Ares jerked awake, shivering in the warm night air, his powerful body covered in perspiration. He sat up, thrusting sweat-soaked tangled sheets away from him. But still all he could see was a black-handled knife being thrust into a traitorous heart, bright life-blood flooding over the murderer's hands, and that face - that beloved, perfidious face - looking at him in disbelieving shock. Those lips - those beautiful betraying lips - framing one word. "Ares?" Then he collapsed, one hand reaching helplessly towards the god who stood silent and unmoving before him, and died.
Ares looked blindly down at his hands. He could have sworn the king's blood was still on them. For a god whose trade was war and death, who had spent centuries wading through the blood of innumerable battlefields, he really wasn't dealing too well with this.
He raked his hands through his hair and got to his feet. There was no point trying to sleep again. He knew he would only relive the moment again. That gods-forsaken moment when he'd seen the king betray him. If only he could get the damned image from his mind. The picture of the king in bed with his lover, the king's words...
"You know I love you. Only you."
"And Ares?" The jealousy, possession, which throbbed through the lover's voice.
The king groaned. "Not again. I've told you - it's political necessity to ensure the safety of Corinth. Do you really believe I could ever prefer him to you? Do you really believe I want him touching me, fucking me? The only way I can get through it is to imagine it's you. Your arms around me, your lips on mine, you inside me." He buried his face in his lover's neck and whispered so low that the god felt rather than heard him say, "I love you with everything I am. I'll never stop loving you. He's nothing to me."
Rage. Red, swirling, misting rage consumed him. And when it finally receded, Ares found himself alone in the shattered ruins of the Halls of War. Priests, priestesses, Discord - all had fled in the face of his fury.
The king had betrayed him. He'd deserved to die. He'd *had* to die. So why did that scene keep playing itself over and over in Ares' head? Why did he keep seeing the utter shock on the king's face, the incomprehension, the incredible hurt that went beyond even the physical agony Ares had inflicted?
Surely he hadn't thought he could get away with it. Surely he must have known that the god would find out sooner or later. Surely he -
Ares stopped as though he'd been struck. Surely Iphicles would never have arranged an assignation in his own bedchamber. He knew that the god treated this as his own, turning up whenever he wanted, or if other matters pressed, simply looking in on the king from afar at odd moments. As he had on this occasion, just checking in remotely before he continued briefing Discord on her part in a border dispute. Unless the king wanted him to find out...
But had that been the case, he would have expected Ares to turn up in the mood that he did. He wouldn't have been natural with the god, trying to tease him out of his ill-humour, until he realised that it went deeper than that and tried to talk to Ares about it. And when that didn't work, laying his faithless hand on the god's arm as he looked at Ares. Knowing the god would be embarrassed by it and pretend it had never been said, but knowing that the god in his turmoil needed to hear that there was one thing which remained constant, Iphicles spoke. And in so doing brought about his own death.
"I love you Ares," he said, his eyes holding the god's, "With everything I am. I'll never stop loving you."
The god was trembling at the memory. The rage which had seized him, the savage triumph of burying his black blade deep in that treacherous heart. Standing watching the king collapse before him, blood bubbling from his mouth. His bewildered pain-filled eyes still seeking Ares' for those last few instants of life, before they clouded forever.
Ares' head lifted and he stared unseeingly before him. The king had betrayed him. It kept echoing around his head. The king had betrayed him. The only being whom he had ever allowed to get that close - and he had betrayed him.
"Father, please - you've got to do something."
Athena rarely begged, but found herself coming close now.
"He's inciting wars, battles, rebellions, mutinies - *anything* he can think of, and promising them his support. Then he appears to the other side and promises *them* his support. And when the two sides meet, he wades in, butchering whichever side is winning at that time, changing sides at a whim. "He's lost all concept of the honour of war!"
Zeus sighed. He really didn't have to want to get involved in more of his children's bickering, but she was not the first to come to him to complain about his son's recent behaviour. He supposed he'd have to do something.
Ares looked around at the carnage surrounding him with a feral grin on his blood-streaked face and raised his gory sword again. Betrayal - he'd show these pathetic mortals what it was really like.
