It was an arduous journey from Echidna's lair to home, and though her son might be a demigod, she could see the trip was taking a toll on the usually strong man. He had cut himself another staff to lean on for support about three-quarters of the way home, and his other travelling companion had taken to helping the injured hero over the rougher spots in the terrain.
Alcmene unobtrusively watched the muscular blonde warrior help Hercules navigate a particularly tricky incline, the shorter man stoically bearing a great deal of the weight of his taller partner. She saw the blue-eyed warrior wince again in pain, though he quickly schooled his face back into a semblance of normalcy before his partner noticed. 'You might be fooling Hercules, Iolaus, but not me,' she thought to herself. Continuing to study the hunter she noted he had gone pale under his tan and that a trickle of sweat ran down his broad back though the weather was, if anything, on the brisk side.
If she recalled correctly, during the fight with Demetrious in Echidna's cave, Iolaus had been flung against the rocks and momentarily knocked senseless. He must hurt himself in that fall and it was now plaguing him. But, as was his style, Iolaus would never admit to being injured when he felt people were depending on him. No, the brave and sometimes foolish warrior, would travel to the edge of death and beyond before he would let his friends down, especially his partner, Hercules.
She cursed herself for the 100th time for being a vain old woman and falling for Demetrious' flattering which had resulted in her 'sons' being placed danger. How silly could she have been to believe a man half her age would find her desirable? She had acted like some senseless school-age girl with a crush and now she had to live with the consequences of her folly.
The sight of her quaint house and the extensive surrounding gardens had never looked quite so wonderful to her as they did now. The three travelers were definitely at the end of their endurance rope and Alcmene didn't think the small rag tag group could have gone much further. She was glad to be home, relatively safe and sound.
Iolaus assisted Hercules across the wooden porch and into the house, settling him in one of the two beds in the room that he had occupied as a child. In the kitchen, Alcmene prepared an herbal tea, liberally lacing it with enough of a sedative to knock out even her demigod son. When the infusion had finished seeping, she carried it to the bedroom where Iolaus was tending to Hercules' wound. With skills learned from years on the battlefield, the tired warrior cleaned and redressed his best friend's gash. To Alcmene's eye, the wound looked to be healing well, the edges were knitting nicely and it had an overall pink, healthy glow. With a tired grunt, Iolaus tied off the last of the bandages and then sat back on his heels to inspect his handiwork.
Alcmene handed the mug of tea to Hercules, instructing him to drink it all. Being too exhausted to argue, the demigod propped himself up and downed the tea. When the bottom of the mug was visible, he handed the mug back to his mother who then helped him settle back comfortably amongst the pillows. In the space of a few minutes, he was sound asleep.
Still kneeling in the floor, Iolaus whistled appreciatively and peered up at Alcmene from under his unruly bangs. "Wow! What did you lace that with? It knocked him right out," he asked as he stared back at Hercules.
Alcmene frowned slightly as she gazed at her sleeping son with motherly concern. "A little of this, a little of that. Every good mother has a few clever tricks in her arsenal for recalcitrant patients. He really needs the rest and this is the only way he will get it." She switched her gaze to the kneeling hunter, smiling suggestively at him. "He tends to be a poor patient--- like some other person I know."
Iolaus gaze never wavered from Hercules' face, and Alcmene's light ribbing passed harmlessly over his head.
Shrugging, Alcmene rummaged around until she located a clean rag. Dipping it in the tepid basin of water, she proceeded to sponge off the road dirt from her peacefully resting son. Iolaus didn't move a muscle; he sat silently staring at the demigod, seemingly in a trance. When Alcmene finished bathing Hercules, she pulled the light sheet up to cover his chest, tucking it securely under his chin. She glanced over at Iolaus again finding him unmoved, still intently focused on his sleeping friend.
"Iolaus," she called out gently.
The blonde hunter didn't move a muscle.
