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Erastes

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Atalanta returned from a patrol around the camp. "He's not sleeping," she reported when she came back to the fire. "He lies there, but he won't sleep."

"Well, we're all getting precious little of that these days," said Autolycus, glaring into the night. Tydeus would be on watch when Atalanta made her bedroll, but still it was hard to lower his guard.

"But we're safe now, aren't we?" Iolaus put in from the other side of the fire. "Eurystheus's men won't follow us this far?"

"There's safe, lad, and then there's safe," Amphiaraus answered.

"We may have come far enough, but we've run through all our supplies. We left Athens with barely more than the clothes on our backs." Atalanta squatted neatly on her haunches, stirring the fire.

"We barely got Hercules out of there before the guards closed in. You want to go back and ask Eurystheus for your pretty dresses back?"

"That's not the point." She tossed her long braids over her shoulder. "Eventually we're going to need to find somewhere to go, a way to make money. But Iolaus is right - this is as safe as we're going to get for now. We can rest here a few days, hunt for what we need, catch our breath, make some plans."

"Except Herc won't rest," Iolaus concluded sadly.

"He's haunted in his dreams," said Amphiaraus in a strange, hollow tone. "A great three-headed wolf pursues him."

Autolycus scowled. "Is that the beast of Hades that slew his family, or what's hunting him in retribution for doing it himself?"

Iolaus surged to his feet. "You can't believe the accusations are true!"

"I don't know what's true. I didn't see the bodies. But I did see that room, and it was..." He shook his head. "I've not seen much besides Herc that could cause that much carnage in a small space. And he says he might have done it himself - he doesn't remember."

Autolycus had seen the blood spatters across Hercules' face and the gristle on his fingers. He remembered, too, the outbursts of temper when they were young men just getting started in the army. Hercules had only started to learn control when he was able to release his rage in the fires of battle. And it had been long since the army of Athens saw battle. Men like Hercules, men like Autolycus, they weren't meant to live in peaceful times. They'd seen no excitement in too long, save the Hydra - a clever scheme in its way, but in the end they were only petty criminals in snake costumes, with no hope of standing against Hercules' team.

"I can't see him losing control like that," said Atalanta. "Not unless he was pushed to it."

"Something in his cup, maybe," Amphiaraus mused. "It would explain why he could hardly speak or walk a straight line, when we got him out of there."

"I swear by Athena," declared Iolaus, "if Hercules is half-mad it's the result of his family's murder, not the cause. That's what drove him out of his mind!"

"We all agree he wasn't at fault, but he might have been involved," said Autolycus. "Against his will or not..."

"Not!" Iolaus sputtered.

"The point right now," Atalanta broke in, "is that not sleeping could just finish the job. Drive him the rest of the way mad."

"He needs a woman," Autolycus concluded. "Or a boy."

Atalanta and Iolaus both glowered at him.

Amphiaraus chuckled. "You have a point there. Could be just the thing to take his mind off his troubles."

"I offered, years ago!" said Iolaus. "He said he wouldn't. Not with his brother's son."

More likely, Autolycus guessed, Hercules had been determined to stay loyal to Megara; he had not been so fastidious before marriage. And now see where such chastity had led him. Well, Megara was not anyone's concern now except those who dwelt in Elysium. His gaze traveled thoughtfully to Atalanta.

Her eyes glittered in the firelight like new-forged steel. "The last man who made such a suggestion, I spitted through the gullet. But since we are all friends here -" she cast that edged glare around their circle "- I will say only that I cannot. No more than a eunuch may initiate a virgin." After a moment, she looked down at the flames once more, and her voice became more thoughtful than challenging. "Seldom before have I regretted this truth. But it is so."

"But, how can -" Iolaus began, only to be elbowed in the gut by Amphiaraus. Which was just as well, else it might have been Atalanta's wickedly sharp bow-shoe in his belly.

"I will speak to him," said Autolycus, climbing to his feet. "No speculation," he snapped at Amphiaraus. "And no spying!" This to Iolaus.

Brushing rabbit grease from his fingers as he left the fireside, Autolycus stopped beside his own pack to fish out a small flask. With a nod to Tydeus, perched upon a rock with a good view of the surrounds, Autolycus went searching for Hercules' bedroll.

