For all three, the past two days had been long and exhausting. Hercules' wound was giving him grief, in spite of his cheerful denials, and the strain of her own ordeal was weighing heavily in Alcmene's eyes. Iolaus slipped ahead and found the horse grazing placidly just off the road, still tethered to the wagon that had brought Alcmene to Echidna's lair. He bullied Hercules into the back of the wagon and handed Alcmene up behind him, then rooted around in the wagon's sparse stores until he found a skin of water and a relatively clean shirt. Well, it's not like Demetrius has any further use for it, he thought philosophically, and tore it into strips. By now Hercules could barely hold his head up, and between them they eased off his shirts and the dried-on bandage, wincing with Hercules at each tug on his inflamed side.
It would take several hours to make the trip back to Alcmene's house, and Iolaus left her to clean and re-bandage the wound and bemoan the lack of medicaments for his pain and rising fever. Dronos, on the other hand, lay less than an hour away, albeit in the wrong direction. Iolaus pointed the horse's head away from Thebes. Home-cooked meals were all very well, but first Hercules had to be in shape to do one justice.
He kept one eye on the road, one on the woods that surrounded them, and an ear to the sounds behind him in case Alcmene needed him. Tired as he was, he could have wished for several more tasks to distract him from the altercation in his head.
It's about family, Iolaus. You should understand when I ask you to stay back, Hercules had said, and Iolaus would not have imagined mere words could cause such pain. Just forget it, he told himself roughly; Hercules had other things on his mind than your precious feelings. He didn't mean it the way it sounded, surely. Not after 20 years of working, playing, fighting, loving, living side by side. After all, he'd said he thought of
Iolaus as a brother, hadn't he? No, a bitter voice reminded him, he himself had made the declaration; Hercules had simply concurred. To shut him up, to get on with it.
It wasn't the first time Hercules had said it, either; when Deianeira and the kids had died Iolaus had tried to share Hercules' grief and been turned away. As if he didn't know what it felt like to have the gods take his family. As if he hadn't been numb and disbelieving and enraged by turns, as if he hadn't needed Hercules' strength then more than ever.
Was that it? Did Hercules not think him strong enough somehow? Not committed enough? Not, after all these years, honest enough?
The villagers of Dronos were eager to give Hercules and his mother a welcome fit for royalty, especially when they learned Echidna was no longer a threat. Iolaus, long used to being overlooked when Hercules was feted, stayed at the healer's house until he was sure Hercules and Alcmene were well looked after, then saw to the stowing of the horse and wagon. Whatever the myriad downsides of being the son of a god, Hercules could at least count among his blessings a constitution a hydra would envy; Iolaus had no doubt that they'd be back on the road after Hercules had had a good night's sleep in a comfortable bed. Whoever had said that healers make the worst patients had never met a certain demigod. Good thing Alcmene was there to threaten him into compliance; gods knew it never worked when Iolaus tried it.
He snagged a blanket from the wagon and made camp by the river, grateful for the opportunity to be alone. Maybe it was time to cut Hercules loose, just for a while. Give them both a chance to decide where their lives were going, whether they still shared the same path. Hercules needed to spend some time with his mother, maybe take her to visit Iphicles and his bride, and they didn't need an outsider underfoot.
Iolaus had always meant to visit Alexandria. He shifted around to get a better view of the stars and resolutely began to plan his itinerary.
He and the wagon were at the healer's door shortly after daybreak. Sure enough, Hercules was fending off both offers of a third helping of breakfast and the shy advances of the healer's daughter, and Iolaus' heart lifted a little at the pleased grin that greeted his appearance.
"Iolaus! Where have you been? Have you eaten?" He was out of his chair, and Iolaus in it, before the healer's daughter had time to realise that a new set of hands was relieving her of the heaped plate she held. "Eat fast before she announces our engagement," Hercules hissed in his ear, and rushed away to hustle Alcmene out of the healer's herb garden and into the wagon. Iolaus was no stranger to the art of eating on the run; he split a flatbread, stuffed it with lamb, onions and sliced olives, and wrapped it in a napkin along with some hard-boiled eggs and several pieces of fruit. Thanking the bewildered young woman for her hospitality, he was out of the door and scrambling into the back of the wagon before Hercules had finished calling his name.
