As Gabrielle finished her story, she looked at Iolaus' face. She was frightened. Iolaus was dying right there before her eyes and she couldn't stop it. She could feel him slipping away with each breath he seemed to gasp for. She watched as his eyes rolled back into his head. "IOLAUS."
All of a sudden the torch relit. She turned back from the now flickering light of the torch to Iolaus with a fearful look, believing he was gone, but saw his eyes flutter and then weakly open. She reached down and hugged him tightly, her face lighting up with a big smile and tears flowing freely. He faintly smiled back.
"Iolaus, I thought I had lost you? The torch ... Prometheus is free."
He appeared to be too weak to answer her and only nodded that he understood. Gabrielle had tried to stop the bleeding, but was unable to and in the end had done only what she could in making Iolaus as comfortable as possible. She tried to keep his mind occupied with her stories, waiting and hoping desperately that the two warriors would be able to accomplish their mission before it was too late, but also dreading what this would bring - the loss of a friend.
But now Prometheus was free. Iolaus would be able to heal himself. His healing powers would take over, if it wasn't too late already. He was only semi-conscious and she knew he was in pain. Iolaus had been able to cover up his wound so well from the start that no one had known about it until he had winced in pain in the cave and she had discovered his secret. If they had only known about the wound earlier, and had kept him still, maybe he wouldn't have been in such bad shape. But Gabrielle had much to learn about the brave heart and fierce loyalty of the headstrong blond warrior.
She wished Xena was here to help him. Xena knew healing. Xena!! Now another worry crept into Gabrielle's heart and mind. Who had freed Prometheus? Which one of their friends had struck the blow to release him? She knew how resourceful Xena could be, and she had seen that look of determination in her eyes. She knew that either she or Iolaus, would suffer the painful loss of a dear friend. She looked down at Iolaus' face and saw a look of anguish in his eyes. Even in his weakened state, he had come to the same realization.
Iolaus, though, had no doubt who had struck the blow. He knew Hercules would have never let Xena take the risk. He could feel the tears in his throat trying to rise up and overwhelm him. He had said his goodbyes to his friend earlier, however, now that it had happened, he felt a pain in his heart that he knew would never be healed again; the loss of the one person that meant more to him than anyone or anything on this earth. Life without his best friend would be the most unbearable pain of all. The physical pain overpowered once again and unconsciousness temporarily took him away from the present anguish of his heart, as he slumped into Gabrielle's lap.
Up above ground, Hercules and Xena were smiling as they watched Prometheus rise up and stretch. He looked down at them and nodded and smiled. Hercules and Xena both breathed a sigh of relief.
"Well, we did it," Xena replied.
"Yeah. We did," added Hercules.
"And we're still alive to tell about it," Xena added with a look towards Hercules. As she finished her words, she saw the smile fade from Hercules face.
"Iolaus!!" he cried out softly at the memory of his injured friend down below.
He turned and swiftly headed for the entrance back into the cave. They had lost the rope and would have to scale down the cliff walls this time. All the way down, the litany of his words to Iolaus kept ringing in his ears. 'You're too ornery to die.' He knew how stubborn his friend was, and what a strong will to live he had. He had seen it at work in the past. But would it have done any good this time? Without the ability to heal ones self, would his friend's stubbornness be enough? When he had first found out about Iolaus' wound, he had felt a cold fear. It had made it all that more important that he accomplish this mission. Iolaus' life directly depended on it. But, Hercules and Xena, each separately, had gone into this mission believing they would not be coming back. They would be leaving a best friend to suffer their loss. However, they had beaten the odds, again. Now if there was a loss, it was Hercules who might have suffered it. The two made it down the wall without incident. Hercules immediately found the torch they had dropped and with two small rocks managed to relight it. They took off running back to where they had left their friends. Hercules knelt down and held the torch near the ground searching for tracks.
"That way," he said rising and started to run again, with Xena close behind him.
Just a short distance down the tunnel they heard muffled sounds. They stopped and listened and heard the echoes of a woman sobbing. Xena looked over at Hercules. She knew what he was thinking and what the sobs probably meant. She reached out to touch his arm in sympathy, but he had already taken off again. Both followed the sound and came into the open cavern and saw Gabrielle sitting on the ground, with Iolaus' head cradled in her lap. She was stroking his face and hair with one hand and trying to hold back her sobs with the other.