"Iolaus," she said in a sharper tone, still with no response. She moved to his side and gave his shoulder a slight shake. The crouching warrior startled out of his reverie and shaking his sweat-dampened hair out of his eyes, he attempted to rise to his feet. He lurched pitifully to one side, stumbled and only Alcmene's steadying hand kept him from crashing to the ground. Slowly he regained his equilibrium. Noting the look of concern in Alcmene's eyes, he flashed a quick smile at her to indicate he was all right. Alcmene wasn't a fool; she had seen the flash of pain that crossed the shorter man's face as he had risen to his feet.
With a forced lightness to his voice, Iolaus suggested to Alcmene that she go rest why he kept a watchful eye on the sleeping demigod.
"And who is going to keep an eye on you?" she asked pointedly, arching her eyebrow.
"Me? I'm fine," he said with false bravo.
Alcmene placed her hands on her hips and fixed her icy blue stare on him.
Iolaus squirmed under her gaze. "Sheesh, now I know where Hercules gets it from," he muttered under his breath. Sighing, he grudgingly granted, "Ok, I'll admit I am a little tired from hauling Hercules half way across Greece but hey, it isn't the first time I have carried this big lug around," he said with his trademark, disarming, megawatt grin.
Alcmene wasn't buying into Iolaus' charade. "Look Iolaus. Hercules is not going to wake up anytime soon, that tea will make sure of that. Therefore, there is no need for you to sit by his side, especially when you are exhausted yourself. Go down to the creek and clean up a bit. Then you can come back here and rest in the other bed in this room for awhile." She held up a finger to forestall his forthcoming protests. "That bed is no more than 5 feet away from Hercules. I am sure a great hunter such as yourself will be able to hear him stir from a mere five feet away," she admonished gently.
Iolaus hesitantly turned and stared down at the sleeping hero. Keeping control of the situation, Alcmene firmly took Iolaus by the shoulders and propelled him from the room. "Go. I will keep an eye on him while you are gone. I promise"
Iolaus sluggishly made his way out the bedroom door, but not before stealing one last look over his shoulder at the resting man.
"Go!" Alcmene ordered sternly, pointing towards the backdoor. With a last look at the resting hero that spoke volumes; that told of his worry, his anguish, and his love for the demigod, Iolaus turned and reluctantly dragged himself from the room.
'Such love he has for my son,' Alcmene thought her heart melting for Iolaus. 'Hercules, you are a very, very lucky man to have a friend like him.'
She brushed the chestnut tresses back from her son's forehead and replaced them with a kiss. She was pleased to note there was no sign of a fever, which probably meant there was no infection in the wound. A good sign. 'Being half-god does have its advantages,' she mused.
The backdoor opened and closed with a creak. Alcmene kissed her son one more time and then retired to the kitchen to make herself and Iolaus a nice pot of tea and something to eat. She had never known the blonde hunter not to be hungry and she figured he could be persuaded to eat when he got back from his bath. A good home cooked meal would help restore the weary warrior's energy reserves.
Humming, she glanced out the kitchen window as she reached for two mugs. Noticing it was still very windy she mused that it would be a cool night. The image of a towel flashed across her mind and she'd bet dinars to doughnuts that Iolaus hadn't had the forethought to take one with him to the creek. It was going to be chilly when he got out of the water and she did not want the already weakened man to catch a cold. She firmly set the mugs on the counter and hurried to grab a nice fluffy towel from the closet. Making her way to the back door, she pulled it open and rushed out, nearly tripped over the man perched on her back porch steps.
Alcmene clung to the doorknob, and came to an abrupt halt to avoid stumbling on the hunched-over form of Iolaus. His head was cradled in his hands and his shoulders were gently quivering. Slowly, she release the door, moved to his side and settled on the wooden steps next to him. The care-worn warrior lifted his heavy head and ashamedly glanced at her with moist, red-rimmed eyes. She could see the tracks that had been left by the tears as they slid down his dirty cheeks. Iolaus quickly ducked his head and dashed an arm across his eyes in embarrassment.
