One and one is always two,
Each alone -- here's me -- there's you.
The mathematics of the heart
Adds together what's apart.
The sum of being friends is done
To prove that one and one makes one.
-- Jay Williams, from "The Hero from Otherwhere"
Iolaus sat near the fire, absently breaking up sticks and throwing them into the blaze. His world, which had seemed so simple and straightforward just yesterday, now seemed to be incredibly confusing and complex. Ever since he had met up with this big guy named Hercules, everything, including his own feelings, seemed to be upside down.
He looked across the fire and studied the tall man who was talking with Zeno. It had only been several sunwidths since he and Hercules had pulled Zeno out of the swamp. The older man had been shivering and coughing in the cool breeze of the late spring afternoon when they pulled him out, so they had stayed by the pond. While Hercules gathered up Thanatos and his men and tied them all securely, Iolaus built a fire to get both Zeno and himself warm and dry. Hercules had just finished getting the whole gang tied up a few moments before, and was now by the fire talking quietly with Zeno.
Iolaus paid little attention to their low-voiced conversation, despite his study of Hercules, because of the turmoil and confusion of his thoughts. He had never met this man before today, he was sure of it. Then why, Iolaus wondered, had they fought together like a well-oiled machine? Why had his own body seemed to be able to respond to Hercules' actions in the fight like every muscle anticipated exactly what the big man would do? How had Hercules known the same things about his, Iolaus', fighting style? And why had he, with the perfect opportunity to skewer Hercules on the point of his sword and capture a fortune in gold, been physically unable to drive the point home, and instead rammed the blade into the wagon beside Hercules?
Hercules had said then that they had been best friends, all their lives, and that was why. So why couldn't Iolaus remember him? Iolaus had been pondering that question the entire time he'd been sitting there drying out, and the only conclusion he could draw was that Hercules was trying to con him. He snorted cynically. Isn't that what everyone who spoke of friendship or caring was really doing? Certainly in his own life, from the time his father had first struck him across the face, he had rarely known anything any different.
His thoughts abruptly ended as he realized that the son of Zeus stood beside him, looking down at him with that odd, pleading familiarity. Iolaus scowled back at him, angry at his own strange ambivalence.
Hercules finally spoke. "I'm taking them back to the magistrate in Nemia." He paused then added, "Zeno, too."
Iolaus looked up from the crackling fire into the serious, challenging blue eyes. He stood up and met those eyes as his own narrowed angrily.
"Do whatever you want with the those morons, but Zeno? I don't think so!" Iolaus declared, with a quiet fierceness that obviously startled the other man. "I don't remember asking for your help, and I as sure as hell didn't save him for you to stick him in jail for Zeus knows how long."
Hercules stared at him with that mixture of surprise and dismay that Iolaus found somehow unsettling, though he didn't know why. It added to the pain and confusion he had felt this entire day, especially since he had met up with Hercules. He glanced over to where Zeno sat huddled on a log on the other side of the fire, his gaze on the flame's heart, but distant and totally unfocused.
"Iolaus, you said it yourself -- he's a criminal," Hercules said. "He has to answer for what he's done. You know that."
Iolaus shifted his weight to the balls of his feet, and clenched his hands into sturdy fists. "All I know is that he took me in, and gave me a place when I was lost. He became my friend when I didn't have one. I owe him for that. I can't let you take him in."
Hercules nodded, then looked away abruptly. Iolaus was startled by the glimpse of pain he had seen so briefly in the expressive azure eyes. "Yeah, I understand why you'd feel like that. I have good reason to. As long as you're breathing you could never be disloyal. But --"
"Now how in Tartarus would you know that?" Iolaus interrupted angrily. "You gonna try and tell me again that we're best buddies, and known each other all our lives ? When I can't remember one damn thing about you?"
"There's not much point in me trying to tell you what you're not going to hear," Hercules answered, brusquely, his jaw muscles bunching. "But answer me this, Iolaus. Even though you have absolutely no memory of ever having seen me before, why was it that you fought beside me like a mirror image? How could your reflexes fit my fighting style like ... like a hand to a glove?"
Iolaus grimaced as Hercules gave voice to the very doubts he himself had been facing. Furious at the doubts and questions that this Hercules raised, he took refuge in a sneer. "Because I'm just good at it, that's why! Now quit trying to change the subject. I'm not letting you take him in, and that's final."
Hercules sighed, but Iolaus could see a spark of anger in the demi-god's eyes as well. "Iolaus, I promise you, we'll see he gets a fair trial. There's a real chance that --"
"I said that was final!" Iolaus shouted, and launched himself at Hercules. The son of Zeus was so totally surprised by the attack that the shorter man was able to slam him onto his back, knocking his breath out. Iolaus pushed himself into a sitting position on Hercules' chest as the big man wheezed and coughed. The blond hunter struck Hercules across the face with a quick backhand blow.
