Hercules knelt over Nemesis’ still form, and gently took her into his arms. As he lifted her and stood, she neither moved nor made a sound. Hercules’ heart skipped a beat, as he looked around, surveying the damage left in the wake of his horrendous battle with Hera’s Enforcer. That creature had hurt too many people. Two of those people were very special to him. “Damn you, Hera!” was all the demigod could mutter as he carried his childhood love away from the destroyed forge.
Hercules contemplated taking Nemesis to the inn, for a comfortable bed. But, Iolaus was still in the barn. Hercules couldn’t leave Iolaus alone any longer. His friend had been badly hurt. So, the hero carried the still Nemesis back to the barn, where he would be able to watch over and care for both his friends.
“Herc, what happened?!” Iolaus was lying where Hercules had left him, propped up against a mound of straw in the manger of the huge barn. The blond warrior’s face was a mess of cuts and abrasions, some still oozing, some beginning to scab over. Iolaus attempted to rise up on one elbow, but pain flashed across his face with the effort. He clutched his splinted wrist tight against his chest.
“Iolaus, be still. Don’t try to move,” the big man answered as he gently lay Nemesis onto the straw beside Iolaus. He smoothed her lush brunette waves from around her face and shoulders. “She fell from one of the platforms around the forge. It was a bad fall. She’s unconscious.” Hercules looked into the worried eyes of his best friend. “Iolaus, please watch over her. I’ll go find a healer.”
“Sure, Herc, you go, and hurry. We’ll be fine.” He blessed his tall friend with one of his glorious smiles, which instantly reduced the demigod’s worry about his best friend. Smiling back, he said, “I’ll be right back,” and ran from the barn. After Hercules had left and the barn was quiet, Iolaus pulled himself closer to the still form of the former goddess of retribution, moaning softly as his abused body complained about the effort. Looking into Nemesis’ beautiful face, Iolaus whispered, “You’ve got to be all right. For Herc’s sake.”
When Hercules found the town’s healer, the man was covered up aiding the injured citizens. Hercules anxiously informed him about the two other injured fighters, but the healer was adamant about tending his neighbors first. Finally, after gaining the healer’s promise that he’d come to the barn as quickly as he was able, Hercules returned alone to his injured friends. When he entered the barn, Hercules noticed that Nemesis had been covered with a light blanket, and had some cloths under her head as a makeshift pillow. Iolaus was standing, leaning heavily against a shelf beside the manger where he and Nemesis had been resting. He didn’t look too steady on his feet, so Hercules strode over to him to help support his friend. “What in the world are you doing up? Are you trying to make yourself worse?”
Iolaus gave the demigod a crooked smile. “Nah, I was just looking for some water. She moaned and moved a little a bit ago, so I thought I’d wash her face and see if it’d help her come to.”
“That’s a good idea,” the demigod replied. He looked around for a source of water, and spied a bucket near the barn’s door. Looking again at his brave friend, Hercules said, “You lie back down, and I’ll get the water.”
“I don’t need to lie down! I’m okay, Herc. It’s Nemesis we need to see to.” The agitated warrior looked again at his friend. “Where’s the healer?”
“He had too many people to see to, to leave right now. He’ll be by later.” Hercules scrutinized his pale, bruised, tottering friend. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
Iolaus answered with a withering glare, so the demigod threw up his hands in capitulation and headed out to the trough, picking up the bucket at the door. As he drew fresh water, he noticed the beauty of the waning day—the soft white clouds against the clear blue sky, the green of the trees and grass, the pleasant songs of the birds. Defiling this beauty was Hercules’ memories of the destruction and pain caused by Hera’s monster, sent to destroy him. The destruction and pain meted out to innocent townspeople, and to two brave people who happened to be his friends. The thought sickened the tall hero. He angrily jerked his filled bucket from the trough, and returned to the barn.
The scene that greeted his eyes had changed little from when he’d left. Nemesis was still lying quietly and unmoving on the straw. Iolaus was still leaning heavily against the manger wall. He had been gazing worriedly at the woman’s still face, but visibly tried to brighten up when he saw Hercules standing in the door. The tall demigod walked over to his friends, and put his bucket on the floor. Silently, he took the proffered cloth from Iolaus’ hand, dampened it, and began to gently bathe Nemesis’ face. Slowly, slowly, the beautiful woman began to stir, moaning a little as her eyelids fluttered. Hercules whispered to her, gently speaking her name, urging her to come back to consciousness.
