Author's Note: Though issued as an Episodic Challenge, this story took on a life of its own and became the lengthy piece that follows. Be warned, I'm giving this a "PG" rating for somewhat "graphic" bloodshed. (Though it is only part one that needs this rating.)
Alcmene's cry of distress distracted Iolaus' attention from his battle with one of Hera's goons. His best friend's mother was being pulled backwards towards the sea creature sent by the Queen of the gods to disrupt the wedding vows being taken by Jason, now the former king of Corinth, and Alcmene. Quickly, the blond warrior dispatched the man he'd been fighting and raced towards the monster as the long tongue snapped its helpless victim into its mouth.
"Mother!" Hercules shouted. The demigod tried to wade through the onslaught of attackers, but was too far away to do any good.
"No!" Iolaus challenged, brandishing his sword. Without a thought to his own well being, the hunter launched himself at the creature, straight into the open maw. His right hand banged the side of the monster's mouth; his weapon flew from his grasp and hit the stone ground with a clatter.
Iolaus thought he heard Jason and Iphicles adding their shouts of distress to the demigod's just before he found himself hurtling down the sea monster's long gullet. The slippery insides yielded nothing to grab onto; soon the blond hunter slid from the throat and landed, with a splash, in the monster's stomach. Or, at least, Iolaus assumed it was the stomach, but the liquid he fell into was not, fortunately, stomach acid, but seawater. Salty, but otherwise harmless...if one considered being inside a monster "harmless," that is.
The warrior quickly got to his feet. The scummy water only came to his knees. He briefly wondered how long it took to be digested by a sea monster. Before he could get his bearings, he heard a relieved voice.
"Alcmene!" He returned the hug she gave him. Pulling back, he noticed her beautiful ivory gown was now stained with slime and seawater and her hair was plastered flat. No matter, it was wonderful to see her alive and very calm considering the circumstances. *No,* Iolaus thought, *Alcmene was never one prone to panic.*
"You came in after me," she stated the obvious.
"Well, Jason and your sons were pretty busy at the time and since I was the closest..." Iolaus shrugged as if it were of no consequence.
Alcmene couldn't help it. She giggled. "Oh, Iolaus." The area lurched as if to remind them of where they were. Regaining her balance thanks to Iolaus' helping hand, she glanced around the dripping, humid stomach. "Do you think Hercules and Jason--"
Iolaus shook his head. His slim-coated hair clung tightly to his skull. He hoped the gunk didn't ruin his favorite vest. Right now, of course, that was the least of his problems. "I doubt this monster is still at the wedding site. He's probably taken to the water again."
"What can we do?"
Iolaus pulled his knife from its sheath at his side. Eyes twinkling, he looked at Hercules' mother. "Get out of here?"
"Good plan, wish I'd thought of it," Alcmene retorted.
"It would have come to you eventually. Let's go." He grabbed her hand and sloshed over to the stomach's wall. There they spotted a not-so-comforting sight: a human skeleton was attached to the lining by several vine-like things that were wrapped around the skeleton's limbs and chest. The bones were thin, as if whatever had eaten away the flesh was now working its way through the harder substance.
Cautiously, Iolaus reached out and touched the skeleton. Suddenly, a long tentacle shot out from the stomach wall and wrapped around his wrist. Alcmene screamed in surprise as Iolaus swiftly sliced the feeler from its source. He quickly unwrapped the remaining piece and tossed it aside. His fingers burned where he had touched the tentacle; the gauntlet that had been captured was smoking. Iolaus rinsed his hands, wristguard and knife in the shallow seawater.
"Well, we know how it digests things now," he commented as he stood. Alcmene moved closer to her younger son's best friend.
"What do we do now?" she asked softly, her eyes riveted on the flimsy skeleton.
Iolaus didn't answer. He rubbed his chin as he glanced around them. As his gaze fell on a long, wooden pole half-submerged in the brackish seawater, an idea flashed through his mind. Quickly he snatched up the pole; it was about his height in length and would do nicely, if the idea worked. He unbuckled one of his belts, slid it off, and then proceeded to fashion a makeshift harpoon by tightly looping the belt several times around the knife's hilt to one end of the pole.
He glanced at Alcmene as he held the weapon at ready. "Let's hope this works." He felt her give his upper arm a reassuring squeeze before she stepped back to give him room. Taking a deep breath, Iolaus closed his eyes a moment to try focusing his energies as he'd been taught in the East. Opening them, he lunged forward and stabbed the monster's stomach. For a moment, Iolaus feared the lining was tough enough to withstand the attack, then something gave.
The monster moaned and thrashed. Fighting to remain standing, the hunter stepped forward a few paces to get a grip closer to the pole's end so he had more control of the knife's movements. He pushed down and the sharp knife quickly sliced through the stomach wall. Again, the sea creature bucked violently from the pain. This time, both humans were thrown into the water behind them.
Iolaus remained sitting as he hauled the knife-end back to himself. He released the large knife, tucking it back into its sheath. He stood unsteadily, using the pole to support himself, then helped Alcmene to her feet. "I'm going to push open that hole with the pole. I want you to dive through, okay? Don't touch the sides. The acid will get ya."
"As I'll ever be!"
