Iolaus sauntered back to the clearing whistling, feeling inordinately happy with life. He'd caught a string of plump rabbits and was looking forward to a leisurely evening around the camp fire with Hercules, Xena and Gabrielle. They had met up the previous day and planned to spend a few days together at a festival. He grinned happily in anticipation as he thought about spending time with Gabrielle. She'd seemed exceptionally pleased to see him and that gave him more pleasure than he'd dare admit.
As he neared the camp he stopped whistling and approached stealthily, planning to creep up on his friends. The sound of voices floated towards him.
"The thing is, I just don't know how to tell him without hurting his feelings."
Hercules' voice. Who were they talking about?
"You have to, Hercules." Xena's deep tones. "Personally, I don't understand how you've put up with the little runt all these years anyway. That, if nothing else, makes you a real hero!" The sound of laughter.
Iolaus froze on the spot, heart pounding. ‘Little runt?' They couldn't be talking about him. It was impossible.
Hercules' voice again. "Well, it hasn't always been easy. But to be fair, he's had his uses. He's a good tracker, he's handy in a fight and sometimes he even manages to deflect the attentions of some of the opposite sex!" More laughter. "But lately, he's been getting on my nerves so much that it outweighs everything else. He never stops chattering and that incessant whistling and singing - if he could sing in tune it would be something, but I think he's completely tone deaf. It drives me wild."
"Then you have to get rid of him, Hercules, for both your sakes." Gabrielle's voice. *Gabrielle*!?
"I know. I just don't know how to do it without hurting his feelings. I've let him trail around after me all these years like a little puppy. It'll be like kicking out a pet dog because its barking gets on your nerves." More laughter.
"But, Hercules," Xena again, voice serious now. "You have to face it. One day his recklessness is going to get someone hurt."
"Yeah," Hercules agreed, "that's another thing that worries me. I mean, I'm a half god, I can handle most situations on my own. But more often than not, his lack of judgement gets us both into trouble. If he charges into a fight one more time without thinking about the consequences ...." he paused. "You're right. One day it'll end with someone getting hurt. He's become too much of a liability. No. I have to tell him."
They moved away then and the sound of their laughter floated back to him on the wind. Iolaus stood frozen where he was, unable to move. He could feel tears running down his cheeks, but was powerless to stop them. His chest felt tight, he felt sick, as if someone had kicked him in the gut and his head was pounding. It was too much to bear ......
Iolaus woke with a start. For a moment he didn't know where he was. Then, as awareness returned, he found he was lying in a clearing, looking up at the stars in a clear sky. His heart was thumping, he felt completely desolate, as if someone had torn a hole in his heart and, to his astonishment, he felt tears on his cheeks. He lay quietly for a few moments, until the beating of his heart stilled. He must have been dreaming, but he couldn't remember any of it. He looked across to where Hercules was sleeping peacefully on the other side of the fire. As he looked at his friend, the feeling of pain momentarily returned. He lay for a while, trying to remember the dream that had caused such a disturbing reaction, but it eluded him. After a while, he dozed off.
"Don't worry about him, Gabrielle. It will be good for him to have to stand on his own two feet for a change. He's ridden on the back of Hercules' reputation for long enough. I never really understood why he tagged after him all the time. I guess it's the only way he gets any glory, feels like a real man. He certainly couldn't on his own."
"Well, maybe he'll stop bugging me if he isn't with Hercules any more. I should never have let him kiss me after the Prometheus thing - it seems to have given him the idea that I like him."
"So, why did you?"
"Because I felt sorry for him. I thought it would make him feel better about himself. And it seems to have done the trick. As if I could find him attractive when there's someone like Hercules around! Anyway, I could never respect a man who let himself be duped the way he did with you."
Xena grimaced. "Don't remind me. Making love to him was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. It just shows how full of hate I was then. I'd have done anything to get to Hercules."
Iolaus couldn't listen to any more. He tried to move, to turn and run away, but his foot landed on a dry twig. The loud ‘crack' as the twig broke attracted their attention and as he reluctantly took a step forward he found himself staring into three pairs of eyes. Eyes that looked at him with pity, scorn and rejection.
"Iolaus! Iolaus, wake up!" Iolaus woke abruptly and his sharp reflexes immediately caused him to hit out at the person who was trying to hold him down. But Hercules had been expecting that and deflected the blow.
"Iolaus! It's Hercules. It's alright. You've been dreaming."
Iolaus opened his eyes and found himself looking into the concerned blue eyes of his best friend. He wasn't surprised to find that he was crying again, that his heart was thumping and the feelings of hurt and desolation had returned.
"That must have been some dream." Hercules said lightly, trying to hide his concern. Iolaus never cried, not even in his sleep. "Do you remember what it was about?"
There was a pause, then Iolaus muttered, "No. I can't remember anything. I'm OK now, it was just a dream. Go back to sleep, Herc."
"Iolaus, you've been having bad dreams like this for days now. I know I said I wouldn't nag you about it, but there must be some reason for it. Are you sure there isn't something worrying you that you want to talk about?"
Iolaus forced a smile and lay back down. "No. I'm fine. I told you before. I don't know why I'm having bad dreams. Maybe I just need a break. I'll be fine once we get to Egina, you know how much I love a festival. I'm sorry I woke you, OK? Go back to sleep."
Hercules sighed and reluctantly moved back to his own blankets. There was obviously something wrong. But if Iolaus didn't want to talk about it, getting him to open up was next to impossible until he chose to share the problem. By then, it was usually too late to do anything about it.
Iolaus listened until he heard the steady breathing that told him his friend had gone back to sleep. But the hunter lay awake for a long time. This time the feeling that his life was falling apart wouldn't go away and he felt constantly on the verge of tears.
He knew he should talk to Hercules about this, but he didn't know what to tell him. He didn't know what was happening to him, so how could he talk about it? Anyway, they were due to meet Xena and Gabrielle the next day. They were planning to spend a few days together at a festival. Earlier, he'd been excited at the prospect of seeing the warrior princess and the young bard. Despite their past, Iolaus and Xena had formed a friendship forged from mutual respect and he usually looked forward to their meetings. Then there was Gabrielle. He still wasn't sure how he really felt about Gabrielle. When they'd first met and she'd stayed with him in the cave when he thought he was going to die, he'd felt a closeness to her that he'd rarely felt with a woman since Ania. Yet even as he'd kissed her, he'd been confused by the strong attraction he felt towards her. She was so young, hardly more than a girl and she had so little experience of the world. Now, after travelling with Xena for so long, she'd changed, matured and his feelings were changing also. But as he thought about their meeting the next day, the feeling of desolation and pain seemed to grow to encompass the two women. Instead of anticipation, he felt only anxiety at the thought of meeting them.
Eventually, worn out with the emotion of it all, he fell asleep.
"Iolaus, are you alright? You've been very quiet all morning."
Before Iolaus had chance to answer, Hercules, overhearing the comment, replied with a laugh, "Hey, Gabrielle, don't complain! I usually have a problem getting him to shut up!"
‘He never stops chattering.....' With a sudden flash of memory Iolaus heard Hercules uttering the words, a tone of exasperation in his voice. He was stung. "I'm ... I'm sorry. I didn't realise I got on your nerves so much."
Hercules had been expecting a sassy rejoinder and was surprised at the serious tone of his friend's voice. "You don't get on my nerves, Iolaus. It was a joke!" But he couldn't resist adding, "Of course, your singing is a different matter ....."
‘..... the incessant whistling and singing - if he could sing in tune, it would be something, but I think he's completely tone deaf. It drives me wild.' Iolaus stopped in confusion as the words popped into his mind, looking at his friend with a mixture of puzzlement and hurt.
