The Tribe of Dreams
"And Night bore hateful Doom and black Fate and Death, and she bore Sleep and the Tribe of Dreams." --Hesiod
"To believe in one's dreams is to spend all of one's life asleep." --Proverb
"Bastard," Iphicles hissed with the theatrical enthusiasm of a butch Medea.
Hercules almost kicked him. This wasn't a tragedy and his brother was over-acting as usual. "You know," he said, doing some leaning of his own, close enough to kiss, "you always say that when I'm winning."
The tip of Iphicles' nose pushed against his while his brother charged ahead in full Sophoclean mode. "Okay, then how's this? Asshole. Dickhead. Goat-fucker." In the quietest breath, a sigh between them, he added, "Tease."
In the tavern around them, chairs scraped the tiled floor as their audience grew, eager to watch the spectacle of fraternal angst.
Hercules ignored them, playing a game as old as the gods. "You're acting like a five-year old."
"And you're acting like my father when I'm the goddamn king."
At the teeth-gnashing delivery, complete with pounding fist on the table, Hercules did kick him, right in the shin, and suppressed a grin at Iphicles' very untragic grimace. "If I was your father, I'd..."
Iphicles played dirty and licked his lips, a slow swipe with his tongue that tickled Hercules' mouth like a bee's wings. Hypnotized, he lost track of the script. It didn't help that Iphicles was steamy as a Roman bath. Hercules breathed him, wine and copper, and imagined in lurid living color, like a naked production of some obscure Aristophanes play, a hundred ways to serve a king.
"You'd what?" Iphicles asked helpfully, still too close, his hair ivy tangling into Hercules' own, tickling his cheeks. "Say it, you son of a bitch."
If Hercules opened his mouth, he'd say the wrong thing. Worse, he'd do the wrong thing, use his tongue for more than talking and give the Corinthians the hottest royal gossip since Jason met Medea, or Iphicles met Ajax at Golgoth. His brother needed a break, and kissing him wouldn't help, even with the Fates at his back, whispering in spooky triplicate, "Don't fight us, Hercules. We've woven the tapestry, and you're slipping him the tongue."
Iolaus, oblivious but well-intentioned, offered him recovery time. "Look, guys, let's have another round and skip the epic battle for once. After six months apart, I'd think you guys would want to talk." With years of conciliatory practice, sidekick duty, he reached for Iphicles' wrist, only Iphicles went royal and shook his head, Agamemnon in his death scene, with lots of panting breaths that stretched his tunic tight over his chest.
Hercules liked that, and watched hard. Theatrical or not, his brother had style, and the best pecs north of Cythera. "I'm calm, Iolaus. He's the one who needs to--"
"I don't want to calm down. I want to know what this snotty hero-boy would do if he was my father. Tell me, Mr. Legendary Journeys. What would you do to me?"
"Herc, don't answer him. Let's try to have one conversation without a fight." Iolaus squirmed, gawky with discomfort. "Come on. It's a holiday, and Iphicles sneaked away from his guests to see us. Have more wine, and I'll tell you this great joke about Aphrodite and these two chickens--"
"I'd take a belt, a leather one," Hercules said deliberately, locking eyes with his brother, "and I'd whip your sulky ass." He sneaked a downward glance and saw those ripe lips, wings of Icarus, melting for him in the dead silence. Around them, proverbial pins dropped. Jaws, too, with a wet popping sound.
Then: "You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Iphicles placed his hot palm against Hercules' shoulder, held it there a second too long, and shoved. "So you can feel superior."
Feigning a swat at Iphicles' hand, Hercules stroked the strong fingers. "Stop being such a brat. Go have your own adventures and stop getting on my case every time--"
"No more goddamn lectures." Iphicles jumped to his feet, his chair clattering to the floor behind him. "And if you show up for the goddamn banquet tonight, I'll have you thrown in prison."
Weird edge to that, not part of the game. No time to ask, with the stormy exit stage right. Back in character, Hercules announced, with his best flattened irony: "No one bangs a door quite like my big brother."
"Herc, why do you do that?" Iolaus tapped his fingertips against the stem of his glass. "You know how sensitive he is. And today's a really bad day, what with the preparation for the Lenaea festival. Remember all those Megarian royal carriages we passed on the way into town? He's going to have ambassadors and princes up the wazoo. It'd stress anyone out."
"He asked what we'd been up to, and I told him. How's that bragging? We killed a dragon, a Minotaur and twelve giant birds. Those are facts. If he didn't want to know, he didn't have to ask."
"You like goading him, Herc. You two remind me of you and Ares, only you're Ares and he's--" Iolaus ducked. "Okay, maybe not. But the guy's had some rough times, with Rena dying and those soldiers rebelling." Iolaus nodded toward the door. "I mean, a guy who pretended to be you has to have some issues." Another duck. "You should go after him."
"No way." Hercules dropped heavily into his seat, moving his hands restlessly over the scarred tabletop until he found Iphicles' glass and ran his thumb over the rim. Poor substitute, but he couldn't just walk out. There were rules, after all. "Let him apologize this time."
"Tell me you'll talk to him, okay? Make up. I don't want to miss the feast tonight." Iolaus gave a feeble smile. "Love those Corinthian lamb chops."
"Me, too," Hercules said, and with an effort didn't leer. Then, guilty, he forced himself to stay, taking a long sip from Iphicles' cup. Sweet and mellow, human and familiar. He kept the wine in his mouth, soaking his tongue before swallowing. "Easy for you to say. You're not the one he resents."
"You know he loves you, Herc. Take the high road. Go to him. Don't do that silent punishment thing."
He stood a second time, itchy now, still holding the cup. "You're right, Iolaus. He loves me. I love him."
"Right. You're brothers, after all."
"Brothers," Hercules repeated, and finally let go of the cup that had been in Iphicles' hands, to his mouth.
"Don't be too hard on him."
"I'll be as hard as he needs."
Hercules stood blinking on the sunny street. Immediately, a one-eared dog, five basket-wielding matrons and a beer-swilling sailor rushed past, each trailing a colorful and not always pleasant assortment of odors. Pre-festival chaos. He fixed on the woman's perfume, spicy like a drink from Chin, and swayed like a compass needle.
More pedestrians whizzed by, arms full of festival flowers, shouting a few enthusiastic greetings to friends. Another dog trotted along, a little white yapper who objected to the song squawked by a trio of Hestian virgins on the corner. The thump and rattle of a cart burdened with wine barrels drowned all four, while the hunchbacked driver shouted at his hunchbacked nag to quicken the pace.
Across the street, along the agora's outer wall, a group of hawk-faced teens shot marbles and insults--had to be insults, the way their mouths stayed tight and their eyes deer-vulnerable. Hercules remembered that look from years ago; he'd seen it often enough on his brother's face. Still did, for that matter.
Smelling honey and warm bread, Hercules turned left, jostled and bumped by the excited crowd. Some recognized him, and he smiled, kept moving, peering into doorways and dark corners. He slowed at the bake shop with its ledge covered with almond cake and baklava, ducking into the smoky interior. A few old men hunkered down at tiny tables, gnarled hands curled around dice and wine cups, sharing views on past festivals, a new alliance with Megara, recent nightmares. Under the canvas of wrinkles, the men all had the healthy, polished glow of prosperity, which made Hercules proud, and a little jealous. His own two fathers never did this: one walked out when he and Iphicles were boys, and the other never even walked in.
So where was Iphicles? Not here, except as a name flitting through the men's talk.
His fingers refused to stop drumming against his thighs. Nerves, like he was a virgin, and this was their first time, not their thousandth. Like he was worried that Iphicles had changed his mind, fed up with the sporadic attention. Hercules backed up and turned right, then left again, and took a step, only to hover there, feeling stupid and too hot. About to head back to the tavern's dark peace, he ended up facing a narrow brick alley between the bakery and a jeweler's, one wall half-lit by the sun. Against it...
Iphicles. Arms above his head, hands splayed over brick red-gold in the light. No tunic bunched around his hips, either, just perfectly, gloriously naked. Oiled too, his ass gleaming, his cock slick and hard. And holy Hades' balls (it was a swearing occasion, and Hercules embraced that): Iphicles had a black leather belt draped across one shoulder, the length falling down the center of his back.
"Did you say something, little brother?" Iphicles smirked with the full force of a beautiful naked king. "Something about whipping my ass?"
"Iphicles, anyone can see. You're the king. What were you thinking?" Hercules could barely breathe, and not only because of the plummeting blood. He never breathed right when Iphicles was around, even before he knew about his brother's body and what it could do to him, his ass, his fingers. His brother had the touch of fate. Which was why Hercules walked forward after one backward glance to the busy street. "What were you thinking?" Like repeating it might give him some distance, some perspective, some sanity. "How hot it would be if you whipped my ass with the belt before you fucked it."
So much for distance, perspective and sanity. "I can't do that," Hercules said, dropping his vest into the pile of clothes beside Iphicles' feet. He ran his thumb down his brother's back beside the belt, saw the muscles contract.
"You're worried about morality, when you've fucked me in every corner of Corinth, half of Attica and at least a third of Boeotia? Remember the last time?" Iphicles shivered even in the hot doughy air. "I couldn't walk right for two weeks. Acrecius thought I was dying the way I limped around. He offered Asclepius a herd of bulls to cure me so I'd be presentable in Megara."
"That was six months ago." Six months of trying to remember his brother's taste. He moved his hand lower, cupping one curved cheek, closing his mouth over Iphicles' shoulder, sucking. No wet dream beat this. "You better now?
"See for yourself."
Hercules kissed the shoulder he'd bruised and slid to his knees, gently parting his brother's smooth rounded ass, spreading him wide, the way Iphicles liked, the way he liked, exposing the tight hot home for his cock. "Looks perfect," he said, and licked the taut skin, circling without penetrating. His cock pushed against the leather, and he rubbed it once, a promise.
"You should've come back sooner. Only you can make me come like that."
"Who else is trying?"
"You think you own me? After six months of nothing?"
"Yes." Hercules stood and reached for the belt. It was the least he could do, to accept the burden of proof.
Iphicles moaned. "Say it again."
"I own you." It gave him a dirty secret thrill to say the words. Pure stripped truth always did. Everything with Iphicles was pure stripped truth. Nothing more honest than obsession.
"Show me. With the belt."
When the first punishing blow was a kiss that left no mark, Iphicles twisted around. "You think I stayed faithful all this time? You think things stayed the same while I waited for you?"
Hercules hit harder, and it hurt, flushing Iphicles' skin the barest pink. Parents must hurt when they punished children. "I want you to stay the same."
His brother rocked his hips, wiggled his ass. "Maybe I found someone else. Maybe I had to."
"Who'd put up with you?"
Another strike, the sharp clear sound of leather against skin. It raised gooseflesh, and Iphicles yelped. "More," he whimpered, reaching for his cock.
"Don't," Hercules said, and hit him again. "It's mine." His damn pants had somehow shrunk, and he put the belt between his teeth to free his hands, savoring the musk, leather and sweat on his tongue.
"More, Herc. Show me how much you love me."
Naked now, Hercules stood with his cock stiff and clearly outlined for any innocent Corinthian who happened to peek down the alley. Not that he'd leave now, even if the royal guard burst in. Standing with his feet planted far apart for leverage, he hit Iphicles on the same spot, which started to glow, so he hit it three more times, hard and fast, listening to his brother's moans. "I'd never do this with anyone else, you know that, right?"
"I know. The monster-killer showing me his dirty side. That's why it's good."
And it was hot, the beaten skin of Iphicles' ass under Hercules' light touch, then against the head of his cock, which he rubbed there, compelled. Always compelled with his brother. He stepped back, saying, "You're beautiful, Iphicles," and showed him with the belt, leaving hot red stripes across his ass, back, thighs. "Beautiful." Iphicles was shaking, and when Hercules reached around to feel his brother's cock, it was as hot as his ass, the head swollen and wet. "You like when I hit you?"
"Can't you tell?" Iphicles thrust into Hercules' hand, then groaned when it was withdrawn. "Let me come. I'm so ready."
"Not yet." Another chorus of blows because Iphicles liked it, because his skin tattooed so obediently, the only obedient part of him. Was that why he wanted the punishment? "I'm going to lick it better," Hercules told him, dropping the belt.
"That's what you said the first time. Remember? Right after Father left for good?"
On his knees, Hercules held onto his brother's hips, pressing his cheek against the trembling body, behind one strong thigh. "Of course I remember," he said, and teased the blushing skin with the tip of his tongue, thinking of Iphicles on his back under the apple tree, dazed but alive after his fall. He'd lain beside him on the soft grass, made his promise, and eased off his brother's clothes, shit-scared that Iphicles would stop him, shit-scared that Iphicles had nearly died and left him. But Iphicles had said nothing, didn't move, barely even breathed until right before he came in Hercules' mouth.
"I still get hard every time I eat an apple."
Hercules nuzzled him. "Really? So do I."
"You don't know how much I loved it? Is it because I didn't move? I was too scared. I figured you'd bolt for sure. I still remember lying in bed that night, listening to you breathe, trying to decide if I should climb in with you, hoping you'd climb in with me."
"I was waiting for a sign. I figured you'd only let me do it before because you'd scrambled your brain in the fall. Then you said you still hurt, and I knew what you meant." He shivered. "So I got under the covers with you--"
"And I put your cock inside me."
"I made so much noise that Mother came running in. She thought you were trying to kill me."
"We told her you'd had a nightmare because of Father leaving," Iphicles said with a laugh. "And I was comforting you."
"It worked." Carefully, as carefully as he could, Hercules opened Iphicles' ass, licking as he did it.
"That feels so good. Sometimes when I'm jerking off, I picture how you looked that first time with my cock in your mouth. You still get the same look, kind of worshipful and guilty. Oh fuck, that's perfect."
A shout from the street distracted him, two kids playing who passed without a glance. "We've been here too long. Iolaus will wonder what's going on."
"You want to leave? Then go." Iphicles spun around, arms dropping.
Hercules was a strong man. He could slay rabid lions and shovel a mean stable, but Iphicles turned him into a hungry bitch, and he proved it by pushing his brother back against the wall and swallowing his cock.
"I give up," Iphicles said, stroking his hair. "I've missed this, missed your mouth. Lick my balls, the way I like." Royal even during a blow job.
Holding Iphicles' cock flat against his stomach, Hercules reached under and brought the balls to his mouth, getting them wet and shiny with flat long licks, while Iphicles arched. One of the best things about Iphicles, how his body always told the truth.
More commands, desperate, short ones. "I want to come on you, Herc. I'll lick it up so Iolaus won't know. I need to see your face covered with my come."
Back on Iphicles' cock, he nodded vigorously.
The bobbing of his head caused a moan. "I should keep asking questions. That feels good. Do you love me?"
A nod yes, more sucking, wet and noisy, Iphicles' balls smooth in his hands, and god, it was good. Good too that his hands were busy--at the slightest touch on his overfull cock he'd be literally coming at Iphicles' feet.
"Do you love blowing me?"
Nodding again, sliding his tongue in the familiar places, and Iphicles rocked into his mouth.
"Do you think about me when you jerk off? Suck harder. I'm so close."
Someday he'd show Iphicles the scar tissue on the fleshy part of his thumb where he bit himself to stifle the moans, but that would mean giving up his brother's cock.
"Did you think about me when you were with her? Serena?"
