Iphicles stood still with the wind dragging at his hair, feet planted apart for balance on the swaying deck. The beauty and isolation of the coast before him caught at the heartstrings. If life was good, then standing there drenched in sunlight, with the sea a stunning blue, dotted with a chain of small islands and rocky outcrops near the shore, while the foaming breakers thundered against them, would bring a glow of contentment. But to Iphicles, the melancholy tug of sky and sea brought nothing but grief and desperation. He didn't want to go back home. He wanted to be thousands of leagues away.
And he had tried, gods had he tried. He had done everything but throw himself on the Athenian javelins as their hoplites attacked. But those sons of bitches couldn't seem to hit a barn, much less a man eager to die.
In the last battle, the two fleets had met in the main Harbor and fought all day. The ships had rammed each other savagely and the enemy had boarded in waves, the hoplites led by their trierarchs storming the Corinthian ships, hopping from deck to deck. The confusion had been so great that as they fought, they were sometimes struck by the javelins from their own ships. Rudders had crashed in the press, the lame ships fouling friend as well as foe. Fighting at such close quarters, assailed on all sides, it should have been easy to meet Death.
But Death never finds you when you're looking for her. She only comes when you have turned away.
At the close of day, the sea had been strewn with wreckage and with the dead, drifting onto shore where the ravens and the kites had patiently awaited them. Those they didn't get had been buried by the shore of the Harbor in a common grave, which Iphicles had helped to dig along with his friend.
Now they were near the Gulf of Corinth where the fleet would separate into its disparate parts. The Theban king was in no hurry to get home and had graciously accepted an invitation from the king of Corinth to stay for talks on the next step they should take: peace with Athens or an alliance with Sparta, and war. The rest of the Theban fleet would sail round the Peloponnesian Peninsula and go onto Thebes.
Iphicles had not written to his brother in the almost three months of absence. He had come to realize in that time that he would have to leave Thebes if he was going to stay away from Hercules. He was afraid that his resolve would melt like spring snow if he were back home and only a ride away from him. He didn't have the strength of will to be so near and not see his brother. Cheiron had been right: he had to make a clean break; he just lacked the courage needed to deliver the blow that would sever him from Hercules.
He had written one short letter to his mother. It had been concise and to the point:
Congratulations. You have won.
Regards from your other son,
He had no intention of visiting her either. He had informed his commander that he would be leaving Thebes for parts unknown, after collecting his horse and settling accounts. Aristipus had looked into his eyes and what he saw there had kept him silent, making no attempt to change his mind.
Phaedo had taken the news with his usual laconic manner, simply nodding his head and asking him if he wanted to join a game of dice going on above deck.
Winter had arrived in Boetia and Thebes by the time the fleet sailed into port, but Iphicles managed to negotiate passage for himself and his horse on a merchant ship desperate to get back to Syracuse with a cargo of cattle before all sailings stopped. From there he would make his way to the mainland and onto Rome. Marcius' offer had been an open one and he still had the letter of introduction the man had given him, in case he changed his mind and decided to join the mercenary forces fighting for the Roman Empire in the North.
The following day he went to the stables to settle his account, then onto the market place to sell some of the booty won in Potidaea. He would need funds to last him the winter until the following spring, when the Romans liked to start new campaigns.
That evening he sat alone on his bed staring fixedly at the silverfish that streaked the white-washed walls like glittering tears, trying to methodically drink himself into insensibility, fighting the wrenching need to jump on his horse and go to his brother--and damn the consequences.
The door opened and Phaedo stood regarding him steadily, leaning easily on the door frame.
"Ah, I see you're wearing that famous brooding frown; the wounded look that makes the ladies croon in sympathy, while the rest of us just want to put you out of your misery." He raised an eyebrow at the jugs of wine lined up before Iphicles, "Though I see you're trying out your own remedy."
Iphicles spared him a dark glance, then went back to watching the wall. "Go away Phaedo. I'm not in the mood for conversation."
Phaedo closed the door and wandered in, then nudging Iphicles until there was room for him on the bed, he sat down and leant back, stretching his legs. A little smile flickered across his mouth, but his indigo eyes were solemn as he answered, "So, what are you in the mood for?"
Iphicles shrugged indifferently. "Fuck if I know."
"Hmm. Fuck, eh? Is that an invitation or a suggestion?"
"What?" Iphicles turned his head, surprised out of his misery.
Phaedo leaned his chin in his hand, watching him amusedly. "Do you want to fuck?"
This was the first time Phaedo had ever openly suggested such a thing. The fact of having once owned him had always inhibited Iphicles from ever approaching his friend, afraid that the other man might say yes out of a sense of obligation rather than desire.
Phaedo shrugged and looked appraisingly at Iphicles, "I could be tempted."
Iphicles stared at him, then burst out laughing.
His friend's mouth quivered responsively but he drawled in a cold voice, "That's not the usual response I get when I offer myself to someone."
"I bet! They're usually panting after you like dogs after a bitch in heat. I've seen them." Iphicles regarded Phaedo with a humorous look, "And I've seen how you respond to them too."
"Ah, but this time I'm the one who's offering." Phaedo replied coolly.
Iphicles regarded him fixedly, then asked suspiciously, "Why?"
Phaedo did not pretend to misunderstand him. "Not out of pity--not my style. As to why? for the usual reasons, of course. I fancy a fuck," his eyes gleamed an instant, "And I fancy you."
His lips twitched amusedly. "Is that a yes?"
Iphicles flushed, and lowered his eyes. "Phaedo..."
Shrewd eyes regarded the lowered head pityingly. "I'm not asking for your undying devotion Iphicles, just a friendly fuck. Is that so difficult to accept?"
Iphicles looked up then, eyes overbright with emotion. " No, it's not. But right now is not a good..."
"This is exactly the right time. It will distract you from...other things." Other people. "Come on Iphicles, "Phaedo softly cajoled, "I'll make it good for you, and I hear you're not so bad either." There was a smile at the back of his eyes. "You have quite a reputation you know, and I'm curious to find out if it's all true. So, what do you say?"
Iphicles laughed ruefully, shaking his head. " I don't know what to say, except that you've certainly surprised me."
Phaedo reached out, took Iphicles' face in his hands and brushed his lips lightly. That first touch was soft, gentle, only the barest brush of lip against lip. Iphicles made some noise, something that encouraged him, and Phaedo welded their mouths together.
After that first shock of surprise, Iphicles suddenly grabbed his head and took possession of the other's mouth, stroking him, plundering him.
Yet it was Phaedo who ended up on top with Iphicles flat on the bed, exploring the lush mouth demandingly until both of them were running perilously short of air. Finally he pulled back a moment, and both took a big breath, then he started on Iphicles' neck, mouthing, biting, licking and making him crazy. As he gently bit his ear, Phaedo murmured, "You see, this was a great idea."
"You think?" gasped Iphicles, as expert hands slid his leather vest off. Phaedo took his mouth as hard as Iphicles had taken his, then he sat up slowly, and smiled meaningfully, grinding his hips down, making Iphicles groan and push back. "You feel good."
"Thanks." then Iphicles groaned again and arched upwards as Phaedo started nibbling and biting his nipples. "Yeah. Oh, yeah."
Everything happened fast after that and Iphicles found his pants were gone, and didn't remember how they had come off. Then Phaedo took Iphicles' cock into his mouth, sucking him, running his tongue around the head, until he nearly came.
Grabbing Phaedo by the shoulder, Iphicles dragged him up his body until their cocks lay side by side, rubbing intimately, while Iphicles plundered his mouth.
"In me, now." Phaedo breathed in his ear.
The door slammed open. "Iph..." Hercules stood frozen in the doorway, slowly whitening until the blue of his eyes stood out starkly, the only color visible in his shocked face.
"Iph?" Hercules whispered pitifully.
"What the... Hercules! What in Tartarus are you doing here?"
Hercules swallowed convulsively then whispered, "I came to see you."
Phaedo started to get off, but fell back when Iphicles grabbed him. So leaning on the tense body underneath him, he watched with interest as the two brothers faced one another.
Iphicles shoved two pillows behind his back and looked at his brother with a cool, indifferent face, in stark contrast to the torment darkening his eyes.
"You shouldn't be here, you should be back at the Academy where you belong."
"Iph?" Hercules' voice was anguished and bewildered.
"How did you get here anyway? Did you run away?" Iphicles asked harshly.
Hercules shook his head numbly, "Cheiron let me come. I was worried when I didn't hear from you. I thought something had happened..."
Bastard, Iphicles thought. Wanted to make sure he would deliver the killing blow. Well, it was working out better than Cheiron could have ever planned. Or had he been hoping for this?
"Well, as you see, I'm fine. So now you can go back to the Academy like a good little boy, and stay there, where you belong." Iphicles decided he was in a nightmare, one which he couldn't escape, but had to play out to its vicious end.
Hercules looked at Iphicles with stricken eyes, still paralyzed in the first shock of discovery, then his eyes fell on the handsome, enigmatic face of the man draped over his brother.
"Who..." His voice dried up. He swallowed convulsively, and looked into Iphicles' bleak face.
"He's my lover." Iphicles' voice was as hard as his expression.
Iphicles saw Hercules flinch at the word lover, saw the hot flush of embarrassment rising up his skin. He looked vulnerable, defenseless. Innocent. But he wasn't. Iphicles had taken that innocence from him. No. Hercules had given it to him, hadn't he?
"I..." Hercules made a small, helpless gesture with his hand when his voice failed again. "I thought you...and I..."
"I was going to write and tell you." Iphicles said harshly, drifting further and further into the nightmare. "But you here now, so now you know."
He wanted to hug his brother, to make the pain go away, to wrap his arms around the stiff body and pull him close. Instead he did nothing at all, simply lying unmoving with Phaedo half draped over him.
"I'm sorry." Hercules whispered finally. "I misunderstood."
It was all beginning to sink in and make sense to him. Dull-eyed, he stared at the body so close to him, unconsciously memorizing every plane and contour.
A fool. He had been a fool, a dupe.
Iphicles had warned him in the clearest possible words that he couldn't be trusted, but he hadn't listened. He had taken his loneliness and nameless yearning and created a beautiful dream: Iphicles his true love.