The older women reached over and took one the younger man's battle-scarred hand in hers. She softly spoke. "Do you remember what I told you, when you were a boy, about tears?"
Iolaus paused a moment to reflex, his sea blue eyes going unfocused as he searched his memory. He finally shook his head slowly up and down. "It was after Ty had died. You told me 'Crying is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of compassion and compassion is what makes us human.'"
Alcmene smiled and lovingly squeezed the hand she held nestled between her own. "Would you like to talk about it dear?"
Misty blue eyes turned to meet hers before dropping to the ground. "I was so scared," he whispered, his voice harsh with raw emotion. "I thought he was going to die. No one survives an arrow from Hera's archers. I felt so--- helpless. There was nothing--- nothing I could do but patch the wound and pray that I was not sitting a deathwatch."
The blonde man ran his free hand threw his wind blown air. "Alcmene, it was horrible. I would have done anything---. I kept wishing it was me---. I could not bear the thought of losing him."
Alcmene wrapped her slender arms about the grief-torn man and held him close. She felt him stiffen and grunt in physical pain. She eased her grip on him, feeling him relax somewhat in her embrace. She rested her chin on his shoulder as the brave hunter finally allowed his deepest fears to surface to the light of day.
"It is so hard being his friend sometimes, Alcmene. I love him. I worry about him; worry that I won't be there when he needs me. It is so tough trying to keep up with him; I'm only mortal. You know, every now and then I get so exhausted--- but I can't let him down. He depends on me---. I have to be strong, always, for him---," his voice drifted off helplessly.
Alcmene didn't know what to say to comfort the man so she did the only thing she could, she continued to hold him in her warm, loving embrace.
"Thanks," he whispered eventually, slowly removing himself for her embrace. "It helps to have someone to--- talk to." Iolaus smiled gratefully and kissed the hand of the woman he considered more his mother than his own.
"You are as much my son as Hercules, and from my sons, I expect the truth. Where are you hurt," she demanded in her best authoritative mother's tone.
"I'm fine," he answered automatically, but the look in Alcmene's eye made him sigh and alter his statement. "Ok, I have a splitting headache and I think I busted a rib or two when Demetrious threw me against the against the rocks. But really, it is Ok. I can handle it."
"I'll be the judge of that. Now, I want you to go back into the house, climb in that bed and wait for me to bring you a nice hot cup of tea and perhaps a plate of food," she ordered.
"But I thought you wanted me to clean up first, wash this road grime off," he grinned slyly, a bit of the jovial Iolaus rising to the surface.
"Well," she teased, "I could give you a sponge bath too," she continued as she watched a panicked look flit across Iolaus' face. "But no, I suppose not. All right. Go down to the creek and carefully wash up. But try not to fall in or anything. I don't want to have to come rescue you--- that is my son's job."
"Rescue me!" Iolaus exclaimed indignantly. "Hercules has never had to rescue me! I usually have to haul his sorry butt from the fire. Ok, maybe once at Naxos he lent me a small hand, but that was the exception to the rule. Normally I rescue him."
She swatted him with the towel she had brought him. "Get going."
Alcmene watched as the golden hunter gingerly got to his feet and made his way down to the stream. A frown briefly marred her pretty features. She was worried about the little hunter's physical state but even more so his mental one. He needed to rest as much, if not more so, than Hercules. A plan slowly formed in her mind as she made her way back into the kitchen to fix them some food.
Alcmene motioned for her son to lay back in the bed.
"But Mother, I told you I feel---"
Fixing her son with the "mother's evil eye", she got the wayward man to reluctantly settle back amongst the pillows.
Alcmene allowed herself a small smile. 'They are always your children,' she thought, 'no matter how old or how famous they may be.'
"Lay there, look sick, and keep quiet," she admonished her son. "I'll explain later."
Hercules rolled his eyes but complied with his mother's wishes.
The blonde hunter came into the room, carefully carrying a cup of herbal tea as if it were the God's own ambrosia.
