By Strandia

Part One

"Pale death knocks with impartial foot at poor men's hovels and king's palaces." Horace
Delicate white flowers and robust ivy smothered the marble archway standing proudly at the entrance to the walled rose garden where the king lay.  Passing under it from the west, an onlooker might believe the still form was asleep, doubled over from exhaustion after hours of energetic lovemaking.  His hair shone like copper in the too-bright sun, and the muscles of his back rippled through the blue silk of his royal garment like a calm sea.

The view from the east was less picturesque.  There could be no doubt that the form was lifeless, strewn limply as it was across the marble bench intended as a rest stop for strolling lovers.  Blood seeped from the precise wound to his heart, and the earth, stripped and dry from so many weeks without rain, hungrily drank the thick liquid as it trickled from the cold stone bench.

Avoiding the blood-saturated ground, another figure stood as quietly as the ivy curling around him.  A gentle caress of silky hair, a tender kiss to the temple, a serene whisper heard only by the speaker; he squeezed his eyes shut, clenched his fists, and was gone.


Damp, suffocating coldness urged Iphicles awake.  Grey flickering light prevented true darkness and cast jagged shadows all around him.  He thrust his hands into oozing black mud that squished through his fingers with a low sucking noise, and he pushed himself shakily up from the liquid ground, shocked to realize that he hadn't any idea where he was, or how he'd got there.

He tried to breathe calmly in the wet, freezing air, but every breath caught startlingly in his lungs, gagging him.  His body ached, his chest was stinging, and his heart was beating as madly as if he were in love.

Black leafless trees towered like angry Titans, their branches reaching out to him with a seemingly deadly welcoming.  He stood in a small, lifeless clearing with a floor of slimy mud that sucked his boots down into its depths with Charybdis' relentlessness.  Looking up, he saw that the trees grew into and around each other, blocking out any view of the sky.  There was no path into the clearing and no path out, except by squeezing through those threatening black trees.

"Don't panic," Iphicles whispered.  His quiet voice inspired waves of echoes, ghostly mockeries of his own fear.  The clearing was otherwise perfectly, completely silent, save for the squishing of the mud around his boots and the laboured rasping of his breath.  He hugged his arms around his chest, trying to quell the sudden burst of shaking.

"Hello?" he yelled.  Immediately he pressed his hands over his ears as protection from his own distorted echoing voice.  Only a god could be responsible for this, and Iphicles only knew one god who would enjoy seeing him afraid.

Ares exhibited such a combination of violence and tenderness that Iphicles never knew what to expect.  One minute he would kiss him, the next, he'd taunt him. This eerie atmosphere didn't seem Ares' style, however; he got off on fear, but usually induced it through intimidation.  Iphicles didn't remember anything he'd done which would preclude any sort of torment or punishment - actually, he couldn't remember much of anything recent.  Once Ares had his fun, Iphicles would surely be rewarded for it.

Digging his feet out of the mud, he approached the band of interlocking trees.  Instantly the branches parted for him, revealing a path out of the hell pit.

With a deep breath, he took another step, and then another, and with each the gnarled branches seemed to open and smooth out into a soft doorway.  Iphicles smiled smugly; it was a test, obviously, to see if he had the guts to approach the trees.

A few steps in, he felt his boot catch in the sucking mud.  He yanked and pulled at his leg, but the mud wouldn't yield.  As he bent down to inspect it, a huge, black branch flew in front of his body, twirling itself around his wrists, his ankles, and his waist, binding him tight.  Iphicles swore as his feet left the ground, and unnaturally sharp teeth began to feast on his shoulder.

"You had to find a way out," admonished a strange, disembodied voice, tinged with wry amusement.

"Get this thing off me!"  The thing was eating at him, puncturing his skin with razor teeth and clawing off tiny chunks of flesh with jagged movements.  He twisted and turned, tried to beat at it, kick at it, but he was held tight high above the ground by the ripping branches.

A pulse of gentle yellow light flashed in front of Iphicles, dulling the pain.  A young man with bronze skin and a sympathetic smile floated before him.  "Help me," Iphicles demanded, gritting his teeth and thrashing.

The god - for what else could he be - reached out towards him and held him steady with one hand, wrapping the other around a section of branch.  The tree recoiled like a whimpering dog struck by a stone, and rejoined the mesh of trees.

Iphicles was pulled back into the centre of the clearing by the god, and placed back on the not-so-solid ground.  The tight grasp of a hand kept him from falling.  Iphicles rubbed up and down his body with his other hand, trying to wipe off the hellish sensations.

"Fuck!  Thank you!  What the hell was that?"  As Iphicles tried to catch his breath in the stinging air, he looked at his saviour for the first time, noticing the bright blue eyes and shockingly blond hair.  Looking down, he noticed the pair of gold winged sandals, floating just above the mucky ground.  "Hermes?"

The god tipped a non-existent hat and nodded.  "You're welcome."

"What - did Ares send you?"

Hermes shook his head and smiled carefully.  He gestured towards the black trees.  "You've got to watch those.  Lucky you didn't lose an arm.  They can't kill you, of course, but it isn't much fun being chewed up by a tree, is it?"

Iphicles rubbed his shoulder, which, amazingly, was whole.  "What is this place?  What the hell is going on?"

Hermes grabbed Iphicles' chin, turning his head so that it faced his.  He stared penetratingly into his eyes.  He shook his head slowly.  "Iphicles.  You're dead."

Cold denial flooded his body, like he'd been plunged into a lake of ice water.  "No."  He tried to smile.  "You're lying."

"You really didn't know, did you?"  Hermes frowned.  "It's true.  I'm sorry."  Hermes held his hand tight and stroked his wrist with a warm thumb.  "I'm here to lead you to Hades."

Iphicles moved his free hand to his throat, feeling for his carotid.  "My pulse, it's racing."

"Your body is solid, yes, but you're just a shadow.  Your real body is dead, Iphicles."  He indicated the clearing and trees.  "Nothing here is real - you created it."

Iphicles looked around, trying to imagine how he could have created this place.  He focused on the soft cradle of Hermes' hand, and was comforted by its warmth.  "Dead," he whispered.  The word tasted metallic.  "How?"

Hermes squinted and looked away.  "Murdered, looks like.  Knife to the heart.  Quick, anyway."

There must have been a lot of blood, Iphicles thought obscenely.  A few heavy spurts as his heart pumped its last, then a gradual seepage, soaking into whatever surface he had been lying on.  A pool of red.  His free hand moved to his heart, stroking the unblemished skin.  "Who killed me?"

"I can't tell."  Hermes sounded surprised.  "Looks like your fate has been obscured, kid. Sorry.  Most people remember."

"Obscured?  What does that mean?  Was a god involved?  How can I-"

Hermes squeezed his hand again, gently this time.  "We'd better go, Iphicles.  Don't want to miss the boat."

Then they were moving so fast that he had to squeeze his eyes shut in order to avoid the surge of sickness. Dead.  Who had found his body?  He didn't even know where it had happened.  Had be been buried yet?  He knew that without proper rites, he'd be barred from Hades' domain.  Who had wanted him dead?  Was it an assassination, politics?  Or had it been personal?

