This is a sequel to my story "Emotionally Yours," and will make no sense whatsoever if read on its own. It picks up right after "EY" leaves off, which conveniently puts it before any of the events of this season, so I don't have to worry about that continuity mess yet.
Disclaimer: The usual. Iphicles, Iolaus, Hercules, and all other characters and concepts from Hercules: the Legendary Journeys belong to Renaissance Pictures. I don't own them, I have no permission to use them, I'm only having fun and making no money at all.
"You have to wake up."
"I do? Why?"
"Because it's morning."
"So?" Iolaus opened one eye, and cast a skeptical glance about the room. "Liar. You can't fool me, it's not morning if it's still dark."
"That's because the curtains are drawn." Iphicles climbed out of bed and padded over to the window to remedy the situation.
"Argh." Iolaus burrowed his face into the pillow as light flooded the room. It was no good. He was awake now. He sat up with a groan, and was rewarded with the sight of the King of Corinth standing naked in a warm spill of sunlight that highlighted his hair and turned his skin to burnished gold. Iphicles yawned, lifted his arms, and arched his back, looking rather like a large, contented cat. A part of Iolaus -- a very insistent part -- decided that maybe mornings could be a good thing.
Still, some grumbling was required, as a matter of form.
"It's a family trait, isn't? This... disgusting morning cheerfulness. You and Herc both. It's unnatural, I tell you."
"It's not that early," Iphicles said mildly. "Hercules has probably been up for hours. And you don't really have to get up." He returned to the bed, but did not get back under the covers, frustrating Iolaus' hopes. Instead he sat at the edge of the mattress, and leaned forward to brush a light kiss across Iolaus' lips. "But I do, unfortunately. The business of running the country, and all that. I just didn't want you to wake up alone."
He stood up again, and went into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. A moment later, Iolaus heard the sound of splashing water. The last traces of sleep fled. He flung the covers off and got up.
The bathroom was all smooth, blue-veined marble except for the floor, which was cedar planks. The huge sunken tub was disappointingly empty. Iphicles stood by the washstand, scrubbing his face with a towel.
"Gee," Iolaus muttered. "And there I thought the King of Corinth would get to have a nice, steaming bath every morning."
"Only if I'm willing to put up with a parade of bucket-toting servants every morning." Iphicles sighed and draped the towel over the edge of the basin. "I tried it. It wasn't worth it."
The hair framing his face was damp. A few drops of water glistened on his chest. Iolaus reached out to brush one off, and was caught off-guard by the intensity of his own reaction. Such slight contact, a brush of fingertip across collarbone. But it sent a jolt through him, eerily similar to the time he was struck by lightning. With anyone else, he might've put it down to his usual morning-after horniness. But this was Iphicles, and everything was different.
Iphicles felt it too, if his heightened color and rapid breathing were any indication. He caught Iolaus' hand in his, and pressed it to his cheek for a moment before letting go.
"I have to get dressed," he said.
"Can't it wait a little?" Iolaus reached for him, but Iphicles stepped around him and headed for the door.
"I'm afraid not."
"Awww, you're no fun..."
They went back into the bedroom. Iolaus sat on the bed and watched Iphicles get dressed. He was struck by the absence of servants. During his own brief stint as a king in Attica, Iolaus had been nearly driven mad by attendants who wanted to bathe him, dress him, comb his hair, clean his nails... he'd been afraid to enter the privy for fear that someone would be in there offering to hold his cock while he pissed. But then, the servants in Attica had been accustomed to waiting on Orestes, who probably did need his cock held. Corinthian servants would've been trained by Jason, who'd always taken care of himself. And Iphicles was obviously continuing the tradition of royal self-sufficiency.
He stood in front of the full-length mirror now, adjusting the folds of his cloak, looking so regal Iolaus wanted to stand up and bow. And so beautiful, he wanted to jump up and rip those clothes right off him.
Iphicles turned away from the mirror and walked over to stand in front of Iolaus, reaching down to grab his hands.
"I'm sorry. I feel like I'm running out on you. Believe me, if I actually had a choice between hearing petitions from the trade guilds and staying here with you, I'd never leave this room again. But--"
"Iphicles. You don't have to apologize for doing your job. Go. I'll keep myself occupied. If nothing else, Herc's probably wondering where I've been all night." The thought brought a rush of heat to his face. Oh, Gods, I guess I'll have to tell him...
"I'll see you as soon as I can." Another quick kiss, a touch of fingers against his hair, and Iphicles was gone. Iolaus fell backwards onto the bed with a groan. His lips tingled. His cock throbbed. He lay there for a few minutes, staring at the blue velvet canopy overhead, and tried to think dull and unarousing thoughts, but his mind kept conjuring up visions of Iphicles' face, eyes closed, hair spread across the pillow, biting his lip as he came. The image stopped the breath in his throat and made him writhe helplessly against the sheets.
