With the exception of original characters created by the author, all characters belong to Pacific Renaissance Productions, Universal Studios, or MCA. Yes, I'm using them without permission, but I'm writing this for love, not for money, so I trust no one will get uptight about it.
This story contains explicit descriptions of male/male sexual relations.
You can check out more work by Euphonius at Kerry's Korner
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
In memory of Mr. Jake
Despite a minor setback, it had been a very good day, so I was eminently pleased with myself. I was returning home from a successful trip, having sold a very nice emerald and diamond bracelet to a rich lady for a goodly number of dinars. By noon tomorrow, I'd be at my new house in Lydicea. I could've been there tonight, if my horse hadn't been stolen. Oh well, these things happen now and again. Of course, I wasn't exactly looking forward to seeing my father when I got home. The old man was pretty sick and simply couldn't manage by himself anymore, so when I had ended up with the property as a result of a bad debt, I had insisted he move in with me. He didn't like it much.
But I'd deal with all that tomorrow. Tonight I wanted nothing so much as a chance to get cleaned up and find a soft bed to sleep on. Oh yes, and someone else to share that bed would be nice also. I'd pay for that last item, if I had to, but I thought I'd look around a bit first and see if there was anything available for free. Accordingly, even as I arranged with the innkeeper for a hot bath and a room, I was also checking out the other men sitting around in the common room drinking, eating, or just generally hanging out.
Hey, this is Greece, right? Unlike some other less-enlightened cultures out there, we know better than to restrict ourselves to the dubious pleasures of women. As for me, personally I prefer men. (Not boys, mind you, as so many men my age do. Children hold no interest for me.)
I noticed several possibilities, including one who really wasn't my type but was kind of intriguing anyway. Oh well, first a bath and some clean clothes, then I'd come back down and see if any of my likely prospects were still around. After all, I'd been on the road for three days and doubtless smelled that way, not to mention having a number of scrapes and bruises that would be much better for a good soaking.
As it happened, the only one of my possibilities still there when I returned a while later was the one I had marked down as questionable. I walked casually over to the fireplace and made as if to warm my hands at the flames, all the while keeping one eye on the little fellow with blond hair who sat by himself at a table against the wall, staring morosely into the tankard in his hand when he wasn't busy drinking from it. Two empty mugs sat on the table in front of him, mute evidence of the fact that he was doing his level best to get drunk as fast as he could. Although the tavern was noisy and crowded by this late in the evening, no one else shared the table with him. That was unusual in and of itself. After all, he was pretty good-looking, even if he wasn't my type. (My taste in men runs more towards tall, dark, and vaguely sinister types. This guy would never make the cut on that score. Far too pretty.)
I moved over to the bar to get some ale, and also to get a better view of the man who'd caught my eye. Despite a somewhat boyish appearance, on closer inspection I could tell he wasn't all that much younger than my own 45 years. Nice build too, but I had the insane urge to comb his curly sun-bleached hair, since it had that unkempt look that really irritates me. And he was kind of on the short side. Little men too often have something to prove. (I ought to know. I'm none too tall myself. Truth to be told, if this guy stood up, our eyes would probably be just about on the same level.)
So, overall, he wasn't my ideal lay. Why was I even considering making a move on him? To this day, I couldn't tell you. There was just something about him, I guess. Or maybe I was more than ordinarily horny.
I know, I know. I should have seen the warning signs: good-looking guy with no one, either male or female, even close to him, the empty mugs clearly showing his effort to get drunk, the men at nearby tables eyeing him strangely, as if they were a bit leery of him. But, as I just said, I was thinking with my prick rather than my brain, something that happens fairly often even to the best of us.
Overall, he was cute enough. I figured I wouldn't mind having him in my bed, if he went in for such diversions. I decided to give it my best shot. All he could do was tell me to fuck off, right? While I myself am nothing special in the looks department, I'm not terribly hard on the eyes either. If you saw me in a crowd, you probably wouldn't notice me. But then, that's the way I like it, most of the time. It's safer than being conspicuous, if you're a travelling merchant who deals in expensive goods.
Picking up my ale and the plate of rather dubious stew that had just been set in front of me, I strolled casually over to my disheveled blond target.
"Care for some company?" I asked lightly.
He looked me up and down as if he really wasn't too sure if he did or not. The expression on his face almost made me reconsider. Then the blue-gray eyes softened slightly and he nodded.
Needing nothing more by way of an invitation, I sat down across from him. "My name's Euphonius. And you?"
"Iolaus," he replied shortly, before he went back to drinking whatever it was he was drinking.