Most pressingly, why couldn't he remember, if he was supposed to?  His head was pounding, and he found himself disappointed that such earthly pain could touch him.

All motion stopped, and he found his feet on solid ground.  He stumbled forward as the warm hand let his go.  He looked up at Hermes, wanting to ask him to stay, wishing he'd hold his hand again.

"Sorry, kid.  Things to do.  But good luck."

"Wait, Hermes!"  A patient nod.  "How can I find out who killed me?"

"You'll have to talk to Hades."

"How do I do that?"

The god reached out, stroked Iphicles' cheek, and gave it a final pat.  "I'll see what I can do."  Another flash of yellow light, and Iphicles was alone.

Iphicles' body swayed as his eyes fought to adjust to the new environment.  Two things were immediately apparent: he was on a riverbank, and it was dark.

An endless plain stretched out before him, completely lifeless save for a scraggly grey creeping weed.  A sound like the flapping of hundreds of butterfly wings, or the slithering of snakes through tall grass filled the background.  He thought he could sense movement around him, like a gadfly always flying in his blind spot, but there was nothing.

He turned to the river and looked at the lazily meandering waters.  Pain and despair hit him like a knee to the groin.  He fell to his knees, torturous waves of loss pounding him senseless.

He wrapped his arms around himself, buried his head into them, and started to rock back and forth.  He was dead.  Somewhere, his body was cold and stiff, pale and lifeless.  His blood was drying into a brown puddle.  He was all that was left.  A shadow.

Murdered.  He tried to remember a face, a sensation, any part of the moment when life left him.  Nothing.

He was a king, a warrior; he should have died defending his country in battle like a hero, or in his bed as an old, happy man.  He hadn't done anything yet, he hadn't finished his life, he wasn't ready to be dead.  He was supposed to be protected from shit like this.

Ares must be furious, he'd probably kick Hades' ass until he was brought back to life.  Iphicles smiled through his anguish, holding onto that thought.  Ares would save him.  Ares loved him.

But then again, Hermes had said his death had been obscured.  Who else but a god could do that?  And Ares was the only god he had any contact with.  But what motivation would Ares have?  Ares was a bastard sometimes, but he wouldn't kill his lover.  Would he?

It wasn't like he'd ever promised Iphicles anything, besides strength on the battlefield.  Iphicles had sensed that he was special, but he'd never been told.  But those soft caresses, the touch of Ares' lips to his bare shoulderblade, the low sounds he made while fucking him...  Ares wouldn't kill him, not if he could do that.  He'd never said the words of course, but Iphicles had known that Ares loved him.

"Ferry," he heard a raspy voice call petulantly.  "Cash only.  If you haven't got the money, wait another hundred years, don't come crying."

Iphicles forced himself to his feet and staggered towards the disgustingly filthy man hunched in a shallow punt.  Disgruntled red eyes flashed at him at he came near.  "Like we haven't gone enough kingly types.  Got two obols?"

Iphicles blanched as he searched for his money purse.  It was missing.  Charon sighed in frustration.  "Look under your tongue."  Iphicles paused; he'd know if there was a coin in his mouth, wouldn't he?  He brought his hand up anyway, and felt the coin nestled wetly under his tongue.  He spat it out, stared at it, then offered it to the ferryman.  "Right then, in you come."

He'd been given funeral rites, then.  How long had it been since he'd died?  Hours, days, weeks?  Did the mortal world know who his killer was?

Iphicles climbed into the boat and sat on the worn bench seat, trying to ignore the combined stench of putrid water and unwashed boatmen.

Looking back onto the shore, he was shocked to see hundreds of souls cluttering the riverbank, screaming noiselessly, reaching desperately out towards the tiny boat.  The unburied dead.  Charon wouldn't let them near him, only letting those with money onto the boat, while cursing and threatening the others.  Iphicles searched the faces, looking for someone he knew but desperately hoping not to find one.

Charon shook his fist at the mob and swung his pole at them before he pushed off, grumbling.  "You're Hercules' brother."  Charon was staring at Iphicles with his red, beady eyes.  "How's Iolaus, then?  We're old friends, him and me.  I'd ask you to give him my regards, but..." the ferryman shrugged.  "Shame you're the mortal one."

"A shame," he agreed wryly.  "I'm sure Iolaus is fine."

Charon huffed and turned his attention back to the water, pushing the boat along with his pole with practised movements.

The soldier sitting across from Hades was glaring at him threateningly when he spoke up.  "You are him, then.  The king of Corinth."  He spat the name out like rotten fruit.

Iphicles nodded hesitantly, suddenly glad that he was already dead.

"Bastards.  You and your brother both."

Iphicles declined to mention that he had, in fact, been born legitimately, while his brother was indeed a bastard.  "What-"

"I'm from Sicyon.  Remember us?  Your army invaded, robbed us blind, then left us disabled and broke?  And when King Epopeus tried to muster a big enough army to defend ourselves, your half-breed brother sabotaged us?"

Iphicles remembered.  The army had acted largely out of its own initiative, but still, he had allowed it.  He had been new on the throne, and the people wanted to know that he had balls.  That was what he'd hated about being king: messing with other people's lives.  "Yeah, well, we're both dead now."

"Lucky for you.  I died with glory in battle, a hero.  What did you do, choke on your own cock?"

Iphicles lunged forward and grabbed him by the throat, pulling the sneering face close.  "Shut the fuck up," he snarled.  "My army raided your village, yes, my brother stopped your attack, yes.  But you're dead.  I'm dead."  He yanked the man so that he was leaning precariously over the side.  "Let it fucking go, or I'll toss you in the river.  Got it?"

Hatred in his eyes, the soldier nodded slowly.  Iphicles let him go, not taking his eyes off of the man, who rubbed his throat and looked at the bottom of the boat.

If only he could take his own advice.  He should forget about who killed him.  Did it matter?  He was dead, anyway.

He had always thought that when he was dead, he would know it.  He'd be able to feel it, and he'd be able to look back on his life with a sort of satisfied detachment.  Instead, he was confused, and regretful, and furious at whoever killed him.

Could Ares visit him down here?  Would he?  Death was repugnant to the gods, that much Iphicles knew.  They didn't visit when they didn't have to.  But love, love was beyond death, wasn't it?

And what about Corinth?  Iphicles didn't have an heir, nor had he arranged for a successor.  His throne was probably being fought over by all of his advisors and statesmen.  Anything he had managed to accomplish in his short reign would probably be wiped out by petty greed within a fortnight.

Iphicles could suddenly understand why the dead would want to drink from the river Lethe, and forget their mortal lives.  Death was like a prison: there was no way to communicate with the real world, no way to check up on what had been left behind.

And that's what he needed to do, more than anything.  Somebody had taken his life from him, and somebody had hidden his killer from him, and he would not be able to rest until he knew who it had been.

