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Slash and Yaoi Fiction
Title: The Strongest Thing
Author: Juxian Tang
Fandom: Hercules/Xena
Rating: NC-17
Pairing: Ares/Iphicles
Archive: yes
Series/sequel: no
Feedback: juxiantang@hotmail.com
URL: http://juxian.slashcity.net
Warning: abuse, violence, non-consensual sex
Summary: Ares tries to reconcile with Iphicles and it brings them to recalling some events in the past.
Lots of thanks to Marina for wonderful beta that made this story so much better - and for advice that probably will make my future stories better, too. Thanks and love to Quinn for assistance and support, always given to me so generously.
The theme of "the strongest thing" is taken from a poem by Eduard Asadov.


"I do not pray to you. I know what is expected from me - that is why I am here. I have responsibilities before my people - and they would be disturbed if they knew their king is not on good terms with one of the gods. I suppose they don't have a reason to worry - everyone knows how flighty your devotions are, your love has proved as disastrous to cities as your anger, if not more so. But they think I must pray - for you to secure peace on the borders, to mitigate the bloodshed if a conflict does occur - to let their sons and husbands come home safe. I must pray for all of them - as if you are going to be more prone to listen to me than to them. How little they know.

"But I do what I have to do. I go through the routine, kneel at the altar, take part in ceremonies. You can't say I've ever held back on donations and sacrifices. But it is the ruler who talks to you, who asks you for lenience. *I* don't want anything from you."

He did it with trained ease; his lips repeated the words of the prayers he was supposed to say - the words that sounded clearly in the quietness of the temple. While his mind, split in two, continued the unceasing chant of denial.

"You can give me nothing. I do not belong to you any more."

The stone floor under Iphicles' knees was seeping cold into his body; the harshest time of the year approached. But the truth was he always felt cold in this temple, despite the flashes of fire reflected in the black polished marble of the walls. He looked around, unfocusing his gaze deliberately to slide over the statues that towered on the left and right of the altar - most of them generic, reflecting rather the notion of the artists how the God of War must look like than passing real resemblance. And yet even that could be enough to shock Iphicles out of the deliberate placidity of his mind. He didn't want to see the statues; once he had promised himself that the only way he would want to imagine Ares' beautiful dark-bearded face would be the way he'd seen it for the last time - through the red mist of blood and sickness of pain. He was going to keep his word. He would have nothing to do with Ares.

A few times in his life, Iphicles had met people - atheists - who didn't believe in gods, had never seen them, never had their prayers answered. Yet there was some perverted pleasure in doing what he was doing: denying the power of someone he knew for sure existed.

//"Call for me, you mortal fool. Any time."//

He hadn't called so far. He was not going to.

Almost without registering it, he knew the ceremony was over - and rose to his feet, exchanged the bows with the priest. The priest's eyes were too attentive, almost inquiring - and Iphicles wondered absently if the man suspected something. He couldn't, could he? Most likely, it was the habitual scrutiny people sometimes gave him with after Rena's death - the scrutiny he tried not to notice and didn't want to wonder about. He met the priest's gaze pointedly, holding it, making the man look away.

The gust of cold wind lashed across his cheek as he walked out of the temple. He tightened the cloak around himself instinctively and winced at the spasm of pain that pierced his hands. The pain always came with the change of weather - gnawing through the heels of his palms, thumbs and fingers like a pair of little rodents settled inside his flesh. There was no way to get used to it - but he could live with it all right. He was good at it - at living with the things that didn't go away.

The secretary caught him as soon as he was back at the palace - a small bright man, very energetic, who had a habit of declaring every appointment and affair that was planned like some breathtakingly fascinating assignment - some feat they both had to achieve. It was mostly the reason why Iphicles preferred him to all others he had to work with.

"The meeting with Theophiles is at eleven and with the Merchant Guild at three - and I moved the visit of the Counselor Palaimon to one o'clock if you don't mind. So, we'll be able to go through the papers from two to three and from five to... well, as long as it takes, okay?"

"Okay." He smiled without feeling his lips, just mimicking the cheerful smile of the man. It really was okay. The more things there were to do, the less chance of letting himself concentrate on the pain there was - and it was not the pain in his hands that scared him so. The more things he managed to do by day, the more possibility there was that he would fall asleep within a reasonable time after getting to bed. Lately the nights were too long; too difficult to wait for the sky to get pale behind the window.

He decided not to think about it yet; it was a long time till then. He'd deal with the night when it came.

* * *

The fire was orange and red, dancing in the hearth, but the light from the oil lamps was dull and steady, casting thick, unmoving shadows on the walls. It was quiet in Iphicles' bedroom - so quiet that through the wall Ares could hear the rasping sound of a stone sliding over metal. One of the guards was sharpening his weapon.

Iphicles rolled the scroll steadily as he read, the paper making a little rustle. Ares could see Iphicles' eyes move along the lines. The long eyelashes trembled slightly but the gaze never shifted away from the text. He didn't know how much of what Iphicles had read stayed with him - probably nothing. But the reading continued, for hours now, might go on almost till the dawn, for all Ares knew. He also knew that when at last Iphicles did remove his clothes and blow out the little flames of the lamps, he would lie still and quiet for hours, his eyes closed and no sleep coming. It always was like that.

Invisible and inaudible, Ares shifted from one foot to the other, looking at the king's face. He knew this face so well - the lines of it made harsher with the years; the dark semi-circles of the eyelashes fluttering over the serene, never-smiling eyes; the sensuous mouth, its corner twitching slightly from time to time - unnoticeable to Iphicles or he would surely struggle to control it.

Ares had seen this face change over the years - softness leaving it, first the features and then the eyes - and yet he remembered it as it had been once - wide-eyed and flushed and so open that it made the desire to touch it - or to hurt it - almost unbearable. Ares didn't know if he regretted the loss of this openness; he was not good at regretting things. Even worse at regretting things he'd done.

The king's strong thin fingers rolled the finished scroll in a neat cylinder, put it away - and at the moment when Iphicles made a decision whether to reach for another one or to quit, his gaze froze; empty, unblinking, obviously blind to anything that was there - seeing something that was not. His hand clenched on the silken bedspread, so hard that the expensive material tore through. Ares knew that tomorrow attentive servants would have to change it, as they'd changed it many times before.

He'd watched Iphicles for so many nights. But every night it became more difficult just to watch. Not to reach and feel the smooth skin and hardness of the bones he'd known so well, the mouth whose taste he could still resurrect in his memory almost without effort - the strong graceful lines of the body, hidden under the expensive clothes - the lines Ares didn't need to see to remember.

He shimmered into reality soundlessly and stood in the shadows - and saw Iphicles shift very slightly, as if the displacement of the air disturbed him on some instinctive level, his gaze getting less remote as he shook his head thoughtfully.

And then, a moment later, Iphicles' eyes were wild and huge and staring, his body going rigid in shock.


It was almost a shriek. Astonishment made Iphicles' voice high-pitched, like his throat was constricted - but beyond surprise, beyond pain - there was something in it, for a split second, that Ares couldn't be mistaken about. Overwhelming, unreasoning joy.

At the next moment Iphicles already regained control over himself, his face shut down quickly and irreversibly, his voice became level - dull, his eyes getting calm and tranquil.

"I didn't call for you."

"I noticed." Ares put amusement in his words - amusement he didn't feel. But he groped for it habitually, because it was what he did best. And because the glimmering of his eyes, both mocking and caressing, had once seemed to make Iphicles melt and swoon. Even if it didn't work any more.

"What brought you here, then?"

The distant voice was excruciatingly polite. Ares listened so hard for the notes of pain underlying it, and was not sure they were there. They had to be; it wouldn't make sense otherwise, would it? The fake prayers, the way Iphicles' face went blank every time anyone mentioned the War God's name - the way he rubbed his wrists unconsciously when he thought he was alone. It still hurt; it was what Ares counted on - that it still hurt.

"Just dropped in to see how you are."

"I am fine, thank you." There was a little chuckle in Iphicles' voice - but none of it in his eyes. He met Ares' gaze steadily. Almost as if it gave him no trouble at all.

"Fine? Really?" Ares moved forward too quickly, not giving Iphicles time to tense or to set his body into a defensive stance, grabbed the man's hand, prying it away from the bedspread. "Like that?" Despite the material clasped in his hand, the deep crescents of fingernails were glaring red on Iphicles' palm.

There was just a moment of confusion that made Iphicles motionless; then he pulled away carefully, not violently but not hesitantly either. The touch didn't seem to affect him; but it affected Ares all right - the warmth of Iphicles' skin going through him painfully, his mind clenching as he wanted to make the feeling linger.

He let Iphicles go.

"It isn't any of your concern, Ares, and you know that."

He's known it would be this way; he had to expect that. Nothing was going to be easy - and Ares wished he could make himself believe he enjoyed the idea of a challenge. A good sport, huh? He never liked to give up. But this time he would give up gladly - wouldn't start it in the first place. He had tried not to start - and it hadn't worked.

Ten years ago he tried to cut off all threads, tried to leave Iphicles alone, to leave him with what he, Ares, had done - and found himself compelled to return. He'd never been away for too long since then - through Iphicles' wanderings, his marriage, his accession to the throne, his wife's death, his nights of quiet agony.

It never got easier for Ares while he stayed away. Maybe, he could change something by coming here.

"I know it, Iphicles. I think, maybe, you were able to forget the past. At least some of it."

//"Do whatever you want, Ares. Stay or go. I don't care."//

"Why should I?" For once Iphicles' voice became almost light - and icy in its lightness - cold and brittle, matching his gaze. But his body betrayed him - in the way that Iphicles himself would hate, Ares knew: reeling, leaning subtly into closeness, towards Ares. "What difference would it make if I did?"

Ares could say what difference; could show it - take Iphicles' face in his hands, pull him up, clamp his lips on Iphicles' mouth, shove his tongue into the welcoming warmth of it. The thought of it was almost irresistible for a moment - could he do it? Or could he resist doing it?

"Well, at least then I wouldn't have to listen to your ambiguous prayers."

He saw something little shift in Iphicles' eyes, a surprise, maybe.

"You heard them... I mean I didn't think you paid attention at all - to what is said in temples."

"I do, sometimes. And - it was as insulting as you tried to make it. Does it make you happy to know that?"

He didn't really think it made Iphicles happy, believed when Iphicles shook his head. Then Iphicles' gaze and mouth softened almost imperceptibly.

"I didn't mean to be insulting. I just wanted to follow the rules exactly."

"The rules you set for yourself!" Ares raised his voice and felt anger sweep him, the burning of rage in his mind. He was not sure, though, whom this anger was directed at. At Iphicles with his unbearable obstinacy of character, his ability to hurt for years - and hurt back for years. At himself for being unable to live with what he'd done. Or at all that wasted time - time that was still getting wasted, even as they talked. He, a God, didn't think he had enough time. And this mortal dared live like he had another chance - of a better tomorrow, of being whatever he wanted, of happiness.

