The tavern was filled with people. Word of the traveling storyteller had brought them in from all around. Hercules and Iolaus were lucky to find a small table in the back corner. They had merely wandered in for supper and found themselves in for a treat. Though they did not have a good view and frequently could not see the young man, they were captivated by his tale nonetheless. Both men ate slowly savoring both the good food and the warmth of their surroundings on the cool, overcast day.
Iolaus leaned forward and whispered to his friend, "I'm going to wade to the bar for another ale. You want one?"
Hercules nodded his agreement and Iolaus soon disappeared from view completely in the crowd.
It took several minutes for Iolaus to be waited upon and then several more before the ales arrived. He took advantage of the time by watching the young bard as he visually wove his tale. Iolaus stood amazed at his talent. He stepped back against the bar to allow an older man to pass. The man turned to thank him for his kindness and sneezed in Iolaus' face.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, young fella. I didn't mean to do that," he said as Iolaus wiped his face with a bar towel. "This cold just keeps hanging on and won't give me a moment's peace."
"That's ok. It happens." Iolaus replied.
"Here are your ales," the innkeeper sat them on the bar.
Iolaus nodded his thanks and headed back into the crowd with them.
"A guy could die of thirst waiting for you to get back," Hercules teased. "Too many pretty girls at the bar?"
Iolaus smiled, "Nah, just an old guy with a cold. In case you haven't noticed, the girls are all too enthralled by our young bard there to notice anyone else."
"He is good."
"He's just as good to watch as he is to listen to. He's going to make more than a few dinars when they pass the hat later. I wonder if he's going to turn up for the storytelling competition at the harvest festival?"
"If he's not planning to, he should."
Hercules and Iolaus remained where they were, listening enthralled, for the remainder of the evening. Neither was in the mood to make camp until they had to. Iolaus sipped his ale trying to keep his throat wet. It felt increasingly dry.
The next morning found the two partners back on the road. They were heading for the coast where they would meet a ship that would take them to Tragana where they had been asked to open the annual harvest festival and judge several of the events. They were to meet the ship tomorrow morning.
Iolaus' throat was sore and he had the sniffles. His occasional nose wiping did not escape Hercules' notice.
"Hey, you ok?"
"Yeah, That old guy must've passed his cold on to me. Great luck I have, huh? A whole tavern full of people and do I talk to a beautiful girl? No, I meet an old guy with a cold."
Hercules chuckled and decided not to worry about his friend until he lost his sense of humor.
By late afternoon, Iolaus had developed a cough and the sniffling had grown considerably worse. Hercules suspected that his cold was worse than the nuisance he said it was. He was losing his voice. Hercules felt obligated to point it out.
"Herc, my nose is running and I'm a little hoarse but I'm functional." Iolaus tried not to be irritable. It wasn't Hercules' fault his divine blood kept him from catching the same cold. Hercules was sympathetic about it. In fact, he was so sympathetic, his attempts to nursemaid Iolaus were driving him crazy.
Hercules' urgings to slow down the pace fell on deaf ears but Iolaus traveled a little slower anyway cause he didn't feel like walking that fast.
They made camp early. Iolaus knew they weren't nearly close enough to their destination to make it on time in the morning but he felt exhausted and just the thought to getting to lie down kept him from making an issue of it.
Hercules coaxed him into eating a little fruit and some bread before his eyes closed completely.
The next morning Hercules let Iolaus sleep in. His partner was usually up with the sun so, he assumed Iolaus needed the rest.
Iolaus woke with a sneeze and a moan and looked around, "Herc, why didn't you wake me? We'll never get there on time and the ship will sail without us."
"Then, we'll catch another ship," Hercules replied matter-of-factly.
It was early afternoon when they finally approached the docks where they were to meet the ship. Hercules hadn't told Iolaus that Nebula had volunteered to provide them passage. It was originally to have been a pleasant surprise for his friend but with Iolaus feeling the way he did, Hercules doubted that it would be. His friend's mood had grown more testy by the hour and Hercules had kept his distance to keep the peace. Iolaus didn't mean to snip. It was the cold talking.