A new question. Startled, Hercules stopped. "You left me. She helped with that. So did Deianeira."
"I had to leave. Too intense. And Mother was getting suspicious."
"You were scared."
"Damn right. You were all I ever thought about. I couldn't keep my hands off you."
That made him smile. "You still can't."
"Back then, I thought I could, if we split up for awhile. Now I know better. I just wish you'd let me touch you all the time, like I want to."
"I'd never get anything done." Hercules went back to his brother's cock, holding the head between his fingers to squeeze out liquid, lapping it up, never full. He'd forgotten the question when Iphicles repeated it.
"Did you think about me when you were with her?"
"I always think about you. Always have, always will. Nothing, no one, could change that. Even when Ares is around, I think about you." He'd said that before, maybe never so clearly, and he took Iphicles' cock in his mouth, licking and sucking until Iphicles cried out. Then Hercules pulled off and tilted his face a little, watching Iphicles watch him while the come splattered, hot and sticky, on his cheeks and lips. He licked the last few drops from his brother, then Iphicles slid his hands into Hercules' hair and tugged until they were again nose and nose.
"Let me look first," he said, still panting. "I'll clean you after that, then you have to fuck me. I'll come again. I can always come again for you." When a trickle ran down his jaw, Iphicles caught the semen on his finger and smoothed it onto Hercules' cheek under his right eye. Between the two of them, they'd mastered the art of avoidance.
"You spelling something out?"
"I thought I owned you."
"You're mine," Iphicles said. "Too bad this stuff doesn't last." He clasped his hands behind Hercules' head and started to lick, avoiding the marked spot.
"What about Rena?" Hercules tilted his head, watching Iphicles' tongue move over his skin. Rena was tricky, and he didn't mention her often. Too complicated, since Iphicles met her pretending to be him. Blame the question on Iphicles: he brought up wives and fantasies. Besides, knowing his part in his brother's life mattered more than a locked door.
"What about her?"
"Did I think about you while I fucked my wife?" Iphicles paused, and got the invaded, panicky look of those teenagers slinging insults on the street.
Hercules waited for the inevitable sting. You had to keep him on a low burn, as their mother used to say, or he'd bubble over.
His brother licked the line of his jaw. "What if I said no?"
"I'd say you were lying. You hate giving me that much power."
"Look who's talking," Iphicles growled, then nipped Hercules' nose. "Sometimes I think you're more scared than I am. And you think you know everything about me."
"How could I not know my own brother?"
Iphicles kissed Hercules' cleaned right cheek. "You've been gone too long. Even brothers change."
"People need me."
"Spare me. I can recite the ‘people need me' speech by rote." Another kiss on the same spot. "I think Rena knew."
"About us? But we didn't do anything. Not when you were married."
"I wasn't careful enough. Besides, she always had the hots for you. She spent as much time watching you as I did." Iphicles spoke slowly, pensively, then licked him again, down the other cheek. "The next time we fuck in an alley, let's do it the old-fashioned way, okay? Fast and hard against the wall. None of this navel-gazing shit."
"You started it."
"It's not like I said your name while I was coming. I'd catch her watching us, me watching you."
"She probably worried about us fighting, that's all. We fought a lot then."
"We still do. Especially when you take off for six months. Anything could happen, especially with Ares always trying to send you to the far side of the Styx. You and that goddamn need to save the world." Iphicles slapped Hercules' ass, but kept licking. "That goddamn need not to give me all of you."
"We don't have to fight," Hercules said, and rocked into him, letting Iphicles feel his hard cock. "I can fuck you fast and hard against the wall, just like you want." His face tingled from Iphicles' tongue.
Iphicles closed his eyes, then opened them half-way, staring at Hercules through his lashes. "I love when you talk dirty. The big hero. Just for me. Or are you always like that with anyone? Pure on the outside, dirty in bed?"
"Shut up, Iphicles. You know." Hercules backed him against the wall and grabbed his brother's wrists, holding them over his head. "I'm going to kiss you, then fuck you. I can't wait anymore."
When Iphicles opened his mouth, Hercules did what he'd wanted to since the tavern and shoved his tongue in deep. They ground hips, pawed the alley floor, then he felt Iphicles' cock stiffening against his. Always happened. Iphicles admitted once that he needed to come a second time, some kind of whacked confirmation. Only Hercules hadn't come at all, and he started to ache, his cock and dark places inside him, with Iphicles' tongue slipping and sliding over his, everywhere in his mouth, wild and messy, just like his brother.
"Can't wait," he said again, and turned Iphicles around in a move smoothed by years of practice. There was an amphora near his feet, and he grabbed it, pouring amber oil between Iphicles' shoulder blades, letting it trickle down between cheeks still flushed from the leather strikes, then dripped some onto his cock. Bending to replace the jar, he picked up the belt and bound Iphicles' wrists, new steps that felt like ritual. "So you won't forget I love you." With one hand on Iphicles' left shoulder, Hercules used his right to guide his cock between those pink-stained cheeks. "Ready to be fucked?"
"Do it." Iphicles half-turned, his eyes barely open, his lips wet and parted like he'd been fucked already. "Do it hard."
He pushed back, and Hercules pushed forward, and suddenly he was *there*, buried in his brother's hungry ass. And then it *was* a hard fast fuck against the wall, slamming Iphicles rough enough to bruise, encouraged by a long "Yes," that went on forever, by Iphicles' rough thrusts back against him. They were both so loud now, like this wasn't an alley but, hell, he didn't know, somewhere private and safe, where they could love each other all goddamn day and night like this, hard and fast, his teeth in Iphicles' shoulder, his hands on Iphicles' cock, his own cock fucking swallowed, loved and squeezed in that tight smooth ass. "I love you," he said, or Iphicles did, or maybe it was the Fates, watching and recording for history. "I love you."
Iphicles was talking again, and it really was him, and Hercules whispered, "I know, I know," in his brother's ear, really ramming now, Iphicles' orders, not that he had a choice, not with the world smudged around the edges, fading until the alley was gone, and Corinth was gone, and it was only him and Iphicles under an apple tree.
"I'm coming," Iphicles moaned, "I'm coming coming coming."
Hercules felt it, the rhythmic pulse of the cock in his hand, of the ass around him, and tried not to come, tried harder than he'd ever tried anything, to feel it all, hear it all, everything that was Iphicles coming. Like every other time, he failed, and, "Oh fuck, Iph. I'm coming." Opening, every part of him opening, like free-falling, no support, a hot rush, good panic, "I love you," gulped air, then...
"That's it, Herc, come for me. I love when you come for me."
And he could breathe again, raggedly, sure, like a little kid after a crying jag, with the same warm relief. "Iph, that was so --"
And reality came calling, in the form of a short blond sidekick. "Herc! You around?"
"Iolaus," he said.
"Fuck," Iphicles said at the same time. "Next time, put him on a leash and tie him to a tree, okay?"
Hercules untied him then bent to collect his clothes. "Why? You up for another go?"
"I'd like to spend some time alone with you. To talk."
"Talk? I thought you didn't like talking."
"I don't. But sometimes it's--"
"Herc!" Iolaus again, loud as a fog horn and way too close.
Hercules tossed on his vest, saw Iphicles watching, and paused. "You okay?"
"Sure." Big too-broad smile. "Let's go. He's almost here." And Iphicles headed back into the street, Hercules behind him, just as Iolaus came barreling along.
"Finally! Herc, we gotta go. A guy came into the bar after you left. Some huge scaly thing's attacking the farms outside the city. He's not sure where it came from, but it's mean. Big claws, bad fiery breath."
"You guys go ahead. I'll see you back at the palace. Acrecius will kick my ass for staying away this long, especially with the Megarians here." Iphicles took a deep breath, but simply squeezed Hercules' shoulder. "Be careful. You're the only brother I've got."
"Later," Iolaus said, and darted off.
"You sure everything's--"
"I survived six months without you. Everything's fine." And he pushed him, only his fingers didn't linger this time. "Go do your hero thing, and I'll go play king."
"The monster's waiting!" Iolaus called, and Hercules, with a helpless shrug, headed after him.
The monster of the day was an ugly hybrid of bull, man and serpent ("A serpentaur," Iolaus pronounced), with the unpleasant habit of nailing human heads in the doorway to its lair. It didn't appreciate the intrusion, and roared so loudly that Iolaus covered his ears and was nearly roasted by a blast of flame. A hard shove from Hercules sent his friend careening to safety in a corner.
"Sneaky," Iolaus gasped in the silence, then grabbed the still-burning torch and leapt to his feet. "The old ‘distract by deafening' trick."
"Could've happened to anyone. Now let's follow the plan."
"Gotcha." He turned to the monster who fixed him with wide yellow eyes, its green-scaled tail whipping back and forth. "Nice ugly monster. Guess what? It's dinner time. Again." He eyed the pile of bones to his right. "How'd you like a taste of nice juicy mortal?" Iolaus extended an arm, and the creature flared its wide brown nostrils.
Hercules wagged his own arm, and the nostrils gaped wider. "Forget him," he told it. "Try some of this instead."
"You implying something about me, Herc?"
"You're a little stringy." He took a careful step back.
"You like ‘em a little bigger, right? A little more royal?"
"What?" Startled, Hercules almost tripped over a rock.
"You heard me." Iolaus didn't meet his eyes, staring at the creature lumbering toward them on giant hooves, its massive arms outstretched.
"You mean King Augeas? He's a little old for me. Besides, he smells like one of his own stables."
"No, I don't mean King Augeas. And could you walk a little faster? Ol' lizard breath's about to blow again."
Hercules glanced behind him, annoyed that Iolaus' questions scared him more than two tons of teeth, fire and claws, and annoyed with himself for being annoyed. "The exit's about fifteen feet back."
"Then let's run before it barbecues our butts."
Iolaus dropped the torch, and they took off, feet slapping the stony floor, then shot into daylight, darting right as a riot of flames hurtled from the cave's mouth. A furious shriek followed, so loud that a gull, soaring and dipping above the cliff's edge directly ahead, froze in mid-air.
"Remind me again why we do this?" Iolaus shouted as they tore up the hill, chunks of grass flying, heading for the leafy oak on the precipice, its branches tickling the sky.
"Somebody's got to," Hercules called back, dodging the fireball that whizzed past his shoulder. He risked a look back, the new Orpheus, and saw the monster pounding after them, heaving angry black breaths and flapping velvety brown ears perched incongruously on its lizard head.
"Is it because of Iphicles?"
Bending to let Iolaus vault from his back into the tree, Hercules snapped, harsher than he intended, "Shut up and jump." Then he ducked behind the tree while Iolaus flew over his head into it, and the monster charged past them straight over the cliffside with a final, furious howl.
With a relieved laugh, Iolaus jumped to the ground at Hercules' feet, and together they walked to the edge, staring down at the colorful remains of the serpentaur artfully splattered on the toothy rocks.
"Didn't his mother ever tell him that crime doesn't pay?" Iolaus grinned.
"Or not to run for an hour after eating?"
"Obviously a rogue monster, to ignore his mother's good advice."
"I seem to recall you ignoring your mother's advice once or fifty times."
"What about you, Herc? Ever done anything that would've bugged Alcmene?"
"Who hasn't done something to annoy his mother?" Hercules started down the incline. "We'd better check the cave in case the thing's wife is waiting for him."
"Or his brother?"
"Whatever." The cave loomed ahead, the skulls lining the entrance smiling benignly.
"Herc, you are such a colossal pain the ass."
"Iolaus, give it a rest, okay? Some things aren't open for discussion."
"Why not? We've been friends a long time, and--"
"This has nothing to do with you."
"After all this time we should be able to talk about more than monster-killing techniques or how to avoid Ares."
"We do talk about stuff, like how annoying you are when you won't stop talking." It wasn't that he didn't want to tell Iolaus about Iphicles. He did, only the words refused to come out, like admitting it would make him vulnerable or weak. Some hero. "Let's get this over with," Hercules said, walking into the cave. "It's getting late." And he missed Iphicles.
"Yeah, I don't want to miss the feast. All of this monster-killing's making me hungry."
Hercules was hungry, too, but he kept that to himself.
The cave birthed no more monsters, wifely or otherwise. To be safe, after they'd collected the bones, Hercules blocked the entrance with a massive rock pile, then they carried the remains to the families who'd gathered at the base of the hill. The farmers lit a funeral pyre and placed the bodies on it, complete with coins for Charon, while a priest of Hades intoned a prayer for the dead souls' safe passage to the Fortunate Woods.
"Thank you," the priest said afterward, the air still thick with dead men's ashes. "You'll have to join us for the feast so we can honor our dead." He fingered the charm at his neck, the spindle of Necessity to hold the thread that bound the universe. "It's been a bad time for us. No one saw the killings, we thought we had a murderer in our midst. We're having a feast tonight to celebrate our freedom, and Lenaea, and we'd be pleased if you joined us. I'm Philemon, by the way."
Iolaus looked at Hercules. "It's still light. We have some time, and besides, it would be rude not to."
The old man clapped his hands. "Great! Just go with Pericles and the others. I'll be there shortly to say the opening prayer. First I want to drop a coin off the cliff, so we don't offend any of the gods."
"I'll do it," Hercules said. "Better to keep you all out of it, just in case."
"Maybe that's for the best," Philemon admitted, and handed over the dinar.
"Want me to go with you, Herc?"
He shook his head. "No, go ahead with them. I'll catch up with you later, then we'll head back to the palace."
A handful of girls and children already surrounded Iolaus, and Hercules waved, then started back up the hill. Their voices followed him then dissolved on the light breeze, which carried instead the appealing blend of old seaweed, raw pine and--his gardener mother would've been proud--fresh lavender. Sidestepping another cluster of the purple plants, watching the sun's mellow descent, he wondered about the creature he'd killed, if jealousy inspired its new all-human diet. Or loneliness.
The hill reared higher, and he twisted past a familiar row of pines, saw the single oak marking the monster's last stand. Grabbing a tree branch for balance, Hercules peered over the edge at the monster-smeared rocks below and saw a gold glint. He rubbed his eyes, then looked again, leaning out far as he dared. A coin rested on one red stone, although he still held his offering clutched in one hand, like a kid at a fair. "What the--" A familiar denseness in the air, then heat. "Ares." He turned quickly, still holding the branch, prepared to kick hard if Ares tried to shove him over the edge.
His brother had materialized beside him, not behind, his dark head bent to study the smashed body below. "Relax. If I was going to toss you over, I would've done it. Not my thing, anyway. I like a good fight, as you should know."
"You want a fight? Pick someone else for your workouts, Ares."
"What's the matter? Zeus kick your sorry ass again?"
"My son died today."
For one long stretch, he almost bought it, tricked by the subdued delivery, the refusal to attack. Sanity stepped in and smacked him. "You never give up, do you? Go tell your lies to someone who cares."
"No lies, little brother. Guess you figured any kid of mine would have his old man's looks."
"You don't mean...?"
"Believe it or not," Ares said, glancing over, "his mother was really hot. A dryad. I liked the idea of a son, someone to help with the duties of war. How was I supposed to know she was cursed by dear old Dad to produce only monstrous offspring?"
That much he could understand. "Guess she'd turned him down at some point."
"You know what he's like. Everyone's supposed to bend over for him. If you don't, he gets mean."
No way did he owe Ares any sympathy, not for a son whose idea of interior decoration ran to flesh and bone or a father like Zeus. "He likes to win. Runs in the family."