"The rules you set for me."

At the first moment the words didn't reach Ares, didn't penetrate the anger that clouded him; then he realized what there was: the first sparkles of emotion in Iphicles' voice - of wrath that matched his own - or, maybe, was even worse for being buried so deeply.

He sucked in a breath, not knowing what to say. He could've said it was not true - but it hardly would make any difference - and it *was* true, after all. Iphicles' eyes burned, serenity gone from them, replaced with painful intensity - and Ares found himself looking for something to say to make Iphicles keep his gaze on him - and could find nothing.

"What do you want from me, Ares?"

Well, if he asked...

"Take off you armbands," Ares said quietly. "I want to see it."

He could see Iphicles' efforts of staying calm, the clenching of the man's hands felt like they clenched on Ares' heart. Ares almost wanted to be generous, to spare him, say he'd changed his mind - when Iphicles pulled the wide bracelets off his wrists; baring the jagged strings of scars that encircled them.

Ares couldn't help wincing slightly as he saw them. He'd seen them before, true - watched Iphicles take a bath - or in bed with his wife, Iphicles' long arms wrapped around Rena's pliant, glowing body, her soft lips sliding over the scars. He had seen them before that, too - when they hadn't been scars yet - but torn, gaping wounds gushing blood, with the whiteness of bones shining through them - as he looked down at the man crawling on his knees on the ground, leaving two wide trails of blood behind him. Iphicles' blood-streaked face had been turned up then, turned to Ares, as little sounds broke from his lips, soft, desperate and having no meaning in them - and Ares knew that, despite the blind wildness of Iphicles' eyes, Iphicles could see him.

"Well?" A tiny note of impatience in Iphicles' voice undid its careful composure, pushed against Ares' nerves, made him reach forward. He put his palms on the scarred flesh and held.

Iphicles' skin was cool even where the pulse was beating - softer than Ares expected - slick, uneven, not quite natural - like a weird ugly adornment Iphicles had to wear. Yet Ares didn't care how it felt; he wanted to feel it - and never let Iphicles go.

He met the stare that was almost calm, almost open, not faltering away at his.

"It healed nicely."

"It did. I thought I wouldn't be able to use them at all, you know."

"So did I, Iphicles."

He pushed it with these words, a little further than he supposed was safe - hoping to see this little click of emotion in Iphicles' eyes again. I thought about you. I watched you. Didn't you know that? And disappointment was as sharp as a pang of pain when all Iphicles did was to free his wrists from Ares' hands.

"You've seen it now, haven't you? If it is what you've come for, there is no reason for you to stay any longer."

"Do you want me to leave?" The little challenge in Ares' voice sounded like he was hoping for reassurance; none came - not surprisingly.

"Yes, I would appreciate that."

"I bet you would."

Will make himself believe he would, Ares thought. Even if everything Iphicles was going to stay with was just another sleepless night and hands clenched on themselves because there was nothing else he could hold on to.

Why did he have to be stubborn like this! Exasperation overwhelmed Ares, demanding a physical effort from him to keep control. Damn Iphicles - he had always been like this, from the very first moment Ares had seen him. He remembered that - how blood leaked in thin trickles along Iphicles' arm that hung like a lash as he tried to shield his fading comrade. His blade clanked pitifully under the wide blows of Xena's sword. Iphicles should've seen she was stronger - faster, more skillful - a dark force that swept away the lives of her enemies, whoever they were. And yet all he did was try to stand his ground. Parry her blows. Not try to stab back. He knew that his strength was leaking away with every second, his chances going down to non-existent - and still he made no attempt to attack.

A fool. A mortal fool who didn't know what was good for him, could've never done a right thing in his life. It had been easy for Ares to feel amusement and contempt to him - it was all Iphicles deserved, wasn't it? And more than anything else Ares wished it had been just as easy now. But it was not. It was impossible.

He shifted his gaze to Iphicles' face - the face that for a short spell of time, as the man seemed to forget that he was watched, seemed very unguarded - its features smoothed, the hard edge gone from his eyes. It was a lost face and seemed a very young one - and it and the way Iphicles held his hands protectively around each other, putting his armbands back, reminded Ares so sharply about that moment ten years ago when he'd watched Iphicles fight Xena.

* * *

The man was limping. His left arm was worthless, dangling along his body - rich flows of dark, almost black blood ran along it from the gaping wound in his shoulder. He fought lopsidedly, trying to cover both his flank and another man clinging to him - a man with the pre-death paleness already cast on his face. Ares could also see the death in the fighting man's eyes - a different kind of death but inescapable none the less - and he knew the man understood it, too. He could clench his teeth making himself forget about pain - but tiredness couldn't be chased away by an effort of will. He was not going to last long.

The man was young - maybe, a few years older than his beautiful Xena - Xena who looked like a big wild cat in smooth rage of her movements. The ease with which she swung the sword was a joy for Ares' eyes and a misery for the mortal. The man didn't know it but she was just playing with him, controlling her force, delaying the final blow.

She'd probably exhausted the limit of her kill today, got almost satiated - it was the only reason why the man was still alive. That - and, maybe, her unexplainable knowledge of Ares' presence, his eyes on her, his adoration and disapproval - disapproval for what he considered a waste of time and irrepressible admiration with how her body moved, with the impossible precision of every swing.

She made a shrill cry of triumph that send a shiver of arousal through Ares - and added despair to the haunted look in the man's eyes. She changed the sword to her left hand, parried the blow with the same effortlessness as before - and in the same liquid motion snatched out her dagger and buried it in the chest of the dying man.

The eyes of the young one grew wide in horror - and a small distraction was enough to be his undoing. Xena slipped past his blade - a dark lightning - and brought the hilt against his temple. He slumped down on the ground, his face losing its grimness, becoming very smooth, almost childish - and Xena above him smiled, raising her upper lip over her teeth.

"Well done, dear."

"I know." She didn't show any surprise when Ares materialized next to her, didn't move as he wrapped his arm around her waist. Her eyes reveled in two bodies at her feet - one dead, one still alive.

"The fool here tried not to hurt you."

"As if he could." Her high-pitch giggle was full of battle fever, her pupils like pinpoints in the transparent blue of her eyes, fluctuating slightly.

"But he still tried not to. Must be because you are a lady."

It made Ares smile contentedly to see her nose wrinkle in anger as she hissed at his words:

"I hate this lady thing, you know. Enough to rip his balls off myself for that."

"Hmm." He raised his brows, having to admit that he enjoyed the image, even knowing that she was serious about it - or, maybe, especially because of that. "Want to play with this puppy?"

He hung around in the camp when Xena started 'playing' - could never resist watching her when she was in this mood; he even put her into it deliberately sometimes. She began slowly - possibly because the young mercenary was one of very few captives they had taken alive in this fight - or, maybe, his 'crime' was too severe to give him a quick death.

Ares watched the man stripped and tied, his wrists high above his head, his ghostly pale face marked nicely with a long scab across his cheekbone - a memento from Xena. His dark eyes had this wild, almost dreamy look that meant he was on the verge of fainting. And as he blacked out and swayed, putting his weight on his wrists, sharp pain in his shoulder must've brought him back, making him gasp and bite on his lip so hard that blood welled up from under his teeth.

Xena didn't touch him herself - had learned some style by then - but as two of her men alternated whipping the captive, she stood there, her arms crossed, her mouth a tiny rose-bud, her wide eyes huge and calm like lakes in still weather. Ares stood next to her, invisible to others, and as his hand traveled over her body, under her skirt, he could feel her vibrate against his touch impatiently, spread her legs wider for his fingers.

He teased her mercilessly until she lost patience and walked away - and Ares waited for her in her tent. And as she rode his hips, reaching her peak again and again, he looked at her passion-swept face - but listened to the distant shrieks of pain the captive was making and felt the smell of burnt flesh that heightened his arousal even more.

Later, with Xena asleep, he hovered around the camp some more, peeked into the shed where the captive was held - and caught some of Xena's men fucking him from both ends. Even with all the abuse the man had taken today, he was still conscious and responsive. Unable to struggle with his hands tied behind his back - he still thrashed prettily against their thrusts, the moans he made at especially vicious strokes muffled around a cock in his mouth.

It turned out to be entertaining enough for Ares to stay all through the scene - and he even found himself getting hard reluctantly, despite how drained he was after Xena. The sight of Iphicles' blistered nipples twisted brutally in the men's rough fingers was enticing, as much as the brief, choking cries he made as his genitals were pulled and squeezed savagely. Ares found fisting a little crude - and life-threatening as well - but the men had clear orders from Xena not to kill the captive, so, they tried it only once.

They left at last, taking away the torches - but Ares was not bothered by the lack of light; he could see perfectly in the darkness, and slid his gaze over the young man's body appreciatively. For a moment he thought about taking the advantage of the captive - it wouldn't make much difference for the man - and there must've been a particular kind of fun in taking a broken, abused creature, inflicting more pain on someone who already was hurt beyond endurance.

He decided against it, watching instead with a kind of fascination how Iphicles shifted carefully, trying to roll on his side to take the pressure off of his nearly flayed back. A soft moan he made on failing made Ares' cock twitch - and Iphicles' attempt to stifle the sound, to keep silent even when there was no one to hear him Ares considered both pathetic and endearing. Amusing in any case.

Iphicles managed to turn eventually - and didn't stop there, got on his knees - which really surprised Ares. Then he understood. The mortal was going to get out - to try to escape. Now wasn't he really stupid? His hands were tied; he probably wouldn't be able to walk, must've been injured badly inside, Ares could see the blood that kept trickling out of him...

Briefly, Ares wondered if it was worth spending time watching the man's struggles - and came to the conclusion that it was not. He chose the simplest means of preventing it; the first step Iphicles made on his wobbly feet - and a slab crashed under him, trapping his ankle, sending him back on the floor.

The cry he made was not enough to bring anyone back to the shed - and it was not Ares' intention anyway. And as the captive writhed on the floor, muffling his cries against his shoulder, Ares watched him with cool interest, feeling a small pang of pity/remorse only when he saw tears trickling down Iphicles' cheeks.

It broke you, little mortal, didn't it?

A while later the most acute pain must've blunted some - as the man's ragged, agonizing shudders slowed down to steady shivering, probably equally due to pain and to cold. He rolled his head on the floor in tired anguish. And that was when Ares felt curious enough to take a peek at the mortal's thoughts.

He knew what he would find there. The delicious mixture of torment, fear and burning humiliation, the confusion of someone who was sliding in and out of consciousness and hurting too much to slip into oblivion. And as Ares looked, it was all there; a backfire of agony that reverberated through Ares' mind made him tremble in pain and pleasure.

