Possessions

By Valentin

The author does not own the characters from the series. They belong to MCA/Universal. We all know that. We're not making any money from this. We're just having fun. Okay?

NOTE - This story is a sequel to Truths, you may wish to read that one first.

He was lying on his back in a meadow, the tall grasses concealing him, safeguarding him. The sky was the clear blue of his loverís eyes, the air heady with the scent of wildflowers. A soft breeze caressed his body as his beloved called

 "Wake up, asshole!" and upended a bucket of water over his head.

Iolaus came to, sputtering, and struggled to open his swollen eyes. He straightened painfully, easing the drag of his weight on his shoulders and wrists.

"I was beginning to think youíd forgotten about me," he said, though the effort re-opened his split lip. A rough hand forced his chin up, and Iolaus stared coolly into the eyes of his captor.

Krakus surveyed Iolausí battered visage with satisfaction. "Youíre not quite as pretty any more, are you, loverboy?" he snarled. He twisted his hand in Iolausí hair and yanked back, laying his knife against the warriorís exposed throat. A thin line of red appeared under the razor-sharp blade.

"You and I both know youíre not going to kill me," Iolaus told him. "Not as long as you think Iíve got something you want."

"What does it matter, since youíre not going to tell me anyway?" Krakus grunted, but he removed the blade, eyes on the drop of crimson that rolled down to pool in the hollow of Iolausí throat. He dipped his finger there and brought it to his lips, grinning at the flash of disgust in his prisonerís eyes. Stepping closer to Iolaus, he ran one hand down the bare, wet chest to squeeze his genitals through his trousers.

"You have something else I want," he whispered, licking his lips.

Iolaus spat in his face.

With a roar Krakus swung his fist, to find it suddenly immobilised in an iron grip. He was confronted by a very tall, very angry man, who slowly lifted him by his fist until his feet flailed wildly in the air and he feared his arm would tear loose from its socket.

"Itís about time you showed up," Iolaus said peevishly. "What took you so long? I left a trail a blind man could have followed. That guy has a clay jaw, by the way."

"Youíre welcome," Hercules replied as he tapped Krakus under the chin with a fist, and the thug rolled up his eyes and slumped. Hercules dropped him unceremoniously to the floor of the hut and bent to untether Iolausí ankles.

"What was all this about?" he asked casually as he cut the rope that held Iolausí hands over his head. Iolaus bit back a gasp of pain as his arms dropped to his sides. His hands felt as though they belonged to someone else, and his shoulders Ė well, he wished they did belong to someone else. Krakus, maybe. Hercules caught him as he swayed, lifting him into his arms.

"Herc, I hate Ė"

"Being carried like a kid. I know, I know. But I have no intention of waiting around here until youíre ready to walk, so get over it."

Iolaus was insensibly cheered by these unsympathetic words. Further consideration convinced him that being in Herculesí arms was probably the best idea heíd heard all day. If only his hands worked.

"Wait a minute," he said as Hercules stepped over Krakus. "Heís got my medallion on him somewhere."

Hercules set him down and a wave of dizziness overcame him; he leaned against the wall, knees buckling, as Hercules rifled through Krakusí clothing. "Herc, what about Krakusí men?"

"You mean the ones you left standing? I took care of them on the way in. Aha!" he exclaimed, rising with Iolausí medallion. He set it in place around his companionís neck, and swung him back into his arms.

Iolaus had had enough of being carried in very short order, and Hercules set him down about ten minutes outside of the encampment. In any case, the painful return of circulation to his numbed extremities had been occasion for a series of oaths whose colour and inventiveness had led to Herculesí almost dropping him more than once. Satisfying himself that Hercules had not left a discernible trail, he sat on a rock and grudgingly submitted to Herculesí concerned examination.

Rising, Hercules told him, "Your eyes just need a cold compress, your nose isnít broken and that cut on your throat is shallow. Youíll live. Now, explain to me how I turn my back for five minutes and you get yourself kidnaped."

Iolaus shrugged, then winced as his abused shoulder muscles protested. "Herc, I havenít a clue," he said.

"I was on my way to meet you in Hellespont when these guys jumped me. Iíd have had them, too, if one of them hadnít hit me from behind with a rock," he added bitterly, tenderly exploring the lump on the back of his head.

"Well, what did they want?"

Iolaus shook his head and stood up, eager to get to an inn, an ale and a very hot bath.

"When I came to, I was tied up and that ape Krakus was waving my medallion around. He kept asking me where the other half was, and didnít believe me when I told him I didnít know what he was talking about. We went around that circle a few times before you showed up."

"Other half of what?"

"He wouldnít say; he obviously thought I was playing some sort of game with him. I thought he meant the other half of my medallion, but that just pissed him off."

Iolaus lifted the medallion from around his neck and examined it closely, then tossed it to Hercules, who turned it over in his hands. It had hung around Iolausí neck since he reached his teens, his sole legacy from his father. Iolaus had discovered only recently that it had been passed down from his grandfather, dead long before Iolaus had been born.

"Herc, Iíve gotta get to my grandmotherís," Iolaus said suddenly. "She might know something about this, and anyway, if Krakus knows about herÖ"

Hercules passed the medallion back to Iolaus. "Thereís an inn about an hourís walk from here, on the way to Cillabos," he said. "Itís got hot water, cold ale and Ė"

"Big beds?" Iolaus finished with a grin, pulling Hercules into his arms. Hercules bent to his small mortalís embrace. Their mouths met, hard, and Hercules pulled back at the coppery taste of Iolausí blood. He touched a thumb to the welling cut on Iolausí swollen lip, and wished heíd done more permanent damage to Krakus. His rage when heíd seen Krakusí hand pressed between Iolausí legs had jolted him with its intensity. He and Iolaus had been lovers less than a year, and he still fought his instinctual desire to protect Iolaus from a world that seemed bent on sending him to Hadesí tender mercies. Especially since that hideous day that Iolaus had died in his arms. Again.

But if he knew anything about Iolaus, he knew that the only way he could drive him off was to smother him. As much as Iolaus loved Hercules, his fierce pride would not tolerate any implication that he couldnít take care of himself. Theyíd been down that road once before.

Iolaus studied Herculesí frowning face. "Forget it, Herc," he advised. "Iíve been beaten up before, and I will be again. If you went after every guy whoís ever laid a hand on me half of Greece would be unconscious. Now, if you really want to do something for meÖ"

"Can we wait till we get to the inn?" Hercules asked, his lips twitching.

"Well, that too, but I was talking about a shoulder rub. And dinner. Something besides stew. Lamb, maybe. And some wine. And something sweet and sticky for dessert."

Hercules raised an eyebrow. "Anything else?"

"Iíll let you know," Iolaus promised, and hastened his pace.

The inn was small but immaculate, and just far enough off the beaten path that the common room was sparse of company. Iolaus pulled off his damp vest and slung it over the back of a chair he dragged to the fire, sinking onto it and crossing booted feet in front of the blaze. Hercules had a low-voiced conversation with the innkeeper and approached the fire as the serving girl handed Iolaus a tankard of ale.

Dimples flashed in his lean cheeks as he thanked her, and her own cheeks pinkened. She ducked her head shyly, narrowly missing Hercules as she backed away.

Iolaus drained off half the tankard at a gulp, wincing as the alcohol stung his lip, and leaned back in his chair with a sigh. "What?" he demanded as Hercules looked at him quizzically.

"Youíve got a black eye and a fat lip, and they still trip over themselves. How do you do it?"

He didnít really have to ask: Iolaus liked women, and women knew it. The past year hadnít changed that.

Iolaus raised the tankard to his lips. "I thought weíd already established that Iím irresistible," he murmured into the tankard, giving Hercules a sideways glance from under his lashes.

Hercules toyed briefly with the idea of throwing Iolaus over his shoulder and carrying him to the bedroom that was being prepared for them, then let it go with a sigh of regret. Iolaus would never forgive him.

They rose at a signal from the innkeeper, who indicated a door at the top of the landing.

The innkeeper had outdone himself. The shutters were open to admit the last rays of the dying sun. Candles were everywhere, and a large tub stood in front of the fireplace; towels, oils and soaps sat close at hand. A table by the pillow-strewn bed held a picnic supper and several bottles of wine.

Iolaus emitted a whoop of glee and speedily divested himself of the remainder of his clothing, submerging in the steaming tub. Checking to make sure the door was locked, Hercules stripped and eased himself into the water behind Iolaus.

Iolaus leaned back against Hercules and sighed deeply as the demigodís strong hands probed his strained muscles. He loved the feel of Herculesí hands on his body; the leashed power they contained excited him. Besides, they were soÖ big. Right now they were pushing on his shoulders, and he ducked under the water again as Hercules reached for a bottle of sandalwood-scented soap and lathered Iolausí hair.

He closed his eyes, and muttered a curse as Krakusí leering face intruded on his happy lack of thought. Rinsing the soap out of his hair, he turned to face Hercules.

