As long as he had nothing else to do, Iolaus decided to clean out his pack. In the weeks since he had left his world and arrived in this one, he had been happily acquiring things, odd bits of this and that, whenever he could. He knew it amused Hercules, to watch him collecting scraps of metal and twists of twine. And, in truth, anything that brought even a hint of smile to Hercules' tragic face pleased Iolaus.
That decided, he upended his pack on a clear patch of ground, frowning a little at the number of items that spilled out of it. He had collected quite a few things, now that he looked at them.
Crouching down, he began to sort them, putting cooking utensils in one pile, half finished inventions in another, things he had a use for in another, things he had picked up for no particular reason in a fourth pile. He stopped and looked at several items as he worked, turning them over in hands, wondering how he might make better use of whatever it was.
Iolaus was so completely focused on a particular bit of curved glass that he had found near an old volcanic vent that he didn't even notice the flash of blue that split the air and disgorged a god.
Ares, God of War, stood for a moment, considering if he had made the right decision. He knew Hercules was off doing something heroic, leaving this other Iolaus alone, This Iolaus was nothing like Hercules' old partner and would only be a liability in a fight.
The god watched the man as he prodded and peered at an assortment of junk. Ares hadn't liked the other Iolaus; had, in fact, resented and hated the man, for being a warrior who wasted his worship on Ares' bastard brother, but he had admired him. That Iolaus had been courageous and bold, daring in a fight, with a spirit that stood up to even the gods. This man, though, was like a rabbit, shy and easily frightened. Ares reminded himself of that as he approached Iolaus.
"What is that?" Ares asked, not really curious, but using the question to make Iolaus aware of his presence.
Iolaus' head came up, his hand clutching the precious object to his chest. At the sight of the God of War standing only two paces away, Iolaus let out a little shriek and stepped backwards, looking around in a panic.
"He's not here," said Ares as patiently as he could manage. "He's off fighting some sea monster that keeps eating ships in the Corinth harbor. Remember?"
Iolaus, his face white, nodded. This god might bear some resemblance to the Ares that Iolaus knew but there was nothing lovable about him. He stood, his arms crossed, muscles bulging, glaring at Iolaus.
They stared at each other, both thinking how odd it was to look into such a familiar face and see a total stranger. It was Iolaus, driven by sheer nerves, who finally broke the silence.
"What do you want? My lord?"
Ares wanted to laugh. The old Iolaus had never addressed him with such blatant submission in his voice. Now he was finally getting the respect he deserved, only from the wrong Iolaus. The laugh faded before it could get started, though, as Ares remembered why he was standing in this forest glade, staring at this miserable mortal.
How to explain what he wanted? Ares hated feeling embarrassed and he couldn't think of any way to explain the situation without it being somewhat embarrassing. Oh, well, he thought with a mental shrug. This Iolaus is too much of a coward to enjoy Ares' discomfort.
"You knew that other Ares pretty well, didn't you?"
Iolaus turned pink. That sight made Ares snicker. The old Iolaus wasn't given to shy blushes when sex was mentioned. Ares' reaction made Iolaus blush even harder.
"I take it," said Ares with a smirk, "that that means yes."
"Um." Iolaus shifted his weight from foot to foot nervously. "Yes."
They stared at each other some more. Ares noticed that this Iolaus had that same, curved scar over one eye. Iolaus noticed that this Ares wore his hair a little shorter than his counterpart, and that the curls were tighter.
Ares cleared his throat. He didn't need to clear his throat. Phlegm was not a problem for gods. He made the noise just to disturb the awkward silence.
"I wanted to ask you a question about him, the other Ares, that is."
Iolaus bobbed his head, a quick, bird-like motion. Ares decided that the other Hercules must have been a complete idiot to not be able to tell the difference between the two men. True, there was a superficial resemblance, in hair color and facial features, size and shape of the compact body, but the dead Iolaus had carried himself with the confidence of seasoned a warrior, his bold spirit shining in his eyes. This Iolaus stood there, clutching that stupid piece of glass, looking as if he were trying to become invisible.
