The pit writhed with living metal. Spears at his back. Swords, which pierced the sides of his vest until they brought rivulets of blood; foreshadowing tears to come. If he'd let them come. But, not tears for himself; tears for his second self, taken from him by these brutal murderers. Then, suddenly, a dagger at his throat, forcing his head high. Turning his eyes toward a blinding sun.
But, Iolaus saw not the sun. Every fiber of his being honed only on the sight of the crucified figure silhouetted against its brilliant holocaust of orange and red. The battered face, downcast when he burst into the pit, lifted at the sound of his startled cry of recognition. A blossom of joyous relief (Iolaus had been told of Hercules' death; had Hercules been given the same false word regarding Iolaus?), overlapped instantly with horrified denial. Hercules' parched, torn lips moved, trying to form the one word which now seared his blood and welled in his eyes in the shape of unbidden tears.
This awful sight would be forever emblazoned on the hunter's mind. It enveloped him in a shroud of guilt which he would take to Hades with him. This knowledge was worse than the physical damage which Iolaus saw on Hercules' ruined body. The demigod's once-flowing chestnut locks were now matted, rusty-brown with sweat and blood. Savage lacerations and weeping burns decorated his body, his once proud and defiant form was now spread-eagled, and losing its battle against the inhuman suffering and the pitiless pull of gravity; allowing the thick leather straps to sustain the weight of its unbearable agonies.
Though the shadows concealed Hercules' eyes from his view, Iolaus riveted his focus there. From that moment on, the pit emptied of its torturous throngs. The two were conscious only of their locked eyes, their souls reaching out, their hearts breaking. And then, the silent echo of the words which they both had known might be spoken one day; words which now would never be given voice. Yet, in their courageous silence, those unspoken words rang more clearly than the screams of the crowd chanting for blood and death.
Iolaus' weapon was torn from his hands. His arms were yanked behind his back, pulled sadistically up toward his shoulders, then tightly lashed with barbed wire. A savage strand of the thin, spiked metal was wrapped snugly about his neck, its end looped through his arms and secured. A sudden movement, even an unwary breath, and he would decapitate himself.
A swift, punishing kick, and the hunter was driven to his knees, the bestial wire puncturing his flesh like talons. His blood began to run freely. And, the hunter smiled, a brilliant, second sun in the depths of this killing pit. A last, small defiance which shouted the words which the treacherous wire prevented Iolaus from voicing.
'You cowardly bastards, my blood is the only acknowledgment you'll get from me that you even exist.'
That scathing smile brought another savage kick, this one cracking ribs, and driving jagged bone into lung. The world curled in on itself, then returned with thunder. A thick, salty taste welled into his mouth. Iolaus struggled to draw a sparse, rattling breath, which was immediately followed by an unstoppable stream of crimson from his lips. The freshet of blood joined that which still flowed from the gaping wounds on his side to coagulate on the dirt, to soak into the knees of his leather pants.
But this torment might as well be happening to someone else. Nothing existed for Iolaus except his bond to the equally suffering figure gazing so lovingly down upon him. There was no call for his blood. No hue and cry for his death. No hideous, living pain. Only the ebbing life forces of their conjoined souls. And, the final thoughts that must be conveyed to Hercules.
The hunter's dimming eyes begged forgiveness for what he could not prevent. For what Hercules, Iolaus' light and life, must now witness. For what he knew was his fault. Suddenly, his pleas were overtaken by a stronger force. Iolaus heard quite clearly Hercules' recriminations that the fault for this tragedy was *his*. Because he lost sight of the fact that *nothing*, and *no one* was worth the risk, and now the cost, of the Hunter's life, who was *Hercules'* life. But, if this horror was to be, then Hercules' last silent vow to his second heart was this: that the slavemaster's lying report of Hercules' death would be a lie no longer.
With all eyes on the dying Iolaus, no one noticed the lone prisoner slipping deftly toward Hercules' blood-stained cross. Not even the son of Zeus realized that his bonds were being cut until, quite unexpectedly, his left leg swung free. But, even the realization of his impending freedom could not sever his connection with the tormented and tortured Hunter in the pit below. Hercules knew that if the gossamer thread were broken, Iolaus would be dead before his body crumpled to the dirt.
How the serpent tailed spear appeared in his hand Hercules didn't know. But, once his arms were freed, he threw the spear with all of his remaining strength. He did it with only the briefest glance away from Iolaus, but he knew his aim would be true. Straight through the black heart of the owner of this insane asylum. A second spear, given to him by the same prisoner who had cut his bonds, found its mark in the bitter bones of the owner's wife, wedding her quite securely to the chair on which she sat.
The stadium reacted with a stunned, paralyzed silence. Like a serpent discovering that its head had been cut off, the crowd stared in astonishment at the fresh corpses in royal attire.
The hunter's pitiless torturers allowed his battered form to slip from their confused grasp into the slick pools of his own blood.
For the son of Zeus, there was nothing but Iolaus, who needed him. Ignoring the screams of his own dire wounds, Hercules raced down the embattled tiers of stone to the arena. Adrenaline allowed him to use cut muscles and severed nerves as if his body were whole and strong. It was only when he reached the hunter's inert form, kneeling beside him in terror of what he might find, that his tears flowed; rivers of heartbreak tracing paths of guilty accusation.
A prison guard moved toward the hunter, and Hercules cast him a deadly glance; a clear warning that, if Iolaus were touched by anyone but him, the son of Zeus was still prepared to die, and he would take as many of them with him as he could. The guard stepped back, exchanging confused looks with his peers.
The crowd began murmuring its own confusion.
Hercules' tender, terrified hands reached out and snapped the hideous barbed wire from Iolaus' raw throat. Then, ever so slowly, he uncoiled its death grip from around his second soul's abused neck and arms. The demigod carefully straightened the hunter's twisted limbs, cringing at the deep etchings of earlier tortures which his shrinking eyes found carved in the once-perfect skin. So much damage. So much blood. Pink flesh stripped to bones and sinew around Iolaus' wrists, and at the base of his neck.
Hercules softly called Iolaus' name, more from the need to say the word than from any expectation of a response. His hot tears dropped onto the hunter's tormented body, mixing with Iolaus' brave blood, and washing in small, red streams to the dirt. With a strangled cry of unbearable loss, the son of Zeus rested his head gently above the hunter's heart, holding his breath until he finally heard its faint, thready beat.