Iphicles closed his eyes, waiting for this journey to be over, but understanding that it might never be. ___

Part 2

"To die is a debt we must all of us discharge." Euripides' Alcestis

Hades' palace was, from the outside, a jagged block of black obsidian, all sharp edges and impossible angles. Iphicles' initial opinion, however, had been shattered as soon as he was allowed entry.  Nestled on a red velvet couch in a room trimmed with gold, he felt like a pebble mistakenly attached to a bejewelled crown.

He'd been waiting for Hades long enough to add the number of spirals engraved in the golden trim of the room to the number of sparkling jewels set into the gold.  Hopefully, it would be worth it.  The possibility that he could be sent back, that he could find his killer personally... that was worth any wait.

Stepping off Charon's ferry, he had been faced with Cerberus, the three-headed hound of hell that Hercules had been forced to catch.  Although Cerberus did glare at Iphicles in triplicate with barely restrained hatred, the dog had let him pass, thankfully not deciding to avenge its humiliation through its captor's brother.

The tail end of an enormous line of the newly dead appeared not far from the gates, and Iphicles had joined it, waiting as patiently as possible to be judged.  He wasn't worried about judgement; he wouldn't be strolling in Elysium anytime soon, but he wouldn't be condemned into Tartarus either.

The blandness of Asphodel had left Iphicles' mind to obsess on his fate.  Nothing made sense.  If he'd been assassinated, what was the divine obscuring for?  Why erase his memories?  Was Ares showing his kind side for once, sparing Iphicles from pain?

The only conclusion he'd come to was that he had to find out.  He had been killed in the prime of his life; he deserved to know his killer.  And, if possible, to avenge himself.

When he told this to King Minos, the judge laughed at him.  "What do you want me to do?  Send you back?"

"Yes," Iphicles had asserted, trying to make himself as regal as possible.  "I have a responsibility to know that Corinth is well looked after."

"Bullshit.  You want to know who killed you.  Hermes had a little chat with me earlier.  It is an unusual situation, not remembering your death."  Minos had paused to wring his hands together.  "Your brother did me a favour once, getting that fucking bull off my island.  And Corinth is a fine city, great traders, just like Knossos.  I can't send you back, Iphicles, but I will grant you an audience with Hades.  If you can win him over, maybe you can get your way."  A sudden grin.  "Yes, I think Hades will like you."

Iphicles had thanked Minos profusely, and tried not to think about what exactly he'd have to do to win Hades over.  Minos just nodded, and put him in the hands of a well-dressed figure, who would lead him to Hades.

The guide had looked like a partially animated, preserved corpse, and was just as interesting.  Iphicles had followed in silence, unable to track their progress because of the monotony of the landscape.  Time had died along with him.

It was a speck on the horizon at first, and as they moved, it grew.  Eventually the blurred lines had rearranged themselves into the coherent vision of a towering obsidian palace.  The closer they approached, the more hellish the palace seemed; just looking at it promoted prickling stabs of fear down his spine.  He'd hesitated in entering through the closely guarded gate, but the guide had been insistent in its corpse-like silence.

He'd been led through shadowed labyrinthine corridors to a looming brass door, where his guide had left him, disappearing into the darkness.  Opening the door, Iphicles had found himself in this glittering room, surrounded by more riches than he'd ever seen as king of the wealthiest state in Greece.  The door disappeared as it closed behind him, melting effortlessly into the wall, and he couldn't find another.

So he'd sat back and waited.  He'd tried to sleep, but despite the miles he'd travelled since he'd been here, he wasn't tired.  He could feel pain and fear, but he couldn't even succumb to the oblivion that sleep would give him; it didn't seem fair.

The grandeur of the room was a welcome change from the monotony of the outside world.  He was surprised that the Underworld, the place most feared among the living, would be so benign and, well, boring.  From the bards' stories, he had expected danger at every turn, monsters and demons and traps set everywhere.  As well as the angry dead, restless and hungry for blood - that's what Homer had written about, wasn't it?  Iphicles, on the other hand, was bored, and had no hunger for anything except answers.

The thought occurred to him that, once he found out his killer's identity, he'd have nothing to think about, and would have to be bored stiff for eternity...  but that didn't matter.  Bored or not, he needed to know.  He was dead; fine, he could accept that.  But he wasn't going to allow death to take away his memories, his chance for revenge.  Even if he couldn't exact revenge soon, anybody killing him was bound to die eventually, and then, dead or not, Iphicles could have a crack at him.

He had come up with a list of suspects.  There was Nicaeus, Corinth's General, who had the loyalty of the army behind him.  Arrogance may have made him believe that with Iphicles gone, he'd be able to take the throne easily.  Or, for the same reason, Isostratus, Iphicles' head advisor, might have done it.  He had never liked Iphicles, always complaining that he was of no true descendence from Jason, and had no royal blood.

The Sicyonian soldier on Charon's ferry made him think that it could have been a political enemy, like Epopeus, the king of Sicyon.  He certainly had a motive.

There were always the gods.  Who knew how their minds worked; it could have been any of them, for any reason.

And then there was Ares.  Ares, who so many months ago had appeared in his bedroom, offering a fair exchange of favour in war for the unlimited use of Iphicles' body.  Iphicles hadn't been able to refuse him.  Who could refuse a god, big, gorgeous, and deadly, wanting to fuck him?  He hadn't refused him the whole time he was alive, that he remembered, anyway.

He'd never experienced anything like Ares before.  In mere seconds the god could reduce Iphicles to liquid; he melted like ice dropped into a pot of boiling water.  He'd fallen in love after their first encounter, and yearned constantly for his lover, never knowing when he'd show up.

He did remember that the visits from Ares had been getting far and few between.  But they had increased in passion, in need, in brutality.  Ares had played his body like the lyre of Orpheus, knowing just where and when to coax the music from him, and when to demand it insistently.

Speaking of Orpheus, the legendary musician had come down to Hades while still alive, and had charmed Hades with his lyre into letting his dead wife Eurydice follow Orpheus back to the mortal realm.  If, that is, Orpheus trusted Hades enough not to look over his shoulder for her as he left.  Of course he'd looked back, and Eurydice had faded before his eyes.

The point was that Hades could be charmed enough to grant a petitioner's wish.  As long as Iphicles listened to what he had to say and didn't allow himself to be tricked, he might be able to get what he wanted.

A door, previously invisible, opened from the wall, and a young blond man dressed in black leather entered the room.  "He's ready for you.  Follow me."

Iphicles stood shakily and did what he was told.  He was led down a skinny obsidian hallway trimmed with bright red jewels into another room, similar in luxury to the one he had just left, but with a large marble desk set in the middle.

Iphicles fell to his knees, unable to tear his eyes from the deathly beautiful god sitting behind the desk.  Blood rushed to his head and his cock, overwhelming him.  He was too perfect; Iphicles was sure he must have been imagining him.  If he had ever been forced to draw perfect masculine beauty, he would have drawn Hades, though no flat likeness could ever do him justice.