The name didn't ring any bells with me. After all, it's a reasonably common name.
I tried every conversational gambit I knew to draw him out, but he just kept drinking and offered me nothing but monosyllables in reply. Despite his behavior, I got the feeling he didn't usually try to drink himself into oblivion this way. When he reached the bottom of his mug, I decided to try the direct approach. I gave an exasperated sigh and said, "Look, I can buy you another one of those, if you wish. But I'd much rather offer you something better. I've got a room upstairs, if you're interested."
I put one hand suggestively on his leather-clad thigh and gave him my best seductive smile. For a moment there, I didn't think it was going to work. He looked at me straight on and the blue eyes went cold and dead. I was afraid he was about to haul off and hit me. Then he smiled crookedly and the menace was gone as quickly as it had appeared.
"Okay. Yeah. That sounds good to me."
I stood up and headed for the stairs. He leaned over and picked up a sword that was almost as big as he was, then followed me somewhat unsteadily across the crowded tavern.
I had taken one of the nicest rooms the inn had to offer. Before going downstairs, I'd left one candle burning in a sconce on the far wall, just enough to shed a little light, but not too much. More romantic that way.
There was a brief moment of awkwardness once we were actually alone together. He looked at me kind of like he wasn't real sure how he had gotten himself into this, which made very little sense, as I was certain he had realized earlier on that I was picking him up. Naïveté didn't fit him, so I figured there was some other reason. Maybe a lover somewhere? Or more likely just too much to drink and now he was having second thoughts?
I decided not to give him time to back out. Plastering myself against the front of his body, I wrapped one arm around his neck and kissed him, using the other hand to grab his crotch. Even through the leather, it was easy to tell that his cock wasn't having any second thoughts. That was a good sign.
He let the sword slip from his hand as I fondled him. When I saw the semi-glazed look in his eyes shift from half-drunk to sex, I broke off the kiss and stepped back a little.
"So, what's your pleasure, my friend?" I asked softly. "I can play it from either side."
He blinked, then focussed on my face as his mouth went tight. "My choice?"
I nodded eagerly, trying to peel his vest down off his shoulders with the one hand that wasn't otherwise engaged.
"On your face. On the bed. Now," was the succinct and surprisingly harsh reply.
It was my turn to hesitate. Had I perhaps miscalculated here? Maybe he wasn't the gentle little pretty boy he appeared to be? If I had learned one thing in my long and varied sex life, it's that you don't judge a person's actions in bed by their appearance. But he just didn't come across as the abrupt and cruel type.
Still, I could be wrong.
"Is there a problem?" he asked, when I didn't move immediately. He had taken off his belt and held it in one hand.
"Uh - no. Of course not."
And there wasn't, not really. I'm used to fairly rough sex. I didn't mind it when he proceeded to pull my pants off and fuck me with very little in the way of preliminaries. Like I said, I've dealt with that before and I can handle it. I can even enjoy it, if it's done properly. What I haven't dealt with is someone who mutters an unending litany of extremely colorful curses and imprecations during the entire time he's pounding his cock into my ass, and then finally comes with something more like a strangled sob than a moan of pleasure.
He rolled off me and collapsed on the bed. I studied his face in profile for several seconds as he lay there catching his breath.
It was quite obvious that he was pretty damn mad at somebody or something, but, despite the way he'd just acted, I didn't think it was me. I jumped to a hasty conclusion and decided to try it out on reality.
"I'm not the one you really want in this bed, am I?" I asked carefully.
He just shook his head.
"Okay, now who is it you really want to be fucking?"
"Hercules?!" Something clicked into place in my mind. "Oh, shit! You mean you're *that* Iolaus?"
"Yeah," he said, looking somewhat taken aback by my evident consternation. "I thought you knew. Most everybody around here does."
I shook my head slowly, still staring at him in shock. It made sense now. This was the man some people called Hercules' Golden Hunter, the demi-god's long-time friend and companion - and his lover. What on earth was I doing in bed with someone like that? It could be just plain dangerous.
"He's going to kill me," I moaned.
Iolaus blinked, still puzzled. "Who? Herc? What for?"
"Well, I mean, you and me - uh - "
He laughed then, but it wasn't a particularly joyful sound. Bitter would describe it more accurately. "Don't worry. Hercules wouldn't hurt anyone just because I screwed around with them. It's not like that between us." A really dark shadow crossed his face. "Besides, it doesn't matter anyway. He's gone."
He turned away from me, covering his eyes with one hand as he did so.