He started, and jerked his head up at the sound of ripping cloth. The ebony-skinned woman whose plight had sent them on this fateful journey had appeared beside him, and was tearing her skirt into bandages. With no apology for his tears, nor any attempt to deny them, Hercules accepted a piece of the proffered cloth and dabbed at the blood on the hunter's blueing lips. He barely noticed when Felicita knelt beside him, gently wrapping Iolaus' pitifully serrated wrists.
Hercules' streaming eyes drifted in heartbreak over the sight of the gaping puncture wounds and a large coloring bruise on Iolaus' side. Then, a new horror presented itself; the bleached tip of a rib bone poking into the blood-purple vest. Suddenly, there was no time for fear. No time for anything. If Iolaus didn't get a professional healer's help now, then all would still be lost.
It took almost more strength then Hercules possessed to tear his gaze from the hunter; he dared not risk severing their desperate bond. He allowed his trembling hand to lie where it was, a covetous shelter for Iolaus' brave, failing heart. The precious contact formed a lifeline ... for both of them.
Through the lengthening shadows of a tin and copper twilight, Hercules searched the mass of humanity milling about the pit, in increasing agitation. Black thoughts arose within him. What if the healer couldn't be found in time? And, could anyone, no matter how accomplished, rebuild such ruination?
The demigod called into the anxious melee for Menas Maxius' healer. The piercing need in his voice sliced through the rising white noise of the crowd's confusion. Faces turned toward him. Needy faces. Angry faces. Lost faces. Desperate faces. After years of certainty, Hercules had, in an instant, plunged them all into uncertainty, destroying life as they knew it. And not everyone was happy with this new thing; freedom. Chains of the body were more easily broken than chains of the soul.
A memory arrowed through Hercules' terror, of a distant conversation with Iolaus... when was that...? One, no two months ago when the hunter, still vital, still whole, had asked;
'Why take this abuse? Let's just get out of here.'
'I don't feel we've accomplished anything. Gladius, these men...'
'These men don't care. They've spent most of their lives behind these bars. They've grown comfortable with it. They wouldn't know how to act on the outside. Look at them. Their spirits are broken.'
If only Hercules had *listened* to those words. Gods, why didn't he listen?! Then, the keeper of his heart would be safe, instead of slipping further and further away from those who loved him. The cold beast of guilt crowded Hercules' throat, stealing the breath from his lungs. The cooling dampness of Iolaus' skin, and the shallow grating of his breath shrouded Hercules' mind in fear. Fear which, combined with his own serious injuries, so dulled the demigod's senses that he didn't see the truth of his second soul's earlier words mirrored in the eyes of the crowd beginning to press close. Too close.
But, Felicita saw, and slowly rose, to stand before the perhaps fatally injured blonde warrior and the fast weakening son of Zeus. They hadn't been able to save her husband, Gladius, but they'd saved her son. And, that was a debt she'd pay with her life, if need be.
New, sporadic cries ruminated within the crowds' mass. Cries for vengeance. Not for the wicked Master and Mistress just perished, but for the certainty of their lives, forever lost. Who'd feed them now? Who'd clothe them? Where would they sleep? How would they live? Most had no families left, or were too beaten to believe their families would ever want them. The cruel yoke of slavery was gone, but so was their twisted sense of security. They wanted Hercules to return the unreturnable. And, they were being led by one of Menas Maxius' sadistic Guards, who carried a fierce torch against the oncoming rush of night.
But all the son of Zeus knew or cared about was that the fluttering heartbeat beneath his inadequate hand was growing weaker. The body colder. Live, Iolaus. Live. Again, Hercules called out for the healer, his voice so raspy, strained and cracking that it almost failed to form the words. His great strength was ebbing along with the life-force of his beloved hunter. Hercules knew that his body was succumbing to the grievous wounds which covered it. A soothing black void beckoned him from the edges of consciousness.
The guard with the torch approached Hercules, pushing a frightened, spindly middle-aged man, dressed in a long blue and purple tunic, before him, rather like a vulture presenting its intended dinner. Hercules recognized the trembling figure immediately: Menas Maxius' healer. Relief washed over the demigod; the beast retreated, and he could almost breath without pain. During the last two months, Hercules had seen this healer save men whom the son of Zeus thought beyond recovery. Now he would save Iolaus, and in so doing, save Hercules, as well.
But, before the demigod could show the wiry man Iolaus' grave injury, a sword erupted through the healer's colorful tunic. Astonishment blossomed in the medical man's suddenly wide, dark eyes. He looked down at the strange object projecting from his chest with child-like confusion, as a great rush of blood flowed around the exposed bit of steel. The blood and the healer reached the ground at the same moment. He was dead before stillness claimed his twitching limbs.
Staring triumphantly at Hercules, the emboldened guard jerked his blade free from the corpse, raising the scarlet stained weapon in a wide arc above his head. He turned to taunt and excite the uncertain crowd for more blood, hoping his show of 'bravery' would earn their loyalty, and more importantly, Menas Maxius' throne of power.
Hercules stared at the dead healer in numbing disbelief, his mind screaming in horror: No. No. NOO!!
The beast once again denied him air to breathe. Then, a flicker of gold caught his peripheral vision; the light from the hideous guard's torch was reflecting off of the brilliance of the hunter's platinum locks. Hercules was captivated by their sparkling depths, glowing, more alive than the damaged body which they crowned. Then, he took in Iolaus' ghostly pale features, and the blackening blood. The hunter was so still. So...broken. No sign at all of life. And now, no hope that there ever would be.
This truth broke the last thread of Hercules' waning control. Roaring in grief and anguish, he lunged for the guard. His hands quickly found and encircled the thick man's greasy neck. A quick jerk, and the guard's head tilted unnaturally, all light fading from his eyes. He and his torch fell to the ground just inches from the widening pool of the Healer's still-hot blood. The torch sputtered and began to wither as the red, viscous liquid reached it.
Hercules swung savagely to face the crowd, who, without the flickering light of the torch, were mere shadows within a harder darkness. His tormented cries raged against his own sins as well as those of the bestial guard.
"Who else wants to challenge me?!! Who else?!"
The crowd quieted and began backing away. Hercules stumbled into their midst, his fast weakening body swaying with the effort to remain upright. His voice shouted his heart's grief and pain. His face was awash with tears, his eyes blazing in agony, fired with guilt.
"Who else will come forward?! Who?!!"
But, the son of Zeus was not calling for a challenger; he was begging for an executioner. His beloved light and life was lost to him, and he couldn't bear the pain of being left behind.