"Yes," Ares said, "it does."
"With a personality like that, I guess you raised your son?"
"After he ripped off his nurse's head, I sent him to Hypnos. I figured the poppies he's got in that cave would keep him too tired to do more damage."
"Then he grew up, and you decided the world needed a little more death and destruction."
"Always positive, Hercules. That's what I like about you. No, he must've escaped from Hypnos' cave."
"And you let me take care of your dirty work."
"You want me to kill my own son?"
With anyone else, he would've stopped. "Never knew you were so sentimental. Especially about family."
"You're not my son, Hercules. You're my brother, and brothers fight. It's not complicated to anyone but you."
"So everything that's happened between us is just a little sibling rivalry? You're too much, Ares. You've got the most backward sense of values I've ever seen."
"You're admitting I have values?" Ares faced him, the old Ares, the one who smirked right before he charged. The shift was sudden and startling, like Janus turning his other cheek. "You're going to make me cry."
Back on familiar territory, Hercules clenched his fists, preparing for the inevitable attack. "Wouldn't be the first time."
"Iphicles must be a pretty lousy lay if you're this aggressive after a bang. You should try a real--"
When he lunged, Ares vanished into the ether, laughing, true to form. No one deserved sympathy less. But sympathy was tricky, unpredictable as lust. Hercules, practiced with awkward emotions, directed this one toward the dead creature, and paid for it. A last look brought him an image of the thing as an infant, hideous, mewling, hungry. The wet nurse arrives to feed him, her face screwed in disgust, holding him awkwardly to her breast, minimizing contact. Crying louder, sensing her repulsion, he reaches up with those strong human arms, so wrong on the animal body. He has no fingers, or what he has seem soldered together, black and shiny, and each clump meets behind her plump neck as he struggles closer to her warmth. She resists, so he struggles harder. He's too strong, though, and there's this sudden rush of liquid, not milk, something bright and very hot, and he drinks this instead.
The vision had a nightmarish clarity, almost like a memory, and Hercules thought of his mother holding him as a baby, scared of the hands that had ripped Hera's serpents to pieces in the cradle. Then he saw a boy, not him, approach a bearded man. "Father," he said, tugging on a sleeve. The man ignored him, too busy watching Alcmene and her new son.
God, he hated Ares. Every confrontation left him gutted as the body on its rocky grave.
Costumed celebrants danced along the main road to Corinth, their way lit for Lenaea with garlanded torches. A few sang hymns to Dionysus, others, fueled by wine, paused for a quickie in the bushes by the roadside, which rustled noisily in the still warm night.
"One of these days Ares will get bored and stop bugging you," Iolaus said, eyeing a couple dressed as snakes, with long gauzy green tails that dragged in the dust and masks covered with tiny fragments of colored glass.
"Don't hold your breath."
"You and your brothers." Iolaus shook his curly head like a dog. "All that obsession."
"It's not like that. Ares just likes to win."
"Today wasn't about winning, was it?"
Hercules turned from a woman dressed as a leopard, the creature's head fitted over hers, the skin training behind her. "You his legal counsel now, Iolaus?"
"I'm not saying he can't be a jerk. Once in awhile, though, sure, but he told you about his kid, about wanting a son. What could he gain from that?"
"Maybe he wanted me to let my guard down. You know what he's like."
"Maybe he was talking because you gave him the chance for once. You can be a little grumpy, big guy. So Ares left a coin, talked a little, then headed off for parts unknown. No hitting, no threatening. Just a little brotherly communication."
"Don't try to make it sound normal. Ares doesn't think like we do. Look, we're almost there," Hercules said in a segue so clunky even he heard it scrape past his tongue. "It'll be nice to sit back and have a drink with Iphicles." Then spread him on his bed and fuck him senseless. That's what he wanted: to be insensible.
"Sure. A drink. And maybe a thick, hot, juicy piece of royal Corinthian--"
"--lamb." He opened his eyes wide, bursting with innocence. "Don't know what his cook does to it. It's spicy and sweet at the same time. Very tasty."
Hercules couldn't help laughing, and socked his friend affectionately on the arm. "You're a good guy, Iolaus."
"Some day we can talk about this?"
"Some day. Sure. Here are the city gates."
"You know, Herc, you don't have to keep it all bottled up. You--Okay, okay, I'll shut up, but remember I'm here if you need me."
They paid the toll and passed under the arched postern with its overhanging sign welcoming the Megarian visitors and praising Dionysus. In the city, more torches blazed, while a thousand garlands hung from every building in the agora, fat pink and yellow flowers that perfumed the air and made Iolaus sneeze. The pink ones were the color of Iphicles' ass after the belt, of his mouth always, and Hercules touched the petals of a flower dangling from the stoa's roof while Iolaus' eyes were squeezed shut. Soft and slippery-smooth, they felt like the skin deep inside Iphicles' body. He tore off a few and carried them like a talisman, stroking until the flesh split, then dropping the remnants like a trail behind him.
Not that Iolaus noticed, in his element now, dancing between sneezes to the thunderous beat of fifty tambourines, the metallic clank of fifty cymbals, as a small army of Maenads whirled through the square, fawn skins flaring, eyes wide and blind in mindless worship. And Iolaus whirled back, happily munching a glazed cake shaped either like Dionysus' thyrsus or a huge cock and taking the occasional sip from a chipped mug brimming with wine that smelled of saffron.
"How do you do that?" Hercules raised his voice above the noise.
Iolaus turned to him, a smear of honey on his chin. "People just give me things. No strings attached. You should've seen what Clio, Philemon's niece, wanted to give me." He rubbed his hands like a kid at Solstice. "I told her I'd be back later for it when less people were around," he added, then bounded ahead.
Hercules let him go. Festivals always made him uncomfortable, isolated where everyone else was connected. It made him want Iphicles even more, and he picked up his pace. As the crowd thinned, Iolaus reappeared, this time with a handful of dates. Soon the path thinned, too, became a tight narrow space between grey stone walls barely wide enough for a carriage. It reminded him of the alley, and his cock twitched.
"Herc, slow down. I can't walk that fast, and the guards always give me a hard time if you're not around. Not that they like you too much, either, but at least you've got the family connection."
"Sorry. I'm just hungry."
He thought that Iolaus snorted, but they'd reached the palace gates and the watching sentries who always puffed their chests under their bull-stamped bronze cuirasses. Guards and soldiers never liked him, suspicious of a guy hated by Ares, loyal to a god who fought with them on the battlefield and could wield a mean sword. After a thousand years, a village idiot could use a sword. And fighting on a battlefield didn't take much balls when you were immortal. Now, the taller one checked them out, tilting his chin to reveal a raw fissure in the skin, maybe a month old.
"Where's my brother?" he asked.
"Everyone's in the Hall of the Double Axes," the guard said, and pointed his spear toward a building distinguished from the others only by the extra-tall columns supporting the porch.
The place looked like a prison for very rich criminals, and Hercules' soles twitched. "Thanks."
"Seen some action lately?" Iolaus touched his own smooth chin.
"Things got a little tense with the Megarians. That's all fixed now."
"Feels like we've been gone for ages," Iolaus commented as they walked past new statues in the courtyard, Hestia, looking demure, and Priapus, looking anything but. "Wow," he added. "You could use that as a pole-vault."
As they climbed the hall steps, music floated out between the columns, not the pounding Dionysian rhythm of the agora, but the milder lilt of a flute and lyre. Voices rose and fell to a familiar song about Alcestis, who loved her dead husband so much she's willing to take the skeletal hand of Thanatos and go with him to the Underworld.
In the corridor, a few feet from the main room, Hercules slowed. "I think..." He stalled, mentally untangling the threads that wove together in his head. Somewhere, three women unravelled thread on a large spindle and laughed.
Iolaus, a few paces ahead, dropped back. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing. It's nothing." Through the doorway with its two great axes, flanked by four guards, two Corinthians, two Megarians, a crowd of aristocrats sat at a long table crammed with bowls of fruit and mountains of cakes. Hercules could see the half closest to him, undulating to the low music like the end of a snake, their jewels flaring under the glow of a thousand candles.
"Shit," Iolaus said suddenly. "Oh shit."
In the room now, Hercules saw his brother standing at the table's head beside a young woman with dark hair that hung straight and smooth down her back, dressed in a blue gown embroidered with the Megarian crest: a crown circling a fox. Iphicles held a wine glass in one hand and the girl's ringed fingers in his other, and Hercules' stomach contorted. Was he still moving or was it the room? Something wasn't standing still.
Then Iphicles turned toward him, his face pale. "You're here."
"You must be Hercules." The girl with her shiny hair and calm, serious face, held out her free hand. "King Iphicles had told me all about you. I'm Pheme. I'm so glad you could be here for our engagement party."
Iphicles said nothing, and neither did Hercules, just stared, a breath away from telling this little Megarian princess just how her future husband had celebrated his engagement, how if she'd lift his goddamn tunic she could even see for herself.
"Congratulations." Iolaus nudged him. "We're very happy for them, aren't we, Hercules?"
"Very," Hercules said. "But we don't have presents." He went to the table, picked up a shiny red apple, and walked to Iphicles. "Here. I know how much you like them."
His brother accepted it, flushing. "I love them. Always have. Nothing's changed--"
"Everything's changed. You're getting married."
"Don't worry, Hercules," Pheme told him, putting her hand on his arm. "I won't come between you."
He almost laughed at that. "Don't worry about me. I'll be gone soon, and you two can get as close as you deserve." He bent and kissed the girl's soft cheek. "That's my present for you. It's the best I can do right now."
"We're both pretty beat." Iolaus to the rescue again. "Hard day kicking monster butt. Might be best if we could grab some food and leave you to it."
"Thanks," Iphicles said. "I don't know what I'd do without you. Either of you."
"I think you'd do fine." It sounded hostile, so Hercules smiled, although he was so goddamn hostile it hurt not to punch Iphicles hard as he could. He felt a mean satisfaction when his brother flinched. "Good night."
Iphicles placed his hand on Hercules' arm, against his bare skin. "Why don't you stay and have some wine?"
"It's been a long day. I'll leave you to it." He gave a terse little bow, the minimum required, and walked out. His instinct was to leave, and he made it to the porch, then changed his mind, stumbling into an alcove. He was Iphicles' only family and couldn't just take off. Bad for Iphicles, bad for Corinth. No point being the world's strongest man if he dicked off his responsibility just because his brother had ditched him for some skinny little girl with flat tits. Jealousy filtered the world through a puke-green light, like the sky teetering on the edge of a storm.
The hole in the alcove wall registered before the pain in his hand, a splintered wound through Zeus' frescoed gut. A red surge followed, like the wall hitting back, with the added gall of irony, and beyond sense he punched again to stop it. "Stupid," he said. "I'm being stupid. This isn't helping." That reassured him, and he moved a high-backed chair to cover the damage. Super-strength meant busting walls when childishly out of control, but also the ability to cover up the mess, a trick learned young and fast. "Ouch," he added for good measure, shaking his aching fist, and almost felt normal--until the old pain danced on the head of the new. "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck." "Herc."
"Go away, Iolaus."
"We have to talk."
"Why? You getting married? And why does everyone have to talk? I'm sick of goddamn talking. Leave me alone."
"You need to talk about this. You're wound tight as Clotho's spindle. Remember how we used to talk when we were kids? About your dad, both of them. About--"
"Iolaus, if you don't leave me alone, I'm going to hit you. If I hit you, I'll probably kill you, and that won't be good. Do you understand?"
"You need space. I get it. Look, he sent some food to your room. At least go and eat something, okay?"
"Sure. Fine. I'll go." Hercules swallowed some air and nearly choked. "Thanks." Then he left, conscious of every step, every sound, wishing Ares had pushed him over the rocks, with a coin for Charon beside him.
His bedroom, Hercules decided, with the repulsive clarity of betrayal, looked like a whore's: a quiet space filled with a huge bed, a single cabinet, and a wide window obscured from the outside by a wild pear tree that also muffled noise and scented the air. A place, in other words, where Iphicles could come and be fucked all night, then sneak back to his own room, no damage done. The servants all thought Hercules took the small back room either to play martyr or to fuck Iolaus in peace, which would explain the come-soaked sheets, although the joke circulated that while one brother ruled Corinth, the other could single-handedly populate it.
Tonight the bed was neatly made, and the tiny table beside it precariously loaded with a jug of wine, a cup, some roasted chicken and a pile of figs, their sides split. No apples, he thought, grabbing a date and heading for the window. Sucking on the fruit, Hercules leaned his elbows on the wide sill and stared at the moon fragmented by pears and leafy branches. No music reached him here from the party, just some stupid bird with a sense of occasion, singing its feathered heart out.
At first, when the hair raised on his arms, he blamed the wind, only no wind could squeeze past the tree. Then he knew. Riddle: who would always be there to torment him, no matter what? "Go away, Ares. I'm not in the mood."
"What's the worst part? That he fucked you without mentioning her, or that he sent you off to clean up his own monster problem?"
"That's the best you can do? You must be hurting. He's not worth it."
"How would you know?"
"Like it or not, little brother, I know you."
"Stop calling me that. We're not family. We happen to share the same father, that's all." He forced himself blank and invulnerable. No grinding teeth or flexing fingers. "And you don't know me."
"I'm hurt," Ares said, and put one hand over his heart.
"I'm surprised you can find it."
"After what I let you see this afternoon?"
"Your little performance? I was touched. Really."
"Sorry, I forgot: I'm the wrong brother. You've got it all wrapped it for that pretty king. You know, I never got that."
"It's none of your damn business."
"I checked him out when I heard he looked like me." He shrugged. "I don't see it. But he doesn't interest me. Not like you."
"Ares, you're not listening. For the thousandth time, I don't care. All I care is that you leave me alone."
"Don't you get tired of singing that song?"
"The truth hurts."
Ares laughed. "That was my next line."
"And what truth would that be?"
One of those lightning changes, like a tide coming in. "You know, Hercules. The truth about us."
Hercules gave up and rubbed his forehead where a hammer pounded. "All I know is that this conversation is over. You want to fight, take a shot. Otherwise, go annoy someone else."
"We don't always have to fight." Ares took a step closer.
"You can't be serious. How desperate do you think I am?"
"Almost desperate enough."
"You're sick, Ares."
"Like you've never thought about it?"
Without thinking, Hercules' body bent, right shoulder first, and he charged. When Ares disappeared at the last second, Hercules crashed into the wall beside the door. The marble cracked in protest, splitting like a sideways grin. One reason he preferred to sleep outside: houses just didn't fit him right, even palaces. They didn't regenerate when broken. Wincing, he collapsed on the bed and poured himself a hefty glass of wine. Not his usual thing, getting pie-eyed, but he'd had enough thinking and feeling for today. For a month. Forever.
Right before the wine made moving impossible, he forced himself up and placed the cabinet against the door. Childish again, but safe. And when the handle turned a few minutes later, and Iphicles whispered, "Come on, Herc, open up," he pretended it was a dream and rolled onto his side.
In a joke of Fate or Hypnos, Hercules did dream that night.
He was in his mother's house, in his old bed, the one where his toes poked out at the end, with the sheet tickling his chin. In the quiet dark, he listened to Iphicles breathe, and wriggled his tongue in his mouth, still tasting him from that afternoon, salt and apples. The itch between his legs got stronger, and he had to put a hand over the covers to hide the bulge.