Okay, I could roll over and pretend to fall asleep now, effectively getting myself out of this situation before it became any worse. In the morning, if not before, he'd be gone. But he looked awfully forlorn curled up on the edge of the bed that way. And awfully gorgeous, even from behind.
So since when have I ever done the sensible thing when it comes to something like this? I scooted over behind him, put one arm carefully around his waist, and pulled him against me as tightly as I dared.
"You want to tell me about it?" I said to the tangled blond curls on the back of his head.
He sighed and I felt his body relax a fraction. Without ever once turning to face me, he recited the story about the death of Hercules' mother, and how Zeus had offered his half-mortal son the chance to be a full god and live on Mount Olympus.
"I told him to go," he concluded wretchedly. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done."
His voice broke. With something akin to surprise, I realized he was crying. I didn't know what to say, so I just held him. I never have known how to react to people when they cry. It's been so many years since I've had anything worth crying over, that I've almost forgotten what it feels like. Besides, my father always taught me a man doesn't cry, so I guess I've gotten out of the habit myself.
But Iolaus was most certainly a man. And he was most certainly crying. Even if I couldn't see his face from my present vantage point, I could fell his shoulders shaking.
A couple of awkward minutes later, he pulled himself together. Wiping his eyes on the edge of the bedcovers, he propped himself up on one elbow as if he were about to get up.
That wasn't what I wanted. In an attempt to distract him from leaving, I said the first thing that came to my mind.
"So I guess you're pretty mad at this Hercules guy, huh?"
That had the desired effect. Instead of standing up, he turned over and faced me.
"I'm mad about the way things worked out. I'm not mad at him."
"Oh, really? I suppose you usually curse while you're fucking someone?"
He actually laughed with something like amusement before he admitted, "Okay, I'm mad at him too."
The expression on his face changed abruptly, as if he had just now recalled what we'd been doing and who was paying for the bed we had been doing it in.
"Gods, you must be totally disgusted with me! First I screw you as if I'm raping somebody, then I lie here snivelling about another man. This can't be what you had in mind when you picked me up. I'll get out of here and let you have some peace."
"No. Stay. It's pretty late and you probably couldn't get a room at this hour anyway.
He looked rather doubtful. "You don't mind?"
"I don't mind. Why don't we just get some sleep?"
He reached over and touched my face. "Are you sure? I could try to make it up to you, for before."
I was sorely tempted by the offer, but his eyes were still red and bloodshot and I heard the lack of any real enthusiasm in his voice.
"Thanks, but no thanks. Your heart wouldn't be in it anyway. Not now."
He sighed and settled himself onto the pillow. "You're right."
He fell asleep before I did, but not by much. I can remember watching his shadowed profile in the semi-darkness and wondering exactly what I had gotten myself into this time.
I woke up to the glare of early morning sun on my face and the feel of his hand between my legs, caressing me gently. When I opened my eyes, he was leaning above me and smiling.
"You were kind to me last night," he said. "How about if we try it again?"
"I told you, you don't have to --"
"Your prick says differently. Besides, I want to. Now shut up."
So was I supposed to argue with him?
I'm not usually one for graphic descriptions of what happens in my bed. Let's just say he knew what he was doing and he did it very well indeed. By the time we were finished, I decided that I envied this Hercules character big-time.
As we were cleaning up and getting dressed, Iolaus asked me about the assorted collection of bruises he'd noticed on my body, now that it was light in the room.
"Oh, that's nothing much," I said negligently. "I was robbed on the way here. All they got was my horse and the money I keep handy as a decoy. No one ever finds my main stash of dinars. I'm pretty good at putting up just the right amount of resistance to be believable, but not so much that I get hurt badly." I shrugged and rubbed the bump behind my left ear ruefully. "I seem to have miscalculated a little this time."
"You carry a lot of money with you?"
"Sometimes. I'm a merchant. I deal in valuable goods."
By this time, we both had our clothes on. "C'mon, let's get something to eat and hit the road," I suggested. "Where are you heading from here?"
"Just what I was hoping you'd say. Since we're both going to the same place, how about if we travel together? I'm always glad of company, especially if my company carries a big sword and knows how to use it."
Of course, I could easily have bought another horse and been on my way, but I didn't mention that. I was starting to seriously like this little guy, and with Hercules out of the picture - Hey, who knows what could happen?
He laughed and nodded, as I had hoped he would.
The day was warm, the sun was shining, the road was not too dusty, and it turned out that Iolaus was an excellent talker, now that he wasn't sitting around trying to drown himself in alcohol. I was almost sorry our destination wasn't further away. As it was, we'd be there by mid-morning.
