With the exception of original characters created by the author, all characters belong to Universal Studios, MCA, or Pacific Renaissance Productions. 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.
This is a sequel to Family, Closest to Your Heart, The Next Monster, and As Much a Part, Dead Bugs in Amber, and is the sixth part of the The Euphonius Scrolls series.
You can check out more work by Euphonius at Kerry's Korner
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
Harder Every Time
Euphonius (a.k.a. Kerry Lindemann-Schaefer)
To JRGC, wherever you are. Love ya, buddy!
"A mermaid?! Aphrodite turned him into a mermaid?!" I said in stunned disbelief.
"Well, technically, I think the proper term would be merman," Hercules corrected me. "Iolaus was hardly a maid, you know."
Oh yeah, I had reason to know that pretty well. Reasons I wasn't exactly going to tell the other man sitting next to me on the beach, especially considering the amount of wine I knew he had drunk. I wasn't entirely sober myself, but I wasn't so soused that I'd open my big mouth about Iolaus and me. Not yet, at any rate.
"Uh okay. Merman." I glanced sideways at Hercules. "Half fish?" I asked. He nodded. "Tail instead of legs?" He nodded again. "Lives in the water?" He nodded some more. "Oh, shit!" I finally exclaimed.
Hercules just took another long swig from the wineskin in his hand and continued to nod drearily in agreement with my assessment of the situation.
I had caught up with the demigod in the Slippery Eel Tavern in this small seaport town just a couple of hours ago. It had been still early in the evening, and he was far too drunk. When I had first caught sight of him, I had looked around hopefully for Iolaus. After all, we had just parted company that morning, after Hercules had rescued the two of us from Ares. (But that's a whole 'nother story, as they say, and I've told it elsewhere, so let's not go into the details here.) It had taken me longer than it should have to make my way into the town, as I'd run across someone on the road who had recognized me and wanted to look over my merchandise.
For those of you with minds as dirty as mine, I'm not talking about that sort of merchandise. I'm referring to the jewelry I sell.
At any rate, my prospective customer and I had spent the biggest part of the day haggling over prices. By the time I'd gotten back on the road and reached the seaport, it was well after nightfall, and far too late for the two of them to still be doing the fishing I knew they had planned. I went to the Slippery Eel, looking for a meal, a room, and perhaps my two friends.
Well, I had found one of them, at least. I sat down by the big man, greeting him casually and asking for Iolaus' whereabouts.
"Gone," was the terse answer. He didn't even look up at me, just drank some more, as my heart fell through the soles of my suede boots.
"What do you mean, gone? Gone where? He's okay, isn't he?"
Still staring morosely down at the table, the demigod nodded, hopefully in answer to my last question. At least nothing terrible had happened to Iolaus, then.
"Tell me what's going on," I requested.
He shook his head and raised his tankard to his lips once more.
Now, I had no reason to believe that Hercules was a heavy drinker. Besides, I wanted answers, and I wanted them now. Perhaps foolishly, I waited until he set the mug down and then placed both my hands over the top.
"Where is he, and what happened? Damn it, man, I want to know! I happen to be very fond of Iolaus!"
Hercules' eyes focussed. He shook the long hair out of his face and really looked at me for the first time since I had sat down. Some of the wine-induced bleariness went out of his eyes. "Oh uh Euphonius, right? We just left you this morning."
I nodded. At least he'd remembered my name and actually gotten it right. That's more than some people do.
"Yeah. That's me. Now tell me why he's gone, and where he's gone to."
Hercules looked around the tavern, which was quickly filling with revelers. A pained expression came over his face and he exhaled with a resigned sigh. "All right, but not here." He stood up, weaving slightly from side to side. "Take a walk with me. If I can still walk, that is." He waved at the bartender as he put one large arm around my shoulder and we started across the crowded room. "Two fresh wineskins for me and my friend here," he ordered.
"Uh I really think you've had enough," I said, as he stumbled and we both nearly went down.
"You're gonna need it," he insisted, gathering up the wine. I
tossed a coin to the barkeep as we headed for the door.
We walked, if you can call it that, to the edge of town and onto a fairly empty stretch of beach. It was long past sundown, and the stars were bright in a clear summer sky, but there was no moon.
"Yeah, this is good. Much quieter here," my companion said, his words a bit slurred. "Sit down. I'll tell you all about it." He handed me one of the wineskins, then focussed his eyes out over the waves. "Did Iolaus tell you about Nautica?"
"Yeah. A little."
"Okay. Well, we ran into her this morning, while we were sitting on the dock and fishing."
He went on to tell me about how they had discovered that she was being forced into marrying someone else in order to save her father's life, and they had tried to stop the wedding, with some help from Aphrodite.
My breath caught for a moment when he described Iolaus and Nautica tied up and standing on a barrel, nooses around their necks, as they were about to be strung up. It was the very same thing I had seen in what I can only call a vision, shortly before we had parted company at Ares' temple early that same morning. I'd never expected it to come true so fast, if at all.
My stomach lurched when Hercules told me about Iolaus declaring he'd give up the world for Nautica. After that, I knew what was coming.
By the time the demigod had reached the end of his tale, he had drained his wineskin and started sharing mine. He was no longer making any effort to hide the tears running down his cheeks.
"As we watched them swim away," he concluded at last, "Aphrodite turned to me and said, It's hard to say good-bye.'
"Her words tore at my heart, but I just looked out over the ocean, seeing Serena's face in my mind, and then my other Iolaus' smile, as he disappeared into the Light, then this Iolaus, with the love glowing in his eyes for his mermaid. It's harder every time,' I managed to reply."
He shrugged and drank more. "That's it. That's the story. I've lost both of them." Finally, he looked at me and tried to smile. "The only real consolation is that he's out there somewhere, alive and well and happy."