His hair was black as the obsidian walls, falling like water down to his shoulders and shining like the sea on a sunny day.  A thin golden crown curled effortlessly around his pale forehead, like the halo around the sun, accentuating the dark sparkle in his chocolate eyes, wideset and piercing.  Strong cheekbones drew a path past his strong nose, leading to full, moist lips, slightly parted.  His gaze suggested that he'd seen it all and would be around see even more.  The power in his eyes was potent and cautionary.

"On your feet."  The voice was as soft as the skin of his first lover.  "Come.  Sit."  Hades indicated the chair on the near side of the desk with a hand accented with gold rings.

Iphicles sat down, his knees trembling, his cock pulsing.  He hadn't felt sexual desire since he'd been down here; now it had caught up to him in a flood.  He had to fight for control over his mind; he had to be coherent.  "Lord Hades.  Thank you for seeing me."

Hades nodded.  "Tell me what you want."

Iphicles forced himself to focus and find the words he needed.  The intense eyes pouring into his didn't help matters any, so he looked away.  "I have to know who killed me.  I can't spend eternity here not knowing what happened to me."

"There's a simple solution to that: drink from the Lethe."

"No, I don't want to forget my life!  It isn't-" Realizing he was about to start whining, he cut himself off.

Hades' expression suggested a smile.  "It's an unusual situation Iphicles, and I don't appreciate another god interfering in my domain.  Nevertheless, one has, and even I cannot break their barriers.  There's nothing I can tell you."
"I won't accept my death until I know what happened to me.  If you can't show or tell me, then I want the chance to go back and find out for myself."

Hades' glare intensified.  "And why would I let you go back?  I've heard your story before, Iphicles.  Sisyphus, another Corinthian, he came whining to me.  I let him go and he didn't come back until death forced him to."

"And he's rolling a rock uphill for eternity, I know.  I'm not that stupid, Hades."  Iphicles' left brain told him to keep a check on his snarkiness, but he couldn't stop.

Hades' mouth twitched into a tiny smile, and Iphicles found himself mesmerized by his lips.  "Of course not."  He clasped his hands together on the desk.  "I haven't any obligations to you, Iphicles.  I see far too much of your brother, and I never liked him anyway."

Realization snapped Iphicles alert, away from pondering Hades' lips.  This was Hades, lord of the underworld, not some malleable underdog.  If Iphicles wanted to get his attention, he'd have to work for it. Adjusting his voice so that both desperation and a fair amount of lust showed through, he murmured, "I'll do anything."

When had he decided to offer himself for the chance to go back?  What about Ares, whom he loved?  He was slightly repelled by his own actions, but took nothing back.  It was suddenly necessary; he needed Hades to fuck him.

The god raised his eyebrows and smugly leaned back in his chair.  "Will you now.  Anything?"

The god was so well suited for death, Iphicles wondered if the myth about the three brothers drawing lots for the sea, sky, and underworld was true.  This shockingly beautiful man could never have lived underwater, or fathered all the gods of Olympus. He was too perfect, and the only thing that was ever perfect in the world was death.  Or maybe love.  "Anything."

Hades stood up from his seat and sauntered over to where Iphicles sat.  He walked a circle around Iphicles, his eyes flickering over his body with obvious intentions.  "So beautiful," his voice murmured richly, his hand stroking smoothly down Iphicles' hair.  "I do see what Ares saw in you.  He always has been susceptible to narcissism."  He came to rest directly in front of Iphicles and leaned back against the desk.  "I'll make you a deal."

Iphicles bristled in his seat as anger and lust intermingled.  Hades' leather covered cock was only a foot away from Iphicles' face, and he found it impossible to drag his eyes from it.  "Deal?"

Hades reached out and cupped Iphicles' cheek with his hand.  "You please me enough, King of Corinth, and maybe I'll be persuaded into sending you back temporarily."  The hand pulled, nuzzling Iphicles' cheek against his covered cock.

Iphicles moaned, feeling the iron hardness against his cheek and inhaling the thick scent of musk and heated leather.  Gasping, he yanked his head backwards, looking up into Hades' eyes.  "I need more than that, Hades.  Terms.  'Pleasing you enough' is too open, too easy for you to back out of."

Hades closed his eyes, shaking his head.  "Those damn myths," he murmured, sighing.  "Fine."  He silently regarded Iphicles, whose body was aching to lean forward and touch him again.  Hades swiftly moved back to his seat behind the desk, the displaced air cooling Iphicles' cheek.  "Something else, then?  Charon has been moaning for a vacation, I suppose you could take that over for a few years."

"No!"  Iphicles gaped at him; the thought of not making love to Hades sent a wave of desperation through him.  "I mean- we can do it the first way, just with definite terms."

The corners of Hades delicious mouth twitched.  "Ah.  Any suggestions?"

Iphicles' face was hot, and he cursed his psychosomatic symptoms.  If he was dead, he shouldn't have to worry about sweaty palms or trembling knees.  He knew that if he attempted to speak, he'd only embarrass himself.  All he knew was that he had to touch Hades again.

Hades nodded.  "Well, then.  Tasks might be easier, since you can't think of anything."

"No.  You could fuck me."

"I could fuck anybody who's ever lived."

It was so hard to think, with perfection sitting across from him.  He felt like his mind was full of that sucking black mud from that grove of hell.  "Ares, it would make Ares furious."

"Would it?  He's the only god you've had close contact with, what makes you think it wasn't him who killed you?"

Iphicles jumped out of his seat and leaned forward.  "It wasn't Ares!  He wouldn't."

"He's the god of war, Iphicles.  He delights in slaughter.  He's a murderer, and a liar, and a fucking thief, and he uses his body to get what he wants.  He thinks he can get away with anything.  Just because he's fucked you a few times-"  Hades began to sound flustered, and he abruptly looked away.

Iphicles could feel his certainty fade like the colours of an autumn sunset, and he sat back down.  "Do you know something?  Was it Ares?"

Hades shook his head.  "I don't know, Iphicles.  Keep an open mind about these things, in case I really do send you back.  It could have been anyone, and you'll have to find it out on your own; it pays not to be biased."  Iphicles nodded, and Hades went on.  "I like the idea of pissing off Ares, and fucking you would be no hardship.  But really, that's hardly a sufficient remuneration for the loss of you."

"I'd like to go back as soon as possible, but afterwards...  Afterwards, I'll compensate in whatever way you'd like.  Please, Hades, it'll be worth it."

Hades appeared to consider it.  "Well.  I suppose so, since you're adamant.  I will send you back, but you'll be incorporeal - a ghost.  You'll only be able to talk to those with the sensibilities to look for you.  You won't be able to survive very long, and you'll have no choice but to come back here.  Agreed?"

"How long will I last?"

Hades waved his hand in the air.  "Oh, long enough.  A week, at least."  He stood up, smiled.  "Or, perhaps I should have answered, 'you tell me,'" With confident steps and a serene expression, Hades came back around the desk to stand in front of Iphicles.  "Are we agreed?"

A ghost - he wouldn't be able to do as much hands on investigation, but, then again, if not everyone could see him, he'd be able to fade into the background and listen in on conversations that might provide information.  Fine, he could accept that.  He'd agreed to whatever Hades wanted after he came back, which was probably stupid, but... "Agreed."