"So why are you going to Lydicea?" I asked him when we were barely an hour's walk from our destination. I figured if I knew why he was in town, maybe I could get a rough idea whether or not he was planning to stay for long.
"My mother moved there a few years ago, after she remarried. I haven't seen her in years and I've never even met her new husband, but ever since Alcmene's death, she's been on my mind a lot. I thought it was about time I went home for a visit." He glanced over at me, clearly relieved to change the subject. "How about you? What kind of business does a successful merchant have in an out-of-the-way little town?"
So I told him about the house I'd recently acquired, and my father, and the widow I had hired as a housekeeper. "Of course, I'm not home a lot. Mostly I'm on the road, looking for stuff to buy that will turn a profit. Only luxury goods, mind you. I don't deal with ordinary things."
"You can make a living that way?"
"Oh, yeah. If you know what you're doing. What do you do to keep the dinars coming in?"
"Well, Herc and I, we usually just traveled around helping people with problems. You know, kill a monster here, save a village there. That sort of thing."
"Oh, come on now. Get real. You can't earn money like that."
"We never starved. And it sure beats farming."
"Anything beats farming."
"You got that right!"
"So, what are you going to do to earn a living now that Hercules is out of the picture?"
"I don't know. I'm a fair blacksmith. Maybe I'll try that, but I haven't really decided yet. Maybe I'll just travel around for a while and see what comes up."
He got unusually quiet. Maybe I'd said the wrong thing, mentioning Hercules. Then again, if that's where his thoughts were, maybe I could get him to tell me more about it.
"Have you and Hercules been together for a long time? As lovers, I mean?"
"Oh, we played around a lot when we were young. Then, after a while, he seemed to lose interest. I thought we'd outgrown it, like many boys do. Well, I thought Herc had outgrown it, at any rate. The gods know, I never did. But we drifted apart. I found a woman, even got married. I wanted kids and all. You know how it is."
"Yeah, I know how it is. My father reminds me every chance he gets that I'm supposed to have presented him with a flock of grandchildren by now. He keeps telling me how disappointed he is because I haven't. It's not that he has any objection to my fooling around with men. He just expects me to get married also."
"Parents can be like that, can't they?"
I nodded. But this really wasn't what I wanted to talk about. I knew more than enough about myself. It was him I wanted to hear about.
"So what happened?" I prompted. "You know, with the wife and kids and all?"
"She died," he said shortly.
Oops! I'd walked into that one with both feet in my mouth, as usual. I noticed he'd said nothing about kids, if there had been any, but I wasn't about to pursue it. I decided not to give him time to dwell on that subject.
"Okay, so what about you and Hercules then?"
"Oh, he got married too and I figured that was that: there'd be nothing more between us for sure. I was wrong. After Hera killed his family - well, we kind of picked up where we'd left off, still on a more or less casual basis. Herc still basically wanted a wife, and I confess I find women every bit as enjoyable as men. Things didn't even start to get intense between us until after Serena died." His forehead creased into a frown. "But no one knows about Serena, because Herc went back and changed time so it never happened. But I still remember it, somehow, even though it didn't happen, and -"
"Iolaus, you're not making much sense here," I interrupted.
He shook his head and looked even more perplexed. "I know. Going back in time doesn't make sense. I tried it once myself. Very confusing. So many things went wrong." He broke off and just grinned. "Okay, forget it. I'm babbling."
"So what about after Serena died, or didn't die, or whatever happened to her?" I prompted.
"Well, anyway, after that, I thought it was going to be me and Herc forever. Now -" He hesitated and the desolation came back into his eyes. "I guess not."
By now we were at the gate to my property. The main part of Lydicea lay just ahead, but you couldn't quite see the buildings yet, although they were just over the next hill.
"This is where I get off," I said, surprised at just how much I didn't want to part company with Iolaus.
He glanced over at the good-sized house sitting by a small stream. "Nice place."
"Yeah, it is." I stood with my hand on the gate for too long, watching him as he looked around appreciatively at the cultivated fields and the neat vegetable garden alongside the house. "Easy enough to keep up, if you've got the dinars to hire people to do the work for you," I volunteered.
He nodded. "Yeah. I guess it would be." He smiled, and the sun was eclipsed by the brightness of his face. "Guess I'd better be on my way." He held out a hand in farewell.
I took that hand and held on for as long as I reasonably could. "I'll look for you in town later on, okay?" I suggested hopefully. "There's a nice tavern there." Recalling how much he had seemed to enjoy the breakfast we'd had earlier that morning, I added quickly, "Really good food. And the ale's better than the stuff we had last night. How about it?"
