seeing Iolaus naked and his lover had told him once that if he never dressed again, it was all right with him.
Iolaus was giving him strange looks across the table. So, Hercules finished his olive and sent him a questioning look. "What, Iolaus? Have I got cheese in my eyebrows or something?"
"Nah. I've just got something to tell you and I'm not sure how you're going to take it." He halfheartedly licked a piece of shredded lamb off his finger and sighed. "Aphrodite told you about the rogue?"
Hercules nodded. "She said the gods are gathering in mortal helpers to search for Ate's home away from home. She was always a strange one. Kind of morbid and scary when I was a kid."
"Yeah, Hephaestus filled me in. But you'll never guess who's working with the gods on this. Joxer."
"Joxer? The clumsy warrior with a lucky streak a mile wide?" Hercules felt his jaw go slack.
"He's been working out lately. I jumped him, thinking he was one of a war band who'd been following me and he fought me to a standstill." Iolaus sounded proud.
"Really. Good for him." Hercules couldn't quite see it but he was willing to go along with Iolaus' story.
"He's with someone now. Somebody who's given him a lot of needed confidence. Who seems to really care for him."
"Well, that's great. Why do I get a feeling that you're going to drop a bomb on me? It's not Aphrodite, is it?"
Iolaus shook his head and buried himself in his wine goblet. After draining it, he thumped it on the table and took a deep breath. "It's Ares."
Hercules shook his head. That couldn't be right. It sounded like Iolaus had said Ares. Ares was a cold-hearted son of a bitch who couldn't care for anyone. He didn't realize that he'd spoken out loud until Iolaus sighed.
"Why, Herc? Why do you hate Ares so much?" Iolaus' voice was gentle. "Aphrodite said that when you were a boy, you and Ares were friends."
Hercules felt suddenly cold as a memory from his boyhood surfaced after being suppressed for years. He shivered and gripped his goblet so hard, he crushed it. He heard Iolaus' exclamation then his strong arms were around him and his soothing voice was asking him something. He tried to concentrate on the words but they didn't make sense while the old memories rolled across his mind like a stampeding herd.
When next he could concentrate, he was in bed with the covers piled high over him while Iolaus wrapped a hot brick and settled it at his feet. The shaking was less and he managed a small grin for his frantic lover.
"Damn you, Herc. You scared me to death." He kissed him gently and stroked a tender hand down his lover's cheek. "Can you talk about it yet?"
Hercules struggled to get a hand out from under the covers so he could touch Iolaus. The golden warrior stilled his struggles and slipped under the blankets so they were skin to skin. Hercules smiled gratefully and hugged him close.
"I'd forgotten why I distrust him so much until you said Aphrodite's name. Almost eighteen years ago when I was fifteen and up for a visit to Olympus, something happened that sent me running from Olympus. I've never been back."
"Something to do with Ares and Aphrodite?" Iolaus' gentle murmur sounded like balm to his ears.
"I was up for a visit. I enjoyed Olympus for short visits. I was always afraid I was going to break something up there. It's really clean and neat, no flower would ever dare grow out of alignment there. But I had stopped at Ares' temple and found Aphrodite there flitting in and out of his private chambers. When she saw me, she looked taken aback. Stopping me on the portico, she told me that it wasn't a good idea to visit right then."
Hercules took a deep breath and held Iolaus' hand tighter. "She sounded nervous but she'd always been good to me so I shrugged and said okay. She laughed and said to wait a week and come back. 'The fire should be extinguished by then.' I remember wondering what fire she meant. I was just leaving when Ares popped in. He was covered in blood and his eyes were glazed. I don't think he ever saw me. He looked at Aphrodite and pounced on her. She was saying something about slowing down and bathing but he just growled and threw her over his shoulder. Her little hands were beating on his back and she was yelling his name but he just stalked to the bedroom and slammed the door."
His eyes were closed as the old pictures flickered across his eyelids. "I was frozen there. I couldn't move or think then I heard her scream and I just ran. Zeus had created a portal for me so I could come and go. I dived through it and headed home like a demon was after me. But on the way, I came across a battle site. There were bodies everywhere and the crows were already picking at the corpses. It smelled of death and decay and I threw up everything I'd eaten. I was sick for days after. I couldn't tell Mother what I'd seen, I felt too guilty for leaving Aphrodite alone with that man."
Iolaus held him until he stopped shaking. "Did you ever tell Zeus about it? Or anyone?"
Hercules shook his head wearily. He felt like he'd come through a battle. "No one. I just locked it inside and never went back. I told Zeus that I wanted to live in the world. He agreed and came to visit me for the next few years."
Iolaus laid soft kisses all over his face with little comforting murmurs that soothed his mind to stillness. "Herc, do you know that while you were telling me that memory, your voice was that of a young boy?"
Hercules shook his head, wondering why that mattered, but Iolaus kept on talking. "I think that that memory is stuck in time for you and so is your reaction to it. I love you and I never want to hurt you, you know that." He waited for another nod before going on, Hercules was now focusing all his attention on his lover. "If you were to go back there as a grown man, right now, I think you might see some clues that would help you forget it. Would you try that for me?"
The demigod moved restlessly as the ice cold knot began to reform in his stomach but he managed another nod. Iolaus just held him for a long moment before continuing to speak softly. "What was Aphrodite wearing today, lover? That pretty pink dress that always makes her look so fragile. Right?" He waited for a squeeze of his hand. "Was she wearing something like that back then?"
"It was white and shimmery like satin, with lots of lace."
"Sounds like a nightgown instead of a dress. Could it have been a pretty negligee?"
"Yes. Mother had one like that, all soft and smooth." Hercules drew out the memory with a smile.
