Hercules awoke, blinking, surprised to see sunlight streaming through the window. Stretching his arms above his head, he yawned and looked around. Iolaus was in the next bed, one arm dangling over the side, his hair spread across the pillow as he snored lightly.
The demigod stretched again, arching his back as he tried to work the kinks out of his muscles. He wasn't used to sleeping in a soft bed anymore, and he was beginning to find that it bothered his back. Iolaus continued to snore as Hercules contemplated the ceiling. He had spent the night tossing and turning, worried about Iphicles. He sighed, a frown creeping across his face.
While he did love Iphicles, sometimes his big brother had the common sense of a house cat. He tended to act first and think later, and when he did think, it was usually too late and he tried to cover for his mistake by blustering and turning antagonistic. Look at that Golgoth incident. It was like a flashback to their childhood. Now, it appeared that he was smitten with Queen Hippolyta. The question was, how could he help keep his wayward brother out of trouble without letting Iphicles know he was helping?
Sighing again, Hercules threw a pillow at Iolaus. "Wake up."
Iolaus grumbled and burrowed into his pillow as his roommate frowned. What was so hard about getting up in the morning?
"Iolaus. It's morning. Time to wake up."
"Mghbgh." Ah, now that was a typical Iolaus morning noise. The hunter pulled the pillow over his head, trying to shut out consciousness.
"Iolaus." Hercules used his best patient voice, the one reserved for waking Iolaus and dealing with Iphicles. "If you don't get up, you'll miss breakfast."
The pillow flew off of Iolaus' head as the blond sat up, looking around in panic. His hair stuck out in several directions and the coarse pillowcase had left a reddened pattern on his cheek. "Food? Where's food? Food can't go away!" He looked around for a second more, finally seeing Hercules sitting on his own bed. "Damn. You did it to me again."
He sulked as Hercules grinned. "It worked, didn't it? At least I don't have to throw water on you in the morning. You should see Iphicles..." He trailed off, frowning again as he remembered his brother.
Iolaus yawned and rubbed his eyes. "What's wrong?" He stretched, looking concerned. "Still worried about Ares crashing the wedding?"
He'd forgotten about that. Now he had two older brothers to deal with. Hercules sighed, feeling a headache hatching behind the bridge of his nose. "Yeah, I'm still worried about Ares. He's been too quiet. He's up to something, I just can't figure out what." His fingers drummed a staccato beat on the blanket. "And now Iphicles' in trouble."
Iolaus frowned at this. He'd only met Iphicles a few times and had never been overly impressed with his best friend's big brother. They were so different - Hercules was happy where Iphicles was sulky. Hercules liked to help people, while Iphicles struck Iolaus as incredibly self-centered. When Hercules told stories about Iphicles, Iolaus always felt like he was getting the censored version, where Herc tried to paint his brother in a more positive light.
"So, what's he gotten himself into now?" He tried to hide the impatient note in his voice, but Hercules heard it and winced, looking at his feet. "Look, I'm sorry, but it's morning, okay? I'm not polite in the morning. So, what do we have to bail him out of this time?"
Hercules continued to contemplate his feet. "He's sleeping with the Queen." His voice was low and mumbled.
"What did you say?" Iolaus' leaned forward.
"I said," the demigod looked at his friend, "he's sleeping with the Queen."
"Fuck." Iolaus sat back. This was big trouble.
"Exactly." Hercules sighed again, and Iolaus ached at the pain he saw in his eyes.
"Okay, are you sure about this? I mean, did he tell you about it? How'd you find out?"
"Every time I go to visit him at the castle, he's not in his room."
"That's not evidence, Herc. I mean, I don't spend much time in our room, that doesn't mean..." Iolaus trailed off, remembering exactly why he was rarely in their room. "Maybe he's just doing king stuff or something."
"The other day, when I went to see him, his bed obviously hadn't been slept in." Iolaus heard the flatness in the demigod's voice and added another black mark to his opinion of Iphicles. "Demetrius found him and told me he'd been with Hermia, the Queen's bodyguard."
"Okay, so how do you get from the bodyguard to the Queen?"
"Later that day, I was checking out the secret passageways, and found him in one." Iolaus snorted. From what little he knew of Iphicles, skulking around secret passageways sounded like his style. "The guard I was with told me that the only rooms accessible in that corridor were the Duke's and the Queen's. And Iph told me he was going to see Hermia."
"Who shares rooms with the Queen." Iolaus shrugged. "I'm still not getting it."
"Later that day I spoke with another guard, who mentioned that Hermia had left early in the morning to do some shopping. Then, Auto dragged me out shopping, and -"
"Shopping?" Iolaus' mouth hung open. "Auto took you shopping? And you let him?"
Hercules shrugged. "He was pretty determined. Anyhow, we ran into Hermia. I apologized for interrupting her and Iphicles that morning, and she flat out told me she's not involved with him."
Iolaus sat up, crossing his legs, thinking. It made sense. It was logical. It sounded like the just the kind of mess Iph would get himself into. "You know," the hunter frowned, not liking where his thoughts were wandering, "no, that couldn't be right."
"What?" Now Hercules looked really worried.
"I hate to say this, Herc, I really do. But, well, maybe this is part of what Ares is doing." Iolaus glanced at Hercules, hoping he wouldn't have to spell it out.
"What do you mean?"
Damn. He had to spell it out. Gods, he wished he had some food! "Can we talk about this over breakfast? I'm starving here." Iolaus stood, stretching, and looked for his clothes, trying to avoid hurting his friend.