What happened earlier didn't seem real. He'd been picturing it for so long, sucking Iphicles, ever since he'd heard the older kids at school say that a blow job was the best thing in the world, what every guy wanted but couldn't get. That had worried him, too, in case it was gross, only it wasn't. Sucking Iphicles had been amazing, and he wanted to do it again so badly that he slid a finger into his mouth.
The voice drifted across the room. "Herc, I still hurt."
The edges of the room were smudged like a charcoal drawing, lightening only around his brother's bed, and he know it was a dream. Maybe that's why he moved. Terrified and excited, safe in unreality, non-responsibility, he slowly tossed back the sheet and stood. His cock bobbed big and swollen between his legs, and he shot a glance toward the door. Closed, with no light shining under the crack. Still, he could see Iphicles lying on his stomach, his hair clustered and black in the dark, the covers bunched at his feet.
Was this a mistake? Maybe he'd dreamed the voice. Without rolling over, Iphicles patted the mattress, so he climbed on. With the bed so narrow, he was forced to lie partly on top of his brother, his cock pressed against Iphicles' hip. As he shifted, Hercules realized that his brother' skin ass was slick and oily, and it felt really good to slip and slide against him. Iphicles moved, too; he seemed to want Hercules to straddle him, like when they gave each other back rubs. When he did, the head of his cock pushed against Iphicles' ass, causing a feeling so powerful and new Hercules named it death.
Iphicles, though, wasn't it fighting it: he raised himself a little like an offering. His breath coming in little hiccuping gasps, Hercules tried to back off, but his brother grabbed his wrist and held him. Didn't Iphicles know what was happening, what they were about to do? "Iphicles," he whispered, panicking now, "I'm going to...You're too close. I need more room." That's when Iphicles reached behind and closed his fingers over the base of Hercules' cock while raising himself even higher.
Pressure then, intense and he cried out at the first penetration, startled that a body could be hot as an oven. Iphicles, who wasn't immortal--a terrible truth that he never acknowledged until now--had to be dying from this, and that was the worst, only Iphicles kept living, raising his ass higher to take Hercules' cock. Didn't it hurt at least, what he was doing, sliding into Iphicles, him big as a farm animal? Wrong, too, to have his cock inside his brother, up him like dogs or horses. "I can stop," Hercules lied. "I can. Tell me to stop and I'll do it. Just tell me." His brother's sounds scared him even more, as the two of them got even closer, one sticky body now, and he really did try to pull out until Iphicles thrust back. It felt so good that Hercules thought maybe he shouted, and somewhere in the cottage their mother made a noise.
Iphicles, his voice still muffled, ordered, "Quiet, just fuck," so he tried, he really did, pressing his lips together, his hips rocking. "Iph," he said, "I love you," and said it again, name and confession, name and confession, louder and harder, the words setting his pace, faster and deeper. Just a dream, so fuck him. No guilt in dreams for fucking your brother and loving it, for sharing the taste of death with him, with Iphicles, who would know it soon enough.
"Are you boys all right?" his mother called through the door. His mother, who died quietly in her bed last year.
Even with the door closed, Hercules saw her ghost-face crumpled with worry. "We're fine," he said, sounding almost normal, his thrusts short and sharp now. "Go back to bed."
"It's a dream," Iphicles echoed, his head still down. "He had a dream. A nightmare. About Father. It's okay."
The handle turned. "Mom, it's okay." He rested his cheek against Iphicles' damp shoulder, forcing his breathing slower. "I'm fine. Just trying to sleep now." "Goodnight, then," she said, and left them alone.
"Let's always sleep like this," Iphicles whispered. "You in me. Me in you."
Something strange about the last part. Iphicles didn't say that, not back then; he liked to be fucked best, so that's how they did it. "I think I'm in the wrong dream," Hercules said.
"No, this is right," his brother said, and thrust his ass up again, so hard-good that Hercules stopped thinking and just moved.
It got wilder, hotter, with the bed groaning and the window rattling. It didn't matter, nothing mattered except kissing his brother, putting his tongue in Iphicles' mouth and fucking it the way he fucked his ass. If being inside Iphicles hadn't killed him, not kissing him would. "Roll over," he begged. "Roll over now." Iphicles was too slow, so Hercules pulled out and flipped him on his back, then slid back in.
That's when he should have come, unused to the tight hungry ass sucking him back in to his balls. That's when he did come, in the past. Someone was messing with the facts, and he stole this extra slice of fate to stay in place, rocking his hips and slamming his cock in again and again to the sound of his brother's low cries. "Yes," Hercules kept whispering, riding on this wave of destiny, glad that it happened while Iphicles was on his back, even if he couldn't quite see his brother's face. Iphicles' hair was mussed, hiding his face, soft black curls that he stroked in the same careful disorder, never arranging them, letting Iphicles pretend it wasn't real.
The room darkened like a cloud had hidden the moon, but he didn't care, so close now his balls ached. Slipping his hand under Iphicles' head, Hercules pulled him close, struggling in the dark to see his brother's face, wanting his tongue no matter what. "Going to kiss you," he said. "Have to," and knew without seeing it that the full mouth opened for him, breathed sweet apples then tasted them, hot and wet. He licked and sucked his brother's tongue, fucked him with his cock, so crazy with it that minutes had to pass before Hercules noticed the roughness of the skin scratching his cheeks, not smooth the way Iphicles should be. Rough like a beard. Like...
"Ares." He tried to get away, but Ares, shaking his hair from his face, grabbed his shoulders and wrapped his legs tighter, forcing Hercules' cock even deeper.
"Just fuck me, little brother," he said. "Like you've always wanted to."
Struggling felt like fucking, so Hercules stopped dead, while under him Ares rocked up. "You're sick, Ares."
"You're the one fucking me."
"You tricked me."
"It's only a dream, Hercules. Relax and enjoy it."
"It's a goddamn nightmare."
"It could be worse."
"How?" His voice deepened, and he aged two dozen years.
"I could be a really crappy fuck."
Furious--and it was fury, nothing else--Hercules willed his cock to soften, but it stayed swollen and hard, so he went for a punch instead.
Ares caught his hand, twisted, and suddenly their positions were reversed: Hercules was on his back, his legs spread, with his brother kneeling between them. "I'm going to fuck you now," Ares said. "I'm going to give you destiny right up your ass."
Hercules woke with his throat drier than a desert, his head cloudy and dull. Worse, his thighs were sticky where he'd come in his sleep. No mystery there: the dream wasn't about lust but punishment. He felt guilty for leaving Iphicles, for having a compulsion to travel that ruined everything, including his brother's ability to be happy. That's all.
When other thoughts tried to crowd in, he went to stand, only to be trapped by the sheet snaking around his body. It tore with a satisfying shriek. The worst thing about having tangled fraternal relationships? Impossible to crack a snide joke about parents and the need for accessible birth control.
No, he wouldn't think about Iphicles. No, he wouldn't think about Ares. Instead, he washed his face, splashing water, humming, tapping his foot to an old song from his childhood, then dressed quickly. Breakfast was a pear from the branches poking into the room, munched noisily while he followed a dim passageway past the workshop and out into the garden.
A guard stopped him at the palace gate. "King Iphicles would like to see you," he said, with a little tap of his spear on the earth.
King Iphicles can fuck himself. "I'll see him later, when he's awake."
"He told us it didn't matter. He wants you to--"
"Don't you know when he's joking?" Hercules left the sentry scratching his head and took off down the road. Where to go? Preferably somewhere that had nothing to do with kings or gods. He decided on the agora, which would be crowded and noisy even this early in the morning, with plenty of action to keep a hero busy.
Two thieves, three brawls, one lost child and a misplaced puppy later, Hercules bought a flagon of wine and a bowl of lamb and lentil stew. He ate outside at one of the small tables placed between the south stoa's thick columns, deliberately turning his head from a statue of Iphicles. Better to focus instead on the strings of people hurrying in and out of Aphrodite's temple, sacrifices tucked under their arm or in the case of the larger ones led in on leashes. According to tradition, the lovelorn entered without their slaves, who loitered on the steps, chatting among themselves. The last thing a nobleman needed was servants' gossip about his erectile problems or his lover's betrayal. The rumors still circulated, but tradition outweighed reality.
Gossip was as inevitable as death and taxes, and Hercules, sipping his wine, heard it all around him, from all quarters: the Corinthian citizens, the merchants, the temple priests, the visitors. A small band of the last, three shipwrights from Thebes here for the festival, sat at a nearby table eating chicken seasoned with so much thyme that one of them sniffed regularly. In between the food and sniffles, they discussed a recent unsolved murder in their city.
"...torn limb from limb. Weird thing was, the wife slept right through it."
"Sounds like Clytemnestra and Agamemnon to me. Anyone check for an Aegisthus hiding in the closet?"
"First thing the magistrate thought. The wife was hysterical, though, and around eighty. Couldn't lace her own sandals, let alone rip her husband to pieces."
"They say there was so much blood the family cat drowned in it."
"They've got no clues, either. There's a son, but he's up in Pergamum studying medicine. Besides, they spent their last few dinars sending him there. No money in it for him."
"The slaves?" the youngest asked, chewing noisily. "Had to be an inside job since all the doors were locked, including the bedroom one."
"I heard the old man knew it was coming," the sniffler added, burying his nose in a white linen square. "Had nightmares for a week before it happened."
The third man had a dolphin's oily grey skin and tiny-toothed grin. "Coincidence. What purpose would it serve if the gods made our dreams prophetic? For that matter, what's the point of dreams at all? Waste of good sleep, if you ask me."
"Don't let the Oneiroi hear you. Hypnos and his sons are a vengeful bunch. You'll dream of screwing pigs from now til you lay that coin in Charon's bony palm."
"Or worse. My cousin dreamt he'd come into some money. When he'd spent all he had and his windfall never came, he refused to sacrifice to the dream gods. For his troubles, Hypnos made his nights a living hell. Tisiphone had nothing on him. Forget hungry vultures or terrible thirst. Every time he closed his eyes, a dozen demons sucked the marrow from his bones. He died within the year."
"I remember your cousin. The miller, right? Could be he felt guilty for robbing people blind. The man was notorious for keeping his thumb on the scales."
"You'll regret that when you wake up with your dick up a pig's ass," Sniffler said, glancing over his shoulder, and raising his glass. "Praise the Tribe of Dreams."
Dolphin clinked his glass against the other two. "May our sleep be filled with big-breasted women of easy virtue, if it pleases mighty Hypnos and his sons."
Gods or no gods, he could use a dream like that. No, forget the dream--the reality would be better. A nice, uncomplicated woman who'd make a good home for him. The thing was, he'd tried it, and neither time it worked out. As he slunk in his seat, drinking more wine, the light strain of a lyre drifted to him from the odeion, while a herald called out that the play was about to start, a comedy so hilarious even the Spartans had rolled in the aisles. Almost as good as a big-breasted woman of easy virtue, Hercules thought, pushing back his chair.
He followed the line of stragglers through the south stoa. On the wall to his right, Jason smiled brightly from the helm of the Argo, painted happier than he'd ever been, the Golden Fleece nailed to the mast. "Glad someone's in a good mood," he muttered, and passed a wizened man who eyeballed him suspiciously and tapped his pink skull with his index finger in a pointed gesture.
A right turn, then a left, and he filed through the odeion's main doors under Thespias' grave image, dropping a coin into the porter's brass box. The theater was three-quarters full, and Hercules easily found an empty space in one of the empty back rows, nearly hidden in the shadow of a support pillar. To light the theater, someone had opened the shutters to the windows, and a light salty breeze ruffled Hercules' hair. Below him, the choir assembled, dressed as birds in feathered headdresses and robes covered in long red and blue plumes. "Must've been some pretty big birds," he observed to no one in particular.
"Shh," hissed his friend from outside, sitting a few tiers down. "This isn't a brothel, you drunken lout."
"Too bad," he said, and leaned back on the marble bench, while the chorus started to sing about why sheep made the best lovers. "Guess this is a comedy."
"Well, it's not Oedipus Rex."
"It could be the all-ovine version."
The old man's face turned a deep shade of purple as he squinted into the sun, and Hercules, feeling guilty, bought an extra honey cake from the serving boy and sent it down as a peace offering. He watched him sniff it, then sink his teeth in, doubtless getting the same squirt of honey Hercules had. A smile broke onto his face, and he nodded, then turned back to the show below.
Around him the audience began to applaud as two actors frolicked onto the stage dressed in fleece and bleating up a storm, and Hercules joined in, then finished off the cake, licking his fingers.
"This is the last place I thought I'd find you," Iphicles whispered, sliding onto the bench. "I didn't know that slapstick was your thing."
"Neither did I--at least not until last night."
"It's politics, Hercules. It doesn't mean anything."
"You don't even sound convinced. And if it's just politics, why didn't you tell me?"
"I was going to do it after we'd fucked. I can't think straight when it's been that long for us. Then you left, as usual, before I could get to it."
"Don't try to pin this on me. I had to leave. Besides, I didn't know you were gearing up for a big confession."
"I don't want to fight. That's the last thing I want. I've missed you so much." Iphicles squeezed Hercules' thigh.
"We can't do this anymore. Things are different now." When Hercules tried to push him away, careful not to hurt him, his brother gripped his fingers.
"Maybe they will be, later. Not now. I need you now. Feel how much." He lowered Hercules' hand over his hard cock, barely covered by his white tunic. "I want you to fuck me. Now. Show me you still love me."
"You know I love you. It's not about that."
"I know you want to fuck me. That's one thing I know." With his free hand, he reached into Hercules' lap and stroked him through the leather. "See? I knew you'd be hard. You're always hard for me."
"That's not the point. You've got her now." He tried unsuccessfully to push Iphicles' hand away. "Let's just watch the play." If only his brother didn't know exactly what he liked. The problem of history: it created inescapable patterns. "Besides," he added, "there's no oil."
Iphicles pointed to the leather pouch that hung from his belt. "I've got oil. I've already used it anyway. I'm slick and wet, just the way you like, ready for your cock."
"Fucking you isn't going to change anything. You still lied. You're still getting married." He concentrated on the stage below, anything not to think about his brother's oiled ass, and how good it would feel to pound into it.
When Iphicles stood, Hercules thought he'd won, and got the same sick feeling from last night. But Iphicles just moved to the pillar, tucking his tunic into his belt, and leaned against it, his arms raised over his head. It was one thing to turn his brother down when he couldn't see him, like last night. Now, with the sun hitting him from the back windows, hidden from everyone's eyes but his, Hercules had no choice.
Below him, three weaving women walked onto the stage. "It's destiny," they intoned. "Destiny."
The last time, he assured himself, getting to his feet. Then Iphicles could live happily ever after without him. His cock was out by the time he reached his brother, and Hercules rubbed it into the oiled crack. "You're such a slut," he whispered.
"In me. Now." Iphicles pushed back against him, and the head of Hercules' cock slid in. "That's it. Do it hard and fast."
Hercules held him still. "You wanted me to fuck you, so let me." He did it slowly, slowly as he could one hand tight on Iphicles' wrists, the other against his hip, focused on the sweat that rose on his shivering brother's back.
"You're a bastard, you know that? At least let me touch my cock."
"You do what I want. How I want it."
Iphicles groaned. "Your cock's so big--this will take all day. I need you in me now."
"Want me to stop?" Not that he could, with Iphicles' ass so hot around him.