A joke, joke, just a joke...all of it, from the first instant, a joke. Iphicles had amused himself at his expense, and now he was bored and had moved on to some one else.
All traces of blood left Hercules' face. His expression was that of someone who had been struck without warning and was searching for a way to avoid further blows.
Iphicles hissed a single vicious word, knowing what he was losing, what he had lost. He had known he would, but even then he hadn't imagined it would be like this, and hurt so much. The pain enraged him, and the intolerable loss.
"Go home Hercules." He ground out with the last of his control.
And Hercules, after a last look full of searing pain at his betrayal, turned numbly away, and was gone.
Iphicles fell back shattered in mind and spirit, as darkness seemed to close over him from all sides.
"Hercules--your lover?" Phaedo's incredulous, soft, cool voice was coming from very far away. "You really know how to mess up your life, don't you?"
Wild laughter clawed its way out of Iphicles tight throat, but soon it turned into a raw, pure sound of pain.
* * *
Iphicles woke up to the chill light of near-dawn. The cold had seeped into his bones, and he ached all over as he struggled to his feet. He had no memory of having fallen sleep, not that he remembered much about last night; he must have blacked out at some point. Whatever, at least he hadn't dreamed...
His eyes hurt; it was an effort to blink them open, and keep them open long enough to take stock of his surroundings.
His head wanted to fall off his shoulders, or maybe he wished it would. Not surprising really, he had drunk and drunk until he could shut out the voices in his head, the expression in those blue eyes. He had become an expert at repressing his pain, but sometimes it got away from him and became a torture he couldn't endure.
He was living day to day, with no particular destination or aim in life, nothing but the vague compulsion to keep going as if by doing so he could somehow escape his past, forget what had happened. But it wasn't any use: he kept seeing the pain of betrayal in those eyes, hearing that voice saying, "I'm sorry, I misunderstood." over and over again.
He hadn't really felt anything at first, just a numb feeling of emptiness and loss. Then it had began to sink in like a lead weight, settling in his stomach, in his heart. A sick feeling that he knew too well, one that had been with him as long as he could remember, the sensation of being alone, the feeling of loneliness.
"Stop it." he muttered through clenched teeth, "Stop it, stop it..." His head hurt. His heart hurt, but then his heart always hurt. He missed him, oh gods, he missed him.
His eyes blurred, and he cursed under his breath and reached up to rub his sore eyes and discovered his forehead hurt as well and felt sticky. He must have hit something last night, or been hit, who knew. He got into so many fights when drunk, or not so drunk that he was vaguely surprised some mornings to wake up and discover himself still alive.
Hearing a noise, he turned round and met the ironic gaze of his friend.
"With the living again are we?" Phaedo approached him silently, and tilting Iphicles' head, he scrutinized the cut with unreadable eyes.
"You'll live." He said finally and went to the corner of the room where a pitcher of water sat next to an earthen basin.
"What happened?" Iphicles asked through a parched throat.
"The usual, " Phaedo replied in his soft, mocking voice. "You got drunk, you won at dice again, picked a fight and then I dragged you back here." He swabbed Iphicles' wound with a gentle touch.
"Oh indeed." Phaedo looked on without comment as Iphicles drank from the water pitcher then doused his aching head with the remaining water. "Get ready, we're going on patrol."
Iphicles turned round in surprise." It's not our turn."
Phaedo's lips twitched, and amusement colored his voice as he replied, "It is when you clean out your Centurion at dice. He's not a happy man this morning."
"Oh shit!" Iphicles smiled ruefully. They both looked at a stack of gold coins that had spilled out on the table near the bed. They exchanged a glance and Iphicles burst out laughing. "He'll kill me."
Phaedo bit back a smile. "He'll try, and have the same luck as he had with the dice. You're not easy to kill."
Iphicles shrugged indifferently, and said nothing. For it was true, however hard he fought and regardless of the risks he took, he always came through with hardly a scratch.
"How did I get this?" he asked, gently touching the healing cut on his forehead.
Phaedo's eyes gleamed with amusement. " Not in the fight. You hit your head on the door frame when I was trying to get you into the room. You weren't being very cooperative."
Iphicles laughed again and gave his friend a grateful look. Phaedo was always there for him. A silent, enigmatic shadow that gazed at the world with detached amusement and seemed not to care greatly about anything, except for Iphicles.
Phaedo had said nothing when Iphicles had decided to leave Thebes. Nor had Iphicles been able to track down his friend at the time of leaving, But when he went to board the merchant ship that would take him to Syracuse, he had found Phaedo already there, watching him from the ship's rails.
"What in Tartarus are you doing here?" had asked the shocked Iphicles.
"Going to Syracuse, what else?" had been the quiet answer.
"Phaedo..." He looked into the impenetrable, amused indigo eyes. "You don't have to come. You can stay here, you know."
"I know. Just thought it was time for a change."
"Phaedo, you're a free man, you can do whatever you want."
"Exactly." Phaedo replied blandly.
Iphicles stared at his friend with a frowning look, unsure what to say or what to think. "You don't owe me anything, you don't have to come with me."
"But what if I want to?" Phaedo inquired gently. He saw Iphicles looking worriedly at him and sighing softly he explained in his quiet way.
"I have no family, no home. I saw my lover killed before my eyes. My mother raped and my sister...they're all dead. I'm alive because an Athenian Commander was feeling horny, and he thought I would be a good fuck and also fetch a high price from some brothel owner he knew. I have nothing left to hold me, except you. You're the only one left in my life who matters to me. So here I am."
Iphicles' eyes were bright with feeling as he took in Phaedo's quiet offer of support and friendship. Finally he struggled out an answer. "If it's what you want."
"It's what I want." Phaedo answered with quiet certainty.
"Then all I can say is, that I'm glad you're coming with me. You're also all I have left." Iphicles declared with a bitter smile.
Phaedo doubted that somehow but made not comment, knowing it would be unwise to remind Iphicles of his brother. Or of his mother.
Just like her younger son, Alcmene had unexpectedly appeared at Iphicles' door, though fortunately not to the same situation.
"What have you done to your brother, Iphicles? He's utterly distraught and won't talk to me about it." Alcmene had looked quite distraught herself, worried sick about her younger son.
"Just what you asked me to do mother, I let him go." Iphicles' voice had trembled with the effort to contain his anger and resentment.
"I don't know what you said or did, but you were too hard on him. He's in such pain. How could you be so heartless, Iphicles? You know how your brother loves you, how much he takes to heart whatever you say to him." Alcmene had looked accusingly at her older son, her blue eyes filled with anger and anxiety.
"I don't want to hear it!" Iphicles had shouted, writhing under the lash of Alcmene's words and tempted to tell her exactly what had passed between Hercules and himself.
"Go home mother." He said more quietly. "You got what you wanted. Be happy with that and leave well alone."
"But you can't leave your brother to suffer like that, you must talk to..."
Iphicles took a deep breath. "No. I won't talk to him. I'm leaving tomorrow for Rome. I don't now when I'll be back." if ever. "He'll get over it and get on with his life, become all you have planned for him to be." He managed a bleak little smile. "I won't stand in your way or his again, that I can promise you."
Alcmene looked at her eldest son and realized he was suffering too. This was hurting her oldest son as well. She hadn't thought how her efforts to save Hercules would affect Iphicles. It dawned on her she might lose one son for the sake of the other.
"Iphicles, I never wanted you to get hurt. I just wanted what was best for Hercules. You understand that, don't you?" She silently begged for reassurance.
Swallowing his bitterness, he said with forgiving stoicism. "I know mother. And I understand."
Alcmene accepted his assurance with obvious relief. Unwilling to look further than his words, not wanting to learn more than she could deal with, she asked him," You'll be back soon though, won't you?"
Iphicles didn't answer, simply taking her in his arms. "I'll write and let you know. I'll send you money when I get paid in my next job, so don't worry."
"Be careful Iphicles. I don't want to lose you." She said into his broad shoulder, knowing she had pushed him into this somehow.
He smiled bleakly over her head, but he only said," It'll be all right mother."
So the two men went on to Rome and joined the mercenary troops that the Roman Army employed in the more troubled spots of its empire. These special forces were at the forefront of the battles fought in the untamed regions of Gaul and Northern Africa, opening the way for the Roman Legions who came behind to impose order and hold the lands wrested from the Barbarians.
The two men were always found together, for where Iphicles led Phaedo wouldn't be far behind, watching the world with weary, cynical detachment, refusing all offers, except those of his friend.
Iphicles grew accustomed to having someone in his life who accepted him without comment, and never tried to change him; except for his drinking.
At first, Iphicles could only get rest with the help of large helpings of wine or beer, finding the pain of loss unbearable to bear.
Rage and anger at his fate would eat at him, and fighting, whether in the battlefield or in a bar, helped diffuse some of the pressure. It earned him a reputation as a savage, foolhardy fighter that kept others away from him, unwilling to tangle with someone who clearly courted death but only brought it to others.
As time passed and the pain settled into a steady, constant ache, Iphicles calmed down into a routine of fighting and of drink, the medicine of choice for what ailed him.
The other men might fear him, but they also regarded him with respect. His commanders too were happy to have such fearless soldier in their troops, always ready to take on the hardest, riskiest position in battle, uncaring for his safety. And he always seemed to come through it all unscathed, the blood that covered him always someone else's, never his own.
His commanders were not the only ones to take an interest in Iphicles.
Where the fighting was most fierce and the danger greatest, there would Iphicles be, in the thick of it, pressing upon the enemy with a sword arm dyed in red as the blood run from his blade or spurted out from wounds and severed arteries he hacked out as he advanced, making a path for himself through living flesh.
From the corner of his bloodshot eyes he glimpsed the flash of a long ax dropping towards his helmeted head. It never reached him, for a long sword blade intercepted its deadly arc and swept it aside like it were but a straw, then that same blade swung again and the ax holder lay dead, his head rolling to Iphicles' feet with a wet, bouncing sound.
He spared a look for his comrade and caught a flash of dark brilliant eyes. The black clad warrior grinned fiercely and swung his blade again to cut his way through the next attack.
They fought side by side, creating a crimson blossom of death around themselves. The dark, red speckled petals of dead, broken bodies surrounded them like a corona, a fitting gift for Death that day.