"If Krakus had known about Leandra, heíd have said something, right? He mentioned my father, but not her. I mean, that guy is not the sharpest arrow in the quiver. Even if he knows her by name, why would he figure that a woman who looks ten years younger than me is my grandmother? So Iím worrying for nothing, right? Weíve got lots of time to get to Cillabos before he does. Right?"

Hercules looked at his companionís concerned face. "All right, worst case scenario," he said. "Krakus somehow knows who and where Leandra is. First he has to wake up. That bunch isnít going anywhere any time soon. Then they head for Cillabos. Itís not exactly on the maps, Iolaus. You know this area, and youíd never heard of it. So it takes them three, probably four days to find it. Now, you and I can step out of the tub, walk away from that bed, and wear ourselves out getting to your grandmotherís by tomorrow morning. Or we can wear ourselves out right here, and get to your grandmotherís by tomorrow evening. Any questions?"

"Yeah. Why are you so far away?"

Iolaus felt Herculesí burgeoning erection push warmly against his own as he pressed himself against Herculesí chest, hands sliding up to tangle in his hair.

Nobody on the face of the earth kissed like Iolaus, Hercules thought as Iolausí tongue slid into his mouth, torturing him with feathery caresses, his teeth sinking gently into Herculesí bottom lip, his kiss suddenly becoming savage, demanding. Hercules could kiss Iolaus for hours, and still not get enough. Sometimes, when Iolaus was being particularly stubborn, or grumpy, or argumentative, and especially when he smiled that blinding smile, it was all Hercules could do to keep from picking him up and kissing him till he was breathless.

Iolaus clenched his jaw in an effort to conceal a mighty yawn, and looked at Hercules apologetically. It had been a very long day. He finished his ablutions quickly and clambered out of the tub, wrapping himself in a towel and sinking into the bed to watch Hercules bathe.

"I donít know what I am more, hungry or sleepy," he complained. "I wonder if I can eat in my sleep."

"Well, if anybody can, itís you," Hercules told him, joining him on the bed. He lay back and Iolaus dropped his head onto Herculesí shoulder.

"Iím just gonna rest my eyes," he murmured, falling asleep instantly.

"Taking me for granted already, I see," Hercules said sadly to the top of his head, and pulling the covers over them watched the setting sun through the window. He wondered what Hephaestus knew of all this. It was too much of a coincidence that Iolausí medallion would become a hot property just months after the God of Fire lifted the curse on Cillabos. He thought that, after they checked on Leandra, a visit to Hephaestusí forge was probably in order. Besides, Hercules hadnít really thanked him for fashioning the delicate gold ring that Hercules had fastened in Iolausí ear just before he went to Corinth to meet his brotherís newborn heir. It was as close as he dared come to marking Iolaus as his property.

Pulling Iolaus closer, he closed his eyes.

When he awoke, the room was awash in candlelight and Iolaus had had the tub removed. In its place in front of the fire was a mound of pillows and a cloth spread with their supper. Iolaus was sitting cross-legged at the end of the bed, the towel replaced by Herculesí cotton undershirt. He was sipping a goblet of wine and watching Hercules, and Hercules was reminded of the first time theyíd made love, by the waterfall outside the Thallian caves. Iolaus in that shirt never failed to stir him.

As a soldier Iolaus had long since learned to fall asleep quickly for short periods of time and wake up refreshed. As a result, he spent a fair bit of time watching Hercules sleep, and thinking.

Lately he had been spending a lot of time contemplating their future.

In some ways, the demigod was remarkably un-godlike. Hercules had always led a rather monastic life; Iolaus could count his relationships in the past five years on one hand, and that included his wife. Iolaus had been surprised, and moved, by the extent of the passion that Hercules had revealed to him.

He and Hercules had always fit together like sword and scabbard in all the things that counted. Each had strengths that balanced the otherís weaknesses. Even knowing that, it had taken Iolaus years to believe Hercules really did need him, that he wasnít just along for the ride.

In the past year it had been Hercules who had struggled, trying to accept that the Iolaus who surrendered to him in bed was in no more need of protection than the man he was before they became lovers.

The trouble was, Hercules had grown up with the idea that it was his job to shield the people he loved from danger, and his failure to save his wife and children from Hera had made him pretty close to obsessive about Iolausí safety. Sometimes it got a little hard for Iolaus to take, and there were occasions when heíd retreated to a womanís arms to remind himself what it felt like to be the defender instead of the defended.

The bottom line, though, was that Iolaus would never love anyone as much as he loved Hercules. He wanted to believe Hercules felt the same way.

He couldnít convince himself. He knew it was just a matter of time before Hercules married again. In the middle of the night when he lay listening to Herculesí soft breathing, he almost wished they hadnít become lovers. At least then heíd still have their partnership when Hercules found a woman to share his bed and his heart.

"Why are you looking so serious?"

"I was afraid you were going to waste the whole night sleeping again," he answered, easing off the bed to pour Hercules a goblet of wine by the fire. He sat, patting the cushion beside him, and waggled the goblet.

"Come and eat," he commanded. "Youíre going to need your strength."

Hercules wrapped the sheet around his waist and joined Iolaus by the fire, laying his head in Iolausí lap. They were silent for a while, Hercules staring into the fire, enjoying the feel of Iolausí fingers in his hair. He nuzzled his scratchy cheek against Iolausí groin, laughing when he jumped and complained.

Hercules marveled at the utter peace Iolausí presence afforded him. It seemed impossible to him now that he had waited more than twenty years to take Iolaus to his bed. He had loved Deianeira beyond measure, but no-one had ever made him feel as Iolaus had this past year. He was like a teenager again, in a constant state of arousal, with all the teenage angst exchanged for joy. It was a remarkable feeling.

"That beardís gotta go," Iolaus was saying. "If I can shave, so can you. Iíve got enough cuts and bruises without adding whisker burn."

He produced a basin of warm water from the hearth and waved Hercules into a chair, digging around in Herculesí belt pouch until he found his razor. Hercules held out his hand for it, but Iolaus snatched it back.

"Iím going to do it," he announced. "How hard can it be? You shaved me when my wrist was broken, and frankly, Herc, Iím less clumsy. There are some advantages to being smaller than a mountain."

"Keep talking and your other wrist will be in a splint," Hercules threatened, leaning back in the chair and closing his eyes.

He felt Iolausí mouth on his briefly before the lather was smoothed along his jaw. Iolaus began humming softly behind him, and Hercules rested his head against Iolausí chest as the blade scraped against the stubble on his throat. He opened his eyes to watch Iolaus straddle his legs, bending over him to glide the razor across his cheeks. The tip of Iolausí tongue crept out as he concentrated, and Hercules reached for Iolausí hips under the thin shirt, pulling him forward to cup his buttocks.

"Just remember I never cut you once when I shaved you," he remarked, running his hands down Iolausí thighs.

"I never grabbed your ass while you were shaving me," Iolaus gasped, making a final, slightly shaky pass with the razor and setting it down with relief.

"You would have if youíd thought of it," Hercules said. Iolaus was now sitting on his lap, the shirt on the floor at Herculesí feet.

"Thought of it! I spent twenty years thinking about grabbing your ass," Iolaus told him indignantly, trying to find the end of the sheet that was wound around Herculesí waist. Hercules stood up, lifting Iolaus with him, and the sheet joined the shirt on the floor.

"Bed or fire? Fire," Hercules decided, moving to the cushions scattered in front of the flames. He dropped to his knees without releasing Iolausí thighs, bending forward until Iolaus was reclining on the cushions. He poured oil into his palm, warming it.

"Do you know how long itís been?" he asked softly, reaching for Iolausí cock, his eyes never leaving Iolausí face.

"Ten days, eight hours and Ė aaah," Iolaus finished incoherently as Herculesí fingers slid inside him, moving in rhythm with what his other hand was doing so deliciously. When Iolaus began to pant, Hercules released him long enough to run an oily hand along his own cock.

"I canít wait, Iolaus," he said hoarsely. He pushed Iolausí thighs farther apart and buried himself in one hard thrust.

He withdrew almost completely and drove back into him, slamming him against the cushions, hooking his arms under Iolausí knees. He watched Iolausí face hungrily, exulting in the mindless pleasure/pain heíd imprinted there as Iolaus braced himself against the ground, back arching to each powerful thrust.

Finally he moved his arms and Iolausí legs immediately clamped around his waist, raising his hips higher. He wrapped his hand around Iolausí cock; Iolaus cried out, muscles spasming around Herculesí cock as he exploded into orgasm. Shuddering, Hercules thrust again, and again, then Iolausí convulsions under and around him pulled him into wave after wave of release.

He was bracing himself on one shaky arm, the other hand still caressing Iolausí cock. He pushed into Iolaus one last time and regretfully withdrew, collapsing on to his side, hand never losing contact with Iolaus.