Iolaus closed his eyes and slid his hands down his stomach to his groin. His cock twitched as he wrapped his fingers around the shaft. He circled the swollen head with one thumb, tracing the path Iphicles' tongue had taken a few hours before. That memory alone was enough to push him over the edge, and he moaned softly as his hips bucked and a warm stream of semen sprayed across his chest.
Feeling somewhat relieved, if nowhere near satisfied, he climbed to his feet, determined to actually stay out of bed this time. The pitcher on the washstand still had some water left. Iolaus found a washcloth and soap and cleaned himself up, then dumped the remaining water over his head. That helped. A little.
The borrowed clothes he'd worn the night before lay crumpled on the floor by the bed. He picked them up, and was just about to get dressed when someone knocked softly on the door.
Iolaus snatched the blanket off the bed and draped it around his hips.
"Who is it?"
The door swung open. A tall, portly man in livery bustled in, carrying a small bundle in his arms. Iolaus glared at him.
"I didn't say come in."
"Sorry, sir." The servant stopped just inside the door and bowed. "His Majesty suggested you might want your own clothes back." He held out the bundle -- Iolaus' vest and trousers, neatly folded and the cleanest they've been in a long time.
"Uhm, thanks." Iolaus' hands were busy holding the blanket in place. He gestured with his chin toward the nearest chair. "Put them over there, please."
"Certainly, sir." The man put the clothes down and bowed out of the room, his expression perfectly neutral. Iolaus was fairly certain that within the hour, every servant in the palace would know whom the King had fucked the night before. With a resigned sigh, he put his clothes on, and went off to look for Hercules.
He returned to the guest suite to find Hercules already gone. Two maids were clearing away the remains of what looked like a very large breakfast. They blushed and giggled when Iolaus greeted them, but women did that a lot, so he decided not to read anything into it. They managed to stop giggling long enough to tell him that Hercules had gone for a walk in the Palace gardens, so Iolaus went out again, pausing to snag a couple of left-over pastries from the breakfast tray.
Hercules was sitting on a bench by the water lily pond, making nice to the gardener's cat. He looked up as Iolaus approached, his face expressionless.
"Good morning, Iolaus."
"Uhm... morning, Herc." It had never occurred to Iolaus that a simple exchange of greetings with his best friend could ever feel so awkward. Fortunately, the cat picked this moment to wander over and inspect the new arrival. Iolaus bent down to scratch it behind the ears, thus winning a few moments to regain his composure. By the time he sat down on the bench next to Hercules, he had his face and voice more or less under control. "Sorry I didn't come in last night. I was a little... occupied."
Something in the tone of Hercules' voice made Iolaus look up with a start.
Hercules shrugged, looking slightly chagrined. "I got worried when you didn't come back from your walk, so I thought I'd go find Iphicles, and we'd look for you together. I walked right up to his door, and I... uhm... heard you two."
Iolaus felt his face grow warm. "I guess we did get a little noisy, didn't we?"
"Just a bit."
"So how do you feel about it?"
Hercules gave him a wry smile. "About the noise?"
"No, stupid! About me and Iphicles."
Hercules considered the question in silence for some time.
"Surprised, mostly," he finally said. "And a little weirded out, I guess. It's like when Mother said she was going to marry Jason. Two people I've known forever suddenly have this entirely new connection I've never even considered. It's strange."
"Yeah, well." Iolaus ran one hand through his hair. "It kind of snuck up on me, too."
Hercules made no reply to that, and Iolaus found he had nothing to add. The two men sat side by side in increasingly uncomfortable silence. The cat, finding itself no longer at the center of attention, gave an offended little sniff and stalked away. Iolaus was beginning to consider following it, when Hercules suddenly spoke again.
"Please don't take this the wrong way. I don't mean to butt in or anything, but... It's only been a few months since Rena died, and now Mother... I think Iphicles is... a little vulnerable right now."
"I know," Iolaus said softly. "I was with him the night after Alcmene died."
And you weren't. The unspoken reproach hung in the air between them. Hercules winced and looked away for a moment.
"All I'm saying is, you should consider the possibility that this will mean more to him than it does to you. I know you wouldn't hurt him on purpose--"
"Whoa! Wait a minute!" Iolaus stared at his friend in wide-eyed disbelief as the tenor of the conversation began to sink in. "What are you saying, you think I seduced him for a lark?"
"You tell me." Hercules regarded him steadily. "Did you?"