"But you're here, and alone," I pointed out, trying to get past the pain searing my own heart.
"Yeah. I guess we're both alone, aren't we?" He continued to study me. "You were very fond of him too, weren't you?"
That was an understatement, but I figured I'd best let it stand. "Yeah. He was a good friend."
Hercules looked at me strangely, but didn't ask further. Instead, his eyes returned to the sea, where the small waves washed up on the beach, whispering softly to each other.
I sat there arguing with myself. Okay, do I tell him the rest of the truth, and risk being taken apart with his bare hands? No, he wouldn't really do that, just because Iolaus and I had spent some time in bed together. But I knew the hurt I'd see in his eyes, so I kept silent.
Besides, I wasn't at all sure I could talk about it myself. Recalling what had happened at Ares' temple had been painful enough before I'd known Iolaus was gone. Now, it was sheer torture. I saw in my mind the expression on his face as he was being tormented by the God of War. And I had been a part of that torment, even though I had done it only in order to spare him as much as possible. That unfortunate incident would be the last time Iolaus and I would ever see each other, and it had been so awful for him.
If only things could have been different! And now they never would be, not if he was actually a merman, and preparing to be wed, or perhaps by now actually married, to Triton's fair daughter.
I fought down the jealousy that rose in my mind at that last thought. If I loved him, how then could I begrudge him that happiness?
"Give me back the wine, huh?" I asked Hercules. I took a big swallow, then dumped the rest into the sand.
"Hey! Why'd you go and do that?" the demigod asked, none too happily and none too soberly.
"Because it won't help. Not really. Trust me on this. The gods know, I've tried it often enough myself."
"I know. But what will?"
"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Only perhaps enough time, and the knowledge that the ones you love are well and happy."
Herc nodded in unhappy agreement with my assessment of the situation. For a time, we both just sat there, each with our own memories of both the hunter and the jester.
"I know you and the first Iolaus were lovers," I said carefully, "but you loved this one too, didn't you?" I nodded slightly towards the ocean.
He glanced at me with a "How'd you know that?" expression on his face.
"It wasn't hard to see, if you know what you're looking at," I assured him. "I'm right, aren't I?"
"It might be more accurate to say I would have liked to have loved him," was the bitter reply.
"Because of the Sovereign?"
"Yeah. Until this morning, Iolaus never came right out and told me, but I gathered that at least a part of the abuse that bastard had dumped on him was sexual." Suddenly, he was on his feet, glowering at something only he could see. "The Sovereign me, in another world. How could I --?"
I remembered what Iolaus had told me about my particular incarnation in that inverted universe, and I knew exactly what he meant. "It wasn't you," I said softly, wishing I could entirely believe my own words. "Or maybe it was you, but only as you would have been under different circumstances."
"I know. My mind tells me that. I've met the Sovereign, and fought with him. But when I think of anyone hurting Iolaus that way --" He ran one hand through his long hair, pushing it out of his face. Then he began pacing back and forth as he went on, "But we look so much alike. If it hurt me to look at him, because he reminded me so much of my Iolaus, what must it have done to him, being around me all the time? I saw the fear in his eyes once or twice, when I startled him or surprised him when he wasn't paying attention. I didn't dare tell him anything of what I felt, because I was afraid I'd scare him away permanently."
I looked up at the big man standing in front of me. He seemed as if he needed some sort of absolution for his imagined sins. Well, maybe so did I.
Then he sighed heavily and held out his hands in a helpless gesture. "Maybe if we'd had more time to get used to each otherMaybe if I'd " He left that hanging. "Well, even then, maybe he wouldn't have been interested. He certainly fell for a woman quickly enough, so maybe he doesn't even care for men. It isn't really the thing to do, at least not among men the same age. Older men with young men is more the standard in our society."
He turned away and stared back out over the ocean. "But why am I telling you this? You know it already, don't you?"
I just nodded. There were too many feelings running through my slightly-bleary brain just then. All I wanted to do was go off somewhere and try to sort them all out.
He squatted down next to me. "Maybe it was my fault," he went on. "Maybe I should have tried harder with him, and he'd have loved me too." Picking up a handful of sand , he let it run through his fingers, staring at it and shaking his hand.
His words cut me to the quick, because I'd been thinking the exact same thing. I'd have liked to have gotten up and walked away, to be alone with my own sorrow. But the edge of despair in the other man's voice cut a new gash in my bleeding heart. I had known his first Iolaus for a few days, but the two of them had been together for most of a lifetime. What was my loss, really, compared to his?
"No. Don't eat yourself up over this," I said in reassurance. "Iolaus knew. Or, at least, after last night with Ares, he knew. A few things were said about you."
Yeah, by my big mouth. But I didn't mention that. Instead, I put my hand gently on his forearm well, on that fancy silver doodad he wears on the leather gauntlet, at any rate and said, "This Iolaus may have been forced into sex with the Sovereign, and may even have considered making love to men of his own freewill." Yeah, like he did with me a few times. "But I think he was basically interested in women, in the final analysis. Even so, I know he cared for you, and he knew that you cared for him."
"You really mean that?"
"Yes. And I knew him pretty well."
Herc nodded, never even asking me the obvious question about just how I knew him that well. I found myself wondering precisely how much Iolaus had told him about last night, and about me. Was the man truly so ingenuous, or merely being kind enough not to push it? Either way, I turned the conversation back toward a more general subject. "Choice of sexual partners is more of a continuum than an either/or situation. Some of us fall towards one end, some towards the other, but there's a lot of space in between."
"Yeah, you could be right," he agreed. "I mostly tend to love women myself, but there have been exceptions." He smiled crookedly. "Iolaus, in both of his incarnations, was probably the biggest exception, but there were a couple of others."
