Author: atara
Story Title: Idylls of the Conqueror: Part Two
Characters: Xena/Gabrielle, Hercules/Iolaus, [AU]Iolaus/Ares, Xena the Conqueror/[AU]Gabrielle, [AU]Gabrielle/[AU]Callisto, Xena the Conqueror & Hercules, (Xena & Hercules)
Rating: NC-17
Summary: Ares has plans on how to exact revenge on Hercules.
This rating is for explicit f/f, m/m, and m/f sex and for bdsm.

See disclaimers in Part 1


Idylls of the Conqueror: Part Two
by atara

Chapter 7

The next morning, everyone was up early, preparing to travel to set up camp and meet Caesar's advance force. Hercules had to admire the efficiency of Xena's operation. She and Callisto and her other lieutenants all had their designated roles, and Xena had her personal magnetism at full power, as she gave orders in a quiet voice that somehow carried wherever she needed. And those orders were obeyed instantly and impeccably the first time around; everyone knew that Xena meant business, and no one wanted to anger or disappoint her. Hercules was again dismayed at how susceptible he himself was to that commanding tone, but knew he had better things to do than worry about it, and helped load weapons and supplies until he was summoned to join Xena's party and ride out with her.

When they arrived at the coast, a camp was set up, again, with practiced efficiency. Xena particularly oversaw the healer's tent, doublechecking the availability of bandages and herbal preparations. Callisto occasionally cast curious looks toward Hercules, but she had plenty to keep her occupied, and Xena didn't bother explaining herself unless she had a reason. By all indications, Caesar's soldiers would be landing early the next morning. Hercules insisted on staying close to Xena, suspicious of assassins, and Xena rolled her eyes in exasperation. "All right then, slave boy," she had hissed, "you can wait on us during dinner."

Hercules merely bowed his head in assent and silently served during Xena's dinner meeting with her lieutenants. Again, she radiated power and authority, and Hercules, who thwarted the gods every chance he got and was a demigod himself, found himself in awe. That she had selected *him* as a bed partner seemed to him an unparalleled honor, and as she spoke to her officers, he thrilled at the memory of her hands and her knife on his body. While she listened carefully to the others' suggestions, she made absolutely clear that her word was absolute. Unlike the warlord Xena he had first encountered in his time, who was a creature of rage and impulse, *this* Xena was in complete control. The respect her lieutenants had for her was evident; every one of them gave the impression that dying in battle for *her* would be a privilege. They would do everything in their power not to let her down.

After the others left, Callisto lingered, jerking her head toward Hercules. "He's fighting for us, Callisto," said Xena curtly. "You'd be surprised at his abilities."

"Uh-*huh*," said Callisto, looking Hercules up and down and bowing to Xena before taking her leave.

"I want you to get some sleep," Xena said to him. "I have guards watching my tent."

"Yes, my lady," her murmured, settling a sleeping mat near the tent's flap. Anyone entering would have to go through him. Anyone but Ares, that is. A flash of light announced the arrival of the god, who was accompanied by Iolaus this time.

Hercules had to stop himself from gasping Iolaus' name, but Iolaus just looked slightly surprised, recognizing Hercules from the temple, and said "Hi! How ya doing? You're with the Conqueror now, huh? Lucky break."

Remembering some basic rules of hospitality, Hercules offered Iolaus something to eat and drink and forced himself to make light conversation with him, noting that he had the same bland and placid demeanor he had displayed at Ares' temple. But there was a massive lump in his chest, and he ached to see this Iolaus, so different from his own golden lover.

Ares acted as if he didn't even exist, reminding Xena of the size of Caesar's forces and giving her advice, which she listened to with a slightly bored expression on her face. *So that's where she gets her information,* thought Hercules to himself, while the warlord and the god discussed strategy.

When the discussion was over, Ares ran a casually possessive hand down Iolaus' back and over his ass, saying, "C'mon, boy," before they vanished.

Hercules couldn't prevent a flash of pain from flaring on his face, while Xena studied him impassively. "Something tells me you and the war god have a history," she remarked.

"We do," said Hercules softly.

"You turn out more interesting by the day, slave boy. And I want to hear all about it--after we get back home. Right now I have a battle to think about."

"Of course, my lady."

* * *

Xena had no cause to regret bringing Hercules. While she rode among Caesar's troops like a whirlwind, sword flashing and hair flying, he mowed down soldiers like a juggernaut, steadily incapacitating one soldier after another, cracking heads together, sending soldiers flying backward across the battlefield with powerful blows or kicks, and using their own weapons against them, grabbing a spear from one man and using it to knock out four soldiers at a time. Xena's warriors fought well, although they were pressed by Caesar's, and Xena and Callisto seemed to be everywhere at once, bolstering confidence, shouting commands, and backing up cornered warriors. Hercules' fighting deflected some of the attention from Xena, which was his intention. Of course, she was still the principal target. At one point he grabbed a spear that was speeding right toward Xena and hurled it back to the unfortunate soldier who threw it, cutting off his short career and his life at the same time. Xena, meanwhile, threw her chakram toward a huddle of Roman soldiers, knocking them flat and forcing them to drop their shields.

As the fighting got close, Xena vaulted off her horse with an "Alalalalalala!" disabling soldiers with spinning kicks and driving elbows. Hercules waded toward her, plowing soldiers out of his way. He watched Xena react intuitively to a soldier coming up behind her, as she drew her sword and jabbed it sharply backward into the man's stomach. She jerked it out and drove it into another attacker, deftly getting around his shield, then using her foot to shove his body off her sword. Hercules picked up one soldier and flung him, using him to knock down several others in his path, allowing Xena's warriors easy pickings from the downed men. He was charged by several soldiers with swords and drew his own--Xena had insisted he carry a weapon--and blocked and jabbed and parried, his sword clashing against their shields. They were professionals, and one of them gave him a fairly deep gash in the side before he had them all disarmed and knocked unconscious, except for the one that died from a chakram slicing across his throat.

Suddenly Xena yelled, "Hercules! Over there! Go help Callisto, NOW!" She herself was working her way toward the commander of Caesar's forces, and Hercules hesitated a fraction of a second. But he had promised to obey orders. Callisto was surrounded by a large group of men and was in trouble, although she was doing considerable damage. Hercules snatched a bow and arrows from a dead Greek warrior. Swiftly fitting the arrow and pulling back the bowstring, he shot one of Callisto's attackers and then another and then another when he ran out of arrows. He ran toward the now-diminished group, swinging the bow like a club, felling another pair of soldiers. More approached, but he flung them out of the way. Callisto knocked down another with a flying kick and a shriek, and filled with fury, beheaded another with her sword.

"Thanks, slave boy," she said to Hercules dryly. "I owe you one."

"My pleasure," he answered grimly. They fought their way back toward Xena, who was now duelling the Roman commander.

"Don't interfere," warned Callisto. "Just help me watch her back and make sure none of *them* tries anything." Hercules nodded. Sure enough, a Roman soldier threw a knife at Xena's back, but Hercules leapt forward and deflected it with his gauntlet. As it bounced off the metal he caught it by the hilt, and a moment later, the soldier had a knife sticking out of his throat. "Nice move!" yelled Callisto, grinning widely, while she drove her sword into another approaching soldier.

Xena fought with single-minded determination, blocking each stroke with her own sword, and eventually disarmed the Roman commander, declaring, "Don't tell me you're the best Caesar's got. Now are you going to give yourself up, or am I going to have to kill you?" The soldier went for a knife, but before his hand reached the hilt, Xena buried the sword in his body, shrugging and saying, "Your loss."

At that point Xena's victory was assured, and the Roman forces were mostly dead, injured, or taken prisoner, with only a few surviving to flee back to their boats. Hercules winced. He'd seen plenty of battlefields, but the sight never failed to sicken him. While Callisto dealt with the prisoners, and Xena had a confidential conversation with the wounded Roman second-in-command, a conversation that would terrify him enough that he would never join another invasion of Greece, Hercules joined the warriors who were moving about the darkened battlefield, picking up the wounded and carrying them to the healer's tent.

After what seemed like hours of carrying one broken and bloody body after another, he was assured that all the wounded had been collected, and he assisted the healers to the best of his ability, until Callisto approached, the torch she carried, casting flickering shadows across her face. Hercules shuddered; however much he told himself this was not the same woman he knew from his own timeline, he couldn't dismiss the sinister associations that her presence evoked. She had noticed. "What is it, slave boy? Am I that terrifying?" she asked, her eyes glinting in the torchlight.

"I'm sorry, my lady," he said, trying to sound respectful, as he knew the Conqueror would *not* be happy with him forgetting his status. "You bear a striking resemblance to someone else I know, someone who caused a lot of harm to people I care about."

She looked at him through narrowed eyes. "My lady Xena trusts you, although we both know you let yourself be captured by me for some reason known only to yourself. All I can say is that if you do anything to harm her, you'll have me to answer to, no matter how often you help me out on the battlefield."

He bowed his head. "You needn't worry, my lady Callisto. Harming her is the last thing I would do. It's true I have my reasons for being here, but I would never violate Lady Xena's trust."

Callisto nodded. "Anyway she wants to see you. In her tent."

"Thank you, my lady," he answered and made his way toward the Conqueror's tent.

The guards at the entrance stepped aside immediately to let him in, and he ducked under the flap. Xena turned around to greet him, and he immediately knelt down on one knee, bowing his head. "Hercules. You were invaluable today. Many more of my warriors would have been killed if not for you," she said. He looked up at her to find her intense blue eyes scanning him. "You and I are going to have a lot to talk about when we get back," she added. "You may rise." Hercules stood up, and Xena suddenly exclaimed, "You're wounded! Why didn't you get that treated?"

He shrugged, "I heal quickly, my lady, and I was helping the healers."

She shook her head in exasperation, then reached up and delivered one stinging slap across his cheek. "You're *my* property, slave boy, and you have a responsibility to *me* to take care of yourself! Just because I've granted you some favor doesn't mean you can forget your position. Ya got that?"

"Yes, my lady. I'm very sorry," he said meekly. Xena had to turn aside, to hide the half-smile that arose on her lips at the stricken and abashed look on his face.

In a gentler voice, Xena said "Come here. Let's take care of that. Take off your shirt and lie down here. I can see what I'm doing better."

She carefully cleaned, dressed, and bandaged the gash in his side, while he marvelled at the light and skilled touch of her fingers. While she worked, he asked hesitantly, "What happens to the prisoners, my lady?"

"Some join my army, some become slaves, some, of course, are traded for prisoners of war from our side. If they can't adjust or be controlled, they're killed," she explained dispassionately, her gentleness in treating his wound contrasting sharply with the bluntness of her tone.

"Killed how?" he asked, feeling slightly ill.

"Sword in the heart usually. If you're wondering if I crucify 'em, I don't. No crosses, no death wheels. I've been crucified myself--thanks to Caesar. While up there, with my legs broken by the way, I made two vows. One was that I would devote my life and all of my power to stopping him. The other was that I would never subject anyone to a painful, lingering death. I don't *need* to do that to keep people in line. Satisfied, slave boy?" she asked dryly.

"Yes, my lady," he murmured. The Conqueror was no model of humanity--the marks on his back that she was lightly tracing testified to that--but there were clearly defined limits to her inhumanity.

"Come with me," she said abruptly. "I have to make some rounds." She tossed him his shirt, which he pulled back on. "You can make yourself useful and carry this," she added, handing him a leather bag filled with bandages, herbal preparations, and other necessities of the healer's art. He followed the Conqueror to the healer's tent, where she immediately set about treating wounded warriors, directing Hercules as her assistant. She was as skilled a healer as the Xena he knew, and she stayed up most of the night, dressing wounds, setting fractures, consulting with the healers, and visiting briefly with each of her wounded soldiers. Hercules followed, carrying her bag and treating minor injuries, while he marvelled at the brusque, yet gentle, demeanor she adopted with the injured. It was many hours before Hercules trailed her back to her tent and dropped wearily onto his mat by the tent flap for a couple of hours of sleep.

Chapter 8

The Conqueror returned to her castle in triumph. The first night back was spent celebrating with her officers, but she excused herself after a few hours and summoned Hercules to her chambers. He entered and immediately dropped to his knees and began pulling off his gauntlets and taking off his shirt. An amused half-smile quirked her lips as she took them from him. "You're a good boy," she observed. She stroked along his jawline with her index finger, then tipped his head up to look at her, and noticed that his eyes were filled with tears. With a bemused smile, she asked, "What is it, slave boy?"

"I don't think you'll like my explanation, my lady," he said hesitantly.

"Don't worry about it. You have my permission to speak freely." She draped herself over a chair and beckoned Hercules, pointing to the ground in front of her chair.