It would be no hardship, he acknowledged privately. The two of them had played at love when they were boys, too young to join the army. Neither really had the age or status to be erastes, but Hercules usually won that argument by virtue of his size and presence. And Autolycus didn't pine over losing.

In more recent years, with their stars in ascension and Hercules caught up in his family, a number of comely young men had made eyes at Autolycus. Some of the offers he accepted, and enjoyed well enough, but it wasn't the same. He wished he could ask one of them to play the more active role for him so that he might relive his own younger days - but only a pervert would suggest such things to handsome young men, and Autolycus cherished too well the status he had won at Hercules' side.

All that was gone now. He would never wish to unmake his decision to get Hercules out of Athens; none of them had needed any time to make that choice. But he could wish the decision had never been needed, and sorrow for the life that he had left behind.

At least with his reputation in tatters, Autolycus would no longer be forced into the role he liked less. They were all bandits now - perhaps mercenaries, if Atalanta's suggestions bore out - and they could do or be what they wished and tongues might wag without making their names any blacker.

Hercules lay atop his bedroll, farther from the fire than was safe, naked to the sky and the sea breezes. His dusky skin blended with the hide he lay upon and the sunburnt ground, so that only the whites of his eyes reflected Selene's sickle lamp.

"You're not asleep," said Autolycus levelly, keeping any surprise or accusation from his tone.

"Why should I descend unarmed into a pit of monsters from Hades?" Hercules muttered dully.

Autolycus settled onto a bit of hide not covered by hulking man-mountain. "I can't think of a reason, but it certainly sounds like the sort of thing you would do."

Hercules huffed and edged his hips over to make some room.

"We were talking," Autolycus began.

Hercules grunted.

"We think we should rest here a while. A few days, a week. Take time for some planning."

"'We' think?"

"Atalanta, Amphiaraus..."

"And you?"

"I agree. We could all use a bit of space to get our heads back together."

"It won't do any good, you know," said Hercules tonelessly. "I am damned. You should all leave me to my fate."

"So that we ourselves might face the fate of oathbreakers? Choose another path, big man."

"While you are with me, you are all in danger."

"That's nothing new," Autolycus pointed out.

"Danger from me is new!" Hercules spat, suddenly vehement.

"I don't believe it," said Autolycus, firmly burying his doubts. "None of us believe it. Even if you... you were drugged, or ensorceled -"

"Cursed by the gods," Hercules added.

"But your head cleared the further we drew away from Athens. Whatever was affecting you, it's gone now."

"And so is my family." He had retreated once more to apathy after his momentary flicker of anger.

"They are now safe in Elysium."

"Then perhaps I should join them there," Hercules whispered.

Autolycus leaned over his friend's chest and caught him hard by the chin, glaring into dark eyes he could scarcely see. "If you hasten that journey, it's Hades you'll be seeing, and never meet your family again. If you think you had anything to do with that scene back in Athens, you'd better set yourself to atoning for it. Take your punishment here on Earth if you wish for anything better after." Settling back a little, he released the bristly chin and rested his hand instead on Hercules' shoulder. "But not tonight. Now is for resting, and tomorrow we will make plans."

"Punishment," Hercules breathed, turning his head the other way. "I do deserve punishment." He surged up to a sitting position and scrubbed his face with both hands. "Autolycus, I don't remember what happened but I swear by Zeus, I wouldn't... I couldn't have..."

"Well, then you didn't, so what need for punishment?" Autolycus said, trying and failing to make his tone light. His hand had shifted as Hercules moved, and now he was rubbing soothing circles over one broad arm.

"Whether I did it or not, it was my hubris. I was too confident, too settled. I should have known nothing good ever comes in this life."

"Some good things do," Autolycus affirmed. "You're not rotting in the Athenian prisons. You still have your friends and your freedom. Focus on this moment, Herc. We're safe now. It's time to rest."

"I don't trust myself in sleep."

"Trust us, then. Trust me. I can help you drive away those night-demons." Autolycus' touch grew lighter, tracing corded muscles.

Hercules glanced at that wandering hand, and then up at Autolycus' face shrouded in night. "We're not boys any longer, 'Tol."

"We're not dead men, either. Come, I'll help you sleep."