Hades reached out to caress Iphicles' hair, running the silky tendrils through his fingers like grain from a merchant's barrel.  He stepped forward in between Iphicles' spread legs and gently coaxed his head forward, allowing Iphicles to again feel the stretched leather against his cheek.  Hades let his hand rest on Iphicles' head, his thumb stroking the tense tendons of his neck.

Iphicles bowed his head and roughly licked the bulging leather.  He let his hands roam upward underneath the shining fabric of Hades' shirt, dancing over tense abdominals, the valley of his back, the smooth unfolding of his ribs.  His skin was warm and hairless, and smoother than fresh buttermilk.

He brought his hands forward to Hades' pants and hastily unbuttoned them with clumsy fingers, revealing the pale skin gleaming beneath.  He pulled the leather across and down, revealing Hades' hard cock.  Iphicles leaned forward, letting his tongue trace the length, the taste of god cock exploding in his mouth.

He groaned, hungry, and lifted out of the chair, kicking it behind him, dropping to his knees for a more comfortable angle.  He grasped Hades' cock with his sweating hand, letting his thumb circle the head and spread the tiny drop of precum that had already appeared.  "Hades," he whispered, the lust pounding in his ears like the final night of a Dionysian festival. He felt drunk and drugged, overturned; he hadn't been this needy since the first time with Ares.  Maybe not even then.

He took the cockhead into his mouth, revelling in its smoothness, letting his tongue dance like a maenad on its surface.  Iphicles started to pump Hades' cock with his right hand, slowly and hard, and he smiled around Hades' cock as he heard the god groan lowly, dangerously.

Concentrating his tongue on the sensitive underside of Hades' cock, Iphicles started to suck, hard on the downstroke of his hand, gentler as his hand came back up.  His left hand reached back to rub Hades' ass through the hot leather.  Hades was moaning, a low rumbling that Iphicles was sure prompted an earthquake somewhere.

There was no need to be sent to Elysia; Iphicles was already there.  Frolicking in green fields wearing white linen with smiling happy people skipping beside you was no match for Hades' thick, hard cock filling his mouth and hand.

Hades grasped Iphicles head and began to fuck his mouth, thrusting his cock in and out while forcing Iphicles' head back and forth in a perfectly executed rhythm.  Iphicles let his hands knead into Hades' ass, trying to gain some ground while he let himself be used.  He sucked as hard as he could throughout the onslaught, concentrating on the smooth hot surface of the cock as it pierced his lips.

Hades groaned, swore, and held Iphicles still around his cock, and then he was coming, filling Iphicles' mouth with hot liquid that he drank down eagerly.  Hunger, need, the emotions were almost incomprehensible to Iphicles, and he was drowning in them.  He licked up the last shining drop and tried to rise to his feet, but Hades shoved him backward onto the floor, and followed, sprawling on top of him.

They lay still for only seconds before Iphicles tilted his pelvis and rubbed his aching cock against Hades' hard body.  He wanted Hades' cock in him; if he weren't dead, the desperation would be killing him.  He was empty, so empty, and the only person who could relieve that was Hades.

"That was nice, king," Hades said, his voice very nearly cracking, "but now I'm going to fuck you."  Gratitude poured through Iphicles as Hades ripped off his clothing, leaving it shredded on the polished marble floor.  Iphicles squeezed his eyes shut, trying to remember to breathe while wondering if he even had to.  Hades' cool hands danced over his body, soft except for several gold rings that scraped his skin like a stirgil.

Hades flipped him over and urged him onto his hands and knees.  Iphicles hardly noticed; all he could feel was need.  Relief screamed through his soul when Hades slowly pushed into his body.  He knew that he was dead, but everything about him felt alive, more real than he'd felt while living.  He was unsure what was true existence; all he knew was that Hades was fucking him, and it was better than anything else, anything ever.  He arched his back and thrust his body against Hades' pounding cock, just letting himself feel, whimpering all the while.  The pleasure whipped him with its intensity and rushed through his body.

It wasn't pure.  Hades fucked him relentlessly, forcefully, jerking Iphicles' body back and forth.  Iphicles couldn't distinguish the physical pain from the pleasure, and he craved them both; he hadn't realized how bereft of touch he'd felt.  The bruising fingers grasping his hips, the slide of his forehead against smooth marble, the straining of his wrists to keep him upright, the searing pulsing of the cock pounding his ass, everything filled him up, and it was all perfect, he needed it all.

He couldn't remember if it had been like this with Ares.  He remembered the need, the desperation, but there had never been the sense that without his touch, he'd be lost.  He needed Hades like he needed sight.  Hades comforted him and tormented him while still sending tragedies of pleasure throughout him.  It was like death, this love he felt.

It was over as soon as Hades reached for his cock.  One rough stroke and Iphicles was gone, sobbing with relief as he spilled his cum onto the white marble floor.  His arms and knees collapsed and he fell to the ground as Hades cried out, coming deep within him. Iphicles' mind tumbled in on itself, sending him as close to sleep as he'd been since death.

When Iphicles came back to himself, slumped in a pile on the floor, Hades was sitting behind his desk, looking clean and perfect.  Those clear, deep eyes were staring at his sprawling naked body so intensely that he didn't notice Iphicles was conscious again.  Iphicles kept still, staring into eyes that held so much more emotion than he could even comprehend.

When Hades' gaze moved up to Iphicles' face, the god jumped, almost guiltily, like Hercules always had when Iphicles caught him staring at him.  His eyes masked themselves into a look of satisfied confidence.  Iphicles struggled to his feet, annoyed that his limbs and ass ached like usual.  He looked around him for his clothes, finding them ripped on the floor.  "My clothes?"

Hades raised an eyebrow.  "I like you like that."

Iphicles froze, only a bit self-conscious.  "Right.  So can I go back?"  He felt guilty; guilty for fucking Hades, guilty for loving it.  Ares would never visit him now.

It had been worth it, however.

"I said you could go back, didn't I?  As a ghost, and you must return to me."  Hades stood up and stepped out from the desk.  "Come here.  You understand the terms?"

Iphicles nodded as he approached, nervous as a virgin. "I understand."

Hades made an impatient gesture with one hand, clothing Iphicles in a plain white shirt and black leather pants.  He took Iphicles' hand in his when he was within reach, and slipped a wide gold ring carved with geometric designs onto his finger.  The weight of it seemed to anchor Iphicles, soothing him.  "To come back, just kiss this ring.  Remember, if you don't return, you'll disappear; your soul won't be able to survive.  Or, I might come looking for you, and I will find you... and Tartarus is just as bad as you think it is."

Iphicles nodded, yearning to touch Hades but not certain how he'd be received.  "I'll return once I find out who killed me."

Hades moved like lightning, grasping Iphicles' head with both hands and pulling his face close.  Another smooth movement, and Hades was kissing him.  Iphicles whimpered and stepped in close, pressing his body against Hades.  Those full lips coaxed and caressed him, pressing and sliding against his own with insistent purpose and not a little yearning.

