The earth still smoked from Ares' final assault, though the flames had consumed themselves long moments before. The God of War stood in the center of the field of combat, cradling a slim flame-thrower heavily chased in silver. Around him the dead and dying lay scattered. The air was thick with the smell of blood. He breathed in, taking the fragrance deep into his lungs. Hot and sweet, the scent whispered "life" even as death claimed the last of the fallen. Already the carrion birds were starting to gather, kept from landing only by his presence, unseen but not unfelt by the sensitive creatures. He would go soon. Death held no allure; it was the blood and the passion that called him. He looked down at the weapon he held. Blood. Passion. His gaze turned inward, an odd smile playing on his lips. Abruptly he disappeared.
Hephaestus was in the forge hammering a rod of some silver-colored metal into flatness, the sharp clang of metal striking against metal falling as regular as the beat of a drum. Or a heartbeat. His stroke faltered infinitesimally on Ares' arrival but otherwise he gave no sign of noticing the newcomer.
In normal circumstances this would have irritated Ares, as he was sure it was meant to, but not today. Fresh from the carnage of battle, Ares was blood-sated and in a mood to be amused. He leaned against a stone column in a corner of the dimly lit cavern and prepared to wait. The stone at his back felt pleasantly cool in contrast to the heat of the air. He licked his lips, tasting metal.
The noise stopped and there was a prolonged hssss as Hephaestus dipped the end of the rod he'd been working into a trough of water. Only then did he acknowledge his half brother. "Ares," he spoke cautiously, turning the greeting into a question about the purpose of this unexpected visit.
"Large as life," Ares agreed affably, ignoring the unspoken request. He strolled into the center of the smithy where the great forge was located.
The fire, as always, burned high. Heph stood in front of the flames so that his body was limned with a red glow. One hand still grasped the tongs he'd been using just moments before. Sweat beaded on his face and forehead, softening the short spikes of hair and emphasizing the slight scarring. "What do you want?" he asked again.
Ares didn't reply. It was Heph's turn to wait.
The two gods faced each other; both dark haired, dark eyed, lightly bearded, but where Ares stood easily, superficially relaxed but with the underlying tension of a hunting cat, Hephaestus' gait was stiff with unease. The resemblance was always there, but seen so close, the smith appeared a slighter, marred version of the God of War.
"Well, brother?" Hephaestus accompanied the title with a wry twist of his lips. It was obvious in the way his eyes raked Ares' smooth brow that the same thought of their skewed resemblance was in his mind.
"As always" Ares replied, again deliberately misreading the question. He smiled at his brother hopefully. For a moment Heph met his eyes, perfectly understanding the challenge and ignoring it. It was always this way between them, a duel to see who would give way to their feelings first.
The unease was not new. It had been a feature of their encounters for millennia. Even without his affair with Aphrodite there had been that competitive edge of almost-antipathy. Screwing 'Dite had just brought things to a head.
Or a tail. He bit down on a laugh. Adrenaline from the fighting still coursed through his system making him reckless. "The flame-thrower-" he began, as much to steady himself as anything.
"It worked?" Heph abandoned his attitude of suspicion and interrupted, eager to hear how his latest invention had performed. "Of course it worked! Tell me how it went?"
"Like a dream. A dark wet dream." Ares smiled, immediately caught up in the memory. He began to recount the recent battle, using his hands to illustrate the position of the two armies. "Phigalia and Dorium were lined up against each other, here and here, like so, Phigalia on the hill and Dorium on the flatlands. They were evenly matched as far as the numbers went and both sides hot to fight. You should have seen it, brother, the way they joined sword against sword, cutting each other down in my name. It was inspirational."
"The flame-thrower--" prompted Heph with shining eyes, obviously affected by Ares' enthusiasm.
Ares bared his teeth. "Perfection. It almost seemed to discharge itself, as if the flame sought to find living heat. The fire traced a straight line through a score of bodies. The mortals had no time to move before the spirit burned away from their flesh."
The brief accord snapped. Hephaestus' enthusiasm fading, to be replaced by a look of barely masked contempt for Ares' joy in killing. Ares read the look and anger flowed through him so strongly that he thought he must strike his brother. He mastered the impulse with difficulty and spoke in his dryest tone, "Congratulations brother. A great many warriors owe their start in Tartarus this day to you."
"To you, you mean," Heph corrected. He smiled knowingly, letting Ares see he knew how close his brother had come to cracking. "Killing profits me nothing."
Ares was all humility. "You're too modest. I was the hand but you were the eye."
"Is the eye responsible for the actions of the hand?" asked Heph coolly, as if they were really talking about abstracts. Then, more to the point, he added, "It doesn't have to be used for killing."
Sophistry. Ares wasn't playing that game, at least not here, where there was nothing to be gained. He widened his eyes in mock-innocence, "What other possible use does such a weapon have?"
"You don't have to use it against people." The smith rephrased himself, his voice held the slightest trace of condescension, a civilized man talking to a savage, or a parent to a child.
"But you wanted me to," Ares stressed the first pronoun, knowing it would hurt and watching for the reaction. Heph flushed; he knew it was true. Hephaestus had wanted to know how the invention worked in practice, just didn't want to think about the consequences. If it came to a choice between compassion and intellectual curiosity the latter would win every time. He was implacable in this quest for perfection. It gave him a passion and a ruthlessness that could match Ares' own. They were well matched. The fencing could go on for hours before one of them cracked. He felt a sudden burning need for it to be over.
