The commanding tone of Cheiron's voice snapped the blond-haired cadet out of his preoccupation with the murky depths of the lake. He brought his head up and blinked dumbly at the dark centaur. "What were you saying, Cheiron?"
Snickers rippled throughout the small group of academy students until Cheiron cut them off with a quick glance. "Pay attention, Iolaus! If you don't pass this exercise, you won't graduate. Now, if you are awake...?"
Iolaus glanced at his best friend, Hercules, then gulped nervously. He'd been dreading this particular exercise. It was quite simple, actually. All that was required was for the cadet to jump into the huge lake, dive to the bottom to the remains of an old shipwreck, retrieve one of the items planted there earlier and return to the surface. Very simple.
If you could swim.
But Iolaus didn't know how to swim.
He looked at the shimmering surface of the water, then back at his instructor's patient countenance. The headmaster had folded his arms across his muscular chest. The stamping of his front right hoof was the only real sign of his agitation with the human who stood to one side of the group.
"Cheiron, I can't do it."
"And this would be because...?" The centaur deliberately left the statement hanging so Iolaus would finish it.
"Well, I can't..." Iolaus glanced at the faces of his fellow cadets. Most of them were from very well to do families and didn't particularly like him or that he'd once been a thief and had gotten into Cheiron's Academy by sheer luck. It seemed to aggravate them more that he had an instinct for fighting and could defeat most of them in their practice skirmishes. If he announced he couldn't swim, it would just give them more fodder in their verbal war against him. "I can't because I don't think today's midday meal went over on me too well." He placed a comforting hand on his stomach.
Cheiron raised an eyebrow in disbelief, but Iolaus managed to fix a pained expression on his face. The centaur got the distinct feeling the wily cadet was pulling the proverbial wool over his eyes, but decided not to make an issue of it. He knew for some reason Iolaus didn't want to go first, so Cheiron decided to let it pass. For now. The next refusal would also be his last.
"All right, I'll get back to you; however, I wish you to remain here until the rest of today's exercises are finished."
Iolaus nodded, but it went unnoticed as the headmaster scanned the knot of fledging warriors. "Trachus, you're first."
As his fellow cadet prepared himself for the test, Iolaus' gaze met Hercules.' At the demigod's questioning, but concerned, expression, he cast his eyes towards the lake and tried to suppress a shudder at the thought of having to go under its cold depths. He didn't know what scared him more-the thought of going to jail if he failed to graduate or the thought of having to go through with this exercise...
Later that day, Iolaus sat on a low wall in the courtyard as several other cadets played a rousing game of kickball. He smiled slightly as Jason intercepted the ball and managed to make a goal. He felt rather than heard his best friend's approach; he sighed heavily. "What do you want now, Herc?"
Hercules started, not realizing the former thief had sensed his presence, but quickly surmised Iolaus should know when he was near. Didn't he know when Iolaus was close at hand? Without waiting for an invitation, he seated himself next to the blond cadet. "Why didn't you tell Cheiron that you can't swim? I'm sure he'd see to it you got lessons before making you do the lake exercise."
"What, and have every cadet in the place teasing me?" Iolaus snorted in contempt. "I don't think so!"
"Oh, c'mon, give the others some credit! We're all here to learn, so swimming is just another lesson, just like learning to use a staff or sword."
"Herc, do have any idea what it's like to be me?"
The question surprised the younger teen. "I'm not sure I know what you mean," he finally answered.
"No, of course you don't," Iolaus retorted matter-of-factly. He nodded to the other cadets. "Take a look at the others." When Hercules turned his attention to the ball players, he continued, "Sons of warriors or noblemen. Jason's the crown prince, for cryin' out loud and you're the son of Zeus! You tell me where a former thief fits in."
"Now, wait, you're the son of a general, too!"
"Yeah, right! General Skouros' runt son! Don't remind me!"
"Don't talk about yourself that way, Iolaus! You've got a lot to offer!"
"Too bad most of the others don't see it that way, Herc," he looked at his sparring partner. "Don't you see why I can't let them find out my weaknesses? They verbally beat up on me already. I know I don't show it, but it hurts."