"I'll kill you if you do."
The hotter Iphicles got, the more it drove him crazy, and the slow tease had his brother writhing. "You know how much I love to fuck you?" Hercules asked, his mouth against Iphicles' ear.
"Nobody has an ass like you."
"Not even Ares?"
He froze. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I heard you last night." Iphicles looked at him over his shoulder. "At first I thought it was Iolaus, but the voice was too deep. Then you said his name."
"Iph, I'm not fucking him. I hate him."
"He wants to fuck you. Why the hell else would he be in your room?"
"To piss me off. It's what he does."
"I think he wants you. And I think you want him. You get so wild whenever you talk about him."
"That's crap. You're the one I want." And he slammed his hips, pushing his cock home. "Only you."
"You never thought about it? I've seen the statues. I know what he looks like. Half of Greece would bend over for him."
"Don't talk about him, Iphicles. Not now."
"Why not? Is it getting you hot? You like to fuck me--why not your other brother?"
"He's nothing like you."
"Maybe that's why you want him," Iphicles said.
But he started to thrust back, and Hercules fucked him hard until they were both dripping with sweat, until the actors' voices faded, until nothing existed except Iphicles.
"You should fuck him," Iphicles said as they walked back to the palace. "So you can both get it out of your system."
"You're only saying that so you won't feel guilty."
"Mostly. I don't want you fucking anyone. Your cock is mine."
"You don't know him, Iphicles. He's selfish, violent and manipulative. Trying to kill me is his favorite hobby."
"You're still here, aren't you?"
"Only because of Zeus' edict."
"You really think that's it? If Ares is as out of control as you say, nothing would stop him."
"Why are you making excuses for him?"
"Believe it or not, I can imagine what it's like being him. After all, we both have you for a brother."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Come on, Hercules. You know."
"You should fuck him, Iphicles, since you two have so much in common."
Iphicles held his arm when he tried to hurry ahead. "Goddammit, don't be like that."
"Look, I have to go to Thebes for a couple of days. It's got nothing to do with you, or anything that's happened. And nothing to do with Ares," he added hastily. "Someone was killed and--"
"You don't have to explain," Iphicles said. "I know the drill."
"I'll just get Iolaus and we'll take off. We'll be back in a few days at most."
"I don't know how he puts up with you."
"I was never stupid enough to sleep with him. He's my friend."
"You think you were stupid to sleep with me?"
Did Iphicles ever listen? "This isn't getting us anywhere. Go see your bride-to-be. Start your new life with her. I'll see you later." This time, when he stormed ahead, Iphicles didn't stop him.
The dead man's house stood at the edge of Thebes, the last one in a row of tidy two-story buildings. A dense cluster of trees loomed green behind it, and a small rocky outcropping beyond them. Loomed. Strange word. The Fates, it seemed, were everywhere.
"Definitely empty," Iolaus said. "I hope. So what exactly are we looking for?"
"I'm not sure. I just know that the farmers outside Corinth had nightmares, and so did the dead man."
"That's it? I've had a few nightmares, too. We all do. It doesn't mean anything." He gnawed on his lower lip. "This is about Iphicles, isn't it? Punishing him?"
"This has nothing to do with him," Hercules said, walking into the courtyard. "I heard these three guys talking. It was a hunch."
Iolaus came in after him, pausing at the altar. "Okay. It's just that mystery-solving's not our main line of work. Monsters are. And Iphicles did suddenly announce his engagement--"
"Good thing no one bothered to lock any of the doors." He gestured into the storage room, where large clay amphoras lined the walls, with smaller ones arranged in rows along narrow shelves. There were baskets, too, piled high with linen, while two silver candlesticks sat on a corner table beside an open scroll and a quill. "The rumors about the place being haunted probably keep the thieves away."
"Like they just left."
They checked the dining room next. A large frescoed scene covered the longest unbroken wall: the gods at a banquet. Ares was one of them, seated in a corner on a narrow blue and green couch same as the ones in the room. Beside them sat small tables ready with wine goblets and small ivory-handled knives for the next meal. The blue-tiled floor was spotless.
"Creepy." Iolaus shook his head. "You see anything significant here?"
"Not yet. Let's check the kitchen. It's the last room on the floor."
Iolaus stepped in, then jumped out. "Holy shit. Guess the bedroom must be directly overhead." Ordinary kitchen, with clay oven, hanging pots, bowls of grain, a large table, except that a geyser of blood had stained tiles once blue a dark angry red, floor and ceiling. "Tartarus must look like this."
"We'd better go upstairs."
"Herc, this guy was killed, what, like a month ago? Whoever offed him is long gone."
"How did the serpentaur kill his victims?" A plain oak ladder led upstairs, and he began to climb.
"Not like this," Iolaus said from below. "He socked a few when they came after them and did some damage that way, but mostly he fire-blasted them. Can you see anything?"
"I'm still in the hallway." Up here, with only a few smaller windows, it stank like a slaughterhouse, the air thick, raw and choking. "You might want to stay down there."
Iolaus clattered up after him. "Don't say I never did anything for you. Bloody chambers are not my thing. So, you want door number one, or door number two?" They entered the smaller room first, obviously the son's before he left, with its small bed and pile of marbles and a wooden soldier on the bedside table. "One down, one to go." Sweat coated Iolaus' face and chest. "You don't think he's still here, do you?" He stared at the closed door. "A dumb monster's one thing, but whoever made the mess downstairs is evil."
The door groaned on its hinges when Hercules pushed it open, and the smell hit hard, pungent with rot. The walls, floor and ceiling were a rich, glossy red, like a giant had ripped off the roof and poured in a pitcher of blood. The bed was a sodden, blackened hump in the room's center. "There's nothing here," Hercules said, but Iolaus had already left, clomping down the ladder.
He found him in the courtyard, sitting on the ground with his back to the altar, his head between his knees. "You okay?"
Iolaus glanced up, his face chalky. "Let's get back to Corinth so I can see that priest's pretty niece and forget I ever saw this. I'm sorry about what Iphicles did to you, but I don't want to be here anymore. There's nothing we can do."
"You're right," he said. "If this place isn't haunted, it should be."
They rode back into Corinth with a goldsmith Hercules once helped, who appreciated the extra security. His rush to deliver a special order brought them to the city earlier than expected, and he dropped them in the early evening not far from the agora.
"If you don't mind, Herc, I'll go see Clio about that no-strings gift she offered. I'll catch up with you tomorrow."
"Take care of yourself, big guy. Say hi to the king for me." He winked, then hurried off.
At the palace, a sentry informed Hercules that the king was in the garden near the sanctuary. After the bloody house in Thebes, he needed to see him. Not to fuck, just to be with, plain and simple.
The sanctuary was a small round building, its red roof supported by a circle of narrow columns. Dedicated centuries ago to some long-forgotten goddess, the interior was empty except for a marble bench and an old statue with a broken arm and a weathered face. Weeds and wild flowers poked through the cracked black and white tiles, and from his place on the bench Hercules touched the prickly face of a tall straw-faced plant.
A nightingale sang from the branches of the apple tree that hugged the shrine's front. Hercules, relaxing for the first time in days, barely registered the second sound, a woman's laugh, so high and light he thought at first it was a second bird. Then he saw them, Iphicles and his princess, walking hand and hand through rows of lavender and hyacinth, so fucking happy that he forgot to hate them at first, just watched as Iphicles gently held her face and kissed her. A sweet, tender kiss, so different from what he always gave Hercules that the scene seemed even more unreal, not Iphicles at all, who never kissed without his tongue thrusting hard as his hips.
They didn't notice him, just kissed softly until the girl's maid caught up to them. Then, hand in hand again, the couple returned to the palace.
The sun was barely a glimmer on the horizon when the air crackled in the sanctuary. Please, he thought, don't let it be him. Anyone of the others. Just not him. Then he heard the clink of metal, the creak of leather.
"Don't do anything," Ares said. "Just listen."
Hercules barely raised his head.
"I'm here to offer you a deal."
Nothing to say to that. If he stayed quiet, Ares might leave, and he could sit here for a thousand years until he turned into a second statue. He wasn't up for a fight. Not tonight.
"You're thinking too much. You're as fucked up as Iphicles is--"
"Don't talk about him. You don't know him."
"Yes, I do. We have a lot in common."
"Save it, okay? I've heard it all before."
"I know, and Iphicles is right. About everything."
"You were there? Spying on me?"
"You want me to stop? Then here's my deal: we fuck. One time. Then it'll be over. You need a distraction, and I need to get rid of one."
"You're crazy. You really are."
"Because I want to fuck you? Fighting's not that different than fucking, Hercules. This way, we get to finish a fight that's gone on for years, move on to other ones. One night. That's it."
"So you can tell everyone on Olympus?"
"I won't tell anyone. You have my word."
"Your word? That's a laugh. Your word is worth--"
When Ares drew his weapon, Hercules jumped to his feet. "I swear on my sword," he said, then drew the blade across his palm, extending his bloody hand. "Deal?"
"No. It's stupid."
"Just take my hand, Hercules. I told you that you have nothing to lose, everything to gain. After it's over, you'll be free. We both will."
Slowly he extended his hand, then pulled it back. "Where would this happen? Here?"
"Not here. Somewhere neutral. Private."
"Just tell me why."
"Like I said, to end this. It's not going anywhere."
"What do you want me to say? You're beautiful. You're strong. You're--" there was the barest pause--"you're my brother, and I want to be inside you. It's sex, Hercules. I know you don't trust me, but even I can't fake a hard cock."
Ares sighed. "Which is?"
"You let me fuck you, too. Otherwise the deal is off." He knew Ares would never go for it. This offer of sex was only so he could prove his--
"Fine. You can fuck me. Now will you take my hand?"
Ares' fingers were warm and solid against his. "One night," Hercules said. "Then it's over. Forever. You leave me alone. And I get to pick the place."
"The top of Mount Helicon."
"Your choice," Ares said, and shrugged. "Put your arm around me."
Hercules did, and breathed leather and ambrosia, something richer and darker under that, like the center of a plum, then felt a lung-crushing rush as they moved through space. Just as suddenly, the rush ended, and they were on a plateau the size of the odeion stage, jutting peaks all around, purple-based, the closest ones sprouting pine and wildflowers, the taller ones red, pink and gold in the distance as the sun melted. Blue pool in the center shaped like an eye, the ground around it flat and glassy, the color of old parchment.
He swore that Ares didn't move, but a thick pile of wolf pelts appeared between the pool's edge and a cluster of red and orange flowers. The high altitude had him breathing quickly, and he walked to the water, sidestepping the furs, to scoop up a mouthful. Sweeter than anything he'd ever tasted, he was still drinking when Ares crouched beside him, a gold cup in his hand.
"You can have wine, if you want," he said, filling the cup, then stood, taking a sip.
The cup vanished. "Then come here." Ares stood barefoot, his vest gone. "Unless you just want to sit there and look at me for awhile."
"I wasn't--" Only he was, because he'd never stopped to look, not like this, not thinking about what it would feel like to touch him.
"Take your vest off. Boots, too. Like me."
It was easiest to do what Ares ordered, so he did.
"Now come here."
He let the voice move him the few short feet.
"I'm going to kiss you," Ares said.
That woke him up. "Kiss? I thought..."
"If we're going to do it, we're going to do it right."
This close, Ares' eyes were hazel, not black, and he got this panicky feeling that he didn't know Ares at all. "Let me guess: this is the part where you say ‘got you' and throw me over the edge, right?"
"No. This is the part when I taste you."
When Hercules opened his mouth to crack a last, desperate joke, Ares slid one arm around his waist and his tongue in Hercules' mouth, so smooth and perfect that he forgot to be disgusted and let his brother explore him, sliding his hand into Ares' thick hair. His reaction was purely physical, and when his stiff cock rocked into Ares', he tried to pull away, but Ares cupped the back of his head and held him in place, his tongue moving languidly, his lips soft, his beard silky-rough like an animal's fur. Ares must've felt his cock, because he moaned into Hercules' mouth. No rubbing, though, just stroking with his tongue, with his hand down Hercules' bare back. To keep his perspective, Hercules opened his eyes, but Ares was staring at him and it felt too strange, so he shut them again.
"I don't want anything between us," Ares said. "Do you understand?"
He nodded, and in another of Ares' invisible gestures they were skin to skin. The shock made him shiver in the cooling mountain air, and a small fire began to burn nearby, the same colors as the flowers. Bare flesh didn't change how Ares kissed him, never fast and hard, but it changed how he kissed back. There was too much skin, too many planes and curves, no clear boundaries.
"Touch me," Ares said impatiently. "Just touch me already."
Carefully, he placed his hand on Ares' back and--
Ares shoved him. "This was a mistake."
"Because this isn't what I want."
Which was pretty damn annoying, given that Ares had brought him here, stripped him, and kissed him with an expertise perverse in a god of ear. "It looks like you want it," he said. Hard to miss Ares' huge solid cock. Hard too not to admit satisfaction at seeing it so swollen and ready.
"I'm not saying I don't want to fuck you."
"What do you want?"
"Show a little initiative. Stop acting like a Hestian virgin."
"What did you expect, Ares? That I'd suck your cock the second you took it out?"
"I was hoping for a little enthusiasm, that's all. I should've known."
"Should've know what?"
"That you're too tight-assed to let go, even with a hard cock."
"As usual, you don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, that's right. How can I forget what an animal you are when you fuck your weak little king? Maybe if I rolled over and played dead you'd--
Hercules smashed into him, fists flailing, and knocked Ares flat on his ass. "Shut your fucking mouth," he said, pummeling, and Ares jabbed back with punches and insults. "Iphicles is a whiny...You're a goddamn..." They grappled on the stony floor, shouting and striking until Hercules lay on his back against the wolf fur, sense-shocked, muttering, "You planned this, you bastard," as Ares straddled him, grinning, before sliding his tongue in again, harder this time, deeper. When Hercules tried to shove him off, his hands slipped on Ares' slick skin, and his arms went around his neck. His legs followed, and the second Ares relaxed, he rolled to reverse the positions, laughing as he did, and held his growling brother down against the fur.
"Are you just going to hold me here," Ares snarled, "you useless pansy-assed excuse for a--"
Not a kiss. Ares didn't deserve it. A bite on his throat, not hard enough to break the skin, and maybe Hercules licked a little too, because the strong line of Ares' neck was against his mouth and salty with sweat. He felt the moan before he heard it, a rumble under his chest, then Ares grabbed his ass and pulled, which forced their cocks together. As he gasped with shock, Ares threw him over, and while he stared in confusion up at stars that should've been in his head, Ares lapped at his nipples, tugged and teased, rubbing his cock against Hercules' thigh the whole time.
Almost undone, he decided to fight fire with fire and closed his fingers over Ares' cock, which was huge and hot, and started to jerk him off. This was arguably the wrong thing to do, because Ares stopped licking to howl, then buried his mouth against Hercules' neck, doing some biting and sucking of his own between muffled accusations of "bastard," and "prick." When his neck felt bruised and sore, and, to be honest, when his cock was aching for that mouth, Hercules sank his fingers into Ares' hair and dragged his brother's head down.
Ares shook him off, said, "Earn it," and sucked Hercules' nipples while fucking his hand.
"I have," he said, and pushed Ares so hard he fell over backward, then leapt on him. While he bit Ares' tight brown nipples, he took Ares' hand and wrapped it around his own cock. Another mistake. He was close, oh fuck, and Ares found this long teasing rhythm so good it hurt.