Iolaus was looking forward to the ship. He could rest up before the festival. He'd pushed himself to get here and he was feeling the weary results of his efforts not that he'd ever admit it. Iolaus saw the familiar ship and his face fell.
"Aw, Herc. You didn't."
Hercules smiled sheepishly and put a hand on Iolaus' shoulder, "Cheer up, maybe she'll realize you don't feel well and lay off you for awhile."
"Yeah, sure," Iolaus frowned but followed Hercules up the gangplank muttering something under his breath about, "being thrown to a raging hydra."
The deck was covered in crates. It was no wonder Nebula volunteered to transport them without compensation. It appeared that she was doing very well for herself in the cargo trade. Once aboard Hercules moved forward to tell their captain that they'd arrived. Iolaus hopped up on a crate and lay back on it covering his closed eyes with his arm.
Nebula turned as Hercules walked up behind her, "About time, I thought you were going to be here this morning? I nearly left you. I do have a schedule to keep."
"Sorry, we intended to be here but we ended up having to travel a little slower."
She nodded, "Uh huh. Where's..." She looked beyond Hercules and saw Iolaus lying on the crate. "What's the matter with Goldilocks?"
Hercules smiled at the name, he couldn't help himself. "Nothing serious, he's caught a cold. Listen, Nebula, would you mind lightening up a little on him this trip? He's not up to your usual level of conversation."
She considered, "He's really not feeling well?"
"He's trying not to let on but I think he's pretty miserable."
There was a sparkle in her eye, "How about if I just look him over and then, show him where his bunk is?" She winked as she passed Hercules heading seductively down the stairs.
Iolaus felt the hand caressing his chest and was alert in an instant scrabbling off the crate and glancing around for Hercules who was not in sight.
"Hi, Nebula. How are you?" He sneezed mightily, "Long time no see?"
"Slow down, Studmuffin. I'm just here to show you where you're going to sleep. Can't have you setting a bad example for the crew, sleeping on deck." She motioned for him to follow. Warily he nodded once and followed her below.
Nebula emerged a few minutes later and walked over to Hercules at the rail. "He's all tucked in, safe and sound in the first cabin on the right." She smiled, "As much as I'd like love to nurse him back to health, I think he'll sleep better if he knows you're looking after him. He's a tad jumpy around me at the moment." She smiled a satisfied smile. Then, she became more serious, "Did you know that he has a fever?"
Hercules shook his head indicating that he was not aware of it. "He hasn't said anything."
"Well, he has one," she continued, "not high but I felt the heat when I ran my hand down his chest." She took a step away from the rail, "I've got to push off. Let me know if you need anything."
She turned back.
"Thanks for the lift."
Hercules watched her begin giving orders to cast off and decided maybe he should go find out what she meant by 'tucked in."
Iolaus nearly jumped out of his skin when Hercules pushed open the door.
Iolaus sighed visibly. "I thought you were her."
"I think she's going to behave this trip."
"Sure," Iolaus said but his eyes doubted. He was under the covers of the small bed. His boots sat on the floor, his belt and sword were lying on the table.
"It's warm in here, wouldn't you be more comfortable with your clothes off?"
Iolaus snorted, "Are you kidding? With the master of the grope and tickle on board?" He sighed, "You should have seen her taking off my boots and then, Herc, I'm not strong enough for this."
Hercules smiled, "Ok, I understand. Do you want anything?" Iolaus was not in the mood for nursemaiding.
"No, I just want to sleep, right now."
Hercules stood in the cramped cabin and on impulse reached out and placed his palm on Iolaus' forehead, "Nebula is right. You do have a fever."
Iolaus sighed and explained one more time. Sometimes he really wondered about his big friend. "It's just a cold. The fever's probably because I've spent the last two days walking to get here. I'll be fine just let me sleep awhile."
"OK, call me if you need anything."
"Guard the door for me, ok?"
"Sure thing, buddy."
After they'd made full sail on the open sea, Hercules and Nebula stopped to check on Iolaus. They found him sound asleep, he'd kicked off half his blankets and lay huddled in the middle of the tiny bunk.