Hercules started to speak, really concerned now at his friend's uncharacteristic reaction to a spot of gentle ribbing, but Iolaus looked away quickly and walked on ahead. "We'd better up the pace a bit if we're to get to Egina by sundown."
Gabrielle looked at Hercules, puzzled at Iolaus' sudden change of mood. He shrugged helplessly. He didn't want to tell the others yet that he was concerned about his friend. Not until Iolaus chose to talk to him.
Xena, who'd been leading Argo behind the others, caught up and raised her eyebrows in silent query.
"It's nothing," Hercules said hurriedly. "We'd better catch up or we really won't get to Egina by sundown."
Iolaus was beginning to wonder if he was going mad. He and Hercules had met up with Xena and Gabrielle that morning as planned. They had both welcomed him warmly, Gabrielle spontaneously flinging her arms round his neck, then stepping back hastily and reddening as Xena cast an amused look in her direction. The four had set off towards Egina. As he listened to the conversation around him, nothing seemed out of place. Yet constantly in his mind were snatches of remembered conversation, things said about him by the other three that he could never have imagined them saying but which hurt him deeply. But after a while, as Gabrielle, her arm linked in his, chattered away about her latest adventures, he managed to push back the strange thoughts and began to feel himself again as he began to relax in her company.
They reached Egina by early evening and after obtaining rooms in the inn, settled down for a much needed meal. Although he still wasn't feeling quite himself, Iolaus tried to join in the conversation, entertaining Xena and Gabrielle with a story of a recent encounter Hercules had had with some adoring villagers. But as the evening wore on he became more and more quiet. For some reason he felt uncomfortable, out of place, as if he shouldn't be here with his friends. Try as he might to shake off the strange feeling, it only grew until he felt he just had to get away. He made an excuse about needing some air and slipped outside.
Gabrielle had been getting more and more concerned at his uncharacteristically quiet behaviour. When he hadn't returned after a few minutes she went to look for him and eventually found him a little way out of town, leaning on a bridge, looking out over the river. She hesitated for a moment before joining him. He seemed deep in thought and by the unhappy set of his face, he wasn't thinking pleasant thoughts. Yet he looked up and smiled as he saw her approaching, so she joined him and for a while they stood in comfortable silence. Although she didn't say anything, he saw in her eyes concern and affection and something else that made his heart miss a beat. She was standing in the moonlight and as he looked at her he suddenly thought how beautiful she was and how much he'd like to hold her in his arms. Tentatively, giving her plenty of time to pull away, he drew her into his arms and kissed her gently. She responded instantly, pulling him closer, mouth opening under his.
‘I could never respect a man who let himself be duped the way he did with you.' The statement popped into his mind from nowhere. Confused, he pulled away abruptly.
"I ... I'm sorry Gabrielle. I think .... I can't do this right now. I'm sorry. I .... I'll see you in the morning." He walked away quickly, leaving a confused and hurt Gabrielle standing alone in the moonlight.
Gabrielle returned to the tavern and sat down silently. Xena looked up.
"Iolaus." Gabrielle said quietly. "He .... I .... Hercules, have I done something to upset him?"
Hercules shook his head. "It's not you, Gabrielle. He hasn't been himself for days. Ever since ...."
"Ever since what?"
"He's been having bad dreams." Hercules said slowly. "Every night he wakes up several times, crying as if his heart's breaking. I've asked him about it several times, but every time he says it was just a dream and he doesn't remember it. He won't talk about it. You know what he's like. I've been putting off confronting him .... I thought maybe he just needed a break. The gods know, we haven't had much time to relax in the past few months."
Xena looked thoughtful. After a moment she said, "Has anything happened that would upset him so much?"
"I can't think of anything. Things have been hectic lately, we seem to move on from one crisis to another, but nothing unusual, nothing that has seemed to bother him."
"You may be right, Hercules, but I really think you should talk to him. It may be a deeper problem than you think."
Hercules looked uncomfortable. "I don't want him to think we've been talking about him. Let's see how he is over the next couple of days."
The other two nodded in agreement, but Xena still looked thoughtful.
The next few days passed uneventfully and pleasurably for the four friends. Iolaus seemed more relaxed, although he was still quieter than usual and Gabrielle tried to hide her disappointment that he didn't seek out her company specifically, but seemed content for the four of them to spend time together. She couldn't know that he was afraid to be alone with her in case he hurt her by pulling away again. He was still waking up in the night with the same feelings of desolation and had no idea that Hercules was lying awake too, watching helplessly as he tossed and turned under the influence of the dreams.
On the final day of the festival the four were sitting companionably outside the tavern eating a meal, watching some children playing together.
Laughing at a small toddler following his older brother around, Gabrielle turned to Iolaus and said, "He's following him round just like a puppy."
‘I've let him trail around after me all these years like a little puppy - it'll be like kicking out a pet dog because its barking gets on your nerves.'
As the words coursed through his mind Iolaus felt dizzy and the world around him seemed to be going round in circles. Suddenly, and with utmost clarity, he remembered the conversation he'd overheard that evening in the woods. He could remember clearly every word they'd said, felt again the sickening pain in his heart as the words sunk in. He hardly realised that he'd risen to his feet, his face ashen. Swaying, he almost fell.
Hercules, who was sitting across the table, rose to his feet in alarm. "Iolaus?"
Iolaus looked around at the faces of the people he loved best in the world and felt again the agony of his world shattering around him. This, then, was what had been happening for the past week. He must have repressed the painful memory of that overheard conversation and it had been coming back slowly, bit by bit, until Gabrielle's comment had triggered something and released the whole memory.
He could feel the wetness as tears trickled slowly down his face as he spoke. "When were you going to tell me?"
"Tell you what? Iolaus, what"s the matter?" Gabrielle got up, arm outstretched to touch his shoulder, but he moved away from her abruptly. His eyes were locked on Hercules'. "I just don't understand how you could have carried on with the lie all these years. If you didn't want me with you, if I was just a ... a ... burden ......" his voice broke off with a sob.
Hercules, really concerned now, moved round the table and took him by the shoulders. "Iolaus? I don't understand. What are you talking about? What lie?"
Iolaus shook him off angrily. "I heard you. The three of you. Last time we met. I'd been hunting .... I came back and heard you .... talking about me. About how you needed to .... get rid of me. You don't need to pretend any more. I know how you feel and what you think of me."
Hercules fought back a rising sense of panic and tried to keep calm. He looked the hunter in the eye and said, "Why would I want to get rid of you? You know I love you like a brother, Iolaus. What's happened to make you think any differently?"
"I thought you did, Hercules, I really thought you did." His face was a mask of pain and betrayal. "I've got to get out of here .... I can't ...." He'd turned away from them and was running before any of his stunned friends could react.
After a moment, Hercules recovered himself and took off after his friend.
Hearing Hercules pounding after him Iolaus wheeled round and shouted, "Leave me alone. Don't come near me."
But Iolaus was gone, running into the woods and quickly lost among the trees. Hercules stopped abruptly. Xena and Gabrielle came running up and skidded to a halt beside him.
"Hercules? What just happened?" Gabrielle asked, worry and fear for the hunter evident in her voice.
"I don't know. He said something about carrying on with a lie all these years ... that I saw him as a burden ...."
"And he said that he knew now how we all really feel about him." Xena continued. "Hercules, this has to have something to do with the dreams he's been having. It's too much of a coincidence."
"Yeah, you're right." Hercules agreed. "I should have made him talk to me earlier ...."
"Don't blame yourself. There's something strange going on here and we need to find out what it is before someone gets hurt. We'd better get after him, Hercules. In the state he was in ...."