Then Ares pulled his hand away, and Hercules, without thinking, took control: he bent down and took Ares' cock in his mouth. It worked, with Ares shouting, his whole body tensing, his hands clamped around Hercules' head, as he licked and sucked, listening to a chorus in his head jabber about the wrongness of this, Ares was the bad guy, evil, your brother, can't suck him, can't like sucking him, even worse, you love it, suck it harder, that's right, and the voices became one, Ares' voice, and...
Hercules sat back, legs spread wide, running his tongue over his lips, which felt swollen. "Your turn. If you've got the balls for it." He lost that one, too, sucker-punched in the gut by the sight of the dark head between his legs, of Ares' curls brushing his thighs as his tongue worked the head of Hercules' cock. Tried to compensate, to deny, with "You love it, always wanted this, didn't you, you hungry slut," but his voice quavered and his spine curved. Worse, the jagged blue mountains bounced back his words, and, oh shit, no: "I love it, always wanted this."
"Yes," Ares said, and went for his balls, mouth wide, tongue darting out, his fingers pressing white marks on Hercules' thighs.
Another try. "You're the slut, eating my cock, my balls, my..." Ares' tongue went somewhere new, and he was so close to giving up now, held there on the edge of his brother's hot questing mouth.
"You want me to stop?"
Not fair, with his cock full and wet against his stomach, telling the truth. "Like you could," Hercules said instead and scored a point, because by then Ares' eager tongue was already back inside him.
"I can stop whenever I want," Ares snapped back, but too loud. "I just like what it does to you, how much you love it." Winning again, he licked and sucked with noisy relish, one hand moving to Hercules' cock, stroking with that knowing rhythm.
"Of course I love seeing your tongue up my ass after years of ‘I want to kill you, Hercules.'" He forced his voice steady. "Who knew the god of war got metaphor?"
Ares shifted, went back to licking Hercules' cock, his finger now teasing the wetness at his ass. "Who knew you'd be such a slut for me?"
"Not true," he said weakly.
"No?" Ares eased his finger inside him, then lowered his mouth on Hercules' cock, taking it deep down his throat. When Hercules moaned, Ares slowly pulled off, leaving him wet and purple with blood. "Your legs are spread wide for my finger, your cock is hard, and you can't take your eyes off me. Pretty slutty from here."
His fist hit Ares' shoulder with a crack loud, and they were at it again, crashing over the surface. They rolled so close to the edge Hercules saw an eagle's nest below, heard a splatter of gravel fall. That was when he forgot to keep punching and Ares started to kiss him. He hooked his fingers into Ares' hair, sucked on Ares' tongue until he was panting, then flipped him back onto the wolf skin. While his brother lay there stunned, Hercules spread Ares' ass wide and shoved his tongue in far as he could while Ares cursed him. As Ares arched like Apollo's bow, he thought, ‘Take that! And that!' like kids playing fighting, sticks instead of swords. Through it all, his hard cock trailed in the wolf fur.
Entranced with his power, with the smooth, velvety skin, Hercules missed the moment when Ares went quiet. At last he glanced up, saw Ares watching him with a look so hot he bent his head again, this time licking Ares' cock from head to shaft. He felt Ares' hand in his hair, tilting his head, and he looked up again, still licking.
"That's it." Ares stroked his hair with his warm palm. "Let me see my brother's mouth on my cock."
He liked hearing that, a dark dirty victory. Nothing romantic about this night, and that fact let him lick circles around the head of Ares' cock, lapping up the bittersweet liquid, ocean and ambrosia. One night, then a return to order. No, better: a new order. No more dreams about Ares after this, no more fights. "You love it," Hercules said, and wet his finger, rubbing low under the balls, then traced patterns on the shaft with his tongue. Aimless whorls at first, then the first letter in his name, over and over. When Ares moaned, he sucked the head hard and possessed that arrogant son of a bitch with his finger. Satisfaction, as Ares bucked, nearly knocking him off.
Smiling to himself, he kept licking until Ares reached down and pulled him up. He went willingly, expecting a kiss, wanting Ares to taste himself on his tongue. They did kiss, as Ares gripped Hercules' hips, holding him up as he lay back against the fur. Then Hercules, crouched over Ares' body, felt the pressure against his ass.
Ares spoke quietly, so close they were breathing each other's air. "I'm going to fuck you now."
"No, I'm going to fuck you," he said, and pushed back. Semantics, because Ares' big cock was going in, stretched him unnaturally wide, but Hercules controlled the pace and kept it slow, enjoying the view. The face below him looked different than the one he knew, softer, warmer, the parts joined together in new ways. Ares' mouth, normally fixed in a harsh tight smile, now looked warm and vulnerable, full lips parted for a tongue, so Hercules leaned forward and gave him one, which pushed Ares' cock in. "You like that," Hercules told him. "You like it all." He licked the tiny dent at the center of Ares' lower lip, then the line of his cheek.
One of them was shaking, quivering, or could be they both were. Maybe it didn't matter, with no one here to see except them, to see the truth.
"Fuck you," he heard Ares say, and knew it was a promise only when Ares began to move, thrusting upward with the same languorous rhythm from before.
"Does anyone know you?" Hercules asked, one of those thoughts that float out before you can nail it down. His voice seemed faded, like the end of an echo.
Stupid question, and Ares didn't answer, only thrust harder. No thinking now, only feeling, and he glutted himself on it, touching, kissing all reachable skin, Ares doing the same, and their tongues kept connecting.
Hot, so hot, veins pumped full, cock fuller, ass fullest. Nipples hard, twisted by Ares' fingers, cock stroked fast, his fingers again, teeth on his shoulder, neck. Ass split with rough fucking, more tongue, Ares' tongue, love it, love his cock, love it this hard. No one fucked him like this, ever. "Ares."
No tongue anymore, watching eyes, and that ancient Fortune's wheel of a voice commanding again, "Look at me, Hercules. Let me see you come." Ragged, breathless.
Sweat flowing under cheekbone, along the jaw, taste the salt, then back to watching, had to see Ares come, had to focus, had to breathe, air so thin. "Ares."
"Do it. Come for me. Give it up."
"Ares." Lungs flat, breeze flicking sweat, that mouth. He'd win if Ares had a different mouth, thinner lips, paler. Not fair. "I'm going to come."
Triumph on Ares' face, but the first burst of Hercules' come on his chest melted it, and that mouth opened wider, moan like thunder, body writhing under him.
"Come for me, Ares." Hoarse whisper, hardest words to get out, pleasure screwing with everything, wracking him, burst after burst. "Ares." Burning flood inside him, Ares' come, and he shouted like an animal at the moon's smirking spinner's face.
Rose-streaked black sky and purple mountains. Dawn air clouding when he breathed. Ares' arm around his waist, voice whispering in his ear, "It's over," as they rushed through space. So tired his eyes stayed closed even when Ares laid him back on a bed, lifted cool sheets. Warm hand on his shoulder, a beard tickling his cheek.
He knew this place. "Iphicles," he mumbled against the pillow.
"Forgotten already," Ares said from a distance. "Doesn't say much for my technique. You're free, Hercules. Goodnight."
Corinth. Iphicles' palace. Alone in bed. Muscles stiff and aching. Hercules analyzed each fact through the lingering blur of sleep, and each time arrived at the same conclusion. "I didn't..."
The Fates smirked. "You did. All night. Every position in the book, and a few we recorded for posterity. There's nothing you can do about it now. It's history."
Groaning, he swung his legs to the floor, ignoring his thighs' whine. The tepidarium. That's what he needed. Steam away the crap in his life. Forget about Ares, like they'd agreed when he brought Hercules back near dawn. Forget about Iphicles. Consider getting himself adopted into a nice family of goat-herders, a peaceful, pastoral family that wasn't fodder for a dozen dramas and not a few comedies.
Ambling minutes of pain later, Hercules entered the steamy square room, with its hot spring and marble walls veined and pale green as new leaves. Stripping, he placed a towel on the wooden bench against the wall and lowered himself onto it, stretching his feet toward the water. Vapor drifted past, hot as Phlegethon, and above his head, the flame in the sconce sputtered, hissing like an angry cat. It alternated with the spring's insistent bubbling, a soothing lullaby that eased his eyes shut as he settled back against a warm wall.
"What in Tartarus happened to you?"
Hercules sat up quickly. "Iphicles. I didn't hear you." Too late to grab the other towel and cover the bruises and scrapes.
His brother, fully dressed, sat beside him. "You look like you spent the night with...You didn't. Tell me you didn't."
"Shouldn't you be having breakfast with your girlfriend?"
"Don't change the fucking subject. Your cock is red. Your nipples are red. You've got bruises on your neck and your thighs. You've obviously been good and royally fucked. No, make that divinely."
"You suggested it." Lame excuse, but he didn't know what else to say.
"You're saying you really did it? You fucked Ares? I guess I don't have to ask if it was good. Nobody looks like you after a boring fuck."
"It was a trade, that's all. He--"
"Some trade: your ass for his cock."
"This isn't getting us anywhere. We need to talk--"
"So I can hear how good it was with Ares? No, thanks. Enjoy him, Hercules. You've wanted this long enough, someone strong as you are. Suck his cock. Ride it all night. I don't give a shit."
"You know I love you, Iph."
"Just not the way I want."
"Don't go," he said, when Iphicles tried to stand. "Like I said, we need to talk."
"Tell me what you want."
"I don't know anymore. I guess to be happy, like normal people."
"And I don't make you happy?"
"It's not you, Hercules. It's the situation. You'll always leave, and I'll always stay behind."
A dull ache started over Hercules' right temple. "You're the king of an important city, Iphicles. It's not like you're staying at home doing the laundry."
"It feels like that, like I'm always waiting for you. Like my life's on hold."
"That's why you're getting married."
"In part. I think..." Iphicles leaned back and inhaled deeply, then sat straight. "I think it's time I moved on. For good. I know if I marry her you won't touch me, and I'll want to touch you, but I'm not that strong. I can't do this anymore." Iphicles swatted the drops of sweat collecting under his eyes. "Us. It's breaking me."
"If that's what you want." Breathe. Just breathe. He could do that.
"I think you're ready to move on, too, or you wouldn't have done what you did last night."
"That was a deal. One night, and he swore he'd leave me alone after that. Swore on his sword."
"He'll never leave you alone. Don't you know that?"
"It was an itch. He scratched. He won't be back."
"Could be. Could be he's like me and needed this to move on. You're okay with that, aren't you?"
"I've dreamt about it." It sounded sarcastic, and he smiled to take the edge off.
"Maybe I'm not the only one who's confused."
"We're brothers, after all."
"So this is it, then?"
"Guess so." The room had a frieze around it, twisting vines and leaves in white marble, and he studied that. Breathe.
"Want to fuck one last time?"
"I don't think that would be a good idea."
"I didn't think you would."
He touched Iphicles' cheek, but said nothing. Couldn't.
His brother stood up. "I'll see you later, then."
Long after Iphicles was gone, he stayed in the small steamy room and watched the twisting vines.
At dinner that night, Hercules quietly got drunk. He smiled in all the right places, told a few stories that drew the appropriate laughs. In a masterful display of restraint, he even listened without punching any walls while Pheme gushed about his brother, how incredible Iphicles was, how handsome, how tender, surviving by mentally tagging the poor girl's statements with snide remarks.
"You must be so proud of him," she said, tearing her bread in tiny chunks. "He's so young, but he's king of this wonderful city."
"Very proud. He's a good king."
*I was proud when I fucked him in the odeion and he didn't scream.*
"It's great to see two brothers who get along so well. He's obviously very fond of you."
"After my father left, it was just the two of us and my mother, so we got very close."
*If ‘fond' means ‘loves to get fucked up the ass by me,' then yes, he's very fond of me.*
"He showed me the garden last night. He's so romantic."
*You want romance?...*
That's when Hercules conceded defeat. He and Iphicles didn't do flowers and hand-holding. They didn't even talk that much, just fucked loudly and publicly, hoping to get caught. Pheme was a nice uncomplicated girl who'd make Iphicles feel needed. Better than Rena, his first wife, who'd loved Iphicles best as someone else. Better than him, too, because he couldn't stay in one place for very long, even for Iphicles. "He likes you," Hercules told her, penitent. "I can tell."
Pheme didn't stop smiling after that, and, between glasses of wine, Hercules went to work on her father.
The old man laughed and traded jokes, slapping his meaty thigh, a grin wide as a comedy mask on his round red face. But once the servants had distributed bowls of almonds and dried figs, and slices of spicy cake dripping with honey, he moved his chair closer to Hercules, and said quietly, "The thing is, I want my daughter to marry your brother. He's done right by me in all the negotiations and Pheme's crazy about him. Now, don't take offense, but what worries me is you."
Hercules mustered his most sincere and innocent expression, unashamedly borrowed from Iolaus. "I don't know what you mean."
"Since we've been here, I keep hearing about all these problems you've got with the god of war. I don't want to marry off my little girl only to have her new city attacked because you and Ares don't get along."
He advanced slowly. "You don't have to worry about that. Sure, Ares and I fight occasionally. We're brothers, and that's what brothers do."
King Nicander's lips stayed pursed. "Ares is no ordinary brother. If you say it's just brothers horsing around, then maybe you could have him show up before we leave at the end of the week. Not that I don't trust you, Hercules. He's the god of war, that's all. Got to be practical."
"He's pretty busy. Meetings with generals and all that."
"I'd hate to stop this marriage, Hercules, but I will if I don't get confirmation."
"Ares has no problem with Iphicles. He won't touch the city."
"You wouldn't be trying to pull a fast one on me, would you?"
"I'll see what I can do."
"We leave in three days' time. If I don't see confirmation by then, the wedding's off. I know it'll mean war with Corinth, but at least it will be a level playing field. I'm willing to make that sacrifice for my daughter. You know about sacrifice, Hercules? The hard stuff, not the easy bullshit, where you're proud for doing the inevitable?"
"Sure," he said, not sure at all.
"Hercules! Open up! We got trouble."
"What is it?" He got up slowly, his head splitting, and pushed aside the cabinet blocking his door.
Iolaus burst in. "We got another one."
"Monster, of course. And get this: the victim had been having nightmares lately."
"Where?" He threw on his clothes.
"Sicyon, so we're only a few hours away by horseback."
"You know where exactly?"
"The messenger's gone," Iolaus told him as they hurried down the hall, " but it's right outside the city at the base of the cliff. Little white house with two herms instead of one, because the owner thinks he's--"
"Yeah, those big rocky things--"
Hercules cut him off. "There was a cliff outside Corinth and another one near the haunted house." At the stables now, Hercules accepted the bay from a groom and climbed up, while Iolaus did the same. "And Ares said that his kid escaped from Hypnos' cave. I figured it was safe since I'd blocked the cave's entrance--"
"But what if there's a hole at the source, and that's where the monsters are coming from?"
"Right. I think there's a cave in Sicyon, and that's where the monster is. We search the cave and--"
"We'll find our way to Hypnos." Iolaus, reins tight in one hand, patted his horse's neck with the other. "Why do you think he's doing it, Herc, using real monsters in dreams instead of illusions?"
"You know what the gods are like. Someone forgot to sacrifice a cow, or skipped his birthday."