"So the bards have said," I replied with a smile, hoping to lighten the mood.
"Really?" The shocked expression on his face might have been funny, under other circumstances. "You mean, they wrote about that too? Oh, -- shit!" he concluded, as if the word weren't normally part of his vocabulary and he was trying it on for size.
"That's one of the problems with being a hero; you have very few secrets."
He sat back down alongside me, staring again out over the surf. "You know, Euphonius, maybe I'm more than a little tired of being a hero. Maybe I'd have been better off being something else." The bitterness in his voice surprised me almost as much as the frown that spread over his handsome face. "Maybe the people I loved would have been better off, if I'd been something else."
"Hercules, that isn't --"
He cut me off with a curt gesture of his hand. "Maybe I should have done more things for myself, taken more of what I wanted out of life, instead of trying to live up to some impossible ideal." His voice was harsh and angry now. "I could have stayed home with Deianeira and the children, and been an ordinary man. I didn't have to break up with Morrigan. Maybe I even could have changed time so that I had Serena --" He hesitated. "Oh, sorry. You probably don't know about Serena, and I've been talking about her as if you did."
"Yeah, I know. The first Iolaus told me. Or at least he told me what he could remember of it. He said it was like a strange memory, as if it had happened, but it hadn't."
Oops! I didn't think I'd mentioned to Hercules before that I'd known the original Iolaus, and I'd just let that remark slip out. But he didn't catch it, much to my relief.
"Playing with time is like that," was all he said.
"Maybe it's something that's best left to the gods," I suggested.
He snorted in derision at my mention of the gods. "Much good that would do. They'd probably screw it up totally." Then he went on, "But I can't blame the gods for everything, can I? Some of it is my fault. I chose to be what I am. I give up too much for others, and then cry when I have nothing left. I mean, look at what just happened with Iolaus. I never even tried to love him, before he fell for someone else. And I was the one who suggested the solution to Aphrodite. What is it with me? Why do I do these things? Do I just like to screw myself?"
Now, how was I supposed to answer that? "You do it because you're a good and decent man, who cares more about the happiness of others than about your own. There aren't all that many people like you out there. As I said, I've heard the stories the bards tell. I know you've lost just about everyone you've ever loved. But that happens to ordinary people too, often enough."
He still looked pretty damn unhappy. I tried to come up with something that would encourage him, but I'm afraid I didn't do too well. "Come on, man. It's not so bad to be a famous hero. Look there." I pointed up at the sky, locating the vaguely rectangular shape next to the Corona Borealis. "There's even a constellation of stars called by your name, because of all the marvellous things you've done."
He didn't so much as look up. "So what? That's just a bunch of stars. I can't hold them close when I'm lonely, or feel their fingers caressing my skin."
Okay, he had a point there. If that's how he was feeling, perhaps a different sort of consideration would work better. "Do you think there aren't literally hundreds of women in this world, not to mention a fair number of men, who wouldn't be very happy to love you, on any terms? That's another one of the perks of being famous, you know," I said teasingly.
Smashing one big fist into the sand to emphasize his words, he exclaimed, "I don't want them. I want him!"
So do I. Oh, so do I! But I couldn't exactly tell Hercules that, could I?
I truly felt in no mood to console the demigod, since I was pretty miserable myself over Iolaus' leaving. But my feelings weren't the most important thing here. He was. I knew full well that Hercules was far more important to the world than I would ever be, because he had the power to inspire the rest of us to be heroes also, in our own ways. I sell jewelry: he sells hope and courage. There could be no comparison.
Besides, I knew full well that Iolaus, in either version of himself, wouldn't have wanted to see Hercules give up. And I cared enough about Iolaus to know I had to give it my best try.
"Maybe I should have done what my father wanted," the other man went on, "and joined him as a god on Mount Olympus. Maybe the offer is still open, and it's still an option."
"Just what we need," I replied with a snort, "another god. As if we don't have more than enough of them already."
I was genuinely alarmed at the direction his thoughts were taking, but I wasn't quite sure what to say. Hercules gave me a sidelong glance, evidently surprised by my remark.
"We need heroes, not gods," I elaborated. "We need the ones who inspire us to be like them. We need someone who shows us it is possible, or we lose hope. We need the ones who encourage us to be more than we are, and more than we ever thought we could be." I stopped abruptly, somewhat surprised at the intensity of the feeling that had inspired my words. Then I plunged on. "I can see why your Iolaus loved you, and why he chose to spend his life by your side. You bring out the best in people." I drew in a deep breath before concluding, "We need Hercules the hero, not Hercules the god."
But he closed his eyes and shook his head in negation of my fervent words.
"That's not true," he stated flatly.
"Of course it is! Look what you did for this Iolaus, just by being his friend. So he's gone. So he won't be yours. So what? Part of him is yours forever, because you showed him how to find his own courage. You set his feet on a better path."
Even as I said it, I realized that this Iolaus had taught me a few things about courage himself. Several times while I'd known him, he'd risked his life for other people and things, which had prompted me to do the same. Oh, I was no hero. I knew that. But thanks largely to his example, I had found that I wasn't the craven coward I'd always thought myself to be either. And you know what? It's a good feeling.
But, despite my words, Hercules shook his head again. "Maybe I was only being selfish when I brought him to this world. I've asked myself over and over whether I wanted this Iolaus for himself, or just because he reminded me so much of my other Iolaus. I honestly don't know. That's another reason I never came on to him. Unless I could answer that question, it wouldn't have been fair."
"At least you took the time to think about what was fair. Most men go after whatever they can get, in any way possible, and don't worry about other considerations." I shrugged. "I ought to know. I've gone after a pretty face or a nice body often enough myself, with no thought of the person behind it." Putting one hand on his arm, I concluded, "Don't change. And don't regret any of it. You've done more good for this world than most of us."