Hercules heart constricted when he saw her tears and the still, white form of his friend. He hesitated, frozen for a moment at the sight -- the color draining from his face. "No!" he cried out and flew to his friend's side. Gabrielle turned at Hercules' cry. She had been so distraught, she had not heard anyone approach. When she looked up, she saw only Hercules in her line of vision. "I'm sorry, Hercules, he just kept slipping away from me." Hercules knelt down and gently took Iolaus into his own arms. Gabrielle then caught movement out of the side of her eyes and saw Xena. She rose quickly, going to Xena, and embracing her. After a moment, she pulled away. "I thought you were dead." A confused look crossed her face as she turned a quick glance to Hercules. "How did you do it?"
Xena smiled at her. "I'll tell you later."
She turned her eyes back to Hercules and saw tears slowly tracing their way down his face. She heard his desperate cries as he looked down into the face of his friend. "Why couldn't you have held on a little longer. ... Just a little longer."
Gabrielle looked up to her friend, realizing what Hercules meant. "Xena, Iolaus isn't dead."
Xena nodded and swiftly moved over and knelt down in front of Hercules. Hercules looked up at her helplessly. She reached over and touched Iolaus' neck and felt a faint pulse. She touched Hercules' arm. "He's alive."
At first Hercules didn't seem to comprehend her words. She repeated more emphatically. "Hercules, he's still alive."
Hercules looked down at his friend and finally saw the faint rising and falling of Iolaus' chest. "I thought ..."
"I know, ... I know. But he's not out of danger yet, Hercules. He still needs to be treated. Do you understand?"
"All my supplies are out on Argo. Gabrielle and I will go get them. We'll be back as soon as we can," Xena stated.
"No. We can't stay in here," Hercules said, finally coming to himself. "Hera will no doubt be angry and may strike out anyway she can. We can't chance staying in here and being trapped by a cave-in or by some other devious thing she may come up with. I'd rather be out in the open."
Hercules rose with Iolaus held carefully in his arms and followed the two women as they made their way through the tunnels. As they turned through the passages, Hercules kept looking down at his friend. When he and Xena had entered the tunnel, he had seen only Gabrielle's tears and heard her words. Iolaus had not moved or appeared to even be breathing and he had thought Iolaus was dead. Overwhelming grief had taken over his heart. As he held the body of his friend, time had stopped and the only two in the cave were he and Iolaus. Now all he could think of was getting Iolaus out of this cave and to safety. "Come on, Iolaus. You've hung in here this long. Don't give up on me now. Please!!" He kept a running commentary the whole time through the passageways. "I need you here with me, Iolaus. I know you can make it, my friend."
They broke free of the cave and were soon in a lush, grassy area near a lake. Argo was nearby, grazing lazily. Gabrielle grabbed the waterbag and some blankets, while Xena grabbed her medicine bag. Gabrielle spread out a blanket on the ground and Hercules gently laid Iolaus down. He lifted up his friend's shoulders and removed the bloody vest, dropping it to one side. Then he gently lowered Iolaus back down, his blond head resting on Hercules' lap. Iolaus was moaning and restlessly tossing and turning in pain and fever.
Gabrielle soon disappeared into the nearby woods to find firewood. Xena started to clean the wound, while Hercules took a damp cloth and bathed Iolaus' fevered face and neck. Once Xena had the wound cleaned, she examined it. "It's deeper then he let on. It's going to take some stitches to close up." She dug into her bag. "Here are some poppy pills for the pain, see if you can get these down him."
Hercules took the pills and placed them in Iolaus' mouth. He then carefully lifted Iolaus up and gave him some water. He breathed a sigh of relief as Iolaus swallowed both.
In the meantime, Xena had threaded a needle. Before she began, she blotted up more of the blood that kept trickling to the surface. Iolaus' inner healing system was starting to work again and his blood had started coagulating, but he had already lost so much blood. He seemed so weak that she didn't know if he would be able to survive. She saw Hercules flinch as she drew the first stitch into Iolaus' flesh. Iolaus, himself, never moved a muscle, but she knew how this must be hurting Hercules. It's not that he had never seen or dealt with wounds before, nor that he himself hadn't ever had to tend Iolaus' wounds, but it had never been easy for him when it came to his own friend.
She finished the stitches and once more blotted up the remaining blood. She then rubbed a medicinal salve over the wound and placed a clean, dry cloth across it. Hercules once again lifted Iolaus up so she could wrap the bandaging around him. When she was finished he carefully lowered Iolaus back down onto the blanket. Xena took the second blanket and pulled it up around him to keep him warm.