Stammering, Iolaus replied, "If I can be of service. . ."
Ares decided to stare up at the trees. "While you and my idiot brother were messing up my plans, you got him, the other Ares, I mean, to distract me."
Iolaus nodded vigorously, even though Ares didn't appear to be looking at him.
The god's dark eyes slid back to look at the man's pale blue ones. "Do you know what he did?"
Now, Iolaus shook his head with equal vigor. "He didn't say. And I never had a chance to ask."
Ares nodded, one sharp dip of his chin. "Well, let's just say, in other circumstances, I could have approved of his methods." Truth to be told, even though the incident completely ruined Ares' plans to take over as the one god of Greece, the hour he had spent in bed with the Empress had been one of the most pleasurable in his recent memory. If he had to be defeated, he was glad that sex had vanquished him, not war.
Ares went back to looking at the trees. "I said something to him, afterwards, in the heat of the moment. It might have been a mistake."
"Oh?" Iolaus sat down on a log. As long it appeared that this violent Ares wasn't going to commit any acts of violence against him, he might as well relax as best he could. When Ares didn't seem prepared to continue, Iolaus prompted him. "What did you say?"
Ares sighed. He wasn't aware of it but the sound reminded Iolaus very much of the god he had known. "I told him that. . .I owed him one."
"That's the problem. I didn't specify. Now, he wants to collect."
Iolaus considered the problem. He wondered what Ares, God of Love, could possibly want from Ares, God of War. Although, this god, in his tight black leather, with that beard framing those full lips, was rather appealing.
"So, what do you want to know from me?"
Ares continued to stare up at the trees. There were birds up there, some sort of little blue things, flitting around. Hawks, crows, eagles, those were his kind of birds. Not little blue things.
"That Ares struck me as a craven coward." There were five of the blue birds. He thought about picking up a stone and seeing how many he could kill at once.
Iolaus, who had looked up, wondering what Ares was staring at, settled for staring at his pile of belongings. "He always said he was a lover, not a fighter."
Ares snorted in disgust, looking back Iolaus. "I heard him. Worried about his pants making his butt look big, too. What an moron."
"So, you're wondering if he is powerful enough to make you regret not keeping your promise to pay him whatever it is you owe him, right?"
Ares glared at Iolaus so fiercely that the mortal twitched.
"You're not an idiot, are you, Iolaus the jester? You look like one but there are a few brain cells in that blonde head, aren't there?"
Unsure if he was being complimented or insulted, Iolaus said nothing. Ares sighed again.
"You're right. So, do you think I could beat him?"
Iolaus almost laughed. The thought of his Ares trying to fight with this Ares was funny. He could picture his Ares, on his knees, pleading for mercy. In fact, picturing his Ares on his knees in front of this Ares. . .was somewhere he better not go. Gods could read mortal thoughts.
"In a battle," Iolaus replied, speaking slowly as he thought the question over, "there is no question you would defeat him. I don't think my Ares would even try to fight back physically. " He took a deep breath. "But he is a major god. He must have powers, right? So, in a non-physical battle, you might be more evenly matched."
Ares didn't look happy. He'd picked up a pebble and was tossing it up in the air and catching it distractedly.
"What is it," Iolaus finally asked, unable to quell his curiosity, "that you are af. . .concerned he might ask you for?"
Ares shot a tiny blue lightning bolt at the rock, turning it to dust. "I know what he wants." He held out his hand and a scroll dropped out of the air into it. He extended the scroll towards Iolaus, who took it hesitantly.
"Don't read it like an ordinary scroll," Ares explained. "Put it on the ground"
Iolaus did as he was told. A moment after he laid it down, the spindles holding the scroll rolled a few hand spans apart, revealing a picture of naked men having sex. The men were both muscular, with long black hair. The one on top had a neatly trimmed goatee. As Iolaus stared, open-mouthed, the spindles began to rotate, faster and faster, and two figures began to move.