She stopped speaking suddenly, looking around her suspiciously.
"Xena? What is it?"
"I'm not sure. I can feel something .... there's someone here ....."
There was a flash, and a tall, black-clad figure materialised, laughing loudly. "Xena! You always could sense my presence! It's good to see you!"
Xena scowled at the god of war. "Well, it's a distinct displeasure to see you, Ares. What do you want?"
He laughed again. "Warm and loving as always, Xena! You malign me. I just thought you'd like to know what's wrong with your little friend."
Hercules leapt to his feet, fists clenched, ready to lay into the god. "What have you done, Ares?"
Xena laid a warning hand on his arm. "Hold on, Hercules. Don't let him bait you. Ares, I assume you're going to tell us what's going on - you wouldn't be here otherwise."
"Only if my dear brother calms down a bit."
Hercules glowered, but acknowledged Xena's warning glance and stood back, arms at his sides, but with fists still clenched. "Get on with it Ares."
"Your little friend believes that you all hate him. He thinks you," he nodded at the demigod, "have only put up with him all these years because you feel sorry for him." He looked at Xena. "He thinks you despise him because he's weak and," he waved a hand lazily in Gabrielle's direction, "he's convinced the annoying blond here thinks he's nothing but a nuisance. Understandably, poor little man, he's a bit upset about this."
"And what has made him think these things, Ares?" said Xena, voice like ice.
The god of war smiled. "Oh, Xena, you should be proud of me. Morpheus owed me one so he gave me a few lessons in inducing dreams - special dreams that turn into memories. I made your little friend dream that he'd overheard a conversation the three of you had about him." He grinned. "I must say I've really enjoyed watching him .... suffering .... every night. You did all say some rather unpleasant things about him, you know. No wonder he was in such a state every time he woke up! Now, now, brother," he warned, as Hercules made to step forward again, "do you want to hear the rest or not?"
Xena swallowed her own desire to knock the mocking grin off Ares' face and moved closer to Hercules. "Let him finish," she said in a low voice. "We need to know what's going on."
Once again, Hercules forced himself to stand back, but his eyes glowed with anger. Ares smiled at the demigod and continued, "So, when the time was right, I turned the dreams into memories and let him remember. He really believes that it happened. He believes you all hate him, and there's nothing any of you can do about it!"
"Why, Ares?" Hercules growled, advancing towards the god, unable to hold back his anger any longer.
Ares backed away, grinning. "Why? Isn't it obvious? I'd do anything to hurt you, dear brother, surely you know that by now! Think about it. But I really don't think you should be wasting your time with me, Hercules. You'd better get after your friend. In his current state of mind there's no knowing what he might do .... or what kind of ‘accident' he might have!"
"Ares!" Hercules screamed in frustration as his half-brother disappeared in a flash. Then, anger suddenly replaced by fear, he turned to the others urgently. "We've got to find Iolaus. There's no knowing what Ares might do ...."
"You get moving, Hercules," Xena said. "I'll go get Argo and we'll follow you."
Hercules nodded and ran off into the forest in the direction his friend had taken, praying that he wouldn't be too late.
Iolaus ran headlong through the wood until exhaustion forced him to stop. Panting with exertion, he waited until he'd got his breath back, then looked around him. He'd come to an area where the trees had thinned to reveal the edge of a cliff that stretched as far as he could see. He peered cautiously over the edge. The slope was steep, but not sheer, and below a small river snaked its way through a narrow gorge. There was probably a bridge further downstream but he had no idea how far that might be. He figured he could probably get down easily enough if he was careful and then he could follow the river to wherever it led. He didn't really care where that was, so long as it was far from here.
He moved away from the edge of the cliff, sat down wearily on a fallen long and put his head in his hands. His head was thumping and he couldn't think straight. He tried to force himself to calm down, to think rationally about what had just happened. A big part of his mind was telling him that it must be a mistake, he must be getting his dreams mixed up with reality. Hercules was his best friend. He was his brother. He'd told him that, hadn't he? Just before he went to Mount Olympus with Zeus, Hercules had told Iolaus that he thought of him as a brother. And he'd returned from Olympus because he missed his family. ‘And that's you!' he'd said. Until now, the hunter had always felt a warm glow whenever he remembered that conversation. Hercules had come back for him. Surely that couldn't all have been a lie.
He spent a while thinking back to some of the adventures he and Hercules had shared. They'd always been there for each other, since they were kids. ‘Back to back' heroes they'd promised to be. And over the years that was what they had been. Hercules had even been to the underworld for him, to bring him back from the dead.
But the memory of that overheard conversation was crystal clear. He knew exactly when it had taken place - a few months ago when they'd last met up with Xena and Gabrielle. He couldn't remember what had happened after he'd stepped on the twig. He guessed he must have confronted them and then blanked out the memory somehow. He'd heard of that happening before, where the mind blocked out the memory of something painful. If it had happened - and there was no doubt in his mind that it had - then it had to be true. All these years he'd been deluding himself that he and Hercules were best friends when all the time Hercules had viewed him like a little kid, letting him trail round after him because he was too nice to tell him he wasn't wanted.
But why had they all been behaving as if nothing had happened? With a new stab of pain he realised that it was probably because they'd been afraid of what he might do if they told him the truth. Hercules had said be felt sorry for him, hadn't he? He was just being kind. While all the time the demigod must be wondering how he was ever going to get rid of him.
Gods! He was so confused. It was so hard to think beyond the pain in his heart. Everything he'd based his life on had crumbled to pieces around him. There was nothing left. He wondered what the three of them were doing now. They must be relieved that it was finally all out in the open again. Would they come after him? He wasn't sure, but he certainly wasn't going to risk letting them find him. A part of him was saying that he should go back and talk to them, that this was some kind of terrible mistake. But he couldn't face Hercules, not now. Not if it was true. He needed to get far away from this place to some place where he could think about what he was going to do next. How he was going to live without his best friend.
An almost physical bolt of pain shot through him as he realised that he might never see his friend again, or Gabrielle whom he thought he was coming to love, or Xena whom he had come to respect.
He sat for a while, trying to think things through, but all he could think about was the pain of loss and he found himself fighting back tears again. Eventually, he got to his feet wearily and prepared to move on.
At that moment there was a flash and a black clad figure materialised a few feet away. Ares. The god of war stood before him, arms folded, a wide grin on his face. "Well, Iolaus, fancy seeing you here."
Iolaus looked at Ares warily. "What do you want, Ares?"
"What's the matter, Iolaus? You look a mess." He moved closer and Iolaus backed slowly away. "What's this I see? A tear? You haven't been crying, have you? A big, brave warrior like you?"
"Get lost, Ares. I'm not in the mood."
Ares, however, was in too good a mood himself to be angered by the mortal's lack of respect. "I heard everything that happened back in Egina. So you've finally realised what everyone else has known for so long. You're a loser, little man. It's time you came to terms with that."
Iolaus didn't respond to the god of war's taunts. He didn't care what Ares thought. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered any more.
Annoyed that Iolaus wouldn't allow himself to be goaded into an angry response, Ares continued. "You know, life is never going to be the same for you again. Now you know how my brother really feels about you, has felt about you all these years, what are you going to do? Where are you going to go? You have nothing left, do you? Do you really think anyone is going to want to know you now you're not hanging round with the great Hercules any more?"
He waited a moment for his words to sink in. Ares was sure that Iolaus, in his fragile emotional state, was supremely susceptible to anything the god chose to put in his mind. "There's nothing left for you here, Iolaus. Why don't you just end it all now? There'll be no more pain. If you're lucky, you'll to the Elysian Fields and be happy. Surely that would be better than living, knowing that your whole life has been a lie!"