Pretty words. Now, if only I could take my own advice, especially about not regretting the past.
But I might as well have kept quiet, for all the effect my words were having on the man beside me. He shook his head again. "I'm tired of dealing with mortals. You're all just too fragile. No matter what I do, I can't keep the people I love alive."
"You can't be responsible for everyone," I said. "And this Iolaus is still alive and probably very happy with Nautica right now."
He winced. Yeah, I guess that thought wasn't exactly very comforting, in certain ways.
"I let Dahak kill the other Iolaus," he said disconsolately.
"As I heard the story, you couldn't have done much to stop it."
"I should have been able to stop it, damnit!!"
"You risked everything to save his soul, didn't you? What more do you want? You're half god. He was mortal," I pointed out. "Mortals can die. That's how it works."
"Do you think I wasn't aware of that? I was Hercules, famous hero and demigod, the strongest man in the world, able to heal faster, go farther, do anything. And here was little Iolaus, always by my side. I never forgot he was mortal." He hesitated a moment. "Well, most of the time, anyway. Sometimes I was able to forget. Sometimes I could pretend he'd be with me always." A determined look came over his face. "All I do is lose the ones I love. I'm tired of it. Maybe I'd be better off on Mount Olympus. I never want to be hurt like this again."
He rose abruptly to his feet and bellowed at the sky, "Zeus!! I want to talk to you! Zeus!!"
There was no answer. Nothing happened. I glanced around uneasily, but not so much as a sparkle disturbed the midnight darkness. Emboldened by this evidence of divine indifference, I stood up beside him and said gently, "You don't want to do this. You tried being a god once, remember? And you came back for your family. For -- him."
He gave me that strange look again, but didn't ask how I knew about that. All he said was, "But he's not here anymore. Why should I bother?" He turned away from me and shook his fist at the stars. "Zeus!!" he bellowed again, his voice filled with anger. "Zeus, damn you! Answer me!!"
"Look," I said, when nothing happened, "at least wait until morning, when all that wine you've drunk has worn off and you can consider this more clearly."
I put one hand on his arm, trying to get him to sit down again. He shook it off, and bellowed once again at the empty sky.
Well, I'd tried my best to dissuade him, and failed. What else was left to me?
That's when I heard that familiar voice in my mind, the one I'd heard a few times before and never quite known what to make of it. The one that sounded so much like the Iolaus I once knew briefly, just before he died.
"Euphonius, do something! If Hercules turns aside from his destiny, the Darkness is always there, waiting for him. To become a full god, in this frame of mind, could be very dangerous."
Well, whether or not it truly was Iolaus' voice in my head, the point it had made was true enough.
"He's in too much pain right now," it continued. "Do you really want someone that angry at almost everything and everyone to be able to toss fireballs around?"
I certainly couldn't deny that. The potential for great good exists only where there is also the potential for great evil. With merely his incredible strength as a half-god, Hercules could be very dangerous, if he chose to be. And with the complete power of a god, he could become truly vicious.
The flip side of that, of course, is that he could be a correspondingly enormous force for good, so long as that was what he chose to do. And this man obviously had. But that didn't mean he didn't know the Darkness. We all do. And it didn't mean he was impervious to temptation, especially not now, when he was hurting so badly.
"What do you want me to do?" I asked the voice in my head. Iolaus or not, it might have some decent advice. Still, it was at times like these that I seriously questioned my sanity.
"I tried to convince him," I protested. "It didn't work."
"I didn't mean you should talk to him."
"Then what am I supposed to do? Wrestle him to the ground and gag him, so he can't call Zeus?" Oh, I was definitely going off the deep end now.
"No," came the slightly amused response. "He's hurting.
He's alone. Help him."
"I could maybe send him a fruit basket?" I suggested.
"Hey, relax. I was only kidding." Yep, Euphonius. Right over the edge, for sure.
"Give him someone to hold onto, you idiot!" the voice fairly screamed at me. But the tone wasn't insulting, despite the epithet. It almost sounded as if he were smothering a laugh as he elaborated, "Screw him."
"Do you see anyone else around? Come on, he just needs someone to care about him. You can do that, can't you?
"You're serious?" I blithered.
"Oh, great! And exactly how am I supposed to do it?"
"Oh, I'm sure you'll think of something," came the amused reply.
Hercules, meanwhile, was still standing there glaring at the moonless sky. No, on closer inspection, he wasn't quite glaring anymore. He looked rather distracted, and perhaps a bit uncomfortable. And almost as if he'd seen or heard? a ghost.
I touched his arm. "Hercules? You okay?"
"Uh yeah. I uh Well, Iolaus the first Iolaus, I mean he sort of uh talks to me sometimes," he admitted, still staring uneasily up at the brightly-sparkling stars in the constellation that bore his name.
I was tempted to ask what he thought he had heard, but didn't dare. I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to know.
"Anyway, I think he does," the big man went on, sounding doubtful and confused. "Maybe I'm just imagining it, because I miss him so much. You know, the dead are supposed to hear your thoughts, and all? But no one ever said they might answer you."
"You aren't imagining it," I assured him. "It happens to me too. I thought I was crazy. You know, thinking about him too much, or something?" I gave him my brightest smile. "We could both just sit here and go insane together, you know."
Damn! I'd gone and done it again. If I had never even told Hercules that I'd known the original Iolaus, I'd certainly never told him that I'd known the man well enough to care about him and think of him after he was dead. And I'd certainly never told him about all the times when Dahak had been pretending to be Iolaus, and I had -- No, I didn't even want to go there.
The demigod smiled crookedly at me, but there were tears shining in his eyes. "Yeah, that's it. Maybe we're both crazy?" He turned away, covering his face with his hands. "It's just that it sounds so much like him, and it breaks my heart."