The man thought of death, too - his instinctive fear of it warred with the realization that death could mean a stop to the pain. And there were also angry, mournful memories of those who'd stayed dead in the battle today - of the comrade he'd tried and failed to defend. Then Ares' own name slipped through the captive's thoughts - not surprisingly - he was a warrior, after all - well, considered himself one at least. It was what he was thinking about - whether he could pray to Ares; whether now, when he was defeated and defiled, his words would be an insult for the God of War.

Oh, pray away, little one, Ares wanted to say. Not that your words meant anything even at your strongest.

Then... what was it? The captive was thinking what a failure he was - and that Hercules wouldn't let anything like this happen to himself, Hercules was never a failure...

What was his half-brother doing in the thoughts of the man? Oh yes. So, it was Herc's mortal's brother. The irony of it nearly made Ares double in a fit of laughter. Well, he couldn't get Hercules directly - but his little pet Xena would apparently do it for him. It'd hurt Herc like Tartarus to know how his brother ended up, wouldn't it? And Ares would make sure Hercules would know it. And wait... Maybe, if Herc knew how his brother died - and was sufficiently pissed off... would he go for Xena then? Between these two, Herc and Xena, Ares would rather put his money on his princess... Especially if the qualms about hurting ladies were a family thing.

Or... Ares gasped softly at the beauty of another plan that visited him. Not even a full plan, just a thought - but what a potential there was! The bleeding, shivering man at his feet could be something entirely different - and Ares already could see him for what he had to become. Ares' weapon. His way to the victory. His means to get what he wanted.

* * *

"I want the puppy you captured yesterday."

His fingers patted the soft skin under Xena's jaw feeling how she tensed.

"What for?"

"For... a God thing. Do I need to explain? I'd like you to just give him to me graciously. As a gift. Don't be greedy, Xena."

She had these little buttons he liked to push from time to time. Like this one - Gods forbid anyone to think she was pillaging and burning for booty.

"I am not greedy, I am still angry with him. But if you want him, you can have him."

"You have a heart of gold." And a body of silk and steel, he thought, running his hand over her neck and shoulder, feeling how she relaxed and leaned in his touch. "And I want something more. A showy execution for him."

It was an early evening when they came for Iphicles. Ares was there by then, watched them rape the man again, quickly and brutally - before taking him out. There was cruel injustice in it, Ares thought indifferently - that these touches were the last ones the man was supposed to feel in his life, the vile curses the last words he was going to hear.

They dragged him to the center of the camp and threw him on his knees - and now Iphicles didn't struggle any more, just looked up at the man with the sword towering over him.

The executioner was one of Xena's meanest sidekicks - but his deftness in swordsmanship nearly matched Xena's. The blade flashed over Iphicles' head with a hissing sound as the man swung experimentally. Ares saw Iphicles' lips move and knew the mortal was praying - or saying good-bye to his dear ones - good-bye that was not going to be heard all the same.

"Get it over with, Likymnios." He heard Xena's cold voice - and at the next moment someone pushed Iphicles forward, until his forehead touched the ground - and tossed his hair away from his neck. Likymnios whirled the sword up, his body and the wide blade made a perfect arc of a stopped motion - for a split second before delivering the deadly blow.

It was when Ares popped in.

The momentum of the executioner was already set, no way to stop it in the mid-stroke even though he tried - Ares could see it in the man's eyes, widened in horror, very close to his. He heard a joint gasp of the crowd - and it made him squirm with pleasure. Then he threw his hand up and caught the man's hand with the sword.

The color drained from the executioner's face slowly - and then the soft sound of grinding bones reached Ares. He squeezed, for long moments, until Likymnios made a ragged, anguished scream - and only then did Ares let him drop the sword on the ground.

He looked around briefly, caught a glimpse of Iphicles' pale face turned up to him; monitored the awed expressions of the mercenaries; met Xena's cold, despising stare. She'll kill me for mutilating her best swordsman, he thought naughtily - but his face as he pointed at Iphicles and his voice as he spoke were serious enough to impress the shit out of everybody there.

"This man belongs to me. Stay away from him."

It was not like they were going to argue, he thought, vanishing away.

A moment later Iphicles' knees hit the floor of Ares' secret shelter. Standing over him, Ares studied the man's shocked, upturned face.

There was still disbelief in Iphicles' wide-opened unblinking eyes - that only started being replaced with relief - and cautious hope that made the man look younger and strangely innocent.

"You are free now," Ares waved his hand, making the rope around Iphicles' wrists fall. The motion Iphicles made was kind of convulsive, as if he didn't know what to do with his body, and his soft bruised lips tried to form some word that must've been 'thank you' but he didn't manage to say it. "Oh, leave it," Ares shrugged it away generously. And, inspecting Iphicles' colorless face and the eyes that suddenly started getting unfocused, raised his voice. "Don't you dare faint on me, you hear? Although, on the other hand - faint if you want."

He raised his hands, gathering energy, running it through Iphicles' body, mending the damaged skin and fractured bones - and the young man's face went blank a moment before he sprawled on the floor unconscious.

* * *

Healed and cleaned, Iphicles lay in the bed, tossing and turning in unquiet sleep. Well, no wonder - he hardly was going to have any nice dreams for the next few months or years, Ares suspected as he looked at him thoughtfully. The man made quite an attractive sight. Even in Xena's camp, tied, broken and violated, he'd still captured Ares' eyes. And now, with the integrity of his body returned to him, unaware of his nakedness, he looked even better. These long muscular limbs, broad shoulders and narrow waist; the dark nipples, hard even in his sleep; the long thick cock lying limply over two darker spheres of his balls. Ares caught himself on getting aroused and anticipated with undeniable pleasure the moment that had to come.

He sensed Iphicles waking up a moment before seeing him stretch, still with his eyes closed. The man's body must've subconsciously relished the comfortable position and absence of pain. Then the memory returned - and Iphicles' eyelids flew up.

"Oh God..."

"As a matter of fact, yes."

The expression of total shock mixed with adoration in Iphicles' eyes made Ares feel amused and slightly ego-boosted. Not that he deserved anything less for saving the little mortal's life - but it still was nice to see that Iphicles was damn as grateful as he should've been; not to mention how handsome the man's face looked when enraptured like that.

"My Lord... I didn't thank you. If I can do anything..."

That was a good offer. But everything in its due time.

"We can talk about it later, mortal. Now, do you feel all right?"

It brought Iphicles' attention to his own body, just as Ares expected. He saw a swift ripple of unease on Iphicles' face as he must've realized he was naked. He pulled the cover over himself hastily. Now that was silly, Ares thought; a body like that should be displayed. Exactly what Xena's men did.

"Yes, thank you." Iphicles' flushed face looked delicious enough to forgive him his stupid self-consciousness. In any case, Ares felt generous; or was going to act generous.

"You want to get dressed, I presume?" The clothes he materialized for Iphicles were the simpler variant of his own style. He listened to another 'thank you', thinking that he was going either to get addicted to it or to be annoyed beyond his tolerance.

"My Lord." Dressed, Iphicles didn't look less appealing - just a bit less vulnerable, with his undisguised availability gone. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Why not?" Just ask about some nice thing.

"Why did you save me?" And, before Ares could answer. "I mean I'm not special or anything, by far not the best one..."

"You prayed to me." He knew he had to say it simple and serious - and fought the wish to destroy the impression with a laughter. "You are a brave man, Iphicles. The God of War must stand by those who serve him."

He knew he achieved his aim. A bit more effort like that in public relations - and he would make a very different image of himself among mortals; too bad he always found it so intolerably boring.

"And drop this 'My Lord' thing, just call me Ares."

The shining in Iphicles' eyes took him aback slightly, their consuming glow softened by the shadows of the eyelashes - and Ares was not sure if it pleased him that there was no cringing in these eyes, just dedication.

"Are you hungry, mortal?"

He'd placed a table in the next room, laid generously - and, sipping his wine, he watched how Iphicles ate, as quickly and politely as was possible; well, he must've been starved for these two days. Food and wine gave color to Iphicles' face, chasing away the little stiffness of his movements almost completely. Well, he should've felt perfectly well physically, Ares had taken care of it; he hadn't tweaked the man's mental state, though - and now he could see the aftereffects of what had happened in Xena's camp catch up with Iphicles from time to time. He recognized the signs unmistakably - how the man seemed to recoil into himself all of a sudden - and make a conscious effort to get back to the conversation; the way his gaze lost its focus for a moment.

It was good, Ares thought, this state made him more susceptible. More grateful for what Ares was going to give him, above all.

"Tell me about yourself, Iphicles. Do you have a family?"

"I am not married." Well, Ares knew that. He knew everything the man could say, actually, he just thought it was a good idea to let him talk about himself. Nothing warmed up mortals more than that... well, come to think about it, it worked unfalteringly on Gods, too.

"Mother, siblings, then?"

"I haven't seen my mother for a long time." There was a hint of guilt in Iphicles' voice and a resoluteness that made Ares chuckle to himself.

"Haven't - and not going to?"

"I dunno."

"Ah, mothers. I wish I could get away from mine at least for a while."

A silly mortal. Could he even imagine what a really bad mother could be?

Like a mother cheering strangers to hurt her son; a mother letting her son stay in captivity for months...

"And my brother is Hercules." There was a tiny note of tension in Iphicles' voice - like he'd forced himself to say that and now expected what it was going to bring; what it usually brought - questions, delights, loss of interest in him - as he would become just the brother of the hero.

"Hercules happened to be my brother, too." Ares made his voice sound with mild irony - and saw a smile rise from Iphicles' lips to his eyes. "We don't get along well. In fact, I think one day we'll kill each other."

"You and Herc?"

"Well, I think I'd be safer dead if I killed him. My father wouldn't let me get away so easily, though."

He saw a little flash of anger in Iphicles' eyes and exulted. Everything was going to work as he planned - he could already see it. What was left were just technical details - not that he wasn't going to enjoy dealing with them.

"You know, Iphicles," they stood up as the dinner was over and Ares felt the man's expectant gaze on himself, "you can go now if you wish. I can drop you wherever you want. But it's night outside, so, if you don't have any urgent business, you can stay here for a few hours."

He saw the hidden shade of regret in Iphicles' eyes disappear, replaced with a flash of joy. The man hadn't wanted to leave. Well, why would he - Ares had done everything for him to enjoy his stay.

"And meanwhile I can show you my collection of weapons I keep here."

The mortal before Iphicles who had been here, was wined and dined and shown around by Ares was Xena - and Ares had to say Iphicles' reactions pleased him more. Xena wore this frozen 'I-take-no-shit' expression on her face, making a point of being surprised or delighted with nothing. Iphicles was sincere, at least.

