Author: Aramis
Story Title: Petting
Characters: Hercules/Iolaus
Rating: PG-13
Summary: Hercules ends up in the 'dog-box' because of Iolaus' new pet.


DISCLAIMER:
The characters belong to Studios USA and Renaissance Pictures and were used without permission. No copyright infringement was intended and no money was made.

You can find more stories by Aramis at Nephele's Herculean Slash page.

**********

Petting
by Aramis


Autolycus was sitting sunning himself beside the main road to Xerovouni when he spied a familiar figure heading towards him. There was no mistaking the disreputable purple vest and the mop of golden curls and yet there *was* something different about the little hunter. Normally he almost bounced along, overflowing with energy and constantly looking around for new diversions. However, today he had his head down and looked a picture of dejection.

"Iolaus!" the thief called, as the warrior neared him.

The blond made no response.

"IOLAUS!"

"I heard you the first time," Iolaus muttered irritably. Now abreast of the King of Thieves, he did not look around or slow his pace and Autolycus could detect a slight limp in his gait.

Piqued and curious, Autolycus scrambled up and fell into step alongside him.

"Hello, Iolaus. I can't tell you how overcome I am by the effusive greeting you've given me."

"Hello, Autolycus. Goodbye, Autolycus," the blond muttered and kept walking.

Now that *was* out of character. Normally the blond might well try to get rid of him, but he could never resist throwing some cheeky, not to say rude, comments in the thief's direction. Autolycus loved coming to verbal fisticuffs with the blond because he usually won their encounters and it was fun to torment him, especially as the thief felt safe as Hercules had a soft spot for him and would reprimand Iolaus if he tried to take any physical revenge for the teasing.

Hercules! Normally the two were virtually inseparable. A dreadful thought struck him. What if something had happened to Hercules? Insofar as he respected anyone, the thief respected Hercules. It was hard for him to believe anyone could live a life of selfless service to others and, although it was the last thing he could have contemplated for himself, he felt a sneaking admiration for the demigod.

He put a firm, but gentle, hand on Iolaus' shoulder to stop his progress. Iolaus tried to shrug it off, but the thief tightened his grip and turned the smaller man to face him. "Damn you, Autolycus, can't you tell I'm in a hurry?" Iolaus demanded.

"Iolaus, where is Hercules?"

"I don't know." His voice was sulky.

"Has something happened to him?"

"Not as far as I know. I expect he's tagging along after me as usual."

"Tagging along?" the thief echoed in some stupefaction. "You make him sound like a pet dog."

"Yeah? Well that's appropriate because he's certainly in the dog-box at present as far as I'm concerned." "Why? What's he done?"

"Ask him yourself! I want to get to Xerovouni." With that, he shook off Autolycus' hand and hurried on, leaving a bemused thief staring after him.

Autolycus debated following him, but decided to sit down and wait for a few minutes to see if the demigod turned up.

About a quarter of an hour later, Hercules came into sight. Unlike Iolaus, his face lit up when he spotted the thief and he hurried towards him. "Autolycus! It's great to see you! It's been quite a while."

As he turned to Autolycus, the latter observed that the left side of his face was badly scratched.

"It's good to see you too, Hercules, but what on earth have you been doing to yourself?"

"Just a minor problem."

"That minor problem wasn't a grumpy, little blond by any chance?"

"Have you seen Iolaus?"

Autolycus nodded. "Yes, he stormed past a few minutes ago. He said he was heading for Xerovouni. That's about five miles on," he added.

"Oh, good! I keep worrying in case he takes off into the bush because I'll never keep track of him there."

"What's going on, Hercules?"

"Didn't Iolaus tell you?"

"Nope. He wouldn't have even spoken a word to me if I hadn't grabbed hold of him. He said to ask you."

"Well, it's rather a silly thing we've fallen out over, but if he said to ask me I don't suppose he'll mind me telling you. Anyway, I'm sure you'll agree with me that what he wanted was ridiculous and maybe you can help me make him see sense."

Autolycus privately felt that the stubborn hunter was more likely to dig his heels in if he thought Autolycus was on the opposing side, but wanting to hear the story, he kept such reservations to himself. "Sit down here and tell me about it."

