The closer they got to Corinth, the heavier the silence became. They made a few attempts to fill it with light conversation, but the resulting exchanges were awkward and forced, petering out after a few sentences. Hercules' neck was beginning to ache from the constant effort of staring straight ahead at the road instead of peeking constant glances at his partner. Iolaus had been so ebullient the day before: thrilled to be alive, relieved at the Horsemen's defeat, anxious to get to Corinth as soon as humanly possible. Now he looked subdued and preoccupied, though his pace never slowed. And he had developed an unnerving habit of of snatching random items -- leaves, twigs, pebbles from the road -- and fiddling with them for minutes on end for no apparent reason. Hercules wished, even as he dreaded the prospect, that Iolaus would just ask and get it over with.
Finally, as they stood at the edge of the road waiting for a wool merchant's cart to pass, Iolaus asked.
"Just tell me, Herc. Is he all right?"
Hercules sighed and ran one hand through his hair, a delaying tactic that accomplished nothing useful. "I don't know what constitutes 'all right' under these circumstances, Iolaus. He was devastated when I told him you were dead. But since then... I just don't know."
"What do you mean you don't know?" Iolaus bounced on his feet, all pent-up energy and nervous anticipation. "How did he seem the last time you saw him? What did he say, what did--"
"Iolaus!" Hercules interrupted a little more loudly than he meant to. Iolaus broke off in mid-sentence and rocked back on his heels, looking startled. Hercules sighed again and looked at the sky, the ground, the trees -- anywhere except his best friend's face. "I haven't seen him since the day I told him."
Iolaus' eyes widened. He opened his mouth and closed it again, looking as if he was swallowing back a thousand questions and accusations.
"It's been almost a year," he said after a while. His voice was carefully neutral.
The merchant's cart was out of sight now, having rounded a bend in the road ahead of them. Hercules started walking again, fast. Iolaus broke into a half-jog to keep up, but didn't make any of his usual complaints about Hercules' lack of consideration for people of normal height.
"I know what you're going to say, Iolaus, but it's not like that. I had no choice. It's... a little complicated."
"So explain it to me in short words."
Easier said than done. Just thinking about that disastrous last encounter with Iphicles brought all the old guilt, anger and hurt boiling up again. The passing of months had done nothing to dull the memory. But Iolaus needed to know what had happened, and he needed to know now, before they reached their destination. Hercules took a deep breath, slowed his step to a more reasonable walking pace, and began his explanation.
Jason had gone to the palace with him, for support. Hercules didn't ask whether it was Iphicles or himself who would need supporting, he was just grateful to have a friend along. Iphicles was in the middle of a Council meeting when they got there, and the guard who conducted them to a waiting room seemed to think that it would take a while, but they barely had time to sit down and accept wine and fruit from a servant before Iphicles arrived at a full run, flushed and smiling and utterly unprepared.
"Hercules, Iolaus! I didn't know you were ba--" He froze in the middle of the room, his face going blank. "Oh. I thought..." The first traces of apprehension showed in his eyes as he looked around. "The messenger said you were here, I assumed Iolaus was with you. Is he coming later?"
"Iphicles..." Hercules stood and took a step forward. Iphicles backed away from him. Blood drained from his face as apprehension turned to fear.
"Where is he, Hercules? He's all right, isn't he? Tell me he's all right."
It was Jason, in the end, who actually spoke the words.
"Iolaus was killed in Sumeria, Iphicles. I'm so sorry..."
Iphicles swayed on his feet. He flung one arm out blindly, as if searching for support, but when Hercules moved toward him he backed away again. After a few faltering steps, his legs started to buckle, and he might've fallen if Jason wasn't there to catch him and guide him to a chair.
Hercules tried to hand him a glass of wine, but Iphicles pushed it away. "What happened?" he demanded in a harsh voice.
Hercules spoke of the summons to Sumeria, of Dahak and the Sumerian gods, of Gilgamesh's betrayal and the reckless, final act of courage that cost Iolaus his life. Iphicles didn't interrupt, didn't ask questions, didn't show any reaction at all. He sat perfectly still, looking down at his hands, until Hercules grew unnerved and trailed off into silence.
"Go on," Iphicles ordered hoarsely.
Hercules looked at Jason, who was standing behind Iphicles' chair, his hands resting lightly on Iphicles' shoulders. He met Hercules' pleading gaze with a sympathetic expression, but offered neither word nor gesture in response. And what could he have said or done, anyway, Hercules thought tiredly. This was not Jason's story to tell.
"Go on," Iphicles said again.
So Hercules went on. He described his trip to Eire and the nightmares that brought him back to Sumeria, told of Dahak's possession of Iolaus' body and of the struggle that followed. Finally there was nothing left to tell and he fell silent again.
Iphicles pressed the back of one hand against his mouth. His head was still bowed. He shuddered, and rubbed his arms as if he was cold. Hercules reached out and touched his shoulder.
Iphicles shot out of the chair with startling, explosive speed, slamming into Hercules and sending them both sprawling to the floor.
"Don't you dare!" He gripped Hercules' throat to keep him pinned down as he threw blow after blow with his free hand. "Don't you dare tell me you're sorry! You fucking bastard, you just couldn't let him go, could you?"
For a moment, Hercules was too startled to react. But after the third punch landed solidly on his jaw, he pulled himself together enough to fight back. Iphicles couldn't hurt him, but in this out-of-control state he could easily hurt himself. Hercules was sure he'd heard something crunch when that last blow connected, and it definitely wasn't his jaw. So he pried his brother's hand away from his throat, caught his other arm by the wrist, and threw him off with as much gentleness as the circumstances permitted.
"Iphicles, calm down, you're not-- ooph!"
Iphicles was on him again, but this time Jason stepped in to haul him back before Hercules was forced to do any actual damage. Hercules rolled to his feet, ready to defend himself again, but Jason had a good grip on Iphicles' arms, and was holding him in place.
"He was coming here!" Iphicles was shouting. "He promised me, he said he'd come back, he promised, he could've been safe with me here, what did he care about some foreign gods across the ocean, but you had to make him go, didn't you? You just couldn't stand the thought that he might want to stay with me rather than go half-way round the world with you. So you dragged him along and then you couldn't even protect him, could you, you goddamn possessive bastard!" He launched himself forward again; Jason was barely able to hold him.
"It's not true," Hercules protested. "Iphicles, think what you're saying! I didn't drag Iolaus anywhere, when could I ever make him do anything he didn't want? When could anyone?" But even as he spoke, the old doubts nagged at him. Iolaus had been clearly uncomfortable with the idea of going to Sumeria and meddling in the affairs of unknown gods. And he had been looking forward to returning to Corinth and seeing Iphicles again after several weeks' separation. He'd gone on about it at embarrassing length, in fact. And Hercules had to be honest with himself here -- he had resented it, just a little bit. The relationship between Iolaus and Iphicles was just too new, and too sudden, for him to make an easy adjustment. He'd still been wrestling with the fact that there was now something in Iolaus' life that was as important -- maybe even more important -- than their friendship.
So he'd insisted on going to Sumeria, and Iolaus had followed, as he'd always followed. Had he really gone freely? Or had he sensed Hercules' doubts somehow, and went along to prove his loyalty? Looking back on that day, Hercules honestly couldn't be sure.
Fortunately, he didn't have to resolve the issue just then. Jason was talking quietly to Iphicles, who listened without screaming or attacking, which was a relief. Hercules noticed for the first time the three armed guards milling near the door, looking almost comically nervous. It had to be an awkward situation for them: a screaming brawl between their king, their former king, and the son of Zeus. Hercules gave them a reassuring smile and a wave, but they didn't look particularly comforted.
Iphicles must've noticed the guards too, because he pulled away from Jason and turned around, wearing some semblance of his usual court manner.
"It's all right," he called out in a steady voice, and dismissed the guards with a wave. Then he turned to face Hercules, and his eyes were like ice. "I want you out of my palace now, Hercules. And out of my city by morning. For good. If you try to return, I'll have the guards throw you out."
Then he turned his back on his brother, and marched out of the room.
"He banished you from Corinth?" Iolaus stood in the middle of the road, staring at Hercules with a stricken expression. "Forever?"
Hercules shook his head. "Jason talked him out of it after a few weeks. But I'm still barred from the palace. So no, I don't know how Iphicles is. We'll both find out when we see him, so walk faster, okay?"
Okay was probably not the right word, Iolaus thought as he hitched the strap of his travel pack higher on his shoulder, and picked up the pace. This homecoming was getting more and more complicated by the minute.
"Wait a minute, Herc. If you're you're not allowed in the palace, how will we get in to see Iphicles? I can't just walk in alone, people will think I'm a ghost or something. Heck, with my luck, someone will think I'm Dahak and try to stick a dagger in my back."
"Yeah, I've been thinking about that myself." Hercules scratched the back of his neck. "I thought maybe we could stop at the Academy first, and send Jason ahead with a message. He's always been able to make Iph listen, and the court trusts him. If he says it's really you back from the dead, people will believe him."
"I hope so. This is all awkward enough without people fainting at the sight of me... Oh, and Herc?"
"I went to Sumeria with you because when people need our help, we go. You know that, don't you?"
Hercules' step faltered a little, but it might've just been an unevenness in the road. "Yeah, Iolaus. I know."
They walked non-stop through the morning and well into mid-afternoon, until Iolaus' stomach started to growl and his feet began to drag. He tried to hide it, not wanting to stop until they reached Corinth, but Hercules insisted on a rest.
"We've made good time," he said firmly, guiding Iolaus to a small clearing shielded from the road by a row of oaks. "We'll there by dinner time. And you don't want to collapse from exhaustion at Iphicles' feet, do you?"
"No," Iolaus admitted grudingly. He supposed a few minutes' rest wouldn't really hurt. And it had been a long time since he had a chance to just sit on the grass. It was nice grass, soft and springy. It tickled his palms when he pressed his hands against it. The blades made a little squeaky noise when he rubbed them between his fingers. He plucked a handful and held it to his nose. Smelled nice, too.
"Huh?" He looked up with a start to find Hercules holding out a chunk of bread and a wedge of cheese to him. The big guy looked worried, so Iolaus gave him a wide grin as he took the food. "Thanks."
"Iolaus, is something wrong?"
Uh-oh. Herc had his Serious Talk Face on. Iolaus responded with his best Lighthearted Banter Face. "What do you mean?"
"I had to offer you your food four times before you heard me. Usually the problem is keeping you away from the chow, not getting you to take it."
Iolaus shrugged. "I'm just a little distracted, that's all."
Hercules didn't look too comforted by this explanation. "I've noticed. You've been distracted all day, and always by the strangest things. Leaves. Grass. Rocks. You're creeping me out."
He really did look creeped out, and for Hercules that took a lot. Iolaus could feel his own smile slipping. He never could hide his problems from Herc. Maybe it was time to stop trying.
"I'm just..." Iolaus hesitated, searching for the right words. "Trying to remember what it was like, that's all. Being alive. Being real. Sitting on grass, walking on dirt. So easy to forget these things when they're gone."
"It was different this time, wasn't it?" The concern in Hercules' eyes deepened. "And not just because you were dead longer. I've never seen you like this before."
"I was different." Iolaus shivered at the memory. "it wasn't really me anymore, I was part of the Light. I could remember what it was like to be Iolaus, to eat and sleep and make love, to care about people. But it all seemed so far away and unimportant, and every day I forgot a little bit more. And I didn't mind at all." That was the worst part. Even now, if he let his thoughts drift a little, Iolaus would find himself falling head first into the memory of that cold, perfect bliss. His dreams took him there every night, and his waking moments were filled with dazed disorientation as he struggled to anchor himself in the physical world again. He clutched at leaves and grass blades to remind himself that he was real, and could touch things. Sometimes that failed, and he had to bite the inside of his cheek or dig his nails into his palms until the pain dragged his wandering mind back to his body. He was damn grateful Hercules hadn't picked up on that yet.
"But you still came back," Hercules said.
Iolaus nodded. "Yeah. With the whole world about to end, I actually managed to give a shit. I couldn't have done it for anything less. And if it had happened a few months later, I don't think I could've done it at all. I would've been like Michael, looking down at the world the way you'd look at an anthill, wondering if you should burn it out before the ants got into the pantry."
"You could never be like Michael!" Hercules looked genuinely horrified at the thought, but not nearly as horrified as Iolaus himself felt.
"But we don't know that, do we? I mean, look at me -- I had to ask you how Iphicles is doing, because the whole time I was dead, it never once occurred to me to check." Iolaus could feel the bitterness welling up inside him, guilt and fear turning to anger -- both at himself, and at the smug, self-righteous bastards who called themselves Servants of the Light. "I barely gave a thought to him, or to anyone else I'd left behind. And I was still way more human than Michael and the others. What's going to happen the next time I die? What if I go into the Light again, and nothing happens to bring me back? All things considered, I'd rather be in Tartarus. You're still yourself in Tartarus, no matter how bad it gets."