Iolaus smiled slightly. After all this, she still retained her sense of humor. Gods, how he loved this woman! Positioning the pole, he managed to push open a wider hole. "Now's your chance, go!"
Alcmene didn't hesitate, but moved forward, then jumped feet-first through the opening. Nodding, Iolaus inched forward carefully, trying to get as close as he could to the tear without touching the lining. The area lurched again, leaving Iolaus no choice but to take a dive through the hole.
He felt himself falling through midair, but the journey didn't take long. He hit something soft and realized they were inside the beast's abdomen. He felt more than heard the beating of the giant heart; from where he lay he could see the internal organs pulsating, moving. It was a very weird visual effect.
Iolaus lifted his head. "Alcmene? You all right?"
"I'm fine." He rolled over so he was on his knees. He tugged the knife free of its scabbard again. He felt Alcmene come to his side; she put a slightly trembling hand on his shoulder. Reaching up with his free hand, he squeezed her hand reassuringly as he turned his head to gaze at her.
"I'm going to cut through the muscle. There will be blood, though I suspect you're used to seeing that by now, huh?" He managed to get a slight smile from her. "I think this thing is in the sea, so when you get out, just go. Don't look back, don't wait for me!"
"No, *don't look back, don't wait!*" he ordered strictly. He paused a second before continuing, his voice calmer. "It'll be disorientating at first. Don't panic! Follow your air bubbles up to the surface." *And I pray to Zeus we're not that far down or we'll both drown before breaking the surface.* "Got it?"
"Yes," she answered. She leaned forward and pecked his cheek. "Thank you. I couldn't have gotten this far without you."
"It was my pleasure," he replied, flashing his patented grin at her. He gave her hand one more squeeze before turning his attention to the task at hand.
A quick jab penetrated the soft muscle. Blood spurted outward, quickly soaking them both. Iolaus relentlessly continued cutting, ripping through flesh with the razor-edged knife he and Hercules had forged that day so long ago. The sea monster cried out; it heaved violently, tossing the humans from side to side. Still Iolaus persisted in his task.
With the monster's blood in his eyes, Iolaus felt rather than saw when the knife penetrated to the outside. Seawater quickly seeped through the break. The hunter worked faster, slicing the gap longer, wider. Now salty water mixed with the spraying blood had the compact warrior sputtering as he labored.
When he felt the hole was big enough, he pulled back. "Okay, Alcmene, take a deep breath and go!" Iolaus followed his own instructions as soon as his friend's mother wiggled through the gap and disappeared.
He kicked himself free from the monster and glanced around. Alcmene was already following her air bubbles towards the surface. Without looking back, he quickly swam towards her. A touch on her arm let her know he was beside her. He pointed upwards and nodded. She nodded in return, her loosened hair floating around her like an aura.
Just as they began swimming towards the surface, the monster abruptly wheeled about; its jaws clamped shut on Alcmene's ankle. Alcmene's grip suddenly tightening on his upper arm alerted Iolaus to the danger just before she was pulled away from him. Quickly assessing the situation, he dove towards her, jabbing at the beast as best he could in the water.
The sharp weapon sliced the monster's throat, nicking the precious arteries just under the surface of the skin. Blood darkened the area around them, but not before Iolaus saw the monster let go of Alcmene. Before he could reach her, however, the creature jerked, knocking her aside. Iolaus again struck with the knife, this time burying the weapon to its hilt. The creature thrashed wildly, dragging the hunter back and forth through the cloudy sea.
Iolaus stabbed it again. This time, the monster's movements were weaker: token resistance as it completed its death throes. As the sea creature's movements ceased, the warrior yanked his knife from its neck.
Ignoring the free-floating monster, Iolaus tried to see through the murky waters. There was no sign of Alcmene; there was no time to search. Already his lungs were burning for fresh air even as his vision blurred. Convinced Alcmene had been struck unconscious by the monster, the hunter knew she had no chance without him, but he was unable to hunt for her. He was very close to blacking out himself.
So it was with a heavy heart that Iolaus made his way upwards. He broke the surface with a loud gasp and tread water as he sucked air into his starving lungs. He glanced around quickly, hoping she had broken the surface before him, but didn't see sign of anything breaking the relative calm surface of the sea. Spotting land not too far off, he began swimming towards shore.
By the time he pulled himself onto the sandy beach, his breath was coming in choked sobs. The waves lapped at his sodden breeches and boots as he clumsily got to his feet. He turned towards the sea. For a long time, he again scanned the waves, hoping beyond hope to catch a glimpse of a beloved figure in white.
She was gone.
Flinging his head back and throwing his arms up towards the sky, Iolaus screamed into the wind. "*Alcmene!*" The crash of waves on the beach was all the answer he received. Tears fell like twin rivers down his cheeks as Iolaus' legs gave way beneath him. He fell to his knees in the wet sand, buried his face in his hands and finally allowed himself to grieve. His shoulders shook violently as he wept.
He'd failed, and Alcmene had died. He didn't deserve to live another day, but live he would. Long enough, at least, to let Hercules and Jason know what had happened. They deserved that much. After hearing how their fellow Argonaut had allowed Alcmene to perish, they would hate him, but it was nothing less than Iolaus felt he deserved.