Even at this early hour word of their departure had made the rounds, and they left the village with almost as much fanfare as when they'd entered it. Hercules smiled and waved genially until they were out of sight, then slumped against the backboard with relief. Beside him, Alcmene clucked reprovingly and told him that the healer's daughter was a delightful girl who would no doubt make a wonderful wife. She almost made it all the way through her speech with a straight face, but Hercules' agonised groan of protest overcame her feigned gravity. Iolaus listened to them tease each other with a bittersweet blend of amusement and wistfulness, wondering if his own mother had married the poet she'd been seeing last time he'd been home. He hoped so; like Alcmene, she had spent far too many years alone.
The trip home was uneventful; Iolaus spelled Hercules at the reins after they'd stopped to put a dent in the enormous picnic the healer's daughter had prepared for them. He handed the reins back to Hercules when they reached Alcmene's and bade them both good night, smilingly refusing Alcmene's offer of dinner.
He hadn't been home long enough to start a fire when the knock came at his door.
"Come on in, Herc," he called, resigned. He'd been hoping that his unusual quiet on the journey would go unnoticed, or at the very least unremarked-on, but Hercules knew him far too well. He 'd miss that, he thought.
"All right, Iolaus. What's going on?"
"Just getting used to being home. I didn't expect to see you again tonight. You and Alcmene should be taking it easy." Iolaus kept his back to his friend, adding unnecessary logs to the fire and fumbling for his flint and steel. Go home, Hercules, he pleaded silently. Tomorrow when I'm not so tired I'll be able to look you in the eye and lie, but I can't do this tonight.
"You're going to have to do better than that, my friend." Hercules was using his "don't even bother" tone. Iolaus gave the fire a last poke; when he looked up, Hercules was holding out a cup of the wine he'd unearthed from the cupboard. He pulled his favourite chair up to the hearth and motioned Iolaus into his usual seat, and Iolaus was torn between wry umbrage that Hercules would behave as though he owned the place and gratification that his friend felt so at home.
"You know, I just realised I own land but no house, and you own a house with no land," Hercules said, stretching out in the chair, and Iolaus wondered for a second if demigods could read minds.
"Well, you can't run a farm from a distance, and the rent Antius pays me for the forge comes in handy. You think you'll ever go back to farming?"
"Not if I can help it." Hercules' mouth turned up at a corner. "If we ever get tired of being homeless, you think you'd be interested in taking on an apprentice around here? I work pretty cheap."
"We'll probably be ready for a break from each other by then, don 't you think?" He thought he'd delivered that with just the right touch of lightness, but Hercules' eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
"Say it, Iolaus."
"Whatever you haven't been saying all day. I didn't want to press it in front of Mother, but even she noticed how quiet you were."
Iolaus grinned weakly. "A guy can't keep a thing to himself around you, can he?" Gods, Hercules, do you have to make this so damned hard?
"Families don't keep secrets from each other, Iolaus. What's wrong? I'd like to help, if I can." Hercules leaned forward to lay a sympathetic hand on his shoulder, and Iolaus flinched away before he could stop himself. Hercules released him immediately and sat back, but Iolaus didn't miss the hurt in the other man's eyes.
Suddenly he was furious, and it felt really good. Lots better than the guilt he'd been feeling all day. "Family, Herc?" His anger propelled him out of his chair. "Are we family again? Sorry, I must have missed the memo. Maybe you could write me out a schedule of when we're family and when we're not, because I seem to keep getting it confused!"
His mean pleasure at Hercules' bewilderment lasted only a moment. "Look, I'm sorry--let's forget it, okay? I guess the last couple of days took more out of me than I thought. I'll be back to my old self after a good night's sleep." He kept his back to Hercules as he refilled his cup, hoping his friend would take the hint and leave, but that big hand came up to rest on his shoulder again.
"Come on, Iolaus. You know me better than that. I'm stubborn and used to getting my own way, so you might as well talk to me." Iolaus gave a resigned sigh of acknowledgement and allowed Hercules to turn him so they were face-to-face. Hercules' eyes on him held neither hurt nor anger, only concern, and a question. Iolaus had meant to tell Hercules that he was going to travel on his own for a while, that he had an itch to see new lands and new people, but he'd never been able to lie to his friend, not when it really counted.
"Hercules, what do I mean to you?" Gods, he sounded like a lovesick teenager. He waited for Hercules to make light of the awkward words.
"I told you yesterday, you're like a brother to me. In every way that counts we *are* brothers. I know you better than I know Iphicles; I've certainly spent more time with you. I trust you with my life, you know that."
"With *your* life. But not with the lives of anyone who's important to you." Iolaus met Hercules' eyes, a freshly kindled spark of anger glowing within him. Hercules stared back at him helplessly.