"I'd rather not let too many people know about this, if you know what I mean."
"Okay." Iolaus sighed, sitting heavily at the foot of Hercules' bed. "Look, I'm sorry, and I may be totally off here, but it seems like an awfully big coincidence. You know, Ares doesn't want Athena and Sparta to be at peace, and so he has to find a way to break up this wedding. Now it looks like Iphicles is sleeping with the bride. What happens if the Duke finds out?"
The demigod was nodding, understanding dawning in his clear blue eyes. "If the Duke finds out, not only will it break up the marriage and end the peace between Athens and Sparta, but it'll give Athens a reason to go to war with Corinth as well."
"Exactly." It really was a good plan. Sneaky, devious, totally Ares. Iolaus had to admit a grudging admiration for the god. When he put his mind to it, Ares could be a master manipulator. There was just one niggling problem. He cleared his throat, unwilling to speak more, but also wanting to protect Hercules from his brother. From both of them, if need be.
"Um, Herc?" He flinched as he met his friend's forthright gaze and again felt a wave of intense dislike toward Iphicles. "I think we need to find out if Iphicles is sleeping with the Queen because he's got a thing for her, or if he's..." He trailed off, not willing to say the words.
"You mean we need to figure out if he's working for Ares." Iolaus cringed at the bleak note in Hercules' voice and reached out to grasp his forearm in comfort.
"Yeah." There wasn't much else to be said. They sat in silence for a few moments, Hercules' head bowed, as he tried to think of another possible explanation for events.
"I don't know, Iolaus. I mean, Iph and I have been getting along together lately. Things have really gotten better, you know? I can't see him doing something like this for Ares." His lower lip thrust out in a childish gesture as Iolaus patted his hand.
"Okay, you know him better than I do." Iolaus still had his reservations, but he didn't want to upset his friend. "So, what do we do?"
"First, we have to make sure he doesn't know that we know. If I confront him he'll just get sulky and accuse me of being self-righteous and trying to run his life and then he'll probably do something stupid. So we can't let on that we're trying to help him."
"Sounds like a plan. What else?"
"We need to keep him away from the Queen. And Duke Theseus too. If he slips up and says something wrong in front of the Duke, it could mean war."
"Not to mention the Duke skewering him. I heard he used to be a kick-ass mercenary in his younger days."
"Yeah." Hercules nodded as his forehead creased in concentration "He used to work with someone back then, some kid he trained. I don't know the kid's name, but I heard they were an impressive team. If Iph survives and manages to take out the Duke, the Duke's old partner could come after him."
Iolaus picked up the thought, marveling yet again at how their minds meshed together in a crisis. "In fact, I bet the Duke's old partner is here. That's probably how Ares plans to get rid of Iphicles once this is over. Iph lets it slip that he's sleeping with Hippolyta, and the Duke kills him and declares war on both Sparta and Corinth. And if Iph manages to kill the Duke, his old partner avenges his death, and you have war between the three kingdoms. Either way Ares wins."
Hercules nodded. "So, we have to figure out a way to keep Iphicles away from the Duke and the Queen until it's time for him to go back to Corinth. With any luck the Queen and the Duke will fall in love and then Iphicles won't be an issue."
They sat, Iolaus imagining slapping the King of Corinth silly, as dust motes floated in the air. Iolaus finally broke the silence.
"So, can I go get food now?"
Autolycus slouched on a bench seat at a table in a dark corner of the inn's dining area. Frowning, he caught his fingers tapping on the table again and glared at them, forcing them to stay still, sighing in defeat as his hand insisted on twitching. Hearing the sound of footsteps descending the nearby staircase, he eagerly turned to see the newcomers, sighing when he didn't recognize them. Where was Hercules? He had thought the demigod was an early riser, but it was well past dawn and there was no sign of him or Iolaus.
The thief crossed his arms over his chest, then uncrossed them, trying not to wrinkle his formal tunic. He hated wearing wrinkled clothes. He slouched further into the shadows, just as a matter of principle. This was becoming annoying. He was the King of Thieves. Why was he sitting on an uncomfortable bench waiting to have breakfast with Hercules, of all people?
The guy was boring. Dull. Had no sense of humor. He was self-righteous and judgmental. He had no style, no panache. Still, there was something endearing about him. And it wasn't just the way his muscles rippled when he took off his shirt, or the way his leathers clung to his ass.
Autolycus sighed yet again. He really didn't want to go there, not now. The demigod was into women, marriage, kids, a settled life, everyone knew that. And he definitely wasn't the type to go for a fling with a thief. He'd be too busy lecturing to have sex. While Autolycus admitted that he sometimes liked a little bit of pain with his pleasure, he wasn't sure that being lectured about ethics would be a turn on.
More footsteps on the stairs, and Autolycus found himself leaning forward eagerly, a goofy grin plastering itself across his face as he saw Hercules and Iolaus. His body was apparently acting of its own volition, because he realized he was standing and waving, motioning them to join him, his heart skipping a beat at Hercules' welcoming smile. Oh, gods, he had it bad.
Iolaus and Hercules slid into the seat opposite Autolycus, who strove to stay calm. He would be cool and collected. Mister Chill. He suddenly noticed they were staring at him strangely, and it was Iolaus who finally spoke up.
"Auto? Why're you grinning like that?"
Shit. He repressed the urge to smash his traitorous face into the tabletop, but instead made a conscious effort to dampen the grin, although it refused to leave his face completely. He thought frantically, leaning forward to whisper at them.