Eventually the fighting died, the might of Rome had won again and their opponents slipped away to lick their wounds and regain strength for the next battle, for they would not willingly surrender to the shaven fiends that came from the South.
Iphicles rested his weight on a spear shaft he had wrested from the last man he had killed and turned towards his unknown comrade.
"You fought well." Iphicles stared measuringly at the dark warrior, struck by his overpowering presence, his aura of violence, and his beauty.
The man shrugged indifferently. "It's what I do."
Iphicles gazed into the blackest, most brilliant eyes he had ever seen in anyone. He took in the mocking, sensual gaze that raked his body with open lust. "You want a fuck?" He asked abruptly.
Black eyebrows hitched in faint surprise and the sensual mouth curved in a suggestive smile. "Sure."
Iphicles nodded once, and walked towards a nearby copse of birches he had noticed during the battle.
"What--now?" A deep voice called behind him.
"Why wait?" was Iphicles' laconic reply. His skin itched with the prickling left behind by the vicious, bloody fighting of that day. Violence and lust were eating at him, that or the need for a drink. Well, he wouldn't find it here, but a hard, fast fuck was in the offing.
He reached the small clearing within the brambles and trees and turned suddenly, grabbing the stranger and crushing his mouth with violent hunger. He got an equally violent response and found himself shoved with incredible force against one of the larger papery gray birches. Gods, the man was strong!
He could taste blood from their crushed lips, he could smell it, the stink of death and spilled entrails. Not surprising as he was covered in the sticky, drying blood and gore of those he had killed that day.
Suddenly his unknown lover broke off the kiss and turned him round. There was a tingling sensation and he was naked, as was the man behind him. Except this was no man--no human could do that. Shit.
"Who the fuck are you?" ground out Iphicles, as incredibly hot, knowing hands roamed over his body, rubbing the streaks of blood into his skin, pinching his nipples and pumping his rigid cock so expertly he was ready to come in seconds.
"Ares." A scorching breath brushed his ear, followed by a stinging bite on the side of his neck.
Iphicles groaned with arousal and dismay. "Fuck!"
There was a rumble of dark laughter. "Oh, you will be, don't worry."
Iphicles laughed wildly. He'd survived the battle, but he wasn't sure if he would survive this. He found he didn't care. "If you're going to kill me, you'd better make it good."
"It will be good, and you won't die," promised the God of War.
"Is that a promise?" Iphicles could feel a slick, fiery brand piercing him like a sword, splitting him with pain and pleasure. He cried out in anguished exaltation as the God of War buried himself in his body with a muted roar.
The human was so tight, so hot inside. The god might have wanted to savor the first moment, to draw out the feeling, but he couldn't stop himself. It was hard, savage. Ares pounded into him and nothing else mattered. Iphicles wasn't any better. He pushed back and grabbed him with his hands, gasping, "Fuck me harder! Faster! Faster, damn you!.
Ares, aware he was dealing with fragile human flesh tried to keep some measure of control. "I'll hurt you, you fool!"
"I don't give a fuck if you hurt me," Iphicles forced out the words between gasps. "Just don't stop! Faster!"
They lost track of how long they went at it. It was neither gentle nor pretty, but it felt good to them both. It was what Iphicles needed. Finally, he convulsed in orgasmic agony and came, again and again and again. His brain whited out, blinding him to everything but the power of his orgasm. He spasmed round Ares' cock, the smooth muscles clamping down on him, and the god came, loud and hard, then collapsed into Iphicles, crushing him into the silvery, parchment bark of the swaying birch. Both tree and human bore the heavy weight, both instinctively bending, and neither broke when War leaned on them.
"That was good." Iphicles sighed, rubbing his cheek on the smooth bark.
"Not bad." admitted the god as he pulled out.
Iphicles laughed and then straightened with a groan. There was a tingling feeling and he was back in his armor. It seemed cleaner and the bangs and dents had gone. There were some benefits to being fucked by a god after all. All one usually heard of were the disadvantages.
Iphicles looked into the brilliant eyes of the god and smiled. "Thanks, I needed that." He rubbed his weary face and added brazenly, "I'm not usually on the receiving end. But if I'm going to get fucked, it might as well be by a god, so drop by anytime you're in the mood."
After a stunned moment, laughter welled up within the God of War. His voice shook imperceptibly as he answered, "Maybe I'll take you up on it."
"You do that." Iphicles replied, but he didn't really believe he would.
However, a few weeks later he glimpsed a flash of black and suddenly the God of War was fighting at his side, grinning with fierce pleasure as they swept the enemy before them, leaving a trail of dead and wounded in their wake.
This time Iphicles wanted to savor the moment and insisted on a bed. With a shrug Ares waved his hand and they were in Iphicles' quarters in the almost empty compound, as the bulk of the forces were still on the battlefield.
Phaedo arrived some time later looking grim, but at the sight of Iphicles sprawled on the bed, half sleep after Ares had finished with him, his face relaxed into its usual unreadable mask and he smiled faintly. "So, you're not dead after all. Should know better by now. But when nobody could find you they thought you might have been taken prisoner or ended at the bottom of the Rhine."
He wandered in and looked down at the delectable sprawl of his friend who smiled at him with sensual contentment and stretched lazily, like a well fed, well loved cat. "Nah, I'm fine."
Phaedo trailed a knowing finger up one outstretched leg, bypassing the semi-erect cock, and continued up to a slightly swollen nipple, which was gently caressed. "Been having fun?"
"Can anyone join in?"
"Be my guest."
Phaedo shed his armor and slid up the pliant body, leaving a trail of soft bites and wet kisses in his wake. Iphicles hummed with pleasure and rubbed his body against the smooth, steely length of his friend. "You feel good."
"So do you." murmured Phaedo against his neck, before brushing his lips over the hair shadowed jaw and taking the full, warm mouth in a steadily deepening kiss that soon had Iphicles breathing harshly and grasping the hips pressing against his hardening cock. He maneuvered their bodies until they were fully aligned, then started a slow rocking that had them both moaning in each other's mouth as he tongue-fucked Phaedo at the same speed as the steadily increasing movement of their hips.
Phaedo reluctantly released the tempting mouth, licking the red, swollen lips as he whispered against them. "Want to fuck?" he felt the mouth curving in answer. Smiling, he slid down the sweat sheened body and teased the hard cock of his lover, laving it generously with his tongue, but refusing to take it fully into his mouth, much to Iphicles' frustration.
Phaedo laughed softly then rose to his knees, and straddling the rocking hips, he grasped the cock with one hand and guided it into his body, watching through half-closed eyes, brilliant with desire and a nameless emotion as Iphicles arched under him, groaning loud and long as his length was gripped by a hot, velvet vice that rippled as Phaedo settled fully on his hips.
"Gods, you feel so good." Iphicles said with a moan, and grasped the other man's cock, pumping it gently.
"So do you." murmured Phaedo as he began to slowly ride his friend, waiting until Iphicles showed signs of frustration before increasing the speed. This measured pace built up the pleasure until the man underneath him was drenched with sex induced sweat, mingling with the drops that fell from his own straining body onto the frenzied writhing one that he was straddling. Suddenly Iphicles stiffened, fist tightening convulsively on Phaedo's cock, and pushing with abandoned force into the pulsating channel that enclosed him, he came with a muted roar that dragged his lover over the edge as well.
Phaedo collapsed onto the lax body beneath him and fought to catch his breath. Eventually he raised his head and smiled with satisfaction when he saw that Iphicles had fallen sleep. Good, there would be no drinking that night at least.
At first, their encounters were nothing more than a sexual coming together of two bodies. But as time passed and they got to know each other's likes and preferences, an odd, tentative exchange of thoughts and opinions on various subjects, beginning with war and fighting strategies, then moving onto other more general Ares' visits became a regular occurrence in Iphicles' life, and he found himself topics, began to take place. The god was secretly amused and entertained by the mortal's lack of fear. Nor was he cowed by his violent temper.
Iphicles didn't really fear him because he didn't care whether he lived or died, the threat of death holding no force for him.
In time Ares discovered this and wondered what could have led a mortal who would seem to have more than his share of good fortune, beauty, intelligence and abilities, to have so light a hold on life. Of course, being the brother of Hercules was enough to blight anyone's life.
He came nearer than he realized to pinpointing the reason for Iphicles' spiritual malaise. But Ares was demonstrably self-centered, spoilt, and with no thought for anything but his fleeting pleasure; so he dismissed the problem as irrelevant, and simply enjoyed the mortal for as long as he lived, which probably wouldn't be for too long, given his determination to get killed, one way or another.
For his part, Iphicles saw Ares' interest as a passing fancy that would soon fade, and waited for each encounter to be the last.
But much to his surprise, and to the god's, Ares kept coming back, his visits slowly mutating into comfortable chats, or as comfortable as any contact with the God of War could ever be, specially when Hercules began to become one his favorite topics. Iphicles, after the first shock of pain on hearing that name, sat back and quietly listened to the god's rants. He didn't know the person Ares talked about, he sounded so different to the boy he'd known.
Imperceptibly, Iphicles became a feature of the god's life, someone who mattered, and even rarer for him, someone he was beginning to trust. Perhaps it was because the mortal never asked for anything, or treated their meetings as more than a normal interchange between two men, one of whom happened to be a god.
Whatever the reasons, mortal and god drew closer together in an unlikely association that they both enjoyed, and which eventually became an important element in their lives.
Ares had automatically taken the upper hand in their sexual encounters; the God of War did not get fucked by any mortal, by anyone.
"Never?" Iphicles asked curiously.
Ares shrugged carelessly. "I'm the God of War." as if that explained everything.
"You don't know what you're missing." Iphicles emptied the goblet and refilled it again.
Ares frowned at him with faint displeasure. "I know what I like."
"You can't." Iphicles pointed out. "Not if you've never done it."
"I'm a god." Ares growled. "I can enter into a mortal's mind and feel what they feel. I don't need to experience every trivial thing myself."
"It's not the same." Iphicles declared firmly. "Second hand experiences can't show you what anything really feels like."
Ares was becoming annoyed at Iphicles' dismissive attitude. "Are you telling me that I have to get fucked in order to know how it really feels?"