"I don't want Iolaus getting too far ahead."

"No worries. He said he was going to Xerovouni, remember?" We'll find him there."

"All right."

So Hercules sat down and told Autolycus about their visit to Konispol.

*****

Hercules had opened bleary eyes and peered about him. The room looked even less salubrious than it had done the previous evening, but the rundown tavern was Konispol's sole hostelry.

He was aware of several itchy spots on various parts of his anatomy. The bed was clearly flea-infested. He should have agreed with Iolaus' suggestion that they sleep out, but they had done that all too often recently and he had felt the need for a more comfortable night's rest.

His gaze lighted on the soft, golden curls on the pillow beside him. At least, their owner had apparently kept out of mischief for once. When Hercules had announced he was ready for bed, Iolaus had told him he was not tired and was going to have a few more drinks. The demigod had left him with some misgivings. How often those few extra drinks seemed to lead the hunter into trouble but, for once, the obstreperous, little blond had not got involved in anything amiss.

'No, I'm being unfair,' Hercules thought, 'He's not *that* bad.' Looking at that innocent face one could indeed be lulled into thinking that all the trouble its owner seemed to attract could not possibly be of his own making.

Hercules reached out a hand under the covers intending to caress his sleeping lover. To his shock, a series of sharp needles dug into his hand. "Ow!" he exclaimed, hurriedly withdrawing his hand and sucking at it. He gingerly raised the covers and there, clasped lovingly in Iolaus' arms, was the largest, most disreputable looking, ginger tomcat it had ever been his misfortune to encounter. The cat peered balefully back at him, clearly resenting the intrusion.

"Iolaus! Iolaus, wake up!" Hercules commanded loudly.

"Huh? What's wrong, Herc?" Even in his sleep befuddled state, the hunter was aware that Hercules' tone was one of annoyance rather than a warning of an imminent bandit attack or other danger.

"What is that ghastly creature doing in our bed?" the demigod demanded.

"What creature?" Iolaus muttered.

"That horrible object you are holding in your arms."

He was aware that if looks could kill the cat would have struck him dead.

"Oh, do you mean *my* cat?" Iolaus inquired innocently, his voice suggesting that it was highly improbable that the pet should be spoken of in such a critical tone.

"Iolaus, you do *not* own a cat and you are *not* going to."

"Why not? Look at him, Herc, isn't he beautiful?"

The cat seemed to understand that he was being complimented. He raised his head and bunted the hunter's chin. His whiskers tickled the blond's throat and he giggled at the sensation. Hercules could have sworn the cat was gloating when it glanced at him.

"I've named him Snuggles," the hunter reported happily. "He's so cuddly!"

"Iolaus, he is *not* cuddly. Look at him! I've never seen a scruffier looking cat. He's flea-ridden too. Our bed's alive with them."

"Don't exaggerate, Herc. *I* haven't been bitten."

"I don't know why."

"Well, I'm holding the cat and I haven't been bitten so I guess you must be the source of your own problem. When did you last bath?" he added cheekily.

The demigod flung back the covers and swung his legs out of bed. "That's not funny, Iolaus. Let me make it clear, that cat is going."

"No, he's not! I want him! I always wanted a pet, but my father wouldn't let me have one," he added, his voice deliberately plaintive.

"Well, if this is a representative sample of what you wanted as a pet, I can't blame him," Hercules retorted crushingly.

"But he's a lovely cat, Herc. He's real friendly."

"Yeah, look at what he did to me." Hercules thrust his punctured hand towards Iolaus. Quick as a flash, Snuggles took another swipe at him and the demigod barely managed to evade the slashing claws. "There! See! I'll be lucky if the scratches aren't infected."

"You probably scared him poking your hand out suddenly like that," Iolaus protested. To Hercules' horror, he leant down and dropped a kiss on the cat's head. "Poor old Snuggles," he crooned, "don't you let the nasty Hercules scare you. I'll protect you."

"You'll be too busy trying to protect your own backside," Hercules warned. "If that beast swats me again, I'll swat you."

"We're not scared of you, are we, Snuggles?" Iolaus asked. The cat gave a loud defiant purr and rubbed against him again.