"I was relieved to see you guys. I was scared to death I'd be stuck eating with Sal and Twanky and watching them play footsie under the table."
Iolaus nodded, understanding etched on his features, as Autolycus patted himself on the back for his quick save.
"Have you been here long?"
Autolycus thrilled at the sound of Hercules' voice, the low melodious tone, the way his blue eyes sparkled. He hated himself.
"No, not long at all." Only since the crack of dawn. Okay, maybe a little bit before then, but it hadn't been completely dark when he sat down.
The dining area swarmed with people, all dressed in their finery for the wedding, and Autolycus had to admit that there was excitement in the air. Under normal circumstances he'd be staying behind during the ceremony, helping himself to some of the nicer pieces of jewelry left behind, but this was a vacation. With Hercules. This really wasn't good.
"Have you eaten yet?" Iolaus, as usual, got down to business.
"Nope, I haven't really been here long enough to eat. Just got down here. Just now. A few minutes ago, I mean."
Iolaus nodded. "Herc, how about you go get some food for all of us?" He jerked his head at the demigod. "It's easier for him to carry it."
Hercules grinned. "Only because you eat more than any other five people." A joke! He made a joke! He had a sense of humor! Autolycus smothered the idiotic smile that threatened to split his face, trying not to be too obvious as he watched Hercules stand and walk away. Damn if he didn't look good in his new clothes.
The thief looked into Iolaus' suddenly serious face and hoped he hadn't been caught. "We need to talk, before Herc gets back."
"Okay." Autolycus leaned back, trying to look nonchalant.
"Herc told you about his brother and the queen, right?"
"Yeah." Good, this wasn't going to be a speech about his intentions toward the demigod.
"Well, we talked about it this morning, and we need to try and protect Iphicles, whether he wants it or not, and we're gonna need your help."
"Sure. No problem." Staying close to Herc, playing goody-goody, making nice, he could do that.
"And I don't want you doing anything that would reflect badly on Herc, like stealing anything or telling anyone else about Iph, got it?"
"Iolaus!" The thief gave the hunter his best innocent look. "I'm hurt. Deeply wounded. I can't believe you'd insinuate that I'd ever do anything to take advantage of Hercules, or to use him in any way for anything that was even vaguely illegal." While he had no problem with taking advantage of the guy, what he planned to do with him was perfectly legal, except in a few, small, far-off countries with strange ideas about sex.
Iolaus snorted. "Right, and I'm the King of Thebes. Look, he's kinda fragile right now, so just be nice, okay?"
Autolycus rested his chin in his hand, considering. "This is really bothering him?" Why was that thought disturbing?
"Yeah." The hunter sighed. "He and Iphicles just have lots of problems. Iph gets into trouble, Herc gets him out of it." He snorted. "You should hear some of Herc's stories about him. You know, the first time I met the guy, he was pretending to *be* Herc. When Herc told him to cut it out, Iphicles threw a temper tantrum and threatened to kill him."
"Sounds like a real prince."
"Oh, now that fills me with confidence."
"Tell me about it."
They sat in silence for a few moments, Autolycus pondering what he had just been told, Iolaus relaxing, his eyes slowly drifting shut. Iolaus finally spoke, stretching and yawning.
"Sorry, Herc dragged me outta bed early this morning. Anyhow, I gotta finish before he gets back. I don't know what Iph's up to and I really don't care, but Herc does. Iph may be the biggest screw-up in Greece, but Herc loves him."
Autolycus nodded. "Brothers can be like that. You don't always get along together, but you end up being there for them when they need you."
"That's Herc. Somehow Iph's always the one needing help, or bailing out or whatever. But this time, he could be in serious trouble. If the Duke finds out Iphicles is boinking the bride, it could be war between Athens, Sparta and Corinth. So, we have to keep Iph away from the bride and the groom somehow. *And* look out for Ares, who may or may not be behind this, and who Iphicles may or may not be working for."
He suddenly shut his mouth as Hercules approached, carrying a tray loaded with food. Autolycus and Iolaus shared conspiratorial looks as they began eating, Hercules looking from one to the other.
"You two weren't fighting while I was gone, were you?" Both looked innocent. "Cause it's not natural for either of you to be so quiet."
Autolycus shoved a roll into his mouth, chewing noisily as Iolaus cleared his throat.
"And Auto, it's strange, but the waitress seems to think you've been sitting here for hours."
Autolycus gave the demigod a wide-eyed look and crammed another roll into his mouth, shrugging his shoulders and making a noncommittal noise.
"You haven't been casing the place, have you?"
"Mmmgh?" The thief chewed and swallowed, attempting to harness his righteous indignation. "I have not! I swear!" It was true, but he would be damned if he would admit he'd been waiting for the chance to be with Hercules. " I just woke up early, that's all."
Hercules looked skeptical, but didn't pursue the subject. He picked up a piece of bread and slathered it with honey, a few drops spilling onto his index finger. Autolycus swallowed roughly as the demigod brought the finger to his mouth, delicately licking the glistening droplets off the tip. The thief's mind immediately imagined Hercules licking his cock, that tongue cleaning the tip, licking off the juices, and he had to restrain himself from whimpering. He crammed another roll into his mouth.
Hercules ate quickly and stood. "I'm going to the palace to check things out again. And I'll try to figure out a way to get Iphicles away from the Duke and the Queen.