Her eyes opened, and gradually focused on the worried faces of her two friends. “Hercules? Iolaus? Where am I? What happened?”
Huge grins of relief broke across the faces of the two men. “Boy, are we glad you’re back!” stated Iolaus.
Hercules touched Nemesis’ cheek. “You had a bad fall, and have been unconscious for a while. You’re back at the barn where we stayed last night. What do you remember?”
Nemesis blinked a few times. “I remember our waking up this morning, and you worrying about the festival.” Her eyes widened and she quickly glanced at Iolaus. “Then, I remember Iolaus coming in on us, and his being badly hurt. He warned you of the Enforcer.” The woman looked again at Hercules. “She almost killed him! She wanted to kill you. I couldn’t let that happen. I went to face her. We were in the forge. She threw something at me. That’s all I can remember.” Nemesis struggled to sit up. “Where is she? I need to stop her!”
Hercules gently pushed the woman back down onto her makeshift bed. “She’s gone, Nemesis. I destroyed her.” The demigod’s voice choked. “She won’t hurt anyone ever again.”
Nemesis took Hercules’ hand in hers. “It’s good that she’s gone.” The former goddess squinted her eyes at her tall friend. “You don’t look so good, yourself, Hercules. I think you need to get some rest.” She then stared at Iolaus. “And, you! You look like you’re about to pass out. You have no business being up.” She glanced again at the demigod. “Hercules, he needs to be in bed. He has some bad injuries.”
The tall man chuckled. “Yes, Ma’am,” he responded, and turned to face his best friend. Iolaus was looking pretty peaked, and his legs appeared to be trembling. He had definitely been up too long. The demigod grasped the warrior around his torso and easily lifted him up and down onto the manger. “You heard the lady, Iolaus. She said ‘rest,’ so rest it’ll be for you. And NO argument!”
Iolaus opened his mouth to protest, but the healer chose that moment to walk in on the trio of friends, and got busily to work examining the injured man and woman. After a bit, he announced both would be fine, with rest. He didn’t think Nemesis had a concussion, but still prescribed rest until the next afternoon, anyway. Iolaus, besides the visible wounds to his face and torso, appeared to have a badly bruised breastbone and ribs, and a wrenched left knee. Although his healing wrist was quite painful, it hadn’t been rebroken. Only time and rest would heal them. After leaving a supply of pain and sleep medications, and orders to Hercules to keep his two friends down and still, the harried healer rushed off to attend more injured and sick villagers.
In the quiet barn, Hercules turned to his two friends. Nemesis was beginning to nod off again. Hercules could see the pain in Iolaus’ eyes, but the warrior had been given pain medicine, which just needed time to start working for him. “I’ll go down to the inn and see if I can rustle up some stew and bread for us,” the demigod quietly told his two patients. Nemesis mumbled an assent, and Iolaus just nodded, keeping his eyes riveted onto his friend’s face. Hercules ducked his eyes. “I’ll be right back,” he said, as he shuffled out of the barn.
It was growing dark when he returned to the quiet barn. Hercules quietly walked over to the manger to check on his friends. Both appeared to be asleep. The demigod breathed a sigh of relief. It had been a horrible, frightening day. His friends needed their rest more than they needed the food he had in his hands. The stew could be warmed over in the morning, whenever they awoke. Hercules walked over to a clean stall near the manger, and fashioned himself a simple bed for the night. He lit a lantern before finally turning in.
But, sleep wouldn’t come. He kept reliving the events of the last few days. He believed he had destroyed the Enforcer at the cliffs. She had disintegrated, he’d thought. He wished to the gods that he’d known she could rebuild herself from the ocean’s waters. If he had just known, no one would have suffered this day. No innocent villagers. No friends. Iolaus and Nemesis had both been badly hurt trying to protect him. Hercules tossed and turned in his bed. He didn’t deserve friends like these.
In the quiet of the barn, Hercules felt eyes on him. He turned to face the manger. Nemesis was peacefully still in deep sleep. Iolaus wasn’t. His clear blue were staring at Hercules, as they had been on and off throughout the day. “Hercules, stop it,” he said ever so quietly, to keep from waking his fellow patient.
