...Ain't Just A River

by Owlharp

A patricide.

A father-slayer.

O gods that no longer were...

He had to find Hercules.

Iolaus had journeyed for several days, mostly at a run, pushing himself beyond any sane limit. He was filthy, sunburned, starving and exhausted, and none of this mattered. Nothing did, except the need to find his friend, and then stand with him to face whatever hideous consequences awaited.

And there was no doubt that there would be consequences. Every Greek knew all too well the story of Orestes Atreides and the dog- headed, bat-winged Furies who pursued him after he had murdered his mother Clytemnestra. For endless years they chased him all over Greece, flogging him mercilessly, allowing him not a moment's peace, not a heartbeat's respite from the pain, until finally Orestes' only refuge was madness...

"And Hercules has murdered his father - the King of the Gods..." was the thought that went continuously through Iolaus' mind, numbing him to the agony of his exhausted body.

What would happen, Iolaus did not know - only that Hercules was not going to face it alone.

He'd learned the news from Joxer, of all people. Joxer, the good-hearted, bumbling fool, whose normally cheerful face had been grim and drawn as he told Iolaus the story. Iolaus had enountered him in an inn at the Delphi crossroads - he'd already forgotten exactly where - and Joxer had told him of Xena's baby and Zeus' hunt for it, and how Hercules had sworn to protect the child and ended up killing his own father with the rib of a Titan.

Had Joxer stabbed Iolaus to the heart, he could not have made a deeper wound. Iolaus had no memory of leaving the inn, nor of the last several days. At some point he must have eaten; at some point he must have slept; but he remembered none of these things. There was nothing but the pounding of his feet against the road and his heart within his breast, and the rough rasp of his breath against his parched throat.

He was nearing Thebes. Somewhere in his barely functioning mind was the idea that Hercules might have taken refuge in his old home, by Alcmene's grave. Where this idea had come from, Iolaus did not know, but it served to guide his feet.

Gasping for air, he scrambled up the great dune that abutted the lake. At the top he fell to hands and knees, panting. After a moment he raised his head and scanned the area.

With equal amounts of dread and joy, he saw a familiar figure standing by the waterside, brown hair fluttering in the breeze. Iolaus closed his eyes and swallowed hard in relief. He was not too late. His best friend still lived, and together the two of them could make a stand against whatever hellish retribution the Furies had in mind.

He stumbled down the dune, trying to call Hercules' name, but his own throat was too dry.

"Iolaus?" came the call, a few heartbeats later. Something had caused the son of Zeus to turn, see Iolaus staggering down the sandy slope, and run to meet him.

Hercules took one horrified look at his best friend and took him by the arms in a grasp that would brook no struggle. "What happened?" he demanded, sharply. "Who did this to you?"

"No... one," Iolaus gasped."I ran ... from ... the Delphi ... crossroads".

"Iolaus, that's a week's journey from here!"

"Tell me ... about ... it". The world was going black and swimmy around the edges and his knees were made of porridge. He was grateful for Hercules' warm solidity holding him up.

"Iolaus, what's the matter? Why did you do such a crazy thing?"

This was the last question Iolaus expected.

"Whaddya ... mean? ... I can't ... let ... you face... the Furies ...alone".

"The Furies?" Hercules looked dumbfounded.

Iolaus took a deep breath to assure his friend that he knew what had happened and he'd stand by Hercules' side, but at that moment the black edges around his vision grew until they swallowed up his sight and him with it.

There was blue sky above when Iolaus opened his eyes again, and soft sand underneath him. And the taste of clean water on his cracked lips. He swallowed greedily.

"Easy..." came Hercules' voice.

The water trickled down his throat, bringing life and strength.

"More..."

"In a minute. Do you think you can sit up?"

"Yeah ... ". There was suddenly an arm behind his back, steadying him.

He sat up and Hercules handed him the cup of water. Iolaus took it in shaking hands and drank it slowly, knowing from bitter experience that if he gulped down as his body was screaming for him to do, he'd only throw it up again.

"Better?"

He looked up and met Hercules' concerned gaze.

"Yeah. Lots better. Thanks..."

"You want to tell me what's going on?"

"What do you mean?"

"Iolaus, you show up here looking like death warmed over, apparently having run all the way from the Delphi crossroads, you start babbling about the Furies, and then you collapse. This isn't the way we usually meet up!"

Iolaus took a deep breath. It was the first one in several days that didn't burn the back of his throat. "Look, Herc, I know what happened. I know what you did, and why you did it, and if the Furies are going to come after you, they're going to have to deal with both of us!"

"Iolaus, what are you talking about?"

Iolaus looked up in half-angry puzzlement. "Hercules, Joxer told me all about it! About how you ... how you killed Zeus, to protect Xena's child!"

"I did WHAT???"

