Lightning II:
Beloved Stranger

Part 1

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

(Iolaus' arms)

Thebes by mid-morning. He'd enjoyed the visit with his family, but travelling wasn't the same without Iolaus'

(mouth hot against his)

cheerful company. Iolaus probably hadn't even missed him; no doubt Maris was

(wrong, wrong for you, Iolaus)

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

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

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

"What are you doing to me?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You couldn't let them make further inroads; you did what had to be done. As you always have."

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

"I know; I go through this at the end of every campaign, and it's never stopped me from taking on the next one. I just can't help feeling... I don't know, that there must be a way to the same end without such a horrendous cost."

He shook off his mood with an effort, and looked around the dim temple. "I don't know how you can stand this place," he groused. "Every time I come in here, I want to slit my wrists."

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

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

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

"I don't know," Iolaus admitted. "We almost moved there when I was a boy, before I ran away, but my mother wanted to stay near her family when Skouros deserted us. I don't think I've been there more than twice in my life. It's nothing but a collection of huts; somebody ought to do something about that
hydra your mother parked there."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You demand?" he'd asked softly, and the crowd around the merchant melted away. "This boy-"

"Don't call me boy. My name is Iolaus," the boy interrupted.

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

"But my lord," the magistrate said, trembling, "even if he didn't steal from Iatros, he's been a pickpocket and worse since he was a child. If we don't do something now, who knows what will happen?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I waited for you, but you never showed up. So I've come to you," he said at last around a mouthful of bread and cheese. "I can't serve you looking like this, though, so I'll need a bath and some clean clothes. Oh, and a place to sleep. And weapons; a servant of Ares has to have weapons. I've always
fancied a bow, and maybe a sword. And-"

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

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

"The great thing about being a god," Ares observed, "is that one doesn't have to do anything. Fortunately for you, you amuse me."

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

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

"But I want you to-" Iolaus started.

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

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

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

"That's what I'm afraid of," Ares sighed, and left to find a nice, quiet war.

He was brought back to the present by small, strong hands on his shoulders.  "Gods don't get tense muscles," he said.

"If I'd paid attention to all the things you've told me that gods don't do, I'd probably still be sleeping in Maltis' barn," Iolaus retorted. His hands continued to move across Ares' shoulders in the fluid, circular motion he knew gave him pleasure. Finally his hands slid down to Ares' chest, threading through the thick mat of dark hair to find and tease flat nipples to hard, aching points. Fingers dipped lower, and Ares' breathing deepened as Iolaus' mouth fastened on his neck and his hand caressed his cock.

"I've missed this," Iolaus said against his neck, hands at cock and nipple twin flames on Ares' body.

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

"We've been there a hundred times," Iolaus said, straightening. "My forces need to know a man leads them, not Ares' toy, and that wouldn't happen if they saw me getting out of your bed every morning."

"Do you imagine they don't know what you are to me?" Ares asked with some heat, turning to face him.

"Ares, I would never deny what we are. I'm proud you chose me; I always have been. Sometimes I wake up next to you, and I can't believe that you still want me after all these years. But out there, you're the God of War, and I'm the leader of your army. And the moment that I issue an order and the men
turn to you for confirmation is the moment I lose that leadership. And you know it as well as I do."

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

"If I took 'no' for an answer, I'd-"

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

"What about my bath?" Iolaus protested mildly.

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

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

Iolaus leaned against the table on his elbows and looked over his shoulder at Ares, who pushed him flat against its surface. "Hold the far edge of the table with both hands, and don't let go," he ordered. Iolaus complied, his breath already coming faster, and pressed himself against the table top.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh, gods, don't stop, Ares, Ares, please," Iolaus implored, and Ares began to move deeply within him, drawing a stifled, pleading sound from him with every stroke, until he gasped, "I can't -- oh gods I'm going to die, Ares, if you love me, let me come!"

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

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

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

"Are you complaining?"

"Complaining? I was just fucked to within an inch of my life. Even by god standards, that had to be one of the great fucks of all time. It's just that you aren't usually that... vehement."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


"Are you trying to seduce me?"

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

"You're so beautiful," Iolaus told him gravely. "And you smell like-the sun."

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

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

Of late, however, there had been a shift in their relationship; Ares had begun to find the impudent nuisance strangely compelling. Iolaus had offered himself to Ares the day he'd arrived in his temple, but Ares had told him firmly that he didn't fuck children, and, reminding him that he no longer
needed a source of income, forbade him to sell himself any more.

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

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

"I haven't cut it since you told me you liked it. Did you hear what I said?"

"Of course I heard what you said; half of Greece probably heard you. For all your bleating about how grown up you are, you're acting like a five-year-old. You don't know anything about love, and you know far too much about sex. There are other ways of expressing love than fucking. Why don't you try being polite to me once in a while, instead of wiggling your ass in my face?"

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

"If you can kiss me, and then look me in the eye and tell me it didn't mean anything, I'll never bother you again," he announced melodramatically. Ares sighed, and touched his lips briefly to Iolaus'. "I mean a real kiss," Iolaus scoffed, and proceeded to demonstrate. He kissed with annihilating skill, and an equal lack of emotion. Ares pulled away, cored by a vision of when and how he'd learned that dark art.

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

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

He'd left then, and paced the courtyard, amazed at the depth of his anger.  Had he been wrong about the boy? He had such intelligence, such a flame of life in him that Ares almost wanted to reach out and warm his hands at it.  He felt a tightening in his groin, and cursed. If only he wasn't so damnably, diabolically beautiful.

He turned at the soft sound of his name; Iolaus stood stiffly before him, his eyes slightly reddened. "I'd like to continue," he said, and Ares saw what the words cost him. Where had he learned such pride? Well, Ares didn't want to break that stiff neck, just bend it a little.

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

"Maltis leaves for Britannia tomorrow with his troops. You're going with him," he said abruptly, making his decision as he spoke the words. "It's time you put your lessons to work. I'll see you in a few months."

"But I want-" Iolaus stopped, and swallowed. "I'll make you proud of me," he said.

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

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

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