Suddenly, the prisoner who'd cut him loose from the cross stepped up quietly before him. At first, Hercules thought that the man was here to free him again, to release him from the unendurable burden of remaining in this world, alone. Hoping that this small, unassuming savior would drive a sword or dagger into his treasonous heart and set him free. Free, please; to let him join the man whom he had loved beyond a brother, and betrayed worse than any dread enemy.
The prisoner's quiet, even tones answered Hercules as if he'd spoken his transgressions aloud. He wasn't here to release the son of Zeus from this life. Quite the opposite. The lithe, dark-haired, almond-eyed prisoner stood before the demigod to fulfill the final part a promise. One made two nights ago to the hunter, in the velvet and satin hell which they had shared for the last month. The prisoner had promised Iolaus that he would help him to avenge Hercules' death. But now, he was here to help save the demigod, and, if possible, to save Iolaus as well.
For a brief moment, Hercules simply stared at the strange figure before him; the words he had uttered made no sense. Iolaus was dead. How could he be saved? And, how could this unassuming man save Hercules by allowing him to continue, when only death would liberate his tortured soul?
But Hercules didn't ponder these painful thoughts for long. With his next heartbeat, the world blessedly darkened as the void rushed across his consciousness, to claim him at last.
Somewhere, thunder crackled and roared. Somewhere, a furious wind screamed for attention. And, right above his throbbing head, Hercules knew an unseen sky had collapsed in rain. Beyond these things however, Hercules knew nothing. Neither where he was, nor how long he'd been here. He knew not why he felt as though he were drowning in a sadness so profound that it was as a living beast within him.
Suddenly, Hercules knew that the beast which hovered close was death. His death. Yet, how could that be? He was alive. Wasn't he? Or was he? Perhaps, if he opened his eyes he'd find the answer. But the only answer which Hercules was sure of, was that he didn't want to open his eyes. Because he knew, beyond the darkness of his mind's uncertainties, lay a grief greater than even the gods could endure.
But, there was nothing left for the son of Zeus except to steel himself, and face the world. And, the moment he did, it all came rushing back, with a force that doubled the gravity already straining his heart.
Iolaus. Dear gods. Iolaus.
He must have spoken the cherished name aloud, because, instantly, he was no longer alone. The small, gentle form of the prisoner he dimly remembered from the obscene battle pits appeared on his bedside. He offered a small cup of amber liquid and urged him to drink its pungent warmth. Hercules' voice resisted where his body was too weak to protest. He asked again...
A shadow clouded the prisoner's kind, almond eyes, then was gone. First, Hercules would drink. Then, the Prisoner would speak of Iolaus. Hercules would do anything to speak of Iolaus, and so he drank the bitter brew.
The prisoner, who really was a prisoner no longer, introduced himself as Lin Ho. He'd been a special subject for Menus Maxius' tortures while here, and had shared a cell with the valiant Iolaus for the last month. But, in his homeland, far to the east, Lin Ho explained that he had had some experience as a healer. He had tended to Iolaus' grave injury in the arena, as the hunter had been far too weak to be moved. Then, the ebony-skinned woman had helped to bring Hercules and Iolaus here, to Menus Maxius' outer chambers.
Hercules finally found the courage to ask the one question he was the most terrified to ask.
"Is Iolaus alive?"
Lin Ho carefully laid the empty cup on the ground.
"Iolaus' body is mending well. The rib has been manipulated back into place, his lungs are now filling gratefully with air at the release of the pressure. A poultice made using herbs and remedies from the healer's cache has been wrapped tightly in place. Iolaus' other injuries are serious, but will mend in time." Lin Ho slanted an oblique look up at Hercules' face, "As will your wounds. For both of you, your physical injuries only require a properly nourished body, and plenty of sleep in order to heal."
For some reason, Hercules was not comforted by Lin Ho's words. He still felt that Iolaus would be easy prey for the beast which remained close by. Hercules lifted himself to a sitting position, his body a map of aching muscles and screaming nerves. He felt as though he'd been blasted apart and reassembled wrong.
"I want to see Iolaus. Now."
Lin Ho nodded his head slightly and offered his slender form as a crutch for the ailing demigod. At first, Hercules tried to carry most of his own weight, but it soon became apparent his legs weren't ready for the burden. He found Lin Ho to be a surprisingly strong man for his size. Like Iolaus. The hunter's name triggered an avalanche of feelings, and marshaled tears behind Hercules' eyes.
Outside, more thunder. More pelting rain. The world must be drowning in rain, echoing his sorrows. The downpour would have to take the place of the tears which Hercules couldn't, wouldn't allow, just yet.
Lin Ho indicated that Iolaus was just beyond a door that normally Hercules could have reached in four or five of his quick, fluid strides. But, now, it seemed that an eternity had passed, yet, they'd barely moved from his bed.
Hercules asked about the dark-skinned woman. Where was she? Lin Ho had told her to return to the village where her son now lived. There was nothing more that she could do here. Hercules vaguely remembered her kneeling beside him, next to the fallen hunter, helping to bind his wrists.
He also remembered what he and Iolaus had done to free her infant son from the grasp of slavery to which Menas had condemned him. It was this plan which had proven to be both his and Iolaus' undoing. The plan had been Hercules'; as always, Iolaus followed it with his usual unquestioning loyalty. But, though they had gotten the woman's son safely out of this wretched place, they'd both been caught, and wounded. Hercules had taken a spear thrust in his side while protecting the child. The blade had been smeared with some strange poison which raced through his bloodstream, and siphoned his strength almost instantly.
Iolaus could have made it safely over the wall, but, one look at Hercules in danger, and he came back. Usually, the thought that Iolaus would always come back for him warmed Hercules' heart, but, this time the demigod knew that it would cost them both more than either could pay
It had cost them. Dearly. Iolaus jumped into the midst of two dozen armed guards. He fought desperately. Brilliantly. Valiantly. Scattering their lumbering masses in ruin. Until the arrow bloomed from his back. The hunter staggered under the pain, still trying to reach the fallen Hercules, until unbearable agony and blood loss took their toll. Even as he fell, Iolaus tried to search out Hercules' eyes. His own were full of apology at this ultimate failure of the man who carried his soul. Hercules' muscles were paralyzed from the poison; he couldn't move. He couldn't scream out, as Iolaus crumpled in a courageous heap. So, he willed all of his thoughts, all of his rage, all of his love into the depths of his own blazing, blue eyes, hoping that Iolaus would see them, and know.