"Yep." answered Iphicles, hiding a smile. He liked to needle Ares now and then, to see how far he could push before the god lost his temper. It was a bit like watching a smoking volcano and wondering when it would erupt. A dangerous sport but an exciting one.
"Hrumph!" snorted the god with contempt. But there was a gleam of doubt lurking in his fiery gaze.
"I could show you if you want." Iphicles offered with a flickering smile.
"No need." Ares snapped.
"Afraid?" Iphicles inquired, looking innocently at the fulminating god.
"The God of War is not afraid of anything." declared Ares aggressively.
The god glared into the gently mocking amber eyes and fought the impulse to wring the human's neck.
"Fine." he forced through gritted teeth.
"Good. You'll do as I say though, and not try to take over?"
"Yes!" snarled the much tried god.
"OK then." Iphicles sauntered to the bed and waved his hand in invitation. "Lie down."
"What, now?" Ares inquired gruffly, refusing to reveal any uneasiness.
"Why not?" Iphicles asked, with raised eyebrows.
Silently, the god marched to the bed and sat on it with crossed arms, looking anything but inviting.
Iphicles gently pushed him down on the bed. "Come on, lie down. I'm not going to eat you." He gave sudden laugh. "Well, not literally anyway."
Ares lay stiff and uncooperative, determined to make it as difficult as possible for the arrogant human who thought he had something new to teach the God of War.
Iphicles hid a smile and proceeded to remove his own clothing, sliding his vest off his shoulders slowly, and giving Ares plenty of time to appreciate the view. He knew that the god enjoyed the sight of him naked. He wasn't a vain man, but he was aware that he had a good body, and he didn't hesitate to use it in order to break down Ares' resistance.
After removing his pants, he idly caressed his chest, pinched his nipples and then leisurely fondled his cock and balls until the flesh grew hard and the god' breath was speeding up with interested arousal.
Taking off Ares' boots, Iphicles firmly caressed the feet then raked the soles with his nails, making the god squirm, but stimulating him as well, so that when he gently bit the instep and sucked the toes with a teasing mouth, Ares bit back a moan and began to unlock tight muscles, unconsciously relaxing into the human's touch.
Smiling with satisfaction, Iphicles slid his hands up the long legs, and deftly undid the laces, careful not to touch the bulge that pressed against the black leather. Ares wriggled his hips suggestively but Iphicles ignored him and gently peeled the pants off the perfect body that begged silently for his touch.
He slid down the legs again, ignoring the muted growl that escaped his reluctant god, and showed Ares that his legs had a surprisingly large number of sensitive areas, so that by the time Iphicles straddled his hips, Ares was fast becoming a mass of sensitized nerve endings, his large cock iron- hard, and on the edge of coming.
He slid his hands into the studded leather vest, gently pushed it off the broad shoulders, and pinched one nipple, then the other, then leaned down and bit them just hard enough to make the body underneath him jolt with the pleasure.
He kissed the full mouth, so much like his own, sucking in Ares' tongue, stroking the inside of his mouth and breaking off when Ares tried to take control, biting his neck, and brushing hot, moist lips over the perfect, velvet skin. He bit the edge of the ear with the earring and pulled on it gently. Then he browsed slowly down the well-muscled chest and clamped on the nipples, pulling, tugging and pinching them with skillful fingers, sending sharp, electric sensations through the body sizzling beneath him.
Ares groaned long and loud when he felt a soft tongue teasing him, roaming from one nipple to the other.
"What the fuck are you doing to me?" He said in a low, rough voice.
"Making you crazy, I hope."
"You're doing that all right." Ares ground out, trying to stop himself from moaning.
Iphicles laughed softly and continued to tease his nipples, licking them, pulling at one with his lips, nibbling, biting, tracing it with his tongue and repeating the process with the other one. Just before Ares was ready to push him off, Iphicles slid down and swallowed his cock whole, making him arch and swear harshly.
The expert mouth and tongue had Ares groaning loudly in short order, surrendering to the intense pleasure that Iphicles was giving him, past caring by this point that he had lost control of the situation and getting ready to explode into the tormenting mouth.
But Iphicles had other plans and eased off, smiling broadly when Ares snarled in frustration.
"What?" The god speared him with a fulminating glare, debating whether to blast him to Tartarus or just grab the insolent human's head, shove his desperate cock into his mouth and finish the job himself.
"Turn over, I'm not finished yet." Iphicles stated firmly, looking unmoved by the killing glare of the panting god.
"Turn over and you'll find out."
Ares stared into Iphicles' eyes for a long moment, then turned over without a word. He had taken on the dare, and he wasn't going to back out now. But he was going to kill him afterwards, slowly.
Iphicles settled between Ares' legs and softly caressed the satiny skin stretched over iron-hard muscles. Ares was beautiful, and he had a great ass.
Ares felt the sting and scrape of teeth on his ass-cheeks. "What the fuck are you doing Iphicles?"
"Admiring your ass. It looked so good, I just had to take a bite."
The god started to turn over but just then Iphicles brushed his lips across the bite and licked it with a hot tongue. It felt good and Ares stopped moving, and when he felt the mortal bite him and lick the other side, it felt even better.
Iphicles started running his tongue over the cleft and Ares spread his legs wider, giving him more access, so that now he could reach Ares' balls, which he immediately sucked in, one at the time, moving them gently in his mouth, pulling on them. His teeth would scrape the skin lightly from time to time, adding an extra tingle.
By now Ares was breathing fast again, and Iphicles stopped for a moment. "Enjoying yourself?" he asked teasingly.
Ares cleared his throat, then muttered, "It's ok. But I.....Oh shit!"
Iphicles' tongue was softly stroking his asshole, tickling, teasing, then using harder strokes, and burrowing into the tightly clenched hole, opening it up with slick forceful stabs.
The ring of muscle loosened then clenched and spasmed around Iphicles' tongue, over and over as he teased it, while Ares gasped and moaned helplessly, wild with pleasure, his thighs trembling as he pushed back to take in more of the skillful tongue, his balls tightening as he lost himself in a turmoil of sensation.
"Don't stop, don't stop damn you." He howled in fury when Iphicles raised his head, and slid up his body, licking and biting, scraping the sensitized skin, rubbing himself on the body spread out beneath him.
"I'm going to fuck you now," Iphicles whispered in his ears.
Ares froze still, then he seemed to melt into the bed and said, breathing hard, "Do it."
Iphicles bit the side of his neck, licked the soft skin behind his ear and slid down Ares' body again. "Oil." He commanded softly and his hand was suddenly slippery with some sweet-smelling stuff that he stroked in with a careful finger, running the tip around the opening, over and over, very lightly. Then he dipped the finger in and out, steadily deepening the strokes, adding a second finger, going deeper, deeper, and curling them until the fingertips touched a bump inside that had Ares shouting in shocked pleasure and thrusting wildly, fucking himself on Iphicles' fingers, chanting, "Shitshitshitshit..."
When Iphicles gently pulled his fingers out Ares roared in frustration, but quieted quickly as he felt the pressure of a cock nudging in, felt the hot body covering him. The feeling of the hard, slick flesh that slowly, very slowly slid into his body was amazing. It was the sort of sensation that couldn't be described--pleasure pain. He felt full, impaled, joined to Iphicles in a new and mysterious way. And it felt incredibly good...
"Ok?" Iphicles asked, breathing hard.
"Fucking incredible!" admitted Ares surprising himself.
Iphicles laughed softly and started moving in and out, going very slowly, while Ares literally purred with pleasure. But eventually he wanted more, and started growling with impatience, frustrated by the slow, deliberate pace that Iphicles insisted on.
"Faster!" Ares commanded.
Iphicles bit the back of his neck hard enough to sting. "No." He whispered.
Ares growled again and Iphicles just laughed and carried on. But eventually he did go faster, and before long he was pounding into Ares, unerringly hitting the bump inside, at the same time as he took his cock with a still slick hand. Ares sobbed once, shoved hard into Iphicles' hand and came violently, his long loud groan vibrating through Iphicles' nerves like a lightning strike, and Iphicles lost it, pumping into the god's ass until he collapsed bonelessly onto Ares, all strength flowing out of him.
They lay there for a while, getting their senses back. Then Ares moved and Iphicles groaned and slid off him, pulling his shrunken cock out.
"Fuck." Iphicles groaned. Ares shook with rumbling laughter. "You just did."
Iphicles smiled senselessly at the ceiling. "Yeah." He turned his head and looked at the bright, black eyes regarding him with an unreadable look. "You OK?"
Ares smiled slowly. "Yeah."
"Told you it would be good." Iphicles commented, "You don't always have to be in control."
"Hmm. Maybe, but don't expect this as a regular thing."
Iphicles laughed and sat up slowly, groaning with tiredness. "Damn, I'm done for. Have you got any of that wine?"
Ares frowned, but he materialized a goblet of wine. "You drink too much."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. You and Phaedo are always going on about it." Iphicles drunk deeply then fell back on the bed and closed his eyes.
"That's because it's true." Ares pointed out. But Iphicles wasn't listening--he had fallen sleep.
Ares regarded the sleeping man for a long while and mused, "Why in Tartarus do I put up with you?"
While the god rarely let Iphicles take control like this again, he showed a trust in this one mortal that he had granted no one else before. Perhaps that's why he allowed Iphicles to take liberties that would have got any one else killed.
For his part, Iphicles gave the god a willing and patient ear, even when the subject of Ares' rants was Hercules.
As his brother's fame grew, so did his clashes with the God of War. Both seemed determined to get in one another's face as often as possible. Iphicles realized Ares was not exactly an unbiased source of news about his brother. It did strike him though that Hercules seemed to make a point of spoiling Ares' plans every chance he got.
He hardly ever commented, and refused to defend his brother when Ares was more than usually offensive about him. It seemed to him that both god and demigod were equally responsible for the clashes, and it was none of his business.
Only once did they butt heads over Hercules, and it nearly destroyed the connection they had somehow managed to establish between them.
Phaedo was usually in Iphicles' bed when Ares wasn't, though sometimes the god enjoyed watching the two of them together. The first time he found an interested Ares watching him fuck his friend, it disconcerted Iphicles into almost stopping. But he soon grew accustomed to have an audience that was not above taking part in the proceedings, fucking Iphicles as he in turn took his friend. It was a curious experience to take part in a trio where one of the participants was invisible, and the other didn't know there was a third person in bed with them.