He got up, walked to the indicated spot, and knelt again. "I . . . I don't believe in slavery," he began. "I never have. I know that all of this . . . " he gestured widely, " . . . is wrong. But here I am. What have you done to me? And how have you done it?"

"Haven't you figured out by now, slave boy, that I haven't done anything to you? To the others, yes. Not to you. Whether you believe in slavery or not, you obey my every order, and more than that, you go out of your way to make sure you please me. And when you know you have, your eyes light up with devotion. You're not like Gabrielle and the others. They don't know anything *but* giving themselves to their owners. They don't have a choice about what they are. Not you. You could free yourself any time you chose; we both know that. But here you are." She lifted her eyebrows and smiled again, her eyes glinting with amusement.

"You *made* the others the way they are, my lady," he noted cautiously.

"Yes," she agreed. "I can't afford to have my authority questioned. *Greece* can't afford for me not to have perfect control. Caesar's too dangerous to us. But there's a price, I see now. So many of my people have . . . a kind of emptiness behind their eyes. I never saw it until I saw the desire in *yours*, Hercules. The way you offer yourself to me--it's such a struggle for you, and it means all the more to me. What you do takes a type of strength that I don't often encounter." She changed courses abruptly. "Let me see that gash in your side."

"It's much better," he began.

"I didn't ask your opinion of it, slave boy. I asked to *see* it," she snapped.

"Of course. I'm sorry, my lady." He pulled off the bandages, and she touched him lightly, inspecting the wound.

"You heal unnaturally quickly, slave boy. I think it's time for you to tell me who you are and where you're from and why you're here. But come to bed. I may as well amuse myself with you while we talk."

"As you wish." As they stood up, Hercules suddenly took Xena by the shoulders from behind, sliding his hands down her arms, so he lightly held them behind her back. "I'm curious, my lady," he said mildly. "Do you ever consider that I'm one of the few people in Greece who could have *my* way with you if I chose?"

Xena turned around to look at him, her face glowing. "Yes, slave boy, and it's so enticing knowing you have that capacity but would never use it against me. All that strength is at *my* disposal--freely offered." She jerked her head. "Now come on and do as you're told."

"Yes, my lady," said Hercules with a wry smile and a slight sigh, as he let go of Xena's wrists, followed her into her bedroom, and removed his clothes at her direction.

She settled herself against a pile of pillows leaning against the head of the bed, then patted the spot in front of her. "Lean back here against me. Yes, here." He found himself between her legs, his head leaning on her shoulder. With one arm she reached around him, and began to play with his chest, occasionally twirling a curl of hair around her finger and tugging it, occasionally tracing circles around one nipple or the other.

He was fully aroused, and she noted, "You do like it when *I* give you orders, don't you?"

She grasped a handful of his hair with her other hand and pulled his head so he would have to look up at her. With an embarrassed but warm smile he admitted, "Yes, it seems that I . . . do."

"Well, *that*," she indicated his erection, "will have to wait. Let's start with who you are," she ordered, as her hand travelled across his chest.

"Well, that will also explain why I heal so quickly. I'm the son of Zeus--and a mortal woman."

He heard a sharp intake of breath behind him and a soft whistle. "A half-god. That explains a lot. In fact, I suspected as much once I saw your strength. I thought you were sent here as a punishment perhaps. But the son of Zeus? I've never heard of you."

"There's a reason for that, but it's a long story."

"I'm comfortable," she said with a smirk. "Carry on."

*This isn't easy,* thought the demigod to himself as the Conqueror's long fingers combed through the hair on his chest. "Please let me ask you a question first, my lady. Do you ever . . . have unusual dreams?"

"Ye-ess," she said slowly, her eyebrows knitting in a frown. "I dreamed of you, slave boy, before you ever appeared here. You're lucky I didn't use my dreams as a basis for deciding what to do with you. In most of them, you had bested me in a fight, and you were holding a sword at my neck."

"That happened," he said quietly, turning to look at her. "In another . . . timeline."

Her hand on his chest stilled. "Another timeline? That's pretty improbable, boy. Why should I trust you or anything you say?" she demanded suddenly and harshly.

"I could leave," he said mildly. "You know you couldn't stop me. I could kill you. You couldn't stop me from doing that either. If I'd wanted to harm you, I would have done it by now. I--I obey you, no matter how . . . hard it is for me."

"Prove yourself to me," she said, her voice hard. "Prove to me that I can do anything I want with you, and you'll submit to it."

"You can do anything you want with me, my lady," he whispered.

"What if every reflex you had was telling you to resist me? Would you fight or surrender?"

"Surrender, my lady," he said firmly.

Suddenly her arm moved up and tightened around his neck, cutting off some of his air with careful precision. A tremor ran through Hercules' body, as he quelled his instinctive reaction to yank her arm away and protect himself.

"You're mine," she hissed fiercely. "I can do this to you because you're mine."

Hercules didn't respond. He was conserving his breath, concentrating hard on willing himself to remain still, while seemingly every cell in his body cried out for escape. The pressure on his throat increased slightly but perceptibly, but this was Xena, and he had to trust her, just as he was expecting her to trust him. This was a test of his submission and loyalty, and he intended to pass it. He consciously relaxed further against her, and as the pressure increased again, a blackness seemed to rise before his eyes. Then Xena's arm was gone, and air flowed into his lungs, causing him to cough.

"I don't know if I'd entrust myself with what you just gave me there, slave boy," she said wonderingly. "You've more than proved yourself. Carry on with your story."

"Yes my lady." He breathed in deeply, then pressed on hurriedly. "This isn't the way things are supposed to be. Ares and Hera changed the timeline. That's why you've never heard of me."

"Oh really?" she asked, her hand stilling for a moment, before tracing light circles around one of his nipples. "And why would the gods do such a thing?"

Hercules sighed. "Where do I start? I'll get the simple reason out of the way. This was Ares' idea. He has always resented me, as has Hera. Ares is convinced that I am our father's favorite, and Hera is jealous of Zeus's feelings for my mother. In the other timeline, you and I humiliated Ares rather badly--it was a lot of fun too," his face lit up with a quick smile, "and he wanted to get back at both of us. So he changed things in a way that I would lose . . . everything that was important to me."


"In that timeline, I'm a . . . hero. I don't really care about that--I get tired of the word 'hero' in fact--but I've devoted my life to helping people. People call on me for help because they know of me. In this timeline, no one has heard of me. No one would think to ask me for help. I also try to help people find the good in themselves--and he nullified the most important time I did that. And he . . . " Hercules' face twisted with anger, "took away someone very dear to me."

"Your lover?" asked Xena, tugging on Hercules' arm, so he could turn around and face her. As he talked, she continued to fondle him, her fingers playing along the muscles of his upper arm.

"Yes," admitted Hercules, his face darkening.

"Who is it?"

"You know the priest at Ares' temple? The one he brought with to your tent the other night?"

"The one with the golden hair," affirmed Xena. "You have good taste. What's his name?"

"Iolaus. And the way he is now . . . he's not like that. It's like he's just a shell of who he really is. Ares took away all his spirit, his soul, his . . . fire. In the other time, Iolaus is *mine*, but he's always challenging me, fighting me . . . and then giving himself to me--all of himself. And the gods know I don't deserve him. I've let him down, I've taken him for granted, but I've learned. He's my center, my home, my other half . . . " he trailed off, his eyes welling with tears.

"I'm sorry," said Xena softly. "It must hurt you to see him now."

"Yes," growled Hercules angrily. "Ares did everything he could to cause me pain."

"And what does this have to do with me?"

"All of it," answered the demigod. "Your dream . . . about me. In the other timeline, you were a warlord, but not like now. You were known as the 'Destroyer of Nations,' and you were drenching Greece in blood. Caesar wasn't invading, like he is here. You were just . . . angry and . . . in pain . . . and deadly. I met you at the right time. You were ready to change, and I helped you. Your army went on a rampage--destroyed every person in a village they attacked. One baby was left alive, and you saved him, and for that you got drummed out of your army. I'm sorry, my lady." He had seen a shadow crossing her face.

"The only reason I believe you," she said slowly and abstractedly, "is that I've dreamed some of these things. There was . . . I had to . . . I had to walk a gauntlet, didn't I?"

Hercules nodded.

"I can't understand that. I would never let my army get so out of control."

"I think," began Hercules carefully, "that you were ready for a change. Let me ask you, do you have other dreams? Of me? Of Gabrielle?"

Xena shook her head. "Why would I dream of Gabrielle?"

Hercules slammed a fist into the mattress in frustration. "He's controlling your dreams, damn it! He knew dreams from the other time would leak through. But he's managing to select which ones. Strife is probably helping him with that. Listen. After the gauntlet, you wanted to get your army back. You tried to kill me, thinking that would do it. I . . . stopped you--that's the fight you've dreamed of. But then you decided to help me fight your army--to stop them from taking over and killing everybody. Ares was helping them. You killed your lieutenant, Darphus, who had turned against you, but Ares revived him and gave him control of his beast, Graegus. Darphus would have slaughtered I don't know how many people, and he was close to being unstoppable, if not for you. You helped me defeat him. And you *changed*--for the good. Ares doesn't want you to dream of that--he wants to scare you into keeping your control here at whatever the cost. He wants you not to trust me. He wants to make sure you aren't swayed by what I say."

Xena's lips were pursed in concentration. "So what do I do in this other time since I stopped trying to kill you, slave boy?"

"You help people."

"*I* help people?!" she laughed harshly. "How?"

"You protect them against warlords, you help stop wars, you save people in danger. And Ares has never accepted that you changed. And he's never forgiven me for encouraging you. He's wanted you back ever since--and this is how he got you back under his banner. He created a threat--Caesar's invasion--that you would have to devote yourself to countering. You were always the one he wanted to rule the world--on his terms."

Xena paled slightly. "I've sometimes wondered if I was letting him use me. But what I had to do was too important. I didn't worry about it. I can't imagine a life when I'm not fighting Caesar--or a life without an army under my command."

"That's what's Ares is counting on."

Xena changed the subject. "And what other dreams should I have had of you?

And what does Gabrielle have to do with it?"

"You and I were lovers," said Hercules quietly, his eyes downcast. "For a very short while. And we stayed friends. Soon after you left . . . left me to start atoning for your past, I . . . was forced to realize my feelings for Iolaus. Thanks to Ares, ironically, but that's another story. And you met Gabrielle. She's your life's companion, your best friend, your lover. She's not like she is here. She's a bard--and quite a fighter too."

"Gabrielle is a fighter?" asked Xena incredulously.

"Yeah. She's an adopted Amazon queen, and she learned from them. She's a wonderful person, Xena. Gabrielle's the reason you stayed on your path in that timeline. She has a pure heart and a reverence for life and an inner strength that you couldn't imagine from seeing her counterpart here." He smiled. "She'll talk your ear off, and she stands up to you--there's a spark in her that Ares managed to eradicate here. Just like he did with Iolaus."

"Really?" asked Xena. "I'm intrigued. But you, slave boy. Am I right in guessing you still care for me--or the person I am *there*?"

"Very much," he admitted softly, his eyes hooded with griefs both old and new. "I've never stopped loving you. There's a part of my heart that will always be in your keeping. Ares knows that."

"And you came here to try to put things back the way they were--in the other time? That's why you let yourself be captured."

He nodded. "But you learned something about yourself, didn't you?" she continued, brushing a thumb across his nipple. "You want and need what you have here, don't you?"

"Yeah," he said quietly, nodding, his eyes wide and straying to the mark Xena had made on his arm the other night.

"And if the other timeline is restored, you'll remember this?"

"I think so. I think that was part of Ares' plan. I--I would miss . . . belonging to you. Ares has made sure I'll pay a price no matter what happens. I can't avoid that. But this isn't right, Xena. You belong with Gabrielle, and Iolaus belongs to *me*. You don't have to be the Conqueror. There's so much good you do *there*. Without leading an army, without owning slaves. But it has to be your decision. That's the one concession Zeus got from him and Hera. If you ask to go back to the other time, he has to do it."

"What's the catch?" she asked shrewdly. "If Ares knew you would eventually tell me about this, why does he think he can succeed? What are the disadvantages of returning to the other time?"

"I suspect that you're much happier *here* in some ways. In the other time, you're always fighting against yourself, Xena. So much of you wants to go back to your warlord days, and Ares has extended a standing offer to you to make you the leader of the world. I know you're tempted--it would be so much easier to agree and to give in to the darkness within you. You have to live with a lot of guilt, a whole lot. Your old self was much more bloodthirsty than you are now. It must hurt to remember--I don't think I can really understand how much. And no matter how many good deeds you've done, no matter how much you atone, you'll never forgive yourself. There are those who don't want to let you forget your warlord past, who don't want to let you forget your victims."