They were separated after that. Hercules could only imagine the severity of the tortures which the hunter had to be enduring. All his increasingly desperate pleas for *any* information about Iolaus' whereabouts and condition fell on deaf ears.
Hercules' own torments were appalling. Excruciating. Humiliating. And, worst of all, unnecessary. If only the son of Zeus had listened to the hunter when he hesitated about coming here at all.
Iolaus was the bravest man Hercules had ever known. As a mortal, he yet traversed the same road as Hercules, without any of the protection afforded the semi-divine one by his portion of godly blood. Would the son of Zeus have such courage if their roles were reversed? He'd like to think so. He needed to think so.
Hercules had never seen Iolaus shrink from any battle. But, the hunter *didn't* want to come here. Now, Hercules wondered, had Iolaus seen what awaited them in the future? As he had done when he'd been struck by lightening? Was it prophecy? Was it one of his Hunter's tricks? Intuition? Whatever the case, Hercules had chosen to ignore the hunter's reservations. And, of course, Iolaus had acquiesced to Hercules' decision.
Another step. Another agony. A shuffle of his left leg, then his right. Lin Ho accepted more and more of Hercules' weight easily, and without complaint. Again, the same qualities as those of the small, sturdy, blonde man who had suffered so grievously, because he dared to love the son of Zeus too much.
Hercules' memory took him back to a certain night in Postera's bedroom. When he refused, yet again, to be her 'special consort'. She had been angry before he'd even been brought to her. He had arrived, to hear her mumbling incoherent sentences about her husband's twisted sexual preferences. About being abandoned. About finding a replacement to satisfy her own, lusty desires. When Hercules adamantly rejected her advances, she called her personal guards, and had the son of Zeus put to the cross. Before they took Hercules away, Postera announced coldly that the demigod would stay there for all to see, until he joined his fair-haired friend in Tartarus.
That single statement did more to subdue Hercules than a thousand guards. Iolaus was dead? Why hadn't Hercules *felt* that he was dead? How long ago had he died? How had it happened? Had the valiant hunter died tormented, and alone? Guilt drained Hercules of his strength. He offered no resistance, as he was dragged to the arena and lifted up onto the cross. His arms and legs were brutally spread and lashed with wide strips of leather. Hobnails bit into his flesh. The sun was merciless, cracking thirst an immediate companion. Death would come slowly. Painfully. Humiliatingly. The son of Zeus knew that he deserved every hideous moment.
Iolaus was dead. And, Hercules was responsible, as surely as though he'd taken the hunter's life with his own, sin-stained hands.
Another step. The doorway was almost within reach. Lin Ho carried his increasing burden in respectful silence.
On the cross, Hercules had wished each dawn and each dusk for the blessed release of death. To join Iolaus, who he knew would be faithfully waiting for him. Hercules also knew that his best friend would forgive him this fatal misjudgment. Forgive him for robbing the hunter of the family and children he'd so much wanted. That unconditional forgiveness would tear at the demigod's unworthy soul through all eternity. He deserved neither forgiveness nor one drop of the love that shone so brightly from Iolaus' great heart.
Nothing that Postera or Menas did to torment and torture him while he hung splayed before them mattered. Until, the afternoon when Hercules heard that sweet, familiar cry. The voice which he cherished above all sounds of this world had called his name.
At first, Hercules thought he had crossed over to the other side. That Iolaus was welcoming him to a final peace at last. But, there was still the furnace of the sun, searing his tortured skin. Still the scream of nerve endings cut by the daggers of Postera's sadistic guards. It took all of his strength just to lift his head. But, Hercules was rewarded tenfold for his supreme effort. Because, there was Iolaus, standing in the pit before him, gloriously, gallantly alive. Their eyes met in a blaze of contact so powerful that Hercules felt as though he'd been released from his bonds right then.
But, reality had stormed in on the heals of this glorious discovery. Because, the hunter was immediately overpowered, and then tortured. But, that fearless gaze which Hercules loved beyond all else never wavered from his own. They would both die now, but, they would die together. Touching without touching. Here...and then by Hades' throne. Their locked gaze had been a promise.
Lin Ho helped a spent Hercules lean against the doorway to catch his breath. It was an unnecessary kindness, though. Because, the moment Hercules' gaze found the pale, quiescent, but *living* form of Iolaus, sleeping just steps away from him, his limbs suddenly found the strength to carry him to the hunter's bedside.
But, as Hercules lowered himself to sit on the crude chair beside his friend's bed, the weight on his heart was anything but lifted. The hunter still looked far too pale, except for the red and pink evidence of his torments. The skin around his eyes was sunken and pulled tight; even closed his eyes looked dark, and haunted. Instead of the former fluttering, uncertain gasps for air, Iolaus' chest now rose smoothly, but there seemed an eternity between breaths. As though it were too much trouble to pull oxygen into his ruined body, and, at any moment, he would abandon the effort altogether.
Hercules laid a hand gently on the bandages which swathed Iolaus' chest, and which thankfully, covered the grievous injury to his ribcage. Hercules craved the physical contact, and its comfort eased his mind slightly. But, he wished Iolaus would wake up; he wanted to talk. No, he *needed* to talk. To apologize. Perhaps, to seek absolution.
As if understanding these needs, Iolaus stirred under Hercules' gentle touch, finally opening his eyes; they were the palest shade of blue which the son of Zeus had ever seen them. A lump swelled in Hercules' throat as Iolaus' unfocused gaze found him. The depths of pain which Hercules found there was almost too much to endure. He gathered Iolaus' unresisting hand in his own, mindful of the dressing over the ugly wounds from the barbed wire, and squeezed it reassuringly. His voice cracking with emotion, the demigod assigned himself full blame for this mess. Iolaus had been right and he had been wrong. They never should have come here. But, they'd survived. And, as soon as Iolaus had had time to heal, they'd leave this gods forsaken place and never look back.
Hercules' voice drifted into silence. He wasn't sure how much Iolaus heard or understood. The hunter's eyes were steady on his own, but they were like pleading, empty vessels. Pleading for what? Hercules didn't understand. He knew that Iolaus had suffered much, probably more than he would ever tell. But, they'd traveled similar roads before. What unspeakable agony had made Iolaus' familiar bright, blue orbs into begging strangers?
Then, as unexpectedly as they'd opened, Iolaus' eyes slid closed. The hunter was drifting away from him, like a child's carelessly lost kite. Hercules felt a cold fear encroach upon his heart. He cast a hard look at Lin Ho who'd remained by the doorway. Iolaus wasn't getting better. If anything, the hunter's body was failing.