"Sweet when he's asleep, huh?" Nebula said as she moved out of the doorway so Hercules could enter. "You'd better do the honors. My hands might wander."
Hercules swallowed that one, "Nebula..."
"Don't worry, I'll be good."
Hercules didn't know if he should trust that smile or not. What did Iolaus see in this stunning former pirate? Hercules doubted that he could withstand this kind of sexual banter for long but Iolaus seemed to thrive on it. Then again, his friend always was attracted to a different kind of woman. At least Nebula didn't seem as dangerous as some.
Hercules rearranged the blankets as best he could without pulling them from beneath Iolaus or waking him.
Iolaus was right, his fever was gone by evening. In fact, Iolaus seemed to feel much better. He came up on deck and sat on a crate at the rail, enjoying the breeze. Nebula had the cook make soup for dinner and Iolaus had two bowls so Hercules surmised that he must be on the mend.
After another restful night they arrived in Tragana, only a little late and just in time to join the village magistrate at the opening ceremony. Iolaus was all smiles as the crowd began dispersing to the various activities. This harvest festival had the reputation of being so much fun that several of the Gods were usually in attendance, discretely, of course.
Hercules caught sight of Hades and Persephone. They would have to be here. This festival was the signal that heralded the end of the summer and the beginning of Persephone's time in the underworld. No wonder Hades looked so happy. He was here to pick up his bride.
Hercules also saw Ares and Discord sneaking around at various times during the day. Usually it coincided with a minor disaster: the pie cart overturned on it's way to the pie-eating contest, the vat for grape stomping suddenly sprung a large leak, the dunking booth was triggered several times for no apparent reason. On each occasion Ares or Discord could be found sneaking away with big grins on their faces. They wouldn't dare do anything to ruin the entire festival, that would upset Demeter too much and they depended on her and her daughter, Persephone to guarantee a good harvest. Even Ares, God of War, needed to eat occasionally.
The festival was a rousing success in spite of them. Everyone was having such a marvelous time that their mischief was overlooked and the party continued. Not even a sudden storm could halt the festivities. The bards who had just begun their storytelling simply moved everyone indoors. They broke the crowd up into several groups and patronized all the taverns in the area.
Hercules and Iolaus joined the group at the tavern where they were staying. They were all a little damp when they arrived but no one was the worse for wear except, Hercules noted, Iolaus.
After going nearly nonstop from one event to the next all day, Iolaus was obviously still ailing. He continued to smile and greet people but his eyes lacked their usual light. They were red-rimmed and watering and there were dark circles beneath his eyes from fatigue. They walked up to the bar to order some dinner.
Iolaus shook his head wearily , "I'm too tired to eat, Herc. I'm going to bed."
Hercules watched him shuffle up the stairs wishing there was something he could do for his friend. This cold just seemed to hang on. He took a seat at the bar and enjoyed chatting amicably with the festival goers and listening to the new stories about the legendary Hercules that the bard's weaved.
When he hauled his own tired body upstairs he noted that there was no light coming from under Iolaus' door. Hercules paused, considering if he should check on his friend or not.
"No," he decided. "Sleep's the best thing for him. I might wake him up."
The next morning Hercules knocked on Iolaus' door. There was no answer. He quietly opened the door. Iolaus was still sound asleep. Hercules tapped his shoulder and called his name.
Iolaus moaned and opened his eyes. He saw Hercules and groaned again. "What? Morning already?"
"Yep. Second day of the festival."
Iolaus threw the covers back, rolled up and swung his feet off the bed. He sat up too fast and had to put one hand on the headboard and one on his head to steady himself.
Hercules frowned at his pale face, "Look, Iolaus, come on, lie back down. You're still not well, just stay here and rest today."
Iolaus stubbornly shook his head, "No, Herc, I've got to..."
"Got nothing to do except rest." Hercules pushed him down and pulled the covers back up over him. "Don't worry, I'll cover for you. I'll tell everyone you were too hung over to get out of bed. Your reputation will remain intact."
"Yeah, thanks, I can hear it now, 'That Iolaus, he isn't as young as he used to be. Can't hold his ale anymore."