"No!" Iolaus backed away again, getting dangerously close to the edge of the cliff. "I may be a loser, but I'm not going to give you the satisfaction of watching me kill myself!"
Ares shrugged nonchalantly. "Suit yourself. How about then, instead of that, you watch me killing you?" With that, he raised his hand and pointed it at a spot a few feet in front of the hunter. There was an explosion of light and the ground Iolaus was standing on gave way beneath him. With a cry of surprise and fear the hunter fell backwards down the cliff side amidst a small avalanche of rock and earth.
Ares walked forward slowly and peered over the edge. Below him, near the bottom of the cliff, Iolaus lay sprawled on his side, unmoving. Ares debated going down to see if he was dead or alive, but decided against it. He smiled to himself. This game was working out so much better than he'd ever hoped. He'd let this scene play out, because whether the hunter was dead or alive, the end result was going to be the same. Hercules was going to lose his best friend forever.
Riding Argo, Xena and Gabrielle had soon caught up with Hercules. Tracking the hunter was slow work, but not very difficult. He'd made no effort to cover his trail in his desire to get as far away as possible. They made steady progress and soon the trees began to thin out. Suddenly, a scream rang out somewhere ahead.
"Iolaus!" Hercules shouted and began to run, Xena and Gabrielle hot on his heels. When they came out near the edge of a cliff, Iolaus was nowhere in sight.
"Iolaus!" Hercules' shout echoed round, but there was no response. In silent agreement the three spread out and moved forward warily.
Hercules was the first to notice the large scar of fresh earth at the edge of the cliff and fear filled his heart. The earth around the edges was dark and fresh, suggesting that the earth slide had happened very recently.
"Be careful, Hercules." Xena cautioned as he stepped up to the edge. "It might give way."
Hercules peered over the edge, dreading what he might see. His fears were realised when he saw the unmoving form of his friend below. He looked back at Xena and Gabrielle and the look on his face told them all they needed to know. Gabrielle put a hand to her mouth and fought back the tears that were beginning to well. Grim faced, Xena stepped forward cautiously, gesturing for Gabrielle to stay back, and peered over the edge. Then she turned to the demigod and laid a comforting hand on his arm. "He isn't moving, but that doesn't mean he's dead, Hercules. It isn't a sheer drop. I think we can get down easily enough a bit further down."
They quickly found a steep but manageable path and Hercules descended into the gorge so recklessly that the others were afraid he'd break his neck before he even reached his friend. He skidded to a halt at the hunter's side. Iolaus was lying on his side, unmoving. His only discernable injury was a cut on the side of his head that was bleeding profusely. Hercules anxiously checked the pulse in the hunter's neck and was relieved to feel a faint beating. He tore off a piece of his shirt and held it to his friend's head to stem the bleeding, but waited impatiently until Xena and Gabrielle joined him before checking for other injuries. He knew a fair bit about treating injuries, but Xena knew far more.
Xena knelt beside the crumpled form, while Hercules and Gabrielle hovered anxiously, and examined him carefully. Finally, she looked up at the anxious faces of her friends. "Well, I can't find any broken bones or any sign of internal injuries, but he's going to be one big bruise from head to foot. That cut on his head is what we need to worry about. It's deep and he's taken a really hard knock. I'll clean it up and try and stop the bleeding for now, but we need to get him to a healer as quickly as possible."
Gabrielle handed Xena the carry sack she'd brought and knelt beside Iolaus anxiously. He looked so pale, so helpless. As Xena began to clean the head wound Gabrielle took one of his cold hands in hers and held it tightly.
While Xena tended to Iolaus' injury, Hercules explored further down the gorge and found a way back up that he could manage easily whilst carrying his friend. Xena worked quickly and soon the cut was cleaned and stitched and Iolaus wrapped carefully in a blanket to keep him warm. He was still deeply unconscious and hadn't stirred. Hercules picked him up carefully, settling the blond head comfortably against his shoulder, and the party prepared to leave.
There was a sudden, familiar flash, and the god of war appeared a short distance away. He looked at the group curiously and raised an enquiring eyebrow. "He isn't dead then?"
Hercules glowered at him, prevented by his precious burden from laying into the god as he dearly wanted to. "If he dies, Ares ...."
"Hey, don't blame me. I was just trying to help. I could see what was in his mind. He wasn't sure he wanted to go on now that he'd lost his best friend so I thought I'd give him a chance to fulfill his wish. I was doing him a favour."
"If you wanted to kill him, why didn't you finish the job?" Xena asked bluntly.
Ares sighed in mock exasperation. "You don't get it, do you? Either way, I win. If the little man dies, my dear brother will have lost his best friend and, as a bonus, will probably blame himself for his death. If he lives, he'll still believe that you all hate him and you'll have lost him anyway. It's a win/win situation and I just can't decide which option would be the most fun. You know, sometimes I'm so brilliant, I amaze even myself." He grinned at the fuming demigod. "Well, I must be off now, brother. There's a war up Athens way I need to stir up a bit. So, as dear Aphrodite would say, later!"
Hercules screamed, "Ares, come back, you coward! This isn't over!" But he was answered only by the echo of the god's mocking laughter.
"Hercules! Forget Ares for now. We need to get Iolaus out of here."
Hercules nodded reluctantly and looked down at the blond head resting against his shoulder. "Xena, is he .... is he going to be alright?"
Xena looked at him seriously. "I don't know, Hercules. Head wounds are always dangerous. But he's strong. His pulse is weak, but steady. We'll know more when we get him to a healer."
"And when he recovers, Hercules," Gabrielle said, looking up at the demigod. "What are we going to do then?"
The three friends looked at each other silently and none of them had an answer.
Iolaus woke slowly, as if surfacing from a deep sleep. Someone was using his head as an anvil and he felt a momentary panic when he tried to open his eyes and found he couldn't. He thought he could hear a voice coming from a long, long way away, but the words eluded him. On the verge of panic, he forced himself to lie still for a moment, then tried opening his eyes again. This time he succeeded but closed them again abruptly with an involuntary cry as light flooded in, sending a shaft of pain through his head. A familiar voice said, "Take it easy, Iolaus, keep your eyes closed for now."
After a moment the pain faded back into a dull ache. There was a rustling sound in the room then the voice said, "I've closed the shutters a bit. Try opening your eyes again."
Slowly, he opened his eyes and this time the pain was bearable. He found himself looking up into a pair of anxious blue eyes in a familiar, but worried looking face. "Herc?"
The demigod smiled, a look of relief flooding over his face. "Hey, partner. Nice to have you back. How do you feel?"
Iolaus took a moment to consider the question. "I hurt all over. But mostly my head."
"So it should," said another voice and a man he didn't recognise came into view. "You've been unconscious for two days."
"Two days?" Iolaus yelped and tried to sit up. Pain exploded through his body and the room spun. He hastily lay down again. Hercules put a hand on his arm, the anxious look returning to his face.
"I don't think you should try to move for a while. You're pretty bashed up and you took quite a knock on the head."
Iolaus thought for a moment. "I don't remember."
"Don't worry about it. It's not unusual to lose the memory of a traumatic experience. It may come back, it may not. What's the last thing you do remember?" asked the stranger.
Hercules tensed. Iolaus thought for a moment. Then he said slowly, "I remember a fight with some mercenaries, near Kyzikos. After that ......" He stopped and looked helplessly at Hercules, who tried to hide a sigh of relief. At this moment in time, the last thing he wanted was to deal with the consequences of Ares' little game.