They rode quietly for a few minutes, then Iolaus pulled up beside him. "You're going to tell me to butt out, but what's up with you and Iph? When you were getting dressed I saw all the bruises and scrapes." He laughed. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you spent the night with Ares."
The road was busy with early-morning traffic, farmers bringing goods to the city. Hercules negotiated a path between a driver with a wagonload of grapes and one with wagonload of fresh trout, a few still flopping at the top of the pile.
"Tell me you didn't sleep with Ares. Why? And why didn't you tell me? Wait. I can figure that out. But what about Iphicles? And what was Ares like? No! Don't tell me. No, do. No." He whistled, a tuneless whoosh of air. "This is really crazy. Give me the truth. No more bullshit."
The truth. That was buried so deep he could feel it in his liver. "When you went to see Clio, I went to see Iphicles. He was busy, so--"
"Busy? What's busy? Jerking off? Screwing a sheep?"
"He was kissing Pheme, okay?"
"And you care because?"
"Don't make me say it, Iolaus." He sighed deep as a well. "Because we...We sleep together. Have for years. I love him."
"Have I mentioned that you have one weird family? Oedipus had nothing on you guys. So what happened after you saw Iphicles with his new girlfriend? Ares showed up?"
He nodded. "He said if we spent one night together, he'd leave me alone. For good."
"And so you slept with him purely to get him off your case?"
"Yes. Why else?"
"Herc, pull the cork out."
"Iolaus, what do you want me to say? That I wanted him?"
"What's the point?"
"The point is that these days you don't know your ass from your elbow. You've kept all this stuff shoved deep up your...in your head, and it's all starting to come apart. You need to face it."
"Thank you, Hippocrates."
Iolaus tried to look wise, and failed. "Listen to me, you big lug. I know these things. So tell me why you slept with Ares."
"I wanted to. I can't believe you're making me do this."
"I've always wanted to. I have always wanted to fuck Ares."
"Just because he's hot in all that tight sweaty leather?"
"Just trying to help you out here, buddy." That innocent look again.
"The truth..." This time the truth would hurt Iolaus, and he didn't want that.
"It's because he's the only one strong as you? Who's going to be there when the rest of us are dust? Who'll always be there for you, forever?"
"Where do you get this stuff?"
"I've got eyes. Doesn't take Socrates to figure it out." They rode quietly for a minute, then Iolaus started again. "You still have to say it."
"It doesn't matter, Iolaus. It was just that one time. It's not going to happen again."
"Because you don't want it to? Or because he doesn't? I don't believe it's over. Not between you and Ares. I don't think it'll ever be over."
"It's over, because..." The urge to lie was so strong he had to stop his horse and concentrate to get the truth out. A passing vintner shouted, "Move your arse, you road hog!" while he sat there. "Because he wants it to be over. Not me." The sun didn't give a shit about tragedy or truth, and glowed with a fat yellow intensity, showing Iolaus' curious blue eyes. "I want him. Again." Each word was an amputation.
"Got to ask: was it good with him?"
"It was incredible." His throat hurt.
"So what's going on with Iphicles?"
"We're moving. It hurts. It's going to hurt for a long time. But it's better this way. Happy now?"
"No. We've got the rest of the trip to Sicyon, and you're going to tell me every last thing. So get talking."
"Iolaus, I ever tell you what a pain in the ass you are?"
"All the time, Herc. All the time."
Sometimes architecture predicts destiny. The house with the two herms stood in the shadow of an overhanging cliff. While the cottage across the street had rows of narcissus blooming in the yard, and patches of bluebells everywhere, nothing grew in the dead man's yard except sickly yellow grass. Someone had painted the eye of Hades on the front door, an old custom from the south to ward off evil. Unblinking, it watched as Hercules and Iolaus circled behind the building to find the cave.
"What do you know about Hypnos?" Hercules headed through the trees lining the base of the hill, his torch held high in one hand.
"A few sons help him out. Morpheus, Phobetor, Phantasos. The Oneiroi. You're sleeping, and the bad shit you've blocked out starts to creep in--"
"And one of the Oneiroi senses it and sends some magic shadows your way. You give them form."
"So how come we've got real monsters running around? Who got Hypnos and the boys mad?"
"That's what we're here to find out."
"Found it!" Iolaus waved him over to a gap between two pines where a cavern was visible. "Check out the prints." He pointed to the indentations in the rocky soil. "He's a big one. How come there are no little monsters anymore?"
Hercules peered into the shadowy recess. "So we don't get soft?"
"As long as I'm hard where it counts. Wouldn't want to disappoint Clio."
The cave opened immediately to a chamber quiet as a tomb, crystal stalactites hanging like teeth from the high ceiling. The east end narrowed to form a natural doorway. Gnawed bones littered the room, and a sweep of the torch showed blood decorating the walls in formless patterns. Fetid air, ripe with death and shit, sizzled against the flames.
Iolaus sidestepped a sticky mess of flesh and bone. "Quick review of the creature: no fire-breath, but claws long as my legs."
"Then we don't have anything to worry about."
"I thought we had a rule about short jokes."
"We do: I make them and you complain."
"As long as we're clear on that." Iolaus peered around Hercules' elbow. "So what's the plan?"
He nodded up at the fanged ceiling. "Remember the Ligurians?"
"Good," Hercules said, stomping the ground hard. Above him, the crystal rang like wind chimes. "Hear that?"
"You mean the sound like a hungry, pissed-off giant of a monster lumbering through a dark cave?"
"That's the one." Hercules took his position to the right of the doorway, Iolaus to the left. "Ready to hit the high note?"
"High as a ball-less harem master."
As the thundering steps roared closer and the stalactites trembled, Hercules called into the dark, "Come and get us!"
They ducked back just as the creature hurtled past in a blur of lizard skin and talons. Loud as startled Sirens, high as slaughtered pigs, Hercules and Iolaus screamed. The monster, confused by the explosion of noise, joined in. At the shrill serenade, the crystal shards on the ceiling began to rock until, with a tremendous crack, they broke free and shot like silver spears to the ground.
Now flat against the walls, Hercules watched as the stalactites formed an impromptu cage around the snarling creature, baring black-rooted teeth long as fingers. It pounded the makeshift bars until it found a weak spot where one of the shards had hit the ground at an angle.
"Herc, I think we got a problem."
"You go ahead. I'll take care of it."
Iolaus slipped through the doorway, and Hercules, shifting the torch to his left hand, seized a fallen slab of crystal with the other. When the monster broke through and charged, yellow eyes gleaming, Hercules flung it hard as he could, and impaled the creature against the far wall.
"Nice shot," Iolaus said approvingly, as he poked his head back in. "Now let's go find Hypnos and kick some godly butt. Unless," he added with exaggerated innocence, "you want to cut some kind of deal with this one, too?" He took off down the corridor, laughing so hard he almost dropped his torch.
"Not funny!" Hercules shouted after him. "You're lunch for the next monster."
The caves under Sicyon spread web-like in all directions, each tunnel connecting to another. After a few false starts, they decided to head down. "Hypnos is Thanatos' brother," Iolaus said, "and the son of Night, so his lair would be deep under the earth."
"Sounds like you actually stayed awake for one of Chiron's lectures."
"He was talking about sleep, my favorite subject."
"I thought breasts were your favorite subject."
"He never talked about those. Too bad. That's one class I would've aced."
"You hear that?"
"Sounds like water. Isn't Lethe supposed to run through Hypnos' realm from the Elysian Fields?"
They rounded a corner, and the dank cramped corridor opened into a poppy field, the flowers abnormally large and red as hearts. As Iolaus predicted, a stream flowed between them, its water pale as a virgin's thighs, cooing at it meandered over mossy stones and placid goldfish. A thousand green herbs grew on the narrow banks, right before the effusion of poppies.
An ivory gate stood to the east, and one of horn to the west, and between them, on an ebony couch with a high back and gold clawed feet, lay Hypnos, the god of sleep. He slept naked on his side, a black silk cover tossed over one pale slim leg, his black hair almost invisible against the black pillow. There was a superficial resemblance to Ares in the high cheekbones and full lips, but Hypnos was narrow and bleached like a piece of old bone, still and quiet where Ares was strong and alive. His smooth boyish chest with its pale pink nipples gently rose and fell, with one hand drooping to the poppies below. His light breaths sent shadowy mist swirling around his tranquil form.
"This can't be our guy." Iolaus wrinkled his nose. "He's glued to that couch."
"We still need to talk to him."
As they walked over, poppies crushed under their feet, Hypnos stirred like a lazy cat and raised one pale paw to his mouth, barely stifling an enormous yawn. His plum eyes half-opened. "Who...?" He spoke in a low whispery voice, an echo already. Another yawn, then his eyes closed and the measured breathing resumed. The ivory fingers twitched once before his hand trailed again to the ground.
"Pretty confident guy," Iolaus said. "We could be assassins or...Oh-oh."
As they watched, the mist writhed, then coalesced into solid shapes: two crouching panthers, their tails twitching.
"Don't move," Hercules told him. "Hypnos! I'm Hercules. We need to talk."
The tiniest wave of a moon-pale fingernail, and the mist shifted again, producing two naked boys who glided to their master, gently taking hold of his arms to maneuver him upright. A third swirled behind the couch and held Hypnos' lolling head. The panthers stayed at Hypnos' bare feet, occasionally nuzzling his toes, while his eyes struggled to stay open. "Talk."
"There are monsters killing--"
"Not my concern." Despite the shadow-slaves, he began to slip down.
Hercules stepped closer. "You don't understand. The monsters are connected to nightmares. It's like the nightmares are becoming real."
The black lashes fluttered up. "Nightmares?" More mist swirled, and two more boys appeared, and the panthers moved to let them kneel between Hypnos' thighs, mouths open.
"People are dying, and this guy wants a blow job?" Iolaus muttered.
"Hypnos, who's in charge of nightmares?"
"How this guy ever knocked someone up, I'll never know."
He ignored Iolaus. "How do we find him?"
"We know they're blowing your horn."
"I think he means the gate of horn, Iolaus."
"Ivory. Stop. Punish." And with this enigmatic pronouncement, Hypnos gave a tiny shudder, like the single beat of a moth's wings, which had the boys swallowing. Then he melted onto his couch, already dreaming.
"So we find Phobetor, teach him a lesson, and we're out of here, right? The smell of those flowers is giving me a headache."
"That's the plan."
"I don't get it," Iolaus said, staring at the eastern gate, a massive ivory structure that reached to the ceiling, insects and skulls decorating the border. "There's no handle on the door. How are we supposed to get through?"
"The gate of ivory's for false dreams, so..." Hercules stuck his hand through the bronze door, which rippled and wavered.
Passing through the magic doorway jolted his stomach, and Hercules shut his eyes, fighting nausea. Opening them, he saw a world with a sunless sky red as Hypnos' poppies that rolled like a bloody ocean. Under it, desiccated trees dotted the landscape, their juice sucked dry by monstrous flowers tall as a man with wide bloody mouths that snapped hungrily. The ground was a bubbling swamp, and noxious vapors rose from it, green shapes that formed and reformed in a whirlwind of ugliness. In the distance, invisible along the red horizon, things howled. Nothing good lived here; it was a small-scale Tartarus, and the place knew it, hating itself.
The harsh red burned his eyes, and he blinked again. Suddenly he was a boy staring from the tiny second-story window of the cottage where he grew up. While his mother sobbed downstairs--enough to make him sick, because she never cried, not even when Grandma died--his father walked down the path away from the house toward the village. His father was leaving for good, and he knew why. His stupid strength. He'd broken his father's favorite bow trying to shoot a rabbit for dinner, the last in a long line of broken favorite things.
Iphicles was going to hate him for this, and he put his chin down on the window sill, rubbing against the rough plaster. His older brother already hated him because his father was a god, which meant people treated him better, the lady at the bakery always giving him treats and the village girls always smiling at him, even with Iphicles so handsome it hurt to look at him. Hercules didn't think he could stand it if his brother left, too.
This time, it was Iphicles who left. Same path. Same window. The only thing broken this time was inside Hercules' body. It hurt, it hurt so much to be alone. Jealously, he imagined dying, imagined the relief that he would never, ever feel. Anyone else could take the rope from the well, go to the apple tree and fix the mistake, find peace, but not him. He was immortal, and that was the worst curse ever.
A little older, but not much. Still so young. He was going to school next year, and he didn't want to go. With his strength, he should be a soldier. That way, when he hurt people, it would be okay. People would like him for that. They wouldn't leave like his father and Iphicles. So he decided to visit Ares' temple and ask for training. He'd never met Ares, but he'd heard that the god of war always needed good soldiers. Besides, he and Ares had things in common. They shared the same father, the same blood, immortality and strength. He could be Ares' second in command. That would be so great.
So he marched into the temple, then paused. Voices. A fight. "Your bastard brat...drowned at birth...a mistake...love him, not me." It was Zeus and Ares, and they were talking about him. Ares wanted him dead. Hercules decided then and there that he hated Ares as much as Ares hated him. He regretted almost at once, when a door burst open and he saw his brother for the first time, not statues or mosaics or frescoes but Ares in the flesh.
No, he thought, as the scene shifted. Not real. A trick. "Iolaus," he called, loud as he could, and kept his eyes wide open. The world wavered, then the sky burned the color of poppies, and the swamp bubbled beside him. Just concentrate. Don't let the shades fool you. "Iolaus."
"None of this is real. Focus on that, and you'll be okay." He walked ahead into the cluster of trees. "Where are you?"
"This place bites," Iolaus said, appearing beside a clump of dead flowers crawling with worms.
"Let's keep moving. Phobetor has to be around here somewhere."
They trudged through the wood, their feet sinking in the ooze. Overhead, black against the sky, chimeras soared beside giant bats, sometimes fighting with them. Then blood would fall like rain.
"What did you see?" Iolaus asked, sidestepping a fallen tree. "In your nightmares?"
"Being left by everyone I loved. You?"
"Kept arriving too late to save anyone. People dying because of me."
He squeezed Iolaus' shoulder. "Makes a few monsters seem pretty tame."
"One thing I don't get. If dreams from the horn gate aren't real, how come yours are? Wait! I know. Because you thought it was your fault?"
"That's crap. It's more complicated than that. Sometimes people just aren't strong enough. That's not your fault. It's theirs." In his excitement, Iolaus paused beside a ruined column covered with swirling vines, the leaves puffy and ready to burst, the flowers orange and lewd. When he casually brushed one of the flowers, it squeaked, and a startled face appeared in its center. Iolaus squeaked louder and jumped away.
The flower shook its head, then the vine twisted, the two morphing into a tall slim boy with a marked resemblance to Hypnos. "Greetings."
"Phantasos." He extended his ivory hand. "My brother's been hoping you'd show up."
Hercules and Iolaus exchanged confused glances. "You mean he knows we're coming?" Iolaus asked.
"It's all part of his plan." Phantasos smiled pleasantly, leaning back against the cracked marble.
"Maybe," Iolaus said, "you could tell us what his plan is."
"Sure. His plan won't work if people don't know about it. See, he wants to get caught." As they watched, Phantasos changed shape again, became a bird with a hooked purple beak and bright yellow plumage. He flew to the pillar's capital and perched there.
"Proteus has nothing on this guy."
"Why does he want to get caught?" Hercules asked. The capital reached his head, and a step nearer had him staring into Phantasos' shiny black eyes.