Hercules turned his back on the pair and started to dress. He could hear Iolaus crooning endearments to the cat and it was purring louder than ever. Indeed, Hercules fancied he could hear a note of triumph in the sound as it rejoiced in his departure from the bed.

He stomped off to get his breakfast.

A few minutes later, the hunter appeared with Snuggles draped around his neck like a fur stole. He ordered breakfast at the bar and then sat down at Hercules' table. Snuggles climbed down and sat expectantly on the bench beside him. "That thing is *not* eating at the table," Hercules said.

"He's getting his own plate."

"And he can have it on the floor or better still outside."

"You are grumpy today, aren't you? Fancy taking out your grumpiness on an innocent, little cat!"

"That cat is neither innocent nor little and it is responsible for my mood, although *you* have had quite a part in that as well."

Iolaus pouted and turned to the cat. "You've caught him on a bad day, Snuggles. He isn't usually quite as bad as this."

"Stop talking to that cat about me as though I'm not here."

"Why? You keep making remarks about him."

"Iolaus, stop being ridiculous. It's only a dumb animal. It doesn't know what I'm saying."

"Yes, he does. He can tell from your tone of voice and he *doesn't* like it."

The conversation was interrupted at that point as a serving wench brought the food, Iolaus had apparently ordered en route to joining the demigod, to the table. "What a lovely cat," she said, smiling at its owner.

Iolaus grinned broadly and, as she moved away, turned to the demigod commenting, "See! Other people agree with me."

"Come off it, Iolaus. That girl was eyeing you up all last evening. If the cat wasn't with you she'd probably have chased it out."

However, the hunter ignored this. He put a plate of fish down on the floor for the cat and then tipped ale into a bowl for it as well. "What in Tartarus do you think you're doing? The cat won't drink that!" Hercules' exclaimed.

"Yes, he will. That's how we met last night. I turned around and he was on the table drinking my ale."

Hercules watched the beast guzzling happily and then decided to try to ignore it and hope that after it had eaten it would wander off in search of its next easy touch. He turned his attention to the hunter and realized that all he had before him was the remains of the ale. "Where's your breakfast?"

"I wasn't hungry, Herc."

"What? You, the walking stomach, *not* hungry! Are you sick or something?" He reached out and felt the blond's forehead.

Iolaus pushed his hand away. "I'm fine, Herc, I'm just not hungry."

"You spent all your money on that damn cat's breakfast, didn't you? Didn't you?"

"Not all of it. Some went on his supper last night. He *was* real hungry, Herc."

"You could have asked me for some money."

"You wouldn't have given it to me for Snuggles."

"And I shouldn't give it to you for yourself either, but I suppose I'll have to. Here." He passed over a few dinars. "At least, I won't have to listen to your stomach grumbling all day."

"Thanks, Herc," the hunter said, beaming. "See, Snuggles," he commented, scratching the cat's head, "he isn't all bad."

"Iolaus, shut up or I'll have that money back."

The hunter jumped up quickly to avoid that eventuality and hastened over to the bar to order more food.

Once he had finished eating he asked, "Herc, can we go fishing today?"

"Yes, fine."

"Great! Snuggles will enjoy that!"

The demigod closed his eyes and assumed a long-suffering expression. He decided not to dignify the comment with a response.

In the event, Snuggles did enjoy fishing and initially, at least, ate everything that was caught with considerable relish. Hercules could not believe one cat could eat so many fish with out bursting its stomach. "No wonder you like that cat. You identify with him. He's a bottomless pit like you are," he commented.

"We just appreciate our food, don't we, Snuggles?"

"It's lucky you aren't keeping him. You'd never be able to afford to feed him."

"But I *am* keeping him, Herc. I told you I was," Iolaus protested.

"And I told you that you can't," Hercules replied firmly.

"You can't stop me."

"Iolaus, be realistic! Our lifestyle's not suitable for a pet. Anyway, cats are territorial. It won't want to be dragged all over Greece."

"But, Herc, I *can't* just abandon him and anyway I really *want* him. Please."