Well, it wasn't a no.
He laughed. "You're persistent, aren't you?"
"Yeah. One of my faults."
"Okay, I'll look for you in town," he finally agreed, blinding me again with his smile. "I intended to all along, you know," he finished as he turned and headed on down the road.
I stood there watching him. He turned and waved just before disappearing over the top of the hill. I really didn't want this guy to start to mean anything to me. I'm very happy alone. I'm not looking for a permanent lover or anything like that. Relationships have never been my strong point, which is doubtless one of the several good reasons I have for not getting married. I've never been so miserable as when I've tried to live with someone, nor so happy as when I've been by myself. I learned that a long time ago, so now I try to always keep it casual, and, hopefully, friendly, but never intense.
Nevertheless, something melted deep inside when Iolaus smiled at me. I reminded myself sternly that I would *not* fall for him, come what may. Screw him anytime I had the opportunity, yes. But love him I would not.
I sighed, took a deep breath, and went through the gate, steeling myself to encounter my father. Don't get me wrong, he's a great guy, but Dad and I just never did see things the same way, and I never really felt I was anything but a big disappointment to him somehow.
As I expected, he was waiting just inside the door, in his usual chair next to the front window. The housekeeper wasn't around, so I figured she was busy somewhere in back. Her daughter would be in school at this time of day.
"So, my wandering son returns once again, eh?" Phyleus greeted me. "Successfully, I trust?"
"Very much so."
"So successful you even sold your horse?" he asked, with an acerbic smile that took a little of the bite out of the words.
"Well, I did have one little bit of bad luck," I admitted. "I'll tell you all about that later, okay? First I want to get cleaned up and changed."
I almost thought I was going to escape to the safety of my rooms when Dad had a brief coughing fit. I hurried to his side, but he waved me off, gesturing that he would be okay in a minute. The weakness in his lungs had gotten worse lately, although he refused to admit it. That was a large part of the reason I had insisted on his living here.
No sooner had he recovered his breath, than he frowned at me and asked, "Who was that man who came walking up the road with you?"
Damn! He would have to notice Iolaus.
I shrugged. "Just a friend. Someone I met last night. He was on his way here, so we traveled together."
He didn't say anything more, but I knew what he was thinking from the set of his mouth. Then the annoyance turned to a smile. "You know, you got a real find in Ysabel. I like her very much."
Ysabel was the housekeeper. As I mentioned earlier, a widow with a young daughter. The Trojan War left a lot of widows and orphans behind.
"Oh?" I replied noncommittally.
"She keeps a very neat house, gets a good price on food in the marketplace. And her cooking - Well, her meals are better than your mother used to make, and you know I wouldn't say that lightly."
No, he certainly wouldn't. Even though she died more than twenty years ago, I can still recall my mother's meals. And her love, and her caring, and her bravery when she faced the lingering illness that resulted in her death.
But I could take a guess at what all this praise of Ysabel was leading up to. "I'm glad you're so pleased with her."
"Oh yes. She's so sweet-tempered and gentle. And little Daria's a good girl. I'm quite fond of her. Ysabel would make some man a good wife, let me tell you."
"So why not ask her to marry you?" I inquired innocently.
"Son, she's more than twenty years younger than I am. I was thinking more about you."
"We've been over this before, Dad."
"I know," he said with a sigh that turned into a ragged cough. "I just keep hoping you'll decide to live up to your responsibilities as a man one of these days."
He struggled up out of his chair and walked out the door, effectively preventing me from continuing the discussion. He did that a lot, and I always found it frustrating. However, this time there really wasn't anything more for me to say on the topic. I like my life as it is. A wife and kids aren't going to happen. Period. End of discussion.
Someday, Dad was going to get that through his head. Maybe.
As it turned out, Ysabel's cooking was entirely worthy of my father's praises. I barely knew the woman herself, but I had to admit her housekeeping skills left little to be desired, since the place was spotless and the kitchen garden neat and well-tended. I had apparently done well when I'd hired her.
For a middle-aged woman, she wasn't hard to look at, either.
However, despite my father's fond hopes of matchmaking, I noticed all too quickly that it wasn't me Ysabel fussed over, nor was it my face on which her eyes lingered longingly: it was his. Possibly I could encourage this turn of events? If the old man had a wife of his own once again, maybe he'd quite worrying about my love life? It was a thought.
Meanwhile, talking about my love life, it might be worth stopping by the tavern for a bit, just in case Iolaus were to show up. It was early yet, but one never knows.