Completion.  It felt like Hades was breathing life into Iphicles' body, sending prickling impulses up his spine that made his skin tingle.  This was life, this was fulfillment; he couldn't not return to this.

Hades pulled away when Iphicles' tongue snaked across his bottom lip, though he stayed within Iphicles' arms.  "You will return to me, king."  The kiss to his forehead was gentle and searing hot.  "Now, go."

Part 3

"Death aims with fouler spite  At fairer marks." Francis Quarles.

The imprint of Hades' kiss, so powerfully beautiful, distracted Iphicles as the dimly lit grandeur of Hades' palace flickered and faded before his eyes, a new reality taking shape around him like a dream.  The surge of sunlight hit him like a poison arrow in the eye, blinding him.  After the blood-red haze receded, he carefully opened his eyes, surprised to find himself in his private garden in his royal estate.

It seemed impossible for the natural world to be so beautiful; he'd grown used to the grey desolation of Asphodel.  He drank it in like Chian wine, knowing that this was one of his last tastes of pure beauty.  The sunlight, the shade, the flowers and the bare, stripped earth all stabbed him with that knowledge.  Suddenly, he knew that this was the place where he had died.

He was glad that, of all the places he could have been killed, it had been here.  Jason had told him that the small clearing had once been a sanctuary to Gaia; the archway and the low enclosing wall had been a part of that ancient structure.  The stone was scarred and dark where it wasn't covered with ivy, thorny rose branches, or a trailing vine of white, five-petaled flowers.  Inside the walls were rows of bloomless rose bushes, circling the path like a regiment of soldiers. Everything seemed strong, pure, eternal, though he had died here.

He took a step towards the white marble bench, which, on one corner, Iphicles' blood had innocently stained brown.  Whenever he used to come here, he would sit on that bench and listen to the saturated silence of the sanctuary.  Always calm and pleasant, the air had seemed more breathable, the sky more blue, his body more alive in this place.  And yet he'd died here.

In the eastern shade of the bench sprouted a spiky flower, the petals red melting into black, reaching towards the sky in a gesture of pleading.  He had died here.  The brightness of the day and the beauty of the scenery blackened a tone.  In this garden, this sanctuary, someone had thrust a knife into his heart.  The beauty, the transcendence of this place was inaccessible to him now; it could never again be innocent.

True, he had found new beauty in the Underworld.  But it wasn't like this.  It wasn't nature.  He couldn't save himself, he couldn't stay here.  Hades said he would be invisible to most people; there could be no life for him any longer.  But he could, and he would, find out who had stolen nature's beauty from him.

Only a few people knew about his garden sanctuary.  Unless he'd been followed, the killer must have been familiar with both his habits and the royal estate.  Or omnipotent enough to follow him wherever he went.

Iphicles turned away from the bench, and followed the path towards his palace.  If it had been a god who killed him, there would be nothing he could do about it.  If it had been a mortal, though... he could either wait for him to die, and torture him in the afterlife, or, he could do a little amateur haunting.  He was a ghost, after all.

The sight of the palace, shrouded and shut up in apparent mourning, strangely comforted him.  When kings died with valour in battle, they were proclaimed a hero; when they died of old age, the people rejoiced their long life and the beginning of a new age.  He hadn't known what they would do when their king had been brutally murdered.

The doors were closed, flanked by two of his palace guards.  They obviously couldn't see him, although their eyes were trained studiously ahead.  It was power, this invisibility, but it was also an incredible weakness.  He couldn't ask for help, he couldn't open the doors without drawing attention to himself, he couldn't question anybody about the death of their king.

He decided to take the risk and slip through the door, hoping the guards would blame it on the wind or the gods, but as his hand opened to push against the heavy wood, it passed through the door like it was made of air.  Iphicles swore, and one of the guards jumped.

Fuck, he really was a ghost.  He didn't quite understand how his feet could touch the ground and keep him above it if his hands could pass through wood, but it wasn't the time for questions.  He squeezed his eyes shut, and slowly walked into the door, feeling absolutely nothing on his body as he passed through it.

And then he was inside.  An unwanted smile crept onto his face; that was a nice trick.  If Autolycus could do that, he might be the Emperor of thieves instead of the lousy king.  Iphicles proceeded down the entrance hall, toward the official offices where he hoped he'd find some of his advisors.  If he could just eavesdrop on a conversation involving his death, maybe he'd find out easily who had killed him.

He found that if he concentrated, he could hear the whispers and low voices of people throughout the palace.  Nobody he saw in the hallways seemed to see him, although one or two shivered as he passed.  After crossing various halls and empty rooms, he found what he was looking for.

Four of his advisors, including Isostratus, his chief advisor, and Nicaeus, his army's General, sat around a wooden conference table, talking in hushed voices that Iphicles could hear clearly from across the room.  They were talking about him.

"If he hadn't gone and got himself killed, we wouldn't have to be dealing with his brother," Nicaeus growled, his fist pounding the table like a drunk demanding another ale.

"Right.  He was a fine king, but everyone knows that you've got to refuse the attentions of the gods.  They only breed trouble.  Iphicles didn't listen to the myths close enough."

Iphicles moved closer.  A god?  Did they know something?  He felt the rage rise within him as he realized what they were saying.  It was his fault he was dead, because of his association with Ares.

It was true that the myths always portrayed the love of a god as bringing death and destruction: there was Adonis, gored by a boar, Io, turned into a cow, Tithonus, withering away to nothing, Hyacinthus, killed by an errant discus... the list was endless.  Gods brought suffering, that was what was taught.

He'd like to see anybody refuse Ares in his big, bad, and deadly persona.  The god was pure sex, and he had sent Iphicles reeling in lust.  And then Hades...  Nobody could resist a god who's attentions were focused on him.

But what did his relationship with Ares have to do with his death?  He knew it hadn't been Ares, didn't he?  It didn't seem possible.  Iphicles knew that Ares cared about him.  But then again, Hades had told him to keep an open mind.  Iphicles cursed the stabs of doubt that threatened to overwhelm him.

"Damn the gods, anyway!"  Isostratus spat out, scowling like the Calydonian boar.  "They killed Iphicles, and they sired that hell-bound brother of his!"

That was confirmation - the gods had been responsible for his death.  So much for revenge; what could he do to a god?  But who had it been?  A voice in his head was shouting the name "Ares" at him, but he still couldn't truly believe it.  What was the motive?

The other advisors worked to calm Isostratus down, changing the discussion subject to funeral games in Iphicles' honour.  Although Iphicles was strangely pleased that they were commemorating him in such a way, he only half-listened.

Perhaps he hadn't been as cautious of the gods as he should have, having grown up in their perpetual, if invisible, presence.  His brother had been destined for greatness because of his divine blood, and although Alcmene had always said that both boys could do whatever they wanted in life, she had lavished so much extra attention on Hercules that Iphicles had yearned for divine favour, himself.

When approached by Ares, the god second only to Hera in Hercules' hatred, Iphicles had jumped at the chance.  It mostly had to do with lust, with Ares, but a part of it was sibling rivalry, another, flattery.  Finally Iphicles was the one with godly connections.