He'd failed. He deserved no comforting presence of his friends to help him through his grief. He was unworthy of their friendship, so after telling them what happened, he would go away. Far away. They wouldn't have to look upon him and be reminded of their loss. He wished there were a way to keep himself from remembering.
Exhaustion finally took its toll. Iolaus collapsed onto his side. He curled into a loose ball and just lay shivering in the wet sand.
Too tired to move.
Too grief-stricken to care.
After dispatching Hera's warriors and the deaths of the blue priest and Jason's traitorous regent, the wedding party hurried to the landing overlooking the sea. There was, of course, no sign of the sea monster that had swallowed Alcmene and Iolaus.
"Let's check the beach!" Hercules suggested, turning to find the path that led down to the water's edge.
Deric stomped a front hoof in agitation. "Surely, you don't think they've escaped from the belly of that beast?"
"I did, why wouldn't they?" Hercules snapped. He hesitated when he realized how abrupt he'd been. "I'm sorry, Deric. I -"
"No harm, my friend," the centaur responded. "After all, it is your mother and best friend who've been taken."
"Iolaus is a brave warrior," Archivus added, "I'm sure if there's a way out of this, he'll find it. I'm sure he's learned something from you after all these years of being together, Hercules."
"I learned more from him than he's ever had to learn from me, Archivus," the demigod corrected.
The small group found a path cut into the cliff side. They made their way carefully down the cliff face. Deric, unable to follow without risking breaking a leg, stayed behind with Amphion and Rena to help Corinth's guards get Hera's minions gathered and jailed. He would also keep an eye on the sea and send a messenger if he spotted anything.
The remaining Argonauts headed in one direction, while Iphicles, Dirce and a couple of Corinthian guards searched the beach in the opposite direction. Despite his anxiety, Hercules forced himself to keep a reasonable pace so the others could keep up with him. That in itself reminded him of Iolaus and how his very mortal, but energetic, best friend was able to keep pace with him.
They traveled silently, each lost in their own thoughts. They'd put about a mile behind them when Phoebe suddenly pointed. "Look, there!"
Jason shielded his eyes with his hand as he scanned the beach. "Where?"
"Over there!" Phoebe took off running across the sand. Archivus and Domesticles automatically followed, used to Phoebe's superior eyesight catching things they would normally miss.
Hercules paused when he saw Jason's hesitation. "Jason?"
"Gods, Hercules, what if it's Alcmene's body? I don't think I can deal with that."
"I know, Jason, but we've got to keep hope."
The former king of Corinth gazed forlornly at his friend. "I don't know how you can talk like that. There's a good chance you've lost the two most important people in your life."
"I know," Hercules answered softly, "but I also know Iolaus wouldn't give up without one Tartarus of a fight and he's with Mother. He'd see to it they make it."
"Or die making sure Alcmene survived," the older man commented.
Voices carried over the wind towards them. "Jason! Hercules! Come quickly! It's Alcmene! She's alive!"
It was all the prompting they needed. They raced over the tideline to the small knot of people on the beach. Phoebe and Domesticles were on their knees at Alcmene's side while Archivus stood nearby and, as always, quickly wrote in his ever-present book. The two kneeling quickly stood to allow Jason and Hercules unhindered access.
Jason slid to his knees and quickly gathered his wet fiancée into his embrace. "Thank the gods! Alcmene! I'd thought I'd lost you!"
Alcmene returned the hug before shifting and allowing Hercules to take her into his strong arms. "Mother! I'm so glad you're all right!"
"I'm all right." She assured as she pulled back. Tears coursed down her face. "Thanks to Iolaus! Oh, Hercules! We almost made it! He gave his life--" She laid her head against her son's shoulder. "He gave his life for me!"
Too stunned to speak, all Hercules could do was hold his mother to him. He found himself overjoyed that his mother was safe, but screaming silent denials at the loss of the man who had been closer to him than his own mortal brother. He bent his head close to Alcmene's as tears of happiness and of sorrow mingled and ran down his cheeks.
Jason put a hand on his finance's shoulder. "It's all right, Alcmene. It's what Iolaus would have wanted."
Alcmene raised her head and glared at her man. "How can you talk like that? Iolaus was your friend!"
It was Phoebe who answered the angry query. "Jason means that Iolaus would rather he died so you could live than he surviving while you died."
Alcmene looked at the honorary Argonaut then at the man she loved. "Of course. I'm sorry, Jason."
"It's okay!" Jason reclaimed her into his arms and held her tight. "You've been through a lot! You loved Iolaus and he loved you, too. He didn't do any less than Hercules or Iphicles or I would have done."
Domesticles stepped closer. "Why don't we get Alcmene back to the palace? She could do with a long rest, I think." He glanced at Hercules, who was scanning the sea with glazed eyes. "We all could."
"Good idea, my friend," Jason agreed. He carefully rose, helping Alcmene to her feet. He put an arm protectively around her, letting her snuggle into his side. He studied the calm sea, perhaps hoping to catch a glimpse of a familiar blond head or purple vest. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, all he could do was silently thank his indomitable friend for saving the woman he loved.
"Phoebe, go, find Iphicles and the others," he commanded, gesturing towards the direction they now faced. "Let them know we've found Alcmene and what's become of Iolaus."
Phoebe nodded gravely, gave him and Alcmene both comforting touches on the arm before darting away to deliver the joyous and distressing news.