Ares leaned over his shoulder to study the magic scroll. "That was the first one. Showed up a couple of days ago. Since then, there have been three others." He held out his hand and another scroll dropped into it. The first scroll finished its sequence, rolling shut. Ares set the second scroll on the ground.
"I'll give him this," remarked the god. "he's got quite an imagination. I'm not sure if that is anatomically possible, even for gods. Looks like it might be interesting to try, though."
"How does it work?"
"Huh? I just said I'm not sure it would work."
"Not that." Iolaus reached out and stopped the spinning of the scroll. "This. How does this work? How can the pictures be made to move? Is it a god thing or is it something a mortal could do?"
Iolaus was so intent on the scroll, he didn't see the astonished expression on Ares' face. "I don't know how it works. You get the pictures drawn then you zap the thing with a little power."
Carefully, Iolaus unrolled the magical scroll, revealing a series of erotic images, each slightly different than the one proceeding it. He let the scroll stop and start several, frowning as he worked it out.
"It's a series of ordinary pictures but when they pass before the eyes at the right of speed, they impart the illusion of motion. This is amazing!"
"And you are one weird mortal."
The remark, which Ares said half to himself, seemed to puncture something in said mortal. Iolaus let the scroll roll shut, sitting back dejectedly on the ground.
"I know," he said miserably, picking at a loose string on the front of his tunic. "I'm hopeless. I'm a coward and a fool and. . ."
Ares was horrified to realize the idiot was actually starting to cry! He had come to this mortal to find out if the other Ares was a genuine threat or just an annoyance and now, this Iolaus was getting blubbery because he thought Ares had insulted him. Ares could picture the other Iolaus' disgust at this weakling twin.
Iolaus raised his face to the god. He did have tears in his eyes. "Could you. . .I mean, if I tell you everything I know about my Ares, could you do something for me?"
The first thought through Ares' mind was 'besides blast you into the next world.' Patience, he told himself silently. This mortal still might be able to tell him something useful that would get his counterpart to stop annoying him.
Suspiciously, Ares asked, "What?"
Sniffling, Iolaus wiped his nose on his sleeve. "The other Iolaus, he was brave, wasn't he? Brave and strong and worthy to be the companion of Hercules. Me, I'm useless and hopeless. I'm just a burden to Hercules."
Ares didn't say he agreed because he found it very handy for his bastard brother to be distracted by protecting this cowardly version of his dead friend.
Gazing up at the God of War with wide eyes swimming with tears, Iolaus asked, "Could you make me a warrior? I mean, I know I could never be as good as the other Iolaus but could you make me. . ."
Miserably, Iolaus nodded. "Show me how to defend myself, maybe."
A strange emotion wandered through Ares, one he didn't recognize and didn't like. If he were familiar with it, he would have called it pity. "Stand up," he commanded.
Iolaus rose to his feet. Ares was happy to see he had gotten rid of those stupid pointy-toed shoes. Lifting a finger, the God of War rotated it.
Puzzled, Iolaus did as he was told, wiping his eyes surreptitiously when his back was to the god. When he finished his rotation, he found Ares studying him, one finger brushing his mustache.
"Possible," said Ares.
"Really?" Iolaus visibly brightened at that. "You could teach me how to. . ."
"No." The god was astonished at how quickly emotions ran through this creature. Sad to delighted to crestfallen in the space of a few heartbeats. He wondered why Hercules didn't squash the little bug and be done with him. Then, he looked closely into those eyes, staring up desperately at him. "Hercules can teach you how to fight. I'm the God of War. I give you the motivation, not the technique."
Now the mortal's face reflected uncertainty, as if he were regretting asking for Ares help. Too late now, thought Ares. I have to do something to this idiot and killing him wasn't the immediate option.
Ares took a step forward, snarling as Iolaus retreated. "Stand still, damn it. This won't hurt."
