With an expression of concern, Hercules contemplated the delicate white foot that rested in his lap. “Does this hurt?” he asked as he gently probed the soft flesh from ankle to toes.
“How about this?” he asked and impulsively ran a finger along the gentle arch of the sole.
The slender toes wriggled in response. “No, and stop that!” Nemesis reclaimed her bare left foot from Hercules’ grasp and set it firmly down upon it’s waiting sandal. “Satisfied?”
“Everything seems to be in working order,” he admitted.
“You ought to know; you’ve poked and prodded just about every inch of my body!” Nemesis hid a tiny smile as she bent to lace her sandal into place. Her observation left him with an opening wide enough for a chariot-sized innuendo and she waited expectantly for his retort.
She was met with heavy silence. When no playful or suggestive response came, she looked up from her task to find Hercules still regarding her with an expression of concern.
Nemesis rested a reassuring hand on his arm. “I’m fine. Really. A little bump on the head and a few bruises aren’t going to stop me.”
“You could have been killed,” he reminded her, not for the first time.
“But I wasn’t.”
“I can take care of myself,” she insisted. “I always have. Mortality hasn’t changed that. Whatever happens ... however long this condition lasts ... I’ll learn to live with it, and I’ll survive.”
Hercules took her hands between his own and met her gaze with guileless blue eyes. “I know you will,” he said, and meant it. “But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop worrying bout you.”
“That doesn’t mean that I expect you to,” she replied with a smile. “I’ll be all right. You’ll see.”
“Adjusting won’t be easy.”
“I know,” she admitted. “But at least it’s less of a curse than serving as the retribution of the gods.”
It was not quite the response Hercules had expected, and it clearly surprised him. “I thought that was something you were proud of.”
“Once, perhaps, when I believed I was dispensing justice and visiting punishment upon the wicked.” There was genuine regret in her tone and sadness in her dark eyes. “I took the lives of so many mortals without so much as a moment’s thought or regret. The only reason I needed was an edict from the gods and a judgment that sounded fair -- this man killed another, that woman defamed a temple... It was all so simple and *just.*”
“It was never ‘just’,” said Hercules grimly.
“There was a time when I would have argued the point. That Nemesis would never have spared a mortal life once a god had ordained his death -- not even for you.”
“You spared Iolaus,” he reminded her. “And for that I am more grateful than you can ever know.”
“I almost didn’t. If the Fates had not placed you in my path that day, Iolaus would have died with my arrow through his heart. I’d have returned to Olympus without a second thought, flush with pride in another job well done,” she said with shame. “When you petitioned me for Iolaus’ life, you stayed my hand long enough to force me to actually look into the heart of the person I’d been sent to kill, and to see -- really *see* -- what lay within. You taught me how to judge my victims with compassion and understanding, and not simply because of an edict scrawled on parchment. And Iolaus ...” There was wonder and respect in her tone as she confessed, “I never would have believed it possible that a mortal could teach me the true meaning of loyalty and virtue.”
Just a few feet away, the personage in question lay sprawled on a makeshift bed of hay bales and blankets, completely oblivious to his import in the conversation. Iolaus hadn’t fared nearly as well against Hera’s water-logged Enforcer as had Nemesis or Hercules. Visibly the worse for the wear, he looked every bit as if he’d gone one on one with a herd of minotaurs. Livid bruises and abrasions marred his handsome face and discolored the flesh of his arms and chest. Worse still, Iolaus’ right arm, still mending from a previous fight, had had to be rebroken and set, a procedure that had left him drawn and pale and in considerable pain.
Yet in spite of his own hurts, Iolaus had insisted on doing everything he could to help when Hercules returned carrying the unconscious Nemesis in his arms. He brought water, awkwardly managed to tear cloth into strips for compresses, and even got as far as starting some medicinal tea to boil before he nearly fainted from exhaustion. In the end, Hercules had resorted to a bit of slight of hand and an ordorless herbal sedative he’d learned of from his Uncle Asclypius to ensure his friend found the rest he needed. Iolaus became a boneless puddle after only two sips from the heavily doctored mug of tea, and Hercules was there to catch him. Lifting Iolaus into his arms as easily as if he were a child, Hercules carried him to the pallet he’d prepared and gently tucked him into bed. He’d deliberately used enough of the sedative to ensure Iolaus would rest comfortably throughout the night. Even if the whole of Mount Olympus crashed to earth, Iolaus would sleep through it.
“I never believed mortals were capable of such selfless devotion. But I do now,” confessed Nemesis as both she and Hercules gazed upon their gently snoring friend. “Iolaus couldn’t love you more if you were born of the same blood or shared the same soul. He would have gladly given his life to protect you. Without a moment’s thought. Without a single regret.” She turned back to Hercules and looked deep into his eyes. “You feel the same way about him, too, don’t you?”