Hercules didn't know what to say. It wasn't often Iolaus allowed a glimpse into his true feelings; he knew it had taken a lot for Iolaus to admit what he just had. "All right," he finally said, "we don't let on that you can't swim. Let's talk to Cheiron. He might just allow you to do the exercise last. That should give us a couple of days to teach you enough to pass the test."
"Wouldn't do any good."
"Sure, it would! Cheiron's fair, Iolaus, you know that!"
Iolaus shook his head. "Not that. I..." he looked around quickly, as if checking to see if anybody was standing nearby listening into their conversation. The ball game had ended and the other cadets had dispersed.
"I won't go under the surface."
"Iolaus, there's nothing in that lake that will attack you."
"It's not that, it's-"
"When I was-" Iolaus suddenly clamped his mouth shut. After a moment's pause, he snapped quickly, "I just won't, all right?"
Hercules sighed. For once, he wished he didn't have to "force" a "confession" out of his friend; however, Iolaus had always been tight-lipped about things he considered private and Hercules had learned to accept that. "Okay, but let me talk to Cheiron anyway. We can at least make sure all this training doesn't go to waste because you drowned."
"Yeah, that *would* be waste, wouldn't it?" Iolaus agreed with an easy grin.
Once Iolaus confessed his inability to swim, Cheiron agreed to let the former thief do his exercise on the final day so he could have some time to let Hercules teach him the life-saving skill without fear of the other cadets finding out. Though he disapproved of Iolaus' lying to him earlier, he reluctantly conceded the blond's point, though not without a typically-Cheiron statement about not worrying what others thought of you.
The following evening lent their first opportunity at a lesson. As with anything else he set his mind to, Iolaus proved to be a quick student and took to the water quickly. Hercules was again amazed at how fast his friend learned things, but disappointed when all his coaxing, urging and even threatening didn't get his shorter companion to put his head under the lake's surface.
It was the night before the final day of the lake exercise and Iolaus *still* wouldn't duck under the surface. Exasperated because his friend learned everything else without a hitch and this refusal could cost him his chance at graduation, the demigod decided drastic measures were called for. He moved to Iolaus' side in the water, put a hand on top of his blond head, commanded "Hold your breath," then pushed him under the water and held him there.
Iolaus fought violently under his grip, but Hercules figured he would settle down after he realized his struggles did no good against the demigod's strength. *He knows I wouldn't deliberately try to drown him,* Hercules thought. The former thief's efforts, however, didn't let up; in fact, they seemed more desperate. Confused, the son of Zeus finally let go.
Iolaus practically leapt out of the water and hauled himself onto the shore. He lay in the mud and gasped loudly as he sucked air into his lungs and fought the loudly beating rhyme of his racing heart. When Hercules swiftly knelt beside him and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder, the blond pushed himself away. "Don't touch me!" he exclaimed wildly, holding up his hands in a protective gesture.
"Iolaus, I'm sorry," Hercules apologized, confused by his friend's actions, "I didn't realize you would act so adversely to being held under. I thought you trusted me enough to know I wouldn't let you drown," the last sentence was tinged with hurt.
"I do," Iolaus replied after a long moment spent trying to regain his composure, "you know I do, Herc. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to freak out like that. It's just--"
"Just what? C'mon, Iolaus, tell me. People aren't born afraid of the water, they learn to be that way." The demigod got up and bridged the short distance between them. He sat down in the mud next to his lifelong friend. "What happened to make you afraid of going under, Iolaus?"
Iolaus sat for a long time, just staring at the lake and thinking about the obstacle before him. Finally, he turned back, glanced at his companion's worried gaze, then said, "It was one of the rare times my father wasn't off fighting a war." He snorted. "I think we were better off when he was gone. Well, I was, anyway."
Hercules nodded silently. He knew of Iolaus' tumultuous history with his famous father. General Skouros never could get over the fact that his only son was smaller than the other kids his own age. He considered Iolaus an embarrassment to the family line, even if the blond had a natural talent for fighting and survival that would allow him to excel on the battlefield. Iolaus was somebody you could count on to watch your back and Hercules was proud to call him his best friend.