"Hold on, I'll come with you." Autolycus jumped up, noting the suspicious looks. "I'm a professional thief, remember? I might be able to spot security problems you wouldn't think of."
He sighed in relief as a smile lit Hercules' face. "That's great, Auto. Thanks." This time the thief managed to avoid grinning like an idiot.
Iolaus continued to shovel food into his mouth as if he hadn't eaten in weeks. "You two go ahead. I'll catch up."
Autolycus followed Hercules out of the building, trying very hard not to watch his ass.
Hippolyta sat on the floor of her bed chamber, her clothing in disarray, nestled in Iphicles' arms. She looked up at him, gently brushing the hair from his forehead.
"You've got beautiful eyes." She slurred the words, and Iphicles winced at her breath.
"I know. You told me that four times already."
"Oh." Hippolyta bit her lip, continuing to contemplate him. "Who're you?"
"I'm Iphicles. The King of Corinth, remember?"
"Oh." She shook her head muzzily. "I'm on the floor." She sounded surprised.
"Yes, you are."
"Why'm I on the floor?"
"You had some problems with standing up."
"Oh." She rested her head on his shoulder once more.
Iphicles looked up to find Theseus standing in the doorway, a small pouch in his hand, his face red as he tried to contain his laughter.
"So? Are you just going to stand there?"
Theseus walked to the middle of the room, sitting on the floor next to Iphicles. "I thought I'd watch you flirt with my bride for a while."
"Uh huh. Your bride is drunker than a satyr."
"At least she's not attacking people anymore."
"Yeah, but how's she supposed to get married in this condition? She can barely stand, much less walk!"
Hippolyta stirred, looking at Theseus, reaching her hand out to cup his face. Squinting, she moved her head closer, and Theseus leaned back, avoiding the strong alcohol scent that clung to her. She continued to stare at him, fascinated.
"You gotta big nose, you know that?"
Iphicles laughed as Theseus glared at him.
"I do not."
"It's regal." Iphicles offered, before laughing some more.
"Thanks so much. The next time I need moral support I'll be sure to call anyone but you."
Iphicles continued to giggle. "Hey, *I* happen to think it's a very nice nose. It's got personality. Lots of personality."
"Keep it up, Junior." The Duke mimed slapping the King's head, but the gesture turned into a caress as he ran his fingers through the copper hair. He leaned closer and nibbled Iphicles' ear lobe, whispering, "And I do mean that."
Iphicles shivered, startling Hippolyta, who glared blearily.
Grinning, Theseus uncorked the pouch he had been carrying. "Hippolyta, here's something for you to drink. It should make you feel better." He spoke slowly, enunciating the words carefully.
The Queen regarded the pouch suspiciously, refusing to take it.
"You know, food would probably help too. And maybe cold water." Iphicles frankly just wanted to be able to stand up and get away from the Queen's breath.
"Demetrius is getting food and Hermia's getting a cold bath ready. We've still got some time to get her presentable."
Hippolyta took the pouch and sniffed it, making a face.
"Ew! Smells nasty. 'm not drinkin' that." She threw the pouch at Theseus, the contents splashing onto his shirt. The Duke sighed as she looked at him, her face growing suspicious.
Hippolyta pulled away from Iphicles, shaking her finger at her groom. "You're tryin' to poison me, tha's it! You wanna kill me!" She looked at Iphicles, her eyes narrowing. "An' you're helpin' him!"
Both men were relieved when the door to the bed chamber opened, admitting Hermia, who immediately ran to her lover, taking the Queen into her arms. Hippolyta relaxed, sniffling into her shoulder.
"They wanna kill me!"
"No they don't." Hermia ran her fingers through the Queen's black hair. "I wouldn't let them, you know that."
Hippolyta continued to regard the men with suspicion as they attempted to look harmless. "They had poison." She sounded quite convinced.
Hermia sighed, cupping Hippolyta's face in her hands, gazing into her dark eyes. "I'm here now. I'll take care of you, I promise." She leaned forward, kissing the Queen's forehead. "I've got a nice bath drawn for you, how's that sound?"
Hippolyta, however, was barely able to nod. "Sounds nice." Her voice trailed off as she stared blankly at the ceiling. "I'm on the floor."
"Yes you are. Let's get you up." Hermia pulled the smaller woman to her feet, supporting her as she swayed.
"'m gonna be sick." The Queen's face was pale, and she brought her hand to her mouth, turning away from Hermia before throwing up on Theseus' boots. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she looked up at Hermia in adoration, smiling. "Feel better now."
Hermia laughed. "Good. Let's get you into that bath, shall we?"
The two women left as Theseus stared at his boots, aghast.
"Can anything else possibly go wrong?"
"Don't even say that." Iphicles stood, stretching his cramped muscles. "Besides, you're not the one who had to take care of her the past several hours."
"No, I'm the one she threw some putrid smelling concoction on. Oh, and I'm the one she threw up on!"
"Point taken." The King continued to stretch, rubbing his shoulder. "Okay, we need a plan here. Hermia's taking care of Hippolyta for now, hopefully she'll be able to sober her up. You need a bath and a change of clothes. I just need to change into a different tunic." He regarded his rumpled clothing with distaste. "She drooled on my shoulder."
"I can help you change." Theseus stepped forward, licking his lips. Iphicles wrinkled his nose.
"Not smelling like that, you can't."
"You're so fickle. One little problem and you reject me."
"If you take a good whiff you'll probably reject yourself."
The Duke had to admit that Iphicles had a point.