“Yes,” said Hercules quietly. He felt as if he needed to say more and struggled to explain how very much Iolaus meant to him -- brother, partner, friend, hero -- but couldn’t find the words. The feelings ran too deep.
The look in Hercules’ eyes and the worried, loving expression on his handsome features as he looked upon his battered friend were all the confirmation Nemesis needed.
“And I almost stole that away from you,” she said bitterly.
Before she could turn away, Hercules caught her arms in a gentle but firm grasp and forced her to face him.
“No!” he said emphatically. “*Hera’s* to blame; *not* you! Hera ordered you to kill Iolaus because she knew what his loss would do to me. You couldn’t have known that.”
“That’s no excuse!” she cried. “How many other innocents have Hera -- or the other gods, for that fact! -- ordered me to destroy on a whim?” She flung an arm out and pointed at Iolaus. “His bravery shames *all* of the gods, and me! He’s a *mortal,* with only one life to live, and yet he confronted Hera’s Enforcer *knowing* that he might die. He would have done anything, risked *everything*, to keep her from finding and hurting you -- and Hera would have had me destroy him for something as petty as his *pride*?!”
Fat tears glistened in Nemesis’ eyes and tumbled down her cheeks. Arms rigid by her side, her small hands were clenched in white-knuckled fists of rage and self loathing. “Look at me! I’m no better than Hera! Worse! What I did, I did in stealth. Invisible, no one could challenge me. I was the perfect assassin. At least Iolaus had a fighting chance against the Enforcer. If I’d decided to take his life that day, he would have had no way to defend himself against me! I wasn’t a goddess meting out justice. I was a *monster*!!”
Nemesis struggled to pull free of Hercules’ grasp, to run and hide herself in shame, but he would not let her go. Instead of shying away in revulsion, Hercules pulled her into the circle of his arms and enfolded her slender form in a fierce and loving hug. Sobbing, she buried her face against his broad chest and cried out her anguish and guilt.
“You’re no monster, Nemesis,” said Hercules as he tenderly stroked her dark hair. “You were Hera’s pawn. She abused your devotion to your duty and your faith in the fairness of the gods. You had no way of knowing how evil she could be.”
“I should have seen! How could I have been so *blind*?,” she sobbed against his shirt. “When I think of how close I came to killing Iolaus’...to depriving the world of so gifted and precious a life... Oh, how he must hate me!”
“Iolaus doesn’t hate you any more than I do.”
Nemesis lifted her head and tilted it back so that she could see his face. “How can you be so certain?”
“Because he told me.” Hercules gently brushed a stray tear from her cheek and said, “Iolaus blames Hera for sending you after him. You were only doing your job.”
“The hit-woman of the gods,” she said bitterly, echoing Iolaus’ own words from their first meeting the day before.
“He doesn’t see you that way. Not since he’s had the chance to get to know you,” said Hercules. “When you slipped away to confront the Enforcer on your own, Iolaus didn’t protest when I went after you. In fact, he practically shooed me out of the barn. I didn’t get very far before I realized why.”
“Why?” asked Nemesis, puzzled.
“Because once I was out of sight, he intended to follow and try to help me rescue you.”
“He would have done that for *me*?” she gasped. “In his condition?!”
“That’s Iolaus. Brave of heart and thick of head. When I turned back to the barn, he was already on his feet and hobbling toward the door. I couldn’t worry about both of you being in danger, and since I didn’t have the time to argue with him, I threatened to tie him down if he didn’t stay put.”
“Would you have? Actually tied him down, I mean.”
“In a heartbeat, and he knew it. I didn’t give him much of a choice.” Hercules raised a hand and gently cupped her chin in his palm. “Just like Hera didn’t give *you* a choice when you defied her by sparing Iolaus and then refusing to kill me. She stripped you of your godhood because, to Hera, there is nothing more horrible than being human.”
“And what about you, Hercules?” challenged Nemesis. “You’re half mortal. Is it such a terrible thing?”
“It’s the best part of me,” he said with sincerity and conviction. “Iolaus helped me to see and understand that a long time ago, when we were just boys. He remains my constant reminder of all that’s best in mortals; and that mankind is worth fighting for.”
“I never would have believed it possible, but I actually think I’m beginning to believe that as well,” admitted Nemesis. She rested her head against his shoulder and sighed. “Who knows? One day I may even see Hera’s curse of mortality as the rarest of gifts.”
12 Dec. 1998
DISCLAIMER: Iolaus escaped additional injury and actually slept quite peacefully throughout the writing of this story. However, upon waking he emphatically denied disrupting the bard’s story telling by snoring...
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