"Mine," came into his head unbidden, and his tongue traced the edge of the ear that heíd pierced to set the ring in place.

Iolaus placed his hand over Herculesí, pressing it against his stirring cock.

"Remind me to shave you more often," he said, awe in his voice.

Suddenly Hercules was starving. He gave Iolausí groin a last pat and reached for his wine, watching as Iolaus wiped both of them off with a soft cloth and poked the fire back to life. Their meal was simple, but satisfying: tender slices of pink lamb, vegetables marinated in olive oil and spices, bread, cheese, olives and figs and honey cake laden with fruit. Ignoring the plates, they fed each other with their fingers between kisses and laughter.

Finally Iolaus rose and searched among the bottles still on the table, choosing one and returning to the fire with it.

"Isnít that a little out of your usual line?" Hercules asked, indicating the honeyed brandy.

"I wanted something sweet and sticky for dessert, remember?" Iolaus answered, opening the bottle and pouring a little carefully on to Herculesí belly.

"Iím guessing Iím it," Hercules said, pleased, lying back and allowing Iolaus to stuff a pillow under his hips.

He started at Herculesí mouth, with long, slow, wet kisses redolent of wine and figs. He pushed the curtain of hair aside to taste the ticklish spot under his ear and the pulse that beat in his throat. He bit his way carefully down the broad shoulder, nuzzling into the mat of hair to set his teeth gently into a nipple. Herculesí eyes were closed now, his breath hissing between parted lips. A hand groped for Iolausí and brought it to his mouth to draw in Iolausí fingers.

Iolausí clever tongue circled his navel and travelled down his belly. The feel of his warm mouth against the cool sting of the brandy was indescribable. Iolaus dribbled the brandy on to his cock, and he opened his eyes to watch Iolaus trace the brandyís path with his mouth.

Ah, gods. Here was another thing no-one did like Iolaus, was his last coherent thought.

When his breathing slowed, much later, he turned on his side, propping his head on his elbow to watch Iolausí face in the firelight.

"You do that on purpose," he commented mildly.

"I donít know what youíre talking about," Iolaus responded innocently, clasping his hands behind his head with a smug look.

"I never should have told you Iím not a shouter," Hercules continued with regret.

Iolaus grinned up at the ceiling.

"Youíve always seemed quite, hm, vocal to me, Herc," he said reminiscently.

"One of these days weíre going to get thrown out of an inn, you know," Hercules pointed out.

"Never mind. Youíre just as loud outdoors as you are in a bedroom," Iolaus offered with spurious sympathy.

"Well, then," Hercules said as he stood, pulling Iolaus to his feet, "we might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb."

"Oh, youíre definitely not hung like a Ė"

Hercules shut Iolaus up, and Iolaus chuckled against his mouth, hands slipping around Herculesí neck.

He usually followed Herculesí lead in their adventures together, but Iolaus was almost always the aggressor when they were alone. Not that Hercules had ever been at all reluctant; maybe itís because I never give him a chance to make the first move, Iolaus mused. After more than twenty years of unfulfilled desire, heíd spent the last year making up for lost time.

And as much as Iolaus valued his independence in battle Ė maybe because of it Ė there were times when he got hard just thinking about Hercules dominating him during their lovemaking.

As he had earlier. The delicate throbbing between his legs increased as he thought about how Hercules had been. Suddenly he wanted more of it, wanted that look of possession on Herculesí face again.

He pulled away from Hercules and picked up his wine. "Of course," he said in a casual voice, watching a shifting log send sparks dancing, "you probably need a little time to recoup."

He settled by the fire again, carefully keeping his back to Hercules.

"Do you remember Lucius?" he asked, sipping his wine. "About eight years ago, King Xerxesí general, the one who led the army to victory against the Babylonian invaders? Overwhelming odds, too. Hell of a fighter, Lucius."

Hercules remembered Lucius vividly. He was indeed a hell of a fighter; he was also charming, erudite, witty, tall and well-built. Hercules had disliked him on sight. Iolaus, however, had warmed to him immediately, and the two had spent a great deal of time together. Far too much time, in Herculesí opinion, and he would have told Iolaus so if he could have thought of a valid reason for his objections.

His eyebrows lowered. "What about him?" he asked suspiciously, wishing he could see Iolausí face.

"Huh? Nothing," Iolaus said quickly, suppressing a grin. "He just popped into my mind, for some reason. You never liked him, though, did you? Hmh."

"What do you mean, hmh?" Hercules was starting to get a little piqued. What was Iolaus implying, anyway? That Lucius had been some kind of perpetual motion machine, or something? Look at that. Iolaus was getting a hard-on just thinking about him.

Iolaus shivered deliciously. Why hadnít he thought of this before? Although it was sort of spearing fish in a barrel. He almost felt sorry for Hercules.

Almost.

This was nearly as much fun as getting him into bed had been the first time.

"Wine?" he said over his shoulder, refilling his goblet and offering Hercules the bottle.

"No, I donít want any wine," Hercules said, taking bottle and goblet from Iolausí hands and setting them on the table.

"What I want is to drop you face-down on that bed and fuck you so thoroughly theyíll hear you in the next province."

"You silver-tongued devil," Iolaus said delightedly as Hercules, fire in his eyes, tossed him to his shoulder.

The candles were guttering, and Iolaus almost purring, as he pulled his wrists from Herculesí loosened grasp and reached back to curl his hand into the damp hair at the nape of Herculesí neck.

"Iíll get off you in a minute," Hercules mumbled against his back.

"Take your time," Iolaus said sweetly, pulling an unresisting arm around himself.

"Lucius, huh? I think Iíve just been had," Hercules commented after a moment.

"And you returned the favour magnificently," Iolaus assured him, wriggling carefully so as not to disrupt Herculesí comforting, if diminished, occupation of his body. Hercules obligingly settled himself more comfortably between Iolausí thighs and ran his hand down the length of his loverís muscular frame.

"Youíre mine, you know," he remarked conversationally. "Whatever happens, whoever else youíre with, youíre mine and you always will be."

His fingers tightened on Iolausí leg. Incredibly, he was growing hard inside Iolaus again. He began to move gently, growling deep in his throat as Iolaus pulled his knees up to open himself more fully to him.

"Whoever youíre with, Iím yours," Iolaus gasped, pushing Herculesí hand down to his swelling cock.

They awoke with the sun warm on their faces, Herculesí arm still draped possessively across Iolausí chest. Iolaus got out of bed and stuck his head out the window, looking around till he spotted the serving girl feeding the chickens, and called for hot water and towels to be left outside their door.

"And start breakfast, too," he told her. "Lots of breakfast. Weíll be down as soon as we smell the ham frying."

"Speak for yourself," Hercules groaned, burying his head under a pillow. "You drank way more than I did last night. So why am I the one with a hangover?"

"Well, Lucius used to Ė" Iolaus began, grinning, and Hercules threw the pillow at his head and sat up. There was a soft knock at the door, and Iolaus went to collect the hot water.

"Youíll feel better with some food inside you," he promised, wetting a towel and giving himself a sketchy bath. The delicious soreness of last night had disappeared, and he was ravenously hungry. Plus he desperately needed to relieve himself. He dressed hastily, tossing Hercules a towel, and told him to hurry up, his mind already on his grandmother and Cillabos.

Hercules met him at the table in the common room. He hadnít thought heíd be able to eat a bite, but Iolausí breakfast was surprisingly tempting. They left right after their meal, giving the landlord a generous tip. He pocketed the money with a smile, thinking heíd happily have paid them. Their night would be a source of gossip and speculation for his patrons for months.

They arrived in Cillabos at dusk. Leandra greeted Iolaus with a hug, then turned to Hercules with a warm smile. "You must be Iolausí friend Hercules," she said. "Even if only half of what Iolaus told me is true, Iím in your debt for saving his life many times over." Her grip on Iolausí hand tightened.

Iolaus put his arm around her shoulders. They were thinner since heíd seen her a month ago. His father had been dead for several years, but to Leandra it was still an open wound. Heíd take her to Corinth, he decided. There was nothing to hold her here; the relatives who had lived outside the village were all dead now, and heíd never forgive her neighbours for turning her over to Hephaestus so readily. Not to mention the little matter of trying to stone him to death for helping her.

She leaned against Iolaus for an instant, then drew herself up. "You must be starving," she said. "Come inside and have supper, and tell me why youíre here. I presume it has something to do with your black eye. Will I ever see what you look like when youíre not fresh from combat?"

Iolausí eyes met Herculesí, brimming with laughter, over Leandraís head, and they followed her into the small, neat house as she continued her affectionate scolding. Over dinner Iolaus gave her an expurgated version of his encounter with Krakos, skimming over his treatment at the thugís hands.

"Do you know where my grandfather got the medallion?" he asked her hopefully, and sat back in disappointment when she shook her head.

