Hercules stretched and rubbed his lower back. Another house finished. This village was almost restored and he looked forward to taking a day off while they headed for the next devastated hamlet that needed their help. Saying goodbye to the family who was busy moving into the newly re-roofed house, he walked slowly towards the forge where he could hear Iolaus still banging away.
Stopping by the window, he leaned on the sill and just watched his friend finish up a ... frying pan. A last almost delicate blow of the shaping hammer and Iolaus was turning it this way and that. Hercules shook his head fondly, he was such a perfectionist even when he was tired. He had to be sick of making pots and pans but he cheerfully kept on repairing and creating anew the cookware that the ladies of each village needed.
"Hey, Herc, are you done for the day?" Iolaus laid down his tools and smiled across the forge at him. That smile never failed to warm him with its sunny glow.
"Finally. How about you?" He answered with a smile of his own.
"This one was the last. Shara brought over some stew for our dinner. Damon had a good day hunting so there's even meat in it." Iolaus laughed and rubbed his shoulder absentmindedly. "There's a tub of hot water for baths. Although it's not big enough for two." His sultry look made Hercules forget how tired he was.
"That's good." Hercules pretended a gravity he didn't feel. "Maybe this way we'll actually make it through a bath without all that moaning and groaning."
The blue eyes across the forge lit up with laughter and they shared a single thought before speaking in unison. "Nah-h-h-h."
Dinner was eaten in the small room that served as home for the traveling blacksmith of the province. The village had been extremely grateful for their help since it was over a month until their regular farrier was due to visit. Their meals were all provided by the women of the village, and tonight was no exception to the quality of the food they'd enjoyed the last few days.
Hercules mopped up the last drops of savory broth with a wedge of bread. Chewing slowly, he watched his lover divide the last of the wine between their two wooden goblets. Iolaus really must be tired, he'd hardly spoken two words while they ate. But he knew if he asked, he'd get a complete denial.
He could hear Iolaus now, *Tired? Who, me? No way, big guy. I've got energy to burn.* But they'd been working nonstop for over a month, ever since they'd been dropped off in Piraeus by Captain Adad. They had steadily worked their way up the coast, relieving the worst of the rebuilding problems with muscles and sweat.
But even the demigod was willing to admit to being tired. There had been no time for themselves with so much devastation around them. It seemed selfish to even think of taking a day or two off but they couldn't keep going without a break or they risked catching the sickness that had already struck several of the villages.
"Herc, why do you think the gods haven't been around lately?" Iolaus cradled his goblet of mulled red wine and watched the flames dance on the small stone hearth. "Do you think they're all right?"
*You mean do I think Joxer is all right?* Hercules still didn't quite see why Iolaus felt like he needed to big-brother the clumsy warrior. *Well, not clumsy now that Ares has been working with him.* As always, the thought of his half brother gave him a twinge. He'd come to terms with the god of war and what he did for the other gods. At least, he was working on it.
"I don't know, Iolaus. Hephaetus looked all right when we saw him near Corinth."
"He told me that Hestia was fueling him with her link to the River of Fire. The other gods may not have that luxury. I know it sounds odd to worry about a god but this war left everybody devastated. Not just our part of the world." Iolaus grinned sheepishly.
Hercules gazed fondly on his lover. "If they needed us, they'd tell us so. You know that, love."
"I'm glad to hear you say that, Herc." Aphrodite's amused accents preceded her arrival in a slight shower of golden light. To Hercules' eyes, she looked tired and worn, not at all the vivacious woman he was used to seeing. Iolaus must have thought the same because he stood and gave up his stool and his goblet of wine to the blond goddess. "Thanks, sweet cheeks. It's been a real bummer so far this month."
They listened quietly to her explanation of the energy problem and how Ares proposed to solve it. Iolaus asked a few questions but Hercules kept silent. His thoughts were in a turmoil of doubt and apprehension. Every time they got mixed up with the gods, something bad happened. And yet ...
"Think about it, big brother." Aphrodite dropped a kiss on his hair and faded out without any display at all.
"Come on, Herc. Let's take a bath and go to bed. Maybe sleeping on it will bring you an answer." Iolaus grabbed the kettle of water steaming on the hob and poured it into the wooden tub near the hearth. Hercules watched him undress with a little catch in his breath that always came with the unveiling of the strong, lithe body.
Watching him scrub lustily with the long handled brush and soap reminded him that he was rather looking forward to being clean as well. Wearily, he toed off his boots and began to untie his shirt while still keeping his gaze on the golden hunter sliding down in the tub to wash his hair. His hands stilled at the sight of the warrior gleaming white and gold in the flickering firelight.
Iolaus stepped from the tub with water running in little rivulets down the long muscles of his torso and legs. Hercules' eyes followed one drop all the way down to the shapely feet. Then the golden man was by his side and his lips were taken in a gentle but firm kiss that warmed him through.