Olympus shook. None of Zeus' and Hera's children could be termed submissive, but this confrontation was gargantuan even by Olympian standards. It ended with Ares turning his back on his father and storming out of the hall.
Out of the doors, past the casually positioned Apollo, eyes gleaming at the fun, the unobtrusively loitering Aphrodite whose gaze held a certain sympathy as she watched her former lover, a frankly interested Hermes, and an angry Athena. And then there was Discord, her features lit with an unholy glee.
Ares ignored them all and plunged on his reckless way. Damn them all to Tartarus - he'd always hated his family, and saw no reason to change his mind now.
Damn them all - Discord was supposed to be on *his* side in all this, for Hades' sake. She'd been more than glad to fill his bed since the king. She'd been eager to play whatever role he assigned her in the wars which now plagued the land. She'd been -
Something crystallised inside Ares. Without conscious thought he stopped and turned on his heel, eyes seeking her face. Finding it and seeing the triumphant satisfaction in it.
That satisfaction faltered as he took a step towards her. And then her choking writhing body was dangling from his murderous grip around her throat.
"Ares!" Athena's shocked voice rang through the hall. "What in Hades are you doing? Let her go!"
Ares' eyes were fixed on Discord's, seeing right into what passed for a heart. "You did it, didn't you? You created the whole thing. It was all an illusion, wasn't it?" She might be a minor goddess, but her calling, not to mention her nature, had led her to explore trickster's arts to the full. The fear in her at his rage confirmed his darkest imaginings.
It was only Zeus' intervention which saved Discord from being ripped limb from limb.
Ares picked himself up from where one of Zeus' lightning bolts had flung him against the wall. "She's *mine*," he growled at his father.
Zeus shook his head. "Not over a mortal," he told his son.
And that was it. Rage as Ares might, threaten, reason, the king of the gods remained immovable on the subject. It was just another powerplay among the gods, another petty jealous spat, nothing major, nothing to worry about. Certainly nothing over which to threaten the very fabric of their existence by committing deicide.
And the worst of it was, Ares reflected bitterly, it was nothing that he wouldn't have done, nothing that he hadn't done in the past. Mortals didn't matter - they could be entertaining sometimes, useful occasionally as pawns in a game between the gods, but nothing more than that. What happened to them didn't matter - they were waiting to die from the moment they were born anyway.
But it wasn't as simple as that any more. This was Iphicles' life. This was *his* life.
"Look Ares, we went through all this over Graegus. You know the rules."
"Don't get fucking self-righteous about rules with me, Hades," the God of War snarled. "You were willing enough to break them to keep Persephone."
Hades glared at Ares. He still hadn't forgiven Demeter for spreading that bit of information around. "That was different," he spat. "That was *Persephone*."
"And this is *Iphicles*!"
Hades stared dumbfounded at the raw pain in his nephew's voice.
Persephone tentatively touched the God of the Underworld's arm. "Hades," she said quietly, "Can't you make an exception, just this once?"
Hades swung round to look at her. Normally she upheld him in everything he did. But she still had the pure and soft heart he had fallen in love with, and right now it was hurting for Ares. "Please?" she added.
Hades sighed. He knew he could refuse her nothing. "All right," he gritted out at last, turning back to his nephew, a warning in his eyes. "But you really owe me for this one Ares. And for my sake *don't* go round telling everyone, or they'll all be demanding someone or other back."
Ares nodded, speech suddenly impossible.
Corinth had never known anything like it. The people had barely finished mourning their king when he was miraculously restored to them. That was what came of having a demi-god for a brother - Hercules must have interceded with Zeus on the king's behalf. Hercules himself concluded that Alcmene must have spoken with Zeus from the Fields of Elysium. However it had happened, he was delighted to see Iphicles back. The people of Corinth rejoiced in the return of their popular king. And Jason was more than happy to hand back the reins of governance to Iphicles.
The only one who didn't seem overjoyed by the whole business was the king himself. He said he'd seen nothing of the assassin who'd struck him down. He said he could remember nothing of his time on the other side. He'd just get back to ruling Corinth, and didn't want to hear the whole affair mentioned ever again, thank you.