Hercules looked at the pleading face. He could have sworn he could see tears welling in the hunter's azure eyes. How guilty he felt upsetting his friend! 'That devious, little ratbag knows I hate having to deny him anything,' he thought. 'He's an expert in manipulating me. I know I'm right about the cat, but how can I make him see reason?'

That night, Hercules was already abed when Iolaus entered the room with Snuggles purring in his arms. "And what do you think you're going?" the demigod demanded.

"Just to bed."

"That thing is *not* coming back into this bed."

"But, Herc "

"No! I will put up with you in this bed, but that creature is *not* joining us. Is that clear?"

"Where can he sleep then?"

"Outside."

"It's too cold. We'll freeze."

"What do you mean *we'll*?"

"You didn't seem to want me either."

"Don't be ridiculous, Iolaus. Of course I want you, just *not* that beast."

"But I can't just put him out, Herc, he'll think we don't love him."

"And he'll be right, *we* do not love him."

"Well, I do!" He reached for his carry-bag and started for the door.

Hercules climbed hurriedly out of bed. "Iolaus, stop it!" he reached for the blond's shoulder, only to withdraw his hand hastily when Snuggles growled a warning. "Where do you think you're going?"

"Out."

"Iolaus, this is ridiculous. Look, use your blanket to make him a bed on the floor."

"Really?"

"Yes."

"Are you sure?"

"Just do it. I want to get some sleep." He stalked back to the bed, climbed in and pulled the covers over his head.

Unfortunately, he could hear Iolaus reassuring the cat, "There you are, Snuggles. Comfy now? Uncle Herc didn't mean to sound so nasty."

"I am no relation to that monster so don't try to tell him I am," Hercules complained. 'Gods, that sounded like I believed the cat understands him. I'm getting as bad as he is,' he thought.

He felt the mattress move slightly as Iolaus climbed carefully into bed. However, he was aware that the little blond was lying as far away from him as possible. He reached out a hand and felt Iolaus jump with surprise at the caress. "H-Herc?"

Hercules pulled the hunter to him and hugged him fiercely. Iolaus returned the embrace. "I didn't think you'd want me," Iolaus whispered.

"I always want *you*, my love, and while my opposition is banished "

"Are you jealous of a little cat?"

"Forget the cat." Hercules rolled on top of Iolaus and began to kiss and nibble his way around his taut throat. The hunter writhed and moaned and both forgot Snuggles in the pleasure of the moment.

Snuggles leapt quietly out of the window and did not return for some hours.

When the demigod awoke the next day he was pleased to see that the cat was apparently sound asleep on Iolaus' blanket. He was even more pleased to find he had an armful of hunter. He kissed his lover awake and then swung out of bed, ignoring the blond's suggestions of more pleasurable activities.

He donned his breechclout and pulled his trousers on. Then he sat down on the bed and prepared to pull a boot on. Iolaus sat up and wrapped his arms around the demigod's shoulders trying to pull him back into the bed. He nuzzled his face against the demigod's neck and sucked at the sensitive spot at the junction of neck and shoulder. "No, Iolaus. I'm hungry. I want to eat."

"I'm hungry too," the hunter replied, nibbling at Hercules' neck.

"I meant food."

"Aw, Herc, just a few minutes. Please." His fingers found their way round to a nipple and he began to tease that.

Hercules was trying to resist the enticement. Leaning forward awkwardly, he started to slide his first boot on. To his horror, something wriggled in the boot as his toes touched it and then sharp teeth bit him. He cried out in surprise and pain, rapidly withdrawing his foot and flinging his boot away. As he did this, he surged to his feet and Iolaus overbalanced off the bed and landed flat on his stomach on the floor.

The boot bashed into the wall and a medium-sized rat emerged and ran across the bedroom. Snuggles jumped up in happy pursuit and the two began a mad chase around the room.

A furious Hercules grabbed Iolaus' sword and took a swipe with it.

"No, Herc!" Iolaus screamed. "You might hurt Snuggles!" As he spoke, he scrambled to his feet and clutched at the demigod's sword-arm.

Hercules flung his arm to the side and the hunter lost his grip and was propelled with a thump into the wall. He staggered up dizzily to see Hercules striking again. He dived at him and wrapped his arm around the demigod's arm while shouting, "Run, Snuggles!"