"Guess you could say he's the troublemaker of the family. You've met dear old Dad? Not exactly a nurturing presence. He barely knows we're alive."
"You're saying that Phobetor sent real monsters instead of images to get his father's attention? People died, Phantasos."
"My brother's not a thinker. He's impulsive. Got a temper on him..." The feathers ruffled, then settled back in place. "He didn't mean to hurt anyone. He just wanted Dad to notice him."
"Is he going to stop?"
Phantasos nodded. "He's sorry, although you can't tell. He doesn't like to show how he's feeling."
"We still need to see him, and he's still got to be punished."
"That's what he wants."
"I don't think Phobetor is going to get that from his father." Hercules remembered Hypnos' sleepy command.
"I know, but what can I do? He just yells when I try to talk to him." Phantasos sighed, and became a stag with a tangle of antlers.
"Tough call, Herc."
"I've got an idea. Let's go meet Phobetor."
Phobetor, lord of nightmares, lived in an obsidian palace, all crooked angles and high towers, accessible only by a drawbridge over a seething moat.
"Open up!" Phantasos pawed the earth. "He's in there," he told the other two. "He's just being difficult."
A three-headed eel broke through the oily surface, hissed, then disappeared under the water with a flick of its spotted tail.
"Jumping's out of the question," Iolaus said, taking a step back.
"No problem." Hercules went to a snail-covered tree, grasped the trunk's lowest point, a leafy Antaeus, and pulled. Resistance, then the dank earth split, rent by black roots, and it fell with a thunderous groan across the water, knocking open the front door.
"Good aim," Phantasos said.
"Years of practice," Iolaus told him.
Hercules elbowed him, and as Phantasos pranced across on delicate hooves, they followed, arms extended for balance. Safely on the other side, they walked past columns capped with winged heads, silver shields on the wall between frescoed scenes of chaos and death to a throne room black as a tomb. There, sitting on a black throne, his feet draped over the armrest, sat Phantasos' pale twin.
"I'm starting to figure out your plan," Iolaus told Hercules. "There's something very familiar about this scene. All the kid needs is a goatee and some black leather."
"I'm Phobetor," he announced, "and I'll kick your ass if you try to touch me."
"We're here to talk."
Phobetor rolled his eyes. "Great. Like I don't get enough from him." He jerked his chin toward his brother, who'd changed back to a bird, sitting on the ledge of a window high above the dais.
"You hurt a lot of people, you know that?" Iolaus said gently.
For a second Phobetor looked very young and scared. "Didn't mean to. The monsters were only supposed to break stuff, knock down some walls. Annoy people."
"Annoy them enough so they'd complain to your father?"
Phobetor's bravado reappeared. "My father's a jerk. I could kill whole villages of people, and he'd just sleep through it. He--"
"Hold on," Hercules said. "I know someone who might find this interesting."
"Like I care?" But he watched with interest as Hercules called for Ares.
A long pause, then the air sizzled. "To what do I owe this honor?" Ares stood with his arms crossed, the fingers of one hand drumming the hilt of his sword.
"Who are you?" Phobetor demanded, on his feet. A sword materialized in his hand. "You might be big, but I bet I can take you."
"Hercules, this had better be good," Ares snapped. "I'm ready to change my mind about our deal." He turned to the boy, eyed his sword, and snorted. "I'm Ares, god of war, you little pissant, and your grip's all wrong. You'll cut off your foot. Hold it like this." He drew his own weapon and demonstrated.
"Tell him about your father," Hercules told Phobetor. "About how he treats you."
Phobetor, who'd been following Ares' instructions, looked up, his eyes blazing. No metaphor: the god of nightmares apparently had the same fluid shape as his brother. "I don't want to talk about him. My father's an idiot. He just sleeps all the time, and doesn't give a shit about anything I do. Not like Morpheus and his precious gate of horn. No, the sun rises and sets from his asshole. Him, my father will stay awake for. Me--forget it."
"Phobetor tried to get his father's attention by sending out real monsters into people's dreams, not illusions."
"You mean this brat is the one who got my son killed?"
"The one and the same."
"And you want me to make sure he gets what's coming to him?"
"Something like that."
Ares materialized at Phobetor's side and yanked him to his feet. "You're coming with me, you snot-nosed little whiner."
"What about the nightmares? I'm supposed to take care of them."
"Since you seem to have royally fucked that up, I think your brother can take care of it. We're out of here," Ares said, one arm around the struggling Phobetor.
Phantasos flew to the ground, changing back to his regular form as he landed. "He won't hurt him, will he?"
"He'll hurt him just enough," Iolaus said with a grin. "Now let's go tell your father the good news."
"Reward," was all Hypnos said when they told him. A small phial appeared in his hand, filled with the clear waters of Lethe. "Select. Memory. Loss." Then, exhausted by his outburst, he sank boneless to his couch, while Hercules plucked the vial from his fingers, and Phantasos, now a kitten and the god of nightmares, curled at his father's feet.
"Herc, next time Zeus gets on your nerves, just picture this guy," Iolaus whispered as they left the cave of Hypnos. "And if I ever complain about getting up early, kick my ass. Hard."
The next night, Hercules sat alone on the bench in the garden sanctuary, drinking sweet wine that he'd stolen from the palace kitchen. Iolaus had gone to visit Clio, leaving him to sort his thoughts.
"Hercules, I've been looking for you." Pheme walked up the steps and stood where Ares had the last time, beside the faded statue. The moonlight played off the tear tracks on her cheeks.
"What's the matter?"
"It's Iphicles. I need to ask a question, and I don't know who else will tell me the truth. Is Iphicles in love with someone else?"
"No, of course not."
She toyed with the sculpted hem of the goddess' robes. "He likes me. I know he does. I've met enough men to be able to tell. But there's something holding him back, and I don't know what to do. Is it his first wife? I know she was very pretty. Much prettier than me." She started to cry again. "I asked him, and he said no, but I know there's something he's not telling me. I love him so much, Hercules, ever since he came to Megara that first time."
"Pheme, it's nothing. Iphicles can just be a little guarded until you get to know him."
"Maybe it's something I've done. I can be a little too opinionated sometimes--maybe that's it. I don't know."
"I promise it's not you. Iphicles is happier with you than he's ever been. If you want, I can talk to him."
"Could you? Because I don't know what else to do."
"I'll take care of it."
She bent and kissed him sweetly. "Thank you. I only hope you can help me."
"Don't worry anymore," he said, feeling guilty for hating her, and watched Pheme leave, her shoulders still hunched and shaking.
The candles in the palace windows were nearly all extinguished when Hercules heard the soft pad of feet.
"Thought I'd find you here." Iphicles dropped beside him onto the sanctuary's bench. "I missed you." He moved closer, letting their thighs press together.
"Pheme thinks you're in love with someone else."
"I am. Not that she isn't great. In another life, I could love her."
"I think you love her now."
"I guess I do. She's so sweet, and being around her is good. Calming. I've never felt like that before."
"But it's not the same. You're my brother, and there's history between us. Nothing can change that. I know that now." He nuzzled Hercules' neck, then licked him. "I want you to fuck me. Don't worry--I'll break it off with Pheme. I'll miss her, but I don't want to cheat on her."
"First," Hercules said, reaching down for the second cup beneath the bench, "I want you to have a drink. I've been saving it for you." As his brother took a sip of wine diluted with water paler than a virgin's thighs, Hercules touched Iphicles' cheek and said quietly, "There is no history between us."
Iphicles paled, and the cup clanked against the tiles. "I...There's something wrong..." Then he shook his head, and his color came back. "That was weird," he said, moving back.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine now. In fact, I feel pretty good. Great, really. Have I told you how amazing Pheme is? I can't wait to marry her. She's the best thing that's ever happened to me. You know what it's like, Hercules, when you fall in love. It's the best feeling in the world. It wasn't even like this with Rena."
"I'm happy for you," Hercules said. "Maybe you should go see her. I think the candle's still burning in her room."
"Good idea! I bet her maid sleeps with one eye open, but hell--we're getting married, right?" He jumped to his feet. "You're the best, Herc. I'm glad you're my brother."
"I'm glad you're my brother, too."
But Iphicles was already gone. Hercules picked up the phial, weighed it in his hands, and thought that someone should remember. The glass shattered on the broken tiles, the Lethian water winding between the cracks. With his boot, he crushed the shards, scattering the fragments over the side into the grass.
"It's over?" Ares materialized before him.
"For a sanctuary, this place is busier than a Roman brothel."
"I should send you to work in one after what you pulled on me yesterday."
"Phobetor a handful?"
"He's a royal pain in the ass. But he's got balls, I'll give him that. He'll make a good lieutenant once I've whipped him into shape."
"Don't be so smug." Ares rested his back against the statue. "Pretty generous what you did for your brother."
"If you tell him, Ares, I'll kick your--"
"Relax. I've got better things to do than worry about him."
"That reminds me."
"I don't like the sound of this."
"Would you mind saying that publicly, that you don't care about Iphicles? The father of Iphicles' fiancee thinks you're going to raze Corinth because of me."
"It never stops with you, does it?"
"The thing is, Ares, you owe me."
"What are you talking about?"
"We had a deal. I kept my end of it, but you never kept yours. That is, I never got yours." Hercules didn't hide his smirk.
A long pause in which crickets chirped and war gods pondered. "So you're saying that this is going to go on, all these favors, until I let you fuck me?"
"You got a problem with that?"
Ares gave a loud sigh. "I guess I don't have a choice. Although, knowing you, I have a feeling this won't be the end."
"You could be right about that."
"Where will this momentous event take place?"
"Mount Helicon's good."
"Okay, little brother, I've got to ask: what's the deal with Mount Helicon? I've been thinking about it, and...I mean, at the time, it didn't make sense."
"Pegasus," Hercules said, in a credible imitation of Hypnos. Ares' expression made him laugh.
"A flying horse?"
"What about him?"
"Well, they didn't get along. Pegasus didn't appreciate being ridden at Bellerophon's convenience. One day Pegasus kicked him off, and Bellerophon died."
"Is there a point to all this?"
He looked so confused that Hercules laughed again. "Trying to get up to Olympus, Pegasus kicked the ground on Mount Helicon, and a spring grew out of the earth. The Hippocrene, the water of inspiration. It belongs to the Muses."
"There's a moral coming. I can hear it. Can't we just go and fuck?" But even Ares was grinning now. "If you start reciting poetry, I'm out of here."
"Moral first, fucking later: out of violence comes renewal." He got to his feet and put his arm around Ares' waist. "There, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
"This is better," Ares said.
The air on Mount Helicon was rich and purple as a tapestry. As he stood naked under the moon, it wrapped around Hercules' naked skin, and he closed his eyes. Ares' body, when it pressed against his, smelled like the night, but felt shockingly hot. He started stroking almost absently, without conscious design, just being. Ares was kissing him now, those slow penetrating kisses that no mortal could match, that made his limbs mellow and fluid as honey.
"Do you trust me?" Ares asked.
Hercules bent and licked one of Ares' nipples. "Why?"
"I want you to."
"I want to."
"Then let me control this. All of it, including how you fuck me."
"How do you mean?"
A wide silver band appeared in Ares' hand, the inside lined with fur, while a small key appeared in the other. "Let me put this around your wrists. Hephaestus made it, and it can only be opened with this key."
In some ways, the offer was simple. If he allowed Ares to restrain him, he'd know, finally, if this was real or just another dream. The drawback was that the knowledge could kill him. He was immortal against anyone but a god. One strike of Ares' sword and he'd be Bellerophon with Ares pawing his grave. Those crazy sisters appeared on the edge of his vision, whispering about destiny. But it wasn't about that. It was about truth. He offered his wrists. "Do it."
The band clicked shut. "How does it feel?"
"Fine," Hercules said, and tested the metal's strength. It held.
"Lie down." Ares' voice was colored like the sky.
Too late to back out, so he lay back against the fur, his bound wrists above his head.
Ares stood at his feet, his cock stiff, and did nothing, just stared. Finally: "I've waited a long time for this." His sword appeared in his hand, longer than a man's arm, silver and black. "Do you trust me now?" He walked beside Hercules and put a foot on his chest, pointing the tip of the blade over Hercules' nipple.
"It doesn't matter." Maybe it was the purple air, but Hercules felt surprisingly calm. If this was death, he wouldn't fight. No point. If Ares betrayed him, Ares, the one who was always there, the one who had to be there now and through eternity, then maybe it was time to die.
"It matters to me." He drew the blade down Hercules' body so lightly the skin didn't split.
Suddenly there was a click in his brain as the pieces of his history with Ares fell together. "This isn't about whether I trust you," Hercules said. "You don't trust me."
"I don't know what you're talking about." Ares reminded him of Phobetor on his over-sized throne.
"You think I came here the first time just to get back at Iphicles. You think I'm here now only because I can't have him. You think..." He started to laugh. "You think I don't love you."
"Shut up, Hercules." The sword vanished, and Ares straddled him, thighs tight around Hercules', one hand resting palm down behind his right shoulder.
"I always knew you were an idiot, Ares, but this is too much." He couldn't stop laughing. Had he ever laughed like this before? It felt so good, even if his stomach muscles were starting to scream. "I'm lying here on some goddamn mountain, completely naked, with my wrists locked in some mystery metal while you wave your sword around, and you don't *know* how I feel? Iolaus says I'm blind."
"There's no way I'm going to let you fuck me now," Ares said, kissing him. "Not after that speech. Maybe in a few hundred years or so, but until then you're getting it up the ass, hard."
"Go ahead." He smiled so wide it hurt. Happiness, apparently, had an edge sharp as Ares' word. "Go ahead and stick that big cock up my ass. I dare you."
"You're so annoying," he said, stroking Hercules' hair. "I don't know why I'm here."
"Ares, if I have to tell you that, I'll *never* get to fuck you." He started laughing again, and was still doing it when Ares pushed his oiled cock inside him. "I so much as mention the word ‘love,' and you'll..."
Ares swallowed the rest in a kiss.
The wedding of King Iphicles of Corinth and Pheme of Megara attracted the attention of the Fates.
"How they managed this I'll never know," Atropos said, helping herself to a slice of cake. She hated almonds and flicked them off with her nail. "Iphicles was destined for unhappiness, but look at him now. The sun's not brighter than his smile." She turned to her sisters. "Did one of you mess with the tapestry? I bet you did. It's that weakness you both have for the handsome ones."
The other two professed their innocence, their eyes wide and faces smooth in a way Hercules might have recognized.
"And what about that pretty little psycho Phobetor? I was sure he'd end up hanging from his toes in the darkest recesses of Tartarus, but no, he's happy as a pig in shit helping Ares organize wars."
"It's a mystery for sure," Lachesis said.
"Very puzzling," Clotho added.
"Iolaus doesn't surprise me, of course. If anyone was destined for happiness, it's that little man. Do you see what he's doing to that priest's daughter under the table?" Atropos shook her head. "It's a scandal."
"And then there's Hercules and his brother Ares. I *know* they were supposed to fight at least for another millennium or so. Now they're doing it so often with so much heat I hear Cupid's planning to sell tickets. Oh, there's still a little blood in Hercules' eyes when he looks at Iphicles, but that will fade." Atropos shook her finger at her sisters. "You're too damn romantic, that's what's wrong with you two." At their crestfallen faces, her old one creased into a smile. "I give up. Let them all be happy." And she cut the thread. "It's history now."