And he went back to ruling Corinth as well as ever he had done. If petitioners sometimes felt they didn't have his entire attention, they were nonetheless reassured by the justice of his decisions. His councillors were delighted to find that he spent more time on paperwork than had ever previously been known. Many were the times he worked the entire night through in the Council room, piles of scrolls and a skin of wine his only companions.
Until one night when he couldn't stand it any longer. He climbed the stairs to his bedchamber shortly before dawn, swaying from weariness and wine. He threw himself down on the bed and willed sleep to come. But when finally his overactive mind slowed enough for his eyes to close of their own accord, it was only to dream that same dream again. The moment when his lover had looked into his eyes and thrust a knife into his heart.
Iphicles woke up sweating and trembling, just aware enough to throw himself over to the edge of the bed before he vomited. He sat up very slowly, running his hands through his hair, trembling all over, before reaching out blindly for the wine skin.
He tried to resist, but his unwilling gaze was drawn compulsively to it: the stain on the floorboards that wouldn't erase no matter how many times it was cleaned. That was where he'd died.
Iphicles' eyes closed briefly, then he thrust himself up from the bed and stood on the place of his death.
"Where the fuck are you Ares? "
He stood braced for several minutes before it bore in on him that the god wasn't going to turn up. His shoulders slowly sagged. He didn't know how much more he could take. He couldn't even seek oblivion in death, as Alcmene would only pull the same stunt again.
It was a whisper, no more.
The king lifted his head slowly, and his disbelieving gaze found the god standing in the corner of the room, the expression on the dark face unrecognisable.
"Good of you to turn up at last Ares." Bitter angry taunting words spilled from Iphicles. "Come to finish me off again? Bet it was a surprise for you to see me back, wasn't it? Well you'd better make a better job of it this time, hadn't you?"
The god stood unmoving. Not even a flicker to show he'd heard Iphicles' words.
"Or maybe I should save you the trouble and do it myself." Iphicles sounded almost hysterical. "I'd offer to return the favour, but you see, gods can't die, can they? Kings can - but of course you already know that, don't you Ares?"
The god's dagger was suddenly in his hand. Ares stood frozen, had hardly registered the king's move to take it from his belt.
"Go on then Ares," Iphicles was pushing the knife at the god, hilt-first. "What are you waiting for? Do it. Kill me. Again."
Ares' head raised very slowly and his deep eyes fixed on Iphicles' wild face.
"I'm ... sorry." Unaccustomed words in a voice that was ripped from the very heart of his being.
It brought Iphicles up short. The knife dropped unheeded to the floor as he stared into Ares' eyes.
"*Why*?" A world of pain, bewilderment and loss in one word, slamming into Ares.
Why? How to tell him that it was because he'd felt his own heart being ripped out? How to tell him about the agony of betrayal?
Ares was silent.
"I don't understand," Iphicles' voice was a heart-broken whisper. "You killed me."
Ares' eyes closed briefly before the accusation in the king's. "Discord." His voice was hoarse, "She showed me - I saw -" His eyes opened and fixed on Iphicles' face. "You were with someone else. You said you loved him. You said that you didn't love me."
The anger which burned through the king left him shaking in its wake. Ares had thought - Ares had believed - and had *killed* him because of it.
But before the torrent of savage words could spill out, Iphicles saw what was in Ares' eyes. He swallowed them unspoken.
"I do love you," he managed instead, a trifle unsteadily. He moved across the room to his lover, desperate to ease the fear in that dark gaze. "I do love you Ares," he told the god.
There was an unfamiliar tightness in the god's throat as Iphicles reached out to touch him. He took Iphicles fiercely into his arms. "I'm sorry," he whispered into the king's hair. "I'm sorry."
Body clung to body. Then mouth met mouth in sudden desperation, leaving no room for remorse or blame - all that mattered was the other, and the present moment. Until Iphicles' hand in Ares' dark hair pulled the god's head back momentarily.
"One thing Ares," his voice was deep and husky with passion, but his eyes were steady on the god's. "Tell me you're not going to make a habit of it, won't you?"
Ares lifted a hand and touched Iphicles' face.
"Never again," he promised.