Yeah, that was what Ares really enjoyed about Iphicles - the man was not a fake. And it was one more thing that made the mortal more vulnerable. At his age, with the life he led - he should've been more hardened - but Ares considered it all to the better. It made his task certainly easier.

"Now have a rest, okay? You can read this if you want." He handed Iphicles a scroll, some killingly boring description of impossible war machines, and added gently. "Stop by if you have questions, I'll be around."

He knew Iphicles would 'stop by'; the man himself might've not known it yet - but Ares knew. And it didn't surprise him at all when, about half an hour later, he heard careful steps approaching his room. He reclined comfortably in the huge tub full of slightly steaming water - and looked at Iphicles' startled wide-eyed face.

"Something you wanted to ask me, mortal?"

The soft breath sucked in by the man gratified Ares as much as possible - the same as the mixture of emotions on Iphicles' face - his flush, his apparent realization that he should've been retreating quickly - and unwillingness to do it that made him feel ashamed. This - Ares could mistake for nothing else; Iphicles wanted him. Wanted to look at him, wanted to touch him, wanted to be with him.

How neat that Ares was not going to mind at all.

"I... I am sorry."

"Hey, what's wrong? You haven't disturbed me."

There was some confusion in Iphicles' eyes and then he dared:

"I didn't know Gods took baths."

"It is not a requirement," he chuckled, "but it is certainly pretty pleasant. Wanna join?"

He saw hesitation in Iphicles' eyes, an almost tormented expression as the man struggled between what he so obviously wanted to do and what he considered correct to do. Ares dropped his voice to a purr, a low note of insistence in it seductive, not threatening.

"Get in."

Iphicles' hands shook slightly, just once, as he dropped his clothes on the floor. He seemed very conscious of Ares' eyes on himself, not raising his gaze - but Ares was not going to spare him and look away. The man's body was perfect, his motions like a flow of the purest Hephaestus' metal, the dark hair on his body making an enticing contrast with the smoothness of his skin. And even with the deliberate swiftness Iphicles ducked into the water Ares still had time to see the hard shaft standing almost upright against his body.

Oh - but it is not going to get easier, he promised Iphicles mentally.

The tub was big enough to accommodate both of them - but certainly not big enough to spare them from the contact. He felt Iphicles' legs against his, the muscles very rigid, almost vibrating at occasional touch - and Iphicles' face flushed and paled helplessly under the gaze Ares didn't shift away for a second.

"I love the smell of this oil. Don't you?" He spread his arm along the skirting, reached for the vial, and felt Iphicles' gaze follow his motion - and found it both amusing and flattering to see how even a small thing like this affected the man, making his breath odd, making him bite his bottom lip like he was in pain. He poured a thin trickle of green fluid into the tub, feeling the smell of crushed young leaves fill the air. "Your hair is getting wet," Ares said quietly, sliding his gaze very slowly over Iphicles' face - and lower, over his neck and shoulders. And heard an almost inaudible answer:

"Yours too."

Ares stood up abruptly, looking down at Iphicles' face, reveling in almost wild expression in the man's eyes - and then pulled him up on his feet - bringing their naked, wet bodies together.

Iphicles' sigh resounded through Ares. He clasped his hands on the man's face, pulled him closer, covered his mouth, feeling the softness of lips and hard edge of teeth. The tongue that met his was warm and eager and accepting, making the kiss not a battle, like it used to be with Xena, but a union - making Ares not want it to stop.

When he let Iphicles go at last, the man looked like he was going to swoon; must've forgotten to breathe. Iphicles' lips were still slightly open, like begging for more - and his eyes that looked in Ares' had no defenses at all. Iphicles raised his hands and Ares felt them on his biceps, touching gently, like Iphicles was afraid he would be shaken away.

"Bed," Ares whispered, transporting them - Iphicles beneath him, the impact of landing bringing their bodies into even closer contact. Iphicles arched into him, their cocks rubbed against each other, and Ares ground his hips down while his leg spread the man's thighs.

It was when he felt Iphicles go rigid, all the little signs his body was giving gone - as shallow ragged breath escaped his lips and a ripple of pain went over his face.



"In the camp there... they... had sex with me. They fucked me."

And I can't blame them for it, you pretty thing, Ares thought mischievously. But his hand on Iphicles' cheek, rubbing slightly, was kind - the same as his voice, low and hushed and infinitely gentle:

"I know, Iphicles, I know."

The mortal's eyes became just slightly more hopeful - yet the fear didn't leave them completely so far - and his voice was very small as he said:

"You sure you still want me - despite this?"

"No, I only do virgins, don't you know?" He let irony penetrate his voice - while his hand continued making circles over Iphicles' face - and Ares knew the man listened to this hand as much or more than to his words. "Of course, I want you - can't you feel it? And I want you to do it if you can. It might be too soon for you - but believe me, it will be better this way. There are just some things you have to live with - and I know you can learn to do that. You are strong, you can do it."

He saw the effect of his words as clearly as if it was a spell he cast - Iphicles' eyes became mesmerized, locked on Ares' - like he was engulfed with Ares, like nothing else existing for him in the world.

"Trust me, little mortal," Ares whispered sliding his hand between Iphicles' legs. "I won't hurt you."

* * *

It was weirdly pleasant to watch Iphicles. His stance, his motions, even when no one could see him, had the bright, elated glossing of a happy man. And to know that he, Ares, was the one who'd made him happy was undeniably flattering.

Next morning after they'd been together Ares had placed Iphicles on the road and put his arms around the man's neck, looking in his eyes intently.

"I'll find you soon, mortal. Will you wait for me?"

It made him chuckle how fervent, desperate Iphicles' voice was:

"Every day."

Not that you have any chance of getting rid of me even if you want to, Ares thought in amusement - and yet he had to admit that in a shallow, smug way he still was touched.

"You'd better," he added impishly, unexpected even to himself. "Because I am going to watch you."

He didn't know if Iphicles believed it - and they never talked about it any more; but soon he found himself splitting his free time equally between Xena and Iphicles. And, whether Iphicles regarded the possibility of Ares watching him or not, something changed in him in a big way - this Ares could see clearly.

Before that he was an ordinary soldier, a good one but nothing special - the level that most Ares' worshippers were, unfortunately. Now he was almost awesome - fast and smart and unavoidable. Like he really could feel Ares' eyes on himself all the time - and tried to do his best because of it.

He started getting a reputation, was considered a good employee - and sometimes Ares caught himself regretting that all of that was going to be wasted. But he coped with this feeling quickly, turning to a more pleasurable one - of pride at the transformations that he'd caused - at the perfection of the weapon he was forging.

Intimate trysts with Iphicles were invariably enjoyable; and with every one of them the man became more open, some more accessible in giving himself away. Sometimes Ares found himself so entranced with it that he needed to remind himself why he was doing all this in the first place... and then to remind himself that one didn't exclude the other. There was no problem in liking being with Iphicles - preparing at the same time to what he, Ares, wanted to do.

He took the things easily, though - was telling himself there was no point in getting too hasty and blowing away the whole plan. The more addicted he got Hercules' brother - the easier it would be. And when he looked down at Iphicles' enraptured face as he made their clothes disappear - not at once - but slowly, like the material was fading away between them; when he caught the moans from the man's lips as he tweaked Iphicles' nipples until they were so puffy it must've hurt; when he watched Iphicles' concentrated, almost desperate expression as he ran his fingers through Ares' hair - he knew the man belonged to him as completely as possible.

And some more.

"I wish I could let no one hurt you." Once, with his head lying on Iphicles' chest, he heard these words and couldn't believe them. The man couldn't be serious - how did he imagine it? What could he do - in case if he, the God of War, would fail to defend himself? And what made him think that the God of War could be hurt?

And yet there was something in Iphicles' voice that told Ares he was completely serious - and his arms wrapped around Ares' shoulders, holding him close and comfortable, like in a cradle of flesh - were serious, too. It made him feel warm and cozy and dependent like he hadn't felt for centuries - or, maybe, had never felt.

He got frightened when he realized what Iphicles made him feel; and felt he'd made a mistake - was too sloppy and let it get this far; too soft and allowed the mortal even think in these terms. And there was another thought, a cold, sane and cruel one, in Ares' mind that told him - 'You can use that, you can turn it against him - and you'll be a fool if you don't - because then it can turn against you.'

He raised his head from Iphicles' chest and caught the man's fingers laced through his hair, pulling the hand away a little forcefully.

"I'll remember that," he said - and let the last little parts of the plan fall into place in his mind.

* * *

"Why is that?" Iphicles' face always became boyish when he was happy -

and now he clearly was, even if embarrassed with Ares' generosity as well. "I mean I have a sword."

"Throw it away. This one is better."

Of course, this one was better. A lot of Gods would fight like stray dogs to get their hands on it. Well, at least if it was going to work in the way it was supposed to. Ares wasn't really sure. But there was no way he could waste a try on slaughtering some minor deity - when there was Hercules waiting for his attentions. And, in any case, even if this sword was not as good as the legends told - there was still some force in it, Ares could sense it. So, at least it had to be enough to injure his half-brother so badly that it would make life a misery for him.

"Thank you, Ares. I am honored to have it."

"To have it and to use it, okay?"

Lying with Iphicles in bed, petting his mortal, Ares felt a shade of sorrow covering him. If everything went the way he wanted it, it would be all over. He would never do this again with Iphicles; the mortal would be broken. Even if Zeus didn't smite him - there were always the Furies... And the Furies would do their best in this case, he could be sure of it.

He forbade himself thinking about it. It was his plan, after all, his beautiful plan - and damn it, he was not going to let stupid sentimentality hinder it. In fact, what was the best proof of how harmful the mortal was for him than this sentimentality?

"You are going to Elis next week, aren't you? I think I will be busy till then - but we can meet in my temple there. It is not very opulent - but nice nevertheless. You'll like it there."

He didn't expect anything else from Iphicles but 'yes'. Anywhere, any time - just to be with Ares.

Getting Hercules to the temple on the appointed day demanded a bit more tinkering - but Ares knew how to do it - had years-long experience manipulating his half-brother; the link developed between them was almost as sensitive as the one two lovers could share.

Anyway, a few carefully dropped words about a war he was going to instigate - and on the required day Hercules was in his temple, thrashing the things in his favorite manner. It was good the temple held nothing dear to him, Ares thought - and his priests would resurrect whatever was ruined anyway.

He couldn't resist the temptation to push Herc's patience to the point, making him wait, and then emerged at last, face to face with his furious brother.

"Leave this town alone! People don't deserve to suffer because of your sick games!"

"Well, try and stop me."

"Why do we have to do it this way every time?" There was a strange irritation mixed with tiredness in Hercules' voice - yet, to tell the truth, Herc didn't sound absolutely unwilling to try.

"Because I have no wish to make your life easy, little sucker."