Unfortunately, Ares didn't always make his presence known to Iphicles either, for he liked to watch his favorite mortal on odd occasions.
Phaedo hardly ever mentioned Hercules' name to his friend, knowing the history that existed between the two brothers. But stories of his latest adventure, in which the great hero had thwarted one of Hera's evil plans had spread as far as their camp in the northern borders of Transalpine Gaul.
Phaedo looked pensively at the figure of his friend sprawled on the bed, sipping from a jug of wine as the sweat cooled on his body. Phaedo liked to take it slowly in bed and build up the fire of desire gradually until they finished in frenzy of built up lust. It left Iphicles drained and relaxed, which was Phaedo's objective, for then his friend was less likely to drink so much.
"It's interesting to think that you're responsible for the creation of this great hero." Phaedo mused softly, running a gentle hand over the powerful body lying next to him.
"What do you mean?" Iphicles turned his head to look frowningly at his friend. Phaedo turned a lightly mocking gaze on him. "Exactly what I said. If you hadn't kicked him out of your bed," he observed Iphicles' face freezing at his words. "Hercules would still be there--instead of killing monsters, and fighting with the gods."
Iphicles pushed Phaedo off him and sat up, face as grim and icy as the frost bitten fields that surrounded the camp. "Shut up, Phaedo. That's all in the past. I've forgotten about it."
Phaedo leaned on his elbow and gazed coolly back, unaffected by Iphicles' anger. "Ah, but is it ? And have you?" He captured the tortured eyes of his friend with his faintly compassionate ones. "That's the problem, isn't it? You can't let him go, and you won't forget." he flicked a dismissive finger at the wine jug in Iphicles' hand. "And that's not going to do it."
Iphicles stared into the ruby depths of the Iberian wine the Roman Army received from those sunny lands, and admitted quietly. "I know, but it's all I have. He's embedded in my soul. He clawed his way inside me and I can't dislodge him, however hard I try."
Phaedo smiled sadly, knowing how that felt. "Yes, love's a bitch, isn't it? Especially when you know it's hopeless." He looked unperceived, at the despondent head, with eyes full of veiled tenderness. Then sighing softly he took hold of one bowed shoulder and pulled until Iphicles was resting on his chest. "Let Phaedo make it better."
Iphicles burrowed into his friend's chest and mumbled into the smooth, golden skin. "Thanks Phaedo. I'm lucky to have you."
"Yes you are."
"Don't know why you put up with me sometimes." muttered Iphicles sleepily.
"Don't you?" Phaedo murmured expressionless. But Iphicles didn't hear him, exhaustion and alcohol had finally taken their toll.
Phaedo smiled wryly and settled the growing weight of his lover more comfortably. "Of course you don't."
Next time Ares griped to Iphicles about Hercules' latest iniquitous affront to his power he suddenly pointed an accusing finger at the mortal and snarled, "And it's all your fault."
"What?" exclaimed a startled Iphicles. "How'd you work that one out?"
"If you'd kept that baby brother of yours busy in bed, he wouldn't be getting up my nose now."
Iphicles sprung up from the sprawl he'd assumed while listening to the ranting god. "Who told you about us?" he snarled.
"You did, while talking to your pretty lover." Ares admitted.
"You spy on me?" Iphicles was livid by this point.
"I drop in now and again, but sometimes you're busy with whatshisname so I don't stick around." Ares replied airily.
"You snoop on me."
"I don't snoop." snapped Ares. "It's a god's job to keep an eye on what humans get up to."
"You spy on me, you bastard. That conversation was private." shouted Iphicles, too furious to care that he was insulting a god, the God of War.
Enraged by the human's insolence, Ares grabbed him by his vest and crushed him against the rough stone walls of the room. "How dare you speak like that to me!" He spit into Iphicles' face.
"Then don't ever mention it again, or spy on me." Iphicles spit back.
"I could kill you for your impudence. I've killed others for much less." snarled the furious god.
"Then do it! Do it!" snarled Iphicles back, daring him.
They glared at each other for long moments, black, baleful eyes staring into blazing, wild ones--Death watching breathlessly as the two teetered on the edge of the dark abyss--then both drew back at the same time, the fire dying in their eyes.
Ares flung him violently back against the wall and spun on his heels, prowling restlessly about the room, while Iphicles slid down till he was sitting on the floor, tightly hugging his knees, unwilling to betray the trembling of his limbs. "I don't want to talk about it." He said with quiet finality.
Ares gazed at him with fiery eyes, then suddenly he shrugged with apparent indifference. "Fine. It's not that interesting a subject anyway."
Iphicles nodded and let out a sigh of relief. That had been close. But he would not give in. Not on this.
Ares never directly referred to it again. On the other hand, it didn't deter him from ranting about Hercules whenever they had had one of their encounters. And Iphicles continued to listen patiently, making noncommittal noises at the appropriate times, drinking, drinking, drinking the hours and days away.
Phaedo watched with growing disquiet and did his best to slow the relentless slide of his friend into wine induced oblivion and inevitable destruction, but Iphicles would not listen to anyone.
Ares was not so patient.
"You drink more than my idiot brother Dyonisius. He's a mess, but he's god, and he can do what the fuck he wants. You're just a puny mortal and you won't last long at the rate you're going. You'll get yourself killed one of these days, you stupid fool."
Iphicles waved the nearly empty jug of mead and answered with mock admiration, "I'm spellbound by your eloquence. So poetic, and so beautifully said too."
"Fuck!" snarled the exasperated god.
"Sure." agreed Iphicles amiably, "You'll have to do most of the work though." He tried to stand up and lost his balance, collapsing into Ares' arms, giggling drunkenly. " Don't think I'm up to much right now."
So Ares decided to take matters into his hands.
At first, Iphicles had confined his drinking to the evening hours, but as time passed and Dyonisius' tears sunk into his blood, he started drinking in the mornings to clear his head, then to get himself out of bed, then to stop the trembling of his hands if he were to fight that day, and finally, night run into day and Iphicles never quite sobered up, just went from being slightly drunk to passing out in easy stages.
And the day came, as it had to come, when Iphicles went into battle drunk. He was quite adept by then at keeping a fairly normal front, hardly swaying as he marched with the customary load of armor that was nearly half the weight of the average soldier.
It was easy to keep in line when the press of bodies directed his path, but his reflexes were too slow, and his slightly unfocussed eyes took longer than was safe to register the presence of the enemy.
As the armies met and clashed, Iphicles managed through sheer luck to muddle his way through several attacks, until he looked up and saw Death approach with flying red hair and the crazed eyes of a berserker.
The huge warrior hacked a bloody path with his long ax, aiming unerringly for Iphicles, his eyes red with bloodlust and madness. Fountains of bright red burst high as the ax chopped through necks and arms as if they were made of soft butter, opening a path to Iphicles' side.
So, the moment had come at last, he thought hazily, his mind too dazed by wine to summon any fear as the ax swung towards his head.
The blade was stopped by a shield that sprung up in front of Iphicles. Phaedo stood between them, blocking the way. He drove his sword forward but it was parried by a long knife; he swung again and the long ax hissed and struck sparks against his blade, then the knife drove on and up with incredible force into Phaedo's chest, piercing his armor and sternum effortlessly, before tearing its way out of the suddenly slack body.
"Noooooo!" Iphicles sprung forward to catch the collapsing body, falling down onto the bloody ground, uncaring of the danger.
He stared into the fading indigo eyes in numb horror, trying fruitlessly to stop Phaedo's blood from gushing out of the huge, gaping hole in his chest.
"Iphicle..." Phaedo coughed, splashing blood on Iphicles' neck and chest; and then he died.
The scream of agony and rage was heard above the dreadful din of clanging steel and tearing flesh, and for an instant the action faltered...and then speeded up again, men killing and dying under the curious, unfeeling eye of Helios, and of Death.
Iphicles, now deadly sober, sprung up and looked wildly around him searching for his friend's killer, but he was nowhere to be seen, swallowed up by the melee of twisting, grappling bodies around him.
He fought his way through the battlefield looking, looking for the fiery red head of his prey; but though he killed and hacked until his arms ached and throbbed with tiredness, he never saw him again.
When the fighting ended, he went back for the body, carrying it somehow in spite of his exhaustion to the camp, not letting go of his burden until he reached the central courtyard. It was crowded with the wounded, who were not eager to have the dead lying beside them. But when they looked at Iphicles' face, they turned away and said nothing.
Finally, two of the surgeon's assistants came to his side and silently took the body on a stretcher to the makeshift temple in the compound, and left it there with Iphicles.
Iphicles looked with deadened eyes at his friend. He had lost so much blood that his flesh was not discolored as was normal in the dead, but shone a clear, waxy yellow. The eyes were open and seemed to look up into the sky, as impenetrably mysterious as they had been in life. Iphicles had to press his hand over them for a long time before they would close.
He felt weak and drained in mind and body, his heart turned to water, but he couldn't cry. He knew then that he had loved his friend, not half as well as he had been loved by him, but the pain he felt and the emptiness in his soul told him that he had lost part of himself that day.
He cursed himself, the gods, his life and then himself again. He had killed Phaedo as surely as if he had wielded the blade that took his life. He should have been the one to die. It had been his own weakness, his cowardice, his refusal to deal with the past and bury it once and for all that had brought this about.
Well, no more. No more hiding, no more wined induced oblivion. He would bear the burden of his failures and his pain unaided from now on. It would be a just punishment, one that would last for as long as he lived-- which would be a long time at this rate. Death was not keen to meet with him, it seemed.
After the funeral--Iphicles made certain all the rites were followed and his friend was given a warrior's proper send off to the underworld, he was summoned by his Commander. He offered Iphicles rough sympathy for his loss and gave him four days' leave to sort out the dead man's affairs--and to give Iphicles the time to mourn.
The Commander was a shrewd, not unkind man and a good judge of character. He saw Iphicles had reached a point where he would either surmount his problems, or surrender to them. Four days gave little time in which to decide one's fate, but it was all the time the Commander could spare him.