"He had it when we met. I asked him about it once, and he just said he was holding it for someone, and changed the subject. Everyone knew he wore it, though; itís how they identified his body when he fell in battle. I nearly buried it with him, but I wanted Skouros to have something of his fatherís when he grew up."

She traced the asymmetrical pattern etched into the stone with a gentle finger, eyes bright with unshed tears, and left the table. When she returned with mugs of warmed mead, her eyes were dry.

"I have a trunk that was sent to me after he died. Why donít you look through it? Maybe thereís something there that youíll see through fresh eyes."

Iolaus leaped up at once, following her into the tiny bedroom, and returned with a small, iron-banded wooden trunk of the kind commonly carried by soldiers. He set it on the table that Hercules had cleared and the three removed the contents carefully, Leandra remembering a story for each item they unearthed. Hercules was entranced by the play of emotion across Iolausí face as Leandra brought his past to life for him.

Eventually, however, the trunk was emptied, and nothing of significance found in its contents. Iolaus peered into the box, feeling carefully along the sides and bottom. He paused as his sensitive fingers encountered an irregularity, and Hercules held the lamp higher. Teeth worrying at his lower lip, Iolaus carefully prodded the tiny catch, exclaiming in satisfaction as part of the bottom lifted out to reveal a shallow compartment.

"Whatís the point of a secret compartment if youíre not going to keep something secret in it?" Iolaus asked triumphantly, pulling out a folded square of heavy linen. Hercules moved the trunk to the floor, and Iolaus smoothed the cloth out on the table to reveal a drawing that ended abruptly at the torn edge of the material.

"The other half," they said simultaneously. "Now we just have to figure out what itís the other half of," concluded Iolaus dubiously as he turned the cloth around.

"Is it a map?" asked Leandra with interest, peering over Iolausí shoulder.

"Probably," Hercules answered, "but with no reference points, landmarks, place names or even an arrow showing which way is north, itís not much use."

Iolaus made a disgusted noise. "Now what?" he demanded.

"Letís find out what Hephaestus has to contribute to this," Hercules suggested. "Iíll visit his forge in the morning."

Iolaus relinquished the cloth with a sigh of disappointment and went to rummage in a large chest for blankets to spread by the fire. Leandra paused at the door of her bedroom, then turned to say to them, "If you wake up before I do in the morning, donít worry about disturbing me. Iím a very sound sleeper."

Smiling serenely, she bid them good night and shut the door firmly behind her. Hercules looked at Iolaus with some amusement.

"Perceptive woman, your grandmother," he said, bringing their mugs to the nest Iolaus had made in front of the fire.

"Well, thatís what happens when you look at me like youíre starving and Iím dinner," Iolaus told him, pulling Herculesí shirt out of his belt. He reached up to slide the shirt and tunic from Herculesí shoulders, then quickly unfastened his belt. "I hate these damn trousers," he told Hercules, not for the first time, unbuckling the first of the leather straps that held them closed.

Herculesí erection was already pushing into Iolausí hands as he opened the trousers, then slid them slowly to Herculesí hips. He ran a delicate finger along its length and looked up at Hercules, who watched him hungrily. The demigod lay against the blankets while Iolaus tugged off his boots, then eased off his trousers. Iolaus kneeled beside him. Herculesí beauty, his darkened, dilated eyes, his parted lips, his powerful, yielding body, were like a clenched fist around Iolausí heart. Leaning forward, he devoured Herculesí mouth with a ferocity that left them both gasping. Love me forever, Hercules, he thought. I donít breathe right without you.

Leandra opened her bedroom door cautiously the next morning, breathing a sigh of relief when she saw the neatly folded blankets sitting atop the trunk. Iolaus strode in, shirtless and whistling, carefully holding three eggs and swinging a bucket of water. His wet hair was pushed off his face, and she noted that the swelling around his eye was almost gone, although the bruising would take much longer to fade. The gods take with one hand and give with the other, she thought. She mourned the loss of her child bitterly, but she adored this golden, sunlit man who was the child of her child.

"Hercís already gone," Iolaus announced, handing her the eggs and pouring the water into the kettle that sat over the fire. "I thought Iíd stay around here, just in case you need me for something. Like eating your cooking, for instance. Iím starving!"

Leandra wasnít fooled. "Are you expecting trouble, Iolaus?" she asked, eyes never leaving his face. Sheíd quickly learned to tell when he was being evasive.

"Well, not expecting it, exactly," he said, flashing her a smile, "just being cautious. Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about something, and I was hoping youíd tell me some more stories. Over breakfast. Did I mention Iím starving?"

She laughed, and sent him outside to milk the cow while she started their meal. As he ate, she spoke to him of his grandfather and how theyíd met.

"You have his eyes," she said reflectively. "He could never lie to me either; those eyes give everything away. Which brings us to what you wanted to talk to me about."

Hercules approached the entrance to Hephaestusí forge carefully. Iolaus had told him about the brazen cat that guarded the outer cave.

"Hephaestus?" he called, edging further into the cave. One never knew what new mechanical marvel the God of Fire would post to greet his visitors. A snarl came from behind him, and he turned just in time to wedge his gauntlet between the catís fangs.

"Hephaestus!" he roared, shaking his arm furiously as the cat screamed, trying to drag him across the cave. The thing froze abruptly, dropping to the ground with a clang as he wrenched his arm from the snarling, rigid jaws.

"My pet generally keeps people out," Hephaestus observed, limping heavily toward him. "Everyone except you and Iolaus, of course. What can I do for you, Hercules?"

He led Hercules back to his sparse quarters and dropped on to the bed, accepting the medallion Hercules extended to him. "Where did you find this?" he asked, looking sharply up at his stepbrother.

"Itís been hanging around Iolausí neck for years," Hercules said. "Surely you noticed it."

"He wasnít wearing this when I saw him. Believe me, I would have noticed," Hephaestus said grimly. "I thought Iíd seen the last of this more than fifty years ago."

"Well, what the hell is it?" Hercules asked impatiently. "And what does it have to do with this?" He pulled the square of linen from his shirt and handed it to Hephaestus.

"Give them to me and forget about them, Hercules," Hephaestus told him, folding his good hand tightly around them.

"I canít do that, Hephaestus. Iolaus got that medallion from his father, and besides, someone else already knows. Theyíve come after Iolaus once, and Iím going to make sure it doesnít happen again." His hand shot out and grasped Hephaestusí vest.

"If something happens to Iolaus because of thisÖ"

The God of Fire looked at the hand on his vest and back at Hercules without expression. Hercules released the vest and his hand dropped to his side, fingers clenched into a fist.

"Youíd better open that fist a little and give him some room to breathe," Hephaestus said quietly. Hercules gave him a sharp look, and Hephaestus laughed.

"Do you imagine I donít know whoís wearing the earring I made for you, Hercules? Even before I saw it in his ear, I knew youíd made Iolaus your lover."

Hercules started to tell Hephaestus angrily to mind his own business, but the lame god cut him off brusquely.

"Iím the god of smiths, Hercules. Iolaus is my business. I know you desire him; who could look at that exquisite little mortal, be with him, and not want him? But heís not an ordinary mortal. Ordinary mortals donít make a habit of defying gods to their faces. Iolaus puts his life on the line, willingly, to walk by your side. He doesnít do anything halfway, brother. If you canít understand that, you have no business in his bed. Value him as you should, Hercules, or youíll regret it."

"What makes you an expert on Iolausí needs?" Hercules demanded, fuming.

"Iím an expert in loving the wrong person," Hephaestus said with a mirthless laugh. "You like to think you have nothing in common with your brothers and sisters, I know. But youíre the son of Zeus, Hercules, whether you like it or not. Pride of ownership isnít love. You may think you love Iolaus, you may even want to love him, but one day youíre going to tear his heart out of his chest for committing the cardinal sin of loving you." Like Aphrodite did to me, he thought, watching her brother pace angrily around the austere chamber.

Calming, Hercules faced Hephaestus. "I know youíre trying to be helpful," he said stiffly, "but you donít know what youíre talking about. I would never do anything to hurt Iolaus."

"Not intentionally, perhaps. But even gods have destinies. Remember that, Hercules."

"Iím not a god," Hercules said fiercely, and Hephaestus smiled.

Iolaus was unsuccessful in persuading Leandra to leave Cillabos, but he did manage to charm her into a reluctant agreement to join him on a visit to Alcmene and Jason. He was sure that once there sheíd contrast her lonely life with the loving bustle that was Alcmeneís home, and agree to relocate to Corinth.

He secured the last of the new thatch in place on Leandraís roof, and mopped the sweat from his forehead as he looked automatically toward the woods for Hercules. Heíd been gone for hours; Iolaus was beginning to worry. A movement behind the trees caught his eye, and he swung quickly down from the eaves as a knot of men advanced on the house.

Shit, Iolaus thought. Krakus.

He was leaning against the doorpost, paring his nails with his knife, when Krakus arrived.

