"Dammit, Iolaus! If you don't stop playing with that tooth, you're going to lose it."
Iolaus looked up from his makeshift bed in the hay. "I'm not playing with it," he said, talking around the finger in his mouth.
"Fine," Hercules breathed in exasperation. He set the lunch bucket he'd brought from the tavern on the floor beside his friend. "Just don't complain to me when you've got a smile full of holes and the pretty girls call you "Gappy," when they turn you down."
Iolaus pulled his finger out of his mouth, scowling, and peeked into the bucket. Then he looked back at his friend with a face like a thunder cloud. "Soup," he commented in a voice he might have used to say, "Dead rats."
"Soup," Hercules confirmed. "At least it's got some vegetables in it today."
"Yummy." He let the cover of the bucket fall shut. "How about some venison and an ale or three?"
"When the healer says solid food, then you get solid food. You're lucky... you're lucky your jaw isn't wired shut."
*You're lucky to be alive*, he'd almost said, but what he'd meant was, *I'm lucky you're alive*. The healer had assured him that even though Hera's enforcer had brutally beaten him, Iolaus' injuries were more annoying and painful than dangerous, that they just needed time to heal. He'd also told him that the little warrior had been incredibly lucky; one of those broken ribs had come perilously close to puncturing a lung and he'd barely missed permanent damage to the wrenched knee. But those were things he didn't want to talk about. Couldn't talk about. Not now. Maybe not ever. So he blew out a massive sigh instead, and said, "Just eat it. I told the innkeeper I'd have those dishes back in an hour."
Their eyes locked for a moment, neither giving in, neither wavering a bit until Iolaus' mouth twitched into a tiny grin. "Yes, Mother," he acquiesced, and fished the soup bowl and spoon out of the bucket. He swallowed a mouthful and nodded, spooned a bit of carrot into his mouth and gingerly bit down on the soft vegetable, trying not to wince.
"Still want venison?" Hercules asked.
"Shu'p," Iolaus mumbled around his food.
"I said ‘shut up'," Iolaus clarified. He finished the soup in a few minutes, smiled as falsely and as widely as his aching mouth would let him, and sent the bowl and spoon clattering back into the bucket. "There. Happy?"
Hercules looked at him steadily, saying nothing.
"It was wonderful soup. I never had better soup."
"Thank you so very much for the excellent, wonderful soup."
"You're welcome," Hercules said stiffly.
*Great, just great,* Iolaus thought. Now he'd managed to frost his friend. "So how's Nemesis?" he finally asked. He hadn't seen her since she'd run off to challenge the Enforcer two days ago. Hercules hadn't said anything more than that she was staying with the healer.
At the mention of Nemesis, the big man finally relaxed, and Iolaus let go the breath he'd been holding.
"She's okay, really." he said. "Just a knock on the head and some bruises. But she's... well, she's still getting used to having a mortal body. She's never felt pain or weakness of any kind before. It isn't easy for her."
"Yeah," Iolaus agreed. "At least I already knew how it feels to get run over by a herd of centaurs... And speaking of centaurs, I have to piss like one that's been on a three-day drunk." He reached out his arm for a lift up.
Hercules didn't move. Iolaus realized that the big man was looking at the knot above his wrist, the last reminder of the broken arm he'd suffered at the hands of Maceus almost three months back. The gauntlet he normally wore kept the little deformity hidden, but there wasn't any reason to wear gauntlets while he was laid up in bed.
"I thought you were kidding when you said it still bothered you," Hercules said bleakly. "I thought you were just trying to get out of helping set up the festival."
"I was," Iolaus grinned. "It's fine. The lump's almost gone."
But it didn't seem to cheer Hercules. In fact...
"Iolaus..." the voice broke slightly. "This has to stop."
"You bet it does. If I don't get outside in about thirty seconds, I'm gonna need a new bale of hay. And I am *not* gonna pee in a jug again."
Herc nodded without speaking and held out a helping hand. Iolaus grasped it, stiffened his back, pulled himself upright onto his good foot, and settled the crutch Hercules had brought him under his left arm. He was wearing only a loincloth and Hercules winced when he saw the terrible bruises and swellings that covered his torso and legs. He draped a blanket around the blond man's shoulders.
"Don't want you scaring any of the local virgins." he said when Iolaus looked up at him with a question on his face.
"Huh!" he snorted. "You're just trying to cut out the competition."
Hercules resisted the urge to lend a steadying hand to his friend's slow progress to the back door of the barn, but Iolaus had made it quite clear that he wanted to navigate under his own power. Still, it was hard to watch the normally agile hunter struggling so painfully to walk a few yards. So he hung back, and sat on a barrel just outside the door while Iolaus disappeared into the trees by the river.
"Hello." Nemesis' soft voice alerted him just before she kissed the top of his head. She looked good. Well, she *always* looked good, but she was beginning to look healthy again. Only a slight pallor and a bruise at her hairline reminded him of her close escape. He considered scolding her for being out of bed, but she covered his mouth with her own before he had a chance. "Where's Iolaus?" she asked when she came up for air.
"Nature called," he said, with a nod toward the trees.
"Hmmm..." she acknowledged, running her fingers through his hair. "I never knew how troublesome being mortal could be. It hurts. And you get dirty -- I had a bath this morning because I *needed* one, not because it felt good. And you have to eat and drink... and... well, that leads to other problems. I'm beginning to appreciate what they go through." She caught herself. "What *we* go through." She shrugged prettily. "Oh, I'll get used to it. I have to get used to it."
He smiled absently and wrapped an arm around her waist. "I have faith in you." He started to pull her closer, but a sudden cry of alarm from the trees sent him running, with Nemesis at his heels.