Sensibly, the cat jumped up and out of the window.

Without conscious thought, Hercules dragged his arm free, pushed Iolaus down on the bed and whacked him across the buttocks with the flat of the sword. "OW!"

"What in Tartarus did you think you were doing, Iolaus?" Hercules demanded.

The blond twisted around. "You were going to hurt Snuggles," he accused.

"No, I wasn't. I was after that damned rat."

"You were I thought It looked like "

"Iolaus, I probably should have tried to get that cat, but I swear I didn't."

However mad Hercules might make him, one thing Iolaus knew was that his friend did not lie. "I-I'm sorry."

"You should be. I might have accidentally hit the cat with you grabbing my arm like that."

The hunter climbed to his feet. "I'd better go after him. He's probably had quite a scare."

"And what about the bite that rat gave me?"

"Did it actually bite you? I'm sorry, I didn't realize. I'd better wash your foot and put some salve on it. Rats have infectious teeth." As he spoke, he began to rummage in his carry-bag for salve.

"You mean you're going to care for me *before* that cat?" Hercules asked, deliberately making his voice as disbelieving as possible.

Iolaus had the grace to blush and look shamefaced. "Of course I am, Herc."

When they emerged from the inn, Snuggles was nowhere in sight. Hercules hoped silently that the animal had gone for good. Iolaus roamed around calling the pet and questioning people while the demigod sat on a chair outside the inn.

A young woman wandered up to Hercules. "Excuse me."

"How can I help you?"

"Your friend is looking for a large, ginger cat, I believe."

"I'm afraid so I mean, yes, he is. Do you know where it is?"

"No, but it's probably gone home."

"You mean it has a home?"

"Yes, at least I think it does. There's an old lady who lives about three miles north of town. She has got several cats and I think it's probably one of hers."

"Did you tell, Iolaus?"

"Is that your friend?"

He nodded.

I didn't like too. He seemed to think it was his cat the way he was talking to people."

"Thank you for telling me. I'll certainly check with her. I won't let Iolaus get off with her pet."

Just then, an excited Iolaus called out, "C'mon, Herc, a boy just told me he'd seen Snuggles near where we were fishing yesterday." He took off at speed and Hercules gave one of his long-suffering sighs and followed him.

When he reached the river, he found the blond had found the cat and was hugging him tightly, while smiling one of the blazing smiles that always captivated Hercules. How could he tell Iolaus the news about the cat's probable ownership?

They returned to the village, the hunter chatting to the cat and expressing his relief as though it had been lost for weeks. Snuggles was lying on its back in his arms like a baby. Hercules was trying to ignore the thing, but knew its beady eyes were covertly watching him.

"You know that rat in my boot will have been his doing, don't you?" he asked, anxious to stop the flow of endearments and desirous of bringing the conversation around so he could impart his new information to the hunter.

"Yes! Wasn't it nice of him? It shows how much he likes you, Herc."

"What? How?"

"Bringing you food!"

"Iolaus, I know you once told me that you were so hungry when you were in Gorgus' dungeons that you seriously contemplated "rat tartare", but I will *never* be that hungry. Anyway, I don't believe that was the beast's motive at all. If it had a motive, it was a malicious one."

"I can't believe you'd be so " Iolaus started, but he was interrupted by the sudden appearance of three large dogs. Snuggles rolled over and hissed a challenge. Nothing loath the mongrels headed for him.

Snuggles decided discretion was the better part of valour and leapt for the highest place he could see. Unfortunately, that was the demigod's head. Hercules gave a cry of pain as claws raked his cheek as their owner tried to scramble its way up from the demigod's shoulder. He seized the cat and flung it from him.

Snuggles landed safely on his feet about twenty feet away. Gathering his courage, he arched his back, blew himself up to twice his normal already formidable size and, snarling and spitting, advanced upon the dogs.

Meanwhile, Iolaus had drawn his sword and was using the flat of the blade to beat the dogs off.

As they ran yelping, Iolaus gave a yelp of his own as a large hand grabbed him by the back of the neck, hustling him into the tavern and to their room. Hercules slammed the door of their room, releasing the blond and the hunter swung to face him. The complaints on his lips died as he all the blood running down Hercules' face.