"He's dying." Hercules' voice rasped, bitterly, "You lied."
But, Lin Ho didn't respond to Hercules' piercing accusations. In fact, the smaller man wasn't even looking at the demigod. His gaze of sad understanding was only for Iolaus. Then, without a sound, Lin Ho turned and retreated into the other room.
Hercules turned back to Iolaus. No. He hadn't come this far, survived this much, just to lose his second self now. Again, unbidden tears welled and spilled from Hercules' eyes. Something terrible had happened to the hunter. Something beyond pain. Something beyond endurance. Lin Ho knew what that something was. And, Hercules was going to find out. Right now.
He reluctantly allowed Iolaus' hand to slip quietly from his own, then reached out and gently swept a few silky strands of gold from the hunter's tormented face, before struggling to his feet. And, it was a struggle, as once-powerful muscles resisted even the strain of carrying his own weight. But, Hercules didn't have time to notice. It would take all of his concentrated effort to walk away from Iolaus and confront Lin Ho.
Lin Ho wasn't in the room when Hercules finally entered it. The small enclosure had a single door which led outside. Hercules dug deep into his soul, and found the strength to cross the room and walk out that door.
Hercules entered, panting with effort, into Menas Maxius' courtyard. The night was heavy with moisture, but the worst of the storm had moved on. Now, only threadbare rain and utter misery surrounded him. Crumpled shadows flickered in the uncertain torch light. The crowds of people which had earlier screamed for his death and chanted for his blood had dispersed. Only a few guards and prisoners squatted by random fires. Once jailers and victims, now both were lost. Lassitude and hopelessness thickened the air. Menas Maxius' hell had probably claimed more souls than Hades.
That didn't concern Hercules, now. He looked about and found Lin Ho, leaning against a mortar barrier, gazing at the racing clouds overhead. He didn't turn when Hercules joined him.
The son of Zeus stared at the smaller man; it was the first time Hercules had really looked at him. He was young, in his early twenties, perhaps. There was something distant, unreachable about Lin Ho, quite aside from his boyish, exotic appearance. In a tragic rush of realization, Hercules saw that Lin Ho's entire body spoke of the same pleading emptiness which was reflected in Iolaus' eyes.
Feeling his anger soften, Hercules thanked Lin Ho for saving him the other day. Was it just the other day? No. Two days ago.
"Thanks are not necessary." Lin Ho replied, softly.
"I think that they are. And, I must also thank you for tending to Iolaus' wounds. He would surely have ... he would have died in the arena, if you hadn't been there."
Lin Ho kept his attention skyward. The emptiness above was easier to face than the emptiness within. He knew that Hercules sought answers about his friend.
"Where I come from, one man does not speak of the sorrows of another. Instead, I offer to speak to you of the truths about myself." Lin Ho's soft words were carefully neutral in tone.
Hercules had an inborn distrust of people who spoke in riddles. He wanted to take Lin Ho by his shirt and shake the answers out of him. But, something stopped him. Hercules leaned heavily against the mortar wall and asked Lin Ho to continue.
After a steadying silence, Lin Ho's eyes took on the first glow of emotion which Hercules had seen from him. The small man spoke of his family; his beautiful wife and infant son. Everyone in Lin Ho's village were either healers or fisherman. Lin Ho's father before him had set out to the great seas. And, that's where Lin Ho was, when a storm erupted, tossing his meager boat to the merciless waves. And, when the storm was gone, so was his life. It seemed as though the howl of the wind and churn of the water had been mere diversions, intended to prevent Lin Ho from noticing the theft of his life.
"The storm had brought me to this strange land, where no one looked like me, or dressed like me, or spoke like me. My boat was destroyed, and I needed to find another. But, Menas Maxius found me, instead. That was five years ago. And, since then, I have learned many things. I have learned to speak this odd language. I have learned to dress in these strange clothes. I have learned that I will never see my beloved family again. And, ... I have learned that men can do evil to other men beyond anything which even the gods could devise."
Lin Ho turned his face from the sky and looked at Hercules. His whole body cried in utter sorrow, but his eyes were dry.
"Menas Maxius made me his ... personal slave the moment he saw me. Others here wanted me, but Maxius killed any who dared to speak of their desires openly. I was only to do Menas Maxius' bidding. To be available at any time. To ... pleasure him in any way which he desired. My prison differed greatly from the one which confined you. My cell was made of velvet robes, and satin bed sheets. The bars that kept me caged were made, not of iron, but of shame and guilt. The labours required of me were not acts of physical strength or daring courage, but of learning how to separate my soul from a body that became nothing but a receptacle for ... for the most intimate of violations. The acts which Menas Maxius required of me first robbed me of my honor, then destroyed my manhood, and, eventually, killed me. I was alone in my velvet prison... until last month."
Hercules had been listening in silence, his expression changing from puzzlement, to apprehension, to horrified understanding. Lin Ho's words impaled him. He visibly recoiled, as their meaning penetrated his own soul, and his entire being rebelled against the abhorrent vision which formed in his mind's eye. When he finally spoke his voice was no more than breath on air.
Lin Ho nodded sadly.
"Menas Maxius called him his 'golden treasure'."
"NO!!!" Hercules' thunderous denial echoed and recoiled off the uncaring stone around him. This didn't happen. Not to Iolaus.
"For years, I had suffered alone. When Iolaus arrived, I thought that his company would ease my pain. But, his presence only increased the agony, because, I had to watch the strong light of his life being slowly extinguished." Lin Ho's words were measured and soft. He knew that this terrible knowledge was capable of destroying this great, but gentle man. He had learned of Hercules' special bond with Iolaus through whispered conversations on countless, tortured nights, after Menas Maxius had finished with one or the other of them.
Hercules' entire being was suffused with a rage he would never have thought possible. He wanted to dig Menas Maxius' wretched body from his grave and rip it to shreds. His heart twisted with unendurable pain; the world spun away, and he stood, torn from reality, suddenly hollowed and caving in on himself.
"NO!!! NO!!! NO!!!" Hercules' guttural screams ripped through the nearly deserted castle.
He clenched his fist and turned to smash it into the stone wall behind him. A great chunk of mortar was brutally sheared away, to land a dozen feet beyond. Again and again, Hercules battered the wall, until it was reduced to rubble, until his hand was raw and bleeding, and his strength was exhausted. Engulfed in a despair such as he'd never known, the demigod slumped to the ground amidst the shattered barrier, his body wracked and shaking with guilty, tortured sobs.