"Your turn, love." Nimble fingers finished the job of undressing him before guiding him into the tub. He filled most of the space and Iolaus used a bronze cup to pour water over his head and back. The hunter washed his hair for him while the demigod washed his front. Iolaus used the long handled brush to wash his back and the bristles made him wriggle with their ticklish touch.
"Hey, big guy, don't tell me I found a ticklish spot?" Iolaus' voice was gleeful. "One of these days when you least expect it, I'm going to pounce on you and make you laugh out loud." He tilted Herc's head back to rinse out the soap, protectively covering his eyes.
The demigod felt cherished as he noted the small gesture. One of many little touches and offers that Iolaus showered on him daily. *I am one lucky man to have such a friend and lover.*
Grabbing one of Iolaus' hands, he kissed the palm gently. "Have I told you lately how much I appreciate you, Iolaus?"
His laughter echoed through the room. "Every day, Herc. You show me every day even if it's not with words. Out you get." He held a towel at waist level for Hercules to dry with.
Hercules couldn't keep his eyes from the man before him as he briskly toweled him dry. He was a golden siren, luring him into the wide soft bed and inflaming him with knowing touches. Their damp skin slid together with a gentle friction that warmed the demigod from his toes to the ends of his hair.
Iolaus' touch was everywhere while his lips caressed each bit of flesh into a sensitized ache. Hercules writhed on the bed while his lover drove him into madness and over the edge into release, the teasing mouth sucking him dry. He lay in a satiated puddle while Iolaus' tongue continued gently lapping at his sensitive groin.
Hercules found enough energy to lift his hips for the pillow that Iolaus was sliding under him then clutched at the cool sheets at his side when the wet tongue found his center and began a tormenting dance back and forth. In and out. Over his balls and under. Up his cleft and down. Impossibly, his cock began to harden again and he felt his muscles clench in anticipation of what Iolaus had planned next.
The first oiled finger couldn't begin to put out the fire that Iolaus had ignited. Two merely fanned the flames. Three poured oil into his molten depths. And finally ... finally, Iolaus' cock breached him and slid deep within. Hercules forced his eyes open so he could watch the look on his lover's face. The deep blue eyes glittered down into his, the delight in their joining glowing through.
They moved slowly together, Hercules enjoying the long glide out and the forceful thrust in. But when Iolaus sparked the pleasure spot inside him, he groaned and lifted his hips, trying to force him in further. Strong hands slid under his buttocks and the next thrust went deeper yet. Hercules began to pant as the friction on his cock between their two torsos began to pulse with the need to come.
Iolaus began the quick volley of thrusts that heralded the beginning of the end and Hercules fell again into the abyss of fire from which he was always reborn into Iolaus' love. The spreading warmth from deep inside signaled Iolaus' climax and quietly, he settled into a sprawl on Hercules' chest. The demigod found enough strength to bring his arms up and around the beloved body, hugging him close.
<<<Aphrodite closed her eyes and drank in their lovemaking like a fine wine that rushed straight to her head. Cloaked to Iolaus' sight, she made sure she stayed just out of Hercules' view. *Gods, the energy!* She felt ten times stronger than when she'd come. If there was only a way to duplicate their powerful lovemaking. Shaking her head wistfully, she took one last glance at them before winking out for Olympus.>>>
"Herc. We are going to help, aren't we?" Iolaus raised his head from where he'd been cuddled in the hollow of a shoulder. "We weren't hurt the last time the Chaos energy hit us on the ship. In fact it felt good. Like a three day drunk without the hangover."
Hercules snorted at the analogy. "No one knows just how big this pool of energy is. It could leave us dead. After all, the last batch killed a goddess."
"That was in conjunction with the fire that Hestia overwhelmed her with." Iolaus folded his arms under his chin and looked down at him with wide eyes. "Besides, I've never seen Olympus. This might be my only chance."
Hercules felt a flicker of fear that had everything to do with his own experiences on Mount Olympus. Forcing himself to think with his mind and not his memories, he went through the pros and cons of the proposition. Sighing, he came to the same conclusion that Iolaus had already arrived at. Because they could help, they needed to help. It was just that simple.
"All right. We'll tell Aphrodite tomorrow." He smiled at Iolaus' delight. "But don't come to me if you're disappointed in Olympus. It's very ... tidy."
They settled in to sleep with Hercules banishing his misgivings with difficulty.
Arriving on Olympus through a door at Aphrodite's temple, Hercules took a quick look around. Relieved at finding only Aphrodite there, he watched while Iolaus gazed wide eyed at the pristine beauty of the place. To his eyes it looked a little the worse for wear, some of the bright corners dulled.