Hercules slowly got to his feet. His emotions were a mass of confusion and it showed clearly on his expressive face. Alcmene pulled away from Jason and again pulled her younger son into her comforting embrace. After a long moment, she gave him a sad smile as she cradled her right hand against his cheek. Quietly, so only he could hear, she whispered, "Don't be ashamed to grieve, my son. I'll understand. We all will."
Hercules nodded. Alcmene was telling him it was okay for him to be sad. She understood how deeply Hercules' and Iolaus' feelings had been for each other, so it was all right for him to be dejected instead of being happy for her return. "I know, but Phoebe was right. Iolaus wouldn't want me to be grieving his loss when you're standing here," he muttered. "He's probably yelling at me even now to get a grip."
She smiled, but the joy didn't reach her eyes. Tucking comfortably into his side, she wrapped an arm around him as they led the way back towards the palace. Feeling her exhaustion, he held her close, happy at her return but missing the exuberance and love of life that had been Iolaus. What he would give to have his best friend here now, cracking jokes, brushing away any help, insisting they take care of Alcmene.
As the small group strode slowly back up the beach, Archivus paused, speaking aloud as he scribbled in his journal. "And, so, the noble Iolaus gave up his life that Alcmene, mother of Hercules and bride to Jason, might live. It was a joyous day at the return of Alcmene, but it was also a sad day as the remaining Argonauts yet again mourned the loss of one of their own..."
Later that evening, Hercules stood in the castle's courtyard. He silently stared at the stars that covered the inky blackness of night. His musings were interrupted by the sound of hoofbeats on the hard ground. Deric stepped up beside him.
"I didn't get the chance to thank you for all your help earlier, Deric," Hercules said.
"I wish I'd remembered who Sera was much earlier. Maybe they wouldn't have had the chance to call that sea monster and Iolaus would still be alive."
"It's not your fault," the demigod looked up at his centaur friend. "Mother survived and that's all Iolaus would care about."
"But it still hurts to lose him," Deric replied, speaking from experience. There was a pause, then, "Jason tells me your mother is resting comfortably. They decided to hold the wedding tomorrow."
"What? Certainly Jason realizes she's not up to it!"
"It was your mother's idea," Deric corrected. "She couldn't see having to send for everybody again later when they were all still here."
Hercules smiled despite himself. "Yeah, she would." He sighed. "It's probably for the best. No reason to put it off and maybe it'll help."
"Yes," the centaur agreed. He flicked his tail at a biting insect. "I never had the opportunity to know your friend, Iolaus, but I think I would have liked him."
"I'm sure the two of you would have been friends," Hercules agreed. "He certainly was the best friend I'll ever have." Sighing heavily, the demigod returned his gaze to the sky above them. *Nobody will take your place, Iolaus. You've given me back my mother when you'd already given me everything I could ever want. I'll miss you, my friend.*
Iolaus shook his dripping hair before pushing it back from his face. He stood next to the town well of a little village the gods only knew where. He'd woken on the beach at daybreak, every inch of him feeling tacky from the salt water that had dried off him overnight. His slumber had been anything but restful and his muscles were stiff and sore from the battle the previous day.
After spending a long time sitting on the beach and staring at the sea, he'd walked several miles before coming across this village. The first thing he did getting into town was pull up a bucket of water from the communal well and rinse his arms, legs, face and hair. He'd worry about getting his clothes cleaned later, after he'd finished his mission about letting the others know what had happened to Alcmene.
He found a tavern and entered. There were only a couple of people in it; that included the man behind the bar. Ignoring his growling stomach, the weary warrior walked up to the burly bartender. "Can you tell me how far it is to Corinth?"
The man looked him up and down before meeting Iolaus' gaze. "Day and a half, maybe two, by foot."
"Damn," Iolaus muttered. The sea monster had taken him further down the coast than he thought. "You wouldn't happen to know of anybody heading in that direction, would you? By wagon or horse maybe? I've *got* to get to Corinth as soon as possible."
The man seemed to consider. "I've got a horse I'd be willing to sell ya." He grinned. "Twenty dinars."
"Twenty-- I haven't got twenty dinars!"
"How much have ya got?"
Iolaus reached down for his money pouch. It was gone. He must have lost while fighting the sea monster. "Well, nothing, actually. I lost my money pouch."
"Sure ya have!" came the sarcastic retort. He waved at the tavern entrance. "Don't waste my time! Get out!"
"You'll get your twenty dinars! I guarantee it, from King Iphicles himself!"
"King *Iphicles*? What kingdom does he rule? Not Corinth, that's for sure! If you're gonna try to scam somebody, buddy, at least get the name of the ruler right!"
"Iphicles just took over the crown yesterday!" Iolaus argued. "Jason stepped down to marry a commoner."
"Yeah, right, sure he did!"
Iolaus' temper flared. How dare this guy call him a liar! "Listen, you..." he stopped himself. He couldn't afford to get the man aggravated, not if he wanted his help and he didn't have time for a fight. He wasn't up to one anyway. He held up his hands in surrender. "All right. Whatever. I still need some way to get to Corinth quickly."
"Not my problem," the man answered calmly. "No dinars, no horse."