Xena raised on eyebrow. "You make it sound so appealing," she said dryly.

"I can't let you make a decision without knowing all of it, Xena," he explained. "I'm going to have to tell you about Callisto." And he did. He told her about Cirra, about Perdicas, about Callisto's acquisition of godhood, about the revenge she extracted against Xena for over two terrifying, soul-shattering weeks. And he told her about Xena's recovery and the glimmerings of an understanding between her and Callisto. And he told her about how she had embarrassed and infuriated Ares with his help.

Xena laughed, but pressed Hercules, "I turned down ambrosia? Huh. I don't know if I would turn down such an offer now. Think of what I could accomplish."

Hercules looked down, as a pained look flashed across his face. "That *is* one of the ways you're different now." He looked up, frowning slightly as he sought for the right words. "You have a power, my lady. You can compel people to obey you. The Xena I know had that power too, but she always checked it. I think she worried that if she didn't, there would be no going back. Ares created a situation here where you would feel you had to bring all your personal power to bear. I have to give him credit; I never expected he could carry off something this big."

"You're not making a convincing case for why I should go back to that time you describe. I hope you realize this. Good deeds and guilt are not exactly how I want to spend my time."

Hercules impulsively took Xena's hand between his. She lifted one eyebrow, but did not otherwise react. "You're lonely, aren't you?" he asked. "You've let me get closer to you than any other slave. Maybe I offer you more of a challenge. Maybe it's because I can't hide my desire for you and what you do to me," he flushed, "and maybe it's because you sense the bond between us--our souls will always share a link. But I can never belong to you completely. I miss Iolaus, *my* Iolaus, so very much. And I can never be your life's companion. The true mate of your soul is Gabrielle. Think of her as she is now. And then try to imagine her full of life--a storyteller, an Amazon queen, someone who's willingly devoted her life to you--out of her own free will. Forgive my bluntness, but you have nothing here that compares with that."

"What about Callisto?" Xena demanded abruptly. "You're asking me to sacrifice her, destroy her, condemn her to an eternity of suffering and madness."

"I don't have an answer to that. I do have some small hope she may find some redemption some day--in the other time. But I can't argue that she's better off here."

"Some of what you say does intrigue me," she said softly. "What you say about Gabrielle has a ring of truth to it--I don't know why. But you have to understand, as far as I know, *this* is my life here. This is what I know. What will you do if I decide to stay *here*?"

"I would stay with you as long as you wanted me," he answered, his face drawn with pain. "I can't get Iolaus back--Ares' Iolaus is not the same man I love. And serving you is . . . fulfilling and intoxicating in ways I never imagined. I won't deny that. There's a part of me that *does* want this. But the rest of me will always be missing my real home."

She nodded. "I appreciate your honesty, Hercules. I know you didn't have to tell me all of it, but you did anyway. You're a good man. All I can say is that I need time--time to think. I will talk to you more about this another time. But right now, you're still *mine*, and furthermore you're naked and in my bed. I intend to take advantage of the situation."

Hercules bowed his head, a smile making its way across his face. "As you wish, my lady."

She got up abruptly and pulled off her robe, tossing it across the room, then lay down on the bed, clasping her hands behind her neck in a consciously relaxed pose. "Make me feel good," she ordered. "You can use your hands and your mouth. If you please me, perhaps I'll do something for you."

*Oh, I'll please you, Xena,* he thought to himself. *I *know* you.* What he said aloud was, "Yes, my lady."

He bent to kiss her, one hand cupping her jaw. She met the pressure of his lips with a bruising roughness, as their mouths locked together, tasting and probing, and she laced her fingers snugly into his hair, lest he try to pull his head away. He stroked his way up and down her upper arm, just skimming her flesh with the curve of his hand, occasionally pausing to grip her arm firmly, giving her a small taste of his strength before resuming his gentle caresses. Hercules had learned long ago that lovers were inevitably enticed both by his strength and by his exquisite control of it, and he would mete out controlled doses of leashed power in a way that reminded his lovers he could readily shatter every bone in their bodies, but was instead devoting his exquisite physical control to their pleasure. Iolaus, in particular, went out of his way to provoke Hercules to use his power. With women, however, he was particularly cautious, but with Xena he didn't have to be. She craved sensation, and he knew that his light touches would be all the more maddening for her knowledge of the force that he was holding in check. Every time he tightened his grip, he heard the slightest intake of breath from the Conqueror.

When Xena released her grip on his hair, he lifted her hand to his mouth. sliding her thumb inside and swirling his tongue around it and sucking it vigorously. Another faint gasp. When he moved on to her index finger, he let his free hand travel down her side, feathering along her ribs and stroking the curve of her hip. He released her finger, then licked his way up the next one before sucking it into his mouth. Xena smiled, saying in a sultry voice, "Slave boy, you almost make me wish I had a cock." His lips twitched slightly in an amused smile, but he didn't cease his attentions. After the last finger received this treatment, Xena pulled him back down for a kiss with an impatient growl.

As he began placing kisses along her throat, she tipped her head back, giving him more access, as a shiver passed through her. "Are you remembering what I'm remembering?" he asked her.

"My dream," she murmured. "You and the sword. I don't know what it was like when it actually happened, but after that dream, I always wake up wet. I guess I knew you weren't going to kill me--good thing too, or you might not have survived your arrival here."

Her throaty voice brushed along his nerves and sent an additional pulse of blood to his already rigid cock. "You were so defiant," he mused. "Your eyes were just blazing. I may have won that particular battle," he reflected as his fingers travelled across her abdomen, drawing wide circles, "but you had already won the war, to coin a phrase. I wanted you more than anything." Hercules pressed his lips to the hollow of her throat, twirled a circle there with his tongue, then traced a line up along her throat. "You were so dark, so angry, and I wanted to fall into your darkness. No one ever made me feel like that before."

She grinned. "Well, now you've had your chance, slave boy."

"Thank you, my lady, for letting me make the most of it." He gathered her breasts into his hands, which were rough and callused from the work he'd been doing.

"I like that," she purred. "Personal slaves always have such soft hands." He caressed her breasts with long strokes of his fingertips, just barely grazing her nipples, which were already hard. He could feel the tension rising in her body, and she snapped "Harder!" through clenched teeth. His fingers dug deeply into the soft flesh, and Xena growled contentedly as he squeezed and stroked. Hercules captured her nipples between his thumb and forefinger and began to press them with a controlled and steadily increasing pressure. "You're good, slave boy!" she gasped, grabbing his upper arms and digging in her fingers hard. She shuddered in a quick orgasm.

"You're looking awfully pleased with yourself," she noted, when she focused again on his face.

"Pleased because I'm giving you pleasure, my lady."

"Oh, and is that the *only* reason?"

Hercules smiled, raising his eyebrows. "I love touching you," he said simply. "The way I can feel your strength coiled in your arms and your legs. The way your breasts fill my hands and your nipples harden under my fingers. Your taste on my tongue. I had such a short time to . . . memorize every detail. So, I'll admit I'm pleased for myself too."

"I sup-pose I can allow that," she responded with an exaggerated reluctance and a grin. "Well, show me what else you can do, slave boy." Hercules lowered his head to her breast, drawing tight circles around her nipple with his powerful tongue, while his hand slid along the outside of one muscled thigh. He sucked the already sensitive nipple into his mouth, grazing it with his teeth, as his hand began exploring the slight swell of Xena's inner thigh, making her writhe with the featherlight touch of his rough fingertips along the sensitive skin. He then took in more of her breast, filling his mouth with the soft flesh and began a slow steady suckling, while his fingers found Xena's center. One finger travelled the slick path between her lips, moving languidly back and forth in rhythm with his mouth on her breast and just barely gliding over her clit on each pass.

Xena's body was humming with tension again, but he felt her relax slightly when he spread her lips and began stroking her clit more purposefully. His touch was still flutteringly light, and Xena tensed again when it was clear it was going to stay that way for a while. He smiled to himself in gratification--he knew he could he keep her on the edge all day if he wanted to. "I. Should. Flog. You. For. Showing. Off. And for teasing me." He heard the dark rumble in her voice, and his cock quivered against her thigh. She laughed. "Oh, you liked that threat, did you? You *will* pay for this slave boy."

After a while, his suckling increased in both pace and intensity, and he circled Xena's clit with an increasingly firm finger until she bucked in climax, and he released her breast from his mouth. Without a pause, he thrust three fingers forcefully inside her. "Yesss!" she hissed, rocking her hips to meet his thrusts. She howled as another orgasm rolled through her body, and Hercules marvelled at the power of the muscles clamping down on and convulsing around his fingers.

"Care for another, my lady?" he asked insolently, his eyes glinting with pleasure.

"Yes, damn it!" He pressed the heel of his hand against her clit and began to grind it firmly. She returned his pressure with her own pumping hips, until he carried her over the edge once more, her back arching and her muscles straining until she collapsed back, her breathing harsh. Hercules took the liberty of casually toying with her triangle of dark curls, combing them with his fingers while she came down off of her peak.

Suddenly, she caught him off guard, rolling him over onto his back and pinning him down. She straddled his abdomen, and latched on to both of his nipples, twisting and pulling them hard. "Let me see you clean off your hand," she ordered, her voice hard. He was almost breathless with the pain of her assault on his nipples, but concentrating, he brought his hand, still drenched with her juices, to his mouth and began carefully licking off his fingers with a quivering tongue, while she watched him with icily predatory eyes.

When he finished, still relishing the taste that spread over his tongue, she bent to kiss him, fiercely plunging her tongue into his mouth. Then she pulled away, tossing her hair back over her shoulders. "Will you open yourself up to me completely, slave boy?" she panted. "Let me all the way in? Give me everything you have to give? I'm giving you a choice here because if you say yes, I *will* take everything you've got."

Hercules hesitated for the barest of moments, then sat up, his own wide blue eyes studying Xena's, which glowed with a sapphire intensity. "Yes, Xena, my lady. Yes. Please. I freely offer myself to you." He shifted so that he was on his knees, then bowed his head all the way down.

Xena passed her hand gently over the honey-colored locks, then said in a devastatingly soft and dangerous voice, "Over there. Hold on to that ring. It should be obvious that you had better not let go." He looked where she indicated at an iron ring at the end of a heavy chain suspended from the ceiling. Letting go of it wouldn't be the problem, he reflected, as he crossed the room. He'd have to be careful not to pull it out.

Xena approached him, holding a black leather strap. She circled him, asking, "You want to please me, don't you, slave boy?"

"Yes, my lady," he whispered.

"Tell me, have you played like this before?"

He nodded. "But I'm usually the one holding the strap."

"All the better for me." The Conqueror grinned. "You wouldn't be any fun if this were easy for you." She stopped behind him, letting her hand trail down his spine and roam over his buttocks. "You have to be so careful, don't you?" she purred. "Always having to be mindful of your strength." He nodded, unable to find his voice, paralyzed like a mouse spellbound by a cobra. "You see," she continued. "I usually have that problem too, but right now, I don't need to worry about it." Her words were followed by a sharp crack of the strap across his ass. He was staggered by the force of the blow, and had to regain his balance, afraid of pulling down the ring he held onto. The pain flared across his skin, then exploded outward as the compressed flesh wrenched itself back into place. Another crack. He gasped sharply, reflecting to himself that Xena certainly wasn't holding back. Another blow, and the tension in his body began to melt away, as some kernel of resistance inside him began to loosen. With each searing stroke of the strap, he found himself consciously relaxing and breathing, letting himself sway with the force of the blows. He closed his eyes and surrendered to sensation, as the strap delineated stripes across his ass and down the back of his thighs.

Suddenly he drew back sharply. Xena had moved around to the front of him and flicked the strap against a nipple, with perfect positioning. Then the other side, and he groaned loudly, his erection futilely clamoring for attention. After several more such blows, Xena turned away, returning with something shiny in her hand. He guessed immediately what it was--a pair of clamps connected with a chain. Both the clamps and the chain were heavier than the delicate pair she had used on Gabrielle the other night. "Do you know what these feel like?"

"Yes, my lady, but never after such," he smiled wryly, "careful preparation. I'm guessing it will hurt quite a bit more than I'm used to."

"You're guessing right, slave boy." Xena pinched each nipple sharply. "Do you know why I'm doing this to you?"

"You enjoy it?" he asked tentatively.

"Well, yes, of course, that's part of it," she answered dismissively. "I'm doing this because I feel the need to claim you, Hercules, reach inside you and make you mine from the inside out." A shadow crossed her face."Maybe it's because I may have to let you go. I want you marked as mine in a way you'll never forget. And to get you where I want you to be, I need to open you up, break down barriers you don't even know you've raised against me." As she spoke, she stroked his chest gently, but possessively, touching his body with an assurance that it was hers to do with as she pleased. And when she finished, she carefully placed first one clamp and then the other on his nipples, while a searing bolt of mixed pleasure and pain shot from each nipple straight to his groin.