"Right that's it, Iolaus. I'm getting rid of that animal."

"No, please, Herc, the dogs frightened him. It wasn't his fault. Please."

"No, that was the last straw." He reached for the flannel by the washbowl to wash the blood from his face and realized Iolaus was sidling towards the door in pursuit of his pet. "Sit down!"

"No, I can't let you "

"Sit!"

Iolaus hesitated as if about to obey and then flung himself at the door. The demigod dived after him. His tackle brought the little blond down with a crash, knocking the wind out of him. Gasping, he managed to roll over onto his back and kicked at Hercules.

The demigod had had enough. He grabbed the extended leg and twisted it, forcing the hunter onto his stomach. Then he flung his arms around Iolaus and dragged him to his feet and over to the bed. He tied him to the bed, gagged him to prevent him summoning help, and then he set out in pursuit of the cat.

It took an hour or so and the help of several locals before he finally managed to corner the beast and to secure it in a small cage lent by one the villagers.

He then carried the howling, spitting beast to the inn, holding the cage away from his body to avoid the slashing claws and thankful that the top of the cage was completely sealed so his hand was safe. "I'm taking the cat back to his owner, Iolaus. I just wanted you to see I haven't hurt him," he said.

The hunter made a muffled protest. Hercules removed the gag. "No! Please don't! I want him, Herc. It's not fair! You're just going to stray him, aren't you?"

"Iolaus, he belongs to an old lady who lives a few miles out of the village," he said, adding silently, 'I hope'. "You wouldn't want to steal an old lady's pet, would you?"

"Yes! No I don't know. Please, Herc, let me go with you."

"No, you'll try to get the cat again."

"I won't. I just want to see "

"No."

Securing the gag once more, Hercules left his friend and, racked with guilt, headed out of the village. By the time he approached the cottage, he was even beginning to half hope that the cat did not turn out to belong to the old woman as he recalled the reproach in his friend's eyes.

The woman observed his approach and hurried out to meet him. "What are you doing with Ares?" the old lady demanded.

"Ares?"

"My cat."

"He is yours then? A woman in the village said he might be."

"Thank you for bringing him, but he would have found his own way home, you know."

"A friend of mine took a fancy to him but I hoped he belonged I mean I wanted to be sure no one owned him."

"Well, I do and I'd hate to lose him."

Another one? Clearly Iolaus wasn't the only mad cat-lover around. Totally unable to fathom why anyone could want such an obnoxious beast, Hercules decided it was safer to leave that topic and said, "Can I ask why 'Ares'?"

"You've spent time with him and you haven't recognized him for a trouble-making, fight-provoking animal? Oh, he can be charming when it suits him, but I wouldn't trust you an inch, would I my darling?" she asked, dropping a kiss on the cat's head.

Snuggles/Ares smirked evilly and purred loudly.

"You're right, he's just like my brother," Hercules said, smiling at the thought.

"Your brother?"

"Never mind. I'm just glad he is home," Hercules said quickly. "He certainly seems happy to be here," he added, as the cat moved to rub, with a show of affection, against him.

"Look out!" the woman cried in warning.

Moving at speed, the demigod barely managed to evade the pungent, golden stream, as a revengeful Snuggles/Ares raised his tail against his boots. Happy to be quit of the animal, he hurried back to the tavern and told Iolaus what had happened before releasing him, as he was fully aware that once untied the little blond would not be an attentive audience.

Iolaus listened without comment and, when freed simply moved to gather up his gear. Hercules noticed he was limping slightly and realized he had probably caused the injury when he twisted the kicking leg. "Iolaus " he started.

"I don't want to talk to you yet, Hercules. I might I might say say something I don't want to stay here now. I'm leaving."

Hercules had not missed the 'yet' and so, not wishing to push his luck, merely gathered up his gear and followed, pausing merely to settle the bill on the way out of the tavern.

*****

" and I've been tagging after him for two days now," Hercules concluded.

"Tagging?" Autolycus echoed, grinning.

"What's so funny?" Hercules demanded.

"You two! You've been together so long you even talk alike. He used that word when describing you. He said you were in the dog-box."