Dejected, Iolaus started turning away from the counter, then he paused. "How about a trade?"
The bartender perked up. "Trade?" he looked the bedraggled warrior up and down again as if to determine his worth. "What've ya got?"
Reluctantly, Iolaus pulled out the knife he and Hercules had forged together. As he looked at the long blade, he smiled faintly, remembering how they'd worked on it together. It was a physical symbol of their friendship. Well, it was appropriate that he'd be giving it up. After hearing he had failed to save Alcmene, Hercules would not want anything further to do with him.
He laid the weapon on the bar. "How about this?"
The man picked it up and scrutinized it closely. "It's seen some use, but it's good quality." He raised his gaze to meet Iolaus'. "What else have ya got?"
"Nothing, that's it."
"How 'bout that medallion? Bet that's worth a dinar or two."
The hunter reached up to grip his amulet. Before he could change his mind, he quickly pulled it over his head and offered it to the bartender. He schooled his features as he tried to push down the pain of further loss. "All right, where's this horse?" he demanded gruffly, before the man decided to take the vest off his back as well.
"This way." The greenstone medallion was tucked away as Iolaus was led outside the tavern to the dilapidated stable in back. In the only stall was a bay mare that had definitely seen better days. She was a bit thin; her coat was dull, the black mane and tail hung limply. But her eyes were bright and her ears pricked forward with interest as Iolaus approached. She snuffled Iolaus' hand as he reached out to rub her velvety muzzle.
"She's all yours," the man replied. "I've got customers." That said, he turned on his heel and left.
"Well, girl, it's just you and me." Iolaus remarked. He found an old bridle hanging from a nail and put it on the mare. She accepted it easily and allowed herself to be led from the stall with no objections.
Iolaus ran his hands down the length of each leg, picking up each hoof as he checked the shoes and made sure there was no debris caught in the feet. Last thing he needed was the mare to go lame on him. Fortunately, the shoes were on tight and she seemed very sound in the legs. Well, the trip to Corinth would tell.
Finding no saddle in the small stable, Iolaus fashioned a riding pad out of a folded-over blanket and a long strap cinched tight around her girth. Satisfied, he grabbed a handful of dark mane and leapt onto her back. She accepted his weight willingly. In fact, she perked up somewhat, her head and tail rising in anticipation as she moved restlessly, seemingly eager to be going.
"Good girl!" The hunter patted her slim neck comfortingly before urging her forward. He pulled her up only to get his bearings as they reached the main road through town. As soon as he knew which way to go, he only had to tug the reins slightly to get her facing the proper direction. With a soft clicking noise and a gentle nudge of his boot heels, the mare leapt forward so fast Iolaus was glad he'd taken a handful of mane to grip with the reins in his hands or else he would have been left picking himself off the ground.
The little mare flew down the road with a speed that would almost put Hermes in his saddles to shame. She was a very sound animal and certainly worth more than the twenty dinars the bartender had been asking. Once he delivered his news and left to exile himself from his friends, the hunter decided he would keep the mare, at least until he could find an excellent home for her. She deserved that much for the exceptional speed she was maintaining.
It was late afternoon when they approached Corinth. A thought struck him as he slowed the mare and let her walk. He'd probably find Hercules and Jason on the beach searching for clues near the wedding site. Hercules had once escaped from the belly of a sea monster and might figure he, Iolaus, would do his best to get out, too. He directed his mount in the proper direction and urged her into a slow trot.
As he approached the site, Iolaus noticed the smaller black banners fluttering above Corinth's golden ram's head standard. So, they knew Alcmene was dead. Maybe her body had washed up on shore. Iolaus feverently hoped Hercules had not been the one to find her. The demigod had lost so much already and, if losing his mother wouldn't be bad enough, having been the one to find her would be too much.
Reaching the entrance, Iolaus eased back on the reins, pulling the mare to a halt. He dismounted, led her to a patch of grass then, with a quick, grateful pat, left her to graze peacefully. Going through the short tunnel that led into the gardens, he heard applause come from the other side. Applause? What in Tartarus--?
As he crossed the threshold to the site, Iolaus stopped. A large crowd was gathered in the gardens, all attention directed the same direction Iolaus now faced-the obelisk at the far end of the site. Across the reflecting pool, at the base of the obelisk, stood Jason and... Alcmene? The hunter shook his head and looked again. The figure in white didn't fade. She was kissing Jason, then she pulled back and smiled at him. Even from the distance Iolaus stood from the couple, he could see the smile was happy, but sad, at the same time.
Sad? Why would she be sad? She's just married the man she loved, didn't she? Yes, there stood Amphion, Iphicles, Rena and Hercules, their attentions focused on the couple before them. Iolaus found himself walking slowly forward, to get a closer look, to be sure he wasn't hallucinating. Unnoticed by the confused warrior, as he passed groups of people, they stopped applauding, nudged each other and whispered amongst themselves, pointing at the disheveled hunter.
It was only as he reached the end of the pool and stood at the base of the steps that led to the obelisk, did Iolaus stop. His heart shouted joyfully as he realized the "vision" was, indeed, Alcmene. She was alive! Unfortunately, he was too weary to do more than just stare.