A spasm of pain crossed his face, as his nipples burned and throbbed. Xena stroked his face, then ran a hand down his side and then a finger along his erection. The clamps had seemingly heightened all of Hercules' sensations, and his nerves tingled in the wake of her fingers. Then he felt a sharp flash along his cock from the tip of the strap. He groaned loudly and hung his head as a flush of humiliation flooded his cheeks. Another flickering blow on his aching member, and Xena reached around to grab a handful of hair and pull his head back. "Don't hide from me, slave boy," she commanded in a low and throaty tone that seemed to slip under his skin and intensify the pulsing in his nipples and cock and buttocks and thighs. His eyes were wide and vulnerable, his lips slightly parted as he tried to breathe through all the sensations assaulting him. "Don't you know how beautiful you are like this?" she asked, giving a sharp tug to the chain linking the clamps, sending a renewed shock of pain through his system. "Don't you know how much it pleases me to know you could stop me any time, but you submit to this--for me? Don't fight it; just let go. Let everything go."

She moved behind him and swung the strap against his ass. As he staggered forward, the chain between his nipples swung wildly, sending stabbing pains through him. "Let go," she purred, and he widened his stance and relaxed, swaying with each crack of the strap against his ass and letting her take him wherever she needed him to go. He had certainly experienced worse pain in his life, but he felt as though Xena was flaying him open, leaving him with no defenses. The half-god, the hero, the son of Zeus were all stripped away, leaving only a pure essence of desire, surrender, and above all, a need to please this woman who had claimed his body and his soul. As blow after blow fell, his body was suffused with a quivering tension that begged for explosive release. It was similar to the tension he felt immediately before a fight, when only the solid connection of his fists or feet with flesh would help dispel it. He found himself craving the heavy thud of the strap, as if his body were reaching out for it. Xena immediately sensed the difference in how he was holding himself. "You want it now, don't you?" she demanded.

"Yes, hard please," he gritted through clenched teeth.

"My pleasure," returned the Conqueror, throwing more force into her swings of the strap, sending him spiralling higher and higher into a realm of pure sensation where the humming energy of his need sparked and crackled with the driving energy of Xena's relentless wielding of the strap, fusing them together and creating a sizzling exchange of electricity and power.

After a final blow of the strap whistled through the air and exploded on his raw flesh, Xena snapped, "Down!" Hercules gratefully let go of the ring and dropped to his knees, looking up at his Conqueror through eyes blurred with tears. He kissed the strap she held to his lips, and then she guided him to his feet with a tug on the chain. "On the bed, on your back now!" she ordered. She smacked his inner thighs with the strap, insisting, "Wider, I want them wider." Her need was palpable, and Hercules willingly let himself be surrounded by and consumed in its heat. When he complied with her order, she casually tossed the strap across the room. "Use your hands to hold them there." Hercules slipped his hands under his thighs and held them wide apart, while Xena contemplated the sight before her.

She got a vial of oil from her bedside table, settled herself between Hercules' legs, and began copiously anointing her hands. Hercules' eyes widened. Calmly, almost ignoring him, Xena continued stroking the oil along her long fingers, and the demigod couldn't help a small moan from escaping. Xena's lips twitched in a glimmer of a smile, then she began anointing him, spreading oil with her fingertip around the opening to his body. Her light touch teased the sensitive skin, and he found himself craving more. Suddenly, she slid two fingers inside him, and Hercules gulped in surprise. "You *have* been fucked before?" she asked casually, one eyebrow lifted.

"Yes, of course, but never . . ."

"By a woman," she finished. "Well, slave boy, this will be a new experience for you in more ways than one. Can you let me *all* the way in?" As she talked, she pulled her fingers out, poured more oil on them, and slid them back inside, thoroughly coating the narrow passage that she was claiming.

In answer to her question, a dazed Hercules only answered emphatically, "Uh-*huh*."

"Good," she said briskly, adding a third finger, which he accommodated easily. "You looked pretty fascinated when I was doing this to Gabrielle. I'm guessing you imagined yourself on the other end."

Hercules blinked. "Yeah, you're right. But I wasn't sure . . . " A small "oof!" cut off his sentence, when four fingers pushed inside him, beginning to spread him open and igniting a slow burn at his center.

"Well," said Xena with an ironic smile, "even the son of Zeus can learn some new tricks." She stopped talking, focusing on what she was doing. More oil, and the four fingers probed and stretched him. Hercules consciously relaxed himself, and the fingers pushed in further. "*Good* boy," Xena murmured, sliding her fingers slowly in and out, finally adding her thumb, pushing her hand inside Hercules like a wedge. The burning sensation grew more intense as the Conqueror's hand slowly, inexorably, stretched him wide. He tensed up for a moment, as heat flooded through his legs, curling his toes. "Relax for me, slave boy," purred Xena in a low register, and Hercules complied, letting her in further. Xena paused, pouring an additional dollop of oil over her hand and said conversationally, "This is the widest part. Take a deep breath for me and let it go."

Hercules inhaled deeply and slowly exhaled. As the breath flowed out of him, a sharp pain flared as he was stretched wider than he could have imagined possible and penetrated by Xena's hand, now curled into a fist, and buried in him up to the wrist. "Oh gods . . . " he gasped hoarsely. Her fist burned inside him, shooting molten streaks of pain along his legs and into his cock. Holding his legs apart as he was, he had never felt so exposed, so vulnerable, and so possessed. It was utterly exhilarating, and the pain began to transmute into a delirious pleasure.

"I'm inside you. Right now, all of you belongs to *me*," said Xena quietly, her voice belying the blazing intensity of her eyes.

"Yes, Xena," he agreed.

"Ready?" she asked.

He nodded. As her fist began to move, he groaned loudly between clenched teeth. He pulled his legs even wider apart, as she rocked her fist slowly inside him, then pulled it part of the way out and plunged it back in. He was drowning in sensation, groaning uncontrollably, when suddenly he felt first one, then the other clamp yanked off his nipples. He howled as the dammed up blood rushed into his nipples, bringing tears to his eyes. It was like a thick needle stabbing into him from inside, but Xena's fist driving into him quickly recaptured his attention. Then she slowed down to a deliberate pace, sending slow ripples of fire radiating out from his center. The sensation was the most exquisite he could remember and the most unbearable. He desperately wanted her never to stop, and he desperately wanted her to stop right *now*. A continuous, uncontrolled low growl emitted from his throat, and the muscles in his legs began to tremble and quiver with tension.

"Look at me!" ordered Xena, and Hercules had to concentrate to get his eyes open. "You're completely in my hands," she purred. "I can take you anywhere I want you to go." Her voice seemed to be brushing over his already-raw nerves, and he whimpered, a little-boy sound he hadn't known was still in him. Xena's smile was devastating--she looked as she did in the full joy of battle. "Brace yourself, slave boy," she rumbled, and began fucking him harder and faster with each stroke, in a ferocious rhythm that overwhelmed him like a wall of fire. Her other hand, still slick with oil, enclosed his cock and began working it with rapid strokes. "Come for me now, slave boy," she murmured, and he roared as his climax crashed through him in shattering paroxysms, and a fountain of seed spilled over him and over Xena's hands, as she carefully withdrew her fist from inside him. Tears gathered in his eyes, and he felt wrenchingly empty.

"I know," she said quietly. She had provided herself with a basin of water and a washcloth next to the bed, and quickly cleaned off her hands before moving to pull the weeping demigod onto her lap. Her fingers combed through his long hair, as she soothed him, then her hand strayed over his buttocks, examining the welts from the strap. "Thank you, Hercules," she finally said.

"F-for wh-what?"

"For the gift you've given me of yourself."

"I-I should be th-thanking you," he stammered.

"For what?"

"For taking what I wanted to give you," he answered in a firmer voice. "For seeing something I wanted and needed before I ever knew I wanted and needed it. For letting me show you my love for you in a way I never could before." He managed a grin. "And for the most indescribably overwhelming fuck of my lifetime." Xena laughed, pulling him closer. Hercules reached across himself to touch Xena's initial on his arm, then looked up at her, his face achingly vulnerable. Xena bent to kiss him, her hair falling forward like a curtain around his face. As their lips locked together, and their tongues twined, he felt for the first time that she was kissing him as a lover, not as a piece of property.

"Come with me," she said suddenly. "There's something I want to share with you." She leapt off the bed, and he followed somewhat more slowly. Xena pulled on her robe and rummaged in her wardrobe, finding an old cloak. "Put this on and follow me."

As Hercules was obediently but wonderingly tying the sash, Xena went out onto her balcony and leapt over the balustrade, flipping in mid-air. Hercules shrugged and followed, resting one hand lightly on the balustrade and vaulting over it. He landed on his feet as silently as Xena had, and she beckoned him, one finger on her lips. She led him out of a gate in the castle walls that was concealed from the outside. He noticed that the gate opened without a sound and was obviously well-oiled.

She led him to a nearby stream, tugging on his hand as she ran lightly along the path until they came to a pool crowned with a small waterfall. The moonlight silvered the water, which sparkled and flashed at the base of the waterfall, seeming to shatter the moonlight into glittery fragments. "This is where I go when I want to get away from being the Conqueror," explained Xena simply, and Hercules heard the longing that echoed under her voice. "I've never brought anyone else here. It probably wouldn't do for people to know that the Conqueror leaves her castle at night, unarmed and undefended. But I feel I can trust *you*."

Without really thinking about it, Hercules knelt and kissed her hand. "Thank you, my lady. That means . . . a lot to me, more than I can say."

"C'mon," said Xena, smiling, and tossing off her robe before she plunged in the water. Hercules tugged off the cloak and followed. The water was cold, and he surfaced, sputtering and shivering, until he spotted Xena, the moonlight glinting on her hair like jewels. She streaked toward him, diving between his legs and coming up behind him, to pull his arms behind his back. He kept them there compliantly, while she played with him, running one finger down his upper arm, from shoulder to elbow, mapping the topography of his muscles, caressing his broad back and shoulderblades, thoroughly tracing the welts on his buttocks, and flashing around in front of him to savor the feeling of wet, slippery skin stretched over taut pecs and abs.

"May I use my hands?" he asked.

Xena acted as if she was considering a moment, gave a tweak to a very sensitive nipple, and said, "Yes." Hercules slid his hands along her arms, pausing to kiss every finger tip. He cupped slippery breasts and stroked round, muscled buttocks, while Xena explored him the same way, both their hands roaming all over each other's bodies. Suddenly, Xena grabbed Hercules' wrist and pulled him after her toward the waterfall. The water showered them as they stood under it, and Hercules tossed his wet hair back over his shoulders, his entire face lighting up with a broad smile. He felt proprietary fingers gathering up his balls and gliding along the length of his cock. "I see there are advantages to being the son of Zeus," said Xena, smiling conspiratorially at him from under half-lidded eyes.

"It is one aspect of my godly heritage I do appreciate," responded Hercules, with mock gravity.

"Good, then let me appreciate it too. Don't be forgetting that your godly heritage, like everything else about you, belongs to *me*," Xena insisted. Hercules effortlessly lifted her up, lowering her onto his erect member, and she wrapped her flexible legs around his waist, and her arms around his neck. Hercules threw his head back in exultation, thrusting into Xena's molten heat, while the cold water streamed down their bodies and splashed around them.

Xena wound her fingers into the demigod's hair, keeping his head pulled back, and her mouth sought out the pulse beating in his exposed throat, sucking on it in time to the throbbing of his veins and the urgent rhythm of his cock, which she matched, contracting around him and releasing with perfect muscular control. When she lifted her head, a bruise was purpling on his neck, and she growled, "Hold still now, slave boy! I want to use what's mine." Hercules complied, and Xena braced her hands firmly on his shoulders, digging her fingers in to maintain her grip, and began raising and lowering herself on his cock. Each time she pulled herself up, she drove downward fiercely, while Hercules concentrated on keeping his grip on her waist and on holding himself steady for his mistress. Suddenly, her body stiffened in his hands and her legs tightened around him as she came with a shuddering moan, her muscles convulsing around him. Hercules groaned through clenched teeth, fighting hard not to come, and she panted, "Go ahead!" A few determined upward strokes, and his climax surged through him, as he howled in harmony with the crashing water.