Somewhat hesitantly, I put my hands gently on his back and rubbed. "It's all right. I understand," I said, as the tears overflowed from my eyes also.
It wasn't long before Hercules turned around and wrapped his arms around me. The bruises on my back hurt a bit when he touched them, but I wasn't about to complain. It felt too good, despite the pain.
For a long moment, we just stood there. I pressed the side of my face against the soft fabric of the shirt he wore, not altogether certain whether I was merely trying to comfort a friend, or follow my imagined Iolaus' instructions to seduce him, but not really caring, since it felt so good just to have another human body in my arms, when I was hurting so much. The tears running down my face were not unwelcome. After all, the first thing I had ever learned from Iolaus, back when he was still alive, was that there's no shame in feeling sorrow, or in crying over it.
"I'm sorry," the demigod said at last, loosening his hold on me somewhat and wiping his face with one hand. "There have just been too many good-byes lately, I guess."
"I know the feeling," I replied, trying to steady my voice and surreptitiously wipe my own eyes.
He drew back, holding me at arms-length as he said, "There's more here than you're telling me, isn't there? We don't know each other well enough for you to be crying over me."
Our eyes met, and an instant understanding passed between us. (Yes, it really does happen that way sometimes. You look at someone else's face, and you just know they know exactly how you feel.)
When I didn't answer, he stated flatly, "You loved Iolaus also, didn't you?"
Sudden anger flashed in his eyes. His hands were painfully tight around my upper arms, and he had lifted me almost off of my feet. Deliberately, or just because he wasn't paying attention to the effect of his strength? I wasn't entirely sure if he were asking the question about this Iolaus, or the other one, or even both of them.
"Okay," I admitted, "Yes, I loved him. And yes, in answer to the question you haven't asked, I had sex with him."
There. That was an honest answer, regardless of which of them he had meant.
The big man winced visibly, but at least he didn't pick me up and toss me into the ocean. That was a good sign. But when I met his eyes, I saw his pain.
"Well," he said at last, "that's more than I ever managed to do."
Okay, that meant he was thinking of the Iolaus who had just left, not the other one. I permitted myself a small sigh of relief.
However, that relief turned out to be premature. His grip on my arms tightened a bit more. "Wait a minute. You said you heard his voice in your mind too, and I don't think you're talking about telepathy with a mermaid uh merman." His expression darkened as he thought back over our conversation. "Both of them?"
"Uh, yeah," I had to admit. By now my feet were dangling in the air and I was staring him in the face, not an entirely comfortable position.
His usually handsome features twisted into something I hope I never see again, and I had a quick glimpse of what this man could be like, if he ever gave in to the Darkness. I figured I might be about to join Iolaus on the Other Side.
"I wasn't trying to take him away from you," I said desperately. "It was only one night, and it was when you'd gone off to be a god. You'd left him, and he was alone and hurting, that's all. He loved you, Herc. He always has."
"Don't call me that." His voice was harsh and raw.
"What?" I asked, puzzled.
"Herc. Don't call me that."
"But Iolaus referred to you that way," I pointed out.
"I know. And he's the only one allowed to do it. You're not, you cheap little over-aged whore."
Okay, maybe I deserved that. I certainly wasn't going to argue the point. A very angry half-god is not something one particularly wants to see. Not from up close, anyway.
"Uh all right uh -- Hercules."
From his infuriated expression, I felt I knew pretty much what it had been like for poor Iolaus with the Sovereign. And that gave me an idea, albeit a dangerous one.
"Why don't you just grow a beard and a moustache?" I asked him scornfully.
Now it was his turn to be puzzled. "What in Hades' name are you talking about?"
"I figure if you're going to start acting like the Sovereign, you should at least try to look like him also," I quipped. "I know a good place to buy some pretty stunning black leather outfits, if you're interested. You'd look good in something like that."
For a long moment, I thought I'd pushed him too far. His fingers dug into my arms so hard that I couldn't stifle a yelp of pain. Visions of my dismembered body washing up on shore tomorrow morning flashed across my mind.
Then he froze, his face changing abruptly. He squeezed his eyes closed, and tears seeped out around the edges.
"Oh shit!" he said in a ragged whisper.
I was still dangling in the air, and I had no feeling in my arms below the elbows.
"Uh Herc Hercules, I mean. Put me down, huh? I'm afraid of heights." I'm not, really. But it sounded like a good line, at the time.
He opened his eyes, looked at me, looked down at the sand, then shook his head and set me on my feet, much to my relief.
"I'm sorry," he said at last. "You were only trying to tell me that Iolaus loved me. I had no right --"
I rubbed my bruised arms, trying to get the circulation back. "It's okay."
"No, it's not okay. I knew Iolaus bedded lots of women, even while we were together. I shouldn't have been surprised that there would be other men also. After all, we never promised each other that there wouldn't be. I had no right to get so angry, and I'm sorry if I hurt you."
"But you didn't. See?" I held out my arms, as if to show that everything was undamaged.
His pain-filled gaze met mine. "I'm just so lost without him."
I moved closer. "Iolaus loved you, Hercules, more than he loved life itself. Do you think he would want to see you so unhappy now?"
The big man smiled tentatively. Apparently taking my still outstretched arms as an invitation, he stepped forward and wrapped his own arms around me in a hug that may well have been meant as comradely, except that I leaned into it and wrapped my own arms around him in return. Somehow, we just didn't let go when we should have. Instead, he tightened the embrace, holding me so hard that the heavy metal of his belt buckle dug almost painfully into the bottom of my ribs. He sighed.
Along with the belt buckle, there was something else pushing firmly against me, and I didn't think it was made of metal. "I guess you only spoke the naked truth, huh?" I said gently.