It was not the insult that spurred Hercules, Ares knew that, it was the thought that if he let Ares go now, the God of War would be free to go on with the war he planned. He saw Hercules dash towards him and met the demigod with a kick that Hercules seemed to barely notice.

A blow threw Ares back slightly - and as he returned it, he felt the familiar joy of the fight fill him - the joy that seemed to expel the last shadows of doubt from his mind. How weird - he didn't know he had these doubts... Well, he didn't have any doubts any more, right?

Hercules' fist smashed in his mouth, making him swallow blood, and he exulted at its metal pungent taste. He could evade the next blow - but decided to take it, to make it more dramatic. He felt the hard wall slam against his back and head. His vision became blurry and Herc's shape hovering over him seemed to sway - but he knew it was just the dizziness that overwhelmed him. He expected another blow and it didn't come - Hercules watched him cautiously, lowering his fists slowly. The idiot took mercy on him, look at that!

No, you bastard, it is not going to end up like this! In one swift motion Ares got up to his feet, catching Hercules' jaw on the left, snorting in satisfaction as his brother's head swung under the blow. He felt Hercules' arms wrap around him, fingers digging painfully into his skin - and the ground gave way under his feet as they rolled on the floor - until Herc's weight pinned him down.

"Will you ever - ever leave me alone?" There was anger and something like anguish in Hercules' voice - that suddenly make his face look unsettlingly similar to Iphicles' - and Ares blinked hastily, trying to get rid of this illusion.

"Why, of course. When you are dead," he smiled with his bleeding mouth and felt Herc raise him and slam against the floor. It hurt a bit but it didn't scare him - he knew he was in control, nowhere near defeat. "Is it the best you could do?"

Another blow made his head dangle - and then, in the doorway, he saw Iphicles' silhouette - that seemed to freeze in shock for a moment. Ares nearly howled in exhilaration. He thought about making a small push, like calling for help - but he didn't want to give away Iphicles' presence to Hercules - and, anyway, it was not necessary. Iphicles plunged forward, snapping out the sword - and Ares was ready to let out a triumphant cry.

Then the hilt of the sword slammed down against the base of Hercules' neck - just like Ares once had shown Iphicles how to do. Herc stilled, his eyes going hazy and unfocused, and started to turn his head but didn't finish the movement, crumbling on Ares bonelessly.

No. The word was beating in Ares' temples, so stubbornly like if he kept repeating it enough times, it could turn the time back. And it sounded only in his head - rage made him speechless for a while.

He looked at Iphicles stand over Hercules' body with the unnecessary sword in his hands, then let it go softly - and bend towards Ares, reaching his hand to him.

"Are you all right? Can you stand?"

He took the hand mechanically and pulled himself on his feet - and pushed the hand away furiously at the next moment.

"You had to stab him! Why didn't you?"

He saw the tormented look in Iphicles' eyes, a mixture of guilt, stubbornness and certainty in his rightfulness. But the sound of Iphicles' voice was so soft that it almost disarmed something in Ares - almost but not enough.

"He is my brother."

So fuckin' what?

"He was going to kill me!"

Ares could see it so clearly, how his words were shattering Iphicles - the man's face was getting steadily paler as he tried to control the slight quiver of his bottom lip and couldn't. Yet this obstinacy didn't leave Iphicles' eyes - and his voice:

"He wasn't. I know Herc. He was holding back."

Oh fuck! Fuck it! Ares sent a few bolts randomly, making the dust sprinkle on his hair and the ornaments that Hercules had spared peel off. He felt Iphicles' gaze on himself. The man's teeth were clenched, his lip caught between his teeth so hard that he must've been drawing blood.

"You said you wouldn't let anyone hurt me!" Maybe, it was not over yet - maybe, he, Ares, still could make it work. "It was just the words, right? Another mortal trying to gain the favors from a God."

He heard a soft gasp Iphicles made - and the trembling of the man's lip became more visible, even the teeth didn't help. Iphicles' hair fell on his face as he shook his head.

"No?" Well, he didn't really need a confirmation. "Then do it now. Kill him!"

All the life that stayed in Iphicles was in his eyes - but his hands were still clasped, not making a move towards the sword. There was a plea in his eyes - the plea that Ares was not going to yield to. And something told him Iphicles understood it.

"Do it now, while he is unconscious. He won't feel pain."

"I can't." Ares recognized the finality in Iphicles' voice. His hands tingled to send a bolt, to knock Iphicles down, to destroy the whole temple and bury both brothers under the debris. "Why do you want me to do it?"

"Because I can't do it myself!" he broke. And it was when Iphicles reached for the sword - but Ares didn't even have time for a moment of joy - because he took it by the blade, not by the hilt, handing it to Ares and sliding down on his knees.

"My life belongs to you. Just don't ask me do that."

"You fool!" He looked at the sword reached to him and could see the slightest trembling of Iphicles' hand. He felt like grabbing the sword from Iphicles, pull it out harshly to make the blade cut through the man's hand - but Ares didn't really want Iphicles to bleed like that. He wanted him to bleed in his heart. "What would I need your life for? I don't care if you live or die! I need *his* life!"

He knew he succeeded in what he wanted to achieve when something changed in Iphicles' eyes. The screaming pain was gone from them - replaced with something much worse - something empty.

There was no shock, though; later Ares thought that Iphicles looked like he'd expected something like this all the time, like he'd known he was living on a borrowed time - and now this time came to the end. The clanking of the sword against the stone was barely perceptible, so carefully Iphicles put it down. He rose to his feet smoothly, not looking at Ares, bent over Hercules and checked the pulse under his brother's jaw briefly.

"I think it is safe to leave you two alone, since you can't kill him," he said thoughtfully and turned away, walked to the door. Ares followed him with his eyes - and there was a small voice in him saying 'Don't let him go, stop him' - but so quietly that he had not problem to shush it. Iphicles' back was very straight and his movements seemed very controlled, even his walk was not hurried at all. And only nearly at the entrance he seemed to walk right into the wall - and stopped like it surprised him to find it there - and turned to go out.

Ares kicked the stupid sword, making it fling into the air - caught it - and disappeared with it at the next moment.

* * *

He vented out his temper for a few next days, turning a quietly smoldering conflict between two cities into bloody carnage. It kind of helped. Besides, Hercules apparently didn't rat on him to their father this time, so, he'd escaped Zeus' anger safely. Life seemed to be looking up - and, after all, even if he lost a battle, he still didn't lose a war. There would be other chances, other plans - Ares had all the time he needed for it on his hands.

It took a week or two before he started admitting to himself that he lacked something. Xena was fun as always - and he played with some cute warlord recently - and still there was some sucking feeling in his chest from time to time. At these moments he thought that he'd need to stop by to see Iphicles - and then he recalled how the man had failed him.

It took a little more time for him to have a bright idea at last - that, come on, he was a God! It was up to him whether to forgive the spoiled mortal or not. And it he felt like visiting Iphicles - he surely could do it.

He found the man in the mercenary camp; the evening was in the full swing, the men drank and sat around the fires sharing food and stories. That's why it happened that he caught Iphicles alone in the tent the man usually occupied with two others.

The flash of Ares' appearance was blinding bright, casting a short sparkle of blue light on Iphicles' face, reflecting in the man's staring eyes. And at the next moment, already in the darkness, Ares watch Iphicles get on his feet abruptly, blink agonizingly - and recoil away into the corner of the tent.

"I am not going to hurt you, little mortal." Sarcasm suffused Ares' voice - yet he added the darker, softer note of seductiveness in it. This had to be enough to make Iphicles' legs wobbly - Ares had seen before how it made him way even before being touched.

Well, this time it was a bad case. No little body language that Ares was so good at reading, especially when Iphicles' body was concerned. At least nothing that Ares would find satisfying. The man's arms were folded on his chest - not in a confident gesture, more like in an attempt to create a barrier - between himself and Ares. Ares decided he was not going to pay attention to that.

"I think I'll, maybe, even going to forgive you. If you ask me very nicely, that is."

He offered a game - now who would say he was not generous with the stubborn mortal? He was not going to make him grovel too much, Ares thought, just a little foreplay, he just couldn't wait for too long... Ah, he missed it so much; he hadn't realized how much - to feel Iphicles' warm face between his hands, to see his happy eyes get wilder as they both were reaching their peak, to feel Iphicles' chest against his, the hard nipples rubbing against his, the hard cock pulsing under the smooth motions of Ares' hand as he was thrusting inside Iphicles.

"Well?" He got too carried away with his imagination to notice at once that for some reason Iphicles didn't start begging yet. "Are you going to say 'sorry'?"

He saw a painful movement Iphicles made with his jaw, like he tried to swallow something very sharp and couldn't. He seemed to try to wield into the corner of the tent, there was just nowhere to go, and, as Ares looked at that, irritation took the best over him. What, was the mortal scared of him or what?

Well, it probably wasn't fear; he tried to define it - looking at Iphicles' sharpened, very pale face - at his arms clenched convulsively around his chest - and wondered if it was worth thinking at all, what the mortal felt. It was Iphicles - just Iphicles, mind you. A failure as a means against Hercules - but a good fuck, anyway.

"Okay, you aren't - maybe, we'll skip the begging part," Ares said with amusement. He knew the deeper notes in his voice became even more pronounced - and saw Iphicles shiver so slightly - the first time when the signals Ares sent were caught today. He moved forward, fast and smoothly, and had his palms on the back of Iphicles' neck, pulling the man's face into a kiss.

The lips were so familiar and so pleasant, it nearly shocked Ares how he could let it go on for so long without doing it, without touching Iphicles, having him. He pried Iphicles' arms away from his chest, sticking his hand under the man's vest, finding the nipple, tweaking it. The hardness of the little nub was momentary, automatic, making Ares proud how well he'd trained Iphicles' body for responses. The curly hair on Iphicles' chest that Ares fingered was so pleasant to touch - and the softness of Iphicles' bottom lip between Ares' teeth intoxicated him. He shoved his body forward, rubbing his pelvis against Iphicles'.

"Ares..." He felt the man try to pull away and let him go reluctantly - but hearing Iphicles' voice at last gladdened him more than he expected.

"Ares what?" He said it with mocking patience. Gods, the man was annoying - but he always smelled so nicely. He felt Iphicles make a little movement, almost as if he was trying to get free - and, of course, Ares didn't let him. "Do speak your mind. Want to do something special today?"

It was kind of difficult to speak, tracing the line of Iphicles' jaw with his kisses. Ares thought briefly about transporting them both away and decided against it. There would be something undeniably erotic in doing it in the common tent, expecting Iphicles' companions pop in at any minute.

"Ares..." His name again; well, Ares liked the sound of it but he realized it bothered him a little how much anguish - and question - sounded in it. Like Iphicles expected something from him - and he didn't know what this something was.