Xena shifted her weight enough to send them both falling into the pool, and they floated for a while, cooling their heated blood, washing themselves and each other off, and kissing. They eventually climbed out of the water. Xena sat down, leaning against a tree and gestured for Hercules to join her. She pulled his head into her lap, and he gazed up at her, seemingly enraptured. She slipped her thumb into his mouth, and he sucked it dreamily, while she stroked his hair and drew light circles on his chest with her fingers. They remained there wordlessly for some time, until Xena said, quietly, "Perhaps it is I who should be asking what *you*'ve done to me, slave boy. But we should go back now."

They returned to the castle, slipping silently in by Xena's concealed gate. "After you," said Hercules with a bow, and Xena launched herself into an aerial flip, landing on her balcony. Hercules jumped straight upward, following her. "Stay with me tonight," she said softly, but trying to keep an edge of command in her voice.

"It would be my pleasure," answered Hercules, bowing his head in acknowledgment of the rare honor he had been granted.

"Don't think it's such a privilege," she said dryly, reestablishing some distance, "I don't sleep well, and I toss and turn a lot."

"Tonight will be different," said the demigod assuredly, and he kept his word, lightly stroking the Conqueror's back until she relaxed and fell into a deep sleep.

Chapter 9

Hercules woke up to Xena's blue eyes gazing at him. When he began to stir, she said "Good morning, slave boy" in an amused tone and drew a line with her finger down his spine, then rested her hand casually and possessively on his buttocks. Her fingers lightly brushed his cleft, and she asked, "How do you feel?"

"Overall, great. Down there, a little sore. But it was worth it. You've made me feel . . . wonderful, my lady. I only hope I've been able to please you."

"You know you have," said Xena in a reassuring voice that sounded so much like *his* Xena it was hard to tell the difference. He looked at her closely, his head still resting on his folded arms, while she lightly caressed his back and buttocks. There was a barely perceptible softening to her features and a somewhat more noticeable modulation to her voice, which had thawed some of its former icy hardness.

"I dreamed of Gabrielle," she said, changing the subject. "I was dead, or almost. I came back--for her. It was an . . . odd feeling. I never thought I'd cling to this life so tenaciously for another person. In my dream I saw something in those green eyes of hers I've never seen before--it was as if where she was was my *home*."

Hercules nodded. "Yes, that happened--you were almost dead, but you fought your way back. And by the way, I see that in Iolaus' eyes too; even at the times I behaved completely thoughtlessly toward him and taken him for granted, if I took the time to look into his eyes, there was that something there. I knew he would always be there for me."

"It's rare to find that," mused Xena. "And I haven't allowed myself the luxury of getting that attached to anyone, except perhaps Callisto. I destroyed her family, and I've tried my best to be family to her, the mother and older sister she lost. But I've avoided attachments ever since I lost my brothers and my mother to Caesar's armies. I need to be able to maintain my focus, my edge. I can't afford intimacy, and I can't afford grief."

"I can't imagine living like that," said Hercules, a slight choke in his voice. He sat up to face Xena directly. "It is hard. In that other timeline, the one you dream of, anyone close to me becomes a target of Hera and Ares. I've lost . . . two wives to their jealousy, and my three children."

"I'm so sorry, Hercules."

He smiled wanly. "Thank you. I was almost tempted a few times to just leave things be in *this* timeline because I knew Iolaus was safe there in Ares' temple. But I can't live cut off from my feelings. It's probably selfish, but I haven't been able to forego relationships, and people I've loved have died for that. Yet, I'd still do what I can to put things back the way they were and get *my* Iolaus back. It's a terrible risk, but I know he's willing to take it. And it's worth it, Xena."

"I would like to see the Gabrielle I dreamed of, the one you described to me," she said wistfully. "But I find myself reluctant to give you up."

"I'm flattered, my lady," said Hercules with just a glimmer of a smile. "But you won't have to give me up. I'll always be your friend, I'll always care for you, and I'll always be there when you need me. You'll *always* be able to count on me. There's a part of me that will always be yours. I--I don't think I can describe what all this," his hand made a wide circle, "means to me. Serving you is a joy I couldn't have imagined possible--you've opened something so deep inside me that I'll never be the same. In a *good* way. You've taught me how to *give* myself, surrender myself in a way I wasn't capable of before." He paused "I could never be a coerced slave, but it's an honor to be your willing pet, my lady. But on the whole, *Xena*, I think I'd rather be your friend."

"And a lovely pet you are, slave boy" said Xena with a mischievous smile, as she combed back Hercules' hair, and brushed a thumb across his cheek. "I could spend years exploring the resources of that body of yours, while your eyes plead for more." Then, more seriously, she added, "It's good to know that whatever happens, I'll have your loyalty and your friendship. You've taught me something too. I've come to respect you and to value the gift of your freely-offered devotion. It's made me realize what I've lost in having to be the Conqueror before all else. That look I saw in Gabrielle's eyes in my dream--I'd like to see that. I'd like to wake up to that every day, not to slaves and servants and soldiers who obey because they're in awe of or afraid of me. *You*'ve touched *me* in a way *I* wouldn't have thought possible, Hercules."

"I hoped I would," he said softly, bending to kiss Xena's hand.

"That's a big part of it, but not all," she said firmly, her face darkening. "I don't like the idea that Ares is manipulating me. That he would create this threat by Caesar just to have me where he wants me. I never wished to be a tool of a god."

"He changed time so he could have you where he wanted you," noted Hercules.

"Well," said Xena with determination, "he's just going to have to change it back. But first . . . " She pushed the demigod onto his back, bending to kiss him. They made love with a fierce urgency, their hands in constant motion over each others' bodies. Xena straddled Hercules, looking down at him, her hair falling about her face, and his hands travelled up and down her arms, then moved to her breasts, kneading them. Then he flipped her over onto her back, rolling with her. She reached for his mouth with hers, pulling him closer with strong hands on his back, her fingers roaming over firm muscles and tracing the healing lines from Hercules' flogging.

He twined his fingers into her hair, deepening the kiss, then suddenly found himself on his back again. Xena took him deep inside her, and he gasped to feel his cock suddenly enclosed in pulsing heat. While he stroked Xena's muscled thigh, she leaned over to take one of his nipples between her teeth, worrying it sharply. When she released it, it was throbbing. She ran her hands rapidly over Hercules' chest and arms, as if snatching a last chance to impress their shapes and textures on her memory, then lowered herself down to his mouth. His hands moved along her back as she began rocking her hips against his. He responded eagerly, plunging into her depths, as they were both enveloped in heat and friction and a timeless rhythm that drove first Xena and then Hercules into a shattering climax. Hercules wrapped his arms around Xena, and their mouths again sought each other out in penetrating kisses. No matter how fiercely their lips locked together they couldn't quench the thirst they had for each other, but at the same time, as if by unspoken agreement, they reluctantly pulled apart. "We'd better go," said Xena, "before I change my mind."

* * *

A little while later, they were dressed and on horseback, riding toward Ares' temple. Hercules had a hard time keeping up with Xena, as she urged her horse forward, her long, black hair flying out behind her. Outside the temple, she jumped lightly off her horse, just as Hercules came riding up. She was the Conqueror again, radiating authority, power, and grim determination. Her eyes blazed with a cold fury, startling him with the piercing relentlessness of her gaze, a gaze that had struck him with awe the first moment he'd seen the Conqueror.

She stalked up the steps of the temple, Hercules a step or two behind her. When she yanked open the heavy doors, Iolaus approached. Seeing who was there, he knelt, bowing his head, murmuring, "My lady Xena. How may I serve you?"

"Look at me," she ordered. Iolaus gazed up at her with guileless blue eyes, while Xena took in the golden mane, the lean, sinewy build, the taut and tanned skin. "You could do so much better," she said ruefully, glancing back at Hercules, and noting the way he stared at Iolaus with eager desire and longing.

"My lady?"

"Never mind. Wait outside."

"Yes, my lady," answered Iolaus and withdrew, closing the temple doors behind him.

"ARES!" roared Hercules, his voice resounding through the temple.

"You called?" said a voice, followed by the appearance of the god, leaning against a column, his arms folded across his chest. His pose was a study in casual unconcern, but his eyes shifted warily.

"You know why we're here," said Xena abruptly. "I want you to put things back the way they were before you messed with the timeline."

"Xe-na," cajoled Ares, "do you honestly believe the stories he's been telling you?"

"Yes. I. Do. And you know he's been telling me the truth." The command voice was in full force, and even the god of war seemed taken aback.

"What's wrong with you, Xena? You *want* to spend your life riding around the countryside with that goody-goody blonde, *helping* people? Think of your ambitions, your goals, the order and prosperity you bring to Greece."

Xena's eyes narrowed. "What I'm thinking of is you *using* me. You had to resort to this," she waved her hand in an angry gesture, "trick because the person I really am would never do what you wanted."

Hercules was trembling with impatience and tension. He suddenly strode over to Ares, grabbed his vest with two hands and hauled him forward. "Damn it, Ares! You have no choice about this. You *have* to do what she says. That's the bargain you struck with Zeus."

Ares reached out one hand and shoved Hercules in the chest, sending him skidding backward across the temple. Hercules was about to leap to his feet, when Xena held up a hand, stopping him. Her expression was furious, and Hercules crumbled inside, but her voice was disarmingly soft. "You've done your part, Hercules. Stay out of this."

She whirled back to Ares and said in a voice that was chillingly calm, "You're going to restore the original timeline. I don't want to hear any attempts to persuade me to stay. You can't come up with any arguments I haven't thought of myself. Ya got that?"

"Oh, I *get* it!" snapped the god, sneering. "What I get is that you don't know what's good for you. I wash my hands of you, Conqueror. You can go back to your pathetic, do-gooding lifestyle and your blonde tagalong, and my useless half-brother will get his boy toy back." He turned to Hercules, "But, dear brother, you *will* remember all of this. You'll remember how your golden boy looked with my cock in his ass. You'll remember what a born slave you are. You'll remember every word and every touch from your owner here, and you will *miss* all of it!"

"Fine," said Hercules flatly. "Tell me something I don't know."

"I want you to leave us alone for a few minutes, Ares. I'll call you when I'm ready," said Xena with the assured tone of someone who was always obeyed.

"Yes, my lady," snarled the god sarcastically, as he executed an exaggerated bow and flashed out of the temple.

Hercules turned to Xena. "I'm sorry for interfering . . . " he began.

Xena cut him off. "Hercules, stop. We don't have time for that. It's not important." She pointed to the floor, a half-smile emerging on her face. But her voice was stern. "Down."

Hercules immediately dropped to one knee. He bowed his head in a gesture of respect and reverence, then looked up into her clear blue eyes. His voice trembled slightly as he said, "Belonging to you has been a privilege, my lady."

"And don't you forget it, slave boy," she said, gracing him with a smile that was both conspiratorial and fond.

"I-I th-thought at first you were so different from the Xena I knew. I only wanted to put things back the way they were," he explained hurriedly. "Then it became a challenge--I wanted to make you let me in, care for me in a way you didn't care for any of your other slaves."

"You succeeded," she said, still smiling. "Don't forget what you've learned here, Hercules. If you remember it, your Iolaus will be even luckier than he already is."

"Thank you--I'll try; he deserves it." Hercules paused. "I was trying so hard to prove myself to you. I don't know when it was I realized that what I wanted wasn't important. That what mattered to me was serving and pleasing you, and that it was *you* I was giving myself to. I love you, Xena."

"I know," she said quietly. "Why do you think I listened to you?" She reached out and grasped a handful of his hair, pulling him forward as she bent down, claiming his mouth in a searing kiss. With one finger she traced her initial on his arm, while their lips and tongues strove to pour a lifetime's worth of desire and fulfillment into each other's mouths. When they parted, Xena helped Hercules to his feet and raised her eyebrows questioningly. He nodded, and she called out, "Ares! I'm ready."

The god appeared, and began, "Did you two have a touching fare--"

"Drop it!" snapped Xena. "Now do it!"

"What-*ev*-er," said the god, "but I still think you're making a mistake."

The temple tilted and spun, rippling around Hercules and Xena like a whirlpool. Hercules felt Xena's hand slide out of his, and blackness overcame him . . .

* * *

Xena reluctantly disengaged her arm from around a sleeping Gabrielle's waist. She glanced around their campsite, trying to identify the source of the sounds she heard. She let her eyes linger for a moment on the attractive form of her lover, then shook her gently. "Gabrielle, wake up. We've got company." Gabrielle reached for her staff, leaping to her feet a moment after Xena did. As the leader of a gang of armed bandits stepped into the clearing, his sword drawn, Xena reached for her chakram, a feral grin on her face. Yes, it was shaping up to be a good day.