"Fine. I take a bath and change clothes. Wanna help me with the bath part?" He leered, or at least tried to.
The King groaned. "I'd love to, believe me. But we've got a schedule to keep here. Look, you get cleaned up and I'll change. If Hippolyta's ready before you are, I'll walk her around, keep her moving, make sure she doesn't walk into any walls and knock herself out."
"You just want to flirt with my bride." The Duke tried to look put-out, but it didn't quite work.
"That's it exactly." Iphicles replied with mock seriousness. "I've fallen in love with her because of her sparkling personality, and I'm going to elope with her."
Both men laughed as Demetrius scurried into the room, eyes opening wide in shock as he took in the condition of the Duke's clothing.
"That about sums it up. Have a bath drawn for me, and get me some new clothes."
Demetrius nodded, eyes still wide, his expression more anxious than usual, and scurried out the door again. Theseus closed his eyes, shaking his head.
"You know, all I want right now is to spend some time alone with you, fucking your brains out."
Iphicles laughed, batting his eyelashes. "You're such a romantic." Sighing, he looked at his lover as his smile faded. "But we've got to get you married first. Once the ceremony's over we can spend the rest of the day and all night together. We just need to get you and Hippolyta through this wedding without having it turn into a complete disaster."
"I know. And then I get to fuck your brains out?"
"And then you get to fuck my brains out."
"I'm holding you to that, you know."
"And I'm looking forward to it."
Hercules, Autolycus and Iolaus stood in the courtyard of the Duke's palace, the sun shining down upon them, watching as hordes of people in brightly colored finery chatted and flirted around them, oblivious to the potential for total disaster. Hercules frowned, forehead creasing as he pondered what to do next. The three men had examined the palace and the courtyard and found no sign of Ares. Security was tight; the guards all reported no suspicious activity. It made the demigod nervous.
Autolycus had been remarkably helpful, finding hiding places that Hercules hadn't even noticed, his eyes constantly in motion as he admitted that he was unable to see any potential problems. The demigod made a mental note to try and find a way to repay the thief for all his help, as soon as the ceremony was over. But for now, he felt nervous and helpless. And worrying about Iphicles wasn't helping matters. He looked around as Iolaus tapped his shoulder.
"I think things are under control out here. We should go look for Iphicles."
Hercules nodded. "Yeah." He looked at his feet, suddenly uncomfortable in his formal clothes. "I just hate lying to him."
"It's for his own good." Autolycus gazed into his eyes sympathetically, and Hercules felt his breathing quickening for some reason as he listened intently. "You love him, and you have to do what's best for him."
"Besides, if you tell him the truth, he'll just punch you and tell you to get lost." Iolaus sounded impatient.
"I know." The demigod tore his eyes from Autolycus and looked at the hunter. "I just wish I didn't have to." He paused, looking around the courtyard one last time. "Okay, Auto, you wait out here while Iolaus and I see Iph. If you see anything suspicious, come get us."
"No problemo." The thief's cocky grin lifted Hercules' spirits slightly, but they quickly plummeted as he and Iolaus entered the palace.
They walked in silence along the dark corridors, anxious servants rushing past them, frantically taking care of last minute details. The demigod tried not to think about the possibility that Iphicles might be working with Ares, but it kept sneaking into his mind, an unwelcome invader.
Much as he hated to admit it, his brother was practically a stranger. He had left home when Hercules was twelve, and they'd rarely seen each other since. He felt suddenly guilty for not visiting more often, for not making more of an effort to get to know Iphicles. What if it was too late? Iolaus apparently sensed the direction his thoughts were taking, speaking quietly as they slipped into a deserted side hallway near the chambers of the Queen and the Duke.
"You know, maybe it's just a fling. Maybe Iph plans to end it as soon as she's married."
"Maybe." Hercules wished he could believe that. "But what if he doesn't?" He seemed to recall that his big brother had been rather wild in his younger days, and hadn't been above sleeping with some of the married women in town.
"Then we'll make sure he doesn't have a chance to be with her. Look, we've got a good plan, we just have to stay calm, okay?"
Iolaus looked as if he wanted to say something else, but they heard footsteps and pressed themselves against the wall of the corridor, hoping they wouldn't be seen. Hercules wasn't exactly sure why they were doing that; they were invited guests, after all, but the action was instinctive.
The footsteps came closer, and Hercules was aghast when he saw Iphicles, Queen Hippolyta hanging on to his arm, her head against his shoulder, his arm around her as they walked aimlessly down the hallway. Hippolyta looked up at Iphicles and said something that made him smile. He replied, but their words were too quiet to be heard.
They continued past the side corridor where the two men hid, finally wandering out of sight. Iolaus stepped out of the shadows, shrugging.
"Guess that answers that question."
Hercules was surprised by the sudden anger that gripped him. "I can't believe him! The woman's getting married today, can't he at least leave her alone on her wedding day?"
Iolaus didn't answer, and the demigod continued to seethe. How could Iphicles be so blatant? Anyone could have seen the two of them, including the Duke. Of course, if that was the plan, if he *was* working for Ares... No. He refused to think about this.
They waited several moments before leaving the shelter of their corridor, walking in the same general direction that Hippolyta and Iphicles had taken. Hercules sighed in relief when he saw the King, thankfully alone, ahead of them, Hippolyta and Hermia walking together nearby. While he had felt guilty about lying to his brother before, it seemed much easier now.
"Iphicles!" The King turned, the guilty look on his face quickly masked by a smile.