On the pretext of wanting to shop for a new pair of boots, I headed into town, where I just happened to decide I was awfully thirsty and stopped in for a drink.
I had almost finished my second mug of ale when Iolaus appeared at the door. He actually seemed glad to see me, flashing one of his bright smiles and joining me at my table. A gesture to the serving wench brought us more ale.
"So, how'd you make out with your mother?" I asked.
"Pretty well, considering. It's my step-father I'm having problems with. He's very resentful of the way my absence hurt Erytheia. I did get her to talk to me about it." He grinned sheepishly and took another swallow of his ale. "She actually thought she had done something to drive me away, when it wasn't her fault at all, it was mine."
"Did you tell her that?"
"Yeah. I told her I was ashamed to go home because I always wanted to be the kind of man she would be proud of, and I didn't think I was."
I could sure relate to that. I always wanted my father to be proud of me too, and he never seemed to be. But we were talking about Iolaus here, not me.
"So what did she say to that?" I prompted.
"She told me she loved me, but didn't know me well enough to be proud of me."
I nodded, commiserating. "Parents are often the ones who know you least. It has nothing to do with love."
"Yeah, but with my mother, it's because I wasn't even around."
There was regret in his voice. He took another swallow from his tankard, then just sat staring at it listlessly.
And I sat staring at him, wondering what I could do to help. And wondering why it mattered to me.
This was definitely not good. I was getting way too fond of this guy. Bad enough I couldn't be near him without wanting him in my bed again, but now I was actually beginning to care about him.
*Euphonius, this has got to stop,* I instructed myself firmly. *You have no chance at all of keeping him, Hercules or no Hercules. He's a hero. You're a wimp. Case closed.*
Nevertheless, I was about to offer him more of my sage wisdom regarding the relationship between parents and children when a terrible commotion burst out in the street. There was the distant whump of something exploding, then shouting and loud voices mingled with screams of "Fire!".
Iolaus was on his feet and headed for the door before I even thought of reacting, but it didn't take me long to run after him. Through drifting smoke and running people, I caught a glimpse of his blond hair disappearing around a building, headed for the main street in town. I sprinted in that direction myself, not so much because I thought there was anything I could do as because I didn't want to let him out of my sight.
As I rounded the building, I saw him not far ahead of me. He stopped short in front of a tall man with long hair who was herding a group of kids away from the burning school. Much to my relief, I saw Daria with the children. Ysabel had her hand and was leading her daughter to safety.
I dismissed them from my mind when I heard Iolaus exclaim, "Hercules!"
I looked back at the big man. So this was the famous hero, huh? No doubt about it, he was pretty damn impressive, not to mention just plain gorgeous. Even in the excitement of the moment, I had time to notice that. But he was also the one who had walked out on Iolaus, so I felt a brief flare of resentment and dislike for him, no matter whether he was god, mortal, or part of both.
Hercules yelled something to Iolaus about making sure everyone was out of the school. My heart skipped a beat as I watched Iolaus disappear into the smoke and flame of the burning school building without a moment of hesitation. I sprinted across the street to the doorway. By now gasping for breath, I got there just in time to see a couple of young boys come staggering out, coughing and sobbing. One fell across the threshold and the other stumbled over him.
I snatched up the child on the ground, took the other boy by the arm, and got them both clear of the fire, then hurried back to see if I could do anything more.
Iolaus was inside the flaming building. I heard his voice, shouting to the children to keep calm and follow him. Coward that I am, I just stayed by the door and helped the kids he brought out. Right before a chunk of the roof caved in, Iolaus staggered out into the street, one arm around the schoolteacher. I grabbed the man's other arm and we hauled him clear of the flying sparks and flaming debris.
Iolaus was smudged with soot and I could see a rather nasty burn on his arm. He doubled over, coughing violently, as the schoolteacher collapsed on the ground. I didn't know who to tend to first. Fireballs flared and exploded, as more buildings burst into flame. I looked around, trying to figure out what was going on.
A golden young man perched on some kind of a flying board tossed fire casually here and there. He was clearly no mortal. Not with that kind of power. From the coloring and the way he practically glowed, I figured him to be Apollo.
I've always believed that a prudent person stays well out of the way of the gods. But this one wasn't giving us much choice.
As I stared in horror, I saw this golden asshole hurl another fireball toward the shop across the street, in front of which stood Ysabel, Daria, and my father! Time slowed down for me in that awful way it has of doing in really bad situations. As the fireball exploded against the front of the shop, my father threw himself at Ysabel, pushing her and her child to the ground and falling on top of them. The building blew apart. Chunks of wall crashed down.
