Ares woke with a start, opening his eyes and darting a quick glance around the room. Joxer wasn't by his side and he cast out a probe, finding his lover washing up in their spa. He relaxed a bit and tried to remember why he was feeling such anxiety. Something about a dream.
Unable to move.
He sat up and ran a shaky hand through his hair. That was the worst part. Being alone after the ecstasy of being part of a greater whole. He hadn't realized that he'd grown so dependent on their link. //Joxer? Did you dream last night?//
//No. At least, I don't remember any dreams. Why?//
//I think I may have dreamed of the Void.// He swung his legs over the side of the bed and wiggled his toes in the fur rug. It was hard to put into words. //Not a nice place.//
Joxer came out of the spa with a towel slung low over his hips. Normally that sight would have sidetracked any thoughts he might have had but not now. All his senses were still concentrated on his dream. Joxer sat down by him and kissed his ear. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"I think we need to." Ares ran a hand through his disheveled hair. "I've been putting off talking to Hades and Poseidon but I'm afraid it's time to find out what they know about the Void."
"Maybe you should have your father talk to them?" Joxer grimaced. "Poseidon is still pissed at both of us."
"Small problem with that, love." Ares sighed and pulled him in closer. "They harbor a little resentment that Mother saved Zeus from the trip but didn't save them."
"Oh. I see what you mean. Then how about Apollo? He's a healer and maybe it's time they talk about it so they can heal." Joxer leaned into him.
Ares thought about that for a long moment before smiling faintly and pulling Joxer into his lap for a kiss. His lover curled as close to him as he could, returning the love into their bond with a gentle fervor that hardened the dark god into tender steel. Lying back onto the bed, he pulled Joxer over him like a blanket and deepened the kiss.
Joxer squirmed a little until his legs straddled him and their cocks slid together against his damp skin. Their lips remained sealed while they thrust against each other in lazy circles of hip and thigh. Their lovemaking was slow and gentle, both of them enjoying the climb to tingling climax. They lay panting on the tangled sheets.
Then Joxer raised his head and grinned down at him. "I seem to need another bath. Care to share?"
"Always." Ares brushed the lock of hair on his lover's forehead back into place before transporting them into the spa.
Iphicles sighed and watched his half-brother play with his food. Iolaus was still eating but not with any enthusiasm. He caught his butler's eye and motioned him to the door. When they were alone in the study, he took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"I got a note from Apollo this afternoon. They're coming to try something tonight. It seems that they had a talk with Poseidon and Hades about their stay in the Void."
"Oh, good." Herc nodded and went back to tracing patterns in the gravy on his plate.
"Yeah, great." Iolaus smiled a pale shadow of his normal grin.
All in all, Iphicles had seen them both more enthusiastic about a three mile run over a mountain chain while being chased by wolves. "Guys, are you feeling all right?"
Two pairs of blue eyes met his from across the table. Tired eyes. He could feel their emotions of hopeless despair and frustrated longing as if they'd spoken. "Okay, that was a stupid question. Is there anything I can do to help?"
Herc shook his head. "You're already doing it, little brother. I can't imagine being anywhere but here while we ... battle this . . . thing."
Iolaus touched his hand briefly. "What the big guy means is that we're glad you're watching our backs for us. I wouldn't feel safe with just anyone else."
"I'm glad I could help. I just wish I could do more. Maybe we'll find the key to this puzzle tonight." Iphicles sighed and stretched.
With a flash of gold, Apollo appeared by the window. As always, Iphicles felt his stomach suddenly fill with butterflies at the sight of the golden god. He kept telling himself that the golden god was just here to protect Herc and Iolaus but he'd started looking forward to his visits. I do not need gods in my life, not on an ongoing basis. They're nothing but trouble. Unfortunately, he couldn't make himself believe that anymore.
Apollo came over to the table and snapped his fingers, conjuring up another goblet. "Greetings, guys. Morpheus is coming by to put the two of you to sleep after we move to the cave where Nebula is waiting. Then we're going to follow the thread of power that links you to that other universe and try to snap it."
"That's the plan?" Herc widened his eyes. "That's it?"
Iphicles noticed that the bright god looked tired as if he were the one not sleeping and he hurried to fill the strained silence. "What are you going to use to cut the thread?"