The stark amazement on Hercules face was mirrored by an identical amazement on Iolaus'.

"Iolaus, what the HELL are you saying? I didn't kill ANYONE!"

Hercules' expression changed suddenly and he laid a firm hand on Iolaus' forehead. Iolaus twisted away irritably.

"I'm not delirious, if that's what you're worried about! Look, Herc - I met Joxer in a tavern at the Delphi crossroads, maybe 3 or 4 days ago. He told me the whole story - how the Fates prophesied that Xena's child would destroy the gods, and how you promised to defend her against Zeus ... And how Zeus and Hera quarreled, and he murdered her ... And how you wound up killing your own father with the rib bone from a Titan - "

"Iolaus - "

"And I know the Furies are gonna be after you - "

"Iolaus!"

"And that's when I took off running..."

Hercules abruptly got up and walked a little ways down the shoreline, running his hands through his tangled brown hair. Just as abruptly he came back and squatted down in front of his friend, putting a heavy hand on Iolaus' shoulder.

"Iolaus?"

"Yes?"

"Do you see the Furies anywhere?"

There was a long silence. "No," answered Iolaus finally.

"You know me. Do you think that if I'd promised to protect Xena and her child, that I'd then just run off and leave them?"

Another long silence. "No," said Iolaus again.

"Look... I don't know where Joxer got this story, but ... well, for starters, I haven't killed anyone. Honest! Least of all my father. And he certainly didn't kill Hera. In fact, Zeus and Hera have had Evander visiting them on Olympus for the past month - they managed to talk Nemesis into it. And I haven't seen Xena for ages! So - " he broke off as he saw the confusion and fear on Iolaus' face.

Iolaus put his head in his hands. "Was this whole thing the Delphi crossroads a hallucination? Am I going mad?"

"No. No. You're not going mad. You're too crazy to go mad!"

"Thanks - I think!"

Hercules sat down next to his friend. "OK, we've got to look at this logically. From what I know about Joxer, the only thing he lies about are his own exploits. There'd be no reason for him to cook up a story like this, unless he was the hero of it, which he isn't."

"Hercules, I would have sworn he was telling the truth".

"I think he was - at least, the truth as he knew it. Or as someone had told it to him".

"Why would someone want to give the impression that you'd killed your father?"

"A damn good question! And I know who to go to, to get the answer!"

Hercules stood up, brushed the sand from his breeches, and, in a voice that produced white-caps on the lake's surface, bellowed

"FATHER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I NEED YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

For several heartbeats there was no response. Then, in a burst of flame, three figures materialized.

Iolaus could not control an involuntary cringe backward as he saw that one was Hera. Old habits were hard to break.

The other figure was Zeus himself, the Thunderer, the King of the Gods - whose divine dignity was severely compromised by the fact that at that moment he had a small red-haired boy riding on his shoulders, shouting "Giddyup, Grandpa!"

Iolaus could not help but break into a grin. Hercules looked at him. "You believe me now?"

The red-haired child caught sight of the two men sitting on the lakeside and waved. "Uncle Hercules! Uncle Iolaus!"

"Hi, Evander!"

Zeus swung the child down, and he ran to hug the two heroes.

The King of the Gods spoke sternly, "I will have you know, my son, that you interrupted a very important game of 'Horsie Ride'".

"I'm really sorry about that, Dad, but there's something going on that I think you should know about."

"Very well. My dear - " he turned to Hera, who smiled back lovingly. "Would you take Evander back to his mother, please? I'll be there in a moment".

"Certainly, dear. Evander, come with Grandma, and we'll go find your mother!"

"But I want to skip stones on the lake with Uncle Iolaus!"

"Later, buddy." Iolaus tousled the red hair. "I promise, OK?"

"All right", was the disappointed reply, but Evander obediently took his grandmother's hand and the two vanished in a burst of peacock-blue fire.

Zeus crossed his arms, and regarded them solemnly. "Well?" he inquired.

Hercules glanced over at his comrade. "OK - tell my father what Joxer told you".

Iolaus felt the discomfort of being the focus of a divine gaze. He had never liked it, and he didn't like it now, but nonetheless he spilled out the story of his meeting with Joxer at the Delphi crossroads.

Zeus listened in silence, his silver hair rippling in the breeze from the lake. When Iolaus had finished, Zeus sighed heavily.

"A very interesting story - but just a story. I can assure you, the Fates have said nothing about Xena's child to me. As you see, both Hera and I are unmurdered, and no blood stains my son's hands. But what interests me, is why this story is being spread." A faraway look came into his dark eyes. "I must look into something. Remain here, until I return". He made a sudden gesture. Two cushioned chairs and a low table, laden with food and wine, appeared out of nowhere. "I shall not be long," Zeus said and disappeared.

Iolaus blew out a long breath. "Can this get any weirder?" he inquired of no one in particular.