"That's true," Hercules observed, grinning ruefully. "Got any ideas how I can get out of it? He really did want that flea-ridden monster. He doesn't usually sulk this long."

"Easy, stop following him."

"What?"

"Stop following him. He'll get worried if you do and come looking for you."

Hercules looked dubious.

"Of course he will! You wait here. I'll follow him and sow the seeds of worry."

Sceptical, but willing to try anything, the demigod agreed.

Autolycus located Iolaus at Xerovouni with little difficulty. "Hey, Blondie, I thought you said Hercules was following you."

"So?" Iolaus asked coldly.

"Well, I waited and he never showed up, so I guess he's got tired of 'tagging' along *if* he was ever doing it in the first place."

"What do you mean *if*?"

"I'm sure a demigod has got more to do with his time than trail around after the likes of you. If you've been grumping at too he's probably sick of you, not that you're scintillating company at the best of times."

"Who cares what a thief thinks?" Iolaus retorted. He would have stomped off, but had to ask, "Are you sure you didn't see him?"

"He never *passed* me," Autolycus replied, inwardly congratulating himself on his clever employment of semantics. "I suppose *if* he really was following you, he might have been distracted by someone who needed his help. I guess it would be unlikely that he'd get ambushed himself, even though I've heard there are some particularly vicious gangs of bandits operating in the vicinity. Anyway, I expect that, even if they took him completely by surprise, he would be able to defeat them."

The thief smiled to himself as he observed the play of emotions on Iolaus' beautiful, though now pale, face. The little blond was so open, so easy to read. Guilt and apprehension, not to say fear, were clearly displayed to Autolycus' knowing eyes. 'He'd never make a go of it in my profession,' he thought. 'He can't hide his emotions. Well, not from me anyway.'

Iolaus ran his tongue over lips suddenly gone dry. "H-Have there really been reports of bandits?" he ventured. "I didn't see any sign of them."

"Oh, yes, bands of slavers!" Autolycus invented. "I imagine Hercules would be a great prize for them. Not that they'd be able to capture him, of course."

"Y-Yeah, of course," Iolaus agreed, his speaking countenance clearly revealing his worry and doubts.

"Well, let's go and have a drink then," Autolycus proposed.

"Later, I-I've just just remembered s-something I have to do," Iolaus stammered.

"Fine, later then."

The thief stood grinning as he watched the hunter hurrying off. He knew just what it was that the blond was going to do. 'Gods, no one can match my persuasive skills," he thought, preening himself at his clever manipulation of the little blond. 'Hercules will owe me for this big time and having a grateful demigod can't be a bad thing. I expect there might be a time in the future when I can call in the favour."

Meanwhile, Iolaus was practically running down the trail, his heart thudding wildly not only from the exertion, but from his fears as he considered all the possible explanations for Hercules' non-appearance.

When he at last spied the demigod standing by the track, he was so relieved that he simply launched himself into Hercules' arms and clung to him like a limpet. The impact staggered the demigod, but he managed to retain his feet, flinging his arms around the little blond and holding him against his chest.

The two clung wordlessly to each other for several long moments. Then, Iolaus stretched up on tiptoes and began to nuzzle and kiss the demigod's neck. "Love you, Herc."

"I love you too, Iolaus even when you cause me trouble," he couldn't resist adding.

"*Me* cause trouble!" Iolaus' eyes flew open wide, in his usual demonstration of innocence. The action caused him to suddenly observe his surroundings. He glanced rapidly around. "Hey, this is the spot where I met Autolycus!" he exclaimed, suspicion rising in his breast, as he pulled away from the demigod's embrace.

"Is it, my love?" Hercules inquired guilelessly.

"Yes! You two planned this, didn't you?" he accused.

The demigod had the grace to look shamefaced. "Sorry, yes. I was desperate to get you back, my love," Hercules confessed.

"Desperate enough to ally with a thief?"

"Desperate enough to do anything."

"Anything?" There was no mistaking the wicked glint in the blond's eye. "If that's true, I *might* have to forgive you then. We'd better see if it is," he said. He clutched the demigod's hand and began to pull him eagerly towards the sheltering bushes.

"*Anything*. Love that word," Iolaus giggled.

The End.



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