Lightning II:
Beloved Stranger

Part 4

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

"What are you doing to me?"

He didn't realise he'd spoken the words aloud until he felt Iolaus' presence, and opened his eyes.

"Hercules? What's wrong?"

Head pounding, he mumbled an apology for waking Iolaus.

"I wasn't sleeping," Iolaus confessed. He grabbed one of Hercules' blankets and curled up on the couch. "Herc," he said finally, breaking the silence, "Why were you going to join my army, anyway?"

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

"What did I call you?" Iolaus cast about in his mind. It hadn't been conscious, whatever it was. "Herc! Does it bother you? Sorry; I won't-"

"No, I like it. Nobody's ever called me that before." He liked it very much.  There was something intimate about a nickname. Herc. He smiled in the darkness, and then he told Iolaus, bluntly and without apology, why he'd wanted to join his army. Iolaus was quiet after he'd finished the story.

"You said earlier you'd changed your mind. Does that mean I didn't waste my time patching you up?"

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


He smiled again, and went to sleep.

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

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

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

Hercules paused with his fork suspended in front of his mouth. "Occasion? I don't need an occasion to be domestic. I'm a pretty damn good cook. Haven't done it in a while, of course. I just felt like cooking this morning, that's all."

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

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

"That's the fellow they was talking about, all right," he said sagely. He turned to Iolaus. "Couple of nasty customers came by last night looking for your friend, here. Didn't say why they was lookin' for him, but I'd watch my step if I was him."

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

"You're a friend of the general's. They won't hear about you from anyone around here," the man answered confidently, looking to his friends for confirmation.

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

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

"Absolutely not." Hercules smiled brilliantly at him, and Iolaus' eyes widened. "Oh, you're talking about bad guys? I'm sure it's nothing you can't handle."

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

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

"Oh, you'll be dead long before that happens."

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

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

"We don't have any money," he said, moving slowly away from the horse, eyes on the dagger and the thread of bright blood that ran down its length.

"You know this isn't about money. This is about you watching him die slow and ugly, and then you dying after." The dagger moved to Iolaus' cheek, and he flinched as it flicked close to his eye, opening a welling cut below his eyebrow. His eyes closed, and tears began to seep from beneath his lashes.

"Please don't kill me." The voice was so soft Hercules barely heard it. He stared, stunned, as Iolaus' voice rose to a shrill scream. "I don't know anything! I'll give you all the money he paid me if you let me go! I'll do anything you want, just don't kill me!"

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

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

"Scared you, didn't I?" Iolaus asked with a chuckle, and the men were on them.

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

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

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


Hercules, who had nearly fallen asleep, grunted.

"That was... Nothing like that has ever happened to me before. Fighting like that, I mean. Like we were reading each other's minds."

"Me, neither," Hercules said thoughtfully. "It was... exhilarating, wasn't it?"

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

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

Hercules poked at the fire, poked at the rabbit, and finally rose to his feet and paced around the cave, waiting for Iolaus to say something, anything. He started to break the silence more than once, but wasn't sure he wanted to hear what Iolaus was thinking. The charged air was almost palpable, from the lightning storm and the building tension between them.  Enough, he thought suddenly, and resumed his place beside Iolaus at the fire.

"We can't keep pretending nothing's going on here," he said. "I was willing to keep quiet as long as I thought it was just me, but you feel it too. It's not just a question of wanting you, although the gods know I want you. It's a simple question of basic need. There's been an empty place inside me my whole life that nobody, not Deianeira, not my kids, were ever able to touch.  It's not there any more. I can't, I won't believe that the Fates would show me what that feels like, then take it away from me again."

Iolaus gave an angry snort. "That has to be the most arrogant statement I've ever heard. Yeah, we fight well together. What do you want from me, Hercules? Do you imagine I need to be rescued from Ares, or my life? Without him, I wouldn't be here."

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

"I can't-"

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

Iolaus reached for his hand and Hercules turned his touch into a caress, running his thumb along the curve of Iolaus' lower lip. "Life is pretty simple when you see everything in black and white, isn't it?" Iolaus asked, pushing his hand away. "You wake up one morning, decide we're made for each other, and the hell with me and what I want."

"Not at all. You want the same thing I want, you just can't admit I'm right.  I understand about Ares-"

"You don't understand a damn thing." Iolaus jumped to his feet in frustration and strode to the front of the cave, leaning against its entrance to stare at the lightning that sizzled overhead. Maybe he'd be able
to think more clearly without Hercules' eyes blazing at him. Get a grip, he told himself sternly. You've spent all of two days with him, when he was conscious, at least. You don't have a clue what he's actually like, and you're not naiïve enough to think that it doesn't matter.

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

He said the words without volition, so quietly he hoped Hercules hadn't been able to hear them.

"You take my breath away."

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

He must be out of his fucking mind.

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

It was the part that wanted Hercules' arms around him that scared him.

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

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

"What if I don't want to be let go of?" Iolaus demanded with a spurt of anger.

Hercules smiled maddeningly, and closed his eyes.