After giving away most of Phaedo's possessions to his fellow soldiers, and keeping just the sword and a few personal mementos for himself, Iphicles grabbed a blanket and a skin of water and trudged wearily to a ruined villa about a league and a half from the camp.
Some over-optimistic Roman settler had built himself a villa on this northern edge of the Roman empire. The land had been cheap and the slave labor plentiful. It had also been near the border with the Nordic and Germanic tribes who were always trying to get it back from the Romans. The villa had not stood for long before a raiding party of Norsemen had killed everyone, stolen the livestock and the slaves, and set fire to the buildings.
Most of the villa had fallen, except for the women's quarters, which had been built out of the local limestone and still stood, with most of the roof intact.
Iphicles made his way into the least ruined part and settled himself in a sheltered corner. He spread the blanket on the cracked mosaic floor and covered himself with his woolen cloak, for it was fast approaching Autumn and the chilling bite of winter could be felt riding on its tail.
He stared at the dusty floor where a cat pounced frozen on a permanently struggling partridge, while ducks floated unperturbed on a lake of colored tiles.
As the dying fire of the sun turned the tiled floor into flickering water, Iphicles felt the ice inside his heart begin to melt, fueled by the fire in his guts that guilt and the first stabs of withdrawal had lit, until tears dripped from his eyes and nose, a fast growing torrent of pain and regrets.
He cried and mourned until there was nothing left inside him, and then he slept, too drained to remain awake even through the increasing pain.
Consciousness returned abruptly, along with a fiery clenching of his stomach.
"Here," said a familiar voice in an impatient growl, and a hand was on his shoulder guiding him, and he leaned over and threw up into something that glinted brightly in the murky light of the ruined chamber. He couldn't help smiling through his nausea. Trust Ares to use a golden, jewel encrusted bowl for even something like this.
Ares held his head while he puked his guts out, then wiped him clean with a wave of his hand which also emptied his overfull bladder and bowels. Iphicles was grateful the god was there because he couldn't have managed it by himself--he wondered why Ares had condescended to be there for him, helping him; he hadn't thought the God of War saw him as anything more than a convenient fuck and a willing listener.
"What are you doing here?" he rasped out through a mangled throat.
"I thought I'd check on you. I felt a lot of emotions coming from your direction and wondered what you had got up to this time." He wrinkled his nose in disgust at the rancid, sweaty stink coming off the shivering body lying on the soiled blankets. "What's this? A new form of self-punishment you've thought up? I've got to tell you that I don't think much of it."
"I killed Phaedo." Iphicles said harshly. Guilt washed over him making him want to throw up again. Except there was nothing left inside him, nothing except pain.
"Oh? Lost your fabled temper and killed him in a fight, did you?"
"No, I was too drunk to defend myself in battle and he died saving my miserable life. But I might as well have killed him with my own two hands." Iphicles wrapped his arms around his shaking body, trying to contain the excruciating ache in his bones, in every muscle. His skin itched horribly, like a million ants were crawling all over him, stinging him, so that he wanted to scratch himself until he bled. There was a fire in his stomach, and something was trying to gnaw its way out of his guts. He felt as if he were dying. He hoped he was because then the agony would soon stop. He wanted the waters of Lethe to wipe out everything, to grant him the blessing of oblivion.
"Can't blame yourself for that. Maybe it was his day to die. If he saved your life at the same time that's your good fortune."
Iphicles laughed mirthlessly and was shaken by another bout of dry retching. Ares held his heaving body until it was over then lay him back on the blankets. "This is ridiculous. Let me put and end to this before you kill yourself."
"No! Don't!" Iphicles grabbed the god's arm with desperate strength. "I've got to do this Ares. It's the only way I'll ever sober up and stay sober." He laughed shakily. "There's no way I'll ever want to go through this again."
Are growled with irritation. "Gods, you're insane to put yourself through this, but if that's what you want, so be it. At least let me clean you up. You stink like a midden."
Iphicles smiled whimsically. "Go ahead. Don't want to offend your delicate nose."
"At least you haven't lost your sense of humor, even if you've lost every other kind of sense." And Iphicles found himself shivering madly and in an agony of pain but squeaky clean and sweet smelling.
"Don't blame yourself for Phaedo's death Iphicles. The Fates decide when men will die, not you. It was his time."
"No! It should have been me. It would have been me but for him. The Norseman who killed him was coming for me. I could see it in his eyes, he had marked me as his man and killed everyone who stood between us. That ax should have ended up in my chest not Phaedo's."
Actually, he had killed the human with a knife, but Ares wasn't going to correct him. It was a pity that Phaedo had had to die, he had been a good warrior. But it was the only way to pull Iphicles from his headlong drive to self-destruction. It had worked just as he'd planned but now the fool was likely to kill himself with his determination to cure himself in this stupid way.
"If that's the case, you owe it to your friend to come out of this and make sure his sacrifice wasn't in vain. Do something with your life and make him proud. Become a great warrior, a great leader."
Iphicles gazed despairingly at the God of War's harsh countenance. "You think that's what he would have wanted?"
"I'm sure of it. Phaedo knew you had it in you to become somebody, didn't he?"
Iphicles nodded wearily. " He was always nagging at me to get on with life and forget the past."
"There you are then. So, get well and honor your friend by doing what he wanted."
"OK. If I come out of this alive, I will." Iphicles said with sudden determination, before sinking back into the blanket with a groan.
"Don't worry, you will." Ares said with certainty. He would make sure of it. "Sleep now and heal." he gently brushed over Iphicles' clammy forehead and sent a wisp of power into the exhausted brain of the human.
Iphicles closed his eyes and sighed as he felt the god's touch, then darkness swept in again and dragged him under.
Ares nudged more power into the unconscious body, repairing some of the damage done by the sudden withdrawal of alcohol and making certain the vital organs would continue to function until the system had stabilized. He hadn't gone to all this trouble just to lose Iphicles now.
He created a protective shield round his human, for Iphicles was his now, and made certain that he would stay unconscious until his return. ___
Something soft and cool on his face. It felt good. The rest of him didn't feel too bad, at least as long as he didn't try to move. When he tried to sit up the world tilted crazily, and he knew he would sink back into oblivion if he attempted to go anywhere.
There was warmth underneath his cheek, and the smell of leather and steel and...Ares. He managed to unglue sticky, encrusted lids and after some effort focused on the beautiful, hard face of the wargod, dark fiery eyes now gazing quizzically into his own bleary ones.
"Um, hi." He managed to croak out.
"Hi yourself. Back with us now, are you? About time. "
"What happened?" He had no memory of getting into a fight. Must have been a good one.
"What happened? You've been sick as a dog that's what. You decided to give up Dyonisius' doubtful gift to your kind in your own inimitable way and nearly didn't make it." Ares didn't add that he wouldn't have allowed it to happen. No need to let the human know he mattered that much to him.
"Oh, yeah..." Memory returned, and with it all the events that had led to his decision to give up drinking for good. Then his body had gone crazy ..."How long have I been here?"
"Four days!" Iphicles tried to sit up but fell back on Ares' chest with a groan. A goblet materialized in front of his eyes and he drank thirstily when he realized it was only water.
For a few minutes it was debatable whether he would keep it inside, but a tingling feeling went through his body and he suddenly felt much better. The water stayed down and soon he was sipping something he would swear was chicken broth.
"I'm assured by Asclepsius that this stuff is good for humans in your state." Explained the god on seeing Iphicles' questioning look. "You were looking like shit when I found you, insisting you didn't want divine intervention." He snorted with dry amusement. "You must be the only human on earth who doesn't want a cure for hangover. So I asked him what to give you if you made it through your drastic cure. He said chicken soup." Ares wrinkled his nose in doubt. "I didn't think it would do much, but I see he knew what he was talking about."
"You did something else too, I felt it when I drank the water."
Ares shrugged nonchalantly, "Didn't want you throwing up all over me. I draw the line at that."
Iphicles gazed at the war god in bemusement. Ares had gone to all that trouble just for him. The god actually cared what happened to his miserable self. He shook his head in wonderment, and said, voice unsteady with emotion, "Thanks, you're a good friend."
Ares regarded him fixedly for a long moment. "Friend?"
"Yeah, friend. only a friend would do something like this, stick by someone as fucked up as me." Iphicles replied, bitter self-contempt in his voice.
The god regarded him with bright eyes, and murmured in a softened voice, "No one's ever called me a friend. Interesting idea." He looked speculatively at Iphicles. "Does that mean that you're my friend?"
Iphicles regarded him seriously and replied with a distinct tremor to his voice, "If you'll have me as one."
"Yeah, why not. It'll be a new experience. Friend, eh? So, friend, are you feeling better?"
Iphicles took stock of himself and deciding he was capable of it, left the support of Ares' arms and gingerly sat up. The world swayed unsteadily for a moment then settled back. "Yeah, I think I'll make it now."
"Good, because your Commander is wandering where you are. He was expecting you this morning back in the barracks, and though he'll make allowances for you, his tolerance is not inexhaustible." Ares was surreptitiously pushing little wisps of energy into his 'friend'.
He kept repeating the word in his mind, trying to identify the feelings this new concept raised in him. He had never had a friend--allies, yes, but no one had ever called him friend before. He found that he liked it.
"I suppose I'd better get back before he court-martials me for desertion." Iphicles stretched the kinks out of his body, stiff and sore after lying on the hard ground for more than four days. "it wouldn't be the best way to start the rest of my life." He commented ruefully.
"Not recommended, no." Ares snorted, amused.
"Right. Here I go, the new Iphicles, sober and...feeling like shit." He finished on a groan, clutching his middle as the hunger for food, and a drink suddenly hit him. But he straightened out slowly and smiled grimly but with determination into the coolly considering eyes of the god. "I'm going to be all right, you'll see."
Ares gave him a curt nod, but there was a glint of admiration lurking in his hard eyes. "See that you are. Can't have my friend falling down on the job."
Iphicles' voice held a firm promise. "I won't let you--or Phaedo down."
And he didn't.
It wasn't easy though. It took some time for the terrible thirst and craving to stop twisting his guts and lighting a fire in his stomach, until he thought he would go mad with desperation. But somehow he struggled through it, hour by hour, day by day, small victories of will, each one strengthening his determination.