Hercules jerked an arm out from under Iolaus' leg, and snapped a half-pulled, stiff-armed blow into Iolaus' midsection. As the heel of Hercules' palm impacted, even with less than half his power, Iolaus was knocked backward at least ten feet. The blond hunter rolled with incredible speed and grace, and came up into a crouch pulling his belt knife to face the demigod.
Hercules, now up on his knees, coughed and took another deep breath, still winded from Iolaus' blow. He glared at his best friend, angry but beseeching.
"So you think you can use that knife on me this time, Iolaus?" he challenged, his voice shaking with more than just anger. "Try it, then, damn it!"
Iolaus swallowed, and stepped forward slowly, poised in the knife fighter's crouch. Hercules did not move, or raise a hand. He simply sat, waiting, holding Iolaus' eyes in an intense, intimate gaze. And Iolaus realized that he wasn't going to defend himself. Iolaus gripped the knife harder, forcing himself to step forward, preparing to lunge. But as he imagined his knife sinking home into Hercules' chest, the big man's blood jetting out over his own hands, the same wave of nausea and revulsion swept over him that he had felt earlier that day on the beach. Almost reflexively, he threw the knife down onto the grass and turned away, his breath heaving in great gasps.
"What the hell is wrong with me?" he choked out.
He heard the creak of leather as Hercules rose to his feet behind him, and stepped closer. The deep voice was gentle as he replied, "Your heart remembers, even if your mind can't. You're my best friend, Iolaus, and I'm yours. We have been all our lives, since before either of us can really remember. Nothing can change that."
"Listen to him, son."
Iolaus and Hercules both looked at Zeno, still sitting over by the fire, but now watching them thoughtfully.
"But, Zeno -- !"
The older man shook his head. "No, Iolaus, hear me out. I think I know what you've been thinking. That it's a con, a set-up." He glanced back at Hercules, studying the intensity of emotion in the blue eyes. " But I can smell a con a mile away, and this isn't it."
Hercules heard the real affection and regard in Zeno's voice as he spoke to Iolaus, called him "son". And all at once he had a flash of insight as to why this man had commanded such loyalty and respect from the younger man.
"If that's true, Hercules," Iolaus spat, after a moment, his back still to Hercules, "if you're not connin' me and we've been best friends for so long -- why can't I remember you?"
"Because of a spell, the guilty act of a well-meaning but inept little busybody of a goddess."
Iolaus turned and looked at Hercules incredulously. "You're saying the gods did this to me? Why? Why would one of them take my memory of you away?"
Hercules wasn't ready for Iolaus to have to face the incident at the bridge yet. "That doesn't matter so much as what you *do* remember." Hercules stepped closer to the smaller man and asked intently, "When did you first learn to use a sword?"
Iolaus started to speak, but cut himself off as the blankness of this remembrance hit him. "I -- I don't know," he replied, slowly, his gaze distant, averted from Hercules' face.
"But I do, because we learned together, first taught by a Spartan arms master when I was ten and you were twelve; later, when we were teenagers, at Cheiron's academy." Hercules met the puzzled but still resistant gaze that Iolaus turned on him with another question. "When did you learn how to swim?"
Iolaus snapped, "I don't know how to swim!" But even as the words left his mouth, he glanced down at his still-damp clothing. Hercules nodded, with a surge of hope, as he saw realization give way to confusion in Iolaus' turquoise-blue eyes. This time, however, the stubborn resistance was absent.
"But you do, don't you? Because I taught you, not long after Jason had tossed you in the pond on the road to Corinth, to force me to go in after you. It scared us both bad enough -- how close you came to drowning -- so you finally let me teach you."
"I remember Jason throwing me in," Iolaus said, slowly, like someone in shock. "He thought I could swim, and it was important because ... because ..."
Hercules stepped close to Iolaus and put a hand on his shoulder. The big man's eyes were profoundly vulnerable as he looked down into Iolaus' eyes, where desperate confusion was beginning to give way to a dawning wonder. "Because I had been stupid enough to ask the god-fire of Hephaestus' forge to come into me, to try to be more like Zeus, and it was burning me up from the inside. You and Jason knew you had to get me into the water. Then Jason realized, even like I was, I could never turn away if you were in danger."
Iolaus was lost in the sudden warm possibility of having real friendship and acceptance, even though he couldn't remember it. But then a newer memory intruded and he turned away, breaking Hercules' warm grip on his shoulder, stepping away to a point halfway between Hercules and Zeno.