"You came all this way for nothing,, Krakus," Iolaus said. "I still donít have the other half of anything, and now I donít have the medallion, either. Youíre obviously too stupid to have found me on your own, so go back and tell whoever has hold of your leash that heís wasting his time."

Red-faced with rage, Krakus snarled, "If you wonít tell me what I want to know, maybe your grandmother will!"

Iolaus stared at him in astonishment. "My who?" he inquired with a grin. "Are you planning a trip to the Underworld?"

"Iolaus, whatís going Ė"

Iolaus caught Leandra to his side, giving her a warning squeeze.

"Hereís my grandmother, Krakus. What was it you wanted to ask her?"

Krakusí men snickered as Iolaus nuzzled Leandraís neck, then looked at Krakus derisively. Leandra punched Iolausí chest lightly, saying, "Grandmother, eh? Youíll pay for that one, Iolaus. Who are your friends?"

She was trembling as she leaned against him, but the face she presented to Krakus was calm, and innocent of fear. He felt a fierce jolt of pride in her. Her hand fumbled at the waistband of his trousers, and she tucked a small, sharp dagger down against the small of his back as Krakus grabbed her other arm, jerking her from Iolausí grasp.

Iolausí knife was instantly at Krakusí throat.

"You really have a death wish, donít you?" he said softly, reaching for Leandraís hand.

"Iím not the one who thinks he can beat a dozen men by himself," Krakus answered, his eyes bright with triumph as they focused above Iolausí shoulder. Iolaus had enough time to curse himself for not moving away from the open door before the world went black.

He was pulled from unconsciousness by sharp pain; someone was slapping his face repeatedly. He tried to pull away from the hand, forcing his bleary eyes to focus on the figure looming over him. He was tied to a chair; Krakus, grinning wolfishly, was raising his hand to slap him again.

"That will do, Krakus," a feminine voice admonished from behind him, and Krakus scowled, until the voice continued, "You can have him back when Iím finished with him. Leave us."

Krakus blew him a kiss, laughing as Iolaus wiped the blood from his re-opened lip on his shoulder and glared up at him. Iolaus pretended disinterest in the owner of the voice, lowering his head as he looked surreptitiously around.

He was in a windowless, undistinguished room whose only furnishings were the chair he was secured to, a table holding his knife, and a pallet on the floor. He pressed back against the chair, and blessed Leandraís foresight as he felt the small dagger dig into his back below his waistband. His hands were tied behind his back, and he knew he could free himself if he was left alone for even a few seconds. The knowledge gave him new confidence; he straightened to watch the owner of the feminine voice approach him.

She picked his knife up from the table, toying with its blade as she approached him. In another place, Iolaus would have found her attractive.

"I knew that dog had a master," he commented, assessing her narrowly. "Tell me what you want from me. I seem to have something you need; maybe we can come to some kind of agreement."

She shook her head at him reprovingly. "I so hate to state the obvious, but youíre in no position to bargain with me, Iolaus. Iíve learned a great deal about you, and I know that I could probably torture you to death without unsealing your lips. So stubborn. Just like your grandfather. But I have a feeling you wouldnít be quite so reticent if I were to heat this knife and apply it to your grandmotherís cheek, for instance."

She pressed the flat of the knife against Iolausí face as she spoke, and he shuddered involuntarily. Smiling, she caressed the spot where the knife had lain, and Iolaus jerked away from her touch. Her smile broadened.

"Saving yourself for Hercules, Iolaus?" she inquired, her hand moving down to rest lightly against his codpiece.

"Does he believe youíre his exclusive property? Does he know of your night in Niobeís bed? Or your week with Evanthea, or all the times in the arms of all the women youíve had in the past year? Oh, I understand completely," she purred, moving behind him to slip her hands down his shoulders to his chest. "You used to be a warrior of some acclaim, didnít you? It must have been difficult, suddenly becoming nothing more than the great Herculesí piece of ass."

Iolaus smothered the hot retort that rose to his lips. "Iím flattered," he finally said. "Youíve obviously gone to a lot of trouble to find out who I am. And here I donít even know your name."

"Iím sure Leandra would be happy to introduce you. But letís get back to you, Iolaus. You know, you fascinate me. Why would a fearless, powerful, talented man Ė a hunter, a soldier, an artist Ė settle for being the lapdog of an out-of-favour demigod? With your looks and charm, you could have seduced any god on Mount Olympus, and had real power. What do you get out of letting Hercules lie between your legs?"

Sheíd come to stand before him again, staring into his eyes intently.

"Why do I get the feeling this isnít about me any more?" Iolaus asked her. Anger flared in her eyes, then she smiled.

"Donít presume too much, Iolaus. Remember, I know everything about you, and you donít even know my name."

"I know that youíre from Cillabos, and that you were married to my grandfatherís best friend. I know you hate Leandra, and that you were probably in love with my grandfather. I also know that you know Leandra doesnít know anything about the secret of the medallion."

"Pretty and smart," she said after a moment, fingering her wedding bracelet. "And how did you reach these conclusions?"

"My grandfather would only have shared this secret with someone he trusted. Someone you obviously had enough influence over to get the secret out of him. If youíd believed Leandra was in on it, you wouldnít have sent Krakus after me first. And as for being in love with him Ė I can hear the resentment when you talk about him. Too bad for you he was in love with Leandra."

As he spoke, Iolaus had been gently twisting his hands, trying to work the bonds loose enough to allow him to reach the dagger.

"Anyway, youíre wrong about me," he continued, leaning back as casually as his trussed limbs would permit. "I donít give a damn about this secret, whatever it is. Why would I risk my life over it? We can work together. I donít have the medallion any more, but I know where it is."

"So do I," she told him. "When Hercules comes back out of that cave, my man will be there to make sure he delivers it to me. Does he ever tire of rescuing his little playmate? According to my reports, you do seem to get in over your head a great deal. Is that why you get on your knees for him, Iolaus? Gratitude? Insurance?"

She studied with satisfaction the dull flush that rose in his face, then leaned close to him, breathing her words into his ear.

"Tell me, Iolaus. Donít you ever tire of being rescued? You could get away from me now if you tried. What are you waiting for? Has spreading your legs for Hercules made you forget how to act like a warrior? Is that what all those women were for, Iolaus?"

He pushed down the hot tide of rage that rose in his chest, concentrating on keeping his breathing level, and was rewarded with a tiny slackening in the ropes.

"You know," he said finally, turning his head to regard her calmly, "being in love doesnít mean giving up power. If you knew half as much about me as you think you do, youíd know that Hercules and I are partners, in bed and out of it. Iím not his possession."

"Really? Would he agree with you? In his soul, I mean, not just because it was what you wanted to hear?"

No he wouldnít, a tiny voice whispered. Iolaus resolutely ignored it. She slid her hand under his vest and teased the nipple that rose to her fingertips.

"I never found that calling the shots in the bedroom made up for having to walk three paces behind a man in public. You and I have so much in common, Iolaus. What a team we could make. Give me the other half of the map, and weíll share whatever we find there."

Krakus thrust open the door. "Elena! Hercules is coming," he announced. She gave Iolaus a last assessing glance and followed Krakus out of the room.

Iolaus was reaching for the dagger before the door was completely closed. He sawed through the ropes with only minor damage to his wrists, and quickly slashed the bonds at his ankles. Opening the door a crack, he listened intently, then dared to open it far enough to peer up and down the narrow corridor.

He slid down the hall, trying each door till he found Leandra bound and lying on a bed. He cut her bonds, cautioning her to silence, and lifted her through the window. She caught at his hand as he released her.

"Iolaus, what are you waiting for?" she gasped, tugging at his arm.

"I have to see this through, Leandra," he told her. "Elenaís not going to stop coming after you. Run like hell. Is there someone in this godsforsaken village you can trust?"

"The weaverís daughter is my best friend. Iíll wait for you there. Be careful, Iolaus." She pressed his hand against her cheek, then disappeared between the houses.

The door flew open behind him, and he swung to face Elena, Krakus and Hercules.

Herculesí face lightened, and he started to cross the tiny room to Iolausí side. Iolaus stopped him with an outstretched hand.

"Give me the medallion and the map, Hercules," he said. Elenaís mouth curved with satisfaction.

To Krakus, who was already at the window shouting at his men, she said, "Leave Leandra. We wonít be needing her anymore. A sign of good faith," she continued to Iolaus, joining him to face Hercules, triumph lighting her eyes.

Hercules ignored her. "Iím not going to do that, Iolaus. Now, letís go." He moved toward the door, turning in disbelief when he heard Iolausí stony voice.

"This isnít your call, Hercules. Iím not some village peasant whoís awe-struck by your biceps. This is about family." This is about family, Hercules had said to him, and the words had cut into him as the archerís arrow had torn Hercules. You should understand when I ask you to stay back.

He hadnít realised that still rankled until he heard his own words in the suddenly silent room.