"You're not going to Tartarus," Hercules said, in a tone that clearly implied he was going to ensure this personally. Which he probably would, if the subject ever came up. "And stop talking about the next time you die as if it's going to be next week. If I have anything to say about it, your next death is going to be of old age. Very old age."
"Sounds good to me," Iolaus said cheerfully. "Right now, though, I'm afraid it might be of thirst. Pass me that wineskin, will you?"
Every single person at the Academy seemed to be giving Iolaus funny looks. Cadets paused in their sparring sessions to turn and stare. There was a definite undercurrent of amusement in the stares, and Iolaus was beginning to get self-conscious about it. All he was doing, after all, was walking harmlessly across the yard. What could possibly be amusing about that?
A quick, surreptitious check confirmed that his pants were properly laced, his clothes showed no embarrassing tears or stains, and nothing undesirable clung to his boots. But the smirks continued, until Iolaus, exasperated, decided to get a second opinion.
"All right, Herc, what is it?"
Hercules blinked at him. "What is what?"
"Do I have dirt on my face? Is something stuck between my teeth? Is there a 'kick me' sign on my back? What's wrong with me?"
Was it his imagination, or was Hercules blushing? "You look fine, Iolaus."
"Then why is everyone staring at me as if I'm wearing my codpiece on my head?"
"It's not you." Yep, definitely blushing. "It's just that the last time I was here, I was with... you know... the other Iolaus."
"Oh." Now Iolaus could feel himself blushing, too. This whole business with his alternate-world twin was too embarrassing, and the idea of Herc getting all buddy-buddy with the guy while Iolaus was dead was, frankly, just a little creepy. Iolaus felt no ill will toward the Jester -- he'd seen first-hand what kind of hell the man had spent most of his life in -- but it was still a relief to know that the guy wasn't around anymore, at least not in a way that Iolaus had to deal with. Let him be happy in the ocean with his mermaid. Happy and distant.
But meanwhile, here was yet another place where his twin's presence had damaged his reputation. Hercules was still rather defensive about the whole thing, so Iolaus bit back a number of unkind and unfair remarks, and quietly followed his friend into the Academy building.
Jason was waiting for them in the headmaster's office. It was strange, seeing him in a room that Iolaus had always associated with Cheiron, but he certainly looked as if he belonged there, seated behind the desk, poring over what looked like a stack of exam parchments. He sprang to his feet when they came in, and enveloped Iolaus in a hug that squeezed the breath out of his lungs and threatened to crack his ribs.
"By the gods, it's really you! I couldn't believe it when I got Herc's message, but it's really you, you're alive!"
"Not for long if you don't let go of me," Ioalus wheezed.
"Oops. Sorry." Jason pulled back a bit to study Iolaus at arm's length. "You look great." There was a broad, lopsided grin on his face that made him look twenty years younger.
"Better than the last time I died?" Iolaus joked. Jason's grin slipped a bit, but he quickly recovered.
"Practice makes perfect." Iolaus clapped him on the shoulder. "You don't look so bad yourself. Nice to see you finally got a real job. I thought you'd be an unemployed bum forever after you gave up the King of Corinth gig."
The mention of the King of Corinth turned everyone's thoughts in the same uncomfortable direction. Jason's looked serious again.
"I take it you two haven't seen Iphicles yet?"
"No." Hercules stared at his feet. "Frankly, I'm not sure how to do this. A letter didn't seem like the right way to let him know, walking in unannounced would be even worse, and letting Iolaus go alone--"
"--Is not a good idea either." Jason looked resigned . "Let me guess. You want me to go tell him."
"If you don't mind," Hercules said.
Iolaus nodded his agreement. "You could bring him back here after you've talked to him. I'd rather not have the whole court milling around when we see each other, and I'm sure Iphicles feels the same way." The lack of privacy in the palace was Iphicles' one perpetual complaint about being King.
"You're probably right," Jason said. "All right, I'll go."
He turned toward the door, but Iolaus reached out and grabbed his arm.
"Wait. Jason... how is he?"
Several long moments passed before Jason answered.
"He's... functioning. Going through the motions. Ask anyone at court and they'll tell you, the King is just fine, a little moodier than usual maybe, but nothing you wouldn't expect from royalty." Jason's smile was faintly bitter. He'd had, Iolaus remembered, years of experience in judging the collective thick-headedness of a royal court.
"You don't agree?" he prompted.
Jason shrugged. "He tries to feed me the same routine, but I know better. He's not sleeping enough, or eating enough. I think he's drinking too much, though never when I'm around. It's not out of control or anything; he could probably go on like this for years before he falls apart." He reached out and squeezed Iolaus' shoulder. "But I'm glad he won't have to. It's good to have you back, Ioalus." His smile grew warmer for a moment, than faded again. "By the way, I haven't told him about the Je-- about the other Iolaus. It seemed unnecessary and unkind. So try not to mention it, okay?"
"No problem," Iolaus said quickly. He was perfectly happy to avoid the subject for as long as people would let him. He glanced sidelong at Hercules, and saw that the demigod was looking guilty and relieved at the same time.
"Wait here, then." Jason moved toward the door again. "I should be back with Iphicles soon."
It wasn't soon, or at least not soon enough for Iolaus' liking. He spent an eternity pacing around the room, jumping at every noise, sticking his head out the window every time he caught a hint of movement outside. Hercules, who wasn't a pacer, sat behind the desk, plucking at Jason's writing quill until there was nothing left but a bare, ink-stained tube and a little pile of fluff.
A gaggle of children burst into the office at one point, apparently guided by the impression that Iolaus was the Jester, and demanded that he sing them a song. It took the concerted efforts of both men to convince them that they had the wrong Iolaus, and to get them back into the care of the nice but distracted woman who was supposed to be teaching them arithmetic. Iolaus was grateful for the diversion, however embarrassing, but it was over much too soon, and then it was back to pacing.
Hercules, who had better hearing than most people, noticed the riders' arrival first.
"I hear horses," he said, and Iolaus nearly knocked over the desk in his rush to the window.
He was just in time to see Iphicles and Jason galloping into the courtyard. "It's them."
Hercules stood up quickly. "I'll go take a walk or something."
"You don't have to--" Iolaus began, but Hercules was already out the door.
Iolaus leaned against the desk, gripping the edge so hard that his hands started to cramp. His heart was pounding, and sweat was beading on the back of his neck. He stared at the door with a mixture of desire and terror, and tried to imagine what he would say when Iphicles came in. Something brilliant and passionate. Something to break the tension and put them both at ease, something that would express, in a few short words, just how immeasurably glad he was to be back.
The door opened. Iphicles came in. Iolaus' mouth felt suddenly parched. He gulped, feeling as if he was swallowing sand.
Iphicles looked thinner than he remembered. And paler, though that could've been just a side effect of the shock.
"Iolaus..." he breathed, and staggered forward with the unsteady step of drunken man, or a sleepwalker. Iolaus met him half-way, and they embraced in the middle of the room.
They just stood there for a long while, rocking slowly back and forth. For the first time since his return, Iolaus closed his eyes without fear. His mind wasn't going anywhere this time. Remembered bliss couldn't compete with this reality. He felt Iphicles' rapid heartbeat, heard his ragged breathing, inhaled the faint scent of bath oil and soap mingled with the leather and sweat. Alivealivealivealive... The word was a cadence in his head, beating in time with his pulse. The Light could go fuck its pristine self. I'm alive, and it's good, and this is what's good about it.
"I didn't really believe it," Iphicles whispered. "I swear, I almost called the guards and had Jason tossed out on his ear, I thought he'd gone mad, or was playing with me, or-- I don't know what I thought. I just couldn't believe you were back."
"Oh, ye of little faith." Iolaus chuckled. "I always come back. You'll never get rid of me."
Iphicles clenched his fingers in the folds of Iolaus' vest. "It's really you, isn't it? I mean, you're not a ghost or anything? You're not going to disappear at sundown, or--"
"I think you're getting it backwards. Ghosts are supposed to appear at sundown, not disappear. And I'm not going anywhere."
"Of course, I'm sure. Didn't Jason explain it all to you?"
"No. He said you'd do it."
"It's a long story. I would've come back to you sooner, but Herc and I had to save the world first."
Iphicles tensed a little at the mention of Hercules' name, and tightened his arms around Iolaus' waist. "Tell me everything."
"I will," Iolaus promised. "But you'll have to let go. This isn't really a good position to make long speeches in."
"Let it wait then," Iphicles said, and kissed him.
Iolaus mentally ticked off another item on his list of Things That Really Sucked About Being Dead. No kisses. No slow, hot, intense kisses that made your head spin and your knees wobble and your heart dance a jig in your chest. He laced his fingers together at the back of Iphicles' neck, afraid that it might end too soon. But Iphicles showed no inclination to pull away, so Iolaus let his hands wander downward again, to rediscover the familiar joys of his lover's body. Broad shoulders and strong back, the ridges of muscle easily traced even through the double layers of shirt and vest. Trim waist, surprisingly graceful in such a big man. The hard, smooth curve of his ass, a perfect fit for Iolaus' cupped hands... Iphicles' pants were fawnskin suede, butter-soft and pliant. Iolaus ran one fingernail down the center seam, and Iphicles moaned and ground his hips, pressing his growing erection against Iolaus' bare stomach.
Iolaus' cock sprang to attention, obviously trying to compensate for his wobbly knees. For a moment, he thought he'd have to either break the kiss or fall over. Instead, he took a few shaky steps backwards, pulling Iphicles along, until his legs bumped up against Jason's desk. With that to prop him up, he felt secure enough to return his full attention to the way Iphicles' mouth yielded to his probing tongue, the softness of Iphicles' lips, the faint taste of wine and peaches flavoring the kiss...
He was just starting to ponder the question of desk versus floor when the door flew open. The noise startled them apart. Iphicles,with some space behind him, managed to spring back without mishap. Iolaus slammed his butt into the desk, sending all of Jason's neatly stacked parchments cascading to the floor.
A small blond child in a grubby dress stood in the doorway. At the sight of Iolaus, her face broke into a huge, gap-toothed grin.
"You're back!" She bounced into the room, arms flung out, clearly intending to hug him. Iolaus caught her by the shoulders and held her at arm's length, but she kept right on bouncing. "Can you sing the song again? You changed your clothes! Where's your funny hat?"
"I don't have a funny hat," Iolaus growled through clenched teeth. "And you obviously have me confused with somebody else. Now shouldn't you be in class or something?"
He turned the kid around and steered her toward the door, ignoring her protests. Much to his relief, there was a harried-looking older cadet waiting for her in the hallway. He took the girl from Iolaus and hustled her off toward the classroom, lecturing as he went, and muttering an occasional apology over his shoulder.
"It's all right. Really. Don't worry about it." Iolaus slammed the door shut, and banged his forehead against it a couple of times. Twenty years out of the Academy, and here he was again, getting caught necking in the headmaster's office. At least this time it wasn't the Guard Captain's daughter.
"Silly hat?" Iphicles sounded bemused. Iolaus turned around, trying hard to look innocent.
"Don't look at me. Have you ever seen me wear a hat?"
"No." Much to Iolaus' relief, Iphicles didn't pursue the subject. "Maybe we should latch the door."
Unfortunately, there was no latch. Cheiron had always made a point of telling the cadets that his door was always open to them, and Jason was obviously keeping up the tradition. Iolaus considered jamming a chair under the door handle, but decided against it.
"Maybe we should go someplace else."
"Suits me." Iphicles' face was an interesting mix of amusement and frustration. "You're the one who used to live here -- what are the good make-out spots?"
"Uhm..." Iolaus shuffled his feet and ran one hand through his hair. "Even if they're still the same, they're all probably occupied. I never thought I'd say this, but the palace would be more private. There, at least, people stay out when you tell them to."
"Fine, let's go." Iphicles pulled Iolaus into another quick hug, before letting go and walking decorously out of the room.
He kept half a pace ahead of Iolaus until they reached the end of the corridor, then halted in the doorway, so abruptly that Iolaus ran into him.
"Ooph! What's the mat--" He broke off in mid-sentence, because he could see perfectly well what the matter was.
Hercules and Jason were in the practice yard, surrounded by a semicircle of admiring cadets. They were sparring with quarterstaffs, and if the sweat that gleamed on their faces and arms was any indication, they've been at it for as long as Iphicles and Iolaus had been inside. Jason had taken his tunic off and rolled up his shirtsleeves, and Hercules had tied his hair back with a borrowed headband. Neither man seemed aware of Iolaus and Iphicles' presence.
Iphicles stood as if he'd seen a Gorgon. Only his eyes moved, following Hercules as the demigod circled his opponent. His face was composed, but Iolaus knew him well enough to see the emotional whirlwind behind the still features. He laid one hand gently on Iphicles' arm. It felt rigid as an iron bar, and didn't relax when he kneaded the bicep with his fingers.
"Iphicles? Herc says the two of you had a major fight after I died. About... about me."