"What are you talking about?" His voice had that soft-edged, slightly-distracted quality you get when your body begins to react to something.
"What you told Aphrodite?" I squirmed deliberately against him so he'd be sure to know what I was talking about. "It really does get harder every time, doesn't it?"
He sort of laughed. "Sometimes it feels that way." For the space of a couple of heartbeats, he said nothing, then, "Uh Euphonius?"
"If that was a question, the answer is yes."
"I rather thought you'd say that." He leaned down and kissed me. His breath smelled of the wine he'd been drinking, but his lips were delicious, at the same time both gentle and fiercely demanding.
Do I really have to tell you that I kissed him back? We took turns exploring each other's mouths with our tongues.
I know, I know. I have a tendency to think too much, in a situation where all I really should be doing is feeling. I can't help it. That's just how I am. Even while I was passionately kissing the demigod, I couldn't help thinking about the irony of the current situation. Here was Hercules, a bit too drunk and missing Iolaus. My first time with the original Iolaus, he had been drunk and missing Hercules. He had no more wanted me for myself than Hercules did now, and I knew it. Isn't life strange sometimes?
Well, I really didn't care all that much why he wanted me. It still felt damn good, and I wanted it to keep on. After the frustrating time I'd had last night, courtesy of the God of War, just about anything would have been welcome. And Hercules certainly didn't come under the category of "just about anything".
In any case, as the kiss deepened and our hands started roaming around each other's bodies, I finally stopped thinking for a while.
It didn't take too long for me to get Herc's shirt untucked from his pants, so I could wrap my arms around his naked back. I've always loved touching people. I can get turned on just running my fingers over someone else's skin, not to mention what happens when someone else touches me. And if the skin is smooth and soft, with hard muscle underneath the surface, so much the better.
As I raked my fingernails lightly down his back and across his hips just above his belt, he broke off the kiss and straightened up with a sharp intake of breath.
Being relatively short has its advantages: as I stood pressed tightly against his chest, his nipples were conveniently located for my mouth to find. Not all men like that sort of thing, so I just licked tentatively across one of them, at first. When he arched his back and thrust his hips against me, I took that for a sign of encouragement and began sucking harder.
Yes, I felt the increasing pressure of my own cock, but right then I was concentrating on the other man's arousal, not my own. I slid one hand around to his chest and started playing with his other nipple, even as I continued working on the one in my mouth. His hands clutched my ass, pulling our lower bodies tightly together.
I tried to get my other hand down to his belt, in order to open his pants, but heavy belt buckles are pretty difficult to unfasten when they're trapped between two squirming bodies. In a sort of unspoken mutual agreement, we stepped apart in order to make it easier, each working on his own clothing. My tunic, shirt, and drawstring trousers came off a whole lot faster than those tight woven-leather pants he wears, not to mention the boots.
It was dark on the beach. Still no moon. But the starlight was enough to show me the man standing in front of me as he struggled out of the last of his clothes. Looking at him naked, I wondered briefly what it would be like to have a body and face that beautiful. Sure as death and taxes, I'd never know. Still, I wasn't so naïve as to think it was only a good thing. All too often, surface beauty attracts surface emotions. Like any gift of the gods, it might be a blessing, or it might be a curse.
Oh, but I truly wouldn't mind being cursed like that!
I had no time for further consideration as he pulled me up against him. Once again, the height difference made itself very obvious, as his hard cock was against my stomach, while mine was halfway down his thighs.
He solved that problem very easily, as I was certain he'd done many times before, by simply lifting me in his arms and laying me on the sand, while he lay down alongside me so that we were face to face.
"There," he said softly. "Now we're the same height, right?"
The question didn't require an answer, so it didn't get one. I wrapped myself around him, as he pulled me into his arms, working our cocks back and forth between our thighs.
Now, it's entirely possible to get off this way, and many men prefer it to other styles of love-making. If we simply continued what we were doing, we'd both come. But there were other options available and I had enough time to wonder just exactly where we would go from here, if anywhere. It's always a bit of a question, with a stranger. You know. What does he like? What is he willing to accept? And what won't he do under any circumstances?
Euphonius, I told myself firmly, shut up and fuck.
"I'd like more than this," Hercules whispered in my ear a few moments later. "If it's all right with you?"
He had the strength to break me in half, yet still he asked my permission?
"It's uh fine with me. But I'm really not in the mood to lie flat on my back, if you don't mind. Your brother kind of tossed me into a wall."
"Ares did that?" he said, sounding shocked. "He should be more careful what he does with mortals. It's one thing to throw me around, or one of his godling flunkies. We can handle it."
"I didn't exactly break anything. Just a lot of bruises and scrapes," I assured him.
He immediately loosened his hold. "Have I been hurting you?"
"Oh, gods, no! Don't let go." I smiled and kissed him gently.
"Euphonius?" he asked tentatively, as we broke off the kiss.
"What?" I replied stupidly.
He smiled. "I know what you're thinking. Iolaus was the pretty one, the little one, so it's natural to assume he was the one on the bottom, right? Well, it wasn't always like that between us. Sometimes Iolaus would "
"Okay, I get the picture. As they say, never assume."
"You don't mind?"
"Mind? Oh heavens, no!"
He lay down beside me again and we went back to our mutual caressing and squirming against each other, but now I knew where it was going. It's usually better not to rush into such things. I took his cock into my hand, teasing gently at the partially retracted foreskin and then rubbing my palm along the bottom of his shaft, while my fingers encircled the rest of it loosely.
When I felt he was just about ready, I asked softly, "How do you like it? On your back or on your knees?"
"Considering all this sand, I think I'd rather not lie on my back."
"Yeah. Gotcha." I sat up on my knees. "I need to get something first."