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

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

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

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

"Hercules." His voice was reproachful. "You never fall in love. I fall in love all the time. It's the same thing, in the end, isn't it? Are you going to kiss me? Because I think I'm kneeling on a stone." Hercules bent to his mouth. His hair fell forward and brushed Iolaus' cheek and he shivered, trying to pull Hercules closer to his straining body.

"Gods, please, Tarsus! Not to him!" he begged, pulling uselessly at the arm that pinned Hercules so effortlessly. He slipped to his knees beside the two men. "Please," he repeated, looking up at Tarsus through brimming eyes.  Tarsus looked down at him with interest. "What do you offer in trade, then?
What do you have that I haven't already taken without your permission?" He met Tarsus' 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."

On some level Hercules was aware that Iolaus was moving restlessly, mumbling incoherently, but couldn't seem to wake himself up. He fought

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

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

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

He settled himself more comfortably between Iolaus' thighs and ran his hand down the length of his lover's muscular frame. "You're mine, you know," he remarked conversationally. "Whatever happens, whoever else you're with, you're mine and you always will be."

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

A bright spark of triumph surged in him. Iolaus wouldn't leave him. The Fates wouldn't allow it.

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

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

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

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

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

"Iolaus, I'm sorry. I don't expect you to forgive --"

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

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

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

"Iolaus, I'm only half a god. There's a limit to how much I can take," he gasped.

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

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

"I haven't done that since I was a teenager," Hercules confessed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No!" Iolaus turned on to his stomach, averting his face, and Hercules barely heard him say, "I need this. I need you to make this real for me. If you don't, if I can't still feel you with me when I see him, I don't know if I'll be strong enough to leave him."

"You love him, don't you?"

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

Hercules stared at his back helplessly. Iolaus had been right; he hadn't understood. It actually hadn't occurred to him that Iolaus might have loved someone before him, might still love him in spite of his feelings for Hercules. He couldn't believe his own stupidity, his arrogance. He laid a tentative hand on Iolaus' back.

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

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

He nodded.

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

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

"It's okay, Herc, you don't even have to buy me dinner. Just oh..."

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

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

Oh gods, that was perfect.

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

"Charon's balls, Iolaus, have you got a vice in there?" Hercules' voice was indignant.

"Are you complaining?" He eased off incrementally.

"Nooo..." Hercules said dubiously. "I suppose whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger." He manoeuvred his legs over Iolaus', trapping the smaller man's thighs between his. His cock suddenly felt enormous, and Iolaus loosed a strangled shriek of his own as it slid slowly out, then back in again, a
twist of Hercules' hips bringing it banging against the sweet place inside him.

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

Oh gods, that was perfect.

He wanted it to go on forever.

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

Except he'd never been struck by lightning.

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

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

"I'm hungry," he announced, and rooted through their saddlebags, surfacing with the remnants of the spiced mutton, some fruit and a small bottle of olive oil. "Better late than never," he told it, and put it to one side, admonishing Hercules to make note of its location. "Don't look at me like that; I'm completely innocent. I brought it to cook with," he said in answer to Hercules' raised eyebrows.

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

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

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

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

Ares' face twisted. "You love me," he sneered. "Is that supposed to be my consolation prize? 'I'm walking out on you, but isn't it nice to know I love you?' Get out."

Iolaus looked steadily at him.

"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 said.

"Don't play with me, mortal," Ares said dangerously.

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

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

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

"He's my destiny," Iolaus answered, and the intensity with which he said the silly, romantic words robbed Ares of any desire to scoff. "Ares, I should have told you I loved you years ago. I don't know why I didn't, except that maybe it took Hercules to make me realise it. I will always love you; nothing can change that. But I have work to do with Hercules. Our time together was coming to an end. You said it yourself. I'm moving out of your world, and I chose that path before Hercules came into my life."

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

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

Iolaus chuckled. "We're wild guys."

"We made a good team."

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

"If he ever hurts you, he dies. I don't care who his father is," Ares told him. "Goodbye," he said abruptly, and vanished. Gods didn't cry.

Not where ephemerals could catch them at it.

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

Who was he kidding? Iolaus had admitted he loved Ares. Why would he cast his lot with an itinerant do-gooder who didn't have an obol to his name? Iolaus was wealthy, respected, and loved by a god. He'd have to be a fool to give that up.

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

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

"How was it?"

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

"You're hurting too, and he knows it. He's a god; how can he blame you for following your destiny?"

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

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

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


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

"Ares didn't beat you nearly often enough," Hercules told him. He tossed Iolaus over his shoulder and headed for the farmhouse, ignoring the fists that were beating a tattoo on his back. "We have some unfinished business involving a certain bottle of oil."

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

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

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

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

"You won't drop me," Iolaus said with confidence, and his hand snaked between Hercules' legs.

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

"Good thinking. I'm not in the mood to be quiet."

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

"I can't imagine it," Iolaus said. "Now take your clothes off and kiss me, or you're going to have more than your dreams to worry about."

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

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

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


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