"Just go back to sleep. I shouldn't have woke you up in the first place."
On his way to the footraces, Hercules stopped by the local apothecary's shop and picked up an herbal tea to ease the symptoms of his ailing friend. He went back to the inn at noon and took Iolaus a bowl of broth and started him on the tea.
"I'll be back later to make you another cup. I don't want you out of this bed until you are well and truly on the mend," Hercules threatened.
"Yes, mother," Iolaus replied sarcastically.
"I mean it. Nebula's still in port. I'll get her to come sit on you."
"Ok, Ok, I'm sleeping."
After fussing with Iolaus, Hercules discovered that he didn't have time for a decent lunch himself. He was due at the relay events. He had a full day's events to judge himself and with Iolaus' on top of his own he barely had time to run to the next event before it was time to start it. He hoped maybe he could grab a bite after the arm wrestling but it went into overtime when the final two contestants refused to yield victory until one had beaten the other. It was all very exciting but then Hercules was late subbing for Iolaus at the grape squashing.
Finally in the middle of the afternoon, Hercules sank down gratefully onto a bench in the market and propped his aching feet up on a barrel.
A sausage in some bread was thrust under his nose and Hercules was surprised to see Hades joining him on the bench. He was dressed as a common peasant and seemed to blend right into the surroundings.
"Eat. I'm not going to finish it and you look like you could use it." He began pouring water into a mug for him as well. "It's a new thing. He called it a hot dog, I believe, strange man, but it's not bad. It's a little spicy, I wouldn't want more than one."
Hercules hesitated wondering if this came from who he thought it did, but he didn't want to appear ungrateful. "Thanks. I've been running from one contest to the next with hardly a moment to breath in between."
"I noticed, that's what you get for being a celebrity. Where's Iolaus? Why isn't he helping you?"
"Because I'm helping him. He's feeling a little under the weather today."
"Nothing serious, I hope?"
"No, just a bad cold. I fact, I need to..." Hercules had an idea. "Hades, would you do me a favor? I have to get to the hog calling and it's time for Iolaus' medicine..."
Iolaus woke and realized he was not alone. There was someone sitting in a chair by the bed.
He rolled over to face him, "Herc?" But it wasn't. Iolaus let out a strangled scream and leaped out of the bed, "No, no, no, no, I'm not that sick. It's just a cold. I..."
"Iolaus! Calm down! I'm not here for that." Hades tried to be soothing. "It's alright. Hercules just asked me to make sure you woke up and took your medicine. Now sit down and drink this like a good boy." He thrust a mug of steaming tea into Iolaus' hand, "And you won't have to see me again for a long while. I hope for both our sakes."
Iolaus looked doubtful but took the mug with shaking hands. Hades waited until he saw that Iolaus was going to drink it. He was about to leave but his first day with Persephone was going so well, he was in such a good mood that he couldn't resist playing with Iolaus just a little.
"Iolaus? If you should happen to die of an illness, do you think you could manage to show up in the Underworld with some clothes on?"
Iolaus looked down and saw that he wasn't wearing anything but his blue loincloth and he blushed deeply.
"Ye-Yeah, I'll see what I can do," he replied.
Hades favored Iolaus with a mischievous wink and popped out. Iolaus nearly collapsed with relief.
That evening Hercules brought food for both of them up to Iolaus' room. Hercules sat the plates on the small table. Iolaus looked at him from the bed.
"Am I allowed out of bed to eat?"
Hercules was astonished at the question. It was so out of character for his energetic friend. In fact, Iolaus had been rather subdued since Hercules arrived.
"Sure, if you feel up to it," Hercules said quietly. "I'm surprised you asked."
"Figured if I didn't you'd send Hades back to check on me."
The light dawned, "Iolaus, I-."
Iolaus pulled the blanket off the bed and wrapped up in it as he walked barefoot to the table. "Herc, you nearly gave me a heart attack when I rolled over and saw him sitting there. You know our history. What were you thinking?"
Hercules could see just how Iolaus might react. He hadn't thought about that. Hades was handy and willing to do the favor. "Iolaus, I'm sorry. I didn't think about that part of it."