The god laid his hand on the mortal's breastbone. He could feel the man's terror, emanating from his skin, sounding in the beat of the fluttering heart, the trembling breaths. Somewhere in this pitiful pile of blood and bone, muscle and sinew, was a man, if the god could find him.
Visions flashed by Ares, images of a mad version of Hercules, his face twisted in hatred, eyes blazing with vicious intent. It really was too bad Ares couldn't have found a way to work with that version of his brother. They had a lot in common. Other images, always overlaid with the Sovereign, poured out of Iolaus' tortured soul, visions of brutality and cruelty, of beatings and rape, of anguish and misery. It took all of Ares' control not to pull back from what he saw, stop the heart beneath his hand and put the man out of his misery.
Yet. . .yet. . .underneath it all was. . .something. The strength to endure the suffering. The blind hope that kept Iolaus from going as mad as his master. Courage, of a kind, that let him keep his sanity even while at the Sovereign's side. Not the same shining bravery that had filled the other Iolaus but enough. It was held down, pushed down, but it was there.
Iolaus watched the god's face, so close to his own. Ares was concentrating, his gaze focused far away. This Ares was, if anything, more beautiful to Iolaus's eyes than the other. There was a ferocity to this god that took Iolaus' breath away. Perhaps it was his lack of vanity, he wore black leather to intimidate, not because he liked the way it looked. He didn't catch his reflection in every mirror, preening like peacock. This god was a powerful presence that made Iolaus' senses sing.
He gasped. Ares stepped back, his eyes now boring into Iolaus'.
They stared at each other, man and god, while Iolaus tried to decide what had happened. He didn't feel any different. Or did he? He wasn't as terrified as he had been a moment ago. Laying his own hand on his chest, he felt his heartbeat calming, his breathing slowing. Iolaus looked up at Ares. The god had done something, a subtle something.
"You won't be battling hydras at the drop of a hat," said the god, "but you won't be as much of a coward."
"What did you do?" Even his voice sounded a little different to his ears, more confident, less pathetic.
Ares shrugged. "Not much. There is a certain . . ." He blew his breath out, his hands spreading as he tried to explain. "You have courage. You just stuck it away where it wouldn't get you in trouble." Ares gave a sharp laugh. "If the other Iolaus had been better at keeping his courage under control, he wouldn't be fertilizing a hill side somewhere. Anyway, you stuck it a little too far down. I gave it a yank back up."
Iolaus dropped his hands to his side. He did feel better. Whether Ares had tapped some unknown wellspring of bravery or whether Iolaus was deceiving himself, he didn't know. But he did feel better. He tried a weak smile.
Dark eyes bored into his but Iolaus found he could meet them. "You're welcome," replied the god.
"Um, if it won't get me in trouble, could I ask you a question?"
"You're pushing your luck."
"I know." Ares must have done something or Iolaus won't have pushed. "I was wondering why you are so determined not to let the other Ares. . ." His voice trailed off and he pointed at the two scrolls lying, tightly rolled, on the ground. "I mean, he's the God of Love in his world. He's, ah, pretty good at it."
A smile quirked Ares's full lips. "You know that from personal experience, do you?"
Blushing, Iolaus ducked his head and mumbled unintelligibly.
"Ah." Ares picked up one of the scrolls and unrolled it.
"Unless you don't like men." Iolaus lifted his head. Ares glanced over at him, not entirely surprised to see the mortal looked a little disappointed.
"I like men." Ares turned the scroll a quarter turn. "I like men and women and gods and even the occasional monster."
"Oh." Iolaus let his eyes wander, from Ares to his pile of possessions, to the tree above his head, and back to the god. "Can I ask another question?"
Ares sighed. "You might as well. If I don't want to answer it, I'll toast you." He waited. Had his tug on Iolaus' courage worked?
"Um, in my world, Ares was once the lover of Aphrodite, the Queen of the Gods. They had children."
"And you're wondering if I was ever the lover of the Goddess of Love?" He let the scroll shut again, tossing it into the air, where it vanished. "I was. And we had children."