Suddenly, Alcmene pulled her gaze from Jason, turned and looked straight at Iolaus. Her eyes widened as she put a hand to her mouth, as if to cut off a scream. Jason and the rest of the wedding party turned and Iolaus realized he was the center of attention.
The hunter heard Hercules' cheerful shout, but it was Alcmene who reached him first, throwing her arms around him and hugging him tightly. Iolaus could feel tears dripping onto his bare neck as the woman who was a second mother to him clung to him with one arm as she stroked his matted blond hair with a trembling hand. Finally, she pulled back, but continued to stroke his hair as she stared at him, her face red and tear-streaked, her eyes glowing.
"You're alive! Oh, you're alive!" she cried happily.
"Of course I am," he replied, confused, "but I thought you were-- When we got separated, I thought I'd lost--"
Any further words were lost as dozens of people, or so it seemed, converged on him in joyous reunion. He caught a glimpse of Jason, Iphicles, Amphion, Archivus, and Domesticles, as they each greeted him with a warrior's handshake; Phoebe and Dirce giving him quick hugs, tears also in their eyes. Everybody moved back and Iolaus unexpectedly found himself in a rib-bruising hug as he was lifted off the ground. Happily, he thumped his best friend on the back in greeting.
"Herc?" he wheezed after a moment. "Uh, Herc? Do you mind, I can't--"
"Hercules," came the calmer, authoritative voice of Jason, "I think you'd better let Iolaus breathe." Iolaus couldn't be sure, but it sounded as if the former king of Corinth was chuckling.
A pause, then he was released and set gently back on his feet. He gasped air back into his lungs as he smiled up at his friend. "I'm all right," he assured when he regained his senses, " but I thought Alcmene had--" he stopped as he spied her again. He held out a hand, which she accepted tightly, and pulled her into another hug. Tears filmed his eyes as he swallowed heavily. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get separated from you. I thought you'd drowned. I'm so sorry."
"Iolaus," Jason laughed, "only you would apologize for coming back from the dead!"
Alcmene gave her new husband a shushing look. Gently pushing the hunter back, she smiled at the third son of her heart. "Oh, Iolaus, that wasn't your fault. The important thing is we're both here now. Thank you for saving my life."
Eyes still shining with unshed tears, he shrugged as if it were of no consequence. "Hey, that's what we heroes do, right?" Suddenly, he turned to regard Jason. "Dead? You thought *I* was-"
"Yes. Why else would we be flying the black banners?"
"I thought they were for Alcmene." Iolaus shook his head, then looked at his best friend and grinned. "It certainly explains the greeting I received."
"Don't scare us like that!" Hercules scolded, clapping the hunter on the shoulder.
"What happened to you?" Archivus, quill poised above his tome, asked. "Alcmene was found on the beach not too far from here. Where did you end up?"
"I'm not sure. I didn't really care, I thought I'd failed in my attempts to save Alcmene. All I wanted to do was get back here and let you know what happened to her before I exiled myself--" He shut up abruptly. "Anyway, that doesn't matter. Alcmene's safe, that's all that *does* matter!"
Iolaus swayed suddenly. Hercules swiftly grabbed him before he could fall. "Whoa! Take it easy, Iolaus."
"I'm all right!" the warrior insisted though he clung to his friend's arm tightly. "Everything's fine!"
Jason snorted. "I doubt that! I'd bet Corinth's crown you haven't had much quality sleep or anything to eat since yesterday. Am I right?"
Iolaus leaned into the demigod's side. *Just until I'm steady on my feet again,* he told himself. He giggled. "You don't have Corinth's crown anymore, my friend!"
"Doesn't matter," Hercules remarked, steering his bedraggled companion towards the entrance. "He's right, isn't he? Let's get you something to eat and a nice, warm bed." He glanced over his shoulder at his brother. "The palace has a room to spare, doesn't it, Iphicles?" He grinned at his mortal half-brother.
"Absolutely!" Iphicles answered with a smile and a nod.
Alcmene hurried to Iolaus' other side and put her arm around his waist so both she and Hercules were leading him off. She smiled happily when he gave her an astonished glance. "Don't look at me like that, Iolaus."
"But don't you have a honeymoon to enjoy?"
"Jason will understand. He can't expect me to have a good time when my son needs tending to, can he?"
Iolaus smiled tiredly at her. "I'm so glad you're all right. I was so sure I'd let everybody down."
"So sure, that you were going to run away after telling us what happened." Hercules stated. He hadn't missed his friend's slip in the conversation earlier.
"If I couldn't live with myself knowing I'd allowed Alcmene to die, how could I expect you and Jason to even want me around?"
Alcmene tightened her grip around Iolaus' waist in a quick hug. "Not want you around? Of course they'd want my hero around!"
"Of course you are!" the new bride amended. "You saved my life, you're my hero!"
Hercules smiled down at his exhausted friend. "I wouldn't argue with her, Iolaus. You know how stubborn she can be!"
"Yeah." Iolaus grinned inanely. Even as he walked, he felt his eyelids start to close and his knees begin to buckle, but couldn't find the strength to stop it. So exhausted was he that he never felt Hercules lift him up and carry him in his arms. Alcmene brushed the blond locks tenderly out of Iolaus' face and kissed his cheek before falling back into step beside her tall son as they continued on their way to Corinth's palace.