"Darn right you didn't." Iolaus sat down and started eating. "Threatening me with Nebula's one thing but this...Just don't do it again."
"I see your appetite's returned." Hercules observed.
Iolaus nodded between bites, "Yeah, I'm starved."
Hercules was hungry, too and after they had ate their fill, they pulled their chairs over to the fireplace.
"Not going down for the storytelling?" Iolaus asked.
Hercules shook his head, "No, too many people. I'm tired."
Hercules woke with a crick in his neck from the chair where he'd fallen asleep. Iolaus had covered him with a blanket and was still softly snoring in the bed, himself. Hercules stood and stretched.
Iolaus stirred at the knock on the door. Hercules opened it, "Gabrielle?"
She grinned at him, "Mornin' sleepyhead." Then, she turned and yelled down the hall, "Xena, they're in here."
Gabrielle gave him a quick hug and slipped into the room to greet Iolaus who had hastily pulled on his pants and was still lacing them up.
Xena slowly walked up to the demigod who was now lounging against the doorframe, "With all the fun going on, we figured you'd both be out at first light."
Hercules smiled and put his arm around Xena's shoulders as he led her into the room, "Well, Iolaus hasn't been feeling well and it's a long story."
"Yeah, go ahead, use me as an excuse for how tired you were last night. Wouldn't let me help and then you couldn't even make it out of the chair and down the hall to your own bed. So, what brings you two lovely ladies to the harvest festival?"
"Oh, Gabrielle's here for the story telling competition. I'm just along for the ride." Xena replied.
"Herc? We'd better get moving, Some of this stuff doesn't start without us." He sneezed again.
"Are you feeling up to it?"
"Yeah, I'll take it easy, today, I've just got the grape squishing finals. Then, I can watch Gabrielle tell the world what a great hero I am." He grinned at her mischievously.
"Gabrielle, I'm putting him in your charge. If he starts overdoing it and won't do what you tell him, just send someone for me and I'll come put him back to bed."
"Oooooh! I'm in charge that could be fun. Don't worry, Hercules, I'll make sure he behaves." She threatened him with her staff. Iolaus cringed melodramatically.
After a hurried breakfast the four friends split into 3 groups: Gabrielle to prepare for the first round of competition, Iolaus to his contest and Xena decided to help Hercules with the archery competition.
As promised, Iolaus arrived at the tavern to cheer Gabrielle on shortly after he'd crowned the grape stomping queen. No kiss for the winner this year, though, he didn't want to make her sick. Gabrielle proceeded well, advancing through the various rounds of competition in her chosen craft.
After lunch competition moved to the large inn where Hercules and Iolaus were staying. Iolaus took a table near the stage area and Gabrielle joined him between rounds to get a look at the competition. The third time he caught her giving him the eye after he sneezed, he decided that retreat would be the better part of valor and volunteered to go up to his room and take a nap.
By evening she was neck and neck with the young man Hercules and Iolaus had seen earlier in the week. One of them would win the event. Iolaus lounged against the bar, mug of ale in hand and gave Gabrielle his complete attention. Hercules and Xena sat at a table.
Ares walked in. Hercules gave him the evil eye. Ares shrugged and grinned at him innocently mouthing, "Who me?" With all these people here it would be easy for Hercules to cause a scene and disrupt the competition if he acknowledged Ares' presence. So he watched in silence.
The God of War stood next to Iolaus at the bar. Iolaus was completely unaware of his presence. Ares was invisible and looking for trouble to stir up. He hadn't bargained on Iolaus turning away from the person next to him and sneezing all over Ares.
"Yuck! That is disgusting!"
Hercules stood, ready to defend his friend should he need it. Xena looked questioningly at his battle-ready stance. She didn't see any enemies.
"Wait," he replied.
Ares met Hercules' eyes and then vanished in a puff of flame. Hercules sighed with relief, sat down and proceeded to laugh himself silly.
Iolaus wandered back over to the table to see what was so funny. Hercules tried to explain to his perplexed friends.
"I sneezed all over the God of War?" Iolaus asked stunned.