Hercules reached into his tunic and held out his medallion and the torn scrap of linen. He stepped forward to take them, mindful of Elenaís watchful eyes. Their fingers touched briefly, and Iolaus met Herculesí eyes with a plea for forgiveness and patience. Herculesí shoulders relaxed Ė imperceptibly, to anyone without Iolausí intimate knowledge of him Ė and he said grimly, "Take them, then. But Iím not leaving without you."

"Whatever," Iolaus said impatiently, and spread the map on the table, matching its torn edge with the cloth that Elena handed him.

"Thatís it?" she asked incredulously, looking at the unmarked drawing. Something about its configuration tickled at Iolausí mind, and he stared at it as Elena turned on Hercules.

"Tell me what Hephaestus said," she demanded. "I know you took it to him. Tell me, or Krakus goes after Leandra."

"Hephaestus," Iolaus repeated, still studying the map. "This is the labyrinth under Hephastusí forge!" he exclaimed. Elena frowned when he turned to Hercules to share his discovery, and Iolaus gathered up the cloths and thrust them at her, dropping the medallionís thong around his neck as he headed for the door.

Hercules followed him, biting back automatic words of warning and advice. Did Iolaus think Hephaestus would just let him walk away with whatever lay at the mapís end?

This is about family. That had stung, even after heíd realised Iolausí game. And yet heíd said it to Iolaus more than once. The first time, after Hera had murdered Deianeira and their children, heíd been too absorbed with his own grief and rage to care whether he wounded Iolaus. The second time heíd been concerned with his motherís safety, but this time Iolaus had allowed him to see the pain heíd caused. He smiled to himself, remembering Iolaus telling him he was like a brother, stumbling over the words.

Theyíd wasted so much time.

Hephaestus had surrendered the map and medallion to Hercules with reluctance when his stepbrother had ruthlessly pointed out that he owed both Iolaus and Leandra. Heíd refused to divulge their meaning, however, only promising not to prevent Herculesí finding out for himself.

They reached the entrance to the outer cave at sundown. Hercules lit the torches theyíd brought as Krakus pushed ahead of them, drawing his sword. "I wouldnít be so eager to rush in there, if I was you," Iolaus observed.

"Whatís the matter, pretty boy? Afraid of getting your face messed up some more?" he sneered, and strutted into the cave. When Elena made to follow him, Hercules took her arm; she turned on him furiously, then froze at the snarling and screaming that issued from the darkness.

The screaming stopped abruptly, and the snarls became a series of coughing grunts. When they, too, had ceased, Hercules edged into the cave, holding a torch high. Krakus was crumpled in a corner, his face twisted into a rictus of terror, blood still oozing sluggishly from his torn-out throat. The cat crouched over him; its head snapped around as it caught Herculesí scent, and its upper lip drew back from its bloody fangs. Powerful muscles bunched under its golden hide as it gathered itself to spring, and Hercules braced for its impact.

"Take it easy, Herc," Iolaus advised from behind him, and started toward the cat.

"Iolaus, donít!" Hercules ordered, reaching to stop him as heíd stopped Elena.

"I know what Iím doing, Hercules," Iolaus snapped, and Hercules knew the anger in his eyes wasnít for Elenaís benefit. He debated stopping him anyway.

The catís glowing eyes were fixed on Iolaus, and its tail lashed furiously. Iolaus and the creature stared at each other for what seemed an eternity to Hercules; he longed to pull Iolaus behind him out of harmís way, but feared the sudden movement would provoke an attack. Finally Iolaus began to move. Keeping his eyes on the cat, he hissed at Hercules and Elena to follow him, and they crossed the cave to the accompaniment of the animalís growls.

They reached the entrance to the labyrinth, Iolaus still keeping the catís glare focused on him. A white-faced Elena shuddered as the cat stalked toward the front of the cave and froze there.

Iolaus let out a breath he didnít know heíd been holding and wiped away the sudden sweat that had sprung up on his forehead, looking a challenge at Hercules.

"All right, all right," Hercules said, holding his hands up in surrender. "From here on out, Iíll leave all the wild beasts to you."

"WellÖ at least the ones Iím already acquainted with, okay?"

Elena had spread the map on a rock, and gestured impatiently to Iolaus. He studied the drawing, and pointed to the left. Snatching up the cloths, she hurried down the tunnel ahead of them.

Iolaus started after her, then halted at Herculesí voice.

"Iolaus. What do you think youíre going to accomplish down here? I canít protect you from Hephaestusí anger if you steal from him."

"Protect me? Is that why youíre here, to save me from my own incompetence?" Furious, Iolaus glared at him.

Cursing his importunate tongue, Hercules said, "You know thatís not what I meant. I just couldnít stand it if anything happened to you, thatís all. I donít know how many more breaks Hades is going to give us," he added with a smile, hoping to retrieve lost ground.

Iolaus refused to be charmed. "What is there about me that makes you think Iím helpless to defend myself, Hercules? Who do you think does it when youíre not around?" He looked as though he would have liked to say more, but pressed his lips together angrily at the sound of Elenaís voice calling peremptorily from the tunnel. Shooting Hercules a last look, he followed her into the labyrinth.

They travelled the maze in silence, Iolaus pausing occasionally to consult the map. As they moved deeper into the bowels of the volcano the heat became more intense, and they were grateful for the waterskins theyíd brought. At last Iolaus stopped, pushing his sweat-soaked hair off his forehead.

"The centre of the labyrinth is just around this corner," he told Elena. "If youíre planning to have second thoughts about tangling with a god, nowís the time."

She looked at him contemptuously, and he sighed and followed her.

The wall they faced held two huge, ornately carved doors framed by delicate pillars that looked far too fragile to hold the weight of the massive stone slab they supported. Elena moved eagerly to the portal and reached for the serpentine handles.

"Wait," Hercules said warningly. "I know my stepbrother. This is too easy."

"Youíre not sleeping with me, Hercules," she told him. "You donít get to tell me what to do."

"Iíd listen to him if I was you, Elena," Iolaus said, coming closer to examine the doors.

"Are you even capable of thinking for yourself any more?" she asked him coldly, and yanked on the handle.

Hercules, eyes on the heavy overhang, started forward to pull Iolaus away from the portal as Iolaus reached for Elena. She stared wide-eyed at the handle that had come off in her hand, then shrieked and clutched at Iolaus as the ground abruptly opened at her feet.

Hercules threw himself forward, desperately reaching for Iolausí hand; their fingers met for an instant, then he watched helplessly as the two disappeared into the smoke and flame that belched from the sundered ground.

He threw himself down and wriggled to the edge of the crevice, praying Pleasepleaseplease as he strained to see through the smoke.

"Herc!" came Iolausí voice, and tears of relief clouded his vision further. Shaking them away, he squinted against the lurid light, finally making out Iolaus pressed against an outcropping several feet out of reach of his hand. He stared in disbelief as Iolaus started to move down and away from him, only then catching sight of Elena dangling over the bottomless drop.

"Stop struggling!" Iolaus ordered as he moved slowly toward her.

"Iolaus, donít!" Hercules begged, knowing he was wasting his breath. He swung his legs over the cleft, reaching for footholds as he lowered himself into the thick haze.

He followed Iolaus down, cursing his large fingers as he sought the tiny handholds that Iolausí nimbler grasp had managed with relative ease. His foot slipped, and the resulting hail of dirt drew Iolausí attention to him.

"Are you crazy?" he gasped. "Iolaus!" Elena cried as her grip weakened, and he hastened his descent dangerously. Hercules threw caution to the winds and reached as far as he could for each new hold; endless minutes later, he was within armís reach of Iolaus as an ominous rumbling began far below them.

Iolaus was five feet above Elenaís head, and the rockís face below him was bare of even the smallest foothold. The rumbling increased and the cliff face began to tremble as Iolaus lowered himself until he was dangling three feet above the tiny ledge that Elena clutched. A hairline crack appeared in the ledge, and Elena shrieked Iolausí name again.

"Iolaus, youíll kill yourself and sheíll still die!" Hercules roared as he watched Iolaus prepare to release his grip and drop to the narrow projection. Iolaus ignored him, shifting his grip slightly as the trembling increased until the wall of rock was shaking. Elena was screaming continuously now, kicking her feet frantically as she tried to find a non-existent foothold. Iolaus let go and Herculesí arm shot out, grabbing his wrist.

"Hercules, let go of me!" Iolaus shouted. "I can save her!"

"The ledge canít take your weight, Iolaus! Iím not going to let you commit suicide!"

With a roar, the overhang collapsed. Iolaus lunged fruitlessly for Elena, then closed his eyes as the sound of her screams was swallowed by the thunder of the rock slide around them.

Hercules pulled Iolaus up until he found the handholds heíd abandoned, and the two crept slowly up the side of the crevasse, unable to protect themselves from the rain of stones as the fissure slowly collapsed in on itself.