Iphicles closed his eyes for a few seconds, and chewed on his lower lip before answering. "I kinda lost it when he told me you were dead. Said things I shouldn't have said. Thought things I shouldn't have thought. It got ugly." There was guilt in his voice, and self-loathing, and lingering traces of anger, though Iolaus couldn't say how much of the latter was directed at Hercules and how much was reserved for Iphicles himself. He kept rubbing Iphicles' arm, trying to project support and reassurance.
"I know you regret it, Iph. I know Herc does. Don't let it continue, please, not over me."
A muscle under Iphicles' left eye twitched a little. He rested his hand over Iolaus' on his arm, but didn't take his eyes off Hercules. "If I could go back and change it, I would. We should've been there for each other this past year, instead of living like strangers. I'm not sure I can fix it now..."
"Oh, come on! We're talking about Herc here. You think he's going to hold a grudge, or make you grovel? Just go over and talk to him."
Iphicles stayed where he was, silent. Iolaus waited, trying not to fidget and failing. Part of him wanted to grab his lover by the shirtfront, drag him out into the courtyard, and make him speak, but he knew it would be the worst possible thing to do. This had to be Iphicles' decision, not his. Iolaus took a deep breath.
"If you don't want to," he said, "I know a back way out. We can be back at the palace before anyone knows we're gone."
For a moment, it looked as if Iphicles might say yes. Then he shook himself as if waking from a trance, and stepped from the doorway. Iolaus breathed a deep sigh of relief, and followed.
Jason's back was to them, so he wasn't aware of their approach, but Hercules saw them before they were half-way there. He faltered for a moment, distracted, and Jason promptly knocked his feet out from under him with a single perfectly timed strike. The son of Zeus came down hard on his butt in the dust. Jason smacked him upside the head with the padded end of his staff, sprang back, and took a bow.
"Ha! Not bad for an old man, right, kids?"
There was a smattering of applause from the cadets, who had obviously just acquired a new respect for their headmaster. Hercules climbed to his feet and dusted himself off before facing Iolaus and Iphicles again.
"Hello, Iphicles." His voice was neutral, but his eyes held a cautious hope. He stood very still, as if afraid that any move he made might be the wrong one. Jason turned at the mention of Iphicles' name, took in the situation with one quick glance, and started herding the cadets inside. A few tried to linger and gawk -- Iolaus supposed it wasn't every day that they found both a king and a demigod in their midst -- but Jason could still put on a fine show of royal authority when he had to, and it wasn't long before the yard was clear. Not that Herc and Iphicles seemed to care, they were too focused on each other.
"Hercules, I..." Iphicles licked his lips and shifted from foot to foot. He wasn't quite meeting Herc's eyes, but he wasn't exactly looking away, either. His gaze seemed focused on the tip of his brother's nose. "I seem to have this tendency, when I'm grieving, to go looking for someone to blame. You were a convenient target. I never should've done it. I'm sorry."
He held out his hand, and Hercules, bless him, took it without the slightest hesitation.
"It's been a tough year on all of us, Iph." He shook Iphicles' hand, then pulled him forward into a hug. "I've missed you."
It was an awkward embrace, but they both seemed to mean it. Iolaus felt the last bit of tension draining out of him at the sight. He stepped forward, grinning, and slapped both brothers on the back.
"All right! I'm glad that's settled. Can we go now?"
At Iphicles' insistence, they all returned to the palace together. Jason rode a horse from the Academy stable, while Hercules kept pace on foot with no apparent effort. Iolaus knew that he, too, could've taken one of the Academy horses, so he made sure to climb into the saddle behind Iphicles before Jason had a chance to offer.
The saddle really wasn't designed to hold two people, which meant he and Iphicles had to squeeze together, with Iolaus' arms clenched tightly around the King's waist. Each swaying step made his cock rub up against Iphicles' ass, a teasing promise of pleasure ahead. Iolaus had to bite his lip to keep from groaning. He couldn't decide if he wanted the ride to end, or to go on forever. Iphicles was having a similar reaction, if the way he kept shifting in the saddle was anything to go by.
Word must've gotten out, as it always did, because there was a fair-sized crowd waiting for them as they rode through the main gate. Most of the watchers were servants and guards who could at least pretend to have an excuse for being there, but Iolaus recognized several of Iphicles' senior advisors and a few of their relatives. He climbed off the horse, shooed away the hovering stable boys, and held the reins himself while Iphicles dismounted.
Jason stayed in the saddle, placing his horse as a barrier to keep back the gawkers. Hercules made an equally impressive obstacle on the other side, so that Iolaus and Iphicles had a little clear space around them. Iphicles handed the horse off to a groom, and, in an uncharacteristic breach of royal propriety, embraced Iolaus in full view of the crowd.
"What was it you said about the palace being more private?" he whispered.
Iolaus chuckled. "Okay, so maybe I was wrong. You think you can get rid of all these jerks?"
"Watch me." Iphicles pulled back, facing the crowd. "Don't you people have work to do?" He didn't exactly shout, but he definitely pitched his voice to carry. The noise level in the courtyard dropped abruptly. There was suddenly a great deal of hushed scurrying, as people started to make themselves scarce. Iphicles glared at the ones that remained. "I'm sure I can come up with something for those who don't. I hear that drainage project in the South Marshes is always short-handed."
That cleared the area in a hurry.
Iolaus shook his head in admiration. "Not bad." He cupped one hand against Iphicles' cheek and guided his face closer so he could whisper in his ear. "Look, I know we said we'd have a celebration dinner with Herc and Jason, but I don't think I could stand it right now. What do you say we skip it, and celebrate with just the two of us?"
"I thought you'd never ask." Iphicles took his hands and they went inside, leaving Jason and Hercules to find their own way to the guest quarters.
Iphicles maintained a death-grip on Iolaus' hands throughout the short walk to his rooms. As soon as the bedroom door was shut and bolted behind them, he backed Iolaus up against the wall and kissed him again, the intensity undiminished from that first, urgent kiss they'd shared back in Jason's office at the Academy. Iolaus tilted his hips forward, and felt every nerve in his body thrum in response as his groin pressed against Iphicles' thigh. He was suddenly grateful for the wall's support, and for Iphicles' powerful hands gripping his waist.
He yanked Iphicles' shirt free of the wide leather belt, and slid his hands beneath it. Iphicles moaned and arched against him, and Iolaus nearly sobbed aloud at the aching familiarity of it, at the perfect rightness of this strong, muscular body in his arms and the feel of sweat-damp skin beneath his palms. Here was something else precious that he had lost to the cold, sterile serenity of death, something he wanted to take his time rediscovering.
Iphicles was kissing his neck now, which was a bit of a relief because it gave Iolaus a chance to breathe. The extra air came in handy when Iphicles slipped his hands inside Iolaus' vest and lightly scratched his nipples. Iolaus' cock twitched in response to that touch, and his body rocked forward with a will of its own.
Iolaus wanted to suggest that they move over to the bed while he could still walk, but somehow he couldn't get the words out. Iphicles was nibbling on his left earlobe, and moving his hands in slow circles over his chest, and suddenly the only words Iolaus could remember were oh gods, yes. So he closed his eyes and just repeated that for a while, until Iphicles shut him up with another kiss.
It was Iphicles who finally pulled away and led him over to the bed.
"Stand right here," he ordered, then sat down and began trailing kisses over Iolaus' chest and stomach, while his hands tugged impatiently on Iolaus' belt.
Iolaus gripped the edge of the bed canopy, and managed to stay upright long enough for Iphicles to pull his pants down to his knees, but when a warm hand wrapped around his cock just as a wet tongue brushed his nipple, he gave up the effort fell forward, pinning Iphicles to the bed.
"My turn," he announced, but Iphicles rolled them over so that he was on top, straddling Iolaus' legs just above the knees.
"Who says you get a turn?" he growled.
Iolaus put up a token struggle, mostly because he rather liked the way it made his cock rub up against the soft suede of Iphicles' trousers. He didn't especially care if he was on top or not. Besides, Iphicles wasn't usually this aggressive, and he was curious to see just how far the King would take this.
Iphicles pulled his shirt off, arching his back and thrusting his hips forward as he did so. He held the pose for a moment, hands clasped overhead, the shirt dangling negligently from his fingers, then tossed the garment aside and slowly lowered his arms. The fading sunlight streaming in through the window gave a warm amber cast to his skin, and highlighted the smooth ripple of muscles in his torso as he tossed his head back to get the hair out of his face.
Iolaus' pulse rate shot to a new high. He couldn't have looked away if the fate of the known world depended on it. He lifted his hand -- it took a remarkable amount of effort to keep it steady -- and traced a line across Iphicles' stomach with one finger, just above the belt. Iphicles shuddered and bit his lip at the touch. He caught Iolaus' hand and pressed it against his lips for a moment, then gently but firmly guided it back down to the bed.
"Not yet," he whispered. "Let me do this."
Iolaus spread his arms wide. "Anything you want."
Iphicles explored Iolaus' body with satisfying thoroughness, sliding his hands in slow, teasing strokes over his chest and stomach, reaching under to cup his ass, caressing his thighs until Iolaus was writhing against the covers, desperate to feel that tormenting touch on his cock.
Instead, Iphicles slid his hands upward again, and Iolaus nearly sobbed with frustration. He pushed against Iphicles' wrists, trying to guide his hands back down, but Iphicles tensed against the pressure and shook his head.
"Not yet. Please, Iolaus, I need this, I--" He bowed his head, and Iolaus heard him take a deep, shuddering breath as he fought for control. "I don't want to finish too soon."
Iolaus let his hands fall back to the bed at his sides. "Then take your time."
Iphicles massaged Iolaus' nipples with his thumbs, bent down to suck at them, then trailed warm, wet kisses from Iolaus' collarbones straight down to the thick mat of blond curls above his cock. He lingered there, licking and nuzzling, brushing his lips against Iolaus' inner thighs, and blowing light puffs of air over Iolaus' balls. His hair fell forward to tickle Iolaus' hips. Every now and then, a stray lock would brush against Iolaus' cock, rapture and torture intertwined.
Iolaus had to grip the bedcovers with both hands in order to resist the temptation to twine his fingers in those soft curls and force his cock into that beautiful, teasing mouth. A whimper escaped from his throat with every exhalation, each breath a wordless plea. He wondered vaguely if it was possible for a man to explode from sheer frustration.
Then Iphicles took the head of his cock between his lips, and all thought fled. No hope of control now -- Iolaus' hands moved of their own accord to grip the back of Iphicles' head, and his hips shoved upward, plunging the entire length of his shaft into Iphicles' mouth.
Iphicles didn't resist. He simply leaned forward into a more comfortable angle, and continued to stroke Iolaus' thighs while Iolaus fucked his mouth with hard, increasingly desperate thrusts. A small voice at the back of Iolaus' mind was timidly suggesting that maybe it would be a good idea to slow down a bit, but the rest of him wasn't in the mood to listen. And then Iphicles cupped one warm hand around his balls and sucked hard at the same time, and all he could do was clench his hands in Iphicles' hair and try not to yell too loudly when he came.
The climax left him feeling completely wrung out, as if all his strength had flowed out of his body along with the cum. He lay very still and concentrated on breathing, until a slight shift of the mattress and a tug on his left foot made him raise his head to look.
Iphicles knelt at the foot of the bed, gripping Iolaus' boot with both hands.
"Let's get you out of these clothes." There was a hint of laughter in Iphicles' voice. Iolaus supposed he must look rather silly, lying there with his boots on and his pants tangled around his knees. Then again, looking silly was a small price to pay for a blow job that melted your bones, and in a few more minutes the room would be too dark to see anyway.
Iolaus lifted his feet so Iphicles could pull his boots off, then wriggled out of his vest while Iphicles removed his pants. He shivered a little as sweat evaporated from his skin, though the room was comfortably warm. All his senses seemed to have gone into overdrive. The glide of linen sheets against his skin, the soft sound of his lover's breathing, the musky scent of sweat and sex in the air -- everything seemed unnaturally sharp and unbearably arousing.
He stretched out full-length on the bed, and lazily rubbed one foot up and down along Iphicles' thigh, frowning a little when his touch encountered suede instead of skin.
"Hey. You're still dressed."
"Not for long." Iphicles started to stand up, but Iolaus stopped him with a tug on his arm.
Iphicles had to fight down a childish impulse to pinch himself as he sat back to let Iolaus undress him. It felt eerily like the time he and Iolaus had first become lovers -- not the grief-driven night they'd spent in Alcmene's bed the day after she died, but that first night in Corinth, weeks later, when Iolaus fought his way past the King's guards just to tell him that he wanted him. The same dizzying mixture of joy at having his heart's desire, and fear that it wasn't real, or couldn't last.
He made himself focus on the details. Tousled blond hair and sparkling blue eyes. The light sheen of sweat on Iolaus' back as he leaned forward to remove Iphicles' boots. Impatient fingers tugging at the waistband of his trousers. Iolaus' rapid breathing, a whispered "that's better..." as the last piece of clothing was tossed aside. And then Iolaus was in his arms, kissing him, pushing him back onto the bed and easing one hand between his legs.