Rummaging quickly through the heap of clothing on the sand, I pulled a little vial of scented oil out of my belt pouch.
Hercules looked at me strangely.
"You always carry that with you?" he asked.
"Yeah," I admitted. "Be prepared: that's my motto."
He laughed, as I had hoped he would. Sometimes sex should be very serious, but sometimes it's better if it's just fun. I didn't intend to give him too much time to think about the blond warrior whose cock he really wanted up his ass.
I was about to pour more of the scented oil into my hand when he said, "Why don't you let me do that?"
I gave him the bottle. Still lying on one side and watching me, he emptied some of the fragrant liquid into one large palm, propped his head on the other, and proceeded to rub the oil over my own very interested penis.
Now, I had been trying all along to make it good for him and not pay too much attention to what I wanted, but that was getting as they say harder all the time. He seemed to be enjoying it, though, as he made a big production out of making sure I was well lubricated. I didn't complain.
Just when I was beginning to forget what I was about to do, he got up and rolled over.
Now, there are times when the entire concept of sex strikes me as so ridiculous that I actually do laugh, to the consternation of some of my partners. But this was beyond ridiculous: this was utterly fantastic. Never in my life had I expected to have the famous Hercules, son of Zeus and subject of stories and legends, on his hands and knees before me, with his pretty ass up in the air.
I was truly grateful that he couldn't see the idiotic grin on my face as I spread his cheeks. As I started to press one finger into him, he whispered, "No. Just do it."
All right then, he didn't need much in the way of preparation. My cock, although nicely long, was much thinner than Iolaus', so it really shouldn't be a problem. I entered him slowly, just in case, but he didn't so much as wince.
Now, you're going to think I'm crazy here, but I felt disconnected somehow from the entire situation. It wasn't that it didn't feel good it did. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy what I was doing, especially when I reached around with one hand and started stroking his cock. Judging by the way we established a very satisfying mutual rhythm with a minimum of difficulty, we were both very much into it. And it certainly wasn't that the world didn't finally narrow down into one bright, blazing point of focus in my groin, straining for release. It's just that it was strange. As if something, or someone, who should have been there wasn't.
Okay, maybe I was just thinking too much again. I couldn't help but feel that this would fall into the category of mercy fuck. However, I really wasn't sure which of us was showing mercy to the other. Herc may well have been using me, and I know for sure I was using him.
But when he gasped Iolaus' name as he came, it was all I could do to stop myself from doing the same thing. The name, I mean. I couldn't have stopped my body's response to the other man's orgasm if I'd wanted to, as the muscles of his anus clamped rhythmically around my shaft, milking my cum into his body.
When the last shiver of ecstasy had faded from our bodies, I pulled out and collapsed in the sand next to him.
For a little while after than, neither of us said anything. Then I noticed him looking beyond me, where the waves rolled gently against the shore, and where, even now, Iolaus swam with his little mermaid. I knew what he had to be thinking.
I propped myself up on one elbow, effectively blocking his view of the sea.
"Let me ask you something," I said. "If you could forget completely about Iolaus, would you want that?"
"No, not really. But it hurts so damn much to remember!"
"Yeah, it does. But there's a lot of joy mixed in with that hurt, isn't there? A lot of fond memories and happy times?"
Yeah. You and your Iolaus had a lifetime of memories, I thought resentfully. I had a few days with him before he died. That's it.
No. This is no time for self-pity. Get a grip, Euphonius! If your memories aren't as long or as wonderful as his, then neither is the depth of your pain.
"That's how it is in life," I went on. "You take the pain and the joy together. If you want the one, you have to take the other along with it."
He said nothing, just closed his eyes and looked as if he were going to cry.
"Herc?" Too late, I realized I'd called him by Iolaus' nickname. But this time, he didn't react to my slip, just glanced at me questioningly. "I've got sand in some pretty uncomfortable places. How about we take a quick dip to wash off?"
"Sounds good to me."
He stood up, then reached one hand down in invitation. When I grasped it, he pulled me to my feet. In companionable silence, we walked across the beach and into the water.
The ocean was calm that night. The waves were small and gentle, and we were easily able to wade out past where they were breaking. As the saltwater rose around me, I winced at the sudden sting where the scabs had been torn a little from the edges of a few of the scrapes on my back. But no matter. They would doubtless be better for the soaking, in the long run.
We rinsed off, then floated for a bit on our backs, letting the waves lift us up in their arms.
"You know, there's something I've been wondering," Hercules said at last.
"How do mermaids mermen? merpeople? Damn, what does one call them? Well, anyway, how do they make love?"
I came to my feet, toes just touching the sand below me. "Good question. I've never seen one up close. Have you?"
"No. I only saw Iolaus in the water, swimming away."
"So just how the fuck do they do it?"
"You got me," he replied.
"No, wrong tense. I had you."
We both dissolved into helpless laughter, even though my remark hadn't been all that clever. I don't think I'd have been able to laugh any harder if he'd tickled me. (Which, thankfully, he did not. I hate that!)
"Come on. Let's get out of here and get dressed, before I turn into a prune," I suggested, as the laughter subsided.
We were back on the beach, trying to shake off as much of the moisture as possible before putting on our clothes, when Hercules said, apropos of nothing, "Iolaus told me what Ares did to him last night. Thanks for trying to help him, even if it wasn't entirely successful."
"I just wish I could have done more. But why are you thanking me?" I replied, genuinely puzzled. "I didn't do anything for you. I was trying to protect Iolaus for his own sake."
Herc seemed a bit taken aback by this. "I well, I always felt responsible for him, since I brought him to this universe and all."
"Well, maybe you are responsible, to an extent. But we're all responsible for things, to an extent. Beyond that, it's the other person's doing, for better or for worse."