Hercules grinned and nodded. Iolaus let a giggle escape his lips. The three had another fit of laughter.
When they had calmed to the point of gasping for air, Xena asked Iolaus, "How are you feeling? You're looking better."
"Great! Much improved. I suddenly feel like a weight's been lifted from my head and chest," he sighed deeply, "It's nice just to breath again."
"So, you'll be ready to head out tomorrow?" Hercules asked.
"After what I just did to Ares, I figure I'd better make myself scarce. Where to?"
Kallithea but I thought we'd stop over at Malthi on the way and do a little fishing."
Iolaus' eye's lit up, "Great plan!"
"Would you mind if Gabrielle and I join you? Actually it'll just be Gabrielle. I have something to do and will catch up to you in a couple of days."
"We'd love to have her," Hercules replied. Iolaus nodded his agreement enthusiastically.
"Anything I can help with?" Hercules asked.
"No, I'd better handle this one on my own," she replied with a hint of a mischievous smile on her lips.
Then, the final two bards took the stage and each told a single story. Both were marvelous and the decision was tough. Hercules and Iolaus were both grateful this was one competition that they didn't have to judge. Gabrielle took her second place in stride vowing that she'd get first next year.
Ares' temple was strangely quiet.
She popped into existence before the God of War. "You bellowed?" she asked sweetly.
"Hand me that cloth over there and get me a glass of water," he ordered.
She complied with the cloth which Ares promptly sneezed into causing a statue across the room to explode into dust. Discord was repulsed, "What's the matter with you?"
"That wretched little sidekick of my half-brothers' sneezed on me and passed on his cold."
"That's ridiculous. Gods don't get sick." She began backing up.
"Well, I did, now are you going to help me?"
"Uh, uh. No way. I'm not getting near you. I'm outta here." She vanished.
Ares closed his eyes and tried to control his rage.
Silence answered him. Ares sighed and glared at the floor.
Xena quietly walked in carrying a tray with a bowl, cloth and a flask on it.
"You shouldn't chase off all your temple servants, you know. One of these days you might need them to take care of you."
"Xena," he kept his voice neutral but Xena could see the hope in his eyes.
She set down the bowl on a table and sat on the edge of the couch Ares was reclining on.
"Alright, Ares, I'll take care of you but you have to do what I say and you're going to owe me. Anything I ask of you. Agreed?"
He nodded miserably, unhappy, but with no choice.
"Alright, drink 2 big swallows of this." She held out the flask.
"What is it?"
"Medicine to make you feel better."
He swallowed once, "Ugh, what are you trying to do poison me?"
A smile crimped the corner of her mouth, "No. Again."
Ares frowned and grimaced as he swallowed. Xena felt his forehead, then added another blanket to the one already covering him. She added some herbs to the water in the bowl and dipped the cloth in it.
Ares didn't say a word. He just watched her. She folded the damp cloth and placed it on his forehead.
He closed his eyes at how good it felt.
"That's it. Go to sleep. Best thing for you."
He opened his eyes, "Xena? You'll be here?"
"Yes, I'll be here. I gave my word. Now, go to sleep."
He studied her a moment longer then slowly closed his eyes.
Xena arrived at the fishing hole two days later. Gabrielle ran to meet her, "What kept you? Where were you?"
"I stopped by Ares' temple on the way."
"You what?" Hercules and Iolaus asked in unison.
"Iolaus felt much better after sneezing on Ares. In fact, he didn't sneeze the rest of the evening. So, I got to wondering if he'd passed on his cold." She grinned broadly, "He had."
A smile lit Iolaus' face, "I can't think of a more deserving guy."
"Ares got upset about it and chased off all his servants."
"Who wants to be around a sick God?" Gabrielle added.
Xena nodded her agreement, "So, I decided having the God of War owing me a favor wasn't a bad idea."
"So, you nursed him?" Gabrielle asked.
"Uh huh, until he passed the nasty little bug along to Discord. Now, Ares has to do anything I ask." Xena had an evil, mischievous look in her eye, "So, are we catching anything yet?"
16 July 1998
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