"Come on," he plunged forward roughly, covering Iphicles' mouth with his, sticking his hand between Iphicles' legs in a gesture that must've been a rough one because it made Iphicles rise on his toes slightly, as if trying to evade it.

Iphicles' cock was soft; it displeased Ares more than anything else could. He rubbed the heel of his palm against it, sure that he would coax it into an erection in a few moments - and he felt Iphicles lean into his touch, like yielding at last, giving himself away for whatever Ares was going to do. He felt the man's tentative fingers in his hair, stroking almost asexually, like Iphicles was touching something beautiful that he didn't have any right to touch.

He didn't want this touch; it was not what he'd come here for. And the unresponsiveness of Iphicles' cock was just maddening.

"Don't you want me?" He still didn't let Iphicles go - but his voice was already icy. "Say that and you'll never see me again."

He heard a soft gasp Iphicles made - and could feel physically how the man tensed when saying that:

"I want to be with you, Ares. More than anything in my life. If you want me."

It was the voice that really scared Ares. Too sincere, too serious. Like Iphicles put too much into it. Was giving Ares too much with this phrase - so much as Ares didn't want to take.

"Then what?" He pretended he didn't understand; his voice sounded all right for him - cold and detached and expectant. "I don't see it. Show me how you want me. Get hard at least, I would expect this much from you."

Now he was the one standing with his arms crossed, looking at Iphicles in anticipation. The man might not have seen it in the darkness but Ares was sure he could feel it. He saw Iphicles' hands fall tentatively, like he was not sure what he was going to do with them.

"I am sorry, Ares, don't pay attention to it, I just need a little time..."

The voice, the words sliced through Ares' mind, hurt him in spite of how absurd it was to react like that. He hadn't wanted it from Iphicles; he hadn't wanted to care. He couldn't let it happen.

"Oh I see. All I hear from you are declarations of your devotion - but any request from me - and you turn out to be incapable to do it. You are really a worthless ally - both in love and in war."

He saw the impact of his words like he lashed across Iphicles' face. The man's head rocked back, teeth entering his lip deeply, his eyes unblinking. A part of Ares enjoyed it - enjoyed seeing the mortal hurt - hurt not physically, not like in Xena's camp, but more personally. It was so easy to hurt Iphicles - and easy to get him back. Hit him and he'll crawl to you on his belly, to lick your palm.

"Do you really think I need a lame fuck like you? I have a wide choice - and you can't even appreciate it when I come to you. Xena's guys were right - you are nothing but spoils of war. You are good for nothing except this!"

He saw pain mist Iphicles' eyes - and he was not surprised, he knew so well how to choose the words that could hurt, had learned it first-hand. Ares felt light-headed with the feeling of the power he had over Iphicles - the power to hurt, to make him feel what he, Ares, wanted. He waited Iphicles to start groveling, to complain about his cruelty. And the silence that was there instead of it was a shock Ares couldn't stand, didn't want to stand.

"Now," he drawled, reeling closer to Iphicles, looming over him. "Prove to me the you can do it."

The thought made him rock-hard - just the image of Iphicles taking out his cock, stroking it into hardness. It wouldn't be too bad for the mortal - the darkness was supposed to cover things - but Ares wouldn't miss a moment of the show. He licked his lips and waited. Iphicles didn't move. For too long - and Ares' brows went up in amazement.

"Did you hear what I said?"

"Please let me go, Ares." Iphicles' eyes were down now - and even the thickness of his eyelashes didn't soften his face any more, didn't make it look less like a mask of torment.

Oh no. It sounded bad - an insult for Ares' ears. No one rejected him like that. He didn't step away but made their bodies touch a little - and there was such heady pleasure in feeling how Iphicles went rigid with it.

"Let you go, huh? Is it an order or a request? And what if I don't feel like letting you go?"

Iphicles flinched - and stayed quiet. His mistake... Ares thought suddenly that all he needed was Iphicles to state clearly what he wanted, to repeat he wanted Ares to leave - Xena was so good at it - and Ares would go. Would lose interest - there were other amusing mortals out there. But Iphicles kept silent.

"You don't have the right to choose," Ares said with satisfaction, measuring the man up and down slowly, enjoying Iphicles tense under his stare. "You told me not to pay attention? Okay. If you are worth of nothing but being a fuck-hole - then I'll use you like one. It isn't going to be the first time for you, right?"

Iphicles had to resist him - was supposed to - it was Iphicles' own fault that he didn't. Ares turned him down, fell over him, feeling how Iphicles' body hit the hard bedding - and even though the man didn't make a sound, Ares knew it hurt, could feel the impact reverberate through his body. The hardness of Iphicles' jaw in his grip asked for squeezing harder, the same as the softness of his lips demanded more pressure of Ares' teeth - and he applied it, dizzy with joy, feeling the salt of the man's blood on his tongue - that tasted as good as the best wine.

There was no time for preliminaries - he waved away their clothes with a short sign of his hand and the heat of Iphicles' body overwhelmed him, the very softness of the man's cock became an additional turn-on all of a sudden. Ares was ready to apply his god-powers if Iphicles started fighting - he couldn't stop now; but Iphicles didn't fight - just took it all: Ares' hands roaming over his body, Ares' mouth clamping on his face and neck. Ares felt Iphicles' convulsive movement as he stuck his hand between Iphicles' legs and shoved his fingers inside so roughly that he knew he'd drawn blood. But he could care less; in fact, he enjoyed it this way even more.

"Put your legs around my waist," he ordered - and was surprised when Iphicles followed the order. For a moment Ares felt uncomfortable - ashamed with what they were doing - with what he was doing; yet he couldn't stop. He slammed in so rudely - as he hadn't done for years, preferring consensual sex to this ugly variant. The sound Iphicles made was non-existent, his body going stiff in pain but his hands on Ares' shoulders lie still, not clasping, not holding.

The resistance Ares met to his invasion was involuntary, he knew it - and told himself he enjoyed ruining it. Wet and very hot feeling of Iphicles' blood on his cock made him almost dizzy with arousal. He buried himself to the hilt in a few barbaric thrusts and looked down, seeing paleness cover Iphicles' face, hearing the shallow gasps the man made in pain. Iphicles' eyes were open and Ares thought he would like it, looking in them, drinking their expression of pain and humiliation. But he found that he couldn't - couldn't make himself catch this gaze, even for a split second.

"Close your eyes, slut," he said - and blinked in bewilderment as Iphicles didn't obey his words immediately. He thrust his hips viciously, with a twist, eliciting a pained sound - and yet the fool dared to continue ignoring him.

A slap made Iphicles' head roll and his lips pressed harder but his eyelashes didn't fall. Ares backhanded him again and winced in distaste. Oh he could go on with it, could do much worse. But he was here to get his rocks off, not to beat the mortal senseless, right?

"You are too dumb even for doing what is told you?" he asked sarcastically reaching to Iphicles' face, putting his hand over the man's eyes. "Well, I think I just have to get what I can from you, as little as it is."

He felt Iphicles' eyelashes flutter against his palm, tickling him as the man blinked - and, holding Iphicles' face, he started thrusting - in deep, violent strokes, wrenching his cock out almost completely and sending it back as hard as he could.

He thought about changing the angle, about making Iphicles hard despite everything - but chose more brutal and less effective means instead, squeezing Iphicles' cock in his hand, mauling it, reveling in the involuntary little struggles as the man's body tried to escape his cruel hand - in vain. Then he lost the ability to distinguish the lesser signals - as his thrusts became swift, violent, relentless slamming - and his touches so fierce that he could've been injuring Iphicles - but he didn't care, he was not going to care...

He slumped on Iphicles' body, his cheek pressed to Iphicles', as the last spurts of his semen were pumped into the man's ass. He didn't have to cover Iphicles' eyes any more - he couldn't see his face all the same.

The long, languid moments of lying against the mortal, stretched along his body, being still linked to him - it was delicious. It was almost as they used to lie, had done so many times - and Ares thought suddenly that he could believe it, if he tried: that nothing happened, nothing wrong was done. Maybe, he could even make Iphicles believe it? Despite the blood that he felt leaking around his softened cock and soak into the bedding under them.

The question was if Ares wanted to believe it. It was why he'd started all that in the first place, right? To wipe away the weakening pleasure of feeling safe in Iphicles' arms.

Ares rose on his knees, yanking his cock out. He cleaned the coating of blood on it with a thought - and clothed himself with another - and got on his feet, looking down at Iphicles who moved, pulling his limbs together stiffly. He didn't raise his eyes at Ares - and Ares didn't know if he liked it better this way.

"Well," he felt a feral grin distort his face, "it was... amusing. Even at your worst you'll still be able to earn a few dinars spreading your legs. Maybe, if I ever am desperate enough, I'll use your services again. But don't count too much on that."

"I got it, okay?"

The words were so unlike anything Ares expected from Iphicles that he stopped abruptly, looking down at the man in bewilderment. He saw Iphicles sit up, his legs crossed - and there was no self-consciousness in his pose. Like he didn't care if he was naked or not, if Ares watched him or not.

And his voice - dull and absolutely level, no sign of emotion in it at all.

"You don't need to prove me any more that I am nothing," he continued the same flatly, his gaze not staying deliberately away from Ares, just sliding over him - and that strangely made Ares creepy. "I see your point. You can spare your efforts now - or spend them on someone else."

Ares didn't expect these words to hit like that, make him flinch and make him glad it was too dark for Iphicles to see it. But his voice didn't give him away, the cold note in it having nothing of the strange scalding pain he felt:

"Do you tell me that you want me to go and never come back? Don't you take too much on yourself, mortal? Do you have any idea what I can do to you for that?"

"What?" The question was like a whip flick, Iphicles' face turned up to Ares, a lopsided, frozen smile on his lips. His mouth was bruised, Ares realized, he'd bitten his lip through. "What can you do to me? Hurt me? Kill me? Make love to me?" The irony in the last phrase resounded through Ares' mind. "I know you can do anything to me. You are a God - and I am nothing. Teach me this lesson once more if you wish - but you will be doing it for yourself. Because it won't change anything for me."

Ares raised his hand; a blow would be an appropriate reaction - power was the means that always worked so well with mortals - and suddenly he saw in Iphicles' eyes that it was what Iphicles expected.

"Do it, Ares. Or don't do it. I don't care. Go or stay. I don't care for it, too. I'll feel pain if you break my bones - but nothing you can do now can hurt me in my mind."

We'll see, Ares felt an urge to say - and suddenly didn't have heart for it. He couldn't explain it - why he felt this burning inside, that consumed him slowly, taking away his anger and irony, leaving him just with the sorrow of something wrong done. Something irreparable.

"You cannot reject me," he said in a kind of perplexity. Mortals didn't do it, right? And those who did it - didn't live long.

"I cannot reject you," Iphicles repeated quietly. "But I will try to live without you."