She reached over a hand and placed it on Hercules' shoulder. "I've done all I can. It's up to him now." Although Hercules nodded to her statement, his eyes never left Iolaus' face. He once again wore that helpless look. In her former life, she had looked forward to a time such as this, bringing Hercules and Iolaus down, but now in this new life, she felt only pain and sympathy for what they were going through.
She rose and went to the campfire that Gabrielle had going. Gabrielle was getting out things to begin preparations for dinner. She rose as Xena neared her, a questioning look on her face. Her voice was low. "How is he, Xena?"
She turned back towards the other side of the fire, a worried look on her face. "I don't know. It's hard to tell. I've done everything I can for him." she shook her head. "I just don't know."
"Hercules is taking this pretty hard isn't he?"
"They've been friends since they were kids. If Iolaus dies, I don't know what ..." Xena stopped, the emotions were getting too close to the surface. She cleared her throat. "I'll go get something for dinner." And she was gone.
Gabrielle wanted to go to Hercules and see if there was anything she could do for him and to see for herself how Iolaus was doing, but she knew instinctively Hercules would not want any company right now, even sympathetic company. She could hear him speaking in low tones to Iolaus. She couldn't make out what he was saying, but she could pretty much guess. He was pleading with Iolaus again, as he had done in the cave, not to give up.
She felt the tears in her own throat resurfacing and she moved down towards the small lake and stood watching out into the murky darkness, as a faint moon played over it. She spoke her silent pleas to the gods for Iolaus' recovery. She had liked this friend of Hercules very much and she wanted to get to know him better. Even in the short time they had been together, she felt comfortable around him and knew that he was an honest, sweet, kind, gentle man. And a brave warrior -- the stories of his and Hercules adventures were so wonderful. She could picture them vividly as Iolaus spoke. And she liked Hercules as well. She had been awed at meeting the demi-god. He was everything that she had expected though. And, it was easy to see how much he loved Iolaus. She had seen the devastated look on his face when he had thought Iolaus was dead. She knew the pain he must be feeling right now, not knowing whether Iolaus would live or die. Hercules and Xena had accomplished their mission and both had come back unscathed. It should have been a time of rejoicing for them all. But death still hung heavy over their little camp.
Hercules sat at his friend's side all night. Xena and Gabrielle hadn't even suggested that he rest and let them watch over Iolaus. They knew there was no way he would rest until he knew Iolaus was safe. He had taken the offered rabbit, cheese and bread that Gabrielle had brought him. He had smiled and thanked her. But, he had eaten little of it. His worry and grief were too overwhelming to think about food. A couple of times, Iolaus' shallow breathing had driven him to touch the pulse on Iolaus' neck. Each time he had breathed a sigh of relief as he felt the faint pulse. Shortly before dawn, Iolaus had started to moan and turn restlessly again. Hercules was immediately on the alert.
"Iolaus? Iolaus, can you hear me?"
Slowly the blue eyes opened. It took him a few minutes to focus on Hercules' face. There was a startled look of unbelief. "Herc?"
A faint smile came to Hercules' lips. "Yeah. It's me!"
"I thought, ... I thought you ... were dead!" Iolaus breathed out.
"You had me pretty scared, too, my friend."
Iolaus turned his head a little and realized they were no longer in the cave. "Xena?" he asked quietly.
"She's fine, too."
Hercules saw a look of confusion in Iolaus' eyes.
"Everything's back to normal. Prometheus is free. Xena and I are both fine. I'll tell you all about it later. Right now, the most important thing is, how are you doing?"
"I've had ... better days."
"So have I."
Hercules saw the weariness on Iolaus' face and there was still a grayness about him that he could see, even in the firelight. He saw him wince. "You're still in pain, aren't you?" Hercules asked with concern.
Hercules reached down into his small leather pouch on his belt. "Here are some poppy pills, these should ease it." Iolaus' opened his mouth and gratefully accepted the pills. Hercules lifted Iolaus up, so he could take some water to swallow them down. His fear of losing Iolaus was still so overpowering, that he was reluctant to release his friend. Instead of laying him back down, his powerful arms surrounded Iolaus, cradling him gently in his embrace, as if that alone could protect him from any more harm. And as the poppy pills started to take affect, Iolaus nestled in the safe, warm arms of his friend and contentedly closed his eyes and fell into a deep and painless sleep.