"Okay. So maybe it's not a con, and everything you're saying is true, I still can't let you take Zeno in." Iolaus stated, desperately. "He's not like these other guys!"
"Maybe not," Hercules replied. "Maybe he's never been as cruel or vicious as his lieutenant, but he's still a criminal, Iolaus. He's broken the law, and he's got to pay the consequences."
"But, Hercules, I owe him!" Iolaus cried. "How can I let you take him in when he gave me a place, and his friendship?"
"Because, Iolaus, it's the right thing to do."
Zeno stood, and walked over to the younger man. "Besides, you don't owe me a thing -- I owe you. You saved my life, getting me out of this pond. But I think you've saved me in an even more important way. You made me remember what friendship, and loyalty, and honesty really mean -- instead of the shallow and false substitutions I've gradually accepted for them over the years."
Zeno smiled faintly, as he studied Iolaus' defiant, conflicted eyes. "You see, I was once a lot like you are now, Iolaus -- honest and loyal, but tough, and street smart. I came into this for the same reasons I think you did -- to belong. To have a place to do something different with what I was good at."
"But you *did*. You told me you helped out some of the people in the poorer quarters with part of the money you took from those miserly merchants," Iolaus pointed out.
The older man nodded. "Yes, occasionally, but at what cost? For a while, I deluded myself into thinking that, even though I was committing crimes, I was doing it for the good of Nemia, because the government had become so rotten. Maybe along the way I helped a few people, but this kind of life corrupts you, Iolaus, regardless of your motives."
He sighed, then continued. "I lost that desire, and contented myself with indulgence. Lately, I was content to leave the everyday business to men like Thanatos, not really knowing or caring what kind of atrocities they might be committing in my name. And because of that, I have to take responsibility for their cruelty, too."
"You opened my eyes to what I've become, Iolaus." Zeno glanced at Hercules, then back to Iolaus. "Hercules is right. I know that now. I have to take responsibility for what I did, and pay the consequences."
Iolaus studied the seamed, world-weary face closely. After a moment his eyes fell, and his shoulders sagged. "All right. If that's what you want."
Zeno put a hand on Iolaus' shoulder, and the blond head came up. Zeno smiled. "It's not so bad, Iolaus. It's worth the price to have known a man like you, and maybe to get a second chance at it myself."
Iolaus nodded, wordlessly, and held out his arm, which Zeno gripped in a warrior's clasp. Hercules found himself having to suppress a tiny thread of jealousy when he saw the look of affection and pain that Iolaus gave the former crime lord.
The smaller man then turned and walked away to the fire, his back to the others. Hercules' eyes followed him, then turned to Zeno as the old man spoke.
"Thank you, also, Hercules," he said. "For lending me you friend for a while."
Hercules laughed, shortly, bitterly, his eyes back on Iolaus. "Yeah." But Zeno could tell what a painful and unwilling "loan" it was.
Zeno smiled, a bit sadly. "You must realize that the only reason he developed this connection with me was to satisfy that aching void he didn't even know he had. The void where you had filled his life."
The demi-god looked back at Zeno, and this time there was grudging admiration and a glimmer of respect in his eyes. "Somehow I don't think it was the only reason."
"Perhaps." Zeno sighed and straightened his shoulders. "Anyway, if you're ready to get started, I'm willing. Just one request."
"Tie me up, just like you did the others. No sense giving them reason to think I'm getting special treatment."
Hercules complied, and, even though Iolaus protested, the good sense of Zeno's request was undeniable. Hercules tied the men's arms together behind their backs and fastened their ankles together with a length of rope just long enough to allow a short-stepped, walking pace. The growling, but subdued Thanatos and his gang finally started hobbling on the road to Nemia, with Zeno following several paces behind. Hercules and Iolaus walked an equal distance behind him.
There was a strained silence between the demi-god and his erstwhile friend that Hercules was unwilling to break, afraid that he would say the wrong thing and scare off his volatile companion. All he could think of was getting to Nemia and getting the gang to the magistrate as fast as possible, so that he could then call up that harebrained Fortune and get Iolaus back. He began to wish he hadn't made the prisoner's leg shackles quite so short.
Suddenly, Iolaus' voice broke into his anxious thoughts.
"So, if everything you say is true," Iolaus said, grudgingly, "what was I like before? Uh, I mean when I knew you? Some goody-two-sandals who's convinced of his own righteousness?"