"Herc!" Iphicles walked toward them, clasping both their hands in an exuberant gesture. "I can't believe you got new clothes!" The demigod wasn't sure if his brother was teasing him, so he just smiled. "So, have you checked everything out? Find any problems?" He began walking away from the women, casting a few anxious glances toward them, as Hercules and Iolaus followed.
"Everything looks fine." He swallowed. They had decided what to say, but he wasn't sure exactly how to say it. Lying just didn't come naturally to him. Luckily, Iolaus jumped into the conversation before the silence became too awkward.
"So, Iph, I was thinking, I mean, Herc and I were thinking, maybe after the wedding's over, we could all do something together."
"Do something?" Iphicles stopped, looking confused.
"Yeah. I mean, you're my best friend's brother and I hardly know you."
"And I'd like to spend some time with you. We haven't seen each other in a while." That was easy enough. It wasn't like he was lying to Iph.
Iphicles chewed his lower lip, plainly torn. "Um. I guess... I mean, I didn't really expect this." He looked at his feet for a few moments as he contemplated the offer. "Yeah. You're both right. I'd like to spend some time with both of you. The thing is, I had some plans for afterwards."
Hercules raised his eyebrow. Iphicles couldn't possibly mean...
"I'll change them though. I just need to tell, um," Iphicles looked at Hermia and Hippolyta, barely visible in the distance, "I have to tell the Duke I'll be gone. We had plans."
"Fine. So, we'll see you after the wedding, okay?" Hercules watched as his brother walked off, sighing in relief.
"That went well, don't you think?" Iolaus sounded pleased with himself.
"I guess." He was still startled by his brother's behaviour. "I can't believe he planned to sleep with her after her own wedding!"
"Come on, you don't know that's what he had in mind."
"Right. He really had plans with the Duke. On *his* wedding day."
Iolaus sighed. "Okay, so you've got a point. At least we're getting him away from here, and the Queen and the Duke can be together. And we need to make sure we keep him away all night too."
"I still can't believe he'd sleep with a woman on her wedding day." Hercules shook his head. Keeping his cool this afternoon was going to be a challenge.
Theseus was going to kill him. Iphicles walked to the Duke's chambers, a route he had memorized, trying to think of the best way to break the news to his lover. Entering the room, he found Theseus sitting on the bed, fully clothed, pulling on his boots.
"Did you find Hippolyta?"
"Yeah. She's still wobbly, but she's sobering up. I handed her off to Hermia." He cleared his throat. "Right after I handed her off, I ran into Hercules and Iolaus."
The Duke looked up in surprise. "No trouble, I hope?"
"No, not really. It's just..."
Iphicles at on the bed next to the older man. "They kind of asked me if I'd like to spend the afternoon with them."
There was a long silence. "And?"
"And I said yes."
Theseus leaned back on the bed, spreading his arms dramatically. "Hello? We're supposed to spend the entire afternoon and evening in bed, remember? Sex? That thing we haven't had a chance to do nearly as often as we want to? Or has it been so long you've forgotten?"
Iphicles leaned back, putting his arms around the Duke, nibbling his neck. "I remember."
Theseus pulled him down for a kiss. It was slow, their tongues twining as the Duke ran his hands over the King's shoulders, down his back, finally cupping his ass and pulling him close. They broke the kiss, both breathing heavily.
"So, are you going to tell your brother to get lost?"
Iphicles sighed. "No."
"Come on, it's not like we won't have the whole evening together. And I hardly see Herc, and when I do, it's like he's just stopping by to be polite. He's usually on his way somewhere to do something. Today he acted like he really wanted to spend time with me, you know? And it's a good chance to get to know Iolaus."
"All right, all right." Theseus tried to look angry, but smiled at Iphicles' hopeful look. "Have fun. And don't expect to get any sleep tonight."
"Thanks." Iphicles leaned over the older man, kissing him again. "I know his timing sucks, but maybe Herc'll be more relaxed here than when he's visiting me. I'd just like to spend some real time with him, getting to know what he's really like."
"Yeah, yeah. When you were a teenager, all you did was complain about him. Now you want to hang out with him."
"I really am sorry."
"I know. But at least we'll have all night."
Joxer clanked as quickly and determinedly as he could, deliberately ignoring the eyes he could feel burning into his backside. He had set a hard pace, and while Ares had spent a good part of the morning making suggestive remarks, the heat and exercise were taking their toll; he hadn't said a word in a blessedly long time, with the exception of the occasional mumbled curse.
The silence pressed down upon him, almost palpable, and Joxer imagined it like a shimmering veil of heat between himself and the currently mortal god. While he had set off earlier with a vague decision have fun with the situation, the post-coital euphoria had quickly dissolved, leaving him wondering what exactly had possessed him and how he would get out of the situation alive. He mentally practiced groveling in the hope that Ares might spare him if he groveled well. He was an expert at groveling. If there were competitions for self-abasement, Joxer was sure he'd be renowned throughout Greece for his skill.
"Joxer!" The voice was still commanding, and the warrior wannabe found himself stopping and turning, staring at the black-clad figure looming behind him.
Ares, still red and sunburned, looked like he was ready to kill something. Of course, Ares usually looked like that, so Joxer didn't think much of it. The man could say "Have a nice day" with a snarl.
"We need to stop for water the next chance we get. I'm almost out." Ares lifted his near-flaccid water skin to illustrate, helpfully wiggling it and producing a hollow sloshing noise while glaring at the offending object as if it had emptied itself as a way of torturing him.