* * *

Hercules woke up slowly, his mind hazy with fragments of unusually vivid dreams. Suddenly, his head cleared, and a rush of memory crashed on him like a wave. As if afraid to look, he very carefully rolled over to take in the lean and golden-haired form of his lover lying beside him. "Iolaus," he murmured under his breath, "my Iolaus. Gods, I've missed you." He reached out to wake the hunter, but as he did he glanced at his own upper arm, now devoid of an initial that, after all, had never been carved into it with Xena's knife. Overcome with a flood of emotion that threatened to swamp him, Hercules got up very quietly and took himself several paces away. Joy at what he'd regained and sorrow at what he'd lost welled up inside him, mingling and flowing together so that he couldn't tell them apart. He sat down on a log, put his face in his hands, and wept.


The God of War paced around his temple, fuming. He was genuinely astonished that the Conqueror had actually chosen to change things back, all on the word of his pathetic half-brother. He certainly hadn't anticipated that the driven and single-minded warlord he had nurtured in that timeline would be so taken with the demigod. He had to admit to himself, ruefully but not without a touch of pride, that Xena could not be manipulated and controlled, no matter what situation he threw at her, no matter how carefully planned and geared toward her particular nature. There was some essential core to Xena that he could never reach, and it maddened him that the ones who could reach it were that insipid blonde, Gabrielle, and Hercules.

Ares had more than once considered seriously using the blonde against Xena--bending her to his will by threatening Gabrielle's life. But it wasn't worth the risk that Xena might kill herself to save Gabrielle, rather than comply with his demands--hadn't she been willing to sacrifice herself in her quest to free Prometheus, rather than let Hercules be killed? If Gabrielle's life were at stake, she would be even more determined. Ares sighed. Foiled again. Still, there was satisfaction to be derived from what he had done. He had an opportunity to play with his half-brother's pet, Iolaus, although the passive Iolaus of that timeline hadn't intrigued him nearly as much as the original one had. Nonetheless, fucking him while he knew Hercules had been watching had been enormously satisfying. And his knowledge of Hercules' heretofore undiscovered desire to be mastered was another satisfaction. Hercules would ache and pine for the Conqueror's firm hand, no matter how happy he was to be reunited with his golden-haired boy toy.

So, his plan hadn't been a complete wash--any time he could make his half-brother suffer he felt a sense of accomplishment. But the Conqueror had been such a glorious achievement. Watching her in that battle against Caesar's forces had been truly . . . inspiring. Irritated, the God of War couldn't stop himself from tormenting himself further. With a morbid curiosity, Ares created a window with which he could look in on the warrior princess, but after a while, he found what he was watching to be just too sickening, and he decided his time could be better spent stirring up a war somewhere . . .

* * *

Xena and Gabrielle were bathing in a stream, and Xena was washing the bard's hair. But somehow, her hand kept snaking around to draw circles on Gabrielle's taut abdomen, or to slide up her ribs along her side, or to curve around a slippery breast. She released Gabrielle so she could duck under the water to rinse her hair, then pulled her back against her, her own hard nipples pressed against the bard's back. Xena leaned down to murmur throatily in Gabrielle's ear, "You belong to me, you know that, don't you?"

"Yes, Xena!" gasped Gabrielle, responding both to the dark richness of Xena's voice and to the hands that were now cupping and caressing her breasts.

"And never let it be said I don't take good care of what belongs to me," added the warrior, rolling Gabrielle's nipples between her fingers.

"Oh, that feels good," sighed Gabrielle happily, "but are you sure you don't want me to do something for *you*?"

"Part of taking care of what's mine is making her feel good," purred Xena, sending a little ripple of pleasure down the bard's spine. She shifted slightly to the side. One hand strayed downward to play with the reddish curls under water, while the other hand fondled Gabrielle's firm buttocks, dipping occasionally between her legs. "Tell me, is there anything you want, Gabrielle?"

The bard blushed. "Can we . . . um . . . use our new toy?"

Xena grinned. "Only if you go get it. I like to watch you."

Gabrielle flushed again, and waded to the bank, climbing up and trotting over to where their gear was stashed. She came back with a phallus carved of wood and polished to a gleaming smoothness. "Come over here and lie down on this rock," said Xena, indicating a large flat sun-warmed rock that extended out from the bank into the stream. "Scoot up, and let your legs dangle here," she continued, pressing Gabrielle's knees wide apart. Xena's fingers played along the inside of Gabrielle's thighs. "I like this, right here," commented the warrior, as she stroked the slight swell of the inner thigh just where it met the pelvis. It tickled, and Gabrielle squirmed slightly, and, grinning, Xena began tickling her thighs and the backs of her knees on purpose.

When a laughing and writhing Gabrielle began to try to push Xena's hands away, Xena easily caught both of her wrists in one hand. "I *will* get back at you for this!" the bard threatened.

"Sure you will."

"I *will*!" she inadvertently shrieked, as Xena's tickling grew more purposeful.

"I'm looking forward to it," drawled the warrior, but she stopped tickling Gabrielle, instead sliding two fingers inside her. "I guess you liked *that*" said Xena, lifting one eyebrow in amusement. "It looks like I won't have to send you to get the oil."

She took the phallus, running its tip between Gabrielle's lower lips, and Gabrielle squirmed in frustration. "Please Xena," she asked. "Please, I want it inside me."

"Well, since you ask so nicely," said the warrior coolly, positioning the phallus at the entrance to her lover's body and sliding it inside.

"Uh-huh, like that," said Gabrielle decisively.

Xena moved the phallus in and out with maddening deliberation, sliding it almost all the way out on each stroke and not providing quite enough friction or stimulation to let Gabrielle come.

"Xe-na!" complained the aroused bard.

"Will you never learn patience?" teased Xena. She pushed the phallus all the way in, holding it in place with one hand and lowered her mouth to Gabrielle's clit. At first she lightly flicked it with just the tip of her tongue before settling in with firmer, circular strokes. When she sucked it suddenly into her mouth, Gabrielle yelped, convulsing vigorously around the phallus that filled her. "Was that something along the lines of what you wanted, my love?"

"Oh yes, Xena. I love you."

"I love you, too," said the warrior, pulling herself up onto the rock beside Gabrielle and fastening her mouth onto her lover's for a long, long kiss.

* * *

After Hercules had finished relating his experiences in the other timeline, Iolaus just shook his head, saying first, "Whoa" and then "Shit." Then he added, "Um, Herc, why did you tell me? I mean, in some ways it never happened."

"A couple of reasons. I didn't want you hearing about it from anyone else, namely Ares. And it . . . changed me in some ways." Hercules shrugged. "I didn't want to keep it from you, try to pretend everything was the same . . . when it isn't. For all his mistakes and misjudgments, Ares made sure of that." Iolaus nodded thoughtfully, and Hercules continued. "And I realized . . . again . . . how much I've . . . taken you for granted. I want you to be able to count on me. I didn't mean to hurt you, Iolaus. I wanted to get back to you so badly--and it was ripping me up to know you were with *him*, but I couldn't help . . ."

"Herc, give me some credit," interjected Iolaus softly. "In a situation like that, do you think *I* wouldn't take advantage of it? It was Xena after all. I couldn't have resisted her . . . I almost envy you the experience. I probably would have eaten it up," he finished ruefully.

"Really?" asked Hercules. "It was so hard for me." He reached behind himself, as if expecting to find whip marks there.

"I imagine it would be," said Iolaus with a wry smile.

"I realized something," mused the demigod. "I realized I've never given myself to you the way you've given yourself to me."

Iolaus couldn't help snorting in derision. "This is supposed to be an insight, Herc?"

"Look, Iolaus, I know I'm clueless. Maybe I have too much of my father in me. But I'm trying, damn it!"

"I'm sorry, Herc. I know you are."

"It was a hard lesson for me," noted Hercules seriously. "It was so hard to surrender myself to her will, but at the same time, it was something I *had* to do."

"That's how it works, Herc," said Iolaus dryly. "I guess you had to experience it for yourself to recognize it."

Hercules turned to peer at Iolaus more closely. "Is that how it is for you, Iolaus?"

Iolaus burst out laughing. "If your sister were here, she'd say 'Well, *du-uh*!' right about now. It's a good thing you're so pretty, Herc, or I'd have booted you out a long time ago. If Xena helped you figure some of this stuff out, more power to her."

Hercules flushed. "I'm sorry, Iolaus, that I'm so thoughtless. I could try to blame it on what I inherited from my father, but by now I should have overcome that. I'm so sorry."

"Hey," said Iolaus gently. "Clueless or not, you're the one I love more than anyone else in the world, Hercules. And I'm awfully glad you succeeded in restoring *this* timeline--I don't want to be with anyone but you, my love." He kissed Hercules softly on the lips.

Hercules smiled wanly. "I'd do anything for you, Iolaus, you know that. I'm going to figure out a way to prove myself to you. But first, I need to make sure Xena's OK and back together with Gabrielle."

"Well, then, let's go," said Iolaus, smiling and shaking his head as he followed Hercules.

* * *

After some travelling and some making of inquiries, Hercules and Iolaus found Xena and Gabrielle, apparently looking for *them*. "I believe rabbit stew is on the menu tonight. Care to join us for dinner?" asked Xena, gesturing to the small clearing where Gabrielle had been setting up sticks for a fire. Argo was placidly grazing nearby.

"We'd be delighted," said Iolaus, looking forward to catching up on things with Gabrielle and perhaps commiserating about their respective relationships. "I'll help Gabrielle," he volunteered, knowing from experience that Xena preferred not to cook.

Xena glanced at Hercules and jerked her head sideways. "I need to talk to you. Let's take a walk."

Hercules nodded and followed her out of the clearing.

"What's up?" asked Xena tersely.

"What do you mean?" he asked. "I . . . just wanted to make sure you two were OK. Checking in with you."

"That's very thoughtful, Hercules," said Xena with a wry smile, "but that's not what I'm talking about. You're looking at me differently, and when I suggested we take a walk, you tensed up. Even now, you're holding yourself differently."

"You're very observant," noted Hercules dryly, avoiding answering her questions.

"I'd be dead by now if I wasn't," she responded. "Something's going on. I've been having some *very* vivid dreams about things I know never happened. They don't seem like Strife's work, but they're so much clearer than regular dreams. And you're in them."

"I see," said Hercules quietly, trying to digest this information. "And were they . . . good dreams?"

Xena flashed a brilliant smile. "Yeah, actually. Very good. You look relieved, Hercules."

"Do I? So . . . um . . . what were they about?"

"Welll," drawled Xena. "I seemed to be a warlord, but this time I seemed to have conquered all of Greece. I knew somehow that I was fighting Caesar. Most of the dreams involved you though. I'll be blunt. I seemed to be having my way with you," she concluded, her eyes dancing with amusement.

Hercules flushed. "I didn't think you'd . . . " he began. "Shit. All of that did happen . . . in another timeline. Ares did it--it was his way of getting you back the way he wanted you--and giving me a hard time at the same time. Fortunately, I . . . persuaded you to ask to have *this* time restored."

"That meddling coward!" snapped Xena. "How in Hades did he manage to pull that off, anyway?"

"Hera helped him."

Xena raised her eyebrows and shook her head in exasperation. "Tell me more."

"Do I have to?" asked Hercules softly, dropping his eyes. "I'd appreciate it," said Xena seriously. "Have a seat?" She gestured to a fallen tree.

Hercules sighed and sat down next to Xena. "Zeus forced one concession out of them. If *you* asked to have things put back the way they were, they had to do it. Ares wanted me there, seeing you as a warlord again--you were known as the Conqueror in fact. And he had made Iolaus *his*."

"Of course he did," snapped Xena, shaking her head with disgust.

"I knew I had to gain your confidence," continued Hercules, "so I could tell you about the way things were supposed to be. 'Dite suggested I let myself be captured as a . . . slave. And I did." He paused, and a mere flicker of a smile crossed his face. "I seem to have met with your approval."

"So you were my slave . . . " mused Xena. "I can definitely see some possibilities there. I'm only sorry Ares didn't leave *me* with memories of the whole thing. I want to hear all about it."

"Xena!" protested Hercules, embarrassed.

"Please?" asked Xena, "I want to know what Ares was up to, and, frankly, I want to know what you and I were up to. I'd like to know what I'm missing." She took his hand in one of hers, lightly stroking the back with her fingers. "Trust me, Hercules?"

She smiled, and a flash of exasperated resignation crossed Hercules' face. "Fine," he said tightly. "I'll tell you."

" . . . and it was hard," he concluded some time later, jumping up and beginning to pace, avoiding Xena's eyes. "You represented everything that I fight against, and I just lost my will in yours."

"Really," said Xena, fighting the smile that seemed determined to quirk her lips and rising gracefully to her feet. "Why do you suppose that is?"

"There was something about you . . . there," said Hercules. "A kind of presence that no one could resist. You . . . overwhelmed me." He shrugged and glanced away.