Alcmene turned her gaze and her smile, on the short, muscular man who was her son's best friend. "Thank you Iolaus for making the tea," she said pleasantly as she removed the steaming mug from his weathered hands and handed to her convalescing son. "Drink this all Hercules, no matter how vile you may think it tastes. It is good for you."
Hercules pulled a face. "If he made it I know I'm in for a real treat," the demigod replied sarcastically.
"Ha, ha, ha. Very funny. Just do what your mother says," his friend countered. "Besides, I put a lot of honey in it so it shouldn't be that bad."
Hercules took a sip and then glanced sharply up at his friend, "Oh yeah? It's worse---"
Alcmene cut her son off and addressed Iolaus herself. "What he really needs is a rich meaty stew. Are your ribs well enough to allow you to do some hunting Iolaus? Nothing much, just a few rabbits perhaps?"
Iolaus had been lucky in the fight with Demetrious. After Alcmene had explored his injury she concluded he merely bruised his ribs, not broken them as first feared. The headache had cleared up after a few days too.
"You bet Alcmene. I'm your man. Just make sure he stays in bed while I'm gone. No sneaking about," he instructed Hercules. "He is a rotten patient you know," he confided to Hercules' mother.
"Takes one to know one," the taller man muttered under his breath.
Iolaus threw his friend a dirty look as Alcmene maneuvered him out the door. "You better hurry dear or you'll lose the light."
"Right. See you in a few hours." With a cheerful wave, the golden-haired hunter grabbed his things, hurried out the door and melted into the woods like the skilled professional he was.
"Ok, now that you have conveniently got rid of Iolaus, do you want to tell me what is going on?" her son queried.
"What on earth do you mean?" she replied in feigned surprise.
"If I recall correctly, you went to the market yesterday and brought a bunch of supplies, including a few rabbits."
"Why yes I did," Alcmene smiled as she placed her hands on her cheeks. "Silly me, I forgot."
"Mother---," her son growled good-naturedly. "What are you up too?"
Alcmene laughed, dropped her act and sat down on the edge of her son's bed. She studied the demigod with a critical eye. "You do look quite fit," she sighed. "You'll have to try to look sicker if we hope to continue to pull this off."
"Pull what off? Look. You know I am well. You saw the wound. It is entirely healed. I feel fine. Guess it is one of the advantageous of being a half-god, quick recovery time; though it doesn't make up for some of the other disadvantageous," he griped ruefully.
Alcmene smiled and patted her son's hand affectionately. "Yes, son of Zeus. You do heal quickly. But even demigods need a vacation." She paused a beat and then added, "as do their mortal partners."
Hercules' eyes opened wide in surprise. "Iolaus?!"
"---is mortal." she gently chided the hero. "I will be the first to admit he is the most energetic person I have ever met, but even he needs a break now and then," she said thinking back to the confused, mental condition she had found Iolaus in a week ago on her porch steps.
"Don't you think I know that Mother? However, trying to get Iolaus to slow down, to take a vacation, well it's would be easier to slay 20 Nemenian lions blind-folded." he chuckled. "I have no idea how to get him to take it easy."
"Ah, but I have," Alcmene smirked as she lightly caressed her son's handsome face, brushing his honey-brown tresses away from his strong brow.
Hercules quirked his eyebrows at his mother.
"Think Hercules. What has Iolaus been doing since we came back from Echidna's lair?"
"Fussing over me like a mother hen," the demigod offered smartly.
"Hmmm, true. But he has also been sitting quietly by your side keeping you company. Taking nice naps by you in a real bed. Sitting in the garden with you in the sun while you regain your strength. Eating three square, well cooked meals a day. Hunting for food for you. Perhaps tomorrow you will feel like fish for dinner, in fact maybe the two of you should go fishing tomorrow---"
A smile dawned on Hercules' features as his mother's scheme came to light. "Mother, you are devious. You have been using my injury to make Iolaus rest, without him even realizing it."
"Well I am a mother. We do have some God-given gifts you know."
Hercules laughed and gathered her up in his strong arms, giving the slender woman a bear hug. "I love you," he whispered in her ear.