"Don't ask!"

"All right, I won't. Anyway, there's food here!"

For the moment, that was enough. In fact, it was more than enough. By the time Hercules had finished pouring wine for each of them, Iolaus had demolished two roasted quail and was half-way through a platter of stuffed grape leaves. Zeus reappeared just as the two men finished their second goblets of wine, and the expression on his face caused Iolaus to swallow a piece of baklava whole and hurriedly wipe the crumbs from his face. Both heroes got to their feet, but Zeus impatiently waved them to sit down again and conjured up a throne for himself. He sat silent with a furrowed brow, giving off anger like a stove gives off heat.

"Did you find what you went to look for?" asked Hercules, finally daring to break the foreboding silence.

Zeus gave an unexpected sigh. "Yes, I did. It was as I had suspected ..." his voice trailed off.

Hercules and Iolaus exchanged looks.

"And that was - ?" prodded his son.

Zeus shook his head imperiously. "I began by asking myself who would benefit from such a situation as you've described. A lie was told - but by whom, and for what purpose? You - " once again Iolaus was impaled by a godly glance - "have no reason to lie. Neither did the one who passed the news to you. Therefore I went to Olympus and with Mnemosyne's help, looked deep into the hearts and memories of the mortals most closely involved. I myself saw what they had seen and experienced. I watched what took place, as they themselves saw it. I saw myself threatening Xena and her child, Hercules, and I saw you kill me with the Titan's rib!"

"But Father - " broke in Hercules.

Zeus nodded somberly. "Yes, I know. It never happened. However, someone made it look like it happened. Someone went to a great deal of trouble to manipulate a large number of mortals and convince them that Zeus was dead at the hands of Hercules, and that Xena and her child were responsible."

Hercules started to speak but Zeus raised a commanding hand. Iolaus had long ago concluded that his own best tactic was simply to shut up, so he sat silently as the King of the Gods continued.

"What has this lie produced? Dissension, murder, bloodshed and warfare, as my worshippers and those of many of the other gods have wrongly sought vengeance for what they see as the destruction of their whole world. Who glories in that sort of thing? Who would benefit from a situation like that?" he paused.

Hercules and Iolaus met each other's eyes and in the same breath burst forth - "Ares!"

A bitter smile crossed Zeus' face. "Yes." A jeweled goblet appeared in the god's hand and he took a healthy swig. "When you mentioned Xena, my thoughts immediately went to Ares. She is his obsession, probably because she is the only woman who has ever said "no" to him. I imagine that when she turned up pregnant, his jealousy drove him to orchestrate this entire scenario - creating illusions, setting the forces against her, deceiving all those mortals - to get her to turn to him for assistance."

"Wait a minute - " Iolaus forgot himself in his astonishment. "This was a set-up? Ares planned this whole thing - just to get into Xena's - "

"Yes," declared Zeus."He desires her. Plus, she is a challenge, and Ares above all loves a challenge. He's like his father in that respect ... I remember a woman, once, whom I desired ...." his voice softened and wandered off into the realms of memory.

"Well, what are you going to do about it?" demanded Hercules, who had no patience for his father's erotic reminiscences.

The thunderous frown returned to Zeus' face and all warmth fled. "Ares has transgressed once too often. It's bad enough he is constantly setting mortals at each other's throats - that can be forgiven, since war is his realm. But this time he has gone too far!"

"What are you going to do?"

"That is for me to decide - but you may be sure that Ares and all who aided him will regret their decision!"

"That sounds promising," muttered Iolaus to Hercules.

Zeus, who did not choose to hear that remark, laid his hand on his son's shoulder. "Thank you, son. I'm glad to know you cared enough for me, to let me know what was happening". His eyes shifted to Iolaus, who moved uncomfortably from foot to foot under their fierce gaze. "Iolaus."

"Sir?"

"You were willing to face the Furies for my son's sake. Thank you."

Iolaus ducked his head and mumbled something.

There was a flash of light and the soft growl of thunder. Zeus was no longer there.

Iolaus let out a breath he did not realize he had been holding and grinned suddenly at his friend. "Well, that's a load off my mind!"

"Yeah! Mine too! I was beginning to get worried there!"

"Hey look! He left the food!"

Hercules grinned back. "Supper's on Dad. Let's eat!"

Somewhere between the roasted lamb and the rest of the baklava, Hercules looked over at his friend. "You know, Dad got the chance to say it before I did, but thanks. You came all the way from the Delphi crossroads, to help me against the Furies ...".

Through a mouthful of spinach pastry Iolaus said, "You're welcome. But I gotta confess - I'm awfully glad they weren't really after you."

"Yeah. They're scary."

"Yeah. I really hate those bat wings."

"Me too. More wine?"

"I thought you'd never ask!"

FINIS

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