As if summoning was another supernatural power, Hercules stomped heavily into the conference room, demanding information on the funeral games with a hoarse, sleep deprived voice.

"King Hercules, we are in the midst of making those plans; you're certainly welcome to join us."

"King?"  Iphicles couldn't help but spit out the word. Hercules couldn't be king.  He wouldn't have taken the job.

Hercules jumped and looked around with frenetic movements, like Medusa's body after its head was gone. "What the hell?"  His eyes, though unfocused, pointed in Iphicles' direction, looking right through him as though he were made of glass.  Iphicles scowled; if anybody should be able to see him, it should be his brother.

"Is there a problem, King Hercules?" one of the advisors asked.

"No..."  His voice was hesitant.  "No problem.  Let me know what you decide, I've got things to do."  Hercules turned on his heel and strode out the door.

Iphicles turned to follow his brother, lingering long enough to hear Nicaeus mumble, "Off to play with his divine boyfriend, I bet."  Hercules?  Fucking a god?  Impossible.  He left the advisors to their mocking laughter and sped after Hercules.

Oh, his most honoured brother.  Such concern on his behalf.  And king... Iphicles knew that Hercules would never stay king; he was doubtlessly filling the position until he found a suitable replacement.  Still, Iphicles felt possessive: Corinth was his kingdom.  He knew that Hercules had been offered the kingship before him, and that fact still stung.

Hercules' steps pounded on the wooden floors and his hands rhythmically clenched and unclenched.  His hair bounced behind him with each step.  Even if he was king, he was still wearing that same damn thing he'd been wearing for years.

He found himself glad, perversely, that Hercules had stepped in.  It would be ultimately better for Corinth; he was sure whoever Hercules found would be trustworthy and good at the job.  That was one thing Hercules was good for: honourable decisions.

Hercules slammed the door of his quarters after he entered, and Iphicles slipped like air through the solid wood.  He moved to the corner, looking away as Hercules began to strip off his clothing.  Iphicles was curious to see this divine lover.  Hercules badmouthed the gods so often, it was almost impossible to imagine him fucking one.

He remembered Hades' body on his, the savage heat of his cock and the soft slithering of his hands.  He tried to remember Ares in the same way, but the images were faded, like a dream.  He could see why Herc would do it; there was nothing like being fucked by a god.

If Iphicles had known that he was about to have an experience that would overthrow his view of the world, he would have sat down or taken a deep, cleansing breath, but, as it was, he was caught unaware.  Hercules had lain down on the bed, his body naked, his skin shining golden in the light.  In a flash of blue sparks his divine lover appeared.  Pain as palpable as any physical assault suffocated Iphicles as he watched Ares launch his body onto Hercules', just like he used to do to him.

He wanted to vomit, watching Ares, glorious in his unabashed nudity, smother Hercules' body like a living blanket, running his swift, arrogant hands over his brother's body.  The sight was undeniably erotic, but so wrong, so impossible.  Could this be happening?

"Iphicles loved it when I bit his neck like this," Ares growled, sinking his teeth into Herc's throat.  Hercules cried out, his body arching into Ares, who slid smoothly down to Hercules' nipples.  "When I played with his nipples, he'd moan and thrash like a woman."  Ares kissed, licked, and bit Hercules' right nipple, pinching the left with his fingers, grinning when Hercules moaned.

Iphicles was reminded of his childhood, watching Hercules fight thirty men single-handed, and winning: it was impossible, incredible, and he hated it, he was bursting with rage, but it would be impossible not to watch.

Ares slid down further, rubbing his hands over Hercules' chest.  "Sometimes," he said, his voice conversational, "when I really wanted him to lose control, I'd suck his cock, really slowly, never letting him cum, even when he was begging for it.  Your brother loved that, Hercules.  He never expected me to do it, to suck his cock, and when I did, he went crazy."  With that, Ares took the head of Hercules' cock into his mouth and loudly licked around it, moving excruciatingly slowly.

Iphicles remembered how that felt, how loved he'd felt.  But it had nothing to do with love, did it?  Ares had used him so he'd be able to provoke Hercules, used him so Hercules would want to fuck him, since Hercules always had to have what Iphicles did.

And Ares had killed him, hadn't he?  It was a calm realization, as if he'd always known.  There was no other explanation.  Ares had tired of him, killed him so Hercules would need comforting, so he could fuck his little brother who he hated.

That was horrible, that disgusted him.  His life was worth more than that.  He should have died for a noble cause, he should have died for love - and Ares couldn't love.  Iphicles should have listened every time Ares had told him that, every time he'd growled in his ear that all he wanted to do was fuck him, that he wasn't special.  He'd thought that had been denial, not the truth.  He'd thought Ares had loved him, like Iphicles had loved Ares back.

But maybe he'd never loved Ares either.  He'd felt lust, he'd felt the need for recognition, he'd wanted to be special, but was that love?  He'd felt the same feelings, even stronger, with Hades.

Hercules had had enough of Ares' teasing mouth, apparently, and threw Ares off his body, only to be flipped over and urged onto his knees by the god.  "Iphicles liked it when I thrust into him fast," Ares murmured, entering Hercules with one long motion of his hips.  "And then he wanted me to fuck him hard, until he'd beg me to let him cum.  Are you going to beg me, Hercules?"

Iphicles was mesmerized, disgusted, aroused, and enraged, but he couldn't look away.  Their bodies, both dark, toned, and huge, writhed together in a sweaty mass as Ares thrust into Hercules' body, his fast, uneven rhythm indicative of his desperation.

Painfully drawing his eyes from the juncture of their pulsing bodies, Iphicles looked into Hercules' face.  His eyes were squeezed shut, a look of pained ecstasy gracing his face.  He said nothing, his body speaking scrolls for him, meeting Ares at every thrust and arching at an angle that couldn't be comfortable.  Iphicles suspected he didn't even feel it.

Ares' eyes were open, and he looked perfectly serious, though pleased, like he'd just won a battle. Ares couldn't have loved Iphicles.  He was the god of war - everything was a power struggle, a game, a contest.  And Ares always won.

Ares' hands clawed at Hercules' back and his gaze started to betray his lust.  "Beg me," he whispered, fucking Hercules even harder.

Hercules opened his eyes, staring into nothing, his eyes desperate.  "Please," he whimpered, not realizing he'd just lost the battle.  Ares reached down under their bodies and grasped Hercules' cock, pumping it once, twice, before Hercules came in his hand.  Another thrust and Ares cried out, coming hard and painfully, if his expression was accurate.

The brothers collapsed into a sweaty heap, panting in tandem for breath.  Iphicles stepped forward until he was right next to the bed.  He clenched his hands together, wishing he could punch one of them.  "Bastard."

Ares jumped, rolled away from Hercules and backed up on the bed, staring all the while at Iphicles.  His eyes were impossibly wide, tinged, amazingly, with fear.  "You-"

That answered the question of whether or not Ares would be able to see him.  "You piece of shit, I'm going to make you pay for this."  That his life had been lost so Ares could fuck his brother...  it had never been about Iphicles.  He was just something to be used, and discarded.