"Good. Now when Ares popped in, you said his eyes were glazed and he was covered in blood." Iolaus stilled the trembling with a gentle hand. "If he'd just come from a battle, could some of the blood have been his?"
The elder Hercules looked more closely at the bloody figure frozen in his mind. Beyond the blood was the slit in the torn vest and the tear in the leather pants. The darkening bruise on one cheek vied for attention with the bloody bandage wrapped around his left arm. There were deep lines of fatigue etched in his face.
"He was tired and wounded in at least two places."
"You've been married twice now, Herc. When you look at Aphrodite with adult eyes, what do you see?"
Aphrodite was wearing an off the shoulder negligee and she'd been laughing at Ares, doing that playful nagging she was so good at. Fast forwarding the picture a little, the elder Hercules saw her shriek and pound Ares' back but now he heard the laughter in her voice and the mock pleading for a bath first. The shriek from behind the closed door was passion not fear.
"She wanted Ares. She was teasing him." He spoke in amazement, the knot of ice slowly dissolving.
"That's what it sounded like to me, big guy." Iolaus smiled warmly and nuzzled a kiss under his ear, making Hercules arch and moan. "But I know that you were a pretty innocent kid. It must have come as a shock especially when you couldn't figure out what was going on and you never told anyone about it."
"And coming across the battle scene so soon after, just wedged it into my mind. I still hate that he causes wars." Hercules was aware for the first time that evening that it was really hot under all the covers. Throwing off the covers, he reached instead for Iolaus and brought him over to cover him like a blanket.
"Herc, there's a lot of violence in the world and I don't think even Ares could manage to be the cause of all of it. Mortals just seem prone to bloodletting and mayhem. Sometimes, it seems like we thrive on it."
Hercules made a distressed sound deep in his throat and shook his head back and forth on the pillow. "I don't want to believe that, Iolaus. We have to eventually put anger and fear aside if we're ever to grow into peace and harmony."
Iolaus stilled a moment and a small smile flitted across those beautiful lips, catching Hercules' attention. "Joxer said that his lover's daughter had accepted him. She just turned 17 and she has her father's dark eyes. Then Aphrodite mentioned that the break came before Harmonia was born. What do you want to bet that 'Dite is the mother of Ares' daughter?"
Hercules made himself think of it. He'd heard of Aphrodite's child but she was married to Hephaestus now. He'd always just assumed it was his. They broke up and got back together again on a regular basis. A grin unwillingly crossed his face.
"What? Share, big guy." Iolaus grinned back at him and began a subtle movement of his hips that teased their trapped erections to life.
"Well, if Harmonia is the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, would that make Joxer her step-mom?"
"Oh, you're bad, Herc."
"Well, then I guess you'll just have to punish me, Iolaus." Hercules began a sweeping motion down the strong back and over the small white cheeks, dipping into the crevice and brushing across the sensitive opening.
Iolaus arched against him, gripping his shoulders with one hand while the other reached for the vial of oil on the bedside table. Reaching behind him, he poured it down the crevice, onto Hercules' fingers and let it drip down onto his hardened cock.
"Never punishment, Herc, only ever love." His white teeth grinned at him in the candlelight, his blue eyes sparkling with passion.
Hercules began the gentle stretching that would allow him inside his friend ... companion ... lover. Soft moans filled the room when he rotated three fingers within the tight channel. Iolaus was suckling on an almost painfully erect nipple when Hercules nudged his aching cock inside the tight ring of muscle.
Iolaus pushed back and sat down, impaling himself in one swift motion. Now, it was Hercules' turn to groan at the feel of the hot grip of Iolaus' inner muscles. They stayed that way for a long moment, savoring the completion of their bond. Then Hercules thrust up and hit Iolaus' pleasure spot and the fireworks began for both of them. It was a short ride towards the pinnacle of passion and they fell over the edge together, pulsing out their seed into the other's keeping.
A purr from his chest shook Hercules with silent laughter. He'd named Iolaus a cat awhile back and he loved to hear him purr.
"Go to sleep, Herc. We'll clean up in the morning." The sleep-slurred accents were murmured against his shoulder.
"I love you, Iolaus. Thanks for helping me lay some childhood ghosts." He kissed the sweet smelling curls under his chin and barely heard the mumbled reply.
"...welcome, Herc. Love you."
The demigod settled down to sleep, for the first time in years without the anger and guilt that had festered inside him. He could even hope that Joxer might have a good influence on Ares. It would be interesting to see what happened there. Pulling up one of the blankets, he covered Iolaus' sweating back and went to sleep without fear of any bad dreams.
"Ares, are you still awake?" Joxer said hesitantly.
"Hm-m-m. Do you need something?" Ares' sleepy voice sounded from his pillow on the young warrior's shoulder.
"Do you think Iolaus is okay with us?"
Ares raised his head and looked down affectionately. "I think he is, Joxer. He doesn't think I'm good enough for you but then friends are like that."
"You are better than I deserve." Joxer's gaze was fierce. "I love you more than life itself."
Ares kissed him gently. "I think Iolaus got the message when you stepped in front of me to protect me from him."
Joxer blushed. "He just made me so mad when he said your name like it was a curse word."
"It is a curse in some parts of the world, Joxer. At least the part of me that's the god of war." Ares lay back down and pulled Joxer over on top of him, settling him onto his skin like a soothing lotion that would heal everywhere it touched.
"They just don't know you, Ares. Love you so much." Joxer hid a yawn in his neck.
"Love you too, Joxer. Go to sleep and dream of me." Ares feathered a kiss onto the silky black hair below his chin. Iolaus seemed at least willing to see both sides of the situation. Maybe, he'd be a good influence on Hercules.
Oh well, tomorrow was another day. At least he wouldn't have to face it alone. And Ares fell asleep.
End part fifteen