It took even longer for guilt to cease eating away at his heart and mind. Phaedo's death was a heavy burden that he carried everywhere. He should have been the one to pay for his shortcomings, not his friend. And it was only the resolve to make his death count for something that kept Iphicles going sometimes.
There was one positive aspect to all this that he didn't notice immediately, immersed as he was in the moment by moment struggle with himself. The past, and Hercules, receded from his thoughts until one day he realized that finally, unperceived by him, the door had closed on that part of his life. He had stopped looking back and now confronted life face on.
The revolt of the Helvetian tribes and the violent campaign to crush it that followed also kept Iphicles too busy and exhausted to do much soul searching. Often, he would return to camp and collapse on his cot after long, sleep-starved days of fighting, only to get up to fight again.
By the time the Helvetians had been brought under the iron fist of Roman rule again, Iphicles had won his own personal battle and had earned himself the respect and approbation of his Commander.
Iphicles had always been considered a good soldier, but a dangerous and reckless one. He was always to be found in the most exposed and risky positions in any battle, a loner even in the midst of his fellow soldiers and unwilling to accept any post that made him responsible for the fate of others.
But now he fought not just for himself, but for his comrades too, unwilling as never before to see anyone die because of him. Slowly others sought to fight by his side, and eventually had won their trust to the point that when he was put in charge of his squad, the men were happy to follow him.
Eventually, he became the commander of a cohort and proved to be an able one, as long ago Aristipus had known he would. Had he enlisted in the official Roman Army, he might have risen to the position of Tribune. But he hadn't wanted to be tied by the compulsory 25 years of service, and as a mercenary soldier, he could rise no further.
Iphicles found the responsibility that came with command a lot easier than he had imagined possible. No one was more surprised than himself to discover that he was a good leader of men and quite capable of dealing with the myriad, time-consuming and often frustrating administrative chores that inevitably fell to him as Commander.
He was so well thought of by the Roman General in charge of the official legions and the mercenary forces, that he was often invited to join him and his Tribunes in the planning meetings, and his contributions were listened to and even taken into account.
Of course, the fact that the God of War was secretly looking over Iphicles' shoulder and offering his own ideas helped him considerably, especially at the beginning.
Ares had taken Iphicles under his wing, but for once he allowed someone he was interested in to go his own way, and made no effort to coerce Iphicles to do his own will. He might suggest a course of action, but he allowed Iphicles the freedom to disregard it, which he sometimes did.
For Ares thought in terms of strategy and means and ends, giving scant consideration to how many lives would be lost in achieving success. But not Iphicles. He always put that first and labored to come up with a plan that would minimize the casualties.
Ares might scorn his efforts, but his men loved him for it and he soon gained a reputation for bringing more soldiers back alive from the battlefield than any other Commander, while his superiors liked the fact that he was successful in battle too.
The letters from Alcmene, acknowledging the money he periodically sent her, informed him of his brother's impending marriage. Iphicles received the news with little emotion. The past had faded with the passing of the years into a shadowy, dream-like memory and Hercules was now some one he didn't know except as some legendary figure who performed wondrous deeds. A brother in name only, for he hadn't seen or spoken to him in more than ten years.
He sent Alcmene a finely wrought silver bowl he had won from a Norse mercenary who had been foolish enough to chance his luck against Iphicles. It was his wedding gift and he thought the unknown sister-in-law would like it, even if his brother didn't.
Ares, who continued to clash with Hercules more often than he would reveal to Iphicles, described her as passable but not his style, whatever that meant.
Meanwhile, his relationship with Iphicles had slowly mutated into a strange mixture of sex and unspoken affection, their friendship becoming the more important and valuable aspect of it for them both.
Ares was wholly taken by the idea of having a friend, and Iphicles was grateful to have one that he couldn't get killed. Both made allowances for one another's quirks: Iphicles bore Ares' imperious ways with patient tolerance, though he would snap and push back if pushed too far; Ares bore Iphicles' dark moods and spells of self-loathing with impatient amusement, until he lost his temper and cleared the air and Iphicles with a shouting match that could be heard for leagues.
Somehow it worked, though both were secretly surprised it did. Neither of them were easy going people, but they were both stubborn and reluctant to give in, or give up. They certainly made a strange pair.
Years passed and one day Iphicles looked at the drifting autumn leaves on the newly built road that led to Rome, straight as the passage of an arrow, and decided he was going home.
* * *
He traveled back with the Roman Legions returning to winter quarters in the homeland, and stayed in Cannae for a spell, guest of Gaius Marius, a General with whom he had worked for the last few years and with whom he had struck an undemanding friendship that would prove useful in times to come. In the short term, it supplied him with a letter of introduction to Jason, king of Corinth. Gaius owned large tracts of land richly forested with the kind of timber shipbuilders sold their souls for, and Corinth was renowned for shipbuilding and shipping in general.
Gaius hoped to find an eager market for his wood in the Corinthian shipyards, and he wanted Jason to give his approval. The Greeks were known for their pride and suspicion of Rome; he didn't want his business venture ruined by a King that felt slighted or threatened by his presence in such a key industry of that city state.
Iphicles had a vague memory of meeting Jason at the Academy when visiting Hercules, and agreed to present Gaius' case to him. Jason was known to be a friend of the renowned hero Hercules, and Iphicles was that hero's brother, and though they might not have talked to each other for years, to the world, they were still family.
It felt strange to be back on Greek soil after more than fifteen years' absence. He had forgotten how bright the sunlight shone on the stark outlines of mountain, sea and plains.
Or how turbulent and treacherous were the seas swirling round the Pelopponesian Peninsula. It was a relief to enter the more protected Gulf of Corinth, and view the busy city, with its famous temple of Aphrodite, and her accommodating priestesses.
Jason received him as he would a friend, for his brother's sake--and for his mother's.
Iphicles soon discovered that the king of Corinth was a lonely man who sought solace in the bottom of a wine jug, as Iphicles had done years before.
He also discovered that Jason was carrying a torch for his mother Alcmene, which Iphicles found rather sad. Remembering past criticisms from his mother about his own drinking, he doubted she would have a great deal of tolerance for Jason's excesses.
Hercules may have been Jason's friend, but it was Iphicles who sat on those late winter evenings with the king, listening to his complaints and lonely outpourings, for Jason had discovered that the taciturn and brooding older brother of Hercules was a surprisingly understanding and tolerant listener.
He had pointed out that drinking wasn't the best way to deal with his problems, but he didn't sound condemning--or disgusted, like Hercules was too often prone to do. On the contrary, he had shown understanding for Jason's problems and was willing to listen with a sympathetic ear to his woes--something his brother was not willing to do either. Hercules could be very intolerant of others' failings at times.
Iphicles heard all this with interest and wondered how accurate Jason's portrayal of his brother really was. He had always discounted Ares' rants, knowing how the wind blew in that quarter. But now it seemed as if even his friends found Hercules oppressively strict and exacting at times.
He wondered how the sensitive, affectionate and soft-hearted youth he had known had become the narrow-minded and moralistic man that Jason described. Alcmene had always tried to inculcate a strict and virtuous moral view of the world into her sons, but Iphicles had thought his brother more open-minded. Of course, he had been much more under their mother's thumb than he ever had. A mamma's boy from birth.
Nearly a month after Iphicles' arrival, Jason was celebrating the successful execution of a plan Iphicles had suggested to the king, and helped to carry out.
The Commander of his forces, contemptuous of a drunken ruler and growing overconfident of his power base, had tried to bully Jason into an unwanted war with the neighboring kingdom of Megara.
At Iphicles' suggestion, Jason, with Iphicles in tow, had inspected the barracks and had found fault with just about everything, from the lack of polish on the body armor of his soldiers, to the placing of the racks that held the practice javelins. Holding the arrogant general accountable for the shortcomings of the Corinthian Army, Jason had dismissed him on the spot, surprised and comforted by the spontaneous cheer the men had let loose following his action. They had not liked their Commander and were relieved to see him go.
Jason contemplated the handsome face of his new friend, wondering what lay behind its surface beauty. It looked faintly melancholy in the dying light of the setting sun coming through the windows that looked out into the Bay.
Hercules never spoke about his brother, except when pressed into admitting he actually had one. Even then, his face would close up, and all he would say in a colorless, wooden voice was that Iphicles was a mercenary soldier, his face revealing faint distaste--whether for his brother or his profession it was hard to say.
"Hmm?" Iphicles had been lost in thought, wondering whether he was not making a mistake in refusing Jason's offer. Why not become the new Commander of the Corinthian Army?
"What happened between you and Hercules?"
His brows met over the bridge of his nose in a sudden frown. "Happened?" Iphicles murmured noncommittally.
"Yes," Jason ploughed on, undeterred by the sudden chilling of Iphicles' gaze. "One moment Hercules couldn't seem to stop singing your praises, and the next it was as if you didn't exist."
Iphicles shrugged with apparent indifference. "You know what kids are at that age. Your elder brother is a great hero, then you discover he's just another man. That's probably all it was." He commented, his tone cool and distant.
"Maybe," Jason replied doubtfully. "That doesn't explain the change in his character though."
"Oh?" Iphicles asked, interested despite himself.
Jason took a long draught of wine, trying to marshal his thoughts. "He wasn't the same afterwards. He was kind of grim and bitter, really intolerant about certain things." Jason shook his head in recollection. "For a while he was so uncompromisingly virtuous and goody-goody, as Iolaus would say, that he was impossible to live with." He laughed somewhat bitterly. "I certainly didn't always come up to his standards. I still don't." He sighed softly and shook his head again. "He's not so bad now, and don't get me wrong--he's one of my best friends--but sometimes he's not the easiest of persons to have around."
Had he done that? Iphicles wondered. Phaedo had credited him with having made Hercules the hero he had become. But had he also turned him into some kind of prig? No. If anyone had, it had been Alcmene and that self-righteous Centaur. He refused to take the blame for everything.
"Did you ever ask him?" Iphicles inquired, voice low and expressionless.
Jason laughed sharply. "Yeah, and got my head bitten off. I knew better after that than to ask again."
Iphicles glanced out of the window, looking remote, and stated with finality, "Then there's nothing more to be said."