"No! And I can't believe you'd even suggest it!"
"Why not?" Hercules demanded. "Iolaus, this is me, remember? The guy who's always being woken up by you stumbling in at some ungodly hour with your clothes all mussed, saying 'hey, Herc, you're not gonna believe the great time I just had.' So you'll forgive me if I'm a little concerned, all right?"
Iolaus glared at him. "Are you saying I sleep around?"
"Are you saying you don't?"
"I--" Iolaus began, then broke off. In all honesty, he had to admit that Hercules had a point. "Okay, I'm not saying I don't. But this is different."
Iolaus felt a flash of irritation, but it didn't last. The entire conversation was getting too ridiculous for sustained anger. He looked at Hercules' sober, earnest face, and began to laugh.
Hercules frowned, obviously taken aback by this reaction.
"What's so funny?" He grumbled.
"You are," Iolaus managed to gasp in between whoops. "You've just reminded me exactly why I usually avoid the fathers and brothers of people I sleep with. They always go all solemn, and want to know my intentions. And now you're doing it, too." He collapsed helplessly against the back of the bench, shaking with laughter.
For a moment, Hercules just sat and stared at him with an incredulous expression on his face. Then he, too, began to grin. He didn't actually laugh, but the look in his eyes made it clear that he was beginning to appreciate Iolaus' view of the situation.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I don't mean to go all protective and brotherly. I'm just concerned, that's all. For both of you."
"I know, Herc." Iolaus stopped laughing with an effort. "It's all right. But I wouldn't hurt Iphicles for the world, I give you my word on it. Can you accept that?" He held out his hand.
Hercules took it without hesitation. "Your word's always been good enough for me, Iolaus. You know that."
"Fine. I'm glad we've got that settled. Now can we please talk about something other than my love life? This is getting embarrassing."
"More wine, m'lord?"
"No, thank you." Hercules shook his head, and the servant shuffled off, deftly balancing the wine jug on one shoulder. Hercules went back to picking at his food, wondering if Iphicles and Iolaus would consider him rude if he just got up and left the table. He had a feeling they wouldn't even notice.
This was, he thought wryly, one of the most uncomfortable meals he'd ever sat through, and not just because of the servants' stubborn insistence on calling him "lord." There were no courtiers at the table with them, no foreign or local dignitaries to be entertained, no ministers or advisors talking business. Just a relaxed, private dinner for three. At least that's how it was supposed to be. In practice, it turned out to be an intimate, romantic dinner for two. And one extra.
It's not that they were intentionally ignoring him. They've made every effort to include him in the conversation. Just a minute ago Iphicles had asked him, with every appearance of sincere interest, what Olympus had been like. And Iolaus, who'd already heard the story, seemed perfectly willing to listen to it again. But even as he'd started talking, he could see their attention drifting away from him and toward each other.
Part of him resented it. He was not perfect, despite occasional accusations to the contrary. But the resentment seemed like a small and petty thing when he watched their faces across the table. To someone who didn't know him well, Iolaus would've probably seemed much the same as usual, if a little quiet. But Hercules could see brimming happiness in his friend's eyes, the barely contained energy in his movements. And Iphicles... Iphicles looked as if he'd been handed something infinitely precious and fragile, and he was torn between the joy of possessing it and fear that it would break. He wouldn't take his eyes off Iolaus for more than a few seconds at a time. And every now and then he would reach out, for no particular reason, and touch Iolaus' hand, or his hair, or his face, as if to reassure himself that he was really there. Hercules could practically see the sparks jumping at every touch.
Enough. It was time to stop intruding. Hercules pushed his chair back.
"I'm really tired," he announced, and faked a yawn. He'd done nothing during the day that would actually warrant him being tired so early in the evening, but he knew that wouldn't matter. "I think I'll call it a night."
He waved off their half-hearted protests with a laugh, and rose from his chair just as more servants came bustling in with the dessert course. As he stepped aside to let them enter, he caught a last glimpse of Iphicles raising Iolaus' hand to his lips, and of Iolaus closing his eyes and drawing in a sharp breath at the caress.
For the first time, Hercules began to consider the possibility that he might be leaving Corinth alone.
Iolaus had to force himself to keep to a steady pace as he walked down the corridor to the royal quarters. He wanted to run. He felt as if he had been running, his heart was beating so fast.
"Fifteen minutes," Iphicles had whispered as the servants were clearing away the plates. "Then come to my rooms."
It had been the longest fifteen minutes of Iolaus' life.
The two guards at the door faced front, expressionless, taking no notice of his approach. They looked like statues. Iolaus couldn't even tell if they were the same two guys he'd scuffled with the night before. He gave them a little apologetic wave as he entered, just in case. Then he shut the door behind him, and promptly forgot their existence.