The temptation to just lie back and let Iolaus make love to him was almost too strong to resist. Iphicles' arousal was quickly edging over the line from pleasure to discomfort, and he knew it would take very little to make him come. But that wasn't going to be enough, not just then... Iphicles licked his lips, tasting the last salty-sweet traces of Iolaus' cum. His mouth felt bruised and swollen; he knew he'd still feel it in the morning. But that wasn't enough either.
He relaxed for a few moments, pretending to submit, then suddenly arched his back and twisted sideways at the same time. There was a startled yelp as Iolaus went tumbling off onto the bed. Iphicles quickly pinned him down. "I'm not finished yet," he whispered.
"Don't I get to do anything tonight?" Iolaus was obviously trying to sound plaintive and put-upon, but there was a breathless quality to his voice that suggested he had no real objections. His eyes were half closed, the lashes trembling slightly. Iphicles grinned and leaned forward to kiss him lightly on the lips.
Iolaus was already half-hard again. Iphicles encouraged his erection with fingers and tongue, licking and teasing until Iolaus was thrusting helplessly into his touch. Then he pulled back, knelt astride Iolaus' hips, and slowly rocked back and forth, rubbing his ass along the entire length of Iolaus' twitching cock.
There was a series of muffled thuds as Iolaus beat his head against the pillow in frustration.
"You want it?" Iphicles rocked his hips again. A muscle in Iolaus' jaw twitched. Iphicles could almost swear he heard teeth grinding. "Take it."
Iolaus flung one arm out in the general direction of the nightstand. Iphicles knew what he was reaching for -- the small bottle of oil he used to keep by the bed for occasions like this. But the bottle wasn't there anymore. He'd smashed it against the wall during a drunken binge nearly six months before. He had, in fact, smashed every breakable object in the room, and frightened a maid and two guards half to death before a hastily summoned Jason arrived to calm him down.
That was the one and only time since his mad attack on Hercules that he'd allowed himself to lose control. It hadn't made him feel any better the next morning, and he never did it again.
Iolaus was still groping around the top of the nightstand. He was going to knock the water pitcher over if he wasn't careful. Iphicles caught his arm and pulled it back to his side, then leaned forward until his lips were almost touching Iolaus' ear.
"I'll get it," he whispered, and climbed off the bed.
There were several bottles of bath oil in the bathroom. Iphicles grabbed one at random and hurried back to the bed, shivering in the cool evening air and cursing himself for leaving the window open this time of year. But Iolaus' hands were warm and welcoming, banishing the chill from his skin with every touch. Iphicles relaxed against him, indulging in a few moments of stillness while the oil bottle warmed in his fist. When the glass no longer felt cool, he rose to his knees and pulled the cork out with his teeth.
He poured out a thin stream of oil. It hit the head of Iolaus' cock and trickled down in slow, viscous drops, leaving gleaming trails on his skin. Iolaus inhaled sharply through clenched teeth and squirmed against the sheets, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. When one drop reached his balls, he shuddered all over and dug his nails into the mattress. Iphicles poured more oil into his cupped palm, and began to smooth it over Iolaus' shaft with deliberately slow strokes. When the first clear drops of precum beaded at the tip, he caught them with his thumb and rubbed them in together with the oil. Iolaus' harsh breathing turned into a low, throaty growl. He gripped Iphicles' hips and pulled him down, making their cocks press together briefly, then threw him onto his back on the bed. Iphicles lifted his knees to his chest, spreading his legs in invitation, and Iolaus pushed into him with a single uncontrolled thrust.
It hurt, just as he knew it would, just as Iolaus might've known if Iphicles hadn't so methodically driven him to distraction. The pain was all right, though, it only meant this was real. He had spent a cold, dark year dreaming Iolaus into his arms, and in the dreams nothing had ever hurt. Now he wanted the sore ass and the aching muscles, the scratch marks and the bruised lips. He wanted to wake up in the morning and know instantly, from his own body's testimony, that he hadn't dreamt this, too.
The first touch of Iolaus' hand on his cock made him forget all about the pain. Iphicles cried out something incoherent and gripped Iolaus' ass with both hands, digging in hard with his fingers. Iolaus gulped and threw his head back, gasping for air. The tendons in his throat stood out clearly beneath the skin. His whole body quivered with tension, coiled on the brink of release. The rhythm of his movements grew faster, more erratic, and his fingers curled just a little more tightly around Iphicles' shaft. That small added pressure proved the final straw. Iphicles' hips bucked helplessly and his vision blurred into a whirling fog of colors as he came.
When the fog cleared, he found himself looking up into Iolaus' flushed face, just inches above his own. Iolaus' hair tickled Iphicles' cheek. He had his hands braced against the pillow at either side of Iphicles' head, and sweat trickled down his arms in glittering drops.
Iphicles trailed one hand over Iolaus' chest until his fingers brushed against a hard nipple. He tweaked it, and Iolaus gasped and shuddered, the tension finally brimming over into release as he fell forward into a boneless sprawl, resting his head on Iphicles' shoulder.
"Well," he whispered breathlessly, "it's nice to know I haven't forgotten how."
Iphicles laughed softly, and kissed the top of his head. "Did you really think you might?"
"You never know. This is the longest time I've ever been dead, after all."
"That's not funny!" Iphicles' sleepy contentment shattered like crystal. He buried his face in Iolaus' hair and held him tighter, pressing their bodies together until it got hard to breathe. "Don't talk like that!"
"Hey..." Iolaus' voice sounded a bit strangled. He reached up to stroke Iphicles' hair reassuringly. "Come on, Iph, it's all right."
"No it's not." Iphicles could hear the hysterical edge in his own voice, but couldn't do anything to stop it. "It's not all right, dammit, you were dead! How can you even try and joke about it?"
"Hey, you know me, I'll joke about anything." Iolaus gave an apologetic little chuckle. "Anyway, it's over now. I'm fine."
"I'm not." Iphicles took slow, deep breaths, trying to force himself to some semblance of calm. "I'm a wreck. I've been a wreck for so long, I don't think I remember how to be anything else. And if making morbid jokes in bed is part of being fine, then I don't think I'll ever get there. I'm sorry." He knew it wasnn't Iolaus' fault. This casual banter about deadly-serious things was just his way of dealing, that was all. It seemed to work for Hercules and Jason, too. But Iphicles had never mastered that particular coping mechanism.
"Shh. Don't be sorry." Iolaus kept stroking his hair, muttering indistinct reassurances under his breath. "It's okay. I'm back now. Nothing to worry about."
"Yeah..." Iphicles laid his hands flat against Iolaus' back, and felt the steady rise and fall of every breath, strong and reassuring and undeniably alive. "Let's keep it that way for a while, okay?"
Iolaus was surprised to find himself the first one awake in the morning. Both Iphicles and Herc were early -- and annoyingly perky -- risers, and he, well, wasn't. Yet here he was, wide awake, and there was Iphicles, face down, one arm tucked under the pillow, the other curled against his side. He had kicked the covers partway off in his sleep, exposing one long leg and one half of a perfect ass to Iolaus' appreciative eye. The whiteness of the linen made his skin gleam a darker bronze by contrast. The stretched-out way he was lying emphasized the long, elegant lines of his torso and etched his calf muscles in sharp relief.
It was an irresistible sight, and Iolaus didn't try to resist it. He sat up, and scraped his fingernails lightly over the back of Iphicles' knee, a spot that had been known to send the King leaping half-way to the ceiling when tickled. Iphicles twitched his leg and mumbled sleepily into his pillow, but did not wake up. That, too, was a surprise. He was generally a light sleeper, except when drunk or totally exhausted. Iolaus thought back to Jason's words back at the Academy, and wondered how long it had been since Iphicles last had a good night's sleep.
Iolaus shrugged, fluffed his pillow, and lay back down. He felt relaxed and mellow, perfectly content to spend the entire morning staring at the blue velvet folds of the bed-curtains and replaying the previous night's frolicking in his mind. Iphicles could sleep as long as he needed.
Or at least as long as he could get away with, before some officious palace flunky came knocking on the door. Did Iphicles have any morning appointments scheduled? He usually did -- he liked to get the day's business over with as early as possible, so as to have his evenings to himself. Iolaus cast a quick glance at the window. He couldn't see the sky from that angle, but it looked awfully bright out, as if the sun had been up for a while. For all he knew, Iphicles was already late for something, and somebody was going to barge in at any moment... Iolaus sat up again. Perhaps he could find someone -- a guard, or a servant, or better yet, Jason. Then he could tell them that the King was sleeping in.
He stood to gather up his clothes, but only had time to pick up his breechcloth and vest before Iphicles stirred and lifted his head.
"Hey there." Iolaus straightened up, the boot he'd been about to retrieve from under the bed instantly forgotten. He could feel his face breaking into a foolish grin, but he couldn't help it. Iphicles' eyes were half-lidded, his hair stuck out every which way, and his left cheek bore a red imprint from the wrinkles in the pillow case. He was gorgeous.
He was also gazing at Iolaus with an increasingly anxious expression.
"Were you leaving?"
"Nah." Iolaus let his clothes drop, and climbed back into bed. "I thought I'd go find somebody and tell them not to wake you up, but you're awake now, so it's kinda pointless."
Iphicles sat up with a groan, and rubbed his eyes with his fists. "Did I oversleep? What time is it?"
"At a guess, I'd say it's late."
"Shit. I was supposed to be having breakfast with the Minoan delegation. Those guys are always looking for something to be offended at -- they've probably declared war by now..." Iphicles swung his legs off the bed. Iolaus quickly put one hand on his thigh to keep him from getting up.
" If there was going to be a war, I'm sure somebody would've come to wake you. Jason and Herc are probably handling the Minoans. Jason's good at that sort of thing, and Herc always impresses people. Relax. Take the morning off. You've earned it."
"I shouldn't," Iphicles protested, but his voice lacked conviction, and he allowed Iolaus to draw him back under the covers with only token resistance.
They curled up against each other, both heads resting on one pillow, Iphicles' arm draped possessively across Iolaus' body. The room was a bit chilly, cooled by a breeze blowing in from the harbor, which provided a handy excuse to snuggle in close. Iolaus gave a deep, contented sigh, and turned his head a little so that his cheek rested against Iphicles' shoulder.
"You know," he muttered, "a man could easily get used to this..."
"You mean that?" Iphicles' voice was light, but something about the question made Iolaus turn to meet his eyes.
He found himself facing a glittering dark gaze, full of questions and hope and poorly-concealed fear. It seemed an oddly intense response to an off-hand remark, and for a moment Iolaus wasn't quite sure how to react. Iphicles must have read something into that slight hesitation, something he didn't like. He turned his head, breaking eye contact, and curled his arm a little more tightly around Iolaus' waist. Iolaus gave the arm a reassuring pat, not entirely sure what the reassurance was for, but ready to offer as much as was needed.
"Of course I mean it." He put one hand under Iphicles' chin and gently tilted his head up, so that they were looking at each other again. "I love being with you. It's times like this that make life worth coming back to."
Iphicles did not look comforted by Iolaus' words. In fact, he looked like a man trying to steel himself for a running jump off a cliff. He stroked Iolaus' face lightly, brushing his hair away from his eyes.
"Stay with me."
Iolaus took a sharp, startled breath, and bit down on his lower lip before he could blurt out something stupid, like "What do you mean?" or "Why?" Suddenly, jumping off a cliff seemed like a piece of cake by comparison. He knew, looking at Iphicles' face, that this was not an idle request, or a spur-of-the-moment one. His answer was going to matter, possibly for the rest of his life. It's not fair! he wanted to shout. You can't ask me now, I just woke up!
"I..." Iolaus opened and closed his mouth a few times, painfully aware that he probably looked like a fish. "I don't know. I wasn't planning on leaving anytime soon, but..."
"But you were planning on leaving," Iphicles said bleakly.
"I wasn't planning on anything! Iphicles, you gotta understand, I'm still trying to get used to the idea that there are minutes and hours ahead of me again, let alone months or years. It's only been a few days since I got my life back, and you want me to decide what to do with it -- right now, just like that?"
"I'm sorry." Iphicles sat up and pulled away a little, as if deliberately giving Iolaus some space. But he kept one hand resting on Iolaus' chest, right over his heart. "Maybe I'm being unfair. But I was fair the last time, wasn't I? I was a good boy, and followed the script, and said everything I was supposed to say, and you died." He shivered, and drew his knees up to his chest. "I can't go through this again, Iolaus. I can't even think about going through this again. Before you left the last time, you said that if I really needed you, you'd stay. Well, I really need you. I love you. Please don't go."
It would mean giving up his travels with Hercules, and finding something new to do with his life after all these years. It would mean having to deal with the Corinthian royal court, which was going to have a great many objections to Iolaus becoming a permanent fixture in their king's bed. Some of those objections would even be valid. Iolaus thought about all the potential things that could go wrong, and weighed them against the memory of waking up in the morning to the soft sound of his lover's breathing. There had been no dreams the night before, no waking struggle to remember who he was, or where, or why. The Light had no power to tempt when Iphicles was there. If he stayed, then Iphicles would be there every morning. And every night.