"So, is Cupid your son, too?"
"Yeah? So?" Ares was secretly delighted. This man was getting braver by the minute. Maybe he would stop being a hindrance to Hercules in that his brother had to protect the little twit and become a hindrance to Hercules by trying to get into fights. Hercules would go crazy, trying to keep this Iolaus from suffering the fate of the other.
Unlike the other Iolaus, this man got an expression of intense concentration on his face. He was obviously thinking very seriously. The other Iolaus, while nobody's fool, was not known for his intellect. The mortal took a pace away from Ares, then turned, his face as serious as a scholar before Athena.
"Well, I could never figure out how Ares, who is so nice, could have son as mean as Cupid. It doesn't make sense. But I can see how you could have a son who was a God of Love."
"Huh?" This mortal's mind worked in mysterious ways.
"Well, Cupid, the other Cupid, is the God of War but there is nothing warlike about the other Ares. On the other hand, while you are the God of War and Cupid here is the God of Love, there is . . ." Iolaus' voice trailed off at the look in the god's face.
"If you say I am lovable, I will rip you limb from limb with my bare hands."
Iolaus blushed again. Ares found that fascinating. "No, I wasn't going to say love because, in the case of Cupid, I gather he is more the god of passion and . . ."
"Sex. Yeah, love is just the mortal euphemism. 'Dite does most of the serious love crap and Cupid is more in charge of stiff cocks and dripping pussies." Ares had been crude on purpose. He found himself enjoying the way this Iolaus turned pink. "So you're saying you can see me as the father of a sex god because. . ." More than pink. The man was turning an interesting shade that Ares, who didn't pay much attention to colors, couldn't really name. Aphrodite would have a name for it. Magenta or fuchsia or puce, maybe.
"Um, yeah." Not only was his face on fire, Iolaus could feel himself getting hard because the images from the scrolls kept floating through his mind. The drawings had been very accurate and very detailed. Iolaus decided to try to change the subject. "Anyway, it was just a thought." He took a deep breath. "I don't think the other Ares would, ah, force himself on you. I think he only sent the scrolls to see if you were, you know, interested. If you make it clear to him that you don't want to, ah, . . ."
"Fuck him six ways to Tartarus?" Ooo, another notch up on the blush. It made Iolaus' eyes look impossibly blue.
"Yeah, that. He'd leave you alone. Especially if you said it was because you thought he wasn't attractive. Ares is kind of vain." Iolaus instantly corrected himself. "My Ares, I mean."
"Get this straight, buddy boy." Ares stuck out a finger and poked Iolaus in the chest for emphasis. "I am your Ares now. You are in my world. You want to get laid, pray to Cupid. You want to fall in love, pray to Aphrodite. If I ever hear even the faintest prayer from you to me that doesn't involve a fight, I will stuff your courage so far down you'll be afraid of your own farts."
Iolaus, who was expecting a more violent threat, was startled to hear himself giggle. "Sorry. I appreciate an amusing turn of phrase."
Ares smiled. Odd how much he was enjoying the company of this Iolaus. There had been times, of which Hercules was very much ignorant, that Ares had actually enjoyed the other Iolaus, too. The god found himself wondering if there were other physical resemblances besides appearance.
Iolaus found that smile amazing. It changed the God of War's face, making him so much less threatening. So much more attractive. Don't go there, the mortal warned himself. This is not the Ares you know. Look at that sword. Look at how fierce his eyes are. This Ares would disembowel you as soon as look at you. Iolaus swallowed and tried to will away the erection he was hoping, very sincerely, that Ares hadn't noticed. If the god had, he gave no sign of it. In fact, Ares looked distracted again.