He meant it; Ares didn't need to look into his mind to see it. He would do it - with the annoying determination he was doing everything with. And what if he'd succeed? He couldn't succeed...

"You won't be able to!" Ares knew he was screaming now and it meant that there were going to be other people here, in the tent, in a moment, but he didn't care. "You need me! You can't do without me! Call for me - and do you know what? I'll be there. Any time. And then you will be mine again."

* * *

How long could the fortunes keep up for a man who didn't care for his life enough to defend it? Oh, Iphicles knew he pretended like he did - fought and killed - and was considered a good one, a dangerous one. He could deceive anyone - but the truth was he, maybe, sighed with relief when another fight with a warlord-turned-a-bandit ended in captivity for him. He'd killed enough of the man's people not to count on mercy. And he knew what his death was going to be - had seen the corpses along the road, hanging in the chains. It was going to be a slow death of thirst, sun and hunger - and he would be a lucky one if he was going to be dead before he became the food for the birds.

His last night was spent in a damp, rotten cell, with his hands cuffed behind his back. And with the glowing figure of Ares in front of him.

"You know I can get you out. Just tell me you want that."

It was not the most difficult thing not to notice him. Iphicles focused on the pain in his twisted, chained wrists and it helped not to look, not to fall under the feel of Ares' presence, so close - so shining. But not to wonder why Ares was doing it, what for he needed to torment him like that - it was more difficult, almost impossible.

"One word from you, mortal."

No. No word. Iphicles licked his lips - he was so thirsty, would give a lot for a mouthful of water. He didn't talk - moved deeper into the corner instead, pressed his back to the damp wall.

"I'll hear it from you, you idiot. Sooner or later."

Ares was back there in the morning, outside, as Iphicles was dragged out, blinking at the grey light of the cold day. Ares stood in the first row of the scanty crowd that gathered to watch the execution. Iphicles didn't know if others could see the God of War. He could see Ares all right.

Ares was there as the chains were put on Iphicles' hands, making him convulse in pain as the cuffs locked on his swollen wrists; he'd pulled on them too hard last night, without noticing it. Iphicles didn't want to look - but he saw Ares all the same - the cold perfect face, the dark unblinking eyes - and his clouded mind wondered quietly how others, if they saw it, could take Ares for a mortal. Ares was... irresistible.

Then the crowd left - and Ares stayed - and now Iphicles knew he was invisible for others because he was close, so close that Iphicles felt the warmth coming from him. Ares didn't touch him. Yet even without a touch he still was too close - his voice, his gaze, the silkiness of his hair.

"I can take you away from here, mortal. Just ask me. You don't have to die like this."

Iphicles forced himself into not listening. Not feeling was more difficult - but as he pulled on his hands and sharp pain made him dizzy, it became somehow easier, distracting. And he knew Ares would get bored at last with taunting him - and would leave.

Ares did leave, flashed away with some curse on his lips - and then Iphicles felt tears swell in his eyes with relief and despair - and forbade himself to cry. But Ares was back again.

It was in the dusk when one especially violent pull on his hands made Iphicles feel like something snap and tear there - and then his hand was free - skin-flayed and leaking blood, shattered bones in it feeling like poured randomly into the bag of skin. But free. He heard vaguely how Ares gasped in amazement - and then, already consciously, Iphicles pulled on his other hand, yanked at it, wetting the sharp iron of the cuff with his blood. Until it got free, too.

He fell on the ground, not held any more, and thought that the pain would kill him now - and it was when he almost didn't care whether Ares was there or not. But Ares was there.

"I can heal it, mortal."

He didn't say 'no'. He didn't say anything. He moved away on his knees - unable to get up and fearing that if he did get up and fall again, it would be the end for him. He crawled on his knees and knew Ares walked near to him, even though the noise in his ears didn't let him hear Ares' voice and his eyes saw only darkness.

He lost consciousness when seeing the pointed roof of a hut before him, in the first pale-pink rays of the sun. And when he came round, he was already in bed and he couldn't feel his hands. He thought they were gone. He looked - and saw the rags wrapped around them, soaked in smelly ointment and seeping. And even though he knew it had been different last time, after Xena, he still couldn't help it.

"Ares?" he asked.

There was an old man leaning towards him, a disapproving expression in his bead-like eyes.

"Ares? Is it whom you pray? Well, kid, I guess you need to choose another god who can assure you'll keep these hands of yours attached."

Iphicles' shook his head and whispered, before falling back into unconsciousness:

"I don't pray to him."

* * *

Once it had worked. He had been patient - and it'd worn Ares out, made him leave. He could do it again - he definitely could. The calmness in his voice sounded insincere even for Iphicles' own ears:

"You don't want to leave? Fine. I guess I can stand it. You'll get bored eventually - I just have to wait a little. And I can wait - I have all time I need for that."

He saw Ares' face change slightly, a very brief grimace before the beautiful features regained their composure - and had a tiny moment of triumph thinking that he'd got to him. In whatever way.

"What time do you have, mortal? How much of it that can you waste it like that?" What a low - dangerous - voice Ares had when he was angry; so similar to the voice he sometimes talked in bed, just before coming - when his face was blank with pleasure, the intensity of it almost equal to pain, the long wings of eyelashes still over the half-opened, glimmering dark eyes. How well Iphicles remembered it; never managed to forget, that was the truth.

And what inconvenient moments he always chose to recall it... when would he learn to live with the thought that memories brought him nothing - except making it more difficult to re-adjust to his life. The past was gone - like Rena was gone, like everything in his life was gone. And the past that was the only thing he had left.

"The whole night long, Ares," he said. "I have the whole night."

The silence that followed was crispy, the soft crackling of the fire in the hearth seemed to grow in sound, cutting through Iphicles' ears. He wanted to shift, to get into a more comfortable position, more suitable for the stoical anticipation - and couldn't. Not when Ares' eyes stayed on him like this - dark, serious, absorbing - not letting him go.

Ah, nonsense! Not letting him go... Ares had never wanted him in the first place. Just tried to use him - and probably had something like this in his mind again. Only now Iphicles knew it, was not going to let it happen.

"I saved your life," Ares said suddenly. The words made Iphicles jerk.

"I haven't forgotten it. I live every day knowing that I never justified your hopes, that I was a waste of your efforts."

He saw Ares wince slightly.

"I'm not talking about Xena thing. I mean the other time, on the road."

Iphicles looked up startled, suddenly finding this thought too devastating: that he'd still failed - that it was Ares' intervention that had saved him then, despite his refusal. That, maybe, he'd lost consciousness one moment and then... Ares shook his head, as if reading his thoughts, and Iphicles hated this expression of understanding on his face - that was so similar to how Ares had looked at him sometimes a long time ago - and then he used to like it.

"I couldn't rescue you then, did you know that? One can interfere a man's life only as many times before it is noticed and forbidden. But if I wasn't there, if I didn't nag on you, talk to you - do you think you would get to this healer's house yourself?"

He wouldn't even have been able to free his hands - that was the truth. The truth he didn't want to hear. And Ares didn't have the right to throw it in his face.

"Hatred can be a very strong thing sometimes," Ares said thoughtfully. "The strongest thing in the world."

"In any case, I am grateful to you," Iphicles said levelly. Ares' laughter was thick, forced.

"I don't want your gratitude, mortal. I don't want anything less than what you can give me."

"And what is that?" Suddenly Iphicles felt so tired that he was not sure he wanted to hear the answer. And yet it came as a shock for him - in its simplicity, predictability and senselessness.

"I want you back."

"You can't." He tried to sound patient and was afraid of hearing a cracked note in his voice. Oh Gods. It was exactly - as he used to dream, a fantasy so wild that he couldn't cut it off immediately: Ares wanted him, Ares explained everything, saying it was a mistake, a misunderstanding - made him believe it. And then a touch, a kiss - softness of Ares' hair under his hands, length of his cock in Iphicles' mouth... It was easier when these dreams turned into nightmares, sooner or later. Now it was not going to happen - now he had to get through with it all by himself.

"Why can't I?"

"It just doesn't work like that. Too many things changed - I changed. I am not an idiot any more who will eat from your hands for a kind word, a casual touch." He wished so hard Ares didn't know that it still was true - that even a single touch could become his undoing. Ares' hands holding his almost had made him forget everything he'd never stopped thinking about for ten years. "You taught me more than you probably were intended to. You told me once I should've learned to live with some things - will you be pleased to know that I did learn it? I also learned to know that no one could love me while I didn't love myself. But it was not the main thing I learned - and it was not you who taught me about it. I had Rena. She taught me how being loved differed from being used."

It seemed to him Ares flinched - but at the very next moment the dark stare was level again, fixed on his face, hard like a grip of hands.

"You want to say I am too late, Iphicles?" How dared he use his name like this - like a blade thrust in his heart, with all the velvet softness of it. He preferred 'fool' much better. "I don't think so. I think nothing is too late. And now is as good a moment as ever."

"Why?" Iphicles' voice rose dangerously and he tried to make it drop before it sounded hysterical. He saw something change in Ares' eyes, like Ares wanted to reach for him - and it was gone as Iphicles managed to continue sarcastically, not miserably. "Why now? Because I am a king, right? You didn't care for the feelings of a pathetic mercenary - but having a king among your consorts is a bit more flattering. Besides, having a king who jumps when you snap your fingers certainly makes the things easier when it comes to your domain. No need for intrigue, no pushing - just tell him to do it - and he'll do it!"

"Do you think I lack kings who jump when I snap my fingers?"

Iphicles threw his hand up to stop Ares - and was shocked almost mute when it worked, when Ares got silent, looking at him, little ripples going over his face. He was biting his lip, Iphicles realized suddenly; he had never seen Ares do it before...

He shook the thought away.

"Or is it just that you can't resign yourself to the idea that someone doesn't belong to you? I heard about Xena - oh no, I don't compare myself to her, Gods forbid. But having me back would certainly make you feel better about yourself, right?"

He regretted immediately saying it; getting Xena into it - he felt it was fighting dirty. He wondered if it was real or just seemed to him - the starker stillness on Ares' face - and reminded himself that it was his point - to hurt Ares - it was what he wanted. To try to hurt him, at least.

"You are wrong about this, Iphicles. Believe me, you are wrong."

How patient Ares was. He'd never been that patient before.

"I should believe you? Why? Don't you think it would be really *stupid* of me?"

He saw Ares' nostrils flare - and was not sure what was worse - the haunting, violent beauty of the god's face - or Ares' growing anger that could end badly; and Iphicles was afraid it wouldn't be a bolt that would kill or maim him - but just leaving.

Leaving? He wanted Ares to leave! He wanted it all the way.

"And why shouldn't you believe that I could change?" Iphicles could almost feel the effort Ares made to force his voice sound quiet, even. "Everyone can. You say you changed. Xena changed - Hercules changed her. Why do you deny this right to me?"

