"What do you mean, 'goodbye'? You'll be fine--you're too ornery to die."
"Yeah, but even if I do make it...."
In the bowels of the mountain, the torch had been burning again for a time. Iolaus and Gabrielle sat side by side, he holding her hand. They talked little. Each understood what the other was feeling. One of them would have lost a best friend. They wouldn't know which one, though, until the survivor of the brave duo who had gone up the mountain to free Prometheus from his chains returned. Both man and girl were lost in their thoughts, steeling themselves to what could be coming to change their lives so drastically. The uncertainty and fear was torture.
They heard a sound from one of the tunnels leading away from the cavern where they had stayed. Iolaus felt his heart trying to beat through his chest. He thought he could hear Gabrielle's heart, also. He squeezed her hand. She looked at him gratefully, and gave him a little smile. The waiting was nearly over.
Xena emerged from the dark tunnel. She flashed a huge smile at her friends. Gabrielle put her hands up to her face, and let the tears come. "Oh, Xena, you're alive! You're alive!" Next to her, Iolaus whispered a soft, "Oh, no!" Gabrielle turned to him, her emotions in turmoil. It wasn't right for her to be so happy, when her friend was now so devastated. Iolaus gave her a small smile. "Go to her, Gabrielle. I'm happy for you. I'll be okay."
Gabrielle took his hands in hers, and squeezed them. Then she jumped up and ran to her best friend, arms outstretched. The two women embraced, Gabrielle in tears, Xena laughing. Gabrielle clung to Xena, crying. Xena let her continue the embrace till her sobbing began to subside, then told her, "Come on, Gabrielle, everything's okay. There's no need for tears." She hugged her young friend, again.
Gabrielle couldn't stop the tears. "I've been so scared! When the torch came alive, we knew you had been successful, but we also knew that meant one of you had sacrificed yourself. The suspense has been killing me! I'm so happy to see you're alive, but I also feel guilty, knowing Hercules is dead. My emotions are in such conflict." She looked up at her tall friend, then grabbed her in a strong embrace, again. "I was afraid I'd never see you again, Xena."
Xena smiled at her friend. "It's okay, Gabrielle. Let yourself be completely happy, because no one died. Hercules is coming along behind me. We were in such a hurry to get here and make sure you two were all right, we forgot the grappling hook. As soon as we could see your light down the tunnel, he took the torch and went back to retrieve the hook. I'm sure he'll be here with us any minute now. You won't believe the tale we have to tell!" Xena laughed again, and happiness radiated from her face.
"Iolaus, did you hear that? Hercules is alive! I'm so happy for y...." Gabrielle had spun around on hearing Xena's good news, looking for Iolaus, but the place where he'd been sitting was empty. The torch was still where she'd placed it.
"Where did he go?" She glanced around the cavern room, but couldn't see Iolaus anywhere. "Iolaus, where are you?" she called, but received no answer. With a puzzled look on her face, she turned to Xena and asked, "Where could he have gone, with no torch?"
The smile had left Xena's face. "I don't know. It would have to be down one of the tunnels, in the dark. Why would he have gone?"
"Why would who have gone where?," a deep voice asked from behind the two women. They turned to see a grinning Hercules, carrying the coiled rope and grappling hook over his shoulder. He looked around the room. "Where's Iolaus?" Then a look of consternation crossed his face. "He's all right, isn't he? We weren't too late, were we?" He looked at Xena. "Please, say he's okay. We can't have taken too much time battling Hera's goons, we just can't have. He looked fine when we left."
Xena put her hand on Hercules' arm. "He's alive, Hercules. He was sitting up when I got here, and then, while Gabrielle and I were talking, he just disappeared. We just now discovered he's gone. I don't know where he's gone, or why."
"Uh oh, I think I know why he's gone. How could I be so selfish?" Gabrielle had a stricken look on her face. "Hercules, he thinks you're dead. When Xena came out of the tunnel alone, he and I both assumed you had died freeing Prometheus. I was so happy to see Xena, I forgot what Iolaus must be feeling. She and I just kept on talking. I feel so bad! And, he wasn't very well, either."
"What do you mean, he wasn't very well?" Hercules was getting concerned about his friend. "I didn't think his wound was too serious."
"It wouldn't have been, under normal circumstances," the girl answered, starting to wring her hands. "It wasn't a deep cut, just a short graze along his ribcage, but it made him pretty sick. He had completely passed out before the torch lit up again. I was afraid for him, afraid he wasn't going to make it. It took him a while before he felt strong enough to sit up. His wound looked pretty inflamed the last I checked on it. Oh, why didn't I pay more attention to him--have more compassion for what he must have been feeling?"
Xena put her arm around her friend's shoulder. "Don't beat yourself up, Gabrielle. Iolaus is an adult. He can take care of himself. He's probably just walked down one of these tunnels a ways, to mourn in private." She glanced at Hercules, and saw the worry on his face. "But, we need to find him. He needs to know he has no reason to mourn. And, I want to check that wound. No telling what could have happened while Prometheus was chained. Hercules, why don't you search the tunnel we used to get here, and Gabrielle and I will search one of these others."
Hercules watched as Xena went over and took up the second torch, and then as she led Gabrielle off into one of the adjoining tunnels, patting her young friend on the back, and telling her not to worry. Hercules turned toward the main tunnel and set off down it, whispering, "Iolaus, where are you?"