"It's not so much that I find him unattractive," mused Ares, almost to himself, "I mean, he looks like me. That alone makes him gorgeous." He sneaked a glance out of the corner of his eye at Iolaus, who was desperately trying to tug his tunic down further to conceal his cock. From the look of things, Iolaus resembled Iolaus in that respect, which had always struck Ares as fairly respectable, for a mortal. "It's his attitude." The god looked directly at Iolaus, who gave him a wide-eyed look of what the mortal hoped was innocence. "He simpers. It's disgusting. Cries a lot, too."
"Only when he's upset." Iolaus felt he had to defend his former god. The god to which he formerly gave worship, since the other Ares was still a god, just not Iolaus' god anymore. It made his head hurt to think about it.
"I suspect that what I want would upset him." Ares grinned, a smile that was a good deal less pleasant and much more feral.
"I see." Iolaus did. He could imagine that what this Ares liked sexually was nothing like what his Ares. . .the God of Love Ares liked. Suddenly, he wished that Ares would go away. "Well, then, tell him that." Iolaus pointed to the remaining erotic scroll. "Send him a scroll back, one that details what you'd want to do. If it upsets him, then that will be the end of it."
Iolaus rubbed the back of his neck, trying to get the headache that was building there to go away. "Yes, I'm sure. He's not stupid. He can take a hint."
Ares frowned, picking up the scroll. "What if it appeals to him?"
Iolaus threw his hands up in the air. "Then let him fuck you! That's all he wants! He's not you. He doesn't have some nasty ulterior motive, some plan to take over the world! He just thinks you look good and he wants to fuck you! Sheesh!"
As the words passed his lips, Iolaus stopped blushing. The flush in his cheeks vanished, to be replaced by a deathly pall. He stared at Ares, stammering an apology, "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to sound like that but it's just that. . ." His voice trailed off as he realized Ares didn't look angry. He looked amused.
"My fault," said the god cheerfully. "I must have tugged that courage of yours up farther than I thought." Oh, yeah. This Iolaus was going to want to learn how to throw punches and the next thing Hercules knew, he'd have a half-assed hero trying to get himself killed.
Iolaus nearly collapsed with relief. Ares wasn't mad. "He's not you," the mortal repeated. "If you tell him no, he'll leave you alone."
Ares set the scroll down, crouching down to watch it unroll and display its contents. He replayed it several times. Iolaus shifted uncomfortably as his body remembered what had been on that scroll.
"Maybe you're right." Ares stood up as the scroll snapped shut again. "Aphrodite isn't much for complex, devious plans. Cupid is great at getting people to fuck like rabbits but it would never occur to him to plot against someone. Maybe I'll just send a scroll back and see what happens."
"Wonderful." Iolaus' headache had won the battle. His neck felt so stiff he was afraid to turn his head. He didn't want to sort his possessions anymore. He wanted to jerk off and go to sleep.
"Thanks for your help. Good luck with the courage thing."
As Ares vanished in a flash of blue light, Iolaus stared at the spot where the god had been standing. For a moment there, this Ares had sounded like the other Ares, warm and caring, even. It made Iolaus' eyes fill with tears. He had hated his world but he had liked the God of Love, if only because he gave great neck rubs.
Sighing, Iolaus started to stuff his possession back into his pack when he realized that Ares had left the scroll behind. Did gods make mistakes? Or had Ares left it behind on purpose, thanking the mortal for his help.
Glancing around to make sure that he was alone, Iolaus slowly unrolled the scroll. As soon as he got a good look at the picture, he dropped the scroll, stunned, then watched, open-mouthed, as the scene played out.
Ares had changed the picture. It no longer featured two men with black hair. There were three figures making love, two men with black hair, one with a beard, both of them caressing a third man, smaller, with fair hair and bright blue eyes. Iolaus watched in amazement as the twin gods made love to the mortal between them.
Lifting his head, Iolaus looked up at the tree over his head, at the bluebirds flitting among the branches, building their nest.
"Thank you," he whispered. He didn't know if the pictures on the scroll would ever become reality but the thought was enough. He sent his prayers into the sky, to twin gods who had both given him something when he needed it. "Thank you, Ares."