The little river was deep and swift, and though it wouldn't have given Iolaus a moment's concern on a normal day, Hercules found him clinging feebly to a large rock in mid-stream, barely keeping his head above water, his face ghostly white and streaked with fresh blood from a deep new cut on his forehead.
Hercules waded out into the current; the water was neck-deep by the time he'd gone far. He reached Iolaus as the injured man's eyes closed and his grip on the stone loosened. Hercules caught him just as his head slipped under the water and pulled him to safety. He settled his unconscious friend in the deep grass and listened carefully to his breathing. He didn't seem to have swallowed any water, but he was shivering with cold, and a lump was forming rapidly around the gash on his head. He gathered the limp form in his arms and started for the barn.
"Get the healer," he ordered Nemesis. "Now!" he barked when she hesitated.
She ran off toward the center of town, bitter tears trailing down her cheeks.
"Lucky once again," the healer commented as he applied a poultice to the new wound on Iolaus' forehead. The blond man didn't open his eyes, but he nodded almost imperceptibly. He'd drifted in and out of consciousness while the aged healer had poked and prodded every inch of his battered body. "The wound is superficial. I do not believe he has a concussion. He simply fainted from shock and exhaustion. The tea I gave him will help him sleep until morning. "*Please* keep him in bed this time. I am a simple village healer, *not* Asclepias.".
When he was gone, Hercules sat on the straw bed beside his partner. Iolaus' eyes rolled open and he managed a sleepy grin. "Screwed up again, huh?"
Hercules nodded and clasped his friend's shoulder. "Get some sleep," he said softly.
"Just wanted to wash up," Iolaus mumbled. "Got a whiff of myself. Stream was right there. Crutch sank down in the mud, and I just... just fell over. Current got me. Some tough guy, huh?"
"You couldn't help it. You were hurt..."
Iolaus was suddenly wide awake. "Nothing?"
Hercules looked away, scrubbed at his face with an unsteady hand.
"What?" Iolaus demanded.
"It has to stop, Iolaus," the demigod finally whispered.
"You said that earlier... " Iolaus remembered. "What has to stop?"
"It all has to stop."
Comprehension dawned in Iolaus' eyes, but he said nothing.
"I can't risk your life anymore. Maceus, the Enforcer... that business on Naxos... the She-demon. How many more times can you be lucky? The next one might..." His brimming eyes searched the ceiling. "I don't think I could..."
"Hercules... " Iolaus raised up on one elbow. "Herc. Listen to me. I know what I'm doing. I'm not stupid. I *know* it's dangerous. I get hurt... I could get killed. Hey, we don't really know about you, but we both know I'm a hundred percent mortal. And that means that someday I'm gonna go down and I'm not gonna get up. I *am* going to die. I hope it's not for a long, long time, but it's going to happen. And that's okay. That's the way it's supposed to be,"
"Iolaus... I couldn't stand it if..."
"Yes you could," his partner said firmly. "You can. You will. If something happens to me, you'll go on. You have to. Just like I'd go on if something happened to you. Not because I'd want to," he hastened to add, "But because that's what we do. Hey, the world needs its heroes, buddy, and we drew the lucky numbers. If we hadn't been born, somebody would have had to invent us, huh?"
Hercules finally nodded. "Yeah. I guess so. But be a little more careful, would you."
"Okay." Iolaus yawned widely and settled back into the hay and his soft pillow. He barely had enough time to say, "G'night, Herc," before sleep took him away.
Hercules regarded his friend's pale face for long moment, wonder-struck for the thousandth time at the stunning blend of strength and vulnerability he found there. Then he tucked the blanket snugly around him and blew out the candle.
A light still burned in the healers cottage, but it was Nemesis who answered his knock. "Is Iolaus okay?" she asked as he entered.
"He's fine. Sleeping. I wanted to apologize for shouting at you this afternoon."
"It's all right," she said too quickly, not quite meeting his eyes. "Actually, I should thank you. It brought me to my senses." She sat at the table and he joined her, accepting the glass of water she poured. "I was just fantasizing for a little while. I know that now. It's not time for us to be together. That time may never come."
"No. Let me finish. I've spent my whole life on Olympus, Hercules. The only place in creation where you *can* have your cake and eat it, too. We could be lovers there, and still not be tied down. But I'm beginning to see that things just don't work that way here. I want the man I love to... I want to be the most important thing in the world to him. I want to be his whole life. And that's not going to happen with you and me. At least not now. What you *do* is your whole life. And Iolaus is such a huge part of what you do that I can't possibly be Number One... And I don't want to settle for being anything less."
"I didn't want to hurt you, Nemesis."
"You didn't. I hurt myself because I built up my expectations without letting myself see things as they really are. There's so much I have to learn about being human... Maybe by the time I get it right, things will be different."
Hercules smiled. "I think you're learning fast. We'd both better get some sleep, though, don't you think?"
She walked him to the door, more at ease than she'd been since the Enforcer's death, and glad to see that some of the tension was gone from his face, as well. Their parting kiss was tender and wistful, and she stood in the doorway for a long time after she watched him disappear into the darkness.
Hercules crept silently into the barn. Enough moonlight streamed through the open window that there was no need to light a candle. Iolaus lay as he'd left him, snoring softly. He found his blanket and lay down in the hay, close to his friend. He knew he'd wake instantly if Iolaus needed him.
Just as he began to drift into a dream, Iolaus stirred beside him, grunted as he shifted his position and found aching resistance. After a moment, Hercules grinned in the dark. His friend didn't realize that the shifting hay telegraphed his every movement.
"Iolaus," he finally said.
"Go back to sleep. Everything's okay."
"Quit playing with your tooth."
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