He twisted his long hair, wringing out the water. "No, I should be able to --"
"Oh, please!" I said as I stepped into my trousers. "Give us a break. Give yourself a break. You can't fix everything. Sometimes you just have to let us poor weak mortals make our own choices and take our own chances. Like us, do everything you can to make the world a better place, but realize it isn't going to happen immediately. Our children's children's children will be struggling with evil and darkness, no matter what you do, or what I do. It isn't going to go away. You may win a victory here and there against Dahak, but you won't destroy him. And even if you did, something else would crop up to take his place. That's just how it is."
Whether or not he accepted my explanation, I was never to know. Before he could say anything in reply, the air just in front of him took on a sort of transparent sparkle, to be replaced quickly with a dignified-looking older man wearing ornate robes.
Herc rapidly grabbed up his pants and held them in front of his groin. "Uh Father you really shouldn't " he began.
Zeus waved a hand in a careless gesture. "Son, do you think I don't know what a man's body looks like by now?" He smiled. "Sorry it took me so long to get here. I heard you calling me, but I was -- shall we say? busy at the time. I was actually going to pop in just a little while ago, but by then you seemed to be the busy one."
As Hercules blushed, the King of the Gods came over and put an arm around his shoulders. "So what is it this time, boy? Is there something I can help you with?"
His glance fell on me just briefly. Did I imagine it, or did one eyebrow lift a fraction, almost as if he were asking me a question?
Now, I didn't even begin to think that a short time in my arms would make Hercules fall madly in love with me, much less convince him to continue with his mortal life just for my sake. He'd been willing to leave to become a god once before, and even his love for Iolaus hadn't been enough to stop him.
However, sexual frustration can be a contributing factor to despair and hopelessness. He might at least be in a better mood now. At any rate, he hadn't rushed over to Zeus immediately and demanded a one-way ticket to Olympus.
Before he could say anything, I stood up, still half naked, and determined to give it one last shot.
"Hercules, remember what we said about the sorrow and the joy? That's what it is to be mortal. If you want to be part of our lives, you have to live with it."
"I don't have to like it."
I sighed, certain that I'd lost, and said resignedly, "Then go join the gods on Mount Olympus, if you don't like things down here." A sudden pang of anger pierced my heart and drove my tongue to continue remorselessly, "You're lucky. You can run away. We can't. Go on, big man. Go crying to your immortal father. Go live forever with your precious relatives, and leave us to mourn our losses. But don't do it because you couldn't handle being mortal or because you just gave up. Do it because you feel that's where your destiny lies, or because you think you can do the most good that way, or for any other truly worthwhile reason. Do it because you're running to something, not running away." He looked so miserable. I put one hand up to stroke his cheek, moderating the anger in my voice. "Herc, do you really think Iolaus would respect your reasons, otherwise?"
I shook my head and would have turned my back on them, but Hercules' big hand came down on my shoulder and he said to Zeus, "I'm sorry if I disturbed you, father."
"That's all right," Zeus replied equably. "What was it you wanted me for, anyway?"
"I've changed my mind." A slow smile spread across his face. "I guess it wasn't all that important anyway."
The King of the Gods looked at his half-mortal son as if he'd gone crazy.
Then he shook his head and smiled, as he sparkled out of sight.
We spent the rest of that night sleeping on the beach in each other's arms, but when I awoke in the first light of sunrise, Hercules was gone. Gathering the rest of my clothes, I stood up and stretched. Then I dusted the sand off my trousers, pulled on my shirt and tunic, and tied my sash at my waist. With a rather stupid smile on my lips, I picked up the half-empty vial of oil from where we'd left it and tucked it away. Time to move on.
I looked around the deserted beach, watching the sky turn bright as
the sun crept up over the horizon. It was going to be a calm day.
I stared into the growing sparkle of sunlight on the water.
Wherever Hercules had gone, I wished him success in getting over his lost love. I knew I'd be all right, in time, for love had long ago taught me its most awful lesson: that I could live without it, if I had to.
Absently, I reached into the pouch hanging at my waist and brought out the amber pendant that had played a part in the other night's activities with Ares. If only it could have been different, somehow. If only I could have held on to this Iolaus, and made him love me. But that hadn't happened, and both the Iolauses I had known and loved were gone forever.
I ran my fingers over the smooth surface of the oval bead. I should forget them, both of them. Cast them out of my memory, and wipe them out of my heart. Yes, that would be best. Just toss them away, as I could toss this bit of amber out into the ocean, if I chose to do so. None of it had to be a part of my life anymore. None of it had to mean anything to me. I could do that. A quick flick of my wrist, a quick flick of my mind, and it would all be just part of the past, done and over and gone completely. I didn't have to hurt like this, if I didn't want to.
I drew back my arm to throw. I didn't need this pain. I
didn't want the memories of Iolaus no, not either of them. The
golden hair, the quick wit, that flashing smile, his eyes, his honest loving
truth. It would be far easier to live without all this, to give it
I stood there, squinting into the fierce morning sunshine. Then I blinked, and the idyllic scenery blurred and floated sideways in the moisture that filled my eyes and ran slowly down my cheeks.
Tasting the salt of my own tears, I lowered my arm.
Tears like the sea, made of salt and water, a mixture of sorrow and joy.
For this is what it means to be mortal: to live the sorrow, and the joy. Hadn't I told Hercules that very same thing?
I put the piece of amber back into my pouch, wiping my face with the back of my hand, and looked out over the sparkling sea with a smile on my lips, thinking of the one who had bravely chosen to start over again in a strange world, not once, but twice.
Farewell, Iolaus. May you find the happiness you deserve, in the new life you have chosen. Peace and love go with you always, dear heart.
Only sometimes if you would remember me, as I shall remember you?
Continue on to the sequel Anyone for a Swim?