"Mother wanted to go on a picnic one day and he reluctantly agreed. We set up near this pond and I felt like I could be a kid and goof-off. I guess I was enjoying myself too much and made him angry." Iolaus laughed without humor. "The funny thing is, I don't even remember what I'd done, just that the next thing I knew, he was holding my head under the water as punishment." Now the blond teenager's voice took on a more agitated tone. "I was drowning, but I couldn't fight him, he was too strong! Then I was on the ground, choking up water as he stood over me. I've been afraid of putting my head under the water ever since."
Stunned, Hercules didn't speak for a long moment. This was another instance of General Skouros' abuse against his only son, but this time, he'd nearly killed Iolaus in his rage. How could anybody do such a thing to his children? That Iolaus had managed to survive to see his teen years was testament to his stoic ability to survive.
*Oh, gods, and I just did the same thing to him!* Hercules realized, horrified. *I'm as bad as his father! How can he stand to let me sit next to him?*
"And I did the same thing to you!" the demigod echoed his own thoughts out loud. "I'm so sorry! Can you forgive me? I didn't mean to--"
Iolaus smiled reassuringly. "It's okay, Herc. I know you were trying to teach me I didn't have to be afraid. You weren't doing it to punish me. It's okay, really!"
"Still, I feel awful..."
"Don't. You didn't do anything wrong. I can be as hardheaded as the next guy..."
"Nobody's as hardheaded as you," Hercules retorted.
"You have a point," the blond conceded with an easy grin.
Hercules returned the grin. Giving his friend a steady gaze, he asked. "What if we take it slow? What if we ease you under? You know I'm not going to let you drown."
"I don't know, Herc. I just don't think I can do it."
"You have to, Iolaus. Tomorrow's the final day of testing. Cheiron can't hold off any longer, not without appearing to play favorites."
"I know," Iolaus remarked dejectedly.
"Cheiron would want you to face your fear, Iolaus. He really does want you to pass all these tests, but he wants you to do it for yourself, not for anybody else, to prove to yourself you can do it. Your father's dead. You can't let his ghost hang over you. If you fail to overcome this, that's what you'll be doing."
Iolaus pushed his wet hair back from his face. "I can't, Herc. Not now."
"When? Tomorrow, when everybody else is watching?"
"Good motivation, don't ya think?" Iolaus winked, then grinned.
Hercules sighed heavily. "Why are you like this?"
"Born that way, I guess," the blond cadet shrugged.
In the end, no matter how much arguing the demigod did, he couldn't get Iolaus to return to the water. Hercules refused to try the same trick he'd done earlier so, as the sun began setting for another day, they ended up going back to the Academy with Hercules' goal unfinished and the half-mortal wondering how his friend was going to succeed this time.
The next day dawned, bright and sunny. *So much for praying for rain,* Hercules thought as the cadets gathered around Cheiron for the final day of the lake exercise. The centaur's gaze traveled over all his students before resting on his prize pupil.
"Hercules, why don't you start out for us? There's a broadsword at the bottom with your name on it."
"All right," Hercules glanced at Iolaus, who smiled encouragingly.
After the demigod dove into the water and disappeared, one of the other cadets asked casually, "Cheiron, what's that?"
Everybody turned to look at what the cadet was pointing. A long, thin wake was moving swiftly across the lake's surface towards them. The sun was angled such that they could make out a dark shape just beneath the surface. Several of the students muttered questions aloud. "Is it a monster?" "Maybe it's a serpent of some kind." "Man, that thing's got to be big!"
Suddenly, the wake disappeared, not far from the place where the sunken boat was located. Instantly, Iolaus was at the lake's edge, staring anxiously at the water. "It's gone after Herc!"
"Remain calm, Iolaus," Cheiron instructed firmly. He knew the former thief's penchant for acting without thought. "Give Hercules time to handle the situation himself."
Iolaus nodded. Seconds ticked past. The blond kept his gaze on the suddenly calm surface of the lake. He felt Jason move beside him, but the crown prince's presence lent little comfort to the worried cadet. Finally, Iolaus could hold back no longer. He glanced at the headmaster and stated, "I'm going in!"