"I love you too." Amazing really, how much simpler everything seemed once he spoke the words. "I'll stay."
Hercules had spent the morning assisting Jason at a painfully tedious breakfast meeting with the Minoan trade envoy and his eight supposedly indispensable aides. Though "assisting" was not, perhaps, the right word. His contribution consisted mainly in sitting there looking imposing and demi-godly, so that the envoy would be too impressed to take offense at Iphicles' absence. Jason had gone on at great length about his divine parentage and his relationship to the King, making it sound, without actually saying so, as if Hercules had some important function in the day-to-day governing of Corinth. The envoy seemed suitably impressed. His "aides" -- four slender young women in gossamer gowns and a matching set of willowy young men in harem pants and midriff-baring shirts -- seemed positively overawed. They simpered and giggled, and fluttered their long eye-lashes in Hercules' direction whenever they caught his eye.
"I'm going to get you for this," he grumbled to Jason. "Just you wait and see."
Jason gave an unconcerned shrug as he leaned aside to let a servant spoon more slices of smoked fish onto his plate. "Hey, it was either this, or drag your brother out of bed. Which would mean dragging Iolaus out, too, and you know what he's like in the morning. Quite frankly, if I must have somebody pissed off at me, I'd rather it be you."
"I get no respect..." Hercules sighed theatrically "You could've just cancelled the breakfast, you know. It's not as if we're doing anything useful here." Unless one considered it useful to make inane conversation while eating too much rich food and being ogled by underdressed bimbos. Maybe we should've dragged Iolaus out of bed after all. He'd be having a great time right now.
"Cancel at such short notice?" Jason looked horrified. "That would be an insult. The Minoans are very sensitive to matters of protocol."
Hercules glanced across the table. The envoy had tilted his chair back and opened his mouth wide, and two of the bimbos -- one of each gender -- were feeding him grapes.
"Yeah," Hercules muttered. "I can tell."
"You want useful?" Jason's smile grew challenging. "I'll give you useful." He leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table, and addressed the envoy with a lengthy and involved question about import tariffs.
Two hours later, having learned more than he ever wanted to know about the trade imbalance between Minos and Corinth, Hercules returned to his guest suite to find Iolaus waiting. He must've been there a while. He'd eaten all the strawberries from the fruit bowl on the windowsill, and was now deeply engrossed in adding a fourth story to the elaborate house of cards he'd constructed on the table.
Hercules cleared his throat, and Iolaus jumped as if stung. His elbow hit the edge of the table, and the cards came tumbling down in a multi-colored flutter.
"Oh, hi, Herc." Iolaus looked up with a somewhat forced smile as he rubbed his bruised elbow. "I came to see you, but you weren't here," he explained unnecessarily.
"Well, I'm here now," Hercules said, just as pointlessly, and pulled up a chair. He waited for Iolaus to speak, but Iolaus turned away from him, and busied himself with gathering the fallen cards from the floor.
Hercules shifted impatiently in his seat. He felt as if he should say something, but he didn't know what. The usual morning conversation openers, like "did you sleep well," seemed inappropriate, somehow.
"How's Iphicles doing?" he asked finally.
"He's fine. A lot better than he was before yesterday, I'll bet." Iolaus picked up the last handful of cards, tapped the edge of the deck against the tabletop to even it up, and shoved it back into the drawer. "You know, I think the last year year must've been a lot harder on him than on me. I mean, I was just dead. He had to live with it."
"It was hard on everyone who cared about you." Hercules remembered Jason's reaction to hearing of Iolaus' death. And Lillith's, and Erythia's, and Xena's, and so many others'. For the first few weeks after his return to Greece, Hercules had felt like a plague carrier, spreading grief like a contagion everywhere he went with the news. The memory was still too raw to deal with, and he searched for a joke to lighten the mood. "So try not to do it to us again, all right? Have pity for your poor broken-down friends, even if you don't have any for Hades."
Iolaus didn't laugh. "Trust me, Herc, I don't want to go through this again, any more than you do. In fact..." he trailed off, biting his lip.
"In fact what?" Hercules prompted.
"In fact, I've decided to stay in Corinth. For good. Settle down, you know, get a real job, that sort of thing. No more dragons and ghidras for me. Or crazy Sumerian kings, for that matter. So you don't have to worry any more, and everyone's happy, right?" He paused for breath, and flashed that too-bright, unconvincing smile again. "Right?"
Hercules was suddenly very glad that he was sitting down. "Staying?" he repeated blankly, as if by saying the word he could somehow make it mean something different. "You mean for good?" Oh, don't be such an idiot! If he meant a short vacation, he would've said so. "Why?"
"Because Iphicles asked me to," Ioalus said quietly.
Oh, yeah. Sitting down was definitely a good thing. Hercules gripped the sides of his chair as he tried to sort through his reaction to this mind-boggling news. So far, shock still seemed to have the upper hand, followed closely by a loud and entirely selfish inner voice wailing No, it's not fair, I just got you back!
He tried to imagine a settled-down, domestic Iolaus. Living in a nice house, going to work every day, buying groceries in the market. The image made him want to burst out laughting. He shook his head, trying to formulate a more rational reaction. "Iphicles can't... I mean, you shouldn't... I mean..." He stopped, took a couple of deep breaths and finally got his voice under control. "That's a major step, Iolaus. Maybe you should think it over a little."
Iolaus' jaw immediately set at that familiar stubborn angle. "I've thought it over plenty."
"When Iphicles asked. He put no conditions on it, I could've refused. It was my decision, Herc."
"Was it?" Hercules challenged. "Would you have decided it on your own, if he hadn't asked?"
"I don't know! He has asked, so what difference does it make?"
"Maybe none. But you've never shown much interest in settling down before. What are you going to do with yourself?"
"I've been thinking of asking Jason if he needs a hand running the Academy." Iolaus' smile grew a little more genuine. "After all, he's getting on in years, right? Can't keep training all those cadets by himself."
"I wouldn't put it to him quite that way, if I were you. Look, Iolaus, if this is what you really want to do, then great, I'm happy for you. I just want you to be sure, that's all."
"I'm sure." Iolaus leaned forward across the table, his face earnest and anxious. "Look, Herc, I've made my choice. But it's not a choice between you and Iphicles. Please don't put me in a position where I have to choose between you two."
"Of course not!" Hercules was instantly appalled at the possibility, and appalled at himself for behaving in a way that made Iolaus even consider it. "Iolaus, you know I'm your friend no matter what happens, and if this is what you really need to make you happy, then I'm thrilled for both of you. But you've been back with Iphicles for less than a day, and suddenly you're changing your whole life around. I guess I'm having a little trouble believing you've thought it all through."
"I have. Really." Was it Hercules' imagination, or was there a slight hesitation in Iolaus' voice? "I know it'll take a lot of getting used to, for you and me both. I also know a whole lot of people are going to be pissed off about it, so it would really mean a lot to both of us if we knew you weren't one of them, okay?"
Put like that, there really wasn't much he could say. Hercules spread his arms in surrender. "Well, then, congratulations and good luck."
"Great, I knew I could count on you!" Iolaus leaped out of his chair and punched Hercules in the shoulder, one of those emphatic, thanks-you're-a-pal punches that they tended to use in place of speeches or more demonstrative gestures. "Look, I gotta go find Jason and give him my pitch, so I'll see you later, okay?"
"Sure, I'll be aro--" Hercules broke off, because he was talking to an empty room. Iolaus was gone, the door slammed shut behind him. Hercules sat and stared at it for a few moments, blinking dazedly, then shook his head, got up, and went to look for Iphicles.
An hour's search landed him in a waiting room, where he got to sit and fidget while three ambassadors, two ministers, and a delegation of pig farmers finished conducting their business. Just as he was seriously beginning to consider breaking the door down, a harried-looking clerk arrived to usher him into Iphicles' office.
Iphicles stood by the window with his back to the room, twisting the curtain sash into knots around his fingers. He didn't turn around when Hercules entered. His posture was rigid, his shoulders set at that obstinate angle Hercules recognized so well. Anticipating an argument before a single word was ever spoken.
"Hello, Iphicles." Hercules did his best to make his voice sound relaxed and neutral -- no small task given how antsy he was feeling. But he really didn't want to start off on the wrong note. Talking to Iphicles always made him feel as if he was trying to perform a tightrope act during an earthquake. With Iolaus, he could at least feel secure in the knowledge that his motives would get the benefit of the doubt, and that attacks of stupidity would be recognized as such and forgiven. He could screw up a conversation with Iolaus, and still count on his friendship. But with Iphicles, the most innocent remark could lead to an explosion. And at the moment, Hercules couldn't even think of an innocent remark.
Iphicles let the curtain sash drop with an impatient shake of his fingers, and finally turned around.
"I take it," he said, "you've spoken to Iolaus." There was a challenging note in his voice, matched by a stubborn gleam in his eyes. Hercules felt his own temper immediately rising in response. It was always like this between them -- quarrels started by little words and gestures that would be ignored with anyone else. Hercules recognized it even as he failed, yet again, to change it.
"Look, Iphicles, I don't know what you said to him--"
"But you've already decided I shouldn't have said it, right?" Iphicles stepped away from the window and leaned back against the wall, arms folded across his chest. Did he have any idea, Hercules wondered, how much he looked like Ares when he did that? "Let me guess, you couldn't talk Iolaus out of staying, so you came over here to try and make me see the error of my ways."
"I just want to make sure Iolaus is doing what he really wants."
"That's not for you to make sure of." Iphicles' voice was steady, at odds with his tense posture and glowering expression. "I know you like arranging people's lives for them, Hercules, but you'll have to get over it this time. Iolaus and I can make ourselves happy without any help from you. Live with it."
The trouble with your brother being King of Corinth, Hercules decided, was that you couldn't just smack him upside the head when he talked like that. "I'm all for both of you being happy, Iph. It just seems to me that you've made a really big decision in an awfully short time."
"So how long is it supposed to take?" Iphicles challenged. "I know what I want. Iolaus knows what he wants. You think if we put it off for a while, you'll get one of us to come around to what you want?"
"Dammit, it's not about what I--"
"You still can't deal with it, can you?" Iphicles pushed away from the wall and stalked across the room until he was standing toe to toe with his brother. "The idea that Iolaus might actually want to do something other than tramp all over Greece with you. You just can't believe it, so you're trying to figure out what I did to force him into it."
"No!" The denial was immediate and instinctive, but as soon as the word was out of his mouth, Hercules found himself beset by the same old doubts. He really was shocked by Iolaus' decision, it was as if his left arm had suddenly announced that it was going to go off and live by itself. His instincs, backed by twenty years' accumulated knowledge of Iolaus' character, insisted that this was wrong. But could he trust his instincts in this? Was he, in fact, being selfish? Had he been selfish before, when the summons had arrived from Sumeria? Hercules could feel his anger collapsing under the weight of all these questions. He'd never had to doubt his own motives before.
A new thought, prompted by the memory of Sumeria, wormed its way into his mind, eating away at his already shaky conviction. If he stays here with Iphicles, he'll be safe... Maybe this was for the best after all.
Iphicles must've noticed his hesitation, because he immediately pushed his advantage. "It's true, isn't it? What do you think I did, Hercules? Held a knife to his throat? Blackmailed him? Put a spell on him? You're the one who's always telling me how no one can make Iolaus do something he doesn't want. Are you changing your mind now?"
"But does Iolaus know what he want?" As soon as he asked the question , Hercules wished he could take it back. He could just imagine what Iolaus' reaction would be if he heard it, and the mental picture made him wince. Iphicles must've been thinking something similar, because his eyes widened.
"Hercules," he said softly, "do you have any idea how patronizing that sounds?"
"Uhm... yes." Hercules' shoulders slumped. "I didn't mean it the way it sounded, though."
"I should hope not," Iphicles snapped, but his eyes softened a bit as he recognized Hercules' discomfort. "Look, the last thing I want is for us to stand here and haggle over Iolaus like a couple of merchants fighting over disputed property. You know he'll hate it if he finds out. We can--"
The end of that sentence was destined to remain a mystery, because the door swung open at that moment the door swung open to admit the same clerk who had let Hercules in earlier.
"Forgive the interruption, Your Highness. But you were scheduled to inspect the new troops at the next bell..."
"What, now?" Iphicles dragged one hand through his hair, looking harried. "I suppose I shouldn't keep them waiting. I'll talk to you later, Hercules." He waved one hand vaguely in his brother's' direction as he preceded the clerk out of the room.
"Not too much later, I hope," Hercules called after him. Damn, why couldn't that clerk have shown up just a few moments later? Or ten minutes earlier? There were times Hercules wondered if the palace staff was specially trained to have rotten timing. There was nothing he could do about it now, however, except to resign himself to leaving yet another important conversation unfinished, and return to his rooms.
A bemused-looking Jason intercepted him in the hallway.
"Herc! Just the man I wanted to see." Jason clapped him on the shoulder and held up a wineskin in one hand. "Come have a drink with me so we can talk."