"Iolaus, where is this coming from? What have I ever said or done to make you--is this about Mother and Echidna?" He released Iolaus' shoulders. "I'm really sorry. I never should have dragged you along like that. I practically used emotional blackmail to get you to go with me; you could have been killed, and it wasn't even your--"
"Don't you *dare*!" Iolaus punctuated his shout with a blow that undoubtedly did more harm to his hand than to Hercules' bicep. "Don't you dare say it wasn't my fight! How much more 'mine' could a fight get? How can I be good enough for an entire village of total *strangers* and not good enough--"
"What are you talking about?" Hercules was finally getting angry, Iolaus noted with satisfaction. One of the things that annoyed him most about the demigod was that it was impossible to have a really good fight with him, because he'd never lose his damn temper.
"I'm talking about you making decisions about who you think I'm fit to fight for! I'm *talking* about how this *partnership* is just fine with you except when it comes to your family!" Oh, he was on a roll now. Hercules was starting to squint and grit his teeth. Iolaus backed out of arms' reach and continued, "I'm *talking*--"
"You're *talking* like a complete idiot!" Hercules shouted. "Have you gone crazy? Did Demetrius hit you on the head? Do you actually believe a word of what you're saying to me?"
"Yes! No," Iolaus confessed. Somehow, provoking Hercules' temper seemed to calm his own, as though it were proof that Hercules cared enough about him to get angry with him. That he wasn't out on this limb all by himself; that he could wound Hercules the way one could only be wounded by people one loved. The way Hercules had wounded him.
"Iolaus, can we start this entire conversation over, please?"
That solid, comforting hand was resting on his shoulder again, and he looked up into concerned eyes. He smiled apologetically and nodded, and they moved back to their chairs and their cups of wine.
"You know," Hercules said, staring into the flames, "as time carries me away from Deianeira's death, I'm finding that my memories of our life together are being overlaid with a kind of fantasy that it was all perfect, that there were never any rough patches in our marriage. And that scares me, because it affects my memory of the way Deianeira really was; not just sweet and gentle and agreeable, although she could be all of those things, too, but she was also wilful and opinionated, and too brave for her own good.
"One day we were arguing about something--stupid--and Deianeira was being her usual pigheaded, ornery self and making me madder by the second, and I finally bellowed that she was just like you."
Iolaus smiled. "What did she say?"
"That if I was looking to insult her, I was going to have to do a lot better than that."
Deianeira was the first, and so far the only, woman with whom Iolaus could truly claim comradeship. He had been intensely curious about the woman who had finally captured Hercules' heart; they'd connected from their very first meeting, Iolaus charmed by her humour and vitality, Deianeira warmed by his evident love for the man who meant everything to her. A spirited and independent woman, she had on occasion found Hercules' over-protective nature hard to take and had turned to Iolaus from time to time as one who could sympathise with her frustration. Not that Hercules would ever hear about it from him.
"Look, Iolaus, I never claimed to be Cicero; things don't always come out the way I mean them. I never meant to hurt you. It's just that--it's one thing for you to risk your life to help people in need. That's your choice to make. But when you do it because of me--Iolaus, people in my family die because the gods have a grudge against *me*. Then it's my responsibility, my burden, and I don't want your death on my hands, too."
"Hercules," Iolaus said gently, "I know you're concerned about me. I know we've chosen a dangerous path. I could die tomorrow because Hera decides she doesn't like the cut of my trousers. But I could also die because I step in front of a runaway horse or eat bad fish. And that would be a really embarrassing thing to have on my grave marker for eternity.
"Don't get me wrong, Herc; I have every intention of living at least another seventy years. But if that's not the way the Fates see it, I can't think of a better way to die than defending someone I love. I don't want to be protected from that, Hercules. Can you understand that?"
Hercules looked at him for a long time, then nodded. "Can you understand that I can't just stop wanting to protect you? Because for better or worse, Iolaus, that's who I am. You said it yourself--I can't do less for you than I'd do for a stranger. I will promise you this, though: I'll stop trying to keep you out of fights. Now you have to promise me you won't get yourself killed. Deal?" He extended his arm and Iolaus clasped it.
"Deal." He felt ridiculously cheerful; his fatigue dropped away, and he was suddenly starved. "Hey, Herc. what was Alcmene planning to make for dinner, anyway?"
Hercules pulled Iolaus out of his chair and slung a companionable arm around his shoulders. "Does it matter? Especially since she told me to come back with you or not at all?"
"Far be it from me to be responsible for depriving you of one of your mother's home-cooked meals." What the Hades. Alexandria wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. Maybe he'd cruise around with Hercules for a while longer.
Yeah, that sounded good.
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