"Thanks, guys." The goddess of love was blushing for some reason. "I really appreciate your ... coming. We're meeting over at the field in about an hour. Everyone should be here by then. And the gods should be gone."
"Why do the gods need to leave?" Iolaus asked.
"Some of us are staying. Those who are bringing in mortals and immortals. Athena will explain it to us all at the field." Aphrodite shrugged. "Chaos energy usually kills gods. They're still debating why it didn't kill Ares the first time or the pair of them last time. Those of us who are staying are going to try and duplicate what Ares said he did. Just relax and let it flow through." She shuddered. "At least, we're going to try."
"It sounds even more dangerous than it did last night." Hercules kept his voice even with an effort.
She came to him in a rush, wrapping her arms around him and burying her head in his chest. Her voice was muffled but he heard the tremble. "I know. But we have to do something. Every hour of every day, someone calls my name in a plea that I can't answer because I have no power." He felt her tears soak through his shirt. "Do you know how that makes me feel? To know that there are lovers dying every day through exposure or this new plague that's sweeping through some of the provinces. And I ... can't ...do anything ... about it." Each word was punctuated with a blow from her small fist.
Iolaus's eyes met his and his lover came over, enclosing her between the two of them. She hiccuped once and rubbed her face on his shirt. "Damn it, I hate it when I cry. It makes my eyes all puffy. Wow, you guys put out such lovely vibes when you're in comfort mode."
Hercules laughed and hugged her tightly, making her squeal. "Enough, 'Dite. As long as you stay back and leave if it gets to be too much?"
She pulled away and looked up with a grin. "I promise, big brother. Harmonia and I will be on the outer edge so I can get her away if anything goes wrong." She shook his head at his automatic protest. "If Ares and Joxer are going to risk their lives for all of us then their family is going to be there for them. Besides, she can be so stubborn. She gets that from Ares' side of the family."
Iolaus immediately had a coughing fit while Hercules kept his face straight with great difficulty. "I ... see. Well, maybe we should be on our way."
Aphrodite narrowed her eyes and gave a small sniff but turned and led them from her portico out into Olympus. She gave a running commentary of whose temple was whose while they traveled through the valley leading to the fenced off Fields of Chaos. Hercules was secretly appalled at the damage still visible to temples and landscape. It looked like earthquakes and whirlwinds had both swept through the usually pristine gardens and homes in quick succession.
A large gathering roamed about the fence line and Hercules began to pick out familiar faces. He knew most of the gods and quite a few of the immortals but some of the others were complete strangers. He quietly began naming them to Iolaus with Aphrodite pitching in when he faltered.
"Hey, there's Jason and Iphicles." Iolaus pointed out the pair where they leaned against the fence chatting with a centaur. Joining them, Hercules watched his brother smile down at Aphrodite, almost like he would have before the death of his wife and child. Fervently, he hoped that the healing had truly begun for him. Being asked to help here would go a long way towards restoring his self-esteem. Silently, he thanked which ever god had asked him.
His gaze wondered over the crowd until they came to rest on his other half brother. Ares stood with his arms around Harmonia while chatting with Joxer and Hephaestus. Aphrodite spoke quietly in his ear. "She's soaking up hugs while she still can."
"Just like her mother." He said wryly.
"Oh, pooh. She's her father's daughter. Ares is a great daddy." Her gaze turned dreamy. "He should have more children. Soon."
Hercules could almost be sorry for his brother when he saw the slightly calculating look enter her big blue eyes. How could Hephaestus compete with his good-looking brother? As if in answer to his question, her gaze softened as she looked at her husband.
"Hep would make a wonderful father if only he wasn't sterile. The accident that crippled him also took away any chance of his ever fathering a child. Luckily, he doesn't mind when I need to have a baby. He's been 'Daddy Hep' to Harmonia and Cupid since they were born. I'm a very lucky goddess." She smiled up at him and left to join her daughter.
He shook his head in amazement and spotting Xena and Gabrielle, he excused himself to head for them. Acknowledging the greetings of the gods who he knew, he reached them in only a few moments. Gabrielle was surrounded by six Amazons who eyed the others suspiciously while Xena looked on with her familiar half smile.
"Xena. It's good to see you."
"Hercules." She bent her head, her eyes moving restlessly across the field. "Are you here under protest? I expect Iolaus is as persuasive as Gabrielle was."
"Something has to be done. If the gods have no power then the mortals are truly on their own. This plague could fill Hades to overflowing." He kept his voice even with difficulty. She always seemed to rub him the wrong way.
Her dark eyes met his briefly and she nodded. "It is moving swiftly from village to village. The death toll will be high."
"Hi, Xena. I didn't see you come." Harmonia appeared and hugged her big sister enthusiastically. "I'm really glad you could make it. Um, Hercules, Daddy wondered if you could go over." She gestured over at the god of war who was watching them with his dark gaze.