Iolaus slowly became aware of his surroundings. He was in a soft bed, covered up to his chest with a satiny sheet. He sighed, enjoying the feel of the cool fabric on his arms, legs, abdomen... Suddenly, he s napped open his eyes and sat up quickly. *Oh, for the love of Zeus!* He was totally naked under the covers.
Chuckling, he lay back down. His clothes *did* need to be cleaned and unconscious or deeply asleep was the only way Alcmene was ever able to get the garments off him long enough to be cleaned.
Alcmene. She was alive! Iolaus smiled and whispered a quick "thanks" to whichever god had seen fit to protect her. The hunter would have bet his last dinar if it had been any god, it had been Zeus. He always did have a thing for Alcmene.
Iolaus heard the door open and turned his head to face that direction. Jason walked in with the blond warrior's freshly cleaned clothes. He'd just laid them across the back of a chair, next to the shined boots and gauntlets when he caught glimpse of Iolaus awake and staring quietly at him.
"Well, welcome back!" Jason smiled. He stepped up to the bed. "Does this mean I can get on with my honeymoon?" he teased.
"After you hand me my clothes, you can," Iolaus retorted.
"I think you're going to stay in bed for a little while longer," came Alcmene's cheerful voice from the doorway. She entered, Hercules coming up beside her. Alcmene was dressed in a lovely blue gown, her silky hair hanging loose about her shoulders.
"Hey!" Iolaus greeted. He pushed himself upright to accept the warrior's handshake his best friend offered. The demigod beamed as he gave the blond a friendly pat on the shoulder.
"You look well-rested, my friend."
"I feel well-rested, believe me!"
Alcmene gave the son of her heart a welcoming kiss on the cheek before sitting on the bed beside him. Iolaus sat up, positioning the comfortable pillow so he could lean against it and making sure the sheet stayed snug against his abdomen. Alcmene smiled at his modesty, but refrained from making any jokes about having already seen every inch of the hunter while tending various wounds over the years. "Are you hungry?"
"Famished!" He grinned then his face fell in disappointment. "Don't tell me I slept through the wedding feast?"
"'Fraid so, old friend," Jason answered, "but we saved the best of the venison for you!"
"You didn't have to do that! A couple of chops would have sufficed!"
Knowing his partner's bottomless pit of a stomach, Hercules snorted his opinion of that remark.
"Only the best for my hero," Alcmene commented.
"Mother," Hercules stated, "you keep this up and I won't be able to live with him! Not that I'll be able to once he starts telling his tale on how he escaped from the inside of a sea monster."
"Don't forget how I saved your mother's life," the compact warrior added. "I'll have to make sure Archivus hears all about it!"
Alcmene laughed with the others, then turned serious. "There's no sign of your greenstone amulet, Iolaus. You must have lost it while battling the sea monster."
Iolaus stopped giggling as he remembered how he'd really "lost" the medallion that had been one of his few precious possessions. "Not really," he said. He looked up at his male companions. "Did you guys get that horse that was by the gardens?"
"That scraggly bay mare?" At Iolaus' nod, Jason added, "Yeah, Phoebe noticed her. Deric said she'd been run hard, so we figured that was how you got here."
"You must have really have been hard up to use her. There's nothing to her!"
"Nothing but a lot of spirit," Iolaus amended. "She ran like the wind! She's an excellent mount, well trained and very responsive. Only the guy who traded her to me didn't know that or else he would have demanded more than just my amulet for her."
"Iolaus," Hercules interrupted, "you traded your amulet for a horse? Surely, there had to be another way for you to get to Corinth! You couldn't have found a trader heading this way or walked?"
"No time to walk. Tavern owner told me it was almost a two day journey to walk and I had to let you know what happened as soon as I could."
"But-- your medallion? It was all you had."
"That and the knife we'd forged," the hunter confessed, not meeting his best friend's astonished look.
"Why didn't you tell the man you knew the king and he would get reimbursed?" Jason wanted to know. "I know Iphicles would have--"
It was Iolaus' turn to snort in derision. "He didn't believe me. *I* wouldn't have believed me either. I did look pretty shabby." He shrugged. "It doesn't matter." The distressed look in his eyes belied his casually spoken words.
"It does, too, matter," Alcmene stated sternly, knowing full well how much Iolaus had valued the beloved items. "When you're up to it, you and Hercules will go back to that village and trade back the horse for your things!"
"I'm not trading that horse back to that guy! She's too good a mount for the likes of him! Besides, she doesn't belong to me anyway." He looked at Jason. "I'm giving her to you for a wedding gift."
Jason laid a hand on his bride's shoulder. He felt Alcmene put her hand over his. "You've already given me the best wedding gift a man could want, Iolaus, when you saved Alcmene. I don't want your horse."
"I can't use her. She deserves a decent owner, Jason, and I know you like horseback riding. She's excellent and well-tempered."
Sighing in resignation, the former king stated, "All right. I'll take her to Thebes with us when we go there. Thank you."
Seeing Alcmene about to speak and fearing she was going to bring up the topic about his bartered items, the hunter asked, "So, do I get this prize venison or do I waste away to nothing here?"
"Hey, you can get up and go to the kitchen," Hercules retorted, sweeping his hand from the bed towards the open door, "we won't stop you!"