He smiled reassuringly at the hunter. "That was barely a week ago, my friend. You haven't lost much of your memory."
"You can fill him in later," the stranger interrupted. For now," he looked pointedly at Hercules, "I want you to go and get some rest."
Iolaus looked at his friend thoughtfully for a moment. "You do look awful, Herc."
Hercules smiled. "Thanks a lot. You don't look too good yourself."
"No, really, Herc. You look beat. Are you OK?"
"He's dead on his feet," the stranger interjected. "He hasn't had any sleep for over two days."
Iolaus looked alarmed. "What's the matter? Have you been ill?"
The stranger gave him an incredulous look. "He hasn't slept because he's been sitting here at your bedside ever since they brought you in, waiting for you to wake up. I couldn't get him to rest at all." He glanced at the door. "And there's two more out there who haven't been much better."
Iolaus looked questioningly at Hercules.
"Xena and Gabrielle. They were with us when you got hurt. They've been worried about you too."
"What happened to me?"
Hercules was trying to work out how to answer that question without having to explain what led to the accident, but was saved by the stranger. "Don't worry about that now. You need to get some nourishment inside you and then get some sleep."
"Sleep? You just said I've been asleep for two days!"
"You weren't asleep. You were unconscious. There's a difference. Are you trying to tell me you don't feel tired?"
Iolaus, who could barely keep his eyes open, smiled at him faintly. "No, I guess not. By the way, I don't think we've been introduced."
The stranger chuckled. "My name is Menius. I'm the healer in these parts. Your friends brought you to me after your accident, so that makes you my patient. Now, I'll go and get you some soup, then you can go to sleep. You," he pointed at Hercules, "can go straight to your own room and get some rest."
"But ...." the demigod began to protest.
"NOW! Get out! Iolaus will be fine now, if you just go and leave him in peace!"
Hercules grinned, putting his hands up in front of him in a gesture of defeat. He lay a hand on the hunter's arm for a moment and said, "I'd better go and tell Xena and Gabrielle you're OK. Get some sleep, my friend. I'll see you later."
Iolaus smiled at him absently, already half asleep.
Menius followed Hercules to the door then paused and looked back at Iolaus. "You know, your friends care about you very much, I hope you realise that. They've been beside themselves with worry and driving me mad in the process."
‘Your friends care about you very much.' Something about those words made him want to cry because for some reason he wasn't sure they were true. Then suddenly he remembered. The events of the previous week came flooding back in a rush. He remembered everything - his dreams, the time spent with Xena and Gabrielle at the festival, the moment when his memory returned and the headlong run into the forest when all he wanted to do was escape. His friends didn't care about him - it was all a show. They must have stayed with him because they felt guilty about the accident. Hercules .... Hercules didn't really care about him at all.
When Menius returned, he found the hunter lying on his back, staring unseeingly at the wall. Menius was concerned. Something had changed. There was a new bleakness in the man's expression that the healer felt had nothing to do with his injury. "Iolaus?" he said softly.
Iolaus turned to look at him, eyes reflecting something of the pain and confusion in his mind.
"Are you in a lot of pain?" Menius asked. "I can give you some more poppy ...."
"No. I'm fine." Iolaus interrupted, his voice devoid of inflection. "It doesn't matter anyway."
Menius didn't push the issue. The hunter was still very weak and needed to rest. He coaxed his patient into taking a few mouthfuls of soup, then helped him to settle down comfortably. The hunter closed his eyes and lay still. Menius sat with him for a few moments until sure he was asleep, then left the room quietly.
When Iolaus was sure Menius had left, he opened his eyes again. It was funny. Although he could remember the terrible heartache he had felt before, now all he felt was numb and empty, as if there was nothing left inside. The one thing he was sure of was that he had to get away from here. Now.
He sat up slowly, waited until the sudden pounding in his head subsided a little, then swung his legs carefully over the side of the bed. Immediately, a wave of nausea and dizziness swept over him and he closed his eyes and sat still until the dizzy spell passed. It took him several minutes to get to his feet and several more to painfully pull on his boots and the clothes that had been folded neatly on a nearby chair. His body was a mass of livid bruises and every movement was agony. One voice in his head was telling him that this was madness, that he was too badly hurt and too weak even to be out of bed, never mind thinking of walking out of this place. But another, more insistent voice, was telling him that he had to get away, whatever it cost.
He opened the shutters, being careful to shield his eyes against the sudden onslaught of light and paused until his eyes had adjusted to the brightness. Peering out of the window he realised that the room was on the first floor. Fortunately, there was a sturdy vine clinging to the wall just beside the window. He climbed carefully out of the window and reached over to grasp the vine, trying to ignore the fiery pain that shot through his body at every movement. Gritting his teeth, he began to climb slowly down. He was nearly at the bottom when his strength suddenly gave out and his hands and feet lost their grasp on the vine. He fell, landing hard and fighting to hold onto consciousness while every muscle in his body screamed in pain. He lay still for a few moments until the pain receded a little then, with a quick look round to make sure the coast was clear, he dragged himself to his feet and headed off into the forest.
Ares materialised at the window of the empty room and looked after the hunter as he disappeared amongst the trees. He smiled. Under normal circumstances he would have been unable to influence the human's thoughts. But in his weak and emotionally vulnerable state, Iolaus was just susceptible enough. The god of war crossed his arms and sighed in satisfaction. It was a long time since he had enjoyed himself so much. He couldn't wait to see his brother's face when he discovered his friend was gone. Hercules had thwarted his plans too many times in the past. This time, one way or another, Ares was going to win.
Menius left his patient's room and descended the stairs to the tavern below. He found Hercules sitting alone at a table, nursing a mug of ale, Xena and Gabrielle having gone to get some much needed sleep. In his concern about his patient he forgot to chastise Hercules for disobeying him and immediately shared with the demigod his worry about the hunter's sudden change of mood. Hercules' heart fell. He'd been hoping that Iolaus would never regain his memory of the past few days. But when Menius expressed his concern over Iolaus' emotional state, he knew in his heart what was wrong and told the healer the whole story. Menius was at a loss. He'd never come across anything like this before and was unsure how to deal with it. His only advice was that Hercules should be careful if he chose to force the issue - the hunter wasn't strong enough to deal with an emotional scene.
Hercules agreed. He was still worried about his friend, but Menius convinced him that Iolaus was out of danger and now just needed to be left to sleep for a while. The two parted company to go and get some rest themselves.
By the time Hercules woke the sun was beginning to sink below the horizon. He calculated that he'd been asleep for at least four hours. His first thought was to go and check on his friend. Arrived at the door of the hunter's room, he almost ran into Menius rushing out of it.
"Menius? What is it? Is he worse?" Hercules cried, fear flooding through him again.
Menius looked at him in consternation. "He's gone, Hercules."
Hercules pushed past him and looked into the room. The bed where Iolaus had lain was empty and the shutters were open. When he felt it, the bed was cold.
"He's been gone for sometime." Hercules said grimly.
"How can he be gone?" Menius asked in amazement. "He wasn't fit enough to get out of bed, never mind climb out of the window and disappear."
"You'd be surprised what Iolaus is capable of when he puts his mind to it. Gods, this is all my fault. I should have stayed with him."
"It's not your fault, Hercules," Menius said firmly. "We both thought he was asleep and there was no way you could have guessed that he'd try something like this. And he can't have got far in his condition."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Hercules said grimly, his mind whirling with visions of his friend lying helpless somewhere, easy prey for any number of predators, animal and human.
"Shall I wake Xena and Gabrielle?"
"No, let them sleep. We shouldn't have any trouble following his trail."