Early the next morning, Xena went over and bent down to check on Iolaus. Hercules was half asleep but still held Iolaus securely in his arms, his head pillowed against Hercules' chest. As she set down her medicine bag and reached for the blanket covering Iolaus, Hercules startled awake. There was still some blood seeping through the bandages. She had hoped that would have stopped. With Hercules' help, she tended the wound.
Hercules looked up at Xena. "He looks a little better, don't you think?"
"Yeah, he does," she said hoping that she wasn't just saying what she knew Hercules wanted to hear. She just wished she had been able to see a more noticeable improvement.
"I appreciate all you've done for him, Xena."
"I'm glad I could help, but it doesn't seem like I've done very much."
Hercules smiled at her. "It was more than I was able to do. When I thought Iolaus was ... was dead, I'm afraid I kind of fell apart."
"That's understandable." She held his gaze. "You know, not very long ago I wouldn't have understood any of this."
Hercules looked at her puzzled. "Any of what?"
"This friendship thing between you two." She looked away for a moment. "I understood it enough to try and use it against you two before," she said with a pained look of remembrance on her face. "I thought it was weakness. I never 'really' understood it until I met Gabrielle." She looked over across the campfire at her friend still sound asleep in her blankets. "Gabrielle's taught me so much, but especially how to care and trust. I think I can finally understand a little now how you both must have felt about what I did back then." She paused and raised a hand to stop Hercules' words. "Gabrielle and I have only been friends a short time, but if anything were to ever happen to her, I don't know how I would stand it. But you and Iolaus have been best friends, brothers, since childhood."
"It's hard when you care about someone so much and you know you could lose them. But it's worth it all to have someone in your life that you can trust and rely on, Xena. Someone you can share the good times with, who can help you through the bad ones. Someone you know you can be yourself with. Someone who knows your faults and weaknesses and will still love you despite them all."
Xena looked up at him, figuring he was speaking about her, but realized that he wasn't even paying attention to her. His eyes were on Iolaus and she knew he was speaking about himself. She saw a hint of tears behind his eyes and his voice cracked on the last few words. She looked back towards Gabrielle and smiled. "I know that now."
She left him with Iolaus for most of the day, checking back occasionally and caring for the wound. Hercules ate little and seemed only to doze for short periods. But he was alert to every movement, every turn, almost every breath Iolaus took. Iolaus had awakened again about mid-day, still in pain and had been given more poppy pills and fallen back asleep. Finally late that night, Xena once again repeated her ritual of cleaning the wound and changing Iolaus' bandages.
She saw the weary look on Hercules face and finally broached the subject. "Why don't you get some sleep, Hercules. I'll watch him." She paused. "I think he does look much better and he seems a little stronger. I believe he's going to be alright."
She saw his reluctance at first and thought he was about to refuse, but he was exhausted and knew that he couldn't stay awake any longer. "Alright. Just wake me if anything happens."
"I will," she promised. And she watched as Hercules settled himself down next to his friend and immediately fell asleep. Taking up her watch next to Iolaus, she leaned down and pulled the blanket up around him close and spoke quietly. "Come on Iolaus, don't make a liar out of me now. He needs you."
Both men slept well into the next day. Late the next morning, Hercules finally awoke with a start. "Iolaus!"
Sitting up quickly he saw Gabrielle on the other side of Iolaus, who was propped up against a log.
"Hercules, good morning! He's looking better, don't you think?" she said with a big smile on her face, and turning towards Iolaus.
Hercules looked at Iolaus and could see the visible change in him. Although there was still a look of weariness on his face, the strained look was gone and his color was back.
"Yeah, he looks great."
"Are you hungry?" she asked Hercules. "There's some fish in the pan. Can I get you some? Iolaus has just eaten."
Hercules smiled over at her. "Thanks, that would be great. Where's Xena?" he said looking around.
"She went off hunting already. She should be back shortly." Gabrielle moved off to the campfire.
Hercules looked back over at Iolaus. "How are you feeling?"
"You're sure you're alright? How is the wound doing? Shouldn't you be laying down?"
"Hercules you're babbling," Iolaus laughed.
"I am *not* babbling," Hercules declared. "I'm just trying to find out how you are."
Iolaus had his purple vest back on, which Gabrielle had managed to clean. Hercules reached over and pulled the left side of the vest open and saw a fresh bandage on the wound. This time there was no blood seeping through it. He breathed a visible sigh of relief and released the vest.