Cheiron did not object, not that Iolaus would have listened anyway. The son of Skouros awkwardly dove into the water headfirst and kicked his way below the surface. Near the bottom of the lake, he saw Hercules in battle with a very long, slimy-looking serpent. The serpent had managed to wrap itself about the demigod's torso and pin the human's left arm to his side.
Either the water was working against Hercules, not giving him any leverage to work against so he could use his gods' given gift of strength, or the serpent was stronger than anything they'd been up against yet. As Hercules held the head back with one hand, Iolaus tried to tug some of the coils loose. It did no good. The monster was covered in slick slime, preventing the compact cadet from getting a firm grip on the beast.
Hercules shook his head, light brown locks floating in the water. Iolaus wasn't sure if the gesture was meant to say the plan wasn't working or that Iolaus should save himself. Their eyes met and Iolaus could see fear in his friend's expression. Hercules had to be running out of air by now. Much more of this and he'd drown.
Glancing around, the blond spotted a broadsword on the lake floor. Hercules must have retrieved it from the wreck and had been heading back to the surface when the creature attacked. Quickly, Iolaus dove to pick it up, then pushed himself off the bottom and zoomed through the water to his friend's rescue.
Swinging a sword in the water didn't work quite the way it did through air, but it nicked the serpent enough to make it let go of Hercules and focus its attention on the latest threat. Iolaus jabbed at the creature this time and succeeded in wounding it further. The beast thrashed as pain coursed through it, then quickly undulated away.
Iolaus didn't bother to watch its retreat; instead, he concentrated his attentions on his best friend, who weakly gave him a thumbs-up. The former thief wasted no time hauling his sparring partner to the surface. Cheers rang out from the land-bound cadets as the two broke the surface. Jason and another cadet grabbed the woozy demigod and pulled him ashore.
"Well done, Iolaus," Cheiron commented as the blond was helped to dry ground. "I guess we don't have to worry about putting you to the test. Not only did you save Hercules, you managed to bring the sword with you."
Startled, Iolaus glanced beside him. There lay the broadsword; he hadn't even realized he'd brought it to the surface with him. "Yeah, I guess so," he replied weakly, coughed, then pushed his wet hair out of his face.
"Jason, see to Hercules and Iolaus. The rest of you, let's get on with the testing." Cheiron led the other cadets away from the trio to allow them some privacy and quiet.
"Herc, you okay?" Iolaus queried cautiously.
Hercules coughed, then breathed deeply as he lay flat on the ground. He raised himself slowly to his elbows. Though his face was pale, his eyes were bright. "Yeah, I'm fine. Thanks to you."
"You would have done the same for me."
"Iolaus, I'm impressed," Jason stated as he sat next to his recovering friends. "That was not a bad bit of rescuing, considering you couldn't swim a week ago. At least, as far as I know, you couldn't swim."
"I couldn't," Iolaus confessed. "Herc taught me."
"But you wouldn't put your head under the surface. Iolaus," the demigod remarked as comprehension dawned, "you dove in to save me!"
"Yeah, so? Like I said before, you would do the same for me."
"Iolaus, you *dove in* to save me! You went *under the water!*"
The blond's blue eyes grew wide as he realized what his friend was saying. "I did, didn't I?"
"Yes! You didn't have time to think about it, you just did it!" Smiling widely, Hercules reached out and lightly punched his friend's bicep. "You did it!"
Laughing, Iolaus ruffled his friend's wet hair. "I did it!"
They began laughing and play-fighting, making sure to include Jason in their fun. A couple minutes later, a deep voice broke through their male bonding moment. "If you two are feeling better, how about joining the rest of us?"
The trio quickly settled themselves then, grinning like idiots, they rose to their full statures and started to walk back to the rest of the cadets. Slapping his best friend on the back, Iolaus remarked, "Um, Herc, I thought you told me there was nothing in that lake that would attack me..."
Hercules looked at his friend and smiled. "Oops, my mistake!"
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