If Lin Ho still had a soul, he would have sold it to be able to cry like the devastated man before him. But, tears had been lost to him a long time before. He squatted next to Hercules, wincing at the wreck of the other man's hand. He hoped that his next words would pierce Hercules' grief.
"It is important for you to understand that Iolaus doesn't have to be lost. That's why I lied to him, four nights ago. I knew that Iolaus didn't try to escape, or take his own life to end his torment, because he was told by Maxius that his submission bought your life." Lin Ho watched Hercules' face carefully as he spoke, "I couldn't bear to see Iolaus dying bit by bit each night. So, I took away his reason to endure the unendurable. I told him that I'd overheard Menas Maxius laughing about killing the son of Zeus and pretending that he was still alive so that his golden treasure would remain timid, and meek."
"At first, I thought I'd made a grievous mistake. Iolaus took the false news of your death with ... with an agony greater than anything he had previously shown, despite the torturous situation in which he had been living. But, when he was once again able to think clearly, he devised a reckless plan to kill Menas Maxius in his own arena. Iolaus knew that it was a plan which would result in his own merciful death. I agreed to help, because ..." Lin Ho's voice drifted off, while his empty eyes spoke for him. Risk meant nothing to Lin Ho, because, he was already dead, "I didn't know that Postera had committed you to the cross. That you would be there when we finally reached the pits."
Blasted and empty, Hercules turned his tear stained face toward the small, sad figure.
"But what of Iolaus now?"
"Now," Lin Ho explained, "Iolaus needs to make a decision; whether he can live with what has happened to him... or not."
"You don't sound very hopeful of Iolaus choosing life."
Lin Ho nodded; hope is something to which people cling when they believe that their lives can still be put back together, and once again recognized as their lives. That time had long since passed, for him.
"Only Iolaus can speak for Iolaus." He said, dully.
Hercules couldn't get up, would never get up again. There was no room in his mind for anything but Iolaus. His consciousness ran in increasingly smaller circles around a kernel of pain so intense that it turned every other thought to dust. Only Iolaus ... and what the keeper of his heart and soul had endured because of ...
'Because of what, Hercules? Because you had to prove that you could battle any foe and win? Win, no matter what the cost? He didn't want to come here. *You* forced him to. He didn't want to stay here. *You* kept him in danger. He tried to warn you that this situation was different. *You* wouldn't listen. You *knew* all of these things ... and, *still* you turned a deaf ear to his words. You took a brave and honest man, who for some reason loves you as you love him, and you destroyed him, merely for the sake of your own ego.'
The demigod started at the comforting hand which squeezed his shoulder in concern. He looked up, to find Lin Ho's large, dark eyes, meeting his with blessed understanding, then drift toward the enclosure where Iolaus lay, waiting. Hercules cursed himself for his selfishness. Iolaus needed him, and here he was, groveling in the dirt in self pity. His own pain would have to wait and be dealt with later. If, indeed, he could ever face himself again, to do so.
The strength which the gods had given him was not the strength Hercules needed, now. In order to deal with this horror, he must call upon strength of heart, not of muscle. In a blaze of painful understanding, Hercules realized that his well-spring of that strength, that courage, had always been Iolaus. Now he would learn whether he had any of his own.
Hercules climbed unsteadily to his feet. Maybe it was up to Iolaus to make this decision about life, and death, and hope. But, the son of Zeus was not going to let him make it alone. If he had to trade the pitiful remains of his own soul to do it, Hercules was going to bring Iolaus back to him.
Hercules took a faltering step toward the enclosure where he'd abandoned his heart to his sleeping struggles. But, the demigod had already pushed his body past all capacity for such torture as walking was proving itself to be. His legs started to collapse under him, until Lin Ho moved swiftly to his side, once again providing a steadying crutch. Hercules gratefully allowed this small, but extraordinary, man to carry some of his burden.
Neither spoke as they inched toward the room where Iolaus lay. Once there, Hercules slipped heavily from Lin Ho's grasp, into the crude bedside chair, and silently thanked this man who'd lost so much, yet still had enough to give to him. To give to Iolaus.
Lin Ho nodded his understanding. No words needed to pass between them; too many words had already been spoken tonight. As Hercules allowed his devastated gaze to settle on the hunter, Lin Ho looked on with sorrowful empathy. He hoped that Iolaus could find whatever he needed within himself to choose life. Because, if the tragic blonde warrior chose oblivion, it was clear that he would be taking two hearts, and, two souls on his journey.
Lin Ho also realized that he'd done all which could be done, here. It was time to leave, even though there was no place for him to go. It didn't really matter, because no place would be home. In no village, would he find his sweet-scented wife, with her long, blue-black hair shimmering like moonlight on water. No town would find his son, waiting to be cradled in his arms. So, with no destination, Lin Ho turned and left the two friends alone, going forth to greet his fate like a spectre on the land.
Hercules didn't notice Lin Ho, quietly slipping from the room. For the son of Zeus, there was nothing but the terribly violated form of the man who was his life. And, Iolaus *was* his life. It had been that way since they'd met as boys. For Hercules, Iolaus' presence by his side was the difference between mere existence ... and truly being alive.
He wanted so much to gather the hunter in his arms and run away from this place. Run away from the past. Turn back time, as Zeus had done once before. But, that would not happen, now. It occurred to Hercules that he'd been praying for godly intervention for months. All of his pleas had gone unanswered. He knew that this one would, too.
There was nothing left for either of them, but to face their present. Hercules reached out, and tenderly placed his hand over one of Iolaus', which lay quietly on his ruined chest.
"Gods, what have I done?"
Even if Iolaus could find the strength to live beyond this nightmare, Hercules wasn't so sure that he could ever live beyond his guilt.
Tears silently streamed from eyes Hercules would have thought past them, by now. They welled, and spilled hotly onto the joined hands of the demigod and the mortal. But, there would never be sufficient tears to wash away this horror. Never enough to drive away the beast of death. Because, the son of Zeus knew; the part of him that died, was the part of Iolaus which he had killed. No matter what Iolaus' decision, Hercules knew ... that beast would hover closer than a shadow for the rest of his days, and beyond.
Iolaus felt warm and safe in the dark. It would be so easy to just let go, and drift off into its quiet nothingness. But, something was pulling at him, preventing him from giving in to the black peace he so desperately craved. Odd, that below him in the darkness should lie safe ground, and above him, an unfathomable pit of endless pain. If he had the courage to look up, he would see his soul burning there, now.