Joxer sighed. Ares ate and drank more than the average horse. "We also need to stop and get you some new clothes, something with long sleeves. Your arms are getting worse."
"Fine." The reply was mumbled. "The next time I see Apollo, I'm gonna kick his ass."
More god stuff he really didn't want to know about. Turning around, Joxer began to march on.
They reached a town in mid-afternoon, the sun's rays still beating down mercilessly and no clouds appearing to diffuse the harsh rays. Ares had taken to shaking his fist at the orb and shouting curses and obscenities at his brother, which had earned them several frightened and pitying looks from others walking along the road. Joxer stared steadily at his feet and walked on, mentally adding more flourishes to his groveling, especially when Ares called Apollo an impotent buggerer of goats. He wondered if he'd have to grovel to Apollo too, or if the sun god would let him off the hook.
The town was small and brown. The road was dark brown mud. The houses were bleached brown wood with light brown thatch. The people were even tanned to a deep nut brown. Joxer's white complexion and Ares' redness marked them immediately as outsiders.
Ares ran quickly to the well in the town square, dumping a bucket of water over his head and filling his water skin. Joxer, on the other hand, looked around. There were a few merchants set up in the square, their brown carts and brown awnings blending seamlessly with the brown dirt and the brown buildings. The very brownness of the town was somehow disturbing. He had a feeling that Ares would have to make do with a new brown shirt. He also had a feeling that the former war god would turn up his currently red nose at anything that wasn't black.
Sighing, Joxer pinched the bridge of his own nose, again mentally cursing himself for not being able to abandon Ares, again acknowledging the fact that he just couldn't do it. But that didn't mean he couldn't fantasize, of course, about walking along the road on such a nice day and not being followed by a thundercloud of doom on two legs.
It was strange, having a god defer to him. And it made Joxer vacillate between pride and panic. What if he made the wrong decision and got Ares killed? The responsibility was overwhelming, and Joxer looked up into the anxious black eyes, wanting to say that he didn't know, wanting to walk away, but unable to when he saw the trust in the familiar face.
Life would be so much better if he didn't have a conscience.
"You wait here and stay out of trouble. I'm gonna see if I can find you a shirt with long sleeves that won't rub that burn," Joxer said, barely restraining himself from poking the former god in the chest. "I mean it. Stay out of trouble this time."
The innocent look he got for a reply didn't reassure Joxer. But there wasn't much he could do short of tying Ares up, and he had a sneaking suspicion that the god would probably enjoy that way too much. Sighing, he fumbled in his pockets and squinted at the few small coins in his palm, flicking off the lint clinging to some of them. It would be nice if Ares had come with a budget.
Ares had found a bench and was sitting on it, trying to look innocent. Of course, being Ares, this meant that he looked positively evil and guilty as sin. He oozed trouble. Maybe the thing to do was to buy a shirt and get out of town as quickly as possible. Clutching the coins in his fist, Joxer hurried off, hoping that this time would work out better than the last. Somehow, he doubted it would.
Ares sat on the bench, trying to ignore the burning sensation in his arms and nose and cheeks, the feeling that the skin was being stretched tighter and tighter. Sunburn wasn't something gods had to worry about, and the novelty of the experience had worn off almost immediately. It didn't help that he had a pounding headache from the heat and felt slightly nauseous, or that the tops of his ears felt like they were on fire.
He sighed, squirming in a vain attempt to find a comfortable position on the bench, his feet throbbing, shoulders throbbing, the right ankle that he had managed to turn some time back throbbing - in short, everything throbbing except the one organ that usually did so.
Mortality really, truly sucked. In fact, he needed to invent a new word to convey the true depth of its suckiness.
Looking around, Ares was surprised at the drabness of this particular town. Of course, calling it a town was merely encouraging its delusions of grandeur, it was really no more than a wide spot in the road. A wide spot that appeared to spend most of the year as a mudhole, in fact. Why anyone would settle here was completely beyond him. As he looked around, he saw what appeared to be a man actually selling jars of mud.
Ares devoted a split second to thinking about Joxer's instructions, then decided that looking around certainly didn't qualify as getting in trouble. In fact, the last time he had managed to get in trouble it had occurred precisely because he had sat still and stayed in one place, allowing the trouble to find him. So, he reasoned, looking around would mean staying one step ahead of trouble.
Thus convinced that he was obeying the spirit of his beloved's admonition as opposed to the letter thereof, Ares went to investigate the mud seller.
The man's cart was small and brown, with a brown awning that appeared somehow dispirited and dingy, although it was beyond Ares how one could manage to make a mud-colored piece of cloth appear dirty. Seeing an approaching potential customer, the balding, tanned man behind the cart perked up.
"Sir, would you like to purchase some of this fine mud?"
"Huh?" Ares hadn't been quite sure about the product being offered. After all, who in their right mind would purchase mud? But this seemed to settle the matter. "You're selling mud?"
The man stood straighter, tugging at the frayed edges of his brown tunic haughtily.
"Sir, this is no mere mud. Before you is none other than Miracle Mud. Trademark pending."
"Miracle mud?" Ares was beginning to wonder, somewhat guiltily, if perhaps hanging out with Joxer wasn't doing something to his mind, sucking out his intelligence like a Bacchae sucking blood. Or maybe the sun was merely boiling his brains, he really wasn't sure. But he was relatively sure that mud wasn't much of a commodity. It wasn't edible, couldn't be worn, and the small jars the man was selling were completely inadequate for chinking houses. Pigs liked mud, but pigs didn't have money. This situation was becoming infuriating. He stepped forward, and the brown man stepped back, looking up as Ares loomed over him.