Hercules shook his head slowly. "Megara..."

"Will take no offense. You have to move forward, Herc."

"By reliving our boyhood?"

"By reminding ourselves what it is to be alive." Autolycus leaned forward and met those black bristles with his own, seeking the hidden treasure of soft lips behind.

Hercules groaned like a ship's timber under strain and caught Autolycus by the arms, pulling him forward, making him feel as if he were indeed a boy caught in the embrace of an older, more powerful man. Their breath quickened and blended as tongues and skin met.

Hercules swung Autolycus around and started to press him down upon the hide, but a moment later he stilled and lifted his weight away. "I'm... I can't... I don't want to hurt you."

Autolycus laughed. "I'm not a delicate flower, Herc! You've grown since the last time we did this, but so have I."

"That's not what I mean. I don't trust myself. What if I..."

"You won't." Autolycus tried to pull him closer again, but it was like pulling on a tree.

"You be erastes." And with a swift easy motion, Hercules flipped them again, so that he was cradling Autolycus on his broad chest.

Autolycus hesitated, a flicker of annoyance curling in his chest. But after all, this was supposed to be soothing for Hercules. If he thought it would make him feel better to take the passive role, Autolycus could oblige. So he skipped the opportunity to orate on how one role need not be only about giving and the other about taking, and he simply gave.

This was no hardship either, taking the time to admire every sculpted line with his hands and lips. There was so much to love about Hercules, as the eyes of every woman and most boys who met him could attest.

They were not smooth untarnished youths any longer; there were scars, but Autolycus knew how each one had been earned, and he knew as well that most of those blows would have broken a lesser man. He bore marks of his own, gained right at Hercules' side, and he wore them with pride. How much more thrilling, to have have both strength and experience bowing and shivering at his touch? And if Autolycus might have preferred to capture the tower with his own flesh rather than surmounting it to plant a banner-spear, he could rise to the challenge nonetheless.

"No oil," Hercules growled when he saw Autolycus reach for the flask he had brought.

Autolycus smacked his callipygian haunch. "You may think this is punishment, but why should my rod be flayed raw for your penance? You'll do as I say, eromenos."

Hercules submitted, but when Autolycus would have spent longer in preparation he snapped, "Just get on with it."

Autolycus gave him what he wanted, then, and drove into the strait passage hard enough for Hercules to feel it for a day or two. But then he moderated his movements and started using some of the tricks he had learned upon those handsome young men. They might imagine that they would be chaste and passive receptacles of his passion (and his gifts), but he soon taught them that both sides of the experience had their charms. The right angle and the right pacing, a firm touch here and a strong stroke there - it took a long arm to reach around Hercules, but Autolycus knew how to persuade the big man's body to yield, how to bring out the sensations of a slender youth inside the great warrior. Not until Hercules cried out in surrender did he permit his own release, and then he guided both their bodies down to rest upon the hide back-to-chest, cradling his friend as if he were sick or wounded. Slowly the heaving half-sobbing breaths eased to a deeper rest and the bulging muscles unstrung their tension a little.

Just as Autolycus' own eyes were drifting shut, Hercules twitched and started. "Don't sleep," he gasped.

"I wasn't going to," Autolycus lied. "You rest; I'll watch, and wake you if there's need."

"Not beside me," Hercules insisted. "Not with my club within reach."

Autolycus sighed and rose to his feet. "Very well. I'll get my pack so I can rest in comfort, but you stay here. Don't move - and close your eyes."

He stalked back to the center of camp, uncaring of the firelight upon his nakedness, and reclaimed his belongings without a word to the others. Quietly, he drew out the process of laying out his bedroll beside a tree above Hercules' head, where he would be hard to reach if the man started awake in a daze. Then he settled, leaning against the tree with a cloak about his shoulders, and set to watch the inner dangers as Tydeus watched for the outer.

Twice during the night he soothed Hercules by petting his hair softly when twitches and mutterings began; each time it worked to settle him deeper into sleep. Toward dawn Autolycus dozed for a few hours himself, but he hoped there would also be a chance to take some rest during the day. A seasoned warrior could march and fight for days on a few hours' sleep each night, but Autolycus had already been on the run for a while and was ready for a break in the pattern.

The next day... but that's another story.