The sea was dark around her.
The sky was dark above her.
And within her there was dark empty space where, until earlier that day, grief and fear had filled her heart and burned like a furnace. Now there was nothing.
Nebula stood in the bow of her ship as it headed over the wine- dark sea, listening to the whisper of the waves on the hull as the sharp prow sheared its way through the water. Behind and above her she could hear the creak of the rigging and the soft voices of her crew as they went about the business of steering eastward towards Sumeria.
She leaned her head against the carven prow and looked down into the deep.
She was so tired. Oh gods, she was so tired. This wasn't what victory was supposed to feel like. And they HAD been victorious - she and Hercules and the others. The world was safe again. Dahak was defeated. Iolaus was free, liberated from the evil that had possessed his body and threatened his soul. He had been taken into the Light, Hercules had said. Body and soul, into the Light.
Dimly she knew that she should have been happy, or at least relieved, but she felt nothing. There was nothing but an echoing chasm where her heart should be, and a weariness that threaded itself through her bones and muscles. Listlessly she fingered the broken medallion that hung around her neck - all that was left to her of Iolaus - and watched the dark waters part and roll back, the tips of the waves edged in silvery foam.
Maybe she should find rest in Poseidon's embrace. The thought trudged slowly across her mind. The waters were lovely, dark and deep - it would be so easy to lose herself in them. One swift leap and the seawater would fill the tainted emptiness within her, washing it clean of memories. She could surrender herself to nothingness and sleep forever at the bottom of the -
She thought she heard the word spoken, barely audible over the rush of the waves.
With a sigh she raised her head and opened her eyes, expecting to see one of her crew standing there. It was not.
He was standing there facing her, bright against the darkness.
She knew she should have been surprised or afraid, but nothing registered within her. She simply accepted that she was seeing him.
"Iolaus?" she whispered.
The smile that she loved blazed forth in the darkness - the smile she thought had been lost forever.
"Nebula", he said again. "You, of all people, can't do this".
Had he heard her thinking, before? The tears that she had forbidden herself to shed before now pushed hard against her eyelids as the weariness seemed to peak within her, drawing all the strength from her body and her soul.
"But I'm tired, " she said dully. "Iolaus, I'm so tired. I can't go on any more".
"Shhhhh..." he whispered, and she felt arms - his dear and familiar arms - go around her, and she let herself lean weakly against him in a way that she had never allowed herself to do before. She felt his strength beneath her, holding her up. His voice was gentle in her ear.
"Nebula, listen to me. What you were thinking about isn't the answer. It isn't an option - not for you."
Nestled against his shoulder, her face buried in the rough fabric of his vest, she could hear his answering smile in his voice.
"For you? For Captain Nebula, the mistress of the Aegean Sea? The unbeaten arm-wrestling champion of every seaport in Greece? The Queen of Sumeria, and the hope of strong-minded women everywhere? And you're proposing to feed all this to the fish?" There was laughter in the question and she was suddenly angry at him.
"Damn you, Iolaus! It's not funny!" She tried to pull back out of his arms but he held her all the tighter. His eyes were alight and in them she saw love and joy and boundless understanding.
"No, Nebula, it really isn't funny". His hand went to her face and caressed her cheek. "You've had a hell of a time. I know that. That's why They let me come back to you, one last time, before I go into the Light."
She should have asked questions. She should have demanded answers. She did neither - she simply burrowed herself more firmly against him and listened, as he stroked her hair.
"Nebula, I need to tell you something. I love you - and I will always love you. Remember when you told Hercules that you pretended I was watching over you? Well, now I'll be doing it for real - and this time it won't be Dahak, it'll be me! Nebula, don't do what you were thinking of. It'd be a waste of a magnificent life."
"Iolaus, do you know what you're asking me?" She slumped against him as the emptiness swelled within her. His arms tightened about her.
"Yes. I do. I'm calling in my marker".
"Nebula - I died for your sake. I'm asking you to live now, for mine".
The breath went out of her in something between a sigh and a sob and for a long time she gave herself up to the tender motion as he rocked her in his arms. Finally she raised her head. "You fight dirty, Goldilocks!"
Once again his smile blazed. "When there's something - or someone! - worth fighting for, you bet your beautiful ass I do!"
The snort of laughter she gave surprised her. "You think it's beautiful, do you?"
"It's the best!"
They were silent again for a long time, until Iolaus spoke up. "Nebula, this I can promise you. You'll find the strength to go on, and there'll be joy ahead for you".
"You know this, do you?" she muttered. "Do you get the gift of prophecy when you go into the Light?"
She felt him laugh again. "Nah", he said lightly. "Nothing like that. It's just a feeling I have, that's all."
She nodded slowly. "OK, I believe you."
"So, you give me your word - you won't do anything stupid?"
"Hey, remember who you're talking to, monkey-boy!"
"So am I. All right - I give you my word. And, wait a minute " she stepped back and reached up to draw the cord of his medallion from around her neck. "This is yours, baby. I kept it safe for you, and now I want you to have it back".
Slowly he took it from her and put it back on. "It's warm from lying over your heart".
She grinned in satisfaction. "Good," she said. "Just you remember who warmed it up!"
He took her hand. "I'll be watching over you. I promise". His lips were warm against her palm.
"Wha - ?" Nebula opened her eyes to see her chamberlain Agenor and one of the crew members standing over her.
"Your majesty, you fell asleep up here. We feared that you would fall overboard if we didn't wake you."
She pushed herself up from where she was draped across the railing, one arm wrapped about the carven prow. Every muscle was stiff and sore, and she was cold and soaked from the spray.
"How long have I been up here?"
"Most of the night, Cap'n. You told us not to disturb you - "
"S'okay, Dmitrios. You did right".
Agenor broke in. "Perhaps your majesty should go to your cabin."
Her neck ached from where she had leaned her head against the rough wood. "Yeah," she answered, rolling her head to loosen the muscles.
Agenor held out his hand and helped her to her feet. "Your majesty - your medallion is missing. It must have fallen into the sea".
She looked out to where the golden dawn was breaking through the clouds, smiled, and said nothing.
The End - NOT!
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