"You're selling mud?" He really wanted to make sure he was completely, totally clear on this point before proceeding further.
"Yes, sir," the man said, a somewhat nervous hand motion indicating his wares, "Miracle Mud. For the ladies."
"Uh huh," Ares grunted, trying to make sense of this new development.
"For their faces," the man supplied helpfully. "It draws out impurities, makes the skin softer and younger looking."
"Oh." Ares really tried not to look too dazed, but the mere image of women smearing their faces with mud, well, it just seemed more bizarre than most mortal customs. Shaking his head, he turned away from the cart, ignoring the desperate vendor behind him.
"Sir! Buy one, get one free!"
Ares continued to wander, bemused, biting his tongue to keep from shouting out about what idiots mortal men were.
Since the town was so small, there really wasn't much of anyplace to wander, so the former god soon found himself on the road out of town, staring at a familiar landmark. There, down the road, was a skull mounted on a pole. The skull somehow managed to look brown instead of having been bleached white, but it was the thought that counted.
Ares walked quickly down the road, turning off at the signpost, and strode down a path cut into the underbrush, quickly finding himself at a small shrine; one dedicated to the God of War. This was certainly handy. He had noticed Joxer's woeful lack of funds, and now, here he was, in a shrine full of offerings for the taking. He grinned, showing quite a few teeth.
As he began sifting through the offerings at the small brown altar, Ares found himself becoming angry. They called this pathetic collection of junk offerings? There were some withered vegetables, even some long-dead flowers. What kind of fool made an offering of vegetables and flowers to the God of War? Ares made a mental note to smite the entire area once he was a god again. This sort of insolence positively begged for smiting, and lots of it, just to teach the fools a lesson.
As he continued to pick through the offerings, Ares encountered a few rusty, pocked, badly-balanced throwing knives, the hilt of a broken sword, several badly decomposed fish corpses, a battered helmet, and some dented armor that actually looked worse than Joxer's. There was even one jar of Miracle Mud, Trademark Pending. But there was nothing of value, nothing that was fitting for the God of Pigs, much less the God of War.
Growling, Ares glared at the altar. This place was no better than a garbage dump. It was an insult to him. It was an insult to all of the gods, but one particularly directed at him. As soon as he got his powers back, there was going to be some really serious smiting going down here.
As he turned to leave, Ares saw that he had company. Two very large, hairy men in desperate need of dental work blocked the path back to the road. One held a badly made but very large sword, while the other was idly waving a metal studded club.
"Well, well. Ain't you gonna leave an offering?" The one with the sword smiled nastily, displaying a mouth that was missing more teeth than it held.
"Yeah. Ain't right not to leave an offering. Ares might get pissed." The one with the club moved closer, his breath making the dead fish smell pleasant.
Ares began to smile, and he knew it wasn't a nice smile.
"So, you gentlemen are Ares' priests?"
The two men looked at each other in confusion, and Ares mentally reviewed his sentence, trying to remember if he had used any polysyllabic words that might have tripped them up. But, as he was almost ready to rephrase the question, they nodded to each other.
"Yeah. That's us. Priests." The swordsman appeared to have been volunteered to do the talking, despite the way sibilants hissed through the gaps in his teeth.
"And you...help out by soliciting offerings?"
"Yeah." The swordsman was looking more confused and belligerent, holding his sword out, pointing it toward Ares, his wrist straight and locked.
"And, let me just guess here, you take any valuable offerings for safe keeping, right?" Ares said calmly and reasonably, putting the plans for smiting on hold.
"Yeah. So hand over anything valuable you have. Now," the swordsman whistled, "before we slice you up."
Ares grinned. This was really turning out to be his day. "I don't think so," he said, pulling his sword.
They didn't last long.
Joxer hurried back to the town square, triumphant. He had to walk a little bit out of town, but he had found a merchant with a black silk shirt that appeared to be the right size for Ares. The haggling had been brutal, and Joxer had spent most of his money, but he had the shirt. Reaching the square, he looked around anxiously. He hadn't heard any screams or shouts, and the quiet was making him nervous. As he reached the square, he was shocked to find Ares exactly where he had left him, sitting on a bench and whistling cheerfully.
"So, how was shopping?" Ares said, smiling. That smile never failed to make the hairs on the back of Joxer's neck stand up, and he had to fight the instinct to turn and run.
"Fine. I found you a black shirt." He handed the shirt to his companion, who unfolded and inspected it, nodding.
"Looks good." He paused, running his hand over a seam. "By the way, I got some money for us."
"Really?" Now Joxer was really nervous.
"Yeah. Ran into a couple of my priests, and they were kind enough to give me some spending cash." He tossed something at Joxer, who instinctively threw up his arms to defend himself, as the object hit his forearm and fell to the ground with a rattle. Cautiously picking it up, Joxer saw that it was a large and worn brown leather bag, full of coins. Opening it, he saw enough gold to last them several weeks.
"Cool." He turned to Ares, suddenly concerned. "You didn't tell them who you are, did you?"
The former god looked innocent, staring up at the cloudless sky. "Nah. I just asked nicely."
Joxer decided not to ask any questions. And as they hurried away, he didn't notice the two corpses carefully hidden in the underbrush near the road.