Alcmene giggled, pushed back from her son and caught her breath. "You will also have to pretend to hug easier, after all, you ARE supposed to be sick."
Hercules ducked his head and grinned sheepishly.
"So for Iolaus' sake will you play along with my charade?" she questioned seriously. "At least for another week or so? I am really worried about him Hercules. He was very shaken by your near-death experience. It was like when Ania died. Remember how he got so--- confused--- lost---."
Mother and son sat in silence for a few minutes, each remembering the toll the death of his wife and child had taken on the Iolaus. Finally, Hercules broke the silence. "You know I will mother. And thank you for taking such good care of me, and Iolaus."
"You are both my sons. The son of my loins and the son of my heart."
Iolaus showed up back at the dwelling with a fistful of rabbits, as the sun made its' journey towards its' nocturnal resting place. Alcmene oohed and ahhed over the hares appropriately and set about to fix them into a stew. Relieved of his game, Iolaus rushed in to check on Hercules. After convincing himself that the demigod had come to no harm in his absence, the golden hunter plopped himself down on the other bed in the room with a huge sigh.
"Ya know," he said as he leisurely stretched out on his back and locked his hands behind his tousled curls. "It feels real good to lay on a soft mattress, instead of a bunch of rocks and twigs. A person could get used to this cushy life," he yawned, his eyelids starting to sag. Catching himself, he shook his head vigorously to wake up. Rolling over on his side, he faced his partner. "You sure there is not anything you need?" he questioned Hercules. "Something to drink? Something to eat? A scroll? Your pillows fluffed?" the impish hunter giggled.
Hercules plucked a spare pillow from his bed and lobbed it at his chuckling friend. The fluffy projectile caught Iolaus full in the face and with an impish smile he dropped back flat on the bed. Then, the hunter tucked the projectile pillow under his head. "Good. In that case, I'm gonna take a nap. Wake me when dinner is ready," he mumbled, his eyes closing as he drifted off to sleep.
A few minutes later, Hercules heard the deep, reassuring sounds of Iolaus sleeping. It still amazed him how his best friend was able to fall asleep at the drop of a hat. It was like the warrior had two speeds, full out or full stop; nothing in-between. The demigod watched as the lines of stress and worry faded from Iolaus' face as he slept. Hercules silently thanked his mother again for finding a way to get the stubborn warrior to get the rest he truly needed and deserved. Picking up a fallen scroll, Hercules quietly set about to read while his partner dozed.
The next couple of days settled into a comfortable pattern. Hercules awoke bright and early each morning but deliberately stayed in bed way past sunrise, finding that if he lingered, Iolaus would dawdle in bed too. After leisurely rising, the boys would sit around Alcmene's table and partake of a hearty breakfast, Iolaus tucking into the repast with great relish, praising Alcmene's cooking skills and muttering that Hercules had not inherited any of her talents.
The rest of the day persisted of some pleasurable activity: swimming, fishing, hunting, or simply resting in the sun in the garden. After a sumptuous dinner, the two friends would retire to the den and play a quiet game of cards. Some nights Alcmene would join them and Iolaus would regale her with stories of the two heroes deed's, each exploit growing more and more outrageous with the blonde hunter's retelling of it. Before they knew it, a whole week had passed, neither man being able to tell you where it went, but both willing to admit it had been pleasurable and relaxing.
They sat along the stream's grassy bank soaking up the late summer sun. The golden rays reflected off the two bronzed men's bodies as they dried in the warm, caressing beams. Hercules gazed over at his shorter companion who was casually tossing pebbles into the meandering creek. Iolaus looked healthy and well-rested, his compact, muscular form glowing in the sun's light, his tousled blonde hair slicked back from an earlier dip in the stream, sea blue eyes, bright and clear.
Feeling his partner's gaze on him, the golden hunter tilted his head and grinned self-consciously at his friend. "What? What are you staring at?"