"Will you stop worrying about me, Herc. I told you, I'm fine."
"I'm just checking for myself." Then the smile all but disappeared from his face. "You know, if you weren't hurt right now, I'd pick you up, carry you down to that lake, and throw you in."
"Iolaus, you were hurt in that fight back in that barn. You knew people were dying from just scratches, and you never even told me about it. If it hadn't been for Gabrielle bumping into you, it might have been too late. How could you have done anything so foolish as that ...?" Iolaus opened his mouth to speak, but Hercules kept on. "I ... I could have lost you. Why didn't you tell me?"
Iolaus' clear blue eyes looked back into his friend's. "Maybe ... maybe for the same reason you didn't tell me about the sword?" he slowly breathed out.
Hercules was temporarily caught off guard. "The sword?" A look of dawning hit Hercules. He could hear the pain in Iolaus' voice and saw it reflected in his eyes. Not physical pain, but a much deeper hurt. "I, ..." Hercules started.
But Iolaus interrupted him. "You couldn't trust me with that information?" Iolaus' voice was soft and questioning. "I knew you cared for Xena, but you and she have only known each other for ..." Iolaus hesitated, not exactly knowing how to say what he was feeling now that it was out in the open, without sounding petty. But he had started it, he might as well finish it. "We've known each other since we were kids. Why couldn't you trust me?"
Hercules reached out his hand in entreaty. "It wasn't trust, my friend, that kept the information from you, but love and fear."
Iolaus looked at him strangely.
"Before I say anything else, answer me one question, will you?"
"If we hadn't found out about your wound, and you had made it up to where Prometheus was chained, you would have tried to get the sword and strike the blow yourself. Am I right?"
Iolaus turned away from his gaze.
"Am I right, Iolaus?" Hercules pressed.
Iolaus turned back and faced Hercules. "The world needs you, Herc. It would have made sense. I was already hurt, so it wouldn't have mattered if I had struck the blow."
"It DOES matter! It matters to me! And, the world needs US, Iolaus, not just me!" Hercules paused. "And, that's why I never told you about the sword. The only reason I ever told Xena about it was that if something had happened to us, someone else would know. But she never knew about what would happen if she struck the chains until she had been to the temple." He paused. "I had never expected her to get to the sword first. As long as I'm alive Iolaus, I knew you would be at my side, and you would find out about the sword soon enough. If you had known ahead of time, your brave, loving heart would have sent you after it to save me, and I would have either lost you or had to contend with you, as I did Xena. Can you understand?"
Iolaus' head was down and Hercules was unable to read his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Iolaus, please forgive me. I never meant to hurt you. But I couldn't take the chance of losing you. You have to know I trust you with my life."
Iolaus raised his head and looked into the loving, pleading eyes of his friend. A look of love and trust echoed back. "I do know," Iolaus said, a bright smile forming on his lips.
Hercules reached over and squeezed Iolaus' shoulder. "No more secrets, Iolaus. I promise."
"No more secrets, Herc. I promise, too."
Gabrielle, with Xena beside her, returned with a plate full of food and handed it to Hercules. He hadn't realized until he took the first bite how hungry he really was. "Very good, Gabrielle. This tastes great. You're a wonderful cook."
She shyly thanked him. To hide her embarrassment at his praise, Gabrielle sat down next to Iolaus. "Iolaus, back on the road, you remember you were right in the middle of that story about how you and Hercules battled that warlord in Thrace ..."
Iolaus smiled and launched into his story exactly where he had left off a few days earlier. Hercules rose, remarking, "This is my cue to leave." Unnoticed by the two, who were sitting with their heads almost together, he stood next to Xena, watching them for a moment. They saw the rapt expression on Gabrielle's face and the almost dream-like look on Iolaus' as he got lost in his story.
Xena interrupted for just a moment. "Don't let him get over-tired, Gabrielle."
Without even looking up, Gabrielle answered, "Sure, Xena, sure." And she waved her hand in vague acknowledgment. "Then what happened, Iolaus?"
Xena looked up at Hercules and he just shook his head. They both laughed and then by mutual consent turned and started walking down toward the lake. Hearing Iolaus' laughter, Hercules turned back for a moment and smiled. He felt all the cares of the past few days completely lift. Iolaus was going to be fine. He'd be able to travel in another day or so. The world once again seemed completely right.
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