"Iphicles?" He looked around. A single candle burned on the bedside table. The bedcovers were turned down. Iphicles' clothes were draped carelessly over the back of an armchair near the window. Iphicles himself was nowhere in sight. "Where are you?"
"In here." A soft murmur, followed by an even softer splash. Iolaus' face broke into a lopsided grin.
"I was hoping you'd say that." He pushed open the bathroom door.
A dozen tall candles filled the room with light, casting flickering amber reflections in the smooth marble walls, the shimmering surface of the bathwater, the hooded dark eyes of the man kneeling at the center of the tub. Iolaus, frozen in the doorway, felt rather like a candle himself, in imminent danger of melting.
Iphicles' hair was slicked back, and water trickled down his torso in gleaming rivulets. He dipped one cupped hand into the tub, arched his back slightly, and poured another stream down his chest. Iolaus' mesmerized gaze tracked one fat drop as it traced a path down one broad pectoral to come to a quivering stop at the tight peak of a nipple. This is what he was reduced to -- envying a water drop. Gods, I've got it bad...
"Come on in." Iphicles leaned forward to brace his hands against the edge of the tub, and tilted his head back to meet Iolaus' eyes. "The water's fine."
There was a wooden bench against the wall to his right. Iolaus sat down to undress, not trusting his legs to hold him up. He was sweating under his vest, and his pants were in serious danger of splitting apart at the seam. His hands were trembling. Perfectly simple actions, like pulling off his boots, seemed to take forever.
"Need some help?" Iphicles asked, his voice far too innocent to be convincing.
Iolaus grit his teeth. "No thanks, I'm fine."
Finally, the boots surrendered and came off, followed by vest and trousers. With a long sigh of relief, Iolaus slipped off the bench, down to the floor, and into the tub in one smooth motion.
The water lapped at his legs, hot and soothing. Iolaus took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and ducked down beneath the surface. He stayed there for a few moments to let the warmth soak in, then stood up again, and brushed his dripping hair back with both hands. It felt wonderful, but not nearly as welcome as the strong arms that encircled his waist, or the warm body that pressed against his.
"I missed you," Iphicles whispered. With him kneeling and Iolaus standing, he was at just the right height to rest his head against Iolaus' chest, and he did so, lightly brushing his lips against Iolaus' throat in the process. "I couldn't think of anything else all day."
"Yeah." Iolaus wrapped his arms around Iphicles' shoulders, returning the embrace. "Me neither."
Iphicles gave a soft chuckle. "Made it very hard to concentrate on the trade dispute with Pelosia, let me tell you. I had to keep asking the Pelosian envoy to repeat himself. Zeus only knows what the man must think of me..."
"Screw the Pelosian envoy. Better yet, let him go screw himself. You're mine now."
"I'm always yours," Iphicles said, and kissed him.
Iolaus shivered as Iphicles' tongue thrust into his mouth. He slid his hands across Iphicles' shoulders and along his arms, savoring the feel of sculpted muscle and water-slick skin beneath his fingers. Iphicles groaned, and the sound seemed to travel straight down to Iolaus' groin in a rush of molten heat. He pumped his hips so that his cock slid back and forth against Iphicles' stomach. Iphicles caught the motion and matched it, rocking his body in time with Iolaus' thrusts.
Iolaus' head was spinning. His cock was gliding against hard muscle and soft hair, and every nerve in his body was responding to the friction. He pulled his mouth away from Iphicles' and tipped his head back, gasping for breath, struggling for control. But Iphicles' hands were stroking the back of his thighs, and Iphicles' tongue lapped at his nipples, eagerly laving each one in turn, and control was a lost and unfamiliar concept. All Iolaus could do was to grip the King's shoulders for support, and let his body move as it willed.
Then Iphicles sat back on his heels, breaking their embrace, and lowered his head. Iolaus' protesting gasp turned into a moan of pleasure as soft, warm lips closed around his cock. It was all he could do to keep his legs from buckling.
Iphicles wrapped his fingers around Iolaus' shaft, stroking with a quick, smooth rhythm as he flicked his tongue back and forth against the tip. His eyes were closed. His hair floated on the surface of the water, fanning out behind him in a circle. His left hand caressed Iolaus' hip, traced the curve of his ass, trailed a feathery touch between his buttocks. Iolaus drew in a sharp, unsteady breath as a wet finger probed his anus.
"Yess..." He pulled Iphicles toward him and thrust his hips forward at the same time. Iphicles quickly moved his hand out of the way, and Iolaus buried his cock deep in his lover's hot, eager mouth. A shudder wracked his entire body as he came, trembling, crying out Iphicles' name in a voice he barely recognized as his own.