Apollo smiled at him and drained his goblet. "The Fates have loaned us their shears. No mortals will die tonight. And we'll hopefully sever all connection to the Void and the other universe."
"I'm sensing an 'if' here. What could go wrong?" Iphicles heard warning bells going off in his mind.
"It depends on how much energy is being used to tether the other end of the thread. This energy doesn't feel anything like our energy. The Muses have some very interesting scrolls speculating about a parallel universe made up of an opposite energy, a kind of anti-energy instead of our pro-energy. They don't know what would happen if our two energies touched." Apollo was slowly pacing around the table with a graceful stride that had Iphicles' eyes riveted to his long, lean body.
"They must be touching now if one end is hooked to Hercules and me." The blond hunter pointed out with a touch of his old spirit.
"So far the connection seems to be more of a mirror that hasn't
physically touched either of you. Yet. The tug is there and
it's what is giving you the dreams. We think that if it goes on much
longer, you will be physically pulled into the Void and meet with your
"And what would happen then?" Iphicles asked quietly.
Apollo's eyes were anguished. "We don't know."
"Then what good are you?" Hercules stood up with a sudden jerk that toppled the heavy oak chair behind him. "It's not fair that Iolaus has to get dragged into some stupid dream just because he's with me."
"Hey, big guy, its nobody's fault." Iolaus pushed back his own chair and quickly circled the table to take Hercules in his arms. "You know that I want to share it all with you, good times and bad. At least this way, we've got some family to help us figure it out."
Hercules wrapped his arms tightly around the smaller man. "I'm sorry, Iolaus. I'm always getting you into trouble."
Iolaus started laughing and the infectious sound brought a smile to everyone's lips. "I think ... you've got that backwards, lover. I'm the one you have to keep rescuing. We've got a while until we're needed, how about we go take a bath and ... relax a little."
Iphicles hid a grin at the sexy innuendo the hunter managed to convey with just a lift of an eyebrow and a quick wriggle of his hips. Hercules seemed mesmerized by the golden man and he let himself be pulled away to the door and out to the hall. Apollo sighed and sat down in Iolaus' abandoned chair.
"He's right. We don't seem to be doing much these days except hurting those we should be protecting." His eyes traced a wine stain on the polished wood while his hands turned the goblet around and around restlessly.
"I don't pretend to understand how the gods do what they do but I don't think you can take all the blame because one of you went rogue." Iphicles pushed the wine ewer closer to his guest. "We never thought you were all perfect immortals. Mostly we know better but sometimes we forget and think that you can do anything. And you can't."
Blue eyes the color of the sea at twilight gazed into his. "Our power is limited to the energy that we pull from all living things. Even this table has an energy residue left from when it was a tree. I can't use it though since I am limited to fire and air elements. Now, one of Ares' elements is earth and he'd be able to use this table for a quick boost of energy if he needed it. I'd have to use the fire on the hearth or pull in the west wind from outside those windows."
Iphicles could feel his brain struggling to take in all the information with which he'd just been gifted. "Why tell me this? The gods don't explain, they just do."
"Perhaps I'm tired of the way we just do. I ..." Apollo didn't finish his sentence for a loud pop from the fire resounded in the room.
The dark king turned his eyes to the figure arising from the flames in a plume of red smoke. Apollo rose to his feet and bowed to the short, plump goddess who was busy shaking out her skirts among the glowing embers. Iphicles found himself upright as well when the little goddess smiled at him.
"King Iphicles, how very nice to meet you. Aphrodite has such good things to say about you. I'm Hestia, dear. I'm going to be helping tonight when these sweet boys make their little trip."
"Ma'am, it's a real pleasure to meet you. Would you care for some wine?" Iphicles was determined to take this all in stride or die trying. He pulled out a chair for her and accepted a warm pat on his cheek in thanks.
"Aunt Hestia, you know this could be dangerous. We don't want to lose you again." Apollo snapped his fingers and a new ewer of wine appeared on the table along with fresh goblets.
"Nonsense, sweetheart. I'm tough as old boots. A little trip to the Void won't harm me. And I think you're going to need the power I'm still connected to at the Earth's core. Ares had an interesting thought earlier and the Muses are doing the research now. You boys enliven this old lady's life with all your shenanigans." Hestia shared a merry smile between the two men at the table.