"Aphrodite in?" Ares asked on cruel impulse. This was the one weapon against which Hephaestus had no defense. His brother shook his head in negation. Ares continued, deceptively casual, "Or is someone in Aphrodite?"
"Don't." The condescension was gone. The single word contained a world of controlled emotion. Aphrodite was never mentioned between them.
Ares smiled disingenuously. "Don't what? Talk about her? Mention that she's a slut? Ask why you still put up with her?"
"You know why I put up with her." Heph was standing very still, as if the very act of movement would upset the delicate balance he was maintaining. The slightest of touches would do it.
"Tell me again," said Ares. He spoke softly. It was enough.
"Because I love her," replied Heph simply. "Because she's beautiful. Because she could have anyone."
"Does," Ares agreed suavely.
A dark flush rose along dark skin. Heph's mouth quivered, hurt and rage evident in his eyes. He raised the tongs threateningly.
Ares stepped forward invitingly. "Going to hit me with them?"
Heph had done that once. That first time, when he had trapped Ares and Aphrodite with a magic net and invited the other gods to witness the discomfort of the imprisoned pair captured in flagrante delicto. 'Dite had immediately fled to her sanctuary in Paphos in confusion but Ares had stayed. He had been furious. Heph should have kept the affair between the three of them. Centuries of pent-up aggression coalesced to a single bright flame of anger. Hephaestus had humiliated Ares; he would pay for that.
"Like what you saw today brother?" he had taunted on his release. "Don't you wish it had been you whose cock had the power to make her scream? Or maybe you were jealous of Aphrodite? "
At the last Heph had given a wordless bellow and rushed at him with a poker, beating his face repeatedly.
"You're not so beautiful now," he cried in a choked voice.
Caught by surprise, Ares had taken a number of blows before retaliating, using his greater weight to slam his brother face down into the marble floor of the great hall of his house. Blood from the cuts on his mouth and nose dripped red against the white stone. "It was me, wasn't it? It was me you wanted," he jeered, pulling Hephaestus up by his hair and drop-punching his face into the stone. Heph gave a single heaving sob and lay still. "Tell me you don't want this and I'll stop," he said, turning his brother over and reaching for the leather ties of his breeches. Heph said nothing but his cock, hot and hard, told its own story.
"Tell me to stop," urged Ares even as he leaned forward to take the stiff organ in his mouth. "You won't, will you, because you want this."
But Heph had kept silent throughout the entire act even when he arched back and came. Ares wiped his mouth and pulled his brother up before kissing him, the touch first rough, then increasingly gentle. Blood and semen mingled in their mouths. "She's not worth fighting over," he said as they parted.
Heph raised a hand, touching Ares' bruised face lightly, then let it drop. Still he remained silent.
A week later the knife had arrived. The hilt was black and the blade blood red; when thrown it flew directly to the victim's heart. There was no note. There was no need. The gift could only have come from Hephaestus.
"Ew! Ultra-squick!" Aphrodite had squealed when Ares had shown it to her. She pursed her lips thoughtfully, "Poor Poopsie, guess I really hurt him."
"Guess we did," he replied. She had looked up sharply at that but didn't comment.
Nothing more was ever said.
Now Ares dropped his hand to his groin suggestively, letting his eyes roam towards Heph's crotch where the tan leather swelled out. "Going to hit me with those?" he asked again, eyeing the tongs mockingly.
Hephaestus dropped the tool. For a moment their eyes met. Victory. Heph pushed him face first against the stone wall. Ares braced himself as Heph fumbled with the leather of his trousers, pushing them impatiently down to his thighs. He caught his breath at the feel of hard cock pushing into him, burning heat searing his nerve endings. A mortal would have felt pain from the lack of preparation but he was a god and the violence merely heightened his senses. Blood. Passion. This was what he lived for.
"Bastard! Bastard! Bastard!" Heph panted in his ear with each thrust, fingers digging deeply into his shoulders. It was over too soon, his brother breathing harshly against his shoulder. "Bastard," he said again, but the anger had gone.
Ares gave a short bark of laughter, "I'm not the bastard, though you can have Zeus with pleasure if you want to claim him."
He spun around and pushed Heph to his knees, jamming his cock in the waiting mouth. The pleasure built swift and hard. He came quickly, grabbing the dark head and shooting deep into the open throat. Heph swallowed twice, muscles visibly contracting. Ares pulled him up. Only then did they kiss with the same gentle intensity as that first time, bodies locked in tight embrace.
A single minute. Then by mutual consent they broke off, adjusting clothes with an instant's thought. Ares moved into the cavern's central space while Hephaestus picked up the forgotten tongs and returned to the forge placing them carefully in a rack. The fire had burned down slightly and he began mechanically to tend it. "I've got a new weapon you might be interested in," he spoke into the flames.
"I'm always interested in what you have to offer." Ares made the words a suggestion.
Hephaestus looked across at his words, but gave no sign of understanding the double meaning. "It's not ready yet. Another time."
"Whenever." Ares shrugged easily. He had not really expected anything else.
The smith reached for the silver metal he had been working on earlier. He picked it up and began to examine it closely. At once his face altered, the troubled expression fading before the fierce concentration of creation. He turned the piece this way and that, inspecting each side carefully.
Ares smiled, watching him, knowing there would be another time. There would always be another time.