The tunnel was pitch black. It seemed like hours since he had last seen the glow of the torch were he and Gabrielle had held their vigil. He was glad to see her so happy, but he had had to get away from her and Xena. His heart had shattered when Xena came through that tunnel alone. He had been numb at first, but then the reality and pain had set in. He wanted to be alone in his sorrow.
He didn't know how he could go on without Hercules. They had been best friends and comrades in a common cause for most of their lives. That had been the sole purpose of his life for so many years now, he was at a complete loss on how to go on. He drew in a ragged breath, and clutched his side when he felt the jab of pain. It was just a small cut--why did it hurt so? He stopped and leaned against the cold wall of the cave tunnel.
He could remember feeling this bottomless despair twice before, when Ania, and then the boy, had died. Hercules had been there to help him through it, then. Now, there was no one to help. Everyone he had ever loved was gone. It wasn't fair! Why was he the one left alone? What had he done to so anger the gods?
"The gods!" he spat out. "They don't care about the feelings of one lousy mortal. This is all Hera's doing, I just know it. She finally got Hercules where she wanted him. She knew he'd come to the rescue, to save the world. She was right."
"Hercules, why did you have to be so heroic all the time? Just this once, couldn't you have let someone else be the hero?" Hot tears were in his eyes, and he swiped them away. "If I just hadn't gotten sick! If I could just have gone on with him! I was going to deliver the blow. Since I was dying anyway, what difference would it have made? It all would have been over in a flash. Literally!" He chuckled at the pun, then cried out, "Damn you, Hercules! Why did you leave me?"
Guilt immediately overtook him. "What are you saying, Iolaus? You just damned your best friend. Oh, gods, what am I doing? I can't stand feeling this way!"
He stumbled on down the dark tunnel. The throbbing in his side seemed to be getting worse. Once he tripped and fell to his knees. As he knelt there in pain, his thoughts turned to Alcmene. He'd have to be the one to tell her. How was he going to tell the woman who was like a second mother to him that her beloved son was dead? He put his head in his hands. He wished he could die.
"Well, that would really help, wouldn't it? You're a coward, Iolaus, nothing but a coward. That's the very least you can do for Hercules--be there for his mother. Quit thinking just of yourself. Think of Herc's family. You've got to be strong, Iolaus. Be strong for them."
He rose and continued on in the dark, stumbling and scraping his shoulder along the tunnel wall. He turned a corner, and could see a glow ahead of him. He headed for the glow. There must have been a fissure in the ceiling of the cave, letting in light from outside. The light was hitting a large boulder on the floor, surrounded by a pile of smaller rocks. Iolaus came to a dead stop. That was the boulder Hercules had held up during the earthquake, or whatever it was that had caused the rockslides and trembling they had had to run through. Hercules had held that boulder on his shoulders, so the rest of them could get through and out of danger's way. This was the last place he had seen his friend alive. Iolaus doubled over in pain, and stumbled toward the boulder. He fell to his knees beside it, and reached out his hand, searching for some remaining warmth from Hercules' touch. The boulder was cold. Iolaus laid his head against it.
And he wept. Sobs racked his body. "Hercules, I miss you."
"Iolaus." He heard the soft whisper of his name. He raised his tear stained face, and saw someone approaching, holding a torch. His blurred eyes couldn't make out who it was.
The figure knelt beside him, and he felt a touch that he thought he'd never feel again. "Hercules? Can it really be you?"
"Yes, Iolaus, it's me. Everything's okay, now--everything's okay."
He held his best friend in his arms as Iolaus clung to him. He said nothing, just held him, as Iolaus' shattered heart began to mend itself. The smaller man couldn't stop his tears. Xena and Gabrielle came around the corner, then quietly backed away, knowing the two men needed to be alone for a while.
Gabrielle and Xena had returned to the main cavern to wait on their friends. They were chatting amiably when they heard the sound of the men returning from the tunnel. They rose to greet their friends. Hercules had his arm around Iolaus, helping him to walk.
"Xena, Iolaus is in a lot of pain. Would you check him out, please?" Hercules helped Iolaus sit on a rock on the cavern floor. Xena knelt by his side and took a look at his wound. She frowned as she examined it, and heard Iolaus' quick intake of breath as she put her fingers on the wound and felt the heat coming from it.
"It's infected. I need to lance it, and let the infection drain out, then clean it and dress it." She looked into Iolaus' face. "It's going to hurt."
"So, what else is new?" He smiled shakily. "I don't see how it could have gotten infected. I mean, all I was doing was just lying around, enjoying Gabrielle's company, while you two were gone. It's nothing but a little scratch, anyway."
"Iolaus, your body's defenses have been completely shut down almost all day. There was nothing to fight the infection. And, you were wounded in a barn, of all places, remember? Not the best of situations, even for just a scratch." She looked up at Hercules. "Let's get out of this cavern, at least. We can camp at the mouth of the cave, where I can better see what I'm doing, and Gabrielle can look for medicinal plants to use." She looked again at Iolaus, and smiled at him as she said, "You'll be good as new in no time. And, I promise I'll take extra care to be gentle with you."
"Oh, yeah?" He grinned weakly at her.
"Yeah," she grinned back, and rose to her feet. The quartet of friends then gathered themselves together, Iolaus leaning heavily on Hercules for support, and left the site of so much recent worry, fear, heartbreak, heroism...and joy.
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