Iphicles felt more relaxed than he'd felt in months. The warmth and caring the little goddess radiated soothed the sore edges of half a year of constant stress. He could see Apollo brighten under the calming glow of her presence. He even made the connection between what Apollo had been telling him and Hestia's presence.
"You both share fire for your power." He blurted out.
Hestia's wise eyes twinkled at him. "Goodness, Apollo, he's just as intelligent as you said. Now, no blushing, you're quite right, Iphicles. We share the element of fire, I've just been practicing for several more millennia than young Apollo here."
Iphicles felt his mind try to wrap around the thought of how old the goddess of fire might be. "There are no ill effects from your journey to the River of Fire?"
"No, dear, not a one. I had a lovely rest and quite recharged myself. Then when Ares and Joxer released all the Chaos energy, well it just energized all of Olympus. We've never had so much power at our disposal before." Her eyes went slightly unfocused and Iphicles wondered what she was seeing. "It feels to me that Ares has the right of it. All that energy needs to go somewhere, do something. Whether are not we have any say in shaping that energy, we still don't know."
Apollo sighed and poured more wine. "Aunt Hestia, I love you but I really hate it when you go all cryptic on me."
Her attention snapped back to the table and she shook a finger at him. "Don't be cheeky, dearest. You'll know all about it when the boys get here. I'd say you have about an hour or so. You should go up and watch the sunset. That always makes you feel better. Take Iphicles with you while I snoop through the scrolls in his library. If I remember correctly, some of Epimenides' poetry is housed here. I always had a fondness for that crazy Cretan shepherd." She waved them away; walking over to the shelves of scrolls that lined one wall of Iphicles' workroom.
Apollo gestured towards the castle battlements and Iphicles nodded. With a flash, they were gone from inside to out. The guard on duty started violently then calmed with a salute to his king, which Iphicles returned with a slight away motion. Leaning against the warm stone, they both watched the sun slowly sink into the horizon in a spectacular show of apricot and peach with edges of deep blue shading to purple. Iphicles relaxed completely for the first time that day, dividing his attention between the sunset and the god at his side.
He shouldn't feel this comfortable with a god, he told himself with an inward sigh. But of course, he did. There was a sweetness to the bright god that made him want to reach out and touch him. Hold him close and take some of the burdens that lay on those broad shoulders. There was pain in those blue eyes looking at the dying light of his namesake the sun.
"Is it something I could help with?" Iphicles said softly.
Those eyes turned to him and the long black eyelashes swept down to cover them. "You'll laugh. It really is comical to my fellow gods."
"I don't think I could ever laugh at you, Apollo."
Apollo took a deep breath and flicked his fingers to light the torches that were spaced evenly along the parapet. "I'm afraid of the dark."
For a moment, Iphicles didn't understand then the quiet statement burst into his mind like a falling star. That's why he always lights the candles in my study. He took his own deep breath wondering what to say then realized something even more important. "The Void is dark. You shouldn't have to go there tonight."
Apollo tried to smile, wrapping his hands around his elbows in an unconscious hug. "My greatest fear is indeed traveling into the darkness of the Void. But I can't let my fear keep me from helping tonight."
"Let one of the others go in your place. Be an ... an anchor for another, feeding them energy for the trip." Iphicles moved closer to give him his support.
"Oh, you don't know how tempting that is, Iphicles. Just step back and work on the edges of the unknown while another goes in." His eyes glowed in the torchlight. "But I can't do that. There are ... factions among the gods, some of whom think we should let this problem alone. Not get involved. Let the mortals handle it. But I happen to think that this particular problem may be one that we caused so it's up to us to fix it. And I can only do that if I'm on the front lines."
"Who will be your backup then? Hestia?" Iphicles understood the sting of 'duty' that goaded him daily.
"Well, I was kind of hoping that you would be my anchor." Apollo's gaze darted to him then away as afraid to see his reaction.
Iphicles just knew his mouth was hanging open. "Me?"
"We've worked well together these last weeks and I trust you to guard my back." Apollo's accents were apologetic. "It was just a suggestion. Hercules trusts you and you've already gone into the Void once."
"Yes. I'll watch your back." Iphicles spoke up, finishing with a mutter under his breath. "I'd be doing that anyway."
"You would?" Apollo smiled tentatively and Iphicles fought back an urge to just take him in his arms and offer the comfort he needed so badly.