The climax seemed to take all his strength with it as it ebbed, leaving him panting and drained. Iolaus wiped the sweat from his forehead with an unsteady hand as he sank down into the water and rested his head against the edge of the tub.
"Wow," he muttered. "If this is how you greet me after a day's separation, I'm tempted to stay away for a couple of months just to see what happens."
"But you won't." Iphicles rested his head on Iolaus' shoulder and laid one hand lightly on Iolaus' chest. He was smiling, but Iolaus thought he heard a hint of uneasiness in his voice.
"I won't," he confirmed. "Heck, at this rate, it will take a couple of months before I can even move again."
"Good." Iphicles pulled him into another kiss.
Their first kiss had been urgent, almost desperate. This one was slow and leisurely, exploring rather than invading. Iolaus tangled his fingers in the wet strands of Iphicles' hair as he sucked the lingering traces of his own cum off Iphicles' tongue. A mellow warmth filled him, not so much arousal as contentment. Iphicles stroked his back, and Iolaus felt his muscles relax under that light touch, letting go of the memory of the day's frustrated waiting.
Then Iphicles shifted position slightly, and his erection pressed against Iolaus' hip. Iolaus felt a twinge of guilt. He had been too caught up in his own pleasure to consider his lover's. It was time to rectify the situation. He rose to his knees, and swung one leg across Iphicles' body so that he was straddling his lap.
Iphicles' eyes widened as he realized what Iolaus was doing.
"You don't have to--" he began.
"Shh." Iolaus laid one finger gently against his lips. "I want to." He wrapped one hand around the base of Iphicles' shaft, and slowly sank downward.
It hurt a little at first. He didn't do this often, and water was not the best lubricant in the world. But Iphicles kissed his throat, and circled his nipples with wet fingertips, which was enough to distract a man from the tortures of Tartarus. Iolaus arched his back and groaned his pleasure at the domed ceiling as he let his own weight bear him down. Pulsing heat filled him, transforming pain into pleasure. By the time his full weight rested in Iphicles' lap, his own cock was beginning to grow hard again. Iolaus reached down to encourage it, but Iphicles' hand was already there, offering all the encouragement he could stand. So Iolaus braced both hands against the edge of the tub and let his arms support most of his weight as he impaled himself on Iphicles' cock.
It was like no other feeling in the world, this dizzying sensation flaring outward from his center, flooding his veins with liquid flame. The water lapping at his skin felt cool by comparison. Iphicles' hand slid against his cock, each stroke sending a shudder through his entire body. His other hand flattened against Iolaus' back, pressing him closer as he pumped his hips to meet Iolaus' rhythmic thrusts.
Iolaus lowered his head to graze his teeth lightly against Iphicles' throat. If memory of the previous night served him, there was a sensitive spot right... about... there... He flicked his tongue against smooth skin, and Iphicles whimpered in response. Oh, yes... memory served him well...
Then Iphicles gasped and bucked beneath him, arching his body and digging his nails into Iolaus' back. Iolaus shuddered in response. He could feel Iphicles' cock pulsing inside him. His vision clouded and his arms went weak. He fell forward with a groan, clinging to his lover's body as his climax shook him.
Iphicles returned the embrace, holding him close, stroking his hair until his heart stopped racing and his breath no longer came in harsh gasps. After a while, Iolaus recovered enough to think that maybe he should move. He started to rise, but Iphicles would not let go, so he settled down again.
"Iphicles?" he murmured.
"You didn't do all this in fifteen minutes, did you? The bath and the candles and all?"
"Of course not." Iphicles laughed softly. "It takes more than an hour just to fill the tub. I arranged to have it done while we were at dinner."
"Why the delay, then?"
This time, there was a faint hint of embarrassment in the laughter. "I wanted to check it out first. Make sure everything was perfect."
"Oh." Iolaus was silent for a few moments, mulling over the information. "Iphicles?"
"Why are you trying so hard?"
Silence. Silence for so long, Iolaus began to think that he really shouldn't have asked. He was trying to think of a tactful way to withdraw the question, but Iphicles spoke first.
"I want to get this right." His voice was so soft it was almost a whisper. "Not just tonight, but everything. And in case you haven't noticed, I have a tendency to screw things up."
"Yeah, well." Iolaus gave a wry chuckle. "I don't have the world's best track record, either. But we'll work it out. You're not the only one who wants to get this right, you know?"
"That's good." Iphicles brushed a dripping lock of hair away from Iolaus' eyes, and kissed his forehead. "I figure between the two of us, we make one sensible person. So maybe there's hope after all."