"Let me guess," Hercules said dryly, "you've spoken to Iolaus."
"How'd you know?"
"I'm psychic. And I thought you don't drink anymore."
"Some psychic -- it's apple juice. Here we are." Jason pushed open the door to his rooms, and let Hercules precede him inside.
They sat in the window alcove, and Jason poured apple juice into wine goblets. He took a small sip, looking as if he wished it was wine.
"So Iolaus gives me this great speech about how it's always been his lifelong dream to come back and teach at the Academy one day." Jason shook his head. "Amazing how well he's managed to hide that ambition over the years."
"Ah." Hercules nodded sagely, sipping his own drink. "I was wondering what he was going to tell you."
"The Academy kept him out of jail, see. And set him on the straight and narrow, and made him the man he is today, and all that. And he wants to give something back. He delivered it beautifully. I wanted to applaud. So what did he tell you?"
"That he's staying because Iphicles asked him."
"Oh, sure, you get the truth."
But Hercules wasn't so sure he was getting the whole truth, either. He remembered the way Iolaus had acted during their walk to Corinth, the things he'd said. A frightened Iolaus seemed as unthinkable as a settled Iolaus, but... Hercules sighed. He had no business second-guessing other people's motives when he couldn't even figure out his own. "Iphicles thinks I'm jealous."
"Maybe a little. It's been Iolaus and me against the world for so long, part of me hates the idea of changing that. But I know it's stupid. Iolaus isn't doing anything I hadn't done myself, with Deaneira, and--" he broke abruptly. For a moment, he'd almost forgotten himself and mentioned Serena. He hadn't talked about her with anyone except Iolaus, and he wasn't about to start now.
"Herc?" Jason was leaning toward him across the table, worried. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah." Hercules forced a smile, and returned to the subject at hand. "The point is, jealous or not, I don't think Iph and Iolaus have really thought it through. I mean, c'mon, they've been back together for exactly one night, and you and I both know they didn't spend that time thinking. If they believe they can have what I had with Deaneira, or you with Mother... well, I wish them the best of luck, but I'm not sure it's possible."
"But you're not sure it's impossible, either, are you? Leave them alone, Herc. If they're making a mistake, let them find out for themselves."
"Like I could stop them." Hercules slumped in his chair and stared moodily into his glass of apple juice. He, too, was starting to wish it was wine. "So what did you tell Iolaus?"
"That he could have the job, of course. What was I supposed to say? I really can use the help, and if that's what he really wants..."
"Yeah," Hercules muttered. "If."
It was clear as day to Iolaus that things weren't quite right between Hercules and Iphicles. They were being far too polite to each other, at all times. It was spooky. But all his attempts to broach the subject were met with blankly innocent looks and sincere denials. In Iphicles' case, the denials would be accompanied by insistent kisses and wandering hands, and the conversations invariably remained unfinished. After two weeks of this, Iolaus had mostly succeeded in convincing himself that he was imagining things.
At the end of the second week, Hercules left Corinth, drawn by rumors of a She-demon wreaking havoc near Kalamata. Iolaus' general opinion on She-demons was that once was enough, thank you, so it wasn't too hard to suppress his regrets at Herc's departure, or his vague suspicions that Iphicles said his farewells just a little too eagerly. Besides, he was too busy trying to fit into his new life.
Teaching at the Academy proved to be almost as physically demanding as fighting monsters, and considerably more time-consuming. After about a week of adjustment, Iolaus and Jason settled on an arrangement where Jason taught all the weapons classes, while Iolaus took over the hand-to-hand combat sessions. It took him a bit of time to establish authority. Some of the cadets -- the taller ones, mostly -- had been inclined not to take him seriously at first, while others thought they could gain reputation points with their friends by challenging Hercules' partner. Before too long, though, all the troublemakers were nursing bruises and the classes were proceeding without incident.
"This is great!" Iolaus sprawled on a bench at the back of the gymnasium to watch a group of second-year cadets pair up to practice a throw he'd just finished demonstrating. His face was flushed and his hair was dripping sweat. A few darkening bruises on his torso marked the spots where some of the better or luckier students had managed to land a blow. "I feel like I'm a cadet again."
"Yeah, me too." Jason, who had just completed a quarterstaff class, dunked his head into the water barrel and came up sputtering. "An old, tired cadet with a bum knee. Look at them go." He slumped on the bench next to Iolaus, rubbing his face with a towel. "Did we have this much energy when we were that age?"
"I don't know what you're talking about." Iolaus bounced up and down in his seat. "I still have this much energy."
"I know." Jason scowled at him. "It's disgusting. I don't know how Herc and Iphicles put up with you."
"Hey, Iphicles likes it." Iolaus gave his best leer. Jason made a half-hearted attempt to smack him upside the head, which he easily ducked. "As for Herc, the big guy's up at the crack of dawn every morning, looking for monsters to fight. So he's got no call to complain about me having too much energy."
Speaking of fighting monsters, wonder if Herc's finished off that She-demon yet... The thought brought with it a small twinge of worry. Herc could take care of himself perfectly well, of course. Iolaus knew that. But bad breaks did happen, and with no one there to watch his back... Iolaus shook his head in irritation. This is probably exactly what Herc thinks every time I try to do anything without him. I bet he's drop-kicked the She-demon into Tartarus by now, and is sitting around somewhere looking humble while the villagers are throwing a festival in his name. With music, and wine, and dancing girls...
"Earth to Iolaus..." Jason leaned over and waved his hand in front of Iolaus' eyes. "Is something wrong? You spaced out there for a moment."
"I'm fine," Iolaus assured him. "Just wondering how much fun Herc is having without me, that's all."
A chorus of raised voices at the far end of the room caught their attention. Two of the younger cadets had apparently escalated their sparring session into a genuine fight, and several of their friends were joining in. Jason gave a long-suffering sigh and went off to restore order. And Iolaus was left to sit alone on the bench, wondering what had possessed him to say what he just said.
He didn't regret staying. He really didn't. He liked Corinth, he liked the Academy, and he loved without reservation every hour he spent with Iphicles. He couldn't point to any specific part of his life and pronounce himself dissatisfied with it. And yet, every time he allowed his thoughts to wander, they wandered out into the countryside, to fight at Hercules' side.
It wasn't discontent, exactly. It was more of a restlessness, a vague, uneasy feeling that he wasn't doing what he was supposed to be doing. It always went away when he was with Iphicles. But he couldn't be with Iphicles every moment of every day.
"What are you thinking about?" Iphicles asked softly.
"Nothing." Iolaus did not open his eyes. "I don't have the energy to think."
He had arrived in Iphicles' bedroom about half an hour earlier, tired and irritable after a day spent chasing a group of senior cadets who had apparently been engaged in some sort of practical joke war. Left to his own devices, he might've spent the whole evening nursing his bad mood. But Iphicles had silenced his griping with a kiss, undressed him, pushed him down onto the bed, and licked his cock until Iolaus completely forgot what he had been so annoyed about in the first place. Now they were lying spooned together under the covers, Iphicles' chest pressed against Iolaus' back. Iolaus' body was still sticky with sweat and cum, his heartbeat still slowing back to normal. And Iphicles expected him to think?
"You seemed upset earlier." Iphicles' breath was a warm tickle on the back of Iolaus' neck. "Bad day?"
"Nah. I was just pretending to be upset, to get you into bed." Iolaus wiggled backwards a bit, nestling his body closer against Iphicles'. He could feel the hard length of Iphicles' cock against his ass, twitching in response to his movement. "It worked, too."
Iphicles laughed softly at that, and kissed the back of Iolaus' shoulder. He seemed content to just lie there and cuddle, despite his obvious arousal, and it took a few more moments for Iolaus' sex-fogged brain to realize that this was unusual. Now that he thought about, it occurred to him that Iphicles himself had looked rather tired and irritable when he'd walked in. He had concealed it well, and his method of creating a distraction could not be flawed, but Iolaus could see the signs clearly enough in his perfect hindsight. Reluctantly, he pulled away from Iphicles' embrace and turned around to face him.
"How about you? Bad day?"
"Better now that you're here," Iphicles said promptly, and went to kiss him again, but Iolaus was not going to be put of now.
"C'mon. If you can't talk to me, who can you talk to?"
"Nobody." Iphicles rolled over onto his back and pressed the heel of one hand against his temple, as if trying to push back a headache. "The Parthians have been making trouble at the border again."
"I thought you had a treaty with Parthia." Iolaus propped himself up on one elbow, frowning. "In fact, I know you have one, 'cause I was there when Jason signed it.
"I know. But the treaty was with King Stavros, and Stavros is dead. Unfortunately, the old bastard managed to outlive his son, so his successor is his grandson Milos, who's nineteen years old and has more guts than brains. He has apparently decided that minor inconveniences like peace treaties and trade agreements don't apply to him."
This was definitely not good. Iolaus had been a teenager during the last Parthian war, but the memories still resurfaced in his dreams from time to time. He had been in worse spots of trouble since then -- hell, some of them had killed him -- but that had been his first real war. He had no desire to relive the experience.
"So what are you doing about it?"
"Reinforcing the border garrisons. Sending envoys to Parthia with pointed reminders of the treaty. I told them to hint, in a polite sort of way, that Milos is dishonoring his grandfather's memory by not keeping his agreements. The kid was supposedly very fond of Stavros. Maybe it will make him stop and think."
"And if it doesn't?"
"Then we've got problems. Parthia has always maintained a strong army. And their general, Teresus, is supposed to be one of the best strategists in Greece. I'd rather not test his reputation unless I have to."
"Teresus?" Iolaus blinked at the name. "He made general, huh? I guess we've all come a long way since then."
Iphicles his head in surprise. "You know him?"
"A little. He's the guy who got me and Herc and Jason into the Parthian stronghold during the last war, so that we could sign that treaty with King Stavros. He was just a kid then. We all were."
I wonder if he remembers me. The idea seemed to sneak up on him out of nowhere. I wonder if it would help if I went to Parthia to talk to him...
As soon as the thought was fully formed, Iolaus rejected it as too ridiculous for words. He was no diplomat. He'd had no role in the signing of the treaty, unless hanging around while Herc and Jason did all the work counted as a role. There was absolutely no reason to suppose that Teresus would either remember him or listen to him. And why in Tartarus was he looking for an excuse to go to Parthia, anyway?
"Iolaus?" Iphicles was looking at him with concern. "Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine." Iolaus firmly pushed all thoughts of leaving from his mind, and pulled Iphicles into his arms. "I don't want to talk about the Parthians anymore."
So they didn't.
"What the heck is wrong with me, anyway?" Iolaus complained. "I mean, if you love somebody, you want to stay with them, right?"
He and Jason were strolling through the leather-workers' row in the marketplace, ostensibly in search of new boots for Jason, but really just grabbing an excuse to spend the afternoon not working. Jason had been listening to Iolaus' ranting for several minutes now, with no comment beyond an occasional raised eyebrow. Now he rolled his eyes and gave Iolaus a wry sideways glance.
"If that was how it worked," he said, "no one would ever have relationship problems, and then what would the bards sing about at dinner parties?"
"But I'm not having relationship problems!" Iolaus was bouncing on his feet in frustration. "That's what's so stupid! If Iphicles and I were fighting or something, I could at least understand wanting to run off to Parthia. But this makes no sense at all."
Jason shrugged. "I don't know, maybe it does. Cheiron once said to me, 'a ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for.' Maybe you're just--"
"Fire! Help! Fire!"
The high-pitched, hysterical shouts rose above the general hubbub of the marketplace, growing closer and louder with each repetition. Other voices joined in, and within seconds the cry of "Fire!" was rolling over the square like a tidal wave. As if on cue, the wind changed direction, bringing with it the choking stench of smoke. Iolaus swore and changed his own direction, elbowing his way through the crowd toward the source of the smell. He could see out of the corner of his eye that Jason was following. Somewhere far behind them, an alarm bell was clanging wildly, but he knew that the fire brigade would not be able to make their way across the crowded market with anything resembling useful speed. He put his head down, and kept barreling forward until he could see the flames.
He recognized the burning building immediately: a bakery run by a man named Dolon and his family. Iolaus had been buying pastries there for years, and he'd often privately thought that the little kitchen area, with its ancient and much-too-large stove, was a firetrap waiting to happen. He'd mentioned it to Dolon once or twice, but the baker had only laughed and assured Iolaus that he knew how to take care of his own shop.
The entire ground floor was ablaze, large sections of wall already burned away, leaving only the framework of supporting beams to hold up the second floor. Clouds of thick black smoke, lit here and there by glimmering orange sparks, drifted overhead. Iolaus could feel the heat from thirty paces away. It was a miracle that none of the surrounding buildings had caught fire yet, and he didn't count on miracles lasting long.