Screaming, "Father! No!", I raced over to the pile of blazing debris, pulling desperately at whatever I could reach that wasn't already aflame. Iolaus appeared at my side, pulling and heaving the pieces of wood with more strength than I'd have expected from Hercules himself, much less a small mortal man. Powered by the unnatural strength of desperation, I was astonished by my own actions in digging through the burning wreckage. The heat seemed not to matter as I fought to reach the buried people.
"Euphonius, under here!" Iolaus yelled, straining to hold the end of a heavy chunk of wall a few feet up off the ground.
Catching a glimpse of fabric through the swirling dust and smoke, I hunched down and worked my way beneath the piece of wall, clawing frantically at the smoking bits of wood beneath. I found my father first and pulled him out, then went back for the others, as Iolaus struggled not to drop the heavy load on top of us. I can claim no particular courage here. It simply never occurred to me that I might have been killed if he had buckled under the weight.
I barely got Ysabel and Daria clear of the flaming debris when Iolaus dropped the whole mess with a crash.
The town burned around me, but I had eyes only for the people we had rescued. Ysabel was already sitting up, choking and gasping for breath and holding her daughter to her breast. They seemed relatively unharmed, but my father lay where I had left him, blood oozing from his mouth and nose. Charred chunks of flesh showed in the places where his clothing had burned completely away.
Kneeling beside him, I took him in my arms. His chest rose and fell in tortured gasps, each breath forming red bubbles on his lips.
"Dad," I whispered brokenly. "Oh, Dad, no."
With Iolaus helping her, Ysabel staggered over to kneel opposite me. Still coughing, she nevertheless bent over my father, stroking his face and calling his name.
Iolaus squatted down next to her, one arm still around her shoulder for support. His other hand skimmed quickly over my father's chest as he glanced at the burned patches of skin showing through torn clothing. As he looked up at me over Ysabel's bowed head, I saw confirmed in the expression on his face what I already suspected.
Just then, my father gave a few weak coughs and opened his eyes.
"I love you, Phyleus," Ysabel said softly.
He blinked and looked surprised. Clearly, that was not what he'd expected to hear. His eyes met mine. "Take care of them, Euphonius," he said, struggling to get the words past his lips.
I nodded, my eyes filling with tears.
"Don't let me see you cry over me, son," the dying man said, the effort of speaking causing him to grimace with pain.
I nodded, trying valiantly to choke back my tears, but a few leaked down my cheeks. It seemed I couldn't even obey my father's dying wish and act like a man this one last time, which only added to my distress.
"I'm sorry, Dad. I'm so sorry," I blurted out. "I wish I'd been someone you could have been proud of."
His eyes closed and he drew in a ragged breath. Still fighting back my tears, I leaned close to his ear and whispered, "I love you, Dad."
He coughed again, and the words he said didn't come out clearly. I thought, I hoped, that what he was trying to say was "I love you too."
Then the rest of the air gurgled out of his lungs, and his chest didn't rise again. His eyes half-closed and lost their focus.
Wailing, Ysabel fell on his chest. I let her take him from my arms, and she cradled him to her breast, sobbing and kissing his face. Little Daria stood beside her, sobbing.
I couldn't bear to watch their grief. Rising to my feet, I turned away, still trying to hide my unwanted tears.
Then Iolaus was in front of me, a hand on either of my shoulders. I tried to turn away from him also, but he wouldn't let me. I had no choice but to meet his eyes.
"He was wrong, you know," Iolaus told me gently. "You're not any less a man because you have feelings. You can be strong and brave and still cry. In fact, if you don't, there's something wrong with you."
I remembered this man's body shaking with sobs as I held him in my arms just last night. If he wasn't strong, then who was? If he isn't a hero, then heroes don't exist.
"I should have done something more," I objected. "I should have saved him."
"No. You did all you could. And when you've done all you can, then that's all you can do."
I looked at him. There was a restrained sorrow in his voice as he said that. I saw it reflected very clearly in those blue-gray eyes as well. It was obvious that he'd faced some sort of failure of his own, somewhere along the line.
I nodded and something broke loose inside. The tears at last rolled freely down my face. His arms went around me and he pulled me into a hug. I cried on his shoulder, clutching him against me like a drowning man might clutch at his rescuer.
I wasn't involved in the rest of the action that day. I didn't see Hercules confront Apollo and stop him from causing any more destruction. I was busy getting my father back to our house, where Ysabel took charge of washing the body and preparing it for the funeral pyre.