"Of course I would, a little common sense is just what this expedition needs." The dark king grinned. "I can't just leave you to Ares' tender care. He'll be too busy watching out for Joxer."
Apollo's smile grew a little wistful. "He's lucky to have found the other half of his soul. They both are. I envy them some days."
"I know what you mean. I watch Herc and Iolaus taking such good care of each other and it makes me remember what it's like to be in love." Iphicles sighed. "I think I gave up on that when my wife died. Although, it seems that Aphrodite has decided to find me another mate come Tartarus or high water."
A choking sound came from the god at his side and Iphicles smiled in triumph at his successful ploy. "Oh sure, it's easy for you to laugh, Apollo, you're not the one who just received the eleventh proposal of marriage in as many weeks. Do you think that Aphrodite hates me for some reason?"
The bright god was laughing uncontrollably and couldn't answer him. Iphicles felt extremely smug at his ability to make Apollo laugh. Suddenly, he realized that he'd do anything to protect the god at his side and that realization took his breath away. His sudden silence alerted his companion to a change in the atmosphere.
"Iphicles, are you all right?" The concerned voice broke through his paralysis.
"I seem to have done something rather silly, Apollo." Iphicles could barely stand to meet those piercing eyes.
"No, it's not you, Iphicles, it's me. I haven't given you room to breathe these last few weeks. Always there, demanding your attention, taking you away from your duties, heaping more work on you when you've just been trying to run your kingdom without worrying about some stupid god who keeps stealing your time." The bitterness in the brittle voice was directed at himself.
Iphicles had one brief shining epiphany, stepping forward and gripping the bright god by the arms. "No, Apollo, you're not stealing my time. You're the reason I'm so impatient with these suitors." He took a deep breath and said what he had to say quickly. "They're not you."
The silence was a physical presence charged with thunder and lightning, then Apollo gently brought his hands up to return the grip that Iphicles had on him. "Me? You'd consider me?"
Iphicles leaned forward and slid his hands up to the broad shoulders, tugging just a bit to get them closer. "I haven't considered anyone else since I met you. I just figured you could do better than a harried king with a really bad record at loving."
"Oh no, Iphicles. Not bad at all." Apollo stepped closer yet and slid his hands around the king until they touched everywhere. "Are you sure?"
The plaintive note in the subdued voice touched something deep inside the dark king that had never been touched before. This man in his arms had been hurt badly and Iphicles wanted to take even the memory of that pain from him. So, he smiled and leaned slowly forward until their lips just barely met. Brushing once against the full lips, he angled just enough so they came together again gently.
One of them moaned under his breath or maybe they both did but Iphicles could only hold on while Apollo parted his lips and took control of the kiss with an urgency that immediately set fire to his blood. Wine. Spices from dinner. A sweetness that was instantly addictive. The body in his arms was solid and strong, molding against him with a tender surge of power that made him wish they were not standing on his castle parapet with his guard about to round the corner.
Apollo must have caught his thought because he pulled back just a little, his eyes gleaming in the half-light. "He's otherwise occupied. And we can't go any farther anyway. Much as I'd like to move us somewhere warm, bright and private, we have a duty to the others."
"Yes, we do. But we also have a duty to ourselves and when this little crisis is over, I'm going to remind you of that." Iphicles brought up a hand to tenderly stroke the soft cheek of the god in his arms.
Turning his head just enough to nuzzle a kiss into his palm, Apollo sighed. "Thank you, Iphicles. I won't forget."
"Neither will I. Now, we'd better get back before Hestia finishes her poetry reading." The dark king felt a physical ache at separating from the bright god.
"I know. I feel it too. But you're right, love." Apollo took his own deep breath and whisked them back into the brightly-lit study.
Hestia was sitting on the hearth with an apple in one hand and a scroll in the other, chuckling at something she was reading. "Hello, my dears. Ares just sent word that they're on their way. Iphicles, you don't mind if Zeus comes too? Do you? He's so worried about Hercules."
Iphicles shook his head, suddenly mute. Apollo patted his back in sympathy. "Dad's all right, Iph'. You're his favorite kind of king. Compassionate, caring and totally committed to making your kingdom a safe place for families to grow."
Oh my god, he's Apollo's father! How could I forget that little fact? Am I nuts? Iphicles swallowed hard and opened his mouth only to forget what he was going to say when Zeus, Ares and Joxer shimmered into view.
The end for now