They went outside and quickly found Iolaus' tracks, leading into the forest. Hercules wasn't an expert tracker, but a child could have followed the trail Iolaus had left as he made his way painfully along a narrow forest track. Hercules couldn't shake a picture in his mind's eye of Iolaus stumbling to the ground and dragging himself determinedly to his feet, time and time again, until he finally collapsed for the last time. "Oh, gods, Iolaus, please be alright," was all he could think, over and over, as he followed his friend's trail.
They hadn't been walking long and it was not yet dark when they found him. He was lying in the middle of the trail, where he'd obviously collapsed and been unable to even drag himself off the path before unconsciousness claimed him. Hercules knelt beside the small, crumpled figure and carefully turned him onto his back, supporting his head against one arm, and gently stroked a wayward lock of hair out of his friend's face with a trembling hand. Iolaus stirred a little, but his eyes remained closed. Menius knelt at his side and felt the hunter's pulse. He sighed with relief. "Well, his pulse is strong enough. I think we found him in time. I don't think he'll have done himself any permanent damage. But we need to get him back as quickly as possible. And this time," he added, as the demigod carefully picked up his friend's limp body, "he's staying in that bed if I have to tie him down!"
When Iolaus woke the first thing he saw was Hercules sitting beside the bed. This time, the memories flooded back immediately and with them, the by now familiar stab of pain. His head was pounding again and his whole body throbbed with pain. He silently accepted the water the demigod offered him and didn't protest as his friend put an arm around his shoulders and raised him slightly so he could drink. When he'd finished, he sank weakly back onto the pillow.
"Menius says you're going to be fine, you just need to rest." Hercules said.
There was silence for a moment, then Hercules said flatly, "What in Hades' name did you think you were doing, Iolaus? You could have died out there."
"I'd have thought you'd have been relieved be rid of me. You can stop pretending you care, Hercules." Iolaus replied quietly. "You know you don't mean it."
Hercules felt a flash of anger at the hurtful words, but was immediately contrite. He reminded himself that Iolaus genuinely believed that he'd lost everyone he cared about. The look of desolation on his friend's face tore at his heart. Ares had done a spectacular job and Hercules had to push down a new surge of anger, this time directed at the god, as he searched for the right words to explain to Iolaus what was going on. As Menius had warned, his friend was obviously in no condition for an emotional scene, but Hercules was convinced that the sooner he heard the truth the better.
"Iolaus," he began slowly, "I'm not sure exactly what you remember us saying about you, but I do know that whatever it is, it's hurt you very badly." Iolaus had turned his head away when he began speaking, but he carried on regardless. "But I also know that it isn't real. You've been having bad dreams for a week - I know it, even though you tried to pretend nothing was wrong. The dreams - it was Ares, tampering with your mind. When he was ready, he let you remember - but not as dreams, as memories of something you believed had really happened. It's all lies, Iolaus."
There was silence for a moment. "Iolaus?" Hercules continued hesitatingly, "Iolaus, please look at me."
Slowly, Iolaus turned his head and looked at his friend. More than anything he wanted to believe him, but the memories were so vivid, so real. "How do you know?" he asked finally.
"Ares told us. When we found you, he showed himself. It was his big mistake. He thought he'd won and he couldn't resist coming to gloat. He did it to hurt me. Gods, Iolaus, I'm sorry. It was my fault. Ares knows how important you are to me, how much I need you. He can't hurt me physically, so he came up with this plan instead. But," he paused and looked into his friend's eyes, "it hasn't worked, has it. You do believe me, don't you?"
Iolaus was so tired and he hurt so much that he couldn't even think straight. He tried to take in what Hercules had said and make sense of it, but it was so confusing. But in everything the demigod had said, one statement hit home and after a while he whispered the question he most needed to ask. "Hercules, do you really need me?"
Hercules didn't know exactly what Iolaus remembered him saying, but the question gave him some idea. He leaned forward, put his hands on his friend's shoulders, and looked into his eyes.
"Iolaus," he said slowly and clearly, "you are the most important person in my life. Of course I need you. You're my best friend. I'd be lost without you. You're my brother, Iolaus, and I love you. I always have and I always will. You must know that. You have to trust me."
Iolaus swallowed hard and looked away. He wasn't sure he could trust himself to speak. His mind was whirling, emotions completely shredded.
"Iolaus? Look at me. Look at me! You have to trust me. I'm telling you the truth. You have to try to forget Ares' lies and remember all the years of friendship we've shared. All the times we've been there for each other. Please don't let that go. Please, Iolaus."
Iolaus looked into the pleading eyes of his best friend and saw the truth there. He didn't understand it, he didn't understand any of it, but at that moment he knew that his memory was a lie. He saw it in the fear and anguish in his friend's eyes as he tried desperately to convince the hunter of the truth. Suddenly tears began to fall as the emotional turmoil of the past few days finally got the better of him. Hercules pulled him carefully into his arms and held him tightly, crying a little himself in relief that his love for his brother had broken through the barrier of lies.
After a while Iolaus pulled away, lying back and closing his eyes. Hercules looked at him in concern. He looked even paler than before. In his desire to reassure his friend he'd almost forgotten about Iolaus' injury.
"Iolaus, I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking. You must be in a lot of pain. I"ll get Menius......."
"No." Iolaus opened his eyes and caught Hercules' wrist. "I'm fine. At least, I am now. I think." To Hercules delight he smiled, a real smile that lit up his face. It was the first time in several days that Hercules had seen him smile like that. Then his face dropped and he said in a small voice, "I'm sorry, Herc."
Hercules sighed in mock exasperation. "Somehow, I knew this conversation would end with you apologising. What on earth have you got to be sorry for?"
"I'm sorry that I believed for even a minute that you could have said ..... any of those things. And I'm sorry I tried to ... run away. I just didn't know what to do."
"Quite right!" Hercules said lightly. "You should be ashamed of yourself!" Then, seeing the miserable look on his friend's face, he added seriously, "Iolaus, that was a joke. Look, Ares was at work here, and if there's one thing I can say about my brother, he doesn't do anything by halves. Whatever memories he planted in your mind, I have no doubt they were absolutely real to you. And as for running away .... I have a feeling Ares may have had something to do with that, too." He paused, then went on, "Iolaus, maybe you should tell me exactly what it is you do remember."
"No! I can't. I don't want to talk about it."
"Iolaus .... if you don't talk about it now, then it will always be there, like a secret between us. Is that what you want? Do you want Ares to win?"
"Of course not!" Iolaus snapped back, then was immediately contrite. "I'm sorry, Herc, it's just .... it's just that it hurt .... so much. And .... you'll be angry."
"I know it hurt, my friend." Hercules said gently. "And I know it still hurts. But that's why we need to deal with it, now. And I may be angry - but not with you. Why in Hades would I be angry with you? "
"You'll be angry that I didn't have enough faith in our friendship to realise that something was wrong." Iolaus replied wearily.
"Just TELL ME!"
Hesitatingly at first, then with a sense of relief at finally getting it out in the open, Iolaus related word for word the scenes that were burnt into his memory. Hercules listened in horror and with a growing sense of anger and outrage against his immortal brother which he tried to suppress for Iolaus' sake. His friend needed him to understand, not to go off in a rage. But it was hard. Ares knew exactly which areas of insecurity to touch on to cause Iolaus the most pain.
"I tried not to believe, it, Herc." Iolaus said earnestly. "But I'd keep waking up feeling betrayed, feeling that there was something wrong between us, but I didn't know what it was. Then I started to remember flashes of conversation, just little, hurtful things that one of you had said, but I couldn't remember when. I thought I was going mad. Then, at that tavern, I suddenly remembered the whole conversation I'd overheard. It was so clear and suddenly everything made sense. I thought it had actually happened and I'd made myself forget because it hurt so much. There didn't seem to be any other explanation. Gods, Hercules, I can still remember every word so clearly ...." he broke off in distress.