"Iphicles!" Iolaus sat up, blinking in astonishment. "Did you just make a joke?"
"It's been known to happen... hey! Where are you going?"
Iolaus had hauled himself out of the tub, and was squelching his way toward the door. "I want to look out the window."
"To see if the moon is blue."
"Very funny. Come back here."
"Uh-uh. You come in here."
"'Cause this is where the bed is."
In the first hectic months after his coronation, Iphicles and Rena had often commiserated with each other about the complications of trying to govern a kingdom and sustain a marriage at the same time. But those difficulties, Iphicles now realized, were as nothing compared to the daunting task of trying to build a new relationship in the midst of a royal court. There were too many distractions, too little time, and absolutely no privacy.
Everyone knew. The servants, the guards, the courtiers, the resident diplomats and their bored, gossipy retinues. No one dared say anything to Iphicles' face, of course, and to an untrained observer the daily parade of faces would appear exactly the same as usual. But three years on the throne had made Iphicles into a very well-trained observer, and he amused himself at some of the duller royal occasions by trying to read people's reactions.
Some of the older lords and ladies clearly disapproved -- though he had no idea whether the problem lay in his choice of partner, the impropriety of taking a lover before the official mourning period for Rena was over, or some other cause entirely. Most of the servants seemed to think it terribly romantic. And everyone else mostly didn't give a shit.
Then there was Hercules. Iphicles wasn't sure what Hercules thought of the situation. He was being remarkably calm and even-tempered, even by his standards, and totally impossible to read. He had also developed a remarkable knack for disappearing with a facile excuse whenever Iphicles and Iolaus started to get demonstrative. Iphicles couldn't quite decide if he found this endearing or annoying.
Iolaus, much to his chagrin, found himself on the receiving end of a sudden influx of social invitations from people he'd never met. Most of them came from marginal court members, hoping to increase their influence by making friends with the royal favorite. The rest were from optimistic envoys and ambassadors -- hoping Iolaus might carelessly blurt out a state secret at the dinner table, no doubt.
"What am I supposed to do with all these?" Iolaus complained, spilling an armful of miniature scrolls onto the table where he and Iphicles were about to enjoy a private supper.
Iphicles glanced over the notes with a cursory eye. "What do you want to do?"
"I don't know. The deer hunt might be fun, but the dinner parties sound deathly boring."
"Depends on who's giving the party." Iphicles picked up one of the scrolls at random. "Oh, gods! Not Lord Sergius! Run while you can, Iolaus!"
"Oh? What's wrong with him?"
"Trust me. He was in charge of Civil Planning back when Jason was having the new sanitation system built. It was the biggest project he's ever worked on, and it's all he ever talks about. Sewers. Hours and hours and hours of endless details about sewers..." He shuddered.
"There, there." Iolaus patted his arm. "A traumatic experience, I take it?"
"Oh, yeah. If I wake up in a cold sweat tonight, babbling madly about drainage, you'll know why."
"All right then. No to Lord Sergius." Iolaus tossed the scroll in the general direction of the wastebasket. "What about all the others?"
Iphicles shrugged. "What do you want to know? I can tell you who's boring and who's amusing, but--"
"That's not what I mean. Will there be trouble at court if I start picking and choosing invitations? People getting jealous, that sort of thing? I don't want to make your life more complicated."
He looked so concerned. Iphicles resisted the urge to kiss him. That way lay spilled drinks and unfinished meals.
"Iolaus. There are a great many things making my life more complicated right now, but you're not one of them. It's bad enough I ignore you for most of the day, I'm not going to start telling you what to do when I'm not around. If you want to go on the deer hunt, go."
Iolaus appeared looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook his head. "Nah. If I accept one invitation, it'll be that much harder to politely say no to the others. Besides, most of them are for me only, and it would be really unfair to leave Herc sitting around by himself while I'm playing social butterfly."
The casual mention of Hercules triggered a mild attack of guilt in Iphicles. He'd all but ignored his brother over the past week. This was not the way to encourage repeat visits from his one remaining relative. So he cleared his schedule for an afternoon, had the kitchen staff pack a picnic, and he and Hercules went out riding in one of the royal preserves.
It proved to be an awkward outing. Hercules was inclined to reminisce about Alcmene. Understandable enough, Iphicles supposed. But he'd spend too much time away from home over the years. He couldn't match Hercules' endless stream of anecdotes. The conversation grew more and more one-sided, and finally lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. Iphicles was ready to resort to making remarks about the weather when Hercules abruptly changed the subject.
"Lord Titus came to see me yesterday."