"Did I, now?" said Xena with an amused smile. "How so?"

"You had this . . . ability," explained the demigod, "a way of getting everyone around you to do exactly what you wanted, when you wanted. I couldn't have disobeyed you if I wanted to."

"I see," said Xena dryly, "Was it something like this?" She turned away for a moment, then whirled around to face Hercules. Her eyes burned with cold fire, and her body seemed to radiate energy, determination, authority, and purpose. In a devastatingly quiet voice she said, "On your knees, boy!" Each word was weighted and modulated for maximum effect, and Hercules felt an almost-involuntary reflex twitch his legs, as his body immediately responded to an irresistible impulse to kneel. But he stopped himself, staring at Xena with his jaw slightly dropped. For that moment she *was* the Conqueror, and she had just unleashed the full force of her power on him.

"Yeah," he said slowly. "It was something like that. Can you just *do* that any time?"

The commanding attitude melted, and Xena burst out laughing. "Yes, Hercules, as a matter of fact, I can, but I don't do it very often. And you're one of the very, very few people I've seen who could withstand it. See, it wasn't *me* *making* you obey--you're going to have live with the fact that you did it of your own free will."

Hercules sat down again, putting his face in his hands. Xena joined him, pulling his hands away from his face and making him look at her. "Why are you so embarrassed by it?" she asked. "By your accounts, which the dreams I've been having confirm, you offered me a rare and wonderful gift. Even though it wasn't me as I am now, I feel honored."

"I don't know if I can explain it," began the demigod. "At the time it felt like the . . . right thing to do. Like it was the only thing to do. I wanted to please you more than anything. But--the things you did to me, the things I submitted to--willingly--that's just not how I see myself, Xena. Looking back I wonder how I could have done those things."

He had picked up a stick and was drawing it in restless pattern in the dirt. "Do you look down on Iolaus for giving himself to you?" Xena asked abruptly.

"Gods, no. He's beautiful when he does. But he almost always puts up a fight. I made no resistance at all."

Xena shook her head in mild exasperation. "Iolaus puts up a fight because he likes to be overpowered. You *can't* be overpowered--by a mortal anyway. For you to surrender yourself like that, when all along you didn't *have* to obey me, took strength, Hercules. And a real generosity of spirit. Face it, my friend, as much as you want to master, you want to be mastered as well. Don't lock away what I helped you open up. Think of what *your* submission would mean to Iolaus."

"You're right," he mused, "I know I don't open myself up to him the way he does to me. There's so much more I could be giving him. I've always just used my strength to assume the upper hand--that always felt safe to me, and

I never had to be vulnerable the way he did."

"Uh-*huh*," agreed Xena emphatically. "You're not the only one."

"Oh, really?" responded Hercules. "Care to elaborate?"

"Nope. This isn't about *me*," she answered curtly. Then she turned to him, her face softened, and raised his hand to her lips. "Thank you for trusting me enough tell me about it, Hercules. Means a lot to me. I only wish I'd been there to experience it for myself . . . " She paused. "C'mon," she said, punching him in the arm and suddenly changing the subject, "we still have some time before they'll get that stew ready. Let's do some sparring--I could use the workout."

Hercules got up and grinned. "Admit it, Xena. You just want a legitimate excuse to leave your marks on me."

* * *

That night Hercules wrapped himself around Iolaus with a fierce intensity. From his perspective, it had been many days since he had made love to him, and he wanted to reclaim every part of Iolaus' body as his. With his fingers and lips and teeth and tongue, he coaxed all of Iolaus' nerves awake, playing along his throat, over his chest, across his back, down his arms, up his legs, and around his nipples and cock. Iolaus' groans of arousal and pleasure were only muffled by the squeaks and sighs and moans coming from the bedroll on the other side of the fire, punctuated by the low purr of Xena's voice.

Afterward, as they lay in sweaty proximity, Hercules still stroking Iolaus' body in grateful awe for what he'd been given, he said, "Iolaus, my love, I wish I could offer myself to you the way you offer yourself to me. That you trust me with all of you, your body, your soul, is a miracle--I wish I could open myself to you in the same way."

"I know Herc," said the hunter softly. "Most of the time there's nowhere else I'd rather be than under *your* control. But there are times when I'd like to be the one in charge. And maybe it's my own limitation, but I can't ever forget that you can always just turn things around and take over."

"Damn, I do that a lot, don't I?" mused Hercules.

"Yeah, you do. You're a lousy bottom, Herc, but I love you anyway."

"Wait!" exclaimed the demigod, his face lighting up with a broad smile. "I have an idea! I'll have to be gone for about a day, but I think it'll be worth it."

"Sure, Herc. I'll be waiting for you."

"I love you, Iolaus."

"Love you too, Herc," murmured Iolaus sleepily.

The next morning they took their leave from a fresh and alert Xena and a groggy Gabrielle, who really would have preferred to sleep longer. After bidding farewell to Iolaus, Xena rested a hand on Hercules' arm, saying "Take care of yourself, Hercules." Their eyes locked, and a reaffirmation of the deep bond of their love and friendship passed between them. Gabrielle and Iolaus hugged good-bye, and the women headed down the road together, leading Argo. Iolaus struck off for home, and Hercules went to complete his errand.

* * *

Iolaus had been meditatively contemplating the sunset and wondering what Hercules was up to; when it got dark, he wandered inside. After lighting candles, he sat down to read a couple of scrolls Gabrielle had copied for him. He flung the scroll aside when he heard the unmistakable sounds of Hercules' entrance into the forge. The demigod stepped into the bedroom, carrying a leather pouch that emitted a clanking noise. "Look!" he exclaimed, without bothering to greet Iolaus. He pulled a set of chains and cuffs out of the pouch.

"Herc?" asked Iolaus, puzzled.

Hercules wrapped the ends of one of the chain around his hands and tried to pull it apart. He strained and grimaced, his muscles flexing and swelling in that way that Iolaus never failed to find arousing, but the links of the chain didn't budge. Hercules beamed proudly, his eyes shining. "I can't break these, Iolaus! I had Hephaestus make them strong enough. He complained about it too."

Iolaus grinned. "Did you tell him what they were for?"

"Naw. Let him speculate."

Iolaus was finally taking in the significance of Hercules' errand. "You can't break those, and you're going to let me put them on you?"

"Yes, Iolaus," said Hercules, turning serious. He sank to his knees in front of his lover and pulled something off his belt. "Here are the keys. They're yours. Keep them where you like--I don't have to know where they are. I do trust you, and now I can prove it."

Iolaus accepted the keys, his eyes wide. Hercules had never knelt quite so gracefully before. His whole posture radiated both willing submission and a calm pride, as he tossed his hair back, and clasped his hands behind his back. "You *have* changed," he murmured.

"I-I've learned to give up . . . control," explained the demigod. "It wasn't easy. I love you Iolaus--and I want to give myself to you in a way I've never been able to before. Take me, use me, whatever you like. All that I have is yours." Iolaus gazed at the guileless blue eyes that were looking up at him. They were deep and clear, unclouded by Hercules' usual cares and unmasked by the demigod's usual assertion of dominance.

A radiant grin flashed across Iolaus' face. "I accept your offer, Herc. Now get those clothes off so I can try out these new toys of ours." Iolaus pulled off his own clothes as well. "Now show me you mean it, Herc. Show me you want it."

Hercules dropped to his knees in front of Iolaus, bending to place a reverent kiss on the head of Iolaus' cock. He looked up, the deep pools of his blue eyes concealing nothing. "May I?" he asked softly.

Iolaus felt a rush of emotion flood his heart, drain his lungs, and swell his cock. Hercules almost always just took what he wanted from the blond hunter--asking, in such a respectful way, to pleasure him was something new. "Yes, you may," said Iolaus, once he could restore a modicum of firmness to his voice.

Iolaus was always grateful when Hercules went down on him--the demigod's lips and tongue were as strong as the rest of him and capable of exerting a firm pressure that overwhelmed Iolaus with pleasure. But this time was different. Hercules was taking his time, carefully prolonging Iolaus' pleasure with meticulous attention. His tongue forged a trail up the underside of Iolaus' cock, swirled around the head, then returned to the same path over and over again. Iolaus trembled with arousal. When Hercules began sweeping over Iolaus' balls with his tongue, exploring them with a touch that was just firm enough, Iolaus grabbed two handfuls of Hercules' hair for support. Hercules' smiled slightly to himself around the testicle that filled his mouth, and raised up his hands to support Iolaus' hips without missing a beat, his teeth lightly grazing the sensitive flesh. Finally, he enclosed Iolaus' cock with his mouth in one smooth movement. His head moved as he slid a hot wet channel along that engorged member, almost releasing it before inhaling the whole of it again, his lips forming a tight O and his tongue wrapping itself around as much of the silky wet flesh as it could. When Iolaus began to moan louder and louder, Hercules sucked all the harder, and suddenly Iolaus thrust hard into his lover's mouth, pouring a hot stream of his essence down Hercules' receptive throat.

Iolaus swayed, but Hercules retained his firm grasp on his hips. When his breathing had steadied, Iolaus said, "You've convinced me you want it Herc. On the bed, on your back, now!" Hercules obeyed, his eyes widening slightly. He had so naturally assumed the upper hand, and Iolaus had always been so intoxicated by his strength, that he hadn't really considered that Iolaus might also crave to be in charge. Whenever they did switch roles, Hercules could never submit for long--he invariably used his far greater strength to reassert his position. Now, he was truly placing himself in Iolaus' hands for the first time, and they both knew it. Whistling cheerfully, Iolaus arranged Hercules to his liking with the restraints Hephaestus had forged. He locked Hercules' wrists to the head of the bed, then pushed the demigod's legs wide apart, pressing so they bent slightly at the knee. The cuffs closed around Hercules' ankles with a satisfying snick, and Iolaus locked a short length of chain to the bed frame on either side, forcing Hercules to remain spread wide open and accessible.

"Try and get loose," ordered Iolaus tersely.

Hercules strained at his restraints, but to no avail. "I can't," he whispered.

"How does that make you feel?" asked the hunter, surveying his bound prey with a smile.

"Um . . . scared . . . and safe at the same time. I . . . trust you, Iolaus."

"Yes, you must," murmured Iolaus softly, as the magnitude of what Hercules was offering him began to sink in. For the son of Zeus to place himself in a situation where his strength could not free him--particularly after the disaster of his short marriage to Serena--was to accept a vulnerability that cut to the very core of his sense of himself. "You're beautiful, Herc." Iolaus grinned, "you look good enough to eat, but I have other plans for you."

Iolaus sat on the bed, his head cocked slightly to the side. "You know something, Herc," he mused. "All these years and years I've known you, and I've never had the opportunity to discover whether you're ticklish. Somehow it wasn't worth a broken bone to find out."

"Well . . . I'm not," asserted Hercules firmly.

"Like Hades, you aren't!" exclaimed Iolaus, before putting his theory to the test. His quick hands fluttered furiously over the demigod's body, diving under his arms, skittering down his sides, and making passes at the backs of his knees and the soles of his feet. Hercules squirmed and struggled, desperately trying and failing to escape Iolaus' tormenting fingertips, and he shook with helpless laughter. He didn't think anyone had tickled him since he was a young child, when Iphicles had tried and had found himself flung across the yard for his pains. It was awful, and he hated it, and he wanted Iolaus to STOP, but his helplessness sent a flood of delirious warmth down all his veins, all converging on his cock. When Iolaus did stop, and Hercules was gasping for breath, the cuffs felt secure around his wrists and ankles and he gazed up at Iolaus with a look of pure worship.

"You can do anything, anything you want with me," he whispered urgently.

"I know," said Iolaus, "and I intend to." He emphasized his words by laying a hand on Hercules' throat, pressing lightly and stroking along it with his thumb, while Hercules' swallowed against the pressure of his hand. Not moving his hand Iolaus covered Hercules' mouth with his own, and Hercules strained upward to admit his lover's tongue further inside. Breaking the kiss, Iolaus began exploring Hercules' body with a leisure that was new to his experience. He sucked an earlobe into his mouth, nibbling on it carefully, while one hand mapped the contours of biceps swelling into slightly more prominent definition from the position in which Hercules' arms were bound. Hercules exhaled a slow, shuddering breath. Iolaus' deliberate attentions began slowly igniting his body a part at a time. The lips and teeth teasing his earlobe were maddening; he craved a rougher touch, but there was nothing he could do about it. Iolaus, for his own part, was relishing the firmness of the bulging muscles under his fingers. He moved his attentions to Hercules' throat, licking a path up from his collarbone, almost to his chin, stopping to close his teeth on the demigod's Adam's apple and moving back down to trace circles in the tempting hollow with his tongue.