Hercules took one of the hunter's small hands in both of his and squeezed gently. "It's OK, Iolaus. It'll take a while for the memory to fade, just like any other bad memory. But it will fade. We'll get through this. Together. Like we always do."
Iolaus nodded slowly. But he still looked troubled and Hercules knew that the matter wasn't going to rest there. Yet he was also aware that his friend was exhausted and in pain. The important thing was that he now knew the truth. There would be plenty of time to talk about it when Iolaus was well again.
Later, Gabrielle slipped into the room quietly, not wanting to wake the hunter if he was asleep. He was awake, lying propped against the pillows, staring absently out of the window. He looked up and smiled as she came up and sat on a chair near the bed.
"Hello, Iolaus. How are you feeling?"
"Not too bad. My head still aches, and I feel like a giant fell and rolled on me, but apart from that I'm fine!"
Gabrielle laughed, but she wasn't fooled by his light words. He was still very pale, his face lined with pain.
"I'm sure I'm fit enough to get up, but Menius threatened to tie me to the bed, and he would, too!" he added, with feeling.
Gabrielle smiled. "Then you might as well enjoy being spoilt while you have the chance!"
They lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. After a few minutes, Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Iolaus, Hercules told us everything about Ares' little plan."
Immediately, his smile faded and he looked uncomfortable. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle ...." he began.
She interrupted. "You don't have anything to be sorry about. I can only imagine how much this has hurt you, but I do know it's going to take you a long time to get over it."
The look on his face confirmed this intuition. "So I'm not going to give you a long speech about the way I really feel about you. But I would like to show you."
She leaned over, tenderly brushed a wayward lock of hair out of his eyes, and then kissed him, long and hard. When she finally broke away the look in her eyes left him in no doubt about her feelings. His eyes filled with tears again, for the second time that day. She kissed him once more, this time gently, on the cheek, and slipped out of the room without speaking again.
Almost a week passed before Menius pronounced Iolaus fit to travel. The combined efforts of the healer, Hercules, Xena and Gabrielle had kept him in bed for three days until Menius announced that the effort was too much for them all and that he must be allowed up before they all collapsed with exhaustion. Over the next four days he grew steadily stronger and the blinding headaches he'd been suffering receded.
No more had been said about the episode with Ares. Iolaus wasn't inclined to talk about it and, although sure there was much more to be said, Hercules wanted to be sure his friend was back to full health before tackling the issue. Xena hadn't asked him anything about it and for that he was grateful. The wounds between Xena and himself were too recently healed and he couldn't face bringing them up again.
Xena and Gabrielle were getting ready to leave. With Iolaus out of danger there was little reason for them to stay and Xena was anxious to be moving on.
When they said their goodbyes, Gabrielle hugged Iolaus fiercely and they held each other for a long time. When they reluctantly parted, they stood looking at each other silently, hands still clasped tightly. For both of them, there seemed to be so much that needed to be said, but there seemed to be an unspoken agreement between them that this wasn't the time. Iolaus reached up a hand and stroked her cheek gently. She put her hand over his for a moment then leaned forward and kissed him softly. They both smiled, suddenly. There really was no need for words. This was not the end for them. It was a beginning of something that could be explored in time.
Iolaus turned to Xena, who'd been standing to one side having said her goodbyes to Hercules. "Xena ....." he began, but stopped, not knowing how to go on.
To his surprise, she pulled him into a quick hug and whispered softly in his ear, "Don't let Ares beat you, Iolaus. You are a kind, brave and wonderful person. Don't ever let anyone tell you any differently." She pulled away abruptly and vaulted quickly onto Argo, leaving an open-mouthed hunter staring after her.
Hercules joined his friend to watch the two move off down the road. Both were silent, each lost in his own thoughts about two women who held a special place in both their hearts.
After a few moments, Hercules turned to his friend. "There really isn't anywhere in particular we're needed at the moment. Now Menius says you're fit to travel, how about we go to Corinth and spend sometime with Iphicles? We haven't seen much of him since mother died."
Iolaus nodded enthusiastically. "That'd be great, Herc." Since he had helped Iphicles when the king had been kidnapped by Ajax, he and Hercules' brother had been closer than they ever had when they were kids. In those days, Iphicles had resented Iolaus' friendship with Hercules. Then his face fell and he said, "Are you sure you wouldn't rather go on your own, Herc? He is your only brother, after all. I don't want to intrude ...."
Hercules looked at him strangely. "Since when has your presence been an intrusion? Iphicles will be as glad to see you as he will me. And besides, as I keep having to remind you, he isn't my only brother."
Iolaus opened his mouth to speak, but Hercules hushed him. "Don't argue, Iolaus. We're going together. Unless there's somewhere else you'd rather go?"
"No, of course not. Forget it. We'll go to Corinth."
He walked back into the inn, unaware that Hercules was looking after him with a thoughtful look on his face.
They set off early the next day, having said their goodbyes to Menius. Corinth was only a two-day walk away but Hercules, unbeknown to his friend, was intending to take at least three. Menius had taken him aside and cautioned him to ensure that Iolaus took things easy for a while. When Hercules had drily asked him how exactly he thought the demigod was going to get his friend to do that, Menius had just grinned.
Hercules tried to keep the pace slower than usual, without his friend noticing, and partially succeeded. Iolaus wasn't his usual exuberant self, although he wasn't complaining about the pace. But then, he wouldn't, Hercules thought in amused exasperation. Iolaus would have to be practically unconscious before he admitted that he was tired. Once or twice he started whistling and then stopped abruptly, causing the demigod to look his way in concern. But Hercules said nothing, putting it down to the fact that Iolaus was probably finding it tougher going than he'd expected. He was still a long way from being fully fit.
By midday Iolaus was obviously flagging and Hercules suggested they rest for a while.
"What for!" Iolaus said indignantly. "We've hardly been walking for any time."
"I know that," Hercules said patiently, "but we're not in a hurry and it won't hurt to stop for a while. There's a stream just over here. We can cool off a bit and have something to eat."
At the mention of food Iolaus brightened and Hercules smiled. He knew all the tricks to use to get his friend to cooperate. And he did need to rest. He was looking pale and Hercules was sure the headache had returned, though he wouldn't admit it.
They had barely turned off the road towards the stream when a dozen dirty and ill- shaven men came into view. They stopped in their tracks a short distance away.
"What have we here then," sneered the man who appeared to be their leader. "It's little and large! Give us your money and we might just leave you alone."
Bandits! Hercules tensed, expecting his friend to leap immediately into the fray. The hunter wasn't partial to being called ‘little'. But Iolaus stood his ground.
Surprised, Hercules nevertheless took advantage of the opportunity. "We don't have any money," he said pleasantly. "And we're really not in the mood for a fight. So why don't you just let us pass and be on your way?"
"No money, huh? We'll see about that."
The bandits began to advance. Still Iolaus didn't move.
"Iolaus? Are you going to stand there all day?"
"Maybe ... we should think about this first, Herc." Iolaus said uncertainly.
Hercules looked at his friend in amazement. "Since when have you stopped to think before getting into a fight?" he chided good-naturedly. The look on his friend's face stopped him in his tracks and he suddenly remembered one of the things Iolaus had recounted from his dream. How Hercules had told Xena that Iolaus' habit of rushing head first into fights was going to get someone hurt some day. How sick he was of the hunter's recklessness and lack of forethought. He could have kicked himself. But this was no time to stop and discuss the problem. "Iolaus, there's no time to think. Just get in there and kick some butt - and watch your head!"