The heat intensified as Iolaus moved closer to its source, and the crowd thinned out. Some of the neighbors remained, throwing dirt and water on the flames in the hope of containing the disaster. Iolaus looked around for Dolon and saw him sitting on the ground, a safe distance from the fire. His hair was singed, his face blistered and soot-stained, and his right arm hung limp in a bloody and tattered sleeve. His eyes held the dazed, unblinking stare of a man in deep shock. He didn't speak, didn't move, just stared straight ahead as his home and livelihood went up in smoke.
Iolaus started toward him, but a woman's terrified scream caught his attention. Dolon's wife, Zoe, was struggling frantically in the arms of two neighbors, who were trying to haul her back out of harm's way.
"The children!" she sobbed. "Oh gods, please, the children are in there..."
Shit. Iolaus looked around wildly, searching for a glimpse of Dolon and Zoe's three kids. There was no sign of either the older girl, or the twins. He stepped back, ignoring the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, and looked up at the second story window.
He could see the flicker of flame inside, and smoke billowing out, but the structure still seemed to be holding. If the children had been upstairs when the fire started there was a slim chance they were still in there somewhere, trapped...
Iolaus didn't even notice that Jason had reached his side until he spoke.
"You think anyone's alive in there?" He had to shout to make himself heard over the roar of the flames.
"Could be." Iolaus tilted his head back, trying to judge the distance to the window. Too high to jump, but not too high to reach with a little help. "Boost me up, will you?"
Jason cast a dubious look upward. "Those beams are going to go any minute now."
"Then hurry up!"
Jason continued to look unhappy, but he made a stirrup with his hands and boosted Iolaus up off the ground with no further protest. Iolaus grit his teeth as he gripped the window sill and pulled himself up. The wood was blistering hot beneath his hands, and the smoke made it difficult to breathe and near-impossible to see. When he finally squeezed through the window into the room, it was like falling head-first into Hephaestus' forge.
Iolaus climbed to his feet, waved one hand in front of his face in a futile attempt to clear away the smoke, and tried to get his bearings. He could see no one else nearby, but part of the roof had already collapsed, and there was now a pile of flaming wreckage in the middle of the floor, blocking the back of the room from view. Iolaus moved toward it, uncomfortably aware of the floor creaking and shifting beneath his feet.
It took him much longer than he would've liked to find a clear path through the rubble. Fortunately, the space on the other side turned out to be relatively flame free, though it tried to make up for it by being twice as smoky. The air was a bit clearer near the floor, so Iolaus dropped to his hands and knees and began to slowly the circle the room, searching for signs of life.
He found all three children huddled together in a corner. They were clearly terrified, and weak from smoke inhalation, but otherwise unharmed.
"It's all right!" He shouted at them. "I'm here to get you out!"
Behind him, something fell with a deafening crash. The floor shook, then sank a couple of inches. The kids wailed. Iolaus gave them his best reassuring smile.
"It's all right, really. Just follow me."
The twins continued crying and clinging to each other, but their sister responded to Iolaus' smile with a brave attempt at her own. Iolaus patted her arm.
"Good girl. Now help me get your brothers, and let's go."
He picked up one of the boys in his arms, she took the other, and they began to cautiously make their way back toward the window. The floor kept sagging more and more with every step they took, and bits of smoldering ash rained down from the ceiling. The twins were still wailing at the top of their voices, the girl crying silently. Iolaus was beginning to feel like crying himself. Never a good rainstorm around when you need one.
He'd never been as glad to see anything as he was too see that window in front of him. He leaned out, gulping relatively fresh air, and saw Jason standing directly below, scowling anxiously at him.
"There you are! Come on, hurry!"
"Oh, I don't know, I thought I'd stop and have a picnic first." Iolaus gripped the wrists of the boy he was holding, and lowered him out the window toward Jason's waiting arms. The kid screamed and flailed around, but Jason managed to get hold of him and toss him back away from the building. Iolaus handed down the other boy, then helped the girl climb out by herself. The walls were creaking ominously now, and chunks of burning thatch were falling from the roof. Jason flinched and swore, but stayed where he was.
"Come on, Iolaus! The whole place is about to go!"
Iolaus swung one leg over the window sill, and felt the floor disappear from beneath his other foot. He clutched the frame, but it, too slid downward. The entire front wall had detached from the rest of the house, and was taking him down with it. All Iolaus could do was throw his weight forward and hope he'd be thrown clear.
Aw, shit. Iphicles is gonna be really upset with me...
It was all he had time to think, before the world disappeared in a rain of fire.
The healers wouldn't let Iphicles into the room. He was the King of fucking Corinth, dammit, and they booted him out into the hallway and told him to sit and be quiet, as if he was a disobedient child. That was almost three days ago, and they still wouldn't tell him anything other than "Wait."
So he waited. He huddled in his chair, and stared at the door, and tried not to dwell on gruesome images of what might be happening inside. People came and went, bearing trays, bandages, bundles of sheets and blankets, bowls and flasks that left a thick medicine smell in their wake. Iphicles glared at anyone who got too close, and no one bothered him. Exhaustion fogged his thoughts and weighed down his body until simply lifting his hand to brush the hair out of his face required near-impossible effort. Sleep was out of the question, though. He had to be there. Whatever happened, he had to be there this time.
"Iphicles?" A hand touched his shoulder gently. It took him a few moments to actually work up the energy to lift his head.
Half of Jason's face was smeared with a thick layer of burn ointment, and the edge of a bandage showed just above the collar of his shirt. He hadn't even gone into the house, it was the falling debris that got him. Iolaus must be--
Iphicles cut off that thought before it could fully form, and made himself focus more sharply on his stepfather's concerned face. "What are you doing here?"
Jason was holding a tray with a plate and a glass on it. "I brought you some dinner."
"That's what you said the last time, but you still ate it all."
"I did?" Iphicles couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten. Then again, the last couple of days were mostly a blur.
"And you'll damn well eat this, 'cause I'm not carrying it back." Jason unceremoniously plopped the tray down in Iphicles' lap, leaned against the wall, and folded his arms across his chest. His stance and expression plainly said that he was ready to shove the food down Iphicles' throat if he had to. "Come on. You're not going to help Iolaus by starving yourself to death."
Iphicles mechanically shoveled a forkful of food into his mouth, chewed, swallowed. He had no idea if he was eating fish or meat or pressed gravel. "It's wasted effort, isn't it?" he said dully. "Trying to keep him safe."
Jason shrugged. "Well, Herc and I have never figured it out, so I can't imagine that you will, either. Besides, do you really want him to stop rescuing children from burning buildings? I mean, what's the alternative -- let them burn, or let somebody else run in and have a wall collapse on them?"
"I thought I could protect him," Iphicles muttered. "I thought if he stayed here with me, I wouldn't have to be afraid for him anymore. "But if he'd gone with Hercules, he wouldn't have been anywhere near that fi--"
"Don't go there, Iphicles." Jason's expression turned glowering. "If he wasn't with you, he'd be off fighting monsters with Herc, and if he wasn't doing that, he'd be getting in trouble all by himself. So lay off the self-blame game and eat your dinner, will you?"
"Are you my stepfather, or my mother?" Iphicles grumbled, but he obediently took another bite of food, and washed it down with some wine. Now that he thought about it, maybe he was hungry, a little.
"I'm your friend," Jason's glower did not soften. "And as a friend, I suggest you finish eating and go get some sleep. You look like Tartarus, you're distracting the healers, and you've got the whole court worried sick."
"Fuck the court. I'm not going anywhere."
"Yeah." Jason sighed. "That's what I thought you would say. You'll thank me later, you know."
"Thank you for what?" Iphicles started to look up, and was hit with a sudden wave of dizziness that clouded his vision and nearly made him throw up all the food he'd just swallowed. "Wha..." The room seemed to be spinning around him, and he had to grip the sides of the chair to keep from falling. A pale blur hovered over him, and it took him a moment to recognize it as Jason's face.
"You bastard," Iphicles gasped. His own voice sounded as if it was echoing from a vast distance. "What'd you put in the--" His voice deserted him before he could finish the question. He started to stand, and realized half-way through the motion that he could no longer tell which way was up. The floor heaved beneath his feet, and he pitched forward into darkness.
He woke up back in his own room. The curtains were drawn and the candles unlit, but enough sunlight filtered in to allow him to make out a dark shadow slumped in a chair next to the bed. Iphicles' first thought was Jason, but the shadow was too big to be him. In fact, it was too big to be anyone except--
"Hercules?" Iphicles tried to sit up, but the dizziness he'd felt earlier came back full force, and he fell back again with a groan. "What are you..." He'd sent messengers to look for his brother as soon as he learned Iolaus was hurt, but it would've taken time to track him down... "How long was I asleep?" Panic welled up, giving him strength, and he actually managed to sit up this time. "How long, what's happening, where--"
"Iphicles." Hercules moved from the chair to the edge of the bed, and gripped Iphicles' shoulders. Iphicles struggled, but there was no breaking out of that hold. Hercules held him down against the pillows, and spoke in a low, steady voice. "Iph, it's all right. You've been asleep for two days, but it's all right. Iolaus is going to be fine. Jason is with him now, we've been trading off watching the two of you, and you both managed to give us quite a scare, but it's all right now, and will you please stop thrashing around?"
Iphicles took a deep breath and made himself hold still. It was finally beginning to sink in on him that Hercules wasn't sounding particularly grief-stricken. Tired and worried, yes, but nothing more than that.
"Iolaus is all right?"
"Yes." Hercules breathed a relieved sigh, and finally let go of him. "It'll be a couple more weeks before he's up and around, but he's awake, eating like a pig, annoying the servants, and asking to see you. In other words, back to his usual self."
"I want to see him."
"I know." Hercules got up, walked over to the window, and yanked the curtains open. Iphicles squinted at the sudden brightness, and raised one hand to shield his eyes. When he could see again, Hercules was standing next to the bed, holding out a neatly folded pile of clothes.
"Need some help?"
"No." Iphicles snatched a shirt from the pile, went to put it on, and promptly ended up with his head stuck in the sleeve. He sat there, tugging violently at the cloth and cursing under his breath, until Hercules finally got him untangled. "Shit. Let go of me, will you? I'm perfectly capable of dressing myself."
"I know that," Hercules said mildly. "I just though you might be woozy after being asleep for so long." He laced up Iphicles' cuffs and collar, then handed him his pants. "Here. You're on your own with these."
It was no use being grumpy around Hercules. He just niced you into submission. Iphicles sighed, took the pants, and managed, with a bit of concentration, to finish dressing without embarrassing himself any further. He even managed to get his boots on the right feet on the first try. Whatever Jason had spiked his food with, it was obviously wearing off.
"Let's go," he said, and followed Hercules out of the room.
Eager as he was to see Iolaus, Iphicles found that nervousness was getting the better of him as the moment actually approached. Finally, as they were about to turn the last corner, he tugged at Hercules' arm and brought them both to a stop.
"Yes?" Hercules watched him with concern in his eyes. "What is it?"
"I..." Iphicles shifted from foot to foot, trying desperately to come up with the right words. Opening up to his brother had never been his strong point. But there was no one else he could talk to about this. "How do you do it, Hercules? He's died on you what, four times now? I know he's as important to you as he is to me. How do you deal?"
"What, you think there's a trick to it?" Hercules gave him a small, incredulous smile. "A way to make it easy, maybe? No such luck. You just put up with it, because it's not going to change. I used to try and protect him, you know? Fight his fights for him. But all it did was piss him off." He paused, looking suddenly unsure of himself, then took a deep breath and squared his shoulders with the air of a man facing up to something unpleasant. "Look, Iph, I know you don't want to hear it, but I have to say it. You're never going to turn Iolaus into a quiet, cautious person. It's just not something he can do. But I think if you keep asking him, he'll keep trying, and it will make you both unhappy in the end. I'm sorry."
"Yeah," Iphicles muttered in a flat voice. "So am I." Hercules was right, he didn't want to hear it. But it wasn't going to go away if he just ignored it, either. Which meant it was Iphicles' turn to square up to unpleasant truths. "Look, I'd like to go on by myself, okay? Can you wait around here somewhere?"
"Sure." Hercules looked a little hurt at the abrupt dismissal, but was obviously not inclined to argue. "I'll, uhm, find someplace to sit."
"You do that." Iphicles knew he was being rude, but he was in no condition to be on his best behavior. Leaving his brother behind, he practically ran the last few steps to Iolaus' door, and knocked.
Jason opened the door. "There you are! I was beginning to wonder how long you were going to sleep."
"You ought to know." Iphicles glared at him. "You're the one who drugged me."
"So I did." Jason did not look in the least bit repentant. "You needed the sleep. You gonna toss me in the dungeon?"
"I'm considering it," Iphicles growled, but he really wasn't all that angry. He could see Iolaus, sitting up in bed at the far side of the room, and everything else suddenly seemed insignificant.
"Well, I'm going back to the Academy," Jason said amiably. "Just so you know where to send the guards. See you around. Bye, Iolaus!" He then he was gone, kicking the door shut behind him.