By the time they reached the top, the opening was barely wide enough for Herculesí body. They pulled themselves on to solid ground and lay on their backs, chests heaving, as the ground sealed itself again.

At last Iolaus got to his feet, avoiding Herculesí eyes as he slapped some of the dust from his vest and ran a hand through his hair.

"IolausÖ" Hercules started, putting a hand on Iolausí shoulder.

Iolaus looked up at him, and for once his eyes were unreadable. "I donít want to talk about it right now, Hercules," he said. "I need to think about how Iím feeling, and I donít want to say something Iíll regret. So leave it, all right?"

He walked away without waiting for an answer and began to examine the doors again. Hercules watched him incredulously.

"Youíre not still going to try to get in there, are you?"

Iolaus turned to him, and his eyes were dark with anger and something else Hercules couldnít identify.

"Youíve spent your whole life running from your family. Well, Iíd like the chance to find out a little about mine. This is a connection with my grandfather, and I want that connection. So just donít give me any more advice for once, okay, Hercules?"

Hercules watched silently as Iolaus ran his fingers across the doorsí ornate carvings. Why did he feel so wounded when Iolaus talked about his family? Because youíve been his only family for years, came the answer. Youíve gotten very comfortable with the way he depends on you for love and support, and you donít want to share him with anyone. Heís told you heís yours, but evidently thatís not enough for you.

"Hercules, I think Iíve figured it out." Iolaus pointed to a section of the carving. "What does that remind you of?"

Hercules examined it, but could see nothing familiar in its shape.

"Youíre the artist, Iolaus. You tell me," he said.

"Youíve helped me pour silver moulds before," Iolaus prompted, pulling his medallion off and holding it beside the carving. "What does the impression look like?"

"Itís a mirror image of the Ė Iolaus!" exclaimed Hercules as he finally recognised the reversed image of the medallion in the carving.

Iolaus flipped him the medallion. "Care to do the honours?" he asked. Hercules fitted it carefully into the door and stood back, holding his breath.

The portals swung slowly open to reveal a dim chamber. Hercules re-lit a torch and they stepped into the gloom. At first they thought the room was empty; Hercules held the torch higher, and its light revealed a shrouded form on a granite table.

Iolaus stared at it, a frown creasing his forehead. "Have I been wearing the key to a mausoleum all these years?" he demanded distastefully, then loosed a yelp of surprise as Hephaestus materialised beside him.

"I begin to see that Iím going to have to be much more creative if Iím to have any hope of keeping you out of my affairs," he observed, handing him the medallion. Iolaus accepted it unenthusiastically, glancing toward the stone platform.

Hephaestusí mouth quirked. "Thatís not a dead body, Iolaus."

"You mean heís alive?" Iolaus asked with interest, approaching the table.

"Not exactly," Hephaestus said, and with a resigned sigh pulled the shroud from the figure.

On the table lay a gleaming replica of Hephaestus, fashioned from gold. Or rather, they saw, it would have been a perfect duplicate had Hephaestus himself been perfect. This figure had no disfiguring scars, no twisted leg or withered arm. Its eyes were closed, its lashes resting gently on its flawless cheek.

"I started working on this more than seventy years ago," Hephaestus said, resting his hand on the burnished chest. "It took me ten years to finish it. By then Iíd encountered your grandfather, and weíd become friends Ė at least, as friendly as Iíve ever permitted myself to become with anyone. I donít know what prompted me to show this to him, but he was horrified when he realised what I had in mind when I made it."

He held his hand above his creationís hand, and as he raised his, the golden hand matched his clumsy movement with simple grace. Hercules carefully kept the rush of pity out of his face.

"You were going to Ė move into that thing?" Iolaus asked, shocked.

"Has your body ever refused to obey you, Iolaus?" Hephaestus responded. "Do you know what it is not to be able to enjoy as simple a pleasure as running? I thought this Ė thing Ė was my freedom. Your grandfather convinced me that it would be a prison worse than the one I inhabit now. I couldnít bring myself to destroy it, though, so I hid it here, and gave your grandfather the only key. Not even I could open those doors without it. I thought the secret had died with him."

Bending, he gathered the figure into his arms, and the earth opened at his feet. The orange light of the volcanoís molten core caught them briefly, the dark, twisted smith and his gleaming creation, before he allowed it to slip from his arms into the earth.

Hephaestus watched the crack seal itself, then limped toward the entrance. He turned back to them at the doors.

"For what itís worth, Iolaus, you would have died if Hercules hadnít stopped you from jumping on to that ledge. There was nothing you could have done to save Elena. He was right." He gave Hercules an impenetrable glance. "This time."

He hesitated, then said, "Iíll see that Leandra knows youíre all right. I owe her that, and a great deal more. Itís time she and I talked." His face lightening, he added, "Maybe we can swap some stories about your grandfather."

As they made their way out of the chamber, Iolaus looked at Hercules. "Are you sure heís related to Hera?" he asked doubtfully, dropping the medallion around his neck.

Outside the cave, they inhaled the cool night air with relief. "Iolaus," Hercules said suddenly, "Letís not go back to Cillabos tonight. Leandra will be fine, and I Ė need you to myself for a while."

He started off in the direction of the nearby lake, then stopped when he realised Iolaus wasnít following him.

"Are you asking me, or telling me?" Iolaus inquired gently, arms folded over his chest.

Hercules walked back to him and looked into the challenging eyes that were raised to his. "Iíd like us to spend the night by the lake," he said. "What do you think?"

Iolaus dropped his arms and grinned. "Race you," he shouted over his shoulder as he sprinted into the woods.

Hercules won the race, as usual, and as usual Iolaus complained about all of his unfair advantages as they shucked their clothes and dove into the water. "You know, Herc, Iíve never felt sorry for a god before," Iolaus commented as they floated on their backs, gazing up into the night sky. "It feels Ė unnatural, somehow."

"Iíd say itís perfectly natural to feel sorry for anyone who has to call Hera Ďmomí," Hercules pointed out. Iolaus shuddered and agreed. His stomach emitted a sharp rumble, and they headed for shore. Iolaus built a fire to grill the fish Hercules caught, and after their meal they sat quietly for a time, gazing into the flames.

Iolaus felt Herculesí eyes on him, and glanced up to see his companion regarding him with a curious mixture of anxiety and lust. This novel combination surprised a chuckle from him, and he drew closer to Hercules, leaning back against the demigodís broad shoulder. Herculesí hand automatically circled his neck and moved down his chest, seeking the comfort of his heartbeat.

"Yep, Iím still alive, Herc," he said, and Herculesí other hand glided lightly down the thigh that rested next to his.

"You see, thatís exactly the point, Iolaus," he answered. "Youíre not still alive. Youíre alive again. The worst that could possibly happen has already happened. Three times. I donít have to wonder how Iíd feel if you died. I already know. It feels like somebody wrenched my soul out of my body and tore it in half. Like all the colour and light and warmth in the world bled away. It crushes me, so I have to make a conscious effort to keep breathing, even though thereís no reason to any more. And every time I watch you risk your life, that weight starts crushing me again."

"So what do I do, Herc?í Iolaus asked. "Stop fighting at your back? Stop travelling with you altogether, and hide under my bed? Stop living because youíre afraid Iíll die?"

He turned to look into Herculesí troubled face.

"Gods know Ė you know Ė how much I love you. But Iíd make a lousy ornament, Herc. I donít have the temperament for it."

"No, that you donít," Hercules acknowledged, cupping Iolausí cheek in his hand. "So I guess youíre just going to have to promise me youíll stay alive."

"Well, thatís always at the top of my list of things to do. Almost always," he amended, as Hercules slid his vest off his shoulders.

Hercules had always envied Iolausí ability to fall asleep within seconds of closing his eyes. Heíd never been able to learn the art of catnapping, convenient as it would have been during arduous battle campaigns, or on one of their long hunting trips. Maybe insomnia was another gift he could thank Zeus for; he didnít usually sleep until he was exhausted, and then he slept like the dead for hours. Although heíd rarely suffered from insomnia in the past year, and then only when heíd been apart from Iolaus for more than a single night. The narrowest pallet had a way of seeming vast and empty when Iolaus wasnít sharing it with him.

The fire was dying down now, and Iolaus pressed closer to Herculesí warmth, throwing an arm across his chest and drawing a knee up over his thigh. The scent of their lovemaking hung in the still air, and Iolaus stirred and murmured in his sleep as Hercules ran his fingers lightly over the slickness that lay between Iolausí buttocks.

His desire for Iolaus reached a fever pitch every time he emerged intact from another idiotic, reckless stunt. The only thing that lifted the crushing weight of Herculesí dread was pinning that small, passionate body under his and pushing himself into it, as though he could somehow sustain his mortalís fragile life by filling him with his own lifeís essence.

Hercules snorted at this fanciful notion and eased out from under Iolaus to build up the fire again. The renewed heat reached the sleeping man and he relaxed, turning onto his back and thrusting a hand into his tangled curls. The other hand lay at his side, palm up, the fingers slightly curled.