"Certainly." Hercules excused himself and made his way over to Ares. Wondering what his half brother could want with him.
"Hercules. I'm glad you came." The deep voice took him back to the days when the dark god had patiently trained him in weapons and fighting. "Could I speak to you for a moment? Alone?"
Hercules nodded and followed him closer to the stone wall that fenced the actual pool of Chaos energy away from the rest of the field. The dark god leaned against the stones and gazed over the green grass dotted with daisies.
"I need to ask a favor, Hercules. I know we haven't always gotten along especially the last few years, but you're the only one I trust enough to follow through if the worst happens." He stopped and sighed. "No one knows just how big this pool is. Joxer and I may not survive tampering with it. If we don't, would you keep an eye on Harmonia for me? You and Iolaus are good examples of the kind of relationship I want for her. Caring and strong enough to be gentle. Aphrodite can be a little flighty although she and Hep have weathered some serious storms."
Hercules was speechless. He opened his mouth and shut it again without saying a word. Finally, he just nodded. Ares smiled gently and turned to welcome Joxer. The two gods stood side by side, not touching but Herc could have sworn that they were joined.
"Thanks, Herc. We really appreciate it." Joxer's sunny accents matched his wide smile. "Hopefully, we'll weather this attempt like we did the last one. But just in case ..."
Hercules felt a cold chill run down his spine while he watched the two of them exchange a glance of complete understanding and love. Clearing his throat, he managed a brief sentence. "Good luck."
Zephyrus was bellowing for everyone to gather round and Hercules joined the others, feeling his eyes mist over and coughing into his hand to hide the emotions he felt. One of the Muses explained how people were to stand in concentric circles around the pool, radiating out every fifty feet. First circle was to be immortals and demigods, second circle consisted of mortals and the last ring was composed of gods.
A certain amount of shuffling went on while they sorted themselves out. Hercules found himself a few yards away from Cycrops on his left and Xena on his right. He could feel Iolaus behind him and he took comfort from the fact that at least his back was protected. Feeling helpless in the face of the unknown, he watched the god of war speak softly to his lover.
They held each other loosely, arms about the other's waist. Ares rested his forehead against Joxer's and Hercules could almost bet he was asking the young god to let him do this alone. But the dark warrior was smiling and shaking his head no. Parting, they jumped the wall and walked to the center of the grassy plot. Ares unsheathed his sword and held it blade down over the earth. Joxer's hands covered his and they shared a long gaze before the sword slashed down deep into the soil.
A roar blasted the air, louder than anything Hercules had ever heard before. A wind sprang up out of nothing and whirled around the two men like a cyclone, lifting them up and up until they could no longer be seen. The earth quaked beneath their feet and the ground lurched up and down like waves at high tide, pushing everyone off balance. Hercules had a hard time keeping upright while he strained to see what had happened to the two gods.
Heat rose in waves from the shifting soil and small flames licked the green grass alight. The air pulsed with sound and rain, which did nothing to put out the tiny fires. The whole world had gone mad and Hercules felt exhilarated and tired at the same time. His vision darkened to gray fog then brightened to unbearable light. He shielded his eyes and watched the light coming towards the first circle in pulsating waves of white radiance.
He felt it wash over him like a sudden sunburn that ignited his skin and hair and clothes. It was followed by a circle of water that soothed and washed the burn away. The next wave was dark ash that swirled around him like a fine cloth, caressing his skin with its silky soft feel. That lasted for long moments, bringing an involuntary smile to his lips at the sensuous sensation. But then he felt a breeze, delicate yet strong that opened his eyes in time to watch a golden haze spread out from the dispersing pool of Chaos energy.
It widened to include the stone fence and then the first circle of watchers, then kept expanding outwards into Olympus and beyond. Hercules never knew how long that golden haze kept them enthralled with its tingling rapture but gradually he began to notice his surroundings again. Everything seemed brighter and clearer than he'd ever seen before. As if a sudden storm had washed the whole world clean. As if it had washed him clean as well.
He felt stronger and more sure of himself, certain of his place in the world. Certain that he was being the person he was supposed to be, even though he felt he could be a better man. He knew he was on the right path. With that realization, he shook his head and glanced back over his shoulder to check on Iolaus. The golden warrior was smiling gently at him in a daze of wonder, golden sparkles still clinging to his body.
Looking down, Hercules saw the same glitter dancing over his leather pants and boots on their way to the ground. Suddenly remembering the two gods who had released the energy, he turned back to the stones that lay tumbled on the soil like children's blocks. The grassy knoll was empty.
No life at all.
Deep in the earth beneath an ancient mountain of stone, two tired gods clasped each other close and settled in to heal.
End chapter four