If only this presence would let him go. Leave him alone. But, Iolaus knew it wouldn't do that until he *wanted* it to. And, as much as his soulless form yearned for oblivion, it also hungered for the love and the light which that presence possessed.
Oh, why couldn't it just leave him be? It asked too much.
It asked that he survive. To do that, he would have to climb up through the pit of remembering. Iolaus didn't want to remember. He didn't want to look up. But, when the loving presence spoke his name yet again, he knew that he had no choice but to lift his face to the flames.
The moment he did so, they engulfed him entirely. The memories picked at his mind, until all thoughts were an indistinguishable haze of torment, shame, and failure. As Iolaus was dragged inexorably into the raging holocaust, the brighter fire of his soul cast light on all that brought him to this pit.
The worst horrors lay at the tip of the inferno, but, even here at the bottom, the images seared his consciousness, and he was desperate to turn away.
He was on a stone wall having just passed a basket over its embattlements to waiting hands. The basket cried and he uttered small sounds, to soothe it. He watched as the hands carried the basket to safety. Then came a piercing wail, which constricted his heart. He snapped his attention to the other side of the wall.
And, though he was not on the ground, Iolaus saw himself there, with a spear in his side. It was him, but not him. The mirror image grasped the spear, pulling it out and tossing it aside, but, then the body that held his heart fell, as if pole axed, its face toward the sky, its eyes boring into his own.
Without thought, Iolaus jumped willingly away from safety. Anything to be near those eyes, to keep the light of life from fading from them. He fought desperately to reach the fallen figure. He was so close when the exquisite pain blossomed in his back. So close. Though he kept trying to push through those first flames, he wasn't able to reach the fallen figure. As his own inadequacies consumed him, and the ground reached out to claim him, his arms were outstretched, straining for that one last touch which would never be.
Remembering brought him closer to the hungry fire of his soul, which yearned to merge with him and be whole. But, Iolaus didn't want to continue up the gauntlet. His soul held the deepest of his terrors. If only the voice would stop whispering his name. If only it didn't pull so desperately on the tattered remnants of his heart.
Without warning, the hard darkness of the bloody ground yielded to soft, velvet cushions, and silk which caressed his tortured skin. It was followed by sharp memories of searing pain and unbearable humiliation. By such grief as he would never have thought possible, and hatred which he hadn't known existed within him. No. No. These images he *wouldn't* see.
'Please, don't force me to live them again.'
If the voice only knew what it was asking ... But, the images, once bidden, uncoiled relentlessly.
At first, he was alone. He called out to be joined with that part of his heart which beat outside of himself. But, no one would listen. No one would give him anything, except silence. He tested every wall, battled every door, seeking escape. But, there was none to be found. He spent the day, and the night, alone, in desperate worry for that part of himself which had been taken away.
Then, came the other man.
Iolaus found a brief respite in the flaming pit. The dark, exotic, figure who brought comfort. Comfort from...
The fiercest flames roared down to greet him ...
Iolaus turned away, as his burning soul reached out, threatening to reveal the worst of his failures, the full depths of his violation. He could feel the unbearable heat, fueled not by oils or wood, but by guilt, and shame. Not even the loving presence that so fearfully and tenderly called out to him could turn his head to view its immolation.
So, the pit presented another memory. It reminded him that *he* had chosen to step willingly into those, flames, in order to keep the distant, loving presence safe. Escape was not possible, but, he could have ended his life. He could have found a way. Instead, *he* chose the fire. Anything, to ensure the continuance of the life which was his, and yet, not his. A life which he loved more than his honor. More than his pride. More than the soul which now singed his skin, begging entry.
But, if Iolaus had known the true price, then ... would he still believe that beloved presence to be worth such a cost? If he knew that it was possible to burn in Tartarus, yet still walk the earth, would he have endured those first flames so willingly? Did he have the courage to face them now?
It was this question which would decide whether he would rise through the most devastating part of the inferno, to join with his aching soul, or if he would turn away, and abandon forever his second heart, never again to say his name, or deserve his love.
Iolaus realized that he had come to the end of himself... or to a new beginning...
After what seemed a lifetime of stillness and defeat, Hercules saw Iolaus stir, ever so slightly, beneath the warm layering of blankets which covered him. The movement caught on his heart like the prick of a dagger. He leaned forward, and tightened his grip around the hunter's icy hand. His tone echoed all of his love, all of his fears.
"Iolaus. I'm *here*. I *need* you. Come *back* to me. *Please*, come back." Hercules wanted to shout the words, but, instead, they issued from him as a breathy prayer.
Some place in Iolaus' consciousness heard the loving entreaties. Absorbed them. Drew strength, and courage from them, to do what he could not do, alone. With intrepid defiance, the warrior within turned his face upward, his azure eyes like summer lightning, and opened himself to his tortured soul, like a lance to a gangrenous wound. Its fires shed a burning glow, illuminating the most dangerous regions of the pit. It was here that he would either triumph, or perish.
The hunter was in that deceptively soft room, now, his disbelieving mind screaming its denial of the true intent of the other, grotesque man's actions. Propelled by instinct beyond thought, he vaulted, to somersault over and out of the fierce grip of the guards who had ripped off his vest, and pinned his already abused back against the nubs of rough stone. Sanity threatened to abandon him, as he fought like a demon, desperate for escape.
Maxius was not going to do *that* to him. Never!
Hercules' breathing quickened in consort with the thrashing of Iolaus' limbs. This, then, was the battle. One which the son of Zeus swore on his life he would *not* lose. Drawing on the strength of heart which Iolaus had always given him so lovingly, Hercules leaned over the small bed and gathered the struggling Hunter tenderly, but fiercely, close to his own trembling body. Not merely as an act of possession, but as a living shield against the evils that conspired to destroy the man who meant everything to him.
Iolaus fought, not like a man unafraid to die, but like one hoping for death, if defeat threatened. But, the guards were no match for his fierce skills, and his terrifying need to get out of this room. Everywhere, rang the hideous reverberations of Menas Maxius' laughter. And, once the guards were strewn, bleeding, and unconscious throughout the room, and the golden warrior's breath came in great gulps, all that remained was that cold, mocking laughter. Maxius roared with delight; such a fuss, for nothing. The doors were sealed with special locks. There were no windows, no secret passages. Unless Iolaus were a ghost, or a god ... there was no way out.
In spite of his undeniable courage, Iolaus found himself back-peddling against Menas Maxius' openly lascivious advances. He'd never felt terror like this, never known it could run so deep, or turn his blood so cold.