Hercules laughed and shook his head. "Hardly. You're irrepressible, irritating, and irreverent -- never self-righteous. You sometimes babble or sing bawdy songs, but you're never boring. You're a loyal and brave companion, and I trust you with my life, but you're also stubborn and sometimes too impulsive."
Hercules glanced at the smaller man's face, and saw that there was a slight flush of grateful pleasure on his face, but Iolaus would not meet his eyes. Hercules grinned and asked, in a bantering tone, "Have I given you enough of a swollen head, yet?"
Iolaus glanced up and gave a brief chuckle, mixed between disbelief and pleasure, but less grudging than it had been Hercules was still smiling, but as he went on there was now a power and sincerity to his tone that made Iolaus look up at him more intently.
"If I haven't yet, I'm going to. Because with or despite all those characteristics, to me you're simply ... irreplaceable." Hercules' voice shook slightly, with such a profound depth of feeling that he had to pause and control it. He was afraid that this Iolaus, not remembering the strength of their friendship, might be scared away by it.
So Hercules continued quietly, but powerfully. "We've been friends so long, Iolaus, that sometimes ... I don't know where you start and I end. And seeing you like this makes me feel like a part of my heart has been ripped out."
Hercules glimpsed the moved expression in Iolaus' eyes before he lowered his blond head, watching his feet as they both walked for some moments in silence.
Iolaus finally spoke, though he didn't raise his head. "Sounds a bit like everything good about me came from you."
Hercules closed his eyes briefly, stung, despite the sudden uncertainty of Iolaus' tone."No," he whispered. He had to clear his throat before he could go on. "Not at all. I just taught you what it means to have a friend. Just like you taught me. Just like you continue to teach me. The rest comes straight from your own heart, Iolaus."
Hercules looked down at his friend, and slowly the sea-blue eyes lifted to meet his. "Everything that Zeno saw in you, and admired, and regretted losing -- your courage, your honor, your wit, your loyalty -- it all comes from that great and true heart of yours. A hero's heart."
Iolaus suddenly looked away, but not before Hercules had seen his face, and the glint of tears in his eyes. For long moments there was no sound except the tread of all their footsteps, the mounting evening breeze in the treetops beside the road, and the occasional muttering from the men in the lead.
At last, Hercules staring at the road ahead, his own vision blurred, finally heard Iolaus say, "It sounds like you miss him ... me, that is."
Hercules chuckled, but it was the kind laugh that substitutes for tears. "It means a hell of a lot more than that, Iolaus. It feels like I'm missing part of myself."
Iolaus was stunned, bereft of words for a moment that this kind of friendship could be possible for Skouros' worthless runt. That was what he thought he had always felt like. But could it be ... could it possibly be that, having been friends with this remarkable man had allowed him to be something more than he could ever have imagined? Iolaus suddenly felt an intensification of the nameless longing that had seemed to plague him ever since his lonely campfire the other night. He glanced up to see Hercules blinking away tears.
Quietly, his eyes back on the road at his feet, Iolaus said, " So ... then, this broken, empty feeling I've been carrying around inside me the last few days has been because ..."
It was a moment before Hercules could reply. He swallowed, and caught his breath, and finally answered, "Because you're been missing that piece of my heart that was ripped from yours."
Again, there was a pause, as both of them felt the cost of Fortune's well-intentioned meddling. Hercules was aware of the tension in his friend's compact body, and the quick, awkward swipe of his gauntlet over his eyes.
"So," Iolaus said, at last, and there was a thread of fear in his voice, "is this fixable?"
"Yes," Hercules replied with a bedrock certainty that boded little good for Fortune if there were any doubts. "Fortune will fix it, or she'll answer to me."
Iolaus said, "Well, Herc, I'm beginning to think that sounds pretty good."
Hercules almost stumbled, as he looked quickly at his friend. There was now a grin and a light in his eyes that made Hercules laugh, even in his amazement.
"Iolaus!" he said, excitedly. "You called me 'Herc'!"
Iolaus grinned, but was obviously lost as to the reason for Hercules' excitement. He said, "Yeah, so?"
"That's always been your nickname for me. No one else ever uses it much. Did you remember it?"
Iolaus thought, but shook his head. "Nah. It just felt right."
Hercules nodded, and laughed, feeling the world begin to right itself around him again.
Iolaus grinned up at him more freely than he had yet, and said, "So, tell me more about Jason throwing me into that pond."
Hercules laughed, clapped his Iolaus' broad shoulder, and launched into the tale of one of their Academy adventures, as they continued on the road to their rendezvous with Fortune...
Author's note -- The adventure related by Hercules, of how he takes the god-fire of Hephaestus into himself, is taken from the "Young Hercules" episode entitled "Forgery".
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