"Hercules." Alcmene scolded lightly. She stood up. "I'll bring you a tray, dear."
"No," Jason corrected, grabbing his new wife's hands to stop her from leaving. "Hercules will bring him a tray. We are going to get out of here and have our honeymoon. I waited until Iolaus was awake and you knew he was fine, but enough already." He grinned at Iolaus to take the sting out of his reprimand.
"Yes, go!" Iolaus waved his hands in a shooing motion. "Before he starts to drool, Alcmene!"
"You're lucky I'm not the king anymore, Iolaus," Jason shot back as he steered his beautiful bride towards the door. "That little remark would have been your head."
Hercules bid the couple farewell, then turned to his errant partner. "So, c'mon, get dressed and we'll head down to the kitchen and get you something to eat."
"Is that all you have to say to the hero of the day? 'C'mon?' How about that tray Alcmene promised?"
"Mother promised, I didn't."
Iolaus mock-grumbled under his breath. Louder, he remarked, "Ingrate."
Hercules laughed. "You know, if you'd shown up a little earlier during the wedding, you would have heard Iphicles' speech about your noble sacrifice and how you were one of Corinth's greatest heroes. Of course, he can take it all back, now."
Iolaus didn't hear the teasing part of his friend's statement. "'One of Corinth's greatest heroes?'" he sputtered, incredulous. "Iphicles said *that*? Your brother? The current king of Corinth?"
"Don't look so surprised, Iolaus." The son of Zeus put a hand on the hunter's shoulder. "He only stated out loud what we've known for years."
"Thanks, Herc, that means a lot."
The back-to-back heroes smiled at one another, the warm look that passed between them speaking volumes about the feelings each experienced for the other. The moment was broken when Iolaus' stomach decided to rumble loudly.
Hercules smiled, stepping back. "Okay! One venison dinner coming up! I'm on it!"
Iolaus smiled as the bigger man exited the room. Placing his hands behind his head and whistling off-key, he leaned back into the pillow. After a few minutes, he suddenly sat up, thrust aside the bedding, and swung his legs over the edge to touch the floor. He reached out and snagged his black breeches and loincloth from the chair. He held the items for a moment, fingering the clean fabric. He glanced at the other articles of clothing stacked by the chair, at the bed and back at what lay on his lap.
"Ah, the heck with it," he muttered. He tossed the breeches and breechcloth back onto the hard-backed chair, swung his legs back onto the bed under the silky sheets and eased himself back onto the pillow behind him. How often did he get the chance to enjoy being treated like a real hero? Spend some restful time in a castle doing nothing at all except being waited upon?
He grinned. *Might as well enjoy it while I got it. I sure hope Herc has the presence of mind to have one of the pretty palace maids serve me my dinner.*
Several days later, Hercules and a well-rested Iolaus determined it was time to head out. They'd got wind of trouble in a neighboring province and decided to see what the trouble was. The wedding guests had long since departed, even Dirce, Amphion, Leah, and the Argonauts, who had all stayed long enough to greet Iolaus after he had awoken before they themselves left. Archivus dutifully spent an evening writing down Iolaus' telling of his hazardous, heroic adventure, finally giving the blond warrior the recognition he so richly deserved.
His left hand gripping the hilt of the sheathed sword hanging from his belt, Iolaus paused in the courtyard to wait for his traveling companion to catch up. Nodding as the demigod reached his side, the hunter turned to leave.
"Hold up a moment."
The two partners paused as they watched Corinth's newest king approach. Iphicles stopped beside his more famous brother, but looked at the smaller warrior. "Iolaus, I haven't taken the time to thank you yet for saving Mother. I know we've been at odds in the past, but I owe you at least that much."
Iolaus smiled. "Iphicles, it's all right. You don't need--"
"Don't interrupt the King," Iphicles ordered sternly. He smiled a moment later to take the sting out of his words. "I know we've been at odds in the past," he repeated, "so I wanted to give you something to make it up to you and to thank you for what you did." He held out a largish, wrapped bundle.
Slowly, Iolaus accepted the gift. He glanced at Hercules, who shrugged his lack of knowledge of the presentation, then unfolded the cloth. Inside lay his knife and, beneath it, his amulet.
Iphicles smiled. "I paid a visit to that little village where you bartered those items. The owner was more than happy to relinquish possession when he saw how much his King admired the things. A coronation gift, he called them. He practically begged me to accept them."
Smiling, Iolaus looked up at his best friend's mortal brother. "Thanks, Iph-- Your Majesty."
"That's plain ole Iphicles to you, Iolaus. I think we've been through enough to be on the familiar, don't you?"
"Yeah, of course," Iolaus held out his hand, "Iphicles."
Iphicles accepted the hand. He nodded to his brother. "Hercules. Take care."
"I will, Iphicles. You do the same."
After Iphicles had gone, the demigod looked down at this partner. Iolaus gave his returned weapon a critical once-over, then stashed it back where it belonged. He held up his amulet a long moment before returning it to its usual resting-place.
Hercules smiled. "Now you look like you."
"I feel like me, too," Iolaus grinned at his tall companion. "What once was lost is now found."
Clapping his brother of the heart on the shoulder and grinning like an idiot, Hercules answered, "I couldn't have said it better myself, buddy, I couldn't have said it better myself."
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