Iphicles found himself suddenly frozen, afraid to take another step into the room. He could see Iolaus clearly for the first time, sitting propped up against a pile of pillows, with the covers pulled up to his armpits. Most of his hair was gone -- cut short, no doubt, to even out the patches where it had burned off. It made him look thinner, more fragile. But he was smiling, that familiar bright grin that always made Iphicles' breath catch in his throat. Not even the pain lines etched around his mouth or the dark smudges under his eyes could diminish the effect.
"Hey there." Iolaus raised his arm in a little wave of greeting. The motion made the covers slide down a bit, and Iphicles saw the thick layer of a bandage around his torso. Iolaus saw him looking, and quickly pulled the blanket up again. "It's nothing, you know. Just a couple of cracked ribs."
Oh, is that all? Iphicles' legs felt wobbly. There was an armchair next to the bed, and somehow he managed to walk over to it without collapsing and sit down. He wanted to say something cheerful and reassuring, but the first thing that popped out when he opened his mouth was, "You've got no eyebrows."
"Nope. And no hair, either." Iolaus laughed and rubbed one had over his scalp. "They tell me it will all grow back, though. How bad do I look?"
"You look beautiful," Iphicles told him fervently. "You're the best thing I've ever seen." He took Iolaus' hand and held it in his lap, reassured by the answering strength of Iolaus' grip. "Will I hurt you if I kiss you?"
"Never," Iolaus promised, and grabbed his shirt to pull him closer.
Iphicles never remembered getting out of the chair, yet somehow he was on his knees by the bed, with Iolaus' fingers twined in his hair, and Iolaus' tongue hungrily probing his mouth. His cock pulsed, and he groaned helplessly and gripped the sheets with his fists in an effort to control his arousal. Iolaus was clearly in no condition for anything more demanding than a kiss. So Iphicles let the contact linger for a few more seconds, then pulled away. Standing up was beyond his ability at the moment, so he stayed on his knees, leaning forward to rest his head on Iolaus' leg. Iolaus stroked his hair gently.
"I'm sorry if I scared you, Iph. But when Zoe said the kids were in that house, I--"
"I know." Iphicles muttered, his voice muffled by the blanket. "You had to go in. I love you for it, I really do. But next time you want to scare me, can't you just jump out of a closet and yell 'Boo'?"
Iolaus' laugh was as soft -- and as overwhelmingly erotic -- as the touch of Iolaus' hand on his hair. It would've been so easy to let himself get distracted, and to avoid the conversation he had so reluctantly decided to have. But delay wouldn't make it any easier, he knew that well enough. Might as well take the plunge.
"You're sorry? What for?"
"For asking you to stay for the wrong reasons."
Iolaus went suddenly still, hand frozen in mid-motion on the back of Iphicles' neck. "You don't want me to stay anymore?"
"What? No! I mean, of course I want you to stay!" Dammit, he was doing it all wrong again. So much for his carefully rehearsed speech. "Look, if living in Corinth and teaching at the Academy is really what you want to do with your life from now on, that's great, nothing would make me happier. But don't stay because you feel obliged, or guilty, or-- or manipulated somehow. You don't have to prove anything to me. If you decide to go, I'll be here when you come back."
There. He'd said it. There was a certain sick release of tension in getting the words out. Iphicles relaxed his death-grip on the blanket and lifted his head. Iolaus was watching him with an intense, uncharacteristically serious gaze. There was anxiety in his eyes, and love, and a some amount of guilty relief.
"Iphicles... I know this isn't fair to you. You don't get a choice to stay or go, you're stuck here being royalty. Personally, I don't see how you put up with it."
Iphicles managed a smile. "It's a living."
"It's not a living I'm very well suited to," Iolaus admitted.
Iphicles bowed his head. "I know."
"Which has nothing to do with what I feel for you." Iolaus cupped one hand under Iphicles' chin to make him look up again. "Look, it used to be, when I wandered around with Herc, one place was pretty much like another. If we didn't have a monster to fight or a warlord to stop or a maiden to rescue, I just hung out wherever I happened to be. It wasn't like I had a home to come back to or anything. But I have a home now, and you're it. Isn't that enough?"
"Yes. Maybe. I don't know." Iphicles reached across the bed, and carefully curled one arm around Iolaus' waist, mindful of the broken ribs and of any other injuries that might be concealed under the covers. "I'm greedy, I want you all to myself, all the time. But my advisors are always telling me I should learn to compromise more. Maybe this is the gods' way of teaching me how."
"That's me." Iolaus chuckled. "A walking learning experience."
"Not walking anywhere any time soon." Iphicles leaned his forehead against Iolaus' leg again, and closed his eyes. Maybe he could get the healers to prescribe a year's bed rest. For both of them.
Iolaus wiggled to the edge of the bed, rested one hand between Iphicles' shoulder blades, and began to trace slow, lazy circles with his fingers. Iphicles had never considered that area on his back to be especially erogenous, but he was rapidly changing his mind. He spread his knees wider apart and reached down unobtrusively to loosen the laces of his trousers.
"Need a hand with that?" Iolaus offered in a deceptively innocent voice.
"Your hand is doing quite enough, thank you." Iphicles shifted from knee to knee, trying desperately to find a comfortable position inside his suddenly too-tight pants. "Shit. If you don't stop that, I'm going to lose it completely, and your doctors are going to toss me out of here for good."
"So we won't tell them. Climb up on the bed, will you?"
"You're kidding." Iphicles looked up at Iolaus' face. "You're not kidding. Iolaus, can you even move?"
"Not really," Iolaus admitted cheerfully. "I guess you'll just have to be inventive."
It was that challenging tone that got him. Or the grin that accompanied the words. Or that "betcha can't do it" gleam in Iolaus' eyes. Iphicles flung caution on the wind, the blanket on the floor, and himself on the bed.
Whatever other injuries Iolaus might've sustained, the important parts were clearly in working order. His cock was hard already, resting thick and heavy against his stomach. It twitched when Iphicles stroked it with his fingers, and rose a little, as if trying to fit itself into his hand. Iphicles closed his hand around the shaft and pumped a couple of times, stopping as soon as Iolaus began to thrust his hips in response.
"Don't move. Doctor's orders."
Iolaus wriggled against the sheets, reaching forward with both hands.
"Move closer, then. I can't reach you."
"You're not supposed to."
Iolaus pouted, not very convincingly. "You are a cruel king, Iphicles. Ordering a poor cripple around like that."
"Yeah, I'm a regular despot. Stop moving, or I'll have you tortured."
"You mean you aren't already?" Iolaus let his hands fall back to the bed at his sides, rested his head against the pillows, and held still. Iphicles rewarded him with a few more quick strokes, then held the shaft steady as he leaned forward to suck the head into his mouth.
He felt Iolaus shudder, heard the sharp intake of breath, accompanied by the rasp of fingernails against the sheets. He sucked harder, still stroking with his fist, while his other hand worked to open his pants. It took a couple of minutes of increasingly urgent tugging, but eventually the last fastening came loose, and he was able to slide his hand down to stroke himself. The relief made him dizzy. He had to stop for a moment, ignoring Iolaus' disappointed whimpers, and catch his breath before resuming.
It didn't take him long to find the right rhythm, his hand on his cock matching the glide of his mouth over Iolaus' shaft. He tasted drops of salt on his tongue, and lapped eagerly, wanting more. Iolaus groaned and bucked his hips again, trying to thrust deeper into his mouth. Iphicles pressed one hand flat against his stomach to keep him in place and lowered his head still further, letting the hard flesh slide deeper into his mouth.
"Iphicles..." Iolaus was practically sobbing. He grabbed Iphicles' shoulders with both hands, and dug in hard with his fingers. So much for holding still, Iphicles thought, but they were both too far gone now to keep up that game. Iphicles knew he was reaching his limit, he was humping his own fist with no semblance of rhythm or control, so it seemed only fair to allow his lover at least a little freedom.
He could feel Iolaus' muscles clenching under his palm, warm sweat slicking the skin, tension slowly building to breaking point. Iphicles let his hand slide down, over Iolaus' hip and down his thigh, reaching under to gently cradle his balls. Iolaus cried out and kicked his heels against the foot of the bed, hard. His hands clenched tighter around Iphicles' shoulders, and his cock pulsed against Iphicles' tongue as he came. Iphicles swallowed rapidly, then had to throw his head back to gulp for air as his own cum spilled over his fingers and sprayed on the sheets.
When it was over he fell forward to lie with his head pillowed on Iolaus' stomach, and Iolaus' legs wrapped around his waist. It felt so good to just lie there, eyes closed, his lover's musky taste still lingering on his tongue. When Iolaus started stroking his hair again, he nearly purred.
"I love you, Iolaus. Come home often."
It would have to be enough.
Life went on. Iolaus' ribs slowly mended, the burns faded to pale scars. His hair grew longer and his temper shorter, as the healers fussed and hovered and refused to let him out of bed. The boredom was worse than any pain he'd had to endure, despite the steady supply of scrolls from the palace library, frequent visits from Jason, and an occasional letter from Hercules. The letters arrived from odd corners of Greece, borne by merchants, or soldiers, or wandering players, or any other travelers who happened to encounter the demigod on their way to Corinth. They were full of matter-of-fact tales of monsters defeated, warlords chastened, and villages saved. Iolaus could feel himself turning green with envy every time he read one.
It would've been easier if Iphicles was there more often, but the King seldom found time to see him more than once or twice a day. The Parthians continued their border raids, and as the possibility of war loomed larger, Iphicles grew more and more preoccupied. He tried to hide his fears, but Iolaus could see the worry lines around his eyes getting more pronounced every day. Under the circumstances, Iolaus wasn't about to bother him with his own complaints. So he smiled, and endured the doctors' fussing, until one day his patience just snapped, and he knew that he had to get out of bed or go insane. His clothes had been taken away, so he simply wrapped himself in a sheet and marched out of the room, announcing to the startled servants in the corridor that he was going for a stroll in the gardens.
He was on his third circuit around the ornamental fish pond when Iphicles arrived to fetch him back inside. In the negotiation that followed, Iolaus won his clothes and permission to exercise in exchange for a promise to see a healer at least twice a day.
Two weeks after that, Hercules returned to Corinth. And it was Iphicles himself who came up with the idea of sending him and Iolaus on a last-ditch attempt to talk some sense into the Parthians.
"Remember, you're not going there to fight anybody," he said for the thousandth time as he watched Iolaus pack for the journey. "Just talk. Hercules says he remembers Teresus as a sensible guy, so approach him first, see how much influence he has with King Mi--"
"Iph." Iolaus took Iphicles' face in his hands, and pulled him close for a quick kiss. "We've been over this. And over, and over. I know what we're supposed to do. Herc knows. Everything will work out. Stop worrying."
"I can't." Iphicles folded his hands around Iolaus', and held them against his chest. "Worried seems to be my natural state these days. Please tell me you won't do anything risky or foolish."
"I won't do anything risky or foolish," Iolaus said dutifully. Iphicles didn't look convinced.
Hercules waited for them outside the stables. Behind him, Iphicles' official ambassador to Parthia was talking with his clerk. Other clerks and minor officials bustled about the yard, preparing themselves for departure.
"Hercules." Iphicles clasped his brother's arm briefly. "Is everyone ready to go?" He sounded as if he hoped the answer would be "No."
"More or less." Hercules looked at the bustling crowd. "Do we really need so many people going, Iph? If the point is just to get me and Iolaus to talk to Teresus--"
"Appearances," Iphicles said firmly. "You have to have a proper entourage when you're negotiating, or the other side takes it as an insult. Or so they tell me. Besides, between all of you, I figure you can keep Iolaus out of trouble."
"Great." Iolaus rolled his eyes. "Now I've got the entire Corinthian diplomatic corps baby-sitting me."
It was good that Iphicles could joke about it, at least. He'd been spending most of his time wavering between forced cheerfulness and intense, fear-driven neediness, and both reactions made Iolaus feel like pondscum. There were times when he was tempted to forget this mission, to stay, to do anything and everything in his power to remove that haunted look from his lover's eyes. But he knew it wasn't right. Not yet. The stay had done him good, he knew that. He had reclaimed a vital part of his soul from the Light. Now it was time to go and find the rest.
He hugged Iphicles tightly, wishing they could be more demonstrative, but feeling acutely conscious of all the eyes watching them. This wasn't their real farewell anyway -- that had taken place the night before, in private.
"I'll be careful," he whispered, "really. I promise. Please don't stay up nights worrying."
"I can't promise that," Iphicles whispered back. "Think of it as your incentive to return sooner."
"I've got all the incentive I can handle already." Iolaus nuzzled Iphicles' neck, pushing the collar back to press his lips against warm skin. For a while they just stood there, holding each other; then Iolaus collected himself and reluctantly pulled away.
A groom led his horse up and helped him into the saddle -- his ribs were still too achy to mount without help. The rest of the party, except for Hercules, were already on horseback. There was a creak of chains and pulleys as the portcullis rose jerkily. Iolaus picked up the reins and followed the other riders toward the main road. It was a beautiful day for traveling. He was looking forward to the trip, the mission, spending more time with Herc. Still, until the curve of the road hid the palace from sight, he kept looking back over his shoulder.