"He did?" Titus was one of his financial advisors, an efficient accountant but a thoroughly unpleasant person. Iphicles couldn't imagine what he and Hercules would have to talk about. "What did he want?"
"Well... he didn't say it in so many words, but I gathered that he wants me to leave Corinth as soon as possible, and to take Iolaus with me."
"Did he now?" It wasn't surprising, really. Titus had been shooting disapproving glances at his King for days. "Did he say what his objection was?"
Hercules shook his head. "He never even really said that he had an objection. It was all just... hints."
"That's Titus for you. Well, then, did he hint what his objection was?"
Hercules gave a small, embarrassed smile. "He seems to think that Iolaus isn't high-class enough for the King of Corinth."
Insulting as it was, Iphicles found that his main reaction to the information was relief. "Is that all? It's all right, then."
Hercules looked at him as if he'd just grown another head. "Excuse me? What's so all right about it?"
"I thought Titus might've gotten it into his head that Iolaus was somehow a threat to his position. Or to national finances, which is the only other thing Titus gives a shit about. If he thought that, he might actually make trouble. But if it's only snobbism, he's unlikely to do more than complain and drop hints."
Hercules did not appear comforted by this. "He's not the only one who feels that way."
"Of course not." Iphicles shrugged. "The court is full of snobs. It's not that big a deal. As long as Iolaus doesn't involve himself in court intrigues, or start giving me policy advice, they won't rock the boat. And I don't see Iolaus taking a sudden interest in politics, do you?"
"No, but..." Hercules hesitated. He looked worried. More worried than Titus and his hints warranted, in Iphicles' opinion.
"What?" Iphicles snapped.
Hercules sighed. "Iphicles... it's all very well to dismiss it as snobbism, but it doesn't change the fact that a lot of people you have to work with every day are pretty unhappy with you right now. You can't just dismiss it and say, I'm King, I'll do anything I want--"
The mild annoyance Iphicles had been feeling with the conversation flared into full-blown anger.
"Dammit, Hercules, for once in your life, can't you at least pretend you don't think I'm an idiot?"
"I've been King for three years. You think I don't understand how my own Court works? You think I haven't learned the rules I have to live by? You think I can't tell the difference between the sort of dissent that makes people gossip in corners, and the sort that actually interferes with my job?"
"That's not what I--"
"I know what I'm facing here, Hercules. Far better than you do. Don't lecture me."
Hercules raised his eyes to the sky in that familiar grant-me-patience look that made Iphicles want to strangle him. But all he said was, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to lecture. It's just that I see you and Iolaus together, and you seem so happy... I don't want anything to mess it up for you."
"The thing most likely to mess it up right now," Iphicles snapped, "is a quarrel between you and me, with Iolaus stuck in the middle. So can we change the subject?"
Hercules looked as if he had a great deal more to say, but he managed to contain it.
"Fine," he sighed. "If you insist. Nice weather we're having, huh?"
Aside from that one discordant note, life was... well, if not perfect, than pretty damn good. Spurred by a determination to get each day's work over with as early as possible, Iphicles threw himself into his duties with an energy that astounded his advisors. He hammered out a new trade treaty with Pelosia, resolved a dispute between the Shipwrights' Guild and the lumber merchants, caught up on mountains of long-postponed correspondence. And in the evenings, his lover was there, offering golden rewards for a long day's effort.
It was wonderful. It was everything he'd ever wanted. It lasted three whole weeks before reality came crashing down. It came in the unassuming form of a messenger, bearing a letter for Hercules.
"It's from Xena." Hercules frowned in concern as he scanned the letter. "There's been an earthquake in northern Thessaly. Most of the countryside is leveled."
"Shit." Iolaus stood behind Hercules' chair to read over his shoulder. "Are she and Gabrielle all right?"
"Yes, but they have their hands full. Apparently, the quake started a forest fire, and it's spreading. They've been fighting for over a week, with no luck."
"Over two weeks, by now, given how long it took the messenger to reach you." Iolaus shook his head, looking grim. "It's been a dry summer, too. The trees will be going up like kindling."
"We'd better--" Hercules began, then stopped. He looked at the Iolaus, then at Iphicles, then at the letter in his hand. "I'd better leave tonight."
A tense silence fell on the room. Iolaus looked as if he was being torn in two. Iphicles couldn't speak. He could barely breathe. I should've known this would happen. But of course he had known. He'd just chosen not to think about it, that's all. And now three weeks' worth of denial were catching up to him all at once.
"If you wait until morning," he heard himself saying, "I can get a relief shipment together. Food, medical supplies, that sort of thing. It would be safer with you escorting it." His own voice sounded strange to him, like someone else speaking from a distance.