"I'll die before I let you *touch* me!" Iolaus' voice managed the certainty which his heart did not feel.
Maxius stopped, tilting his head slightly in contemplation.
"I don't want death from you, my golden vision. But, if a death is needed, then a death I'll provide. Hercules is in my deepest dungeon, even now. *His* death can be arranged. Of course, it won't be an easy death. I will personally make sure that it is hideously slow, and painful." He laughed again, delightedly, as Iolaus' expression began to change, "Don't worry, my pet; I'll make sure that *you* are there, to watch every cut, every lash of the whip, every barbed stake imbedded in his flesh. Oh, and I'll be sure to tell him that his unpleasant death is courtesy of his good friend. It will be most ... stimulating, to watch as that betrayal registers on his face. Tell me, do you think that the son of Zeus will still look on you kindly, then?"
Maxius' threats penetrated Iolaus' heart and settled in his eyes. Their raw, wounded depths became a raging blue ocean of turmoil.
"No. Gods, no ..."
Maxius smiled, a serpent's smile. He had been sure of his words effect before he'd spoken them, but he was gratified to see that his perceptions had been correct. The depth of the friendship between his golden treasure and the son of Zeus was a secret which they both shouted with each glance between them. How much sweeter the existence of that bond would render his possession of this gilded prize.
"It will take several days for Hercules to die. And, each day will be as an eternity for him. An eternity of endless agony. And, a spectacle of the grandest kind, for I will, of course, invite everyone to watch as he suffers, and dies. Oh, yes, my treasure, if death is what you desire, I will most gladly provide it." Maxius' gloating tone was thick with feigned pity, "Or ..."
Maxius moved closer to the hunter, admiring the perfection of his body, which now glistened with the sweet scent of his recent battle.
"If you give me what I want, I will give you something in return," His voice was a wheedling whisper, sliding across Iolaus' shrinking skin, "I will guarantee Hercules' safety. Even, his release ... eventually. Though, not too soon, or there'll be Postera to be dealt with. The choice, golden one, is yours."
The choice was his.
Though he couldn't see the terrors which Iolaus battled, Hercules sensed that his second heart and soul had reached a crisis point. *The* crisis point. He reached out, and, mindful of his grave injuries, gathered the fragile Hunter onto his lap, holding him like a sacred possession, close against his own, bleeding heart.
"I *won't* let you go, Iolaus. I *won't* lose you again. *Never* again. I need to have you by my side. Everything that you did for me, *please*, let me do the same for you, now. My life for yours. My soul for yours. And nothing, *nothing*, you sacrificed out of love for me, will *ever* cause me to look on you differently. Never. If you love me as I know you do, then choose hope, Iolaus. Choose life."
Suddenly, Iolaus found the courage which he'd thought had abandoned him. Instead of fear, his cerulean eyes glowed with a savage, inner fire, impaling Maxius with unwavering certainty, and strength. He *knew* who he was now.
"Nothing you can force my body to endure will reach my soul. No false choice which you impose upon me will make me give up one ounce of my self-respect. And, no torturous death which you can devise would ever diminish Hercules' love for me, or shadow my own love for him."
As Iolaus said these words, each one uttered more strongly than those preceding it, the flames began to retreat from him, rising up instead to devour the figure of Maxius. The despot regarded the searing red fingers which suddenly flared and danced around him, and loosed a howl of feral rage. The only part of the fire left to Iolaus remained in his eyes, as he watched until Maxius was finally consumed by the malignant hell of his own making.
Hercules' breath caught, then stopped altogether, as Iolaus went suddenly limp in his arms.
"No. No. NO!" He glided a trembling hand up the hunter's back, placing it fearfully beside the bandages around his abused neck, pressing gently at just the right place. Nothing.
"Yes. YES!" Iolaus' heart beat, strong and steady. As Hercules' lungs once again drew oxygen, he felt the deep, regular rise and fall of Iolaus' chest against his own. Hercules' eyes were again bordered by tears, but this time, they were tears of joyous victory.
Carefully, Hercules lay the hunter back on the bed, retaining his grasp of Iolaus' hand. He waited. Slowly, Iolaus opened his eyes, and the familiar blue pools gazed up at him, haunted no longer. Hercules' entire body smiled with relief. With gratitude.
Iolaus was exhausted, yet stronger than he'd ever been. The tortures had been real. The pain, and grief had been real. But, the shame no longer burned within his heart. It had been replaced with the cool certainty of the love of this man, who smiled down on him and called his name. The fear was gone. There would be healing yet to do, but Iolaus knew that he would not face that long road, alone.
He was whole again. His shining blue eyes smiled back with all of the love he held in his overflowing heart for the son of Zeus.
"I heard you, Hercules. I heard every word." His voice was a throaty whisper.
Iolaus marshaled his strength, and returned the pressure of Hercules' nurturing grasp. But, he was troubled by the shadows which he saw, lurking behind his friend's smile. He made sure that his tone held no room for doubt when he spoke again.
"And, yes, dearest friend of my heart, you were worth it."
Hercules let that blessed voice wash over him, releasing him from his guilt. Iolaus had chosen hope, and life, for both of them. They would get through this, and move beyond it. There would be plenty of time, to talk, plenty of time to let their special bond speak in silences.
But, now, Hercules wanted Iolaus to rest. He fussed with the blankets, pulling them over and close around the weak hunter. Iolaus gratefully savored Hercules' tender ministrations, drawing more renewal and healing from them, than he would glean from any amount of sleep. But, he could sense Morpheus rising up from his lair. This time, Iolaus didn't fear the darkness which would come. And, when it finally claimed him, his hand was still entwined with the hand of the son of Zeus.
Hercules leaned back in the chair, careful not to disturb the ivory fingers which curled so naturally around his own. He felt tired beyond the ability to sleep, but that was fine. Right now, he was content just to watch as Iolaus' chest steadily rose and fell in the easy rhythm of a dreamless slumber. The hunter rested peacefully, secure in the knowledge that Hercules was there, to protect him.
Gazing out through the open doorway, Hercules watched, as the first splinters of dawn began to unravel the night. The, warm golden splendor heralded so much more than just a new day. As Hercules breathed deeply of the dawn's sweet scent of possibilities, his eyes grew heavy. Perhaps, sleep would find him, after all.
And, like a blessed whisper, it did find him. So, Hercules didn't see the golden essence of daybreak rising to fill the room, banishing not only the remaining shadows of night, but also driving away the beast, leaving the two friends robed in sunlight, peacefully sleeping.
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