Hercules touched the thin, almost imperceptible scar that ran from the base of his fingers to his wrist. Iolaus had laid that hand open when he was ten; Alcmeneís evil-tempered old bull had escaped its pen and Iolaus ran in, dancing a little too close to the sharp horns in his attempt to distract its attention from Herculesí mother.

His fingers traced the ridge that lay under Iolausí ribs; he could thank Lucius for that one. Theyíd been fighting back to back, as always, until Iolaus had seen that Lucius was in trouble, and had battled his way to the warriorís side. Together theyíd driven back their attackers, but not before a crossbow bolt had buried itself in Iolausí side as he raised his sword to parry a thrust at Luciusí unprotected throat. Iolaus had been so covered in the gore of their adversaries that Hercules, watching with what attention he could spare from his own contests, had not known of Iolausí injury until their reinforcements had arrived, and Lucius caught a fainting Iolaus in his arms. Heíd lost so much blood by then that the armyís healer had been astonished by his recovery. "Iím too stubborn to die," heíd told the man cheerfully, and laughed at Luciusí wet cheeks.

Hercules pushed Iolausí hair from the crescent-shaped scar above his eye. Heíd earned it aboard the Argo, during the quest for the Golden Fleece. A sudden wind, a careless new recruit, and Hercules standing unawares in the path of the swinging boom; Iolaus leaping toward him shouting his name, then lying still and white, the deck awash with his blood. Heíd been unconscious for days, and although heíd never complained, Hercules knew heíd suffered from blurred vision and agonising headaches for a long time afterward. Heíd protested volubly when Hercules had thanked and berated him simultaneously, passing off the event as a sloppy bit of footwork on his part.

"Are you going to count my scars, or kiss me?"

"Well, it is quite an inventory," Hercules told him, "especially when you factor in the broken bones, black eyes and nosebleeds."

"Thereís a story for every one of Ďem, too," Iolaus reminded him.

"All right, youíve convinced me," Hercules said, smiling, and allowed the small, strong hands to pull him down.

Theyíd kissed a thousand times, ten thousand times, since that first kiss by the waterfall a year ago, and Iolaus still shivered when Herculesí mouth touched his. He closed his eyes and slid his fingers into the soft weight of Herculesí hair, trapping it in his hands as their lips met with agonising delicacy. Finally he tasted Herculesí mouth with his tongue and Hercules gave a shuddering sigh, pressing his hardness against Iolausí thigh.

"See what you do to me just by kissing me?" he whispered, moving Iolausí hand to his cock. Iolaus pushed his tongue into Herculesí mouth as he explored this familiar, velvet territory with an eager hand. Suddenly he needed to own Herculesí cock with his mouth, to imprint his taste, his touch, his breath, his cries so deeply that no-one would ever dislodge them from the demigodís heart. His eyes darkened with this sudden need, and he slithered out of Herculesí grasp to rest his cheek on a strong thigh, inhaling their intermingled musk, burying his face in the heat at Herculesí groin.

He drew each delicate sphere into his mouth, releasing them to watch Herculesí face as cool night air replaced wet heat. He slid his hand under Herculesí thighs to grasp his buttocks, marking himself on Herculesí cock with teeth and tongue until Hercules, shuddering with his own need, stopped him, pulling him back up to taste himself in Iolausí mouth. He ran shaking hands over Iolausí body, sinking his long fingers into Iolausí buttocks to pull their straining erections closer together, and moaned when they re-encountered his semen coating his loverís body. Iolaus jerked as Herculesí fingers sought and entered him, and he pushed into the hand that caressed him, his hips moving in response to the delicious pressure within.

He sat up, easing away from Herculesí fingers with reluctance, and straddled Herculesí thighs, reaching behind him for Herculesí cock. Eyes locked on Herculesí hot blue gaze, he slowly lowered himself onto Hercules.

Hercules held his breath as the clenching muscles relaxed around him, and pressed steadily into Iolaus until he was completely engulfed in his loverís heat. He lay motionless for a while, willing himself back from the edge of his orgasm, until Iolaus began to rock slowly, head thrown back, hands on Herculesí thighs supporting his weight as he moved languorously. He shifted a little, changing the angle of entry, and both men cried out as these new sensations jolted them.

Hercules reached for Iolausí cock, but Iolaus pushed his hand away. "I want this to last," he said, and the heat in his eyes surged through Herculesí blood. Over and over, as Iolaus sensed by the gathering of Herculesí body that he was nearing orgasm, he stopped moving until Hercules regained control. Finally Hercules could withstand the tender torture no more, and he grasped Iolausí hips and thrust mightily into him, pulling a shout of pleasure from Iolaus, then releasing a hip and gathering Iolausí erection into a wide hand.

"Say it, Iolaus," Hercules gasped, desperately holding on to his self-control as he brought Iolaus to the edge with him.

"Ah, gods, Iím yours, Hercules! I love you!" Iolaus clutched Herculesí hand, and his seed bathed their entwined fingers as his internal muscles clamped around Herculesí spasming cock. Hercules shouted Iolausí name triumphantly, thrusting into his clinging heat again and again as his orgasm pounded through them both.

The trembling in their limbs slowly subsided and Iolaus leaned forward, allowing Hercules to slip out of him with a sigh. He rested his head on Herculesí chest, running his fingers through the hair that adorned it. "You know, I used to envy your hairy chest," he murmured finally. "Right up until I started getting it stuck between my teeth."

Hercules raised his head and stared at Iolaus in astonishment. "You say the most bizarre things after weíve made love," he said at last.

"Post-orgasmic delirium," Iolaus offered with a chuckle, and lazily lapped at a nipple, then stopped to pull a hair off his tongue. "See?" he demanded, holding the evidence before Herculesí eyes.

Hercules rolled his eyes and scrubbed a hand over his chest, then reached down to tug lightly at the golden thatch between Iolausí thighs. "All right, I take your point," Iolaus conceded. "Itís just that yours covers so much more area than mine does."

"Iolaus," Hercules said dangerously, his hand moving from the nest of curls to cup Iolausí semi-erect cock.

"Either tell me you love me, or shut up."

Suddenly serious, Iolaus pulled Hercules into a passionate kiss.

"I love you," he said against Herculesí mouth. "I didnít think I could love you more today than I did a year ago, but I was wrong. I love you more every time you smile at me, every time you reach for me in your sleep. Every time we make love. Even when you make me crazy, I love you so much my heart feels like itíll burst if I love you any more. All that I have, Herc. All that I am. Always.

"Hey, that was supposed to be the good news," he said gently as Herculesí eyes filled with tears. "Herc, my ribs," he added, pushing at Herculesí chest when the demigodís fierce embrace threatened to crush him.

"Iolaus, I will always love you. We were meant to be together. Iím sorry it took me so long to see it. Youíre my heart and soul, my family, my life. I promise you that Iíll never hurt you, and never leave you."

Iolaus pressed his fingers to Herculesí lips. "Donít make promises like that, Herc. Donít tempt the Fates," he warned. "Just love me right now, okay?"

Herculesí answer was all that Iolaus could have wanted, and more. They finally slept, limbs tangled and mouths still touching, till Iolausí warm kisses woke Hercules when the sun was already well overhead. They made lazy love once again and then stumbled into the lake, Iolaus wondering aloud whether they should catch another fish or strike out immediately for Leandraís, and a real breakfast. He was sitting in the shallow water scrubbing his hair briskly when his hands stilled, and he reached down to feel around under the water. "My earring is gone," he told Hercules with dismay.

They retraced their steps to their camp and found the earring, clasp broken, lying near the fire. Iolaus picked it up and polished it on his vest. "Itís a bad omen, Herc," he said, raising anxious eyes to his lover.

"Since when are you superstitious?" Hercules asked, offering to put the earring in his belt pouch. Iolaus shook his head and stowed it inside the waistband of his trousers. "Iolaus, I can easily get you another one."

"No! I can fix it," Iolaus said, frowning. He relaxed a little when he saw the concern in Herculesí eyes. "Okay, maybe Iím getting a little intense for nothing," he admitted. "Letís get out of here and get some breakfast at my grandmotherís. Then weíre going to do nothing but fish for a whole week; I know a great spot not far from Cernaia that we can reach in a couple of days. Then Iím going to take Leandra to meet your mother, and then Ė"

"Letís start with breakfast, and you can plan the rest of our lives on the way to the fishing spot," Hercules advised. The two retraced their steps to Cillabos, Hercules scoffing at the outrageously apocryphal stories of the fish Iolaus claimed to have taken from the river near Cernaia.

At the door of Leandraís house, Hercules turned to touch Iolausí cheek. "I love you, Iolaus," he said.

Iolaus gave him a blazing smile, and his heart lurched.

"I know you do, Herc," Iolaus said, and pulled him inside, calling for Leandra and breakfast.

The End

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