Hercules nodded. "That's a good idea. I'll go and... start packing." He left Xena's letter on the table, and hurried out of the room before either Iphicles or Iolaus could point out that he had nothing to pack.
His absence did nothing to lessen the tension. Iolaus shifted from foot to foot, uncharacteristically silent. He seemed unable to tear his eyes away from the roll of parchment on the table. Iphicles had never seen him looking quite so miserable.
Well, somebody had to say it. Iphicles took a deep breath.
"You want to go with him, don't you?"
Damn. That didn't come out the way he'd meant it to. He'd wanted to sound encouraging, or at least neutral. Not jealous, or resentful, or possessive. But he was feeling a thousand emotions at once, and all the wrong ones were coming through in his voice. Iolaus finally looked up at him, but his eyes were uneasy.
"I want..." He shook his head and sighed. "I want to be in two places at once. But I can't."
"So which is it, then? Are you going or staying?"
"Iphicles... you know it's bad, if Xena's asking for help. I've seen enough disasters in my life to know what it's like. It's not just the quake, or the fire. This kind of situation, it brings out the worst in a lot of people. There will be looters and thieves crawling out of the woodwork, ordinary folks fighting over scraps to feed their children... a bloody mess, that's what it will be."
"And you want to throw yourself in the middle of it."
"I can help," Iolaus said simply.
"You can get yourself killed!" Iphicles blurted out before could stop himself. He was shaking. Iolaus could die, miles away in Thessaly, and he wouldn't be there, he wouldn't even know until days later. He couldn't do this, couldn't let him go, not after Mother and Rena, it was too much to ask, there had to be a limit somewhere, he couldn't...
"Yes," Iolaus admitted. "I could. So could Herc, and Xena, and Gabrielle. But this is what we do. It may not be a job in the proper sense of the word, but it's what I've built my life around."
"Can't you--" Iphicles bit his lip before he could complete the question. Iolaus understood, though.
"Can't I stay just this once? I suppose I could. Would the next time be any easier?"
Iphicles said nothing. What was there to say? Iolaus' eyes were sympathetic, understanding, and utterly determined. He reached out, and Iphicles staggered back a step, just out of reach. It would hurt too much, to be touched now. Or rather, it would hurt too much to let go.
It was a mistake, of course. He couldn't seem to do anything right this morning. A look of hurt at the apparent rejection flashed across Iolaus' face, and was quickly masked.
"Iphicles, what do you want me to do?"
"Does it matter?" Iphicles demanded harshly.
"Of course it matters. I told you, you're not the only one who wants to get this right. If you really need me to stay, I'll stay."
"Just this once?"
Iolaus closed his eyes for a moment, looking tired. "As long as it takes."
Yes! Stay forever. The words rang in Iphicles' head. Live in the palace, a kept lover, safe if not free. Give up your friendship with my brother. Give up your life's work. Give up everything you are, so that I can rest easy at night.
He drew Iolaus into his arms, pressing the blond head against his shoulder, stroking the tangled curls with an unsteady hand.
"Be careful," he whispered. "And send word when you can."
There. That wasn't so bad. He might even grow accustomed to it, given a century or two.
They held each other for a long time, neither man willing to let go. Iphicles closed his eyes, shutting out everything except the steady beat of Iolaus' heart, the scent of his hair, the warm, strong feel of his body in Iphicles' arms. He committed each sensation to memory, an anodyne for the nights ahead.
"You want to thank me? Come back safe."
"Well...all right. If you insist."
"I do insist. Consider it a royal decree."
Iolaus looked up at him, grinning. "Your Majesty's word is my command."
"Yeah, sure." Iphicles kissed him. "That's what they all say."
They left at sunrise, Hercules smiling and cheerful, Iolaus grumpy and yawning. Iphicles provided them with horses and travel rations, despite Hercules' protests. Now he watched them from the window, two dark silhouettes against the morning sky, growing steadily smaller as their distance increased. The palace seemed suddenly empty, despite the scurrying servants, the hovering advisors, the parade of daily petitioners who even now would be gathering in the throne room.
"Remember, Iolaus," he whispered. "You promised. Come back safe."
"My lord?" An obsequious voice claimed his attention, making him turn toward the door. His steward bustled in, bowing and scraping, clutching a fat scroll under one arm. "I have your list of morning appointments, if you'd care to go over the schedule--"
"Later." Iphicles faced the window again, but Iolaus and Hercules were gone from sight, blocked by a line of cypress trees bordering the curving road. With a little more force than strictly necessary, Iphicles pulled the shutters closed, took the scroll from the steward's outstretched hand, and let the day's routine claim his scattered thoughts.