Overwrought, I was pacing the front yard when a thought occurred to me: I would put up the necessary dinars to rebuild the school. That seemed a fitting memorial to my father. He had always been fond of children, after all. And they had always seemed to like him.
No sooner thought than acted upon. Telling Ysabel where I was going, I headed over the hill and into Lydicea to find the school master.
The fires were out by this time. People were at work salvaging what they could from the wreckage and cleaning up the useless debris. I caught sight of the schoolteacher up on the roof of the school, with Iolaus next to him. The teacher came down a rough flight of makeshift stairs, but before I could reach him, someone else beat me to it. Not wanting to intrude, I faded back out of sight under the stairway, impatiently waiting my turn.
So it was that I overheard the conversation and discovered the tall, scholarly-looking man was Pandion, Iolaus' step-father, come to town to find out what had happened. As the teacher told him how Iolaus had gotten himself and many of the children out of the burning building at the risk of his own life, I couldn't help moving a little closer so I could hear better.
When the teacher walked away, I was all set to follow him, but I heard Iolaus call out to his step-father and come down the stairs. Okay, so call me nosey. I stayed where I was and listened to them talk, curious as to what would happen.
They both tried to apologize to each other, with Pandion finally admitting that Iolaus does what he does for a good reason.
When Iolaus concluded hopefully, "We can be friends, can't we?" I grinned to myself, watching them clasp forearms and smile at each other.
With my curiosity satisfied and a foolish grin still lingering on my face, I left to find the teacher, who greeted my proposal for rebuilding with joy and gratitude. That done, I returned home to mourn my father.
The following morning, I went to find Iolaus so I could thank him for the help and support he'd given me. The door was opened by a small woman with her gray hair pulled tightly back into a long braid falling over her left shoulder. She was fairly plain, but had nice eyes, with a sort of kindness in them. This had to be Erytheia, Iolaus' mother.
When I asked for her son, she told me he'd just left, heading off again in a search for new adventures.
"He never did stay in one place very long, even as a child," Erytheia told me with a sad smile. "You can probably catch up with him, if you hurry. He was going to take the path through the woods that makes a shortcut to the main road."
I knew the way she meant. I set off at a quick pace, hoping to overtake him before he'd gotten too far. The path was well-traveled and easy to follow. I had just caught sight of Iolaus' blond hair through the trees up ahead and was about to call out his name when the air shimmered and sparkled on the trail at a point close behind him. Much to my surprise, Hercules coalesced out of the sparkles and strode quickly after Iolaus, not even noticing me behind him. I scurried over into the bushes, not too sure what was going on and not wanting to take any chances.
I saw Iolaus stop abruptly next to a tree trunk overhanging the path and duck aside. He came up with a fallen limb in his hands, spinning around and swinging it at the unseen man he must have heard approaching from behind.
The big man blocked the limb easily and said, with a hint of amusement in his voice, "I - uh - I missed you too."
"Hercules - uh -" Iolaus tossed the limb aside. "It's - it's good to see you," he concluded tentatively.
"It's good to see you," was the other man's reply. "Well, I'm back."
"Back?" Iolaus' face lit up as if the sun were shining again after many long nights of darkness. "You mean, like back, back? Like really back? No more Olympus? No more Hercules the god?"
"Just - uh - half god."
They clasped forearms. Iolaus patted Hercules' arm with his other hand, as if he couldn't hardly wait to touch him.
"That's terrific! So - what happened?"
Almost self-consciously, they let go of each other.
"I realized how much my family means to me - ," Hercules said, "and you're it."
Iolaus got this kind of goofy grin on his face, then suddenly turned away and started off down the trail. Hercules ran after him. I saw him catch up, and they walked on together, still talking, but by now they were too far away for me to hear their voices.
As I watched them disappear among the trees, I couldn't help but be happy for Iolaus.
Oh sure, I'm going to miss him. He was a good lay. I'm not likely to find another one like him in a long while. I only hope Hercules realizes what he's got there, that's all.
No, I'm not going to end it that way. I'm trying to be tough and cold, but that's only more macho bullshit to cover up the hurt. Iolaus touched me where I hadn't been touched in a long, long time. He touched my heart, not just my prick. And if there were tears leaking from my eyes as I watched him walk away with the man he loves - Well, there's nothing wrong with that. You're allowed to cry when you lose a part of your family, aren't you?
I turned around and trudged back down the trail. Tonight there would be a funeral pyre waiting for my father's body. I knew that, even as I mourned for my father, some of my tears would also be for the lack of a certain pretty little blond hero who no longer stood by my side.
Continue on to the sequel Closest to Your Heart