"Iphicles, it's not, you're-"

"Dead.  You killed me.  Or did you forget?"

"Ares, what's going on, who are you talking to?" Hercules asked, his voice hoarse.

Ares ignored him.  "Kill you?  I didn't kill you."  His voice was so incredulous that Iphicles almost believed him.  "Why would I- Iphicles, fuck, are you all right?"

"Don't fucking pretend you care," Iphicles said, beginning to doubt his conclusion.  But no, there was no other answer.  Ares had killed him.

"Are you trying to taunt me, Ares?" Hercules got up and began picking his clothes up from the floor.  "Because that's really pathetic."  He stomped out the door, holding his clothes in front of him, sparing an enraged glare back at Ares.

Iphicles watched him go, then turned back to Ares with a sneer.  "How long have you been fucking my brother?" he demanded.

Ares ignored his question and got up off the bed, clothing himself with a thought.  "Iphicles, why do you think it was me who killed you?  What did Hades tell you?  Can't you remember?"  Ares sounded flustered, completely out of his element.  He even sounded a bit insulted, as if he had that right.

"No, I can't remember!  It was obscured, by you!  I don't remember anything."

"Iphicles, Hades is the only god who can mess with your memories after death."

The dread fell over Iphicles like an afternoon shadow. "What?  It wasn't you?"

"No."  Ares' eyes were wide, honest.  "You don't even know, do you?"  Iphicles shook his head silently.  "Iphicles, it was Hades who killed you."

"What?"  No.  Impossible.  Iphicles started to shake his head, not able to stop.  This wasn't how it was supposed to work out.

Ares stalked forward, all sympathy erased from his face as he grinned arrogantly.  "He's been watching you for years, obsessing over you.  Killing you got you away from me, and down with him instead.  He said he loved you, the crazy bastard."

Iphicles shook his head.  His mind felt full a hundred frenzied maenads dancing on jagged, broken glass in a pulsing rhythm.  "He said-"

"He lied.  He hates me, because I don't go down there to fuck him like the other gods.  And he's jealous of me.  Wants to take everything I've got away from me.  And he probably only loves you because you look like me.  So he killed you, that's all he knows, death."

Ares might not have killed him, but he might as well have.  "You provoked him!"

"Only by fucking you.  You were bound to die, anyway, being a mortal.  I didn't think he'd actually kill you."

He couldn't believe this.  Everything was wrong.  Ares didn't love him, obviously.  Hades loved him, but killed him.  Ares hadn't killed him, but was fucking his brother.  He should sell his story to Euripides, get a good play written.

"I had to."  The voice, as soft and refined as a handful of ancient island sand, reverberated, slightly distorted, through the room.  Hades' body followed, as breathtaking as before, even more so in this mundane wood-paneled room.  He took a step toward Iphicles, his face betraying more emotion than it had throughout their whole encounter in the Underworld.  "Ares didn't care about you, not like I do.  All he cares about is himself.  I had to get you away from him.  I love you."

Iphicles turned to Hades, tried to deny the thrill that flew through his body just by looking at him.  "You don't kill somebody you love to save them."

"You do if you're me," Hades murmured.  "I had to.  I couldn't stand to see you being used by Ares, when I'm the one you should be with."  He walked forward a few steps, hesitantly.  "I know it's hard for you to believe, but I do love you Iphicles.  You're everything I've ever wanted."

Ares spoke up, venom in his voice.  "What did he tell you to do to go back to the Underworld, Iphicles?"

Iphicles paused at the apparent non-sequitor.  Hades' words had touched him, somehow.  He didn't know who to believe.  "To kiss this ring," he said, holding up his hand.

"Then that's what is keeping you like that, a ghost.  Get rid of the ring, you'll be alive again."

Alive again?  As if it were that simple.  "What?"

"He's grounding you there, keeping you a ghost here.  Take it off, you'll be free."

Iphicles stared at Ares, who was grinning arrogantly.  Live again, free.  Back to his life as king, brother, lover.  Fucking Ares again.  Dealing with Hercules.

He remembered his rose garden and its exquisite beauty, so tainted now, after death.  If he lived again, would it still seem so?  Or would he, after experiencing death and rebirth, view the world as a more precious and sacred place?

He'd grown comfortable with the idea of death.  He'd just wanted to avenge himself.  But Hades had killed him, Hades, who had touched him, kissed him only once. It had felt right, it had felt like living when he'd been with Hades.  It had felt like love.

He couldn't live again.  Knowing death, there was no point.  He wouldn't be able to get up every morning, knowing that one day, he'd only die again.  And too many people knew he'd died, he'd never be seen as normal again.

And he didn't think he wanted to live like he had.  What did he have here?  A brother who fucked his lover, a lover who fucked his brother?  A kingdom who blamed him for his own death?  He wouldn't be able to face any of that, not after knowing death.

And Hades loved him, loved him enough to destroy him, lie to him, try to get him any way he could.  He remembered what it was like with Rena, when he'd pretended to be Hercules to impress her.  That was love - going against your basic principles to get the one you wanted.  Hades had had no other choice.

He looked at Hades, who stared back, his eyes full of pain and longing.  Hades, who was always perfectly confident, now looked like he could be crushed by one word, one gesture.

Could death be so bad, if love was waiting there for him?

Ares was opening his mouth to speak, but Iphicles stopped him.  "There's nothing I need to hear from you, Ares."

His eyes returned to Hades, who had killed him.  Love was something you should be willing to die for.  And love was something you should be willing to kill for.  Was this love?

A kind of love.  Love in death, love because of death.

Focusing on the memory of Hades' kiss, he brought the carved gold ring to his lips and kissed it reverently, hoping he was making the right decision.

*Epilogue* "Strange, that from lovely dreamings of the dead I shall come back to you, who hurt me most."  Dorothy Parker

Death.  Love.

Both were perfect things, though death was easy to recognize while love was impossible to define.  He had love, he had death, and he was drawn to them both: experiences he never thought he'd experience.  Love had always eluded him, abandoned him once he had it within his yearning grasp.  Death had been so distant that he hadn't believed it would ever reach for him.

He remembered, now.  He'd been sitting in his garden, drinking in the beauty of the world around him when an even more spectacular beauty had appeared before him.  Hades, out of place in the sunny sanctuary, had kneeled before Iphicles, taken his hand in his own.  There had been a question in his eyes, and Iphicles could only answer yes.

Love meant nothing if you couldn't experience it, if you didn't know what it was.  Death was just a word, something experienced by everybody except yourself.  Until it did happen to you, and then it meant everything.

Now this death, this love, they were so intertwined that he could hardly distinguish the two.  It was the sort of love that felt like death - like when a person first hears of the death of a childhood friend, that overwhelming fog of sorrow, pity, and regret that slides silently onto you - that, only replaced by love.  It hurt like a knife to the heart, but that pain was a part of the love.

Death.  Love.  Both hurt, both were a new state of being.  Death was an end, love was a beginning.  Together, they were a beginning within an end.  That was as ideal as anything.

The End