Oh yes, it was neat. Xena was like a double-edged blade - Xena who had been transformed by the meeting with his brother. While he, Iphicles, needed a divine intervention to save his sorry life from her.

"What is this change, then? Such a sudden one. You had centuries of becoming who you are, Ares. I won't let myself be so deluded as to believe that you've become different for me."

"Centuries?" Something happened. He missed Ares' motion, realized it when the god was already on him, his fingers digging into Iphicles' shoulders, his face like a mask of anger. "What do you know about me and what made me what I am? You can't imagine how it was!"

Iphicles heard his own gasp - and felt helplessly how Ares' closeness overwhelmed him, swept him away - his control, his ability to think. It was just like it had been all these years ago, when he dared think that he got to know something about Ares that others didn't know - his vulnerability, his pain and anger at being mistreated or rejected, whether it was justified or not. After all, it was what Iphicles knew so well, felt for so many years. And when he'd held Ares' head on his chest, stroking Ares' soft hair - he used to feel like his arms was the only protection he could give to the God of War - and like the God of War needed it.

He felt it again - this instinctive wish to hold Ares and protect him; no matter that the sane part of his mind told him how presumptuous - ridiculous - it was. He did it before he could think - first wrapped his arms around Ares, pulling him closer, pulling himself on his knees - to bring their bodies together. And then held Ares' face - locked their mouths, kissed the soft lips feverishly, violently - losing himself into it as the strong familiar arms folded around his waist and Ares' tongue thrust against his eagerly.

How could he have lived without it for so long? How could he think about living without it?

Iphicles was vaguely aware that the clenched arms around him relaxed gradually, not trying to crash him any more but staying like a warm ring, holding him almost gently. He pulled back slightly - just their lips touched now - and kissed Ares' mouth again, before letting go.

"Iphicles," Ares' voice was so husky, driving him into despair with its softness. "You want it as much as I do."

Iphicles wished he could lie flatly about it. But his hand was still on Ares' cheek - and it burned, it felt like his bones were melting. Not the pain he knew so well - but a more tormenting, intolerable one. He took his hand away - it almost broke him but he did. And was shaken with the expression in Ares' eyes. Was it... suffering?

Ares' voice was almost soundless, a murmur, nothing more:

"Why are you doing that... to yourself? To us?"

There is no 'us', Iphicles wanted to say and felt too tired of that - of arguing, of lying. Ares could lie to him - could lie in his words and in this killingly gentle, dangerously unarmed gaze of his. But he, Iphicles, didn't want to lie any more.

"You know what I couldn't forget about you all these years? You were real. Don't make yourself become a fake now, Iphicles - fake like your fake prayers."

"I said I wouldn't do it again - I would pray normally to you." A part of him was astonished with what he was saying - so far from what he felt, so absurd - yet he went on unfalteringly. "Is it enough for you?"

"No! It's not fuckin' enough!"

He thought he would be hit when he saw Ares' hand raised. And at the next moment a bolt came, a big vase in the corner crumbled on the floor with an angered non-melodic sound. Iphicles heard how his guards behind the door rushed on their feet, a clanking of metal as one of them must've dropped his weapon - and met Ares' angry, hurt stare full of strange expectation.

"Disappear," Iphicles whispered. "Now."

The flash of Ares' leaving dispersed a moment before two guards slammed the door open and stopped in the doorway, looking around the room alertly. Iphicles leaned back in the bed, meeting their eyes calmly, pointing at the shattered vase with his chin.

"It's okay, Nellias. You can go. And don't come in again."

They left muttering apologies - and he knew what they thought about. But well, a broken vase now and then was surely a lesser vice for a widower king than getting plastered in solitude or inviting hordes of wenches.

The thought brought a smile on his lips - but nothing else in him smiled -as he tried agonizingly not to think what would be if Ares didn't return; and Ares would hardly return, why should he - and why should Iphicles want him to return...

The silent glimmer of blue made him raise his eyes - and Ares was there, the curve of his mouth half-curious, half-exasperated.

"Who do you think you are, giving me orders like that? And why do you mind the God of War being spotted in your bedroom? Isn't it like - good for your image, huh? I know more than a handful of warlords who'd cut off their finger or two for a moment like this."

It was not that Iphicles found the idea so amusing - maybe, it was just the shaken state of his nerves that made him start laughing. And then he couldn't stop, feeling the wetness of tears in the corners of his eyes, trying to muffle the sound with his palm and failing. He felt Ares' eyes on himself - and it stopped him.

"You look so pretty when you laugh, Iphicles." Ares' voice was so serious. And the eyes. Making him feel trapped. Like a fly in honey. Sweet death. "You look so young - just like then."

"But nothing is... like then." For once he knew there was bitterness in his voice and couldn't fight it away. Then... there was everything in front of him - Rena, his reconciliation with Herc, his coming home, to his mother. Then he believed he was strong enough to live, not to drag himself through the life.

A little sound, a hiss made him look up - and he saw Ares' furious gaze, smoldering him down - pain and anger in it made Iphicles want to back away. And Ares' voice as he talked was distorted slightly, the low notes in it more pronounced than ever.

"And what can I do to make you trust me again? I can't undo what I did - I am not asking you to forget it, even. I just offer you another chance. How about that? Is it too little for you - to feel alive again? What do you want from me - to say 'I love you, Iphicles'?"

Ares stopped and looked furiously, waiting for a denial - and Iphicles felt bound to deny it - immediately, shielding himself away from accusing words. Then he didn't. It was not going to change anything. But telling the truth would at least leave him with a thought that he'd done it.

"Not only that," he said quietly. "But to feel it, too."

Ares' face went blank with surprise - Iphicles heard a soft sound of drawn-in breath - and then Ares was gone. Dissolved in the shadows. Just like that.

The emptiness of the bedroom shocked Iphicles into stillness. Like he'd never noticed before how huge and hollow it could be. He looked around like it was the first time he'd seen it - and felt a strange fear seeping into him. Too big. Too much space for one.

Agoraphobia - he remembered the name for this fear - and wanted to curl in a tight ball in his bed, wrap the quilt around himself and see nothing, hear nothing - not to think.

He fought it away - forced himself into control - like he'd done so often in his life. He got up and walked around the room, the shade of his own pale face in the polished shield on the wall catching his attention. He looked at the blurred vision of himself - the one that was not good enough to let him see the bitterness in the curve of his mouth that he knew was there and dead, dull expression in his eyes.

"You are really a fool, king of Corinth," he said to this reflection - and swept the shield on the floor.

The sound was deafening, reverberating through his ears even when the shield stopped bouncing against the floor - and Iphicles thought with a wry smile how convenient it was that he'd forbidden his guards to come in any more. A good time for some rampage, wasn't it?

He looked around dizzily, the glasses and plates on the low table attracting his attention - and next thing they were on the floor, fruits rolling away from the shards of glass. He took another vase, matching the one Ares had smashed - and hit its bottom against the floor, feeling how the thing crumbled in his palms - having handfuls of chips instead of a whole thing. It always comes to that, he thought, first whole... then nothing.

And it felt good - to break; how come he hadn't realized it before? He could make a habit out of it, if anything, he thought. Another sleepless night would become much more tolerable thanks to a few murdered vases. Well, at least there was something he could thank Ares for.

Ares... no, it was not a good idea. Pain exploded in his head before he could gain control - pain so sharp that biting his lips didn't help. He hit the table with both his fists, hoping that the familiar pain in his bones would blunt the new one.

A sharp sting in his hand sobered him somehow. He turned it palm upwards - and looked at the long splinter sticking out of it, blood trickling sluggishly from under the glass. He pulled it out, wincing slightly, and the trickle pulsed harder, filling his cupped palm, dripping on the floor.

Oh yes, it was supposed to work. And how often would he have to do it now - before he'd manage to re-acquire at least the imaginary composure he'd had before this night? And what for would he do it? He'd paid for ten years for letting himself believe once - and now was he going to pay for not letting himself believe? For asking himself again and again whether Ares was telling the truth this time?

And what if he didn't? Iphicles couldn't know if Ares really changed; as much as he wanted to believe in it, he still couldn't *know* it. He couldn't know if Ares really wanted him - beyond physical want, that is - if Ares needed him. But if Ares was going to give him at least one chance to love him...

It was what he wanted desperately - to love Ares. Ares was wrong - hatred was not the strongest thing in the world. And if Ares did need him - he was going to be there for Ares.

"I love you," Iphicles whispered and knew that now, with these words said, he would never be able to deny it. "If you can't say you love me, it's okay. If you can't love me, it's okay, too. If you just play your games with me - I can handle it. I'm strong now, I won't break if you try to hurt me. I just want to be with you. Even for a short while."

Even once.


It was just a heartbeat - and then the god was back there, looking at him almost cautiously.

"Now you call for me."

He nodded, feeling drunk and dizzy with the decision he'd made, with his frightening happiness at that.

"So, do you need me?"

He nodded again - and raised his hand with a shaky, reluctant smile plastered on his lips.

"I need your help."

He caught a tense, suspicious gaze of Ares - and saw how Ares' dark eyes became blazingly warm at last, sparkling with quiet humor.

"Ooh yes," Ares' strong fingers wrapped around his wrist, warm, careful - and solid - able to hold him as long as he needed. "We have to take care of that now, before you bleed to death."

And the next thing Iphicles knew was that he was back in the bed, his arms trapped between his body and Ares' - and Ares' arms were around him, held him, cradled him, a hand under his head pulled him closer. He found Ares' lips that opened for him - gained his way in - and decided that this time he wouldn't let go - ever.

It was Ares who pulled away, after what could be minutes or hours - Iphicles had no idea how long exactly. Ares rose over Iphicles, his body stretched along Iphicles' so neatly and every point where they touched making Iphicles feel the warmth spread through him.

"Shall I make them disappear?" Ares' voice was tingling against the place under Iphicles' ear, making him arch and shiver involuntarily.

"What?" It came as a moan - and Ares laughed, shaking his head, making a strand of his hair fall across Iphicles' cheek - and Iphicles thought suddenly that it was just like in his dreams... only please, please don't let it stop now!

"Clothes, stupid mortal."

"Yes..." Oh yes... Ares was doing it again. Making their garments go away - not momentarily - but as if the material was fraying between them slowly, a little more heat, a little closer with every moment.

"I missed you, Iphicles." He felt the warmth of breath against his neck, rather guessed than heard the words. Oh, how I missed you, too, Ares. "I missed being inside you."

Then do it now. Because he was not sure he could wait for a moment longer. And he knew one thing very clearly: what he'd just done - whatever it was going to bring him - it was worth it. He would not regret it.

"I belong to you, Ares," he said wrapping his legs around Ares' waist. "I'll always be yours."


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