Iolaus' eyes widened in surprise for a moment, then his face broke into a grin. He needed no second invitation and within seconds was in the thick of the fight, lithe body whirling. Bandits fell in all directions before the onslaught of the small ball of energy. Hercules joined the fight and within minutes it was all over. Those bandits who could walk had limped away, the others weren't going to be causing any trouble for some time to come.
Hercules was relieved that the gang hadn't put up much resistance. Iolaus wasn't fit enough for a hard fight, and this skirmish had obviously taken it out of him, although the hunter was hiding it well as he brushed himself down and bounced up to his friend. "Hey, I needed that! I haven't had a good work out in a long time!"
Hercules had to smile. It was good to see Iolaus back to his old self again. But the demigod knew that they had something to talk about and that they might as well do it now.
"Iolaus," he began carefully, "Why did you say you thought we should think about it before taking on those bandits?"
"Why not?" Iolaus answered casually, but there was something in his eyes that belied the lightness of his words.
"Because it's not like you, that's why not. When have you ever stopped to think before beating the life out of a bunch of bandits who were trying to rob you?"
Iolaus looked defensive. "Well, maybe it's time I started to think a bit more. You know you think ...." he stopped abruptly. "Let's just forget it, OK. I'm hungry. Want me to go catch some fish?"
Hercules refused to be put off. "You were going to say, ‘You know you think I'm reckless and never stop to think', weren't you."
"No, I wasn't."
"Yes, you were." Hercules insisted.
Iolaus sighed and sat down abruptly on a convenient log. "Well, what if I was? We both know it's true."
"No!" Hercules said sharply, coming to stand over his friend. "It isn't true. Impetuous, sometimes, but never reckless." Iolaus said nothing. Hercules sat down beside him. "This is about the false memories, isn't it?"
There was silence. Iolaus refused to meet his friend's eyes.
"Oh, my friend," Hercules continued, as another thought dawned on him, "that was why you stopped whistling this morning, wasn't it. Because you remembered me saying how much it got on my nerves." He paused, looking compassionately at his friend who continued to sit, head bowed.
"I thought we've been through all this. You said you didn't believe any of Ares' lies."
"I don't believe them," Iolaus mumbled. "Not really. But they're still there, as clear as ever. The more I try to forget them, the clearer they are. And I can't help thinking .... that there must be some truth in them. Or why would Ares have chosen ....."
"There's no truth in any of them!" Hercules interrupted heatedly. "Don't you see? Ares was using the very opposite of the truth to hurt you as much as he could. Think about it, Iolaus. None of it makes sense. All that stuff about riding on the back of my reputation, not being able to stand on your own two feet, staying with me so you could get some of the glory ..... it's all nonsense!"
Iolaus finally lifted his head to look at his friend, clear cerulean eyes holding the demigod's own blue eyes in a hard gaze. "Is it?" he asked softly. "How can you be so sure?"
"How can I be sure?" Hercules exploded. "Because I know you, Iolaus. You don't need me! In fact, if you weren't with me, you'd probably be a famous general or something by now! Don't think I don't know what you have to give up to be my friend, always in my shadow, never given any credit for your own heroism and bravery. Don't you understand? I need you far more than you need me!"
Iolaus looked at him in astonishment for a moment, for once completely lost for words. "Herc .... you know I never think about it that way! I stay with you because I want to, because you're my best friend, because I want to be part of what you do ...."
"Exactly!" Hercules exclaimed in triumph. "So tell me, where in what you've just said is there anything about reflected glory? About not standing on your own two feet? And all that nonsense about not coming to visit Iphicles because you didn't want to intrude? How many more times do I have to tell you that you're family and always will be?"
More silence. Then Iolaus said slowly, "I know you're right, Herc. I know who I am. And that's mainly because of you, because you've always believed in me. It's just that sometimes, I just get to thinking that maybe my father was right about me after all, and my whole life is a lie ....."
Hercules had a fleeting image of a small, scrappy child with a mop of blond curls, standing defiantly in front of his father, trying helplessly to hold back the tears that were running down his cheeks. He heard the words that man had used so often to his son, ‘You're a loser, Iolaus! You'll never amount to anything! You're just a crybaby who doesn't deserve to grow up to be a warrior!' His heart went out to his friend. The emotional damage Skouros had done to his son had been with him all his life. The hunter had spent much of his life unconsciously trying to live up to the person his father wanted him to be. Although he'd had a chance to make his peace with Skouros, when he'd gone to the Underworld, years of being told he'd amount to nothing couldn't be undone overnight. Iolaus had come a long way, but he was still walking that road.
"Iolaus," he said gently, "you know that your father couldn't have been more wrong about you. If he really knew you, the person you've become, he'd be very, very proud of you. He just couldn't see beyond his own image of who he thought you should be."
Iolaus nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He looked into his friend's eyes and saw there only love and acceptance. Iolaus looked at Hercules in silence for a long moment, then a familiar look of chagrin spread over his face.
Hercules knew what he was about to say and preempted it hastily. "Don't you dare say, ‘I'm sorry', Iolaus, or I'll .... I'll ....."
"Do something you'll be sorry for later?" Iolaus finished for him, grinning now at his friend's indignation.
"Something like that." Hercules grinned back, delighted to see his friend looking happy once more. He put a companionable arm around the hunter's shoulders. "I do understand, Iolaus. I know how long it takes for bad memories to fade and I know that this isn't going to be easy. But the only way we're going to get through it is if you're honest with me about the way you're feeling. When you feel insecure about something, you have to tell me about it. Because we're in this together, and we're going to get through it together. Like we always do."
"I know. You're right, Herc. I'm sorr ......" he stopped hastily as Hercules glowered at him. "I mean, I'm sure we can work this out together," he finished triumphantly.
Hercules said, "Do you really mean that?"
Iolaus looked at him earnestly. "Yes, I really mean that."
"Then shake on it." Hercules held his arm out and Iolaus took it in the traditional warrior's handshake, grasping the demigod's forearm firmly. "You're the best friend anyone ever had, Herc," he said softly. "If I hadn't met you, I'm not sure I'd have ever learnt to believe in myself."
"And if I hadn't met you, I might still be the gangly, accident prone kid who stuck out in a crowd."
"Yeah, you were pretty awkward, weren't you!" Iolaus quipped, needing to lighten the moment before emotion overwhelmed them.
"You're calling me awkward? That's rich, coming from a scrawny little pip squeak like you!"
"Hey, who are you calling scrawny!" The banter continued as they shared a simple meal and then lay back in contented silence. Iolaus began whistling a tune he'd heard at the festival. After a while, Hercules said, deadpan, "Have you noticed how quiet it is?"
"Yeah. All the birds have stopped singing."
Iolaus stopped whistling and cocked his head, listening. "What're you talking about? I can hear plenty of birds."
Hercules grinned. "So can I, now. Before, they were being drowned out by your tuneless whistling!"
"Oh, ha, ha. Very funny. Now if you ........"
With a grin of pure pleasure on his face, Hercules listened to his friend babbling on about his musical ability. Iolaus was back. They weren't out of the woods yet, but it was a beginning. And he was happy to settle for that. They'd get through this together as they always did.
Unseen, Ares stood nearby watching the two friends, a black scowl on his face, reflecting his anger and frustration. He couldn't believe his plan had failed. It had been foolproof. What was it with those two? But after a moment, he smiled. So this plan had failed. Well, that was fine. There'd be other times, other plans. He wasn't through with his brother and his little friend yet, not by a long way .........
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