Iolaus shifted, allowing his tongue and fingers to roam all over Hercules' chest and abdomen, sweeping along the cords of muscles, circling the swell of pectorals, ever approaching, but never touching the yearning nipples, and sending the demigod into a spasm of wriggling with a teasing probe of the navel. He was relentlessly methodical. Every rib had to be defined with a brush of the fingers; it seemed every curl of the covering of dark hair had to be twirled on a tongue or wound around a fingertip. "Io-laus . . . " Hercules breathed, half-ecstatic and half-tormented by the hyper-awareness that the hunter was bringing to seemingly every finger's breadth of his body.

Iolaus sat up, a teasing grin on his face. He began pulling and twisting Hercules' nipples, again with an infuriating deliberateness, and said, "Ah, Herc, you tease me like this all the time, not letting me come until I'm practically, if not actually, in tears with frustration. Well, I'm giving you a taste of your own medicine with an added twist, as you'll find out soon enough. Remember the few times I tried to do this to you before, Herc? What happened when you got frustrated?"

"I flipped you over on your knees and fucked you," admitted the demigod, half-arrogantly and half-sheepishly.

"Well, you can't do that now, can you? How you like *them* apples?"

"A . . . lot," Hercules answered with a lift of his eyebrows and a conspiratorial smile at his tormentor.

"Good," said Iolaus decisively, "because you won't be getting any relief any time soon." As he spoke he continued to pinch and twist Hercules' nipples, until they were tingling and throbbing with sensitivity. He moved down and began meditatively flicking Hercules' cock with his finger, musing aloud, "Now *what* should I do with *this*?" His finger lightly grazed Hercules' anus, moving in teasingly light circles, while his tongue danced along Hercules' cock, its swirling, dipping, and travelling punctuated by the occasional nip of the teeth.

Then Iolaus did something Hercules didn't expect. He unlocked his hands from their cuffs. "You want to prove yourself to me, Herc?" he asked.

"Uh-*huh*," said the demigod firmly, his eyes wide.

"Well you're going to offer yourself up to me in a way you never have before. And you're going to do everything I say."

"Yes, Iolaus," said Hercules happily, his eyes shining with anticipation and an edge of nervousness. What *did* Iolaus have in mind?

"You're not the only one who's been shopping for toys. In fact you can thank Xena for the tip." Iolaus unwrapped a nondescript looking parcel that had been shoved in a corner of the room, pulling out a large, smooth, carved phallus with a convenient handle for gripping.

"I'll have to thank Xena all right," said Hercules in a tone that suggested Xena might not appreciate the means of being thanked. "What do you intend to do with that?"

"Oh, it's not what *I'm* going to do with it, Herc. It's what *you're* going to do, my love. I don't just want to see you bringing yourself off; I want to see you making love to yourself--for *me*." Iolaus fetched a vial of oil and settled himself, cross-legged, between Hercules' thighs. "Your hands are free, Herc," he continued, his voice husky with urgency. "You could probably get me to get you out of those ankle cuffs. Are you going to assert yourself, or are you going to give up control to me? We both know it's up to you."

"I'm all yours, Iolaus," said Hercules softly.

Iolaus flashed a grin. "Good. Well. Let me get you started." He applied oil to the phallus in a brisk and businesslike manner, then coated two of his fingers and slid them inside Hercules, working to lubricate and stretch the tight passage. Then he withdrew his fingers and pressed the tip of the phallus to the opening to Hercules' body.

"You can go ahead," Hercules whispered.

With care, Iolaus pushed the phallus inside Hercules' ass, watching it slowly disappear inside his lover's body. "It's all yours now," he said casually, gesturing toward Hercules' right hand. "But don't even imagine you're allowed to come."

"Wouldn't dream of it," said Hercules, closing his hand around the handle. He flushed. Iolaus had latched on to his vulnerabilities as effectively as Xena had. To touch himself, pleasure himself like this with Iolaus' bright eyes watching his every move and response was deeply thrilling and unnerving at the same time. It had been easier to submit to the Conqueror. This was Iolaus, and Hercules had had a lot invested in his position as the dominant partner, the one with the vastly superior strength who could effortlessly and efficiently bend Iolaus to his will. Now his physical strength was irrelevant; all he could do was offer himself up to Iolaus with the strength of his willingness to surrender, to be the vulnerable one.

"Go slow," said Iolaus, trying not to let his astonishment at Hercules' willingness to comply reveal itself. "I want to see every finger's breadth of that cock as it slides out of you and back in again."

"Yes, Iolaus," murmured Hercules, shifting himself to allow himself greater ease of access. He could feel himself yielding under his lover's hungry scrutiny, and the intensity of Iolaus' blue-eyed gaze told him that he was making an impression. As ordered, he began fucking himself slowly with the phallus, both flushing in humiliation and glorying in his exposure. Each deliberate stroke ignited a slow burn inside him, and each withdrawal of the phallus left him aching with need. His cock was hard with desire, and he wanted to make that slow burn inside him flame out with hard, fast, battering strokes, but he had to control the impulses that were making their way down his body in waves. He adjusted his grip on the handle of the phallus, feeling himself press himself open with the rounded head, feeling it widen a fiery channel inside him, nudging his prostate in a way that sent waves of pleasure radiating throughout his body, and then sliding out again, making him grit his teeth with frustration. And again, and again, and again, the same tortuous slow path of mounting arousal and frustration.

As Hercules' breathing quickened, and a fresh sheen of sweat glistened on his body, Iolaus said abruptly. "Enough of that." He took the handle in his own hand, buried the phallus deep inside Hercules, and held it there. "I want to see you touching your chest and your belly--really touching them, like a lover. I want you to offer all of that glorious musculature to my eyes--and see for yourself what all the fuss is about," concluded Iolaus with a wry smile.

Hercules complied, placing his hands flat on his belly, fingers splayed, then drew them inward slowly, tracing the ridges of his own muscles. He explored his chest and abdomen in a way he hadn't since he was a teenager,

peering anxiously into a mirror and scrutinizing, with his eyes and hands, whatever he might have to offer a future lover and hoping it would pass inspection. He felt both peaceful and aroused in a way that was quite new to him, as the phallus inside him seemed to throb and burn, sending pulsations to his ever-hungrier cock. But at the same time, he felt a calm certainty that he was giving Iolaus pleasure *and* giving him a gift that would strengthen the bond between them in an entirely new way. And besides that, it just felt good--his own warm hands gliding over his sweat-slick flesh. He was the last person in the world to peacock over his own physique, but forced to explore it, he had to admit that his own muscles felt pretty good under his fingers, firm, and knotted, and humming with reined-in power and strength.

Iolaus seemed to have stopped breathing, so transfixed was he by the sight before him. Speaking as if in a trance, he finally said, "Now your nipples. Play with them."

Hercules took in his own breath slightly, as his fingers closed on his own nipples, already sensitive from Iolaus' earlier rough treatment. At first, he circled them tightly with one finger each, then began rolling them between his thumb and forefinger on each hand. If Iolaus had been hoping to make him even more aroused, this was having the desired effect. A fork of lightning seemed to flash from each nipple to his cock. "Do that thing you do to me--where you increase the pressure," demanded Iolaus, his voice rough and eager. "I want to see you hurt yourself."

*Can I?* thought Hercules to himself. He pinched each nipple with a steadily increasing pressure, but noticed that Iolaus' free hand, as of its own volition, had strayed to his own chest and was roaming there restlessly. Hercules' question was soon answered--yes, he could hurt himself. His nipples pulsed and burned, and he groaned loudly, wondering if continued pressure would set his nipples literally on fire. Jittery ripples of tension were rocketing through his arms and stomach and legs. He wanted to come so badly he was shaking, but that desire was secondary to pleasing Iolaus.

A long moan of desire and pain escaped his throat, and Iolaus mercifully said, "Stop. Here, coat your hands." Iolaus handed him the vial of oil, and Hercules still breathless from the delicious throbbing in his nipples, quickly obeyed. "Take your time," noted Iolaus. "I'm enjoying watching you--I can't tell you how much. Touch your balls first. I'll tell you when to move on." Hercules' fingers strayed over his balls as Iolaus had ordered. He weighed them and examined their roundness with his fingers, then began a slow massage, pressing just hard enough to send twinges of sensation into his cock. He panted and gasped; each flash of sensation set him on fire, building the pressure within him inexorably.

*I can't stand this,* he thought to himself. *I have to come. I have to get those cuffs off my ankles and get out of this ridiculous position.* The muscles in his legs were beginning to twitch and jump from being held apart for so long, and Hercules was tossing his head restlessly on the pillow, irritated by the rivulets of sweat that were soaking it and running in ticklish, wavering lines down his body. *No,* he corrected himself. *I'm doing this for Iolaus. I'm doing this because I have to give myself to him.* Again, he consciously yielded, and again, Iolaus saw it. Hercules' body perceptibly relaxed, and he looked Iolaus steadily in the eye, as if saying, "Look what I'm doing for you. Know that I would do anything for you." But there was also just the faintest dangerous gleam of planned revenge.

Iolaus apparently saw and understood it all, for he nodded in understanding and smiled. He and Hercules always did communicate better without words. "OK," he said, his voice tight with awe and lust. "Your cock. But slowly. Just make a circle of your thumb and forefinger." Hercules did as he was told, sliding the circle up and down his aching, needy member. The long-desired contact made him shudder with delirium, but he maintained the steady pace Iolaus seemed to want. His anus was contracting on the phallus inside him, and he didn't know how much longer he could hold out. Maybe if he tried thinking about the Hydra . . . or Graegus. No, he was giving his mind and soul up to Iolaus too--he would stay here in the present and exercise all the self-control Iolaus required of him.

"I-I've always been . . . yours," he gasped. "I just didn't . . . understand."

"I know," said Iolaus. He leaned over to kiss Hercules hard, one hand still holding the phallus inside him. "Give me your hand," he ordered. Hercules held it out, still looking Iolaus steadily in the eye. Iolaus poured a dollop of oil onto Hercules' palm and said, "OK, Herc, go for it. Come for me."

"All . . . for . . . you!" grunted Hercules as he grasped his cock and began milking it with all the vigor he could stand. At the same time, Iolaus began fucking him with the phallus, and he was assaulted by cascades of sensation, burning him, flaying him, stripping him raw, and turning him inside out. "I-O-LAUS!" he howled, his hips thrusting furiously, and his hand pumping the seed out of his engorged and throbbing cock as it splashed his stomach and chest. His chest heaved, as he gulped for air, and tears spilled from his eyes, and he didn't notice Iolaus unlocking the cuffs on his ankles.

Iolaus scooped a handful of semen off his lover's body and said, "On your hands and knees, Herc, NOW!"

Hercules flipped himself over before he even consciously registered the words. As the waves of red began to clear from his vision, he glanced back to see Iolaus spreading his own cock with semen. A moment later, he felt Iolaus inside him, taking him, fucking him, claiming him, hands gripping his hips with a painful urgency. Iolaus drove into him brutally, and Hercules flung his hips back, meeting each thrust with equal strength. They rocked together in a violent rhythm until Iolaus flung his head back and yelled, and Hercules felt himself flooded with his lover's seed.

Now Iolaus was in tears as well, murmuring how beautiful Hercules was when he surrendered himself, and how much he loved him, and Hercules was reciprocating the sentiment, saying, "I'm yours Iolaus, as much as you are mine."

* * *

Later, bathing together in a nearby stream, by moonlight, Iolaus pulled Hercules close for a kiss and said, "The cuffs were a lovely idea, Herc, and I intend to make use of them--you're heartstoppingly stunning in chains, my love--but we really didn't need them, did we?"

"No," said Hercules with a warm smile. "I never realized what I was missing--and what I was holding back from you, Iolaus. I've learned . . . a lot."

"Well, I owe the Conqueror a debt of gratitude," said Iolaus with a merry grin.

"Yes, we both do," murmured Hercules. Then he turned to Iolaus, and swept him up out of the water and into his arms. "Just don't get *too* used to being on top, my love. I used . . . to be afraid that if I really surrendered, I wouldn't be able to find my power again. But I'm pretty sure that isn't the case."

"Maybe, Herc, we should find out," said Iolaus softly, yielding his body to the strong arms that held him . . .

Hercules woke up the next the next morning, smiling at the sight of the tousled blond head of his sleeping lover and at his memories of the night before. He glanced upward and said quietly, "You didn't win, Ares. Not only do I have Iolaus back," he stroked the golden curls with a possessive confidence, "but Xena is back where she belongs, with *her* Gabrielle, and you've given me the opportunity to learn some lessons I'll honor the rest of my life. I never thought I'd say this, brother, but . . . thank you."

The End

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