"The reason why I asked, " Jason said eventually, looking speculatively at the suddenly unapproachable figure sitting opposite him. "Is that I received a message from Hercules today."
Eyes full of foreboding turned his way. "And?"
"And your brother intends to drop in this evening on his way back to his family." answered Jason, getting up as he heard the unmistakable voice of Iolaus talking to his steward.
Iphicles sat motionless, breath suspended as his heart shuddered to a sudden stop, and his blood froze.
The doorway was suddenly filled by a very tall, broad shouldered body that momentarily blocked the light, looming darkly over Iphicles' blurring gaze.
The man advanced into the room. The blue eyes gazed at him without recognition and passed on to Jason, softening at the sight of his beaming friend.
"Hello Jason. Sorry to get here so late, but we were delayed." The voice was low and pleasant, very different to the youthful one Iphicles remembered.
"What he means is that we were ambushed by a bunch of Hera's soldiers." Iolaus interjected with a grimace. Then his face broke into a big, merry smile. "They won't be doing much of anything for a good while, though."
Jason frowned worriedly. "Is she after you again?"
Hercules smiled faintly and shrugged, "She's always after me. This is normal."
Iolaus laughed at Jason's distress. "Hey, don't worry. We're used to it. Nothing we can't handle. Right Herc?"
"Right." Hercules answered absentmindedly, his gaze now fixed frowningly on the silent man sitting strangely still, eyes entirely dark in a pale, expressionless face.
Noticing Hercules' intent look, Jason smiled faintly and said. "You don't recognize him, do you?"
"Recognize him?" Hercules murmured softly, but his face was paling visibly, body stiffening as his brain screamed what his eyes were telling him.
"Hello Hercules." Iphicles came to life suddenly and rose, standing straight before his stunned brother. He found himself looking up into the blue eyes that had haunted his dreams and nightmares for many years.
"Iphicles." whispered his brother.
"Iphicles? Good grief, it is you. It's Iphicles, Herc." Iolaus had shot forward to eagerly grasp Iphicles' arm.
Now it was Hercules who stood as if turned to stone, face bleached of color as he stared transfixed at Iphicles' face.
"You look great, Iphicles, the northern climate must suit you. Gods, but it's good to see you." Iolaus' enthusiasm flowed around Iphicles and the silent, still figure of his brother.
"You're looking well too, but I have to say somewhat older than when I saw you last." Iphicles told Iolaus with a friendly but tense smile.
Iolaus' high pitched laugh rang out, "Yeah, I'm not a skinny kid any more, though I didn't get much taller." He pointed out with a resigned grimace, but his eyes were twinkling. "Not like Herc here. He shot up like a weed." He smiled fondly at his tall friend. "You must find him quite changed.'
Iphicles met the cold, hostile gaze of his brother and agreed. "Yes, he's not the same person I knew."
"We've all changed." Hercules said, voice low and chilly. He had made no effort to touch his brother in greeting, a yawning distance of two arms' length separating them like a chasm.
Sensitive to his friend's mood, Iolaus gently led Hercules to a seat, and handed him a goblet filled with water. He poured wine into Jason's goblet but was stopped by Iphicles when he went to fill his.
"Not for me thanks. I don't drink much nowadays."
"Well, that's a change." commented Hercules caustically.
Iphicles gave him a quick glance then smiled at Iolaus. "I'll have some water though."
"Have you seen mother yet?" Hercules asked abruptly.
Iphicles flushed faintly as he replied, "Not yet, I was thinking of doing so in a couple of days."
"No hurry," commented Hercules softly. "After all, what's a few days after fifteen years' absence?"
The two brother's looked into each other's eyes, the silence in the room suddenly deafening.
Both Jason and Iolaus tried to break the uncomfortable tension that hummed discordantly with the sour notes of hostility.
"I'm afraid it's my fault he hasn't had a chance yet." Jason said quietly, gazing at the shuttered face of his old friend, who was behaving in an uncharacteristic manner. "He's very kindly been helping me deal with a problem I've been having with one of my people."
"Oh?" Hercules inquired with lifted eyebrows. "Anything I can help with?"
Jason smiled fondly at his friend; that was more like it. "Thanks, but this was one of those administrative problems that you find so boring."
"And Iphicles doesn't?" Hercules looked skeptical.
"Actually, your brother has a lot of experience in that area." Jason was beginning to realize that Hercules was determined to think ill of his brother, whatever he said. What in Tartarus had happened between these two? It must have been really bad, for Hercules to show so much hostility.
"I thought you were a mercenary soldier, more used to killing people than helping them?" Hercules asked his brother with a cold smile.
Iphicles paled but showed no other sign of hurt. "Oh I don't know, sometimes I chat with them before cutting off their heads."
There was a shocked silence. Then Hercules sighed and rubbed his face. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that. Guess I'm more tired than I thought, and knocked out by your turning up out of the blue."
"Of course you are. And no wonder. It's been a long day for all of us." Jason jumped in, eager to defuse the situation. Gods, it had been a mistake to let these two meet unexpectedly. But how could he have known that things were this bad between the two brothers?
"Yeah, all that fighting really takes it's toll. I'm falling sleep on my feet." Iolaus followed Jason's lead, and yawned extravagantly, shooting a worried look between blond eyelashes at the stiff figure of his friend.
Hercules gave in gracefully to his friends' blatant hints and rose to his feet. "Iolaus is right. Sorry to leave you so soon Jason...Iphicles. We'll talk tomorrow, but now I'd better get Iolaus to his bed before he falls sleep on you." Then nodding to the other two men, he turned round and left the room.
"I take it we have the usual bedrooms?" Iolaus asked Jason.
"The usual. Good night Iolaus, and..."
Iolaus nodded, and shrugged. "He's been under a lot of strain. Hera and Ares have been bugging him more than usual lately." He excused Hercules. Then turning to Iphicles, he said apologetically, " I'm really sorry he had to take it out on you Iphicles. I'm sure tomorrow Herc will be more himself. But it's really good to see you again. I hope you mean to stick around here now." Iolaus finished with a warm smile.
Iphicles returned his smile. "I haven't made any plans yet, but I'll probably remain in Greece for a while. Good night Iolaus, and thank you." He finished with a look of grateful acknowledgment.
Iolaus shook Iphicles' arm affectionately. "It'll be all right you'll see."
"Yeah." was all Iphicles said. But neither man really believed it.
After Iolaus had left, Iphicles sat down grim faced, looking down at his tightly clenched hands. He felt bruised and drained. He shouldn't have come back.
"I'm sorry Iphicles, I didn't know--"
"It's OK Jason. Not your fault. We had to meet some time. Better here than at my mother's, I suppose." That would have been impossible.
"Iphicles, why is Hercules so..."
"Leave it alone Jason. Just--don't ask, OK?"
Jason looked into the tormented eyes and nodded, silently cursing Hercules for his unkind, and hostile attitude towards this hard-bitten yet curiously vulnerable man. He couldn't imagine Iphicles doing anything to Hercules that would warrant the behavior he had just witnessed.
The next morning, Iphicles stood by the window of his bedchamber, looking with unseeing eyes at the ducks swimming on the garden pool below. He was waiting.
There was a knock at the door. He knew who it was even before the door opened and Hercules stood there, face expressionless.
"May I come in?"
Iphicles waved his hand but didn't move from his position. Hercules came in, closing the door but didn't advance any further into the room.
"You look well." he said finally.
"So do you." answered Iphicles quietly. "You look different though."
Hercules shrugged. "I grew up. Couldn't stay a boy forever."
"What are your plans?" Hercules asked, voice as colorless as his expression.
Iphicles looked out the window again. "Don't know yet. Jason's offered me a job. I also have an offer from a Roman friend to go into business with him. We'll see."
"Mother will be happy to have you back. She missed you."
Iphicles turned an unbelieving look on his brother. "Did she?"
"Yes. She did. Could have done with your help these many years." Hercules replied sharply.
"I sent her money, and she had you." That was all she really wanted, thought Iphicles bitterly.
"Why did you stay away for so long?" Hercules asked, unnamed emotions darkening his voice.
Iphicles shrugged. "It seemed to be what everyone wanted."
"That's not true."
Iphicles looked skeptically into his brother's frowning face. "Are you telling me that you're glad to see me?"
There was a long silence.
"That's what I thought." Iphicles murmured grimly, looking away. "It was a mistake to come back. But it's easily solved."
When Iphicles stared at him, surprised by the vehemence in his voice, Hercules swallowed and said more calmly. "Stay, now that you're here. This is where you belong."
Iphicles gazed into the shuttered blue eyes trying to discover what Hercules really wanted, or felt. "Are you sure?" he asked finally.
Hercules nodded. "I'm sure."
Not certain he was doing the right thing, but unable to disappoint him once again, Iphicles sighed and nodded. "OK. I won't accept Jason's offer but I'll stick around. "
The stiff figure by the door relaxed slightly. "Good. Look I must go home. I've been away too long as it is. Helping people is all well and good, but it's my family who pay the price with my absence. When you've settled down, come and visit."
"I'd like that. But first I have to go back to Rome on some business. I'll see you when I get back."
Hercules nodded. "See you later then."
"Later." Iphicles returned Hercules' faint smile and watched him leave. He looked out of the window and wondered what the future would bring.
The meeting with his mother was easy in comparison. She did look happy to see him and also begged him to stay, to come back and live at home. There was no way he would ever live in that house again. The memories were too painful. But he was moved nonetheless by her genuine pleasure at having him there. He did love her, and if he thought her welcome was due to the fact that he had no more influence over his brother, he didn't let it color his behavior.
He left for Rome with the first Spring sailings and was away for two months. Gaius agreed to employ him as his agent in any transactions with the Corinthian Shipyards, and in Greece, happy to have someone with such good connections on his side.
He returned to Corinth with an assured source of income, though he had saved enough from his mercenary days to live on for a long time. He was feeling optimistic that with time he could find a place for himself in Greece and establish some kind of relationship with his brother, to erase the past or at least put it behind them.
When he arrived at the Corinthian palace, a grim-faced Jason informed him that Hercules' family had been murdered by Hera and Hercules, after destroying several of her temples, had disappeared.