"I think buddy," Hercules said leaning over and giving the warrior a quick slap on the stomach, "you have put on several pounds in the past few weeks."
"Well, what can I say," the hunter replied pretending to suck in his gut. "Your mother is a fantastic cook. Wouldn't want to insult her by not eating my share."
"If the amount you eat is a measure of your compliments to my mother's cooking, then you have complimented her a 100 times over."
"She is an outstanding cook--- unlike her son," he chided back at the demigod.
Iolaus shifted his focus back at the stream and the grin slowly faded from his face. He picked up another handful of pebbles and began tossing them into the water with renewed vigor. "Herc, you seem to be--- fully healed," the hunter said experimentally.
"I am. I feel tremendous."
"And, ah--- this past week has been great; relaxing and all while you healed. I mean I certainly don't begrudge you the rest and Alcmene the--- company," he finished hesitantly as he turned to see what his friend's reaction was going to be to his statement.
Hercules raised his eyebrows in question.
"Look Hercules. You can't con me. I know you were feeling better a week ago. We could have left at any time but---," Iolaus said holding up a hand to forestall Hercules from interrupting, "I also know it was important for Alcmene and you to spend some time together and I was happy to wait. Heck, it was a nice little break for me too. I am mortal, you know and keeping up with you is a big job."
Hercules smiled. Iolaus had no clue how close to the target he really was.
"So anyway, like I said, I was happy to play this little charade but, well, Herc, when I was in town this morning getting the herbs for Alcmene, I was approached by a man from Thestle. He told me a monster is ravaging his village and he came to seek out your--- our help. As much as I don't want this vacation," he half-smiled, "to end, this guy really sounded desperate. I think we need to go and help the village."
"Of course we do. Mother will--- understand I'm sure," Hercules said with emphasis. "We will leave at first light of the morning. Guess we'll have to get word to the man from Thestle."
Iolaus ducked his head a little and grinned, "I kind of already told him we would help."
Hercules laughed and clapped his partner on the back. "You were that sure."
"Herc, we have known each other for how long? I think I know you well enough by now," he replied cheerfully as he stretched out on his back on the bank and patted his taut stomach. "We still have the rest of today to relax and one more great dinner at your mom's. Boy, am I gonna miss her cooking---"
"Then perhaps YOU should spend the rest of the afternoon in the kitchen with Mom learning some cooking tips."
"Me!" Iolaus mocked indignantly.
"Yes you," Hercules replied slapping his friend on the stomach again, "seems how you like to eat so much."
"Hey. Knock it off."
The demigod deliberately reached over and slapped his friend's stomach again. A big grin spread across his face. "Definitely getting soft, buddy."
"I'll show you who's getting soft you big oaf. Lounging around all week, you've turned into a bowl of porridge," Iolaus replied taking a swing at his taller friend.
"Hothead," Hercules grunted as he avoided the warrior's punch. "I think you need another swim to cool you off."
The two men began to wrestle like carefree children, Hercules eventually getting the better of his mortal partner and tossing him into the stream. Iolaus bobbed to the surface, sputtering and muttering about unfair advantages possessed by certain demigods. Hercules was laughing so hard at his friend's unexpected bath that he failed to see the hunter flash through the water like an otter and latch onto his ankles. Bracing his feet against a submerged log, the hunter leveraged the larger man into the river. The demigod made an enormous splash as he kissed the water face first. The two horsed around in the stream for some time before finally declaring a truce and climbed out to sun themselves dry on the grass.
"Ya know Herc, I gotta admit. This has been a fun couple of weeks. I'm just sorry you had to get hurt so we could take a break. Maybe we should take a break more often, you know, like a regular scheduled vacation. We could go, I dunna wherever, as long as it did not involve fighting bandits, barbarians, monsters, warlords, dragons; the beds were soft; the girls were pretty and you did NOT do the cooking."
Hercules chuckled at his friend and the two men settled back to enjoy the last few hours of 'their vacation.' They had each other; they had their health; and the two men were ready to face whatever the God's chose to throw at them next.
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