The demigod rose from his bedding and walked over to face his lifelong friend. “Stop what?” he softly asked.
“Stop raking yourself over the coals, blaming yourself for all this,” the blond warrior answered. His gaze never left his friend’s face. “I know you. You’re letting yourself be eaten up with guilt over this whole Enforcer mess. It’s NOT YOUR FAULT. Hera’s the villain here, not you.”
“Iolaus, I can’t help it!” the demigod blurted out. “How can it not be my fault? That Enforcer never would’ve been created if it weren’t for me. Hera hates me, and she always will. As long as I live, she’ll continue to try to destroy me. And that means that innocent people will continue to be hurt because of me. Innocent people, including my friends. Iolaus, you and Nemesis could have been killed today! And it would have been my fault, no matter what you say. I don’t deserve friends.” The distraught demigod put his hands up to his face. “I think the world would be better off if I just retreated to a cave in the mountains somewhere, and just let Hera come and get me.”
“Hercules, don’t say that!” Iolaus reached up and pulled his friend’s hands from his face. “Please, don’t ever say or think that again.” The blond warrior’s gaze bored into the eyes of his best friend. “I couldn’t live without our friendship. You are the best thing that has ever happened to me. I’d be dead or in prison now, if I’d never met you. I choose to be your friend now, just as I chose to be so many years ago. Just as I told you I chose to go up against the Enforcer. And as I’d choose to do again, in a heartbeat, if I thought it would protect or help you. Because you’re my friend, Hercules. My best friend, ever. I love you like a brother. You know that. Brothers don’t fink out on each other, just because the going gets a little rough. You know you would have done the same thing for me, if the tables had been turned. Please, don’t expect me to be less of a friend to you, than you are to me. We’ve been together too long, and through too much, to ask that of each other. And, please, please, don’t ever think of our friendship as a burden. I don’t. I never could. I want to be your friend, now and always. Please don’t talk of going away. I couldn’t stand it.” The smaller man was near tears. “Hercules, Hera’s a bitch. I hate her because of her unjust grudge against you. I hate what she’s done to you in the past. And I hate her for what she’ll probably continue to try to do to you. But, I could never leave your side out of fear of her. Never! Because you are the friend and brother I have chosen to care about for the rest of my life. Please, don’t ever ask me to feel differently. I can’t do it. Hera’s vendetta against you is not your fault. It’s her sickness. It’s….” Iolaus could talk no more.
Another hand reached up to touch Hercules. He looked into Nemesis’ eyes. She ran her finger along the line of a tear that had fallen unbidden down his cheek. “I echo everything Iolaus has said, Hercules. I, too, have chosen to love you, in spite of anything Hera might threaten. Don’t deprive us of your love, out of fear for us. We can handle Hera ourselves. This world needs you—it needs you and Iolaus together, battling for justice and fairness. And if there is some way I can help fight that battle, I will. Because I want to.”
Hercules was overcome with the deep feelings from these two people so dear to him—the man he considered a brother, and the woman who had been the first love of his life. Gone were his feelings of not deserving their friendship. Now, he felt the glow of good fortune for having two friends such as these. He clasped their hands tightly in his. All he could say to them was a simple, but heartfelt, “Thank you.” Their answering smiles warmed his heart. Feigning gruffness, he told them, “Now, go to sleep, like the healer told you to.”
“Yes, Hercules,” the two answered in unison. Nemesis closed her eyes, a smile on her face. Iolaus continued to look deeply into the eyes of his best friend, conveying more than mere words ever could. Hercules gave his friend’s hand an extra squeeze, before releasing it and returning to his own bed. Before he fell into a deep, restful sleep, the demigod once more gazed at the sleeping forms of these two special people who meant so much to him, and gave thanks to the gods who mattered, for this blessing of friendship.
Disclaimer: Writing this story was weird. It started out great guns, then ran straight into a brick wall. This isn’t exactly where I wanted this little tale to go, but it developed a mind of its own and wouldn’t cooperate, so this is the best I can do at the moment. I may try to rewrite it some day. I think my muse and I are still mourning the loss of our friend, the perfect friend, even though we pledge denial. Time will heal.
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